Beetle hunting in New Caledonia

Miss Benson’s Beetle, by Rachel Joyce – my sister-in-law recommended this, she was in rhapsodies about this wonderful book about women going out and taking on the world. I can see why she enjoyed it, I can even see why she thought I would. I feel a little bit guilty that I didn’t.

I almost liked Miss Benson’s Beetle, but there were things that jarred. Margery and Enid never quite got free from their roots, and they never really got to a point where they became more than what they had left behind. Every time the story moved towards something that might have been a happy future the author lobbed another catastrophe in there. It began to annoy me, I just wanted everything to be all right.

I thought Margery was a bit of a caricature, Enid possibly even more so, and don’t get me started on the mad survivor or the bitchy woman. I did finish it, although I stalled for a while. I won’t keep it.

Finding out about Frankenstein

Mary’s Monster, by Lita Judge – a second-hand copy picked up from a charity shop some time ago. I’ll be honest, I got this purely for the gorgeous eye-grabbing cover. The added bonuses of it being a hardback in really good condition (unread I suspect) and only costing £3.00 just added to my feeling of triumph. Mind you, I often feel like that when I leave a charity shop with an armful of books and enough money left over to buy cake.

This is such a beautifully illustrated book. It’s a verse biography of Mary Shelley’s life, particularly about all the events that led to her creation of Frankenstein. At the same time it is a picture book for grown ups, with the text written over and through the drawings. Every page is gothic delight.

I’ve been on a bit of a Mary Shelley binge recently; after reading The Year Without Summer I read through Mary Shelley’s journals for 1816. Mary’s Monster was a good place to finish.

I just love the clothes

Under a Dark Moon, by Stella Riley, the second Brandon Brothers book – I love and occasionally reread Stella Riley’s English Civil War books, particularly A Splendid Defiance, but her Georgian period ones are usually thoroughly entertaining as well, and as a bonus I really enjoy the descriptions of the clothes. Georgians knew how to dress. I’ve been looking forward to this book.

This is a tale of spies, smugglers, swordplay and an intelligent woman, what more could you ask for? The hero rides a horse flat out through the night and just makes it in time to save her, and he works for MI5 (well, M Division, which I am pretty sure did not actually exist). Oh my. I happily tore through this in a day, now I just have to wait for the next one.

1816: A year that changed the world.

The Year Without Summer, by Guinevere Glasfurd – this was a Reading Group choice, but one that I was confident was well within my comfort zone for once, being not only a historical novel, but also set in a time period that I actually know something about. Which is not to say that I didn’t have to look up a few things, but for me that’s part of the enjoyment.

The story follows six men and women in the aftermath of the colossal volcanic eruption of Tambora, which created a huge dust cloud causing a year of unseasonably cold weather with a worldwide impact on crops. There is even a theory that the amount of heavy rain led to Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. The following years were a time of social change which shaped the world we live in now.

The six individuals did not have easy lives, but then, not many did at this time. We follow Mary Shelley, discovering the story of Frankenstein’s monster in a time of personal turmoil; John Constable learning to paint in a different way whilst trying to win the hand of Maria whose family disapprove of him; Henry Hogg, surgeon on the Benares, the ship that was sent to Indonesia to investigate pirate cannon-fire only to discover something truly dreadful. In England Sarah Hobbs is drawn into insurrection and riot and Hope Peter returns from war to find that the Enclosure Acts have absorbed the holding he was expecting to return to, and that he has nothing left. Meanwhile Charles Whitlock, a preacher in Vermont is persuading small farmers and landholders to stay where they are rather than migrate south, with disastrous results.

A Year Without Summer was an easy read that dealt with difficult subjects, no happy endings here. Some of my Reading Group felt that it was a little bit too depressing, I will admit that I expected it to be so, and an artificial happy ending would jar, I think. This one is a keeper for me, and a new author as well, I will read Guinevere Glasfurd’s older novel, and will look forward to the one she is writing now. It’s always good to have new books to look forward to.

Postscript – The things I had to look up.

  1. The Enclosure Acts. I did not know about the impact that the Enclosure Acts had, and I found myself horrified at just how much those in power took from those who had so little.
  2. I got sucked into a wormhole when I discovered Mary Shelley’s journals for that year are available free on Gutenberg.

Stealth hunters of the night

Owl Sense, by Miriam Darlington. I bought this after hearing the author talking about owls on Radio 4, and then it somehow got hidden towards the back of the immense to-be-read heap. I found it again this week and remembered why I wanted to read it in the first place.

We have tawny owls here. They fly over the fields at the back of our house, and I have sat in a tent (it is the best I can do for a hide) in the back garden after midnight watching them quartering the ground while they hunt, and listening to the keewick hwooo as they call back and forth.

Owls are astounding, amazing birds – a bit fey, a little magical, eldritch. Miriam Darlington writes about all of these aspects of owl, whilst taking us on her own journey of discovery and sharing what she learns. I have never seen a little owl, or a barn owl, but at least I now know what it feels like when they stare at you angrily, or swoop softly over your head.

This book is also an environmental wake-up call, about loss of habitat and poisoned prey, and the ways that man has encroached on the territory of declining species. My hedgerowed field where the owls hunted last year is under planning application too. I will watch them while I can.

Love and Hamlet

Wilde Childe, by Eloisa James, pre ordered as an eBook a long time ago and eagerly awaited. Why is it that sometimes you pre order an eBook and it has one cover, and when it arrives it has a different one? It’s not as if it matters when it’s not actually on my bookshelf, but I’m just curious. It does really matter if it’s an actual paper-and-pages book, but I couldn’t tell you why.

I don’t have anything meaningful to say about this one, apart from how much I love Eloisa’s heroines and families, the details of their wigs and clothes, and the Shakespearian bits. Hamlet performed as a comedy made me giggle slightly guiltily.

I just read it all day, and then sighed with satisfaction because it had a perfectly turned ending, which was happy. As they should be.

Never take the trees for granted

Greenwood, by Michael Christie. This was a surprise from my book subscription and I would never, ever have picked it up in a bookshop. Which just shows that sometimes I don’t make adventurous enough choices. My copy has a foil cover which is just gorgeous. It also has dirty edges because I read quite a lot of it in the greenhouse whilst planting vegetable seeds.

The story is an eco-parable about a world where trees are dying out. The remaining forests and woods are only available to the privileged tourists who pay to see them. We go back in time following the Greenwood family who once owned the island that Jake Greenwood is currently working on as a forest guide. And then we go forward again, like the rings of a tree, from the outside to the middle and then back again.

Completely compelling, this is an astounding book that should feel hopeless, but somehow does not. The future that the narrative starts and finishes with is only a couple of decades away – that’s really something to think about.

Magic and foxes on Hampstead Heath

What Abigail Did That Summer, by Ben Aaronovitch. I think this is the eleventh Rivers of London book, but I can’t be bothered checking. What I am sure of is that it takes place at the same time as Foxglove Summer, thus filling in a gap in the overall narrative and letting us know how Abigail became a fox whisperer.

I really wish that I was capable of pacing myself sometimes – I get a book that I’ve been waiting for for ages, and then I stay up all night reading it, and then it’s gone. What Abigail Did That Summer was exactly what I needed, and despite being billed as a novella, it was a pretty long and satisfying novella. More a novelette perhaps.

Abigail is looking like the bright shining future of The Folly, and to be honest, much as I love Peter, we need much, much more Abigail too, particularly when she is being smart-mouthed and clever.

There is a fabulous teaser video on Youtube, I don’t do links, so if you want to hear the Joe 90 theme tune sung by foxes, you’ll have to look it up!

This is not the book I thought it was

Weather, by Jenny Offill. I confess that I bought this because I thought it was a different book, but I firmly believe in “Waste Not Want Not”, particularly when it applies to reading material. So I read it anyway, and I am very glad I did.

It’s an immensely readable stream-of-consciousness novel, set in New York during the 2016 elections, which was definitely an interesting time (in the sense of May you live in…). The book made me laugh, and made me gasp out loud, and eventually made me recommend it to my husband, which is almost unheard of as he really does prefer thrillers. Mind you, he hasn’t read it yet.

Lizzie talks to us in short, sharp bursts, with an immediacy that feels as though she is actually telling us her worries and observations as they happen. It’s a joy to read, which I found quite interesting as I think I would have previously stated that I don’t like books in the first person, or the present tense, or with unusual writing styles.

Definitely a keeper, if my husband ever manages to finish it.

Don’t go into the woods…

In the House in the Dark of the Woods, by Laird Hunt – read on a suitably atmospheric dark and stormy night. Possibly an error of judgement.

Sometimes you read a story that reminds you about the original folk tales, where the witch ate children, and the sisters cut off their toes. This is one. In the House in the Dark of the Woods starts off fairytale and progresses through tense horror. It is one of those books where you want to shout ‘No, don’t do that, don’t go there!’, but it wouldn’t really help, because there is probably no alternative anyway.

Beautifully written, intricately layered – I need to find someone to share this book with so I can talk about it.