Posts Tagged ‘history’

With my visitors this last week, I have not thrown myself into a new book – but we have all been going for the non-fiction option.

It’s a long time since I did a history or science class, and I’ve never written a paper on disaster responses, but these were just some of the areas I was talking about with the people I had staying.

It’s reminded me that there is a whole lot of information out there that might give me a different approach to my work.

In fact one of the topics I was reading up on was a disaster I remember even though I was only about nine when it happened; the images were so memorable and I can still see the scene as though on a tv.

It’s given me an idea for a kind of memorial poem, a piece that never mentions the specific event but draws my memories together to make a new piece.

Which goes to show that even if I don’t read a book, a newspaper or a historical article might be a good substitute for learning something new.

And in this case, what I learnt was that we can be affected by something even if we weren’t personally involved – and even if we don’t think about it without encouragement.

Happy reading,



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I haven’t finished a book this week – I am reading Gillespie and I,by Jane Harris, but only started it yesterday.

I noticed, though, that I am quite enjoying historical novels nowadays.  I remember at the crime writing convention last year, one of the writers joked that they wrote historical crime novels because they demanded less accuracy in the details.  That’s probably true, but I wouldn’t know if the details of a criminal investigation were right in a modern book either!

However, I find atmosphere to be much more affecting in historical stories.  Things like foggy streets, shadowy corridors with flickering candles, carts rumbling in the gloom, all give a sense of foreboding that is very particular and suits me at the moment.

Hopefully I will finish the book this week but it’s over 600 pages long, so that might be a bit of a stretch…

Happy reading,



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I said last week that I was going to approach the Challenge Tuesday posts a little differently this year, and read with purpose.  I actually started reading this particular book in December but feel that it meets my new criteria so am reporting on it anyway!

Alias Grace is a novel by Margaret Atwood, who is one of my favourite writers.  It is a fictionalised story based on the true life character of Grace Marks, who was convicted with her alleged paramour of the murder in 1843.

I enjoy Atwood’s writing style, which is both complex and entirely accessible.  In this particular book though, it wasn’t the style but the approach that I found so intriguing and noteworthy.

There were two murders for which Marks and James McDermott were accused: the killing of Thomas Kinnear, their employer, and of Nancy Montgomery, the housekeeper and likely lover of Kinnear. Montgomery was pregnant at the time of her death, which at the time stood against her: although the pair were convicted of murdering Kinnear, there was no trial for Montgomery.  As the death sentence had been passed there was deemed to be no need.  In fact, Marks was not executed but was pardoned in 1872.

But despite all the dramatic possibility within these elements Atwood doesn’t focus on them.  They set parameters in which the character’s experience of the world is set, but they are not the core of her story.

Instead we are presented with a (fictional) doctor whose interest in what we would now call mental health leads him to meet with Marks, to see if her amnesia about the events of the fateful day is real.

What follows is a mixture of Marks’s life story, interwoven with the doctor’s experiences in the town he has taken up residence, and some of the well-meaning but somewhat frivolous people who are trying to get Marks pardoned.  The crime itself is only described in any detail during a session of something akin to hypnosis.

Marks is humanised through the book.  Her reflections on what is ‘proper’ behaviour for staff in a household are both ironic and heartfelt: her regret with regard to her own breaches of etiquette is completely believable from the character Atwood has created, and yet we are aware the doctor is only interested in understanding her because she is a notorious murderer.

As a whole, the book could be the biography of a murderer, or about a famous crime in Canada in the 19th century, or about life in service, or about mental health.  It is all these things and none: it takes elements from multiple genres to create a rich meal.

Fundamentally, as a reader I took away the fact that in a strong story the crime itself doesn’t need to be the focus, it is the criminal (or accused, at least) who has to be deciphered.  As a writer, I have a better perception of how to take a real event and cast it under a fictional light.

Extremely satisfying, on both counts!

Happy reading,



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It’s the last day of my break now and I’m a little sad that I am back to work tomorrow. It’s been very restful even with going away for a few days but tomorrow it’ll all go back to normal.

I have to admit Fred hasn’t travelled much with me, and is languishing somewhere near Stonehenge but I have been reading about plot and structure as well as tackling some novels. I wasn’t going to read them but sitting down with a coffee on a squishy chair isn’t as relaxing when you’re reading a text book…

I am about to start re-reading the plot and structure book because it is filled with exercises I want to try out, but that is for next week’s post!

It’s been a useful exercise to revisit some basics though. When I write I tend to fall into certain patterns and behaviours, and the book should help with stripping out the bad behaviours and focussing on a cleaner, more precise, narrative flow.

As importantly, it gives me tools to check the narrative itself – specifically whether it is strong enough to be the foundation of a novel. That is a discipline I need to work on, now more than ever due to my restricted writing time.

The other thing I have been doing is getting back to photography. I went to a couple of Medieval religious buildings and duly paid for photography permits so I could at least attempt to record some of what I saw.

At it was Remembrance Day on the 11 November the buildings were dressed with poppies, which is always a poignant reminder of how history shapes our experience of life, especially when is buildings that have stood for so long.

The last couple of weeks have definitely been more about theory than practice, but I don’t think that is a bad thing for me. I just have to remember that Fred needs a bit of an outing too!

Happy Writing,

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Recently, I went to Lacock, and spent some time in the Cloisters at Lacock Abbey.  I have wanted to go there for ages – I love ruins anyway, as I have told you about 70,000 times (or thereabouts), and I wanted to see it because it is one of the places the Harry Potter films were, well, filmed!

Here is a shot through from one walkway through to another, and some of you may even recognise it from its role as part of Hogwarts 🙂

Point of View


I am not a Harry Potter obsessive, although I know I’ve talked about the books and films a few times here, but I like to visit places which have appeared on screen because it gives me a chance to view them as ‘live’ places.   We get so used to seeing buildings as historical artefacts that we forget that they were once homes, offices, workplaces.  We forget they were something more than a tourist attraction.

I guess I just like to have a different point of view from which to look at a place.  I also get over-excited when I see somewhere I know on screen – when Dover Castle appeared behind Chris Pine in Into the Woods I was particularly happy because not only have I been there on a few occasions but I’ve also blogged about it, and how it’s part of coming home.  Yes, in some strange way, Chris Pine was at my place 🙂

On a more serious note, I also think visiting these places reminds us how we’ve got where we are – how we’ve changed over time. When I see that places reflecting the history of humanity are being destroyed, it feels as though we’re losing sight of all those people who came before us.

Maybe putting them on screen is another way to keep them intact for the future.

Happy visiting!



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I’ve been feeling a little rough – these really busy weeks have taken their toll and although it’s lovely to have lots going on sometimes I need to have a day’s holiday to recharge my batteries.

So yesterday, my husband and I went on a little ramble.  We headed out to see an archaeological dig which was open to the public, then off on a coastal drive with a stop at a country pub before heading home for a rather marvellously French inspired afternoon tea.

On our travels I got this picture.  It really was a gorgeous day; sunny and warm, with a light breeze to keep from getting overheated. Those cliffs on the far left are the White Cliffs of Dover, and the two tiny white blobs are ferries going into or coming out of the harbour – you can just about make out the harbour wall.

Just a bit of Dover


I always love to look out from the southeastern coast of England and see the coast of France.  I like to think when I wave over, someone there is waving back 🙂

What you can’t see from here, although I got some photos of these too, are the imposing Dover Castle or any of the Martello Towers that dot the coastline in this area.  It really is a reminder of how relationships between European countries have changed over time – and I for one am glad I’ve grown up in a time of friendship and community with our neighbours.

I do love to see the history of a place uncovered.  I watch a lot of documentaries, and even those with a decidedly unlikely theme often give me an insight into a part of the world that is unknown to me: its geography, history, folklore, culture, all tied into the roots of its existence.  This often influences my poetry, and the courses I take are frequently determined by whatever random programme I have seen that sparked my imagination.

I can’t ever know everything, of course – and the more I know, the more aware I am of the limitations of my knowledge – but the more I can learn the more I understand who we are, and how different people understand the world we inhabit.

In turn, the more I can bring to my work either in terms of language and imagery or in terms of creating peace poems.

This weekend enabled me to learn new things, and remember things I was once taught.  It gave me a chance to see, literally, what was buried in time – a real, live dig is a very different place from a visitor site and it was great to see the earth being treated with such respect.  It gave me a chance to sit back and be lazy, and learn, and absorb.  It gave me some ‘me’ time.

So I’ve had a chance to rebuild my reserves, and in a way that has invigorated my imagination: next week I’ll use that to expand on the work I did this week, and get the whodunnit another step closer to its conclusion.

Happy writing,



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After a very limited sleep and going back to work today, I’m not 100% sure this post will be any better than it would have been yesterday. Still, needs must and all that, so here goes…

Book 18 – The Goldsmith’s Wife, by Jean Plaidy (one of my Grandma’s old books). This is a fictionalised account of the life of (Elizabeth) Jane Shore, one of the most famous women of King Edward IV’s court, lover not only to the King but also (after his death) to his stepson and one of his most trusted advisers. It explores how her beauty and warmth captivated the powerful, and took her from a respectable, if stultifying marriage, into the glamour and sensuality of the Court.

Plaidy takes some liberties with the accepted history of both Jane’s first marriage and her later relationships, but the narrative flow of the story is an intriguing picture of a woman both warm and beautiful; someone who used her power with the king not for her own sake but to petition for pardons for those who had fallen out of favour.

However, there is one relationship that Jane forms that fundamentally changes the readers perception of her wisdom and goodness, which seemed to be abusive. I don’t know if this was Plaidy’s plan but based on the known history it was one of many ways to explore the relationship and this choice didn’t fit with the character or the rest of the story particularly comfortably.

The story generally paints a number of the male characters in a negative light, but surprisingly paints Richard III as a victim of circumstance and false history. I wonder how she would feel about the finding of his remains and his reinterment…

I do enjoy Plaidy’s books, and they’re great holiday reads, but this one didn’t connect as well as some. The time period isn’t one I know much about, the abusive relationship was a narrative choice I can’t really get behind, and the ending was much sadder than the evidence suggests was the case for Jane. Still, it did give me a way into a period of history I really ought to try to learn more about!

Book 19 – Coffin’s Ghost, by Gwendoline Butler (one of my Nan’s old books!). This is the story of John Coffin, Chief Commander of the Second City of London Police, in a fictional world where London has been split into two cities. As Coffin recovers from an attempt on his life, the arms and legs of a woman are found on the doorstep of his old home. The story follows this and a number of other crimes being investigated, and how they cross and tangle each other.

This was an unusual read. I wasn’t too keen on the style early on and even by the end there were choices made by the writer that irritated me and took me out of the story. The big reveal was almost mundane, considering the clue crumbs that were dropped through the story, and it didn’t work for me particularly well.

However, I enjoyed the core of the book. The characters were generally interesting and sufficiently twisted and complex that I had absolutely no idea who the dead woman was, or who had put her there. The unreliable nature of the police officers was a great storyline, because there was never any confidence in what they were saying – any one of them could have been a liar, or telling the absolute truth – there was no way of knowing.

There was some heavy-handedness about pushing certain ideas, which made me doubt them, and I did think I knew who had committed one of the crimes stated quite early on, but despite my disappointment in the ending I left this book thinking it was an educational read, genre-wise.

This is one of a series of books with the character, and if I find another I will certainly read it!

So there you have it – 2 holiday reads, neither in any way taxing, but both bringing entirely different styles to the table!

Until next time – happy reading,

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This week I decided to combine a few passions in one and read a non-fiction history of China’s First Emperor based on the writings of a subsequent Grand Histographer.

It seemed like a good idea at the time…

Book 12 – The First Emperor: Selections from the Historical Records by Sima Qian, Translated by Raymond Dawson.  This is actually really difficult to review.  It is a translation of records inscribed around 110BC of events a few generations earlier, written by a man serving a later court.  It is made clear in the preface that the role of Grand Histographer, as Sima Qian was, is not equivalent to our idea of a historian – the stories he recorded are clearly spun in a certain way to tell a particular story, and conversations that no-one would have been privy to are recorded.  In some respects it’s a little like reading a well-researched historical novel, except this is all the record that exists for much of what is reported.

This was a hard read, for me.  There is so much of a gap in my understanding of Chinese history that I was often at a loss to know what each reference meant, and despite pages of explanatory notes at the end I really got a little lost.  I feel, in fact, like I need to read it again and underline important concepts!

Having said that, the voices of the past ring through this book.  The teachings each statesman tried to impart (whether for their own profit or for the good of the Emperor/Empire) shine a light on a culture very different to my own.  The sense of outrage that comes out of the pages when unfilial acts are described, and the subsequent sense that punishment came from Heaven for those very acts, gives a deeper sense of the cultural attitudes of the time.  Suicide as a way to honour your Emperor, and avoid disgrace, is frequently mentioned, and much is made of the sense that All Under Heaven is ruled by one man.

This book was a challenge in its own right, and I do feel I skimmed it too much trying to read it in a week – but those insights into Chinese wisdom and superstition, magic and religion, make me feel inspired and excited, as though I’ve been given a key to another world.

In some ways I have – and I can’t complain about a book that does that!

Happy reading,



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This week I went back to my folk-loving roots and left the novels to one side…

Book 10 – Folk Tales of the North Country, by F Grice, BA. There is no Goodreads review of this book as far as I can see, so I can’t link you to a selection of alternative reviews this time!

This is a short book, only 150 pages in total, telling 44 stories collected from Northumberland and Durham, in the North East of England. As with folk tales in general, there is a strong moral thread throughout each story, but they are full of magic – witches, goblins, fairies and so on.

I bought this book at a charity sale and it has an inscription (‘Easter Greetings 1951, Elsie’) and a cloth cover, so I was bound to fall in love with it!

One of the things I have enjoyed is the sense of a lost way of life – cottagers whittle their own sheep crooks, and cut their own peat; they take their bread to sell on the market-day; they have wash-days and coppers.  I know there are some people who choose to live a more traditional life but it’s not the norm, and not a life I’ve ever known myself – and even knowing it was a harder life than the tales suggest, I do have a strange feeling of loss that the time has passed.

It’s also set in a part of the country that holds a special place in my heart, and although I don’t know Northumberland as well as I might like, knowing some of the places mentioned in the tales works for me: they are magical places, and the book is proof!

So of course I’ll give this a thumbs up; I would do for anything of this nature.  It’s short, and the tales are of course even shorter, but that’s helpful when I’m busy anyway.  A couple of quick stories before an appointment, or before I head to work, or before bed and the book is finished in no time!

Happy reading,



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This week’s book was gruelling reading.

Book 7 – Empire of the Sun, by J.G. Ballard. The book follows the experiences of Jim, the child of British ex-pats living in China when the Japanese attack Pearl Harbour. As the Japanese take control of Shanghai, the 11 year old Jim is separated from his parents.

The book follows his experiences of the war, first living alone in the deserted mansions of Shanghai, then in the care of the unscrupulous Basie, and onto life in the Lunghua prisoner camp. We see Jim become wily but also unsure of his loyalties, separated from the other prisoners by age, heritage and attitude. The reader is given the impression that Jim protects some of the other camp prisoners, but there is a sense of Jim being unaware of the actions and attitudes of those around him who protect and watch over him. By tying himself to Basie he lives a life on the edge of morality, crossing over it as the need arises.  Despite being a prisoner of the Japanese he finds himself hoping for their military success, and in awe of the pilots he sees fly off into their own experience of war.

Although the book isn’t a direct autobiography, Ballard stated that he drew on his own experiences of the camp to write the book, and that gives it an awful resonance. Jim becomes inured to the death around him, fascinated rather than appalled at the bodies and bones he sees. The descriptions of violence are generally very bare but every so often something is described in almost cartoon-like colour and vividness which was hard for me to read.

Jim is clearly damaged by the experience and yet seems to gain a degree of emotional strength from the art of surviving; this resilience is shown to be a facade though, because for all his experiences he only feels safe, and at home, in the camp.

I read this book knowing what it was about but not knowing how hard-edged it would be, and I think it’s one that will stay with me, whether I want it to or not. It was tough and I need to read something completely different next.

It has encouraged me to leave the gritty stories aside for a while, but it was powerfully written and very effective.  As far as reviews go, I think the book did what it was trying to do, and that’s all any writer can want.

Happy reading,

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