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This week’s choice was influenced by book 4 and a hankering for some good, old-fashioned, historical romance.

Book 6 – Daughter of Satan, by Jean Plaidy.  The daughter in question is Tamar – a child forced on her mother by the devil, wild and full of magic in 16th Century England.  The day her mother is caught by the ‘witchpricker’ and hanged as a witch, Tamar’s true parentage is revealed – but she still believes the Devil is inside her.  She is wild and beautiful, intelligent and loyal, and the subject of both adoration and hatred.  When the risks of being caught and tried as a witch – or named as a Puritan – become too great, she and her family sail for the ‘promised land’ of New England, only to be just as unsafe amongst the Puritans of New Plymouth.

Reading this book, which came from the inheritance shelves, I was transported back into childhood: Jean Plaidy and Victoria Holt (who were the same person) books were constantly cycling around the house and I have a signed first US edition of a Jean Plaidy that I bought as a teenager.  Her books spurred on my love of all things Elizabethan, and even as an adult, when I visited beautiful Kenilworth Castle it was with memories of courtly intrigues that I had read in the pages of her books.

I am telling you this so you know this post will inevitably be tinged with nostalgia and romance – but I do love a Plaidy.  This book has everything you need from a historical romance set in that time: religious bigotry, witches, danger, passion, anger, violence and a beautiful maiden. The violent, ruthless and lecherous rogue as love interest pushes my ability to suspend disbelief a little – and yet I can well imagine that people could have acted that way without punishment or even a sense of guilt.  The loyal nature of Tamar, with her lifelong friendship of Annis and her protection of her loved ones, is the heart of the story and despite knowing what mistakes she is making along the way it is hard not to hope for the best for her.

Intertwining the story with historical details – the Spanish Armada, and the subsequent starvation of the seamen who saved England from the Inquisition; the growth of Puritanism; the arbitrary cruelty of the witch hunts – all imbue the book with a sense of danger and loss for the protagonists.  They also serve to make Tamar’s decisions more realistic, for a more modern reader.

I can’t help but be full of pleasure about reading this book, and revisiting a little corner of my childhood.  It’s as evocative as finding an old toy I used to carry everywhere.

Happy reading,

EJ

🙂

 

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This week I only read one book, but what an odd book it was…

Book 4 – Frenchman’s Creek, by Daphne Du Maurier. I picked this from the shelf of inherited books because 1. I have read and enjoyed other Du Maurier and 2. it had a price sticker on the back showing it was bought in Germany.  This meant I knew approximately when it was bought and the circumstances of its purchase, which lent an emotional attachment to the book.

The story follows Lady Dona St Columb as she escapes her life in London with her disappointing husband and his inappropriately mannered best friend, to their country estate in Cornwall.  Dona is headstrong and wild, with a reputation for bad behaviour in London, but longs to leave that person behind.  On arriving in Cornwall, she is told of the French pirate who creeps unseen along the coastline to raid the rich and overwhelm the women.

Dona finds the pirate and despite the warnings she finds herself drawn to him – and as a result drawn into intrigue, criminality and a deep and passionate love that ultimately costs a life, and the possibility of future happiness.

Although it was a perfectly acceptable read, elements of this book were infuriating – in fact I am surprised it has such a good rating on Goodreads.  Dona wants peace and the chance to escape the foolish life she was living in London, and the shame of her poor behaviour – so of course she becomes a pirate.  She wants to be a proper mother to her children – so of course she feigns illness and runs away for a week.  She wants a future where there is the potential to be free to pursue love – so of course she tells everyone her name as she smuggles a gun and a knife into a prison…

I found Dona a frustrating lead – selfish, arrogant and vain, but also wild, reckless and indomitable.  I couldn’t understand why she would be so casual with her future, especially when she was warned many times that she had no future at all with Jean-Benoit, her pirate love. The flip side to that was that I could see she was much more engaging, witty, intelligent and brave than her husband, and how a life with him was a life forever stifled.

In many respects this was a good example of the historical romances popular in the post-war period – I’d liken it to a Jean Plaidy, in style.  I enjoy reading this type of book for escapism and a bit of courtly intrigue, and they are saved from being forgotten entirely by the quality of the writing itself.

I’m glad I read it, because there were some lovely sections, but I’m unlikely to read it again.  If I did, I’d end up shouting at Dona, I think!

Happy reading,

EJ

🙂

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I managed to finish one last book this year, and it’s a bit different from my normal choices.

Book 55 – Call The Midwife, by Jennifer Worth. This is a memoir, a collection of various stories from Worth’s life as a midwife in London’s East End, in the 1950’s. The stories told are sometimes funny, sometime sad, occasionally horrifying – this book doesn’t depict a cosy, rosy past.  There is a section about prostitution which I noticed in the Goodreads comments had caused people to stop reading the book.

It shows women trapped by circumstances and abuse; women loved and adored; women who gave up their whole lives to the service of God and others.

I found this an intriguing book. Obviously you can feel and hear Worth’s own experiences and emotions within the book but the writing has an almost detached feeling, as though she is reflecting the cool professional approach required of her. The descriptions of even the most horrifying situations are matter-of-fact, not dramatic. There were a couple of notable exceptions but this was the general style of the book.

That’s not to say it was heartless, or unfeeling. Rather, there was a sense that every woman she met was entitled to respect, understanding and appropriate care, regardless of how they presented. Whenever Worth veered off this path she quickly showed that it was a mistake on her part to do so; that she hadn’t been fair to judge the women so harshly.

I don’t often veer into non-fiction but when I do I like to read stories of the ‘normal’ person – how life was lived by every(wo)man not just the rich and powerful. This book provided many examples of real people – in all their messy, selfish, loving, pungent, generous glory.

I would recommend it with a note of caution regarding some of the abuse depicted, and the descriptions of prostitution.

As an aside, I know this book has been turned into a TV series, which I haven’t watched. However it is a dramatic read and I imagine it would make dramatic viewing.

Happy reading and a happy new year to you all!

EJ

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I managed to read three books during my break – the joys of flying and sunbathing 🙂 – but I’ll only be counting two for the challenge because I’d read one of them before.

Book 50 – Pompeii by Robert Harris.  I borrowed this from my husband when I finished reading my non-numbered book; it wasn’t really my kind of thing but despite that it was an engaging read.  It follows the experiences of a disparate group of characters whose lives overlap in the runup to the eruption of Vesuvius, which buried Pompeii.

To all intents and purposes, this was a historical action story, with significant historical research undertaken.  The main characters were mostly chancers, risk-takers or power-brokers with a few key exceptions who were specialists in aqueducts and water systems. Harris also wrote the very famous, very real, Pliny in to the tale, who was known to have died as he tried to rescue friends by sea. The only woman of consequence in the story is idealised because of her looks, the description of a mother and child dying in childbirth was horrific, and generally the book is about men and their power games.

This one was a mixed bag for me – it was very readable and despite the size only took a few days to get through; it was historically interesting and detailed; it was intelligently written.  The key issues for me were a few unnecessarily unpleasant scenes which did nothing to bring the story along; a vaguely frustrating ending which I won’t spoil but didn’t satisfy me; the ongoing technicalities of the descriptions.

I also feel that, even at the end of the story, I know relatively little about the main character.  I can’t imagine writing a book where the character is so hidden from view and I wonder if that is a male v female writer issue, or simply that I tend to write about the ‘human experience’ rather than big world events…

Or maybe reading in the sunshine, I didn’t give it my full attention, which is more than likely!

Book 51 – Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen – I read this one at the same time as Pompeii, depending on the mood I was in!  Having struggled to read Emma I wanted to try an alternative Jane Austen, and this one is very simple, very sweet, and fairly inoffensive.  The story follows Catherine Morland as she experiences her first taste of adulthood on a trip to Bath and then with her new friends on to Northanger Abbey.

It’s fluffy and frivolous in many ways: Catherine is naive, unworldly, foolish and blind but also honest, decent, loyal and loving.  Her first experiences of friendship, with Isabella, open her eyes to a life outside the confines of her own reality, and lead first to meeting Henry Tilney, then his sister, then finally seeing her to Northanger Abbey.  It is clear from the outset what Isabella’s focus is on, and it is also clear that Isabella’s brother is equally mercenary and disinterested in the Morland’s as people with true feelings.

Catherine’s odd behaviour on arrival at Northanger Abbey goes nowhere, and seems ridiculous but as a 17 year old in a strange house at that time in history, it may have been less so; either way it does make her seem a fool and that is unfortunate.  Still, the ending leads to exactly what the reader would expect – albeit suddenly rushed through and unexplored.

I read this one easily, and quickly.  I didn’t enjoy it as much as Pride and Prejudice (but I had no Colin Firth in my mind as I read!), but far more than Emma – so I have decided to try Sense and Sensibility soon to see where that falls on the Jane Austen spectrum!

As I said before there was one more that I’m not counting for the challenge as it doesn’t meet my self-imposed rule of new books only – Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell.  I read this before the other two, and having first read it many years ago, I still found it very affecting.  I am not going to do a full review on it but I would suggest for anyone who hasn’t read it, it’s worth a look.  It’s a great example of a book which contains concepts that are so powerful they become part of everyday language – and how many things Orwell imagined in his nightmare future that have come to pass.  I don’t know if that says more about him, or us…

Happy reading,

EJ

🙂

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As reported last week, this week’s book is the sequel to last week’s book.

Book 43 – The Last Empress, by Anchee Min.  The book continues following Empress Orchid through her turbulent life as the Dowager Empress of China, exploring her growing sense of powerlessness in the face of animosity from other countries, and her desperate need to provide a strong Emperor – through blood, law or simple strength of will – for China.  Historical facts are interpreted through different eyes and the historical slant is intriguing.

However, I found this book harder to read (or more accurately, easier to not read) than the last.  It incorporates far less exploration of the fascinating world of the Forbidden City, and the peripheral characters are not ‘fleshed out’ as they were in the first book, giving them a walk-on/walk-off feel in some places.  A lot of what the Empress faced is presented as though it came and went in a moment, only to reappear eighty pages later, when you needed to remember all the details in full for it all to make sense.  There is also more of the ‘little did I know that in three months…’ type comments, foreshadowing much of the story.  This did happen in the first but seems more common in this book.

That all sounds negative, but I didn’t dislike the book, as such; I just found it frustrating to read because I wanted to know more about the times, and discover more about the characters. If the first was an assumed biography presented as a novel, this one was a politics course delivered as a newspaper article – yes there were interesting things to explore but we really only skimmed a lot of it. The writer told us of the shame and sadness felt by the characters but didn’t show it; we didn’t really explore the under-layers as I had hoped.  I guess this one is more biography than novel.

What I did find interesting was the juxtaposition of the Empress and her feelings with the representation of the foreign press; it worked well at showing her vulnerability on a wider stage and the risks she faced whatever decision she made. Her cold response to the suicide of one of the Emperor’s concubines is a reminder that she steeled herself against her own wish for death and is a very clear way of showing both how differently she is treated than she treated the Empress before her, and also how much like the woman she hated she has become.

I commented last time that I would probably not read the book again, and I think that decision has been solidified now I’ve read both.  They are interesting, and explore the potential experiences of a woman both incredibly powerful, and poorly understood.  They introduced me to a part of world history that I have very little knowledge of, and they show how people change depending on the life they experience.  Nevertheless I feel this way of looking at the life the Empress led is sufficient, and any future exploration would be through more formal biographies where I know better what to expect.

Happy reading,

EJ

🙂

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Balance is important to me.  If something is out of kilter in my life I can feel it strongly; whether it’s too little time studying, or too much time alone, or not enough time with my family, the lack of balance seems to affect the way I feel about the world.

When that happens, I know I have to take action to fix it before I topple over, metaphorically speaking – I have to act before it affects my life in a negative way.

 

Balance

 

This picture was taken in a slightly damp field in Cornwall.  It is the centre stone of a group called Men-an-tol, around which many myths have grown of special properties and powers.   Like so many of these sites, it stands in a quiet spot, alongside cattle and a great deal of greenery.  There is no pomp and ceremony to it; it is a part of the landscape that pre-dates much of the world around it.

It’s also a reminder that anything can find balance, if it has the right tools.  In this case, a strong foundation was needed.  In my case, there’s a web of inter-connected points – writing, family, friends, reading, studying, alone-time, working, cooking and so on – that all need to be given the appropriate level of attention.

It took me a long time to realise the importance of balance in my life; it seemed such a small thing to have such a big impact on my outlook.  But it does make a difference to the way I perceive the world, and my own role within it.  When I am out of kilter, my thoughts get blocked up.

Blocked up thoughts are bad for a writer, but they are also bad for anyone trying to get the most out of life.

So I’m going to put this picture up on a wall somewhere and remind myself that seeking balance is about making my life the best it can be.

Maybe these stones do have special properties, after all…

Happy writing,

EJ

🙂

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Over the last two weeks I’ve been very slowly reading:

Book 34 – The Professor, by Charlotte Bronte.  This story follows the experiences of William Crimsworth, a man without means, as he gives up his family ties and makes a new life for himself in Belgium as a teacher.

This is a book that probably hasn’t aged well (much like Agnes Grey).  There are several reasons for this.  Firstly, there are fairly significant portions written in French; this is something I can generally work out but I certainly think it gave the book an old-fashioned feel.  Secondly, once again the characters are fairly unengaging – Crimsworth is a cold, arrogant and self-involved; his love is dull and relegates herself to his junior even when it is clear she has more drive and talent than he.

Other things that affected my enjoyment of the book include the massive signpost of his future love, the casual racism and the sheer length of the thing.  There seemed to be three or four completely separate segments, which just kept going even when there was little left to say.  I had thought an end was coming but there were over 50 more pages to go!   I certainly don’t think the story benefitted from exploring a dog being exposed to rabies and shot; it gave nothing in terms of character development, and seemed more filler than anything else.

When it did finally end it was with a whimper, not a bang.

As you can probably guess from this, I feel disappointed because I really wanted to enjoy this tale – it had a lot of contemporary realism embedded in it, from the nature of factory towns to the consideration of a man of no means being able to marry.

I have left this behind anyway, and am on to the next story (not one of those listed last week!) – it’s not one I’ll read again or recommend to anyone but if nothing else it’s given me an additional push to move away from the classics and look at some newer work for a while!

Happy reading,

EJ

🙂

 

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It’s a gorgeous day here and I can’t really motivate myself to do much – I’ve written a little and will do some more later but for now I just want to relax and enjoy the last of the daylight.

With that in mind, I thought I’d stick on a lovely summery tune…

Walking on Sunshine – Katrina and the Waves

This is one that always makes me want to dance, even if it’s just in my chair!

It’s not just me enjoying the sunshine either: it was the Summer Solstice yesterday, when thousands gather to celebrate at spiritual sites.  Here’s a few pictures of daybreak at Stonehenge!

I’ll pick up on the other news next week – I hope the weather is lovely and the day is happy where you are.

Happy writing (or procrastinating!)

EJ

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Castles in the Air

This picture of Arundel Castle was taken last April when we visited Arundel; we didn’t actually make it up to the castle through the driving rain but my partner got a couple of shots through the gloom.  I made this one black and white as it looked fairly spooky otherwise.

It’s not actually in the air of course, just up a steep hill 🙂

‘Castles in the air’ is a phrase to describe ideas that are unlikely to happen.  Sometimes I feel like that about my writing but I know that I’ll carry on working at it whether an agent picks my novel(s) up or not, so it’s not really true.  It is something my characters have to face on occasion though!

But looking at the solidity of the castle, and thinking about what history this castle has survived, gives me hope.

We have no idea, when we create something, how long it will survive us.  It may not; it may be lost in the ether.  But the men who laid the stones of these walls, or who built the original motte-and-bailey castle on this site, wouldn’t have imagined the world that still looks in on this building.  They wouldn’t have imagined mobile phones, or cars, or the computer I’m typing on.  Their work outlived them by countless generations.

We can’t guarantee what will survive us of the work we produce – all we can do is work, and hope, and work some more.

Here’s to hoping that the clouds our dreams rest on are as solid as mountains.

Happy writing,

EJ

🙂

 

 

 

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This week I spent some time doing research in an old church.  Its origins are 12th century and you can feel the age of it in the cool air.  I read a plaque dating back to 1419; the history of an entire family written on monument stones; ran my fingers over misericords carved by experts in the 15th century.

I could, and have, happily written scenes in and around churches.  They are a useful way to tie different time periods together and to follow links between one generation and the next, especially where they have stood for such long periods of time.

But heritage is not just in monuments of religion, but also in emblems of our changing culture. For example this scene, taken when the British weather was rather kinder than it has been recently:

History and Heritage

Levant Mine, Cornwall

This is part of a World Heritage Site, remnant of an industry that shaped the land and the community.  It’s hard to imagine this place was once bustling with people; we went when the buildings were closed and all you could hear were the waves, and the birds.

There are nearly 300 years of mining tales to tell based on this one site alone.  There is tragedy, and sorrow, and change in those stories.   There is a lot of scope for someone who wants to write social commentaries or reflect on life for normal people in difficult times.

Any ruin, no matter what the building once was, can feed your writing imagination.  There are secrets hidden in standing stones, messages carved into windows, graffiti scratched onto bricks.  Even buildings such as the Tower of London have words and images left in the walls.

They are a record of life – the life of the building as well as the life of the person.  I’d never suggest someone wrote from the viewpoint of a wall, but if walls could speak, they’d be able to give us a lot of juicy items to include in our stories.

History and heritage can fuel our writing so explore your area and see what secrets you can find in the ruins.

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Book challenge update time – this week I managed to complete 2 books:

Book 11 – The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  I haven’t read any earlier Holmes, but I watched the BBC show ‘Sherlock’ and the CBS show ‘Elementary’ so took a gamble that I would be able to follow everything – it worked out, luckily! I enjoyed this book and enjoyed working out the mysteries.  It was easy-going, and the multiple story approach suited me.  I’m not sure I’d want to read a single story in novel length though; I found some of the hints and clues a little too serendipitous!

Book 12 – The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  I was expecting a lot of this book, having heard it described as a classic, a must-read, a stand-out in American Literature etc – and I was a little disappointed.  It was fine, not really gripping to start but from about half way through it was more engaging. I thought the female characters were archetypes and not real women, and most of the characters were vain, greedy and selfish, which makes it hard to care about them.  Gatsby’s father stood out as a touchstone of reality.   It seemed decidedly one-sided for a real love story, and I felt frustrated by the ending and the lack of punishment for Daisy and Tom – and can only think that their continued unhappy relationship was the punishment.  For me, it was not enough.

I’m reading a children’s book next, just so I get some sense of justice!

Until next time,

Happy writing

EJ

🙂

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