Wordsmiths & Warriors review: British Books Challenge

 The British Books Challenge is a reading challenge that will be running  on Fluttering Butterflies between 1st January to 31st December 2015 and the main focus of the challenge is reading and reviewing books by British authors.
If you sign up for the challenge you will be aiming to read at least 12 books by British authors (which works out to one a month).
In terms of what books would count towards the challenge – the books can be in print or out. Old or new titles. They can be from any genre and for any age range.

 

February so far has given me mostly horror and mayhem – Urban fantasy and psychological thriller. In stark contrast to January’s reads. I do like variety. I have read five so far this month and that makes for too long a post, so I will be dividing them up.

Starting with the one non-fiction I have read so far this month

Wordsmiths & Warriors: the English Language Tourist’s Guide to Britain by David and Hilary Crystal

17822199

Hardcover, 424 pages
Published December 1st 2013 by Oxford University Press (UK)

Blurb:Who formed and shaped the English language? David and Hilary Crystal take us on a journey through Britain to discover the people who gave our language its colour and character; Saxon invaders, medieval scholars, poets, reformers, dictionary writers. Part travelogue, part history, this illustrated book is full of unexpected discoveries.

Northern Ireland is not included in this journey, nor the islands, this is mainland Britain only. Maybe he plans another on these missing places. I hope so.

For anyone like myself who is fascinated with the journey of the English Language from small tribes to global this is a must. It is also great for those who on their jaunts around the country wish to have places of interest to visit. They should all read this book.

Small and large sites, villages and towns are on offer with good, clear,English (if anyone can deliver good clear intelligent English it is David Crystal) Fascinating little snippets and titbits of information alongside better known facts. From the earliest know written word, through the language development in England, Wales and Scotland through to the latest technology for analyzing grammar. Hillary Crystal provides the excellent photographs of each place. They are plentiful and clear.

For the travelers among us, there are excellent details on how to get to each place.

I would recommend this. David Crystal is always worth reading and these historical insights adds to our enjoyment of heritage.

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Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

alberta's book reviews

I had wanted to read this book from reviews I had read about it. Glowing for the most part, and apparently with an intriguing plot. An alternate version of the early 1800s in Britain and Europe. With the same events but just with differing living and outcomes. A trifle taken aback by the size, over a thousand pages, but I am no stranger to the out-sized book and settled down to read – not in one sitting, I confess,aging joints disallow this now.

I enjoyed the book, with a very few reservations. I thoughly enjoyed the premise that these Islands were ruled my magic, or had been, it was by the period of the book of reduced to an academic subject, but the faerie kings and nastiness was still there to create their own brand of mischief. Magic and magicians had been somewhat sidelined with all the modernity of the Regency period, during the Napoleonic Wars.

Another facet of the book I really enjoyed were the footnotes, relating fairy tales as truth, referencing non-existent books to direct the reader further or to back up evidence presented, also essays and texts. Creating even more complex layers of richness. Although I would imagine these would irritate some.

My favourite spell was the one involving a flotilla of ships created from rain.

In  its way this was an anti faerie tale, a warning against faerie land. Begin to evoke these powerful inhabitants from across the misty borders of the land and great troubles will clash with modernity.

This is a story of a clash of personalities and beliefs between an older magician and a younger one. Rivalry, enmity and treachery carried out on a national scale. A conceit of the novel is that it is written in the style of the time, one can find elements of all the great authors writing then. It explains the length, the slow pace and the stilted behaviors (in comparison to today’s offerings) of the characters. Elegant conversations and social mores are the order of the pages. It is a book which needs a different mindset to modern rush.

There is everything one could wish for here, talking statues and enchanted ballrooms, faerie kings and spells there are traces of Peake and Le Guinn as well as the older,Austen, Dickens and Thackeray.

I think some readers will dislike the seeming emotionlessness of the characters, when not indulging in dastardly magic to prove who is the greatest magician, that is. The lack of hysteria when a young girl dies, is resurrected, married, then descends into madness, it is all so matter of fact. The style is maintained well mostly, but flags a little in place.

Overall though I found it a very satisfying book and envy Susanna Clarke her ability to create and maintain such a cast of characters and events.

Product Details

Kate Atkinson and changing styles

re-reads

 

I fell into Kate Atkinson’s writing years ago when I first read Behind the Scenes of the Museum – followed by Human Croquet and Emotionally Weird. I loved her collection of short stories, Not the End of World.  This was an author I could hope for a lifetime of good books from.

Then she published Case Histories and my loyalty took a beating.

A detective book!

Where the magical and lyrical quirky imagination? Detective books are two a penny I grumbled, as I read the blurb on the back cover.

Traitor, I could have thought, as the Bob Dylan fan did when Bob changed to a new sound – I had dismissed that fan as a Luddite. I could follow Bob into the grave maintaining whatever he sang was worth listening too.

Could I do so with Kate?

The fact that she had changed genre hampered me at first, but the sheer brilliance of her storytelling won me over.

Kate has an eccentricity of imagination which can weave together compelling plots, sub plots, darkness and wit in an often lyrical and always satisfying way. Such a keen observer of human nature, the psychology of her lovingly and fully drawn characters always appears to ring true. Some have referred to Dickens in the same breath and I can see where they come from. In the deft way she can keep all the stories convincing, her characters the ability to combine darkness with domesticity and mix chaos with the mundane.

There have been four now with the same hero – is Jackson Brodie a hero? Yes, of course, but no superman, far from it. I have settled into her new format and enjoy them as much as have her first four. Now I am about to have challenge myself again for on my TBR pile I have Life after Life.  No detective this, but a time changing experience, they tell me, and her next book presumably the same – I can do it. While her writing remains so high and her skill of storytelling so good I look forward to delighting in her books for years to come.

Recently one of my reading groups down here in reality had Started Early took my Dog which  pleased most of the members, even those who like me had fallen for her earlier writing. I was reading it for the third time and enjoying it more each time. A mark if ever of a good read.

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Started Early, Took My Dog: (Jackson Brodie)

Started Early, Took my Dog by Kate Atkinson

This is the fourth of Jackson Brodie books by Kate Atkinson. It is full of murdered women, has connections between the events in the 70s to the present day, secrets to be kept at all costs, and Brodie wanders into it all unarmed by any useful information.

Tracey Waterhouse, a retired lonely policewoman, unmarried and unfulfilled, makes a spontaneous decision leading her to take an action which is not only illegal but highly dangerous, changing her life completely.

Brodie Jackson appears to be a hard action man, certainly attracting action against him. However, some could argue he is naive and continually being taken in, or indulging in failed relationships. He starts this book on a quest to trace the ancestry of a woman in New Zealand, who was adopted in Britain. He increasingly finds mystery, murder and mayhem, and finds his paths crossing that of another at frequent intervals. Adding to his general confusion, he is fighting alone, against unknowns.

Running alongside his search for his clients birth parents run a more sinister and dangerous plot line.

Kate Atkinson brings a deft touch to the stories of Jackson Brodie, there’s humour lacing the edges of darkness. The plots, although convoluted and full of subplots and little detours, seem realistic enough and the endings even more so.

As with the other three books, you do need to keep your wits about you, this is not a straightforward cozy mystery novel, but rather an intricate weaving together of disparate threads. In this tale of Brodie’s we have child abduction and the murder of women of the night ,two classes of the population who are not automatically protected. We have police cover-ups, dementia and violence .

Oh and we have a dog as well:)

The Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

The Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

I read this book last year but, as with my To Be Read Pile, my To Be Reviewed Pile is tottering in it’s hugeness!

I didn’t know this author but it came up on a Chunky Book Challenge and so I settled down with anticipation. I was not disappointed. The Sea of Poppies was one of those books where I wished I was young and had no other responsibilities so that I could have read it one hit.

Alas gone are the days.

However, I did, by dint of neglecting a certain amount of boringness, read it in two hits .

India, the Bay of Bengal 1838, just before Great Britain began the first opium War with China.

The main characters:

The Ibis is a transformed slaving schooner, now transporting coolies to work overseas.

The Masters (conquering Europeans) and their design to export opium to flood the Chinese market.

The lowborn and seemingly helpless pawns.

This is a romance in the old-style with sweeping narratives, a huge cast of beautifully crafted characters ranging from the highborn and high caste to the lowest forms of life in India, beautiful, grand and horrific descriptions. All coming together on the ship, The Ibis.

Along the way we learn a great deal about the callous capitalism of the Europeans, especially the British, in their deliberate attempt to flood China, for a fortune, with opium. See the tragedy of addicts. We discover a great deal on the growing and production of opium. New, to me, was the transportation of Indians as indentured workers to the sugarcane fields in Fiji and Mauritius. Through these pages we are introduced to many aspects of life back in 1838 such as food, religion, costumes, marriage and funeral rites. There are new vocabularies to learn as we follow the lives of servants and those that are served, a great deal about plants and. . . and . . . and the list of information is endless.

The research has been extensive and what is fascinating is how, despite the amount of information handed to us, this information load never affects the pace of the story, as it well could do. Neither does it seem jarring or out of place. This is not an easy task, as many authors will testify too, here it has been handled extremely well, the story flows like the River in the book.

I thoroughly enjoyed this story and discovered at the end of my reading that The Sea of Poppies is the first of a trilogy so I’m very happily looking forward to reading the next. Amitav Ghosh is an author I certainly want to read more of.

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher:Kate Summerscale

These book reviews are my own personal opinions, I am not a professional reviewer.  I read a great deal and belong to various online reading challenges and two book groups down in the real world. I just have loved reading since I was a tot, way back in the late 40s and can never get enough of books:)

re-readsThe Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale

This is a book about a real crime that shocked Britain in 1860. The murder of a well bred child in his own home. A home which had been locked securely that night. So, obviously the act of insider, one of the occupants.

 

‘An Englishman’s home is his castle’, suddenly become an insecurity.

I had been recommended this book, read very good reviews of it previously and had had it on my to be read pile since way back.  So when it came up as a book club read I was delighted. . . I have to confess now that I was disappointed in the book. I first read it last year and now it has come up on another book club read. I am no more enamored this time I’m afraid:(

 It was excellent on atmosphere and recording the social niceties of the times when the middle-class was on a successful rise. When they also employed many servants and the family home was sacrosanct. The story told well the class differences between those who employed and those who were employed, it also showed very well the deference usually paid to the middle and upper classes.

 Mr Whicher, the detective called in from London when the local police failed to make any progress in the case, was one of a new breed of policeman. Detective work was in its infancy and detectives were on the whole recruited from the very class and the environment which committed most of the crimes: the working class. He was not welcomed to the family in the big house, as he worked on the principle that everyone could be guilty, regardless of status, so everyone in the house was a potential suspect, unless proved innocent, and that included the family.

 Because there is a varied and large cast of characters, which is to be expected in a household of that size, we never really get to understand any of them and that lack of understanding created a barrier between the story and myself.

His detection led him to suspect that one of the daughters was the guilty person and he duly arrested her and took her to trial. This was not a popular move, she was very young, 16, a gently nurtured daughter of a well-to-do local employer. The father was himself a local working boy made good.

Mr Whicher was doomed to failure, made to look useless and when the trial collapsed due to lack of evidence he was forced to retire in ignominy.

 I personally found the reporter style of writing repetitive and too bogged down with detail. Whereas I enjoyed the detail about class and crime, human nature and religion of the time, constant details of timing and the whereabouts of people was, for me, tedious. Those who thrive on details will find it riveting. I firmly believe that for those who enjoy real crime, timetables, and minute detail will enjoy this book. It is well written and the story is tangled enough to be interesting. The fault this time lies with the reader:(

 The daughter confessed about a year later to having committed the crime and was saved from the gallows by Queen Victoria, being sent to prison for 20 years and then appearing to vanish. Maybe then the next bit, for me, was the most interesting because as with all good mysteries that wasn’t the end of the story.

 Mr Whicher ticks boxes for TBR pile challenge, recomendations, re-reads, book groups, Goodread Challenge and non fiction.