Wednesday, 20 January 2021

Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell - #BookReview

 

"A boy is coming down a flight of stairs. The passage is narrow and twists back on itself. He takes each step slowly, sliding himself along the wall, his boots meeting each tread with a thud.

Near the bottom, he pauses for a moment, looking back the way he has come. Then, suddenly resolute, he leaps the final three stairs, as is his habit. He stumbles as he lands, falling to his knees on the flagstone floor."


On a summer's day in 1596, a young girl in Stratford-upon-Avon takes to her bed with a fever. Her twin brother, Hamnet, searches everywhere for help. Why is nobody at home?

Their mother, Agnes, is over a mile away, in the garden where she grows medicinal herbs. Their father is working in London.

Neither parent knows that one of the children will not survive the week.

Hamnet is a novel inspired by the son of a famous playwright. It is a story of the bond between twins, and of a marriage pushed to the brink by grief.

It is also the story of a kestrel and its mistress; a flea that boards a ship in Alexandria; and a glovemaker's son who flouts convention in pursuit of the woman he loves. Above all, it is the tender reimagining of a boy whose life has been all but forgotten, but whose names was given to one of the most celebrated plays ever written.

***

I do not often use the word 'outstanding' when I review books as I feel it is not a term to be used lightly.  However, it is a highly appropriate one to use for this book as this is the best book that I have read in a while. 

It is deeply moving and I am not in the least surprised that it won the Women's Prize for Fiction. A very worthy winner in my opinion. I am always a little wary of books which receive so much hype as they so frequently disappoint but this novel is deserving of all the accolades that it has received.

I have read a few of her books and have enjoyed every one. If you would like to read my review of The Hand That First Held Mine please click on the title link and it will take you straight to it.

Hamnet is beautifully written from start to finish and is one of those books where I felt a little devastated when I came to the end. Books where I deliberately slow my reading pace so that I can luxuriate in the wonderful writing a little longer.

There is a raw quality to the emotions that are portrayed so lovingly and I could see that Ms. O'Farrell cared deeply about the boy, Hamnet, who in reality, as a historical figure, we know so little about. However, he was brought to life (and death) so vividly in this book along with his mother. Her pain and grief was visceral and I could have cried along with her.

Interestingly, the woman that we know as Anne Hathaway was called Agnes in this book. Apparently, in her father's will he states her name as Agnes rather than Anne and the author used this name throughout. Whatever, her actual name was she has been vividly brought to life in this novel and her character is very well portrayed.

The narrative moves between past and present. It took me a little while to get used to but I could quickly identify the different character voices including that of the young and older character of Agnes.

Maggie O'Farrell has composed a marvellous re-imagining of the lives of the wife of William Shakespeare, his children and parents, although the man himself plays a peripheral role in the book.

I would be amazed if I read many books this year that are as excellent as this one and I highly recommend it.

ISBN: 978 142223791

Publisher: Tinder Press


About the Author:

  • Maggie O’Farrell is the author of the Sunday Times number one bestselling memoir I Am, I Am, I Am, and eight novels: After You'd Gone, My Lover's Lover, The Distance Between Us, which won a Somerset Maugham Award, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, The Hand That First Held Mine, which won the 2010 Costa Novel Award, Instructions for a Heatwave, which was shortlisted for the 2013 Costa Novel Award, This Must Be the Place, and Hamnet.
  • She lives in Edinburgh.


Wednesday, 13 January 2021

A History of Death in 17th Century England by Ben Norman - #BookReview

 

Death was a constant presence in the lives of the rich and poor alike in seventeenth-century England, being much more visible in everyday existence than it is today. It is a highly important and surprisingly captivating part of the epic story of England during the turbulent years of the 1600's. 

This book guides readers through the subject using a chronological approach, as would have been experienced by those living in the country at the time, beginning with the myriad causes of death, including disease, war and capital punishment and finishing with an exploration of posthumous commemoration. Although contemporaries of the seventeenth century did not fully realise it, when it came to the confrontation of mortality they were living in wildly changing times.

***


I know that we dwell a lot on the subject of death at the moment and 2020/1 is truly a time that will never be forgotten. With the UK daily death toll from covid exceeding a thousand deaths per day at the moment, the last thing that I want to do is to further depress us all by reviewing a book whose subject matter is death. 

However, this is an excellent history book and I did not find it's subject matter to be bleak and depressing in any way.   

As expected, the book considers reasons why people died during the 17th century, along with the funerary methods prevalent during this period in England and which we can recognise as the beginning of present day funereal rites. However, it is interestingly and engagingly written and well worth reading.

It is worth setting out the chapter headings here:

Chapter 1: The Natural Death

Chapter 2: The Soldierly Death

Chapter 3: The Criminal Death

Chapter 4: The Deathbed

Chapter 5: Of Corpses, Coffins and Carriages

Chapter 6: The Common and the Noble Funeral

Chapter 7: Royal Funerals

Chapter 8: The Unorthodox Burial

Chapter 9: Remembrance

Conclusion: The Seventeenth Century and Beyond

At the end of each of these chapters the author provides an extensive bibliography and I would really enjoy the opportunity to read some of them; all of which appear to be of great historical interest.

This book has been published at just the right time for me as I am researching the 17th century for a project that I am currently working on and has been instrumental in filling in some of the information gaps that I  had.

Anyone who is interested in the history of the 17th century would gain much from reading this book and I highly recommend it.

ISBN: 978 1526755261

Publisher: Pen & Sword History



Thursday, 7 January 2021

London by Edward Rutherfurd - #BookReview

 

"Many times since the Earth was young, the place had lain under the sea. 

Four hundred million years ago, when the continents were arranged in a quite different configuration, the island formed part of a small promontory on the north-western edge of a vase, shapeless landmass. The promontory, which jutted out in a lonely fashion into the great world ocean, was desolate. No eye, save that of God, beheld it. No creature moved upon the land; no birds rose in the sky, nor were there even fish in the sea."


London has perhaps the most remarkable history of any city in the world. Now its story has a unique voice. In this epic novel Edward Rutherfurd, bestselling author of Sarum, Russka and others, takes the reader on a magnificent journey across sixteen centuries, from the days of the Romans to the Victorian engineers of Tower Bridge and the dockland developments of today. Through the lives and adventures of his colourful cast of characters he brings all the richness of London's past unforgettably to life.


***

I know that some people are deterred from reading 'big' books. It doesn't bother me. I see a thick tome as something of a challenge. 

However, I am not sure that I have ever tackled a novel quite this size. The paperback version of this book has 1,328 pages so commitment is needed. I read it over the Christmas and New Year break so was able to give it my full attention. Actually, it was ideal this year in particular as the holidays were so quiet and home based.

The research that the author must have undertaken for this book must have been vast and must have taken years. This truly is epic in both length and knowledge. 

The novel begins around 54 years before the birth of Christ and goes right through to 1997. We meet a lot of characters along the way but the focus is on five families throughout. Thankfully, the author provides a genealogical chart at the beginning of this book and I did need to consult it on many occasions.

There are also maps of the area around the River Thames; Roman and Saxon London, Medieval and Tudor London and Georgian and Victorian London. These are fascinating insights into how the capital evolved and I flicked back to them frequently.

If you have the time to tackle such a large book and you enjoy historical fiction then I recommend this book. Have you read any other books by this author? I would love to hear your thoughts.

ISBN: 978 0099551379

Publisher: Arrow


About the Author:

Edward Rutherfurd was born in England, in the cathedral city of Salisbury. Educated locally, and at the universities of Cambridge, and Stanford, California, he worked in political research, book selling and publishing. After numerous attempts to write books and plays, he finally abandoned his career in the book trade in 1983, and returned to his childhood home to write Sarum, a historical novel with a ten-thousand year story, set in the area around the ancient monument of Stonehenge and Salisbury. Four years later, when the book was published, it became an instant international bestseller, remaining 23 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List.

Since then he has written seven more bestsellers: Russka, a novel of Russia; LondonThe Forest, set in England's New Forest which lies close to Sarum;  two novels which cover the story of Ireland from the time just before Saint Patrick to the twentieth century;  New York in 2009, and Paris in 2013.   He is currently hard at work on another big project. His books have been translated into over twenty languages. 

For over three decades,  Edward has divided his time between Europe and North America. 

Edward Rutherfurd is a Life Member of the Friends of Salisbury Cathedral, the Salisbury Civic Society, and the Friends of Chawton House, which is located in Jane Austen's village and dedicated to the study of women writers. He has also been a Patron of the National Theatre of Ireland (the Abbey Theatre) in Dublin.

In 2005, the City of Salisbury commemorated his services to the city by naming one of the streets leading off its medieval market place 'Rutherfurd Walk'.

Edward's hobbies include the theatre and tennis.

(biographical information courtesy of the author's webpage https://www.edwardrutherfurd.com/biograph)

Monday, 4 January 2021

Books to Read in January 2021

 


Like so many of us, I am glad to be leaving 2020 behind. It has not been a good year for any of us and my heart particularly goes out to those who have lost loved ones. 

So good riddance to 2020 - bring on 2021!

I am looking forward and to the books that I hope to read this month. Do you have anything particular that you want to read during January? I would love to hear about them.

***

Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell

Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras

The Last Family in England by Matt Haig

Olive by Emma Gannon

The Therapist by B.A. Paris

The King's Witch by Tracy Borman

Witch Hunt by David and Andrew Pickering

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

The Time Traveller's Guide to Elizabethan England by Ian Mortimer

Six Tudor Queens: Katherine of Aragon by Alison Weir


Books to Finish

London by Edward Ruthurford


Thursday, 31 December 2020

Top Twenty 20 Books of 2020



 What a year 2020 has been for everyone around the globe! It has certainly been a year that we will never forget. In the same way that my parents generation would talk about their experiences as children during WWII, those of my sons generation will be telling their grandchildren what it was like to live through 2020. 

Reading has played an enormous part in keeping me sane this year and, up to a point, I have been able to read my way through the chaos. Thank goodness for the escapism that books have given us all. 

Thank you for following my blog this year. It means so much to me to know that you are sharing in my reading experience. If you would like to read my reviews of the books that I have selected just click on the underlined titles and it will take you directly to the review page.

I want to wish you all a happy New Year and hope that we can approach 2021 with optimism.

In no particular order here are my favourite 20 books of 2020:


The Temptation of Gracie by Santa Montefiore - I am a big fan of this author and have enjoyed all of her books.

The Winter Soldier by Daniel Mason - This is an excellent book set during WWI and I highly recommend it.

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams - I have yet to write my review of this excellent book. I veered from not liking it much to thinking that it was one of the best books I have ever read.

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett - A wonderful book which tells the story of a researcher who goes to the Amazon jungle in search of a colleague.

The Power by Naomi Alderman - I read this book with my book group via a virtual meeting and it got very mixed results. Personally, I thought it was a brilliant book.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr - This was a re-read for me and I think I enjoyed it even more second time around.

A Room Made of Leaves by Kate Grenville - This is the first book I have read by this author and I thought it was exceptional.

Girl by Edna O'Brien - A story of the the girls who were kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria. An incredibly powerful book.

The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O'Farrell - I have loved all of the books that I have read by this author and this one was no exception.

Focus by Arthur Miller - written in 1945 this was the author's first novel. An interesting and enjoyable read.

Witches: James I and the English Witch Hunts by Tracy Borman - this excellent non-fiction title gave a fascinating insight into the 17th century witch hunts.

The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd - this book was written from the perspective of the wife of Jesus. A very enjoyable fictional account.

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman - this is an author which I had been wanting to try for ages. I loved this book and will definitely be reading more by him.

The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold - I had this book on loan from the library and found it so interesting that I bought myself a copy before I had even finished reading it. A remarkably different non-fiction account of the Ripper's victims.

A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier - I have read almost all of the books written by this author and loved each and everyone. This was a wonderfully gentle story which hit absolutely the right note for me during such troubled times.

The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier - this was my second reading of this novel and just as good a reread as it was the first time around.

Lethal White by Robert Galbraith - this is the fourth in the Cormoran Strike series. Having read the previous three I thought this was particularly good.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte - I have lost count of how many times I have read this novel. It is definitely my favourite of the novels written by the collective Bronte sisters. A controversial view perhaps?

Momento Park by Mark Sarvas - an interesting story about the complex relationship between the protagonist and his father. It was the first book I read in 2020 and was thrilled that my reading year had got off to such a good start.

Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner - when this was first published in the UK in June 2019 I really wanted to read this. However, I made myself wait until it was published in paperback. Not only was it worth the wait but it exceeded my expectations. I highly recommend this book.

Tuesday, 1 December 2020

Reading for December 2020

 


"Christmas is coming and the goose is getting fat," etc (she sings, very badly indeed.)

I can hardly believe that the holiday season is just around the corner and here we are at the first of December already. What a bonkers year it has been and will continue to be for a while yet. However, here in England we are being given a restrictions holiday for a few days which we are all grateful for.

This month my list of books that I hope to read will be shorter than usual as I usually treat myself to a long read over the holidays which consequently means that I am not able to read so many individual books. Without any further ado, here is my list.

* * *

London by Edward Ruthurford - this is the long novel that I plan on reading. At just under 1300 pages in the edition that I have, I am not sure how much else I will get to read.

The Woman of the Wolf and Other Stories by Renee Vivien

Snow Blind by Ragnar Jonasson

Dark Water by Elizabeth Lowry

East Lynne by Mrs Henry Wood

The Dollmaker by Nina Allen

The Dark Angel by Nina Allen

Books to Finish

The Bookshop of Second Chances by Jackie Fraser


Monday, 30 November 2020

November 2020 Reading Roundup

 

 

As I sit at my desk writing this post with a cup of coffee by my side the weather is grey and wet outside. I do not dislike the rain, particularly when I am warm and toasty inside my home. However, I so much prefer the autumn sunshine which has been replaced with grey skies this past few days.

As I reflect on this last month which, somehow, has whizzed past again, my thoughts are those of being in lockdown once again. I am desperately missing my family and because of social distancing restrictions, even prior to this latest lockdown, I was not able to hug my children or grandchildren and have not done so since the first lockdown began on 23rd March. I am sure that many of you are in the same position so I am sending you all a virtual hug along with this post. 

So, what have you all been reading during November? Have you read a book this month that you would recommend? Here is my roundup of the books that I have read this month.


Books I have Read 

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman - although this was entertaining I did not think that he quite lived up to the hype surrounding it. If you enjoy this type of book then The Postscript Murders by Elly Griffiths is much better (only my opinion of course).

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles - this was my book group read for this month and we all enjoyed it very much. It has been my favourite novel this month.

A History of Death in 17th Century England by Ben Norman - a well researched book on death and it's mourning practices during the seventeenth century. My review will be up in the next day or two.

Real Men Knit by Kwana Jackson - this did not live up to my expectation of the book but nice to read about a knitting shop.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens - re-reading this it is easy to see why it has become an enduring classic and was well worth reading again.

Books I am Partway Through

The Bookshop of Second Chances by Jackie Fraser