Underland by Robert Macfarlane

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I was wary of Underland at the beginning, as I normally reach for Macfarlane’s books when I cannot go exploring myself. Sort of a stand in adventure while bound to my desk for work or asthma keeping my indoors in winter. How would it work reading about him exploring terrain that I have absolutely no interest in exploring myself? Would I love it or would I be detached and disinterested?

Right from the beginning, I was greeted by the high level of writing. It is a bit like meeting up with an old friend, you sit down and pick up where you left off, even when it has been years. The writing is sublime. And the introduction to the Underlands is gentle, sharing his fascination, his motives for writing, he slowly guides us into the book. I loved visiting underground spaces in this way without the need for myself to get uncomfortable, wet or in a dangerous situation. Armchair travelling at its best.

Not all journeys take you literally underground, some are just left you wondering what’s underfoot and I certainly took that with me on my walks last week on holiday in Scotland. Oddly, I thought most about his words after climbing the hill to an old Iron Age Hillfort, pondering what lay beneath me and what memories the stones held that I was standing on. I don’t think, I ever really gave that much thought to what is under my feet than that what lies before my eyes when out walking. And quite frankly that change in perspective was refreshing.

It also got me thinking about my own place in the world, what legacy I will leave behind. What impact I can have to safeguard, to protect and to pass on. And this is where the real strength of any good book comes from: The moment you put it down, it still occupies your thoughts, you carry its wisdom with you and phrases pop into your head when you are doing other things.

Certainly a book for me that I will revisit over and over again, preferably reading out passages to my husband, because the writing is just so wonderful. And we shall keep going out and find beauty and be still.

Underland by Robert Macfarlane
Hardcover, 280 pages
Expected publication: May 2nd 2019 by Hamish Hamilton

 

Thoughts on writing, reading, Brexit and other stuff (April 2nd)

What no one tells you about writing is how utterly frustrating it can be. Who am I kidding. How utterly frustrating it is. Today, I have mainly wanted to throw the laptop out of the window and I have not done so, otherwise, I would not sit down here and bore you with meaningless thoughts, but I wish I had. Instead I am here, grumpy, total written word count 50 words, total deleted word count 500. One does not need to be an accountant to realise that this is an awful balance sheet. I tried to read the “Writing Down the Books” last week and I found it so annoying that I stuffed it into the charity bag and took it away. Maybe I should have read it.

You see the thing is, that the characters in my book are really annoying me today. The woman insists on doing things that I believe she wouldn’t do. And then when I change it, she does not sound like the person she ought to be. Does that sound like a mad couple of sentences? I am not sure. I am also not sure if the male character is too butch. I don’t want him too butch, but then he threatens to get into a fight and there we are, I feel like I am writing male stereotype no. 1008, right out of the character stereotype manual. Hurumpf.

The Walter Scott shortlist has been announced. Feeling so-so about the shortlist, but that is nothing new, plus I only read 3 of the 6 books so far. I was so certain Dark Water would be on there, but alas, no. Still Ondaatje is on there and it is my personal favourite, but alas I think Western Wind will win it. Books with interesting structure seem to always win Walter Scott. Went to the library as my hold for another of the now shortlisted books came in “The Long Take”, it has pictures, interesting. It is also very thin. I am probably the only person on booktube who has the compulsion to not trust a book that has less than 340 pages. I know naturally many novels that do brilliant things in very little space (hello Elizabeth Taylor) but sadly I know more novels where I felt that they could have fleshed things out a bit. The argument “… but at least it was short” never really worked for me. If you read 10 novels of 150 pages and they are all disappointing that’s a lot of disappointment. I rather read 3 500 page novels and they are all brilliant. But I guess, us readers are a demanding lot, always wanting brilliant books when everyone knows that books are not diamonds, there is no universal value that can be measured and traded against. Beauty is after all something that is totally in the eye of the beholder.

Part of the morning was spent hunting for a white blouse for the child’s spring concert tonight, so she can conform with the black and white dress code. She was nice enough to inform me last night at 7 pm that she has outgrown the previous blouse (and about another bin bag full of clothes). She is 12 and nearly as tall as me. So blouse hunting I went. I have lots to do, translation work, trying to write (and failing), there is never ending stream of laundry, but here I was at 9.30 hunting down a white blouse the child would wear. Mission accomplished, hope someone sends me that mother of the month medal in the post. I still have the pleasure to come tomorrow afternoon of going clothes shopping with her. This is sending shivers down my spine. Did I say pleasure, no, want I meant is horror. Clothes shopping is torture at the best of times, clothes shopping with a 12 year old who has a clear sense of what she will wear and what not but will not articulate it but just quietly reject proffered items with “too itchy”, “too clingy”, “too <<insert any word here that makes no sense>>” and you are destined for an argument with aforementioned tweenager. I shall try my utmost tomorrow to not go into argument mode. I shall think of cake. Wish me luck.

Oh, I have not mentioned Brexit in a while. So yes, we still don’t know what’s going on. At this point, I don’t feel I can say anything anymore other than shake my head. I feel like Yoda. “Heading for doom, we do. Stone like hurtling, we do.” He never said this, but he would have, had he lived in Brexit Britain.

On a cheerier note, I am about to finish a rather brilliant German crime novel and it has been translated into English, you lucky ducks. Set in 1947 Hamburg, coldest winter in memory and amongst the bombed out city a serial killer is on the loose. The English Title is the Murderer in Ruins by Cay Rademacher and the translation has been done by Peter Millar and is published by Arcadia Books. I think, I may immediately pick up book 2 (there is currently 3) and read on, Rademacher depicts what a bombed Hamburg must have been like so well. A bonus if you know Hamburg and are able pick out the place names, but if you don’t it does not matter, the place will become alive in your head anyway. A brilliant Schmöker.

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Saturday 30th March 2019

Hello from Brexitland. Woke up to all the news about the Leave protests at Westminster and protesters having effigies of Sadiq Khan and Teresa May that they dragged around with a nose around their necks. Then I read about the trial against the former right wing party headwoman in Germany (deliberately not stating her name as I don’t want to attract the attention of their mob) and then an article about the French yellow vests derailing into a right wing extravaganza. Excuse the flippant tone, I do rather feel that all the world is full of populists and the move to the right is no longer an inching but done in giant leaps and bounds and I am frightened and depressed.

So Saturday, started with low mood. I should have made waffles like last weekend, but instead we ventured to Kings Heath to the lovely Kitchen Garden Cafe for some brunch and some charity shop book browsing. I really wanted to buy some books, but alas I found nothing of interest which was sad. On the way back, we stopped at the Basement Cafe and bought some delicious cake. If the world around you makes no sense anymore, eat some cake. And no, I shall not misquote Marie Antoinette in this place.

The rest of the afternoon was spent with books, because that’s what I do. I put down Semiosis by Sue Burke as I had started listening to this on audio, but I feel that this book has to be read rather than listened to, so have to find a copy. And I may well wait for the second book in the duology to come out later in the year so I don’t have to wait. Instead, I dived into Manda Scott’s “Into the Fire“, I adored her Boudica series. I read the first 100 pages in an almost obsessive state, loving it very much. Dual timeline with a present day one and one during Joan of Arc’s time, both set so far in France. We call this type of book a “Schmöker” in German, which Pons translates as a “longish, escapist book” and that is exactly what Scott writes. Perfect to read write now.

I am also still loving Damian Le Bas’ The Stopping Places – A Journey Through Gypsy Britain and I cannot wait to continue with it later this evening. It is such a wonderful book. I highly recommend it already and I am not even done with it. It is published by Chatto & Windus and I am currently eyeing another one of the books up Caroline Criado Perez’ Invisible Women. It’s about the data bias against women. It always amuses me, how unconsciously I seem to reach for books by the same publisher in a row without even noticing it.

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The husband said I should stay away from the news for a bit. Which is probably a good idea and as it is the weekend, it is just assumptions about what’s going to happen. So for now, I shall have a couple of drams (Isle of Jura), some food prepared by said husband and then maybe another episode of Babylon Berlin if the child can be convinced to entertain herself upstairs for an hour.

Friday 29th March

Complicated feelings as today is the day, Britain would have originally left the EU. Amazing that we seem nowhere nearer to a solution and all options are still very much up in the air. Unsurprisingly, my MP is a hardline Brexiteer and despite the fact that he voted against no deal, he wants a hard Brexit. He also voted against teaching children in school about gay families. I am not surprised only surprised that so many people locally seemed surprised when I shared this fact.

I trapped a nerve in my back yesterday while gardening, so today will be a slow day. Little bits of work that need doing, some tidying – slowly – but anything that lies on the floor will remain there. I simply cannot bend down.

Yesterday, while sorting out the front garden (and the reason why I now have a trapped nerve), I was finishing off the audiobook “Diary of a Bookseller” by Shaun Bythell and it was the perfect antidote to Brexit Britain. Shaun runs a bookshop in Wigtown in Scotland and yes, I have been there, because I am a sad book person. Because of this, I picked up Orwell’s Bookshop Memories off my shelf, it’s in a collection of essays I found year’s ago in a National Trust bookshop. You got to love National Trust bookshops just for this reason. Anyway, listening to the audio out front made me laugh out loud and I wonder what random passers-by thought of me.

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Not much exercise was achieved this week. First I cut my heel open, so I have been hobbling around in shoes with the back trodden down, now the trapped nerve. I really hope for a better week, although I admit that if me having backpain would result in Article 50 being revoked I would be ok for another week of trapped back nerves – that’s how desperate I am. But I know I am kidding myself. Even if it was revoked, this issue will not go away and the effects of this referendum will haunt this country for a long time.

I also finished The Conviction of Cora Burns by Carolyn Kirby and The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo. You could not pick two books more different from each other than these too. I liked both of them and shall talk about them in my wrap-up on Monday on YouTube.

As always when I feel a bit sorry for myself, I bought some books. From ebay and trying to find independent booksellers selling them. (After effects from Bythell’s book).

The first one just sounded so mad, I had to have it. Moonraker’s Bride by Madeleine Brent.

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Published in the 70ies, this is a historical romance. I am trying to fill the Martha Stewart shaped hole that will appear once I finished the last of her mystery romances.

And then I also bought Claire Coleman’s Terra Nullius. An Australian science-fiction novel. I am in the mood for some sci-fi (Started Semiosis last night and so far loving it.)

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On that note, happy Friday.

If you like C.J. Sansom’s Shardlake (28th March 2019)

It has been nice to see so many people picking up the Shardlake series recently on booktube and instagram. I remember when I first read Dissolution many years ago, I was so smitten with it, I immediately started looking for books that were similar. And this has continued to this day. So I thought I share today some of the books that I think may appeal if you like C.J. Sansom’s Shardlake series, set in Henry VIII’s England.

S.J. Parris’ Giordano Bruno Series

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The first book in the series is called “Heresy” and sets the tone nicely for the overarching theme of the book: Religious tensions leading to political intrigue. We are in Elizabeth I’s England and the religious situation for those of Catholic (or other faith’s) is difficult in England and all over Europe religious tensions are growing. Giordano Bruno was a real person and he really came to England and Parris weaves a wonderful fictional world around him. A former monk, he was on the run from the Inquisition in Italy and sought refuge in England. Officially, he is in England to take part in a debate about Copernicus’ findings, but then some grizzly murders happen and he starts to investigate.

There are currently 5 books out and book 6 is scheduled for publication later in the year.

Publisher: HarperCollins

 


PF Chisholm’s Sir Robert Carey Series

We stay in Elizabethan England for this series, but venture north. Sir Robert Carey is another real historical figure and with a modicum of creative license Chisholm brings him alive wonderfully in this series. I was instantly smitten with this daring, intelligent man – even though he is also a bit stupid. His father was the first cousin of Elizabeth, some rumours say half brother, Tudor family politics are nothing if not complicated. In 1596 towards the end of Elizabeth’s reign, Carey is appointed as Warden of the Middle Marches which is essentially the border region with Scotland. An area of great unrest at that time, skirmishes between Scots and English on a daily basis, chief amongst them cattle theft. In the books, Carey arrives into a badly managed fort with people on his forces that have rather different allegiances and priorities than serving their Queen.

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There are 9 books in the series, the most recent one only published last year.

Published by Head of Zeus and Poisoned Pen Press.


Ellis Peter’s Cadfael

Before there was Shardlake, there was Cadfael. I discovered the Cadfael series as a teenager back in the 80ies and I was a loyal devotee from the first book. The series was hugely popular in Germany, Germans do love historical fiction set in the Middle Ages and you will find the historical fiction section full of titles like this. What I loved the most about Peter’s books was the sense of place. She evokes Shrewsbury of the 12th century so vividly, it is just such a joy to read. We follow Cadfael a Benedictine monk, a conversus who only joined the order in his 40ies and was a warrior in the crusades before. As someone who always has been interested in herbs and their properties, I loved the little side notes on Cadfael’s herbal preparations for healing. Peters sets Cadfael’s chronicles in the year’s of the Anarchy, 1137 to 1145, a turbulent time and in particular what is now Shropshire saw itself frequently torn between the factions. Needless to say that murders happen in each of the novels, but Peters skilfully weaves the wider historical aspects and conflicts into the story. A joy to read.

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There are 20 books in the series and some short stories.

Publisher, various imprints, now Macmillan


SG MacLean’s Alexander Seaton series

We are leaving the Middle Ages behind and move to 17th century Scotland. Alexander Seaton is set to become a minister of the Kirk, but due to a revelation of an event in his past, the Session rejects his application. Set in Banff in the 1620ies, Maclean masterfully brings Scotland alive, no dashing Highlanders sweeping time travellers of their feet, but a young scholar plagued with guilt desperately trying to redeem himself and to get a grip of his guilt. When one of his last remaining friends is accused of murder, Alexander tries to prove his innocence. I have rarely read a book that both gave me such insight into events of a historical period I had little idea of, but at the same time also really made me understand how people thought at the time. I read all the books in this series in short succession and then moved on to her next series (which you will find below).

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There are 4 books in this series and the series is complete.

Published by Quercus


SG Maclean’s Seeker series

Yes, I mention the same author twice, because I truly love her books and in my personal opinion her books are far too underrated and deserve a wider audience.

Damian Seeker is an officer in Cromwell’s army. The series starts in 1654 during Cromwell’s Protectorate (which ends in 1660 with the Restoration of the Monarchy) and a murder happens in one of London’s new coffee houses. Seeker investigates as it may be linked to a wider conspiracy to bring back the King.  Intrigue, betrayal and murder. I love how we get to know Seeker slowly, he is a mystery that needs to be solved as well, some excellent female characters in this series too, in particular a female villain, we love to hate.

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There are currently 3 books in the series and book 4 (The Bear Pit) is coming out in July 2019

Published by Quercus


Ruth Downie’s Medicus series

I am currently listening to this series after having read them a few years ago. Highly addictive material. Ruso, a doctor with the Roman Legions, arrives in today’s Chester virtually broke, just having lost his father and divorcing his wife. He was not particularly keen to end up in this outpost of the Roman Empire, but needs must. Within days of his arrival, he finds a female corpse that no one wants to deal with and then he saves a slave girl and that adds to his troubles. His boss, Deva is also constantly on his case and, yes, he continues to be broke. I absolutely love this series and how Downie imagines Roman Britain.

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Currently 8 books in the series, the most recent one published last year.

Published by Bloomsbury


There are more books I could talk about, but I think I keep it at this length for now. Any books you want to add? Any series, I should be aware off? Any great new first book in series coming out? Please let me know in the comments.

 

Random Thoughts 27th March

Brexit has been occupying much of my thinking processes in the past few weeks. I signed the petition, even contemplated going to the march in London but then remembered that crowds like that may trigger a panic attack and thought I best stay home.

I am slowly making my way through the Walter Scott Prize Longlist and so far the results are:

Little  by Edward Carey (Gallic Books) – yet to read

A Long Way From Home  by Peter Carey (Faber) – yet to read

After The Party  by Cressida Connolly (Viking) – read, thought it was ok – ***/5

Washington Black  by Esi Edugyan (Serpent’s Tail) – read, don’t get the hype **/5

The Western Wind  by Samantha Harvey (Jonathan Cape) – read, not my thing, but get why people love it **/5

Dark Water  by Elizabeth Lowry (riverrun) – read, atmospheric, if you love Moby Dick, you are going to love this, atmospheric, clever. Torn between *** or ****/5 but probably more like ****

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free  by Andrew Miller (Sceptre) – not read yet

Warlight  by Michael Ondaatje (Jonathan Cape) – read, am a fan woman, ****/5

The Wanderers  by Tim Pears (Bloomsbury) – will only read if shortlisted

The Long Take  by Robin Robertson  (Picador) – not yet read

All The Lives We Never Lived  by Anuradha Roy (Maclehose Press) – not yet read

Tombland  by C J Sansom (Mantle) – Uber fan and read when it came out and *****/5

I am taking a few books break now from the shortlist. Currently reading a mix of fiction and non-fiction:

Der Trümmermörder by Cay Rademacher (Murder in the Ruins) is a book that so many people recommended to me in the past few months, I just have to give it a go.

Slowly making my way through a poetry collection: Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo which I am really loving so far.

Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg’s classic on writing practice is also on the side and I read a chapter when I sit down with a cuppa.

Then The Stopping Places by Damien Le Bas, longlisted for the Jhalak Prize is also on the go, I have never read a book before on Traveller/Romani culture and so far I am finding it a fascinating read.

And then finally, a new release The Conviction of Cora Burns by Carolyn Kirby, set in Birmingham in the 19th century (I live in Birmingham) and so far, I am really quite enjoying it, I have a feeling this will turn very dark, so we shall see. Kinda fun though to hear a character referring to places you know (“no, Smethwick way”). I am a bit of a sucker for local colour.

I also went to the library today because clearly, I don’t have enough books out already (22 books at present), no, I needed to add more books (now 24 books out) and got Manda Scott’s Into the Fire and because I am an eternal optimist, I also got the second book in the series A Treachery of Spies. See Brexit has not totally destroyed my optimism, in some areas it still works. Victoria from Eve’s Alexandria and I shall start buddy reading Into the Fire this weekend and I cannot wait, I am really in the mood for some page turner type goodness and I loved Manda Scott’s Boudica novels a lot (read all of them quick succession, was proper obsessed).

The sun keeps shining at the moment which is good as I don’t think anyone could cope with what’s going on if it was raining on top of it all.  The neighbours across from us had a lunchtime barbecue. On a weekday. I like their spirit.

As I was driving down Soho Road in Handsworth today, I was struck once again by the sheer number of wedding shops there and how wonderfully colourful Asian wedding gowns are in comparison to white ones. I also kind of love that a wedding shop is right next to a shop selling fruit and veg. Keeping it real, even if you are buying wedding gear, you are still hungry. I keep meaning to stop at the Romanian bakery in Handsworth and buy some of their stuff to try it out, I adore shops like this. Someone on Facebook said that Polish shops are the reason, we have Brexit. And lots of people agreed. I like Polish shops although the one I love might close as the owners are thinking about going back to Poland. Another empty shop on the High Street. Maybe a betting shop will open.

I know I sound bitter, but it’s surreal to live through this Brexit stuff and it keeps going. And then there was the Guardian Article about the findings that European’s rights in the UK will be impacted. We have been saying this all along, but naturally no one listens. I basically no longer really talk to anyone, because the joke “we will just hide you in the cellar” has stopped being funny in 2017, which was incidentally when it started, meaning the joke was never funny. Just not funny. Also: I know nobody with a cellar.

Apparently dinner is ready. So farewell, thanks for reading, if you did.

 

 

 

 

And mother is dead

We were reading Pippi Longstocking. The child then about 4 asked: But what happened to Pippi’s Mommy. Me: She is dead. Child: Ah ok, at least Pippi has a horse and a monkey. Yes, indeed, dear child of mine, she does have that.  At that age, the fact that mothers were quite often dead and fathers were mostly absent did not bother the kid. That came later, once her own mother nearly succumbed to pneumonia, the possibility of a parent dying became something tangible and for a long time, she avoided narratives with dead mothers like the plague. And let me tell you: finding stories with parents around and healthy is quite difficult.

Now, I understand why parents in children’s books are often dead or away: It makes it easier to explain how the kid can take such tremendous risks, go on adventures without anyone shouting “bedtime” or “brush your teeth”. It is just simpler and more straightforward if there are no parents. A lot less explaining to do.

20893529And the whole dead and absent parent thing is not new at all. Look at the Little Princess. Heidi moves in with Grandpa after her aunt takes a job in Frankfurt, both her parents are dead. Before that, the brother’s Grimm collected folk stories and a lot of them speak of absent, dead or cruel parents, which you may argue reflected reality for a lot of children then.

When I was little, I preferred stories of whole families, because I did not have one. The dead/absent parent thing was not something I needed to explore, nor did I need to explore the cruel parent thing. I wanted to be Annika rather than Pippi with a mother who tucks the kids at night and a father who leaves to go to work each morning. I wanted to be the Nesthaekchen, adored by a large family even though she was a lot naughtier than I would have ever been. As much as we seek reading material that reflect our lives, we also want to explore what life could be like. If you have healthy parents, exploring how to overcome hardship after your parents die will be fascinating. It teaches empathy and the “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes”. It also teaches you about independence, consequences of decisions without the parental safety net. You can also explore how it would be to be brave or ask yourself what you would do yourself in certain situations, this being something I still often ask myself as an adult reader.

I admit that at times, I groan when there is another story of “mother is dead and father is away”, but I truly understand the doors it opens for storytelling. I am not quite ready to say “The mother is dead, long live the mother”, but I feel we need to accept that this aspect of storytelling will stay with us for good and for valid reasons.