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November 2019 Reading Round Up

November has been brilliant, full of books. I decided on the 30th to try and finish the 250-odd pages I had remaining of the book I was looking to finish next and spent the evening with it to success. I’ve also read a wider variety of books, which most likely helped.

The Books
Non-Fiction

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Gabrielle Malcolm: There’s Something About Darcy – Malcolm looks at the continuing interest in Jane Austen’s Fitzwilliam Darcy, from early in its publication to the present day. This is a 50/50 book; the first half, which deals with Austen’s near contemporaries and extends just to the 1995 adaptation, is excellent, but the second half is all about fan-fiction, where books are summarised repeatedly.

Poetry

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Raymond Antrobus: The Perseverance – A collection about the poet’s life as a Jamaican Brit, a person in the deaf community, and various related historical and contemporary stories. Utterly fantastic.

Fiction

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Julia Armfield: Salt Slow – A collection of short stories about identity, mostly women’s, which takes concepts and realities to their extremes in order to look at them closer. A brilliant collection.

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Nancy Bilyeau: The Blue – 1700s’ Hugenot descendant Genevieve is recruited by Sir Gabriel Courtenay as a spy at Derby Porcelain factory to steal for him the formula for the newest shade of blue; she has agreed because he promised to send her to Venice to train as a painter, but when she comes to know those involved and the reality starts to show itself, she has to make a few decisions. This book is chock full of research to good effect, and whilst the middle is pretty slow it’s worth it as the latter third picks up the pace considerably and the secrets and truths fly everywhere.

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Phillip Lewis: The Barrowfields – Henry looks back on his childhood, his father who tried so hard to be a writer, his distant relationships with mother and sister, and his own attempts to be someone. Utterly fantastic.

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Samantha Sotto: Before Ever After – Shelley’s younger-than-middle-aged husband died and a few years later a boy claiming to be his grandson turns up at her door. Brilliant story combining a mass of different genres.

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Samantha Sotto: Love And Gravity – The cracks in the wall start happening in Andrea’s single digit years and although no one believes her she comes to look forward to the rare sightings of the historical boy, a budding scientist, on the other side of her wall. A great time slip/travel novel that makes use of a box of manuscripts found amongst Issac Newton’s possessions to tell its story.

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Seishi Yokomizo: The Honjin Murders – A couple on their wedding night are murdered in the annex building of the family estate; a three-fingered man was seen around the place the night before and his hand prints are on the wall, but why did it happen? An excellent 1940s novella that is a lot more about the ‘why’ than the ‘who’.

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Stein Riverton: The Iron Chariot – One evening, a little way away from his hotel, our narrator sees the forestry inspector leave the company of a woman the narrator admires, and a bit later the narrator hears the sound of chains rattling which a fisherman says precedes death; the next day a dead body is found. Not bad at all – quite of its time but there’s a lot to appreciate in context.

I don’t have a favourite this month – there are some 5 star reads amongst the above, all but the non-fiction are 4+, and I appreciated various things about every one. It has been a very good reading month all round.

In this last month of the year and decade I’ve a few books to get to that are yet to be started and I hope to finish up a few more; I’m not sure I’ll read as much – Christmas is almost here, after all – but it should be good.

What do you hope to get to in this last month, and what has been your favourite book of the last few weeks?

 
Seishi Yokomizo – The Honjin Murders

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A Japanese classic.

Publisher: Pushkin Vertigo (Pushkin Press)
Pages: 181
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-782-27500-8
First Published: 1946; 5th December 2019 in English
Date Reviewed: 28th November 2019
Rating: 5/5

Original language: Japanese
Original title: 本陣殺人事件 (Honjin satsujin jiken – The Case Of The Honjin Murder)
Translated by: Louise Heal Kawai

In the early hours of the morning after a wedding, screams and the sound of a koto being plucked are heard from the bridal room. The couple have been killed and there are hand-prints, three fingered, on the walls. A mysterious man had arrived in the hours prior to the wedding.

I would venture to guess that you’ve never read a novel quite like this one. A book with similarities? Quite possibly – this a book influenced by others. But unless you’ve read Yokomizo before, it will still be new to you. The Honjin Murders is as original today as it likely was in 1946. Yokomizo creates a story within a story; the basic idea is that an unnamed writer – our narrator – is recounting a true-to-him story. It’s an interesting enough idea as it is, but Yokomizo’s use of real world classical and then-contemporary crime novels seems to not only influence the fiction and the fiction inside that fiction, but is quite possibly linked to Yokomizo’s own reading. The narrator employs these crime novels – Christie, Conan Doyle, among others – in various ways; they inform the way he writes but they also inform the crime he’s writing about, with the detective of this story within a story – Kosuke Kindaichi, who stars in a total of 77 later books – loving crime novels and able to thus recognise the books on the shelves of the victim’s family which every other inspector believes unimportant to the investigation.

The above is actually something you experience later on in your reading – the first thing you become aware of is the part of the story at which the narrator starts his tale. In a way unlike many others, Yokomizo, through his narrator, begins the tale at the effective end – you see the events that precede the murder, and then you hear about the discovery of the bodies. And then you get a diagram of the murder scene, answers about most of the people who are there at the time, even the suspected murderer is cited.

You’d be forgiven at this point in the story for wondering with what the narrator plans to fill the rest of the book, because the rest consists of the vast majority of the pages. What he does is answer almost all the W questions – ‘where’, ‘what’, ‘who’, and some of the ‘how’ – but leaves out the rest of the ‘how’, a bit of the ‘who’, and all of the ‘why’. This is a whydunnit more than any ‘who’; the ‘why’ is everything here, it carries the story, and it works incredibly well.

The ‘why’ is answered with aplomb, even if the summing up of all the detective’s discoveries is done at the end in one big telling scene. Some of it forms a reminder of history, earlier than the 1930s setting – to note anything further than that would spoil the story. This is a book that has aged, but aged rather well, and the storytelling is such that it’ll likely remain famous for a long time.

The Honjin Murders is an interesting one. It doesn’t seem like a page turner, but you’ll finish it quickly. It doesn’t seem like there are going to be red herrings, and why, anyway, would you read a book when almost all the answers are given straight away? But it will continue to surprise you. (And given everything mentioned so far, the idea of the initially confused reader was likely in Yokomizo’s plan all along.) If you want a crime novel where the (real life) author’s sleuthing exceeds the fictional detective’s, read this book. It is fantastic.

I received this book for review.

 
Reading Life: 27th November 2019

A photograph of a field at Hever Castle with autumn colours on the trees

I’ve been reading almost every evening for the past few weeks. It’s been wonderful, both in general and in terms of adding to my list, but I’m currently taking a couple of days out, hoping to see off any burnout before it happens. I noticed yesterday the words just weren’t going in so I took myself off to a digital medieval world; I got fined for accidentally starting a fist fight with a city guard – the keyboard controls to fight and to talk are next to each other – but regardless it was a lot of fun. I plan one more evening of it and then it’s back to the books. I reckon two days away from reading should work – either way, it’ll be interesting to see if this amount of time (albeit that I’m still blogging about books during it) works to freshen up the reading and reset any tendency to burnout.

The book I completed most recently was the Riverton I reviewed on Monday. My current reads are Nancy Bilyeau’s The Blue and Sherry Thomas’ Delicious, both historicals but set a century apart and in different genres. They’re my fourth and third read by the two authors respectively. I’m about a quarter of the way through the Bilyeau and so far so good – it’s obviously very different to the author’s Tudor period books but the sense of evident research that pervaded those books is in The Blue as well, which is lovely. I’m about a fifth of the way through the Thomas, and it’s going okay – this is a longer-term read that I should technically have finished a while back, as I started it a couple of months ago.

On that note of books still to be finished, I started looking at mine last month and have divided them into two categories (they’re not quite lists, thankfully). There are some that I barely started and really should be removed if I’m to be honest about time limitations and how much I’m actually reading: Susanna Kearsley’s Season Of Storms (begun just after the New Year, and never returned to – wrong time); Elizabeth Chadwick’s The Love Knot (begun in earnest but never returned to as I already had two current reads at the time); and Philip Pullman’s The Secret Commonwealth which I struggled with upon beginning, got past that, but then faltered. Then there’s Lillian Li’s Number One Chinese Restaurant (started in September, still in mind, and just not managed to get back to properly yet), and the Sherry Thomas which as noted above is a current read again. Along with the Thomas, I’m going to see if I can complete the Li and the others I’ll probably remove from the list for now. I once carried over three ‘old’ reads from one year to another. It didn’t go well.

In book-related life, I’m looking to sort one of my shelves out. A couple of my bookcases are properly organised but I have another that I’ve just been adding newly acquired books to without standing them on the shelves – I’ve been piling them up instead, partly due to time but mostly because I’m aware it’s my last bookcase and at the moment I can pretend that the books not yet properly shelved done equate to one and a half shelves of properly placed books which would lead to only one and a half shelves remaining. This said, I really enjoy organising my shelves so there’s a tug of war going on between the part of me who doesn’t want to admit I’m running out of space and the part that wants it all looking nice and tidy and done.

There’s at least one book on my Christmas list this year, first time in a while. I’d probably better get on with it…

Have you (ever) run out of shelf space? What did you do? And what does the last month of this year look like for you in books?

 
Stein Riverton – The Iron Chariot + Podcast

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Ghostly goings on?

Publisher: Lightning Books (Eye Books); ebook: Abandoned Bookshop
Pages: 110
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-785-63161-0
First Published: 1909; 18th March 2019 in English
Date Reviewed: 22nd November 2019
Rating: 4/5

Original language: Norwegian
Original title: Jernvognen (The Iron Chariot)
Translated by: Lucy Moffatt

Our narrator is staying at a hotel near the coast, close to both sea and plains. One evening he is out walking and barred entry to the farmhouse he wants to visit – over the course of a few holidays he’s taken a liking to Hilde, who co-owns it – and so he leaves, but not before spotting the departure of the forestry inspector, Blinde, from the company of Hilde. The narrator carries on his walk. As the evening continues towards the time for him to return to the hotel, he hears an eerie sound, iron chains rattling which, says the fisherman he passes on his way, precedes a death.

The Iron Chariot is a classic crime novella by a well-known Norwegian author who was also a journalist. A somewhat cosy mystery, it may not be as frightening as it likely was when it was first published, but it’s still a good read.

The narrator is joined, in terms of main characters, by a detective who is requested by a fellow hotel guest when a body is found. The detective is just the sort of character you both want and somewhat expect in a book of the period, very casual in his manner, not in any hurry, and he studies things in a different way to others. His presence is what makes the book a bit of a cosy mystery because aside from him the thriller/paranormal aspects get the most time. You have then an interesting pair of characters – one pretty upbeat, always raring to go yet not worried about time, and the other always nervous, bordering on paranoid, and worried. As you would expect, there is more to the detective’s demeanor than the narrator realises, which is perhaps more compelling in making you continue read than the mysteries themselves – when is the detective going to solve it all and how will he have done it?

The use of location is great, pathetic fallacy employed often but never too much. You can see where the narrator is headed, mentally, when he can’t. And of course the lack of technology means more thought (for all this was obviously not in Riverton’s mind).

Some may find that it’s best to read this book keeping in mind the context of its time; there are a couple of areas to be aware of and, ultimately, forgive. The drawn-out nature of the detective’s work, his unwillingness to tell the narrator what he knows, is entirely suitable but it does feel at times like a device to keep the book going, particularly when you’ve worked out a fair amount and want it to be dealt with. The other element is the predictability; you’ll probably work out at least half of the mystery fairly early on. This is a drawback due to the drawing-out of the mysteries – in the context of the whodunnit it is, like the detective’s work, also suitable. And of course the revelation of a couple of the plot points would have been more surprising in times past.

The Iron Chariot is a perfect choice if you want a book with a truly spooky element (because it is very eerie) but nonetheless want something more easy – cosy – to read as well. And it’s a great example of older crime fiction that’s perhaps different to what you’ve read so far (supposing you’ve not read Riverton in Norwegian before).

I received this book for review.


Today’s podcast

The podcast is also available on iTunes and Spotify.

Tune in as Naomi Hamill, author of How To Be A Kosovan Bride, and me discuss post-war Kosovo, using a narrative method that divides opinion, and researching Albanian folklore.

If you can’t see the media player above or would like to see the purchase links, click here for the SoundCloud track page (be aware it may autoplay).

 
The Present Past: Russell-Cotes Museum

A photograph of the main building of the Russell-Cotes Museum; a fountain is in the foreground and the house rises behind it

This is an image-heavy post. The photograph of Merton Russell-Cotes from 1909 is held by the Lafayette Archive of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The Russell-Cotes Museum is a historic semi-hidden, purposefully-constructed house, on the edge of the coast of Bournemouth. If you didn’t know about it already and decided to go to the beach, to walk along the sand or promenade down the pier, you would most likely miss it; at most you might spot a couple of none-too-tall spires in the distance. This is because the house is situated on a cliff that is accessed by a pathway that climbs the hill from the opposite end of the car park to the beach access route. There’s also not much to see from the pathway unless you continue up the hill away from the house – in fact, when I saw the sandwich board outside the single-width gap in the stone wall, I reversed my steps to make sure the Museum wasn’t actually the big building with a pavilion and lawn next door. (That building is the Royal Bath Hotel which seems to have taken use of the Museum’s pavilion; the original owners of the Museum building had bought the Hotel.)

A photograph of the garden from the perspective of the building - we look down towards the sea

As you might expect, once through the gap, the front garden (there isn’t a back garden) is fairly small in relative terms and at least in autumn more focused on greenery than flowers (there could be flowers but the amount of evergreen suggested not too many). It’s the kind of garden you might expect of a house where the interior is everything. You’d be right.

A photograph of Merton Russell-Cotes

The main building, the rather Gothic house in the photograph above, is joined on the left to a new building that holds the ticket office, shop, and cafe, and on the right an extension that was built by the original owners (the builders of the house). In building the cafe/shop building, the group that run the house made a decision that works incredibly well: unlike many historic houses, where there are many more rooms than you, as a member of the public, can access, due to cafe conversions and storage spaces, the majority of the Museum is publicly accessible. There are a few smaller rooms for the staff and workings, but what you see in the photograph above you will for the most part view from the inside outwards, too. (I will from now on be referring to the people who run the Museum as ‘Bournemouth’, as it is officially the Borough of Bournemouth who do so.)

This is where we get to the history. The Museum, previously called East Cliff Hall, was conceived by Merton Russell-Cotes as a gift for his wife, Annie, and completed in 1901 (the extension was finished in 1919). Its conception was for the general purpose you see today: the couple were avid travellers and wanted a house that could exhibit all the items they brought back from around the world. Essentially, for all they lived in it, the building was a museum first, house second. In 1907, before the extension was built, the couple donated the house as a museum to the town of Bournemouth (it’s now a city) and continued to live in it until their deaths. From what I can ascertain, the shop/cafe building was created a lot later, in 2000.

Due to the couple’s love of beautiful objects and their interest in culture, there is a monumental amount to see. And everything gives you a firm idea of the interests and values westerners of the time looked for in the ‘exotic’. Joining these objects are a vast number of artworks, many from back in the day, and some closer to our own time. Owing to our discoveries of how light fades things, the blinds over almost every window are pulled down; only a few rooms have natural light to see by. I went to Russell-Cotes not knowing much about it other than it looked like it would be a place I’d love, so I was unprepared for the relative darkness and I didn’t have a polariser with me – please forgive the blurry lights in these photographs.

So, we begin just a little inside. We have gone into the new, left-hand side building, bought our tickets, walked through the shops and up a staircase into the large cafe. Our trip starts beside the cafe’s fridge where we find a narrow corridor – the modern building opens straight into the house and we are, in many ways, about to step back in time.

A photograph of the dining room - the table is in the centre and a grand fireplace is on the right-hand side wall

As you get to the house-end of the rather short corridor, you step into the dining room, just as you see above. This is your first example of what you’re going to find as you venture further in. It’s all rather fantastical in this room, and you can walk around freely (more on walking around later). Everything is detailed, even the high ceiling and the area just above the coving is covered in artwork – peacocks. Besides the cafe entrance, there are three doors leading out of this room. One right next to the corridor’s door, that leads to a grand hall, one at the left end, and one opposite that which leads to a conservatory (where the daylight is coming from). The conservatory is currently closed to visitors – there are a number of buckets on the floor; Bournemouth are looking for donations to restore it.

A photograph of the dining room from another angle which shows where the door to the conservatory is

I’m not going to take you through to the hallway just yet, but I will tell you in advance that in this house, almost every room backs out into the hallway – the rooms of the house are clustered in groups of two or three in the corners and sides behind the hallway, both ground and second floor – so there’s no real linear way to go around; it’s really up to you.

A photograph of the morning room, bare except for a line of chairs, the fireplace, and a few pieces of artwork

I’ve taken you through the left-end door and into the morning room. It was in fact a study for Merton; his desk was a table originally made for Napoleon. The present-day room, as you see, is very bland compared to almost every other room; parts of the ceiling started coming down around 1928, and it’s believed that the original design is behind the one there now. War damage created more problems. Bournemouth have decided to restore the room to its 1949 appearance as they don’t have enough details of what it looked like prior to that year. This is of course a pity, but, when you see the rest of the house you may in fact be grateful for the pause in grandeur.

A photograph of the morning room's ceiling - a naked woman sat in a shell in the clouds with cherubs around her

This is a section of the ceiling that has been restored.

A photograph of the drawing room - the hall door on the left, and a dresser and fireplace at the end

Carrying on through the morning room and you get to the drawing room, a room you could probably identify without the information board, it’s so much of what you’d expect. Even with the blinds down it’s incredibly light and airy.

Now. Now you turn out of the room and through that door you see in the left of the photograph, and enter the hall.

A photograph of the hall

It’s no exaggeration to say that I fell in love with this room. I found an excuse to go back to it a good few times and I’d have been happy to stay there all day. The view you see above was taken from a few feet away from the end looking towards the dining room door. The opposite view is also spectacular, perhaps more so, with its sunken pool and grand piano, but the gorgeous potted plant that rounds it off unfortunately means that a 2D photo doesn’t work so well. So, to the left, where you see the pillar, is the drawing room; behind me, effectively, is the gallery, which we’ll come back to. Beside me on the right is the lift with decorated doors, the size of which suggests an old store room. Then, you can just see them, are the stairs.

A photograph of the staircase, which is one wide set of stairs and then a set right and left

If I could sit at the bottom of these stairs and read all day, I’d be happy. I considered it – I could have. The door to the right leads to the Ladies; I considered taking a photograph because the room, split into three parts and almost certainly always used as a toilet, was just as decorative as the other rooms.

Up the stairs, and both side staircases go to the mezzanine floor. Looking at the photo above, on the sort of mini floor/turnabout space you can see before the left staircase begins, are a couple of small rooms that are roped off but visible.

A photograph of the mezzanine floor, walls covered by paintings

This photo was taken from the same end of the hall as the one downstairs. The area is slightly smaller – the mezzanine ends roughly where the marble pillars downstairs are situated, but again all rooms lead from it. We’re going to the doorway you see on the right.

A photograph of the study

The study is on the left of the doorway; it’s a beautiful little room just big enough to walk around. Essentially split in two parts, the study gives you an idea for the rest of the upper floor.

The room to the right of this cluster isn’t pictured because that room is smaller, black-walled, and simply holds paintings, photos, and memorabilia of Henry Irving, the the very-famous stage actor for whom we’ve lots of contemporary accounts and reviews but, due to the time period, no video footage.

A photograph of the Arabesque anti-room showing the doorways to other rooms

Back out, and we’ll go to the left-hand cluster. The rooms here are joined by a sort of anteroom in the Arab style. It’s difficult to get a proper photo – I didn’t want to lie down – so I decided to take one that gives you a general idea and shows you how the clusters work. The pink room to the right is the boudoir, and the room on the left has been turned into a big display, various ‘exotic’ items behind glass.

A photograph of the Boudoir

This is the pink Boudoir room for the lady of the house, split in two like the study.

A photograph of the garden from the perspective of the building - we look down towards the sea

Japanese-esque, the room features dressers like the others, but then the sitting area that’s really quite lovely.

I haven’t included a photo of the display room – it’s difficult to get a photograph without simply showing the objects and the relatively plain wall (compared to the others). From here, however, you walk straight into the bedroom.

A photograph of the table and chairs in the bedroom, set in the bay window area

Annie Russell-Cotes’ room, where she passed away, is a lot simpler than the others, thought there’s a lot of space to move freely. This room is the third with a bay window, and it’s situated at the far right end of the original house. Behind and to the right is where the bed is, and behind and centre is a dresser. Beside the dresser the door leads back to the mezzanine.

A photograph of the Mikado room

From here there’s just two more rooms: the Mikado room, above, and a small display room with one object for each letter of the alphabet. Highlights in that second room include a painting of a native New Zealander, a piece of a gown that belonged to Marie Antoinette, and a suit of Samurai armour.

A photograph of the entrance to the galleries

We go back downstairs and to the end of the hall that was behind me in the photograph. This leads to the 1909 extension.

Full of light and utterly different, the three rooms from here compose the gallery, where collections of artworks from a few artists adorn the walls, statues stand in glory, and, just like many galleries, there are lots of seats to sit on. The day I came to the Museum, an overcast day mid November (last week if you’re reading this at the time of posting) the twenty or so other visitors were all artists and most were sat making studies in these rooms. I’ve no idea if it was a one-off trip or if, like Virginia Woolf’s house, this place simply welcomes artists generally, but it was rather wonderful. It added to the relaxed atmosphere of the place – there’s no one route around the house; you wander at will.

A photograph of marble 'gateway' of the first gallery

The second gallery hosts more paintings and some decorative plates, and the third, a lot smaller, boasts a collection of tiles.

A photograph of marble 'gateway' of the first gallery

Looking around Russell-Cotes (for, apart from the garden which is a quick visit, we have reached the end of our tour) doesn’t take very long. If you’re the type to take in more of the whole than study in detail you can easily get round it in about an hour. A little longer if you want to stop in, on your way back, at the cafe. The detail-oriented will want to schedule at least double that time. There are parts of the house that I haven’t covered today – there are tours available at certain times that take you around areas that aren’t always open – that you may want to look into.

Owing to the period and style, access will be difficult if you struggle with walking or are in a wheelchair. The lift does allow a fair amount of access to the ground floor but getting around may be difficult – that is relevant to everyone.

A photograph of the painted glass ceiling in the hall

After I had been to Brighton Pavillion and again after Cardiff Castle, I wondered if anything could top those places. It’s been a few years since I visited them and I was starting to think that at least in Britain, finding a place that beat them would be hard. Well, they are both stunning, but in a great many ways, Russell-Cotes far surpasses anywhere I’ve ever been and, needless to say, it’s worth every moment.

 

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