Saturday 30 July 2022

Away with the Penguins - Hazel Prior

So my 12th. book for the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge is Away with the Penguins by Hazel Prior. I decided that quite a few of my choices this year would be travelling or holiday type books and this is about a journey that's as far south as you can go without actually finding yourself on the Antarctic continent.

Veronica McCreedy is eighty-five and lives alone in a mansion on the Scottish coast. A woman comes in to 'do' for her but basically Veronica's existance is a lonely one. She drinks a lot of tea, is obsessive about doors being closed and likes to watch wildlife documentaries. She also has a lot of money. As in 'millions'. Who or what to leave it to? Her only son has died and as far as she knows there were no children. But were there? She decides to check. And gets something of a shock. 

Watching another wildlife documentary one evening, this one from an island in the Antarctic ocean, Veronica is overcome with sympathy for the plight of the Adélie penguins on said island. There's a scientific research base there where three scientists are living, studying these fascinating birds. An idea occurs to Veronica, she could go there to see if this would be a good project to leave some money to. As might be expected the scientists are not crazy about the idea of an eighty-five year old woman landing herself on them. In fact they're decidedly 'un'crazy to the point of being hostile. But Veronica McCreedy is a woman used to getting her own way...

Well, I know I love armchair travelling but this Antarctic adventure is a departure even for me. Locket Island where most of the book is set does not exist but we've all seen documentaries of penguins on these islands in Antarctica so it's very easy to picture it in your mind. I enjoyed all the penguin details and Patrick, the baby penguin, that is fostered is very cute.

Veronica is no sweet old lady character. She's cranky and obstinate and very used to getting her own way. You can't help but admire her but she does go through some character progression, learning quite a lot along the way. Plus, there are reasons why she is like she is and these are slowly revealed in the form of a diary. So in a way this is a bit of dual-timeline story.

The scientists on the station are a mixed bunch, nice and not-so-nice so this is not a sacharine-sweet tale. And there's real life in this book especially back in the UK and in Veronica's history. (I'm trying to avoid spoilers.) All in all, this was a very enjoyable read for me. The setting was a real departure, as was its wild-life theme, and I loved the fact that the main protagonist was a very elderly, cranky old lady. 

I assumed this was a standalone and then discovered that it's not! There's a sequel, Call of the Penguins, which, needless to say, I've already bought for my Kindle.

Monday 25 July 2022

Jane Austen July

So, as I mentioned in my previous post, it's Jane Austen July on Booktube. And, although I'm not someone who has a Booktube (it's a corner of Youtube) channel, I do enjoy watching bookish videos and just thought I might read along for the ride. I'm not doing the prompts, just picking up a few Austen themed books to read this month. 

The first book I read was Miss Austen by Gill Hornby.

So one would automatically assume that the 'Miss' referred to in Miss Austen is 'Jane'? Not so, it's Cassandra, Jane's older sister. There was about 2 years between the sisters and it's no exaggeration to say that they were devoted to one another. Which is why we find, in this novel, Cassandra Austen arriving at a relative's house to clandestinely find the letters her sister wrote to the mother of the family. They were huge letter writers in those days (the book is set in 1840) and people put all sorts of sensitive information or opinions in said letters. Cassandra feels the need to check and remove anything that might cast her sister, Jane, in a bad light. She eventually finds them but of course they evoke memories and feelings she thought long buried. I know this is fiction based on loose fact but my goodness it reads just like an excellent memoir. It is 'delightful'. You meet members of the Austen family, various relatives and friends, families they were close to and so on. I get did a bit a confused about who was related to whom, but there's an excellent guide at the beginning to refer back to and I was glad I own an actual hardback as it's not so easy to do that on a Kindle. What this book made me realise is that I don't know enough about Jane Austen's life and it made me hungry for more. It also underlined the plight of unmarried women back in those days, how reliant they were on the charity of relatives and how they sometimes had to manipulate said relatives into helping them. It felt heartbreaking to me and reminded me of the plight of Mary Bennet in The Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow. I'm interested and involved now and although it's Jane Austen 'July' I plan to carry this on into August, September etc. I have a long list of books to look into, both non-fiction and fiction and even 'crime' fiction! 

So there are a couple of Austen books I've never read and one of them is Mansfield Park. I have seen one of the TV dramas but it couldn't have sunk in because I didn't remember an awful lot about it. 

So this is the story of Fanny Price. At the tender age of nine Fanny is removed from her large, unruly family in Portsmouth to go and live with relatives, the Bertrams, in Mansfield Park which, if memory serves, was in Berkshire, though I could stand to be corrected on that. She is understandably knocked for six by this, her being a small, reserved little girl. The immediate family, aunt and uncle, two male cousins and two female, basically ignore her, although they're not exactly cruel. Edmund, the second son, is always kind to her though and thus, as she grows, Fanny falls in love with him. The novel revolves around events that evolve when Fanny is eighteen. The overbearing uncle goes off to the West Indies leaving the house in the charge of his indolent wife and her rather spiteful, self-absorbed sister. A brother and sister come to stay in the local vicarage, Henry and Mary Crawford, and these two people have a massive influence on subsequent events, in particular, Fanny's rather narrow life but also three of the Bertram brothers and sisters. So I finished this almost a week ago and it's still in my head. You might deduce from that that I loved it? I didn't, in fact. I was fascinated by it, very involved in the lives of the characters, always glad to get back to the book, but there were things I didn't like. I thought it was far too rambly, diatribes on this and that, usually from Edmund on the imperfections of other people's characters. For the life of me I couldn't understand why both Fanny and Mary Crawford wanted him so much. I think the reason it's still in my head is that Austen made these people so 'real'. The vicious Aunt Norris was truly awful, especially to Fanny, the indolent Aunt Bertam 'so' annoyingly uninvolved in anything but her own comfort, Henry and Mary Crawford, so close to being decent people but you just know there's something not quite right about them. As regards Fanny, I wished constantly that she had a bit more go in her, I found her ever so slightly prissy if I'm honest. And Edmund, like I said, I couldn't quite work out why Fanny and Mary worshipped him. Each to his own I suppose. I gave Mansfield Park a four on Goodreads but it's possible in months to come I may wish I'd given it a five because it really is quite a powerful novel and the fact that I'm so ambivilent and thoughtful about it probably means it hit its mark with me. It's a 4.5 really.

As I said, I've a huge list of off-shoot novels or non-fiction I now want to read and have just started this non-fiction book by Amy Elizabeth Smith.


This is a travel memoir where the author travels around Latin America setting up book clubs to discuss Jane Austen books. She wants to know whether the phenomenon that exists in Europe, the USA, Australia etc. whereby people adore Austen's characters will transfer to Spanish speaking America.

Someone commented on Youtube that no other classic author has inspired so much off-shoot fiction and non-fiction as Jane Austen and when I thought about it I realised it was true. How interesting is that? And fun?

Thursday 21 July 2022

A bit AWOL

I've been a little AWOL recently, so apologies if I haven't been around commenting on posts quite as much. My husband went down with another dose of pneumonia about 10 days ago, the previous one being in June 2020. I wanted to keep him out of hospital as Covid cases are on the rise here and there are more people in hospital with it, but it wasn't to be and he went in for 3 days. This time we were able to visit so that made a difference but like a lot of people he's always really miserable in hospital. Anyway, he came home yesterday, is very fragile, but much happier now that he's home in his own bed and with home cooked food. All I need to do now is build his strength back up, not that easy when he's on antibiotics that are almost worse than the illness.

I've been reading, but not reviewing. I will get to it. I've been joining in a little with Jane Austen July which originated in the bookish corner of Youtube, lot of fun stuff on there. So I've read, Miss Austen by Gill Hornby which was utterly delightful and then Mansfield Park by Jane Austen herself. I didn't like it as much as Pride and Prejudice or Emma but it was incredibly interesting, if rather long-winded, and I'm having difficulty getting the characters out of my head, so it certainly must've made an impression! 

And now I'm reading this:


It's book 6 in the series and like all the rest it's huge fun and just what I need at the moment. It's also my book 10 for the summer reading challenge which is coming along quite nicely.

I hope you're all well and finding some excellent books to read.

Monday 11 July 2022

I've been reading...

There're a few books I didn't review last month and I didn't do a June wrap-up because of lack of time so I'll just do a general post about what I've been reading recently.

Several books from June that I didn't review:

A Very English Murder by Verity Bright. Unconventional Eleanor Swift is back in England after travelling the world, her uncle has died, she's inherited everything and is now 'Lady' Eleanor. But things go rather pear-shaped when she witnesses a murder one night. There's no body, the police don't believe her, so she and the house bulldog, Gladstone, set about solving the mystery. Really enjoyed this one, fun characters, good mystery, it reminded me a little bit of T.E. Kinsey's Lady Hardcastle series.

Death Goes on Skis by Nancy Spain. This, as the title suggests, is a skiing holiday murder mystery. It involves a lot of rich people having affairs and killing each other off and at times I couldn't make head or tail of it. Wasn't keen on the writing style either, too many short, abrupt sentences. Shame, as with the gorgeous cover it has I really wanted to love it. Oh, well.

Married to Bhutan by Linda Leaming was a non-fiction account of the American author who was somehow drawn to the small Himalayan country of Bhutan. She moves there to teach, meets a lovely Buddhist chap who believes they were destined to meet, and marries him. Quite an interesting read and gave me a good flavour of a country you hear very little about. 

Into July now:

The Camino: A Pilgrimage of Courage by Shirley MacLaine. The famous actor walks the Santiago Camino pilgrimage trail in Northern Spain. I've read a few accounts of people who've done this and also watched a doc. on TV. Hmm. Hard to say what I thought. The walking stuff and bits about the people she met were fine. But there's a huge amount of odd rambling about visions. Now I'm very open-minded but this was a bit much even for me. 

Traitor King by Andrew Lownie.

I didn't realise it before I read it but this is actually based on a TV doc. of the same name, which I watched, so that accounts for why it was all so familiar! It starts with Edward VIII's abdication in order that he could marry Wallis Simpson, and the subsequent political furore it caused. Wallis had strong connections to Von Ribbentrop, minister of foreign affairs in Adolf Hitler's government and was rumoured to have had an ongoing affair with him.  The pair did a tour of Germany before the war and were strongly rumoured to be Nazi sympathisers. It was thought there was a plan to reinstall Edward as king if the Germans ever invaded and conquered the UK. All very interesting but I struggled to get to the end. I don't know why, I think perhaps it was all a bit dry, not written in way that engaged me. I think others might feel differently and looking at Goodreads a lot do but there're also a few who found it as dry as me. I would like to read more on this subject though, as it's fascinating, so I'll look to see what else has been written.


Finally, The Mysterious Mr. Quin by Agatha Christie. I read this for the 'short story' category for the Back to the Classics challenge (in which I am not doing very well at all!)

The Mr. Quin in the title is rather a mysterious figure. He appears to elderly Mr. Satterthwaite every so often because he's a noticing sort of a man and tends to be on the spot quite often when some kind of tragedy is imminent. He jogs Satterthwaite's memory about things or makes him look at events from a different perspective. There are 12 stories in this volume, often involving country house weekends or jaunts to the south of France. People are not what they seem or suffering from broken hearts or there is some wierdness such as an artist painting Mr. Quin whom he's never met. Favourite stories include, The Man From the Sea, The Dead Harlequin, At the Bells and Motley, The Bird with the Broken Wing, The World's End. I planned to put this in the charity shop box when I'd read it but I can't, it was too good. The stories are very character driven and so beautifully written I was reminded of collections I'd read and loved by Dorothy L. Sayers and the G.K. Chesterton Father Brown tales. Both of these wrote a few stories with a supernatural bent and this anthology fits in so well with those. Beautifully written, I gave it four stars on Goodreads and am now thinking I was a bit mean and it should've been five. 

'For the rest, she was a rather shabby-looking old lady, a good deal given to black bead trimmings on her clothes. She had quantities of diamonds in old-fashioned settings, and she wore them as her mother before her had worn them: pinned all over her indiscriminantly. Someone had suggested once that the Duchess stood in the middle of the room whilst her maid flung brooches at her haphazard.'


Friday 8 July 2022

A book haul!

I seem to have been AWOL for a little while, not for any particular reason but one 'good' reason was that I had a brief visit from Constance at Staircase Wit. She was in London for most of the month of June and just before she flew home she came to visit us for her final weekend. We took off for Cornwall on the Saturday for what was very much a flying visit but we still managed to see St. Ives and Fowey and two lovely bookshops therein. My phone played Silly B*****s all weekend so I still have to look and see what I have but I thought I would do a bookhaul post (photos from my tablet) in the meantime. 

The two bookshops we visited were The St. Ives Bookseller and  Shrew Books in Fowey. We found both to be delightful with a good choice of books and friendly staff. 

So, books hauled last weekend. 

From the top:

Rebbecca by Daphne Du Maurier needs no explanation from me. I've wanted to reread this for years, in fact I think I've only read it once, in my teens. Constance and I thought we might try to get a look at Menabily while we were in Fowey but despite a lovely walk from the car park to the beach the house is not visible. 

Vesper Flights by Helen MacDonald, the author of H is for Hawk. This book is an anthology of essays by her.

The Women of Troy by Pat Barker is the second in the author's proposed trilogy of the same name.

The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex is a novel about the disapearance of three lighthouse keepers from a lighthouse off the Cornish coast.

Outlandish by Nick Hunt is a non-fiction book about walking places in Europe which are odd and shouldn't be there. Right up my street of course.

The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley sounded good and Constance recommended it, so I grabbed it!

The second pile. From the bottom:

The Pink House by Pip Benveniste was a charity shop grab and is about a childhood in Newlyn, Cornwall.

The final three are books Constance brought with her for me that she'd read and didn't want to haul back to the US. 

The Last Bookshop in London by Madeline Martin is a novel about working in a bookshop in London in WW2.

The Stranger by Kate Riordan is another WW2 novel set in Cornwall.

From a Distance by Raffaella Barker is a double timeline story set just after WW2 and in the present time in Cornwall and Norfolk.

And some of these have the loveliest covers!

And The Lamplighters has this wonderful painted edge showing birds in flight. I gather this sort of thing is really popular now.

So that was my lovely bookish weekend with Constance, and you'll be pleased to know there was also a lot of icecream and Cornish pasties involved. And endless bookish chat of course.