December 17, 2013

The Books of 2013

The dreamy comfort of the books and tea and sofa-ness in this photo has essentially not been my life for the past five months.  Early this year I purposed not to move through books at such a whirlwind pace, feeling that, while I did manage to read quite a bit during 2012, the list was oddly unsatisfying.  It was all very nice to have found five five-star books in a  year, but by December 2012 I felt out of breath and annoyed, and decided I would go into 2013 with a little more vision and purpose and All That.

Well, I don't suppose I really needed to purpose any such thing: college pretty much took care of the problem.  Oh, I toddled along well enough up until July - but after that the newness of the first semester at college swooped down on me and my fun-reading suffered accordingly.  However, I read what I read and that is better than nothing.

Goodreads says I've read thirty-seven books this year, but that doesn't count a few I was dragged through for the sake of a good grade.  Don't get me started on Writing Women's Worlds, for instance, which begins with terrible alliteration and goes on down from there.  However, I did find The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down a tolerable venture into the world of biomedical culture.  It is, in essence, the story of a Hmong refugee family, their epileptic daughter, and the clash between their culture and that of the California medical community - not a light bouncy sort of read, but somewhat like a medical thriller all the same.  (I sold it back to the bookstore all the same.)

History, as I mentioned in an earlier post, has had me racing between eras and nations and topics and not properly finishing much of anything.  Four chapters in Nicole Howard's The Book, a brief overview of book-making technology; five or so in The Ottoman Age of Exploration, an interesting look at the Ottomans' Indian Ocean venture of the 16th Century (if somewhat burdened by the author's propensity for qualifying all his remarks); bits and pieces of The St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, a collection of primary sources; and C.V. Wedgwood's A Coffin for King Charles/A King Condemned/The Trial and Execution of King Charles I - the only one I have actually been able to FINISH, and a pretty fair sketch of events (for a Royalist).  Possibly something else, too, but my head is so full of studying-for-the-exam that I can no longer think straight enough to be sure.

I have been able to relax with a few histories not directly related to the early modern period.  My first book of the year was Ben Macintyre's Operation Mincemeat, the fuller, more accurate history of the espionage venture from the film "The Man Who Never Was" - which is splendid because of its creepiness and because it has Stephen Boyd as an Irish agent.  Barbara Tuchman's The First Salute was another far-flung, not very well reasoned foray on my part; I remember little of its main point, and looking at my review, I find I wasn't actually sure of its main point when I finished reading it.  Oh well, Tuchman and all...

After that I confess I indulged my interest in Richard III for a while, picking up The Wars of the Roses, The Last Plantagenets, Historic Doubts on the Life and Reign of King Richard III (fun stuff, that), and, less historically, The Daughter of Time.  The latter was a kind of history lesson wrapped up in a pseudo-mystery, very influential in both genres and, I thought, not very enjoyable as a book.  The writing style was too insistent, the author too bent on bludgeoning.  I like Richard as much as the next sentimental gal, but goodness! no need to tie yourself in knots over it!

I was more successful with a few other mysteries.  I finally sat down and read The Woman in White: rather melodramatic, but oddly enjoyable in its melodrama.  I especially liked the rotation of narrators and the way it is set up like a court case, with each witness delivering his or her testimony in turn.  And then, similar only in being a classic mystery and full of Gothic flavor, there was Rebecca.  Disturbing, emotional, dark and incomplete - and fantastic.  Oh, I guessed the Big Plot Twist, but I don't mind that - it wasn't the point.  Rebecca was brilliant in its breathless, intimate, closed stream-of-consciousness style (and in having a completely nameless protagonist).  It turns mystery tropes on their heads and made me lose sleep.  I cannot for the life of me understand why writers are attempting to reinvent it or "pay homage" to it, for it isn't the sort of book that can very well be improved.

Death Comes to Pemberley was somewhat less rewarding, but that's partially my fault: I should have known better than to relax my strict views on classic adaptations.  However, I knew that P.D. James is an acknowledged mystery writer with a great deal of experience - not some young twerp with an over-inflated ego.  So I gave it a shot.  And, well, it was nothing to write to Longbourn about.  The thing about books that borrow characters is that no one will ever write those characters as well as the original author.

Over in the realm of classics, I feel I made some worthwhile progress.  I ventured into the world of Mr. Bertram Wooster and his man Jeeves, finally read To Kill a Mockingbird (and liked it), finished off the Bounty trilogy with Pitcairn's Island, and crawled through The Arabian Nights.  I don't think that was meant to be read in one chunk.  I did a little more work with Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Taming of the Shrew (!), The Comedy of Errors, and Henry VIII Which Was Long And Tedious.  I read The Black Arrow, which, alas, is not my favorite Stevenson, and which could really be classed with my Richard III binge.  Also, I finally read David Copperfield!  Hurrah hurrah!  Steerforth is no Carton, but I'll admit to getting a little sniffily over that part.

Encouraged in no uncertain terms by Mirriam, Jenny and I picked up The Grand Sophy over the summer and were soon in stitches.  I recently read Heyer's Why Shoot a Butler?, too, but I suspect I'm going to be fonder of her romances than of her mysteries.  We'll see after They Found Him Dead.  I'd like to get one of Heyer's historical novels and give it a whirl - sample some of each, as it were.

I didn't find many five-star books this year, but one I did "discover" was J.I. Packer's Knowing God.  Yes, I know, I should have read it before, and I intend to read it again.  Packer combines a no-nonsense air - typical, I think, of British practical theologians - with compassion for those struggling with realities of sin and justification and assurance.  His emphasis on the role of adoption in the life of the believer helped give me a new perspective on it, and renewed appreciation for the work of the Holy Spirit.  Rather harder to read but even more provocative was Lesslie Newbigin's Signs Amid the Rubble, a collection of lectures on the Kingdom of God and God's purposes playing out in human history.  What was it I said?  "I said something rather brilliant this morning before tea."
Sometimes I wondered if he wasn't pushing the edges of orthodoxy, and certainly I wouldn't recommend this book for a new believer; but taken as a whole, and not in fragments, I found him thoroughly solid. Besides, it is good to read writers who jar you and push at your foundations and pull you outside of your box and comfort zone. Newbigin was such a man, and his "Signs Amid the Rubble" is a book worth returning to. 

what made it into your "read" pile this year?

December 5, 2013

Betwixt and Between

I did not post in the whole month of November. I had good intentions, but of course we all know where they lead, so that doesn't count for much.  However, I seem to have just spent the last year on a plane, on a bus, on a train, in some rambling old place or in among gorse-covered crags.  Motion, motion, motion!  I practically need a vacation to recover from my vacation.  That said -

folks, I went to SCOTLAND.

Little-bitty me, who has never been anywhere much, has sat on a plane (six, actually) and crossed the Pond and trekked around in a foreign country for ten days.  It is not, admittedly, comparable to Jenny's three months, but it is still a world beyond anything I have ever done before and it was absolutely fantastic.  Except the bit where I caught a cold.  But never mind about that.

We made our headquarters in Glasgow for this trip: a big city, by my reckoning, which is not much of a reckoning at all.  From here we took various modes of transportation to a smattering of sites, or just rambled through Glasgow itself when we wanted a more leisurely day.  We didn't get to see everything we had planned, of course, but our handpicked few were topnotch: Stirling Castle first, then Edinburgh Castle and Arthur's Seat, then Linlithgow Palace.  

It was almost unfortunate that we went to Stirling first: it spoiled us for the rest of the trip.  The castle seems to rise naturally out of the old volcanic rock, and perches splendidly over the town that lies in the valley below.  The day we went was cold, and foggy at first, so that when we stood on the wall in Queen Anne's Garden, we were looking out over a white sea that stretched all the way to the hills on the horizon; William Wallace's monument rose up out of it like an island.  Later on, though, the sun came up and the fog burned off, and then everything was frosty and glorious.  

The castle itself was amazing.  It has been mostly left alone, which is the way my family likes things.  There were very few roped-off places, only a few careless signs informing us that there were "sheer drop offs" ahead and depicting stick people falling off them.  For the Scots, I guess not killing yourself through stupidity is a matter of common sense.  Anyhow, while some of the interior was a bit made-up and stilted, the ramparts and grounds were raw and old.

After Stirling, Edinburgh Castle was a bit of a let-down.  It has been far more commercialized, being in the capital city as it is; there were also a lot more screaming children whose interest was, I suspect, extremely small.  More areas were roped off and the setting itself was less magnificent; tellingly, I was looking for a photo to post and found none of particular interest from the Castle.  We did get to see the Honours of Scotland and the Stone of Scone (we then went home and watched "Stone of Destiny" to get the highly accurate and not at all embellished story of its recovery), but they draw and quarter you if you bring a camera in.

We then scootched four miles or so through the city in a roundabout manner to reach Holyrood Park.  This was the spectacular part of the Edinburgh excursion: the Salisbury Crags and Arthur's Seat. 

The daylight was fading - it gets dark around 3:30 at this time of year - and we aren't athletic, so we didn't make it to the top.  The view we had, though, was spectacular.

That night I dreamed about hiding in the gorse.  Combination of Arthur's Seat and Kidnapped, I daresay.

Linlithgow was a world apart from both Stirling and Edinburgh, partially because it was built as a palace and not so much as a fortress, partially because it was pretty thoroughly burned after The Forty-Five.  The floors and the roof are gone, though you can still climb the spiral staircases in the corner towers and walk through the chapel and the royal apartments. 

There seemed to be little of the palace worth seeing when we first entered the courtyard: a fountain, four burnt walls, four burnt towers.  As we moved further in, though, the rooms began to unfold.  Every time we started up a new tower, we had no idea where it would take us; I got completely turned around, and it was dizzying to suddenly find that I had come back down another staircase and was reentering the courtyard from some new angle.  As to that, the staircases themselves were dizzying.  I don't have a very good head for heights (I found that out with greater clarity on this trip), and as all but perhaps two stairways lacked handrails, I practically crawled up with my hand on the outer wall at all times.  I didn't make it to the top; I left it to others to get photos.

See the greenish-blue figure on the bench toward the right?  That's yours truly.  ("I'd stay on firm ground and let them dare away!")

They say the palace is haunted by the ghost of Mary of Guise.  Well, I don't know about that, but if it isn't haunted, then it ought to be.  A ghost would find a very pleasant, if somewhat noisy, home in Linlithgow.

Of course there is more to the trip than these four places.  We did a deal of walking through Glasgow itself, shopping or visiting the Necropolis, and we also ate extremely well.  (If you ever get the chance to go, I strongly advise you to visit Burger Meats Bun: best. hamburgers. ever.)  We packed the vacation full, since ten days is really not long at all when you factor in twenty-four hours for travel to and from, but they were also oddly leisurely.  We saw the sites and still had time for a round game of whist come evening.  Hearts, Mr. Collins - hearts.

I must admit one complaint, however.  We saw a great deal of history and a great deal of scenery, but though I looked, I never did see Alan Breck. 

Well, phooey.

meet the authoress
I am a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, scribbling from my home in the United States. More importantly, I am a Christian, which flavors everything I write. My debut novel, "The Soldier's Cross," was published by Ambassador Intl. in 2010.
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published writings

The Soldier's Cross: Set in the early 15th Century, this is the story of an English girl's journey to find her brother's cross pendant, lost at the Battle of Agincourt, and of her search for peace in the chaotic world of the Middle Ages.
finished writings

Tempus Regina:Hurled back in time and caught in the worlds of ages past, a Victorian woman finds herself called out with the title of the time queen. The death of one legend and the birth of another rest on her shoulders - but far weightier than both is her duty to the brother she left alone in her own era. Querying.
currently writing

Wordcrafter: "One man in a thousand, Solomon says / will stick more close than a brother. / And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days / if you find him before the other." Justin King unwittingly plunges into one such friendship the day he lets a stranger come in from the cold. Wordcount: 124,000 words

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