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My Mum

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My darling Mum died in October 2017 after a short illness. Such stark words to describe so very enormous a loss. As she put it herself though, we all survive the most appalling things, things we cannot contemplate we shall ever be able to cope with, because that’s the nature of life. And, although I shall be writing more about her, I have primarily created this blog in order to be able to share one of Mums greatest passions – reading, and her wonderful library of much loved books, which I am surrounded by right now.

When Mum downsized into an apartment from the long term family home a couple of years ago, one of the hardest tasks she faced was culling her vast library. Like me, Mum regarded her books as being old friends – if she had kept the book, she would re-read it. A book deemed unworthy was promptly disposed of, those she loved most of all would have been read many times.

So the majority of the books I am now the fortunate custodian of are ones she could not bear to say goodbye to, alongside new treasures. And I am embarking on what will be a major mission, to read every one of them. For a second or third time in many cases, as we shared very similar tastes in literature; for the first time in others. I’m going to ‘review’ each one and post my thoughts on here. And if the book appeals to you, then please comment or message me, and it will become your book – I’ll post it to you at no cost to you. If you’d care to help me out with this, please hit the Shop Now button on the FB page and check out my little Etsy enterprise – no obligation at all though, as my greatest reward is that I’m pretty sure Mum would be delighted that the tales which gave her such pleasure are going to be bringing the same joy into other peoples lives.

I’m looking forward to this!

38. Henry VIII, King and Court by Alison Weir.

My second read of this rather wonderful book. Mum was an enthusiastic student of history, and I have a considerable quantity of histories and biographies to read through, sometimes as in this case for a second time – as a rule, she preferred modern history, but hey, these are the Tudors…who has not at some point been caught up in their glamour?

And, was this not one of the most tumultuous and exciting periods in history? The Tudor dynasty bridged the gap between the medieval world and the Renaissance, built the first Navy, created a new Church, and placed the little island of England as one of the primary power players on the world stage as new continents opened up. Whatever the rights and wrongs, no-one can deny the general splendour and magnificence of the story of the second Tudor monarch…nor his colourful marital life! A perfect subject for a TV series…or a book.

‘Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived’, was the rhyme I learnt at school to remember his six wives in the correct order, and in this book, you will find real insight into his relationships with the ladies concerned, their families and frailties, and, how bloody difficult it must have been to be married to this man, let alone to be one of his daughters! Don’t forget that not only is Ms Weir and eminent historian, but she is a woman. We see the famous Holbein portrait on the cover, but in its pages we meet the man himself, and the Court he surrounded himself with. Ms Weir has previously published a book about the six wives of Henry – in this volume, she focuses upon Henry himself.

As I write this, I must admit our current Prince Harry popped into my mind. Another second son, with the same name, the same red hair and, shall we say, buoyant temperament. The Tudor Prince Hal expected his older brother Arthur to inherit the throne, and was raised to be a Prince of the Church; all of which suddenly changed when his older brother died. As a young man he was, by all accounts, charming, funny, witty and talented – the nasty, suspicious side of him surfaced later, as he became fat, ill, and tormented by doubts and, possibly, remorse.

I really enjoyed this book, possibly more on the second read. It is not a ‘light’ read, but neither is it dry old history. It takes you into the court of a King who is possibly one of the best ‘known’ monarchs in history, and is particularly informative about the minutiae of Court life – what the servants were paid, what their jobs were, the status that various persons enjoyed, how Henry VIII went about daily life.

Mum has noted April 2003 as when she read this last – I have just finished it, and as always, it’s going to be gifted forward with her love, and mine.

One Year In…

Its been around a year since I began this delightful project. Thirty seven reviews and a lot of lovely new friends later, I feel so grateful!

The last month I have been very quiet, mainly due to the Christmas rush over at BeckyandVince, and then an all too brief whirlwind visit to my family in Australia over the Christmas school holiday. It was certainly a much needed break – as most of you know, I am a full time teaching assistant here in Somerset, as well as trying to build my small business.

It’s back to normal life again now though. As always, I find the darkness of the winter months a terrible trial; it’s not the cold that bothers me so much as the lack of daylight hours – the going to work in the dark and coming home in the dark. A major reason for moving to Australia all those years ago! But here I am again, and fortunately I have Mum’s books to transport me to different places and times whenever I can find time to lose myself in one!

I actually did a lot of reading while I was away – nothing like a 24 hour flight to chew through a few books – and I shall be posting reviews of them shortly. However, I do still have five that I have previously reviewed sitting here waiting for someone to claim them! The reviews are all here for you to read, and if you’d like Mum’s copy to add to your bookshelf, simply get in touch either here or through the Facebook page and I shall be delighted to post it to you at my expense – the whole idea of this project is to spread Mum’s love for the written word while freeing up space in my tiny cottage!

So, don’t be shy – I’d LOVE to hear from you! (And all the books are delivered with a free BeckyandVince thong bookmark…what are you waiting for!) These lovely books are all awaiting a new home……

Wishing each and every one of you a wonderful year ahead, I am so looking forward to sharing more of my darling Mums library with you all.

Much love, Becky XXXXX

37. ‘The Secret History’ by Donna Tartt.

The Secret History

I have enjoyed this weeks main read so much. I bought this copy for Mum, and another for myself, at Waterstone’s on Trafalgar Square in 2002 – we were so excited to finally read Ms. Tartt’s much acclaimed debut novel, first published ten years earlier.  And we were not disappointed – it’s magnificent. It still is, as a re-read.

Written by, in both Mum’s and my opinion, one of the most accomplished authors of modern times, this is a dramatic and compelling murder mystery, laced with references to ancient cultures and veering away from the usual sex drugs and rock n roll towards a far darker world. It tells the story of a small group of American college students, extremely clever but eccentric misfits who come under the influence of their charismatic Classics professor.

The opening lines of the prologue – ‘The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation’.

In the course of recreating a Bacchanalian rite, a man dies. Eventually, one of their own must be killed to maintain the secret. I’m really not giving away the plot telling you this, as we find all this out right from the start.  It is the brilliantly written drama of how, why, who, when that is the captivating heart of this novel, and which keeps you turning the pages, wanting to discover how they got to that point, and why.

The central narrator is Richard Papen, an outsider to begin with, coming from a bland, sun drenched Californian suburban environment to study at an old Vermont college, where he falls in with a tightly knit group of five rather unappealing, snooty, and deliberately ‘different’ Classics major students. They are obsessed with the ancient Greeks, in an elitist and unpleasant manner, flaunting the fact that they care little for modern life, funded by family money, and fuelled by whiskey. It’s set in the 1980’s and is a world away from the Wall Street type novels of that era, in the same way that the group of characters strives to be apart from the general blandness of 1980’s college life.

Richard is the only member of the group with no money, a fact he tries very hard to conceal. He only gains membership of the group through solving a Greek problem, and then spends most of his time trying to maintain his friendship with the group – it’s hard to see why sometimes, as most of them are seriously un-likeable, and behave with complete disregard for the feelings of others – a deliberately contrived element of the book that works brilliantly. During the 600 + pages we are led through both the before and the after of the murders, and I warn you now there are a lot of controversial topics; incest, homosexuality, and suicide attempts all feature. But we are led through them with such beautiful prose.

I have read this at least three times. It is a novel that cannot be read fast, occasionally, one has to just stop and breathe. I have read parts of it on a beach, but it is not what you’d call a beach read; it is deep, dark, and magnificently written. For me, it is the fragility of friendships and relationships with ones peers, and the need to be ‘more’ than them, (very Nietzsche), that ‘drives’ the book, and Ms. Tartt drives this one impeccably.

I shall be sorry to see this one go, but as always, should you like to add this marvellous debut novel to your own collection, please get in touch either here or on the Facebook page, and I shall be delighted to gift it forward to you, (with a BeckyandVince Signature book thong!) If you have never read it, a spot of good news for you is that Ms. Tartt has since written two more astonishing books, and unlike Mum and I, you won’t have to wait years for her to publish something else!

Here is an Amazon link for you to purchase a copy of your own if Mum’s has already been claimed…it is, in my humble opinion, a true classic, and not to be missed.

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36. ‘A Dark Adapted Eye’ by Barbara Vine.

Dark adaptation; a condition of vision brought about progressively by remaining in complete darkness for a considerable period, and characterised by progressive increase in retinal sensitivity. A dark adapted eye is an eye in which dark adaptation has taken place.

James Drever; A Dictionary of Psychology.

Barbara Vine, who of course is in fact the amazingly skilful Ruth Rendell, has built the most astonishingly complex novel from this concept, with characters and a plot that remain with you long after you have finally put down the book with a sigh of regret that it is finished. I had not read this one previously, and was delighted to find it during an attempt to find something else entirely – Mum and I both adored a good crime novel, especially one of the great British writers in the genre. P.D.James is a particular favourite of mine, and when she died a few years ago, I re read all her novels, most of which came off Mum’s bookshelves, but sadly it seems Mum got rid of them when she moved out of the house as there were none at the flat. However, this little gem of a novel remained, and I have to say I loved it!

It is a difficult novel to review in that almost anything I say about the characters will in some small way affect you, the readers, pleasure in uncovering the twists and turns yourself when reading it. It opens with a family arising in the morning and going about their business in the full and awful knowledge that their aunt and sister will die that morning – and continues to uncover the tangled skeins of lies and deceptions and desires that have led to this morning.

I found myself pondering the title, and the opening paragraph with which I have also opened this blog post, more and more as I progressed through the book. The relevance is clear; we can convince ourselves of almost anything if we think it and believe it and say it enough, and indeed this family live in a construct that is eventually astonishing, and certainly not what it initially appears to be. The conventionality of their lives is in fact underlaid by overwhelmingly passionate desires and feelings, afternoon tea and cake on a nicely laid table about to burst asunder with uncontrollably boiling sulphurous acid, and the author does a wonderful job of keeping the tea on the table while giving us, the reader, tantalising glimpses of what’s going on under the table.

I did find the first probably third of the book rather confusing at times, a lot of characters are introduced, but it is an enjoyable challenge keeping up with who is who and how they are related. As one progresses through the novel, all becomes clearer (sort of), and it’s apparent that this is a device the author has deliberately employed, it is in fact completely necessary to the plot.

One of the things I like the most about our great British female crime writers is the attention to detail, the trimmings as it were, with which they illustrate their work, and this novel is no different. It is set in post war austerity Britain in the 1950’s, pre contraception, pre womens rights…and I find myself again not wanting to say too much and give away the plot….it is written by a woman, about women, and most of all about an eventually lethal struggle between women, and it is magnificent.

In short, I thoroughly recommend this book! I have no idea when Mum read it as she has not initialled and dated this one inside the cover, but I’m fairly sure she bought it in the mid Nineties and read it immediately after visiting me in Australia as it contained an Australian bookmark, just the sort of thing Mum would have picked up while on holidays. It was a lovely treat to find that inside it, as well as the book itself.

As always, if you would like to add this superb thriller to your own book collection, please get in touch with me either here or on our Facebook page, whereupon I shall wrap it up securely in brown paper and string and post it to you as a gift with much love from both Mum and me. I am almost a year into this project now and enjoying it as much as ever, and I would like to add, I am so thrilled by the support you have all shown for it – thank you all!

Here’s an Amazon link if you have missed out on claiming this book but would like to purchase it, it’s only £3.99 on there, or of course you could pop into your local library for it, heaven knows our libraries need supporting or even more of them will close and what a dreadful thing that would be.

Lots of love, Becky XXX

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35. My Cousin Rachel’ by Daphne Du Maurier.

I first read this wonderful novel many years ago, and was absolutely delighted to find it amongst Mums books this week. Daphne Du Maurier is a thrilling author to read, especially for the first time, but in reading a second time I found just as much pleasure in this very powerful book, more so in many ways, I was a teenager the first time around – this time, I found the plot and character development, the complexities, and the emotions affected me on another level altogether. Basically, I devoured it during a bus ride up to London to renew my passport and finished it on the way back – simply couldn’t put it down!

Ms Du Maurier first published My Cousin Rachel in 1951 when she was at the height of her powers as a novelist. It is narrated in the voice of a young man, Philip Ashley, who has been brought up by his older cousin, Ambrose, in a purely male, very dogs and pipe smoking gruff landed gentry type of environment – there are not even any female staff on the estate, and the neighbouring ladies, the vicars wife and daughters for example, are treated with condescension. Although there is no actual time context, it is probably set around the end of the 19th or very early 20th century, definitely before motor vehicles or telephones. The use of the male voice is fascinating when one knows it is a woman writing, and it is done with skill – Ms Du Maurier conveys just the right level of pomposity and arrogance together with a wariness of women and their machinations – which devious and tangled web Ambrose becomes ensnared by in Italy. Philips reaction to the news that his cousin has succumbed to the charms of their cousin Rachel is one of shock and bafflement.

When Ambrose dies mysteriously, Philip is already right out of his comfort zone, travelling to Italy in response to a desperate and bewildering letter from him. He misses the funeral, and his cousin Rachel who has already left – he is told what happened by the Italian servants and Rachel’s ‘man of business’, the enigmatic and slippery Signor Rainaldi. Returning to the safety of his Cornish estate, by now convinced that Ambrose has been poisoned by Rachel, he is shocked to discover that she is on her way to Cornwall.

And now the novel begins to seriously twist and turn, as the older, very exotic and lovely Rachel begins to work her magic on him. From being certain that she is evil personified, he gradually falls under a fatal spell of attraction to her, and the tale of the seduction is told exquisitely – as the reader, we are almost led to believe we can see what she is up to, while poor Philip, completely unaccustomed to the company of a beautiful, intelligent and seductive woman, let alone sex, is soon in up to his neck and ready to hand over his entire inheritance. And then….. well, the plot thickens, and I really cannot say any more without ruining it for you!

The character of Rachel is multi faceted. Her small hands and exotic profile are mentioned often – her ability to charm everyone she meets, the fact that she has a ‘past’ – she has been married twice, miscarried a child, and almost certainly had lovers and lived a shall we say exciting life in Florence – all add seasoning to this seduction. Philips childhood friend, his godfathers daughter, Louise, can only watch in despair as he succumbs. One has to have a degree of sympathy for the character of Rachel – a woman alone with no independent means in those days would be relying on her wits, looks, anything she could use to secure her future. But one also has to feel a little sorry for Philip on whom the tables have been turned when he realises that a night of unbridled passion which he assumes means marriage is not how Rachel views it at all. Classic Du Maurier plot twisting, with a very strong feminist vein to it.

Seriously, this is a brilliant book, I think better and more complex than the more famous ‘Rebecca’ although I adore that too. I have Mums copy here ready to gift forward, so if you would like to add it to your collection, please get in touch either here or on the Facebook page, and I shall send it to you with love. In case after reading this, you’d like to read the book but Mums copy has already been claimed, here is an Amazon link for you to purchase a copy…or go to your library…either way, if you have not read this, do so! A fabulous, strong female writer at the height of her talent. Right up both Mums and my alley!

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34. ‘Shakespeare’ by Bill Bryson.

Shakespeare

It’s safe to say Mum loved this book as she has two copies of it; the first dated 2008, the second copy, 2011 and 2014….obviously Mum mislaid the first copy,  so she bought it again!

I too thoroughly enjoyed this. It is nowhere near as heavy going as many of the scholarly works that have been written about William Shakespeare – and there are certainly plenty of them – and rather than the plays, it focuses on the eternal mystery of who William Shakespeare the man really was. It is truly amazing how little we actually know about him! Even the three likenesses of him are probably wildly inaccurate, and there is virtually no information that we can rely on regarding his personal life, his relationships, what drove him and inspired him…and many theories that suggest he wasn’t in fact the genuine author of the work attributed to him!

The book is easy to read, and quite short, emphasising Mr Bryson’s assertion that we can know little of the man himself despite exhaustive research. It is remarkable that his works even survived,  for which we can thank his friends and colleagues, John Heminges and Henry Condell, who seven years after his death published the First Folio – about which there is a very entertaining chapter giving us a fascinating insight into the literary publishing world of the 16th century. In fact one of the best things about this book is the way Mr Bryson feeds us snippets about what everyday life in Elizabethan and Jacobean England was like – plagues, superstitions and sumptuary laws abound, together with the robust nature of the theatre, and its remarkable accessibility. Of particular interest are the passages about life in London at that time – Mum would have relished that greatly!

All fascinating stuff, and delivered with Mr. Bryson’s characteristically dry humour, backed up by a solid presentation of the very few solid facts we have, and a measured assessment of the theories that abound. I particularly enjoyed his final chapter in the book, ‘Claimants’, in which he discusses the varied propositions that William Shakespeare did not in fact write anything, including the wonderful story of the decidedly unstable Delia Bacon and her conviction that her namesake, Francis Bacon, was in fact the true author of his catalogue!

A great read, and I have two copies to gift forward if you would like to add this lovely little book to your collection – as always, please get in touch either through the Facebook page or here and I will be delighted to send you one. If you have missed out on one of Mum’s copies but would like to read this, here is a link to Amazon to purchase a copy for yourself…

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33. ‘Rubicon’ by Tom Holland, a guest review by Tom Gray.

It is a tired old trope, perhaps because of its enduring truth; history repeats itself. And drawing parallels between the late years of the Roman Republic and the modern United States is almost irresistible to anyone with an understanding of the period; the rise of populist demagogues, the increasing influence of a powerful military-complex, and the steady erosion of democratic ideals are all forces which precipitated the fall of the what at the time was the world’s greatest nation and democracy, and you don’t have to look hard for such trends in the political and cultural machinations of the current western superpower, the USA.

Understanding this history then, could be considered vital if we are to avoid repeating it. But condensing such a volatile, fractious history into an accessible and even enjoyable read is a task verging on the impossible. In Rubicon, Tom Holland does this spectacularly, by articulating centuries of history into a thoroughly entertaining read, and in doing so succeeds where many have failed before him.

As the name suggests, Rubicon begins with one of history’s most familiar scenes; Julius Caesars’ pause on the banks of the Rubicon, as he wrestled with a decision which would have vast and far reaching implications for him, his troops, and for the entire western political trajectory for the millennia to come; to march his troops on Rome and secure his political future.

Many adaptations of this moment and the events which followed, from Shakespeare to HBO, have centred on Julius Caesar, his march on Rome, and the civil wars that followed and eventually culminated in the death of the republic. But Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon did not happen in a vacuum; it was the culmination of almost a century of democratic decay, a period which is almost criminally neglected in popular history, a neglect which Rubicon addresses. The Italian wars of independence, the great rivalry between Sulla and Marius, Pompey’s conquest of the east and the Mithridatic Wars are just some of the fascinating events preceding Caesar, events which rarely get a mention in popular culture and adaptations (Colleen McCullough’s epic 7-volume Masters of Rome is a notable exception, and a must-read for Roman history buffs). This crime of omission is made doubly so by the fact that barely any other period or place in antiquity is so well documented.

Not so with Rubicon. Rubicon takes the reader back to the 2nd and 1st century Roman Republic, which had existed and prospered for centuries, and whose democratic, diplomatic and military institutions still shape the modern world. He explores the myriad pressures that gradually moulded the Roman psyche, which had for centuries abhorred the very notion of autocratic rule, and steered it towards dictatorship. He explores the demands of Italian nations’ for citizenship, and the civil conflicts that followed (and which would define Roman politics for decades to come).

The subtitle of this book is apt – the triumph and tragedy of the Roman republic – and indeed it is littered with both. The tragedies of Crassus in the deserts of Syria and Cato’s brutal suicide in North Africa, and the triumphs of Rome and her domination of the Mediterranean are explored in equal measure, as Tom Holland humanizes the countless fascinating characters who defined this period, from the populist demagogue Clodius to the patrician heavyweights Marius and Sulla, and the rivalries, hopes and dreams of ordinary men which shaped these events.

Perhaps the only criticism I can make of the book is that it ends so soon; leaving the periods that followed to other historians, many of whom sadly lack Mr Holland’s eloquence. Still, we can hardly blame him for that.