chestnut book blog

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The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch

I’m absolutely gripped by Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. I haven’t quite finished it, but felt the urge to tear myself away from it to update you. I know I’m a little late to this one. The gorgeous hardback version has been sat on my bedside table for approximately a year, too big to carry on the tube and too big to start properly in just a weekend. However, we had a long weekend in Wales last week and I took it with me. Since then, this huge brick of a book has gone everywhere with me (because, needless to say I could not finish it in three days), provoking sniggers at work and cries of “get yourself a kindle!”

From the first page, I was sucked into this remarkable story. The blurb on the back describes it as ‘Dickensian’ and I think that is not far from the mark. A whole cacophony of characters, from Park Avenue princesses to Bronx-born Ukrainian gangsters, stumble through the chapters, all wretched, lying and lonely. Boris in particular is one of the most vividly painted characters I have read about in a long time; a modern-day Artful Dodger, drug-addict, best friend, criminal and hopeless romantic. He is also gut-wrenchingly wise: ‘Sure – I did plenty of stupid things. Stupider than you! But me…I was trying to have fun and be happy. You wanted to be dead. It’s different.” Boris is still a bit of an enigma at the point I have reached, wise-cracking his way through a series of dodgy deals and betrayals, but I am desperate to know what happens to him.

And now to our hero; my heart is breaking for Theo Decker. Making all the wrong choices (so much so that I was literally reading through my fingers at points, unwilling to watch the car-crash, but compelled at the same time) but just a grieving, angry, sad, motherless boy who is starved of care, affection and love. There is a point in the book, after Theo has moved to Las Vegas, when he ruminates that his mother dying has meant that the only person in the world who loved him has gone. This touched a particular nerve with me. I used to work for a children’s charity and on my first day there, I was speaking to one of my new colleagues about the charity’s recent policy work and research. She told me that her most recent survey had shown that 90% of the children whom the charity worked with had never felt loved. That has never left me. I am not a mother, so I speak from an uninformed position, but it seems to me that the greatest gift you can give children is love. From love comes self-respect, self-worth, compassion and kindness and you desperately need all of those things to be a happy and decent human being. The Goldfinch is giving me many of these pauses for thought, a chance to dwell on or uncover my own opinions about loss, grief, survival, identity and fate.

So far, The Goldfinch is wonderful and incredible moving. I have about one-quarter of it to go. I hope it doesn’t let me down now…*

*I’ll be back to update this review when I have finished…at the rate I am going, probably at 3am tonight!


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Hello again!

Goodness, this little corner of the internet has been a bit quiet hasn’t it??

I thought a round-up of the things I’ve been getting up to over the last few months in the real world, to help explain my absence here, was in order before diving into some of the wonderful books I’ve escaped into this winter!

I am very lucky and travel relatively frequently for work. A lot of the time, it is less glamorous than it sounds – a litany of bland airports, hotel rooms and offices, with twinges of homesickness adding an extra little kick. However this Autumn, trips to Athens, Madrid and Paris were all magical in different ways.

Acropolis, Athens, Nov 14

Acropolis, Athens, Nov 14

I spent a week in Athens in November, escaping a grey and wet London for blue skies, lemon trees and balmy heat. In my time there, I managed to walk up to the Acropolis, explore the small streets with ruins around every corner and eat my body weight in succulent Greek salads (as well as doing some of my day job!). I hadn’t expected a lot of Athens, having heard stories of smog and political chaos. I arrived on November 17th, the date of a notorious yearly protest in Greece, and as my taxi fought through crowds and riot police, I was even more apprehensive and unsure. However, after that the culture, the people and the general friendly and calm atmosphere utterly charmed me. Not only will I be going back to Greece under my own steam again soon, but I will be building in an escape from November in the UK into my routine if I can.

In early December, I made a flying visit to Madrid which was again a lovely opportunity to soak up some sunshine, although the temperatures were just as cold as the UK. I have been to Madrid quite a few times now on business, and will continue to visit. I have yet to get under the skin of this city – my lack of Spanish not helping I am sure (why did I decide Latin was a better idea than Spanish or German at school???). I will keep trying though! This trip was the culmination of a large project at work, which had been taking a lot of my energy, leaving little left over for this blog – hence the neglect!

Finally, just before Christmas, I visited the City of Lights, Paris. At that time, still blissfully unaware of the tragic events that were due to unfold this January. The city more than lived up to its reputation for light! The Grand Palais and the Christmas markets on the Champs Elysees were stunningly illuminated and I spent a lovely evening wandering around. I also lost myself for some time in the lovely Parisian pharmacies, exploiting the lack of liquid restrictions on Eurostar to bring back lots of skin care goodies! This may be slightly heretical, but I do find it is a little tricky to find good food at restaurants in Paris when I go and again experienced very average meals whilst I was there. Any recommendations for good, central, inexpensive Parisian restaurants are welcomed!

Paris, Dec 14

Paris, Dec 14

If you are interested in my travels, I do tend to post pictures on Instagram so do follow me over there: @caro1ine_p

I then spent a quiet, family Christmas in Yorkshire. Chestnut the guinea pig came up with us and enjoyed lots of cuddles. She also got along quite well with Henry the Labrador, shown here below on his Boxing Day walk in Wass Woods!

Henry the Labrador, Wass Woods, North Yorkshire, 26th Dec 2014

Henry the Labrador, Wass Woods, North Yorkshire, 26th Dec 2014

In all of that time, I was kept company by a series of wonderful books. I loved Shogun by James Clavell. It was a favourite of my Grandad, who passed away last year, so he was very much in my mind as I read it. It was a pacey, swashbuckling adventure story with fascinating insights into Japanese culture and history. I was left longing to visit Japan and read more about its history. For Christmas, I received a book to accompany an interior decorating programme that I was addicted to in the autumn, the Great Interior Design Challenge. I enjoyed learning about design principles and techniques in a little more detail than I ever have before and there were lots of inspiring ideas that I’ll be using in future decorating projects. At the same time, I also read Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. Regular readers of this blog will know that I am very partial to a dystopia and this future world has a heavy dose of Shakespeare as well so I was in heaven! Whilst this is not on par with great dystiopian novels like those by Orwell and Atwood, it was enjoyable and though-provoking, on the nature of fame in particular. I started The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton after Station Eleven. I didn’t finish it. It is quite rare for me to give up on a book and perhaps I just wasn’t in the right mood…I enjoyed some of the prose but found the first quarter confusing, dull and lacking in good female characters (not to say that is a requisite for me, but it helps me to stick with books even if the subject matter doesn’t grab me!). I might go back to it one day, but based on the very mixed online reviews, I don’t think I am the only one that has given up! Have you read it? What did you think? Is it worth giving another go? Finally, I am no over half way through The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. I am absolutely gripped at the moment and hope to finish it this weekend, so a more in-depth review will follow.

It is nice to be back! I won’t leave it so long next time…


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Autumn: Five Favourite Things

Autumn is my favourite season, as you may already know if you’ve been reading my blog for a while. The winding down of the year and the run up to Christmas. It also encompasses one of my favourite nights of the year in the UK, the slightly eccentric Bonfire Night! Rather than associating Autumn with gloom and darkness though, I see it as a final flare of beauty from nature and a necessary period of patience before Spring can begin again.

Autumn leaves, courtesy of geograpy.org.uk

Autumn leaves, courtesy of geograpy.org.uk

My favourite things about the Autumn are:

Leaves

The leaves haven’t quite started turning here yet after a very long, warm summer, but it won’t be long. I love the rich reds, ambers and russets. Kicking leaves on the pavement and smelling the distinctive smokey, mossy aroma are both small joys on the way to and from home.

Open fires and wood-burners

I’m just getting over a cold and am revelling in my sense of smell returning. I can just about pick out wood smoke in the air on particularly cold days now. The by-laws in London to prevent smog mean that it is only when I go home to Yorkshire that I see a comforting little puff of smoke from most chimneys and smell the gorgeous woody scent

Stews, soups and crumbles

I was given a slow cooker years ago by my grandparents; every year it is brought out in October and pressed into service again. I love the routine of browning my meat, chopping bright vegetables and then returning later from a cold walk to the smell of a warming stew or casserole. For dessert, there is really only one choice for me in Autumn – crumble! Our lovely neighbours had a bumper year in their rhubarb patch, so my freezer is stocked with enough to see us through to February in rhubarb crumbles, my favourite!

Crisp walks

I will probably be on my own here but, whilst I enjoy warm, sunny days, I actually don’t like extreme heat. I could never live in a tropical country. What I do enjoy is a bright, sharp day where you shrug on your favourite cosy coat, gloves and ear-muffs and stride through the countryside with a slight frost still on the grass. I also enjoy winter snow, but as long as I don’t have to struggle through it to work!

Autumn television

I am watching less television the older I get, often preferring to pick up a book or read blogs online. However, I do have favourite programmes, the majority of which seem to be on in Autumn. Downton Abbey, Strictly Come Dancing and other new period dramas that seem to pepper the Autumn schedules mean that I am as happy as a clam most weekend evenings at this time of year.

What is your favourite season?


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Review: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

I read Burial Rites by Hannah Kent some time ago, in fact you may remember I was planning to take it on holiday with me. I read it by the ocean in Bar Harbour, Maine. We stayed in the beautiful Holbrook House B&B and the elegant guest lounge there saw me curled up with the enthralling Burial Rites for several hours at a time.

Holbrook House B&B, Bar Harbour, Maine

I first heard about Burial Rites from my husband’s Australian family. They live in Adelaide and have some loose connections to Hannah Kent. They were excited that an Australian author was making a splash in the UK, having seen posters for Burial Rites on the London Tube. I didn’t think too much more about it until browsing bookshops in May, planning my holiday reading list. I saw Burial Rites on one of the tables and picked it up. It described a novel set in Iceland in the early nineteenth century. Not what I was expecting at all. I have always been slightly fascinated by Icelandic sagas and the quotes on the blurb convinced me to take the plunge:

This compelling, ripped-from-real-life tale reminds me of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace.

A story of swirling sagas, poetry, bitterness, claustrophobia…holds an exhilaration that borders on the sublime

As a huge fan of Alias Grace and Margaret Atwood in general; that mixed with Icelandic sagas meant that I just couldn’t resist. I originally bought it just as a Kindle e-book, but loved it so much it has since joined my library in paperback.

Burial Rites is the story of the last women executed in Iceland, Agnes Magnusdottir. It is bleak, thoughtful, perplexing and utterly addictive. The writing is spare and intriguing. The landscape is as much of a character as the people, something which I really enjoy, having grown up with the Brontes. The descriptions of the bleak valleys, the lonely coast and the cramped, damp Icelandic dwellings, badstofas, are well drawn and haunting. The portrayal of Agnus is also sophisticated. It is a character exploration of a flawed human being in flawed circumstances. In her end note, Kent explains how she first heard about Agnes in an exchange trip to Iceland as a student and how she was keen to deliver a more ambiguous interpretation of Agnes Magnusdottir than the traditional monster (hence the comparisons to Alias Grace, another ambiguous murderess). Kent’s love of Iceland and meticulous research makes this a very unusual book. Kent is a year younger than I am and her talent fills me with admiration. You need to read this!


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A little book shopping…

Oh dear….a little bit of book shopping has just occurred!

A pile of new books


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Beautiful Book Covers

I thought I’d just take a minute to be shallow and appreciate books as beautiful objects, as well as for the stories they contain. Here are some of my favourites:

A guide to elegance

This simple, elegant cover really appeals to me. It is a perfect package for the chic and perfect world inside. It feels nostalgic and glamorous. Duck-egg blue is one of my favourite colours and I love the calligraphy. Sometimes text and words alone can be art, wouldn’t you agree?

The Snow Child

I think most people have a motif, symbol or doodle that they love. For some it is butterflies, some skulls, others hearts and so on. For me, it has always been leaves and branches and trees. Any book with trees on the cover therefore is bound to appeal to me but this one in particular, with its fairy tale whimsy, is special.

The Miniaturist

I spoke about this beauty last week. In general, my taste is for simplicity and clean lines, but I make exceptions! It is the rich detail and tones that make this book jacket unusual and impossible to resist in the book shop.

Howards End is on the Landing

Here is my old favourite! I originally had a paperback version but the spine was beginning to break, partly due to loving over-use and partly because the binding didn’t seem particularly good quality. I tracked down this hardback edition second-hand and haven’t looked back since. A book about books with beautiful book spines on the cover. What could be more perfect?

She-Wolves

I like a weighty history now and again. They often have interesting covers and She Wolves is one of my favourites. Based around the Holbein portrait of Queen Elizabeth, the golds and reds pop off the page. This is another example of where carefully considered detail can be as striking as simplicity.

The End of Your Life Book Club

I just love leaves, what can I say! The use of leaves as the border for this book’s title is simple and effective. The evocation of autumn in the colouring reflects the subject of this title, dying, subtly and elegantly.

It is not the most important thing about any book, but with so many wonderful reads to choose from, a beautiful, considered and intelligent cover is a key element of success. To me, this seems particularly important for a hardback. If I am going to make the investment in a hardback now, given that I can buy paperbacks for under £4 and have instant access to e-books, I want it to be a beautiful object that makes me happy when I see it on my bedside table, as well as delivering a great story.

Do you agree? What are your favourite book covers? I’d love to know.


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Favourite Scottish Authors

Iconic Eilean Donan Castle, taken on my last visit to Scotland in August 2014

Iconic Eilean Donan Castle, taken on my last visit to Scotland in August 2014

Well, it has been a tense week as we all watched the Scottish Independence referendum with bated breath. We were quite emotional in our household when the results came in. In delighted recognition that Scotland has decided to stay as part of the United Kingdom, I thought I’d share some of my favourite Scottish authors with you (I’m including writers who have lived in Scotland for a long time or had Scottish parents, as well as natural-born Scots).

JK Rowling

Perhaps I should be starting this list with Robert Burns, but the Scottish author who has touched me most is J K Rowling, through her wonderful Harry Potter series. One of the most famous women in the world, her journey to stardom is as fascinating and inspiring as her books. Not only did she re-engage a whole generation with the magic of reading, but her recent career moves (like the Robert Galbraith series) suggests that the future is bright for this talented Scot.

Alexander McCall Smith

Technically, McCall Smith was born in Africa, but as he now lives in Edinburgh, I think I can call him an honorary Scot and include him in this list.  His No 1 Ladies Detective Agency series is one of those collections of books that I turn to when I need a little more sunshine in my live. Easy to read but deeply felt, the adventures and misadventures of Precious Ramotswe are an utter joy.

Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson is a Yorkshire woman like myself, but now lives in Edinburgh. I have to confess that until recently, I didn’t particularly ‘get’ Atkinson’s novels. I had read Behind the Scenes at the Museum a few years ago and, although highly regarded by many, it just wasn’t my cup of tea. However, that all changed when I picked up Life after Life last Christmas (I was inspired by Cornflower’s excellent post). In my opinion, that book is a future classic, I adored it and feel in love with Atkinson’s style. Since then, I have been working my way through her back catalogue and wondering why I waited so long!

William Boyd

I am including William Boyd in this list because, although he has not lived in Scotland after his university years to my knowledge, he is the son of Scottish parents and was educated in Scotland. Any Human Heart introduced me to William Boyd and it is an underrated gem in my opinion. I’ve rarely read such an insightful and mesmerising catalogue of one flawed man’s life. I have a soft spot for journal or diary-style novels and this, along with The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte, is one of the best of the genre.

Sir Walter Scott

My personal favourite historic Scottish novelist is Sir Walter Scott. Ivanhoe has many faults, but I associate it with the romantic tales of my childhood, of Robin Hood, of the Saxons and Normans, dark forests and forbidding castles, of the Magna Carter and Richard the Lionheart. For that reason, I am very fond of it and I also like the way he illustrates the conflict between ideals and reality, a theme that is as relevant today as it was in the 1800s.  I keep intending to read more Scott…

There are many more Scottish authors that I have yet to try. On my iPhone notes  (do you do this, keep a wish list of books you’ve been meaning to read somewhere?) are Irvine Welsh and the poet George Mackay Brown among others. I also own an anthology of the work of Robert Burns which is lingering in my ‘to read’ pile. One day!

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