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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!


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…


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

Autumn leaves, courtesy of

My favourite things about the Autumn are:


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!


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?


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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The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton


The Miniaturist has one of the most strikingly beautiful covers I’ve seen for a long time, so much so that I was compelled to buy the hardback version. The edition I bought also came with a matching bookmark which pleased me greatly! Small things!  The strap line, ‘there is nothing is hidden that will not be revealed’ was also irresistible and extremely good marketing!

This is the story of Petronella Oortman and her beautiful miniature replica of her home in 17th Century Amsterdam. Nella arrives in the city, aged eighteen, and recently married to a much older man whom she barely knows. She starts to explore Amsterdam and the strange household she has joined, but complex secrets are waiting to overcome everyone in it. At the centre of everything stands her miniature house, a wedding gift, that may be the answer to some of the secrets or perhaps just the start of the gathering shadows. I was utterly gripped by Nella’s story; embarrassingly and annoyingly I actually missed my train stop home because I was so engrossed! The writing is beautiful and the premise, of the doll’s house echoing life, was deeply appealing.

However, just a few pages from the end, it all started to go a bit wrong for me. The last pages felt rushed and unsatisfying. I usually enjoy a few tantalising loose ends at the end of stories, but in this case there were just too many to work in my opinion. It was less tantalising and more just messy. It is such a shame, because otherwise it was wonderful and had such promise. I understand that there was a bidding war for this book, which up until the last few pages I can completely understand. Ultimately though, the strap line did not fulfil its promises as there was still an awful lot not revealed! Have you read The Miniaturist? Did you agree about the loose ends?

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A New England holiday

Earlier this summer, I had the good fortune to spend a few weeks in America. We started in Boston and then made our way around New England, stopping in New Hampshire and Maine respectively. We had a wonderful time and met up with friends along the way (thank you to Katie for meeting us for lunch in Boston!). I thought I’d share a few highlights, literary and otherwise, with you here.

1. Louisa May Alcott’s house

I think that, whatever your nationality, Alcott’s classic Little Women has something to say to you. All my female friends name this as one of their favourite childhood books and, as we were planning our trip to the USA, I knew I couldn’t go to New England without seeing the house where Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women.

Orchard House, the home of the late Louisa May Alcott

Orchard House, home of the late Louisa May Alcott

Orchard House itself was fascinating, not only because the belongings and paintings of the family have been preserved, but also because these old clapboard New England houses are so different from anything in the UK. I was looking round with wonder at both the personal history and the architecture, marvelling at how a seemingly fragile wooden home could withstand the notoriously harsh New England winters. The intellectual curiosity, supportiveness and diligence of the Alcott family was very much in evidence, from the thoughtfully carved door frames (on an angle so they automatically shut behind someone entering the room) and Louisa’s handmade desk, to the encouragement of May’s (Louisa’s younger sister, the model for Amy in Little Women) art work on many surfaces around the home. We were shown round the house by a very knowledgeable guide who was very patient with all our questions! Towards the end of the tour, she pointed out a quilt on one of the beds, explaining that it is thought that the pattern may have been a coded message that this house was part of the underground railroad. Although this cannot, or rather has not, been proven beyond doubt, it did felt very much within the spirit of this home and the enlightened people that lived here.

2. Concord and Waldon Pond

After visiting Orchard House, we made our way into Concord. I was excited to see this historic small town and I was not disappointed. It was extremely quaint and we had a delicious lunch at the local deli cum restaurant. From there we drove a short distance to Waldon Pond. The weather was stunning and we walked round the lake slowly, taking in the scenery, listening to the gentle ‘twacks’ of swimmers in the water and examining the touching memorial to Thoreau’s cabin.

Waldon Pond

Waldon Pond


Thoreau's Cabin

Thoreau’s Cabin

3. Cape Cod

Sandwich, Cape Cod

Sandwich, Cape Cod

Many apologies if this is your home, but I just had to take a picture as it summed up the beautiful and serene Sandwich on Cape Cod. We spend an afternoon browsing in antique shops (fascinating for me as the goods and shops themselves are so different to antique shops in the UK) and taking in the beautiful scenery. I felt like I was on a film set all afternoon; it was such a perfect slice of New England.

4. Baseball

I was a little sceptical when my husband booked tickets to see the Boston Red Sox. I was imagining an atmosphere like a football match here in England, masculine, aggressive and not my cup of tea at all. I was very pleasantly surprised though and had a wonderful evening at Fenway Park. We indulged in hotdogs and pretzels, bought some genuine red socks for my Dad and brother (they were delighted with them!)  and sang our hearts out to ‘Sweet Caroline’! Amazing!

Boston Red Sox vs Minnesota Twins, Fenway Park

Boston Red Sox vs Minnesota Twins, Fenway Park

5. The White Mountains

The scenery in New Hampshire was beautiful and very big; big sky, big trees, big everything. We took a historic train ride and the views were spectacular. To my surprise, this was probably my favourite part of our trip if forced to choose. Historic Boston, Salem and Concord had all been beautiful and fascinating and the Maine lobster couldn’t be beaten, but New Hampshire felt both more ‘real’ and good for my soul somehow, if that is not too fanciful!

View from the North Conway Historic Railroad

View from the North Conway Historic Railroad

6. The Big Chicken Barn

Whilst I went in to many great bookshops during our New England tour, the best undoubtably was The Big Chicken Barn just outside Ellsworth, Maine. A huge old chicken shed by the side of the road (mercifully no longer smelling of chickens!) had been converted into the biggest antique and secondhand bookshop I’ve ever seen. I could have spent a fortune and a week in there (in fact, I still spent a pretty long time in there – my husband went for a nap in the car whilst I fell down the book and antique rabbit hole!). In the end, I decided that I would only purchase things that I wouldn’t be able to find at home, and so came away with a companion to American Literature, a book from the 1930s on the history of quilting (the Alcott quilt inspired me!), some embroidered napkins, a pair of porcelain Spode candlesticks with a ‘Salem’ pattern, an old American cookery book and an American first edition of Christina Rossetti’s poems. As I struggled to the car with my purchases, my weary husband informed me that I was going to be in trouble when we went over our luggage allowance!

A few paragraphs can’t do justice to all the things we saw and learnt during our time in New England, but hopefully this has given you a flavour of the highlights and will maybe inspire a trip of your own!


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My ten most influential / inspiring books

A little Facebook meme has been keeping me and my friendship group amused recently. We’ve all ‘tagged’ to write a list of the ten books that have most influenced / inspired us. I thought I’d share mine here to hopefully inspire a few more recommendations and inspirations!

1. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
The first time I read this book, the world looked a little bit different after I had finished it. I have read this book countless times now and every time I love it a little bit more.

2. Anne of Green Gables by L M Montgomery
My favourite childhood series and I have a very soft spot for the red headed orphan to this day.

3. Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill
* I wrote a little explanation below for my friends on this one, but if you are a regular here, you’ll know how much I love this one already!

Am I allowed non-fiction? This book is virtually unknown, but I turn to it every time I need a comfort read. It describes the author just reading from her own library for a year, without buying any new books. She discovers old favourites, remembers the authors she has met and the stories around her books. In the end she complies her list of 50 essential books…fascinating and inspiring.

4. The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
Not as well-known perhaps as The Age of Innocence (which is also one of my favourites) but Lily Bart’s story broke my heart. Beautifully written.

5. The Lord of the Rings by J R R Tolkien
My Dad’s favourite book and so I absorbed this from the cradle upwards! A masterpiece.

6. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
Just how did a woman who had barely left a Yorkshire parsonage imagine a man like Heathcliff??

7. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
As a Yorkshire woman, I feel I am allowed two Brontes on my list. This was the first classic I read around the age of ten or eleven and so it has a special place in my heart. I have a quote from Jane Eyre engraved on one of my favourite bracelets: ‘I am no bird, and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will’ …just to remind me!

8. Othello, Shakespeare
Does a play count? I really struggled whether to choose Othello or Macbeth, but went for Othello as I don’t think anyone understands or describes human beings better than Shakespeare and all his genius is displayed in Othello. Having studied both at school and seen them many times, I can quote from them copiously!

9. Atonement by Ian McEwan
The ending astonished me. I couldn’t stop thinking about it for weeks after I had read it. A modern classic.

10. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Opened my eyes in so many ways.

I apologise to all the wonderful books that I have forgotten to mention, but this was the list that came to me on Tuesday night. My friends’ lists contained some other wonderful recommendations that I have never read: I’ve added the The Deptford Mice trilogy by Robin Jarvis and Shogun by James Clavell to my wish list! What would be on your list? I’d love to know.


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Last days of summer

I distinctly noticed a slight change in the air this morning and I think it means that Autumn is on its way. We escaped for a last-minute summer break to Scotland last week and I had a blissful time…this picture pretty much sums it up!

Relaxing by the loch, Highlands, Scotland

Relaxing by the loch, Highlands, Scotland

Normal service will now be resumed after a very busy summer so expect this little corner of the internet to be a lot more active from now on.

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Virginia Woolf at the National Portrait Gallery

A few weeks ago, my friend Cristina and I met after work and spent a blissful evening wandering around the Virginia Woolf exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. Evenings like that are one of my favourite things about living in London…it is like the opportunity to dive into a different world for a few hours.

The exhibition itself was intimate and detailed, with a mixture of portraits, books, letters, articles, ephemera and objects. Whilst I was slightly surprised by the small-scale of the exhibition at first, I came to the conclusion that it suited the subject matter perfectly. Virginia Woolf was a fascinating, but private and complex woman. Her books were detailed and intimate, concentrating on individual feelings and thoughts, just like this exhibition. A particularly intriguing part of the exhibition was two portraits of Woolf, painted on what I presume was the same day (she is wearing the same clothes), but by two different artists. The similarities and differences kept Cristina and I transfixed for some time.

Portrait of Virginia Woolf by Roger Fry, 1917

Virginia Woolf by Roger Fry, 1917

The exhibition ends with the story of her suicide of course and so I left with mixed feelings. Grateful for her work and her life, but also sad because, despite her talent, the exhibition showed a very unhappy and unstable person for significant periods. She suffered personal tragedies like the early loss of her mother and an adored brother, but also had so many positive things in her life (her work, her much-loved husband, her sister) that her untimely death felt like such a waste to me.

I’ve not read too much of Woolf, always wary of her reputation for difficulty. What I have read though, To the Lighthouse, Mrs Dalloway and A Room of One’s Own, I love and this exhibition inspired two more purchases! I remember recently that one of my very favourite books (sorry for harping on about it!), Howard’s End is on the Landing, references Woolf’s diaries as ‘well worn, much-loved, a constant inspiration’ so I purchased my own copy after seeing the exhibition. I will let you know if I find the same. The other purchase was a little more accidental. I went to Prague last week with work for a few days and had one evening to myself (a huge relief after a day or two of being forcibly sociable!). I spent a lovely August evening walking for hours around the city, eager to get my bearings and see the beautiful buildings on foot. I stumbled across two wonderful English language book shops, The Globe and Shakespeare & Sons. In one of them, propped up by the till, was a second-hand volume of all Woolf’s major works and I couldn’t resist it.

This autumn there will inevitably be a few more posts about Virginia Woolf so be prepared! Have you read much Woolf? Do you like her style?

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Five Favourite Things

Here are my favourite things this month:

1. The Bees by Laline Paull

Ever wondered what it is like to be a bee in a hive? Bizarrely, I actually have and now I have my answer! Not only does Paull have a beautiful and vivid imagination, but she has clearly done a lot of research into bee behaviour as well. The two together make this a brilliant story. I couldn’t put it down and, since finishing it, I have recommended it to everyone I talk to! Interesting fact: Laline was the name my brother called me when we were little, before he could pronounce Caroline…

2. Books and Quills

Since getting back from holiday, I’ve discovered ‘Book-Tubers’ on YouTube. I have read book blogs for many years, but had been a bit sceptical about how that would translate into videos. In general, I have to say that I still prefer my blogs, but Books and Quills is an exception. Sanne, the ‘YouTuber’ in question, has a varied and interesting taste in books. Her Dutch / American accent is very easy to listen to and her enthusiasm for books is infectious. Here is her wonderful book shelf tour, which sent me scurrying to the nearest book shop to check out her recommendations!

3. Quits

This is surprising as I am not much of a crafter. I am left-handed, which meant both my Grandma and Mum’s many attempts to teach me to knit have failed spectacularly over the years. If I am honest, I’d also just rather be reading a book, which is another reason I’ve not managed to learn basic sewing / knitting etc life skills. Despite this, on our recent holiday to the U.S, I became a little bit obsessed with quilts and quilting. It started with a tour of Louisa May Alcott’s home in Concord , Massachusetts (which was amazing and I will do a post on that soon), where a ‘Flying Geese’ quilt was pointed out as a potential sign that the Alcotts were part of the underground railroad. By the time we had reached Bar Harbour in Maine, by way of a few roadside quilt shops in New Hampshire, I was fascinated. Since then, I have purchased a few books on the history of quilting, which I will share with you shortly, and I am seriously considering booking myself on a sewing course!

4. Flat peaches

Have you tried flat peaches? I absolutely adore them. An even more delicate and delicious flavour than a normal peach, but also with a much more convenient design for eating!

5. London in the summer

I’ve also fallen a little bit back in love with London this summer. A country girl at heart, I often see only the negatives in this city I live in. However, I am back working in the very centre of London with my new job and as I walk up to Piccadilly Circus and through Trafalgar Square each evening, I do reflect on how lucky I am to live in this amazing place. With a trip to the Proms to hear Elgar’s beautiful Enigma Variations just behind us and a tour of the Virginia Woolf exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery planned, my renewed appreciation for London will continue.

So there are my favourite things from the last month. I am sorry my posting has been a bit sporadic. It is likely to continue to be so for the remainder of the summer, as life is a bit busy at the moment. In the Autumn I’ll return to my usual schedule of two posts a week though. In the meantime, I hope you are having a wonderful summer as well!


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Book Benches

I’ve just found about a new public art, literacy and charity initiative that I thought you might be interested in – book benches! Aren’t they beautiful, practical and fun?!

Wind in the Willows Book Bench Courtesy of Books About Town

Wind in the Willows Book Bench
Courtesy of Books About Town


You can see these fifty benches around London throughout July. They will then be auctioned to raise funds for the National Literacy Trust, an amazing cause.

I’m now back from a wonderful holiday and will be writing a few posts about it shortly. I hope you are all having a lovely start to your summers.

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Five favourite things

Here are a few of my favourite things / things making me smile this week:

1. I saw this on Facebook this week and it struck a chord! I believe that not caring at all what others think is not always a good thing (that way megalomania lies!) but I am both a healthier and happier person when I don’t worry too much about other people’s opinions..and that is getting easier as I get older.


2. Galia melon and Parma ham, a flavour combination made in heaven…I have always loved it, but recently have been compelled to have it at least twice a week!

3. I have a book voucher to spend courtesy of my lovely brother and his fiancée. I am enjoying browsing the shelves of the enormous Waterstones Piccadilly and contemplating my choice. Anticipation is sometimes more than half the fun isn’t it?!

4. Orly Hottie Nail Varnish: neon pink, garish, vulgar and I am loving it on my toes! Summer in a small bottle.

5. I finally got round to weeding and tidying up my front garden. It had looked a bit neglected for a while and it was irritating me!  Now, I can look at the freshly dug soil and thriving hydrangea bush with a deep sense of satisfaction!

What have you been enjoying this week?

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Longbourn and Wide Sargasso Sea

Longbourn by Jo Baker

Longbourn by Jo Baker

I have just finished reading Longbourn by Jo Baker, a re-imagining of Pride and Prejudice, from the point of view of the servants. I am always a bit hesitant about rewrites of classic tales, but Longbourn exceeded all my expectations; it was absolutely brilliant. The action of this novel takes place, in the main, in tandem with activity in Pride and Prejudice. The author, in her end-note, describes how Longbourn examines those ‘ghostly presences’ in the wings of Austen; Hill, Sarah and the other servants. They emerge as vivid human begins with cares, histories and secrets of their own that eclipse the oblivious Bennetts upstairs.  Baker completely avoids pastiche of Austen and her narrative voice and style is completely her own, which I thought was a major achievement when tackling such a canonical work.

The subtle shift in perspective in Longbourn, which alters everything and changes the previously firm foundations of a story, reminded me of the other great retelling of a classic, Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, which revisits Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre from the perspective of Bertha Mason, the first Mrs Rochester.  I don’t think there is a better retelling of a classic, ever. That is a bold statement, but I have not seen the power, complexity and insight of this retelling matched. It reminds us that there is always another side to a story, always. The mad woman in the attic becomes a human being and the eventual fate of the Jane Eyre characters horrifically inevitable because of their circumstances. Wide Sargasso Sea does of course differ from Longbourn in the extent that it chronicles the immediate past before Jane Eyre, but both have that touch of magic needed for a successful revision of a classic text.

Two great retellings and I’d highly recommend them both for giving an alternative perspective on well-worn tales.


Holiday Reading!

I’m being quite spoilt this week and am spending three days in Berlin with work before jetting off to the USA on a personal holiday. With globe-trotting in mind, I loaded up my Kindle this weekend with some exciting reading material to keep me company! My husband is very pleased that there is not a hardback in sight this year for him to carry!

1. Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Kent is from Adelaide, Australia and, as my husband has family in that city, I was prompted to read this debut novel. Burial Rites is set in Iceland, a place I’ve always found intriguing because of the saga tradition.  Kent apparently draws on that tradition in this novel, which is a mix of historical fiction and crime writing – I can’t wait!

2. The Fault in our Stars by John Green

I’ve heard so many rave reviews about this and a film version is being released soon. I’ve always hesitated to pick it up because I suspect it is going to be very upsetting. However, I’ve bitten the bullet and downloaded it now at the bargain price of £2.49; it might not be quite right to read on holiday, but I’ll see how I feel.

3. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

In honour of a great lady who died recently…this autobiography has been on my ‘To read’ list for a long time.

4. The Bees by Laline Paull

What would it be like to be a bee in a hive? I can’t imagine so I am glad Paull has done the work for me here! I’ve chosen this book as it felt really unusual and a chance to step into a different world. I was also drawn in by the description of it being ‘a cross between Margaret Atwood and Watership Down’ – how could I resist?!

Have you read any of these books? What will you be reading on holiday this year?

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Hebrides and Peter May

A few visual treats for you from Peter May and David Wilson’s beautiful Hebrides:

Hebrides by Peter May and David Wilson

Hebrides by Peter May and David Wilson

I fell in love with the west coast of Scotland and its islands on my twenty-fifth birthday on a visit to Skye. Since then, I have visited Lewis and North Uist, Iona, Ullapool and Oban among others. This coffee-table book captures the beauty, wildness and majesty of the landscape of Lewis and Harris. It made me want to sell up immediately, buy a croft and a pack of dogs and live happily ever after! A pipe dream of course but one day perhaps!

Hebrides by Peter May and David Wilson


Hebrides by Peter May and David Wilson

Hebrides by Peter May and David Wilson

This picture book accompanies an excellent trilogy of crime novels by Peter May, all set on Lewis and Harris. I think I’ve said before that crime novels are not usually my favourites, but The Blackhouse and The Lewis Man in particular are exceptions. I was first introduced to Peter May by Cornflower and they are truly excellent crime novels and I thoroughly enjoyed them. The settings were also beautifully imagined in the novels and the images in Hebrides were the cherry on the top of this reading experience! If you love Scotland too, do check them out!


Recently reading…

Recently, I have been catching up on my reading. Last weekend, I finally had a rare chance to enjoy a few hours curled up with a hardback and it was lovely. Here is what I’ve been reading:

1. Life after Life by Kate Atkinson

When this was released, I heard such mixed reviews about it that I put it away on my bedside table for a few months rather than reading it immediately. I wanted the reviews to fade so I could judge it fairly and, also, I wanted to read it at a moment when I could really savour it. I am glad I waited until last weekend, when I devoured most of it on a rainy Sunday afternoon. The central concept of Life after Life, that of re-living your live until you get it right, is not new or original. However, there is something here that is unique. Perhaps it was the quality of the writing, or the fact that WWII setting is new…I’m not sure but Life and Life lingered in my thoughts long after I finished it.

2. The Queen’s Gambit by Elizabeth Fremantle

This was a retelling of the story of Katherine Parr, sixth wife of Henry VIII and one of the more neglected characters in this well-worm period. I enjoy a good historical romp now and again and that is exactly what The Queen’s Gambit is. I did find the ending frustrating, but the bare facts are historically correct, so perhaps it was simply real life that I was annoyed with! What I did like though was the relationship between Katherine and Dot and the significance Fremantle draws into the clothes Katherine wears; a form of armour against court intrigue and her mercurial husband. This would make a good, easy, holiday read if you like historic fiction.

3. A Guide to Elegance by Genevieve Antoine Dariaux 

This lovely little hardback is quaint and wise. I really enjoyed a glimpse into the rules of elegance in the early twentieth century. Although much of this is outmoded now (four outfit changes a day anyone?!), there are still some lessons that struck home. I think this would make a lovely gift for anyone interested in fashion and style.

What have you been reading recently?


Five favourite things

I am so sorry about the unexpected intermission in activity here at Chestnut Book Blog. Real life got a bit hectic for a while, with a new job, travelling and a few family things. However, I am back now on and raring to go! To celebrate, I thought I’d share five of my favourite things at the moment.

1. London in the sun

We’ve had a few house guests recently and so have been into central London a little more than normal on a weekend. This photo was taken from the Royal Opera House terrace, looking down into Covent Garden. A blissful view accompanied by a very blissful cold drink!

Covent Garden, London

Covent Garden, London

2. White roses

So Richard of York will be buried in Leicester after all it seems. The flower of my native county was his badge, but is also one of my favourites.

White rose

White rose

3. Warsaw

I went to Warsaw for the first time a few weeks ago. My new job involves a lot of travel in Europe and this was one of my first trips. Not only did I see what I think was Joseph Conrad’s house (the sign was in Polish, so who knows really but it looked likely! If you read Polish, do let me know what it really says!)

Joseph Conrad's house?

Joseph Conrad’s house?

but I was made to feel very welcome by this surprising and vibrant city.



4. French Sole Marseilles Ballet Flats

I live in ballet flats. I do love heels but. in London, a girl needs to be able to run. I treated myself to this pair a few months ago and I have hardly worn anything since. They are comfortable, chic and go with everything. They are a little pricey, but are lasting well and there is 15% off at the moment if you fancied treating yourself too!

French Sole Marseilles Ballet Flat

French Sole Marseilles Ballet Flat

5. My Kindle

I was bought a Kindle for my birthday a few months ago. It will never replace the joy of real books for me but it has a place in my affections now. With travelling so much for work, it is such a comfort to know that I have as many books as I need at the touch of a button. It is also light and convenient; gone are the days of  my luggage weighing a ton!

What have your favourite things been this month?