chestnut book blog

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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.