Stereotypical and Childish: Could Have Been Written by Enid Blyton #ALiteraryChristmas

Now that we’ve wrapped up Nonfiction November, thoughts turn to firesides and cosy mysteries.  Perhaps something less challenging for the run up to the festive season?  Or at least that’s what I told myself.  So far, my plan has not worked terribly well. Or maybe I’m not a cosy mystery type.

Tarissa @In the Bookcase used to host #ALiteraryChristmas but she no longer appears to be an active blogger. I am sharing this seasonal reading hashtag with Brona at This Reading Life.  This is not a hosted event.

Murder in Midwinter, Profile Books (2020)

The title of this post is in no way a criticism of the author of The Famous Five whose work I greatly enjoyed when I was 8 years old.  In fact it has nothing to do with Blyton at all.  Rather it was the note I made to myself when reading through this collection of short stories.

Murder in Midwinter is described as a collection of ‘classic’ crime stories for Christmas.  There is no shortage of stellar names such as Conan Doyle, Ruth Rendell,  Dorothy Sayers and others within its pages.

I am not a crime reader at all but even I recognised all these names!  Even so I felt it was quite a cutting edge thing for me to buy these crime stories.  I am someone who only recently got to her first Sherlock Holmes ‘The Sign of the Four’ and have never read Agatha Christie.

But Murder in Midwinter  has a lovely snowy cover – a traditional ‘Marple-esque’ village with a figure walking down a road bordered by lighted cottages;  it looked perfect for curling up in front of a fire now that the weather is cold and/or for popping into a Christmas stocking.

Trust me, don’t.

I never ‘got’ Dorothy Sayers and was not a great fan of Lord Peter Wimsey – even the televised version a thousand years ago with Ian Carmichael –  so I didn’t finish that one.  That character really does not translate well into this century.

When I got to the Conan Doyle story entitled ‘The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet’, I thought I would be much better off; this  was after all a Sherlock Holmes mystery.  What could possibly go wrong?

Well, the premise of this story was laughable.  The King or someone of that ilk goes to a banker for a loan and leaves this priceless artefact (the coronet of the title) as collateral, which said banker then sticks in his briefcase and takes home – evincing surprise when it later disappears.  As you do.   The resolution was just as unimpressive and copied ideas from Conan Doyle’s book The Sign of Four (ie man with wooden leg leaving ‘footprints’ in the snow). How many men with wooden legs were involved in the criminal fraternity in Holmes’s day?

In particular I was a bit aghast at the contribution to the collection by Ellis Peters called ‘A Present for Ivo’.    It was this story that I was referring to when I wrote my disparaging comment about children’s books which I used in the title above.

Don’t get me wrong.  I liked Ellis Peters’ creation, Brother Cadfael. He was a good character brought to life by Sir Derek Jacobi on screen – and my mother adored those books.   But in this trite little story, a schoolteacher and one of her schoolboy charges, foil a dangerous gang of gun-toting kidnappers and robbers by climbing through a window and sliding down a sheet tied to a curtain rail! It’s pure Blyton.

Why were these recognised and even revered authors happy to have their names attached to this unimpressive work? Maybe these stories are juvenilia,  very early works before the writers became famous?

Then I stopped to think about publishing rights and  where these stories might have first appeared. The answer came to me in a blinding flash – that these stories came about because they were requested by mid-twentieth century women’s magazines.  Probably Woman or Woman’s Own. I have not a shred of evidence for this so please don’t write in.  But it is the only explanation that I can think of for these rather patronising, patriarchal, trite little tales.













Nonfiction November Week 5 – New to my TBR

I hope everyone who took part in Nonfiction November got something out of it – principally some fantastic reading and tons of new ideas about possible areas to read up on.

It  has been a great experience for me personally.  I’ve loved helping to host and I’ve found some amazing books which are going to keep me busy for the longest time. I’ve also found some great new bloggers to follow.

Week 5 is our final week of the challenge and we are hosted by Lisa at Hopewell’s Public Library of Life.

The prompt for this final week is:

Description: (New to My TBR: It’s been a month full of amazing nonfiction books! Which ones have made it onto your TBR? Be sure to link back to the original blogger who posted about that book!


So without further ado here’s my list.

Ada’s Ideas: The Story of ADA Lovelace, the World’s First Computer Programmer

Ada Lovelace (1815-1852) was the daughter of Lord Byron, a poet, and Anna Isabella Milbanke, a mathematician. Her parents separated when she was young, and her mother insisted on a logic-focused education, rejecting Byron’s “mad” love of poetry. But Ada remained fascinated with her father and considered mathematics “poetical science.” Via her friendship with inventor Charles Babbage, she became involved in “programming” his Analytical Engine, a precursor to the computer, thus becoming the world’s first computer programmer. This picture book biography of Ada Lovelace is a compelling portrait of a woman who saw the potential for numbers to make art.

I found this book on Literary Potpourri


The Woman They Could Not Silence: The Timeless Story of an Outspoken Woman and the Men Who Tried to Make Her Disappear by Kate Moore

1860: As the clash between the states rolls slowly to a boil, Elizabeth Packard, housewife and mother of six, is facing her own battle. The enemy sits across the table and sleeps in the next room. Her husband of twenty-one years is plotting against her because he feels increasingly threatened–by Elizabeth’s intellect, independence, and unwillingness to stifle her own thoughts. So Theophilus makes a plan to put his wife back in her place. One summer morning, he has her committed to an insane asylum.

This Wilkie Collins-esque saga seems to belong in the deeps of history but no.  The actor Cary  Grant’s horrific childhood saga – currently on our screens –  was set in the 20th century, 50 years later than the events recounted in Moore’s book, yet a time when men could still confine their wives to an insane asylum with impunity.

I found The Woman they Could Not Silence on Silver Button Books.


Bibliomaniac by Robin Ince

Why play to 12,000 people when you can play to 12? In Autumn 2021, Robin Ince’s stadium tour with Professor Brian Cox was postponed due to the pandemic. Rather than do nothing, he decided he would instead go on a tour of over a hundred bookshops, from Wigtown to Penzance; from Swansea to Margate.

Packed with anecdotes and tall tales, Bibliomaniac follows Robin up and down the country in his quest to discover just why he can never have enough books. It is the story of an addiction and a romance, and also of an occasional points failure just outside Oxenholme.

I found Bibliomaniac on Bookish Beck.


Landbridge: Life in Fragments by Y-Dang Troeung

Born in, and named after, Thailand’s Khao-I-Dang refugee camp, Y-Dang Troeung was – aged one – the last of 60,000 Cambodian refugees admitted to Canada, fleeing her homeland in the aftermath of Pol Pot’s brutal Khmer Rouge regime. In Canada, Y-Dang became a literal poster child for the benevolence of the Canadian refugee project – and, implicitly, the unknowable horrors of the place she had escaped.

In Landbridge, a family and personal memoir of astonishing power, Y-Dang grapples with a life lived in the shadow of pre-constructed narratives. She considers the transactional relationship between a host country and its refugees; she delves into the contradictions between ethnic, regional and national identities; and she writes to her young son Kai with the promise that this family legacy is passed down with love at its core.
Written in fragmentary chapters, each with the vivid light of a single candle in a pitch-black room, Landbridge is a courageous piece of life writing, the story of a family, and a bold, ground-breaking intervention in the way trauma and migration are told.

I found Landbridge on Shoe’s Seeds and Stories


The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas


Commonly seen as the legendary Norwegian writer’s masterpiece, this story tells the tale of Siss and Unn, two friends who have only spent one evening in each other’s company. But so profound is this evening between them that when Unn inexplicably disappears, Siss’s world is shattered. The Ice Palace is written in prose of a lyrical economy that ranks among the most memorable achievements of modern literature.

I found this on Cathy@746 Books


Avid Reader: A Life by Robert Gottleib

After editing The Columbia Review, staging plays at Cambridge, and a stint in the greeting-card department of Macy’s, Robert Gottlieb stumbled into a job at Simon and Schuster. By the time he left to run Alfred A. Knopf a dozen years later, he was the editor in chief, having discovered and edited Catch-22 and The American Way of Death, among other bestsellers. At Knopf, Gottlieb edited an astonishing list of authors, including Toni Morrison, John Cheever, Doris Lessing, John le Carre, Michael Crichton, Lauren Bacall, Katharine Graham, Robert Caro, Nora Ephron, and Bill Clinton–not to mention Bruno Bettelheim and Miss Piggy. In Avid Reader, Gottlieb writes with wit and candor about succeeding William Shawn as the editor of The New Yorker, and the challenges and satisfactions of running America’s preeminent magazine. Sixty years after joining Simon and Schuster, Gottlieb is still at it–editing, anthologizing, and, to his surprise, writing.

I found this book on The Intrepid Angeleno


Brave the Wild River: The Untold Story of Two Women Who Mapped the Botany of the Grand Canyon by Melissa L. Sevigny

In the summer of 1938, botanists Elzada Clover and Lois Jotter set off down the Colorado River, accompanied by an ambitious expedition leader and three amateur boatmen. With its churning rapids, sheer cliffs, and boat-shattering boulders, the Colorado was famed as the most dangerous river in the world. But for Clover and Jotter, it held a tantalizing appeal: no one had surveyed the Grand Canyon’s plants, and they were determined to be the first.

I found this book on Hopewell’s Public Library of Life.


Well I’ve got a lot of books to read.  Thank you again to everyone who has taken part in this challenge.

From 1st December Liz at Adventures in Reading is running a new challenge,  Dean Street December, which celebrates an indie press dedicated to finding and republishing good fiction and nonfiction,  so I’m off to find out what I need to read for that.

Nonfiction November Week 4 – Worldview Shapers

Rebekah (She Seeks Nonfiction) invites you to celebrate Nonfiction November.  In Week 4, the prompt is:

  • Dates: 11/20-11/24
  • Title: Worldview Shapers
  • Description: One of the greatest things about reading nonfiction is learning all kinds of things about our world which you never would have known without it. There’s the intriguing, the beautiful, the appalling, and the profound. What nonfiction book or books have impacted the way you see the world in a powerful way? Is there one book that made you rethink everything? Do you think there is a book that should be required reading for everyone?

My Worldview Shaper this week is a book which firmly comes under the ‘appalling’ category. Not the book of course, but the thing that it reveals.  I make no apology for banging on about this work because I firmly believe that everyone should read it, while at the same time not being convinced that enough people have.  Google says over half a million copies sold.  Well that’s great but not enough.

Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men

Caroline Criado Perez

I have reviewed this book before.

The epigram Perez chose for this book is a quote from Simone de Beauvoir:

Representation of the world, like the world itself, is the work of men; they describe it from their own point of view, which they confuse with the absolute truth.

I always knew that as a women – especially one born in the 1950s –  I was a second class citizen but I had vague notions that, hey it was the 60s, you know, Beatles, Stones etc.,  with better educational and job opportunities, the pill, Germaine Greer, feminisim. Everything would be cool.   But it wasn’t.  It still isn’t.   I have to keep reminding myself that this book was written as recently as 2019!

Perez states:

Most of recorded human history is one big data gap.  Starting with the theory of Man the Hunter, chroniclers of the past have left little space for women’s role in the evolution of humanity, whether cultural or biological.  Instead the lives of men have been taken to represent those overall.

Thus we have ‘mankind’.  The idea that humanity is male unless otherwise stated.  It’s not just a matter of language although language doesn’t help.  The conditioning starts from day one, and has done for centuries.

This is a book full of statistics which need to be known – by everyone.

  • ‘draw-a-scientist’ data shows that the drawings are invariably male.
  • In London women are three times more likely to take a child to school than a man.   This is 2019.
  • Women still have less toilet provision in cinemas, theatres and public buildings than men.  Yes folks – this is 2019!  And no ‘gender neutral’ doesn’t work for anyone – except men – because women er.. cannot use urinals so just changing the signage might be cheap but its cheap in all senses of the word and doesn’t work!
  • Unfortunately there is evidence, Perez tells us, that using gender neutral language does nothing to alleviate the problems which are so deeply embedded in our psyche by centuries of conditioning.
  • For example, a study from human-computer interaction papers published in 2014 found much use of gender neutral terms like researcher, designer, participant, person, etc.  Great! But the catch was that human beings, when asked to consider who or what was depicted by these terms, were most likely to interpret a male as depicted
  • Research published in 2018 by Boston Consulting Group says Female business owners receive less than half the level of investment their male counterparts get, but produce more than twice the revenue.

There’s a lot more of this scary, depressing stuff.  But the worst and scariest aspect of all this – for women – is health and pharmaceuticals testing.

When I reviewed Invisible Women I quoted:

Accurate data is vital for research and appropriate solutions.  Yet accurate data is not available if half the human race is excluded from its gathering simply because no-one has thought to consider whether one size really does fit all.   If you base your research on skewed data, you get a skewed result.   This is obvious, perhaps, when it is baldly stated but not at all obvious in the accepted course of knowledge production which has been going on for millennia.

This term ‘gender data gap’ is something I barely understood before reading Perez;  now I understand it, it is frighteningly omniscient, and it is costing female lives.

As we move into goodness knows what sort of AI dominated future, the prejudices we have seen replicated time and time again  will be perpetuated because that is how. ‘mankind’ thinks.  There are already complaints about police facial recognition software not being sufficiently colour blind and no doubt women as servants will be right there in the mix.


Next week is the final week of Nonfiction November when we will be talking about the books that we have added to our TBR as a result of this month’s challenge.



Nonfiction November #nonficnov23 – Week Three. Book Pairings.

  • We’re already into week 3 of nonfiction November.

    • Dates: 11/13-11/17
    • Host:  Liz (Adventures in reading, running and working from home)
    • Title: Book pairings
    • Description: This week, pair up a nonfiction book with a fiction title. Maybe it’s a historical novel and the real history in a nonfiction version, or a memoir and a novel, or a fiction book you’ve read and you would like recommendations for background reading. You can be as creative as you like.

I have just been listening to Yo-yo Ma playing the cello on Instagram.    I think the music he was playing was an extract from the Bach cello suites.  In any event it was a piece in a minor key to reflect the horrendous things going on in the world just now.  I note from his appearance that the maestro has aged.  Haven’t we all.  Even in the last few weeks.

What is it about the sound of the cello that responds to the grimness of war?  Not just the cello of course, it is the music that speaks to us.   But music requires an instrument and an interpreter, an intermediary, another soul between the listener and the notes on the page.

The Catalan cellist Pablo Casals writes most movingly of his life torn between music and love for his country which was almost continually engaged in some sort of military struggle.  I have blogged before about Casals’ memoire Joys and Sorrows: Reflections by Pablo Casals Albert E Kahn (Macdonald, London) 1970 which is sadly in no longer in print, but if you can get hold of a second hand copy anywhere I highly recommend it.  The book was published just three years before Casals’ death in 1973.

It is a book I turn to again and again.  In particular when times are so difficult –  because of his philosophy, his values, his courage and determination.

Casals was famous for playing the cello but he was also a composer and conductor.  He was born in 1876, living through both the first and second world wars as well as the Spanish Civil War.  It was the time of this last conflict that he was forced out of his beloved home in San Salvador – his life endangered by Franco’s thugs as a known and vocal republican.  He went into exile, living first in France and later in Puerto Rico.

The only weapons I have ever had  are my cello and my conductor’s baton.  And during the Civil War I used them as best I could to support the cause in which I believed – the cause of freedom and democracy.

Casals continued working always and under the most bizarre and dangerous circumstances, not only performing but organising his own orchestra from local musicians and conducting.

He writes:

Great areas of Barcelona were in ruins…once in the middle of a rehearsal I was conducting at the Liceu, bombs started falling nearby.  The whole building shook, and the musicians scattered in the hall – as was not unnatural.  I picked up a cello on the stage and began to play a Bach suite.  The musicians returned to their places, and we continued the rehearsal.

And on getting older (he is 93 at the time the book is written):

“Work and interest and worthwhile things are the best remedy for age.  Each day I am reborn, each day I must begin again.”


I am pairing this life affirming biography with a work of fiction, The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway.  This is set in war in Bosnia in the 1990s.

And so today, like every other day in recent memory, the cellist sits beside the window of his second floor apartment and plays until he feels his hope return.  He rarely plays the Adagio.  Most days he’s able to feel the music rejuvenate him as simply as if he were filling a car with gasoline.  But some days this isn’t the case.  If after several hours, this hope doesn’t return, he will pause to gather himself, and then he and his cello will coax Albinoni’s Adagio out of the firebombed husk of Dresden and into the mortar-pocked, sniper-infested streets of Sarajevo.

There is not a single narrator of this story but several, including Arrow, a young woman for whom war time life bears no resemblance to her prewar existence, which is why she never now uses her real name.  As a talented sniper, it is Arrow’s job to protect the cellist from “the men on the hills”. Crouched in burned out offices and apartment buildings, she lies with her rifle aimed at another sniper who’s job is to stop the cellist achieving his aims.

The cellist is determined to sit in the wrecked streets and play Albinoni’s adagio every day for 22 days in remembrance of 22 of his friends and neighbours killed in a bomb attack on a bakery queue – a queue he had almost joined himself.

Although a work of fiction, the cellist’s single act of musical refusal put me in mind of Casals picking up his cello in the midst of the ruins of Barcelona.  I have no idea whether Galloway had read Casals, but whether he had or not, the scene contains a universal truth.

Against a background of the useless misery, horror and waste of war, all the characters have to find ways to cling to their humanity.  This is a beautiful and tragic book which sadly resonates as much today as when it was written.


A Review of The Instant by Amy Liptrot

Amy Liptrot is an author who burst onto the literary scene in 2016 with a remarkable debut called The Outrun, a narrative nonfiction work on surviving addiction, childhood and loneliness mostly set on the bleakly beautiful Scottish island of Orkney where the writer grew up.  I loved it.

Wiki says of The Outrun:

Liptrot’s prize-winning book has been translated into more than a dozen languages, hit The Sunday Times’ top ten bestsellers list and sold over 110,000 copies in the U.K. It has been added to publisher Canongate’s “modern classics” list.

Not bad for a first book.  Also there is a film being made with Saoirse Ronan playing the author.

Liptrot has this marvellous descriptive, unselfpitying style of writing which hits with the immediacy of poetry.    She also spends a huge amount of time on the internet – especially on the NASA website moonwatching –  but manages to combine the digital worlds and the natural worlds in a way that makes the two seem not quite so incompatible as they often seem to me.

Maybe it was in some way inevitable that after such a galactic debut, the sequel would be a bit of a disappointment.

The Instant was published in 2022 and covers the period in Liptrot’s life after the first book, when she spent a year in Berlin seeking work, friendship, relationships, direction.  We’ve all been there.  But not everyone observes as closely as this.  Even in the middle of the busy city of  Berlin, nature is at the forefront of the author’s awareness. And the moon.

“I run a bath, consult my digital charts, then wait for the moon.  My bath is next to the window and I open it wide to the cool air.  I hear stray cats mewing in the stairwell, magpies rattling in the bare trees and the indistinct rumble of the city that reminds me of the wind back home”

I did enjoy The Instant which is structured as a series of essays rather than as a single narrative but somehow for me it lacked the emotional truth of the first book.    And some of the writing felt earlier, as if it had been retrieved from earlier essays and articles, because of the need to produce a sequel.


I will be back on Monday taking part in Week 3 of Nonfiction November which is hosted by

Thanks to everyone who has taken part in the challenge so far.

Nonfiction November #NonFicNov23 – Week Two, Choosing Nonfiction

I am excited to be hosting Week 2 of Nonfiction November this week.  The other hosts for Nonfiction November are fellow bloggers Liz (Adventures in reading, running and working from home), , Heather (Based on a True Story), and Lisa (Hopewell’s Public Library of Life), and Rebekah (She Seeks Nonfiction).

  • Week 2Dates: 11/6-11/10
    • Host: That would be me, Frances
    • Title: Choosing Nonfiction
    • Description: What are you looking for when you pick up a nonfiction book? Do you have a particular topic you’re attracted to? Do you have a particular writing style that works best? When you look at a nonfiction book, does the title or cover influence you? If so, share a title or cover which you find striking.

Do you find yourself wandering around bookshops – that is if  you are lucky enough to have access to a real bookshop these days – thinking that you fancy reading something ‘different’ but you’ve no idea what it is?  I used to often feel this way.

We are peddled a relentless diet of best-sellers and known names, books which may or may not answer a need, and nowhere is that feeling stronger than in a high street bookstore.  Where is the opportunity for that quirky discovery with the battered binding?

Since I have discovered the blogosphere and all my bookish friends online, I don’t really have a problem in finding books to read any more, quite the opposite.  But I do miss just wandering around the shelves and picking up a book here or there just to see.

When browsing, I avoid footballers, celebrities and disgruntled royals.   I look for good biography, memoir, art, art history.  I mentioned in my post last week the occasional guilt complex at not reading more widely in other categories.  Probably in 2024 I will try and address that.

In terms of a favoured cover I’m pretty sold on this one which is from my current read, Jackie Wullschlager’s Biography, Monet: The Restless Vision:


I love colour.

I think human beings are attracted to bright colours.  Maybe Monet thought so too.  Here is some colour courtesy of the net.

Geordanna Cordero on Unsplash

I’m also a fan of the new nature writing, usually a blend of authoritative essay style writing on the natural world, combined with autobiographical details from the life of the author

Little Toller Books have an excellent if a somewhat pricey array of these books. Here are three that have caught my eye.

.  My

An allotment is a utopia. It is a green place where anyone can occupy a piece of land, and grow with freedom of expression.

I don’t know whether people that use allotments would agree with that idea, or how you grow with freedom of expression – or without freedom of expression unless you’re entering for Chelsea.  I’m not really a gardener in any way shape or form but my brother in law has worked an allotment plus a garden for decades.  I never quite understood how anyone manages all that work!  I suspect he may not wish to read about the history of them though, so passing swiftly on.

Richard Mabey was maybe one of the first writers to write about mental health and natural world issues combined in his book Nature Cure which I have read.  In my review I wrote:

Mabey’s book is an enlightening read, erudite without being dry, honest to the point of bleakness in parts, without being depressing. It was one of the first in the style which came to be known as the new nature writing, along with naturalist and friend Mark Cocker. These are books which entwine stories of the natural world with the writer’s own biographical tales.

Taking far longer than usual to move out of the house in which he grew up, and aided and abetted by a severe bout of depression, Mabey makes his belated escape to the Norfolk fens where he writes about sheets of water, the Wailing Wood, owls, birds, fens, the yellow star-of-bethlehem and orchids in an ‘ethereal shade of rose’. But his particular interest, like the poet John Clare

Mabey has written many, many books including a biography of the naturalist and author Gilbert White whom wiki credits with ‘shaping the modern attitude of respect for nature’ which seems a rather extraordinary claim.  I didn’t realise there was a modern attitude of respect for nature judging by the ecology crisis we have on our hands.  But I think I will put this one on my TBR.


Does anyone else find themselves drawn to a particular theme or topic?  Style of writing? Titles? Covers? They say you can’t tell a book by one, but hey, a good cover certainly helps.

If you are taking part in Nonfiction November Week 2,  don’t forget to add your link below.  I’ve been so happy to help host this challenge but the only thing I’ve been panicking about is the link party.  Despite the kindness of Rebekah at (She Seeks Nonfiction) and others showing me what to do, my link party looks worryingly unlike anyone else’s.  Therefore please if you have any problems, just leave the link to your post in the comments below.



You are invited to the Inlinkz link party!

Click here to enter





Nonfiction November #nonficnov23 Week One – Your Year in Nonfiction

  • And we’re off.  The first week of Nonfiction November our host is Heather from Based on a True Story

Week 1

    • Dates: 10/30-11/3
    • Host: Heather from Based on a True Story
    • Title: Your Year in Nonfiction
    • Description: Celebrate your year of nonfiction. What books have you read? What were your favorites? Have you had a favorite topic? Is there a topic you want to read about more?  What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?

This year I have reviewed twelve non-fiction titles although I have read a few more than this.   With me, it’s usually about art and music; art collections, artists lives (including poets, writers, musicians), influence of art and music on the human condition, etc.

At this point in the year I have to give a shout out to Patrick Bringley’s All the Beauty in the World  as probably my favourite book of 2023, about which I wrote:

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be a Museum Guard,  standing there for hours and hours with crowds streaming past, constantly on the lookout for some idiot using flash photography, or damaging the paintings or climbing over barriers that are evidently there not to be climbed over? I suppose my answer to my own question is that  if I had  wondered what it was like, I would have assumed it would be quite boring.  Patrick Bringley will answer this question.  In fact, Patrick Bringley will answer most people’s questions about everything in this wonderful book All the Beauty in the World : A Museum Guard’s Adventures in Life, Loss and Art. (Vintage)

I’m currently about to embark on Jackie Wullschläger’s biography of Monet.  It was only while researching her that I discovered she has also written a biography of Marc Chagall so that one is definitely for me too.

Although for some reason I’m much less keen on fictional works based on real artists, such as Tracy Chevalier’s The Girl with the Pearl Earring.   I was fortunate enough to get to Amsterdam this year to see the Vermeers.  Wow!  But the biggest crowd was around Mistress Pearl Earring, which, yes, but  I’m sure its because Colin Firth made the film!  There is a place for those too of course, just not in this post.

Also featured on my blog this year have been books on libraries and collections, most notably written by Alberto Manguel – I’ve read three of his works in 2023.  I hang on his every word. Not only is he beyond erudite but he writes so beautifully about timeless ideas – I don’t think you would find Manguel owning or talking about the latest bestsellers.  I admire him for that immensely.

Below are links to some of my favourite non-fiction finds of 2023.

What Has Been Lost – An Atlas of Vanishing Places

All the Beauty in the World by Patrick Bringley and (scroll down) Classics Club Spin 18, The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

The Library at Night


A Greek Gentleman in a Straw Hat – the poet C.P. Cavafy


History’s Forgotten Artists

This is my first year helping to host Nonfiction November and I am thrilled to be taking part. I think it’s a great challenge and felt it was important to step up and help now that I’ve been blogging quite a few years.

Also, I’m looking for more and more great books for the old TBR.

There are times when I feel that there are so many subject categories out there,  that maybe I don’t read widely enough in those other subjects.  For example, I haven’t read much science or history in 2023, while previously, only the occasional autobiographical work by a whistlelower would count as politics.   But then many quite savage political treatises appear in the lists as fiction.  For example, Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead skewered the opioid scandal in the US and the corporate causes and cynicism behind it.

Looking back over my list,  Tom Bullough’s Sarn Helen would come under environmental issues.

So work still to do, but on the whole I’m happy with my nonfiction year. And there is still a couple of months left.

If you’re taking part in this challenge don’t forget to head over to Heather and add your link to the link party for Week One.


Nonfiction November 2023 is here

Autumn is here, which means it’s almost time for Nonfiction November!

Throughout the month of November, bloggers Liz, Frances, Heather, Rebekah, and Lisa invite you to celebrate Nonfiction November with us.

Fellow bloggers Liz (Adventures in reading, running and working from home), Frances (Volatile Rune), Heather (Based on a True Story), and Lisa (Hopewell’s Public Library of Life), and Rebekah (She Seeks Nonfiction) invite you to celebrate Nonfiction November.

Meet your hosts!

Liz, who blogs at Adventures in reading, running and working from home, is an editor, transcriber, reader, reviewer, writer and runner. She likes reading literary fiction and nonfiction, travel and biography.

Frances blogs about the books she has read at Volatile Rune and is a published poet, reviewer, sometime storyteller and novelist.

Heather of Based on a True Story lives in Ohio with her husband, surrounded by lots and lots of critters!

Rebekah reads and writes about social justice, atheism, religion, science history, and more on She Seeks Nonfiction.

Last but not least, Lisa blogs at Hopewell’s Public Library of Life.

How it works

Each Monday, our weekly host will post our topic prompt and include a linkup where you can link your posts, connect with other bloggers, and dive deeper by reading and sharing nonfiction book reviews. Feel free to use our official Nonfiction November graphics, too! 

Here are the topic prompts for each week:

Hosts in order of weeks are:

And here are the topics by week:

  • Week 1
    • Dates: 10/30-11/3
    • Host: Heather
    • Title: Your Year in Nonfiction
    • Description: Celebrate your year of nonfiction. What books have you read? What were your favorites? Have you had a favorite topic? Is there a topic you want to read about more?  What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?
  • Week 2
    • Dates: 11/6-11/10
    • Host: Frances
    • Title: Choosing Nonfiction
    • Description: What are you looking for when you pick up a nonfiction book? Do you have a particular topic you’re attracted to? Do you have a particular writing style that works best? When you look at a nonfiction book, does the title or cover influence you? If so, share a title or cover which you find striking.
  • Week 3
    • Dates: 11/13-11/17
    • Host: Liz
    • Title: Book pairings
    • Description: This week, pair up a nonfiction book with a fiction title. Maybe it’s a historical novel and the real history in a nonfiction version, or a memoir and a novel, or a fiction book you’ve read and you would like recommendations for background reading. You can be as creative as you like!
  • Week 4
    • Dates: 11/20-11/24
    • Host: Rebekah
    • Title: Worldview Shapers
    • Description: One of the greatest things about reading nonfiction is learning all kinds of things about our world which you never would have known without it. There’s the intriguing, the beautiful, the appalling, and the profound. What nonfiction book or books have impacted the way you see the world in a powerful way? Is there one book that made you rethink everything? Do you think there is a book that should be required reading for everyone?
  • Week 5
    • Dates: 11/27-12/1
    • Host: Lisa
    • Title: New to my TBR
  • Description: (New to My TBR: It’s been a month full of amazing nonfiction books! Which ones have made it onto your TBR? Be sure to link back to the original blogger who posted about that book!





Two Treatments of the Unreliable Narrator

This week, two very different prizewinning books, both treating of memory but with the emphasis on its inherent unreliability.

Trust by Hernan Diaz. A New York Times bestseller list in 2022 and Barack Obama’s favourite book of that year apparently.

This work is a sprawling and occasionally macabre story of fabulous wealth, financial acumen, patriarchy, yet more wealth and yet more patriarchy; I got half-way through the book before realising I wasn’t reading what I thought I was reading.

That’s because I  hadn’t looked at the contents page properly. Anyway, no spoilers.

One reviewer described Trust as an interlocking puzzle which seems accurate to me.

Told in four sections, the third section is narrated by Ida Partenza, a young woman who becomes an assistant in the most unlikely circumstances to Andrew Bevel the financier whose story this book mostly is.  By the time they meet, he owns half the US and she is to help him write his memoir.  Bevel is, you might say, a man of traditional values.   Of the 1929 crash he says,

“Everyone was playing finance with toy money.  Even women got in on the market!”

(At least he couldn’t blame us for the 2008 crash).

Trust is good at covering  changes in attitudes and cultural upheavals of the last century.       However I guessed the denouement – if that’s what it was –  long before the end.  I’m not sure if I was as sold on this book as Barack Obama, but it is cleverly plotted.  And the thing about memoir – especially if you are ultra rich and successful  –  is that your world view is the one that counts.  You shape your world according to the way you want to see it.  Your truth is THE truth.  Or is it?

Trust shared the Pulitzer Prize 2023 with Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver.


I’ve been a fan of the Irish writer Sebastian Barry ever since The Secret Scripture (Booker prize winner, 2008).  His latest book is Old God’s Time.  You know that where there is Sebastian Barry there will be a reckoning with the less savoury aspects of Ireland’s history. This time we have abuses by priests.

Old God’s Time is quite literally a haunting book.  It is peopled by ghosts.   Even the living drift wraith-like through its pages.

The story is narrated by retired policeman Tom Kettle who lives alone in an old lean to attached to that ultimate gothic setting, a castle by the sea.   The main part of the castle is owned by a Mr. Tomelty.  There is another neighbour, a cellist conveniently, who provides atmospheric setting a plenty with occasional renderings of Bruch’s Kol Nidrei.

Tom is forced into a reckoning with his memories when one night he receives a visit from two former police colleagues asking him for information on a cold case that concerns abuse of children in which he had been involved.  But how accurate are his memories?

Tom proves an unreliable narrator as he tries to piece together the traumas and losses of his life which include the deaths of both his wife and two children.  Conversations we believe are taking place in real time suddenly turn out to be ages old, or the product of a dream.  People that pass by or are seen or waved at,  sometimes are truly there, sometimes they died a while back.

But it almost doesn’t matter what he’s writing about – the star of Sebastian Barry’s books is his stunning prose.  I think I may be tempted to read this one again.

Even the weather becomes a forceful character in the hands of this writer.

“It was officially summer, so the denizens of Dalkey made their annual effort to believe in it and as usual the weather played ducks and drakes with their belief.”

“The swallows and house martins fired about like arrowheads in the limitless air above Mr. Tomelty’s labours.  Girls passed the castle shivering in their natty tops. Overcoats were seen no more even on the old, and when a storm blew along the Colliemore Road, tearing the new leaves off the trees in a premature slaughter… people prayed for better weather on the morrow.”


Sebastian Barry was born in Dublin in 1955.  He was 2018-21 Laureate for Irish Fiction.  Old God’s Time is longlisted for the 2023 Booker prize.

Plague, Persecution and Wars? Yes, It Must Be London’s History

Middle Temple Hall

Recently I had the great good fortune to be taken to lunch at the Middle Temple Hall.

Originally owned by the Knights Templar – a religious military organisation from Jerusalem with the mission to protect pilgrimage routes to the Holy Land – the Templars  rose to great prominence from the 12th century, acquiring lands and wealth.  But by the beginning of the fourteenth century the organisation and its leaders fell into disfavour both in France and England and was disbanded.

Templar lands and properties were confiscated, passing to another organisation called the Knights Hospitallers.  When they too met their end,  the lands passed to the Crown.  Later the Temple was used for the purposes of education and law, as continues today.  Although there was an earlier medieval construction, the existing hall dates from around 1500.

Many famous feet have walked the four Inns of Court which remain the starting point for every barrister in England; including Thomas Cromwell, Francis Bacon, Margaret Thatcher and (as Katherine Rundell writes in her book Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne) “enough MPs to start a war.”

It’s likely that one of the most famous visitors to Middle Temple would have been a complete unknown at the time.  Just a jobbing actor and playwright called William Shakespeare.  According to contemporary records, the Hall witnessed the opening of Twelfth Night:

“One Candlemas Feast towards the end of Elizabeth’s reign, in 1601/2, is particularly notable today. While no Middle Temple records survive, the diary of a student, John Manningham, describes the first known performance of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in Hall. While there is no reference to the actors, most likely because acting was not considered a respectable profession at the time, it seems probable that the Bard himself would have been present and played a part himself. This notable event has been marked on numerous occasions since by commemorative performances and recitals.”

As the photograph above shows, the hall is magnificent. Given its wartime history though, it is remarkable that it stands as originally constructed.  There is a photograph of it with a huge hole in one of the walls!

The Temple website gives the following account.

“The first bombs fell on the Temple on 24 September 1940, destroying part of Elm Court, and destruction would continue throughout the Blitz until the final night of air raids in May 1941. In October 1940, another attack on Elm Court caused an explosion which ripped a hole in the East gable of the Hall, destroying the wall and smashing the minstrels’ gallery and screen to smithereens.”

The hall was restored by 1949 and reopened by Queen Elizabeth in July of that year.  We were told that the handsome screen and gallery were all reconstructed from saved original materials.

The top table is extraordinary.  It must be (in Shakespearian terms) 30 foot long.   Apparently it entered the hall through a window before the stained glass was inserted in the aperture.  There’s no way it’s going anywhere now!  1000 years of history guys.

Oh, and Harry Potter wasn’t filmed there – but apparently Bridget Jones was.


The Middle Temple Church too is of great interest, built by the Templars and modelled around the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem it is well stocked with effigies of long deceased religious warriors.  I climbed the scary spiral staircase up to the gallery and then wished I hadn’t.  I’m not good at heights.  Took this photo though of the view from the gallery down to the nave.

Temple Church, From the Gallery

At the same time as Will Shakespeare was pounding the boards of the Middle Temple hall, a young man called John Donne was also making his way in the great capital – or trying to.  There is no evidence that the two ever met although Rundell far from dismisses the possibility that they would have done.  Who knows, this was the Elizabethan age and tempestuous times; plague and persecution, the threat of war with Spain, Francis Drake having his game of bowls disturbed.  Anything was possible.

The Cambridge University Press website says:

John Donne (1572–1631) was a poet and Church of England clergyman. He was born in London, educated at Hart Hall, Oxford (now Hertford College) and received legal training at Lincoln’s Inn. Donne found work as a soldier, a secretary, a professional author (seeking patronage) and Member of Parliament, before finally accepting a role in the Church of England, rising to the eminent position of Dean of St Paul’s. Although best known now for his dazzlingly inventive ‘metaphysical’ poems, with their extended metaphors and elaborate conceits, in his own day Donne was a celebrated preacher.

Only a short walk from the Middle Temple lies the equally ancient parish of Lincoln’s Inn.  It was here in the Chapel that John Donne preached, his sermons being so popular that Lincolns Inn Fields would fill up with people straining to hear his words.   For the acres of stuff that he wrote, all I know about Donne is his ultra famous poem:

For Whom the Bell Tolls;

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

I was told by the very kind person who took us to lunch that those deathless words had been inspired by the tolling of the bell at Lincoln’s Inn Chapel, which would be rung when a Bencher (member of the Inns of Court) died.

John Donne may have been a great preacher and poet.  Judging by Katherine Rundell’s book he was also a bit of a chancer and somewhat arrogant in certain respects.  Taken on as a  Secretary by Lord Egerton – a prestigious appointment that he was lucky to get –  Donne made himself unpopular not least by constantly altering the letters that his boss dictated to him.  He got himself imprisoned by marrying Anne, the daughter of Sir George More, secretly and without her father’s consent.  In those days, and certainly amongst the aristocracy, you really didn’t do that.  Needless to say Sir George was underwhelmed by the whole thing when he eventually found out and had Donne packed off to the Fleet prison.  Yet none of that stopped Donne going on to become Dean of St. Paul’s.

Super-Infinite, The Transformations of John Donne by Katherine Rundell is published by Faber. It won the Baillie-Gifford prize for non-fiction in 2022.