Sunday, 14 February 2016

What I've Been Reading | January 2016

January 2016 was quite an intensive reading month for me and I read or listened to a total of 12 books.  Many thoughts below.

Beloved by Toni Morrison was a classic I'd had on my shelf for a long while and finally picked up last month. Partly a story about love, loss and slavery, partly a startling ghost story, this was an unusual read which I am still unsure about. The writing was powerful and the subject was interesting; I am not sure whether I would pick up any more of Morrison's works.

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick was the result, I confess, of being intrigued by the Amazon Prime adverts; I've never read any Dick before despite him being fairly classic Sci-Fi. I picked this up with some excitement, but actually found a lot of it rather flat. The most intriguing ideas for me in the book were the interactions between the American characters and the Japanese characters; the assimilation of Japanese cultural ideas of face-saving and honour, together with an intriguing reversal class system, were the most compelling parts of this novel. The writing in these parts was excellent. The storyline which seems to be central to the Amazon series - a film of the Allies winning the war - is in the novel just a novel itself, about the Allies winning. It is not a secret, and is openly read by several characters. The notion that the novel's story might be 'real' and the world of Dick's novel, 'false' is hardly dwelt on and in no way concluded. I found this a frustrating read. 

A brief sojourn into my Little Black Classics led me to read Caligula by Suetonius. A glossy but interesting account of the reign of this Roman Emperor, Suetonius enjoys telling the reader lots of maniacal stories about Caligula, which are enjoyable.

In audiobooks this month, I listened to 2 short stories from the Tales of Max Carrados by Ernest Bramah. Aside from the Stephen Fry narration, this was not the best thing I've ever encountered - relying entirely on the idea that the detective, who is blind, nevertheless uses his other senses to discover all the clues, in 2 coin related mysteries. 

I also listened to Is It Just Me? by Miranda Hart. Light hearted, frivolous and occasionally repeated from her other media work, this benefited from being narrated by Miranda herself, and it was a nice break from more intensive reading experiences this month.

Regeneration by Pat Barker is another one I've had on my shelves for some time. Following the meeting between Seigfried Sassoon and a psychologist, centering on a recuperation home in Scotland for mentally wounded soldiers during WWI, this novel was very moving. Following not on Sassoon but several other, fictional patients, we deal with some truly harrowing stories and follow the men as they try to deal with what they have endured. It is an eye opening story about life in the trenches and the mental life of the 'honest Tommy'. Recommended.

In complete comparison, A Moment of Silence by Anna Dean was a bit of fluff; a regency crime mystery starring an all knowing spinster. A bit like Miss Marple. It was trifling, entertaining and took a few hours to read. It was enjoyable but by no means memorable.

Whilst talking of fluff, I also read an e-book called Prada and Prejudice by Katie Oliver. What can I say? It was free to download and inoffensive. Following a spoil rich girl whose family fortune is about to go down the plug hole, she manages to save the day, learn about herself and get the boy at the same time.

A Natural History of Ghosts by Roger Clarke was a Christmas gift, and I really enjoyed it. More of a history of belief in ghosts than in ghost hunting itself, it nonetheless narrated some interesting cases of ghosts and ghost hunting, from the earliest histories to the more modern period. I would recommend this one for anyone who is interested in ghosts, the belief in ghosts or stories of paranormal hunting.

In the paranormal line, I also read the above short story, The Eyes by Edith Wharton, which follows an old man narrating a story from his youth where he was plagued at night by the vision of a pair of malevolent eyes. A good little story. 

 At the beginning of the new year I embarked on reading They Were Counted by Miklos Banffy. A fascinating and epic story set in Austro Hungary before WWI, we follow 2 male protagonists as they embarked on life adventures. One falls in love with a married woman and suffers for it; one falls in love with the right woman, and loses her through his reckless gambling. It is quite the epic - and is the first in a trilogy - but it is readable once you get past worrying about the length. Recommended.

The final book of the month was Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb. I have been recommended to try Hobb's books by several people, and I am very glad I followed the trend. This was not always an easy read but it was enthralling; the story of Fitz, royal bastard, unwanted and trained as an assassin, was compelling. The cast of characters were interesting and the arc of this novel was well fulfilled. I am excited to see where the story goes - having already invested in the next 2 books to complete this particular trilogy.

Days Out | York Castle Museum, York, UK

I took advantage of a rainy day recently to head off to one of my favourite museums in York: The Castle Museum. On the site of the old Castle and prison, this eclectic museum houses such different exhibits as period rooms, a Victorian street, a 1960s gallery, a history of toys and a tour through the underground prison cells which housed local criminals, such as the highwayman Dick Turpin.

The Victorian street, Kirkgate, is full of shop fronts packed with genuine items, posters and advertisements. The street has several carriages and there is also a Police station, a school room, a sweet shop and hidden backstreets to explore. It is a great place and if you stay around long enough, the lighting and weather changes, so you can experience a sunny day or a rainy, dark evening, where the street is lit with lamps. 

Although my personal favourite area is the Victorian street, other exhibits are done very well. A temporary exhibition about 1914 and the First World War was well done, and the prison cells are always very atmospheric. The collections are informative and there is a lot of audio-visual on show as well - the prison cells come with their own narrators, cunningly projected on the whitewashed walls, telling you their sad stories. 

Finally, after my stroll round, I settled down in the Castle Cafe and had an excellent piece of chocolate cake and a passable hot chocolate to revive me. 

I would recommend the Castle Museum in York very much, as it really is an excellent collection. There is plenty to interest adults and kids - if they don't like one part, there is much more to see. 

Prices are around £10 for adults and kids go free with a paying adult. I personally bought a York Museum's Trust card, which for £22 will get me into the 3 main York museums for the rest of the year for free. Plenty of chance to wander around at my leisure.

Check out the Museum's website here.