Annabel's House of Books

Noli domo egredi, nisi librum habes – Never leave home without a book.

Month: March 2010 (page 1 of 4)

Gaskella’s Midweek Miscellany #7

Firstly, another plug for my giveaway – if you’d like to win a signed first edition copy of Philip Pullman’s new story The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ then please click here to visit my post on Pullman’s appearance at the Oxford Lit Fest, and leave a comment telling me which creature your ‘daemon’ would be. The comp closes at noon GMT on Good Friday and my daughter will pick a winner from the slips in the hat.

Just in case you haven’t seen the clip of his answer to the last question, here a link to it Click here.  On the BBC news on Sunday night, they played an extended version and I could see myself in the audience, which was fairly horrifying – it put pounds on me, but exciting at the same time.    I haven’t been on telly since I was in a quiz show called Connections on Granada with Richard Madeley back in the late 1980s – now that was an experience!

Staying on me for a moment, Kimbofo who blogs at Reading Matters invited me amongst other bloggers to join in a new guest feature called ‘Triple Choice Tuesday’, in which guests choose three books to recommend: a favourite, one that changed your life, and a book that deserves a wider audience. Little did I know that I’d be first up in this spot and you can see my three choices here, please do comment!


Now I’d like to link to a wonderful blog post by Simon Savidge – click here to see it. Simon raises the topic of bookblogging ethics in terms of where we get the books that we write about. With bookbloggers being increasingly targeted by publishers to help spread the word of mouth, it is a timely piece. Thank you Simon.

You can see my blogging guidelines under my ‘Info and Stuff’ tab at the top of the page, but to summarise, I will always say if a book is a freebie and how I got it – Maybe I should say if I bought a book too…  Also, I am affiliated to Amazon. All the title links do go there, and I may earn a small commission if you then buy after clicking through – although in a year and a half of blogging, I’ve yet to earn enough to trigger a single payment from them – so it’s pocketmoney stuff only.


  • And finally as usual here are a few of the latest titles to arrive at Gaskell Towers:
    The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis, about a young girl chess player in an orphanage.
  • Looking for Enid: The Mysterious and Inventive Life of Enid Blyton by Duncan McLaren. Having seen the BBC’s rather good film Enid again the other night, I pounced on this unconventional biography while browsing in Oxford’s £2 bookshop waiting for the park and ride bus on Sunday.
  • The Moldavian Pimp by Edgardo Cozarinsky. Apart from the wonderful title, the blurb on the back of this short novel says  ‘Imagine a mixture or Borges, Thomas Pynchon, South American tango and Yiddish musicals and you begin to get the flavour of this extraordinary book’. – For £2 again, I was hooked!

Nanny McPhee & the Big Bang

When you need me but do not want me, then I must stay. When you want me but no longer need me, then I have to go.

Nanny McPhee (“small c, big P”) again comes to the aid of a family who can’t cope.  This time the action is updated to during World War II. The setting is a small farm where Isabel Green (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is struggling to make ends meet while her husband is away fighting. Her three children are boisterous but look after the farm while she helps out in the village shop run by Mrs Docherty (Maggie Smith).  Then everything is turned on its head when the rich city cousins are due to come and stay. They arrive a day early to discover a farm yard covered in poo, of all varieties, and all hell breaks loose between town and country. Enter Nanny McPhee to start sorting it out with her five lessons, telling Mrs Green that the Army sent her. Meanwhile, Isabel’s shifty brother-in-law (Rhys Ifans) is in big trouble and is trying to persuade her to sell her half of the farm…

I won’t tell you any more of the story, but if you’ve seen the first film you’ll expect some animal antics – this time involving gorgeous little piglets, a baby elephant, and a crow. There is less out and out slapstick in this film, but there are plenty of brilliant funny moments, some great cameos from Bill Bailey, Ralph Fiennes and Ewan McGregor, plus Sam Kelly as a sort of combination of ARP Warden Hodges and Corporal Jones from Dad’s Army.

Emma Thompson wrote the script and co-produced alongside her acting duties, and she obviously loves the character. She is also not afraid to tug at your heartstrings – there were several times where I was tempted to bawl like a babe (in both sorrow and happiness). The shadow of war hangs over the film and gives it both gravitas and an excuse for some silliness; the big bang of the title referring to bombs.

My daughter and I both enjoyed it hugely; she particularly liked the animals, I liked the spivvy Ifans and put-upon Maggie G. Highly recommended for all ages – if you need a excuse to go and see it at the cinema, borrow a niece or nephew, but don’t forget a hanky!

Philip Pullman at the Oxford Literary Festival

It was Palm Sunday today and off I went to the hallows of the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford to see the first full talk by Philip Pullman on his new book, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, which is published tomorrow.  It’s the latest volume in the Canongate Myths series, but tackles one of the most controversial stories there is in the life of Jesus.

The press have been ‘bigging up’ this appearance by Pullman at the Oxford Literary Festival, so I arrived at the Sheldonian expecting protestors, even egg-throwers – but in the event there were none.  He did have a security guard though, who sat in the corner with his earpiece and didn’t exactly seem to be scanning the audience.  Unfortunately all these shenanigans also meant no signing afterwards, and no chance of a photo either without being ejected.   But pre-signed copies were on sale, and I snaffled two.  One for me and one for one of you – more on that story at the end of the post.

The Sunday Times’ Literary Editor Peter Kemp joined Pullman in the discussion.  First he asked how Pullman came to write the book.  Pullman explained that while growing up with his clergyman grandfather, all the bible stories became “greatly ingrained” in him, but that he’d grown up to treat them as myth not scripture.  In a previous platform discussion with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams had asked him why there was no mention of Jesus in His Dark Materials?  Pullman replied that he’d do it in a later book, and when the opportunity came to join in the Myths series he decided the time was right.

He was then asked about his research.  Pullman told us that we’re used to hearing little bits and pieces from the Gospels, and that we rarely read them all the way through as books, and in doing this he was shown how different John is compared to Matthew, Luke and Mark.  He read some of the apocrypha, but most of them are not very good, compared with the Gospels and Paul’s letters.  He said he’d not read many theological texts in support, sticking to the main story itself.  Asked about the writing process, he said that finding a voice to tell the story was the critical thing – equivalent to a film director saying ‘Where do I put the camera?’ He didn’t want to produce a ‘fake gospel’.  He wanted spareness and clarity in the scenesetting and he quoted the first verses of the old ballad Sir Patrick Spens as near perfect …

The King sits in Dunfermline town,
Drinking the blood-red wine;
“O where shall I get a skeely skipper
To sail this ship or mine?”

Then up and spake an eldern knight,
Sat at the King’s right knee:
“Sir Patrick Spens is the best sailor
That ever sailed the sea.”

He also told us how he decided not to be overdescriptive in landscape and weather etc, wanting to be as neutral and uninflected as possible. However he wanted to make clear the political situation of a colonised space with a puppet King under Roman rule. He told us that he’d write sixteen first chapters of Northern Lights before he discovered that Lyra had a daemon and that gave him the way in. In the new book, the basic way in occurs in the very first sentence …

This is the story of Jesus and his brother Christ, of how they were born, of how they lived and of how one of them died.

Pullman had been very struck that in the Gospels, Jesus is Jesus, but in Paul’s letters he is mostly called Christ. This gave him the idea of having twins, “the visionary teacher healer Jesus” and the “thoughtful and self-conscious” Christ; Jesus being a real man, and Christ his mythical shadow self, always an observer. There is much tension between the brothers and Jesus starts out as a goody-goody and Christ is more of a devil’s advocate egging him on, however things do change. Pullman said that in writing their story “I came to like Christ a great deal and dislike Jesus more than I thought I did.” The novel’s title shows a more stark contrast between the characters than the book suggests, but you have to attract attention somehow he quipped. The conversation then turned towards the miracles and the resurrection. Pullman said it wasn’t too hard to find explanations that worked both ways for the miracles, however the resurrection was much harder. He appreciated the subtle way that the gospels left much open space in their narrative for speculation.

Then there was time for Q&A. Pullman was asked whether the writing of the book had changed his atheist views. He said he saw no evidence of any divine power and still called himself an atheist, although strictly that stance is agnostic. In response to another question, he replied that “it was an unspeakable pity that Jesus didn’t live longer to perhaps write something”, as we only have re-tellings of Jesus’ words in the parables and Beatitudes. The only note of real discord came with the final question when an elderly gentleman politely upbraded him for writing the book. Pullman replied with forceful eloquence that it was his right to write it and it is your right to choose not to read it!

The hour went all too quickly. I hung around outside for a bit in case I could get a shot of him leaving, but the press photographers all went back into the building – presumably for the full press release, so I toddled off home. Not having seen Pullman before I was very impressed and was also glad that he had a good sense of humour. After dinner, I shall be starting to read the book.

Now to my Giveaway… To be included in a draw for a signed first edition copy with the white DJ as above (it’s also available in black, but they only had the white), tell me which creature your daemon would be in a comment. The draw will be made at noon GMT on Good Friday. Good luck.

Lit Lists #2 – 5 brilliant books set in Venice

In Feb I started a new feature – Lit Lists – for a bit of fun with books.

* Pick a keyword and then find a number, 5 or 10 say, of books that link to it in any way – e.g. they are either about or feature that word, or have it or a variant in their titles;
* List and introduce the books.
* That’s all there is to it apart from having fun. If you want to have a go, feel free!

My first list was of Monkey Books. For my second list, my keyword this time is …


…which gives me masses of scope, as it’s a city I loved when we visited in 2005 and a location that I adore in books.   The picture, left, was drawn by my daughter (who had just turned five), after experiencing crossing the canal on a traghetto ferry gondola.  For a five year old she nailed the perspective didn’t she!

1. The Glassblower of Murano by Marina Fiorato, which I reviewed here. This was Marina’s first novel and follows the story of a newly single artist going to Venice to learn the skills of her ancestors, and in a historical strand we hear the ancestor’s story of how he escaped the guilds to go an make the mirrors at Versailles. It was a great read and Marina herself is a real character as she’s been to Abingdon twice now with her books – the third must be due soon I hope.

2. Death at La Fenice by Donna Leon. This is the first of nineteen novels (at current count) featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti who has to solve the murder of a Maestro at Venice’s opera house. I always get the feeling that life in Italy’s cities is full of bureaucracy and petty battles between all involved in government. You either embrace it or try to ignore it – Brunetti does the latter and it is his ambivalence and refusal to join in office politics rather than kicking against the system that makes him such a refreshing maverick detective!

3. Miss Garnet’s Angel by Salley Vickers, in which a spinster, Miss Garnet goes to Venice on an extended holiday after the death of a friend. There she falls in love with an angel in a Raphael painting, and undergoes a series of epiphanies, discovering a new side to herself as she encounters an Italian art historian Carlo … Alongside Miss Garnet’s awakening, Vickers tells the story behind the painting which is a scene from the Book of Tobit which has many parallels with Miss Garnet’s situation.  It’s a subtle novel, and I really enjoyed it.

4. The Kiss of Death by Marcus Sedgwick, which I reviewed here. Sedgwick is possibly my favourite YA author and this was the first book I read by him. It’s set at the end of the 18thC during Carnevale (approaching Lent) and features proper vampires – the real monstrous ones of Eastern European tradition. It’s a great adventure, and the dankness of Venice in winter really comes through.

5. The Lying Tongue by Andrew Wilson.  Twists and more twists, this literary page-turner starts off innocently, when young Adam takes a job in Venice as assistant to a reclusive writer. However, he’s drawn in by his employer, wanting to uncover his life-story and there the plot thickens!The reader is wrong-footed at every turn and the result is a literary mystery of the highest order which is reminiscent of both the play/film Sleuth and the novels of Patricia Highsmith. In fact, Wilson has written a well-received biography of Highsmith called Beautiful Shadow which is in my TBR pile somewhere.

Rather than stretch the list to ten, I decided to stick with 5 books that I’d read and enjoyed, but there are many others set in Venice including the following in my TBR piles:

Can you recommend any more?

Heatwaves can be murder!

August Heat by Andrea Camilleri (trans Stephen Sartarelli)

This is the third of Camilleri’s novels that I’ve read, the tenth in the popular series featuring Inspector Salvo Montalbano, and it was the most enjoyable yet.

It’s nearing the middle of August and the heat in Sicily is getting unbearable.  Montalbano’s girlfriend Livia is arriving soon with friends to stay in a villa he’s found for them.  Salvo is looking forward to some quality time with Livia.  The villa looks perfect, but they are plagued by cockroaches and mice, then Bruno, Livia’s friend’s son goes missing.  He is discovered down in an illegal basement buried below the house – empty for years – except for a trunk – with a body in it!

Livia and her friends flee back home, leaving Salvo to suffer in the searing heat and conduct a murder investigation without a fan in his office.  Added to that, the builders are obviously crooked and covering up for each other.  The normally dapper and gourmet inspector can hardly bear to do anything, it’s so hot.  Eating hot food is out, and he’s spending half his time in the shower or sitting in his office in his underpants and missing Livia – this story is suffused with heat, humidity and sweat!  But we know that Salvo will get his man, loyally supported by the ever trusty Fazio, even though he nearly gets distracted by a pretty girl on this case…

I love Montalbano, the fifty-something batchelor with his long-distance girlfriend. Like all the best literary detectives, he has a healthy dose of disrespect for bureaucracy and his deskbound superiors and is not afraid to tear up the rulebook when needed.   The Italian way of doing things and Mediterranean location make for interesting plots.  There is a good dose of humour in these novels too, giving light and enjoyable reads.  I remember when I read the first in the series (The Shape of Water), I found the translation rather cool and dry, but like the heat in this novel, Sartarelli’s translation is thoroughly warmed up by now! He adds some useful pages of notes about various Italianisms and background stories at the end too which are better than footnotes.  (Book requested from the Amazon Vine programme, 8/10)

Gaskella’s Midweek Miscellany #6

Today is Ada Lovelace Day – a day of blogging about and celebrating women in science. I used to be a proper working scientist and am now a school one, but I confess I was totally unaware of the day, and Ada Lovelace herself. It turns out she was Byron’s daughter, and was a programmer for Babbage’s Analytical Engine.

The pic to the right shows Rosalind Franklin who did much of the work on DNA, but didn’t get on the Nobel ticket.  Several other bloggers have written great posts on women in science today, so I’m going to direct you to them… 


Only a few days until I get to see Philip Pullman at the Oxford Literary Festival.  I read in the paper that there’ll be security guards at the Sheldonian.  Although I paid for a good ticket, the seats are still unreserved which is irritating.  How early should I get there?  Will he be signing afterwards given that there may be some fundamentalist agitators around?  I’ll have to cross fingers and see and I’ll report back to you.


Lastly, incoming…

  • The Concert Ticket by Olga Grushin. I couldn’t resist this novel – It’s Russian for a start! It features a family who are all desperate to get a ticket to a ‘For One Night Only’ concert by an exiled composer. Going to the concert would mean different things to each of them …
  • Direct Red: A Surgeon’s Story by Gabriel Weston. This surgeon’s autobiography has been on my radar ever since it came out, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to buy the hardback – but now the paperback is here. I’ve read many reviews and everyone has really rated it.
  • A Madman Dreams Of Turing Machines by Janna Levin. A faction novel about the lives of scientists Alan Turing and Kurt Gödel written by a young physicist.
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