Friday, 25 July 2014

Books About Town

A midweek day off and a sunny day in London provided me with the perfect opportunity to discover some of the Books About Town 'book benches'. Organised by the National Literacy Trust, the trails feature some big name authors and books along with local artists to produce beautiful designs which can be enjoyed by everyone over the summer. The benches are cleverly designed like an open book, with so much detail on each one.

Hercule Poirot and the Greenshore Folly

We began with the Bloomsbury trail with our first discoveries being James Bond stories and Hercule Poirot and the Greenshore Folly in a very busy Bloomsbury Square Gardens. Unfortunately both benches were in use so we were only able to get photos of the back of the benches. Next was Pride and Prejudice in Queen Square, where again the bench was in use by businessmen working on laptops. Our next visit was to the University of London - the Sherlock Holmes bench was in a square closed for a private party, the Importance of Being Earnest one was being repainted and 1984 had been removed for repair. A disappointing start with no decent photos, but undeterred we caught the train to St Paul's.

Pride and Prejudice
I love walking around this part of the City was so much history and impressive architecture. We headed to Postman's Park, a hidden gem which features beautiful plaques honouring the heroic bravery of people who have sacrificed themselves to save others. Here we had our first bench success - Brick Lane had no one sitting on it! In the shadows of St Paul's we discovered possibly my favourite bench of the day - Bridget Jones' Diary! There was so much detail with props from the book included - a Christmas jumper, necklace and bunny ears to name a few. It did make me laugh! We also got some great photos of the Mary Poppins, Peter Pan and Where's My Meerkat benches with the Cathedral behind. The formal backgrounds must have an effect on everyone in the area as the benches had full respect with no one sitting on them.

Bridge Jones' Diary

Peter Pan
 We were starting to wilt in the summer heat, so we finished off by crossing the river to The Globe where we found a Shakespeare in London bench and then a brisk walk along the Thames to London Bridge to the Great Expectations and Paddington Bear benches - one had someone asleep on it(!) and the other a man working on his laptop ignoring tourists trying to get photos. We will finish the Riverside trail on another day as we had a theatre show to get to (The Woman in Black), but I'm looking forward to discovering the benches for Warhorse, Julia Donaldson and Discworld!

That's Not My Meerkat
I think this these trails are a great idea, although sometimes it can be frustrating taking the time to walk to a site and not being able to take photos as it is being blocked by people sitting (or sleeping!) on them. I would maybe recommend doing it on a rainy day so that you can almost guarantee seeing all of the artwork on each one. Trails like this one also give you the chance to discover parts of London you may have not have visited before. I came across the famous Borough Market and saw the remains of Winchester Palace while on the Riverside Trail. There are lots of events coming up at some of the benches including flashmobs such as 50 Sherlocks or Poirots all appearing in one spot, book giveaways and talks, so take a look at the Books About Town website. You can also see all of the benches there if you are unable to make it to London and event place a bid in the auctions for each bench.

For more information see

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Santa Montefiore Event

I was thrilled to hear that the lovely staff at my local Waterstones in Uxbridge had booked an evening with bestselling author Santa Montefiore. I immediately booked tickets for myself and my mum who has read a few of her books to attend – just £2 each with a Waterstones card! The event also gave me an incentive to read the beautifully titled House By The Sea which has been on my ‘to read’ shelf for a while! I really enjoyed Santa’s warm writing style which links together a passionate romance in 1960s Italy with a contemporary family struggling to keep their hotel business alive in present day Devon. There is beautiful scenery described in both locations and along with likable characters and a genuine mystery in how these two stories are intertwined, this book is a perfect summer read.

Santa was appearing at Waterstones Uxbridge on the publication day of her new novel The Beekeeper’s Daughter, which tells the story of a young girl growing up in the shadows of a large estate in 1930’s Dorset and a teenager’s relationship with an aspiring rock star in Nantucket during the 1960’s. Again these stories have a mysterious link and scenic settings and I particularly enjoyed reading about the age-old task of beekeeping.

I spent a really lovely evening at Waterstones, chatting to fans of the author about her work and other book recommendations over a glass of wine and Santa was a brilliant speaker, full of energy, enthusiasm, impressions and amusing stories. She was happy to lead an informal chat about The Beekeeper’s  Daughter and the process she has while writing a novel  and welcomed questions and conversation from her audience throughout. I left wanting to read all of her backlist (my mum purchased two more of her books while at the store!) and with an enthusiasm to give writing a try again after listening to all of Santa’s advice and the love for her work.

Once the official event was over, we were all able to spend some private time with Santa to get our books signed and to talk about the books without giving any spoilers away to others who may not have read them. She told me about her inspiration for Baffles in The House By The Sea and Rufus in The Beekeeper’s Daughter who I admitted to having a bit of a crush on! She was interested to hear what I thought of the book as I had received an advance copy and had stayed up late the night before finishing it!  It was just like chatting to a friend as Santa has a natural warmness and interest in people which really comes across in her books. I am really looking forward to her next novels which are going to be a trilogy based around the Irish War of Independence.

Waterstones Uxbridge have some more author events coming up soon, so if you are local, keep an eye on their twitter feed @waterstonesuxbr or pick up a leaflet in store.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Under The Greenwood Tree

I purchased this book at Thomas Hardy's Cottage in Dorset, which was the inspiration and  location for Tranter Dewey's cottage. I love Thomas Hardy's work, in particular his descriptions and understanding the countryside around him. The man at the cottage kiosk where I bought this book from said it was Hardy's most optimistic piece of work and he's not wrong.

The novel begins with the news that the church choir made up of musicians from the village is to be replaced by a spanking new organ. This causes unrest from the colourful villagers. The main part of the novel though is almost like a romantic comedy as young Dick Dewey falls for a flirty teacher called Fancy Day (surely one of the best literary names ever?!) Dick is not the only one after Fancy though and a humorous relationship plays out between them - as well as a couple of Fancy's other suitors!

Under The Greenwood Tree is a light-hearted look at village life and romance which fans of Stella Gibbons will love. Hurrah a Hardy novel that does not make you feel depressed!

The Lie

WWI literature is a huge interest of mine and after reading the eerie and sad The Greatcoat by Helen Dunmore I was really looking forward to reading her latest novel, The Lie.

It tells the story of Daniel, a young man who has returned from fighting in France and is taken in by a reclusive elderly lady called Mary Pascoe. He is traumatised by the events of the war, in particular the death of his childhood best friend Frederick who he blames himself for. When Mary falls ill, he promises her that he will follow her wishes that she dies peacefully at home and is buried on her own land not in the graveyard. When she does pass away, he is so in shock with his life, that he begins the lie to the villagers that she is still alive...

The Lie is a very atmospheric novel set in rural Cornwall which is full of foreboding images. There is a similarity with The Greatcoat in the idea of lost dead souls being unsettled and visiting those still alive, with Frederick being at the foot of Daniel's bed each evening. There are flashbacks to Daniel's childhood spent with Frederick and his sister Felicia, who makes her way back into Daniel's life as a widowed young woman with a baby. Felicia and her child slowly give some purpose to Daniel' life as he comes to terms with what he has been through but his lies are difficult to erase.

Helen Dunmore has a very poetic style of writing, with the odd moment of unsparing brutality which is very effective. While The Lie covers the usual WWI material of guilt and lost youth and innocence, this is unlike any other WWI novel I have read before. It is obvious that the author has a real passion on this subject and I hope that she writes more. This is a heart-wrenching, poignant but beautiful book which has elements of hope and normality before the inevitable conclusion to Daniel's lie.

Literary Dorset

Last week I spent a few days in a beautiful area of Dorset called Osmington. We were very lucky with beautiful weather to enjoy the stunning view, good food and local drinks. While we were there I just had to make a couple of visits to locations with very strong literary history...

The first trip was to the very pretty village of Corfe which is overlooked by the dramatic ruins of Corfe Castle, which was built by William the Conqueror. It was used by monarchs for the next six hundred years until it was sold by Elizabeth I to Sir Christopher Hatton. There is so much history in these walls and it is great fun to explore take in the atmosphere.

Corfe Castle
As well as my interest in history, I was also fascinated to learn that Enid Blyton was a regular visitor to this part of Dorset and Corfe Castle was her inspiration for the famous Kirrin Castle in her Famous Five books. To celebrate this, there is a fun shop in the village called the Ginger Pop Shop which stocks hundreds of editions of Enid Blyton titles and souvenirs as well as vintage gifts. I purchased two books, a 1990 edition of The Mystery of the Disappearing Cat and a 1965 edition of Brer Rabbit's A Rascal.

The Ginger Pop Shop in Corfe
Corfe is really worth a visit. You can even arrive by steam train on the Swanage Railway! There is lots to do as well as the castle from a Model Village which shows how the castle would have looked in the past, a nature walk with stunning views of the castle and many tearooms and pubs serving excellent food. Plus you can grab lashings of ginger beer from the Ginger Pop Shop!

My purchases from The Ginger Pop Shop

Our next visit was to Thomas Hardy's Cottage in the outskirts of Dorchester, which was his birthplace and childhood home. I am a big fan of Hardy's work in particular Tess of the d'Urbervilles which is one of my favourite novels! I would recommend using a satnav or printing off the directions from the National Trust website as it is rather hidden away with little signage on the roads, but it makes it even more interesting, discovering a cottage in the middle of the countryside. From the car park, it is either a 10 minute bridle walk or a 15 minute woodland walk to the house. We opted for the woodland walk which is a little steep, but so quiet and peaceful with just the sounds of birds singing. It really evoked the memory of Tess walking through the countryside to her next job!

The woodland walk to Hardy's Cottage

First glimpse of Hardy's Cottage!

There is a small kiosk selling tickets which also sells a range of Hardy books and DVDs. I bought a copy of Under The Greenwood Tree which was based at this cottage and described as Tranter Dewey's house. It is even stamped with the Thomas Hardy cottage mark once you buy it! The cottage garden is lovely, full of beautiful plants. There is a wheelbarrow in front of the house full of cuttings from the garden which you take away with you. I bought a pink lobelia which I have named Fancy Day after the flirty character in Under The Greenwood Tree!

The first room you enter is the cosy parlour, with a real fire where the Hardy family would have cooked, eaten and entertained. This room is the location for the dance party in Under The Greenwood Tree.

The parlour

Next is the office where the men of the family would go through the house accounts. There are some documents in view here and a bookcase full of editions of Hardy's work. Then it's up some steep stairs to the three bedrooms. First is the room that would have been shared by Hardy's two sisters who were both teachers. In the middle of the first floor is Hardy's parents' room which has a double bed and a cradle. Eerily in the cradle is a snake which recalls the story of Hardy's mother finding him asleep in the cradle as an infant with a snake across his body. In Greek mythology this was a symbol of wisdom. Lastly is the room of Hardy himself, with poem he wrote by hand at the age of 16 displayed on the wall.

Thomas Hardy's childhood bedroom

Back down some steep almost ladder down stairs is the kitchen which overlooks the pretty garden. After a wander around the house, we sat outside in the tranquil surroundings and I began to read my new book before the walk back to the car.

Reading Under The Greenwood Tree
There is a new visitor centre and cafĂ© being built in the car park now, which is due to open in September 2014 which will be a welcome addition after a walk on a hot day, but I hope the site does not change too much as at the moment it is like walking back in time and its lovely to be able to spend a day in Hardy's rural Dorset.   

Thomas Hardy's Cottage

Corfe Castle

Village of Corfe Castle

Ginger Pop Shop