Book Shelves on the Move: A Reading Renaissance?

Book Shelves

A Fresh Reading Start?

The Landing Book Shelves (the actual shelves that is, as opposed to the blog) have had a bit of a shake-up in recent weeks, because of some building work involving window replacement. The upshot is that one set of shelves is no longer on the landing, but in the hall. As other shelves have similarly moved around somewhat, many books are now in different locations and a certain amount of confusion and mixing of genres has arisen. On the other hand, this has been a great opportunity to re-discover overlooked titles and authors. It has also had the slightly depressing result of making me realise just how many books in the house (let alone on The Landing Book Shelves) remain un-read. I shy away from doing a serious count (as Cathy at 747 Books has bravely done) because I don’t want to lower my literary morale any further. Although I am now beginning to consider re-naming the blog ‘The Household Book Shelves’ since that is a more realistic picture of the challenge ahead. At this rate I may have to ban myself from going to the library.

More Book Shelves

Plenty of Penguins

In the spirit of a spring renaissance I have therefore decided to take a positive view of the un-read books and to try see them all as so much bookish potential, rather than as a task to be completed. I think that if I persist in treating them as items to be ticked off a list, then I might as well give up the whole enterprise, since it will no longer be any pleasure. With that in mind, I have been enjoying myself by making mental note of a few random titles that had previously slipped off my radar. So far, I have accumulated about half a dozen novels, belonging to either me or He Who Put The Shelves Up, that have been floating around for a while. Some of them, such as The Llangollen Ladies (Mary Gordon) and The Children of the Archbishop (Norman Collins) are Trinity Book Sale purchases from a couple of years ago. Perhaps it is no bad thing that we missed this year’s event due to a change in dates. The half-price Saturday could be a very tempting affair indeed and consequently, inestimably dangerous to the state of the TBR Pile.

A Small Book Shelf

Mainly Children’s Books

Therefore, the next few posts will I hope, feature some true examples unearthed from the TBR Pile because of the new shelf arrangements. It has been quite nice to discover books that have languished un-noticed for months (or even years). It has even been nice to do some very necessary dusting of books and shelves as everything was put back in place. Now, at least I have clean books to read! I have even been toying with the idea of creating a proper catalogue as an excuse to practice my very rusty data base skills. I have come as far as naming a file in this worthy enterprise and that’s about all.

I am not sure yet which title will feature in the next post, but I am leaning towards political skulduggery in the sixteenth century so I have a couple of options to consider. Drop by again soon if you want to see what pops up on The Landing Book Shelves.

Penguin Postcards for ‘A Month of Letters’

Penguin Postcards Box

100 cards to choose from…

Longstanding readers of The Landing will know that February is the time for my contribution to the Month of Letters Challenge (#LetterMo). American writer Mary Robinette Kowal runs the letter writing challenge and you can check out the Month of Letters website for details if you want to jump on board. I have always loved both writing and receiving letters and I am also a great hoarder of letters. I have stopped throwing old letters out in a fit of spring-cleaning, as I have discovered that that way lies regret. I used to have a French pen friend when I was at school (though I don’t think the relationship lasted for long) and I wish I still had the letters. The Bookworm recently asked if she could read some of the letters between me and my school friends (just think, we actually used to write to each other in the summer holidays, how quaint was that!) The nice thing is that I have letters going back for many years, from people with whom I am still in contact. What will people do in the future when they want to have a burst of nostalgia? Comb through their email archive I suppose. Methinks it hardly sounds like an enticing prospect. It did occur to me that I should have my own mini challenge to re-read an old letter on every day of the month, but I think after all that I will just stick to writing to people in February. Maybe I will save re-reading letters for the dark, chilly November evenings by the fireside.

This year, by way of a change I have decided to write postcards for everyone, from my lovely box of Penguin book jacket postcards. My original aim was to try to match a person to a book postcard, but I’m not sure how realistic that will be to manage. So far, I think I have done reasonably well matching two friends who like gardening and cooking respectively, with an appropriate choice of book title. I also despatched an art-themed postcard to a creative artist friend, so far so good. Ideally, I would like to match each recipient with a favourite author, book, genre or topic as far as possible. However, I have been through the box a few times now and I have discovered that some book titles might be difficult to place with a home. I suggest Scootering: a Penguin Handbook or Common Sense about Smoking: a Penguin Special as uncommon choices for uncommon readers. On the fiction front while Orange PenguinsA Severed Head (Iris Murdoch) and Vile Bodies (Evelyn Waugh) are fine as books, would you choose to send them as a postcard design unless you were sure of a good reception?

Penguin Postcards Selection

I’ll never use all of them…

I will write an update on my progress with the book title/matching process in a few days. Meanwhile I might delve into depths of The Landing and see what I have unread in the way of collected letters. I think I may have mentioned before that I enjoy reading other people’s letters…all above board, of course…

A Maytime Poetic Interlude: London Bells

Browsing through the ‘One City One Book’ poetry book, If Ever You Go brought to my mind last year’s birthday present from my daughter. She chose to buy me the new edition of Poems on the Underground, which I have been picking up to read every so often. For this edition, the editors have decided to collect poems into themed sections including The Darker Side, The Artist as ‘Maker’, Exile and Loss and The Wider World. All of the poems in the anthology have been featured on the London Underground poetry posters at some point since the project began in 1986. My smart new edition was published to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the famous underground.

Poems on the Underground

Poetry in Motion

It seemed appropriate to follow on from April’s Dublin theme, with a poem from the section on London. I have chosen one from that ever-prolific poet Anonymous, as a nod towards my last #PoetryinJune blog post in 2013 when he/she insisted on sneaking in to close the series. Another reason for choosing this lighthearted London poem is that many of you probably remember it from childhood (or at least a version of it).  According to a Wikipedia article the following version first appeared in Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book, c 1774 (but with ‘ye’ rather than ‘the’). An excellent source of information about nursery rhymes is Iona and Peter Opie’s The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford University Press), though I’m not sure if it’s still in print. I thought I had a copy tucked away somewhere but it must have been wishful thinking on my part. I think I’m right in saying that Iona and Peter Opie’s work on British nursery rhymes and childhood lore in general is the best source available. 


London Bells

Two sticks and an apple,
Ring the bells at Whitechapel

Old Father Bald Pate,
Ring the bells at Aldgate

Maids in white aprons,
Ring the bells at St Catherine’s.

Oranges and lemons,
Ring the bells at St Clement’s.

When will you pay me?
Ring the bells at the Old Bailey.

When I am rich,
Ring the bells at Fleetditch

When will that be?
Ring the bells at Stepney.

When I am old,
Ring the great bell at Paul’s.


This is the version that I grew up with; the last bell was sung to represent a very deep, slow, imposing peal:

Oranges and Lemons

Oranges and Lemons

Oranges and lemons,
Say the bells of St. Clement’s.

You owe me five farthings,
Say the bells of St. Martin’s.

When will you pay me?
Say the bells of Old Bailey.

When I grow rich,
Say the bells of Shoreditch.

When will that be?
Say the bells of Stepney.

I do not know,
Says the great bell of Bow.

Here comes a candle to light you to bed,
And here comes a chopper to chop off your head!

The Wikipedia article I’ve linked above suggests some meanings behind the rhyme and also quotes yet another version of it. We used to play the game illustrated in this nineteenth century plate, when you went round and round and got your head ‘chopped off’ if you were too slow. It’s strange how you play games as a child without ever really thinking about what the words or rituals mean. But let’s not get into too much blood thirsty stuff now, as I shall be off to bed shortly and don’t want to be dreaming of the dark doings in the Tower of London.

So, altogether now:

Here comes a candle…


A Landing Bonus Book: The Herbalist by Niamh Boyce

He just appeared one morning and set up shop in the market square. It was drizzling. Everything was either a shade of brown or a shade of grey. He was the lightest thing there, the one they called the black doctor. He wore a pale suit, a straw hat and waved his arms like a conductor. The men spat about dark crafts and foreign notions, but the women loved him. Oh, the rubs, potions, tinctures and lotions he had. Unguents even.

As a break from my regular Landing Book Shelves task, I have been reading The Herbalist, the first novel from Niamh Boyce who was winner of the Hennessy XO New Irish Writer of the Year in 2012. The book was kindly offered by Penguin Ireland and has not tarried for too long on the TBR Pile due to The Herbalist’s very tempting prologue, from which I quoted above.

The Herbalist by Niamh Boyce

‘An elegant morality tale’ (Sunday Times)

Niamh Boyce based her title character on a real person called Don Rodrique de Vere who was practising as a herbalist in Athy in 1942. I won’t say any more for fear of giving away the germ of the novel’s plot, but if you do want to know more about the inspiration behind the character, click on Athy Eye on the Past blog or read Niamh Boyce’s interview with Sinead Gleeson in the Irish TimesThe Herbalist is set in a small midlands town in the late 1930s and is told through the voices of four women of differing ages and social positions. Emily, Carmel, Sarah and Aggie are all well drawn, strong characters.  Boyce adds to her strong cast with several minor characters such as Mai and Birdie; also with the beautiful Rose whose quieter voice interweaves throughout the narrative.

This was an era when people’s lives (and arguably women’s in particular) were structured and controlled to a great degree and it wasn’t done to stick out too far against the perceived norm. Into this repressed social mix comes a half –Indian herbalist who promises much to the enthralled women of the town. Most of the towns women seem to have dealings with the herbalist; an exotic stranger who upsets the balance of the town where everyone knows everyone else’s business (or thinks they do).

Impressionable teenager Emily develops an infatuation with the healer (known as The Don) and becomes the talk of the town as a result. He indulges her fantasy for his own reasons, promising Emily a new life far away from the town where her family is regarded as less than respectable and nobody thinks she will amount to much good. Emily’s voice comes clearly down the years and you can well imagine a lively Hollywood obsessed girl itching for more than her life seems to promise. The reader sees before she does, that Emily’s route out will be her exquisite skill with a needle and thread. But before that, she will have to stand up and attempt to put right an injustice with all of her reserves of courage. I’ll say no more lest I plot-spoil.

The novel has plenty of fascinating insights into life for people (and in particular the women) in small town Ireland of seventy years ago. Banned books, the need to be respectable, the pressure on married couples to conceive, shameful secrets lurking behind closed doors and young women disappearing into Magdalene Laundries (often as a result of rape) are all themes in the novel. The book carries all this lightly however and there isn’t a feeling of being overburdened as Boyce tucks her threads so neatly together. There are obviously plenty of darker shades in the story, but these are well handled and leavened with gritty humour.

I was intrigued to discover that the banning of books in fact led to a thriving black market in racy books such as Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Bird Alone and Tender is the Night. In the novel, both Birdie and Carmel have an under the counter trade in illegal books to bring in a few extra shillings. There is a funny scene where Carmel’s husband Dan discovers the stash and claims to be so shocked, yet he can’t put the book down and he avidly reads the awful material, ‘ He slammed it shut, glared at his wife. Opened it again…read a section, snapped it shut. Glared. Opened it…on he went, over and over again, with the same exaggerated expression of wide-eyed horror’.

The herbalist may have used his potions to charm the women of the town, but Sarah’s aunt Mai is also a skilled herbalist, using her ancient talents in her role as a midwife in her village. Mai’s kitchen in the throes of violet tincture production was beautifully described. Again with a touch of humour, as Mai and Sarah hide the poitín used in the process from the local school master’s sharp eyes. Boyce reminds us both how important a woman like Mai would have been in her community and how little money there was at the time to pay for the services of a midwife. Mai more often than not had to accept payment in kind, because as she pointed out to Sarah ‘you couldn’t shove a baby back in’.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Herbalist and look forward to reading more from Niamh Boyce in the future. In the meantime, I have one more Landing Eight title to report back on and then a new Landing Reading Challenge awaits me! All will be revealed shortly…

Back soon and don’t forget to drop a comment in the box if you’ve read anything good lately.

From Landing to Garden: Sunflowers and The Pip Book:

close-up of a sunflower

Home grown sunflower

As a heavy rain shower has just stopped play (or rather work) in the garden I now sit diligently in front of my computer waiting for inspiration to strike. At the same time, I am endeavouring to keep one eye on the kitchen window to see what the weather is up to now. If however the sunshine does break through again, I will have to dash back to the lawn mower leaving you to carry on regardless. In the meantime a smidgen of writerly inspiration has struck the Landing regions so I will devote this post to a garden theme.

This flurry of garden activity has reminded me of the garden diary that I have been keeping intermittently for around twenty years. The diary now in fact has spawned a sequel co-written by my daughter. However, I doubt whether our efforts at a garden diary will ever be published and attain legendary status among future generations of gardeners. Nevertheless it will serve a purpose as a piece of family history as will the pictorial evidence (shown here) that we did once manage to grow a substantial sized sunflower. I am sure that Gertrude Jekyll and Vita Sackville-West would not be overly impressed but it was a first for us.

My (or rather our diary) contains notes of what has been planted when and where and is copiously illustrated with pictures from seed packets. Also it tends to note the rather frequent occurrence of cases of seed non-germination and slug depredations in the flower and vegetable borders. When I first started the diary I lived in a small flat so the entries were all about houseplants. Looking back through the pages I realise just how many plants I used to have. I wonder how there was room for anything else in such a domestic jungle. At the beginning of 1993 the grand plant total was thirty-two plus a variety of herbs.

Cover of The Pip Book with an avocado plant.

Mine didn’t look like that…

You might be surprised to hear that my library of gardening books is not (and never has been) very extensive. The sum total is four volumes, including one very small paperback book called The Pip Book by Keith Mossman which tells you about growing plants from almost any variety of fruit you can think of trying. I first came across this book when I was working in a bookshop in Birmingham several years ago and ordered a copy. According to a diary entry for 27th May 1994 I had recently bought this and another (un-named) gardening book. It is a great book full of helpful advice and I have tried growing several varieties of seeds and stones as a result. I have to confess though, that despite Keith Mossman’s book I have never yet had great success with avocados.

The illustration below is of a more recent edition from 2011 and I assume the book has been revised but even if it has not it would be well worth buying if you enjoy a growing challenge.

cover of the Pip Book with plants in pots

More Gardening Inspiration..

Now I really must show willing and get back to the lawn mowing (though that topic isn’t covered in The Pip Book) before it rains…

ps: Feel free to boast about any gardening successes in the comment box below: