What IS a Garden?

I am reading a lovely novel at the moment about a botanist in 16th century Somerset (The Knot, by Jane Borodale).

I will write a review of it very soon, as I’m sure it will be of interest to many of you gardeners out there, but I have to share these lines from it today!

When asked by a botanist colleague what his garden is: “So if it is not a work of art, what do you call it?”

Henry Lyte replied:

“A garden is a deliberate gathering together of living things, partially governed.”

I think that sums it up perfectly!

Definition of a Garden

What do you think?

Book Review: Bring Up The Bodies

Bring Up The Bodies

by Hilary Mantel


This is a review I’ve been meaning to post for some time now. Even if you haven’t read Wolf Hall, the first in this (what promises to be a) trilogy, Bring up the Bodies is an excellent read. Perfect for your summer holidays! I thought Wolf Hall was fantastic, but the sequel was much easier to get into at the beginning, and focussed immediately on the court of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. I enjoyed it immensely.

Hilary Mantel takes you back to the early sixteenth century, when Henry VIII still hasn’t had a legitimate son to succeed him on the throne of England. The death of his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, and the “imprisonment” of his daughter Mary, later to become Queen Mary, coincide with the increasing discomfort within the royal court at Anne Boleyn’s behaviour. At the head of this, advising the king and controlling all the strings it seems, is Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell’s political deeds and manipulations are revealed with exquisite detail. In fact, despite clearly using a lot of imagination and fantasy, Mantel sticks to details such as dates and places with fastidious precision.

As the book progresses England’s isolation from the Catholic Church becomes clearer and the fate of the monasteries is hinted at. With this backdrop, the future of Henry’s monarchy is considered to be at risk and an heir is the absolute priority. Henry is by this time besotted with Jane Seymour. Cromwell’s role here is to ensure that Anne is removed from the throne legally, so that Jane may be accepted as the new Queen, while at the same time various families and connections useful to his and the king’s own future are secured. He is a genius. And yet somehow we suspect that as his net is spun, he may also fall victim to his own cunning plans… in fact we may even begin to wish he does…

Extremely well written and powerfully compelling to the last page. Different to other historical novels, I feel – as you are drawn into the dialogues and characters so genuinely and transported immediately into the court of Henry and into Cromwell’s head. I am now hoping the third novel will be out soon. And will it remain at a trilogy? I thoroughly recommend this book, and if you have the time to read Wolf Hall first, all the better, but not a necessity.


By the way, Hilary Mantel won The Man Booker Prize for both these novels, making her the first woman to win the prize twice.

Book Review: Mary Swann

Mary Swann

by Carol Shields

Mary Swann1

This engrossing novel unravels the story of an ordinary woman who wrote poems – beautiful lines written on scraps of paper by a farmer’s wife. And it seems that is exactly all she was – a poet.  Yet the four major characters are involved in trying to discover who the “real” Mary Swann was. The actual “story” is more a character study – as a biographer, a retired editor, a librarian and an English professor are revealed to us with regard to their connection to Mary Swann.

These four characters are finely outlined and presented beautifully, without criticism, yet laid bare.   They are all ordinary in their own way. Just as Mary Swann was. One of them (the editor) sums things up nicely: “… the lives of most people are pretty scrappy affairs. And full of secrets and concealments.”

The theme that dominates this book is how people deceive and are deceived, concocting and exaggerating stories in their struggle for recognition and praise, love and respect. In the search for truth they distance themselves ever further from it.  “Forgive me the sin of untruthfulness” says the atheist librarian, Rose. The fact that “ordinariness” can be great is not accepted in our society, so the search for a deeper meaning behind words (or actions) will lead to… what? When meaning is not found, do we invent it? Do we give the words of a poet greater weight and interpret meaningful influences and symbolism?

They all seem aware of their deceit, but are unable to admit it. “I want to live for a time without irony, without rhetoric, in a cool, solid metaphor”, says the professor. When they all come together at the end… well, I must not give away the plot! Let’s just say the ending is triumphant!

This is a great study of human behavior, with a slight wryness, barely susceptible. It is comforting in that it gives ordinariness some kind of significance.


Mary Swann2

Carol Shields is one of my favourite writers – I also liked “Unless” and “Various Miracles“. She won the Pulitzer Prize and was short-listed for the Booker Prize with ‘The Stone Diaries’.

Book Review: “Afterwards” by Rosamund Lupton

Last year I read Rosamund Lupton‘s novel “Sister” and loved it. The twist at the end was absolutely ingenious, making me want to read it all over again!

Last month I read her second novel “Afterwards“, again a detective story.

This time it is not the sister, but a mother trying to solve the crime committed against a member of her family. Except this mother is lying in hospital in a coma…

On a summer afternoon a terrible fire breaks out in the primary school. As it is sports day the building is practically empty. However, Grace, our protaganist, knows her teenage daughter is still in there, standing in as school nurse for the day. Grace tries to rescue her, but both are badly injured and burned. This is where the story begins.

I’d call it a fantasy detective novel…

In a state between life and death Grace and her daughter Jenny are able to walk around the hospital, invisible to everyone, and listen in to the investigations and conversations around them… It is actually Grace’s sister-in-law who has to solve the crime of who laid the fire, since Grace is unable to communicate with the real world.

I admit I had real problems with this situation at first. The word “far-fetched” comes to mind. Yet after my brain had accepted this state of affairs, with the two main characters existing outside their bodies, I was able to focus on the story itself.

With loads of suspense, lots of red herrings, and plenty of emotions, it’s quite a roller-coaster ride! I got completely caught up in it, and found it riveting (even though I had to keep telling my common sense to switch itself off!).

A mother’s limitless love, an aunt’s fierce protective nature, a child’s fear and trauma, the strong connection between husband and wife…

… these are all portrayed with depth and emotion. Rosamund Lupton creates a drama with almost flawless family relationships. Perhaps this is what kept my attention most.

There ARE  flaws in the storyline, and my constant struggle with this out-of-body thing distracted me the whole time, but despite my first impression that it was weird(!), it got good later on and with all the false leads and the dramatic suspense I found it a very enjoyable read.

Only, the ending was not what I would have wished…

If you have read it, I’d love to hear what you think!

Book Review: Rebecca

“Rebecca” by Daphne du Maurier

A masterpiece!

Not a single superfluous word. Pure and top-class story-telling. Suspense from page one until the very last sentence. I adored this novel, about which I had heard so much but had never read before. I would read it again. And again. (If I only had the time!)

The novel has to be enjoyed, not raced through. And I tried to spin it out. But today I just had to finish it!

The opening line is magical…

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again

… and from that point on there is no turning back.

It was not until I started writing this post that I realised the narrator had not been named throughout the novel. The effect this had on the story was to highlight how often Rebecca’s name falls…

The narrator is initially working as a companion to an old lady, and they are spending the winter in Monte Carlo. When her employer comes down with flu, our narrator spends her days with another guest at the hotel: Maximillian de Winter, recently widowed and owner of the famous English house “Manderley”. She returns with him to Manderley as the new Mrs de Winter, but is haunted by images of the first lady of the house – Rebecca – who had apparently been adored. Her husband’s distance, coupled with her own shy reluctance to ask questions lead to misunderstandings and unhappiness.

A shipwreck and a summer storm clear the air, and the truth is finally revealed. However, the couple are not destined to be able to enjoy the rest of their lives in their beautiful country home…

Some of the feelings I had while reading it:

wonder                      pity                      frustration                           sympathy             horror                          annoyance                  distaste                            relief                          foreboding                           pleasure

This is not a pretentious period romance, as I had imagined. It is a magnificent drama – tragic and timeless.

Read it and ENJOY it!

My bookcase

This photo has nothing to do with this post, but just wanted to share!

Woody in his frosted gown of cobwebs, December 2011

My bookcase

I haven’t done much reading lately, and that is one of the first things I hope to remedy in 2012. My bookcase is full of new volumes of words to be pondered! (And my Kindle also has a couple awaiting attention!)

Here are just a few I intend to dip into soon:

Rebecca – by Daphne Du Maurier

Conversations With Myself – by Nelson Mandela

Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History – by Bill Laws

Die Nibelungen – by Hertha Kratzer

Afterwards – by Rosamund Lupton

The Golden Age of Flowers: Botanical Illustration in the Age of Discovery 1600-1800 – by Celia Fisher

The Sense of an Ending – by Julian Barnes

The Garden of Weeds: How Vagabond Plants Gatecrashed Civilisation and Changed the Way We Think about Nature – by Richard Mabey

Mary Swann – by Carol Shields

And my list of other books and novels (and cookbooks!) I’d like to read soon is so incredibly long.

Thank goodness for winter, with fireplaces and cosy blankets, while the garden can be neglected under its own blanket of leaves and snow!

Book Review: “Sister”

“Sister” by Rosamund Lupton

Brilliant! This was a gripping “unputdownable”  book! Absolutely compelling, with the pace cleverly increasing until the climax. A really good read for evenings by the fire. If you like suspense, read this!

Although the story is about solving the mystery of what happened to the protagonist’s sister, it doesn’t feel like a “crime” novel as such. There’s some fine writing and powerful emotions in there, and relationships are examined alongside. I really felt as if I knew Tess – the sister who had disappeared – through her sister’s thoughts.

The ending was ingenious… I like a book to have an ending, as I otherwise feel deflated, and this one didn’t disappoint.

I will definitely make a note of Rosamund Lupton and intend to read her second novel “Afterwards” that came out this year.