What I’ve Been Reading Book Notes June 2020

What I’ve Been Reading Book Notes June 2020

An Afternoon Respite by Mabel May Woodward, c. early 1900s.

What I’ve been reading.

Well, my book notes posts pretty much dried up this year. Like so many things. I’m gonna blame the pandemic, because: why not?

Anyway, a quick overview of what I’ve been reading and enjoying, as far as I can remember, in the second quarter of the year.

Books I’ve Finished

1. Eifelheim by Michael Flynn

This was my plague-themed pandemic book back in Lent … was it March? It was a re-read. I really love this novel about what happens when aliens show up in a medieval village in the Black Forest. The novel includes the Black Death coming to the village, so, yeah, it felt rather timely. I love the frame narrative about the historian and his physicist girlfriend whose work intersects with an alien circuit diagram disguised as interlacing foliage in an illuminated manuscript.

2. The Lady and the Unicorn by Rumer Godden

One of her early novels, set in India. About three sisters, Rose, Bella, and Blanche, whose names suggest a fairy tale. The story isn’t quite a fairy tale modernized, but it’s definitely got elements of magical realism including a ghost girl who might be an ancestor and a ghost dog. The three girls are Eurasian and fit in neither the world of the British nor the world of the Indians. Living in a decrepit old house that was once a grand mansion built by French emigrees who fled to India after the Revolution, with a useless father who refuses to work and an elderly aunt who tries to make ends meet. The girls crave respectability . Bella opts for a relationship with an older man who, if he cannot make her respectable, will at least give her material comforts. Rosa falls in love with a handsome British boy who has been sent to India by his family to make something of himself. But of course she’s not the kind of girl that boys like him marry and his family are firmly set against the relationship. Meanwhile the landlord’s handsome son is in love with her while she takes him for granted as a friend. 

The theme of the person caught between worlds who doesn’t belong to either is a constant one in Godden’s work. This novel might not be as deft as her later works, but it’s still a beautiful, heartbreaking story.

3. The Two Kingdoms by Meriol Trevor

Sequel to The New People, both historical novels about Anglo Saxon Britain in the 7th century. I read The New People last year and enough time had elapsed that I’d forgotten many of the details, but The Two Kingdoms begins precisely where it left off. I liked the story, but struggled with the huge cast of characters— typical for Trevor— who all had Anglo-Saxon names that were hard to keep straight. Oswy and Oswald and Oswitha, and so forth. I suspect I’ll like it better on a second reading where I’ll be better able to keep the characters straight. 

As with her other fiction, Trevor takes faith seriously as a theme and King Oswy, living in the shadow of his deceased saintly older brother, has a beautiful arc of sin and redemption. The relationship between him and his queen, Enna, who comes to Northumbria out of duty but then falls in love with her rough husband, is a very satisfying one. Not my favorite of Trevor’s novels, but I’d like to find her other historical novels of early medieval Britain and read them all through. Her account of the early days of the faith in Britain is often touched with the same deft hand that I see in my favorite of her novels, Sun Slower Sun Faster— there’s a depth of mysticism in her understanding of faith that is rare to find in any fiction.

4. Enemy Brothers by Constance Savery

I read this novel along with my oldest daughter who loved it and subsequently took an online class on it this spring via Homeschool Connections. I wrote more extensively about it here.

5. Charis in the World of Wonders by Marly Youmans

Probably the best novel I’ve read this year. I wrote a long review here.

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I’m sure there are many more books I’ve read so far this year, but my brain is a sieve and if I don’t write them down right away I forget, alas.

Currently reading

1. White Tears by Hari Kunzru

A dark mystery novel that centers around music. Seth, the narrator, is a lonely child, who reads as probably autistic. He meets Carter in college and they become friends, joined by their love of music. Carter is from a very wealthy family and their relationship is unequal to say the least. Seth likes to wander around the city recording ambient sound. One of his recordings picks up a song, a blues song. And the mystery of that ghostly song haunts them and draws them into a web of death and destruction. A lot of mystery and some magical realism, and a lot of blues music.

2. Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color by Philip Ball

An intriguing book that straddles the line between art history and chemistry, looking at how the material of the pigments themselves shapes our understanding of color and the way we make and understand art.

3. The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan

I haven’t given up yet, but I’ve slowed down. As the book goes on I’ve found it’s felt more and more like too much of an overview and not enough interesting detail. Not enough storytelling. It’s harder and harder to pick up. I do like the general perspective, though. A brief history of the world that centers the Silk Roads rather than Europe. I plan to keep pegging away at it, but it’s a book I want to take frequent breaks from.

4. A Little Lower than Angels by Geraldine McCaughrean

A juvenile novel set in medieval England about a boy apprenticed to an abusive stone mason who runs away from his master and joins up with one of the first crews of traveling players, going from town to town performing mystery plays. This one gets rather dark as the players are attacked for daring to play without the bishop’s permission. After their carts are destroyed, they turn to charlatanism and fake miracles.

5. Blue Remembered Hills by Rosemary Sutcliff

Sutcliff’s memoir of her childhood. I love her novels and expect that her memoir will be equally delightful. I’m through chapter 3 so far and have found it most amusing. Sutcliff had a arthritis beginning when she was a young child, yet her stories are often hilarious.

6. A Flag Worth Dying For: The Power and Politics of National Symbols by Tim Marshall

Tim Marshall is British journalist. Bella really liked his book Prisoners of Geography, which I still have to read, and I thought this one looked like it might be interesting. So far I’ve read the first chapter, about the Stars and Stripes. Interesting to consider the American flag seen through British eyes. The Union Jack is next up…

7. Wilding by Isabella Tree

A couple years ago I first read a chapter excerpted as an article and knew I had to read this book. But it took a while for it to be released in the US. I gave it to Bella for her birthday. She read and loved it, and now I’m finally getting to read it.

It’s the sort of book I love: a little history, a lot of natural history, and science. And human interest. The author and her husband inherited his family’s farm, Knepp Castle Estate, that has a history tracing back to the Norman Conquest. In the first chapter the author details how the second World War revolutionized British agriculture, plowing under grazing fields, hedgerows, and destroying what was previously wild land and how post-WW2 the changes continued the destruction of ecosystems. Their farm is depleted and no longer profitable as a farm and facing bankruptcy, they decide to try an experiment to return it to the wild. Not just to let nature take its course, but something more radical, an attempt to return it to a state as close as they can get to what the land was like before humans cultivated it. They introduce herds of free-roaming animals to mimic the actions of the megafauna of the past, hoping to bring nature back to the land. It’s a fascinating look at ecosystems.


1. A Wizard Abroad by Diane Duane

The fourth volume in the Young Wizards series. Nita’s parents are worried about their wizard daughter’s magical practice and her deepening relationship with her partner, Kit. They decide to send her to spend the summer with an aunt in Ireland to give her a break from both magic and Kit. But when you’re a wizard you are bound by the Wizard’s Oath and the obligation created by that oath to fight entropy and the forces of evil doesn’t stop just because you leave the country. Nita gets entangled with local Irish wizards and fairies, meets a cat bard, and finds that she has a role to play in a great battle.

This is the book I listen to when I’m alone in the car or have a child with me who has read the series. Or when I go for a solo walk.

2. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

I have found Alison Larkin’s reading of Austen’s classic novel to be delightful. (She also reads the Swallows and Amazons audiobooks.) The kids have been listening in and enjoying the story. This is the book I listen to when I want to draw or paint on weekend afternoons.

3. Coot Club by Arthur Ransome read by Alison Larkin

This is our audiobook for when all seven of us are in the car. The children love getting Daddy acquainted with our beloved Swallows and Amazons. And Dom is enjoying the stories too. Good for long road trips, family outings, and going to the farmer’s market on Saturdays.

4. Spiderweb for Two by Elizabeth Enright

The fourth book in the Melendy Quartet, a story about the four Melendy children circa WW2. In this novel on the two youngest Melendys, Randy (Miranda) and Oliver, are at home. Their big sister Mona is away at school and so are big brother Rush and adopted brother Mark. Someone has taken pity on Randy and Oliver and created a great treasure hunt with clues in the form of riddles.

We love the Melendy family and these are the books we listen to when all five kids are with me in the car off on adventures and field trips. We are listening to the free podcast KayRay Reads to You.

Tried and failed

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West

I hopefully joined a quarantine book club online. I really want to read this travel memoir of an English woman traveling in the Balkans just prior to WW2, but I couldn’t keep up, kept getting distracted by other books, and eventually decided that this is not the time for this one. But I do think it’s a book I will come back to at some point.

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What have you been reading? Anything good?

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  • I loved Wilding, and remember very much enjoying Rosemary Sutcliff’s autobiography when I read it many years ago. I recently listened to The New Silk Roads on Audible (an update on The Silk Roads, more geo-politics than history) but haven’t read The Silk Roads.

    Books I have read recently and would recommend are Mudlarking by Lara Maiklem – she is, quite literally, a mudlark, who spends many hours scouring the banks of the Thames for the debris of history – Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie (beautiful writing), and The Summer Book by Tove Jansson.

    • Is she the same mudlark who has a facebook page? I think I’ve seen a bunch of her posts shared around. I’d love to read that book.

      I’ll look up the others as well.

      I also noticed in your URL that you have a blog that I didn’t know about, Kathryn!!!! (Or… I suppose it’s possible that I knew at one point and then I’d managed to totally forget it, middle-aged brains being what they are.) So I’m going to have fun catching up on your posts…