Thursday, 13 October 2016

The Whistling Season - Ivan Doig

Every so often I find a book that makes me evangelical - and here, set in the lonely hugeness that is Montana at the start of the 20th Century is one of those.

Three motherless brothers, a father, and an advertisement in a newspaper from a housekeeper seeking employment headed "Can't Cook, Doesn't Bite".  And there I was, hooked by this wonderful tale of what happens to everyone when the Rose the new housekeeper and her brother arrive on the afternoon train and alight, in the middle of nowhere to start a new life.  Morris, the brother, after a few false starts, is taken on as the school teacher, and Rose whistles her way through the dust and dirt and makes their home clean and loved again - but it's true, she can't and does not cook.  So the lumpy porridge and questionable stews continue to be made by Dad. 

Small fights, big problems, and a mystery.  Children growing into adolescents;  bullies and those who are bullied, and Morris is teaching all of them things that are not on the curriculum but that will fascinate and educate them in a far more important way than ordinary spelling, ordinary arithmetic....... In 1910 the arrival of Haley's Comet in the skies above is something they learn about and want to celebrate

The last couple of chapters will solve the mystery....... and had me putting the book down several times because I didn't want it to end.  And when I at last got to the last lines, it was with a sigh of total enjoyment.  

I was passed this wonderful book by a friend who hoped that I would like it - Oh! I did!, I did! but sadly, when I looked up the author -  who had never come into my sights before, I find that he died in 2015.  I hope he knew before he died that he was a glorious storyteller - and at least there are many books of his for me to look forward to.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Mrs Mac suggests..... a book to read for OCtober

Well, leaves, mellow fruitfulness and all that...... here's October, and I'm sure, on your shelves, there will be

 A book you've not read yet but are saving as a treat.

I always have a few that are appealing to me - you know, the whispered "read me, read me" as you pass them by on the shelf, so I can't believe you don't have some of them too. The darker evenings will soon be upon us, time to light the fire, the woodburner, or turn on the heating.... and what better than to snuggle up with one you really want to read!

This month, for me, it's The Whistling Season by Ivan Doig passed on to me by a booky friend (thanks Jeannine!)

Monday, 26 September 2016

Film Freak - Christopher Fowler

Let me introduce you to Christopher Fowler.  This is the second of his memoirs, the first (Paperboy) being about his childhood;  this starting in his late teens/early twenties, is about his love of film, particularly black and white English film and his involvement in the business.  His views on Hollywood are eye opening.  He and his business partner and friend, Jim, were involved in the business for many years and this book is a great read for film buffs and those, like me, who lived in London for the period it covers.  That doesn't mean I know as much as he does about film or about London, but I did enjoy the read.  A lot of laugh out louds, a lot of smiles, a touch of sadness, and right at the end, the solving of a mystery that had haunted me for years and years.

And let me just remind you, readers, that you are far more likely to know Mr Fowler as the author of the Bryant and May detective mysteries, which are fabulous reads - and who could not resist two old detectives who are named after a box of British matches?  Go on, seek them out!!

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Clematis - Madame Julia Correvon, and I want her!

clematis 'Madame Julia Correvon

Meet Madame Julia Correvon - and whilst I don't have her in the garden yet, I think I have found a spot.  We are having hardstanding paviors in our car parking spot, and when all is finished, I have about a foot square of new planting space at the end of an existing border. A very small brick built shed, never used by us, used to stand there, plus an assortment of shrubs which formed a sort of hedge which was only about four foot wide, facing the road.  That space is now big enough to hold the new style wheelie bins, of which we have 2, plus the foodstuff caddy and the box which holds glass.  The hardstanding paviours are laid on smashed up brick (from that little shed) and what I think in the trade is called "chippings".  

So what to put in that foot square of space? Clematis need cool roots, and I think it can send roots down into the bricks to stay cool, whilst having a nice topping of good soil and some pebbles on top.  That spot also does not get full sun until after noon in high summer.  It will grow up (I hope) some fencing which will sit at the back and side of the bins, and will eventually be seen from the road, which is lovely for passers by.  She can also be trained to go the other way behind a winter flowering Vibernum bodnantense "Dawn"and onwards along the fence.
The plants in the existing border are mostly red and pink, including the Vibernum.  There's a huge pink  peony which is very hit or miss because if it rains whilst it is starting to blossom it's finished.  But I love it too much to remove it, and in any case, in front of it grows crocosmia/monbretia (change of name and I can't remember which way!) Lucifer, which is a vibrant red.  There is another crocosmia/monbretia too, a lovely pale orange with a yellow eye.  Also in that border is a dark red (towards black at the end of it's bloom) rose, and  another shrub (sorry, name escapes me) which has white flowers in early spring, and black berries around now plus a silver birch on the corner.  And as it turns the corner, the border turns from red to orange and yellow.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

The Good Luck of Right Now - Matthew Quick

Reading Amazon reviews, I can see that this is definitely a Marmite book.  Some readers just don't get it, some don't want to get it and some just plain love it with a lot of views in between!

Bartholomew Neil is a special needs person.  You think?  Well, as each chapter of the book is a letter he's written to Richard Gere (the first few pages will tell you why), and as he is a 40 year old man who has always lived at home with his Mom, and has never had a job maybe that's right.  Or maybe it isn't.  He has spent some years nursing his mother, who has just died from cancer, when he writes his first letter to Richard Gere.  It is not long before people are trying to "help".  His local priest who is also a family friend, is bi-polar and after an event at church he moves in with Bartholomew to look after him.  It's soon clear that Father McNamee actually needs more help than Bartholomew, but at least the two of them can look after each other.  And then there is the social worker who needs to be helped herself and is of no use to Bartholomew - but receives help from him and from Father McNamee.  And then there is the girl at the library who he likes a lot but cannot bring himself to talk to - and her brother Max who he comes across at a therapy session, and who inserts the word "fuck" into every sentence he utters, sometimes more than once.

The title is rather special too.  It is his Mom's mantra.  She always believed that for every person enjoying bad luck, right that minute there was someone enjoying good luck.

So obviously there are some special needs all round and it is for you, the reader to work out who needs what the most.  I have enjoyed two of Matthew Quick's books already - The Silver Linings Playbook and Forgive me, Leonard Peacock and I enjoyed this just as much.  

Sunday, 11 September 2016

The Painter - Peter Heller

Jim Stegner has lost a lot.  A daughter, two wives, time spent in prison..... and if he's not very careful he's going to loose a lot more.  And all because of a bully and a little mare.  When Jim comes across Dellwood beating the mare because he cannot get her into a horsebox, a kind of rage creeps up and he gets out of his truck and attacks the man, breaking his nose and drawing blood.  He's made an enemy.  He retrieves the mare and Dellwood and his companions drive off, whilst Jim waits for a friend with a horsebox to come and take the mare to safety.

That's all it takes for things to go wrong.  No, not right, things had always gone wrong for Jim Stegner, and he is still living the grief that came with some of it.  But he can still paint, and his paintings are rising in value.  Every single one he paints, he can sell.  And now, Dellwood is dead.

I loved the Dog Stars by Heller, a dystopian tale on my all time favourites list.  Although this one is not going on that list, doesn't mean it's a bad read.  Quite the opposite, but it's a different kind of book.  This is about a man desparately trying to overcome grief.  It's a tale of revenge.  It's a thriller.  All those things have been seamlessly put together and turned into a book I couldn't stop reading.  I'd call it a modern Western novel. 

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Monday, 5 September 2016

All We Shall Know - Donal Ryan

From the twelfth week of her pregnancy, Melody Shee talks to her computer, recording all the things that got her to where she is currently. How the pregnancy came about first of all, as the child is not the child of her husband. And when she tells her husband, we begin to understand that her marriage had already turned messy, and why. We hear her innermost thoughts about the child, it's father, the best friend she lost along the way and the new friend she has made. It's heartbreaking to realise how she needs to punish herself and those around her. But for what? Did she do something so dreadful in her life that makes her so bitter and frightened and angry now?
From the back cover we have already been told that the father of the baby is Martin Toppy, a seventeen year old Traveller, and Melody is over thirty. She was teaching him to read and write.......
Descriptions of Traveller life may shock if you have no knowledge of their way of life - but those descriptions are necessary to make the reader understand the issues involved. The big surprise is that Donal Ryan is a man. A man, an author who is able to get into the mind of a woman. Colm Toibin can do this too - and it is no surprise that they are both Irish - the people who tell stories so well. I will be looking for more by this author - if he tells his other stories as well as this I need to read them.

[copy of my Amazon Vine review]

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Sunday, 4 September 2016

The Grass is Singing - Doris Lessing

I got this book to read as part of a circle book club, and my heart sank.  I had never read any Doris Lessing although she was a particularly prolific author.  But I needed to give my comments and so I sat down to read.  What a revelation!  This, her first book, published in her early thirties, is an exploration into how the mind works when confronted with things it cannot cope with - but whatever it is about, it is the words and how each sentence is put together that gave me joy whilst reading a very dark tale.

Mary is young, single, living in a "girl's club" in a town in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in the years before WW1.  She has fun, she works hard.  She's a shorthand typist and personal secretary, a job which she doesn't find difficult, and which gives her money to live on, for nice clothes, for cinema visits, and for generally enjoying life.  She has lots of friends, both female and male, and the weekends are usually taken up with picnics, swimming parties, or sports like the odd round of tennis.  All in all then, a good life until she overhears a conversation about herself by two friends.  Her life is turned around in that moment, and it is not long before she wants to marry.  She meets a shy farmer and within a year, having only met him a couple of times, they are wed and living on a small farm, hours away from the city.  This is her total undoing, and that of her husband Dick too.  Even though the first page tells the end of the story, I found myself wanting everything to work out well for both of them, knowing that it was never going to.

This is the second book in a month that I've read about poor whites in Africa (the other is reviewed in Aug 2016 a non-fiction - The Toe Rags) and with just two books, my understanding of white farmers on the African continent has grown enormously, and given me much food for thought.

Amazon reviewers are mixed in their praise (or not!) so this is a real Marmite book.  But I have to recommend it.  At only 2003 pages it is not a long read.  It's not a cheery read either but it's style is wonderful.  A joy to see a complex sentence that is so well put together  that it makes you want to read the next one.

The title, in case you are interested, comes from The Waste Land by T S Elliot -

 "In this decayed hole among the mountains
In the faint moonlight, the grass is singing
Over the tumbled graves, about the chapel........"

Friday, 2 September 2016

When things become a thing

Image result for cotton bolls
I found a funny comment this morning on a favourite blog.  Melissa's blog,  The Inspired Room,  has a show house this morning.  It's in Oregon, USA and amongst the comments that follow the posts someone has asked "when did cotton bolls become a thing?" because the interior designer has used cotton bolls instead of cut flowers in a couple of rooms.

I laughed because everything becomes a thing these days!  Pinterest,  Facebook et al will show you all sorts of things and of course you are free to use the pics and design your own interiors, get a new haircut,  hang some words on the wall, cook something new.  But probably the reason cotton bolls have become a thing is that Joanna Gaines of the TV programme Fixer Upper has them for sale in her Magnolia shop...... how the internet gets you everywhere, doesn't it?

But before you go, these pictures show you cotton in it's raw form.  This is what they look like before they turn into anything!
Image result for cotton bolls

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

The River King - Alice Hoffman

 I nearly stopped reading this book before it got going.... the starting section, with it's scene-setting and introduction of characters seemed to me to be quite slow, and going nowhere.   But somewhere in Hoffman's beautiful writing style was a little something that kept me reading .......

I started off thinking American Gothic.   Perhaps a ghost story?  Small town America?  Not a love story, anyway.  Along the way I changed my mind several times, although the book does indeed contain all those elements, together with several flawed characters whom you may, or may not like very much.  That's how I felt, anyway.  But like them or not, I wanted to keep reading about them.

Abe Grey, a single and singular man, policeman, brother of a suicide victim in his teens is a man who can't let go.  Of anything he deems important.  He's going to be the catalyst for quite a lot of things in the story.  Carlin Leander, a girl from a poor background who arrives in town with a place at a private school.  A girl who is a loner, who doesn't make friends easily, and who finds that the people she gets on with best with are a teacher at her school who needs help to deal with and cover up a terminal illness; and August Pierce, a boy who arrives at the same school and on the same day as she does.  He's a loner too, and it is he who will set a ball rolling that cannot be stopped.

People fall in love with these characters  and they too feel love,  but that love is not necessarily reciprocated at the time.  The whole book is about love, but is not always a love story.

So when Abe Grey finds out something strange about a death which appears sad but normal to others, he isn't going to stop, even if he loses nearly everything on that journey.  A mystery, a little bit of magic realism, life, death and love all knitted together in a wonderful style.  Recommended.

Monday, 29 August 2016

Mrs Mac Suggests - What to read in SEPTEMBER

Well, in the UK, September is "back to school month", and so my suggestion for one of my favourite months of the year is 
a book set in a school 

From Mallory Towers  onwards, there are just loads of them.  You must be able to find something!  My own suggestion, if you have never come across it, is 

Gentlemen and Players - Joanne Harris

This is my personal favourite of all her books. Chocolat is lovely, but this is not. It is a clever thriller and one to be enjoyed in the garden perhaps with a pot of tea (no, scrub that and have a cold drink,  because the tea will get cold whilst you turn the pages!) 

Sunday, 28 August 2016

The Smartest Woman I Know - Ilene Beckerman

I found a pictoral review of this little book on a favourite blog - Letters from a Hill Farm.  Nan is a bit of an Anglophile.  She blogs from over the pond in New England.  I like her blog - she's interested in the sort of things I am.  Cooking, gardening, books, films...... so I am a regular visitor, and I know that sometimes she visits mine!  When I saw the pictures of this book I had to have it. So I acquired it second-hand, and very shortly it's going upstairs into the guest bedroom.  I am also ordering some more, because I know several friends who will enjoy this.

A great little book to keep by the side of the bed, or to give as a little gift, or to keep in a pile in the guest room.... but whatever you do, read it first. The smartest woman was Ilene Beckerman's New York Jewish grandmother. A woman who gave advice at every possible turn. A woman who had views on almost everything:  at age 15 to her granddaughter going to a party in her first little black dress - "You're wearing black?  You're going to a funeral?".  A woman who was good at business. You can find out what advice she gave Franklyn D Roosevelt's Mum.  Her views on sex.   I loved her, and when you make her aquaintance, I am sure you will too.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

The Toe-Rags - Daphne Anderson

I have read every one of Diana Athill's Memoirs.

So why would I mention her at the beginning of a post about a book by a different author?  I would, because she mentions the book I am going to tell you about in one of her memoirs, as a book that stuck in her mind for a very long time (one of two books actually).  If  Diana Athill liked it and I liked the reason she gave for liking it, then I feel I should also tell you about it because I liked it very much, not least for the insights into colonial Africa it gave me.

The Toe-Rags* were three small children - Daphne in the middle, Stella her older sister and Tom the youngest. With a ne'r do well father and and an exhausted and dirt poor mother they were brought up in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in the 1920s.  He was always off to seek work and promising to send money home, when it seems that all he ever did was visit his well-off sister for a month or so, and them come home with no money, telling his wife it was all her fault.  When the girls were tiny, they lived with their maternal grandparents but were returned to their mother (and occasional father) when the grandparents' own circumstances changed.  Despite the family's absolute poverty (Daphne and Stella wore dresses stitched from flour and sugar sacks) their young lives were happy, and they were overseen by the houseboy (even the poorest whites had "boys" who did the work) who did much of the caring for the children.    When their mother eventually left, taking a new baby with her and running off with the children's uncle, she supposed that her husband would "have to take care of the children now";  but of course he didn't.......

If you think you have been poor; if you think you are poor now;  don't even think that way.  The poverty and treatment endured by these children is a shocker.   And if you think these whites were poor then that is nothing to what the blacks suffered during times of draught, or loss of employment.   Daphne Anderson describes her life from age four up until her twenties, and everything she achieved, she achieved herself.  She also describes the white hierarchy prevalent at that time, and you know, nothing much has changed if you compare families in the UK (or any other country in the world) being paid benefits,  to the Nouveau Riche who look down upon those who cannot rise to their dizzy heights.  Plus la change?  Yes indeed.

This book is out of print, but there are copies available on places like Amazon at rather inflated prices..... perhaps your library can find you a copy?

* Toe Rag:  British slang, not much used now.  Contemptible or despicable person - originally a beggar or tramp:  from the peices of rag they wrapped around their feet.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Cannery Row - John Steinbeck

What a good day when this wonderful short novel passed my way.  John Steinbeck – Grapes of Wrath and all that?  On my mental list of authors that must be looked into, but somehow never are – until Cannery Row.

Monterey, California – the poor end of town next to the fish canning factories.  Here live, and struggle for survival, some wonderful colourful characters.  Doc, the star of the show, has a biological establishment.   He collects, and supplies to laboratories, animals and sea creatures and lives in his company building, all mixed in with the stock.  Then there’s Mack, leader and usually spokesman for a group of four or five down and outs who are living rent free in a building owned by Mr Lee, Chinese grocer and entrepreneur.  How he acquired the building, and how Max and his pals come to live in it forms the start of the tale of the inhabitants of Cannery Row, sad and funny by turns.  In fact, many of the short chapters in this book are that way – sad and funny by turns.  Some of them, in a few short sentences, brought tears to my eyes.  And some are so wonderfully clever and funny, they need to be read out loud.  What a great writing style Steinbeck uses for this book – his skill is in the way he can say so much when seeming to say so little.  It was a joy to meet all the inhabitants - from the brothel ‘madam’, with her dyed red hair; Mack and his friends who drink a lot but bother no-one; Doc, a soft heart for everyone, even when he loses his temper;  Mr Lee the shop keeper who always has an eye for the main chance but so often looses out to Mack, who can spin a tale so  tight he is the only one who knows where it’s going.  There are more colourful characters to be found here  and not too much of a story – this is more a tale of the way things are, rather than of how they are going to be.  If you have never read any Steinbeck – do, please, seek this one out.  I loved it, and you may feel the same as me – only one way to find out!