Monday, 24 November 2014

A Foreign Field - Ben MacIntyre

On the 100th anniversary of WW1, as a nation here in the UK we have marked that event with a river of poppies at the Tower of London.  Some of us have read books set in that 1914-18 war.  A lot of fiction based on fact has been written on the subject, some of which would have a startling effect on you when read for the first time.  Michael Morpurgo's Private Peaceful is always one that I recommend if you wanted to read a little something (written for young readers, it is readable by any age) about that dreadful war.  And of course, War Horse  by the same author can be read by any age.  This year I also read All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque which looks at the German view of your average young soldier. Just change the names from Fritz to Joe, Heinrich to Henry, and the view is the same.  Then, for a female view of war, there is My Dear I Wanted To Tell You by Maria Young.  It touches on the terrible injuries inflicted on young men, who had to live on with those injuries and has it's title based on postcards made available in field hospitals and places of recuperation, made to be filled in, so that the first part of the card read:

My dear................... (insert name, or mother, brother, wife etc)
I wanted to tell you ....................(that I am alive/well/injured but alive etc)

So for my November anniversary read I chose a non-fiction book - A Foriegn Field by Ben MacIntyre - a journalist who finds a hardly known story and gives it to you complete, research done, and very readable.  You might like to try Agent ZigZag for a riveting tale of WW2.

But with A Foreign Field MacIntyre brings to you a story that is very definitely not fiction, Those written about really did exist, and this small book (261 pages excluding bibliography, notes and index) will tell you not only the truth about a small assorted party of soldiers trapped in occupied France, but also facts about the war in the area to the north east of the Somme that was totally devastated, how and why; about a small village which thrived on gossip, the personalities there, and what happened after those soldiers where taken in and hidden by the villagers.  The number of total dead on all sides in WW1 is so large I have never been able to take it in - but reading this, I found myself stunned by the numbers who died in a day in several battles over the course of the war in this area.  I found myself questioning what exactly was going on in Villeret and the other small villages around about.  Towards the end of the book I found my questions answered in a satisfying way, even though mostly by questions the author asks i.e. what was he doing?  did they know? why didn't they?
An excellent example of how good research tells a good story.  Recommended, especially if you want to find out about a small place in a big war.
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Monday, 17 November 2014

Mr Penumbra's 24-hour Bookstore - Robin Sloan

"In Blip Magazine, George Saunders called Penumbra
a real tour-de-force, a beautiful fable that is given legs by the author’s bravado use of the real (Google is in there, for instance, the actual campus) to sell us on a shadow world of the unreal and the speculative. Robin Sloan comes across as so bighearted, so in love with the world — the ancient world, the contemporary world — so in love with love, in love with friendship, in love with the idea that our technical abilities can serve as conduits for beauty, that the reader is swept along by his enthusiasm. It’s a lot of fun — but it’s also a powerful reading experience with a wonderful undeniability."
So - can I do better than George Saunders?  But that's a powerful  little description of a book I really, really enjoyed.  A book I finished with a smile on my face and a contented sigh - and let me tell you, not every book I read does that for me! 

Mr Penumbra is the elderly proprietor of a bookshop in San Francisco, where Clay Jannon works the night shift (it's open 24 hours, right?) after his failure as a website designer for a company that has gone bankrupt.  It's an OK job, not many customers during his hours of 12.00 midnight to 8.00 am, so plenty of time to surf the net, have a look at the books..... but only the new books.  On the orders of Mr Penumbra, he's not to remove any of the books in the back of the shop.  Any of those on the tall, tall shelves that require ladders to reach the volumes.  Any of those at arm's length.  Those near the floor.  They are old, dusty, and frankly, for a while, he has no interest in them anyway, and neither do many customers.  Those that are interested tend to be a little odd, mostly over 50, and the book they borrow (for they cannot be bought) must be recorded in a leather-bound ledger together with a description of the customer.....

This book is full of references.  Old books, other languages, typefaces,The Mechanical Turk, people who really existed, companies that exist - and it's such fun!  Yes, it contains a description of Google's real campus.... and it refers to lots of things that Google can do for Clay when he sets out to solve a 500 year old mystery.  If you like codes, if you love fantasy trilogies (Perhaps Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant), if you like a book with a villain, a hero, and some good friends,  if you are a bit of a computer nerd and sit up all night trying to write your own programmes; but most of all, if you like a book that makes you want to look up something on Wikipedia or elsewhere on the internet, but meanwhile makes you want to keep turning the pages, then this is the read for you.  And is the mystery finally solved?  Well, you'd have to read the book to find that out, wouldn't you?  But it's a great read, and for any of the reasons above that might make you think "she means me!" - I recommend it.

For information:  The yellow cover appears to be the US paperback, the other the UK paperback, and I note on Amazon that there is a new cover altogether which personally I don't like.  My favourite is the yellow.

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Tuesday, 4 November 2014

It's not all about books!!


Photo: Stag Minstrel sideboard/dressing table/chest of drawers - you name it.  Very versatile in Provence

You may like it, you may hate it, but it has been many years in the back of my mind although I didn't know that until I saw it. 
 When we bought a 14" Sony portable TV many, many years ago, we lived in a tiny one-bed flat, and the OH made a built-in unit in an alcove, unlike anyone else's.  I loved it.  But over the years, we bought a bigger TV and it wouldn't fit anywhere near that little unit, which had to be dismantled. (We did re-use the wood - upcyclers, even then!)  For that new TV we acquired a pine kids' toybox, painted it pale blue, and the OH cut a slot out of the front for the video to peep out.  Lots of people loved that one, and you know, in another life, we might have made upcycling a business!  
That big TV was with us for many years, moved from London to Dorset and still worked a couple of years ago when we bought a flat screen TV. (We just can't remember what happened to the big TV, but one thing's for certain - it didn't get dumped!!).  Anyway, the flat screen TV went on a new entertainment centre - you know the kind - like a coffee table with boxed in sides a space under the TV for all the gizmos, and a drawer for instruction booklets etc.  And I never took to it.  So much so that I was supposed to paint it, but couldn't apply myself!! 
And then, two weeks ago, we were trawling round yet another Vintage Warehouse (which, have you noticed, are springing up everywhere like a rash?).  They used to be called House Clearance Depots, but Vintage sounds so much nicer than house clearance, doesn't it?  We were looking for a very small but chunky coffee table (no luck there so far); we found a lovely circular Ercol dining table with splayed legs and drop leaves - which we'd have bought, but our dining chairs are oversized and would not have fitted round; we saw lots of lovely stuff and were we starting our life together today,  it wouldn't take us long to get it together.  Anyway, I digress.  I was away on that side of the warehouse inspecting 1950s light fittings which I didn't like for me, but had to admire when the voice of the OH behind me pointed me in the direction of some lovely painted furniture and there she was!  Oh!!!!

We had a cup of tea and slice of cake in the cafe, went back and had another look, went home and measured the space (small cottage, no long walls!) and it would be perfect.  So phoning and asking them to hold it until the following day, we smiled and said "must have been waiting for us".  Today I take that remark very seriously, as I found it on their facebook site as early as June - how could someone else not have loved it?  TV looks great and look!  6, I said SIX drawers!! we are always short of space and will soon fill them.   I look at my little beauty every day, and make that Mmmmm sound.  She's lovely!

Saturday, 1 November 2014

What to read in November - Mrs Mac suggests:

 A book with lost or found (or equivalent) in the title - 

e.g. The Missing File - D A Mishani


The Other Side of You - Salley Vickers

I couldn't stop reading this bitter sweet book.  David, a psychiatrist, and one of his patients, Elizabeth, an attempted suicide, each have baggage.  For her, it's the meeting of, and the loosing, of her soulmate; and for him, the loss of his brother in early childhood.   For several sessions, Elizabeth is unable to talk abot her attempted suicide (which was not a cry for help, but very much meant), until discussing an Italian painting with her doctor, she suddenly decides that it's worth telling her story.  In doing so, she becomes the catalyst for David to think again about his brother, how he died, and how his whole life has been affected by that. 
I wonder how most of us would feel, meeting that soulmate and then loosing him the very next day;  the anguish that would go with that loss, the steps taken to fill the hole left by that loss, and the sudden re-meeting by chance, of that very person, so many years later?  I wonder how many of us have family history that we don't doubt? 

It is a dark book - we know almost immediately that Elizabeth attempted suicide, but not why.  We also  know that she is David's patient, and that it is his job to "heal" his patient.  It takes a while for us to realise the facts behind the attempt.  It takes us a while, too, to understand that sometimes David gets too close to his patients.  His own personal life is in turmoil, something he slowly comes to acknowledge when Elizabeth is telling her story.  Dark it may be, but with redemption.  It is the story of love but  not between the doctor and the patient in the accepted sense of the word love.  It is so beautifully written that it's a master class in the description of feelings - If you haven't caught up with this one yet I recommend it.

I'd like to hear your comments if you have read it, too.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Mrs Caldicot's Cabbage War - Vernon Coleman

Mrs Caldicot has been married for over 30 years to a dour, ignorant man who "worked in sewage".  She has learned to think but not speak, as she has nothing worth saying, apparently.  When he dies, she is not bereft, but finds herself not knowing quite what to do with herself.  She has a large, three bedroomed house and a garden, but no hobbies, no friends, and no interests.  That doesn't last long, for her son is determined to sort things out and arranges for her home to be sold, and for her to reside in a retirement home, which smells of cabbage, and where residents are drugged up to the eyeballs.  She is quick to stop swallowing her drugs, and persuades (or rather teaches) her two roommates to do the same.  She refuses to eat cabbage, and insists that her cat comes to live with her.  That's just the start of this heartwarming tale, where we learn that even the old should have a voice.  (In telling the tale, Vernon Cole has observed how badly the elderly can be treated when foisted off to care homes unnecessarily.  Somehow, the care home business in general still has some dreadful stories to tell 40+ years after this book was written, as we see in the news).  But if that sounds bleak, it isn't at all, Mrs Caldicot is suddenly able to rise above all that and Do Something About It!  

That was my view, but I found this review from 2006 on Amazon after I'd read it, and thought you'd enjoy reading it.....
" 5.0 out of 5 stars A great read - revolution for older folk, 16 May 2006

Mrs Caldicot has a bummer of a husband. He dies. Her relatives want to dump her in a nursing home so they can sell her house. And then it starts. Good old Mrs C suddenly gets a bit lively. She stands up for herself and won't put up with the boss of the nursing home. She starts a revolution. Its sad and funny all at the same time. And underneath it all there is the message. I loved it."

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Perfect - Rachel Joyce

I really must apologise for not reading this sooner.  To both Rachel Joyce, the author, and to you, my readers.  Because if you have not found this one yet, add it to your list and find it now!  First, it's so well-written, that to a pedant like me, my eyes just rolled along the lines with joy, not finding "wrong grammar" and that kind of stuff.  Second, a brilliant idea for a story.  Third, some shocks as the book moves along. Enough of me, let's get on.

The Perfect of the title can mean many things.  It may be the way that Byron's mother tries to behave, because that is how her husband Seymour wants things.  Who would want a Stepford Wife?  A difficult thing to live up to, and following the news that two seconds were to be added to time in 1972 because time itself was out of joint with Earth's movement, Byron begins to panic that things cannot therefore be perfect.  It is that panic that causes an accident.  Not fatal, not even nasty, but the events which follow make Byron and his friend James conspire to make things perfect again.  We have two stories beautifully woven together within the covers.  One set over a few short months in the Summer of 1972, where following that little accident, things seem first to be out of kilter at Bryron's home, and second when Bryon and his best friend James try to make things right again, when perhaps leave well alone would have been a better bet.  The other story is now.  Jim, who has been in and out of mental hospitals since his teens, is finally discharged for ever when his current hospital closes down.  He has little rituals he has to perform, and he knows he is different.  He has no friends, he lives in a broken down motor home, and works as a table clearer in the cafe of a large store.  How Jim and the two boys are linked will become clear towards the end of the book, but before you get there you will gasp as I did when adults behave badly, whether to Byron and James, or to Jim, and you will have some tears to shed as the truth unfolds.

Rachel Joyce is clearly a people observer.  She, like most of us, has met adults who show their dislike of people who are different; kids who don't always understand what they see or hear, and also, adults who have no idea of the effect of what their words thoughts and deeds might be upon children.  But her keen observation has produced a story that I am unlikely ever to forget.

 It is a thriller, a love story, a reflection on how when kids get things wrong there are knock-on effects, but the important thing is that it's a well-told tale, and yet it seems not to have got the kudos that Harold Fry did.  I wonder why?  I believe it to be the superior book, and I recommend it wholeheartedly.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Hoot - Carl Hiaasen

Roy Eberhadt - ecowarrior!  Although he doesn't know that yet.  Moving from Montana to Florida is a big deal for Roy, he loved the horses and the wide open spaces, and Florida just seems flat (and hot!). He moves a lot - his father's job takes him all over (and it's only when you get about half way through the book that you find out why), and every move Roy has to find friends at a new school, try to keep out of the way of bullies (he's small for his age and quiet), and generally get on with his life.  This move, however, may become something higher profile for him!  It's because of the bully on the bus that he sees a kid with no shoes running for the schoolbus - but no! he doesn't get on the bus, he runs on and over back gardens and away.  It takes a while for Roy to find out who he is and why he's running;  and meanwhile, a food chain is attempting to open a new restaurant on the corner.

Clever cover, clever title;  for you'll not be very long into the book before you discover that the creatures that need saving  are burrowing owls, a real species, and protected in the USA.  Cute, too.  This is where Roy finds out who his friends are, that grownups often lie to save their own skins, and that not all parents are good parents.  Oh, and that big business is often corrupt!  So easy to read, such a good story.  I cannot imagine that kids from say 8 or 9 up to early teens will not enjoy the adventure.  As an adult I enjoyed it very much, and I know several other readers I lent it to felt the same.
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Friday, 17 October 2014

Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures - Kate DiCamillo

Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated AdventuresI've been a fan of Kate DiCamillo since I came across Because of Wyn-Dixie.  This is an entirely different book, but a wonderful adventure for younger readers (or to be read aloud as there are some wonderful shouty bits!)  Flora saves a squirrel from certain death when he is sucked up by a very powerful vacuum cleaner.  Somehow, this dreadful event turns him into a super-hero, and Flora names him Ulysses.  In a strange turn of events, Tootie, the lady next door who was operating the vacuum cleaner at the time, has a nephew (William) foisted upon her for a few weeks as he has misbehaved following the re-marriage of his mother to a man who insists on calling him Billy.
Flora's Mum seems to enjoy the company of her typewriter more that that of her daughter; Flora's Dad does not live at home any more, and Flora is a little odd ..... well, not really, as you'll see the further into the book you get.  Anyway, there are some great adventures to be had along the way, and those which have Ulysses being a super-hero are done in graphic novel/comic book form, whilst the rest of the book is a normal reading book.
I polished it off in a couple of hours, but then I am rather older than the aimed-at reader!  What child does not feel left out sometimes, or unloved sometimes, or wanting an adventure sometimes.  That's Flora, and I liked this little girl very much indeed. 

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Most popular post about such a small room!

 What a funny thing!  I have feedjit on my blog.. a little tool which tells me who has visited recently/who is visiting right now.  I love it, and I wonder sometimes who these visitors are, and how they came across me.  I'm not a professional blogger (I don't have any advertising, I sometimes post only a couple of times a month), and no-one offers me new beds, new paints, new books;  but somehow I have a most popular post......  my regulars number around 35 - but in a year, this one has had 1,111 yes! one thousand one hundred and one hits.  Why?  And one of the funniest thoughts I had was - how have the Americans( they've hit the most) found this?  Because the first few words of the title are "Downstairs toilet, change of colour...." and Americans, (bit of a sweeping statement coming up), to my knowledge, call these rooms anything but toilets!  I don't mind of course, the more the merrier that view my smallest room, but I am intrigued as to why that post is sooo popular.  Any ideas?

Sunday, 5 October 2014

The Night of the Burning - Linda Press Wulf

Although this is a children’s book, aimed, I think, at good readers of 10 years upwards, it is an excellent introduction for a reader of any age one who knows little of the fate of Polish Jews towards the end of, and after, WW1.

In short chapters, this book tells the story of sisters Devorah and Nechama, who live in abject poverty in Poland, near the Russian border.  It speaks of the hatred of Christians (Jews killed Jesus - that old chestnut) and what that kind of thinking will ultimately turn into.  This is a historical fiction based on real characters, and follows the two sisters on their long journey after the death of their parents - one from typhoid, and one (probably) from starvation - rescued by one of those heroes who not enough people hear about, Isaac Ochberg, who managed to get 200 Jewish orphans to South Africa. 

Do read the "Afterward" and "Author's note" at the end of the book - there are some questions answered there.  And Devorah, who tells the story, was the mother-in-law of the author.

Friday, 3 October 2014

A thank you to Booketta!

Jane awarded me this lovely blog award. So I want to thank her for that.  What I am supposed to do is find several other bloggers I want to award this to and go on from there.  Sadly, Jane has awarded this to all the book bloggers I know personally!  Not so sadly, it was lovely to get it.  If my blog amuses, great - if it does not then just pass on along the road.  Thank you again Jane. x
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Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Dear Mr Bigelow - Frances Woodsford

I am really unsure how I found this book, but I must have seen in mentioned somewhere, as I ordered it, and when it came it sat on the shelf for a year or so.  And now I've read it and what an enjoyable read it is, too.  That is, if you like ordinary life with no sex, no murders, no mobile phones, no computers etc!  Frances Woodsford started to write to Paul Bigelow as a  'thank-you' to his daughter .... whom she had met whilst on holiday in the USA just after the war.  At that time, dressed in homemade clothes made from other second-hand items, she obviously struck a cord with the American, who sent her a bundle of rather nice (and new)clothes on her return to England.  And as there was nothing she could do to thank that  woman enough, she started to write to the elderly Mr Bigelow - a correspondence that lasted from 1949 to 1961 when he died.  No love, no inuendo, nothing except a transatlantic friendship.  He kept all her letters and after he died they went missing and that was the end of that.  Except that it wasn't, and they re-surfaced 40 years later - and here are some of them for your delectation.

In another life, Frances Woodsford might have become a writer herself, her style, aimed at not only telling Mr Begilow all the news but making him smile too, would have done nicely in fiction.  Whilst it is true that the letters are of their time (I don't know anyone who talks like that these days, in the world of "Laters" and "Where R U ?"), they are enjoyable because of that.  Add to which the  fact that I am familiar with the town of Bournemouth and the period the letters cover are the early part of my own life, I found it a lovely companion for a few days. It's just letters, together with a few reproduced pencil sketches and photographs.  That's it, but a lovely book to dip in and out of, or to just settle with and keep reading.

Frances Woodsford died in 2013 at the age of 99, and if you click on the link below you will find a lovely tribute for a woman who wrote to lots of other people too, and who this niece-in-law obviously apreciated very much.