Sunday, 19 February 2017

The House on Mango Street - Sandra Cisneros

Enchanting!  That's how I must describe this tiny little gem.  Sandra Cisneros is a Latino/Hispanic? American.  This is not an ethnic group in the UK like it is in the USA, but I find an empathy whenever I come across a writer from this group - even though my own ethnic background is certainly chilly Northern European.  This is a very short book.  Only 110 pages.  And it isn't a book of short stories, just a set of what I'd describe as musings, and the publisher calls "vignettes".

The House on Mango Street 
These musing are a sort of stream-of consciousness from the mind of a child, (but this is not a children's book)  describing things she finds, feels or experiences on the way to puberty.  Living in the house on Mango Street, she wants more - but how to describe what you dream of when you are only a child?  From singing games to the disappointment of not having shoes that match a party dress; and to playing in an empty garden where there are a couple of abandoned cars, and nature is taking over;  these are things I recall too, and my childhood was spent on the other side of the Atlantic - and at a different time, too.   
These small glimpses into another world are like the best poetry,  they are not poems,  just little jewels made with a pen and paper.  I cannot believe that for my entire reading career I have never come across Cisneros before - but this is not the last of hers that will pop through my letter box.  If you are like me, and the name means nothing, perhaps you should seek her out too. I think you might enjoy her!

Friday, 17 February 2017

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Tea at Four O'Clock - Janet McNeill

Product DetailsSometimes I read a book I don't choose, it's a book that just fell my way.  This is one of those, and very glad I am to have discovered it.  First published in 1956 (although it has an older "feel"), it was republished in 1988 by Virago.  It seems to be out of print now, but there are some secondhand copies available on Amazon, and I am sure a few more around the secondhand markets on the Internet or ask at your library. 

Set in Belfast in the years just after WW2, the story of three siblings, George, who has estranged himself from his two sisters; one who in the first chapter is already dead as we read about the day of her funeral, and the other sibling Laura - who nursed Mildred for some years until her death.  A short but heartbreaking tale of how a family can cause each other so much hurt in many ways, and how lies can affect the way others lives are led.

 Laura misses her brother George so badly it hurts, and on the day of Mildred's funeral he suddenly wants to be back in the bosom of his family.  As Laura is the only one left, we ask ourselves if he has an ulterior motive?  We also ask ourselves why Laura dedicated herself to the care of Mildred in her last six years;  surely not because twenty years previously Mildred was the head of the household whilst Laura suffered a complete mental and physical breakdown?   The mysteries of why and when unfold slowly, so take your time when reading this one - and finally, when all is revealed, you will understand how the lies we tell come back to haunt others.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

The Poisonwood Bible - Barbara Kingsolver

I had put off reading this since I acquired it..... too many pages, subject not for me and all that.  But this year I am attempting to read some books that have been hanging about for far too long, and this is one of them.  And what a surprise!

The book took me on a journey I really was not ready for, and one I had difficulty in dealing with.  As an atheist, the journey of a Baptist minister and his family was not something that appealed.  But how wrong I was to have left it on the shelf for so long.  in 1959, the minister, (without the full approval of the Baptist ministry) decides that he will minister in what was then the Belgian Congo.  He has a wife and four daughters, and so they must accompany him.  From the very first pages, when we find them readying themselves for a journey to God knows where for the purpose of baptising new Christians, we already know they are in for a difficult year ahead.  And when the small plane drops them in the middle of nowhere, and they are surrounded by natives who knew of their arrival and have killed a goat in their honour it is all so strange they recede into a kind of silent shock.  The shock really never leaves them.  The small village they have arrived at, following in the footsteps of a former missionary who has rumoured to have "gone native", is as different as it would be for you or me to land on the moon.

Food?  not much and certainly not the right sort.  Running water? none.  Bath?  Not unless you walk to the river with containers, walk them back and heat them up..... and that is only the start.  The Betty Crocker cake mixes (four of them, brought for the celebration of each birthday of the daughters) set in the pack like concrete and everything, for them, appears to be a living hell.  And Father?  Nathan Price, a cruel man with mental health problems of his own, so quick to hurt physically as well as mentally his wife and all his girls, doles out punishment for all of them whilst preaching his gospel, trusting to the translator to pass the Word on correctly.

The book is told in parts, each with a biblical heading, and divided into chapters told in  the voices of the daughters, about their lives at the time, whilst at the beginning of each part the mother looks backwards to her time in Africa.

I was shocked how little I knew about the departure of the Belgians from the Congo.  Shocked at how much the US was involved in Patrice Lamumba's death.  Stunned at how the Western world still regards Africa.  Barbara Kingsolver is a wonderful author, and her research can't be beaten.   This is a book worth reading.  You can read it for the history.  You can read it for the breakup of a family.  You can read it to understand a bit more about political decisions and how they make a difference half a world away.  What it isn't is a cute story, a love story (although there is one in there), a book with a happy ending (although for some that will come).  There is horror and grief here in all kinds of ways, but it is so worth the read.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Mr Golightly's Holiday - Salley Vickers

I have read several of Salley Vickers' novels, each one different, but all with a soul.  As I started to read this one I was reminded of a long dead author, Elizabeth Goudge, in that it was very descriptive, and in a not so modern style.  My problem for you, dear readers, is that I want you to read it, but I can't tell you much for fear of giving the game away!  But let's see what I can do.

Elderly Mr Golightly needs a holiday.  Not least because he once wrote a  best seller and wonders if he should re-write it and bring it up to date a bit as sales and readership have dropped off considerably.  And so he finds himself in a small Devon village on Dartmoor, not writing much at all, drinking coffee and the occasional beer at the pub, and taking long walks and getting to know the villagers.  All have their good and bad points, some more bad than good, but really, most are redeemable.  He remembers his son, long dead, and is pleased to make the aquaintance of Johnny, a young teen, who blossoms under Golightly's love and care, and becomes his research assistant, being a wiz on the internet.  His business he's left in the care of his excellent team of staff, who send the odd email in reply to his enquiries, but otherwise leave him alone to enjoy his holiday.

We view the entire village as Golightly does, we see the affairs, how sex changes people, how lonely people just need a friend, how some awful examples of human  being need taking down a peg or two, and how secrets will out in the end.  And that's all I am going to say about this thought-provoking book.  If you are a regular reader of mine, you will know that there is always a reason for me telling you about a book.  I realised something quite important about two thirds of the way through, but even if you miss that, you will have everything made clear by the end.  Don't go near the end until you get there!!  And then, do have a look at Vickers' reason for writing the book.  Interesting.


Monday, 30 January 2017

Mrs Mac suggests - what to read in February

How about a crime novel with no body, no blood, no murder?  I wonder how many of those there are around?  No - don't all shout at once!

 I am suggesting, for you in February

                             a crime novel more than 50 years old.  

There are loads of them available, and in the last few years there have been republications of books that have been out of print for a long while.... the style will be different - but what you may find, apart from the style of writing which is very different from today's style, is a glimpse  into a life quite different from that which we live today.  I have just read a book I mentioned in the first line of this post - no body, no blood, no murder and I recommend it to you.  It's:

The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey


Friday, 27 January 2017

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away..... by Jim Smith

Darth Vader was really a welder from Fife..... WHAT?
This little clip from a radio recording is by a Scottish comedian, Jim Smith.  No matter what he does for the rest of his life, I thank him for this little chunk of wonderfulness.

Of course, being married for a very long time to a Scot means I understand (most of) it... but even if you are unfamiliar with any Scottish accent (and there are lots!) do listen a few times, and you'll get the hang of it, honestly!  You'll hear him say "I ken a boy" - roughly translated that's I know a guy".

The Art of Fielding - Chad Harbach

I am a UK blogger.  So here we don't have baseball....we have the old fashioned and much more gentle game called "rounders".  Here we don't award college scholarships just on the strength of a young sportsperson spotted who might do well for the college.  (I don't think, so, anyway).  And then, along comes a book a book about an American college and baseball.  Hey!  don't turn away.... I am not interested in baseball, either.    But the book, the book, oh! It was a wonderful example of what you might call "the human condition". How people's lives cross paths, and what effect they may have on each other.

Henry gets to have a place at a small mid-West college because he can play baseball well.

Schwartz was the guy who spotted him and who got him the place at college.  But Schwartz is in his last year at that college, wants to go to law school, and has so worn out  his body that at the very least he is going to need new knees very shortly.  Oh! and he has fallen in love with Pella.

Pella is President Affenlight's daughter, newly returned home to Dad after running out of a four year marriage to a manipulator who she had eloped with.

And of course the President of the college, Affenlight, must be seen to be above reproach in all ways, which is fine until he falls for a student.

The student?  Well - I won't give the game away except to say that a stray baseball which hurts the student sets of a chain of events that are seemingly unstoppable.

All of these lives will become entwined.  All of these people will have an effect on at least one of the others.  All of them have problems and right until the very end of the book I was not sure if all those problems would be resolved.  It highlights life in general and the problems that some people have (bad marriages;  addiction to drugs of any kind;  coping with homosexuality; feelings of low self esteem) in particular.    I liked it so much that I kept stopping after a couple of chapters to think about everyone, and to slow down the predictable feeling I knew I would feel when I got to the end which was a real "sorry that I finished it" kind of feeling.  That hasn't happened to me since I read The Book Thief.

PS - as a non-sporty type of person, I just skimmed the baseball stuff!  But if you are a tiny bit interested, Wikipedia will have some info on baseball rules.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

The Lady Who Liked Clean Rest Rooms - J P Donleavy

"Ladies should only take a pee in clean rest rooms".  One of those singular sentences that people older than you trot out from time to time, and this one from her grandmother obviously stayed with Jocelyn Jones from childhood, for wherever she is in New York city, she knows the best and cleanest rest rooms (toilets if you are reading this in the UK). 

Jocelyn is divorced from her husband, who left because, as he said, he had found some "fresh flesh".  For that statement alone I would have removed him from my life!  She asks only for the house plus a sum of money, and not an annual income.  He is happy to do that, and  she's on her own.  With no further income, no job, no skills, and only the good manners inherited from her southern grandmother, she finds that the money runs out sooner than anticipated (especially as the money from the sale of the family house disappears when an investment expert turns out to have no experience whatsoever).  After downsizing several times and being reduced to public transport only, she finds herself asking a male former friend for $500 when he turns up at her home, drunk, and looking for sex.  Things are desperate, and when she fires her gun at him (she misses) and he falls down the stairs, that seems to be the end on all accounts.  But help is coming in the most peculiar of ways, provided, of course, that she pees in a clean rest room. 

Donleavy has his own style, and he's not too fond of punctuation (except commas and full stops) either.  So it took a couple of pages before I fell into the rhythm of his writing.  But at only 119 pages, it's worth taking the time to read.  It's a delight.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Curtain Call - Anthony Quinn

Welcome to the Golden Age of Crime..... (Agatha Christie and all that, Penguin crime with green covers, heroines with names like Fliss, Bunty; heroes who were well informed and had names like Jolyon, Rupert), and the villains - ah! the villains!

Written only recently (pub. 2015) this is a great take on the genre.  Anthony Quinn makes sure that we know the era he is writing about.  Oswald Moseley;  King (not quite) Edward and Mrs Simpson are in the news, Crystal Palace has not yet burnt down, and homosexuality is a crime.  And in London, a serial killer is on the loose, and two women can identify him.  Dangerously, he saw them.

The key characters in the book are well drawn.  A married artist and his actress lover;  an unwilling prostitute;  a gay theatre critic and his straight male secretary will all have parts to play in this drama.  Other characters, though smaller in the scheme of things are well done too - there is a snivelling mother in there that I would gladly have slapped myself!  So when the artist sketches the face of the man the actress saw, it starts a chain of events that touch on everyone's lives.  And at least one of them is going to die because of it.

Edge of seat kind of read - Recommended.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Dirt Music - Tim Winton

As usual, before I write about a book I have enjoyed, I look at Amazon.  I don't need to read the 4 and 5 stars, they liked it, so I move straight down to the 1 stars, for an idea of why the reviewer didn't like it.  "Didn't like the non-use of speech marks" is an OK comment which I understand entirely although it never worries me.  But "no plot"?  That's an odd one, as there certainly is one in this book!

Georgie is 40, an ex-nurse, living with a successful commercial fisherman and his two sons in a small, rich town on the West coast of Australia.  Why?  Well, somehow that's where she ended up.  It isn't a love match - it is certainly driving her to drink.  She spends hours at night drinking vodka and surfing the net.  One night she sees someone down on the beach, and steps out to investigate, finding a truck and a friendly dog, which, it turns out, belong to a poacher - Luther Fox.  They meet, sex rears its ugly head, and well..... life takes a turn in the road for both of them.  At the same time, Georgie's mother dies, and on a trip to Perth for the funeral, she finds that none of her 3 sisters is really happy.  should she look for real happiness? 

Then things get worse, much worse.  Little secrets are starting to come out of the woodwork, and what seemed like a tale of unhappy families all round, now turns into a mystery and a thriller.  When Fox disappears, Georgie takes the decision to stick with Jim and get on with her own life....but it may not work out that way.

I must say I like Tim Winton.  Cloudstreet was the first of his I read, and so far it's the one I loved the best.  But Dirt Music comes a very close second.  If I say it's a love story, don't get me wrong.  It is, but it's about all sorts of love.  Love of parents long gone, love of siblings, love of yourself and love of strangers.  And, I think, from Winton, a love of his own country, Australia.


Saturday, 7 January 2017

That wonderful detective Nero Wolfe

Rex Stout wrote 33 Nero Wolfe novels and 39 novellas between 1934 and  his death in 1975.  in the mid-2000s, someone was showing some episodes from a  US TV series over here in the UK, and I caught a few of them.  I really liked Timothy Hutton as Archie, Nero Wolfe's acerbic secretary, driver, and all round gofer matched against the man himself, Nero Wolfe, played by Maury Chaykin.

Over My Dead Body (A Nero Wolfe Mystery Book 7)Black Orchids (A Nero Wolfe Mystery Book 9)Nero Wolfe is a big man.  So big, in fact that his chair was specially made to fit his bulk, and most of this bulk seems to be because a) he has a private chef who uses a lot of cream and butter; b) Wolfe likes beer as well as good wine and drinks 3 bottles several times a day ( keeping account of his beer drinking by saving the bottle tops in  his desk drawer; and 3) exercise is an anathema to him.

He has two hobbies - growing orchids and solving crimes.  The crime solving brings in the cash, but I must say I think he might have a private income too, as a lot gets done for sometimes very little money and living in a rather nice brownstone in New York with staff and good food and wine and orchids must cost!

The Rubber Band/The Red Box 2-in-1 (Nero Wolfe)Wikipedia has two pages, one for Rex Stout the author, and one for Nero Wolfe; there is a website for Wolfe fans called The Wolfe Pack, and someone in Australia is making Nero Wolfe charm bracelets for sale on Etsy!

The League of Frightened Men (A Nero Wolfe Mystery Book 2)So how come I didn't know about Rex Stout and all those books?  The Red Box was one of those "found" books - second hand shop/house clearance warehouse/charity shop?  One of those anyway; and I have found, in my reading career, that any publication in the early Penguin Books crime series - always green covers - will be readable.  I'd never heard of Rex Stout, didn't know he was American and didn't connect him with the TV shows I had seen until I saw the words Nero, Wolfe and orchids.

The Silent Speaker (A Nero Wolfe Mystery Book 11)The first book (Fer-de-Lance) was set at around the time it was written (mid 1930s), and although the series moves on through the years, apparently Nero and Archie don't age.  That's OK by me.  I may never read every one, but what a lovely surprise to find - all those books, a great hero (or not, as he is scathing when cross, and hardly ever leaves the house) and some clever thinking.  I did see a remark somewhere out there on the Internet that Stout is a cross between Raymond Chandler and Agatha Christie.  I don't have any comment on that as I have never read either of them (GASP!) but I looking forward to more Rex Stout. 

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Not Forgetting the Whale - John Ironmonger

Sometimes you read a book with a tear, sometimes with a smile and some you throw across the room. This is the book I told you I was going to read in January - and look, we are only  five days in and I've done it!!

I finished this with a smile, even though it is a tale of dystopia - a city analyst who runs away from his job when he realises that a computer programme he invented is definitely showing him what he thought it would, but with disastrous results. The disaster could be an end-of-the-world scenario, and when he finds himself being given the kiss of life on a beach in Cornwall it may already have happened. And if it hasn't, it is going to. He isn't dead, he doesn't know why, but there must be a purpose here somewhere. Perhaps his purpose is to save the villagers from starvation? infection? what?  There are some dark moments in this book, but it isn't a dark tale. It is a heartwarming one, of how, if we are lucky, friends and neighbours just may help out when something is obviously going badly wrong. A clever and rather lighthearted telling of what might be. And of course .. not forgetting the whale.                                                                                                                                                                                       PS. Do please read the author's postscripts when you have finished... there are a few eye-openers there.

Friday, 30 December 2016

Mrs Mac Suggests - what to read in JANUARY

It's cold, you might even have snow.  So from my shelves I pulled a book with a deckchair, a seagull, and one of those telescopes that you put money in for a view on the cover.  Sort of Summery in fact.  My suggestion for you is therefore:

 a book with a seaside kind of cover

The book I mention is actually Not Forgetting The Whale by John Ironmonger which may be a little dystopian too.

Have a good time reading through 2017!

Thursday, 29 December 2016

The Bucket - Allan Ahlberg

Now, sliding along to the turn of the year, I want to wish you Good Health and Happiness in 2017.

And to finish 2016 I bring you a little book which is full of joy, memories, laughter and tears.  The title is a nothing -The Bucket - but that bucket is full of all sorts!  This is less than a memoir, in fact it's sub-title is "memories of an inattentive childhood".   Exactly right.  At junior school he was a dreamer, inattentive as far as teachers were concerned, but obviously whilst not attending to them, he was already starting his writing career!   Ahlberg is a children's book author, most of them illustrated by his wife Janet Ahlberg, and much loved by many parents and children.  I didn't have them read to me (and in any case, as he is a similar age to me he wasn't writing when I was a small child) and in any case I am glad I found this book now.

Full of little memories of his childhood, short and long verses, embellished a little here and there, I defy anyone not to smile from time to time whilst reading this.  Some of the verse is taken from his books already published, some stories he tells you will have come from his children's books (and he marks them so that you know the source) but don;t let that bother you.  We obviously lived parallel lives because so many of his memories are carbon copies of mine - fear of the bacon slicer ..visiting cemeteries ......making slides after snow has fallen.  And about three quarters of the way through is a description in rhyme of playing football

" nets, no posts, no lines alas
                   the only thing it had was grass"

Get the timbre right, read it out loud.  You may want to take up football afterwards.


I read the hardback.  It is an ideal gift size.  I see from Amazon reviews that this is not a good book to read on a kindle or similar - I think odd line illustrations and the verses don't do well on a machine.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

The Testament of Mary - Colm Toibin

This author cannot put a foot wrong word wise for me.  Subject matter?  not always want you might like, but the words, the words......

This unchaptered novella, just broken up from time to time with an asterisk to denote a break was a strange, odd, cruel telling of Mary's view of her son; his miracles, his death and after.  For her he was just her lovely son.  That is until he left home and fell in with a crowd of men who wanted more.  He became someone else.  Stories drifted back to her about the lame walking and the dead rising, and at the wedding in Cana, the water into wine miracle is seen as something else altogether by her.

By the time the book was ended, I admired Mary greatly, disliked the disciples intensely, understood the point of view of Pontius Pilot, and thought about other teachers/leaders who got people to hang on their every word.  Chilling, brilliant.

Some readers have loved this book, others hated it because it was not as The Bible described..... but then the gospels were written some years after the death of the big man, and were very possibly embellished to instill wonder into those words.  If you think that blasphemy is a great sin, this may not be the read for you.  But as a different point of view it should be read.  And again, it's the words, the words.....

Monday, 19 December 2016

Cogheart - Peter Bunzl

Steampunk for kids .... and what a wonderful world Peter Bunzl lets us into.  Lily, a girl at a dreadful boarding school in the aftermath of her mother's death, is unhappy and it shows.  She's naughty and nearly uncontrollable.  When her guardian comes to the school to take her home, she is delighted, until she is told that her father is missing, presumed dead, and that everything must change.  For a couple of secret policemen are after something that her father made and is now missing.
Lily's father is a mechanical maker, the steampunk version of robots.... He's made Lily a lovely fox friend, Malkin, a mechanimal,  who at the beginning of the story has been injured and is taken to a clockmaker for repairs.  His character is rather foxy - short sharp sentences like barks, and a no nonsense approach to life.  All the mechanicals that Lily knows are kind supportive and have specific jobs, and characters that go with the jobs. Lily is a strong character, her new friend Robert the clockmaker's son, not quite so strong  - always worried that he cannot do things as well as his father, and also - afraid of heights.
 And just what is it that the secret policemen are after?  Something small.  Something very important. 
Bunzl's first novel is a good one.  He has a lovely writing style that will appeal to readers around 8-12 years.... although I am somewhat older and loved it.  He includes a short glossary at the back of works that those readers may never have come across - what a lovely idea in the age of "just Google it!"  There is a second book to follow next  year with the same characters.  I will be looking out for that one.  All in all, a great read, just right for the Christmas stocking, and with a gorgeous cover.

From me to you at a Seasonal time of the Year......

Sunday, 11 December 2016

Reading, buying, wanting, giving Children's books......

The link will take you to a blog where only children can contribute.  The blog is owned by a boy, the reviews are all posted by children.  Some good reviewers there too!  So if you are a child you can read and post - and if you are older you can read and discover.

This is a brilliant way to find books you have not read - how ever old you are; and if you buy books for your children, grandchildren, neices, nephews,  friends or yourself.... be my guest, and visit.

PS. the parent knows I am posting about this site.

Saturday, 10 December 2016

The Loving Husband - Cristobel Kent

Nicely tangled thriller here for fans of the genre - and very much better than many of them.
Fran is married to Nathan. Nathan "works in the building trade". Nathan has an office. Nathan is often off around the country on new projects. Nathan and Fran have two children, and Nathan is not very keen on sex. Two small children keep Fran busy, and in an old, grubby house, somewhere on the Fens it's hard to think much about the life she used to lead in London before Nathan persuaded her that a move to the country would suit them all.

But right at the beginning of the book we can see very quickly that things are not going to plan. Fran wakes in bed, just after midnight, and finds the other side of the bed empty and cold. She remembers him coming to bed, so what's the game then? A dreadful game, that's what, for within two pages we know he is dead, she has found him in a ditch outisde. Two male police detectives are convinced she did it, and the Family Liaison Officer thinks that she didn't. Fran herself begins to wonder if all she knew about her husband was right, and true. She has no proof either way, but from his past, lots of other people gradually enable her to form a picture of what he might have been - although Christobel Kent will keep you waiting until the last chapter to solve this excellent thriller.

Nicely woven, you are never sure how guilty anyone might be. There are plenty of times when you might say aah, of course, only to find a few chapters on that it was not the case at all. A good thriller has to have a believable story, but most of all a very believable end and this book has that. Set in a rural area where nothing much happens, with a couple of policemen who have their own axe to grind, and a woman who thought she knew what was was, I hope this will keep you turning the pages as it did for me.