Saturday, 22 July 2017

The Watery Part of the World - Michael Parker

Here's an odd one.  My, I found it difficult to read - it hops about in time a bit, and whilst I usually enjoy that kind of novel, this one took some sticking to; and to be honest, at first  I only wanted to read it because it is set on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and having been there on holiday a few years ago, this one captured my interest.

But read it I did, and found it rather unsettling, but also haunting and beautiful.  The book starts with the shipwreck and survival of Theodosia Burr, daughter of a former US vice president, Aaron Burr.  She is on her way to meet him in New York when the ship is taken by pirates, and she is the only person left alive. She's eventually rescued by someone in the pay of the pirate captain, Daniels, who's land HQ is at Nags Head on the Outer Banks.  Her rescuer eventually frees her from Daniels, and takes her, secretly, to a small island further down the Banks.  There they live for some years, eventually becoming lovers, she bearing him several children.  That's the historic part of the book.

In the present, two sisters, descendants of Theodosia are the last two white people on the same island, together with a black couple, who they have known all their lives.  How eventually they are all gone from the island is really the entire heart of the book.

I said at the beginning that I found it difficult to read.  Well, I had to concentrate a little more than usual, although that didn't make it a bad read.  Not at all, it was certainly worth the time spent.  You can use Google Earth to look at this part of the world - and if you type in Nags Head Outer Banks North Carolina you will find yourself looking at the Outer Banks, and you will understand the title of the book.  Scroll down a little until you find Morehead, on the mainland, and between those two points the book is set.

By the way, Aaron Burr existed.  His daughter Theodosia also, and she was lost at sea (or not, if you choose to stick with the fiction of the book!).

Sunday, 16 July 2017

A Gentleman in Moscow - Amor Towles

I am a little bit in love with a Russian. Never thought that would happen until I met Count Alexander Rostov. He is the star of this wonderful novel, and from 1922 until the early 1950s, Count Rostov is living in the Hotel Metropole, in the middle of Moscow, under indefinite house arrest, deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by the Bolsheviks.

 In those thirty odd years, he meets two children many years apart and loves them both. He is seduced by a beautiful woman and loves her too. He makes good friends of the Maitre'D and the Chef of the finest restaurant in Moscow, he becomes the head waiter in that restaurant, he is kind, well mannered, and known by all. Visitors to the hotel become friends too, over the years, and his life is rich, even though he has lost almost everything. But he has not, of course lost much at all if you omit the loss of liberty. For in loosing so much, he gains so much more.

A couple of years ago I read Towles' first book, Rules of Civility, which I liked at the time, but now cannot remember a thing about.  This, on the other hand, I am unlikely ever to forget.  I cannot thank  enough the friend who recommended this to me after she had read it.  She said she loved the Count's company, and on the strength of that I acquired this beautiful read, one that will stay with me, There are heroes and villains too, in this book.  you will find little bits of real history inserted into the pages, which, if you are interested makes the tale even better embroidered.  If you are not, it doesn't matter a jot!

Just Imagine.  The life of an aristocrat who somehow was not killed during the Bolshevik revolution which resulted in the death of the last Czar and his family;  imagine going from a life of luxury where you lived for a time in a whole luxurious suite in the Hotel Metropole to a tiny attic room in the same hotel.  Imagine your days, confined but not imprisoned.  How the Count managed this was by realising that possessions are not everything, but friends are.  And by the way, towards the end, a little frisson of excitement makes a perfect ending.

Friday, 14 July 2017

Large Skipper sighted in my garden!

Highslide JS Photo © Peter Eeles

I found one of these little fellas on my washing yesterday in the sunshine, and sent a message to my butterfly expert, "Ian of Weymouth" asking what had I seen?  because if you look closely you will see that the formation of the wings is unusual, sitting on top of each other rather than one below the other.  He sat for about ten minutes at eye level on a white pillowcase - what a joy to be able to observe him.  I went back several times to have another look because ancient as I am, I had never ever seen one before!

So.  He is a Large Skipper, genus Ochlodes, family Hesperiidae 

Saturday, 8 July 2017

A Thousand Days in Venice - Marlena de Blasi


This is not a guidebook to Venice.  It is a memoir of a woman who fell in love with the city whilst falling in love with a Venetian who spotted her one day in a coffee shop and left her messages to "meet me tomorrow" etc.  The difference here is that she (a non-Italian speaker) was already middle-aged, with a golden career in America, two grown children and a nice home - and he? a non-English speaking bank manager of a small branch, same job for 30 years, no excitement, no family, an apartment he bathed and slept in and no chance of change.

Suddenly, for both of them, there was a chance of a new life, a total change in everything, and for her a change of country too.  He seemed a rather morose man, and certainly full of the Italian trait of knowing that things cannot be changed; if it takes three months to arrange to pay a bill, then it takes three months.  And into his life comes this woman who is desperate to understand this, desperate to make him (and herself) happy, and in reading it, your hope that they will succeed.

The descriptions of places and people made me smile and laugh, and read bits out to the hubs so that I could enjoy them all over again.  The way the smoking civil servant inhaled smoke into her nose as well as her mouth and exhaled just a tiny puff at the end;  the old fruit seller who, in the winter, set a fire in a coal scuttle to keep herself warm, and roasted apples in the embers of that fire, and so many more things.  A delight to read even though I wanted to shake the Italian, who was not only morose but dictatorial.... until I realised that he didn't know what joy was, really, until he met her.

Friday, 30 June 2017

Mrs Mac suggests - What to read in JULY

Here in the UK we had a really hot spell in June followed by several very rainy days indeed..... nearly switched the central heating back on!!  So now the season for Day Lilies is on us, and I really would like some sun to show them off at their best!  Ah.  Weather.  We all get it, and we all talk about it.

So what shall we read in July?  How about

 something with a drink in the title

 - after all, if I get my wish I will certainly be reading in the garden, and a nice cool something or other will do just fine for company.  Here are a few suggestions, but whatever you choose, Cheers!

The Wine of Angles - Phil Rickman
Cider with Rosie - Laurie Lee
Gin Glorious Gin: How Mother's Ruin Became the Spirit of London - Oliva Williams

and finally, one I have read and enjoyed myself:  

Campari for Breakfast - Sarah Crowe

Monday, 26 June 2017

The Lie - Helen Dunmore

When Helen Dunmore died recently, the booky website where I serve as a moderator  had several members who agreed to read one of hers.  This was my choice. When I'm going to write about a book I always look at the one star reviews on Amazon, and this was no different.  Today it was 11 of those against 140 five stars.  Of course everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but I found the reasons for not enjoying the read were odd to say the least (although I have heard the same comments many times before).  "It wasn't going anywhere".  Well, no, it isn't a thriller, it is the experience of a man who saw his best friend die in front of him in WW1.  "Birdsong is better" - well yes, it may be, but again it may not.  Both books are about WW1 and the tragedy of it all - but please, negative commenters, review the book!

This is not the first of Dunmore's I have read, and I have more on my shelves which I shall certainly read.  Her books tend to be on the shorter side (this one is 292 pages), but they are always worth the read.

Dan comes home from the war with a few scrapes; a little thinner than when he went out to war, but physically not too bad at all.  He comes home to find his home gone, for his Mother died when he was in France and his home was rented.  Landlords want rent now, even though Dan was fighting to protect the country.... it didn't matter.  And so he is taken in by Mary Pascoe who lives in a one roomed cottage just outside town.  She is elderly and ill, and Dan takes over the garden, growing food, milking the goat, collecting the chickens' eggs, sleeping at night in a lean to-shelter, which whilst basic, is better than a dugout in the trenches over the Channel.  Mary becomes sicker, and eventually dies.  But not before telling Dan that she does not want to be buried in town in a churchyard "shoulder to shoulder" with others; and also that the cottage and land are now his.  So he does what she asked.  He wraps her carefully in canvas, digs a proper grave, and buries her at the top of the garden with a boulder rolled at her head.  He cleans the cottage and, after the turmoil of the war, starts to try to live again.  And doesn't tell anyone, nor register the death.

He is haunted by Frederick, his best friend's ghost, who appears, mud covered, and with his back to Dan at night.  He re-makes his friendship with  Frederick's sister and her child and maybe life will be better.  But all the time he is possessed by the demon of that dreadful, awful war and the things that happened.  The first 17 chapters have headings which are taken from real publications which are not called "How to fight and win a war" but in their nonsensical wordings could well be.  The description of how to throw  a hand grenade whilst walking single file in a trench made me so cross I had to stop reading and shout quite a lot.... it is just pure nonsense.  But those are the kinds of things that were published.  Honestly, if it didn't make you laugh it would make you cry.  I certainly wept for Dan, knowing that whatever happened in France, his mental suffering would never be over - and there were many thousands like him at the end.

I found this a heart-rending tale of a broken man, seeking redemption for all that he had seen and done, not knowing how to put things right, and not knowing how to move on, whilst all the time trying desperately to do so.  And so all I can say to the negative remark that this one "wasn't going anywhere", I can only say it doesn't need to.  Heartbreaking but brilliant. 


Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves - Rachel Malik

See this image
I cannot tell you how much I loved and enjoyed this book.  Rachel Malik's maternal grandmother was the inspiration - a woman who left a husband and three children (one of whom was Malik's mother) and just got on a train and never looked back.  She (Miss Hargreaves) became a Land Girl, working on farms in WW2, and was sent to Starlight Farm, where she met her soulmate, Miss Boston.  They ran the little farm together until they were cheated out of it by a lie from the farmer next door who was on the county committee for categorisation of food production on farms during the war.  They became itinerant farm workers, travelling from one farm to another, working for their keep and a roof over their heads until the late 1950s,  when they settled in a small rented cottage in Cornwall.

As Malik tells you in the Afterward, this is a work of fiction, although the two characters are based on real people and her research traces the lives of the two women.  But fiction or not, this is simply a magical book, even though the women are not really great talkers, so conversation is not the high spot of the book.  The descriptions of life in the countryside, and the walks they take and the adventures they have are just wonderful.  You know that they care for each other deeply, even though they do not speak about "love" or "closeness", they just are.  It is only half way though the book that a real threat arrives to rock the boat, and the book then changes it's tone.  I found myself reading faster because I needed to know how this would end, but also putting the book down because I didn't want it to end.  This is currently only available in hardback or on kindle - Penguin please note that I do hope it comes out in paperback because it needs to be on that front table in Waterstones!  (Although the cover does not really lead you in, so perhaps a change there).

Recommended - it will continue to haunt me long after I pass it on.  

Monday, 19 June 2017

Tracks - Louise Erdrich

Chippewa Fleur Pillager is central to this tale of loss but it is not only about her.  It tells of  a lifestyle lost because of  the influence of government and religion, lost family structures and loyalties and a big shock for me, allotted land lost on the reservation.  As I knew next to nothing about Native American Indians, this short book of survival and endurance was a read that made me feel so sad for what the Europeans did when they arrived in a new land.  The book is set in the early 20th century, not when the settlers first came across the natives but a good while later, although the influence is  still there (the church, the trade offs, the taxes charged for land already owned......)  The story is told in two totally different voices, Old man Nanapush and the sanctimonious but damaged Pauline.
Descriptions are wonderful, they have you seeing exactly what the author wants you to; and the feelings of the last few "true families" in an area damned already by tree felling (an early scorched earth policy) have the usual hatred, deceit, love, memory  are perfectly described.
I will say that this took me a few  chapters to "get the rhythm", but once I did it was a fascinating read.  The author of The Master Butcher's Singing Club amongst many others, Erdrich is part-Chippewa herself.  Here she brings those people of her past to life.

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Tuesday, 13 June 2017

The Peppermint Pig - Nina Bawden

Here's a younger children's book by Nina Bawden (Carrie's War) that I really enjoyed.  It reminded me of The Railway Children mainly because father had to "go away".

Poll and Theo are the two younger siblings  of four, they live in a nice house in London at the turn of the 20th Century.  Father owns up to something he didn't do which has grave repercussions, and it means that the family are left without money and without Father too - as he has gone off to join his brother in California.  The children and Mother are now forced to decamp to Norfolk, to live next door to two elderly spinster aunts in a very small terraced house.

In the course of a year, Poll and Theo learn quite a lot about how grownups behave;  how everything is not necessarily what it seems; they grow up (literally in Theo's case) and begin to understand the world according to adults.

It's a lovely old fashioned adventure, great for good readers eight and upwards. I did wonder what a young reader might make of the statement "......the sound of Mother's stays creaking".  For those of you who are bewildered, stays were a kind of corset - today's equivalent might be Spanks!

Sunday, 11 June 2017

The Ninth Life of Louis Drax -Liz Jensen

I really enjoy Liz Jensen's books;  really quirky, all different and this one is no different.  Louis Drax is a nine year old "difficult" child.  He has had several life changing experiences in his short life, he has been seeing a shrink, his mother and father love him dearly.  And then, on a family day out, he has a bad accident and is left in a coma.

I am not telling you anything here that you won't find out from the  back cover of the  paperback, but there is so much more to the story that is revealed slowly over the 220 odd pages.  The voice of Louis  -  a rather naughty wee boy who is called "Whacko Boy" at school where he has no friends, and who sees a therapist on a regular basis. It is clear that he as problems, but he is unwilling or unable to reveal all to his therapist, so we have little clue at the beginning what the problem might be.  But very shortly the voice of a new character, Doctor Dannachet arrives, the doctor at the clinic where Louis has been transferred.  The clinic has some success rate with patients who have been comatose for long periods, we hope that Dannachet will do the same for Louis.  Maybe he will be lucky?  But circumstances surrounding Louis' accident, and the people involved in his life have several different points of view,  and all of them build a picture of the real Louis.

Brilliant read - a "couldn't put it down" kind of book that I enjoyed immensely.  The cover I have is not the one shown below, which I don't like at all.  For some reason the publishers changed the original to one that whilst eye-catching, does not really capture the heart of the book.  Oh well, can't have it all.  Certainly a good read, bad cover or not!

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Wednesday, 7 June 2017

A friend is dead

My friend Lou is gone.  For a whole group of people a lovely and loyal friend is gone.  For Adam, a supporter and lover and wife and fun-maker is gone.  The funeral was just this week.  So sad she's gone, but so glad I knew her.... let me tell you a little.

I first met her when she joined my workplace.  She was 28, with the remainder of "gothness" about her.  Her hair was dyed the colour of port; she did something a bit strange with the styling of it, she had several piercings in each ear, and a tattoo of three hares on her arm. So not like me with my linen clothes and matching earrings.  It took about two days before I decided I liked her a lot  I don't know how long it took her to like me, I never asked, but we became good friends.

I'd only known her a year or so when she had major surgery.  Really major, because from her father's side of the family she had inherited a bloody awful condition*.  Imagine that you are born with a terminal illness.  It happens.  It happens to lots of people, some much younger than Lou, but she was my friend.  She told me early on that her father had died at 35 from the same thing, and she thought she wouldn't make 40 - in fact she died at 48, not from this condition, but because of it.  She contracted e-coli  and in hospital they found sepsis and a liver no longer working, and this was her last fight.

The funeral, held high up in the hills of Dorset was a thing to remember and a glory.  She was a white witch and so of course, a pagan.  Two shamans and a singer held the service, family, friends and husband spoke of her and poems were read.  We learned that she was carried on the wind, to be part of the stars, the sea, the trees, the earth.  Her totem animal was the hare and she will run with her always now.  At the graveside the wind blew from all sides, buffeting and slapping against us all - her last goodbye, I think.

My memories are mostly laughter.  Holidays spent with a group of my friends, mostly older than she and Adam - dressing up for Murder Mystery dinners, making new friends from that group, all entirely unlike either of them. Her garden party every year to raise money for a charitable cause;  that week we had in Pembrokeshire;  but yes, mostly laughter. Every so often we'd have a telephone conversation about what a bastard her condition was, the complications that were or would arise, the depression because of it.  But in the end she managed to slip away from all of us, much sooner than we wanted, she to be carried on the wind, me with a sense of relief that the pain and the fight was over.  RIP my friend.


Monday, 29 May 2017

Mrs Mac Suggests...... what to read in June

Wet end to the month of May here in Dorset - but the garden is lapping it up!  And when you are tidying back and clipping and weeding, everthing gets wet - your trousers, shirt, shoes..... So the best thing is to come indoors and grab a book and a cuppa!

I wondered what to suggest because Springtime is not the time for a big chunkie read on the sofa with the fire alight, is it?  My attention span is always shorter in spring because I want to be gardening, and this year I am melancholy because a lovely friend died last week, and I am currently only reading mags and newspapers - and those with the attention span of a gnat!  So it didn't take me long to find an apt subject for a read in June, and I'm suggesting that even though you may never have read one before, just the thing for a quicker read might be

A graphic novel

You may huff and puff and mutter "comics!" under your breath, but believe me there is some good stuff out there.  Have a look in your local bookshop, or talk to your library.... you may be pleasantly surprised!  One of my favourites is some years old now, but in two volumes, I can really recommend

Maus - Art Speigleman

Set in WW2, all the characters are animals, Jews are mice, Hitler is a cat.  There are pigs and other animals too, but please don't imagine this is a children's book.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Beloved Stranger - Clare Boylan

Another of those "Cinderella" books (left on my shelves for too long) which I am pleased to have found and read at last.  Superficially, this is the story of a marriage - a marriage of 50 years. Married young;  Dick, young, handsome and sexy; Lily, young, pretty and submissive.  Their marriage has been long and happy,  it has produced one child.

But after a frightening incident one night, Dick is diagnosed as bi-polar.  As we read, we realise that his "moods" throughout the marriage have a root cause.  And when he suffers an episode of paranoia, he is sectioned.  And now we begin the see how Lily has relied on Dick for their life.  We also see how much Dick has relied on Lily for every home comfort.  We also realise that we only know what people want to tell us and behind closed doors, things may be very different.  Dick's paranoia worsens; Ruth their daughter attempts to help but she has a different view of the marriage to her mother.  Very readable with a metaphorical "kick in the bollocks" at the very end.

A serious look at mental illness through the looking glass of a loving couple, this may make you think "what if.....".  Sady, Boylan, who died in 2006, didn't write enough books for me.  This is the last one I had on the shelves, although there are a couple to seek out.    

Sunday, 14 May 2017

The Secret Rooms - Catherine Bailey

A mystery discovered whilst researching for another book altogether meant that the author, with the permission of the current Duke of Rutland, set out to solve a riddle from the past and in doing so found two more.

The 9th Duke of Rutland died in 1940, in a small set of rooms on the ground floor of Belvoir Castle, Rutland.  His wife, the Duchess had called the doctor as a matter of urgency but when he arrived he was not permitted the enter, the Duke's footman had been ordered by the Duke not to let him in until he had "finished something" - he died next day, and his son ordered the rooms locked and sealed.  They stayed that way for over 60 years.  And there the mystery starts, although it begins much earlier, in 1898 when Haddon, the first child and heir and the elder brother of the 9th Duke, dies.

Catherine Bailey discovers three gaps in the family papers, and when she sets out to find out what those gaps covered in the history of the Manners family she finds things that you couldn't make up!  For me, this was as exciting as a thriller, only better;  it was shocking - the word Machiavellian comes to mind when thinking about John, Duke of Rutland's mother Violet!  It was truly a tale of power that goes with place;  it will bring you up with a shock on on sorts of subjects; and it was a real page turner!  Oh, and it will give you a feel for the way things were then in the upper classes and in society and Parliament.  You may think again about how politicians behave now;  and it is certain that our current armed forces are better supported by senior staff now than they were then..... If you remember the last series of Blackadder and the running joke about Haig's Drinks Cabinet - well, think again.

The book Catherine Bailey started out to research was originally about the number of workers from Belvoir Castle and the Belvoir estate who marched off to WW1, and she has added the entire list of the war dead from Belvoir towards the end of the book.   Recommended.