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.

*F.A.P. -  FAMILIAL ADENOMATOUS POLYPOSIS