Tuesday, 25 September 2012

The Mesmerist - Barbara Ewing

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I loved the main characters, Cordelia and Rillie, two ex-actresses who put their past careers behind them and set up in business.  Each has a past they don't refer to - but in Cordelia's case, this past will come back to haunt her.  Set in Victorian London, at a time when Bloomsbury was only up and coming.... and when Seven Dials in Covent Garden was still a place of open sewers, pickpockets and tarts with raddled faces. 

When the two friends once again have their wages reduced by a theatre tour manager, they decide to walk home from Guilford to London and, over a glass of port, decide on a different way of life.  Cordelia will become, as her aunt before her, a mesmerist (a sort of forerunner of hypnotists), Rillie sees in the customers and plays the flute in the background whilst Cordelia does the treatment.  It isn't long before there is another string to her bow.  Lots of young brides-to-be come to her worried about their forthcoming wedding nights - and the ladies, over research at the library, realise that whilst there is plenty of guidance for young men, there is absolutely nothing available for young women.  Cordelia can find a way of explaining, very gently, what to expect after they are married - and this becomes a successful part of their business.  So successful, in fact, that they are able to move from their two homes (2 rooms for each of them, and Rillie sharing hers with her mother and a friend) into an entire house in Bedford Square.  They do not get above their station, but the past comes to haunt them and things start to go very wrong.

There are lovely Dickensian names throughout (Mrs Spoons, Rillie's demented mother; Mr George Tryfont act-or;  Mr Tunks, coronor are just a few examples);  descriptions of alehouses, back alleys, and also the smell of poverty everywhere.  This was a time when actresses were regarded by most of the rest of the population as just up from whores in the pecking order, and were treated accordingly.  How strange that two layers of working women where looked down on like that.  After all, if no money is inherited, we must all work at something.  And journalists?  Much the same as today, those that worked for the cheaper end of the market making up stories that fitted the persons concerned..... now where have we heard that one before?

Great romping read - easy to loose yourself in the story of Cordelia and Rillie and their friends and families.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

The Snow Child - Eowyn Ivey

 Inspired by a Russian folk tale about an elderly couple who make a child out of snow and she comes to life, this is a story set in the snowy wastes of early-settled Alaska.  If you like snowy stories, this one has plenty, and beautifully described, too.  What it also has is the kind of story that lots of us would have liked to have written ourselves, perhaps.   Oh! and a touch of magic realism (but if that is not your bag, please don't be put off).

Jack and Mabel are a childless couple in their early 50s, who, taking advantage of US Government payments offered to people who are willing to go homesteading in Alaska, find themselves in an alien landscape.  They lost their only child at birth, many years previously, and that loss has made them a sad couple, wanting to forget and being unable to do so.  On night, in a moment of uncharacteristic fun, they build a snowman, and before finishing, make the body part into a female by carving it into a skirt, and Jack makes the head like a real girl by caring the snow into a face.  Mabel adds hair, a scarf and some mittens on the twig arms, and they are done.  In the morning, the snowgirl is gone, broken and crushed - and so are the scarf and mittens.  So is it magic when a child appears in the trees, wearing those items?  Is it magic that the child disappears and reappears, apparently with no parents, no home, and in sub-zero temperatures?  Is it magic that gradually the child comes into their home for short visits in the winter, but is gone every single summer?  Well, it is certainly magic to them, the way she has come into their lives and into their hearts.

This is not only about Jack, Mabel and a snow child.  They have neighbours, George and Esther, who have several sons, one of which is a so much of a help to Jack when he is hurt that he becomes like a son to them helping out, sleeping in the barn, growing up.  Esther, a down to earth woman, full of fun and the joy of living, becomes the one who draws Jack and Mabel out of their sadness, and makes visits so worthwhile.  But she really doesn't believe in the snow child.  Thanksgivings are fun, ploughing is fun, even washing the dishes is fun now that George and Esther are in their lives.  And every winter, the snow child visits.......

Eowyn Ivey lives in Alaska and is able to describe so well those long wintery days when there is hardly any light, and those long summer nights when there is hardly any darkness.  The ever constant snow, whether down on the homestead in winter, or up on the mountain tops in summer;  the plants and flowers, birds and animals of that huge wilderness are all part of this lovely book, which will make you read on, getting toward the end with a sense of foreboding, but willing yourself on.  Worth every page turned.

Friday, 21 September 2012

House Leeks and the lazy gardener's guide to a spot of interest

I am a lazy gardener.  I want to just roam around, snippers in hand and dead-head so that everything always looks lovely!.  It doesn't really work like that, and as I have a big space I pay a man to do all the heavy stuff whilst I give the orders, and then I decide what to plant and how to make it beautiful!  Well.... in theory.  Anyway, I love to see things in pots in other people's gardens, but for myself, I just neglect potted stuff and then it gets straggly and dies.  So for all of you out there that might feel just like me, this is my own answer to that little problem - Sempervivums and Sedums!
Here are my first three (because as any designer or gardener will tell you, three is the magic number!), the bottom one planted last year and the one of the left planted this year both contain Sempervivums (old fashioned and common name, House Leek).  Above, on the right is a Sedum called Coca Cola.  All three pots are at different heights, and are different shapes, but all plain terracotta.  These sit out quite near our front door which leads up the garden and not onto the road.  I am already buying or finding other containers and plants - and of course, no water or care required once established.  I plan several groups of three (or five) in different parts of the garden for interest.  The Sempervivums do flower, but usually only one or two per group per year, and then of course the rosette that threw out the flower dies off, so it just has to be removed, and the hole it left will soon be filled in.  I also have them in containers off the ground.....

These two, on the shed wall, have been planted two years now, and you can see they are successful and happy (although neither threw up a flower this year, they look good without). 
Finally, here are two babies in pots which have no home so far - but they will have very soon indeed, so you can see that this is a nice way of filling pots with hardy plants that survive frost, snow, heat, rain, drought - and still give you something.  OK, they are not great beauties, but there they are, a constant in the garden, and cost little.   It's a pleasure to deal with them, really it is!                 

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

My sister gets a desk!

My sister couldn't get her living room right.  She had it decorated earlier this year, and changed the layout of the furniture.  She has always wanted a desk, but so far has never achieved this...... until she told me again, that what she really wanted was a desk!  Did she want a table with drawers?  or did she want a desk with a drop down flap?  She didn't mind, as long as it was small to fit the allocated space.   So..... £16 later, this is what I found:


It had been painted black to cover an earlier paint job of red, which was left behind inside.  Actually, if only the mystery painter had left it alone, I could have delivered as was!  It was a nice job, with touches of gold paint to "antique" it, so it didn't take long before I decided that the red could stay.  But that badly painted black had to go.  My sister got 3 only choices of colours (it's always what's around the house at the time!), grey, olive green or cream.  She chose grey.   So, sanded down, and with two coats of paint and two coats of matt varnish, it now looks good!

First, painted and with added decoration (see the little red lines at the front of each shelf?) and ready for a new knob.  There was originally a key and no knob, and although the lock remains, cannot be used, so the OH made a new knob from a little bit of spalted beach - and that went on to the flap together with a final red line.

So glad I left the red, as I think it goes really well with the grey.  Delivered, and she's thrilled. From a bit of brown utility furniture into something nice, via a few other paint jobs (there was a russet brown there somewhere under the black, too!). It's always a truimph when a bit of treasure from trash is finished.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Brooklyn - Colm Toibin

Haven't read this?  Do try!  It's been on my shelves for three years, but as I am likely to be in NY later this year thought it might be a book to read.  And it was.  The first of Colm Toibin's books for me, but not the last.  Set in the 1950's  and following a common thread - set in America but starting in Ireland.
Product Details  Eilis (Aylish) is persuaded by her older sister and a visiting priest that she is likely to get on in the world in America.  Indeed, the priest, who's church is in Brooklyn, may be able to make some arrangements for her.  It's not long before he has arranged a job and lodgings, and the ticket is bought, and suddenly Eilis is travelling third class, puking her way all across the Atlantic.  She arrives in a different world, a world she could not have even imagined from her small town in Ireland.  But she is a thinker, not a doer, so she goes out to work, comes home to the lodgings, and at first, simply does not know how she is going to deal with her new life.  She mentions bookkeeping to the priest, and before very long he has arranged for her to take night classes.  She finds that she loves them gets through the first year with flying colours, and is told that if she passes the second year it is likely that there will be a job in the office of the department store where she works.  Life seems to be working out quite well.  And then, two things happen.  She falls in love, and a death at home in Ireland means that she must return for a visit........
Colm Toibin's writing has a wonderfully slow, lyrical quality.  I enjoyed that almost as much as the story itself!  A joy to read, a short, well written book which I recommend.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Far to Go - Aliison Pick

Product Details  At the beginning and the end of this book are a list of names with dates of birth and confirmed or possible dates of death.  I interpreted those lists in one way, another reader may interpret them in another.  They are not necessary to read the book, and they may enlighten or confuse, but they serve as a reminder that although fiction, this book is firmly based on fact, and makes the inhumanity of some towards others become clearer. Again, although fiction, hats off to Alison Pick - she's done the research and makes the book a persuasive read.
I knew of the Kinderstransport before I read this book; I didn't know much about the appropriation of Czechoslovakia by the N.azis - but I know more now.  I felt for the little family involved here;  the Bauers with their only child, six year old Pepik, and his nanny Marta.  The Bauers are non-practising Jews, Marta is a Gentile.  It isn't explained how Marta came to be working for the Bauers, but she's been part of the family for a very long time, and it's more than likely that her charge loves her more than he does his mother Annalise, a beautiful but rather self centred character.  His father Pavel, a successful factory owner looks to his own religion when he realises what is on the horizon. These main characters form a tight little group, each one seeing the future, all not really understanding how bad it may become.
In those dark days of 1939 diplomacy wasn't working.  Hitler knew what he wanted and it mattered not what any other nation thought, he was going to take it. He was also set on solving the Jewish "problem" once and for all, and you do get a glimpse of how he set out to achieve that.  The book is like a parcel at a party, gradually undoing the layers of the horror to come in Europe at that time, and I shared with the Bauers that initial feeling of "surely not?", even though I knew the outcome.  One of the layers is the insertion every so often of a letter from a parent to their child - gone from them, on a train taking them away from the horror to a place of safety until they could return home later.  As with the lists in the book, I didn't try to identify each family with a letter, but as I got nearer the end, I found little clues that put things straight for me.  A very short description of the rail station, and conditions on one of those childrens' trains was an eye opener.  War is not all death and destruction around you, but the very real fear of not knowing what it was that was happening to you.
And the kinder?  of course, there never was a "home" for those children to go back to.  No house, no parents, no loving family to return to.  Ever.  Some went to families who loved and cared for them. Some ended up in orphanages, homeless, stateless and alone.  All of them free of the N.azi threat, some made their way in life, some were lost and broken.  Poor Pepik.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

The Outlander - Gil Adamson

Product Details A widow at 19, we know from the very beginning that Mary Boulton has shot and killed her own husband.  She's on the run and her husband's twin brothers are following, relentlessly, to arrest her and avenge their brother's murder.  But it becomes obvious very quickly that your sympathy will lie with Mary and her travails, and you, like me, will find yourself willing her on, willing the fates to go her way.  Her head is full of memories.  Her sick mother who died young, her opium-addicted father, a dead child, the strangeness of her marriage, all continue to haunt her thoughts and make her (and the reader) wonder whether all is well with her mental health.
First published in the UK in 2008, I had this on my shelves for a while.  No longer!  This is the kind of book one longs to be left alone with, to keep on turning the pages and keeping up with Mary and her impossible bid for freedom.  Beautifully written with a quality that haunts the reader with its descriptions of the country, the animals, the humans she comes across and it would take a stone heart not to be involved.  We know she killed her husband from the start of the book, but how?  We know she killed him, but why?  This intrigue keeps you reading, and I had to stop myself dipping into pages further along in the book.  Whether Mary succeeds in her bid to escape from her brothers-in-law for good, and whether she will ever be truly happy is the draw of the tale, but I read on, hoping.

Early One Morning - Virginia Baily

I was attracted to this novel purely by the cover (as I suppose this is meant to happen!) and it has very little about the contents on the b...