Thursday, 30 January 2014

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant - Anne Tyler

The first Anne Tyler I read was Searching for Caleb - a very long time ago.  I haven't read any for quite a while, so it was a pleasure to take this one up, even though it's around 30 years old.  At the beginning of the book, Pearl Tull is dying, and by the end of the book she's dead.  But somehow, the book is about her three children, rather than her even though she appears on most pages.  Family memories - all the same, aren't they?  Well no.  In the case of the Tull children, Cody, Ezra and Jenny, memories are different, and sometimes faulty.  When Pearl's husband Beck, the children's father just never comes home after a business trip, Pearl is left to bring them up on her own, with the help of a regular but small cheque from Beck.

Cody turns out to be the mean one, Ezra, kind and softhearted, and Jenny, the doctor who can't stay married.  They are all headed home for the funeral and you'll find out how they got from childhood to there. A reminder that all families are different, but in that, all the same.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Rules of Civility - Amor Towles

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This was a delight to read for very many reasons - and I loved the title - straight from George Washington's own Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation, which are reproduced at the back of the book.  It's set in the late 1930's in New York city.  The teller of the tale is Kate, or Katya, or Katherine, or Katie... depending who is talking to her or what she is calling herself.  So - real name Katya, mostly referred to as Kate, is in her late 20s, working in a typing pool, and has for a best friend Eve, short for Evelyn, a party girl and no mistake.  They are room mates at a cheap boarding house for ladies and as the story begins, they are off to a second rate jazz club.  There, by chance they meet the first of several new people who will change their lives.  His name is Tinker Grey.  He has a gold cigarette lighter and a lot more besides.

The taste of that decadent time with very dry martinis, cigarettes, and bad behavior is tangible in this wonderful novel; written by a man, told in the first person by Kate, a girl - and he has certainly nailed it.  It can sometimes be hard to imagine yourself in certain circumstances, particularly those you have no experience of;  imagine if you were living through those circumstances?    You can do exactly that by living them through Kate.  The friends she makes, the friends she loses;  the fabulous job she gets, for a new Conde Naste magazine, the parties she goes to, the men she sleeps with.   Sounds light and frothy?  No, it isn't - it's deeper than that, and at a point near the end it brought me to tears when a totally unexpected knock on her door brings a Christmas gift and some memories.

Well done, Mr Towles.  You're going to have to go some to top this first novel.  I'm waiting!

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

January - my blog challenge

C'mon!  you need to stir yourself!  The weather is bad, the skies are grey (in the UK, anyway) and you have been standing in front of that bookcase for far too long....

My challenge to you, reader, is to read a book in the month of January which has  shoes or shoe parts in the title, for example  Cuban Heels, by Emily Barr.
You could then come back and tell me the title and author so that I could list them?

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Benny and Shrimp - Katarina Mazetti

The author is Swedish, and has written several books, but not all have been translated.  I wonder who seized on this one? - whoever it was hit the spot for me.  Benny is a 30+ farmer, struggling with 24 cows and some sheep on a small farm that he dearly wants to be a success.  But his parents are dead, he has no partner, and milk does not command the price it used to.  "Shrimp" (whose parents christened her Desiree) is 34, a librarian and a widow who eats her lunch on a bench in the cemetery near the grave of her husband.  One day, Benny sits down next to her on the same bench.....

If I describe this as a story of love at first sight, I am not sure I would be correct.  Perhaps a story of instant attraction and passion?  Well.... would I be instantly attracted to a man in dirty overalls smelling of cows?  Would I be instantly attracted to a woman who was stick thin with straight, thin hair the colour of milk in clothes of a similar colour?   I read this urging them to work out their differences and found it "funny and addictive" as it says on the cover.  Love, passion, hate.  All very similar in the feelings they can arouse, and for this pair, telling you the tale in alternate chapters, it's clear that they are unclear which of those is the real thing.  The two characters really are like chalk and cheese, and Mazetti handles this really well, with each character having their own recognisable voice.  However old (or young) you are, this is a book to enjoy.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Occasional B and B guests here!

Well, it was last Easter (2013) that we had our first AirBnB guest, and throughout last year we had the occasional guest(s) here at Pine Tree Cottage - and we've loved it.  Australians, Americans, Swiss, Dutch and Belgians amongst those from afar, and several UK-ers too.  It's been lovely to talk to people we'd never met before; to get their views, hear about them, and sometimes have them back again.  It must be the bacon sandwiches!

No, not really, and I never put rocket in mine - mmmm, maybe I should?.......   I've served all sorts of breakfasts, vegetarian and other, and it's rare the plates aren't clear, so I must be doing something right there.  It's a lovely hobby, and I don't need to do it all the time but it is fun doing it!

When Mr Dog Bites - Brian Conaghan

Dylan Mint, sixteen, hormones all over the place, in love with Michelle Malloy, attends a special school with the rest of the town's "spazzies" and has Tourette's Syndrome. His best pal, Amir, is a paki who is somewhere on the Asperger's register. They get along fine. Michelle doesn't want to have anything to do with Dylan, Dylan desparately wants to shag Michelle, Dylan's Mum cries a lot and posts his letters to his Dad (currently fighting in Afghanistan) for him. And that's his lot - until, at the hospital one day, whilst reading a new "facts" book, he overhears the Doctor tell his Mum that he will be dead by March next year.

This book, aimed primarily at young adults (make that older young adults)can be read by anyone at all, and as an exercise in understanding people not quite like you, it's brilliant, because there is no preaching at all. Just a book about a Tourette's sufferer, and how he deals with it. How sometimes it's very funny, and sometimes it's a headache and a half. There's sex in there too. Not a lot, but that's funny as well.

I loved this book set in a Scottish town. Of course, it helps that I am married to a Jock, and therefore understand all the little jokes and nuances. I do wonder who else might know that your napper is your head? Still that's a small price to pay - make yourself a Glaswegian friend and all will be revealed!

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Notwithstanding - Louis de Bernieres

Here's a book of short stories, which you can read one at a time, or all together - and all of them will be worth the read.  However, the real joy in these stories is that in fact they all join up.  Not in order, not in date, not in history, but they do join up.  And they are a joy.  Considering that I never did finish either Captain Corelli's Mandolin, nor the War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Part, I would have said that I was not a de Bernieres fan.  But I am definitely a fan of this book, which weaves Englishness through the whole set of stories and introduces us to characters long dead, but alive always in this book, based on the author's memories of people he came across, and one or two of which most of us will have come across at sometime in our lives.  And if fact I remembed reading and appreciating his little novella The Red Dog, too - so perhaps for me, his forte is the short form.

 I loved the story of Mrs Mac, who talked to her dead husband as if he was still very much alive; I loved Robert, who had a pet rook for a while, I loved the silly bugger who had moles in his garden and paid the price,  and I loved Robert catching the Girt Pike.  Along the way I met characters who I had known, characters I had heard of, and characters who I will not forget.  A lovely read.  Don't rush it, take it as it comes, a story or two at a time.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

The Pork Butcher - David Hughes

2014 is the anniversary of the outbreak of WW1.  In the UK there will be many instances of remembrance (let us not say the word celebration) of what turned out to be a dreadful time.  My father was too young to fight in that war, too old to be called up for the second, and I have been so lucky to not loose anyone I cared for in a war zone.  But I have been looking out for and starting to read books in this anniversary  year that may tell me a little more about war, and how ordinary people, ordinary soldiers, sailors, airmen felt about the job they had to do.  This novella, of only 123 pages, tells a disquietening tale.

Ernst Kestner, once a soldier in the German army, now terminally ill, has to visit the place that has haunted his life since then and try to make amends by telling his only child, a daughter,  about what happened to him during that time.  For Kestner was part of a massacre at Lascaud-sur-Marn, a small town where, towards the end of WW2, around 700 people were killed on the orders of senior German officers. He had been stationed in a town nearby, and for a short time conducted an affair with the wife of a resistence fighter, coming to her bed whilst her husband was away. 

Kestner tells his daughter a tale she really does not want to hear; and then he tells her he must talk to a Frenchman about it. A confession perhaps?  Why would he want to do that?  And it becomes clear, as this little book comes near to the end, that we all take advantage of what life has on offer at one time or another.  Don't we?

The author died several years ago, and I know nothing about him, but in this little book I did come to understand (or had my understanding confirmed) that human nature is a complex thing and humans are humans, whichever side they fight for.  The 123 pages have no chapters, but there is no stream-of-consciousness in the writing.  It moves along at a fairly fast pace, only divided by paragraphs.  For me it was certainly worth reading.  A lucky find in a second hand bookshop!

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Gentlemen and Players - Joanne Harris

St Oswalds, an old, feepaying boys only Grammar school (day attendance only, no boarders) which has a good reputation, and some interesting characters on the teaching staff.  Roy Straightly (who narrates about half of the tale) is coming up to 65,  teaches Latin, and is a thorn in the flesh of the headmaster who considers that Latin is truly a subject of the past.  Straightly is an old fashioned type of public school master, one of the few to wear his robe on a daily basis, and who quotes in Latin, and has little Latin jokes in his conversations.  It is not long before you begin to wonder if you truly like him.....
There is another narrator too - the child of the school porter,  who longs to attend St Oswalds - and manages to do just that by mitching off from the local comprehensive and changing into St Oswalds' uniform to blend seamlessly into St Oswalds' school life.  And as you read you begin to wonder if you like this character either! 
Stick with the alternating narrators, go with the flow, but as they used to say at my school "concentrate"!  The twists and turns as they come are marvellously conceived and should leave you mentally gasping!  There are also some nice litle jokes in characters'  names...... A brilliant concept, and how lovely to read a truly English thriller.

Monday, 6 January 2014

The Night Rainbow - Claire King

Happy New Year to all my readers, and I think I may have found one of my favourites for 2014, even though we are still in January!  What a lovely, lovely read this was, a book lent by a friend.

Pea, our five year old narrator, is having a bad time.  She and her little sister Margot who is as bright as a button are sad because their mother is very pregnant  and very sad, having lost her husband, their father, in a farming accident.  They have no money, and no other friends.  But people do look out for them.  The postlady, the old girl who keeps donkeys in a field nearby, and Claude, the village eccentric and his waggy-tailed dog Merlin.  And so the sisters spend a hot summer being observed but running wild, preparing their own food and being neglected by their mother.  The story is set in southern France, and is really the story of how different people deal with grief.

Their mother, "Maman", is English and has has already lost a child, a stillborn, before her husband dies.  She has taken to her bed.  The girls have lost their Papa then, but for a time, also their Maman, who is really not bothered with anything since Papa died.  Then there is Claude, who is a sad man, very deaf,  keeps himself away from the villagers but keeps a lookout for the girls.  But that is a worry too.  Why is he so keen to be around them?

The story is told in the first person by Pea, who will make you laugh, but will also make you feel the sadness in the family. And it's in the present tense, which is not everyone's cup of tea but for this tale is perfect.  And there is such a lovely little twist towards the end which I urge you not to miss.

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...