Saturday, 23 August 2014

The Good Italian - Stephen Burke

Here is war.  War at it's worst, but no different from any other war for men take sides and fight others, loyalties change, people are killed, people are hurt, both physically and mentally.  But the strength to survive also includes the will to love.  Enzo is the Italian harbourmaster at Massawa, Eritrean port and part of the growing Italian empire.  His friend, Salvatore, a colonel in the Italian army who has never seen battle, is posted at the local garrison, and is living the good life.  Salvatore has an Eritrean girlfreind as so many Italians in this area do, and he urges Enzo to take an Eritrean housekeeper, who will cook and clean for him.... and perhaps share his bed sometimes.  Then Aatifa comes into Enzo's  life.

A nice and quiet life - until Mussolini decideds that he wants Ethiopia, and the troops will come in via the port of Massawa.  It is then that things change very quickly.  Enzo, the beaurocratic form filler and decent man, finds himself in the middle of a war that he wants nothing to do with.  Someone decrees that taking an Eritrean as a wife or lover is against the law.  Italians soon ditch their exotic girlfriends, even those who have children with their Italian partners. 

This book has a very slow start, and for a while I wondered where it was going.  But stick with it is my advice, and you will soon find yourself caught up in Enzo's life.  The descriptions throughout the book are perfect, they give you the feel of everything - the port, Enzo's office, his home, even  the bedclothes in a brothel are there before your eyes.  But it is as fighting escalates that the shocks start.  Small men in big jobs become so foul that you hate them for it; good men must very quickly obey orders that go with the wearing of a uniform.  And Enzo, who has never wanted to be part of Italy's new empire, just took a job that seemed to him to offer a good life;  Enzo, who does not treat his Eritrean staff any different from his Italian staff;  Enzo has to find his way through this dreadful time and hope that he can protect Aatifa too

If you know nothing of WW2 action in North Africa, this is a fine book to start you down that road.  There are a couple of pages of excellent notes at the back which will fill in some history - and probably surprise you, too.  And finally, the author has recommended a couple of books that, if you are interesting in knowing more, are worth the read.  But don't forget, this is above all the story of a quiet man and his love for a damaged woman.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

The Diary of Mattie Spenser = Sandra Dallas

The book opens in the present day.... an elderly woman offering a neighbour some "treasures" from her home which is being sold so that she can move to sheltered accommodation. Among the treasures is an old, leather covered journal, whose original clasp is now replaced by a rusty safety pin.  The  neighbour doesn't want to take this item as it seems so personal, but the woman explains that she can't read it now;  perhaps the neighbour could do so and tell her about the contents.

Then Mattie's diary starts.   And it starts in 1865 with a proposal of marriage,  the wedding, and a long journey by wagon from a civilised life in Iowa to a life of toil on newly claimed land in Colorado.  Mattie opens her heart to her diary, for there is no close friend in the new life that she can confide in, and even her husband has no idea what she writes, nor, in fact, does he know of the diary at all.    There are losses right from the start, when the team of 6 good horses are traded in for an assortment of animals more suited to the new life.  People around them struggle, people die, people move away, gossip happens and for three years, Mattie faithfully records her life and her feelings - until something so big, so sad, so sore, stops her for ever.

The end of the book completes the circle, the neighbour having transcribed the book for the elderly woman, who has found something else for the neighbour to read.

I loved this little book (229 pages), and read it in only two days.  It will make you smile, it will make you laugh and cry, and it will surely tell you something about what it was like to be a frontier wife in the 1860s.  It's beautifully written too, the entire diary is written in the more formal style of the time and (bliss!) no modern expressions creep in through poor or shoddy editing!  For me, every Sandra Dallas book is a joy to read.  Never great classics, they have been books I remember fondly, and books I often recommend to others. 

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Monday, 18 August 2014

Crusoe's Daughter - Jane Gardam

There isn't a Jane Gardam book that I have read that wasn't enjoyable in some way.  This is no different, but is different as it has no chapter headings, just stars (*) as breaks every so often.  You can treat these as chapter headings if you like - that's what I did.  This is a rather sad novel, telling the story of an orphan child, who, having been left temporarily in the care of her maiden aunts by her seagoing father, finds it a permanent home when he is drowned.  Her aunts obviously love her but are unable to show the maternal kind of love that would suit this odd child, who wonders, always, how she should "fit in" with other people.

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She falls in love, twice, but in both cases she is thwarted - once by World War One, and once by the mother of the man she has fallen in love with.  After that she doesn't bother.  People arrive in her life, people leave her life.  People are kind to her, people treat her badly.  And all the while she continues to live in a large, yellow house, near the seashore in the North East of England.   And throughout her life the book Robinson Crusoe is a constant, rather like a bible to her.

I found it a wonderful read, I was engrossed.  But it is odd.  If you like the beginning, keep reading - it's worth it!  And if you get to the final few pages, you will find a couple of scenarios set out like a play.  If you feel you can't read both scenarios - please, please read the first, where a journalist is on the doorstep - because there are a couple of bombshells there that will round the book off.  Personally, I would not have included the second, a rather winding conversation with Mr Crusoe himself..... but then you may find that this completes the book.  Whatever!  It's a little gem.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

The Invention of Wings - Sue Monk Kidd

Quite different to her two previous books The Secret Life of Bees and The Mermaid Chair, This looks like and reads like a work of fiction.  However, it is based on the truth.  Two sisters, Sarah and Angelina Grimke, two of the children of Judge John Grimke of Charleston, S Carolina became shining lights at thebeginning of the Abolition of Slavery movement , and yet..... who has heard of them?  So their story has been woven, with a little bit of fiction, and this has made The Invention of Wings a must-read.  Set between the years 1803 - 1838, before the American Civil War, this book will tell you more about slavery at that time than perhaps you want to know, but will make you understand more about human nature as a result.

It's told by two different voices - Sarah Grimke, and then Hetty Handful, the slave bestowed on her for her eleventh birthday as a handmaid.  Both are recognisable, but have traits you like and dislike, and eventually they will knit together into a story I recommend.  And please do read the author's note at the back.  Not long, but some surprises!

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Robin Williams dead - another of my heroes gone......

Such sad news yesterday 12 August - that Robin Williams was dead.  Another brilliant actor but again, one who was a sufferer from depression.  I am so fortunate that this has never affected me, but I had a dear friend who was bi-polar, and my OH had a couple of years of depression a few years back.  Why does that bloomin' chemical process in the brain happen, that makes the bearer not able to go on with life?  I do feel for any family involved, whoever or wherever.  It is so hard to cope with.    I saw a terribly cruel comment on a forum somewhere yesterday along the lines of "..... if only these people would think for a moment about their children, their family, they would not do it".  How cruel and unthinking that was, showing no understanding at all of a mental illness or any kind of deviation from that person's "norm".  There is no tap to turned to take depression away, it just is.  Bless any reader who suffers with this, to a greater or smaller extent - so hard to cope with.

As for Mr Williams.  He brought joy to people who didn't even know who he was.  All those little children who must have laughed at that cartoon penguin; or the genie who could not be contained;  the wonderful anti war message in Toys; the mental breakdown shown so well in The Fisher King; the lost boy in Hook; and so many more films that will make sure he lives on.

Monday, 11 August 2014

The Cat Who Came In Off The Roof - Annie M G Schmidt

For 9 to 99 year olds.  Really?  Well, yes........  It's a Dutch children's classic, translated into English this year and published by Pushkin Children's Books.  I wonder why no-one found this treasure earlier?! 

Tibble is a young, shy, newspaper reporter who writes really well, but mostly about cats, and never about current news.  When he meets Miss Minou, a rather "cattish" young lady, he finds that she is his source of all sorts of little news stories that the editor of his newspaper is happy to publish.  But there is a mystery here.  Minou is cattish, because once upon a time she really was a cat.

The appeal of this book is that it does not talk down to children, which makes it suitable for any age at all, and for anyone who loves a well told tale, particularly those who love tales about cats, this is a delight.  The author Annie Schmidt was obviously a great observer - there is a villain here, people lose their jobs, some people are kinder than others, some people hate cats; and the cats..... well, if you have a cat, if you ever had a cat, if you admire cats, then you will find that every nuance of cat behaviour is here!  Lovely to read aloud to a child, which means an adult can enjoy it at the same time; great and easy read for children want to read on their own, and great for anyone of any age who admires cats.

Well done Pushkin for getting this lovely book translated and published - Oh, and a great cover, too!

Saturday, 9 August 2014

The Last Wild - Piers Torday


This is the first in a trilogy for what some reviewers refer to as "pre-teens", although as a grown-up I liked it very much! You could easily see it as a non-preachy eco warning book, or, like many of it's reviewers on Amazon (lots of whom tell you that they are representative of the audience the book is aimed at) you could just read it as a brilliant adventure.

Kester Jaynes is in a kind of children's home.  Although more like a prison really, as he's not allowed to leave, ever.  He's been there six years and he can't speak.  Until one night a flock of pigeons break the glass of his room, and he understands what they are saying.  In fact, by "thinking" the words he wants to say, they understand him too.  And they want to help him escape as quickly as possible, as there is a job to be done, urgently.  When his friendly cockroach pal pursuades him to wiggle into a filthy drain and get away from his captors, the adventure truly begins!  Animals are dead (well most of them) from a disease that there is no cure for.  Humans now live in large cities.  The countryside is empty and they all eat a kind of porrridge called "Formula" that someone has invented to take the place of real food.

Clever idea all round.  If you are an adult and have ever come across a film called Soylent Green, you may remember that it had an all round foodstuff, too (although the Formula in this book is probably not made of the same stuff!). Guess what?  Formula is making someone an awful lot of money!  And of course there's Kester - a flawed child, for it is not explained why he cannot talk even though he desparately wants to.  But he can communicate with animals.  And there is another clever touch, for the conversations between boy and animal are not in "inverted commas" but in *stars*, which threw me at first until his first contact with another child, when her conversation was in inverted commas and the penny dropped.  I'll bet pre-teens pick that up long before I did!!

Well Done Piers Torday (son of the slightly more famous, the late Paul Torday) for the first book in the trilogy, which can be read as a stand alone, but has many fans awaiting the second and third!

Friday, 8 August 2014

Platycodon (a pink one!) or balloon flower

Platycodon grandiflorus 'Fuji Pink'


Walters Gardens, Inc.
Photo Courtesy of Walters Gardens, Inc.
Common Name: Balloon Flower
Interesting balloon-like buds burst open into beautiful soft pink, bell-shaped flowers which keep their color best in partial shade. 'Fuji Pink' is a very reliable bloomer that is pest and disease free.

In a village only a few miles from me lives a plant  lady.  She usually has an old kitchen table outside her garage from Spring till Autumn, and if we are out and about we usually say "Martinstown?"  We drive down and see what she has.  Today, this is was outside.  It has about 4 flowers out, and one balloon bud coming along (see bottom right of the picture).  £4 I didn't mind spending!  I have planted it in from of a large bright pink phlox, and next door to a lovely brick red day lily (Hemerocallis 'Stafford') both of which were new to me this year and both of which have thrived, despite the
heat and the dry soil (I do not water once established - plants in my garden have to get on with it!).  It's lovely to have something that isn't finished yet, because frankly, the rest of the garden currently looks like Autumn..... I know from country men that the harvest is at least a week early, but here, on the top of a hill in a really dry garden, I think Autumn is a month early.
Daylily 'Stafford'
All my roses gave up at first flowering - until now.  Having had a few wet nights, and one whole day of rain last week, on close inspection my little hedge of three Count de Chomord is covered in new buds, Gertude Jekyll the same,  Graham Thomas also.  These are all roses that should flower continually, but this is only the second flowering all summer.  Some other repeaters that are new this year and not coming again, but some food, some manure and a good rest over the winter should see them all OK I think.

All Quiet on the Western Front - Eric Maria Remarque

First published in an English language translation in 1929, this has been in print ever since.  Remarque went from school straight to the Western Front.  During the course of WW1 his mother died and every one of his friends was killed.  So his experiences led him to write All Quiet On The Western Front.  The book sold over half a million copies within the first three months of publication.  When the Nazis came to power Remarque left Germany, never to return.  Having lived through trench warfare in WW1, I'm sure he did not want to be part of a country that wanted to fight all over again.

This is one of those books that should be on everyone's reading list.  I cannot say I enjoyed the read but I chose to read it as my WW1 anniversary read, and I am very glad I did.  What a writer. To want to recall what he had seen and suffered instead of burying it deep in his subconscious - but perhaps he needed the catharsis that writing it brought.  There is nothing in this book that he describes that you can't see.  Some of it is funny, most of it is not;  there are many passages in the book that I did not enjoy reading, but I needed to read.  There are some heartbreaking passages in the book, but I cried no tears.  I just read it with an open mind and was not long into the book (which, by the way is very short, less than 200 pages) before I realised that Paul, the soldier who is telling the story, is everyman.  Change that name to Tex, to Mohamid, to Charlie - any name, anywhere, and this little book will tell you the same story - that war is futile, and those who never have to put on a uniform are the ones that encourage it's start, and will be there at the finish:  unwounded, clean, friends still alive, well fed and in good mental health.  Those who encourage a war are usually those behind the lines, not those who obey orders.

The descriptions of life (and death) in the trenches are better read than seen on film - somehow, someone's thoughts seem more real than  on film, however good that film is.  What I found was that soldiers eat when they can, not when they are hungry; that they form solid friendships with people they might not even have talked to in a civilian life; they cope with conditions that would repulse most of us;  they live from day to day, and cannot think about "before" and certainly not "afterwards" - and one of the reasons for that total breakdown we used to refer to as shell shock and what we now know as Post Traumatic Stress is that war is just so foul,  how can a man forget it when he gets to the "afterwards"?

There is a passage in the book which I found very moving.  Paul and a friend are in a hospital recovering from injuries, and another soldier in the ward is looking forward to the visit of his wife with his child, who was born after he left for the Front.  Of course he wants sex to occur.  He is badly injured and can only lay on his side.  Very shortly after her arrival, he is propped up  with pillows at his back so that he does not fall backwards, the soldiers arrange for two to stand guard to stop the nuns coming into the ward, and the others to turn their backs, and play a game of cards, loudly, until the act is over. 

I hope that those of you who have not read this book will now, perhaps, pick it up.  And having picked it up, I hope that you will read it. And having read it, I wonder if and hope that you will see the futility of war from one soldier's point of view.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

The Greengage Summer - Rumer Godden

Product DetailsWritten back in the 1950s, this book must have improved with age, as I was very taken with the story, the style and the characters.  I picked it up somewhere for £1 and my copy was indeed published way back in 1958 - but it is still in print now, and a paperback and kindle version is available.

When a (nearly) single Mother decided that she and the five children should go and stay for the Summer in a small hotel in the middle of France, she was not to know that an insect bite would mean that she would be incapacitated in hospital for much of that time, and that her children would be mostly looking after themselves in that small hotel.  The story is told by Cecil, the second eldest child, at thirteen a girl on the brink of puberty.  The oldest child, Joss is two years older, but when she catches the eye of Eliot, an Englishman frequenting the hotel and sleeping with one of the owners, the glorious summer turns into something else altogether.  Mother has asked Eliot to look out for her brood, and he does that - but only at his own convenience.  He's charismatic, the children love him, but there is something not quite right that they cannot put a finger on.  It is quite a way through the book before we find out what that "not quite right" thing is.  But no matter, Rumer Godden's writing style means that you understand exactly how each of these five children feel, and how each of them feels differently from the others, even though for most of the time four of them think he is lovely, and one of them falls in love with him.   You  can "feel" France;  you can feel the summer sunshine, you can also feel the tension amongst the hotel staff - for many different reasons.  You may remember the first time you ever drank too much alcohol;  for the downing of too many glasses of it made Joss very drunk indeed. You may recall the first time you fell in love; you may recall the first time you realised that sometimes grownups tell lies - and those lies are not nice at all.  And of course, you will find out that grownups are not always who they appear to be.  A lovely Summery read, a mystery, a crime and more.  Go on, read it before Summer ends!

Friday, 1 August 2014

The Marrowbone Marble Company - Glenn Taylor

Product DetailsThis was sitting on my shelves for a couple of years.  A large-sized paperback that runs to 358 pages, every one worth reading. It's an American novel.  It stretches from WW2 at Guadalcanal in the Pacific Ocean, to Apollo 8 orbiting the world.  Such a big stretch of time might seem just too big, but the story involves a cast of less than 20 strong characters, and one man's dream.

The man is Loyal Ledford, who comes home from the war with visions still in his brain of the deaths of men he knew, coming to him over and over again.  When he realises that his job as a pen-pusher is just not enough for him, he takes it upon himself to create a little paradise, on land in the ownership of his cousins, where he can build a factory, plant gardens, open church and school and live with people like himself both black and white.  Paradise, eh?  but paradise has serpents, and as Ledford attempts to live out his dream, there are those who, in the 1960s, do not like the idea of mixing races, and who will do anything to stop Ledford and his friends.  Stop them from what?  Just stop them living their lives as they wish.  And those who want Ledford's dream to end are dumb, cruel, heartless; heard JFK speak but sniggered when he talked about fairness for all, as to them, all only meant white folk.  The kind of cowards who would kill people just to get where they wanted in life.  This is what Ledford is up against.  Can he make it?  Maybe. Can he persuade others to stick with him on this journey?  Maybe.

  I was in my teens when the race riots were on the news in the UK.  I was a little older when Martin Luther King was shot.  This book may go a little way to explaining the mindsets of those who cheered when he died, and those who felt only horror.  This is the author's second book.  The cover compares him to John Steinbeck, Cormac McCarthy, John Irving.  Maybe, maybe not.  I don't do comparisons.  But I liked this book a lot.  Liked the author's style. Got to go back and read "Trenchmouth Taggart" now.

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...