Tuesday, 31 March 2015

What to read in APRIL - Mrs Mac suggests .......

Spring is here, and Summer follows, so drag yourself away from that fireside and get out and about!  How about a book with a mention of family in the title?

For example:

                  My Sister, My Love - Joyce Carol Oates

Monday, 30 March 2015

A Year of Marvellous Ways - Sarah Winman

Of course it was the title that struck. What is this one about? And the cover, what is that all about? Can I just say first that the cover was illustrated by someone who actually read the book and understood it too (so often this is not the case), so well done that man or woman. It's a beautiful cover which together with the dark turquoise page edges, make this a lovely paperback to have and hold. This is a story of love and loss. Of lives intertwined in the oddest of ways, of a very young and broken young man, and a very old and interesting woman.

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Miss Ways, Marvellous, never knew her mother. Francis Drake never knew his father. They find each other in Cornwall, a few years after the end of WW1, when he delivers a letter to the father of a young soldier killed in France and handed to him for delivery. In Cornwall, this man broken by war and the loss of a woman he loved, happens upon Marvellous, and collapses into her care. As she nurses him back to life and health again, she recalls her whole life, tells him bits of it and as he regains his health, he realises that what he has found is the most generous friend and nurse, a woman who has led a rich but very odd life, and who has dragged him back out of the mud that was his life into one full of optimism and hope. And Marvellous, with her yellow waterproof, grass in her hair and a gypsy caravan to call home, has found a new love - not in the sexual way, but in the way that sometimes we come across kindred spirits. It's an awakening of consciousness for both of them, and I loved my journey through their lives. There is a shock in the last couple of pages that I didn't see coming but enjoyed reading, so, just don't read the last few pages pages until you get there. It is a moving and funny and lovely and of course a Marvellous book.

Easily offended readers - LOOK AWAY NOW!

....... because there is a rather personal question coming up now.  One I have never seen mentioned in blogland (although it's probably out there somewhere, and I could Google it but "ain't nobody got time for that!").

Have you ever pee'd in a field? Hohoho; hahaha; OK, stop laughing now please!  Travelling across country from Cambridgshire to Dorset last weekend, and about an hour into the journey realised that with a full bladder, I would never make it to any services, nor a petrol station with a toilet.  Got to Go!  Study the large scale map very carefully, as GPS does not mark available fields....... :o).

OK.  Take the next left.  Oh dear, this is a dead-end full of lovely houses and cottages where obviously strangers don't go and even though each drive does not have a sign saying "no turning", I am sure that silently every home owner will not want you to turn the car in their particular space, but it's such a narrow lane that we have to.  Apologise to driver, and we are soon turned and back on the main road where, 500 yards further on is the turning we need. Criteria required?  Look out for field entrances with easy access; if possible no gate because that means there are no animals in the field; that you cannot see any houses or farm outbuildings, in case someone you can't see can see you; protection from the road by a hedge, and of course a tissue in your pocket.  Check? Check!

Also check on direction of the (very strong) wind that day for obvious reasons and Oh!  the relief.  Can do the next 3 hours comfortably now.  Driver also takes the chance and is also much relieved.

When I relay this story to Margaret, a very old friend, she cannot stop laughing (and she does have a very infectious laugh), and is gasping for breath.  Mrs Po-face (that's me) asks her "Well, have you never done that?"  to which her reply - unfathomable - is "Yes, but not at 68 years old!".  I think she feels that at 68, peeing in a field is just too undignified.......

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Coromandel Sea Change - Rumer Godden

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 Patna Hall, an old fashioned but rather lovely hotel on the Coramandel coast of India, is owned and run by Sanita (Auntie Sanni) and Colonel McIndoe. The Colonel remains in the background, but Auntie Sanni has her hands on every string needed to run the hotel well.  She has regularly returning guests and those who arrive for the first time.  There is a party of Americans who are on an archeological trip, some of whom are not happy about foreign food and bathrooms, and some who love the whole thing.  There is a mysterious single woman, deeply unhappy and unable to pay her bill - why is she there?  There are others, too - a pair of political animals, staying because of the forthcoming election in the area, and a pair of young honeymooners.  It is they who will prove the catalyst for an eventful week. The staff at the hotel are well described, particularly Kuku, who has been taken on by Auntie Sanni to be trained as a hotel manager, but it seems, however good-natured Sannie always is in the control of her staff, that this one is not happy, in life or in her job.  The honeymooners are not happy either.  A pair of youngsters who perfectly fit the description "marry in haste repent at leisure".  He is a bully, she does not want to be bullied, and when she comes across the path of a would-be politican everything changes.  No year given, but set in the late 20th century, this is a mixture of intrigue, sex, politics,  death and misunderstandings.  I'd forgotten what a lovely, readable writing style Rumer Godden had, so if you find and like this one, she wrote loads of others!!

Intrigued by the title?  You can find out about the Coramandel coastline in India here

Friday, 20 March 2015

Kingsblood Royal - Sinclair Lewis

I was born the year this book was written - 1947.  I grew up knowing nothing about prejudices;  my parents never discussed any kind of hatred of others, just that there were good and bad in all countries in all walks of life.  And my lovely Mum expressed that with "there are good people in prison and bad people outside".  I remember newsreel from America about segregation of white and black, and about the repeal of segregation laws by John Kennedy.  I remember newsreel of the Detroit riots in 1967.   But I didn't understand why anyone would want to beat anyone so badly because their skin was a different colour.  Still don't.

This book was a stunner in the way a spade over the back of your head would stun you.  Neil Kingsblood, the son of  a decent man, works for a bank, after returning from WW2 in Europe with a limp.  He's married to the daughter of a decent man too, and they have a small child, and a black maid.  It's not very long before you realise that race is going to raise it's ugly head - the little asides to each other in the maid's hearing, the taking of the spare key and entering of her own, private room to mock the cheapness and the untidyness.  And yet, and yet........ they are not cruel people, and they don't consider themselves racists. They just view "darkies" - and yes, there were many times when I winced a lot whilst reading just a page or two - as different, and not to be too worried about, because you can always dismiss one, and get another, can't you?  Of course you wouldn't want to get the porter on the train or the head waiter at the classy restaurant into trouble, you've known them for years, and they are charming, polite and part of your hometown scenery.

And then one day Neil's father tells him a family secret.  They are probably descended from Royal blood, Henry the Eighth of England no less.  Would Neil do some family research - for if this turns out to be true, their standing in society will be different altogether?  Neil does the research and finds that far from being descended from King Henry his great great grandfather was a black frontiersman, making him black too.   He's white, he looks white, he talks white, he behaves white.  But that 32nd share of his blood is black - and there is no going back.

The town he lives in is not in one of the Southern states of America.  He's on the Yankee side of the divide. Nevertheless, see how quickly bigotry can change the way people deal with you; how they see you.

The writing style shows its age:  in the reading of it, 1947 seems so far away.  The content is hard, cruel and believable.  I got this as a challenge to read a book the year I was born.  So glad I found it secondhand.  I believed it to be unobtainable, but no, you can get it in paperback.  I am not urging you to read this, but if like me you acquire it you may find it hard going for both both the writing style and the content.  But it will open your eyes and when another black man is beaten by police, or a black man is found hung (Mississippi today, 20 March 2015) You may find yourself thinking long and hard.

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You can find out more about the book here  and also and more about the author on Wikipedia.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Bed and Breakfast Guests we Remember (2)

From time to time I am dropping in little memories about guests in my occasional B&B, to cheer you up, readers, and also to encourage (?!) those who are thinking about going down this fun route!!

"Where are you?"
 was my reply to a little family from Italy who were late arriving, and eventually phoned the house, only able to tell me they could not find me.
 "Co-operative for Food"
came the reply and I heaved a sigh of relief. Mr Mac had not partaken of any beers that day, so maybe we could pull off a quick rescue!
"Colour and make of car?"
 "Red Nissan Note"
"Stay where you are! My husband will come and get you - he's driving a small blue car".
Urging Mr Mac to drive down to our local co-op, he was gone in a flash, only to call me 5 minutes later.
"They're not here".
"Drive round again"
"I've been round twice already - there are no Red Nissan Notes in this car park!"

What to do? I have their mobile phone number and I call.
"We can't see you. Where exactly are you?"
"Co-operative for food"
"What can you see from your car?"
"Co-operative for food"

Frustrated, I know I cannot explain that Mr Mac is sitting in the Co-op car park and they are not, so I think again.
"What else can you see from your car?"
"Texaco petrol"
 Penny drops! They are in our local petrol station, and the little shop that goes with the business is indeed Co-operative for food! But it isn't in the same place as the supermarket, is it?!   I call Mr Mac again.
"They're in the petrol station!"
"I'll go now".

 And five minutes later they were walking down the garden, laughing, towards me, also laughing, and clapping too. They'd made it!

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

The Greatcoat - Helen Dunmore

Ghost stories? I can take them or leave them. I enjoyed "The Small Hand" by Susan Hill, but some of the more famous titles have left me cold. This short novel, more a slit in the fabric of time than a ghost story, nevertheless is haunting, in the best possible way. Isobel, just married to a newly qualified doctor, lives in rented accommodation on the ground floor of a converted house. It's always cold, the landlady is always nosy and Isobel has no job (her husband would rather she remain at home and be supported by him). Tucked away at the back of an old cupboard she finds an RAF greatcoat, which she uses to keep warm in bed, the quality of the blankets supplied by the landlady not being the thickest or the best. And then, one night, there is a tap at the kitchen window. Her husband is out on a call, and she thinks that the tap is himself. But it isn't, it's a fellow in RAF uniform.... Spooky in the best way, well written and the clues are there - but you don't notice them for a while. Less than 250 pages, and no hardship to read. If you like ghost stories I think you will like this one, and if you don't, why not try it?

Monday, 16 March 2015

Hostage: London - Geoffrey Household

Set in the late 1970s, when the Western world and Russia were in the grip of the Cold War, when the troubles in Ireland and Ulster were leaking into the UK, this is a frightening telling of something which is not out of time, even now in the twentyfirst century.

Told in the form of a diary, the diarist is a man of many names. Originally a trained guerrilla fighter, and already having served a 15 year prison sentence, he becomes part of an international anarchist group called MAGMA. Their aim, perhaps like the anti-consumerists of today, is to bring down the consumer-led big boys, and start a new world order. Which would not be so bad, except that when the diarist finds out firstly how ruthless they are, and secondly that a bomb, large enough to take out most of London has been well-hidden somewhere, his own anarchist views fall away, and he must attempt to stop them. How can he trust anyone? How can he find out who the leaders of the group are?

First published in 1977, Household has woven a tale of bluff and double bluff which had me on the edge of my seat throughout. Has this been made into a film? If not why not?!! I loved Rogue Male by this author, and have read it more than once. This one only needs one read as it is more a will-it-won't-it subject rather than a man's singular hope that he can escape his pursuers. But for male and female readers alike, this is a short but gripping read.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths - Barbara Comyns

Some titles make you want to have that book and read it! So it was the title that first drew me to this book, and I'm glad I found it. Barbara Comyns did have a poverty-stricken first marriage, and all that went with it, which is well described and yet a little disguised in this short novel.

With no parents, Sophia is whisked off her feet (and out of her bedsitter) by Charles,a young artist who is a similar age and at 21, marriage is not what she really expects. When she becomes pregnant, that's the cat amongst the pidgeons; for Charles will never be anything other than a big child himself, a man who thinks himself a great artist, and who detests the idea of children of his own. He is selfish and for me, a rather obnoxious young man who only turns on the charm when there is a little money around. Sophie, who has nothing, and never has had, finds the lack of funds and his withdrawal from family life once Sandro, her son is born bewildering, and finally hateful.

 It's short, only 200+ pages, but Sophia is a naive but amusing narrator, even when you are reading some hellish happenings, including roaming the streets with a small baby looking for a roof over her head. Reprinted several times by Virago, if you have a look at Amazon you will find several different covers.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

I've changed my archive layout! Go on - have a look!!

I stopped listing every book I reviewed within the first year of my blog. I knew it was not laid out well, but I couldn't think of how I could deal with it. Then I found instructions on how to do what I wanted on t'internet, so I did it. Three times. That didn't work either. And then - miracle! or rather, a light-bulb moment occured, because Blogger already gave me three choices as to how to show my archived posts...... and one of them means I can show the titles of all posts. Don't all shout at once, but why didn't I know that then?!!!!! My archive listing is on the left hand column here (just under feedjit). Help yourself my friends!

Tamar - Mal Peet

On the cover of the paperback I read, beneath the title, are the words "A story of secrecy and survival".  And indeed it is - but so much more.  There are two stories here quite separate by the calendar but intertwined by family.  Tamar is a fifteen year old girl, and even before she is born, her grandfather urges her father to name her Tamar.

Tamar was the code name of a WW2  SOE (Special Operations Europe) officer.  Dutch, trained in England, together with his wireless operator Dart.  These two men were dropped, over Holland, in the dead of night together with wireless equipment and some other things that helped with their disguises, and they made it.  Two things had to be done - one was to tie up all the rag-bag ends of the Dutch resistance and make them work together so that Operation Pegasus could go ahead; and the other to send and receive messages to England about the current situation in their area. This is a book where fact and fiction are so skillfully woven together it's hard to see the join, and the war-time and current-time chapters are easily delineated.

Tamar's father disappeared when she was quite young.  Just disappeared.  No-one found out what happened to him.  So Tamar became very close to her grandparents, who took the load off her mother.  When she was fifteen her grandfather died - a suicide - and he left a shoe box with a very odd selection of things for her.  Some money, a half finished crossword, three maps, an identity booklet........what use was any of that now that her beloved grandfather was gone?

It's not an easy read.  Peet wrote this for YA readers, but it should appeal to any age of adult.  It describes the end few months of WW2, with the Nazis desperately hanging on in Holland; where some truly dreadful things did happen; where food was desperately scarce; where the strangest of bedfellows fell into each other's company.  At 400+ pages it's a fat paperback, but I had no trouble demolishing it in a 24 hour period.  Glad I did too, and if other Mal Peet books pass my radar I will not dismiss them.  Recommended.

See next post down for a word or two about Mal Peet and a link to his obituary.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Author Mal Peet dead at 67 (Carnagie Medal winner for Tamar)

On my shelves sit lots of books, waiting for the "right" time to read them.  By right time I don't mean Christmas, or the summer holiday, or a wartime tale to be read around 11 November each year.  In fact, I am not sure exactly what I do mean by the "right" time.  Some books have been saved for a treat (I kept The Book Thief for 3 years before I read it as I somehow knew it would be a good 'un), some I read because I have a couple of days to go before the end of a month and I take a thinnie off the shelf.  Fatties I save for holidays (great plane reading); or for a weekend when the OH is off somewhere doing his own thing; or the times I succumb to a head cold and I can indulge myself for hours and hours just reading.


And so, having just finished yesterday's newspaper, in it's obituary pages there it was - this Carnagie Medal winner was dead at only 67.  So Tamar has to come off the shelves.  Another one saved for ages because it looked another good 'un, a tale of  "..... a man involved in the terrifying world of resistance fighters in Nazi-occupied Holland...".

You can read Mal Peet's obituary here

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Station Eleven - Emily St. John Mandel

Now how did this one nearly slip under the radar?  I never saw a review, none of my booky friends seem to have read or mentioned this one either, and it's quite new - only published in paperback this year in the UK .  I saw the cover and it drew me in - thank goodness!
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If I say the word dystopian, please don't stop reading.  I do know that many readers don't like books about 'after the end of the world as we know it', but this book may well be my book of the year and was so enjoyable I read it in two chunks and, if I'd opened it earlier, it would have been read all at once.  So I recommend it wholeheartedly to you.

When Arthur Leander dies on stage during a production of King Lear in Toronto, Canada,  he is the first of many deaths that night - in Canada, in America, round the world.  But his death is not the catalyst.  His death is from a heart attack.  As a severe form of flu swoops on millions of others, it is clear that the world will never be the same.   From Arthur, film star and stage actor;  to the would-be paramedic who leaps on stage and attempts CPR;  to a small child who was part of the stage production that night, several lives and several objects are intertwined.  The small child goes on to become part of Travelling Symphony - as the name suggests, a group of travelling musicians who also perform Shakespeare plays;  hauling their entire world with them in old pickup trucks which are now horsedrawn.  They travel, not from town to town, but from settlement to settlement, for towns and cities are abandoned, and those that did escape the pandemic form little groups in useful but out of the way places like motels and petrol stations on back roads.  Some settlements are welcoming, some not.  Some are peopled by those you'd want to get away from yourself.  Some you'd want to stop at.  But the Travelling Symphony have another reason to keep going. Two of their members stopped off at a settlement a while ago - a very pregnant woman and her partner, and the Symphony is on the way back to the settlement to pick them up with their new baby and move on down the road.

Set around Lakes Ontario and Erie, their world seems so big but in fact is very small indeed considering that they are on foot or in a horsedrawn vehicle travelling at walking pace.  Food in supermarkets,  Mom and Pop stores, petrol stations having long gone either by looting or decay in the twenty years since Arthur's death, they are reliant on hunted food (plenty of deer), bartered food (money is no use) and on meals offered as they reach settlements.  Kirsten, the little girl from King Lear all that time ago in Toronto is a hunter, and with August, another Symphony member, a scavanger - the only two in the group willing to enter houses and find things that might be useful, or that they might like to keep.  So then.  This is life twenty years after the end.  Twenty years of a new kind of life alternately described with Arthur's life back when.  What a read!

Thursday, 5 March 2015

The Pond - Robert Murphy

The Pond in question is a smallish lake, somewhere between Richmond and Norfolk in the state of Virginia, USA. Joey's father has a small house down there as a hunting lodge, and the Summer he's 14, Joey is allowed to drive his father's Ford pick up truck from Richmond, down to the house with his friend Bud, a couple of shotguns and a couple of fishing rods. The house is looked after by Mr Ben, a single man who fought off the demon drink and found his place out there in the countryside. After shooting a few squirrels, wishing they could catch the biggest fish in the pond, and eating food prepared by Mr Ben, the boys must return to the city, but Joey knows he wants to return to the pond again and again. During the next year, he does just that. Catches some fish, shoots a few more blameless squirrels, finds a real friend in a dog belonging to a poverty-stricken family who live nearby, and comes to understand how life outside a city really works.
 I was reminded of A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton Porter although the main character in that book was of course, female. The Pond was published in 1964, although set around 1917. It certainly had more of an early than mid 20th century feel to it which made it more "real".  Republished in the last couple of years and now available as paperback and kindle, this is worth your time if you like a straightforward story of growing up without vampires, magic or other stuff.  For those drawn towards the circle of life of death in the animal world, this wouldn't be a bad start.   Perhaps this book was an early runner in the eco-world? Joey certainly comes to know and understand the way animals live and die, and how the pond and the land surrounding it is so important to them. And during the course of the book he comes to question his own feelings about hunting. Some nicely drawn other characters in here too, all of whom teach the youngster something.
At only 224 pages (in the hardback edition) this is not a long book, but very readable and describes the thoughts and deeds of Joey very well, and understandably. I liked it.

Monday, 2 March 2015

Crooked Heart - Lissa Evans

I read Lissa Evans' Their Finest Hour and a Half a couple of years ago, but it didn't really grab me.  And then I read this one and really enjoyed it!  Every major character in this novel is a (very) small time crook, from Vera (Vee for short)  Sedge, who would like to have money but doesn't know how to go about getting it; her son, Donald, who does know how to go about getting it, to Noel, who thinks up a couple of schemes for Vera to get out there and make it.

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Set in WW2, this is a book where you can't help but love Vee and Noel, although at first you are not sure why.  Noel's godmother Mattie, with whom he lives on the edge of Hampstead Heath, is that wonderful kind of guardian - loves Noel, loves life and loves being who she is.  So when after her death and a short stay with distant family of Mattie Noel is evacuated to St Albans you'd think it was all for the best.  In St Albans he is lodged with Vera Sedge, and as a child who hardly ever talks, she is confused as to how to deal with him.  Vera has to perform the odd sexual favour for her landlord because her son is working for him (but not really pulling his weight) and the rent is due again.  She makes hat trimmings just to bring in a bit of cash to help feed herself, Donald and her mother, mute after a fall.  They live in a damp, dirty, half empty flat above the scrapyard where Donald works. But Donald has a secret.  He is actually a self made man with a Gladstone bag full of cash on top of his wardrobe - he has a specialist line which he does every once in a while.  And so, as Noel settles in to this odd little family group, he finds his voice, and takes some decisions.  Some for himself, and some for Vee.

We do sometimes disremember wartime in this country.  Perfectly described is the way petty crime was conducted amongst the bombed streets of London, and how those that knew turned a blind eye because that's just how it was. A nicely judged novel, for YAs and adults alike.  Little bits of stuff float into your memory, like the peice of cold potato that Noel had to ask for whilst in a shelter during a bombing raid.  Like the collection box scam that must have been operated all over the place.  I liked the writing style, enjoyed the tale.  Would make a decent TV drama, too, and no surprise there as Evans has worked in both radio and tv production.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe - Benjamin Alire Saenz

Sexuality. Teens get this thrust upon them - one day they are a child, the next things start to happen.  Hair sprouts, voices break, breasts burst, and somehow they have to get through to the other side and become fully formed adults.  That's a big ask at the best of times, besides what is going on in their heads.  Aristotle (that's his second name, for what boy would want to be called Angel?) or Ari for short, is growing up in El Paso, with a Mexican heritage, getting through school, talking to his parents and anyone else who crosses his path in one word sentences.  He's definitely a loner, has no friends, hasn't kissed a girl yet, is the family's "baby", and has three older siblings -twin sisters, old enough to be married with children of their own, and a brother who no-one talks about.  At the local swimming pool one day, Ari hears a voice.  "I can teach you to swim if you like?" - and there is Dante.  Dante who doesn't look like someone from a Mexican background;  Dante who speaks using whole sentences and words Ari has never even come across;  Dante who hates wearing shoes....  and the two become friends in the blink of an eye.

Dante likes boys.  Ari can't wait to kiss a girl.  Somehow this doesn't matter at all, and they spend a lot of time together, discovering life. I want to tell you more, but I want you to read this one, so my story-telling stops here.  Suffice to say, on the way to adulthood, these two find out a lot about themselves, others, and sexuality in general.  They fall out with each other, they fall back in,  their friendship something they both want.

Lovely characters in this book.  The boys are well-drawn, one more full of teen angst than the other but both having to face adulthood.  The parents, not perfect but described well, so that you can see that adults have troubling times too.  A couple of girls at school - Ari's friends, although he doesn't realise at first and tries to shake them off.  A couple of family secrets too - when Ari finds out that life can be as difficult for adults as it is for him.

The prize winning author Benjamin Alire Sáenz grew up in New Mexico speaking only Spanish.
He's written several books for children and young adults.  He teaches, so he's in the right place to observe the growing up process and transfer it on to the printed page.  I enjoyed the read - and the reminder of my earlier years.

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...