Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Mrs Mac suggests: what to read in October

October already........ and with it the season of mellow fruitfulness is nearly at an end, for later, November will bring colder weather, windy days, and probably lots of rain.

So for October what about something to curl up in front of the first fire of the year, or next to the radiator when you switch the heating on?

So I suggest that you read a book that you have been looking forward to reading for a while, and put aside because summer was just too busy.

I've been saving   
                                                               all the summer!

Monday, 28 September 2015

The Knife of Never Letting Go - Patrick Ness

Not new, but still worth finding and reading this wonderful YA read.  Indeed, there are two more to read as this is part of the Chaos Walking Trilogy, so I'll be searching out the others soon.

Our hero, Todd, is with his dog Manchee, and from the very first page you know you are in for a strange and extra-ordinary journey because the dog is talking to Todd, and Todd is replying.  Manchee needs a poo...... and tells Todd so.  Manchee is a great character in this first book - there are other animals that talk too, but with much less vocabulary, including a huge herd of cattle of some kind, who just sort of sing "Here", "We are Here" to each other all the time to keep the herd intact.  Brilliant concept all round - a new planet, where settlers are still attempting to settle, but finding it difficult for various reasons including the strange phenomenon of all thoughts being audible to all men (Todd's town has only men in it).  There were resident creatures on this planet, but the new settlers seem to have killed off most of them;  in this way it reads rather like North America and the European Settlers in the early days.

Written in the first person (Todd's voice) and the present tense, we accompany Todd and Manchee when they run away from  town and we find that there is a kind of price on Todd's head;  and he's going to have to keep running, and keep out of trouble.   Not easy when he comes across a silent girl, a survivor from a scoutship, sent down from another settlers' spaceship waiting for a message to say Safe to Land.

The book has violence, cruelty, bad spelling (not mistakes, just the way Todd and others talk), but I whipped through it in two days, just turning page after page.  I really like Patrick Ness, and have read some of his later books.  Don't know why I didn't pull this off the shelf before, but glad I got there in the end.  I had tears in my eyes several times, and I cared for many of the characters I came across.  Do find it and read it. Dystopian reads are not everyone's cup of tea - this was definitely mine!

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Slammerkin - Emma Donahue

 Central London (Covent Garden and surrounds) 1760.  What d'you think it might have been like then if you were truly poor?  Mary Saunders lives with her mother, stepfather and a baby brother, in a basement room.  She is fortunate that her own father left enough money for her to have an education at a charity school.  Her stepfather is truly only interested in the brother - of course, it's his - and so Mary gets on with life as best she can.  Every day, on her way home from school, the whores are out for business at Seven Dials, and one of them, with a knife scar across one cheek and a grey powdered wig, has a scarlet ribbon in her hair.  Mary wants that ribbon, or one just like it, to colour her grey and dreadful life.  And the evening she looses half the money for the winkles she's sent out to buy for the family's supper, she meets the ribbon seller.  She has no money of her own but covets his wares, and when he offers a scarlet ribbon for a kiss, she's tempted into saying yes, and the kiss becomes a rape against the wall of an alleyway.  And in the daylight, the ribbon he gave is brown, not red.  And of course, the rape must result in a pregnancy. 

She's 14 years old and thrown out by her mother and stepfather.  To her rescue comes Dolly, the whore with the scarlet ribbon, who takes her in, cares for her, and teaches her the business, which she soon becomes very good at.  But she wants more than sex in an alleyway.  Surely there is more to life than watching thieves hung at Tyburn as a day out?  For a while, drinking gin and giving the punters what they want is a good life for Mary and Dolly, but several things change for Mary......

No more of the story as it's too good to tell you the whole tale.  But if you thought being poor in the 21st century was not an attractive deal, read this and see what it was like in the 18th century.  It's described so well, warts and all, and that part of London has not changed its street layouts at all, so if you are familiar with Covent Garden and The Strand, it's easy to recognise.  And if you are not familiar, a map of the time is supplied at the front of the book.  I am unsure how most of the inner city poor survived to adulthood frankly.  Little food, little money, no running water, no sewers (your pot was emptied into the street, and the delightfully named "night soil" was taken to be spread on fields to provide compost to grow food).  The descriptions of the dresses the working girls wore (slammerkins both - for loose woman and whores' dresses) will tell you much.  It's the oldest profession and you'll probably understand why as you read.  There are a lot of sexual descriptions in this book, but as it is about prostitution, it's to be expected.  There are lots of interesting facts in there - including a description of what "hangers on" were, originally.  Who knew?

Donahue has written several books since this was published around 2000, but if she'd only written this one I'd have recommended her.  From two or three lines in public records, she found a character in Mary and put flesh on her, and gave here a character you may not ever like but a character you should empathise with.  I did.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

The President's Hat - Antoine Laurain

Ah!  a French author!  Don't turn away.... for if you have anything against foreign authors, you may miss a trick.  This short novel (208 pages) just tells you the story of a hat.  Not exciting? Not romantic?  Not breathtaking?  Well..... that's right, but let's have a closer look.

Francois Mitterrand, president of France in the 1980s, out for supper at a Paris restaurant with two colleagues one night, leaves his hat behind in error.  Daniel Mercier had been sitting at the next table, not quite a guest at the table, but near enough to follow the conversation and to realise that when Mitterrand leaves, the hat stays.  It seems that fate has dealt a good hand to Daniel, for when he puts the hat on his head he feels different, and it's not long before he begins to act in an entirely different way.

The hat will not stay with Daniel, it has several more heads to sit on, but every wearer appreciates that it changes their life in some way.  Sometimes it's a huge change, sometimes just something that needed a little nudge.  It's a wonderful little novel, tells you a lot about human nature in all it's guises, including human failings,  I loved all the characters once they had got the hat on, my especial favourite was the lovely Peirre Aslan, perfume "nose" who had lost his skill after a long period of depression.

I think you might enjoy this, it's a little different, and good because of that. Certainly it's a marmite book.  I had a look at the reviews on Amazon, and the majority are 5 star.  But there are a few 1 star, and one of those is short and succinct.  It just says "Rubbish" - bit strong, eh?  and certainly not true, even if it's a book to make you smile rather than get the goosebumps going! 

Monday, 14 September 2015

Mothers Day; Fathers Day; Grandparents Day; yada yada yada

I added yada yada yada instead of etc. etc. etc. because I found that today, 14 September, was Grandparents Day in the US.   It made me think about commercialism versus families, and I came to the conclusion that we have travelled a long way (or been coerced into travelling a long way) from Mothering Sunday.  I still remember that when I was little, Mothering Sunday was the day you took a little posy of flowers to church to have them blessed, and then you passed them on to your mother as a sort of thank you for her being there.  I have later memories as a teen of buying her a card and a small present instead of the flowers.  But it was always Mothering Sunday.

Now with a lot of the Christian world becoming secular,  people no longer go to church except for weddings, funerals and christenings (and perhaps on Christmas Eve).  Nothing wrong with that, you may have a faith, you may doubt your faith, you may have no faith.  Entirely your choice I believe.

But horrors!  Somewhere along the way, card manufacturers took the place of the church, and some!!!  A card for everything, a card for every special day.  I am sure there was no Fathers Day when I was small - there was certainly no Grandparents Day. 

And soon we will turn full circle - for with postal activity getting less and less, and the fact that you can send a picture of yourself waving hello to the chosen one on their "day" via your phone, we will soon not be buying those cards......  Curiouser and curiouser, as Alice might say!

Friday, 11 September 2015

The Snake Pit - Mary Jane Ward

     "Long ago they lowered insane persons into snake pits; they thought that an experience that might drive a sane person out of his wits might send an insane person back into sanity"

Let me introduce you to Virginia Cunningham, patient at a New York State mental institution in the 1940s.  Following a complete breakdown, she is at the stage where she remembers some things - like her husband Robert's name, her own first name, and the fact that the food is awful, but "the bread is good" (that last statement having become part the vocabulary between my sister and myself when things are not so good anywhere, cafe, bank, housekeeping, life in general etc.).

Very much like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, the regime described for those suffering from mental illness was unlike the way it is dealt with today (thank goodness).  It was written in 1946, so a few years before Cuckoo's Nest.  It was the time of electric shock treatment; ice cold baths; complete wraps in wet sheets and tied down for the night; the wearing of the same "uniform" every day with only a shower twice a week and lucky if there was soap; the total lack of privacy and in the place that Virginia  describes, the time when the nursing staff were sometimes as odd, eccentric and indeed, using her own word,  as crazy as she was.

This is a short and intense novel.  The copy I read was only 192 pages, and every page worried me for Virginia's sake, for it was clear that at the beginning she hardly knew who she was, let alone where she was.  And all the way through, as she gets transferred backwards and forwards between different wards, meeting people who might be friends; people who cannot be trusted and therefore can never be friends; and every so often, mention of a doctor of some kind;  I worried that another setback would mean she would not be leaving soon.

My own parents both worked in a mental hospital (as it was referred to in the UK then) in the 1950s and 60s.  I heard many stories that as an adult would have horrified me, but as a child it was all part of what happened where they worked.  At that time there were still women who had been locked up in their teens for becoming pregnant - not from ordinary working families, but from upper classes who didn't want the scandal.  Some of those became totally institutionalised and would never have coped with the real world.  Mental health begins to be better understood at around that time.  We certainly don't lower people into snake pits, and whilst we still don't understand everything, we can help more with all kinds of mental illness now in the new century than only 50-60 years ago.

This is a book I urge you to find and read if you can.  If for no other reason than to give you some idea what it is like to be mentally ill (in any way).  It is a glimpse into a nightmare - I cannot imagine how she must have felt.  But feel it she did, because although a novel, this is based on the experiences of the author who did have a total breakdown in the 1940s. 

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Fire Colour One - Jenny Valentine

Meet Iris, teen firestarter, with a greedy mother and a stepfather whose big film part is just the next audition away.  Iris lives in California, where her mother runs up credit card bills, wears Lebutin shoes, and drinks.  All the time.  Suddenly they are leaving their apartment and heading back to England, where Iris's real father - the one who didn't love her and never wanted her lies dying.

She doesn't want to like Ernest, her father, but somehow he seems much nicer than the man her mother is always describing.  She gets to spend some time with him, in the family house full of 20th century art (which is why her mother came back).  As they talk, she gets to hear her father's side of the story.  It doesn't make her like her mother any more than she did, but it makes her think again about the lies people tell.  So is her father lying as well?

At the point in the book when something wonderful is revealed, I actually stopped reading and clapped my hands.  What a great read for anyone, but particularly for the YA audience this is aimed at.

Jenny Valentine is the author of Finding Violet Park which was also a great short read.

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...