Thursday, 31 March 2016

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

So Spring is here and we are still reading!

For April I am suggesting you read A book set in a school.  

You might go way back to Enid Blyton's Mallory Towers!  You may only go as far back as Down with Skool byGeoffrey Willans with illustrations by Ronald Searle, but go on, find a book set in a school and enjoy yourself.

My suggestion to you is   -

  Gentlemen and Players - Joanne Harris

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Heroic Measures - Jill Ciment

  • Heroic Measures  Ever been to New York?  Never been to New York?  It doesn't matter at all which way you answer, for here is a joyous taste of Manhattan just for you - which doesn't involve fashion, concert halls, shows, Central Park, the Statue of Liberty, or even Grand Central Station.  It's a little bundle of small time real life, and it stars two elderly Jews and one elderly dachshund.
    Ruth and Alex Cohen are selling their apartment on the fourth floor of a block with no lift (elevator).  They are looking for an apartment in the same neighbourhood  that has one.  Not least because they are elderly but it would be nice to just get in the lift and go home, rather than drag yourself up four floors, wouldn't it?  So an open day for viewing their home is arranged, but not before Dorothy the dachshund has to be hospitalised and may not recover.  With the worry about the dog, they are not really interested in the viewers, and even when a bidding war starts, their concerns are with Dorothy;  and in any case, they haven't found a new place for themselves yet.   When they do  find just the place, overlooking a cemetery (such quiet neighbours!), they put in their bid.
    Whilst they are dealing with their own small (but the same as all of us) problems, New York is having a bad time of it when a petrol tanker is stuck, jammed across all lanes, in a tunnel and the driver is seen running away.  Is he a terrorist?  Don't worry, the networks will let you know!  Every channel is showing the same thing, every channel has a spokesperson with a slightly differing view, and in the meantime, Ruth and Alex have to get on with their life. 

Friday, 25 March 2016

Hester & Harriet - Hilary Spiers

I found this new title reviewed on another blog.  The blogger I am long aquainted with - so when she had a few good words to say about this I took a chance.  So glad!  What a lovely read!

Hester and Harriet are two fiesty widowed sisters who now live together in comfortable near-harmony in rural Hampshire.  They love food, they love good wine, they holiday every year in the Scilly Isles (same rooms too), and they don't like excitement.  So when, on Christmas day, they find a very young woman with a tiny baby hiding in a disused bus shelter, it would be better perhaps to drive on by.  But like the good Samaritan of old, they take these two into their home and on finding that they have a possible illegal immigrant and child to deal with, proceed to try and find out what is going on, what she is so frightened of and who.  Almost at the same time, their 15 year old nephew turns up and is not going home either.  For a few days, the sisters and Daria, the mother of tiny Milo live uncomfortably with Ben, spotty and single-word conversationalist, until they realise that Daria needs help;  Ben needs to get his act together, and they are going to find life more exciting that they really want.

The characters are all well drawn.  Spiers has captured the worry of the new mother and her illegal status well, the spotty Ben gains our sympathy early on; the two sisters themselves, like an old married couple, have a charm (and a little spitefulness!) of their own.  The lesser characters are also  well described, and at around 400 pages this was a great read which has a few laugh out loud moments but does not shy away from the problems some folk face.  I saw this described somewhere as a "cosy" - and noted the very British spelling,  for it's Americans who use "cozy" and there are a lot of them around with a lot of fans;  maybe not so many on this side of the Atlantic.  I think the description was right - it is a cosy, and a very British one indeed.  Written in the present tense, which suited the story very well, taking place in less than a week between Christmas and New Year.  And Ben's world is full of modern idioms - if he wants to know how something works or how it's done, he just Googles it or looks to Youtube.  His mobile phone is never out of his hand, and you can just imagine him saying "whatever.....".

I romped through this in a a couple of days.  Light it may be, but well written with an utterly believable storyline, and a little subplot which is bang up to date.  Great Stuff Hilary Spiers - this will definitely be one of my top ten reads in 2016!

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Modern stained glass - a little bit of joy

I often see old stained glass windows hung or placed close to an existing window for the look of it. 
But have you ever thought about modern stained glass?

Here's my lovely hanging piece of glass..... bought at a gallery in Cornwall several years ago.  You should hang glass up where the light will catch it and this is the west facing window in my living room (I have an east facing also, but I like the situation of the stained glass in this window for a couple of reasons).  The view from this window is into someone else's front garden, so it serves at a bit of a blocker.  Also, afternoon light is really good through the colours in this class.  Finally, we have UPVC windows and this lovely peice of artwork makes you look at it, rather than the plastic!

If you walk into the room at the right time of day, the light through it reflects the colours right across the room.

Monday, 21 March 2016

To Bed With Grand Music - Marghanita Laski

First published in 1946, this was picked up and re-issued by Persephone in 2009.  And it was originally published under a false name too, perhaps because Laski thought people would consider that the Deborah in the book just might be her?

Deborah has a baby and a husband and a cottage in the country (oh! and a housekeeper too), and life is sweet.  Funny how things can change, eh?  Her husband Graham is due to be sent to Egypt, and for the duration of the war, because of his job, he is likely to get no home leave at all.  So, the night before he leaves, he explains that if he is to be away for a long time, he may well find comfort and sex in the arms of a  woman or two, but of course he will not love them, he only loves her.  At first she gets very cross indeed because she wouldn't even consider the same thing herself.  But off he goes, and she soon gets very bored indeed.  She considers taking a job to help the war effort but lets several chances pass her by, until she realises that life in the country with a small boy and nothing else to do is just not enough.

And so, she goes to share a flat temporarily with a friend;  an unmarried friend, who has certainly found her way around the party-time spirit that wartime London evokes, and of course it's not long before Deborah joins the party.  The first man she sleeps with is a one night stand, and she is revolted with herself, and spends hours telling herself that she doesn't even know why she did it, except that Graham is probably at it already.  The next man she sleeps with stays around longer.  An American, married, lonely, charming; is just what she needs.  Dinners out, dancing, parties, and all with a wonderful companion who she enjoys sex with too.  Then he's posted elsewhere.   I don't need to tell you much more about Deoborah's life, except that her true character is revealed to us - a selfish b.itch who wants the good life more than the sex, but is able to achieve the nice clothes, the perfume, the evenings out etc. on the strength of it. 

I can see that this might have been considered strong stuff on initial publication, but only, I believe, because people didn't like to talk about this kind of stuff then, and were hypocritical enough to pretend that it didn't happen much, and in any case, the tale is just the story of a tart.  It isn't.  It's a great small read (under 200 pages).  It conjures the wartime feel very well, and lets you into the head of a woman you may not want to meet, but you'll be glad to make her acquaintance between the pages.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

The People in the Photo - Helene Gestern

 I loved this book.   It is the story of a hidden past, told by two desparate people, connected only by family histories but nevertheless connected by a feeling that they want to be together and know each other better, as well as finding out some truths about both their families.  Helene's stepmother is near death, and in a nursing home, now sufferingwith Altzeimers, she cannot be questioned about Helene's real mother, who died when she was a small child.  So an advertisement is placed in a couple of French newspapers, and a reply arrives.  The reply is from a man who has a copy of the same photo as Helene - her mother, his father, and another man.  He can tell Helene that this was a picture taken after a tennis tournament in the 1970s; he can tell her the name of the other man because he is his godfather.  And now they will set out to find out how her mother and his father came to be pictured together at all.

You could say that basically, this book is about a love story that gradually creeps up on you (and them), but it is so much more than that.  It is about the way that people love; the love parents have for children, the love that friends have for each other, the love that keeps secrets so that no-one is hurt - as well as love that causes strife and family problems.  Written in the form of letters, the style reminded me so much of the Griffin and Sabine books by Nick Bantock (although they are nothing at all like each other).  If you enjoy this style of writing, and you know that the past in a family can be different from the one shown to the world, that every family has a skeleton somewhere in the cupboard, you will enjoy the mystery of it.  It is brilliantly written, and for that we have to thank the book's translators (Emily Boyce and Ros Schwartz), who brought this to our attention from the French original.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Beloved - Toni Morrison

If ever there was a book I wanted to read but couldn't bring myself to start, it was this one.  I knew a little of the story, I knew it would be full of sadness, I knew it might even make me ashamed of the human race.  But you know, in the end, you need to take that book off the shelf and read it.  And what a brilliant read it turned out to be for me.  And it will stay with me - how could it not?

 It does jump around in time.  It is a story told by several of the characters.  Some of the language is written in the vernacular.  Do not let any of that put you off,  for this is a book that will tell you as much about the lives of black slaves in the Southern states of America in the mid to late 18th century as a textbook.  And believe me, that is where the shame came into it -  for although I somehow could not believe how those blacks were treated I knew it to be true.  Much has been written about the slave trade.  I know how many people in the UK relied on it to live well (more than you think).  I know how many banks made a lot of money from it.  None of that is described in this brilliant book;   you will need to do a bit of research if you want to know more.
But this book is about a few men and women who had to live their lives owned by others.  Some kinder than others, some owners so cruel to be unbelieveable.  But it is, finally, a book that hopefully will make you see that hating people that are different from you, either in language, colour, belief does nothing for the human race, and that love is a multi-faceted thing.  I don't want to give too much of the story away, for you need to discover everything ab out Sethe and the people she loves page by page, thereby revealing the awfuls truths and the love within. 
Sethe lived her early life at a farmstead owned by white people who appeared to be forward thinking. They treated their blacks well, they gave them decent living quarters, they spoke to them as though they were human beings and also as though they were not enslaved, the men were taught to shoot, and all in all that might have been a nice enough life if you didn't know any better.  But there is always darkness somewhere, and when the master dies, his brother the schoolteacher takes over.

Planning to escape as a family, Sethe and her man and children are told about the underground railway, and make arrangements to flee.  She and the children arrive eventually at her mother-in-law's house, there to await her man.   And some years later, having lived through the death of her mother-in-law and the rejection of the family by the rest of the town's black population not least because the house is haunted -  a young black woman appears on the doorstep as if from nowhere.  Her name is Beloved .......

Thursday, 3 March 2016

On losing a pet

Mmmmm .... looks like more visitors then.  AirBnB anyone?
Did I tell you about Fred?  How we spirited him (and his sister Mabel) away from a home in a town nearby eight or nine years ago?  And did I tell you why?
Someone that I worked with at the time said she knew of two cats that needed a home.  On further investigation it seemed that the owners were off on holiday, and the man of the house seemed to think this was a great way of getting rid of them altogether, as he said when we arrived "if you can't deal with them or don't want them when we come back in two weeks, just bring them back".  Mmmmm.  Let's just not bring them back, I thought to myself.  So home to us they came.  They were very timid in their former home, and here in their new home they retreated to a space under the kitchen cabinets for 5 weeks.  They came out for food, and to use the litter box.  All we ever saw of them during that time were their tails disappearing back under the cabinets.
Gradually they got over the shock.  They didn't disappear at once when we appeared, they ate their food, they went out into the garden, they enjoyed sunshine on their fur.  Fred was double the size of his sister - a great lump of ginger, who had a major operation that cost us the price of a holiday when he had been here about 3 years.  Not that that matters a jot.  Because after that he began to purr..... I mean after 3 years!  and he took to laying along the back of the sofa near us when we sat down on it.  Something had happened in their former life, something they were afraid of, because they only liked being on the same level as us.  When we stood up - whoosh! they were gone.  Because of Fred's op., (colon removed) we were advised to feed fresh chicken and brown rice only.  It took about three days before he worked out that he could separate the rice from the meat, and never ate rice again......

He started loosing weight and not caring for his fur a couple of months before last Christmas, at first the vet thought it was arthritus of the spine, and after some suppliment to his food, he got back to his beautiful self for a little while.  But he started to loose weight again, and quickly.  And I realised that he wasn't eating, just sucking food for moisture but not swallowing.  (Mabel, who had always had to take second place at the food bar, was polishing off everything he left.... new for her as he was adept at elbowing her out of the way so that he could eat half of hers too!).  Back to the vets - nothing found, no improvement either.  So it was a scan, and that was the end, really....... a mass in his gut which was obviously a tumour that grew quickly and didn't allow him to eat.  

So.  You take that decision for them, don't you?  I took up a slab in the garden, and buried him there where he was happiest in the sun.  And we cried buckets.

Fred and Mabel

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...