Wednesday, 31 August 2016

The River King - Alice Hoffman

 I nearly stopped reading this book before it got going.... the starting section, with it's scene-setting and introduction of characters seemed to me to be quite slow, and going nowhere.   But somewhere in Hoffman's beautiful writing style was a little something that kept me reading .......

I started off thinking American Gothic.   Perhaps a ghost story?  Small town America?  Not a love story, anyway.  Along the way I changed my mind several times, although the book does indeed contain all those elements, together with several flawed characters whom you may, or may not like very much.  That's how I felt, anyway.  But like them or not, I wanted to keep reading about them.

Abe Grey, a single and singular man, policeman, brother of a suicide victim in his teens is a man who can't let go.  Of anything he deems important.  He's going to be the catalyst for quite a lot of things in the story.  Carlin Leander, a girl from a poor background who arrives in town with a place at a private school.  A girl who is a loner, who doesn't make friends easily, and who finds that the people she gets on with best with are a teacher at her school who needs help to deal with and cover up a terminal illness; and August Pierce, a boy who arrives at the same school and on the same day as she does.  He's a loner too, and it is he who will set a ball rolling that cannot be stopped.

People fall in love with these characters  and they too feel love,  but that love is not necessarily reciprocated at the time.  The whole book is about love, but is not always a love story.

So when Abe Grey finds out something strange about a death which appears sad but normal to others, he isn't going to stop, even if he loses nearly everything on that journey.  A mystery, a little bit of magic realism, life, death and love all knitted together in a wonderful style.  Recommended.

Monday, 29 August 2016

Mrs Mac Suggests - What to read in SEPTEMBER

Well, in the UK, September is "back to school month", and so my suggestion for one of my favourite months of the year is 
a book set in a school 

From Mallory Towers  onwards, there are just loads of them.  You must be able to find something!  My own suggestion, if you have never come across it, is 

Gentlemen and Players - Joanne Harris

This is my personal favourite of all her books. Chocolat is lovely, but this is not. It is a clever thriller and one to be enjoyed in the garden perhaps with a pot of tea (no, scrub that and have a cold drink,  because the tea will get cold whilst you turn the pages!) 

Sunday, 28 August 2016

The Smartest Woman I Know - Ilene Beckerman

I found a pictoral review of this little book on a favourite blog - Letters from a Hill Farm.  Nan is a bit of an Anglophile.  She blogs from over the pond in New England.  I like her blog - she's interested in the sort of things I am.  Cooking, gardening, books, films...... so I am a regular visitor, and I know that sometimes she visits mine!  When I saw the pictures of this book I had to have it. So I acquired it second-hand, and very shortly it's going upstairs into the guest bedroom.  I am also ordering some more, because I know several friends who will enjoy this.

A great little book to keep by the side of the bed, or to give as a little gift, or to keep in a pile in the guest room.... but whatever you do, read it first. The smartest woman was Ilene Beckerman's New York Jewish grandmother. A woman who gave advice at every possible turn. A woman who had views on almost everything:  at age 15 to her granddaughter going to a party in her first little black dress - "You're wearing black?  You're going to a funeral?".  A woman who was good at business. You can find out what advice she gave Franklyn D Roosevelt's Mum.  Her views on sex.   I loved her, and when you make her aquaintance, I am sure you will too.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

The Toe-Rags - Daphne Anderson

I have read every one of Diana Athill's Memoirs.

So why would I mention her at the beginning of a post about a book by a different author?  I would, because she mentions the book I am going to tell you about in one of her memoirs, as a book that stuck in her mind for a very long time (one of two books actually).  If  Diana Athill liked it and I liked the reason she gave for liking it, then I feel I should also tell you about it because I liked it very much, not least for the insights into colonial Africa it gave me.

The Toe-Rags* were three small children - Daphne in the middle, Stella her older sister and Tom the youngest. With a ne'r do well father and and an exhausted and dirt poor mother they were brought up in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in the 1920s.  He was always off to seek work and promising to send money home, when it seems that all he ever did was visit his well-off sister for a month or so, and them come home with no money, telling his wife it was all her fault.  When the girls were tiny, they lived with their maternal grandparents but were returned to their mother (and occasional father) when the grandparents' own circumstances changed.  Despite the family's absolute poverty (Daphne and Stella wore dresses stitched from flour and sugar sacks) their young lives were happy, and they were overseen by the houseboy (even the poorest whites had "boys" who did the work) who did much of the caring for the children.    When their mother eventually left, taking a new baby with her and running off with the children's uncle, she supposed that her husband would "have to take care of the children now";  but of course he didn't.......

If you think you have been poor; if you think you are poor now;  don't even think that way.  The poverty and treatment endured by these children is a shocker.   And if you think these whites were poor then that is nothing to what the blacks suffered during times of draught, or loss of employment.   Daphne Anderson describes her life from age four up until her twenties, and everything she achieved, she achieved herself.  She also describes the white hierarchy prevalent at that time, and you know, nothing much has changed if you compare families in the UK (or any other country in the world) being paid benefits,  to the Nouveau Riche who look down upon those who cannot rise to their dizzy heights.  Plus la change?  Yes indeed.

This book is out of print, but there are copies available on places like Amazon at rather inflated prices..... perhaps your library can find you a copy?

* Toe Rag:  British slang, not much used now.  Contemptible or despicable person - originally a beggar or tramp:  from the peices of rag they wrapped around their feet.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Cannery Row - John Steinbeck

What a good day when this wonderful short novel passed my way.  John Steinbeck – Grapes of Wrath and all that?  On my mental list of authors that must be looked into, but somehow never are – until Cannery Row.

Monterey, California – the poor end of town next to the fish canning factories.  Here live, and struggle for survival, some wonderful colourful characters.  Doc, the star of the show, has a biological establishment.   He collects, and supplies to laboratories, animals and sea creatures and lives in his company building, all mixed in with the stock.  Then there’s Mack, leader and usually spokesman for a group of four or five down and outs who are living rent free in a building owned by Mr Lee, Chinese grocer and entrepreneur.  How he acquired the building, and how Max and his pals come to live in it forms the start of the tale of the inhabitants of Cannery Row, sad and funny by turns.  In fact, many of the short chapters in this book are that way – sad and funny by turns.  Some of them, in a few short sentences, brought tears to my eyes.  And some are so wonderfully clever and funny, they need to be read out loud.  What a great writing style Steinbeck uses for this book – his skill is in the way he can say so much when seeming to say so little.  It was a joy to meet all the inhabitants - from the brothel ‘madam’, with her dyed red hair; Mack and his friends who drink a lot but bother no-one; Doc, a soft heart for everyone, even when he loses his temper;  Mr Lee the shop keeper who always has an eye for the main chance but so often looses out to Mack, who can spin a tale so  tight he is the only one who knows where it’s going.  There are more colourful characters to be found here  and not too much of a story – this is more a tale of the way things are, rather than of how they are going to be.  If you have never read any Steinbeck – do, please, seek this one out.  I loved it, and you may feel the same as me – only one way to find out!

Thursday, 4 August 2016

The Master Butchers Singing Club - Louise Erdrich

 This is the story of several misfits, a couple of dreadful crimes, some unrequited love, and some death.  And why had it sat on my shelves for years? because I just devoured it once I started reading.

Starting at the end of WW1 when Fidelis, a German butcher and former soldier, takes the biggest chance of his life and takes a boat for the United States.  Armed only with his butchering knives, a suitcase full of smoked sausages ready to sell and the clothes he stands up in, he eventually arrives somewhere in middle America, settles down, takes a job, and brings his wife and son over from Germany.  Into the same  town come Delphine and her balancing act partner Cyprian, back to check on her father, who has drunk his way through most of his adult life and all of Delphine's. A crime is discovered and the sheriff wants answers he will never get.

Delphine becomes a close friend of Fidelis' wife, nursing her through her final terminal illness, and then stays on in town to look after her father.  In the meantime, she takes the place of her friend in the butcher's shop, watches over her friend's sons and wishes that she wasn't there......

To tell you more would give away too much.  I found myself loving Delphine.  I felt for her for so many reasons, I understood the butcher's feelings about her, I knew that she would be stuck in this little town for years, and I wanted to find out more and more about her.  The book has quite long chapters, but these are divided up into short sections, so it's easy to pick up and put down - not that I put it down much, reading 100 pages at a time when I could!

Louise Erdrich writes so beautifully that for me, every page was a joy.  There is laughter and tears, bitter pills to swallow, some awful deaths, some lovely events, some funny descriptions of happenings.   It's not a thriller but is a page turner.  It's not a love story but it has love at it's heart.  It's not about war, but because dreadful things happen in war we have to know about them.  And one crime is described so graphically it made me wince.  But the thing is that I just wanted to keep turning the pages.  Nothing in this 400 pager put me off,  the descriptions were such that I was there, in with the smells, the tastes, the sights.  I know she has written more, and I am going to have to look about for some of them.  Love her style and  would recommend to anyone who loves a well told tale.

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...