Friday, 30 December 2011

Noah's Ark by Barbara Trapido

The central character of this story is Ali, a woman who was once married to the vile Mervyn Bobrow, and who is now married to the protective Noah Glazer. Noah rescued her, her marriage to Mervyn was over (he had left her for another woman). At her wits end dealing with this and with her clingy daughter Camilla, Ali absent-mindedly stepped into the road and was saved from being hit by a car by Noah pulling her back onto the pavement.

Noah takes charge. Ali is still under the influence of Mervyn, who is a horrible bully without any redeeming features at all. He is cruel to Ali and vicious to their troubled little girl;

'You wet the bed every night as an act of aggression,' he once announced to her helpfully before an audience of adult strangers. 'You do it because you hate your mother.'

This is the seventies and Mervyn thinks of himself as something of an activist, though for what isn't clear. He's all talk and no action. As the years go by he becomes increasingly obsessed with status;

He became a man who looked for his name in the Sunday Times birthday lists and felt himself slighted to find it omitted.

Ali marries Noah and they have two children together. Noah helps her to set boundaries with her ex-husband and with all the hangers-on who want a piece of her. Then back into her life comes Thomas Adderley, her first love. She knew him when they were young together in South Africa. A genuine activist (unlike Mervyn) Thomas creates waves around the steady ship of Ali's marriage.

First published in 1984, I thought that this book did seem a bit dated. It had a shallow, brittle 1980s feel about it. Mervyn Bobrow is possibly the most horrible character I have ever encountered, he is a grotesque. The fact that Ali had married him made me think less of her. In fact I didn't really understand Ali at all. I certainly didn't understand how she could risk her marriage. Possibly this book would've made more sense to me if I'd read it in 1984. Helen Dunmore wrote the introduction to the library copy I read. She really likes it, so I'm sure it's a good book - just not for me. I have read a couple of other Barbara Trapido books which I have really enjoyed.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

A reading day

I haven't managed to get much reading done over the Christmas break, there hasn't really been time, and I'm too tired on an evening to read more than a couple of pages. But this afternoon Billy has gone round to one of his friends to play, so I am going to take the opportunity to crack open a Terry's Chocolate Orange and get a few hours reading in.

I'm reading Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh. I'm enjoying it, but I think it's suffered from me not being able to devote a chunk of time to it. Lots of characters and intertwining stories strands which I'm getting confused at the moment.

I've downloaded a couple of things onto my new Kindle; a memoir by Diana Athill, and Gawain and the Green Knight by Simon Armitage. Both were in Amazon's 99p sale. I've noticed that when I open a book on the Kindle it opens on the first page of the story, not the cover page. I want to change that if possible, so I'll investigate that as well today.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Books for Christmas

I was very excited to receive a Kindle from my husband for Christmas. It wasn't a surprise as I had been dropping not very subtle hints for months. All I've downloaded onto it so far is a short story by Kristine Kathryn Rusch called Hero Dust. I'd heard part of it on Radio 4 Extra a few weeks ago and it sounded interesting. When I investigated it on Amazon I discovered that it was only available as an e-book, so I made a note of it to be my first download.

I also got Penguin by Design: A Cover Story 1935 - 2005 by Paul Baines. The blurb reads:

Ever since the creation of the first Penguin paperbacks in 1935, their jackets have become a constantly evolving part of Britain's culture and design history. Rich with stunning illustrations and filled with details of individual titles, designers and even the changing size and shape of the Penguin logo itself, this book shows how covers become design classics.

I love Penguin books, especially the logo, so this should be an interesting read.

Billy got a collection of Famous Five books, a big book of Disgusting Facts, and various annuals. He's examined his Chelsea FC annual quite closely, but his Nintendo DS has pretty much taken precedence!

I hope everyone is having a lovely Christmas holidays, and getting lots of good reading done.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

A Christmas Carol read by Monica Dickens

This is an interesting article by Alison Flood in The Guardian's book blog about a recording of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol by his great-grandaughter Monica Dickens, the link is here.

I'm reading A Christmas Carol to Billy at the moment for his bedtime book. I was a little bit worried that the ghosts might be a bit frightening for him, but so far so good.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Back To The Classics Challenge 2012

PhotobucketThis sounds like a fun challenge for next year. It's being hosted by Sarah at Sarah Reads Too Much. I haven't done a year long challenge before and I really enjoyed choosing my books which are as follows:

Nineteen Century Classic      
Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope. I haven't read any Trollope before and have been meaning to. This is the first in the series of the Palliser novels.

Twentieth Century Classic
Tender is the Night by F Scott Fitzgerald. This has been on my TBR shelf for a while now, so it's a good reason to get it down.

Re-read Classic
Wuthering Heights. It's been a while since I read this, so it's due a re-read.

Classic play
A Midsummer Nights Dream by William Shakespeare. I never read plays and I very very rarely go to the theatre so this will stretch me a bit I think.

Classic Mystery/Horror/Crime
A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle. I'm working my way through Agatha Christie's books at the moment and I suppose I could've used one of those. But I've been wanting to read some Holmes since the I saw the BBC production with Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock.

Classic Romance
Tristan and Isolde. This was the hardest one to pick. I don't read a lot of romance. No idea how this one will go.

Translated Classic
Anna Karenina. I think the only Russian novel I have ever read is Crime and Punishment, so I felt this was a good opportunity to read another one.

Classic Award Winner
The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter. Winner of the John Llewellyn-Rhys Prize in 1968.

Classic set in a country you will realistically never visit.
Tales From The Thousand and One Nights. I've been wanting to explore this book since watching Richard E Grant's tv programme about the tales.

So, there's at least some of my reading sorted out for 2012.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

The Obscure Logic of the Heart by Priya Basil

This is the fourth book I have received in the Transworld Book Challenge.

Transworld Book GroupLina and Anil meet at university and fall in love. From the first their relationship is difficult. Lina comes from a strict Muslim family and she can't tell them about Anil, who isn't Muslim. There is the problem of distance to overcome, when they graduate Anil goes back to his home in Kenya, where he is establishing himself as an architect. Lina goes to work for the UN, first in New York and then in Sudan. Anil's friends, especially his best friend Merc, are set against the match, saying it can't possibly work.

Anil is determined to make it work. He tolerates Lina's chronic lateness, her reluctance to commit, the fact he can't meet her family. Lina is torn between the pressure Anil puts on her, and the effort of deflecting her family's suspicions. Her problems are exacerbated when her mother finds a cache of letters from Anil which make the nature of their relationship clear. Lina tells her parents that she won't see Anil again, but of course she does.

Their family backgrounds are completely different. Lina's parents are solidly middle class. They are good people, but very rigid. Anil's family are very wealthy and influential. His mother holds parties to which she invites the great and the good. His father is a savvy businessman, but how he makes his money presents Lina with a professional dilemma later in the story. They welcome Lina into their home and are very generous to her, but cannot understand why she won't commit to their son.

One of the best things about the Transworld Book Challenge has been that it has introduced me to books that I never would've come across. While I'm glad to have read this one, I have to say that it wasn't really my cup of tea. I didn't quite get the love story, I didn't feel that it was a love so strong that it would overcome all the hurdles placed in front of it. I felt that Lina was a much more strongly drawn character than Anil - I would've liked to get to know Anil better. I sympathised with his friend Merc when he said that Lina was just string Anil along, I was irritated with her as well. I wanted her to decide one way or the other.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Wieland by Charles Brockden Brown

My only experience of pre-Victorian Gothic is Frankenstein. I really didn't know any others. So I had a little Google around and came across this site which contains lists of the Gothic novels read by the Romantics. If it's good enough for Mary Shelley, it's good enough for me, and I picked Wieland by Charles Brockden Brown.

It is apparently the first novel by an American born writer. Brown was born in Philadelphia in 1771. According to the short biography of him in the edition I read, he didn't have a very happy life. His father was imprisoned for debt and the young Brown spent a lot of time visiting him in jail. His family wanted him to study law, which he did unenthusiastically. Eventually he gave it up because he wanted to support himself as a full time novelist. He was unable to achieve this and died of tuberculosis aged 39, seemingly very unhappy with his the way his life had turned out.

The Wieland of the title is Theodore Wieland. The story is narrated by his sister, Clara. The Wielands are well-to-do and live in some comfort. Their father dies in mysterious circumstances - a flash of light and an explosion, apparently a case of spontaneous combustion. Wieland inherits the family home, marries the lovely Catherine and has a family of his own. Clara moves to a house close by on the property where  she lives with her servant. Catherine's brother Pleyel also lives close by and they are all very happy together.

Then strange disembodied voices begin to be heard, often giving warnings. At first Wieland and the others seem to find this puzzling rather than frightening. At the same time a new person joins their group, a man named Carwin. Clara is unsure of him, she 'was wholly uncertain whether he were an object to be dreaded or adored, and whether his powers had been exerted to evil or to good.' Carwin is not the social equal of the others, but he is intelligent and well-informed.

The voices become more threatening and malevolent. Clara hears threats to kill her coming from the closet in her bedroom and then later in a spot near her house she hears the same voice;

This voice was immediately recognised to be the same with one of those which I had heard in the closet; it was the voice of him who had proposed to shoot, rather than to strangle, his victim. My terror made me, at once mute and motionless. He continued, 'I leagued to murder you. I repent. Mark my bidding and  be safe. Avoid this spot, shun it as you value your life. Mark me further; profit by this warning, but divulge it not. If a syllable of what has passed escape you, your doom is sealed. Remember your father, and be faithful.'

Their lives begin to crumble as suspicion and mistrust spread. The horror culminates with the murder of Catherine and the children and the dreadful truth of their killer.

I found this story a bit disjointed. Some parts were very atmospheric, particularly those scenes which take place at Clara's home. It is only three quarters of a mile from the main house, but seemed very lonely when the mysterious voices were making themselves heard. But the whole thing didn't hang together very well. The father's death didn't seem to serve any purpose, and the unusual nature of it had nothing to do with what happened later in the story. A young woman named Louisa turns up, and we learn quite a bit about her backstory - but again, it doesn't seem to have anything to do with the main story.

So on the whole, while I found it interesting, it wasn't as good as Frankenstein.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by CS Lewis

I have been a bit disappointed with the Narnia series. I was really looking forward to reading them to Billy but I have to say that they've been a bit hit and miss. By far my favourite so far has been The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and I can see why it's become the most famous.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader begins with Edmund and Lucy Pevensie going to stay with their cousin Eustace. Eustace is a horrible boy;

Eustace Clarence disliked his cousins the four Pevensies, Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy. But he was quite glad when he heard that Edmund and Lucy were coming to stay. For deep down inside him he liked bossing and bullying; and, though he was a puny little person who couldn't have stood up even to Lucy, let alone Edmund, in a fight, he knew that there are dozens of ways to give people a bad time if you are in your own home and they are only visitors.

A picture of a ship in Eustace's house becomes a portal through to Narnia. The three children go through and find themselves on the ship, the Dawn Treader. There they meet their old friends Caspian, now King of Narnia, and Reepicheep the Mouse. Caspian and his crew are on a mission to discover the whereabouts of seven lost lords, friends of Caspian's father, who were banished by his wicked Uncle Miraz. Edmund, Lucy and Eustace join the mission, (Eustace very reluctantly) and all kinds of adventures befall them. Eustace has a particular adventure which quite changes his personality and makes him a much nicer person.

The further they sail from Narnia the stranger the landscapes and the people they encounter. I thought the most effective was the Dark Island, it was very atmospheric and in fact it frightened Billy a little bit;

How long the voyage into the darkness lasted, nobody knew. Except for the creak of the rowlocks and the splash of the oars there was nothing to show that they were moving at all. Edmund, peering from the bows, could see nothing except the reflection of the lantern in the water before him. It looked like a greasy sort of reflection, and the ripple made by the advancing prow appeared to be heavy, small and lifeless. As time went on everyone except the rowers began to shiver with cold.
Suddenly, from somewhere - no one's sense of direction was very clear by now - there came a cry, either of some inhuman voice or else a voice of one in such extremity of terror that he had almost lost his humanity.

Scary stuff!

I didn't enjoy this one as  much as The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, but it was still enjoyable. I think Billy liked it - it's a bit difficult to tell with Billy!

The Agatha Christie Blog Carnival for this month is live here. My review of The Murder at the Links is there.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

The Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie

Hercule Poirot receives a letter from a man named Paul Renauld, telling him that his services are urgently
 required. However when Poirot, accompanied by Hastings arrives at Renauld's home in France, they find that he has been murdered.

I was struck that in the first part of the book Poirot really has very little to do. The case is already being handled by the magistrate, Monsieur Hautet, and the commissary Monsieur Bex. Both are glad to have Poirot there, and as they are competent and professional, he observes, only occasionally making his thoughts known. This satisfactory working arrangement is disturbed by the arrival from Paris of the star detective - Monsieur Giraud. Giraud is a young man whose ego even overshadows Poirot's. He is clearly threatened by Poirot's presence there and is rude and dismissive of him.

It is a complicated and puzzling case. The murdered man was a successful businessman, Canadian by birth,  with extensive interests in South America. He was married, with a grown up son Jack.  There was a suspicion that he was having an affair with Madame Daubreuil, who lived close by. Mme Daubreil has a beautiful daughter, Marthe, who Jack Renauld is in love with. His father had disapproved of this match. The finger of suspicion moves around and I have to admit that I got hopelessly confused.

Hastings gets himself into a spot of bother in this story. He has an eye for the ladies, and falls for a girl he meets on a train. I was slightly taken aback because she is only seventeen. I'm not quite sure how old Hastings is, but I'm sure that it's a good bit older than seventeen. However nobody else seems to raise an eyebrow about it so I assume things were different in the 1920s.

I didn't enjoy this one as much as the previous two. I felt that it jogged along quite steadily for half the book and then characters and information came flying at me until I didn't know where I was. Even after Poirot explained I didn't fully understand. I did have a cold while I was reading it, so I'll blame my slowness on that.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Gone With The Wind - Chapters 48 to 63

This last section opens with Scarlett and Rhett in New Orleans on their honeymoon. Scarlett is enjoying herself amongst all the carpet-baggers and scallawags, but old Atlanta will never forgive her. Melly will defend Scarlett to the last, and she is a formidable ally, but even so, when Scarlett holds a fancy ball none of the old guard attend. She has made herself a pariah.

Scarlett and Rhett have a baby girl, the beautiful Bonnie. She is adored by her father and is easily Scarlett's favourite child - not that that's saying much because she has very little time for Wade and Ella. Rhett realises that if Bonnie is to be accepted into society (and this is suddenly very important to him), he will have to make himself acceptable to the likes of the Merriweathers and the Elsings. So he sets out to woo them, which Scarlett finds incomprehensible.

Scarlett is very clear that she doesn't love Rhett, and it is clear to the reader that Rhett does love Scarlett. He doesn't tell her and Scarlett is not good at reading between the lines. After  Bonnie's birth she decides she doesn't want any more children and so tells him that she will no longer be sleeping with him. He doesn't seem to care too much.

Two tragedies dominate the last section of the book. The death of Bonnie in a riding accident and the death of Melly due to a miscarriage. Bonnie's death breaks Rhett, he is completely devastated. Scarlett blames him and really it is the final blow for their already shaky relationship. Melly's death is almost a bitterer blow for Scarlett. It's as if a light goes on in her brain and she suddenly sees the true worth of Melly. She understands how much she has relied on Melly, and also how much Ashley has relied on Melly. She realises that her love for Ashley was a fantasy, based on her romantic imaginings of who Ashley is. She also realises that she loves Rhett and rushes to tell him so. However it is too late, the love he had for her has gone. But in true Scarlett style she refuses to be defeated - she will find a way tomorrow.

I have loved re-reading Gone With The Wind and thank you to Erin at The Heroine's Bookshelf for hosting the readalong. I am wondering however, after reading it again, is Melly the real heroine of the book? Perhaps not, but I think she's just as much a heroine as Scarlett.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds by Lyndall Gordon

I knew next to nothing about Emily Dickinson before reading this book. I knew that she was a nineteenth century American poet who didn't leave her house. I had a vague image of an ethereal, other-worldly figure dressed in white. Lyndall Gordon presents an Emily Dickinson who is confident (sometimes off-puttingly so), and ambitious. She was one of the first generation of American women to be college educated, and she left the family home to stay in halls at college. She did however suffer from periods of ill-health and Gordon suggests that this is reason for Emily's increasing seclusion as she moved into her twenties. Gordon believes that Emily may have suffered from epilepsy, a condition which was quite stigmatised in the nineteenth century.

The first half of this book is about Emily's life. She lived in Amherst with her sister Lavinia, and next door lived her brother Austin, his wife Sue and their children. Emily was very close to her sister-in-law, they were both intelligent, bookish women. Her brother Austin was a lawyer (as their father had been) and a leading citizen in Amherst. In 1883 he begins an affair with a married woman, Mabel Loomis Todd. This inevitably splits the family. Austin and Mabel regularly had their assignations at Emily and Lavinia's home, though it seems that Emily took Sue's side. Mabel becomes fascinated by the reclusive Emily. Emily is polite, but distant. By this time she is seeing very few people and Mabel never manages to meet her.

The second half of the book is concerned with Emily's legacy. After her death there is a tug of war between Austin, Mabel and Lavinia on one side, and Sue and her children on the other over who has the right to publish the poems. This fight destroys the family and Gordon suggests it leads to the death of two of the participants due to the stress of protracted court cases. Unbelievably the feud passed down to the next generation and was still going in the 1950s.

The feud affected the image of Emily Dickinson which is held by the public. Each side wanted to claim that they knew her best. The Dickinson's reticence as a family meant that they were keen to portray her without any of the spikiness and mischief with Gordon says she possessed. Sue Dickinson's reputation suffered in the aftermath. In order for Mabel to place herself in the centre of the Emily Dickinson legend she had to push Sue to one side.

I thought this was a fascinating book. I did wish I'd known a bit more about Emily Dickinson before I started reading it, it has made me want to find out more about her.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

The Perfect Summer by Juliet Nicholson

In her introduction to this book Nicholson writes, 'This is a biography of a summer, a particularly lovely summer, for some the most perfect of the twentieth century'. It was a very hot summer, far hotter than English summers usually are. Nicholson divides her chapters up into 'Early May', 'Late May', 'Early June' etc. and so the reader works their way through the whole season.

Each chapter has a main character, so for instance in Chapter 2, 'Early May', we read about Queen Mary preparing for the Coronation. She is a shy, reserved woman and is extremely anxious, not only about the ceremony itself, but her whole life as Queen and whether she'll be able to live up to the role. 'Late May' starts with Winston Churchill, then 36 and Home Secretary. Nicholson also explains what is going on in England, and where relevant, the world. So it's not a biography of the person, just what was happening to them during the summer of 1911, and how that fits into the bigger picture.

I was very pleased to see Leonard Woolf make an appearance ('Early July'). I have love Leonard ever since reading Victoria Glendinning's biography of him a couple of years ago. In 1911 Leonard was just back from spending several years in Ceylon working for the Colonial Civil Service. He has come back to find an England much changed. He is reacquainting himself with home and with his old friends such as Lytton Strachey.

Not all the characters are well known. Nicholson covers all sections of society and 'Late July' features Eric Horne, who had been a butler for forty years. Eric kept a diary and was not always complimentary about his employers;

Eric bridged the gap between the servants and the served. The evolving memoir, written in his idiosyncratic and uncorrected style, recorded what life was like not only in his pantry below stairs but in the drawing rooms and bedrooms above. It was incriminating and explosive stuff. Eric knew too much; in fact he knew the truth.

Nicholson also writes about the social unrest of the time. There was a strike by the dock workers which threatened to bring the country to its knees. Without the dock workers loading and unloading the ships, the trade on which the economy depended couldn't take place. The leader of the dock worker's union, Ben Tillett, wrote of London at the time;

the great markets of the city were idle; the rush and turmoil of the City's traffic congesting the principle ways dwindling to a little trickle as motor buses, motor cars and private vehicles of all kinds felt the pressure of a shortage of petrol and all the immense volume of trading traffic through the City streets from the docks to the warehouses and the great railway terminals ceased to move.

Of course one of the most poignant things about this book is that we know the dreadful catastrophe which is just around the corner. Everytime a new person entered the pages I couldn't help wondering what the war would bring to them, and if it's a young man, wondering if he'd still be alive by the end of 1918.

I really enjoyed reading this book. I enjoy reading about Bloomsbury, some of which covers this time period, but of course they moved in quite elevated circles. This book gave me an insight into broader society at the time.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

The Water Room by Christopher Fowler

Transworld Book GroupThis is the third book I've been sent in the Transworld Book Challenge, and it is the second in the Bryant and May series. I have recently read the first, 'A Full Dark House' though I haven' reviewed it yet. I really enjoyed it and so was looking forward to reading this one.

Arthur Bryant and John May are senior detectives with the Peculiar Crimes Squad, which is a very small department within London's Metropolitan Police. The peculiar crime they are investigating in this story is the death of an elderly woman, Ruth Singh. Ruth has been found in her own home, sitting in a chair, dressed as if she's about to go out - yet it appears she has drowned. Not only that, but the water in her throat is river water.

Ruth Singh lived at 5 Balaklava Street in London, an area which had previously been very poor, but is in the process of becoming gentrified. People like Ruth, who have lived there for decades, live alongside the upwardly mobile who are hoping to make a quick buck as house prices rise. The history of the area proves important in the investigation. Christopher Fowler is very good at describing London and the fascinating palimpsest that makes it what it is. He doesn't describe a sanitised, tourist brochure version of the city, but a messy, vital, dirty, secret-riven place. Yet he still manages to make it magical and attractive.

Water is all around in the story. It is constantly raining and Balaklava Street is particularly prone to flooding. It is built over the River Fleet, one of the lost tributaries of the Thames. Kallie Owen, the young woman who buys Ruth Singh's house is haunted by the sound of rushing water in the basement and mysterious damp patches which bloom on the walls and then suddenly disappear. There is a sub-plot concerning Gareth Greenwood, an academic whose specialist subject is the lost rivers of London.

Bryant and May are wonderful characters. Both are elderly, well past retirement age. Bryant feels his age more than May, but is still the reckless one, making connections no-one else can see. May is more circumspect, often reining his partner in when he goes off on one of his wilder flights of fancy. Their friendship is close and genuine, built up over sixty years of working together. I loved this book and look forward to reading more in the series.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Royal Flash by George MacDonald Fraser

This is the second in the series of books about Harry Flashman, the villain from Tom Brown's Schooldays. As ever, Flashman is an amoral, bullying coward. He gets himself into some terrible fixes and by a combination of luck and cunning manages to get himself out of them again.

In this story Flashman foolishly manages to make an enemy of Otto von Bismarck. Bismarck is at the beginning of his career, but is still a force to be reckoned with. Flashman is persuaded to go to Germany (he is offered money, which Flashman always finds very persuasive). Once there he finds himself a prisoner of Bismarck.

It turns out that Flashman bears a remarkable resemblance to Prince Carl Gustaf of Denmark. The Prince is set to marry Duchess Irma of the tiny province of Strackenz. It is vital for Bismarck's political ambitions that this marriage goes ahead. Unfortunately Prince Carl Gustaf is indisposed with a rather embarrassing illness. To avoid scandal Bismarck wants Flashman to stand in for the Prince and act his role until the Prince has recovered. Not even the Duchess (who has never met the Prince) will know of this scheme. If Flashman doesn't agree to go through with this he will be killed.

As with the previous Flashman novel I have read, there is loads of historical detail here which made me want to read further into the period. I know nothing about Otto von Bismarck, and I also want to find out  more about Lola Montez, a dancer who ended up being the virtual ruler of Bavaria.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang by Emma Thompson

This was Billy's choice for his bedtime book. He bought it at the school book fair a few months ago and it's a re-read for us. His Grandma took him to see the film at the cinema and he really enjoyed it.

The story is set during the Second World War. Rory Green has gone off to fight, leaving his wife Isabel to singlehandedly manage their farm, keep her job in the local shop and look after their three children, Norman, Megsie and Vincent. I know it's not Rory's fault - he had to go - but I just felt so sorry for Isabel. On top of this the children's cousins, Cyril and Celia are evacuated from London and come to stay with them. And on top of that the farm is struggling to pay its way and Isabel's wastrel brother-in-law is trying to wrest control of it from her. I don't think Billy was too concerned about poor Isabel, but I certainly was.

Fortunately for her help is at hand in the form of Nanny McPhee, who turns up uninvited one evening. Isabel is so beaten down and exhausted that she barely thinks twice about letting a complete stranger into her home to look after her children. Nanny McPhee is a magical being and soon sets about instilling some discipline into the unruly children. She can't stay for long, the rule is, 'When you need me but do not want me, then I must stay. When you want me but no longer need me, then I have to go.'

There is a lot of slapstick in the story, which Billy enjoyed - the piglets escaping, a big fight between in the children in the muddy farmyard, Miss Topsey and Miss Turvey thinking up ever more ingenious ways to kill Phil. There is some more serious stuff as well. Cyril and Celia's parents are cold and aloof, and when Cyril has to face down his father it takes a lot of courage. There is also a point where Norman has to trust his instincts, despite all the evidence showing that he is wrong.

Emma Thompson has a lovely chatty writing style, sometimes talking directly to the reader - there's an ongoing joke about how she can't remember what chapter she's up to. The story is interspersed with the 'Diary' which is a diary from the making of the film. I didn't read these bits to Billy, but I think they'd be very interesting to an older child. There are also plenty of photos from the film.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

I was really looking forward to reading this, and it didn't disappoint. The story takes place over a year, New Year's Eve 1937 to New Year's Eve 1938. The heroine, Katey Kontent, is a working class girl, come to Manhattan to work. She and her best friend, Eve, live in a women's boarding house. They have their whole lives ahead of them, they are enjoying their freedom. Eve is gregarious and flirtatious, Katey is more reserved and bookish. On New Year's Eve 1937 they meet a handsome young man named Tinker Gray. Their friendship with Tinker lead them into a new world, new friends, new jobs.

I love Katey. She is self-contained and doesn't push herself forward, but she is confident in her own way, and ambitious. She'll take a leap of faith if one is called for. She can be tough. When a younger woman at work is making overtures of friendship she is quite firmly rebuffed. She comes from the same background as Katey, and Katey is determinedly moving up and away from where she came from. She bears heartbreak stoically and never gives up.

I love the setting and time period. I always think of New York as a magical place and that is certainly how Towles presents it. Anything can happen and anyone can be anything they choose.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

This is a story about the accuracy of our memories. Tony Webster is a middle aged man looking back over his life. It has been a fairly average life, he has had a reasonably successful career, he is amicably divorced, his relationship his daughter isn't perhaps as close as he would like, but they get along ok.

Then something unexpected happens in this ordinary life. He receives a bequest from the mother of a former girlfriend. It it this which prompts his reminiscences. The girlfriend was Veronica, who he met at university. He met her mother only once, when he spent an awkward weekend at their home. Tony and Veronica were together for about a year, they split, and Veronica started going out with Tony's friend Adrian. Adrian was an important figure in Tony's childhood and youth. Clever and self-confident, Adrian was hero-worshipped by Tony.

Tony believes that he has the events of that time accurately archived in his memory. But the bequest from Veronica's mother, who he barely knew, is a puzzle. As he investigates further he is forced to accept that his memories are not as accurate as he had thought.

This is a thought provoking book. It made me wonder about the accuracy of my memories, and whether events that appeared one way to me, might appear a completely different way to someone else. I have to admit that I was as puzzled as Tony, and by the end I was probably more puzzled than Tony. I didn't quite get it, and I think I'd like to read it again just to see if I could get it straight.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Alex's Adventures in Numberland: Dispatches From The Wonderful World of Mathmatics by Alex Bellos

Despite having no aptitude for science (I failed Biology and Chemistry O'Level and took two attempts to pass Maths), I am strangely attracted to books and tv programmes about the subject in its many guises. I have read this book very slowly and renewed it at the library three times. Some parts I have had to read several times to make any sense of, other parts I skipped altogether because I knew I would never understand them. Despite this, I understood enough to find this book fascinating.

Bellos looks at the social aspects of numbers, how we learn them, what we use them for, the impact they have on our lives. He writes about the great mathematicians and their discoveries and also about the fun side of maths - the Rubic's cube and origami. One of things I found most interesting was the descriptions of people who have the ability to calculate very complex numbers in their heads:

One of the earliest-known examples was a Derbyshire farmhand, Jedediah Buxton, who amazed locals with his abilities in multiplication despite being barely able to read....... In 1754, curiosity about Buxton's talent lead to him being invited to London, where he was examined by members of the Royal Society. He seems to have had some of the symptoms of high-functioning autism, for when he was taken to see Shakespeare's Richard III he was left nonplussed by the experience, though he notified his hosts that the actors had taken 5,202 steps and spoken 14,445 words.

It was possible to make a career on the stage out of these skills and people would flock to see them in Victorian times. 

Memorising Pi is another popular feat among people who enjoy memorising lists of numbers. For those who find this too easy, there is a competition which involves reciting Pi while juggling. And speaking of juggling, there is a man named Colin Wright who has developed a mathematical notation for juggling. In the words of Bellos it 'might not sound like much, but has electrified the international juggling community'.

One of the main joys of this book for me was the host of colourful and eccentric characters that pop up. It seems that those people who can really see into maths and see the beauty in it, see the rest of life in rather a skewed way. They plough their own furrow, they dance to a different drummer.

I found this book fascinating, and I'm sure it would be even more fascinating to a reader who knows anything about maths.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Gone With The Wind - Chapters 31 to 47

Just when Scarlett thinks things are starting to turn a corner and get better - they suddenly get worse. The tax bill is fixed so high that she can't possibly pay it and is in danger of losing Tara. She goes to Atlanta determined to get the money from Rhett. But Rhett is in jail and can't help. So she turns to Frank Kennedy, her sister Suellen's beau. She tells him that Suellen is engaged to someone else, and persuades Frank to marry her instead.

In Atlanta Scarlett is in serious danger of losing the little moral sense she had. Money becomes an obsession, money to send back to Tara to keep it secure. She buys a lumber mill, with Rhett's money and against Frank's wishes. She is a talented business woman but is not above lying and cheating to get the best prices. She scandalises the town by driving herself around, selling lumber and meeting contractors. She hires a convict gang and turns a blind eye to the cruel treatment meted out to them by the manager.

Ashley is still her weak spot. When she buys a second lumber mill she hires him to manage it. He is useless at business, but she forgives him mistakes that she would've fired anyone else for. Ashley is no good for her but she can't see it. He is unhappy and felt pressured into taking the job, when in fact he wanted to go North. He is weak, but at least he knows he's weak.

Reconstruction is taking its toll. Society is turned upside down and there is a growing groundswell of anger against the Yankees and the freed slaves and the carpet baggers. The Ku Klux Klan is on the rise and Frank, Ashley and several of their friends are members. After Scarlett is attacked on her way to the mill, the Klan goes looking for vengeance. Frank is killed. Rhett (not a member of the Klan) manages to save Ashley.

Scarlett is in danger of becoming an outcast. Only Melly and Rhett seem to be on her side. The final nail in her social coffin is when she agrees to marry Rhett. She says she doesn't love him, though she is fond of him. I think that he genuinely loves her, though he won't admit it until she does.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Derby Day by DJ Taylor

This story is set in Victorian times and takes place in the months leading up to the famous horse race - the Derby. There is a wide cast of characters. Mr Happerton buys Tiberius, a horse which many people favour to win the Derby. But did he buy him fairly? Mr Davenant, the previous owner is hard pressed financially and Mr Happerton tightens the screw.

Mr Happerton marries Miss Gresham, against her father's wishes. But why does she marry him? A very self-contained woman, Miss Gresham may have her own motives. Mysteriously, after the marriage has taken place, Miss Gresham's father becomes ill. His doctor cannot identify the cause of his illness, but he becomes increasingly fragile, both mentally and physically. Then there is Mr Pardew, a thief living in Paris. Mr Happerton calls him back to London to do a job for him.

All the time this is going on we have gossip and excitment about the upcoming race. Interspersed between the chapters are newspaper reports listing the runners and riders and the latest gossip from the paddock.

The central mystery is why Mr Happerton has bought Tiberius. Does he want him to win, or is he going to make his fortune by betting against him. But alongside this are other puzzling things. I was fascinated by Miss Gresham's motivations. She seems to support Mr Happerton in his endeavours but at the same time has her own plans for him. Nobody in the story trusts anybody else and one of the added interests is to see if everyone can get to the day of the Derby without betraying each other.

It took me a while to get into this, but I thinks that it's because I couldn't get a run at it at first. Because of the summer holidays I didn't have much time for reading so could only read it in fits and starts and had trouble following the story. However once I had time to sit down and concentrate the story really drew me in.

Monday, 19 September 2011

The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie

The Secret Adversary features two of the lesser known heroes of Christie - Tommy and Tuppence
Beresford. Unmarried at the beginning of this book, they are old friends who bump into each other in London. I thought I'd stumbled into a PG Wodehouse novel:

'Tommy, old thing!'
'Tuppence, old bean!'
The two young people greeted each other affectionately and momentarily blocked the Dover Street Tube exit in doing so. The adjective 'old' was misleading. Their united ages would certainly not have totalled forty-five.
'Not seen you for simply centuries,' continued the young man. 'Where are you off too? Come and chew a bun with me. We're getting a bit unpopular here - blocking the gangway as it were. Let's get out of it.'

When they meet they're both at a bit of a loose end after finishing their war work (it's just after the First World War). So, they decide to be adventurers. Personally, I would've looked for secretarial work, or a job in a bank, but that's just me. Anyway, no sooner is this decision made, than they happen upon an adventure. They become embroiled in searching for a woman named Jane Finn who went missing during the war. It is believed that she was carrying a draft peace treaty. This treaty has  become important because it would reflect badly on the government and the government believes that revolutionary forces want to use it to foment rebellion. Tommy and Tuppence meet Mr Carter, who is with British Intelligence. He explains:

Yes, five years ago that draft treaty was a weapon in our hands; today it is a weapon against us. It was a gigantic blunder. If its terms were made public, it would mean disaster......It might possibly bring about another war - not with Germany this time! That is an extreme possibility, and I do not believe in its likelihood myself, but that document undoubtedly implicates a number of our statesmen whom we cannot afford to have discredited in any way at the present moment. As a party cry for Labour it would be irresistable, and a Labour Government at this juncture would in my opinion be a grave disability to British trade.......

He then goes on to explain to Tommy and Tuppence about 'Bolshevist influence' in the Labour movement. I found this very interesting and it made me want to find out more about this post-World War 1 period. Was there really a genuine fear of revolution, or was it paranoia from the Establishment? There are some patronising descriptions of the working class as naive dupes of foreign mercenaries. Certainly Tommy and Tuppence accept quickly enough that the status quo should be protected, and that it is perfectly right to suppress facts which might reflect badly on the government.

I thought this book was a fun read that relies on some amazing coincidences. Early on Tuppence says, 'I've often noticed that once coincidences start happening they go on happening in the most extraordinary way. I dare say it's some natural law that we haven't found out.' I picked the wrong villain again. 2-0 to Agatha.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch

I wasn't quite sure what to expect with this book. However from the first page I fell in love with it.

Jaffy Brown is a young boy growing up in poverty in nineteenth century London. Now, as soon as I know that I immediately think 'mother on the gin, violent father, sadistic employer, life of crime.' But that is not Jaffy's life at all. It's true that he and his mother do have to do a midnight flit from an unsuitable man, but they flit successfully and never hear from him again. Jaffy and his mother are close and he is a happy and confident boy. That's not to say that Birch presents an idealised version of their lives. The poverty and deprivation is very real. This is a description of children searching the sewers for dropped change:

Crawling up and down the new sewers like maggots ourselves, thin grey boys, thin grey girls, grey as the mud we walked in, splashing along the dark, round-mouthed tunnels that stank like hell. The sides were caked in crusty, black shit. Peeling out pennies and trying to fill our pockets, we wore our handkerchiefs over our noses and mouths, our eyes stang and ran. Sometimes we retched. It was something we did, like a sneeze or a belch.........But our pockets were never full. I remember the gnawing in my belly, the hunger retch.

An amazing thing happens to Jaffy. He is walking along the street one day when he comes face to face with a tiger. The tiger picks him up in its mouth, walks a way with him and then puts him down unhurt. The tiger belongs to Mr Jamrach, an animal importer. He is very apologetic and concerned, and thanks to him Jaffy's life takes a new turn.

Jaffy goes to work for Jamrach. He works with the animals, a job he loves and has a gift for. Eventually, after a number of years Jaffy joins an expedition to discover a dragon (presumably a Komodo dragon), which one of Jamrach's clients wants. The story takes a different turn here, and I don't want to give too much away. Jaffy has a gift for friendship and family. His family expands, first his mother, then Jamrach's company and then the ship's crew. He gets along with people which makes him a good observer. He is tested severely in his adventures, and is inevitably changed, but can he keep true to himself.

I love Birch's writing. These are Jaffy's thoughts after leaving an island where he had heard mysterious drumming:

The gongs of Sumba played in my head as I lay thinking in the night, they'd been playing in my head ever since we'd left that place, their low droning somnolence sending out into the darkness long sound ribbons that scarcely vibrated but changed constantly in some shimmering way, simple as silk. The music was like a snake swallowing its tail, a lullaby that repeats and repeats, softening and sharpening your senses at the same time, like a drug.

This is my favourite book of the year so far and I think it will repay re-reading.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Black Swan Rising by Lee Carroll

Transworld Book Group
I'm part of the Transworld Book Group
This is the second book I have received through the Transworld Book Challenge.

Black Swan Rising is the kind of story I like to lose myself in once in a while. It is set in New York, and while the inhabitants of the city are going about their ordinary daily lives, there is a whole other supernatural world going on alongside theirs. The central character is Garet James. She is a jeweller and gallery owner. On the way back from a meeting with her lawyer she pops into an antiques shop for a browse. The owner recognises her and asks her to take a look at a silver box which has come into his possession. The box is welded shut and he wonders if Garet can use her jewellery making skills to open it. She agrees to try and takes it home with her.

This is a fateful decision. The box has supernatural properties and there is someone who will stop at nothing to retrieve it. Garet discovers that she has a few supernatural properties herself. A whole world opens up, a world of vampires, fairies and magic. Garet is taken under the wing of Oberon, the king of the fairies. His day job is as a nurse in a local hospital. Oberon introduces Garet to various other magical creatures, some of whom have skills to teach her. She also meets Will Hughes, a multi-millionaire hedge-fund manager, who is quite at home in the supernatural world.

I have mixed feelings about this book. I love the premise. I love that some of the characters surprised me.  I love the setting of New York. I think it's well written. It is the first in a series (the first chapter of the second book is included in this volume), and I think that this is my problem. It really just felt like a set up for future books. We meet all the necessary characters one after the other without getting to know all of them. Garet learns all her lessons with few problems, presumably because she'll need those skills in upcoming novels. The silver box almost becomes a side issue.

Having said that, I'm intrigued enough to read the second book (The Watchtower). Hopefully, now that all the explanations are out of the way it will be an excellent read.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

This is a book I thought I'd read. But when I started reading it to Billy I realised that I hadn't. The characters are so familiar, and I suppose I must've caught bits of the film adaptations. I thought that most of the action took place on the voyage to the island, but it is the island itself which is the centre of the adventure.

The story starts at the Admiral Benbow Inn, where Jim Hawkins lives with his mother. A fierce old seafaring man comes to stay there. This is Billy Bones, and he is carrying a treasure map which his former colleagues are anxious to get their hands on. However it comes into the possession of Jim and so begins the adventure.

The local squire, Mr Trelawney finances an expedition to recover the treasure. Enthusiastic, but a little naive, he goes to Bristol to recruit a crew. Unknowingly he recruits several of Billy Bones' old friends, including the infamous Long John Silver. One of things that surprised me was that Silver was not an out and out baddie - in fact he was a bit of a charmer. And he could switch sides very easily if it suited him.

Once on the island it is no easy matter to find the treasure. We meet Ben Gunn, marooned on the island years before and driven half mad with loneliness. Jim has an epic fight with Israel Hands for control of the ship, the Hispanola and there is a shoot out for control of the stockade on the island.

It is a brilliant adventure story. I read that there is going to be a new film made with Eddie Izzard as Long John Silver. It was a bit difficult to read out loud. I wasn't sure how to pronounce some of the ships jargon. And I have the worst pirate voice in the world.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Gone With The Wind - Chapters 17 to 30

I loved this section of the book. It's here that we really see what Scarlett is made of. The war is turning against the South and the Yankees are heading towards Atlanta. At first people can't believe it, but the army just keeps on coming closer and closer.

Then the shelling starts and the residents of Atlanta begin to flee. Melanie's baby is due any day and she can't be moved. Terrified and resentful, Scarlett stays with her. It is a horrific situation, the girls have heard such terrible rumours about the treatment meted out to Southern woman by the Yankee soldiers. Melly goes into agonising labour, with no doctor or medicines available. Nothing in Scarlett's life has prepared her for this. Somehow the baby is delivered and Melly survives, though she is very weak and ill.

Rhett manages to get them out of Atlanta, but leaves them halfway home because he is going off to join the army. This is puzzling. Why join the army now, when the war is just about lost and he had just been sneering at them as they retreated? It was the sight of a soldier carrying a young man who was too tired to walk which seemed to affect Rhett. He is very clear sighted about himself, and perhaps he felt shamed by that soldier.

The women and children make it to Tara. It is here that we see Scarlett's strength. Her mother is dead, her father is feeble, the slaves who worked the fields are all gone. There is no money and no food. She gets little support from anyone except Dilcey. Scarlett is exhausted and griefstricken but somehow she discovers that stubborn core of steel that will not allow her to give up, and she drags all the others with her. She does things she never could've imagined - she kills a man. Life is changed utterly and so is she. She is determined not to be one of the people who constantly hark back to the good old days before the war. She is determined to move forward.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst

I thought I would try and read a few books from the Booker longlist, and as The Stranger's Child was already on my TBR list it seemed the obvious one to start with.
The novel is set over several decades, beginning in 1913. George Sawle brings his university friend Cecil Valance home for a weekend visit. Cecil is a very confident young man who comes from a rich family and is heir to a title. He has also had a few poems published. The Sawles are a middle class family and Cecil is quite an exotic creature to them. George's younger sister, Daphne, is particularly taken with him. Unbeknownst  to the rest of the family George and Cecil are having an affair.
The story then skips to the 1920s. This is the structure right through the book. The reader sees snapshots of the lives. Some people are gone and new people arrive. I thought this was very effective and I loved puzzling out how all the pieces fitted together when a new section began. When we reach the 1920s it is revealed that Cecil has been killed in the First World War. He had more poems published and his mother is determined to preserve his legacy. One of the story strands which gradually gets resolved over the course of the book is just how good were Cecil's poems?
One of the interesting things I found in this book was the character development. Because of the jumps of a decade or more we don't see characters change gradually. We see how they end up - without any of the intervening bits. So it's up to the reader through deduction and guesswork to figure out what has happened to make them that way. I thought this particularly about Paul Bryant, a character we first meet in the 1960s as a callow youth. I thought that the author was very clever in the way when we meet Paul again he is recognisable but also changed in a completely convincing way.
I also loved the way some characters just drifted away, and others that I thought had drifted away popped up again unexpectedly. I suppose with a book less well written than this one that might've been irritating. I didn't find it irritating, I just thought it was an accurate observation of life, where people do come and go.
I thought this was a really good read and I would recommend it. I've got The Line of Beauty by the same author on my TBR shelf and I think I'll read it sooner rather than later.

Friday, 26 August 2011

The Sandalwood Tree by Elle Newmark

This is the first book I have received via the Transworld Book Group.
Transworld Book Group
I'm part of the Transworld Book Group

The story is set just after the Second World War and a young American couple go with their small son to live in India, where the husband is continuing his studies. It is a time of tremendous upheaval in India with the end of the British Raj and the imposition of Partition. Martin Mitchell's particular area of study involves Partition and he is often away doing his research, leaving his wife Evie and son Billy alone. The Mitchell's marriage is in trouble, Martin is haunted by his experiences during the war, but won't open up to Evie. She in turn feels abandoned and rejected.
In the kitchen of their house Evie finds some letters belonging to previous tenants of the house, two Victorian women named Adela Winfield and Felicity Chadwick. She becomes fascinated by them and tries to find out more about them. The story goes back and forward between the stories of Evie and Martin in 1947 and Adela and Felicity in the nineteenth century. I thought was a good device and I was as anxious as Evie to find out what happened to the two Victorian women.
One of the things I liked best about this book was its descriptions of India. It's a place I've always wanted to visit and I want to even more after reading this. It is set in Simla, which was one of the most popular hill stations for the Raj, and judging from this book a very beautiful place. Of course there is immense poverty right beside the beauty, which Evie finds troubling.
I think the only niggle I have about this book is that sometimes I felt that Adela and Felicity's story was a little rushed. Apart from that I thoroughly enjoyed the book and found it a real page turner.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie is an author I haven't read much of, though I love the tv series, particularly Poirot with
 David Suchet. So when I saw that Mysteries in Paradise was hosting an Agatha Christie Carnival I thought that I would join in. It's my intention to read her work in order of publication as far as possible, so the first on my list is The Mysterious Affair at Styles.
It is a Poirot story and when we meet the detective he is living in Styles St Mary with other Belgium refugees from the war. It is narrated by Hastings (I don't know his first name, I'm not sure if it's mentioned in the book). Of course Hastings features in many Poirot stories, but in this one he is not yet in the police force. He is home from the army after having being wounded. He is staying with an acquaintance at Styles Court, the big house of the village.
The victim in the novel is his hostess, Mrs Inglethorp. She is poisoned with strychnine. The people with motives include her stepsons, who are in want of money, her second husband Alfred Inglethorp who the rest of the family believe to be a gold digger. The people with the means include the mysterious Dr Baurstein, a world expert in toxicology, and Mrs Inglethorp's ward Cynthia, who is a pharmacist.
It is a troubling case for Poirot and he seems puzzled by it. The timings don't make sense, and the strongest suspects have the tightest alibis. Usually when I read a detective novel I am happy to let the author tell me who the culprit was at the end, I don't usually try to work it out. But I know that Christie is  well respected for her plotting, so with this book I tried to follow the clues carefully and guess the murderer. I was pretty certain I had it right - but I didn't. Hopefully I will get better as I read more of her work.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

When I was about 17 I bought an anthology of some of John
Steinbeck's novels. It was a massive hardback book, very heavy. I was about halfway through Cannery Row and loving it when I decided that the book was just too uncomfortable to read and I would get myself a paperback of Cannery Row and finish it from that. Twenty-five years later, thanks to The Classics Circuit I am finally finishing it.

This is a book without a plot as such. It is a description of the fictional Cannery Row in Monterey California. It is a coastal town and its main industries are fishing, and the canning factory. Steinbeck paints an affectionate picture of a motley group of outsiders. The neighbourhood seems to be entirely populated with eccentrics. It is a tightly knit community where people look out for one another and are only too aware of each others foibles.
Everyone does their shopping at Lee Chong's grocery shop, which 'while not a model of neatness, was a miracle of supply'. Lee Chong is generous with credit until it gets too much, then he simply cuts off the supply. This cutting off of credit frequently happens to Mack and his friends. Steinbeck describes Mack thus:

Mack was the elder, leader, mentor, and to a small extent the exploiter of a little group of men who had in common no families, no money, and no ambition beyond food, drink, and contentment. But whereas most men in their search for contentment destroy themselves and fall wearily short of their targets, Mack and his friends approached contentment casually, quietly and absorbed it gently.

Mack is a work-shy charmer, but good hearted. He and the boys decide to put on a party for Doc, the marine biologist who lives in Cannery Row. Doc is a man apart. He is well liked and respected by the rest of the community, but is somehow separate from them. Whether this is because he is better educated than most of the people round him, or whether it is just something in his personality I can't say. He doesn't lack company, yet he seems lonely.
The preparations for the party take up a great deal of the book. Along the way we meet other, more peripheral characters. There is Dora Flood, the local madam:

Dora is a great woman, a great big woman with flaming orange hair and a taste for Nile green evening dresses. She keeps an honest, one-price house, sells no hard liquor, and permits no loud or vulgar talk in her house. Of her girls some are fairly inactive, due to ages and infirmities, but Dora never puts them aside, although as she says, some of them don't turn three tricks a month, but they go right on eating three meals a day.

Then there is Frankie, a young boy who hero-worships Doc. Nowadays we would say he had learning difficulties and he would get specialist help, but in the 1930s he was just kicked out of school. Not wanted at home he has to fend for himself and Doc takes pity on him.
The story takes place during the Depression and we see how some people had to cope with very little money. Mr and Mrs Malloy are reduced to living in a disused boiler. Mary Talbot loves to give parties but can't afford to, so gives tea parties for the neighbourhood cats.
I think the over-riding feeling of the novel is optimism. Times were very hard and many people had very little, but most people managed to be grateful for what they had. In the case of Mack we see someone who has opted out of the mainstream altogether. Mack's life would probably be the same if he was living through a boom. There is also stoicism and resiliance in the characters and they are bolstered by their community.
This book was just as good as I remembered and I definitely won't leave it another twenty-five years before I read it again.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Gone With The Wind - Chapters 8 to 15

Scarlett is now in Atlanta. The town has grown rapidly in just a few years, first due to the growth of the railways and then because of the war.

Almost the pulsing of the town's heart could be felt as the work went forward night and day, pumping the materials of war up the railway arteries to the two battle fronts. Trains roared in and out of the town at all hours. Soot from the newly erected factories fell in showers on the white houses. By night, the furnaces glowed and the hammers clanged long after the townsfolk were abed. Where vacant lots had been a year before, there were new factories turning out harness, saddles and shoes, ordnance-supply plants making rifles and cannon, rolling mills and foundries producing iron rails and freight cars to replace those destroyed by the Yankees, and a variety of industries manufacturing spurs, bridle-bits, buckles, tents, buttons, pistols and swords.

The social whirl is continuing in Atlanta despite the war. However if Scarlett thought that she might find more freedom in this new city she is mistaken. She is still expected to abide by the rules set down by her elders. She is tortured by the sight of young people her own age enjoying themselves while she is expected to stay home and mourn Charles. The only time she is in company is when she is volunteering at the hospital - a job which is expected of her, but which disgusts her.
Then Scarlett's luck changes.  A fundraiser is being held for the war effort and volunteers are needed to run the stalls. Scarlett can be there without being disapproved of because it is for 'the Cause'. It is here that she meets Rhett again and is drawn to him despite herself. Rhett only cares about other people's opinions as far as they further his own aims. Scarlett realises that she doesn't care about the war, and she doesn't care about the people in the hospital. It is the beginnning of her breaking free from convention.
It is also at the fundraiser that we see the first flash of spirit from Melly when she says that the militia shouldn't be in Atlanta, but should be fighting with the rest of the troops in Virginia. She is even braver later on when she insists that Rhett will always be welcome in her home, despite being shunned by the rest of Atlanta society. I think that Melly is shaping up to be the moral centre of the book.
Despite early optimism the war is turning against the South. The Battle of Gettysburg takes place and lots of people Scarlett and Melly knew are killed, including the Tarleton twins. Ashley survives and comes home on leave.  Scarlett is joyful that he is alive and consumed with jealousy because he is with Melly. When he goes back to the front it is implied that he loves Scarlett too. It seems that Ashley was too cowardly to marry Scarlett, so he settled for the safer option of Melly. Both Melly and her brother Charles married people who didn't love them. Perhaps their lives were so sheltered that they didn't recognise that there was anything missing from their relationships.
So, we wait to see what Miss Scarlett will do next. I wonder if we'll hear anything about poor little Wade Hampton, Scarlett seems to have forgotten that she has a child. I am also interested to see how Melly's character develops, whether she will become more forceful and stand up to the ladies of Atlanta. And will she see Scarlett as she really is? To see what others thought of this section of Gone With The Wind visit The Heroine's Bookshelf where Erin is hosting the readalong.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Mr Toppit by Charles Elton

Arthur Hayman wrote a children's book, The Hayseed Chronicles. Not a success in his lifetime, after his death the book achieved success of Harry Potter-esque proportions. The central character of The Hayseed Chronicles is based on Arthur's son Luke (like AA Milne and Christopher Robin). Luke Hayman resents this and struggles with the attention it brings him but as his father is dead he has no-one to be angry with. Anyway, he does better than his sister Rachel, who doesn't feature in the book at all. This seems to have affected her confidence and she spends her life searching for contentment and an identity.
The Hayseed Chronicles became famous in the most unlikely way. An American tourist is present at the accident which kills Arthur Hayman. She feels a strange connection with him and accompanies him to the hospital, then with his family back to their house where she makes herself useful cooking and cleaning. Laurie is an unhappy person. She lacks self-esteem and is put upon by her mother, her friend and her employer. Somehow this experience with the Hayman family kickstarts something inside her. She gradually increases in confidence and begins to stick up for herself. She decides to read from The Hayseed Chronicles on her hospital radio show. This is such a success that her career takes off and she becomes famous, as do The Hayseed Chronicles.
I was really looking forward to this book and I think perhaps I expected too much of it. I thought I would love it and I didn't, though I did enjoy it. I felt like a lot of it went over my head. For example I didn't understand the significance in the Hayman's lives of Mr Toppit, who is a character in The Hayseed Chronicles. I'm sure this is the main point of the book so I really felt like I was missing something. I will read it again at some point because I really want to love it.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Whispers in the Sand by Barbara Erskine

If there's one thing I hate in a book it's when a man and woman meet at the beginning of the story and hate each other on sight. Because it is immediately obvious that they're going to get together by the end. It is the main reason I don't read romances. Anyway, that exact thing happens at the beginning of this book. Anna meets Toby on a plane and, for no good reason that I can see, they hate each other. I nearly gave up on the book at this point, but I'd abandoned the book I'd started before this one and I don't like giving up on books, so I persevered.
I'm glad I did because I can forgive a lot for a good story and I think that this is a good story. Anna is recovering from a brutal divorce and has gone on holiday to Egypt. She chose Egypt because her great-great-grandmother Louise had travelled there in the 19th century, and had kept a diary. Anna thinks it will provide an interesting focus for her trip if she retraces Louisa's footsteps. So she heads off, armed with the diary, and also a little glass bottle which had belonged to Louisa. Anna sees the bottle as sort of a lucky charm.
However it turns out that the bottle has a longer history than Anna suspects. It isn't a Victorian trinket but in fact goes all the way back to Ancient Egypt. It contains a secret and valuable potion which has been fought over for centuries by two high priests. With the return of the bottle to Egypt the spirits of the priests are re-awakened and everyone who comes into contact with it are put in danger.
It is a bit silly, but it kept me reading. Anna's story is alternated with Louisa's story so we can see the parallels in their lives. I found that the tone of both stories was the same, making it difficult to differentiate between the two. I think that it would've been more effective if Louisa's story had be put into diary form, and first person rather than third.
I thought this was an enjoyable, light read. A bit silly, but good for the beach.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

I'm part of the Transworld Book Group

I'm really looking forward to taking part in this. I should receive my first book next week, then when it's read and reviewed I'll get another one, on so on until I've received four books. The books I've chosen are:

The Sandalwood Tree by Elle Newmark
Black Swan Rising by Lee Carroll
The Water Room by Christopher Fowler
The Obscure Logic of the Heart by Priya Basil

Monday, 1 August 2011

Gone With The Wind - Chapters 1-7

gwtwreadalong.jpgI am taking part with the Gone With The Wind readalong organised by The Heroine's Bookshelf 
 I have read it before, and have been meaning to re-read it for some time.
We enter the world of the wealthy plantation owners of pre Civil War Georgia. It seems on the surface to be an easy comfortable life, but we see as the story progresses that there is a cost. We meet Scarlett O'Hara, not conventionally beautiful but possessed of great charm and vivacity. Her head is filled with parties and boys. The young men flock round her, not realising that they are being manipulated, the young women mistrust and dislike her. Scarlett's shallowness is not entirely her own fault however. She lives in a society which expects girls to be passive and docile and to defer to men. The main object of their lives is to get married. Once married they have more freedom to express themselves, though they will of course be tied down by husband and children. Scarlett is frustrated by this system but lacks the imagination to see a way out of it.
It is an insular world where the same families marry each other generation after generation. They have little idea of the realities of the outside world. The men long for the war which is inevitably coming. They believe that it will be over in a month and that they will thrash the Yankees. Even Rhett Butler's words of warning doesn't dampen their war fever;

Has any one of you gentlemen ever thought that there's not a cannon factory south of the Mason-Dixon Line? Or how few iron foundries there are in the South?......Have you thought that we would not have a single warship and that the Yankee fleet could bottle up our harbours in a week so that we could not sell our cotton abroad?

Margaret Mitchell paints a picture of a group of people who are almost child-like in their innocence of reality, who are drifting towards what the reader knows is catastophe.
Scarlett's carefree life ends with her marriage to Charles Hamilton. She doesn't love him but has married him to spite Ashley Wilkes, the man she is really in love with. She is soon widowed with a baby and the feeling that her life is over before it even got started.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

The Saladin Murders by Matt Rees

Whenever I open the newspaper and see an article about the conflict in Palestine I think 'I really must read this, it's important'. Then I struggle through it and end up none the wiser. Matt Rees' first book in this series, The Bethlehem Murders, really made me think for the first time that I had some sense of what life is like for ordinary Palestinians.
This book, The Saladin Murders, is the second in the series. It features the same hero, Omar Yussef. He works as a history teacher in a UN school in Bethlehem. He and a UN colleague, Magnus Wallender, make a trip to Gaza to do an inspection of the UN schools. They discover that one of their teachers there has been arrested, clearly for political reasons. They are drawn into the murky world of Gaza politics where might is right and the best ordinary people can hope for is to keep their heads down and hope trouble doesn't find them. Wallender is kidnapped and Omar Yussaf struggles to keep going in the face of danger.
I thought this was an excellent book and I'm really looking forward to reading the next one in the series.

Friday, 22 July 2011

The Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch

I do like a book involving magic and I was immediately attracted to this book when I read a review of it in SFX magazine.
Peter Grant is a London policeman who is just coming to the end of his probationary period. He is not a particularly gifted policeman but in the course of a murder investigation he meets Chief Inspector Nightingale. It turns out that Nightingale is the last wizard in England and that Grant shows an aptitude for magic. So Grant joins Nightingale's department (there are only the two of them in the entire department) and becomes a trainee wizard.
The murder that brought Nightingale and Grant together has supernatural elements to it. People who have no motive and no previous history of violence are suddenly murdering each other. Nightingale believes that they are being possessed by an unquiet spirit. Grant finds himself questioning ghosts and performing arcane rituals in order to discover the identity of the spirit. He also finds himself mediating in a land (or water) dispute between Mother and Father Thames.
I really enjoyed this book. Grant is plunged into a world he didn't know existed and he's having to learn on the job. The story is written in the first person and Grant's voice is alternately amazed, confused and scared. Nightingale is mysterious and we don't learn much about his past, but it does seem as though his past might be longer than his appearance suggests. One thing that would've helped me is a map of London. The city is important in the story and I would've liked to trace where the action was taking place.