Sunday, 14 December 2008

Cornwall to Paris

A recent reading group read was Patrick Gale's Rough Music, which we all liked. The story is a sort-of family tale, starting with a tale of a prison governor's son who briefly befriends one of the prisoners. While the family are on holiday in Cornwall, there is an escape from the prison and later a train robbery. The story moves back and forward in time from past to present and back again. The main character changes his name, confusing at first although we eventually find the reason for this - a banal one, really. Characters are not quite who they seem at first - the boy's sister is not actually his sister. Subtly written, the relationships although complicated, were well decsribed. An interesting read.
I've been looking forward to catching up with Joanne Harris' The Lollipop Shoes , so was pleased it was chosen for a Book Club read recently. I found the change of narrator for each chapter a little bewildering at first, although soon adjusted. The suspense was well built up, and the theme of changing identity one Joanne Harris has used before. Although it has been described as a sequel to Chocolat, it's a complete story in its own right, and one that is well worth reading. Some of the characters we have first met in Chocolat, but things have moved on - Anouk is growing up and developing a mind of her own, Vianne seems to have changed her character completely and Zozie who we meet for the first time appears to be mischievious but harmless .I enjoy this sort of book as not too-demanding but a bit of fun.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Sisters in Arms

Sisters in Arms by Nicola Tyrer is a book I've been looking forward to reading for a little while. It tells the story of the nurses in the Queen Alexandra Royal Army Nursing Corps, as it became after World War 2. One of the reasons for my interest is that my mother was in the service during the war, ( when it was known as Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service)and saw service in North Africa and Italy, where she met and married my father. The book describes the tented hospitals my mother mentioned, when asked about her time in the war, and also describes some of the events in Naples, where my mother helped nurse a typhoid epidemic. My father was in the Royal Corps of Signals, and they met at a party in a palace in Rome, according to my mother. They married in April 1945, and spent a brief honeymoon in Sorrento. The picture is of them on their wedding day, both in uniform as were all their guests.

Nicola Tyrer's book is well researched, covering all areas of the world where Army nurses saw service, including the defeats at Hong Kong and Singapore when the Japanese overran those places. It certainly filled in some of the gaps in my mothers stories of the time she spent in the Army, nursing, as like many of her generation she didn't tell her children too much about what she did in the war. It would be a worthwhile read for anyone interested in nursing, women's roles duringWorld War Two, or the war generally.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Idle pleasures and a short life

I've just finished reading The book of idle pleasures, edited by Tom Hopkinson of the Idler magazine. It's not what I would call a proper read , more a diversion, as it's a list of all sorts of pleasures (according to the Idler) with delightful black and white woodcut illustration. Some of the pleasures are simple, like leaf-catching, walking home drunk, taking a bath, while others such as breast-feeding, only available to certain people at a very specific time of their life. Yet other idle pleasures like cloud-watching, ( one of my personal favourites ) available to anyone of any age. Reading this list brought back some happy memories of time spent idling and being happy while doing so ( if doing is the right verb to use in this context).

A complete contrast is Janet Street-Porter's book, Life's Too F***ing Short. Her premise is that you should just get on and do what you want to, not to worry about what others may say. The book is divided into various chapters like food, style, travel and so on, with a number of rules to follow in each, presumably to achieve your own personal idea of perfection in these areas of life - but at the end Janet S-P says there are no rules, just make up your own. A maddening and sometimes infuriating read, probably aimed at someone rather younger than I, but quite interesting. Many of the things Janet S-P suggests I've been doing for years, others are good ideas to follow up.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Discovering France

While in France, I read Graham Robb's excellent The Discovery of France, about the various means by which people have travelled about France, the old routes and paths which are still there, hidden away as forest and other tracks, or as the IGN maps of France calls them , "chemins d'exploitation"; the railways, the branch lines which are now cycle routes or walks, the canals and so on. He mentions Roman roads, of which France probably had many, and those are still there in the imaginations of the present day people, as one of the older residents of the village where we have a house explained that the road through the valley was a Roman road. The village is certainly very old, (there is a brief history here) and although many of the houses look as if they were built about a century or so ago, the site has been occupied for centuries, and apparently even had a chateau at one stage. Graham Robb's book is an interesting read for anyone who thinks they know France, as they will almost certainly learn things they never knew. The accompanying picture shows Le Vaulmier at the start of the 20th century.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Recent reads

Although away in France, in Le Vaulmier ostensibly doing some work on the house, I have managed to finish Kate Mosse's Sepulchre, which I started several weeks ago. I kept putting it aside to read other things, or do something. It's a long book anyway, but at last completed and sort of enjoyed. I think I preferred her Labyrinth, which I read a couple of years ago, while on holiday in the south of France. The switching back and forward in time from late 19th century to the present day worked well, although I found the use of some American language a bit awkward. The characters of the two girls Leonie and Meredith seemed believable, at least while reading. Some books that I take a while to read like this one, I never get back to and finish, but somehow, I wanted to find out how the author reconciled the plot.
Another read while here in France has been Deborah Moggach's These Foolish Thngs, which I found a rattling good read, despite the author's rather bleak view of life for older people in Britain in the 21st century. The idea of setting up a retirement home in Bangalore is intriguing, and the descriptions of life there for the residents from Britain, and the characters of those residents is beautifully done. Since our retirement from paid employment, we have taken on a neglected house in the middle of what one of the local residents describes as the most beautiful valley in France, we have been kept failrly busy; although we don't live here all the time, we visit about four times a year at different seasons. So far this autumn visit has proved successful, as we have done some more work on improving the house, decorating and mainataining the interior and exterior. We have had some glorious weather, with wonderfully warm and sunny days, when we have gone for little walks through the local woods, all now rapidly changing from green to golden yellow. Splendide!

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Eat, drink and be merry... in the library?

There has been a bit of a hoo-ha in the media, particularly the Times, about some public libraries allowing people to eat and drink there. Many libraries have had rules and regulations, often by-laws which forbid this. These would probably need to be changed by the local council. They were also there for a good reason. It's not very nice borrowing books that are full of stains from dropped food, or even have bits of food in them, but library staff cannot do anything about books which are borrowed and eaten over at home. Banning food and drink in libraries is basically about keeping things clean and tidy - who wants to come and sit and work in an environment that has food wrappers, half-drunk cans of fizzy drink or spilt drinks everywhere. Surveys have shown that most people only stay in the library for a short time - less than ten minutes. Do they really need to eat and drink in that time? Who is going to control the anti-social kids who decide to start chucking their burgers and chips about just to wind each other up for the fun of it. I don't think that letting the public eat and drink while using a public library is a progressive step, I think its a backward one. I'm surprised to learn that there are still libraries that ban talking, as in my experience, there has never been a silence rule in public libraries, except possibly in some major reference libraries, where people may stay and work for longer periods. Most local branch libraries are much more casual, although they don't encourage mobile phones, as these are disrupting for other readers and also unhelpful when staff are trying to deal with a reader's query while they are talking to someone else on their mobile.

Following a dream

Our recent book club read was Rose Tremain's The Road Home. The story of Lev, a widower who comes to Britain to make money to have a better life in his own Eastern European country, this was enjoyed by all of us. We cared deeply about the characters, wanting Lev to succeed, feeling his shame and sorrow and also his joy when life was going well for him. His efforts at finding a job and his success in the one he found in a successful restaurent were the kick start to his eventual dream. The loss of that job makes Lev find other ways to achieve what he wants out of life. Although I don't usually read novels by Rose Tremain in one sitting, this one only took a couple, as I wanted to finish it so much and find out if Lev made his hard-won dream come true.
W Somerset Maugham's The Moon and Sixpence is another story about a man persuing his dream. This story, first published in 1919, is about a stockbroker who leaves his convential London life to become a painter in Paris, eventually ending up in Tahiti. Based on the life of Paul Gaugin, it is a tale of discarded wife, children, lover, comfortable life, and friends in the persuance of an unarticulated dream. It took me a little while to get into this story, probably have not been reading enough classics of late, but worth the slight amount of effort required.

Saturday, 6 September 2008

Thrifty cooking

Reading an article in the Times yesterday, I discovered that Virago have re-published Katherine Whitehorn's Cooking in a Bedsitter, including a recipe from it called frying pan pizza. I have owned a by now stained, dog-eared and falling apart copy of the Penguin paperback, published in 1963. I bought it when I was a student in Manchester in 1966 or 67, when I was living in the kind of bedsitters she describes, with often very inadequate cooking facilities. The food at student canteens was pretty dire , too, which led me to cook for myself. My mother fortunately was a good cook, and used to tell me and my sister how she prepared the dish we were about to eat for supper or Sunday lunch. Domestic science was not inspiringly taught at either of the grammar schools I attended in the 60's, unless you were prepared to take the subject at O or A level. Cooking in a Bedsitter has the merit of including lots of recipes suitable for one person, able to be cooked quickly, but not relying on the constant use of a frying pan. I cooked and ate my way through most of it when I was a student. Later on I turned to Jocasta Innes The Pauper's Cookbook, (2nd ed, Penguin 2003, first published 1971) which included recipes for dinner parties for impoverished host and not so impoverished guests. I think I bought my first copy of this from the newly opened Habitat in Manchester - the excitement of having something so trendy in Manchester in the late 1960's. There are several other cookbooks from that era: Poor Cook by Susan Campbell and Caroline Conran assumes you like eating well, but are on a limited budget and can only afford cheaper cuts of meat and so on. More For Your Money by Shirley Goode and Erica Griffiths (published in paperback by Penguin in 1981 has lots of recipes for feeding a small family well on practically next to nothing except for a bit of time in the kitchen, and includes ideas for planning a weeks meals at a time, something that modern housekeepers are not encouraged to do( Shirley Goode has a blog here and still writes about thrifty cooking) while Richard Mabey's Food for Free (Fontana/Collins 1972) gives lots of ideas for foragers. I've never manged much more than a bit a blackberrying on the Common, living in a city as I do, but its an ideal book for countrydwellers.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Burning not so brightly?

A recent Book Club read was Tracy Chevalier's Burning Bright, a story set in London in1792 about William Blakeand his relationship with a family who lived next door to him in Lambeth. I had wanted to read this when it came out in hardback last year, but somehow never got round to ordering at at the library or even seeing it on a shelf and grabbing it ( I don't normally buy hardback fiction for myself) . I didn't find this quite as engaging as I had hoped and neither did the rest of the group. We have all read Tracy Chevalier's other novels and enjoyed them more, so I am left puzzling as to why this one didn't please quite as much as those other titles. The story is about the Kellaway family from Dorset who move up to London to escape their grief after the accidental death of one of their sons. They rent rooms in a house next to the home of William Blake and his wife, and much of the story concerns the impact London and it's entertainments have on Jem Kellaway and his friend and neighbour Maggie Butterfield. These two children are used as contrasts to each other, to life in town and country and also to innocence and experience, the titles of two of Blake's most well-known works of poetry. There is much that is interesting in it, such as the depiction of Philip Astley's circus, the increasing anti-French feeling and its expression by the local people, but perhaps it is because of this wealth of ideas rather than narrative that we found the book as we did. We still enjoyed it as a novel, but not so enthusiastically as the author's previous titles.

Saturday, 23 August 2008

Holiday reading

Having taken several books away with me to France in July, I didn't read all of them, partly because staying in a house which needs work doing to it means that reading takes second place to that, and also the valley we stay in is an excellent place for walks, although the weather was a bit too hot for us to go climbing up the hills at first. However a change in the weather to cooler and damper meant we managed to fit in some nice walks. I did mange some reading such as Ian McEwan's Atonement, which had been sitting on my bedside table for a few months, waiting to be read, also Haruki Murakami's Norwegian Wood. These are both novels about in part, growing up, although in different times, places and by different people. I found I enjoyed Norwegian Wood more than Atonement ( I don't usually compare books in that way) as I wanted to keep reading about Toru Watanabe making his way through university, struggling to understand why his best friend committed suicide at the age of 17, and to build relationships with two contrasting young women. I found keeping going with Atonement slightly harder work, but still an enjoyable read.

I have had Sarah Dunant's In the Company of the Courtesan for some while now, took it away with me and enjoyed being transported to Renaissance Venice and reading the story of life as a high class courtesan of that period and place - Venice is evoked very clearly, especially as I have visited it a couple of times. Renaissance history and novels set in that period are among my favourite reads and this read reached all my expectations for it.

Sue Gee's Bedtime Reading was a totally diffferent reading experience, starting out with two friends returning home after visiting a book festival. One hads been recently widowed, the other is still married to a university professor. Although life seems calm and pleasant at the outset, the kicks in the teeth for both friends are soon revealed, and how they and their families cope or don't. In many ways a reassuring read, although that may seem a strange comment in the light of some of the events described, but people do cope with the difficulties of life, one way or another.
My final holiday read was Vanora Bennett's Portrait of an Unknown Woman. The setting is Henry VIII's England, at the time he falls in love with Anne Boleyn, and the story is about the life of one of Thomas More's adopted daughters, Meg Giggs and her relationships with Thomas More, her eventual husband John Clements and the painter Hans Holbein the Younger. For a first novel, this is very accomplished and certainly made me want to follow this writer. Very well researched, but the research does not hinder the storytelling. Being a fan of historical fiction, but also a fairly picky one - the writing must be excellent, I loved this book.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

In the Vallee du Mars

Here in deepest Auvergne, in the Vallee du Mars, or du Falfoux, which ever takes your fancy, life seems very busy this month. Most of the houses are now occupied and open, and being filled with families coming from Paris or Lille or wherever the previous generations had migrated to for work and/or education. The weather is glorious at the moment, with long hot sunny days, but not as unbearably hot as further south. If we go for a walk, much of it is shaded by trees ( which also somewhat restrict the views of the landscape). However, above the trees, the views are far-reaching, across valleys and depending on how high we get, across mountain tops too. Despite the apparent busyness of the residents, the atmosphere is calm and relaxing. There are Sunday evening Marche du Pays, where you can buy grilled saucisse, aligot and other local specialities, including local wines, which are more the 'vins de table' quality, but drinkable. They are really an excuse for a get-together in the village, to chat, exchange news, meet new relaives or friends of the family and so-on. We've been here for some weeks now, managed to set up a sometimes shaky internet connection, done lots of work clearing the garden and some work inside the house. Nearly time to go home and have a rest!

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Our climate

Following a recommendation on Susan Hill 's blog, I 've just finished reading Nigel Lawson's An Appeal to Reason: a cool look at global warming. A fascinating read, which enlightened some of my puzzlement over the last decades or so about the number of people who claim our climate is warming, when just recently we've had some really dire summers down here in the south of England,although normal mild winters. During the 80's the winters seemed to get colder, with snow most winters and more frosty days than in recent winters. I can also remember a fuss about a new ice age being foretold in the late 70s - climate interests me, as when I did A-level geography back in the year dot, meteorology was part of it, though I've forgotten much of the detail now. I'm not convinced about global warming, especially when the Romans apparently grew grapes for wine making in Britain as far north as at least the Midlands; also monasteries in medieval times had vineyards in a wide variety of places , including Wales. The climate then was probably roughly the same as it is now.

Sunday, 29 June 2008

Things my mother did tell me

I recently bought Lucia van der Post's "Things I wish my mother had told me". I found this quite interesting, but at the same time ultimately disappointing. It's full of useful advice about fashion, beauty how to live elegantly, and finishes with a short chapter on good manners. I think it's all a bit too serious for me, somehow, or maybe I'm too old for it - and I'm usually a sucker for any kind of self-help books of this type. I've enjoyed Lucia's columns in The Times newspaper, too, on which a lot of the information in this book is based. But somehow my initial enthusiasm waned as I read, or skimmed in places, through the book. I'm not really that interested in which designer handbag to buy any more, wouldn't spend the money on one anyway.

Things my mother did tell me were about her life as a nurse in the Queen Alexandra's Royal Army Nursing Corps Reserve during World War II, and her growing up on a farm in New Zealand before the war - as well as all the usual stuff about how to behave as a young lady.Dovegreyreaderscribbles describes two books about the QAs on her blog, so I'll be looking out for them

Much more up my street is Wild Swimming by Daniel Start, a beautifully illustrated catalogue of places one can swim in rivers and lakes in Britain and also a lyrical plea for people to take to the fresh water in the open, instead of indoors in the chlorinated blue stuff of the local sports centre. I'd say as well as, as its not realistic for most town-dwellers to go open water swimming that easily. Most of my wild swimming has been done in the sea off the Isle of Wight and in the Mediterranean, but I've also swum in rivers in France and as a child in the Ladies pond on Hampstead Heath. It's true that fresh water, and sea water for that matter, feels very different to chlorinated swimming pool water. When in my school swimming team , we used to practise in a sea-water pool, but competed against other schools in a pool with chlorinated water , and we all felt we swam more slowly in the latter. But the writing and descriptions of the places to swim are very tempting.

Sunday, 15 June 2008

A few good reads

Patrick Gale's Notes from an Exhibition , lent me by a friend who comes from Cornwall, was a riveting read. Rachel, an artist and mother of several children, dies in her studio, leaving her Quaker husband and her children to sort the remains of her life and also to discover her beginnings in another country and continent. The novels themes of love and loss kept me reading, as did the theme of a mothers love for each of her children, all different characters. The theme of loss in many guises, is a strong one, but some losses may lead to a gain of another sort. The background is also strongly written and adds to the atmosphere. I'll be searching out other books by this writer soon, as this is the first I've read by him. (The pictures in the paperback I read look a lot better on the screen, if you follow the link given in the book.)
Hester's Story by Adele Geras is not particularly new, but I've ony recently come across the adult novels by Adele, and have enjoyed the couple I've read so far. They are reliable reads, in that they have some believable characters, the plots are also realistic and the endings are properly happy. Good middlebrow stuff, quite romantic but not too sugary.
Khaled Hosseini's second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns is a quite different story. Mariam is the illegitimate daughter of an Afghani business man, brought up by her epileptic mother until the age of fifteen, when she is married off to Rasheed, a shoemaker in distant Kabul. The novel covers the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and their departure, the complicated politics and the rise of the Taliban. After a rocket attack kills her parents, Laila, a neighbours' child of fourteen is taken in by Rasheed and Mariam. After Laila recovers from her injuries, Rasheed marries her. The novel then tells of the relationship between the two women and how it develops. I found this book almost unputdownable, as I wanted to find out what happened next. As this is a Book Club read, I'll be very interested in how the other members feel about it. I haven't decided if it is better or just as good as his first novel, the Kite runner.

Sunday, 8 June 2008

Belated Anniversary

I've been posting this blog for just over a year now, and manged 40 posts so far. That's less than one a week, but I never intended it to be a daily post, only possibly a weekly one. I think I started it more for my own amusement rather than anything more serious, just to see if I could write something that more or less satisfied me and posibly anyone else who might read it. I'm not sure that I've reached the standard I was aiming for, as I never feel completely satisfied with what I've written, no matter how long I spend on re-reading and re-writing it. However, that's normal for me and probably a lot of other bloggers, but one just has to get something up there on the screen and move on. It's also more about reading than I possibly originally intended, but reading fiction and what is known in my former profession as narrative non-fiction ( biography, travel and anything else that catches my interest- design, crafts, art, politics occasionally). I find that I cannot just read fiction, but need an irregular dose of reality, in the form of some well written comment on some aspect of life- it leavens the daily dose of snippets of information from the other media, newspapers, radio and television.

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Recently returned from France, where time was spent scrubbing floors and putting in kitchen drawers and cupboard doors, so not too much got read. Also had ahuge variety of weather, including storms as well as rainbows. However I did manage to finish Richard Mabey's Nature Cure, a gentle ramble through his account of a major depresion and how re-engaging with nature in a totally different part of the country to that he had inhabited for most of his life, and a thought provoking read, especially as I read it at Le Vaulmier, set in a valley lush with woods, pastures and streams cascading down the hillsides and out of roadside walls whenever any rain falls, which it does often.

I also read, in more-or less one sitting, Susan Hill's The Pure in Heart while away, and a that was another satisfying read. I'm getting into and enjoying this series, with Simon Serrailller and his complicated family relationships

Anne Enright's The Gathering was a different read, a miserable tale from one point of view, but also a memorably lyrical look at loss, both of a brother and companion and a childhood and how its memories may be recalled. The Book Club members made similar comments when we discussed this at our regular meeting; some felt they regarded it more highly after they had read it, rather than enjoying the actual reading of it.

Saturday, 17 May 2008

I have recently finished reading Phillipa Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl, a first person narrative about Mary Boleyn, sister of Anne Boleyn, and mistress of King Henry VIII, and mother to two children by him. Although I have known of Philipa Gregory's writing for years, this is (I think) the first one I have actually read, a bit strange on my part as I am a keen fan of historical novels. However I did enjoy it, found it a good page turner and thought the background research was sound enough for me to picture the events and scenes. Some of the Reading Group for which this was the most recent read found it a bit slight, somewhat of a bodice-ripper was one comment, although themes including the attitude to high-class women as chattels of their family, likewise the attitude to children in farming them out to be reared and educated elsewhere made the book a bit deeper than it might appear on a quick skim. I think on the whole that the reason I haven't read them in the past is that I find them a bit too light, despite the apparent research. A few of our group had seen the film, but were not overly impressed with it.

In comparison, Virginia Nicholson's Singled Out: How two million women survived without men after the First World War was excellently researched and engrossing to read, and brought home just how much a debt we women in the 21st century owe to the women of the 20's and 30's. If the single women of that period had meekly done what their male relatives had expected, we would probably still be fighting for the vote, and doing all the drudgery work demanded of running a house, unable to earn our own money.

Saturday, 3 May 2008

The weather in France being somewhat mixed, including heavy driving rain, a few sunny , warm days and ending with a light snowfall on the day before leaving for England, quite a lot of reading got done, that is, in between rushing round buying things for the house that the occupying builders should have bought or collected months ago. However, builders now finally kicked out and the house , unfinished as it is, is now ours to finish and use as we wish.
Reading included Lloyd Jones 'Mr Pip', a fascinating tale set on the island of Bougainville at the period of the rebellion in the early 90's, written from the point of view of a young girl. This was a well-written book, and had me in its grip from the beginning. The theme about the importance of the imagination and how that is enhanced by reading resonated strongly with me.
I also read Margaret Forster's The Memory Box, about a box with an intiguing mix of items left to a young woman by her mother, who had died when the daughter was only six months old. The young woman, a photographer, finds the box after the death of her father and her step-mother, who effectively brought her up as her own daughter. The theme of the loss of a parent and its possible consequences on a life, even if apparently successfully replaced, was very absorbing, and for me an interesting contrast to Margaret Forsters latest novel, Over, which deals with the loss of a child.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Off toFrance

Tonight we're off to France to go and stay in our house at Le Vaulmier. As its the first time we'll be doing this, excitement and nervousness increase the usual anxiety about setting off on a ferry crossing, followed by a long drive. But it will all be worth it when we eventually wake up to the view.

Monday, 14 April 2008

Ballet shoes and Botswana

The reading group to which I belong recently read and discussed Alexander McCall Smith's The No 1 Ladies detective agency' fortuitously at the same time that the film was on television. The discussion ranged between regarding the book as a "comfort" read, in which life is seen as generally good, all's right with the world sort of attitude ( which I must admit is how I regarded it when I first read it some time ago). However, for those of us for whom it was a re-read, there is a lot of reality in there, with Mma Ramtswe's views on men and how some of them treat women in Botswana. The occasional flashbacks to the loss of her infant only a few days after birth brings in a grimmer reality, as does the incident with the muti and its terrible implications. The reading group felt that the film added to their enjoyment of the book, as it brought Africa to life, and although there were differences, the film was a good stab at getting the book into a visual medium. When watching it, you didn't feel cheated, or that the director wanted to get his own message across - he wanted to tell the story the book told , in the best way he could - but then as the director was Antony Minghella, that's not so surprising.

Another recent read was Noel Streatfeild's Ballet Shoes, a re-re-read for me, as I had read several times as a child. No doubt the ballet lessons I took for a while aged 10 or so, were inspired by my reading of this book. It didn't disappoint, and seemed to have held up well, considering it was first published seventy years ago - the preoccupation with earning money struck a very modern chord, given the current news items on the subject.

Friday, 4 April 2008

A little light reading

Have finally caught up with Susan Hill's detective Simon Serrailler, having read two of the four titles so far published. They are good in a slightly old-fashioned way, very readable and its not too obvious to work out who dunnit. Also there are lots of nice interesting sub-plots about people not obviously connected to the main story, but with a lot to add to the book. I used to read at lot of detective stories at one time, but almost stopped as I found some of the more recently published ones dwelling a bit too much on the violence inflicted on the victim, and less on the solving of the crime.
I recently finished Katie Fforde's Going Dutch -I really enjoy these books of hers, escapism at its best - fast-paced, light romances but with some humour and often presenting characters who deal with life's problems in ways which are only too human and recognisable. this one was well up to her usual standard, I thought, and as I haven't read a Katie Fforde for a while, all the more enjoyable for that. I'm not sure that I like the newer covers, especially on the paperbacks, as they make the books look a bit more chick-lit than they actually are, but doubtless the publishers have done it to try and gain a foothold in that market for Katie. I find that I get a bit annoyed by publishers changing jackets, as when browsing round a public library (or bookshop) it is possible to pick up a "new" book that I read years ago when it was first published, and only on getting into to it when at home finding that fact out. I know I'm not the only person to feel that annoyance, as many of the readers in the libraries I worked in made the same comment.

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Signs of spring

Coming back from a wekend away, the garden seemed to be almost overflowing with primroses, so I picked a few to brighten up the kitchen table.

A Liverpool weekend

This last weekend we visited Liverpool to attend the annual conference of the Antiquarian Horological Society, which included a dinner at Liverpool Atheneum Club, a magnificent late 18th century building, with a stunningly beautiful eliptical staircase (above) going up through the building. We also visited the Prescot Museum, a small museum dedicated to the past local industry of making precision clocks and clock parts - they sent clock parts to all the major clock makers in the country in the 18th and 19th centuries. The major part of the weekend was spent in attending lectures on the history of clocks and clockmaking, some by well-known authors on the subject.

Friday, 14 March 2008

Two caravans and Wendy Cope

On Friday morning my Book Club discussed Marina Lewycka's Two Caravans. There were some mixed opinions, particularly over the last few pages as to exactly what happened to Vulk and Lena. on the whole most of us found it an interesting read. I did wonder where it was heading at the description of Emmanuel's birthday feast - the details of the food that was prepared, the festive atmosphere that the workers managed to create despite their dire living conditions, all seemed to be saying that all was well with their little world. However that illusion soon disappeared and was replaced by a much more frightening reality, which continued throughout the rest if the novel. The set pieces based on the different locations, from the strawberry fields, a chicken shed, a restaurant, Dover, and an old peoples hope , reached by way of a hippy-type protest camp, that the various characters found themselves in seemed a good way of moving the story forward. The writing is neither tragic nor particularly serious; there are lots of lighter moments, sometimes at the expense of the characters when they misunderstand what is happening, because they don't speak English adequately or because they are too trusting of others motives. I loved this book, despite it's tragedies and uncertainties, because it seemed to me to be describing life as it is lived by some people.
Wendy Cope was at Southampton Art Gallery last night, giving a reading of her poems. She was excellent entertainment and the audience was very appreciative. Full marks to staff at Southampton's Central Library for organising it.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

A literary day

Monday a somewhat literary day, with Reading Group and a discussion on Philip Pullman's northern Lights, which the group found interesting, intriguing, a good original idea, quite hard-hitting considering its intended audience. Most of us would continue with the series and read the other two titles in it. Some of the group ( there are several teachers or ex-teachers found it praiseworthy and enjoyed it a second time. Followed swiftly by an evening of readings by local writers at the Nuffield Studio. The writers were a mixed collection of poets, playwrights, fiction and non-fiction writers, so it made for quite an interesting session. Some have been published already, but not necessarily for the format in which they presented their work at the event. At last Southampton is getting a literary life of its own. One read a delightful memoir of his grandfather and the Isle of Wight railway in the days of steam, which brought back memories of going to Sandown Grammar School from Ryde on those very same steam trains, along with two-hundred-odd other school children, boys at one end of the train, girls at the other - we weren't supposed to share carriages. The carriages had no compartments or corridors, either. A occasional cow on the line meant about a third of the school would be late, so we didn't have to make individual excuses.

Saturday, 1 March 2008

This week has been quite busy, although not on the reading front. However, I have managed to finish Philip Pullman's Northern Lights, the first book in the trilogy His Dark Materials. Ostensibly a children's book, I enjoyed it up to a point. The main character Lyra I found interesting and sympathetic,the events in the story made one want to read on to find out what happened, the other characters were of interest, but...there still seems to me to be something not quite satisfying about reading a book written for children when an adult. The slight simplification of emotions felt by the adults in the story, perhaps, or the particular use of language.

On Saturday afternoon I attended a talk by Louis de Bernieres in Winchester, and visited the new Winchester Discovery Centre for a quick look round. Some of the ideas used there I used in the Shirley Library in Southampton 3 years ago; however the extension of the building is very successful and links into the older part very well. The refurbished building is much lighter and brighter than its former incarnation., which was very dingy. The Louis de Bernieres talk was both very informative and also very amusing and well worth the trip. It is satisfying to see a writer who one first came across years ago and thinking at the time that he had some interesting stories to tell and an individual way of telling them and seeing one's expectations come to fruition, as it were. I haven't yet got hold of his latest story, The Partisan Girl, but his talk has made me want to. I certainly enjoyed his last book, Birds Without Wings more than Captain Corelli's Mandolin, and I really liked that too.

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Needle in the blood

At last I have got hold of this historical novel, having read about it on various book blogs, notably dovegreyreader scribbles and Random jottings of a book and opera lover ,both of whom rhapsodised over it. I requested it through my local library, who did not have it in stock - but they do now. I must admit that I thought it very good and have enjoyed the story of the production of the Bayeux Tapestry, the characters who were involved in its making and what happened to them. The story is that of Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, half-brother to William the Conquerer, his involvement in the invasion of England and the battle of Hastings and its aftermath, and also about his relationship with Gytha, a Saxonwoman, serving maid to Edith Swan-Neck. The research that has gone into this story is prodigious, but only adds to the reality of the story and is not intrusive.

There is a letter about reading historical novels, one of my favourite novel categories, in the latest edition of New Books magazine, a magazine for reading groups, saying that we read them in times of economic downturn, and that this time we are reading them "as a grim backdrop to a grimmer reality" what with global warming and the current economic climate. If and when the world situation improves, then historical fiction will fade away again, the letter writer concludes. Lets hope for more really absorbing historical reads in the near future, and that this time the trend is bucked, so to speak, as the economic situation doesn't get any worse.

Friday, 15 February 2008

The final Harry potter

One recent Book Club discussion was on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. A couple of people didn't enjoy it and found it a struggle to finish,but others including myself, found it a good read. Although well aware it was written for children, we felt the story pulled you along, you wanted to know what happened next; and plenty did happen in this book. Most of the group had read the previous titles in the series either for themselves or to children or grandchildren. One opinion was that the book had ideas and themes that children felt related to their lives, such as bullying, problems with parents (or lack of them). This story is particularly about a quest and some of us felt it could be compared to the Narnia stories, or the Lord of the rings. No-one felt that it was too juvenile for the group to read - it certainly engaged my attention and completed the saga - yes I have read most of the preceding volumes, although like others in the discussion felt that the later ones could have done with a bit of editing. We also felt that one of the reasons for the success of the Harry Potter books was that the leading characters were not stereotypical heroes, in fact they were all a bit nerdy, Harry with his glasses, Ron withhis red hair and Hermione with her cleverness and mass of hair.

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Shakespeare, Life of Pi and the Wild Places

Two recent book group reads have been Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World, a fairly scholarly biography of William Shakespeare, which most of the group liked and one or two really loved. I found it interesting and informative, although given the dearth of information about Shakespeare in the historical records, the image one gains is not complete, more a somewhat shadowy figure, partially glimpsed. It has inspired me to get hold of Germaine Greer's Shakespeare's Wife, which seems on a quick dip, to give a completely different view of the wife whom Greenblatt almost dismissess as being totally unimportant to Shakespeare the playwright. Both writers send one back to the plays, but these are best viewed in performance, not just read, and preferably well-performed at that.
The last book group discussion was on The life of Pi, by Yann Martel, which won the Booker prize in 2002. I loved this for its sheer imaginative detail; the writing just carried me along, wanting to know exactly how Pi survived sharing the lifeboat with Richard Parker the bengal tiger, and admiring him for his tenacity and courage. I had wanted to read this when it first appeared, but life got in the way as it does. Now I'm glad I have.
My current read is Robert MacFarlane's The Wild Places, a story of the writer's exploration of wild places in Britain and our necessity for them. The writing is beautiful, evocative and makes one appreciate any small patch of wilderness in one's locality. Living in a city, yet with common land and other sorts of wilderness within walking distance, I envied the author his visits to the further reaches of the British Isles.

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Katherine Whitehorn and more

Recent reading has included Katherine Whitehorn's autobiography Selective Memory, which I found to be a quick read, as it is fairly short. Her life seems to have been successful, although not without its problems. Although she might possibly be described as a feminist in the way she has conducted her life, in that she has always worked pretty much full-time, she doesn't describe herself as such, just a working journalist. What comes out of the book for me is her breadth of interests and her commitment to public good . I more-or-less taught myself to cook from her Cooking in a bedsitter, when I left home for college in Manchester and lived in bedsitters as a student. Somehow the Women's Own Cookbook given me by my mother didn't seem to cut it - too full of pictures of rather elaborate-looking food which was totally inappropriate in bedsitter with a one or two electric ring Baby Belling cooker. Her explanations were simple and right to the point and usually turned out tasty edible food, much better than that available at the student canteens which were the alternative. I've also enjoyed her Observer columns in the past.
Jane Gardam's Old Filth is another of those books which I've only just got round to reading despite wanting to since it was published a few years ago. The descriptions of Old Filth's separation from his father, left in Malaysia while he was sent to England at a very tender age brought back memories of my childhood separation from my parents, as they were in Ghana in West Africa while my sister and self were at boarding school in England. However my experiences were generally happier than Old Filth's, whose life seemed to have had a variety of very unhappy experiences, all born with grace and a stoicism that seems rarely to exist in present times.
Current read is Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World, a biography of sorts of William Shakespeare. Based on what little documentary evidence is available a sort-of picture gradually emerges of the most famous playwright in the English language. But somehow he still seems only to speak through his plays; there is little else to go on, so do we really get to know Shakespeare the human being? To me he still seems to be a figure glimpsed through a mist, only partly visible. But still worth reading about in this book, as it sends me back to the plays to read the context of at least some of the chosen quotes.

Friday, 11 January 2008

Marmalade making

Yesterday was such a grey, dismal day that I was glad to spend the morning in the kitchen making marmalade with the Seville oranges I bought the previous day on a trip to my local shopping centre. One of the local greengrocer's had some boxes of Seville oranges on display so I bagged myself a couple of pounds, bought some sugar and was all set. The recipe I use is one from the handbook from my old and now retired Kenwood Chef, which tells you to chop the oranges using the liquidiser - much quicker than spending hours chopping by hand, and although the resulting marmalade wouldn't win any prizes for appearance, it tastes wonderful, sharp and citrussy. I have never found a shop-bought marmalade that comes antwhere near it for taste. The afternoon was spent catching up on figures for the parish council of which I'm treasurer, to ensure the evening meeting went well. This evening I'm out to see the film of the Kite Runner with members of the reading Group. We read the book last year, more -or-less at the time the film was beginning to be publicised, so are keen to see it and compare with the book, which we almost all found memorable and moving.

Friday, 4 January 2008

Catching up on reading

Although I didn't feel that I had read much over Christmas, I found that recently I have finished Alan Bennett's An Uncommon reader, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Infidel, last week. This last read was quite intriguing; I thought on starting it that it would be a bit heavy going, but not a bit, I kept wanting to find out what happened to her next and how she achieved all that she has in a foreign country and strange language. What a woman she is and what a stoic. She doesn't believe in sitting down and moaning about her lot in life, but carries on and thinks out a way of working out her own way of getting to where she wants to be. Her revelations about Islam were eye-opening for me, ignoramous that I am about Islam in many ways.
Alan Bennett's book on the other hand has so much sense to say about reading and all told in the gentle yet sharply observed tone he uses. The story of the Queen visiting a mobile library outside Buckingham Palace and taking a book out to be polite amd reading it all the way through because she was brought up to finish what she had started, and then reading one book leading to another and another, is delightful, but there are serious messages about reading in it. As a lifetime reader and chartered librarian, I found the comments Alan Bennett makes, in the form of the Queen's thoughts about reading, spot on.

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