Playing with my Penguins (books) …

Whilst I was ‘playing’ with my books today (i.e. moving them around in their piles or on their shelves, looking at covers, blurbs etc), I found a pair of old Penguin books catalogues from 1955 and 1958. I think I got them via a book swap some time ago, put them aside and forgot all about them until today. On further examination these little paperback sized ‘Classified Lists’ are fascinating.

They appear to have been published roughly halfway through the year – 1955’s was in July, 1958’s in May strangely. All the fiction is listed first, followed by crime and mystery. Then we have all the non-fiction topics including Pevsner, plus Puffins for children, and the luxury King Penguins. At the end of the main list is that of forthcoming books for the rest of the year, and finally indexes of authors and titles.

Of course this sent me off to the book mountains to see if I had any old Penguins that were listed. I know I’ve got a first of John Wyndham’s The Kraken Wakes which was published in 1955 but could I find it? Sadly no, but I did find The Blessing by Nancy Mitford which was reprinted in 1958, and a slightly later edition of The Deceivers by John Masters which Penguin published in 1955 as well as five volumes of plays by George Bernard Shaw.

Finally, reading the forthcoming titles in the 1958 list, I spotted ecological dystopia The Death of Grass by John Christopher. It has recently been reissued in the latest Penguin Classics livery which I bought just the other week. Brilliant stuff!

It’s a mug’s game!

Most of us probably have a shelf full of unmatched mugs. I’m no different, but I am gradually managing to replace all the odd ones with these lovely Penguin ones which do look lovely together. They make quite a large range of titles and styles now … which to go for next?

If I only choose the orange ones I’ve got a Penguin book for, I could pick from the following … 1984, Brighton Rock, Jane Eyre, Pride & Prejudice, The Pursuit of Love, or Wuthering Heights.


P.S. Just in case you’re wondering, that’s the Sagan book in the middle, and I don’t have a Penguin edition of Persuasion.

Griff in Abingdon – Tickets on sale now!

I’m doing my bit to help publicise a local event on behalf of Mostly Books, as it all came together at rather short notice. On Thursday August 13th, at 7.30pm in the Guildhall, we’re delighted to welcome Griff Rhys Jones – comedian, author, presenter, sailor and heritage champion.

Griff’s latest TV series started on the BBC last Sunday, and it made for a great hour’s viewing. In “Rivers” he punts, canoes and rows us on a tour of Britain’s beautiful and extraordinary rivers. He writes a veritable love-poem to the British river, exploring its impact on our landscape and culture – and along the way, makes an impassioned plea to get more involved with our local rivers.

Griff also investigates the love affair between cities and rivers from Liverpool’s Mersey to London’s Lea. From reminiscing about childhood holidays on the Suffolk Stour to taking the plunge on a wintry morning in the Tay as it rushes through Perth, Griff shares his personal journeys along the river systems of Britain – always accompanied by Cadbury the faithful water dog.

Tickets cost £5 – with £5 redeemable against a copy of the book on the night. To reserve places, phone 01235 525880, email – or call in at the shop on Stert Street in Abingdon.

I’m sure it will be a wonderful evening – see you there, as I’ll be helping.

Hard to grasp the plot in this confused novel

White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi

A few years ago, Helen Oyeyemi was hailed as one of the future stars of UK contemporary literature, having written her first novel The Icarus Girl to great acclaim whilst studying for her A-levels. Now she’s in her twenties and this is her third …

There’s a lot going on in this book. The Silver family are still in mourning after mother Lily’s death; Lily was a photographer and was caught in a spray of gunfire in Haiti. Luc can’t speak about it, twins Miranda and Eliot suffer in their own ways, and the house – which has been in Lily’s family for generations misses her too.

Luc, a cookery writer has turned the large rambling house in Dover with its creaks and groans into a B&B and this keeps him occupied – too busy to spend much time with his teenage children who are preparing to go to university. Miri has pica – a condition where she feels compelled to eat chalk, and she spent her 17th birthday in a clinic. Behind all of them is always the house. It is suffused with the spirits of Lily, her mother and her grandmother. Miranda is the one who really sees them, although everyone, including the housekeepers and paying guests, can sense the influence of something alive in the house that moves things, has a temperamental life, and symbolically ripens apples in the garden in the dead of winter.

I found it confusing to decide whether the main theme of the novel was Miri, her mental health and coming of age as she goes to university where she falls in love with Ore, or whether the house was the real star – not wanting to let go of its line of women owners. Concentrating on one of these could have made a much stronger novel. The house and its spirits merely made its occupants uncomfortable rather than inducing any real ‘Jamesian’ terror. Miri is a rather unsympathetic character, which makes it difficult to care about her state of mind and incipient anorexia, whereas Eliot was underused – more could have been made of them being twins.

As the rather complex multiple viewpoints of the beginning gradually coalesce into one voice, the book’s second half pays dividends for having struggled with the first, as we met the new housekeeper, Sade and the likeable Ore. There were many good elements to this story, but they were only assembled into an average novel. (Book supplied by the Amazon Vine programme).

Book Two of the Chaos Walking Trilogy

The Ask & the Answer by Patrick Ness

Warning: If you haven’t read the first book in this trilogy The Knife of Never Letting Go, (reviewed here) – don’t read this, rush out and get a copy Book One, then read the second.

Book two starts immediately where the first left off; teenagers Todd and Viola are pitched into a living hell that doesn’t let up for 519 thrilling and chilling pages and it is not for the faint-hearted – there are graphic scenes of torture, both physical and mental.

Haven turns out to be the exact opposite of what they’d hoped, as the Prentisstown army led by the evil Mayor got there first, and eventually the women led by Mistress Coyne revolt – The battle between them reminds me strangely of the relationship between Sarastro and the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s Magic Flute. This leads to countless double-crosses and betrayals, yet through it all shines the beacon of Todd and Viola’s need for each other. The other key element is the treatment of the native alien, the Spackle. They are literally treated like animals in a concentration camp by the charismatic Fuhrer Prentiss. That’s all I’m going to say about the plot, to avoid spoiling it for you… Yet, the overall feel for me is still that of the Wild West frontier, with the Spackle as the native American Indians. It’s Fort Apache meets Gunfight at the OK Corral in a nouveau-Puritan version of Deadwood.

This is a book you’ll devour – but it will leave you gnawing with hunger for the third and final installment. I checked out Ness’s website, but there are no clues as yet to the title. It’ll be out next year – (bites knuckles) I can’t wait! (10/10)

A novel of archaeology, food, pandemics and ghosts

Cold Earth by Sarah Moss

This novel, published by Granta, is lovely to behold. What you can’t see are the beautiful turquoise blue page edges, and the glossy white fibrils of grassy roots insinuating their way through the bones of the skeleton curled up underneath the title. Luckily I enjoyed reading the book as much as I liked looking at it. The author Sarah Moss is an academic and is an expert on the literature of the far north, and food in fiction. This, her debut novel amazingly combines both!

A team of archaelologists are all set to dig in Greenland at the start of the brief arctic summer. They will investigate the remains of a Viking settlement which appears to have been the scene of a massacre. There’s Yianni, the team leader, plus Ruth, Catriona, Jim and Ben, all experienced archaelogists, and then there’s Yianni’s friend Nina. Six very different personalities and all with baggage. They will have to get along together all summer until the plane arrives to take them out. Things get tense right from the start. Nina is a neurotic and prickly English postgrad who is also a real foodie – she is bitterly disappointed at Yianni’s idea of catering for the dig:

Lunch was water biscuits and cream cheese rendered no less nasty by alleged smoked salmon flavouring, followed by powdery red apples.
‘This is all the fresh fruit,’ said Yianni. ‘When these are gone, it’s dried fruit and vitamin supplements.’
‘Then why on earth did you bring tasteless American apples when the English season is just beginning?’ I asked. …
‘They’re just apples, Nina, and there are some lemons.’
‘To ward off scurvy,’ suggested Catriona.
‘And a ration of rum?’ asked the fake American, who turned out to be called Ben.

The first third of the novel is told through Nina’s voice. It would be fair to say that she obsesses about the food, telling us about every meal they have. Also from her first night onwards, Nina hears and sees things – are they the ghosts of the dead Vikings disturbed from their peaty graves?:

It was grey and still. No wind, but the outline of a hand clear on the canvas inches from my face, and the noise of breathing still although I was – was I not? – awake. I froze. The hand slid silently down the tent. Nothing moved away. It was still there, silent, waiting, breathing. I lay quite still, in out, in out, in out. It was still there and I was still there. I was not asleep. I should have called, screamed, but I daren’t not move. In and out and in and out. I sat up and the hand was back, higher now, the thing kneeling or standing over me, and I found breath and screamed and then again. The hand went, but a guy line pinged as something caught on it, and rustled away.

Towards the end of Nina’s section, we begin to realise that all is not well back home. There is an epidemic of an unnamed virus beginning to take hold. The guys start to become obsessed with the lone laptop, and as the days turn into weeks, communicating with outside world becomes temperamental, then effectively stops. It is at this point, that the narratives from the team become less the story of this adventure, and more a last letter home as they begin to realise that the plane may not be coming. Note – this is not plot-spoiling, the blurb on the back of the book tells you all of this.

As the team members take their turns to drive the narrative onwards, and say their goodbyes, we find out all about them and their relationships to their loved ones. Underlying this is a real sense of the past returning to haunt them, as they speculate why the Greenlanders disappeared. The ghosts seem very real, almost straight out of the Icelandic sagas or Beowulf.

Admittedly, the six characters are slightly stereotypical – but if they’d all got on with each other, the drama would be lessened greatly. I found it a totally gripping read which ticked many boxes for me given my predilections for myths and legends and anything dystopian. A brilliant fiction debut. (9/10, book supplied by the Amazon Vine programme)

Moviewatch – Harry Potter & the Half-Blood Prince

Yesterday was our first available day to go and see the new Harry Potter film. I checked out the times, and asked my daughter “Shall we go for the quarter past one showing, or go earlier?” … So there we were at the cinema for the 10am showing along with just ten other people in the biggest screen at Didcot. We had popcorn for breakfast too – well it is cereal!

As for the film, well it was blooming marvellous; blooming being a good adjective as our magical trio are flowering into decent actors. Just as well, as love is in the air at Hogwarts – plenty of full-on teenage pashes, snogging, despair when the love is unrequited, and relief (phew!) when it goes the way it should. Hormones abound, and there were hints of more too (which luckily still go over my daughter’s head – she just found the kissing a bit squirmy!). It was nice to see Bonnie Wright as Ginnie Weasley mature too. That’s the sex, then there are the drugs. Now they’re 16 going on 17, our teenagers are very aware, but the substances to be abused are of course potions for luck and love. The results are really comical.

What about the rock ‘n’ roll? Well it’s enough to say that the Death Eaters are very, very bad indeed! HBC (Helena Bonham Carter) is an absolute psycho and Helen McCrory puts in a magnificently creepy cameo as Narcissa Malfoy. Young Tom Felton got a chance to show a different, tortured side of Draco Malfoy as he is initiated into the Death Eaters and gets the worst task he could imagine to demonstrate his loyalty to Voldemort. Don’t ask about Snape!

The real stars of this film though are Michael Gambon and Jim Broadbent. Dumbledore is never more enigmatic – you sense that he really does know what’s going to happen to him. But he has to pass on the quest to Harry, and for that he needs to tempt Horace Slughorn back to Hogwarts. Many years ago, Slughorn was potions master and was a collector of people including Tom Riddle – boo! hiss! Broadbent is wonderfully oily as he chats up Harry, little knowing he is being chatted up himself to help fill in the missing pieces of the puzzle over Voldemort’s power.

For anyone who hasn’t read the book or seen the film, I won’t divulge more, except to say that you probably need to have seen the previous couple of episodes to know what’s going on. This, the sixth instalment veers from high comedy to the darkest depths with very little middle-ground for a breather. But that’s alright by me – can’t wait for the final films.

Art for art’s sake?

The Bellini Madonna by Elizabeth Lowry

There have been many novels about the search for missing art masterpieces, but few so convoluted as this. It’s written totally in the first person as a confession by Thomas Lynch, a randy old professor of art history who is an expert on the renaissance masters, Bellini in particular. Disgraced from his college, he goes on the hunt for an uncatalogued Bellini Madonna which leads him to a mouldering old English Manor House – Mawle.

He invites himself to stay with the Ropers, the house’s owners to catalogue their art, but is really on the hunt for the Madonna – no-one is sure if it really exists. He dreams of stealing it away to ‘find’ it again and make his fortune. Roper’s Italian wife, Maddelena is now a widow flounces in, but soon dashes off back to Italy, leaving Lynch under the care of her daughter Anna who is also looking after a rather strange little girl called Vicky.

From the moment they meet, a game of cat and mouse ensues between Lynch and Anna. At first he worries about outstaying his welcome, but then he finds the lost diary of former owner of the house James Roper who was on the grand tour with Robert Browning and meets the family who a reputed to own the painting – this is the clearest clue yet to the work’s existence. Anna though seems to be encouraging him to stay and he starts to feel a strong attraction to her. But who is manipulating whom? There are so many questions to answer … Will Lynch find the Madonna? Will Anna succumb to him? Why does she stay in this old house? Just how does the child Vicky fit in? Why are they happy to have this stranger in their midst?

None of the characters are likeable at all, but we do grow to understand them as the truth is revealed little by little and we find out their own stories and, through the diaries, that of Anna’s ancestor. Lynch’s language is elaborate and rather over-wrought, but you really can sense the run-down house and the dusty treasures it may contain. The story requires concentration with the flowery prose, and it takes its time in building up the tension in a rather leisurely way. It is only in the last fifty pages or so that things start to become clear as the pace heats up towards the climax. As a debut novel it is remarkably complex and defies neat categorisation. I’m not convinced that telling the story purely from Lynch’s point of view works completely, alternating between Anna and him could have upped the underlying sense of mischief (it puts me in mind of the film ‘Sleuth ‘). It was certainly intriguing and will make you look at some of the renaissance masters with a renewed interest.

The Madonna del Prato (Madonna of the Meadow) by Giovanni Bellini, National Gallery, London

In praise of secondhand bookshops

I’ve just come back from a week in Northumbria. It is a lovely county, full of outstanding castles, glorious beaches, fantastic fish, wonderful gardens, pretty villages, rolling hills and beautiful countryside. It wasn’t overcrowded either, and you are within easy driving distance of both Newcastle and Edinburgh for rainy day entertainment.

In Northumbria, the town of Alnwick is also home of one of the largest and most lovely secondhand bookshops in the country – Barter Books. It is housed in Alnwick’s old railway station, in between the town centre and Alnwick Castle & Gardens, and was established in 1991, (the branchline was closed in 1968 – a victim of the notorious Beeching Report). You pull up to what could be the front entrance of an old railway station – looking good already. But this can’t prepare you for what’s inside …

… for behind every station façade are the ticket office and waiting rooms; in there was a coffee bar, sofas, a lovely mural on the wall celebrating books and authors, and a train track running around the book stacks at head height too. But there’s more still … for beyond these rooms are the sheds, platforms and and the tracks. Imagine this all covered over levelled and filled with bookshelves and you get this …

You see the tables and chairs in the middle – well actually they’re just halfway down the shed! The shop was has become a bit of a tourist destination in itself – even just after opening time, it was quietly buzzing.

Barter Books has also made a name for itself as the re-discoverers of the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ poster (see post below). This was one of a set of propaganda posters which were to be issued in case of invasion during WWII. They weren’t needed in the end and were destroyed – except for one found in the bottom of a box of books by the owners of the bookshop, and another now in the Imperial War Museum. You can read a full history on the Barter Books website. We could have spent a fortune, but restrained ourselves to a couple of bags full. Peter came away with a nice hardback four volume set of Churchill’s History of the English-Speaking Peoples and I got Jonathan Coe’s biography of maverick filmmaker B.S.Johnson.

This place is an absolute treasure trove as are many other secondhand bookshops and temples to book-browsing. Can you recommend others – they may well influence my future vacation plans …

The Meme of 4

I haven’t done a meme for ages, so this one from Margaret at Booksplease seems fun. It’s an adaptable meme as long you do it all in fours …

4 Places I’ve lived in:
1. Purley, Surrey – Prime suburbia where I was born.

2. South Kensington, London – I went to Imperial College, part of London University. I can’t believe I lived virtually next door to the Royal Albert Hall for three years and never went to a single prom!
3. Great Yarmouth, Norfolk – Where my first job out of uni was, working for an electronics company in a town which, for a Sarf Lunn’ner (South Londoner), was more than a bit strange.
4. Harlow, Essex. I was sent to the labs here for six months, so escaped Norfolk for a bit, lived in the YWCA and had an absolute whale of a time in this much maligned ‘New Town’ involving much beer and learning to ride a motorbike.

4 Holiday destinations I have loved:
1. Northumbria, UK. Just got back from a week here. A wonderful county of castles, gardens, beaches, seafood and beautiful rolling countryside. It’s also home of the fantastic Barter Books, one of the largest second hand bookshops in Britain, housed in Alnwick’s old station. They are responsible for rediscovering the now famous ‘Keep Calm & Carry On’ unpublished propaganda poster from WWII.

2. Rome, Italy – Went for my 40th birthday. Loved it, want to go back soon.
3. New England, USA. I’ve been twice. The first time we toured widely taking in Boston, Hancock Shaker Village, Mt Washington, Newport R.I., Mystic Seaport, Salem, Plymouth, Shelburne Vermont, staying in Boston, Kennebunkport and Lincoln. The second time, we stayed on Cape Cod. Loved it all.
4. Chicago, USA. I loved this city. It had everything, wonderful, wonderful architecture, the lake, the Art Institute, and I felt very at home there.

4 Places I want to go on holiday to:
1. Rome, Italy – see above

2. Interlaken area, Switzerland – We went several times when I was around 8-12, with a coachload of Prep School Boys. Our nextdoor but one neighbour Gwynfor, taught at a local prep school, and needed chaperones to help run these hols so my parents stepped in and my bro and I went too. We went to Switzerland, Austria and Wales, Easter and summer for about 5 years. I liked the Interlaken area most with all the lakes and mountains. I’d love to take my daughter to this area and do the whole cuckoo clocks thing again.
3. Seattle up to Vancouver. The next bit of the USA up into Canada that I’d like to visit.
4. Vienna, Austria – somehow I’ve never been here yet.

4 Works of art which I’ve gazed at in wonder:

1. The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries in the Musée du Moyen Age, Paris.
2. Primavera by Botticelli in the Uffizi Museum, Florence.
3. La Danse en Ville by Renoir in the Musée D’Orsay, Paris.
4. Nighthawks at the Diner by Edward Hopper at the Art Institute of Chicago

4 of the latest blogs I’ve discovered:
1. Mrs Trefussis takes a taxi

4. Random Jottings

4 Books I could read again tomorrow:

4. The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald

4 of my most memorable theatre trips:

1. Hamlet for the RSC with Kenneth Branagh at the Barbican in 1993 – absolute magic on stage.
2. Oliver which I saw earlier this year and reviewed here
3. A Midsummer Night’s Dream – by the Royal Shakespeare Company – I think it was 1986 and had fairies in Doc Martens, a slimline Richard McCabe as a punky Puck and David Troughton stealing the show as Bottom. So brilliant, we went twice – to the last nights at both the Barbican and Stratford!
4. The Rocky Horror Picture Show – around the end of the original production’s run at the Kings Road Theatre in 1979. We saw Daniel Abinieri as Frank’n’furter but he did a fab Tim Curry impression.

And that’s it. Feel free to have a go too if you want, adapt as needed!