Mostly Bookbrains

Dear Booklovers,

On Tuesday November 3rd, on behalf of Mostly Books I’m hosting a Literary Quiz entitled ‘Mostly Bookbrains‘ at the Manor Preparatory School in Abingdon. Guess who’s Quizmaster and writing the questions? Yes, it’s me.

We will cover the whole world of books – from bestsellers to prizewinners, cover art to author photos, children’s books to all sorts of non-fiction, all are included.
You are invited to submit teams of up to eight people, or just book your place(s) and we’ll make up teams on the night. The entry fee is just £2 per person if paid in advance (£3 on the night) and there will be a cash bar with wine, beer and soft drinks. All profits will be donated to Helen & Douglas House, the wonderful hospice for children and young people in Oxford. Tickets from Mostly Books above.

We’ll also have a Bookswap Table. Bring a book you’ve enjoyed and are happy to pass on, and swap for another at half time. (I nicked this idea from Scott at Me & My Big Mouth who runs the Firestation Book Swap monthly events in Windsor.)

Now I must go an compile some more questions!

Short Takes

Catching up on some shorter reviews …

Amulet by Roberto Bolano

To paraphrase the Cranberries album title, Everybody else is reading it, so why can’t I? – I’ve finally read some Roberto Bolano. He is definitely the flavour of the moment; his posthumously published epic 2666 is generating acres of discussion and review. However I wanted to read something shorter before deciding whether to commit myself to 900+ pages of the other.

Published before he died, Amulet is a short and slightly surreal novel set in Mexico during a period of political unrest. Auxilio, a Uruguayan woman, who hangs out with the poets of Mexico City is trapped in a bathroom at the university when the army invades to put down a student revolt in 1968. She’s there for 12 days, and lies on the floor starving, remembering and fantasising about the future and her life with the poets.

Knowing nothing of Mexican poetry or politics it was hard to know what, if anything, was real in the background to the novel. I was hoping to be dazzled by the writing, but found the confusing nature of the plot darting between Auxilio’s memories and reveries difficult. The opening lines promise much – a horror story of murder, detection and horror, but immediately this is taken away as the teller says it won’t seem like that if told by her. Interspersed among the ramblings, which become increasingly surreal prophecies, are some more conventional scenes of life with the literati, and their experiences with both the underbelly of Mexican society and the regimes in charge in Latin America; these episodes briefly brought the novel to life and I could see why he is so admired.

As for reading more Bolano, I may well try The Savage Detectives, but find the prospect of 2666 about 600 pages too much for me at the moment! (Book supplied by the Amazon Vine programme).

Old Peter’s Russian Tales by Arthur Ransome

I read Old Peter’s Russian Tales by Arthur Ransome as a companion piece to the wonderful Blood Red, Snow White by Marcus Sedgwick, reviewed here.

Ransome collected a wide selection of typical Russian fairy tales, but rather than present them as separate entities, the tales are told by a grandfather to his grandchildren. The first segment, The hut in the forest introduces Old Peter, little Maroosia and Vanya. The children are a keen audience and as they settle by the stove, they demand to hear a new tale and we’re off straightaway into a land of a rich merchant and his three daughters, followed by many others: the witch Baba Yaga with her hut on chicken legs, Sadko the dulcimer player who plays by the river (made into an opera by Rimsky Korsakov), and ones like the intriguingly titled The Stolen Turnips, the Magic Tablecloth, the Sneezing Goat and the Wooden Whistle. They are delightful, quirky tales and are highly moral. Those who are bad always get their come-uppance, and happy endings are not guaranteed.

The Boy Who Kicked Pigs by Tom Baker

It was seeing Jackie’s review of this book, that reminded me that I read it a few months ago, but didn’t get around to writing about it.

The Boy Who Kicked Pigs is by Tom Baker – yes, the fourth Dr Who. Incidentally, I can really recommend his autobiography Who on Earth is Tom Baker?, and having read that was intrigued to read this truly bizarre and gothic novella. It tells the story of an evil thirteen year old who kicks pigs – it starts off with his sister’s piggy bank, but progresses to anything porcine including a bacon butty which is his downfall. He pledges revenge and

Although written as a children’s story in style – a bit Lemony Snicketish, it most definitely is not – but fans of Tim Burton would love it. It is also full of arcane adult references from the 1960s – from Will Fyffe (eccentric news reporter) to Hylda Baker (Lancashire actress). Clocking in at just 124 pages, of which half are evocative line drawings, it doesn’t take long. I found that imagining Baker himself narrating made for an entertaining reading!

An evening with Alan Titchmarsh

The people of Abingdon had a treat tonight. Another national treasure came to visit in the body of Alan Titchmarsh, gardener supreme, broadcaster, chat-show host and great favourite of ladies of a certain age. I don’t count myself as one of them yet, but he is responsible for encouraging me into gardening during his stint at the helm of the BBC’s Gardener’s World, so I was more than happy to go along and help Mostly Books on the book stall.

He took to the stage in a lilac jumper, and proceeded to charm the audience with stories from his TV career. These included encounters with Charlie Dimmock and her ‘unfettered protruberences‘ on Ground Force – the garden makeover show that made him a real TV star, (Charlie is a Rubenesque and braless specialist in water features), and Willy the mad Irishman who did a lot of the behind the scenes prep for the hard landscaping. He also told us about several encounters with the Queen: firstly at the Sandringham Women’s Institute where she is the Patron; then when he went to the palace to collect his MBE, and the Queen told him ‘You’ve made a lot of ladies very happy.’ Alan declared he’d like that quote on his gravestone. He read a couple of passages from his new volume of memoirs, Knave of Spades before answering questions from the audience.

Mark from Mostly Books asked how a Yorkshire lad that left school at the age of 15 and went to work in the Ilkley Parks department developed a love of reading, books, and became a writer? Alan put it down to his English teacher’s comments on a précis he had to write of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which he used the word ‘reciprocated’ talking about Helena and Demetrius – and how that taught him the power of words.

He was delightful company, charming and very funny. He was also chatty at the signing table with his adoring fans, and there were lots of them there. I would have cropped the photo, but I wanted to show you some of the presents they brought him – knitted clown dolls and a special Christmas cracker. I do wish he’d give up the chat shows and go back to gardening on the telly though …

Guilty Secrets #3

When I started my blog just over a year ago, I wrote a couple of posts about things I haven’t read but should have. I’ve had so much to say since, I haven’t had much time to reflect further on the gaps in my reading.

Then this afternoon on Radio 4, they were talking about the Wodehouse appreciation society, and I realised I have never read a P.G.Wodehouse book! Moreover, I don’t even posess one in the TBR mountain range; whereas I own and love the complete Fry & Laurie Jeeves & Wooster on DVD. How can this be? How can I have missed reading one of the greatest funny writers ever?

Something to be rectified as soon as I’ve done my vampire bit for Halloween I think. Should I start with the first Jeeves & Wooster, or one of the Blandings, or indeed any other – What do you think?

A nail’s tale.

This is not a post about books – It’s a musing about fingernails!
I tend to keep my nails really short – it’s a habit – I used to be a fiddle player. My nails have never been strong either, flaking at the slightest exposure to harsh treatment; but apart from painting on nail strengthener when I remember and filing the odd rough edge, they get no special care.
Just occasionally, a fingernail will grow and not get broken and I’ll see how long I can get it – just for fun. Well today, I gave up on my right little fingernail. It’s lasted for several weeks and also naturally shaped itself and looks lovely – my daughter wishes her nails would grow that long. But now it’s in the way! I can’t type properly with it and I’m conscious of it all the time as it pokes into your palm when you close your hand, and importantly is there when you’re holding a book. There is something about a nicely shaped nail that makes your fingers look longer but this one is a distraction. It has to go…
Done! Trimmed back to a neat 1mm – it instantly feels better.

Two women, two cultures, two lives

Antigona and Me by Kate Clanchy

This is a true story. Antigona is Kosovan, a single mother with two daughters and a young son; they are refugees in London. They had a terrible journey to get there escaping from war and Antigona’s wife-beater of a husband. Kate Clanchy has a happy home and a young baby, but needs time to restart her career as a poet and journalist. A chance meeting of the two leads to Kate offering Antigona a job firstly as a cleaner, then later nanny, recognising Antigona’s strength of character. Antigona has a fantastic work ethic and soon fills every day with cleaning jobs, and waitressing in the evenings.

The two women click and become friends. Gradually Kate teases out Antigona’s story: about the culture of living in the Albanian mountains and their strict code of law, the Kanun, which is honour-led; about their hard lives; about how she’s desperate to find out what happened to her family; about how her brothers also in London don’t accept her divorce. Kate is fascinated, horrified, humbled, and also really wants to help as much as she can. Antigona embraces Western culture, yet the Kanun runs deep, and when her daughters are on the cusp of becoming young women, she can’t let them go; Kate finds these attitudes very difficult.

Clanchy agonises over everything; she may be a liberal feminist, but overall tries very hard to understand and remain balanced. This was a engaging memoir which has moments of humour for all the awful events within. Clancy’s poetic style is very readable, precise and perfectly punctuated. The whole was a fascinating snapshot into another very different culture that is yet part of Europe. (8/10, Book supplied by the Amazon Vine programme).

P.S. For a take on some of Clanchy’s poetry, read Marie Philips post here.

A true story of the Russian Revolution

There has been renewed interest in the beloved children’s author Arthur Ransome lately due to the publication of a new biography: The Last Englishman by Roland Chambers. What many people don’t know is that years before he wrote the children’s classics, including Swallows and Amazons, for which he is so fondly remembered, he lived and worked in Russia at the time of the revolution; this is chronicled in the above biog.

Marcus Sedgwick’s novel also tackles Ransome’s time in Russia. Sedgwick is one of those teen authors whose books are crossover adult reads too, and I can’t recommend this one highly enough – it has revolution and politics, spies and intrigue, romance and family drama, all steeped in Russian fairy tales.

Stuck in a marriage where he didn’t love his wife, Ransome ran away to Russia in 1913, although he regretted having to leave his daughter behind. There he taught himself the language and became a journalist on the Daily News at the start of the Great War. He also covered the 1917 revolutions, and was close to Lenin and Trotsky. There he met the real love of his life, Evgenia, who was Trotsky’s personal secretary; they married eventually. He was somewhat sympathetic to the Bolshelvik cause, although remained loyal to his homeland, and this led to MI6 using him through their agent Bruce Lockhart (whose Memoirs of a British Agent was a bestseller in the 1930s); MI5 also kept tabs on him for years. Ransome’s occasional journeys to and from the UK were full of adventure and peril, especially the time the Estonians used him to deliver a secret armistice proposal to Litvinov in Moscow in 1919, where his good reputation with both sides was his life-saver.

It was at the start of his self-imposed exile that he wrote his book Old Peter’s Russian Tales: these are full of magical talismans, poor peasant folk on quests, cunning animals, greedy men and wicked stepmothers, and Baba Yaga of course. These moral tales are often dark and many don’t have happy endings, but really get into the Russian psyche.

Sedgwick’s novelisation is no dry biography. He starts by using the fairy tales to tell the problems of the people, embodied by a great Russian bear spurred into action against the Tsar by two friends arguing in the forest – they are Lenin and Trotsky. This is superb scene-setting, and Ransome wanders into it and instantly falls in love with a woman stirring a pot on a stove in an office …

‘This is what you want,’ she said, almost in a whisper.
She nodded at the pot, and Arthur found himself drawn towards her. He looked inside.
‘Potatoes,’ she murmured, as if it were the most beautiful word in the world. Her eyes lit up and Arthur realised how very hungry he was. He stood no more than a weak moment’s decision away from her, and looked into her eyes.
This is what you want.
And that was how the young writer found love, just when he had stopped looking for it.

How can you not be reeled in by the utter romance in those words. Combined with all the derring do of the amateur spy, the author delivers a totally fabulous novel. Swallows and Amazons was his favourite childhood book, and when the National Archives released the files on Ransome, it was a story demanding to be told. Some of the fascinating telegrams from those archives are reproduced in the Appendix.

This book is likely to send me off on a Russian reading trail when I have time, as I realised (again) my lack of knowledge of things historical and the October Revolution in particular. I highly recommend it. (10/10)

* * * * *
I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Blood Red, Snow White: n/a by Marcus Sedgwick, Orion paperback.
Old Peter’s Russian Tales by Arthur Ransome, paperback
The Last Englishman: The Double Life of Arthur Ransome by Roland Chambers, paperback
Memoirs of a British Agent – Being an account of the author’s early life in many lands and of his official mission to Moscow in 1918 by Bruce Lockhart

My Blog is 1 today!

Dear everyone,

It is a year ago today that I dipped my toes into the blogosphere with a very tentative post titled Is there anybody out there?, (the Pink Floyd inspired title was in deference to Rick Wright who had died earlier that day).

I’ll be getting back to bookish stuff in a day or two, but I would like to thank everyone who has ever visited ‘Gaskella’ – especially my followers and regular visitors. Comments are the lifeblood of the blog world, and I’d like to thank all those who comment in particular. It’s been lovely getting to know you, and I’ve met many kindred spirits, found many reading recommendations and just enjoyed myself thoroughly.

I raise my glass of virtual vino to all of you.

Housekeeping …

… no, not the book by Marilynne Robinson, just a rounding up of bookish things, as later in the week, it’s my first blogbirthday!

I’ve been trying to be good and actually get rid of some books recently (inspired by Scott’s efforts over at Me and my big mouth). I’ve not ditched as many as he has, but I am keeping quietly at it. I took a bag of trashy thrillers to the charity shop – there is a place for them as occasional guilty pleasures, but too many have crept in. I’ve also found a few books that I have two copies of, so the duplicates have gone too. I instituted some rules for keeping books back in Feb (see here), and I’ve been following them well, but too many probably get kept still.

New additions to the Gaskell Towers Library keep on coming though. Many are discoveries through some of my favourite blogs – here’s a few of them… From the top:

Given that I seem to have acquired yet nore undead novels, (Twilight is also in the TBR mountain somewhere), I’m going to have an Undead October, a Witchy Walpurgisnacht, or a Helluva Halloween, and read them all during half-term in a few week’s time. A prize for anyone who can come up with a better tag especially if it can involve vampires!

And finally, a huge thank you to Jenny and Teresa at Shelf Love who nominated this blog as one of their ‘Shelf Love Bookish Dozen’ celebrating Book Blogger Appreciation Week. Their blog is one of my must reads, and I feel very much on a reading wavelength with both of them – please do visit it.

Power Games in Puritan New England

The Heretic’s Daughter by Kathleen Kent

To be honest, I wanted to get this book out of the way. I didn’t warm to the cover at all, particularly as when you see it in a stack it stares at you; it gave me the willies one morning when I woke up to see it looking at me!

The subject-matter of The Heretic’s Daughter is also rather unsettling. The background is the hard Puritan life in New England at the time of the Salem witch trials. The author is a tenth generation descendant of the Carrier family whose life is told within, so it is based on a true story.

The narrative is told entirely through the eyes of nine year old Sarah who has to go and live with her aunt and uncle when smallpox comes to their community. The rest of her family stay with her grandmother in Andover near Salem, but unwittingly they took the pox with them there – not a good start to life in a new town. In these opening chapters, much is made of the difference in character between her aloof parents and warmer relatives. When Sarah returns to her parents, a feud soon develops between the families over the inheritance of her grandmother’s estate. Sarah, being just a child finds it hard to understand the adults’ enmity.

In the second part of the novel, the Salem witch trials are wreaking havoc amongst these communities. Sadly, Sarah’s herbalist mother’s reputation for plain-speaking, together with foment whipped up by the family feud leads to her being denounced as a witch. Refusing to admit to this, Martha is jailed in Salem, along with those whose names we may be familiar with from Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible. Then, they come for Sarah and her brothers. The story tells of the terrible conditions in the cells at Salem, of Martha’s moral strength in the face of certain death, and her bonds with Sarah.

The first half of this novel was rather overlong, although we certainly do get a feel for their hard lives of toil and living under fear of attack from the natives. There was little hint of the poisonous paranoia that would later infect the community like an epidemic though. All the while, the preachers postured and played at politics with their flocks, until the actions of a group of silly girls set it all off and we know what happened.

Telling the story through the eyes of a child does give a different perspective; Sarah has to grow up fast and learn to do whatever she must to survive. A sub-plot about the early career of Sarah’s father before he emigrated, goes nowhere and detracts slightly from the focus on the witch-trials. Compared with The Crucible, (and that is impossible to ignore), I felt it was emotionally much less involving, but this book was nevertheless a very readable debut. (7/10, Book supplied by the Amazon Vine programme.)

P.S. I read Witch Child by Celia Rees earlier this year, reviewed here – a teen/crossover novel covering much of the same territory – superb!