Blogging Break

I’m taking a break from blogging for a bit. I will be popping in to visit the blogosphere, but don’t think I can concentrate on reading much at the moment…   

My Mum, Maureen died in the small hours after a tough battle with secondary breast cancer.  She was 79 and died peacefully in her sleep at the Royal Marsden Hospital.   She would have studied classics at Queens University in Belfast but the money didn’t work out, so she moved to London to work where she loved all the arts – opera, ballet, theatre, film, art and books. She also played the piano well and sang in a top London choir, the Philharmonia Chorus, for years.  We shared books all the time too of course, and actually had very similar reading tastes – although she wouldn’t tolerate too much bad language but, like me, did appreciate a good murder mystery. In particular, I’ll miss our bookish and arty conversations so very much.

I shall leave you with a photo of her posing on the beach at Alum Bay on the Isle of Wight in 1953, aged 22. 

A rather different kind of literary festival…

Last Friday evening, I had the pleasure of helping staff of Mostly Books man the bookstall at a rather special event at Larkmead School – a secondary school just up the road from me in Abingdon. The event was the launch of an anthology of writing by sixth form pupils called The Blender which was created in conjunction with a charity called First Story. The charity enabled the school to have a writer in residence to work with them and he is Tim Pears, author of several rather good novels including Blenheim Orchard.

The book launch was the culmination of a whole day of wonderful literary events which the whole school joined in. Mark has blogged about it in detail here. It sounds like it was great fun with loads of other great writers for older children taking part including Sally Nicholls and Julie Hearn.

The additional draw for the evening event was that the Headmaster of Larkmead, Chris Harris, studied for his PGCE at Westminster College (now part of Oxford Brookes) when Philip Pullman was teaching on the course. Chris had persuaded him to be at the launch and he signed books for fans, young and old, before giving a short speech. Then Tim Pears introduced some of the contributors to the anthology who read extracts of their work.

On the right is him signing one of my books, (I cropped myself out of the photo!).   I told him how much I’d enjoyed The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (my review here) and that the event at the Oxford Literary Festival at the Sheldonian was very interesting, and he replied ‘It was a good event, wasn’t it.’

It was a lovely evening, and all involved deserve congratulations – well done!

Kidnap in the Florentine hills

Death in Springtime by Magdalen Nabb.

The first I’ve read, this is the third novel in Nabb’s series of police procedurals set around Florence and featuring Marshal Guarnaccia.  I was recommended this series by good blog-friend LizF who kindly sent me this one to get me started.   Nabb, who died in 2007, wrote fourteen novels in the series which started back in 1981. 

It’s March in Florence and snowing. With the unusual weather, no-one notices the abduction of two foreign language students.  One is later released with a message for the girl’s parents, but won’t talk. The carabinieri suspect the Sardinian shepherds who live in the hills above the city, most local kidnappings are down to them, but they don’t have much information to go on. Leading the case is Captain Maestrangelo and his team, working with a new Prosecutor to get the girl back alive, before the girl’s father can pay the ransom. The Captain believes they’re dealing with amateurs this time, and that the girl will die unless they get to her first.

Although the Carabinieri are structured quite differently from our police, they go about finding the missing girl in much the same way – particularly in that there’s no substitute for local knowledge.  Knowing your patch like the back of your hand, what goes on in it, and who does what is essential to their policework as the Marshal and other team members are well aware.  Of the other characters, the young Carabiniere Bacci, proves very useful as an English speaker, teasing information out of the released girl; and the new prosecutor, whom the Captain always refers to as the Substitute, is a lively sort who brings a little cheer to this rather serious novel.  The Marshal is, this time, a supporting character to the double-act of the Captain and the Substitute, but from his few appearances, you know you will like him – an older policeman with the intuition of experience. What is most surprising is the poverty that the Sardinians live in up there, no wonder the sons grow up wanting to get out of this close-knit community and choose crime as an easy route to money. 

We see little of tourists’ Florence in this novel, the city locations are mostly those of workers, as are those in the hillsides – no-one ever said a shepherd’s life was easy. The policework is thorough and solid, like the novel itself which is rather serious. We don’t learn anything about the policemen’s private lives here, it’s all about the case, unlike those of Donna Leon where Comissario Brunetti’s family co-star, and Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano where food and his girlfriend play second fiddle, along with their locations in both cases.  I am definitely interested in reading more of the series though and in particular, getting to meet the Marshal properly.  (7/10) I was given this book.

Gaskella’s Midweek Miscellany #12

Apologies for going AWOL, but I’ve been a bit over-busy! Lots of preparations for a big event at school, my Mum being in hospital, and a summer cold combined with being zonked by anti-histamines for the worst hayfever I’ve had for some years, meant that although I have been reading, I haven’t had time to blog about it.

Photo by Philippa Strange

Our Country Fayre at the weekend went brilliantly. We hold a ball in alternate years, and in between have usually done some kind of party for parents. This year, we decided to involve the children as well and to hold an afternoon event. What activities could we offer to supplement a big BBQ and bar? Well we decided to do a mini version of a County Show. We got in a mini farm menagerie which had the most lovely kid goats; the lambs and Shetland pony got lots of hugs too. Then we had folk come in to give working dog and hawk displays plus ferret racing. Ferret racing (down tubes with a meaty treat at the end) is so much fun, and all the children got involved. Our marketplace with an assortment of stall-holders helped to make it special too, and as the sun shone all afternoon, the ice-cream van did well also. We made over £500 towards our fundraising projects, so it was a successful afternoon all round!  The first thing I did when I got home though was to have a cool shower to calm down my hayfever, then I was soon asleep in front of the telly.

* * * * *

Back to bookish things now …  My thoughts are now beginning to turn towards summer holidays. We’re going to Fowey in Cornwall for a week towards the end of July.   A certain Cornish author famously lived in the area, indeed I have a book she wrote about the county purloined from my Mum, (see right). 

The question is, if I choose one Du Maurier book to take with me to read on holiday, which one should it be?    I have read Rebecca, My Cousin Rachel, and Jamaica Inn – but all of them many years ago. Rebecca excepted, I can’t remember much about the others, so I would be happy to re-read them. Or would you suggest another of her books for a holiday read?  Do let me know.

* * * * *

And lastly, a selection from my incoming pile, which includes a couple of books I just had to order from other bloggers’ recent posts:

  • Forgetting Zoe by Ray Robinson. I was introduced to this wonderful contemporary author via Scott Pack’s blog, and you can find an interview with Ray about this, his latest book here.  His first two novels (Electricity and The Man Without are challenging in subject matter – but both got five stars from me they were that good –  so high expectations of his third.
  • War with the Newts by Karel Capek – the inventor of the word/concept ‘Robot’ in his 1921 work Rossum’s Universal Robots. War with the Newts is glowingly reviewed by John Self at Asylum here.
  • How Bad Are Bananas?: The carbon footprint of everything by Mike Berners-Lee. I love good popular science books, and this timely one has garnered good reviews and sounds fascinating and scary as the things analysed within are rated in increasing carbon footprint. I daren’t look at the contents to find out what’s at the end, but I’m sure it’ll be an interesting journey!
  • Joe Speedboat by Tommy Wieringa, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett. Wieringa is from Aruba, a former Dutch colony off the coast of Venezuela which looks idyllic in my Lonely Planet Travel Book. This is a coming of age story, and sounds charming and eccentric.

If you could turn back time …

Alice in Time
by Penelope Bush

This was our book group’s choice for our June meeting, chosen partly as the author is the cousin of one of our members, and also as we haven’t read a young adult book for twelve months – we usually pick one per year.

Alice is 14. She’s been best friends with arty outsider Imogen since she came to the school when they were seven and Alice dropped Sasha for her.  Now Sasha hates and bullies Alice, and has invited everyone in the class to her party except Alice and Imogen;  Alice is often nasty back.  Alice also has had a hard time at home as her parents broke up some years ago, when her brother Rory was a baby.  Her Dad left – he’s getting remarried, and it’s hard living with her Mum.  Thank goodness for Imogen!  Then Alice meets and falls for Seth, but when she finds out he’s Sasha’s new step-brother she runs to the park. When she gets off the roundabout, she’s gone back in time to when she was seven…  as a teenager in a child’s body she has a chance to put things right with her friends, stop her Mum and Dad splitting up and more.

The following discussion contains *slight spoilers*…

Usually it’s an adult that goes back in time to when they were a teenager – in all the films anyway.  A teen going back to being a child is very unusual, especially as at fourteen you’re not emotionally mature anyway. There’s potential for Alice to put her foot in it big-time – and she does in a way, becoming a bully herself in the situation with Sasha and Imogen; however that does lead to an entirely different outcome which she seems happy with.  She also interferes in her parent’s marriage, thinking that she has to take responsibility – and she finds out that things are not what they seem.

Schoolgirl bullying is everywhere, and girls can be really cruel to each other. Alice realises that dropping Sasha so totally for Imogen was cruel, but she also wants to get her own back on Sasha for everything that happened back in her teenage world, and she does, she does it by bullying.  It takes her a while, but she does finally realise that that’s a bad, bad thing.  Her family relationships are more complex – initially she seems to think she can solve things by leaving appropriate leaflets on gambling and drink problems, and post-natal depression.  Talking to her Gran – always a good move, really helps.  Finally she gets back to a different future – no SF time-travel problems with changing things here – personally, I thought this tied up things rather too easily, but it’s not that sort of book.

Those of us who met to discuss the book, (all the guys were mysteriously not present this month!), got stuck in to talking about female bullying in all its forms.  We all agreed that it was a good read for its target market, but that the first half, before she goes back in time, went on rather too long – we were all waiting for the time-shift as promised in the blurb.  (6.5/10) I bought this book.

Next month, we’re talking about  The Junior Officers’ Reading Club: Killing Time and Fighting Wars by Patrick Hennessey.

There’s a whole Hydden world out there …

Hyddenworld: Spring: Bk. 1 by William Horwood.

Back in the early 1980s, I read Horwood’s bestselling animal fantasy about moles – Duncton Wood.  I remember enjoying it immensely, but never read the sequels, and I can’t remember what it was really about apart from religion and war in mole-dom.

But it was remembering the enjoyment of the former that attracted me to Horwood’s new fantasy epic – Hyddenworld. This will be a quartet of novels named for the seasons, being published over the next couple of years. Spring was on the Amazon Vine review list and I requested an ARC. When it arrived I was very pleasantly surprised to receive a signed numbered copy – but did the book live up to the initial promise?

I found it to be an interesting hybrid – on one hand a contemporary urban fairy tale, and on the other a dark ages fantasy.  Let me explain …

Humankind has long co-habited with the little folk – the Hydden; however with the advent of technology, humans have almost all lost the ability to see the Hydden in the normal world.  At the start of the saga, we learn about an ancient prophecy of the CraftLord involving a giant-born Hydden who must live amongst humans until ready to take his rightful place as leader of the Hydden of Englalond.  Imbolc,  the aged Peace-weaver, rider of the White Horse, must see that he survives and also finds her successor – this is his wyrd, (an Anglo-Saxon word for fate or destiny).

Jack is that child born of German Hydden folk, and shipped to England to find a foster family to bring him up.  The Foales, a childless couple who live near the Uffington White Horse, are going to foster him, but he is involved in a car-crash on the way to them engineered by the evil Hydden – the Fyrd.  He heroically rescues Katherine, the daughter of the car’s driver, but at great cost to himself – being badly burned.  Thought not to have survived, he was then able to grow up without the Hydden’s attentions.  However, when he and Katherine, for their destinies are forever linked, come of age, the Hydden come to get him to bring him to their big city Brum (Birmingham), and thus begin his adventures in that inbetween world.

Photo credit BBC

Having stood on the Ridgeway above the amazingly beautiful and ancient white horse at Uffington, (it dates from around 1000BC), you really do feel part of the Earth.  It’s 110m long, and can only be truly appreciated from the air, so how they made it I do not know.  The view from the top of the hill is astounding and you can see for miles and miles and miles. One spring day, we were up there, and you could see half a dozen separate showers over the towns and villages looking northwards.

The first part of this book is anchored in this area of the country around the rolling hills and ancient sites and henges – which are the portals into the Hyddenworld, and it is implied that the White Horse is Imbolc’s steed.  There is Earth-magic aplenty waiting patiently to be activated, and when it does, Jack and Katherine are thrust into a very different world. I particularly enjoyed these settings and the landscapes evoked.

Katherine is captured by the Fyrd and taken to Brum; the Fyrd know that Jack will follow, but they don’t reckon on the skills of the Hydden band who help him.  The Hydden themselves, although they live in harmony with the Earth, are happy to use human artifacts to help them.  The wonderfully inventive Bedwyn Stort has shoes with soles made from old car tyres; and the band frequently jump trains to get around. Reduce, reuse, recycle as they say …

The fire crackled and so did the surface of the venison.
‘Smells good,’ he said.
‘Roadkill,’ she murmured by way of explanation.

It was things like this that endeared me to the Hydden, and gave a contemporary urban twist to their green faery-ness.  When we get to meet more Hydden types, it becomes clear that this is a race with issues that often mirror our own; for instance in Brum, there are the Bilgesnipe – brown-skinned Hydden that are skilled waterfolk and keep the canals and sewers from flooding  Brum, but are looked down upon almost as slaves by the Fyrd, who are gradually taking over governance of the great city and want to oust the toff Lord Festoon.

I liked the good Hydden very much, even though I couldn’t help thinking of them as hobbit-like, with Imbolc as a female Gandalf who appears at critical times to help things along.  They were well-characterised, interesting folk; compared with them, Jack and Katherine were underwritten, but I hope will come into their own in the subsequent books. Just topping 500 pages, there was quite a lot of explanation which, while necessary to an extent, did slow down the pace considerably in the early stages.  Despite the length, it was a quick and enjoyable read, and would certainly be suitable for young adults.  I find myself actually looking forward to the next installments with anticipation. (7.5/10, ARC supplied by the Amazon Vine programme).

If a picture paints a thousand words …

Recently Simon T at Stuck in a Book set a challenge. To find a picture that represents your reading tastes – he’s collating entries here. I thought for a while about this, and came up with two pictures – a cheat I know, but I couldn’t find a singleton.

This represents a lot of things to me …

  • A nice corner to curl up and read in.
  • Comfort – add a cup of tea and a cushion or two and it’s complete.
  • Red – my favourite colour (except I’m in an emerald green phase at the moment). Red is such an exciting, emotional colour, and I like exciting books.
  • Design – This oversized Conran ‘Matador’ armchair is just beautifully designed.  Just like a well-designed cover will draw me in.
  • Quirkiness – It’s oversized, a little bit daring.  I do love a dose of quirk in my reading!
  • It’s also perfectly formed, with no unecessary additions – Order – something I aspire to, but fear I’ll never attain.
  • This is the armchair for me – it’s on my wishlist!

But there is another less ordered side to my reading tastes…

This photo from an article in the Mirror about the average contents of a woman’s handbag represents …

  • Everything bar the kitchen sink – My books are wide-ranging with a bit of everything somewhere.
  • Disorder – viz the TBR mountains!

Please note I don’t read the Mirror (I just googled ‘Everything bar the kitchen sink’ and it came up with this article).

It was so much fun thinking about this, do have a go and link back to Simon.

Giveaway winner …

I nearly forgot all about my giveaway from last week’s Midweek Miscellany, which is curtailed today as I’m in half-term mode!

But mydaughter picked a name from the hat, and the winner of an ARC of The Great Perhaps by Joe Meno is – drumroll …

Liz F

Thanks to all who commented. Liz, the book will be on its way to you soon, (sorry it only has plain covers) but I’ll be interested to see what you think – I’ll be reading it very soon.

Live for the moment – forget everything

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa (trans. Stephen Snyder)

When I spotted this book, with its quote from my literary hero Paul Auster on the cover, I was hooked. Having read it, I’m delighted I chanced upon it,  for I loved this gentle tale of the Professor, his Housekeeper and her son.

A young housekeeper is sent to work for an old mathematics professor. She’ll be ninth to have this job as he can be difficult – the Professor’s brain was injured in an accident and now he has only eighty minutes of short-term memory. The Professor asks her questions – what is her shoe size? her telephone number? This happens each morning when they meet as if for the first time for him. The Professor clips notes onto his suit to help him with vital information…

At the end of my first day, I noticed a new note on the cuff of his jacket. “The new housekeeper,” it said. The words were written in tiny, delicate characters, and above them was a sketch of a woman’s face. It looked like the workof a small child – short hair, round cheeks, and a mole next to the mouth – but I knew instantly that it was a portrait of me. I imagined the Professor hurrying to draw this likeness before the memory had vanished. The note was proof of something, that he had interrupted his thinking for my sake.

The Housekeeper and the Professor strike up a sort of friendship. Although she has to reintroduce herself every day, they settle into a routine. When he’s not working on maths problems, he tells her about the beauty of prime numbers, won’t eat his carrots, and is every inch an absent-minded Professor. When she tells him about her son, he insists that he comes to the house after school rather than be at home on his own until she finishes work. The Professor calls him ‘Root’ because his flat head reminds him of the flat top of a square root sign (√). They have a shared love of baseball; unfortunately the Professor’s memories end in 1985 and his favourite player is no long gone from the game, but they devise ways of getting round this. The Professor also helps Root with his maths homework, setting extra problems that get them both (and me), thinking.  They make a lovely threesome, the Professor is good and patient with children and Root makes him happy. The Housekeeper begins to see herself as a friend rather than employee, and arranges an outing to a baseball game …

Please don’t let the maths in this book put you off.  It’s mostly a discussion of primes – those magical numbers that can only be divided by themselves and one.  Numbers are the Professor’s comfort zone; he’s an excellent teacher and the discussion is easy to follow – indeed I learned quite a lot and found it fascinating.   The language of baseball is less my cup of tea normally, but I couldn’t help but get caught up in their enthusiasm.

I loved this book, it was gentle, beguiling and quirky, yet utterly serene in that Japanese sort of way.  (10/10) I bought this book.

See also Dovegreyreader for another view.