The World of Ephemera #4

Sorting through mountains of papers, one happy discovery has been a folder containing many of my childhood drawings and doodles that my Mum had kept.  It has been absolutely wonderful to be reunited with them, and indeed a real trip down memory lane as I can remember many of them. My daughter has been especially interested as there are loads of fashion designs, (very late 1960s into the ’70s – all flares and bright colours).

Digressing for a moment, one of the things I’m nowadays very proud of, is that we were a musical family – we all played the piano and, Dad played (actually still plays) the organ, I did violin, little bro later did trumpet, and Mum always sang in choirs.

Alongside that, we were going to the regular Childrens’ Concerts at the Fairfield Halls in Croydon – introducing us to the lighter side of classical music at an early age.  I got the trips to the ballet too – seeing one of Margot Fonteyn’s last performances in Swan Lake, and The Nutcracker every Christmas.

Then from about the age of eight, I got taken to the Opera. I did love sitting up high in the Amphitheatre at the Royal Opera House and Coliseum.  Again we started off with lighter fare by Rossini with The Tales of Hoffman  and The Barber of Seville, before moving on to Mozart’s Magic Flute.  Now going back to those drawings, I obviously enjoyed the costumes in this production, as there is a whole set of them – but here’s Papagena.

Still on a musical vein though, I also found this snatch of ‘song'(!)  My hand-writing around 1970 era.  I have no recollection of penning this tuneless little dirge though – I can only hope it was to entertain my brother or as an exercise for my music theory exam I would have been sitting around that time. 
The Lyrics read:

I’m a G-nu, A G N U,
No-bod-dy loves me
Ev-rey bod-dy hates me,
I have no friends.
chorus
We don’t hate you
We all love you
You are our friend.
So there.

Do you think I Should enter it for the Eurovision Song Contest? :D

Sisters are doing it …

The Story Sisters by Alice Hoffman

Elv, Claire and Meg Story are sisters.  They’re extremely close, inventing a language all of their own – Arnish – even their mother is excluded from their fantasy world, and the younger two are always rapt with Elv’s storytelling about the fairy land of Arnelle.  Theirs is a world full of women, their parents having divorced some time ago, and they also revered their French grandmother Natalia, who lives in Paris which has a strong attraction for the girls.

Then one day, Elv rescues Claire from a nasty encounter with a man and that event, despite remaining a secret, will change everything. When she reaches sixteen, Elv begins to go off the rails, taking drugs, partying and other reckless behaviour …

She found the tattoo shop. Patrons were supposed to be eighteen, but Elv looked old enough, as if she knew what she wanted, so no one asked for ID. She had two black stars tattooed above each shoulder,  in the place where her wings would be. She found the pain soothing in a strange way, a gateway out of her body, into Arnelle. There was an army gathering there: the Queen had posted them at the doorway. Anyone residing in the human world was suspect, including Elv. Prove yourself, one of the guards said to her. She was wearing a black dress. Black ballet shoes.  She could smell jasmine. The tattoo artist was a bit leery now that her shirt was off. He said, ‘This might hurt.’ As if she cared about that. He covered the tattoos with white bandages. ‘There might be some blood seeping through,’ he told her. As if that mattered.

Soon her behaviour is so bad,  her parents come together again momentarily to take her to reform school where she meets and falls totally in love with Lorry, the junkie and petty criminal brother of another inmate.  Poor damaged Elv is intent on exploring the dark side of life as she grows into a woman, but although she totally dominates the book, the other sisters and their mother will have their brush with fate too.  You can’t help but hope for some kind of happy ending.

Hoffman is brilliant at weaving a hint of the supernatural into a drama and turning it into something special.  I found The Story Sisters a much darker novel than the last one of hers that I read, The Ice Queen,  which I thought was fabulous and reviewed here.   Both are about love, but The Story Sisters with its exploration of sisterhood, entwined with the secrets and twists of fate was also an affecting read.  (8/10)  Sent by the publisher after asking.

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To buy books from Amazon.co.uk, click below:
The Story Sisters
The Ice Queen

Sookie Stackhouse #2

Living Dead In Dallas by Charlaine Harris

Living Dead in Dallas is the second in the hugely successful Sookie Stackhouse series of vampire novels by Charlaine Harris. If by any chance you’ve not encountered them before, either as books or in their TV incarnation True Blood, I suggest you start here.

In this second novel, Sookie is developing and deepening her relationship with her vampire boyfriend Bill – at the start she’s still not sure whether it’s true love or still lust (as sex with a vampire is something else).  Then a series of events happen to test them to the limit…

Lafayette, the outrageously gay short-order cook at Merlotte’s where Sookie works is cruelly murdered and Sookie vows to find out who killed her friend.  Then another supernatural being turns up in the woods outside town – the Maenad wild woman (yes, of Greek myth), half kills Sookie and demands tribute from the local undead.  Then Bill’s vampire chief Eric wants to loan Sookie out to help another group of vamps in Dallas (Sookie is a telepath, remember) – one of the group has disappeared and they need Sookie to read some minds to find out where he is.  Sookie agrees as long as the vampires don’t hurt the humans involved, and off they go to Dallas and into a whole mess of crime, vampire hunters, shape-shifters and more.

Once again, I found Sookie and Bill to be great fun, the only bit I wasn’t sure about was the Maenad, otherwise it was more of the same and I loved it.  I liked how Sookie is developing her skills as a telepath and how she is able to stand up to anything or anyone, whereas Bill is as cool as ever.  Again there is an underlying crime element which adds to the plot too. 

I know these books aren’t to everyone’s taste, but for me they’re great, racy, gory fun!  (8.5/10).
I bought this book.

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To buy from Amazon.co.uk click below:
Living Dead In Dallas by Charlaine Harris
True Blood Season 1 (HBO) [DVD] [2008]

The Yeomen of the Guard off duty …

Balthazar Jones and the Tower of London Zoo by Julia Stuart

I’d picked this book up in a bookshop, and put it down again, thinking it might be a bit twee. Then I was offered a copy by the publisher and after reading the press release, decided to give it a try – I’m glad I did, for it was nothing like my first impression at all, and I loved it more and more the further I read.  The first pleasant surprise was to find that it was although as a novel set in the Tower of London and was thus steeped in history, it wasn’t a historical novel at all, but set in the present day… 

The Queen keeps being given gifts of animals, and has decided to reinstitute the historic Royal Menagerie at the Tower rather than keep them at London Zoo.  Balthazar Jones is the Beefeater selected to be the head keeper.  The Tower of London is home to the cadre of Yeomen Guards, mostly retired soldiers, and their families – they actually live inside the tower – occupying the towers and cottages that once housed prisoners – at night the grounds are full of ghosts.  The Yeomen have their own pub too within the walls, the running of which had been handed down over the centuries to Ruby, the current landlady. Then there is the chaplain Septimus Drew who has the secret of being a successful erotic novelist, writing under a female pen-name.  All the money he makes goes into a home for fallen women. There is also the Ravenmaster – the Yeoman charged with keeping the Tower’s flock of blackest birds, and maintaining the myth that if the ravens leave the Tower, the kingdom will fall. 

Then we have the Jones family. Balthazar, Hebe, a Grecian beauty who works in the London Underground Lost Property Office, and very much present by his absence, their dead twelve year old son, Milo. Ever since the night he died, Balthazar and Hebe have been racked with grief and it is driving them apart. Right from the start, once I learned of Milo’s death I was hoping to find out what happened, and also that Balthazar and Hebe would find each other again for their relationship is at the centre of the novel.  The colourful cast of characters provides a perfect backdrop to their story, yet the bits I enjoyed most were those involving Balthazar and Hebe when they were apart – together their pain is tough to handle, but at work they come to life… Hebe and her colleague Valerie truly care about reuniting as many owners and their lost property as possible.

She switched on the kettle on top of the safe that no-one had been able to open since its discovery on the Circle Line five years ago. Opening the fridge, currently the subject of a standoff about whose turn it was to clean, she took out a carton of milk and raised it to her nose. Satisfied that the boisterous odour came from something no longer recognisable on the lower shelf, she poured some into a teacup. As she waited for the water to boil, the woman who felt the weight of loss more acutely than most gazed with regret at the graveyard of forgotten belongings on metal shelves stretching far into the distance, covered in a shroud of dust.

Balthazar too is a sensitive soul and proves to be a caring keeper where before he was rubbish at catching pickpockets.  In particular he feels for the lonely albatross who is pining for its mate, and strikes up a peculiar friendship with a bearded pig which he secretly borrowed from the zoo. The Queen’s Royal Menagerie is in good hands, although events will conspire to make it difficult for him.

This novel was gentle and touching, yet with some lovely comedic interludes.  It was slightly slow to take off, and it took me a couple of chapters to get used to the author’s descriptive style with its interesting choice of adjectives and historical digressions, but before long, I was already really caring about Balthazar and Hebe.  An satisfying and enjoyable read. (8/10) Sent by the publisher.

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To buy from Amazon.co.uk, click below:
Balthazar Jones and the Tower of London Zoo
The Matchmaker Of Perigord – Julia Stuart’s first novel which I’d now like to read too.

Gaskella’s Midweek Miscellany #17

Bits and pieces today …

I would like to read one of Howard Jacobson’s novels soon, but don’t know where to start. Although The Finkler Question won the Booker, it doesn’t feel like the right book to meet an author new to me with.

I’ve heard that The Mightly Walzer is good, but am slightly put off by the coming of age and ping-pong themes, so should I try his previous Booker-listed one, Kalooki Nights – or indeed any other one of his novels. 

Your advice would be appreciated.

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Next, I’d like to highlight one of my very favourite blogs – The Age of Uncertainty. Steerforth works with old books, and is always finding things of interest in them – particularly old photos, and he has a unique way of bringing them to life in his blog. The post the link will take you to summarises some recent highlights.

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Finally, when the publisher kindly sent me these wraparound editions of YA Buffy the vampire slayer novels – each with three stories, I was rather looking forward to reading some as part of my Season of the Living Dead.  I’ve only ever seen a couple of episodes of the TV series, but thought the books could be fun.  They are standalone I believe, not novelisations of TV episodes, and each is by a different author.  I read one complete tale, and skimmed a couple of others, realising that they were not for me – so they’ve got to one of my friends who is a Buffy fan.  I do like the covers though – very much in vogue – ‘white is the new black’ these days don’t you know. 

I think recognised one of the authors though … many years ago (it’s confession time), I used to read all the Star Trek novels – I was a real Trekkie and my fandom didn’t burn out until my early thirties – I managed to stop short of buying a uniform and going to conventions though.  However I did have about forty of the Trek novels, and the two series have an author, (or possibly more ?) in common! 

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To buy books mentioned from Amazon.co.uk – click below:
The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson
The Mighty Walzer by Howard Jacobson
Kalooki Nights by Howard Jacobson
Buffy the Vampire Slayer 1: Coyote Moon; Night of the Living Rerun; Portal Through Time
Buffy the Vampire Slayer 2: Halloween Rain; Bad Bargain; Afterimage

Twins & Ghosts – a complex combination

 Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

There was an awful lot written about this book around the time of its publication last year.  I generally prefer to miss all the hullaballoo, to let things settle down for a bit and read books at the time of my choosing. This autumn, I decided to include it in my Season of the living dead as it is a ghostly tale. This turns out to be timely as the paperback has recently been released.  By the way, I think the hardback cover (left) is far more atmospheric than the fluffier paperback one (right).

The novel centres around the occupants of a large house converted into flats adjoining Highgate Cemetery.  It also involves two pairs of identical twins. Elspeth and Edie are estranged, and Elspeth actually dies in hospital in the first sentence of the book …

Elspeth died while Robert was standing in front of a vending machine watching tea shoot into a small plastic cup.

But Elspeth lives on as a ghost, haunting her flat, missing her lover Robert who lives in one of the other apartments. Elspeth had made a rather strange will, she left nearly all of her posessions and flat to Edie’s twin daughters, Julia and Valentina, if they live in it for a year, and that their parents must never set foot inside.  Julia and Valentina are just 21, and the idea of moving to London from the US is irresistible.  Elspeth gradually gets stronger as a ghost, and finds ways to communicate with Robert and the twins, in particular she clicks with Valentina who is sickly as a result of being the weaker baby and a mirror image twin.  Also living in the house are Martin and Marijke. They are very much in love, but Martin suffers from such severe OCD, and Marijke will soon flee back to Amsterdam, until he sorts himself out. 

The other star of this novel is Highgate Cemetery; Robert is a volunteer guide and is writing a book about its inhabitants. We are left in no doubt that the author knows the area well – much has been made of her training to become a guide at Highgate herself as research.  As cemeteries go, it is up there with Père Lachaise in Paris for the quantity of its celebrated graves, and we do read a lot about the place and how it is operated.

Highgate Cemetery, Egyptian Avenue. Photo by Roger Noguera Arnau

So that’s the set-up from which Niffenegger crafts her thrilling tale, which gets more and more complex as the chapters speed by ending with rather a rush – but it is full of thrills, both pleasant and rather nasty with some just desserts meted out. It is really Robert and Elspeth’s novel. The twins are almost like a ‘MacGuffin’ – there to drive the plot. Martin who is a superb character, despite his own problems provides the sanity that gives a welcome relief to the problems all the others have in communicating with a ghost. I really didn’t work out what was going to happen in the end either, that took me completely by surprise.

Overall, I found it lacked the emotional impact that made The Time Travellers Wife such a wonderful read. That was a book that made me cry – twice! Her Fearful Symmetry is engaging and original and I really enjoyed reading it. (7.5/10)

I see that Niffenegger has now published her first graphic novel set in a library, The Night Bookmobile – it sounds exciting too and that’s gone on my wishlist.

For some other reviews, visit Vulpes Libris, Savidge Reads, and Farm Lane Books.

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To buy from Amazon.co.uk click below:
Her Fearful Symmetry
The Time Traveler’s WifeThe Night Bookmobile

Everybody here has a secret…

Peyton Place by Grace Metalious

This was our book group choice for October, and what a good one it was, for everyone who finished reading the book loved it.

This is the book that set the benchmark for every soap opera and drama of small town America that followed, and it’s almost shocking to find that it’s so well written.  I’m not going to dwell on the plot – I’ll leave you to discover that if you decide to read it – it has big themes and it’s got a little of everything; and although people will always dwell on the bad things that are going on behind the town’s closed doors, there is good too.

The three main characters are all women and they’re all very believable and well-drawn.  Constance MacKenzie returned to Peyton Place from New York where she had an illegitimate daughter Allison and now she poses as a widow and runs a dress shop.  Allison who is somewhat of a shy and swotty type wants to be a writer. Her best friend is Selena Cross, who is a ‘shack-dweller’ from the poor side of town where she lives with her mad mother, nasty step-father, and younger brother. When the story starts Allison and Selena are just teenagers, and it follows them over a period of several years as they blossom into young women – most of the book centres around one or more of the three.

The two other stand-out characters are Doctor Swain who is a good-hearted man, and Tomas Makris – the exotic new school headmaster, who falls for Constance.  A whole cast of others support them as we hear all the stories about the townsfolk – from the town drunks who lock themselves in a cellar full of booze for winter, to the teenager who is maimed when a fairground ride goes wrong, and then there are the Harringtons – the richest family in town.  Our book group liked the episodic feel of the stories – as if she’d had TV rights in mind when she wrote it – the town drunks, and with the fairground maiming it would end with a da-da-DAH! as you don’t find out what happened to the girl until later.

What was almost as interesting as the book itself was reading some background about Metalious, (that’s her on the right, pic from Wikipedia).  My 2002 edition had an essay by an American academic which was fascinating. Metalious was the product of a broken home and grew up in poverty but she always wanted to write. She married and had kids, then aged thirty started to write the book that would make her world-famous in 1956, followed by three other novels. She died aged 39 of cirrhosis of the liver. 

The book is clearly autobiographical – Metalious is Allison. Other characters were also rather real – she got into trouble over the character of Tomas Makris, and Selena was based on a real young woman too.  As for the town of Peyton Place itself, it appears to be an amalgamation of several towns in the vicinity of Manchester and Gilmanton in New Hampshire where they lived.  We holidayed in New Hampshire some years ago, stopping off in these very towns – I was very taken by one of them, Laconia, finding its lakeside location very pretty, and as she would say very ‘Ye Olde New Hampshire’.  I thought that somewhere like that,  just over an hour outside Boston would be a lovely place to live … However I’m know that every small town or community has its secrets and busybodies – twas ever thus.  I suppose the fact that it was set in New England, where the strictly Puritan descendants of the Mayflower settled, makes the numbers of skeletons in closets more shocking.

This is a fantastic book – I’m very glad to have read this quintessential novel of 1950s America – Do read it! (10/10)

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I bought this book. To get yours from Amazon.co.uk click below…
Peyton Place by Grace Metalious

A ghostly story for autumnal nights

The Small Hand by Susan Hill.

Susan Hill is justly renowned for her ghost stories – her best-known one is The Woman in Black which is both chilling and a darned good read.  The Small Hand is her latest, and I thoroughly enjoyed it too.

It starts off simply.  Adam Snow, an antiquarian bookseller is on his way home from meeting a client when he gets lost up winding country roads. Looking for somewhere to get directions he finds an old overgrown garden with a rambling and rather closed-up white house. Just when he thinks he’s totally alone, he feels  a small hand take his – but there’s no-one there. Adam puts it down to an overactive imagination, but over the following weeks he starts to get slightly paranoid and he has what he believes is a full-on panic attack.  He goes on a book-hunting trip abroad and he feels the hand again – but this time it is pulling him towards a precipice, and from hereon in things start to get dangerously spookier.

This short novel has only 167 small pages and only needs one sitting – indeed taking a break in the middle could deflate the tension.  Hill has great skill in crafting books where ‘less is more’ and not a word is wasted.  Adam narrates his own story, and this really involves the reader as we share in his experiences; him being a bookseller was an added bonus for me too.  After his initial encounter we’re lulled into a false sense of security until events take a different turn; the pace picks up and we’re pulled along towards the shocking conclusion. 

This was a great little book – perfect for the time of year.  (8.5/10) I bought this.
pub by Profile Books, Sept 2010, 167 pages.

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To order books from Amazon.co.uk – click below:
The Small Hand
The Woman In Black

Black magic in Madchester

To the Devil: A Diva! by Paul Magrs.

Magrs is the author of the totally wonderful Brenda & Effie series of novels, gentle comic paranormal mysteries set around Whitby – Never the Bride is the first, and I gave it ten out of ten – but don’t take just my word for it – Juxtabook and Savidge Reads both adored it too.

After so loving Never the Bride, (which I read before I started my blog), I acquired some earlier books by Magrs, and inspired by Juxtabook’s recent review mentioned above, thought I’d retrieve one from the TBR pile . To the Devil – a Diva! (2004) also seemed to fit into my October horror and spooky reading plans – with a vampire on the front cover and a blurb line about Karla who “… at the age of ten, she sold her soul to the devil.”

Karla Sorenson used to be queen of the lesbian vampires in all the best low-budget schlock-horror films flaunting her big bazooms. Now she’s getting on a bit, and needs to make a comeback – a role in a late-night cult soap opera is on the cards.  It’s a raunchy soap called ‘Menswear’ that dares to go further than anything else on telly – but how will the current leading man Lance Randall take her.  No-one including Lance himself is sure whether he’s gay or not; but Karla knows he won’t be happy for there is history between them.  Once Karla arrives in Manchester all hell is let loose and life for Lance, and his new boyfriend Colin who is a barman at the club below his penthouse, will never be the same!

But that’s not where the book starts. It does begin in Manchester with two young girls, Sally and Katy who live in the same street and are evacuated to the Lake District together during WWII.  They stay with the same family who are kind but strange, and Sally, who is a sensible girl, runs away when there are hints of black magic in the air.  Katy however, whose mother drank and had lots of ‘Uncles’, joins in and the legendary Karla is created.

To be frank, this book was not what I expected after the gentleness of my previous Magrs read.  There was an awful lot of sex all over the place, and of all varieties for a start, and everyone was so highly strung and in your face all the time – like birds displaying their plumage, fighting to maintain their places in the TV pecking order. The oasis of calm was Colin’s Gran – but you know from the outset that she has hidden depths too, (a precursor to Brenda & Effie perhaps?). Poor Colin was little more than a pawn in a much bigger game.  For all his failings and confusion, you could feel some sympathy for confused heart-throb Lance too – in danger of being knocked off his pedestal, and trying to find some answers in his life.  There was a long digression into the story of a chap who is out to break up the covens, which seemed confusing and out of place; this really slowed up the middle of the book, which is otherwise firmly Madchester through and through after the opening. 

Not enough was made of Karla’s curse either – people tend to die or disappear around her – I felt that a bit more Dennis Wheatley and Hammer Horror wouldn’t have gone amiss, and I could have done with a bit less of the sex-obsessed clubbers. I freely admit I never watched the 1999 TV drama series ‘Queer as Folk’ which followed the lives of three gay men living in Manchester which would have provided me with one close cultural reference. But on a different tack, I have experienced the slight frisson of excitement of breakfasting in the same hotel as some major Coronation Street stars and I was a contestant on a Granada TV quizshow hosted by a younger Richard Madeley – these experiences gave me a teeny tiny insight into the nature of TV celebritystardom – the arrival of someone like Karla in town would really have put the cat among the pigeons!

You can see the seeds of Magrs’ later books in this one which made it interesting for me rather than out and out enjoyable – A dark contemporary comedy.  (6.5/10)

pub Allison & Busby, 2004.  286pp. I bought this book.

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To buy things mentioned from Amazon.co.uk click below:
To the Devil: A Diva!
Never the Bride (Brenda 1)Queer As Folk – Definitive Collector’s Edition [DVD] [1999]

The World of Ephemera #3

In the days of brown coats and drawing boards.

My parents worked for the Customs & Excise for just about all of their working lives in one post or another.  The C&E is now incorporated with the Inland Revenue into HM Revenue & Customs or HMRC.  We tend to associate C&E with catching smugglers and inspecting distilleries, but in reality of course there are back offices and stores and thousands of support staff to keep the department running.

Today, in my series of posts on the wonderful world of ephemera, I found some old copies of the Customs & Excise in-house magazine called Portcullis dating from 1970/1.  In these there was a regular feature on ‘The Department At Work’.

The first one I’ve picked from Jan 1970 features lots of men in those brown coveralls beloved of warehousemen, counter salesmen in hardware shops, and corner shops like that of Arkwright in the BBC’s Open All Hours.  I can’t remember the last time I saw someone wearing one of these coats – we have an old-fashioned hardware shop in Abingdon but not one to be seen – doubtless you’ll tell me they’re still used all over the place.

What has changed though, through the advent of technology, is the need for armies of these men with job titles such as ‘Senior Paperkeeper’. Note that filing on this industrial scale does appear to be a man’s job.  I bet they didn’t lose any piece of paper either!

Then we come to March 1971 and a feature on the ‘Forms Design Unit’.  Another job that has been taken over by technology.  Anyone can knock off a form these days on the computer, (of course a well-designed form takes a bit more effort); these chaps just had drawing boards and a special typewriter called the ‘Varityper’ (which can vary type sizes and styles) to aid them instead of software, and doubtless took great care in producing their output.

Forty years on, although we’re not quite paperless yet, these jobs will almost certainly have disappeared or changed beyond all recognition.  Just looking at these was a bit of a nostalgia trip, like watching Life on Mars and going back to the 1970s.