Saturday, 25 February 2017

Catching up

Time to catch up with several book reviews. Busy with the grandchildren over half-term and then a nasty cold most of this past week meant I was not really up to posting... or doing much at all to be honest. Apart from reading...

First up, Way Station by Clifford D. Simak

Enoch Wallace lives in Wisconsin on his remote family farm. He's 120 years old, fought in the American civil war in fact, but looks like a 30 year old. How can this be? Government agents would love to know so they are watching him. Enoch knows he's being watched but also knows they can do nothing to harm him. He's protected by a Galactic Federation - because Enoch is the only keeper of a way station on planet Earth. Countless aliens pass through his home on the way to other planets in our spiral of the galaxy and he has made friends with many of them. His home is impregnable, protected by a sort of cloak and within it Enoch never ages. But what of these government agents? And what of his nearest neighbours, a vicious family, apart from the daughter, Lucy, who is both deaf and dumb and seems to have an affinity with nature. Can they, between them, bring Enoch's carefully built existence crashing down around his ears?

This excellent vintage sci-fi story - it was written in 1963 - is very much of its time period. World peace was very much on people's minds after two world wars and the cold war just beginning. The main character, Enoch, is very despondent about the state of the world and expecting another terrible war to happen sooner rather than later. He's even created a sort of chart to note down events and has deduced from it that war is inevitable. From our vantage point in 2017 we know that it didn't happen but I have to say I sympathised with his despondency very strongly. We all know what it feels like to have these thoughts. But this is not a depressing tale. It's a celebration of nature, of our differences, of the fact that despite all there are plenty of people working to stop war happening. The place where this story was set, by the Mississippi in Wisconsin, was familiar to me as I'd just seen it in one of Michael Portillo's railway documentaries. So I could picture it perfectly and knew how beautiful it was there. I do love these vintage sci-fi stories, I read a lot of them back in the 60s but access to them, apart from the library and one bookshop in Penzance, was difficult. No ordering from other libraries in the county in those days and I couldn't really afford to buy books. It's fun to catch up on some of the ones I didn't know about now that access is so much easier. I have to say, I really enjoyed this one... my book five for Bev's Mount TBR 2017 reading challenge.


Next, The Lost Girls by Heather Young.

It's the summer of 1935 and the Evans family are at their summer home by a lake in Minnesota. The family are the mother and father and three daughters, Lilith 13, Lucy 11 and Emily aged 6. The happenings of that summer are recorded by Lucy, now very elderly and with not long to live. It was the summer that Lilith grew away from her and joined the other teens in the area, leaving Lucy at a loose end. And it was the summer that Lucy's six year old sister, Emily, disappeared and was never found.

Justine lives in modern day California with her two daughters and her new partner, Patrick. Patrick is seemingly the perfect man but something about his clinginess worries Justine. When she learns that her Great Aunt Lucy (Justine's grandmother was Lucy's sister, Lilith) has left her the house by the lake she decides to uproot herself and the girls and go there to live, without telling Patrick where she's gone. The change from sunny California to freezing Minnesota is dramatic and no one is very happy. There are still people at the lake who remember the tragic events of the summer of 1935. The house is so full of memories it feels haunted somehow and Justine finds she can't stay there during the day. And she can't help but wonder... what did happen to the missing sister, Emily?

Fabulous, just fabulous. This is a debut novel I gather... you'd never know it. It's so beautifully written with a really intense sense of time and place and a very lovely lyrical feel to the writing. The story is written with one chapter for Lucy, one for Justine and then Lucy again and so on. Lucy's chapters are written in the first person because she's writing the journal, Justine's in the third. It works so well and sucks you in immediately. I won't say this is a happy tale because it's not. There's lot of sadness and difficulty for the characters and towards the end some of it is quite hard to read. There's also a bit of frustration... one character got away lightly in my opinion. But that's life, there are no simple answers. This is very much a 'family secrets' sort of book and I know a lot of people enjoy that sort of thing... if you do then I can thoroughly recommend this one.


Lastly, Jacquot and the Fifteen by Martin O'Brien.

Chief Inspector Daniel Jacquot of the French police once played rugby for France. For ten minutes at the end of a game he was brought on as the reserve and scored the try that won France the match against England. He doesn't really think that merits him an invitation to the reunion party for that particular team but he gets one regardless and decides to go to the weekend do with his new girlfriend, Claudine. It's being held on the Cote D'azur at the luxury home of the team's then skipper, now a billionaire businessman. Unfortunately, three members of the team have recently died so of course are not there. When another member of the team supposedly commits suicide the morning after the party, Daniel's suspicions are aroused. It doesn't look like suicide to him but no one seems interested and he finds he's on his own in his quest to find a murderer who may be killing off members of the one time French rugby team. But why? What on Earth would anyone have to gain by this?

This is the third Jacquot book I've read and am happy to report that this was equally as good as the first two... possibly even the best of the three. Which is quite surprising really as there's a bit of a rugby thing going on in it, something which I know very little about. It didn't matter in the slightest as the main focus is on who's killing various members of Jacquot's team. I gobbled the book up in about a day, which is quick for me, but it was quite hard to put down. This is partly because the plot was so fast paced but also Martin O'Brien writes really well. (He's one of a small band of British male crime writers that I've recently come to admire including Peter May, Martin Edwards and Mark Douglas-Home.) I must also add that he makes the Cote D'azur sound utterly gorgeous... all that fabulous coastal scenery and inland with the hills and wonderful houses, gorgeous views. This book really took my mind off my rotten cold and I'm so grateful for that and also very glad that I still have six Jacquot books left to read.

~~~oOo~~~

Monday, 13 February 2017

A Life in Questions

A quickish sort of review today... mainly because, while I enjoy them very much, I always find biographical, memoir type books hard to review.

Anyway, A Life in Questions by Jeremy Paxman.


Jeremy Paxman, or 'Paxo' as he's more commonly referred to here, is a household name in the UK. Not only is he famous for his rather forthright interviewing of famous politicians but he's also the question master on University Challenge, a quiz show for students which is immensely popular. Add to that quite a few excellent TV documentary series on subjects such as the Victorians and their art, World War One, The EU, The British Empire (I can recommend all of these) and you have a long and varied career.

Firstly, the author's childhood is charted at - what he refers to - as a minor public school, Malvern College, then his years at St. Catharine's college, Cambridge and thus onto his first job at the BBC in 1972. He worked in Northern Ireland during The Troubles... in fact he was all over the world in various trouble spots such as The Middle East and The Balkans, until he finally decided enough was enough and went on to do various news presenting jobs... landing a position on Newsnight in 1989.

This book made for very interesting and entertaining reading. Paxman is hugely self-deprecating throughout, laughing at himself and admitting that much of his success is down to being in the right place at the right time. I've watched, probably, every one of his documentaries and read four or five of his highly entertaining books (I particularly recommend, On Royalty, The Political Animal and The English). So I suppose you could call me a bit of a fan. I like not only his irreverant writing style but also his irreverent attitude to the powers that be and people in high places who proclaim themselves to be better than the hoi polloi and then turn out not to be. I also like his intelligence and the fact that he's a very keen reader.

A Life in Questions is written in a very readable, but intelligent way. Paxman makes his readers laugh with his way with words and sense of humour and I'm a real sucker for that. This is, necessarily, quite an opinionated book. I don't always agree with him but he always states his case clearly and concisely and always make me think... which for me is one of the reasons I like reading this kind of thing. It's also quite fascinating to hear behind the scenes anecdotes about his experiences with some of the people he's met or worked with. Some he has a lot of respect for, others not so much. I'm still wondering who 'the news bunny' is. And Sylvia Nailvarnish...

Now of course I want to read the couple of books I have of his which I've not yet read, The Victorians and Empire both based on documentaries I've watched. I also need to get his book on World War One. Highly recommend this one to anyone interested in the lives of political journalists... I realise there probably aren't that many of us. LOL!

~~~oOo~~~

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

The Signature of All Things

My Goodreads bookshelf tells me that I first saw The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert on that site in October of 2013. I added it as a 'Want to read' and here I am in 2017 finally getting around to it. Good job no one was holding their breath.




Alma Whittaker was born to her parents, Henry and Beatrix, in Philadelphia in the year 1800. Henry was a self made man from London, who made a large fortune collecting plants around the world, Beatrix an educated, no nonsense Dutch woman from a family of botanists in Amsterdam. Alma's was a strange upbringing, she was bright and encouraged to be self-educated by using the huge library in the house. There wasn't a lot of love around although she adored her father, but her mother was quite distance and strict. Alma had no friends of her own age whatsoever. The girl took refuge in a love of plants and of learning.

At the age of nine, Alma's life changed when her parents adopted Prudence, the daughter of one of the estate workers. Where Alma was considered a very plain child by her parents, Prudence was beautiful beyond measure. Thrown together, the two girls did not fight or even argue but they were so different, Alma open and spontaneous, Prudence very reserved, that they could find no point of reference and were never close.

It was a strange and unconventional household to grow up in. The girls were never treated as children and encouraged to take part in dinner time discussions with important and educated visitors. Education was everything. Alma revels in this and grows intellectually year by year. In their teenage years the girls gain a friend, Retta, who lives nearby and is everything they are not... a normal girl of the time, interested in clothes and gossip. Alma falls in love with a publisher friend of her father's but nothing works out as it's supposed to and eventually, she finds herself living alone with her father. Luckily, Alma still has her interest in botany and decides on a specialist field of interest within that subject. Then the publisher friend of her father brings her some wonderful paintings he's been sent by a botanist of rare talent. After that, life for Alma is never the same again.

Opinions on The Signature of All Things seems to be split right down the middle... going by Goodreads anyway. People seem to either love it or hate it... the haters finding it rambling and boring. Admittedly, it is almost 600 pages and it does ramble a bit. Normally I'm not a huge fan of that but just occasionally I find it works for me and this is one of those times.

For me, the book reads a bit like a biography of a fascinating person, albeit a fictional one. The author has created a main character in Alma who is flawed just like all of us, but like all of us she's just trying to do her best. No one told you anything about anything in those days and girls especially were kept ignorant and thus were permanently confused. She might have been born into a rich family but things are not easy for her, especially emotionally. She suffers from being tall and well built and not traditionally pretty. Luckily, she has a good brain and the opportunity to use it.

For the first two thirds of the book, Alma's existence is mostly confined to the mansion in Philadelphia. This might seem like a very restricted story and in some ways it is, but for me it only intensified the tale somehow. Alma is such a fascinating person and the people around her so interesting that I was never bored. Her studies, her books, her discoveries, all are delightful to read about.

When the action moves to Tahiti after Alma's father dies it almost becomes a different book. She's there on a quest and has a huge adjustment to make; in a tiny village in Tahiti your wealth is pretty much irrelevant. And anyway all her belongings are stolen the minute she arrives so she's suddenly learning how to look after herself for the first time in her life. I massively enjoyed this section of the book.

The scope of this novel is wide ranging. The Theory of Evolution looms large as Alma approaches her sixties and there's much discussion of how this affects mainstream religious beliefs. This is not a religious book but religion was such a large part of people's lives in the 19th. century that it's an integral part of the story and rightly so. Sexuality is unflinchingly dealt with too so if this is not your bag be warned... there is some explicitness.

For me this is a difficult book to do justice to. All I can really say is how much I loved and enjoyed it and mourned when it ended. Like I said, it really is not everyone's cup of tea, but I had a feeling it was the kind of thing I might enjoy when I was in the right mood, and so it turned out to be. I'm so glad I gave it the time and effort it deserved.

~~~oOo~~~