Friday 29 August 2008

Monstrous Regiment

Monstrous Regiment, by Terry Pratchett, was one of the few Discworld books I had left to read. Not sure what I'll do when I've finished them all... start all over again perhaps. It took me eleven days to read this one but that has nothing to do with the quality of the book - two words represent the reasons and those are: Olympics and grandchildren. The first is self-explanatory and the second, well, our grandaughter's been here since Tuesday and went home today. Thus my reading time has been severely disrupted for a couple of weeks. Not that it mattered as this is just the sort of story that's ideal for reading slowly over a period of time.

Polly Perks' older brother, Paul, has gone off to war and disappeared off the face of the earth. He's not very bright, Polly has in fact spent most of her life being an older sister to her older brother... so Polly is worried. On a whim she decides to leave her father's inn one night, disguised as a boy, and joins the army in order to search for her brother. And thus Polly Perks becomes Oliver Perks and heads off to fight for her warlike little country of Borogravia.

With her goes Maladict, the vampire, who has sworn off blood but is addicted to coffee, Igor the igor (Igors specialise in sewing people together), a troll, and several youngsters from the local workhouse, all led by Sergeant Jackrum, a legend in his own lifetime. The officer in charge, known to one and all as 'the rupert' is one, Lieutenant Blouse. He has no chin, reads battle strategy books and wants to have an item of clothing named after him. Polly is made his batman, which is difficult as she doesn't know how to shave a man, but then neither does Blouse... Not only that, her fellow soldiers seem oddly deficient in that and other areas too. It seems there are secrets amongst this extremely motley band. Not that any of it matters because they are the last recruits from Borogravia and it's going to be up to them to win the war and save their country from disgrace.

I couldn't help feeling while I was reading this book, that if ever a teacher wanted to push home the futility of war to his students, all he would really need to do is hand them each a copy of this book and let them draw their own conclusions. That makes the story sound preachy when it most certainly is not. Terry Pratchett does what he does better than anyone else in my opinion, and that is to drive his point home with his superb humour. He is the perfect 'show, don't tell' author as new recruits are handed an IOU instead of a shilling, get taken to a shed for new uniforms only to find they're getting secondhand ones with blood and gore on them, and are fed 'scubbo' which can be pork, chicken or beef boiled in water but is more likely to be rat or horse. A couple of well-known Discworld characters turn up - William de Worde, the journalist from The Truth and the ever wonderful Sam Vimes, head of the Night Watch and now Duke of something or other, much to his disgust. I'd forgotten how much I love his character and must get around to reading Night Watch and Thud!.

Anyway, another wonderful book from Mr. Pratchett. They just get better and better and Monstrous Regiment manages to be extremely thought provoking whilst maintaining the author's well earned reputation for exceptionally clever humour.

Monday 25 August 2008

R.I.P. III challenge

It's that time of year again! September is almost upon us and it's time for Carl's latest Halloween challenge - R.I.P. III. I've been looking forward to and thinking about it for ages and had my pool of books stacked up on the shelf a week ago. Nothing like being 'a bit previous' as Grandma would have said...

Anyway, the challenge has three 'Perils' to choose from and I've chosen 'Peril the First' which is to 'Read Four books of any length, from any subgenre of scary stories that you choose' between the 1st. September and the 31st. October.

To that end I've chosen a pool of 12 books - probably a typical case of 'overkill' but there you go, making up my mind was never my strong point. These are they:

Tales of Terror from Blackwood's Magazine - ed. by Robert Morrison and Chris Baldick
Return of the Deep Ones and other Mythos Tales - Brian Lumley
The Ghost Stories of M.R. James - selected by Michael Cox
Jamaica Inn - Daphne Du Maurier
Bitten - Kelley Armstrong
The Vampire Tapestry - Suzy McKee Charnas
The Vanished - Celia Rees
Twilight - Stephenie Meyer
The Moor - Laurie R. King
Tunnels - Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams
The Thirteenth Tale - Diane Setterfield
On the Edge of Darkness - Barbara Erskine

A pretty mixed bag really. Several books of short stories which I may just dip in and out of; three or four vampire yarns (not sure about The Vanished); a couple of gothic type stories and a couple that are just a bit 'sundry'.

Three are rereads - the Lumley, the Du Maurier and the M.R. James. The Du Maurier will be a cross-over with another challenge; I had it on my RIP list for last year and didn't get around to it, so will definitely try to get to that one this year. I'd love to read them all, I really would, but realistically - it ain't gonna happen. I know for a start that October is going to be a busy month for me. The challenge says four and that will be my aim and if I manage more then it's all to the good.

Really looking forward to participating in this challenge and thanks, Carl, for hosting it once again.

Thursday 21 August 2008

Two short reviews

A couple of very short reviews starting with The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke.

I've been reading this book for what seems like ages so some of it is a bit of a blur. My main impression is that it was a bit patchy in quality. Some of the stories didn't take my fancy at all. On Lickerish Hill was cleverly written in the style of an uneducated woman but it was basically just a retelling of the traditional fairy tale, Rumpelstiltskin, and as such was very much not my thing. Antickes and Frets, a story about Mary Queen of Scots, and John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner I also found rather unsatisfying.

On the other hand, the title story, The Ladies of Grace Adieu was a good solid tale connected I believe to Susanna Clarke's huge novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Mrs. Mabb a story of a fiancé stolen magically away, Mr. Simonelli or the Fairy Widower and Tom Brightwood or How the Fairy Bridge was Built at Thoresbury were all top notch stories and very enjoyable. I really love the idea of a Regency England where magic actually exists and if this anthology has taught me anything it's that it's high time I made an attempt on Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell: I'm almost sure I'll love it. I think I might line it up for 2009.


Okay well, confession time... I have a guilty pleasure and that guilty pleasure is the poetry of Pam Ayres. It's all to do with my sense of humour, I know that. What she writes is very true to life and very funny and if she's performing her poems on TV I can guarantee to be in fits within moments. I just can't help it. Anyway, I picked up this little volume, With These Hands, in the library and it's an anthology of some of her poetry and monologues which I actually had never read before. The monologues are little gems that concern such 1950s and 60s nostalgia as knitted bathing suits, the joys of suet puddings, holidays in a caravan, gyms and the middle-aged and keeping chickens.

Here's one of my favourite poems from the collection, especially for those of us addicted to The Antiques Roadshow and Bargain Hunt.

I loved an antique dealer
I loved him heart and soul
Although he was bow-fronted
And his legs were cabriole.
His eyes they were cross-banded
And his surface was distressed
But he was nicely moulded
With a sturdy little chest.

But on examination
There were several things he lacked.
I found him dummy-fronted
And I found him spindle-backed.
So I sent him off to auction
And I've had a note from there
To say he's on a pedestal
In Weston-super-Mare.

Love it.

And I'm now off to investigate cds and dvds because I've just discovered that there are loads available by Pam Ayres.

Sunday 17 August 2008


I realise I should have hung on for a few weeks and read Tamsin by Peter S. Beagle for Carl's next RIP challenge, which I'm assuming will start sometime in September. It would have been very suitable but no matter, it's been read for two challenges and that's fine. The two challenges are the What's in a Name challenge being hosted by Annie and it's also my first book for the Book Awards challenge being hosted by Michelle at

The first part of this book is set in New York. Jenny Gluckstein is thirteen years old and lives with her mother, Sally. Her parents are divorced, her father being a rather self-centred actor. Out of the blue her mother announces that she is marrying her English boyfriend, Evan, and that they will all be moving to Dorset to live on a farm with his two sons. Jenny is devastated and hopes she can move in with her father. When it quickly becomes apparent that that's not going to happen she has to make the best of it and go but not with any sort of grace whatsoever. It seems all Jenny wants to do is make life as difficult as she can for everyone around her.

The first thing that upsets Jenny is that her beloved cat, Mister Cat, will have to go into six months quarantine. While that is happening things are deteriorating rapidly and Jenny soon realises that the ancient old farmhouse the family are now living in is haunted. She's hearing voices and sensing odd presences in the house - it's almost like the house is protesting at them being there. When Mister Cat is returned to her and finds a companion from the third floor, where no one goes, and that companion turns out to be a ghostly cat, things start to get really interesting. It's not long before Jenny meets 'Tamsin' who shares the third floor with Mister Cat's new friend and has been there since the time of Monmouth's rebellion. Tamsin has a huge problem and the only one who can help her solve it is Jenny Gluckstein.

Tamsin won the Mythopoeic award for the year 2000 and I'm not at all surprised. That said, the story here wasn't quite what I was expecting. I think I was expecting a fairly straightforward ghost story and in a way it *is*, but there's a lot more to it than that. The book has a first person narrative and when that's well done it can really suck you in. It was well done here. Jenny is a very troubled and angry teenager when we first meet her. She narrates the book from 6 years after the events in the book begin and is full of self criticism, but you can't help but see a child who needs help but doesn't get it. As is often the case the adults concerned are too wrapped up in their own troubles to recognise this fact.

The historical and folktale elements of this story are extremely well handled. I thoroughly enjoyed that aspect and the tie-in with the events of Monmouth's rebellion, 300 years ago, is skilfully done. I'm not saying more than that as it would involve spoilers, I'll just say that certain aspects of the book are really quite creepy.

Do I have any criticisms? The only ones I have revolve around the fact that Beagle is an American author writing about England and the English. And he does pretty well to be honest: I've read much worse. It's just that I think he should've known that Dorset is not on the Bristol Channel, it's actually on the 'English' Channel. Two very different stretches of water. And when the step-brother, Julian, was introduced, his speech was laughable. Full of 'I says' and 'Look heres'. I kept expecting him to come out with, 'What ho! Jeeves'. It would have been a very simple thing for the author to have invested in several modern books by English authors, writing about English children, and he would soon have seen that our children simply don't speak like Bertie Wooster and haven't for about 70 years... and then only in very posh public schools.

All that said, this is an extremely absorbing read. I thoroughly enjoyed it and got the feeling the author was leaving things a little bit open at the end in case he felt like writing more about the exploits of Jenny Gluckstein. I sincerely hope he does.

Monday 11 August 2008

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

This is my second book for the What's in a Name challenge being hosted by Annie at Words by Annie.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith, is one of those books I'd heard of but it hadn't really registered, if you know what I mean. And then, some months ago, I saw it reviewed on a blog I'd just happened to come across by accident. I read the review and decided then and there to get the book as it sounded like something I might enjoy.

The story concerns the Nolan family who live in the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn, around the beginning of the 20th. century. There's the mother and father, Katie and Johnny and two children, Francie the eldest, and Neeley, her brother. The family is particularly poor in an already poor neighbourhood and the chief reason for that is the father of the household. Johnny, of Irish stock, drinks too much. He can't hold down a proper job but earns what he can as a singing waiter. Katie, the mother is basically supporting the family by cleaning other people's houses.

The main character in the book is really Francie. She's intelligent, bookish and wants to be a writer. All the odds are stacked against her. After we learn this the story then goes back in time and we learn the history behind the Nolan's marriage. We meet Katie's family, who are of Austrian stock - her mother, Mary, her cruel father, and two sisters, Sissy and Evy. Sissy loves the men and although loved within the family is also thought of as 'bad' by them. She is desperate for children and, of all the family, is doted on by Francie. Francie is also extremely close to her brother, Neeley, despite the fact that she knows her mother loves him more than her. It also has to be said that though the father, Johnny, is a wastrel he is also a loving father to Francie. In other words, despite being the poorest of the poor, Francie is surrounded by people who love her.

This is not a book to be hurried - I've actually been reading it over the past four or five weeks. The book meanders back and forth, through the years, as Francie and Neeley grow up and things slowly change for the family. It was quite a shocker in some respects, the struggle to put food on the table was ever present and it's very sad when you realise the mother is claiming to be 'not hungry' at meal times so that the children can have more. You want to strangle the father but it's just that he's the kind of man who can't handle responsibility and who should never have married in the first place. And Katie did set out to get him so in a way she only had herself to blame for the circumstances she found herself in. As Francie reflects much later in the book, it's the children who pay in the end, being sent out to work far too early and constantly having to struggle and compromise to make up for their parent's shortcomings or mistakes.

I gather this book is thought of as an American classic and if it weren't I would probably be asking 'why not?' It's sad - even tragic at times - but it's also a tale about how, if you're young and work hard and have your health, you can lift yourself up out of the most extreme poverty. I absolutely loved it to bits.

Wednesday 6 August 2008

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

My luck must be in at the moment because over the weekend I learnt that I had won a book in another book draw. Elaine at Random Jottings held a draw for The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer, and I was lucky enough to be one of the winners! The book arrived on Tuesday morning, just as I was finishing something else; I started it Tuesday afternoon and finished it tonight.

Juliet Ashton is a writer. The year is 1946 and throughout the war she's been writing a lighthearted newspaper column entitled Izzy Bickerstaff Goes to War. It's been published as a book and Juliet is now looking for a new subject for her next book. Out of the blue she gets a letter from Dawsey Adams who lives on the island of Guernsey, in the Channel Islands. He has purchased a secondhand book about Charles Lamb which used to belong to Juliet (her name and address were inside). The two begin a corresspondence and Juliet begins to learn about the wartime occupation of Guernsey by the Germans. She hears how the Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society came into being, about its founder member, Elizabeth, and about the others members who soon begin to write to Juliet too. Very soon these people become important to Juliet and the more she learns the more fascinated she becomes with their stories. Elizabeth is central to every story and Juliet is shocked to learn that she was taken off to a concentration camp and no one knows whether she is alive or dead. Despite having a determined American suitor, Juliet is eventually compelled to go to the island and meet the people she has corressponded with, whereby the subject for her next book becomes perfectly obvious.

I seem to have been pretty lucky with books just lately - everything I pick up is enjoyable and delightful and this one was no exception. It's written in letter format and thus reminded me a bit of 84 Charing Cross Road, the tone is certainly a little bit similar. Charming as that book is though, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society has much more of a story and that story is fascinating. There's such a lot of history retold here in the shape of the people of Guernsey's experiences with the occupying Germans. The hardships they endured such as lack of food, fuel and so forth. The fact that they sent their children to the British mainland before the Germans arrived and then had no idea what had happened to them for five years. And then there was the horror of people being taken away to concentration camps for minor misdemeanours or simply for being Jewish. Being a bit of a history fan I found all of this fascinating but the lure of the book is much more than that. You become very involved in the lives of all of the characters, to the extent that it's almost impossible to stop reading; luckily, that's not a problem as the writing is very readable indeed. There's quite a bit of sadness in this book - I was close to tears several times - but an awful lot that is uplifting and optimistic as well. The truth is, I absolutely loved it to bits and am very grateful to Elaine for holding the draw. Thanks, Elaine!