Thursday 26 January 2012

In Tearing Haste

I was watching an old episode of Have I Got News For You last night - for those who're not from the UK this is a sort of satirical panel game based on the week's news, the two teams are led by the wonderful Ian Hislop who does such brilliant documentaries and is the editor of Private Eye, and the excellent comedian, Paul Merton. A picture of the poster which has had a resurgence of popularity: KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON came up, and it was mentioned that it had been on one wall of Churchill's wartime bunker. Quick as a flash Paul Merton quipped, 'And on the walls of Hitler's bunker was a poster that said, 'You don't have to be mad to work here, but it helps''. All of which goes to illustrate nothing other than perhaps the weird things we Brits laugh at (and I'm really *not* trying to turn this into a 'joke of the day' kind of blog...) but it made me think about the book I've just finished, In Tearing Haste - Letters Between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor edited by Charlotte Mosley, and how the war had such an impact on both their lives.

It hadn't occurred to me that both these two are of my parents' generation, both almost the exact age of my parents, uncles, aunts, who fought and lived through the war. Unlike most though, Patrick Leigh Fermor was a decorated war hero, having been involved in the kidnapping of a German General on the island of Crete in 1944, after having lived there undercover as a shepherd for 18 months. He was a remarkable man (he died last year) having walked from England to Constantinople during the years of 1933 to 1935 and written two books about it, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, two of the most loved travel books of all time.

He met Deborah Devonshire at one of her husband, Andrew's, family homes, Lismore in Ireland. He was invited to stay and he and Debo consequently became lifelong friends. He was also great friends with two of her five sisters (the famous Mitford sisters), Nancy and Diana, and wrote to them too I gather. It makes you feel a bit sad that the age of letter writing has more or less died out and made way for the age of e.mails. Not quite as romantic.

It's hard to know exactly what to say about this book. It's basically a book of fascinating letters between two very dear friends, some of them brief and hurried - thus the title of the book - and some of them very detailed indeed. Debo describes life at Chatsworth, the doings of mutual friends she's met up with, some of the grand events or dinners she has to attend, the people she met, and so forth. Patrick is living in Greece with his wife, Joan, and describes the idyllic spot on the coast where they built a house. He also does quite a lot of travelling around Europe and for fans of his travel books the letters that go deeply into those trips are absolute gems. His writing is glorious, especially when detailing the mountain climbs he does with small groups, usually including Debo's husband, Andrew... places like the Pyrenees, the mountains of northern Greece, the Balkans.

I was particularly enamoured of a section where Patrick describes life on a film set. He was in the Alps with the filming of the book, Ill Met By Moonlight by W. Stanley Moss, about the group's exploits on Crete during the war. PLF was played by Dirk Bogarde who was nervous about meeting a real life person he was going to portray, but PLF describes the actor as 'Charming - slim, handsome, nice speaking-voice and manner, a super-gent.' But life on a film set did not appeal to Patrick and he bailed out of what he called the 'madhouse' after seven days. I'd have liked a bit more about that to be honest.

Towards the end of the book sadness starts to creep in as Debo and Paddy's family and close friends start to die off or become very ill. Debo in particular finds her friends' and family's serious illnesses distressing and no wonder. Patrick lost his wife, Joan, within a few weeks of the death of Debo's sister, Diana, and the awfullness for both of them is clear. Patrick describes how he is lingering in England after the funeral, dreading going back to the house he shared with Joan in Greece for over 50 years. It's very sad.

At the time the book was written both Debo and Patrick were still alive but Patrick sadly died in 2011 aged 96. I can only imagine how devastated Debo must have been to lose a lifelong friend, probably one of the only ones left of her generation.

Of course reading a book like this leaves you with a reading list. Debo famously hated books and read nothing if she could help it, but Patrick did read and there are all kinds of fascinating books mentioned; I'd like to read Ill Met by Moonlight now. Letters of Ann Fleming - by Mark Amory (she was Ian Fleming's wife) and A Crowd is Not Company by Robert Kee about his time in a POW camp in Germany during the war. And that's only three, there are many others mentioned in this amazing book of letters. And I absolutely 'must' get to PLF's Between the Woods and the Water... I've read A Time of Gifts and loved it. I also want to read his other books but In Tearing Haste is not a bad place to start if you've never read anything by him as it really does give you a flavour of his extraordinary writing. I'm also eager to read more books of letters so if anyone has any recs they would be gratefully received.

Off to library in a moment and hoping to find something else connected with these amazing people.

Tuesday 24 January 2012

New Books!

My current read is going quite slowly, partly because I also started something else and abandoned it after 100 pages, but also because it's a book to savour. It's In Tearing Haste: Letters Between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor, edited by Charlotte Mosley. It's one of those books that you can sit down, read a few letters over a cup a tea and a biscuit, go and sort the laundry, tidy up after your husband, come back, read a few more letters. I love it. PLF travelled a lot and some of his European trips he wrote to Debo about. Wonderful descriptions of the Balkans, the mountains of Greece and Spain and so on. And Debo is so funny. She wrote to Paddy:


'This came, usual thing asking for money. Poor Archbishops, I thought, feeling the pinch. But it turned out to be monkeys'.

I laughed so much, sitting up in bed, that the headboard kept knocking against the wall and I was afraid I would wake my husband up.

Anyway, more about this book when I've finished it.

Last year was a year in which I stinted myself where buying new books was concerned. Every time I saw or read about a book I wanted to read, I checked the library first to see if they had it. I probably saved myself a lot of money. All this is leading up to a confession of course. And that is, *coughcough*, that over December and January I went a bit mad. In my defense some were either gifts or charity shop buys. (Honest!) But altogether nine new books have come into the house over the last 6 to 8 weeks. These are they:

Thames - Peter Ackroyd. I have to say that I've covetted this book for several years. Seen it in book shops, wanted it and resisted. But I bought myself My Mutual Friend by Dickens a while back and it struck me that the two books would be compatible... so I caved in and bought Thames. And I love it of course. Such a beautiful book.

Passion and Principle by Sally Denton. A book about John and Jessie Fremont and American politics. A friend recced it as a good one to read for my US challenge so I sent for it along with Thames. Call them my Christmas presents to myself. It's another very beautiful book.

The House of Silk - Anthony Horowitz. The writer of Foyle's War and the Alex Rider books of course. I didn't know he'd written a new Holmes book until I saw it in Tescos. In the trolly it went.

The Glitter and the Gold - Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan. American heiress, Consuelo Vanderbilt, married the Duke of Marlborough in 1895 and came to live in England. This is the story of her life... real-life Downton Abbey sort of thing I gather. Christmas gift from my eldest daughter.

The New Springtime by Robert Silverberg. The sequel to At Winter's End which I reviewed recently. Amazon Marketplace came up with a nice hardback copy of this.

Classic Ghost Stories compiled by Vic Parker. Nabbed from a charity shop, beautifully illustrated. Good find.

A Short Residence in Sweden - Mary Wollstonecraft and Memoirs of the Author of 'The Rights of Woman' by William Godwin. Random charity shop grab, thought it looked interesting.

The Langhorne Sisters - James Fox. Possibly the American equivalent of the Mitfords, I'm told. Another charity shop purchase for my American books challenge.

And last but not least:

I was talking with my lovely brother about Cornish books and saying that my copy of Frenchman's Creek is a bit tatty and I ought to get another. Next thing I know this arrived in the post from him. Thrilled to bits! I shall be rereading this soon as I read it several times as a teenager and not once since. So it'll be interesting to see what I think of it now I'm in my er... fifties (just over a year and I won't even be able to say that!)

Anyway. Pleased as Punch with my lovely haul of books and plan to ease off a bit now until I've read some of them. Happy reading!

Friday 20 January 2012

At Winter's End

I completed my first science fiction read of the year this week while I was offline for several days (our router died). It's for Carl's Sc-fi Experience, a casual reading experience which lasts until the end of February, wherein the reader can read one book or twenty - it's up to him or her. My first book was At Winter's End by the classic sci-fi writer, Robert Silverberg.

A group of people live in a cocoon, deep inside a mountain. They've been there for 700,000 years, controlling their population by introducing a death-time, ie. when a person reaches the age of 35 they are sent outside to die. *Outside* there is an ice age brought on by the fall of 'death stars' onto the planet Earth. But the long winter is coming to an end. The female chief of the clan, Koshmar, is going to be the one to lead her tribe of 60 out of the caves and into the sunlight. What will they find?

Koshmar has the Chronicler, Thaggoran, to help her, and Torlyri, the offering-woman. And then there's Hresh, 8 years old and the boy who asks questions... a born Chronicler if ever there was one. They have a handful of warriors to protect them too, but still this will be the hardest thing they ever do.

Once outside they walk... and walk. They are beset by various problems. Some of the creatures they come across are dangerous and they lose some of their friends, including the Chronicler, Thaggoran. This is a devastating loss as he is the one guiding them with his knowledge of the chronicles. It falls to Hresh to take his place and become 'the old man' of the tribe at 8 years old.

It's written in the chronicles that the tribe's future will start with finding the ruins of the city of Vengiboneeza, the ancient capital that belonged to the sapphire-eyed people, one of the six sentient peoples of the Old World. Their journey is long and hazardous and as they travel Hresh has to grow up very quickly and find the answers to many questions. But it's in the city of Vengiboneeza that Hresh will really come of age and find the answer to all of his unanswered questions.

I didn't realise this was an Earth-based sci-fi story until the river close to where the cocoon was situated was described, its previous names mentioned, and one of them was the Mississippi. I'd previously thought it was an alien planet yarn, I've no idea why... the cover of the book looks very alien perhaps.

Anyway, regardless of that, I found this book reminding me of why I love classic sci-fi writers so much. Actually this book is not that old - it was written in 1988 - it just *feels* much older, as though it could have been written in the 50s or 60s. And that's not down to the plot because that's quite modern in feel... the chief of the clan being a female, the sexuality described (not explicit but definitely all kinds of sexuality included) and so on. I think it's the quality of the writing that made it feel older. It's beautifully written, *intelligently* written... it wasn't a book I could whip through quickly at all.

I think perhaps the world building felt like it was from an older decade too. Silverberg spent a lot of time inventing new species, the six sentient species of the old world were interesting and imaginative, though I didn't feel that all of them worked: the plant people didn't sound feasible to me. That didn't matter as the story wasn't about them, it was about how the world had changed since they had died out and how the new 'people' were going to establish a new civilisation. I loved the old city of Vengiboneeza... and found Hresh's explorations of it and his slightly shocking discoveries fascinating. The characters felt real to me, with many foibles and twists to their personalities, none of them perfect. *Maybe* Hresh was a very old 8 year old but that didn't bother me overly.

All in all I absolutely loved this book and have already sent for its sequel, The New Springtime. It reminded me of why I love science fiction so much... because it takes me to places I could never imagine where I never really know what will happen next. And I wonder if sci-fi fans are born not made? From a very early age, 4 or 5, I can remember being fascinated by talk of space exploration and other planets. Star Trek, when it arrived in the UK in 1969 (I was 16) felt like the answer to a prayer and as natural to me as breathing. Others have no interest in sci-fi whatsoever and think those of us who do are a very weird bunch indeed. LOL! Each to his (or her) own.

I'm hoping to read a couple more books for the sci-fi experience... the one I'm told I really must get to from my pile (by Susan from You Can Never Have Too Many Books) is Doomsday Book by Connie Willis. But there're a couple of others too. I may end up carrying on my sci-fi reading way past the end date of the 'experience'.

Thursday 12 January 2012

Wait For Me!

Part of my book plan for 2012 was to try to read a few more non-fiction books. It seemed last year as though I *was* reading more but as usual when I added them up come December the number came to around about a dozen, eleven to be exact, and I don't seem to be able to go beyond that number. I know one a month (they're actually not spread evenly in that way) doesn't sound bad but I would much rather it was around 20 to 25. Whether that'll ever happen, who knows, as crime books really do have me by the throat these days, with fantasy and sci fi aiding and abetting... but I can but try. To that end I randomly grabbed Wait For Me! by Deborah Devonshire from the library last week. When I got home I did as I always do, logged onto the library site to check that all books are there and what the dates are (am I anal or what?) and found that the book was already reserved by someone else. Wanting to read it and being in the position to do so, I started it right away.

Okay, well Deborah Devonshire as most people know, is the youngest of the very famous Mitford sisters. When Deborah, or 'Debo' as she's known, was born in 1920 her eldest sister, Nancy, who became a famous author, was sixteen. The family already had five girls and only one boy.

Blank. There is no entry in my mother's engagement book for 31 March 1920. The next few days are also blank. The first entry in April, in large letters, is KITCHEN CHIMNEY SWEPT'. My parents dearest wish was for a large family of boys; a sixth girl was not worth recording.

Her father was David Freeman Mitford, Lord Redesdale, her mother, Sydney Bowles. David was a second son of a minor aristocrat, not expected to take the title, but as often happens, the heir died in his twenties and David did take the title. The family nevertheless were not that wealthy and with seven children they had to move house frequently in order to be able to pay the bills. All that said, Debo had a happy childhood - horses were her passion - and she was never happier than when spending time in the stables or hunting.

At twenty one Debo married Andrew Cavendish who, like her father, was a second son, not much thought of by his parents (how often did this seem to happen?) The war came and the young men went off to war. As with many families at that time Debo lost her brother, Andrew lost his elder brother, and many close friends were also killed. Andrew thus succeeded to the title, he and Debo were now the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. Eventually they moved into Chatsworth House, one the biggest and most impressive of the 'stately homes of England', but unoccupied by the family, and set about turning its fortunes around.

I thought when I picked this up that it might serve as an introduction to the world of the Mitford sisters; and so it proved. I've been reading reviews of books other bloggers have read about them for a couple of years now, always thinking that I would like to read about them too but not really knowing where to start. I bought Mary S. Lovell's The Mitford Girls in fact, but it looks intimidating and I wanted an easier read first: Wait For Me! was perfect.

Debo talks in a very easy manner about her whole family, how she perhaps thinks they're rather different to the way the world perceives them to be. I found her to be very modest, forgiving, tolerant, possibly the most ordinary of the lot if you can say that about a Duchess who hob-nobs with the great and the good. For they knew everyone and were indeed related in some manner to most of them! Winston Churchill and Harold MacMillan, were relations. Andrew's older brother, Billy, married Kathleen 'Kick' Kennedy before he was tragically killed in the war and ever after they were thought of as 'family' by Jack Kennedy - which of course they were, if only for a couple of months. Kathleen herself died just a few years later in a plane accident.

There is a fair bit of tragedy in this book. Debo lost three babies hours or days after they were born, but luckily managed to rear three. The deaths during the war affected her badly and then there was the awful story of Unity who fell in love with Hitler and tried to shoot herself in the head when war was declared. She was never the same again. And Diana marrying the British fascist, Oswald Mosely, and the two of them being interned during the war. Her sisters' eccentricities are well covered but not dwelled upon in a vindictive way. Debo comes over as a loving, supportive sister and not in any way judgemental, rather trying to sort out in her own mind why they were as they were and did what they did.

I really did love this book. Truthfully, this is not a very good review as the book was so packed it's impossible to mention everything. The Chatsworth details were fascinating for instance, more so as I've been there and it's a wonderful place. It made me smile to hear that Debo is an Elvis fan and loved her visit to Graceland... and I laughed out loud when she said how shocked people were at a subsequent do in America when she told them about it. Her very self-deprecating sense of humour really shines in this book.

For me it was the perfect introduction to the sisters and I'm now ready to tackle the Lovell book, and have already started in fact. I've also done a quick list of a few more I would like to try: A Life of Contrasts by Diana Mosely, Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford, The Mitfords: Letters between Six Sisters by Charlotte Mosely, In Tearing Haste: Letters between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor, The Bookshop at No. 10 Curzon Stree by J.S. Smith.

This book has also made me curious about the Kennedy family so I'm on the lookout for something to read about them, which would also qualify for my American states challenge of course. Any recs from anyone?

I hope this review will make others pick this one up. It's such an interesting, historical, uplifting story and I'm sure plenty would enjoy it. Deborah Devonshire is now the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire and no longer living in Chatsworth House but in a nearby village in an Old Vicarage. In her nineties I gather she's still working hard for the estate. Good Luck to her.

Monday 9 January 2012

Sci Fi experience and a few thoughts

I decided a couple of weeks ago that I would do Carl's Sci Fi Experience again this year. I did it last year and knocked three books off my tbr pile. As knocking books off my tbr pile is one of my main reading aims for this year, it seems only sensible to do it again this year. (Well that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it. ;-)) I'm a bit late posting but better late than never at all.

The 'experience' runs from January 1st. through to February 29th.

The “rules” of the experience are simple: there are none. Remember, this isn’t a challenge. If you would like to join us in reading and discussing any science fiction reading or television viewing or movie watching you do over that time period, please do.

Carl wants people to:

a) Continue their love affair with science fiction
b) Return to science fiction after an absence, or
c) Experience for the first time just how exhilarating science fiction can be.

All of which I think is excellent. Here are the books I would like to read from:

Darkship Thieves - Sarah Hoyt
The Exile Waiting - Vonda McIntyre
Doomsday Book - Connie Willis
At Winter's End - Robert Silverberg
World Before - Karen Traviss

I also want to do a reread of one my favourite sci fi books, Grass by Sheri Tepper.

Partly this is because my daughter read it recently and liked it a lot, but also because I was talking about Tepper's books with an online friend and I realised that there are two other books which follow Grass, one of which I own, and I would like to read those this year.

So that's that. Truthfully, I want to be as casual about this as Carl implies. If I read one book off the pile, that's fine. If I find I want to read several, that would be great too. We'll see.


And talking of rereading, Kay at Purple Sage and Scorpions has an excellent post here about doing just that.

I have to admit I'm not a huge rereader. I tend to want to move on to pastures new and have usually felt that there are so many new books to get through that I simply don't have *time* for heaps of rereading. I'm rethinking that, or trying to. What I have to instill into my thick skull is that I'm 58 now and no matter how hard I try I will *never* be able to read everything. So I might as well relax and read what I fancy, and if that includes rereading something I've previously loved then really that is okay and actually a good thing.

I did reread several books this year, one was The Magic Apple Tree by Susan Hill. I read it first about 15 years ago and fell in love with the author's wonderful way of describing the passing of the seasons in an Oxfordshire village. I wondered if I would love it as much a second time around. The truth is, I loved it even more. And that goes too for another of Hill's books, Howard's End is on the Landing. Her love of books shone through and I plan yet another read of this lovely book very soon. I also loved my reread of The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett. And Magic by Angie Sage. And this year I plan to do some more rereading. Dickens, Anne McCaffrey, Mark Twain, C.S. Lewis are all in my sites.

So, I am getting there with this rereading thing. I just need to learn a little more patience. Train myself to stop thinking of numbers of books read, because I know I'm not competing against other people with these numbers - I simply can't as I'm a slowish reader and would never win any competitions in that department. Fact is, I'm competing against myself... which is too ridiculous for words! But I'm making progress. I'm currently reading an autobiography, Wait For Me! by Deborah Devonshire. Deborah, or 'Debo' as she's known, is the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire and is the youngest of the famous (or infamous) Mitford sisters. The book is utterly fascinating but I found myself thinking that I must hurry up and get it read. And then I thought, 'Why?' Well one reason is that someone else has actually reserved it, but I don't have to have it back before the 23rd. That's over two weeks away, so I'm going to sit back and enjoy the peace and quiet (my daughter and her son went home yesterday - she's doing very well), and the warm fire, and my book, (and maybe a shortbread biscuit or two) and STOP THINKING ABOUT COUNTING BOOKS!


Wednesday 4 January 2012

Bookish thoughts on 2011 and 2012

I think 2011 was an odd year for many people, in some cases downright unpleasant and I really hope that those folk will fare better in 2012. We had our ups and downs, mostly okay until it became apparent that our daughter was going to need spinal surgery and then it was just a waiting game through the autumn until it finally happened at the end of December. Thank you to everyone who sent good wishes while it was happening. It means so much to me and to *her* and she's asked me to say thank you on her behalf as well. She's doing really well now. The first week was a bit tricky as it always is after an operation but she turned a corner four or five days ago and is now well on the road to recovery. Funny... she's always liked reading but being a single, working parent, time was always an issue. Now it isn't, she's been devouring books like there's no tomorrow and it's no exaggeration to say that they're helped get her through this thoroughly unpleasant experience. She's been reading all sorts, from Jeffrey Eugenides' latest to the Twilight series and many things in between such as Kelly Armstrong, Laurie R. King and The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss (we're waiting for the library to be open tomorrow to pick up the sequel for her.) I've just sent her off with Grass by Sheri Tepper, probably my favourite sci-fi yarn, and will be interested to hear what she thinks.

Anyway, on to boks I read in 2011. They numbered 83 altogether. That's about as many as I've ever read in one year and as many as I *could* read I think. It would be pointless me going for 100 as I'm certain I wouldn't get there! I'm a bit of an eclectic reader so the 83 covers all kinds of books - much more crime than I ever used to read, some fantasy, sci-fi, horror, general fiction, classics, and all of 11 non-fiction which is exactly the same as last year and really not good enough in my opinion.

A favourite book? Well. I'm not sure I can choose a favourite exactly so I'll go for a top ten:

1. Barchester Towers - Anthony Trollope
2. Track of the Cat - Nevada Bar
3. Body Double - Tess Gerritsen
4. The Wine of Angels - Phil Rickman
5. City of Pearl - Karen Traviss
6. Dark Fire - C.J. Sansom
7. The House at Sea's End - Elly Griffiths
8. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie - Alan Bradley
9. The Little House on the Prairie - Laura Ingalls Wilder
10. These is My Words - Nancy Turner

And if I really *really* had to choose a favourite? Nope... I can't... but the top three would be, These is My Words, Barchester Towers and Track of the Cat.

Favourite non-fictions:

1. I Can't Stay Long - Laurie Lee (Beautiful essays)
2. The Magic Apple Tree - Susan Hill (A year in an Oxford village)
3. Garlic and Sapphires - Ruth Reichl (Food critic experiences)

Last year I took part in and finished four separate challenges and also Carls' Sci-fi experience. Very pleased with my results on those. I discovered, or was introduced to (you culprits know who you are!), several new series including the Anna Pigeon books by Nevada Barr, the Merrily Watkins series by Phil Rickman and the Flavia de Luce books by Alan Bradley. I also managed to finish three series, or will when my first read of this year is complete.

So, it was quite a good reading year and yet... I don't feel all that thrilled by it. I feel like I concentrated too much on rushing from one book to another without stopping to consider and also... not really learning very much. So I plan to slow down a bit in 2012... savour what I read a bit more, read more classics (Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Trollope etc.) and especially try to read more non-fiction so that I learn something. Of course, reading around the USA will help with that and the last couple of months of 2011 when I started that personal challenge were actually pure joy. And so, if I find at the end of 2012 that, instead of reading 80+ books, I've read maybe 50 - 60 I will not be at all disappointed. I know that sounds a bit mad but reading is not a competition to see who can read the most books and I really need to absorb that fact and act on it. The other thing I *really* need to act on is to stop borrowing so much from the library and to read from my own tbr pile. I have a feeling that's going to be a bit more tricky.

Happy New Year to all and I hope everyone has the kind of reading year they wish to have. Can't wait to read all your thoughts and ramblings as I'm not sure I don't prefer those to proper reviews. LOL. Happy reading!