Saturday 18 September 2021

Two short reviews

Two books to review briefly today, starting with A Talent to Amuse by Sheridan Morley.

This, as will be seen from the cover, is a biography of Noel Coward, the playwright, actor, song-writer and writer. He was born in 1899 (it's funny, I never think of him as Victorian) to a middle-class family who were not well off. He performed in school concerts and holiday competitions and knew from a very early age that he would be going into into the theatre and knew too that he would be famous. His first paid job was at the age of eleven and it was soon obvious that not only did he have a natural gift for music, he was also grimly determined to make it in the business. Which of course he did and was responsible for some of the most famous plays in the history of the British theatre, Blithe Spirit, Private Lives, Hay Fever, but he also wrote or starred in some iconic films, In Which We Serve, Brief Encounter, Blithe Spirit again, and The Italian Job. Not to mention songs such as Mad Dogs and Englishmen, Don't Put Your Daughter on the Stage Mrs. Worthington and London Pride. This was a free book from Dean Street Press. Every week they advertise a free book on Twitter and the link takes you to Amazon where you can download it to your Kindle. (The link to their Twitter page is HERE.) Anyway, this was a very enjoyable read. It's made plain from the start that it's a theatre based biography, not a warts and all exposé. The author knew Coward and Coward asked him not to discuss his homosexuality in the book because 'there were still a few very old ladies out there who did not realise'. As such it is very much about his work rather than his personal life, although it does not altogether neglect that either. I found the ups and downs of Coward's working life quite surprising. He had a lot of failures amongst his huge successes and at times was quite unpopular in the British press. Some of his plays were thought to be solacious or immoral, dealing as they did with the reality of marriage and affairs. Noel Coward's life is a 'huge' subject and I would definitely like to read more. Possibly his diaries and letters would prove very interesting, he was also an habitual traveller, often travelling with the Royal Navy, and I would love to hear more about that. A good introduction to the man though.


Lastly, Grey Mask by Patricia Wentworth, which I first read about on Tracy's blog.

This is the first book in the author's 'Miss Silver' series of books, written in 1928. Charles Moray is returning to London after a four year absence. He's been travelling the world trying to recover from being jilted by his fiance, Margaret Langton. She gave no explanation and Charles assumed there was someone else and that by now she is married with children. It comes as a shock to discover she's not and  that she's mixed up in some very funny business. Looking around his empty house one night, prior to moving back in, he realises someone is upstairs. Hiding in a cupboard, he overhears what is clearly a gang planning something criminal, and in walks Margaret. She's only there for a few minutes and he can't hear what's said but it changes everything for him. Margaret meanwhile has picked up a young women in distress off the street. Empty headed, Margot Standing, is in fear for her life and Charles and Margaret end up trying to help her. Realising he's out of his depth and not willing to go to the police because of Margaret's secret involvement in criminal activities, Charles enlists the help of Miss Silver, a private detective of mature years, to help them with these knotty problems. This was great fun, reminding me a little of a couple of Agatha Christie's standalones, such as The Man in the Brown Suit. Miss Silver is not at all centre stage, it's more about this group of young people trying to get out of the tangled web they've woven for themselves. I'm assuming that in subsequent books Miss Silver is more to the fore. The character of Margot Standing was pretty annoying if I'm honest, but then I suspect she was meant to be. The writing, as you'd expect from someone beginning her writing career in the 1920s, was superb, they knew how to write back then. It's interesting to note that Patricia Wentworth didn't stop writing until her death in 1961, she was 83, and was incredibly prolific. I shall certainly try another of her books, in fact I have another free book from Dean Street Press again, The Red Lacquer Case, and I'll check out what the library has as well.

Tuesday 7 September 2021

The Secret Life of Albert Entwistle - Matt Cain


Albert Entwistle has been a postman in the northern town of Toddington for most of his life. He's now 64 and since his bullying mother died he's lived on his own with his beloved cat, Gracie. Albert keeps himself to himself, the other postmen and women, though friendly, hardly seem to notice him and Albert likes it that way. In fact, he encourages it. A lot of effort is put into making sure that people ignore him because Albert is keeping a huge secret.

Things would doubtless have continued in this manner but for two things. Albert forgets that 65 is looming and that means the Post Office will retire him... and they do. And no more than a few days later his beloved Gracie dies peacefully in her sleep. Misery consumes him. He thinks back to the only time in his life that he was truly happy.

Aged 16 and in his final year, a new boy arrives at Albert's school.

 'George Atkinson. That's the new boy's name.

  He's tall and slim, with delicate features and hair that when it catches the light looks like burnt gold and reminds Albert of the grass on the moors in winter. But it's his eyes that are most striking; eyes that are such an intense shade of blue they border on violet. Albert finds it difficult to take his eyes off them.'

Of course, Albert already knew he was different to the other boys, knew how important it was that his friends not notice he had no interest in the girls they pursued with such singlemindedness. Not just because he would be bullied mercilessly if they knew but also because his father was a policeman and back in the sixties and seventies, homosexuality was a crime, punishable with a prison sentence. 

Lost after the death of Gracie, Albert wanders into his mother's old room. It hasn't change since she died, because he hasn't been able to bring himself to touch it. He finds himself looking among her things and there's a box in the wardrobe. Inside, little precious things she had kept and amongst them, a photo of Albert with George Atkinson.

So this was one of those fortuitous, random grabs from the library.What with Covid and lockdowns I'd almost forgotten what it was like to grab a random book but this one was on a table amongst other newish arrivals and I was taken by its bright cover. Looking inside and reading the blurb, I was intrigued and brought it home. 

It's quite a sad book in many ways. The manner in which Albert keeps the world at bay, how frightened he is when anyone speaks to him or he has to make an effort to be sociable or nice, even to the point of only exchanging a few words with a lonely old lady on his round and then scarpering. 'But' things change and change rapidly and it's delightful to see how Albert blossoms and what makes him do it and how people react to the massive change in him. 

The quest he embarks on is joyous to read about. There's a bit of a double timeline, mostly it's present day but we also read about what happened with Albert and George (not at all in an explicit manner) and to be honest it just makes you grieve for all the men and women this has happened to throughout the years. The intolerance was appalling and still hasn't completely gone away although things are now 'much' better. 

A delightful read, well written, the author, Matt Cain, is himself gay I believe so knows of what he speaks. The characters just jump off the page at you and Albert especially is wonderful. Definitely a book about daring to be who you really are. Loved it.

Sunday 5 September 2021

The 20 Books of Summer challenge

So this was my first attempt at the  20 Books of Summer challenge which was being hosted by 746 Books. It officially finished on the 1st. September lasting for 3 months from the 1st. June.

These were the 20 books I chose:

1. Persuasion - Jane Austen

2. The Shell Seekers - Rosamunde Pilcher

3. Washington Black - Esi Edugyan

4. The Giver of Stars - Jojo Moyes

5. The Book Collectors of Daraya - Delphine Minoui

6. Sicilian Carousel - Lawrence Durrell

7. The Towers of Trebizond - Rose Macaulay

8. The End of the Road - Jack Cooke

9. Wanderers - Keri Andrews

10. Spaceworlds - edited by Mike Ashley

11. Faring to France on a Shoe - Val Poore

12. A Borrowing of Bones - Paula Munnier

13. The Mauritius Command - Patrick O'Brian

14. A Quiet Life in the Country - T.E. Kinsey

15. One Summer in Crete - Nadia Marks

16. The Other Bennet Sister - Janice Hadlow

17. Through Siberia by Accident - Dervla Murphy

18. People Missing in the Woods - Steph Young

19. A Dangerous Place - Jacqueline Winspear

20. A House in Sicily - Daphne Phelps

Well, I certainly didn't manage to read all of the 20 books! I managed 12, which isn't terrible but neither is it amazing. Next year if I do this again I'll probably aim for 10 or 15 and spend a little more time choosing the books. I changed several of them for one reason or another so next time I would be more precise.

I wanted to travel around the world with the books I read, and did, so that's good. Places visited include, France, Sicily, Vermont and other parts of the USA, the Indian Ocean, Crete, Siberia, Gibralter, and a tour of the UK. 

Anyway, great fun and think I would definitely have another go at this one.

Wednesday 1 September 2021

Books read in August and Autumn plans

And so we see the end of August and the beginning of my favourite month of the year, September. Meteorlogically speaking I believe it's the first day of Autumn, or so the local weather forecast chap always tells us. In reality it's the 21st. I think, but you know what? I'm going with the local BBC chap, so Autumn it is. Now. *Nods*

First of all, the seven books I read in August:

56. The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson 

57. In the Market for Murder by T.E. Kinsey 

58. The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman 

59. Through Siberia by Accident by Dervla Murphy 

60. Breath by James Nestor. 

Basically, breathe through your mouth and not your nose says the author. And goes on to tell the reader how bad mouth-breathing is, how it causes snoring and sleep apnea and then he gives instructions on deep breathing. Which I tried and it does actually help me get to sleep quicker. The optimum deep breath 'in' is 5.5 seconds and you should then breath 'out' for the same amount of time. Apparently respiritory illnesses were not so much of a problem until we started cooking our food until it was soft. That made our brains grow bigger but our mouths and breathing passages shrank. (He explains it better.) Millenia ago humans had to chew food for hours, giving us large jaws, straight teeth and good breathing passages. There's lot of interesting stuff in the book. The science of breathing goes back hundreds of years apparently, back to monks who knew all about it, plains indians did too and so on. This was quite an interesting book and won't fail to make you think about the way you breathe... while you're reading it, which is a bit of a distraction if I'm honest. You might get some funny looks...


61. Crawling Horror: Creeping Tales of the Insect Weird edited by  Daisy Butcher and Janette Leaf

62. A Dangerous Place by Jacqueline Winspear. Book 11 in the author's 'Maisie Dobbs' series. Another  good instalment set on Gibralter. Interesting setting, interesting plot... but I had some qualms about Maisie's personal behaviour after the events of the last four years, which you only hear about in dribs and drabs, not an actual book. It won't stop me reading the series but I took a long, hard look at her during this book. Hmm.

So, that was August. Some good books, some interesting books but not a stellar month for reading if I'm honest. Possibly because as months go I really don't care for August and my lack of enthusiasm ends up being reflected in my reading, or the way I feel about it.

So on to September, a month I do like. So I've picked out a few books not only for September but also for October, which I also like. (Click for a larger view.)

As will be seen, I want to read a few ghostly yarns, some good non-fiction and a classic I keep hearing about at the moment, The Count of Monte Cristo (to my knowledge I've not read this before but I can't be certain). Three of these are rereads... E.F. Benson's ghost stories, The Diary of Anne Frank and The Historian. I've also created a new shelf on my Kindle Fire entitled 'Autumn reads' with about 15 books on it. No way do I think I will read all of these books but that's no reason not to try.

Happy Autumn reading!