Thursday, 28 December 2017

The Dark is Rising


Oh my god, what a joy to just sit and read this.  Pure pleasure.  I loved this book when I was 11 and just as much, if not more, at 46. I'm so glad that Philip Pullman's Belle Sauvage reminded me of this book and I'm sorry Philip Pullman, this is  better.   
The story is based around Anglo-Saxon and Celtic legends via a fight between good and evil forces all centred around a boy who turns 11 on the winter solstice in 1973. To make it even better it all takes place around my home walking patch the Thames Valley.  Yes, it's all a bit dated but for me it's as scary as The Hobbit  and makes  Harry Potter seem like Tom and Jerry. Unfortunately,  this book, like Philip Pullman's, just didn't have a good movie made from it so they have both suffered from marketing problems.  The cany JK Rowling retained director's rights over the movies so her unique vision has held the world bewitched for years. 
  It is an extremely descriptive book which describes the eternal battle of  dark and light.  It's based in a multi dimensional world and Will is the collector of 6 signs of nature to be held against the powers of the dark . The book takes place at the end of December into January, a time full of magic and melancholy.  And for anyone who finds this time of year a bit spooky, weird, depressing and exciting all at the same time...with the addition of  severe weather events, this book is perfect. 
    Susan Cooper writes like a dream. Her style is amazing and so many writer's of today must have started with the images formed by this book. In fact her writing style  is where this book excels for me. It's only as a walker that I realise that all the things I see now are so perfectly described in some novels.  This book describes the part of the world where I'm from with a  perfect dose of Christmas magic.

I have just looked at the artwork in the twitter feed for this book, which has been set up over the christmas period.  It's great.

Monday, 18 December 2017

La Belle Sauvage. Book of Dust Part 1



Time to resurrect my reading blog.  It's been a long time and this one seems like a good choice to kick it back into action!  I read the last installment of Philip Pullman's 'His Dark Materials' Trilogy 17 years ago so this has been a bit of a wait.
This was a beautiful hardback book with wonderful cover and stars/dust all over it and I was so excited about reading it, but to be honest it never really instantly grabbed me as much as the previous books.  I think it was just much slower and much darker and in places a bit dull.  But over the last 24 hours I have totally immersed myself in the last half and I really loved it.  Even though it was weird and has left lots of things unexplained it was a great read, like a mad Greek adventure moved from the Mediterranean to the River Thames . 
This book takes place 10 years before the original trilogy and explains how the heroine, Lyra, got saved and placed in sanctuary in Jordan College, Oxford. Obviously my first joy is that I recognise most of the places in this parallel universe of Oxford.  It's a watery world and The Trout pub, the peacocks, Godstow Priory, Wolvercote,  The Duke's Cut on the canal and the side streets of Jericho all feature.  Malcolm, the 11 year old hero of the story who saves Lyra, lives in the Trout and has a boring existence until he finds Lyra hidden in the priory and he gets involved with espionage against the evil magisterium. Malcolm is just a normal run of the mill lad and his side kick Alice is just a grumpy teenager with attitude but by the end of the book they have survived some immense and horrific  adventures.  That's what I love about Philip Pullman, the heroic  kids are just all so normal yet they all end up being so brave and doing amazing things. He really makes me feel positive about what all kids could do if given the chance!  The only thing that did grate though is that as the story progresses and the kids paddle down the river saving baby Lyra, Alice loses her feisty edge and becomes more of a mother figure to Lyra and more in awe of Malcolm's bravery and strength. (Lyra's nappy changing and feeding could have been shared between the two of them!!) I think old Pullman is a classic sexist underneath it all!
I loved the great flood and the way Malcolm's canal boat just gets taken down the river as Brytain begins to sink under water.  The weird little Islands and odd buildings he comes across are very strange.  The fairie scenes, water giant scene and odd ghost like places are straight out of Greek myths. They also reminded me of weird sections in the life of Pi and the last book by Susan Cooper in The Dark is Rising Trilogy.  But the adventure section was all a bit rushed for me and to be honest a bit flat...coz it was just one mad hurried adventure after another fleeing from the horrible, twisted villain and OH MY GOD what a great villain.  
People in this parallel universe have animals who are attached to them, they are called their daemons and these daemons represent their souls.  The animals change form constantly until the child hits puberty and then takes on one fixed animal.  Reading about people's daemons is a highlight of these books. I love them and the villain's daemon was awful.  A complete terror and what she does is gross too.  I loved the complex nature of the villain because he looked pretty normal and was very friendly and charismatic but his animal daemon was absolutely hideous...a really interesting mix for a character!! He was quite a complex and  disturbing character to be honest and I'm looking forward to learning more about the history of this twisted and dark man in future books!  Infact this book poses more questions than answers them.  It is definitely not a stand alone book and hopefully the next installment will throw a bit of light on lots of loose ends. in fact there were far too many unanswered questions for me, which was pretty irritating.
But I'm glad I've spent the beginning of my Christmas holidays enjoying this book.  I loved that I knew most of the places. Greek myths taking part on the Thames as it rushes through the Chilterns will always be high on my list of enjoyable things to think about. I'll be on the look out for fairies and Old Father Thames the next time I am out walking!! 




Saturday, 15 April 2017

The Essex Serpent


Wow, I've been held in a trance!  I have read this book in less than two days and I have loved every minute of not being able to sleep or do anything much else, but enjoy this.   It helped that I ordered it from Bicester library and got a beautiful hardback copy. I always knew I wanted to read a massive hardback version of this book as I just love the cover. 
Weirdly , I have not been able to enjoy reading for almost a year now and I'm so glad that the spell was well and truely broken this weekend. 
This book was my perfect mix: science, religion, witchcraft,  the idea of freedom, poverty, love, friendship, magical  realism and the amazing natural world all mixed up into a story set in Essex and London in 1893. I can't really describe it apart from I thought it was really beautiful and rather strange. Unsettling and totally brilliant. 
really felt that Sarah Perry was writing in that era. There were no anachronistic moments but even so there were so many relevant topics to today.  ( How to treat your children when they are different to other children, how to care for  veterans from  the war in Afghanistan, dealing with unscrupulous landlords and the definitions of the undeserving poor.)    In fact in some ways this book was a bit too heavy on the 'worthy ideas front' but I still loved it and the characters were brilliant.  I can still see the village of Aldchester in Essex and the Blackwater river as it hit the North Sea.  The natural world in this book is another character and I just loved the passages about light, water, clouds, moss, fossils and trees!   The love story is heart-wrenchingly romantic and the sections on religion and science were just beautiful.  The weirdness didn't bother me either.  I kinda liked the illness/ madness  which took over one of the characters.  Her blue tinged world was straight out of a gothic romance. I'm  glad I read it quickly.  This book was like a drug to me and I enjoyed every minute. I don't know if I would have enjoyed it so much if I had read it slowly. Parts of the plot might have irritated me but like this it was one big joy and I recommend this book highly!  Warning...it is addictive and wonderfully strange.   Think I might read bits of it again! 

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Any Human Heart

Totally enjoyed this and I'm kinda sad to have finished it. I really have felt that I have spent the last month travelling  with Logan Mountsturt through his life and diaries  from 1923 ( when he was 17) to 1991 and his death.  I loved his early life stories, which he wrote about retrospectively, and the mad games he played in his school with his  2 best mates. It all seemed lots of fun, but highly competitive and crazy. Logan's 2 mates were his family really and it's sad to see how the relationships with his friends change  over his lifetime. THey all had a full life of promise ahead of them, but like real life Logan did not always take the life chances available to him. WHilst at other times his life took crazy turns and great leaps. All in all  Logan's life was the life of a survivor.  A life with lots of sadness, great happiness, and peopled with just a few people who he truely, truely loved and trusted. THat's what upset me about this book, how few people truely were loved by Logan. 
I had a love / hate/ infuriationwith Logan through this book. Getting inside the head of a rather pompous, lazy and privileged teenage boy/ middle aged man is not a place I travel to often but I kinda enjoyed it.  Duringthe Second World War things did tragically fall apart for Logan and seeing him slowly build a life back for himself was an emotional read.  His diaries are just so honest and William Boyd sure writes beautifully in his voice.  PArts of his diary made me howl with laughter and at other times I was in floods of tears. I also liked the quirky famous people popping up in this book, ( he met Picasso, Hemmingway Ian Fleming, Virigina Wolf...but these characters were always just sidelines and always highly obnoxious according to Logan!) 
 Logan sure did travel, see the world and witness a lot. He was born in Uruguay, studied at Oxford, worked in France, , went to the Spanish civil war and was nearly blown up, wrote a novel, spied on Edward Vlll and Wallis Simpson. ( They were amazingly foul characters!), ended up in solitary confinement in Switzerland for 2 years because of pissing them off.  Returned home to some tragic news in London, went to live in New York, became addicted to drink, drugs and extra marital sex, ran away to Nigeria and got involved in the Biafrian War of independence whilst finding peace as a Uni lecturer. Retired, came back to the UK as a poverty stricken pensioner, who was living off dog food. started selling German Left Wing newspapers to students and inadvertently ended up almost smuggling nitroglycerine for some German Anarchists and then finally luckily( phewwww!) ended up in some sort of semi-peaceful existence in France.  All a great read! 
  Logan lives an interesting life but more by mistake than by anything else.  I'm sure if I had met him I don't think I would have warmed to him at all or ever even given his life story any consideration but underneath Logan's annoying persona there were absolute pearls of wisdom written by him in this book. The thing about Logan was he had a strong spirit and he survived.  Many of his friends didn't. 
 His was a life, underneath it all, an ordinary life.  A life full of promise, adventures, great happiness, regret and deep sadness.  ULtimately a life like any of us.
 A highly recommended read! 

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Rebecca


This is my ancient old battered copy which I have been rereading over the last month.  This book took me ages to finish.  I just haven't been able to read a lot lately.  It's the longest drought I've had in years. (Ever )   I blame it all on my addiction to '  an instant information vortex ' on my phone.  I have new, strict rules with my phone now so things are slowly improving .
This book was bloody brilliant but so vivid and unsettling, so whenever I closed the book it was as if Manderley and the characters were still clearly living in my head. JESUS! MRS. DANVERS!  Probably the creepiest, most mental and crazed character in literature!  What a woman!!  Just the presence of her skull like face in a window of a room was enough to send my heart racing! 
Everything about this house is so well described and it's all so damn ominous and creepy. The second Mrs De Winter really got on my nerves this time of reading.  What a wimp.  But she is so totally in love with her husband and so jealous of his dead, first wife, Rebecca that her feelings just swamp her.  Dead, beautiful, charming, thin, wonderful Rebecca is the main character of this book.  She breathes her way through every page of this book and has everyone under her control, even from the grave. I have to say, this time of reading it I had far more time for Rebecca and it was her husband, Mr de Winter, who had more of my anger, along with the demented behaviour of Danvers!  
The repression and undercurrents of jealousy are brilliantly described and some nights I just had to stop reading this book because it was just getting too much.  I was just screaming at wimpy, unnamed narrator to get a bloody back bone. But this is easy for me to say because good grief I would have wet my pants in the presence of Mrs. Danvers.  I haven't read this book since I was 18. Lots of it I remembered but not the ending in Mr Baker's house, which was  a bloody brilliant twist.  The ending was great and very classy, like a wonderful looped movie which made me want to instantly start reading the book again. Rebecca having the last laugh again. I love how Daphne de Maurier has written this book as a study of human jealousy.  She was a total genius of a writer and I'm in awe of her perception. Who was the bad person in this book? Who was right?  How quickly can happiness turn poisonous?
To be honest part of me really enjoyed reading this book slowly because I could really savour every single bit of imagery, every fear and  repressed emotion. Yes, this book is a masterpiece but not an easy read at all.  It's deeply unsettling and even flowers, architecture and the weather take on deeply significant roles in the claustrophobic atmosphere of Manderley.  
  I think modern authors, such as Sarah Waters,  might have written this book from different perspectives too and part of me would have liked to have seen Rebecca's, Danver's or Favell's viewpoints on the events but they are not there.  Al we can do is draw our own conclusions.  
An absolutely brilliant book!  
PS This book is sold on this cover  as a Love Story. This is totally wrong in my opinion. I think it is far more about jealousy, control and power.  But hey, maybe those words wouldn't have helped sell the book! 

Friday, 14 October 2016

Letters between Six Sisters

G

  The Mitfords were famous sisters from both pre and post the Second World War.  They were also members of the 'British Upper Class.' The sisters were well known society characters who filled  the pages of the press daily, Yet all sisters were highly individual characters who lived very interesting lives. People they knew included Hitler, JFK and Maya Angelou.  This is a collection ofsome of the letters they sent to each other during their lives.  GOssip, rage, sadness, politics, humour and family issues are all covered here. The family were bought up in the 20s in a run down Victorian mansion in Swinbrook, Oxfordshire and were basically left to run wild.  Their father was bonkers,  their mother was probably just knackered and depressed and Nancy said that if they had been poor they would have been taken into care from a very young age. 

The highlights for me were the extreme politics and how one family could become so polarised, and also how important letters and writing were to these sisters .  4 of them became published authors. 

THe fascist  sisters, Diana and Unity went to Germany, met Hitler and became besotted.  The reaction of the other sisters and family members is outrage and worry and Diana spent the Second World War locked up in a British prison with her fascist husband Oswald Moseley. Unity tried to commit suicide at the outbreak of war, failed and became like an incontinent  5 year old child who needed 24 hour care. (The bullet just lodged in her brain and didn't kill her.)  their Mother looked after Unity tirelessly until Unity died about 8 years later. (They were living on a remote Scottish Island at the time and it took the doctor too long to get out there so Unity died of meningitis at 33 , caused by the bullet still lodged in her brain) 

NAncy Mitford's jealousy and bitterness towards her sisters and her hatred for her mother, who she blames for not sending them to school and getting an education beyond being society wives,comes out in the letters. Her ascerbic  wit is clear and it's obvious that nobody really understand her and her lonely existance in Paris,living next door to this French general she loved but who didn't love her. Plus as Diana has her children Nancy has parallel miscarriages by her feckless, money grabbing useless husband. He refuses to divorce Nancy because he loves her money too much.  SHe makes a packet from her novels as well as from her family connections. Nancy is obviously the best writer of all the sisters but it's only in old age when she is alone, in permanent pain living on microwave dinners that her letters become really funny. Her sisters never told her that she had terminal cancer. (They asked the doctors not to share the information with Nancy, ) reading these letters has made me want to read more of her stuff. 

Pamela married then divorced, never had kids, became a world renowned specialist on the breeding of a  rare  type of chicken and then moved in with her Italian female lover. She isn't part of the story much but was known as the most non-maternal of the sisters but obviously quite caring as it was her whom Diana's sons lived with, whilst their Mother was incarcerated in Wormwood  Scrubs during  the war. The other  sisters often joked about Pamela being extremely tight, about her exploding pickled eggs which could shatter out of their glass containers at any time, and Pamela loving animals far more than humans. 

DEborah is the youngest and most level headed of the sisters.  She is like the rock of the family, the only one who retains friendly relations throughout with all sisters. Deborah never becomes political and at the beginning Nancy takes the piss out of her and calls her 'Nine'.  Because that is the age Nancy thinks she got stuck at. Deborah is proud of not being that intellectual or well read...but secretly she was reading and writing and in her later years she also became a writer like her oldest sister.  What I love about Deborah is she is the most privileged, marrying into the Devonshire family, but she seems to stay quite connected and able to laugh at herself.  When her brother in law dies, Deborah and her husband become the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire and Chatsworth house in Derbyshire becomes their property.  After the war this house is an abandoned run down country pile which has millions of pounds of death duties on its head to pay before they can move in.  The  Devonshire family were shite with money management, plus The post war  Britsh government really taxed the wealthy highly. ( Partly the reason why Diana and Nancy moved abroad.)  Anyway, Deborah became the project manager of Chatsworth house and after many years of work she got it back to a livable standard, opened up parts to the public and after 20 years was able to pay off the death duties to the government and finally move in to a part of it.  Yeah, she is still really posh and privileged but through reading this collection of letters you really get a sense of her great even handedness with all her extremely emotional sisters.  Plus she is the only one, apart from their Mother, who was willing to go to America and stay on the sofa bed at Jessica's house.  No other sister could even contemplate the horrors of sleeping on a sofa bed...let alone the awfulness of being surrounded by  uncouth, classless AMERICANS! 
Deborah died last year.  The last Mitford sister. 

Now Jessica, my favourite of all the sisters.  She becomes a communist in her teens, runs away to Spain to support the Republicans and then moves to the USA in 1939.  Her and Diana never communicate by letter as they are obviously polar opposites in political allegiance.  Jessica is the only sister to run away completely from her family and make a fulfilled life away from the Mitford sister badge.  She is highly political and becomes the only sister to work independently with political conviction.  She becomes an active member of the civil rights movement and a well known author in the States.  She lives a normal life, Invites her sisters over to stay but writes that they don't have any money and they will have to stay on the sofa or in cheap nearby hotels.  Only Deborah and Mother take up the offer and both love the trip! Jessica becomes a journalist and a writer, finally releasing a book about her and her sisters.  This obviously causes a wedge between her ,Nancy and Diana. But Jessica is also well known for writing a book called 'The AMerican Way of Death'  and weirdly I've just seen online that David Bowie cited this book as his all time favourite . Movingly Jessica is the only sister to make sure that their Mother had a comfortable house to live in during the end of her life. She actively cared for her mother even though she only ever saw her once in the States.  Plus Jessica's father cut Jessica out of his will.  He hated that his daughter was a communist and was ashamed to have a RED daughter. This was the time of the communist witch trials in the States and Jessica could not leave the States because she would never have been allowed back in at the time.  I have also just found out that JK Rowling named her daughter Jessica out of respect for this woman. 

Reading letters by rich sisters from the British Upper Classes isn't everyone's idea of fun but what I realised is that the back drop of society in these letters is amazing plus these sisters sure are characters!  You couldn't make it all up!  Hearing  about how Deborah's car was turned over by the locals in Bakewell with her in it and the abuse she got was interesting.  Plus these women were all products of their time, totally subservient to their class, their husbands and their appearance. Infact lots of these letters make me really glad that I was out alive at this time.  Life was obviously tough for all women at this time, and surprisingly still really  tough for these Upper Class women too.  Emotional release is apparent in these personal letters but even so there is always the stiff upper lip to retain even within letters written to your sisters and this made me mad and sad! 
  The emotions of losing their one brother in the war, Unity's attempted suicide and end of life care which was pushed totally onto the shoulders of their mother, the mental illness of their father, the drudgery of their mother's life with Unity,  their frequent miscarriages, their father's affair with the maid, their awful huge cold damp childhood house which was falling down around them, their father's refusal to educate them.  These things were only ever hinted at apart from Nancy who got really angry about their awful childhood. Nancy never really found happiness apart from within writing and when buying both furniture and haute couture clothes.   The man she was obsessed with never loved her and she could never move on from him.   I didn't feel jealous of any of them apart from maybe Deborah for having complete control over the rebuilding and day to day running of beautiful Chatsworth House and Jessica for finding complete independence away from everything in Oakland California! 


 These letters were surprisingly moving and a great backdrop to the changes in British society between  the 1920s and the year 2001. 

Thursday, 29 September 2016

The Devil's Star


This book by Jo Nesbo was awful. Worse than awful.  I have been trying to read it for about 3 weeks now and getting nowhere fast.  Infact reading this book has put me into a deep reading drought.  Never have I felt so uninspired to pick up a book. I should have ditched this book weeks ago but never did because I was stubborn and stupidly believed that it might get better.  This book never did. It was complete drivel and this morning, after I fell asleep with it on my lap in my daily traffic jam to work, I decided to ditch it and happily left it behind on my seat. Walking to work I felt great, like  a weight had been lifted from me.  It had, I no longer was carrying this pile of crap round with me.