katewritesandreads

katewritesandreads

Sunday, 30 September 2018

Seven or so in September


I read five or so books in September.


Bought in Christian Aid Book Sale. This is a book like no other I have read. 
It’s partly a memoir of Keggie (Kathleen) of growing up with her three siblings, her mother and her larger-than-life father, Tom. (Both parents had extraordinary family histories – and later, after they divorced, there was the much-hated Stepmother.) 
And it’s partly her piecing together Tom’s time as an undercover agent with the Jedburghs, a branch of the Special Operations Executive, in the Second World War and afterwards. She vividly portrays his time with the Resistance in France, and in Burma helping to conspire against the Japanese oppressors.
That aspect is not just the work of her imagination; she did a massive amount of research and also spoke to some of Tom’s colleagues who survived from those days – because, sadly, when she began to want to write this book her seemingly invincible father was suffering from dementia and unable to contribute meaningful memories.

Keggie Carew’s writing is fab – this is as gripping as any war-time thriller should be and as poignant as any family memoir should be, with large helpings of black humour and clear-eyed insights. With its different time frames it can’t have been an easy book to construct but it works brilliantly.


English Passengers by Matthew Kneale
Has been on my shelves for years; a current interest in Tasmania made me pick it up now.
First of all, a quiz question: Who is Matthew Kneale’s mother?
Ans: none other than the amazing Judith Kerr, famous for creating The Tiger Who Came to Tea and the Mog stories, among many other wonderful books.
However, English Passengers is rather more wordy than those, weighing in at 470 pages including an Anglo-Manx glossary. It’s set in 1857 and has thirteen viewpoint characters. 
A motley collection of passengers, brought together in various ways, are on a ship bound for Tasmania, that shield-shaped island below Australia, thought by at least one of those on board to be the true site of the Garden of Eden; plus we also hear from several people already on the island who include the natives who are literally being hunted to extinction, the colonial rulers and a chain-gang of convicts.
Every one of the voices ring true; these all seem like real, individual people. Inevitably some of their stories are the grimmest possible but there is much humour to be found too. The main character is the ship’s captain, the insouciant and wonderfully named Manx smuggler, Illiam Quillian Kewley.
I loved it.


After those two corkers I had a blip, reading-wise. I just wasn’t in the mood for getting to know new characters so I fell back on faithful standbys: three O. Douglases. 


‘O. Douglas’ was the pen name of Anna Buchan, sister of the more famous John. Her domestic novels, several of them thinly disguised autobiographies, were very popular in their day, in the early decades of the 20th century. They won’t be to everyone’s taste now but I know I am not their only fan (there is a Facebook group devoted to her). I have been reading them over and over since I was about ten so they are like family members – you know them so well and recognise that they have faults but you love them very much anyway.

And I enjoyed these latest additions to my collection of girls’ annuals.


Normal service will be resumed – I have some new books I am looking forward to reading in October. Watch this space.

Tuesday, 11 September 2018

Five in August


I read five books in August.


Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon
I so enjoyed Joanna Cannon’s first novel The Trouble with Goats and Sheep. This second novel did not disappoint; in fact I think I liked it even more.
Flo has fallen in her flat in the Cherry Tree Home for the Elderly. As she waits (she hopes) to be rescued she thinks about the mysterious new arrival at the Home, about her best friend Elsie, and about a terrible secret she’s been keeping almost all her life.
It takes a brilliant writer to have that as a premise and not make it a gloom-fest. Joanna Cannon pulls it off beautifully – you will actually laugh and cry, and the revelations about how Flo’s past and present have collided make it a real page-turner as well.


My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
I absolutely fell for Elizabeth Strout’s writing when I read Olive Kitteridge in May. Lucy Barton didn’t grab me quite so much but I still admired the structure and all the small details that made me feel I was right there. Lucy is in hospital for a prolonged but not life-threatening illness. She’s many miles away from where she grew up and the family from whom she’s become estranged. So when her mother turns up unexpectedly they have some talking to do.


Thorndon: Wellington and Home: My Katherine Mansfield Project by Kirsty Gunn
Acclaimed writer Katherine Mansfield grew up in Wellington, New Zealand – and couldn’t wait to leave it. And when she did she found she wanted to write about it. Kirsty Gunn grew up there too, to a family of Scots origin. She’s now based in the UK, writing, and teaching at the University of Dundee. When she got the chance, as a ‘Randell Fellow’, to go back to Wellington for a winter she didn’t at first jump at the chance – like Katherine Mansfield she had mixed emotions about her birthplace. But this little book came out of that time – staying in a 19th-century cottage in a street very near Mansfield’s old haunts, Kirsty Gunn explored the idea of ‘home’.
Why did I read this book? Well, watch this space.


Y is for Yesterday by Sue Grafton
Sue Grafton set out to go through the alphabet with her private investigator Kinsey Milhone. So it was very cruel that she died after she’d finished Y but before she’d written Z – and she left strict instructions that no one was to do that in her stead.
This 25th outing for Kinsey is, happily, the familiar mix of past and present mysteries and danger combined with her home life, such as it is. There’s her wonderful elderly landlord, Henry, and the diner with its almost uneatable Hungarian dishes run by Henry’s sister-in-law Rosie – Kinsey’s alternative to staying home and living on peanut butter and pickle sandwiches. In this book, though, there is the tantalising suggestion of a new direction Kinsey’s life might take. Sadly we’ll never know whether that happened or not. I will miss her – but I can always start at A again …


Too Marvellous for Words by Julie Welch
Perfect for grown-ups who can still remember great chunks of In the Fifth at Malory Towers. (Not just me … I met someone recently and the subject came up. I began to recite the song written by Darrell for Mary-Lou, as Cinderella, to sing in the school play, and my friend joined in: By the fire I sit and dream, and in the flames I see, picture of the lovely things that never come to me ah, me).
However, moving on … Julie Welch’s memoir of boarding school in Suffolk in the 60s (billed as ‘the real Malory Towers’) does have its fair share of jolly japes and midnight feasts but in Julie’s case the school was a welcome escape from a home life that wasn’t very happy.
I don’t now, as I used to, wish that I could have gone to boarding school but I still love reading about those that did.

Friday, 17 August 2018

Edinburgh International Book Festival poem

I wrote this years ago – I doubt it would win any poetry prizes but it's from the heart about one of the highlights of my year, the Edinburgh International Book Festival in Charlotte Square:


Charlotte Square

From a dictionary unravelled
words take wings, soar in the blue,
around America and France,
Spain, Africa and England too;
like homing birds drop from the air
– and come to earth in Charlotte Square.

For two blissful weeks of summer
prose and poetry take the stage
new plots and images enthrall us
ideas pour from page to page;
as poems are read we stand and stare
– and catch the rhymes in Charlotte Square.

Writing workshops, cappuccinos,
chocolate brownies, books galore,
queues to see our favourite authors
it’s all here, and much, much more;
it’s raining words, but all is fair
– the Book Festival’s in Charlotte Square.

Sad end of August, skies are bare
– the words have flown from Charlotte Square.


And if you want to know who I've seen so far at the 2018 Edinburgh International Book Festival visit the Capital Writers' website.

Tuesday, 7 August 2018

Six in July


I read six books in July, four fiction and two non-fiction.


From Christian Aid Booksale. From the back cover blurb: ‘Nancy Drew has survived the Depression, World War II, and the sixties to enter the pantheon of American girlhood.’ But the story of how the books were written is even more exciting than the girl detective’s many adventures. The ‘author’ Carolyn Keene <spoiler alert> did not exist.  Instead, Edward Stratemeyer thought up the storylines and formed a syndicate of writers to whom he farmed out the work; when he died his daughter Harriet took over.

This is really Harriet’s story, and that of one of the writers, Mildred Wirt, who (long before word processors) could turn in a manuscript in a matter of days. It was many years before Carolyn Keene’s non-existence was admitted to by the Stratemeyers and there had to be many subterfuges (eg when answering fan letters) to keep the secret. And in telling the history of Nancy Drew, the author has also given an engrossing account of women’s history over the decades.


The Wonder Spot by Melissa Banks
Sophie Applebaum feels a bit of a misfit. We first meet her when she’s about twelve at her cousin’s Bar Mitzvah and go with her through various (unsuitable) jobs and various (unsuitable) boyfriends, visit her beloved brothers and not-so-beloved grandmother, until we leave her in her early thirties, still not really sure of her place in the world. I liked the episodic way this was told so that with each chapter we have to fill in the gaps. I enjoyed the writing very much too.


The Curious Heart of Ailsa Rae by Stephanie Butland
I read Lost for Words by this author last July and absolutely loved it, one of my favourite books of the year. So I was very keen to read her new one and while I didn’t fall for it quite as much I would certainly recommend it. Ailsa was born with a serious heart defect; now, in her twenties, her life has been saved through having a heart transplant. In part the book is told through a blog she has kept during and after her days in hospital. Ailsa lives in Edinburgh and she finds herself involved in the production of a Fringe Festival event, Romeo and Juliet with tango … At the same time she is getting used to her new heart, she’s wondering about getting in touch with her estranged father, and there’s an unexpected new man in her life.


A Mother’s Goodbye by Kate Hewitt
I do like Kate Hewitt (who also writes as Katherine Schwartz). This story is told in alternate chapters, in the first person, by two women: Heather lives in a too-small house in downtown New Jersey; her husband is injured and unable to work and they have just found out that their fourth child is on the way; Grace works for an investment bank, lives in a minimalist flat in New York, and is realising how empty her life is. Under normal circumstances the two would never meet but … well, find out for yourselves and remember to have a box of tissues handy.


I usually avoid Jane Austen spin-offs and the title of this one did not appeal but when I flicked through I liked the look of it – and I thoroughly enjoyed it. ‘Jane Mansfield’, a gentleman’s daughter in England in 1813, wakes up in Los Angeles in the 21st century in the body of Courtney Stone. As she tries to realise what has happened and who she really is, she must quickly get to grips with the dizzying new world she finds herself in – I found it all very convincing. In Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict Courtney finds that she has gone back in time and is now Jane – look forward to reading that at some point.



Edited by Mary F Williamson and Tom Sharp

Christian Aid Book Sale purchase. During the days of the Second World War when children were being evacuated from cities to countryside, and from Britain overseas, Marie Williamson in Toronto and her family welcomed into their home two boys they had never met, children of a distant cousin in England. During the four years they stayed – and they weren’t the easiest of lads – she faithfully wrote long letters to their mother, which were found just a few years ago.

 I found the whole story fascinating. The boys could not have had a better foster family – the editors of the book are, respectively, Marie’s daughter and the younger of the evacuees. It was also a revelation to me that Canada too had wartime rationing – in part that was because they sent so much in the way of food over to Britain.


Saturday, 28 July 2018

Five in June


I read five books in June.


A Life of My Own by Claire Tomalin
Read for book group. Before she found her metier as a biographer (of eg Charles Dickens and, one of my heroes, Samuel Pepys) Claire Tomalin was a successful literary editor. That career would be enough for me to find her autobiography of interest as I worked in publishing in London around the same time (albeit not moving in the same circles … ) But her personal life is so interesting too, from a rather extraordinary childhood, to the death in Israel of her journalist husband Nick Tomalin, tragedies involving her children, and her second marriage to the playwright and novelist Michael Frayn.


Read on Kindle – but in retrospect it would have been better to have a print copy as it’s the sort of book which would be handy to have on a shelf to dip into. I am a little obsessed by names so any book on the subject is grist to my mill. This one covers first names – from Anglo-Saxon kings to today’s celebrity baby names – surnames and their origins, professional names, and the history of titles (Mr, Mrs etc). A good addition to my collection – even if I can’t put it on a shelf.


Looking for Charlotte by Jennifer Young
Read on Kindle. An excellent, gripping read (and I’m not just saying that because Jennifer is a fellow Capital Writer … )

Divorced and lonely, Flora Wilson is distraught when she hears news of the death of little Charlotte Anderson. Charlotte’s father killed her and then himself, and although he left a letter with clues to the whereabouts of her grave, his two-year-old daughter still hasn’t been found.

Flora embarks on a quest to find Charlotte’s body to give the child’s mother closure, believing that by doing so she can somehow atone for her own failings as a mother. As she hunts in winter through the remote moors of the Scottish Highlands, her obsession comes to threaten everything that’s important to her — her job, her friendship with her colleague Philip Metcalfe and her relationships with her three grown up children.


The English Girl by Katherine Webb
‘Secrets, feuds, passion and turmoil in 1950s Arabia.’ KW never writes the same book twice and her backgrounds are always fascinating. My favourite is The Legacy but I enjoyed this dual-narrative, inspired by the true story of an English woman who crossed the Empty Quarter, the world’s largest sand desert.


My Life by Annie S. Swan
Bought in Christian Aid book sale. Although virtually unknown today, in the first half of the twentieth century Annie S was a household name, finding fame as a writer of serials for The People’s Friend whose circulation at the time ran into many (many) hundreds of thousands. From fairly humble beginnings in the Scottish Borders she married a doctor and lived in London where she moved in some of the upper echelons of society – and doesn’t she like to tell us about it …

As a writer of PF serials myself (now on Kindle and in large-print in libraries ... ) I would have preferred less name-dropping and more on her writing process (as we would say now) and on her relationship with the publisher D C Thomson. But she does relate an incident where she was passing a shop and witnessed women coming out and turning pages of the magazine, desperate to find out what happened in the next instalment of her current serial. Ah well, one can only aspire.

Saturday, 30 June 2018

Poetry competition win!


The creative writing class that I go to every Friday occasionally ventures outside its room in the Southside Community Centre. Among other excursions, we have: visited the Early Peoples Gallery in the National Museum of Scotland; walked the Edinburgh Labyrinth in George Square Gardens; sat on benches in the Meadows; looked at the buildings in the streets around the Centre; and watched tapestry being made at the Dovecote Studios.


We have also been to Surgeons' Hall Museum with its fascinating, gory collections. These include various items connected with the notorious 19th-century grave robbers William Burke and William Hare




After digging up newly buried bodies and selling them to the Edinburgh University anatomist Dr Robert Knox, Burke and Hare progressed to murder and are thought to have had at least sixteen victims. They invented a murder method, still known as ‘burking’, a kind of suffocation, and they picked on unlikely-to-be-missed people, on the margins of society.

Mary Haldane was a prostitute around the dark streets of Edinburgh’s Old Town. She must have had a bleak existence – and she came to a very bleak end at the hands of Burke and Hare.

I’ve never done this before or since, but when I came home from that visit I quickly wrote, in prose, how I imagined Mary’s life and death, while what I had learned in Surgeon’s Hall was fresh in my mind. Then I turned it into a poem called For Mary Haldane, a victim of Burke and Hare, 1828.

Now … tada … the poem has won a competition run by Grey Hen Press and is on their website here; I am gratified to learn there were 500 entries. It’s not cheery – you’ve been warned – but I see from the judges’ report (not that they mentioned my poem specifically) that any poem with an interesting title or an unusual subject was most likely to catch their eye which I thought good advice for next time …

Friday, 22 June 2018

Six in May

I read six books in May.


Persons Unknown by Susie Steiner
A second police procedural with the terrific DI Manon Bradshaw. I read the first one Missing, Presumed and loved it; was not disappointed with this one and do hope there will be more.
As dusk falls, a young man staggers through a park, far from home, bleeding from a stab wound. He dies where he falls, cradled by a stranger, a woman's name on his lips in his last seconds of life. ...


Bought in Christian Aid book sale.
Years ago I read and loved Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by the same author. I liked this one less but there is something fascinating, when you live in a place that’s more often than not a wee bit wet and chilly (OK, ‘dreich’), to read about the Deep South of America when the intense heat and the fecundity of nature transfer themselves to the printed page – and you find characters with names like Calla Lily … Louisiana is a brilliant place to spend a few hours virtually, but I’ll stick with dreich for everyday.


Plotting for Beginners by Sue Hepworth and Jane Linfoot
Bought in Christian Aid book sale
In his fifties, Sally’s husband goes to build himself a cabin in the wilds of America, and live like his hero Thoreau for a year. Sally is happy enough anticipating all that time to herself and trying to make a success of her writing, but first her d-i-y obsessed brother in need of a temporary home disturbs her peace and then there’s her boomerang son and the local lothario and other distractions. Can her long-distance marriage survive?


Read on Kindle
‘Nine romantic novelists from Yorkshire and Lancashire, including best-selling and award-winning authors, have joined together to create this collection of uplifting stories guaranteed to warm your heart. This intriguing mix of historical and contemporary romances will make you laugh, cry, and believe in the happy-ever-after.’ What more can I add except that I enjoyed this collection – and every community should definitely have a Miss Moonshine.


Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
Bought in Christian Aid book sale.
ES has been on my radar for a while but this is the first one I’ve read. Why have I waited so long? It’s a miracle, this book. Olive, a retired teacher, is looked at from the points of view of various people with whom she is regularly, or hardly ever, in contact with. In some chapters she barely appears. Sometimes she comes over in a good light, sometimes not. I didn’t really like her, not until the very end – not that that mattered at all because I think this is the most effective portrayal of a character I have ever read. It’s all beautifully written but the last chapter particularly – I read it quickly because it drew me in and then read it again to appreciate the language.


Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty
A retired Irish couple take a break in Amsterdam and over the few days the fractures in their relationship are revealed.

This has been much lauded but my appreciation of it suffered because I read it directly after the Elizabeth Strout and any book would have paled in comparison … plus for me two authors, Anne Tyler and Carol Shields, have covered this territory more beguilingly.