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.