Some Days The Pigeon, Some Days The Statue………The Book Most Likely To Be Chosen By A Pigeon

Not for the first time I went into the Waterstones in Sutton near my office on Friday. And it wasn’t the first time I’ve followed behind someone else into that Waterstones branch for it’s always busy. But IT WAS the first time I’ve ever gone into Waterstones behind a pigeon!!!!!! For there at my feet, waddling in through the open door, was a pigeon – and it didn’t stop there. It then did a couple of circuits of the tables where most of the promotion books are displayed! It obviously didn’t see anything it fancied so it just waddled back out the bookshop again! But it did get me wondering what it might have been looking for! So here’s my thoughts on the pigeon-bookworm’s possible books to buy list!

The Pidge-on The River Kwai! By Pierre Boulle

The Coo-coo Calling by Robert Galbraith!

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The (Pigeon) Drop by Dennis Lehane

Evangelista’s Fan-tail by Rose Tremain

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A Little Of What You (Pigeon) Fancy by HE Bates

At Home-Ing Thrush Green by Miss Read

The Leopard – A Harry Pigeon-Hole Thriller by Jo Nesbo

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The Thirty-Nine Steps by Pi-John Buchan!

The Dove-Inci-Cote by Dan Brown

The (Pigeon) Carrier by Sophie Hannah

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The Wings Of The Dove by Henry James

The Art Of Pigeon Racing In The Rain by Garth Stein

Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman

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If History Could Be Folded Where WOULD You Put The Crease?……….War Poetry on the Underground

…………………………………………..Among the various events to mark the centenary of World War One, there are a new series of War Poems on display across London Underground. The selected poems include work by three British poets, Ivor Gurney, Siegfried Sassoon and one of my favourite poets Edward Thomas, alongside works by Guillaume Appollinaire, Georg Trakl and Guiseppe Ungaretti. Excerpts from poetry on our underground trains is nothing new but there are some variations this time from the usual approach. The excerpts from Ungaretti, Trakl and Appollinaire are in their original language with an English translation alongside, and as well as being displayed on Tube trains they are now being displayed in stations and on overground trains. The excerpts from the six selected poems are all on the theme of reconciliation and brotherhood.

In addition to the war poetry, the Underground have also commissioned some art installations by Richard Wentworth to commemorate the centenary. This one is outside a station.
In addition to the war poetry, the Underground have also commissioned some art installations by Richard Wentworth to commemorate the centenary. This one is outside a station.

As I commute into and across London, I like to look out for the works. Strangely I’ve only come across the poems of Ungaretti, Trakl and Appollinaire but I guess as I mainly use the Central, District, Northern and Victoria lines, the work of the British poets must be elsewhere in the network. It’s surprising I haven’t come across the others though given I’m here EVERY day and given the fact that London Underground produced around 500 posters of each poem! Of the three I have seen, I found the excerpt from Ungaretti’s poem ‘Brothers’ particularly moving. In a few lines it creates such a feel of tension and fear, and it conveys the precariousness of life for soldiers at the front line.

What regiment are you from

brothers?

Word trembling in the night

A leaf just opening

In the racked air

Involuntary revolt

Of man face to face

With his own

Fragility

Brothers

The War Poems on the Underground series is part of a long tradition of publishing poetry on the Tube, having started way back in 1986. The original idea was largely to bring it to a wider audience, celebrate great poetry and of course allow people to reflect on the poetry they had read. Whether it does or doesn’t achieve all these aims is I guess open to debate. I always look for it, and I do like to read it and reflect on what I’ve read for however long my journey lasts -and usually beyond. But I’m not sure how many of my fellow commuters take an interest in the poems – I like to think the vast majority at least notice them but I’m not so sure what proportion read them, consider them, or even enjoy them. But I always think it works on a similar principle to World Book Day – realistically not everyone who is given a book will actively engage with it, but even if only a tiny proportion do get into the book, or in this case, the poem, then I think it’s been worth it.

Another of the art installations
Another of the art installations

To accompany the six poems published on Tube trains, London Underground also published a larger booklet of war poetry which was distributed at stations. If you either don’t live in London or weren’t fortunate enough to pick one up you can still access the collection, which includes poems by Isaac Rosenberg, Wilfred Owen and Laurie Lee here. All of the poems in the larger collection have all been published on the Tube at some point in recent years, as the Tube usually publish at least one war poem each November as part of its ongoing commemoration.

The publication of the collection also marks the special connection of the Underground to the First World War. At the time the poems were announced and published in October of this year, London Undergrounds’ press release noted that in 1914-18 almost half of all the staff on the Underground enlisted and by the end of the war over 1000 of them had been killed. It’s again a chilling reminder of the devastating loss of life in the Great War.

So if you’re a London Underground user like me, have you spotted the poetry on our Tube trains and stations? And if you have, what did you think? ( And crucially where the hell are the poems by Sassoon, Gurney and Thomas?!) And if you’re not fortunate enough to have the daily joy of commuting into London(!) do they ever have public displays of poetry where you live?

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Hail Mary, Full of Grace…and Mary…………………..Book Review of Grace and Mary by Melvyn Bragg

………………………..Like the Cumbrian landscape in which it takes place, this is a book which overcomes its rather serious and bleak subject matter about a son’s last attempts to head off the full onset of his mother’s crippling dementia, with a narrative that rises way above any grim clouds and that inevitable fading of the light to become quite simply, a beautiful love story. There’s something very special, and very soothing about the way in which the book seems to summon up some of our darkest fears about growing old, lay them out starkly before us and then seems to say ‘don’t worry, – however difficult it might be, you’ll be with peopole who love you…..so it’ll be alright’.

Dawn over Coniston Water
Dawn over Coniston Water

John is a 71 year old, retired businessman making regular visits from his home in London to visit Mary, his mother, who is in a care home in Wigton in his native Cumbria. Despite his mothers increasing dementia and the distance, these visits become John’s lifeline to his mother and eventually to his own past. Mary’s recognition and awareness of John varies as the dementia takes hold and so after she calls out in distress one evening for her mother, Grace, John tries to help his mothers failing memory by reaching back to the past, recreating the story of her childhood and that of her mother Grace. His account of Mary and Grace’s history is lovingly reconstructed to try and engage Mary. But it’s almost entirely imagined, for alternating with the present day story of John and Mary, is Grace’s real story of the past, a woman who neither John nor Mary really knew. What unfolds is the heartbreaking contrast between the real and the imagined, for Mary was an illegitimate child born to Grace at a time when a single unmarried woman bringing up a child outside of marriage was simply unthinkable. Grace and Mary never have that mother-daughter relationship in the way John later describes it and yet the real and the imagined stories of Grace and Mary do have something in common – Grace’s love for her daughter which is unquenchable and unbreakable. The tragic difference is that in real life it was a love from afar, as a visiting family friend rather than the mother Grace longs to be at the time and which Mary craves decades later.

Grace and Mary by Melvyn Bragg
Grace and Mary by Melvyn Bragg

As John makes frequent trips to his mother’s bedside, the book unfolds John’s love for his mother as an only child, his reflections on his life now, in the past and to come, and the story he weaves as he tries to imagine what Grace and Mary’s relationship would have been. Grace’s story is of her own mother who she barely knew and her child, lost to the narrow moral values of the time in which she lived. As the book progresses John charts more and more of his mother’s illness, her surroundings and their history together. The present is there of course but it’s as much for it to be a trigger for a special memory or as a reference point to their past more than anything else – it’s noticeable that throughout the book you learn much about John’s thoughts and feelings about his past but his present and his immediate family are scarcely mentioned.

Melvyn Bragg has managed to take the fairly heavy storyline and turn it into something which has a continually light and gentle feel – almost tender. It’s a wonderful achievement when you think about the main character being a woman living out her final years in a care home, suffering the rapid onset of dementia. And of course, for me and no doubt for many others, that fear of dementia is an increasingly common and increasingly real fear too. But as dark and grim as the subject sometimes is, the book is anything but, because it’s just so beautifully balanced. So for example the awfulness of that dementia for Mary and John is balanced with the care in the home, the engagement of the care staff, and John’s patient recreation of the childhood Mary never actually had. Equally there’s a lovely balance between the story of Grace’s past and Mary’s present. For all that there is such tragedy and lost potential in Grace’s actual life story, with such a feel of ‘what might have been’, the sheer depth of the love between John and his mother in a sense actually makes up for it – as if ‘what might have been’ between Grace and Mary, is somehow compensated for in part by the ‘what it became’ between Mary and John.

It’s a book that has at its core that very unique relationship between a mother and her child. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever read a book with such a strong feel for that mother-child bond. Grace’s love for Mary is all-consuming and years later, John’s care of his mother is exactly the same. And yet it avoids becoming all a bit too ‘nice’ by giving the contrast of John’s relationships with his own family – they’re pretty much bit-part players throughout the novel. And as an almost two-fingered gesture to that monster dementia, it’s a novel which perversely seems to celebrate the power of simple everyday memories. I loved John’s recollections of his father, of their childhood home, of the way old photographs sparked reminiscing, of the way hearing snippets of music set John and Mary off remebering dancing, or singing much loved songs ( at one point John and Mary literally perform an all-action Hokey Cokey – and as ludicrous as it sounds it’s actually very moving!). So much of the book reminded me of the beautiful Elbow song ‘Scattered Black and Whites”.

In some ways Grace and Mary is about coming to terms with ageing, dying and our pasts. As I read it I kept thinking about Dylan Thomas’ ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’ – it’s as if the novel says that Dylan is partly right and we ought not to go too gently and meekly, but that he’s also partly wrong, for there’s no need to ‘rage against the dying of the light’ either! Instead it seems to suggest we take up a position somewhere between the two!

And even though Grace and Mary is a very quiet, gentle read, it’s neither lightweight nor predictable. Far from it. It’s painful to read in some places for there’s a harsh, almost raw feel to the way that John reflects on his life now and as it was when he was a child, and of course if you do consider that spectre of dementia as I know I do, then it’s effect on Mary, and on her relationship with John and with everything else around her is both distressing and frightening. But ultimately it’s just so beautifully written. The characters are wonderfully drawn, engaging, interesting and real – and even their flaws have something gorgeously real-life about them. It’s also one of those rare books where the setting is almost a character in itself – Wigton might be dark, cold and bleak at times, but there’s a real sense of affection in the way Melvyn Bragg has also given beauty to both its scenery and its inhabitants – for this is a Northern England of big hearts and open arms.

I’ve long been a fan of Melvyn Bragg, ever since I stumbled across his novel Crystal Rooms many years ago. Now of course he’s a Lord, much heralded critic and broadcaster and what a work colleague once described for me as the most perfect combination of sex appeal and intellect. (………..I won’t comment on that beyond the fact that I didn’t share her opinion then and I don’t now – I think it’s me rather than Melvyn who is that perfect combination but that’s a debate for another day!) But setting all that to one side he is, amidst all his other talents,  a great writer. At the time of publication for Grace and Mary some reviews compared it to Thomas Hardy – and its a comparison that for me Grace and Mary thoroughly deserves. I loved it so much that for me, this is the best Melvyn Bragg novel I’ve read….and a very last minute contender for the best book I’ve read in 2014!

Melvyn trying harder to look more handsome and more intellectual than me - get in line old boy!
Melvyn trying hard to look more handsome and more intellectual than me – get in line old boy!

Book Info

My copy of ‘Grace and Mary’ by Melvyn Bragg was published by Sceptre in 2013. I bought it with my own hard-earned cash and well worth every penny it was too!

Surprisingly there aren’t a huge number of other blog reviews of Grace and Mary out there that I could find, but if you want to read what someone else thought of it, I liked this one at Dove Grey Reader.

After finishing the book I found out that Melvyn Bragg wrote the novel in the wake of his own mothers death from dementia. There’s an interesting article from May 2013 at Bryan Appleyard and an interview he did with the Guardian back in 2013

And if you don’t already know it, here’s a snippet of that Elbow track ‘Scattered Black and Whites’ in case you’re interested enough to give it a listen – you should – it’s wonderful!

Book Rating Out of Ten (You can find info on my book rating scale here)

ten

 

The Book Most Likely To…………..Be A Politician When It Grows Up

Warning – There is absolutely no point whatsoever to these “Book Most Likely To” posts like the one which follows, so if you choose to read on, you do so entirely at your own risk – you eejit!

These posts originated with an advert I saw on the Tube for a film called ‘The Girl Most Likely To’. From there they are nothing more than a way I sometimes amuse myself when the journey to or from work is being particularly tortuous!

This time it was prompted by one of those perfect storms we sometimes get at Victoria station – wet leaves on the lines, opera singers on the concourse with crowds watching, an alarm going off down on the Tube etc etc etc! End result…chaos. It’s obviously a good excuse for a pint…..but then I saw a picture of Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond on the big news screen in the station – and that got me thinking…….

THE BOOK MOST LIKELY TO BE A POLITICIAN WHEN IT GROWS UP!!!!!

(Alex) Salmond Fishing in the Yes-Men by Paul Torday

It's either a leading Scottish politician or the wide-mouthed frog!
It’s either a leading Scottish politician or a wide-mouthed frog!

Love’s Labour Lost by William Shakespeare

An Artist Of The Floating Vote World by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith!

Putin misinterprets advice to soften his image in the West!!!!
Putin misinterprets advice to soften his image in the West!!!!

Tales of Horror and Expenses by Edgar Allan Poe!

The Ballot of the Sad Cafe by Carson McCullers

The Thatcher In The Rye by JD Salinger ( I think this might be sacrilege to Salinger fans!!)

We’re Going On A Blair Hunt by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury ( another one for kids)

The Search for Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction goes undercover!
The Search for Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction goes undercover!

He Knew He Was Right ( Wing!) by Anthony Trollope

Birds Without (Left) Wings by Louis de Bernieres

The Beginners Goodbye-Election by Anne Tyler

A perfect way to raise two fingers to the Coalition perhaps!
A perfect way to raise two fingers to the Coalition perhaps!

The Island of Spin-Doctor Moreau by HG Wells

Reaganeration by Pat Barker

And one for the kids – Slugs Need A Hug by Jeanne Willis!

British MP's crown into the House of Commons for the State Opening of Parliament
British MP’s crowd into the House of Commons for the State Opening of Parliament

I’ll Do My Crying In The Train!…………..And The Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

……………………………………..I never learn!!!

I read Khaled Hosseini’s ‘The Kite Runner’ and wept a bucket-load at the end. I read his next novel ‘A Thousand Setting Suns’ and wept TWO bucket-loads at the end. So with about thirty pages to go of his most recent book, And The Mountains Echoed, you’d think I’d have been savvy enough not to finish it while on the Central Line on the way to work. But no……….. throwing caution to the tear-stained wind I decided to finish it on the train………….cue more bucket-loads!!! So to my fellow-commuters who watched me weep my way into Oxford Circus my apologies for breaking the unspoken rule that the commute to London will always be silent and solemn – and my particular apologies to the bloke who gruffly asked ‘all right mate?’ only to recoil in disgust when I stammered ‘…….it’s…….it’s………it’s…………’ and pointed speechless to my book!!!! In my defence I couldn’t help it, for if ever a writer seemed to know how to pluck at my heartstrings ( and then twist, pull, contort, bend and tear them asunder!), then it’s definitely Khaled Hoimagesseini!

However it’s not just moving me to barely controlled sobs that And The Mountains Echoed has in common with the previous books. What it also has in common is that I loved it every bit as much as I did The Kite Runner and Thousand Setting Suns!! In my eyes this is simply a marvellous storyteller at work, drawing you in as reader so that you are identifying so closely with the characters you really do feel every twist and turn in their lives and relationships.

The story begins with Abdullah and his younger sister Pari, setting out on a journey with their father, who has recently remarried after their mother’s death. They are on their way to visit Kabul from their village home in Afghanistan. Their lives are little more than a daily struggle for existence against desperate poverty and a hard unforgiving landscape. But Pari and her brother have created their own brand of happiness in their childhood, and the bond between them is as strong as it could be.

After their first day of walking to the capital their father helps them settle for the night with a story about a man forced to offer one of his children as a sacrifice to a djinn visiting their village. The man has a favourite – his youngest child, but he leaves the choice of which child to sacrifice to fate – and fate chooses that favourite. Distraught thereafter the man eventually sets out on a journey to face the djinn who killed his child – but when he finally tracks him down the djinn shows him the child alive and happy, living with other children in an Elysian paradise. And so the man faces a choice – take his child and return it to the life of abject poverty from which it came or leave it behind in the paradise in which it now lives. And of course Abdullah and Pari’s father has a motive for the story, for on reaching Kabul he will give away his daughter Pari to be looked after by a wealthy Kabul family and to be raised as their child. In doing so he will tear Abdullah away from his young sister Pari, who is by far the thing he loves most in the world. So begins their new and very different, very separate journeys through life.

But from what you might call a relatively standardised approach to introducing the story, the book very cleverly and very effectively chooses not to simply follow the separate lives of Pari and her brother as a straightforward, chronological narrative. Instead he weaves the story of their lives through that of others, who in some way are involved in the fate of the brother and sister. The story also shifts back and forward in time. So for example there’s the story of Nabi, the housekeeper to the wealthy family in Kabul who adopt Pari and who is also the step-brother of Pari and Abdullah’s father, half-French, emotionally tortured and broken Nila Wahdati who becomes Pari’s adopted mother ( and who was my favourite character in the book because perhaps she stood out for the damage being as much self-inflicted as anything) and the story of Markos, a Greek surgeon performing plastic surgery reconstructions on Afghan civilians caught up in the terror which comes in the wake of the US and British Invasion of Afghanistan, who comes to live in the Kabul house once occupied by Pari, Nila and Nabi. As you’d expect with a storyteller as good as Khaled Hosseini, each of these individual stories are great in their own right, but the sum of their parts is something much more wonderful!

Steve McCurry's iconic image of an Afghan child for National Geographic Magazine in the mid 80's
Steve McCurry’s iconic image of an Afghan child for National Geographic Magazine in the mid 80’s

You could I guess make a case that the three books having a lot in common runs the risk that his books have become a bit formulaic. There are certainly common themes here such as the effect of change, politics and religion on the people of Afghanistan, the tragic and difficult lives of some people, the awful impact of the wars, the way old Afghanistan almost seems to reach out and pull back at attempts to create a newer Afghanistan, or the influence of outside Western culture and politics. But he’s such a wonderful storyteller that his books never feel formulaic in the least to me. Instead they are populated by characters who are engaging, powerful and utterly believable. One of the strengths in this book is that there are so many rich and varied characters, and unusually for a book of such variety, I found myself liking and believing in every single one of them.

The effects of war, the British-US invasion and ongoing war of terror between the Taliban and the West cast a shadow over this book as they do the others. Khaled Hosseini makes his points though in a subtle, almost understated way – it’s more that the politics and his view of it is nuanced into the story rather than tackled head-on.

And perhaps ultimately it was a good thing that I got to have a good cry on the Central Line last week for that’s a testimony to just how good this book is. When his characters are in despair, you feel it, when they have moments of optimism and hope you feel it, and of course you feel it when they search and long for reunion between the brother and sister who’ve been scattered far apart by fates. I couldn’t recommend this book highly enough…..at the beginning of the book the father says to Abdullah and Pari ‘So you want me to tell you a story?……..then I’ll tell you one!”…………..so to borrow that phrase, if you want someone to tell you a story………………….. go buy a big box of tissues and let Khaled Hosseini tell you the story of ‘And The Mountains Echoed’!

Book Info

My copy of Khaled Hosseini’s ‘And The Mountains Echoed’ was published by Bloomsbury and bought with my own hard earned cash!

Having sold 38 million with his first two books, Mr Hosseini’s work is popular! So as you’d expect there’s a vast array of blog posts about it out there but if you wanted to as a bit more about what others had to say about it I’d recommend The Book Musings because…..I liked it!

If you want to hear what Khaled Hosseini has to say about his books, Afghanistan and America among other things then he recently did this interview with Al Jazeera America.

Book Rating Out Of Ten ( you can find info on my rating scale here)

ten

 

 

 

 

When Fate Lends More Than Just A Hand!……Book Review of The Art Of Racing In The Rain by Garth Stein

……..I’d expected to be challenged in reading this book, by what Samuel Taylor Coleridge named “the willing suspension of disbelief”, because one of the two main characters in the book is Enzo, a talking dog who is the narrator of the story. So was I able to suppress any tendency to simply think this wasn’t plausible………………………………. …………………..a little surprisingly not only was I able to suspend my disbelief it was easy because I really loved Enzo the talking dog!

Alas while I could suspend my disbelief for Enzo, I couldn’t do it for the other main character, Denny Swift, Enzo’s owner….for this guy must be the unluckiest character ever in fiction. This is a man so beset by woes and tragedy they ought to be considering renaming Murphy’s Law….this is a man so mired in catastrophe and ill fate that 2000 years ago, Publilius Syrus, the Roman writer must have been thinking of Denny Swift when he said “Fate is not satisfed with inflicting one calamity!”. For nobody in fiction or real life has ever suffered quite the catalogue of calamities that beset Denny Swift………..surely not!

Costis Mitsotakis thinks he was unlucky when he was the sole inhabitant WITHOUT A TICKET when the his whole Spanish won the lottery.....but he's not as unlucky as Denny Swift!
Costis Mitsotakis thought he was unlucky when he was the sole inhabitant WITHOUT A TICKET when the whole Spanish village where he lived won hundreds of millions in their national lottery…..but he’s not as unlucky as Denny Swift!

Enzo tells their story when he is in his twilight years and he has two things keeping him going – firstly his memories of life with Denny, Denny’s wife Eve and their daughter Zoe and secondly his belief that when he dies he will be reincarnated as a human. Enzo charts their ups (of which they have a few!) and their downs (of which they have WAY too many to mention!) – but he does so much more than simply tell their story, for Enzo the dog observes, analyses, interprets, philosophises and above all feels, in ways which he thinks are like a human, but are in reality way beyond what most people would notice!

Denny Swift
‘Calamity’ John Lyne thought he was unlucky after 16 major accidents including three car crashes, getting hit by lightning AND trapped by a rock fall……but he’s not as unlucky as Denny Swift!

Denny and Enzo start with a shared passion – cars – or more specifically racing them! From video games, to races on TV, to his stints in a touring car, Denny is obessed with racing cars in all forms of motorsport and Enzo shares his love and his ambition, charting his desperate efforts to make it to the peak of the sport as a racing driver! Then Denny falls in love with Eve who doesn’t become a shared passion though but when Eve gives birth to a daughter, Enzo and Denny can definitely get back to sharing their passion for her almost as much as their passion for racing cars.

Roy Sullivan, a US Park Ranger pronably thought
Roy Sullivan, a US Park Ranger probably thought he was unlucky in defying odds of 22 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 to 1 (that’s 22 SEPTILLION TO ONE!) in getting hit by lightning SEVEN times – but he’s not as unlucky as Denny Swift as the calamities he suffers are well beyond odds of 22 Septillion to one!

The bond between Enzo and Denny is exceptionally strong, and as a dog owner and dog lover myself, I think Garth Stein brilliantly captures the all encompassing and unconditional love that we dog owners have for our four legged family members. So when Eve has an accident at home cutting her hand and is subsequequently diagnosed with a serious illness, the story has its tragic contrast with which to test that unbreakable bond between dog and master. And had he stopped there it would have really worked for me because initially this introduction of the dark heart in the form of Eve’s illness was really well used to show just how Enzo steps up to the plate and can be relied on. Alas…..Eve’s illness is only the first in what soon becomes an endless line of tragedy waiting to rein in the hapless Denny Swift

Beyond the difficulty I had in just accepting the appaling run of fate that befalls Denny, it seemed to me to also distort other things in order to ‘fit’ the story. So for example, beautiful, loving, affectionate Eve’s parents turn out to be a cross between Cruella De Ville, and The Twits! Their characters are turned into what for me felt like almost a charicature. There are also doggedly-loyal mates, sleazeball lawyers, inept policemen, crazy attention-seeking kids and even the top brass from Ferrari’s home factory at Marinello in Italy put in appearances! It’s a bit ‘chuck the kitchen-sink at it’ and for me it just undid all the work that had been put into the character of Enzo the dog.

In fairness Croatian Music teacher Frane Zelak
In fairness Croatian Music teacher Frane Zelak gives Denny a run for the title of unluckiest man to ever live with his surviving a fatal train crash, an airplane crash, getting hit by a bus, two exploding cars and then jumping out at the last minute as a third car plunged 300 feet down a mountain…..he runs Denny close on the bad luck stakes…….however with his first lottery ticket he went and won over 1 million dollars and there’s NO WAY Denny Swift could ever have a happy ending like that…or could he?!

Enzo the dog is simply great – I loved him. He’s very sharp and shrewd, never short of a thought or opinion, he experiences every emotion we do and then some, even though he’s a dog! His observations on the behaviour, imagemannerisms and speeches of we humans are really very clever and amusing, but where he really comes into his own for me is his little insights into what dogs think of being a dog, his judgements and explanations about the behaviour of dogs are very funny and by turns I also found his affection and love for his family to be moving and touching. Against all my expectations he’s just so believable. Denny on the other hand was just an irritation to me – he’s either inspid and passive or he’s a bit John McClane in the Die Hard films!

In the end The Art of Racing In The Rain fell down for me because so much sublety, craft, emotion and complexity had gone into the character of Enzo that there was nothing left for the other characters, who are all a bit wooden, cliched or one dimensional as a result. It’s not an unpleasant experience to read Racing In The Rain but equally I didn’t find it the emotional experience that I think others may have done. But if you’re a dog lover read it anyway just for the sheer joy you’ll get from Enzo – and if you’re like me it might just make that love you have for your own dog even stronger – I’ll never look at my dog Beau in quite the same way ever again – and there are very few books I can say that about!!!!!!!

My dog Beau - and Enzo makes me realise there's more going on behind those eyes than "Are there any good sticks around?!"
My dog Beau – and Enzo makes me realise there’s more going on behind those eyes than “Are there any good sticks around?!”

Book Info

The Art of Racing In The Rain by Garth Stein was published in 2009 in the UK by Harper Collins and I bought it with my own hard earned dosh!

There are several bloggers who’ve already reviewed ‘The Art of Racing In The Rain’ so if you want to find out more about it you could try Books On The Table (where you’ll get a review of Art of Racing AND another Garth Stein book ‘A Sudden Light’ or try Lovely Literature where you will get both a review and LOTS of great photos of dogs!

Book Rating Out of 10 (you can find info on my Rating Scale here)

Overall, on my rating scale, I’d give Enzo on his own a ten! Alas I’d give Denny Swift a one! So overall I’ve split the difference!

five

 

 

Love Me, Love My Goat!………..Online Book Character Dating!

………….It is Book Week Scotland this week. There’s so much going on I almost wish I was back at home ( having said that, when I spoke to my family yesterday, their ‘weather report’ for Glasgow made me think twice!). But if I could go home and stay in a book bubble, then I would do it this week of all weeks. Book Week ScotalndThey’ve got free books available called “Scotland’s Stories of Home’, storytelling at the top of St.Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh, reading pledges ( I’m duly readiIng a non-fiction book about The Blue Nile for my pledge), there’s a Guardian campaign to write a love letter to your local library and a series of artworks being unveiled daily at libraries across Scotland. But among all that there’s also a dating website…..of sorts!

Now in Essex we seem to have our own particular approach to online dating – and it’s hard to miss it- we have massive billboards by the M25 junctions in Essex advertising a thing called ‘Sugardaddie.com!!!!!!!’ – and from the spiel on the ad it is unfortunately exactly what you think it is – it’s a dating site for younger women to find rich, older husbands! As a Scottish ex-pat living here I have to say first I love Essex, I think it gets very unfairly stereotyped as a county of vacuous airheads, interested in nothing more than gossip, clothes and money…..but sometimes we don’t exactly help ourselves dispel that image!

Anyway be reassured – online book character dating from Book Week Scotland isn’t anything as desperate or as morally dubious as Sugardaddie.com!!!!

For Book Week dating, you complete a small personality test and it teams you up with your ideal love match from the world of fiction. The questions are in lots of ways similar to questions I read in my partners magazines like Grazia, or Closer, from time to time ( well of course I’m too macho to ever actually read women’s magazines but they’re the kind of questions I IMAGINE they’d ask if I ever did read one of her magazines!) – so you’ll be probed about the kind of bloke you are or the kind of woman you are. I did it and found that my ideal love match is …………………………………….Esmerelda from the Hunchback of Notre Dame! I’d obviously hoped I’d be paired with Tess of the D’Urbervilles as I have been in love with her since I first met her 35 years ago! Alas that is destined to remain unrequited!

Dating

So Esmerelda is apparently my ideal book character date…………I’m not sure if I was chosen for Esmerelda at random or because somehow my face rings a bell………………………….get it?!……..but on reflection I like the suggestion……Esmerelda is beautiful……..I like it………..she is vivacious dancer……I really like it…….she’s got that smouldering sensuous beauty that men find irrestible…….I REALLY REALLY REALLY like it……..and she goes everywhere with a pet goat……………….mmmmmmmmm……………….on further reflection maybe Esme and I aren’t quite the match made in heaven after all!

Whichever character you got love matched to I hope they flicked your switch!
Whichever character you get love matched to……. I hope they flick your switch!!!!!

Anyway, crappy jokes about faces, bells, and any debate about beautiful women and their pet goats aside, if you fancy having a go, the link to the love test is here. Let me know who you turn up as your perfect literary love match! And if the match isn’t to your liking console yourself with the thought that it could be worse – you might have been saddled with a date that involved a pet goat……mind you, even that might have been worse as it could have been saddled with a date with an old goat from Sugardaddie.com!!!!!!

 

200 Completely Random and Utterly Useless Thoughts About Blogging

Earlier this week I posted a review of Restless by William Boyd – and as soon as I hit publish I got that wee counter up on my blog dashboard to tell me it was the 200th post I’d done! 200!!!! TWO HUNDRED!!!! Well I was duly blown away!

Evidence to support claim that I was blown away away on reaching 200!!!
Proof if needed that I was literally blown away away on seeing 200 come up on my screen!!!

Now back when I reached the milestone of 100 posts I thought I’d capture what I’d learned up till that point by listing 100 random things I’d discovered about blogging. So duly inspired ( ie desperate for something to write about) I thought – 200 things I’ve learned????? – why not! So here are the gems and pearls of wisdom I’ve gleaned from writing 200 blog posts!!!!!

1.When I started my blog the realist in me told me I’d struggle to reach 200 posts!

2. However when I started my blog the dreamer in me told me I’d easily reach 200 posts well before now!!!!

3. It takes me much longer to write a post about a book I liked than a book I didn’t like, so I almost wish I disliked more of what I read because my dreams might have come true!!!!!!!

4. If you had to pay hard cash for every time you use an exclamation mark, I’d be bankrupt!

5. Work stops me being bankrupt too, but it also stops me having the time to use exclamation marks as often as I would like!

6. The ratio of people writing book blogs to reading book blogs is about 267:1! ( And the 1 is my mother!)

7. Your ‘To Be Read’ pile grows in proportion to the number of blogs you follow yourself – my pile has reached a size where it might have to leave home and gets its own place to live!!

8. I have lots of quirky, brilliant and clever ideas for blog posts!

9. Writing down those brilliantly clever and quirky ideas makes you realise they’re actually really really AWFUL ideas!!!!

10. Don’t upset your mother when you blog – you rely heavily on her and her friends at home for your stats!

11. Anybody with a successful blog will say “the stats don’t matter”.

12. Anybody with an unsuccessful blog will say “What stats?!”

13. “What stats?”

14. On average writing a blog post takes me about 2 hours. I am a very slow writer!

Instead of writing my blog, I could have boiled TWELVE THOUSAND Eggs!!!!
Instead of writing my blog, I could have boiled TWELVE THOUSAND Eggs!!!!

15. Learn from your mistakes.

16. When I tried to write 100 things I’ve learned about blogging I struggled woefully!

17. Yet I am now attempting to write 200 things I’ve learned about blogging.

18. I am a painfully slow learner.

19. Everybody in book blog land reads faster than I do.

20. Click ‘save draft’ a lot if you want to avoid your children hearing you shout ‘Shite!’ very loudly.

In the time it's taken me to write 200 blog posts, Michelangelo had half finished the Sistine Chapel.
In the time it’s taken me to write 200 blog posts, Michelangelo had half finished the Sistine Chapel.

21. You can use mild swear words like ‘bloody’ and ‘damned’ – your mother and her friends will be appalled followers – but they’ll stick with you.

22. You can’t use swear words like ‘shit’ – your mother’s friends will be ex-followers and you’ll only have your mother left!

23. You can’t use really bad swear words like ‘fuck’ – even your mother will give up on you at this point!

24. You CAN use absolutely shocking swear words like the ‘C’ word but only after you’ve used ‘fuck’ and ‘shit’ because by then there’s nobody left reading your blog anyway!

25. I only used the ‘C’ abbreviation in number 24 on the off chance my mother wasn’t as ‘disgusted’ as she said she was!

Instead of writing my blog I could have flown London to LA 35 times - unless it was with Ryanair in which case it would be half that to allow for their usual delays!
Instead of writing my blog I could have flown London to LA 35 times – unless it was with Ryanair in which case it would be half that to allow for their usual delays!

26. Some authors are very nice people and they will reply to your tweets and posts about their books!

27. Comments can, quite literally, make your day!

28. I wish I wasn’t that painfully slow learner I described in number 18 – I will never get to 200 Random Thoughts at this rate.

29. The Central Line on the Tube is a pretty uninspiring place to write a blog post!

30. The Victoria Line is pretty uninspiring as well!

31. I draft most of my blog posts on Cental Line and Victoria Line on the Tube.

32. I haven’t yet got to the bottom of why my blog posts are so uninspired…………..but I’m working on it………on the Tube!

33. I lose the motivation to write a blog post almost as often as I lose my glasses

34. Did I say I would write 50 things I’d learned about blogging or did I say 200 things?

35. Blogging will teach you that Angela Thirkell is NOT the name of a 1960’s Coal-Fired Power Station somewhere in Lincolnshire!

Instead of blogging I could have played 6000 rounds of golf - though if this is what it does to your blood pressure I'm glad I didn't bother!
Instead of blogging I could have played 600 rounds of golf – though if this is what it does to your blood pressure I’m glad I didn’t bother!

36. Port, cheese and lots of other things mature and improve with age………..alas my writing isn’t one of them and has instead decided to model itself on my arthritic knees!

37. You will get tons of emails praising your talents saying things like “your blog very much influence my life am glad you divined this wisdom to fill my senses!”. Some of them don’t even have ‘Love, Your Mother” at the bottom!

38. Emails telling you how to increase your blog traffic will eventually massively outnumber those emails you used to get offering to enlarge your penis!!!

39. The emails to increase your blog traffic don’t work either!

40. Second hand bookshops seem to stock virtually every book you’ve ever bought but precious few of the books on your ‘Ones To Look Out For’ list.

41. Your family will probably laugh at your efforts. Other bloggers will encourage you with advice and comments. Well you know what they say about choosing your family………..

42. Passionately recommending books you’ve loved to family and work colleagues is to be avoided. Your work colleagues will think you’ve lost it and your teenager at home will think you never had it!

43. Other bloggers can change your reading habits beyond measure. I’ve read YA, non-fiction, translated fiction and stuff my alpha-male ego wouldn’t previously have gone within a million miles of! Just don’t tell your family you are open to change or they’ll start on again about finally getting rid of your 1970’s hairstyle!

44. Blogging is the most genteel and polite world – but just occasionally some sort of War Of The Words breaks out! You won’t have a clue what it’s actually all about but just for a few seconds you’ll feel as if you’re involved in something very angry and cutting edge!

45. You’ll initially be hysterically amused by the fact that your stats tell you that your blog got 3 visitors from Latvia and 2 from Guatemala!

Nature can grow flowers quicker than I can write blog posts - though of course my posts are just as beautiful!!!!!!
In 6 weeks nature can grow a flower from seed to full gorgeous bloom to make the world a beautiful place – meanwhile I’ve written about one and a bit blog posts!!!!!!!!!!!

46. Six weeks later you’ll feel bad for laughing once you realise your 3 Latvian visitors have not come back! And the Guatemalans aren’t coming back either!

47. Life is just too short to come up with 200 Random Thoughts – and even if I had the time to write 200 Thoughts, nobody should have the time to read them!

48. Don’t read Khaled Hosseini books or The Snow Child on the Tube. You’ll cry uncontrollably in public and then other commuters will think you’re a weirdo!

49. Writing the first 100 posts took me 6 months! Writing the second 100 took me 15 months!!!!!!

50. At that rate I should complete the next 100 posts around the end of 2017!

51. So there’s a date for the diary – on December 1st 2017 I will provide the much awaited, no doubt greatly anticipated 300 Completely Random and Utterly Useless Things I’ve Learned from Blogging!

See You Then!

 

Mum’s The Word!………….Book Review of Restless by William Boyd

……..Female spy novels are a bit like London buses at the moment – I don’t read a book with a female spy protagonist for years and then two come along in quick succession! On the back of reading Jenny Rooney’s excellent ‘Red Joan’ I picked up a second-hand bookshop copy of William Boyd’s ‘Restless’, telling the story of Sally Gilmartin, an ageing middle-class woman living quietly in middle England in 1976, who suddenly hands her daughter Ruth a folder of pages titled ‘The Story of Eva Delectorskaya’. When a puzzled Ruth asks who Eva Delectorskaya is, Sally simply responds “Me…….I am Eva Delectorskaya”.

10restlessHaving kept her ‘secret life’ just that for so long, there is of course a reason for Sally’s sudden decision to share her past with her daughter thirty years later – it’s a past that has come back to threaten her and she needs her daughters help. Through a combination of chapters telling the 1976 story from Ruth’s perspective, and a series of chapters in the third person telling Eva’s 1940’s story, William Boyd sets out a really cracking plot of a beautiful Russian emigre who is recruited by British intelligence in 1939 in Paris immediately after her brother Kolia’s funeral. She is ‘run’ by spymaster Lucas Romer, who becomes more than just a handler to Eva. He becomes teacher, mentor, confidante and lover. Eva moves to New York as part of the British Security Co-ordination, a massive World War Two counter-espionage progamme designed to spy on pro-Nazi movements in America while at the same time driving a propoganda campaign focused on levering the Americans into joining the Second World War. Eventually betrayed, Eva has to rely on her training to first escape with her life and then to reinvent herself.

There’s no real spoiler in that plot summary for this is a story with so much going on there’s no chance of doing more than skimming it in a review, though perhaps the fact that it’s got so so much going on might be the weakness in it too. But at it’s core it’s a really, really good spy thriller and as long as you don’t go looking for more than that you won’t be disappointed. I loved the intricacies of the art of spying in the book almost as much as I loved the action and the almost inevitable twists and turns in the story. At times I was enjoying the sheer thrill of the action so much I found some of it a little distracting and unnecessary – Ruth has a history with radical politics, there’s a casual affair with an Iranian student-cum-logder, there’s a minor link between Ruth and Baader-Meinhof terrorists and then there’s that love affair between Eva and Lucas – all these things are chucked into the pot but they seemed a bit superfluous to me – they don’t really add much to the story and I didn’t get any sense of the ‘feelings’ attached – in essence for me what’s in the book stands or falls by the extent to which it contributes to the action – or to put that another way as an example the affair between Eva and Lucas doesn’t feel very real or very important but in the grand scheme of the plot it doesn’t really matter!

Now that's what I call wearing a hat at a jaunty angle! It could only happen in a spy film! (Hayley Atwell and Rufus Sewell in BBC Film of Restless)
Now that’s what I call wearing a hat at a jaunty angle! It could only happen in a spy film! (Hayley Atwell and Rufus Sewell in BBC Film of Restless)

There’s nothing surprising in the book, nothing pretentious and nothing forced – it’s just a spy thriller. At times it can make it seem a wee bit formulaic, a bit predictable and all low-brow James-Bond-esque stuff. I can see why that might annoy some readers – but for me, as a man who loves James Bond, a man who could get lost in a Le Carre and not look up between page one and the end, well it was pretty much not only what I expected but if I’m honest what I had hoped to find. Here is a short sample, as Lucas Romer does some final preparations before Eva becomes Eve Dalton, British spy….

‘What’re these for? I thought I was Eve Dalton?’

He explained. Everyone who worked for him, who was in his unit, was given three identities. It was a perk, a bonus – to be used as the recipient saw fit. Think of them as a couple of extra parachutes, he said, a couple of getaway cars parked nearby if you ever felt the need to use them one day. They can be very handy, he said, and it saves a lot of time of you have them already.

Eva put her two new passports in her handbag and for the first time felt a little creep of fear climb up her spine. Following-games in Edinburgh were one thing; clearly whatever Romer’s unit did was potentially dangerous. She clipped her handbag shut. ‘Are you allowed to tell me a bit more about this unit of yours?’

‘Oh, yes. A bit. It’s called AAS’ he said. ‘Almost an embarassing acronym, I know, but it stands for Actuarial and Accountancy Services’

‘Very boring’

‘Exactly!’

It reads like a classic British 1950’s era spy movie – and for me that gives it a really authentic air. That coupled with the detail and research into the activities of British Intelligence during World War Two in the US make for a fascinating, almost film-noir feel to the book in places. William Boyd’s books are a fairly recent discovery for me and up to now I’ve really enjoyed them, as much for the literary feel of the writing as the stories in themselves……this was different….with Restless there was something missing in the literary sense……but to me it didn’t ultimately matter. As a straightforward, take it at face value spy story, it’s a great plot and for that reason alone, ‘Restless’ is well worth a read.

Book Info

‘Restless’ by William Boyd was published by Bloomsbury. I bought this with my own hard-earned dosh for the princely sum of £1.99 in my local Oxfam Bookshop!

As it’s been out since around 2006, there are as you’d guess a plethora of reviews out there on the book. But in the book blog world, if you want to read a bit more about ‘Restless’, then I’d recommend you have a look at Late Nights With Good Books and The Book Heap. It was a much praised novel when it was released, not only shortlisted for the Costa Prize in 2006, but also shortlisted for the Richard and Judy British Book Award no less in 2007!

‘Restless’ was also turned into that BBC series that I mentioned above – not sure when it was shown in the UK but I can’t believe we missed it in our house as it stars Rufus Sewell, who’s pretty popular with the women chez moi!

Book Rating Out of 10 (you can find info on my Rating Scale here)

eight

 

 

The Restoration Man!………..Merivel A Man Of His Time by Rose Tremain

………..There’s a great Guinness ad line “Good things come to those who wait!’. And though it’s true that a beautiful pint of Guiness is worth the wait for it to be poured, settled and then finished – it’s not half as worth waiting for as the return of Rose Tremain’s wonderful fictional creation Robert Merivel. It’s been a 25 year wait for me to finally read this sequel to Tremain’s great 1989 novel “Restoration” but Merivel’s return is as engaging, and as loveable as his beginning.

merivel-picRobert Merivel is a 17th century physician at the court of Charles II – he’s part-dandy, part-jester and part fall-guy for the moods, whims and of course sexual appetite of King Charles in that first brilliant novel. This follow up sees him greyer, older and maybe, even for Merivel, dare I say just a little bit wiser? But only a little – for the love of drink, an excuse to drink more, and the inclination to revel in sex and the female form at even the slightest opportunity is still there in abundance in Merivel – this is a man with a lot of vices and he’s still not afraid to use them!.

The story picks Merivel’s life up many years after he has left Charles’ inner sanctum for the seemingly quieter and certainly less debauched surroundings of his Norfolk estate. His sham marriage to Charles mistress is a thing of distant memory though his regret that the marriage failed is neither distant nor forgotten. He seems to be moving towards his old age with a slightly gentler and slightly less frenetic lifestyle – and in some respects he’s moving to older age with a degree of thanks that he’s actually survived this long! He’s slightly more financially secure than before and his daughter, on the verge of moving from a girl to a woman, is the apple of his eye. He’s got much to be contented with, but if Merivel is anything, he’s a man of defects – and he wears them on his tailored, ruffled sleeve! There’s a fragility to that financial security for example for it’s still dependent on the grace and favour of Charles, he’s less than easy about his daughter’s future, and he’s still a man in search of something – he’s just never quite sure what.

With the kings blessing, he heads for the court of Louis XIV at Versailles where he hopes to find favour and fulfilment with the Sun King. Being Merivel what he actually finds is a new mistress and so he embarks of this wonderfully gaudy, almost comic romp through France and back to England. It’s just as terrifically entertaining a charge through his confused morality and his sexual proclivities as the first book was. But this time there’s also a sense of sadness and pathos – there’s a growing sense of decay and things coming to an end for Merivel and alongside him a similar feeling of the beginning of the end for Merivel’s most trusted manservant Will, for his lovers old and new, for Charles and even for England as a society. It’s a novel which captures a man at the heart of a monumental change – and it’s as much a change to what’s going on inside him as it is a change to what’s going on around him.

As ever Rose Tremain’s writing ranges brilliantly. At times it is almost farcically light and funny, such as Merivel conquering the heart and hemline of Madame de Flamanville at Versailles, who brings with her a publicly-suppressed but privately insatiable gay husband in charge of Louis’ Swiss Guards!!!!! At other times it is the dark and brooding detail of Merivel performing emergency surgery to remove a cancerous tumour from a woman’s breast. But whatever she describes, she does it with such style and a terrific eye for detail and mood.

This woman writes a pretty damn good sex scene!
This woman writes a pretty damn good sex scene!

The sequel also gives Merivel much more depth to his emotions – the man who can’t resist the chance for quick and easy sex is still there – he just doesn’t come to terms with it quite as easily as he once did. That’s perhaps what makes Merivel so irresistible as a

This man took part in more than his fair share of sex scenes!
This man took part in more than his fair share of sex scenes!

character – he’s deeply flawed but he knows it – and he’s not without his redeeming features either. Merivel isn’t just a man of his time but in many ways is a man of any time and his struggles and worries, his problem in coming to terms with death, decay and what he sees of his life as he looks back would be as true of my generation in the 21st century as they are of Merivel and his generation in the 17th century – though fortunately the exception is that with my generation of ageing men in our 50’s in 2014, we don’t fornicate quite as openly on public transport as Merivel does!!!!!!!!!!! – at least it doesn’t happen on the Tube trains and buses I use!

At times as I read Merivel, I was reminded of the lyrics to Man Of Our Times by Genesis on the Duke album -

I’m one of many, I speak for the rest but I don’t understand / Tonight, tonight, oh tonight, tonight / He brings another day, another night, another fight / Well there’s another day done and there’s another gone by / He’s a man of our times, a man of our times / Tonight, tonight, oh he’s burning bright / He’s a man of our times, he’s a man of our times / And in the beating of your heart there is another beating heart

And that’s what makes Rose Tremain’s writing in Merivel so great – in the beating of his heart is a sense that if you’d be born in a different time and place it might just have been the beating of your own heart! And it would have been a blast!

Book Info

“Merivel – A Man of His Time” by Rose Tremain was published by Chatto and Windus Books. I bought it with my own dose – and it’s worth every penny!

The first Merivel book, ‘Restoration’ was published back in 1989. It was nominated back then for the Booker Prize, but it lost out to Kazuo Ishiguro’s wonderful ‘The Remains Of The Day’.

If you’re interested Rose Tremain did an interview with the Telegraph back in 2012 about Merivel and writing the sequel to Restoration. It’s a book that’s been widely review – you won’t find anything  reviewed on my blog that was done before, and done better elsewhere (except possibly my review of the excruciatingly bad biography by David Ginola the footballer perhaps!). If you’re interested in reading what others thought of Merivel, you should try the reviews at Lady Fanciful and at Little Reader Library though be aware I chose them because I liked them and they broadly share my view that Merivel is really good!!!!!

Book Rating Out of 10 (you can find info on my Rating Scale here)

Nine

…………. READING FICTION. READING POETRY. READING ROY OF THE ROVERS. EATING SCOTTISH MEAT PIES, QUOTING LINES FROM GREGORYS GIRL AND WORSHIPPING A MAN CALLED CANTONA – ALL WASHED DOWN WITH A SPLASH OF WORCESTER SAUCE. I CAME. I SAW. I CONCURRED.

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