28 October 2013

Two Books and One Stingray

 I began a period of mourning (and moaning) last April when my favourite bookshop closed.  Nicholas Hoare was a bit of bookish nirvana with its cosy interior and shelves full of books hot off the press from all over Britain (the sort I love best!).  No trip to Toronto since that sad day has felt quite the same.  Until recently.

My husband and I had booked a week off from work to get some things done around the house.  With most of our domestic duties checked off of the list we decided to visit the new aquarium in town.  The admission is rather pricey but compared to a round-trip transatlantic excursion...well, that sort of thinking can justify all sorts of trouble, can't it.  The aquarium is located near the base of the CN Tower and near the train station so we left the car at home and felt righteous as we whizzed past everyone stuck in commuter hell.

Straight away our senses were hit with fantastic colour, mesmerizing music, and thousands of small fish reflecting the light streaming into their massive tank.  Once further along, the dim lighting assures your gaze will head straight for the next tank full of exotic marine life and man-made coral.  At one point we were in a tunnel with fish swimming all around us; a slow moving conveyor makes it easy to simply stand there in amazement and gawk.  It took us over three hours to soak in the sights of everything from jellyfish to sharks to stingrays...

...and getting the chance to pet one was too good to pass up (oh yes, that's me!).  Their skin starts off a bit rough and bumpy and then toward the end they get sort of velvety.  The one above took great pleasure in flicking its pectoral fin as a fine 'how do you do', spraying me with water as it glided towards deeper water.  If you are ever heading to Toronto I can highly recommend putting this place on your itinerary and we will definitely be going back!

After a late lunch at a pub we browsed for a bit at Chapters, a chain bookshop.  Always lovely but so frustrating with endless shelves full of mainstream contemporary fiction.  The October edition of the BBC History magazine looked excellent with less than usual articles on medieval warfare and politics so I bought a copy for the train ride home.  The thirty percent chance of rain turned out to be one hundred and the skies darkened to black as we made our way back to Union Station.  Without an umbrella we were resigned to a soaking but then we passed a shop full of warm lighting, gorgeous shelves...and books!  Books hot off of the press from Britain!  The rain no longer mattered, my damp sweater barely registered.

With fifteen minutes until closing time all that I could manage was a quick whip around but it was enough to know that this is my new 'happy place'.  I made a vow to the bookstore gods that from this day forward I would not leave Ben McNally Books without having purchased at least two books to do my bit to help it stay in business (see top photo - putting my money where my mouth is).

And another thing.  I am thoroughly enjoying The Readers podcast featuring Simon Savidge and as of late, our friend, Thomas, from My Porch.  My iPod comes to bed with me for those times when I wake up in the middle of the night and can't fall back to sleep for all of the useless wondering that goes on in my head.  It's so much more entertaining to listen to Thomas, or Gavin, and Simon talk about books.  Simon's enthusiasm for Kate Atkinson's Life After Life intrigued me enough to sign it out from the library and I loved it!  The only trouble is that I gave up taking notes with the plentiful vignettes that are Ursula's life and have no idea where to begin sharing my thoughts on the story.  The only thing I can offer is to sit back and enjoy the sheer brilliance of a book in which you will have absolutely no idea what happens next!

So there it is.  Apologies for copping out on a review but I must now get straight on to another library book before my due date lapses and then it's on to my Beryl Bainbridge book.  Another new author for me thanks to a mention from Simon S!  Has anyone read it...or her?

21 October 2013

A House in the Country by Jocelyn Playfair

It was a sunny day in May of 2009 when I first crossed the threshold of Persephone Books on Lamb's Conduit Street in London.  I held a list of eight titles, perhaps more, and A House in the Country was one of them.  That list had been well thought out, reviews were scoured; four stars at least before my hard-earned money would be plunked down on the counter.  For the life of me though I simply can not remember any knowledge of this book being set in a country house during World War II because surely if I had it would not have sat on a shelf for four years.  There is a 'but' coming...

If Jocelyn Playfair had wanted to write a cosy kitchen drama I don't think she would have opened the story with an enemy attack on a ship.  Within a page and a half all that remains on the horizon is a lifeboat containing two bodies.  Charles Valery has been badly burned but is alive while his fellow soldier, Harcourt, hasn't fared as well.  For the next two weeks, Charles contemplates an incident from his past, the war, why the human race goes to battle in the first place, and last but not least...love.

'Men would fight for all kinds of reasons, good and bad.  They would fight with magnificent courage and selfless heroism.  But it would be interesting to know how many men, in any given battle, were there because the others were there, because it was easier to move with a mass than to think for oneself, because it was better to do what everyone else did, rather than make oneself noticeable'

Let's leave Charles to drift on the open seas; he'll be there awhile.  Brede Manor is a lovely country house and Cressida Chance has been given the responsibility of seeing to the running of things.  Highly independent and practical, she takes in lodgers as a means of income but also to satisfy her socialist side.  Everyone is welcome whether they be European, English, single, married, with family or without...and despite Aunt Jessie's snobbery for etiquette...everyone is to eat in the kitchen.  Cressida has worked it out and the relaxed dining saves eight hundred and thirty-five hours of work a year.  Much to her Aunt's dismay, Cressida even does the cooking but she is steadfast in her loyalty.

'Has she always let rooms?' the young woman, as Miss Ambleside had begun angrily to classify her, went on undaunted.  
'My niece,'she said sternly, 'does not let rooms.  She is kind enough to allow people to stay in her house because the war has filled the country with people who have nowhere to live.'

Felicity Brent has recently become engaged and is inspecting the rooms her future husband has chosen to be their first home.  Can you say 'uppity glamour-puss'?  I could have read a whole novel featuring verbal spars and telling glances between Felicity and the other residents.  In fact, if you ask me there was a missed opportunity to shed more light on the camaraderie, or lack of it, between all of the guests but oh well.

Another interesting resident is Tori, a European refugee who spends hours in his room writing a book.  When he's not writing he favours rooting around the kitchen for any sign of something about to come out of the oven.  Cressida and Tori enjoy philosophical banter but quite a lot of the time he is concurrently admiring her modern ways, independence, and the way the light catches on her hair.  Well, she makes a nice change from the likes of Felicity with her constant pampering and catty comments!  There is another 'but' coming...

I feel awful about reacting a bit negatively about the philosophical bits.  Charles is armed with loads of it; on the one hand he has nothing to do but think while he's drifting in a dinghy, waiting to be found.  On the other hand, the reader learns next to nothing about how he managed to survive for fourteen days with almost nothing in the way of nourishment.  I wanted a bit of a tale about catching fish with his bare hands or raw skin from the salty air.  Then there is Cressida, one gaze at her rows of cabbage and she would start in...one bit in particular left me gobsmacked...

'Beyond a kind of mass-produced anger with the enemy, the average person in England was probably almost without a vindictive thought.  The famous British character was, in fact, strangely lacking in the capacity for hatred.'  ....'If a census of emotion could be taken in the two countries it would certainly be found that the Germans hated the British far more fiercely than the other way about.'

These sorts of philosophical passages stripped away the characters for me and became more about a delivery straight from the pages of Jocelyn Playfair's memoirs.  I know, I know, authors do that sort of thing all the time but in this case, while important, the lengthy duration did detract a bit from the story here and there.  Don't let that nugget of negativity put you off of an excellent read though.  A House in the Country is one of those finite stories written during the war when its outcome was uncertain; the insight into daily life and thoughts of those far from home are so valuable.  Yet another gem from Persephone Books.

        Runway Perspective by Eric Ravilious

4 October 2013

Coral Glynn by Peter Cameron

Browsing in one of my favourite second-hand bookshops a few weeks ago I had a sense of 'seen it all before'.  Nothing was popping out at me and as all bibliophiles know - it is a sad day indeed to go home empty-handed.  Clearing any preconceived notions of what reels me in I began to look at books published later than 1960.  An immaculate little hardcover with a retro-looking bit of cover art caught my eye...this could work.  Did it ever.

Straight off the top, if your bookshelves feature loads of Persephone and Virago titles then you will thoroughly enjoy sinking into this story.  It came as no surprise then that once I had finished reading the book and researched the author I discovered that he enjoys Elizabeth Taylor's work as well as some of her contemporaries.  Set during the 1950s, the atmosphere is cosy with a dollop of mystery and every now and then I thought 'What the hell is going on in her head?!' - in that good sort of way that makes you eager to finding out what could possibly happen next.

'Coral Glynn was the third nurse to arrive in as many months; it was unclear what, exactly, had driven her predecessors away, although there was much conjecture on the subject in the town.  First it was supposed that the Major was perhaps a Lothario, and had made disreputable advances, although he had never acted that way before--in fact, he had always seemed to hold himself above romance of any kind.'

So picture a large home situated near a forest in Leicestershire with an elderly woman lying in bed and on a rapid decline.  As a nurse delivering palliative care, Coral will be on to next assignment once her patient dies.  Major Hart, who has been disfigured during the war, finds intimacy difficult so what could be easier than to offer marriage to a woman he barely knows but is already familiar with the house and his ways?  For Coral, who travels from one home to the next without the constant of her own address, this is a proposal to mull over.  But there is something in Coral's past (well, perhaps two things) which could massively impact the situation.  I did tell you there was some mystery here!

Major Hart has a close friendship with Robin and Dolly Lofting.  The gentlemen meet every Thursday evening for a drink at The Black Swan as they live only a few streets away, the Loftings in a rented seaside cottage.  The location may be a pub but the discussion between the men makes it feel more like a gentlemen's club in Mayfair.  I can only imagine Mrs Lofting would be desperate to bring another female into the mix to even things up and feel a little less as though she is on the outside looking in.

'Nonsense.  The two of us will go on meeting here, and I'll drag you up to London on occasion.  You may become quite a gay rouĂ©, in fact.  And Dolly and I will have you over, and Dolly will invite all her buck-toothed, pigeon-toed unmarried friends, and see to it that you marry one of them.  She wants you to be married even more than I.'

Now sometimes I take loads of notes because a book is chock full of wonderful description and superb prose.  Sometimes I barely take any notes because a book is THAT fantastic and putting it down to pick up my pen would be too irritating.  Coral Glynn is the latter.  The succinct manner and clean structure of the writing here is brilliant; don't let the slimline appearance of this book fool you - there are twists and turns enough to have you gasping out loud.  Hence, you are not going to get another word from me on the synopsis because that would simply ruin things for you.  I have already pulled a copy of this wonderful book from the shelves at my library and deposited it on the desk of a colleague.  Subtle aren't I.