Four great books in one abnormal post…because these are abnormal times.

Yesterday, I confined myself to barracks completely. I admit, I felt sorry for poor Vince who just got play and runs in the back garden instead of a good long hike as usual; but if we do get locked down completely, she’ll have to get used to it, the same as me. My next concern was that it might turn out to have been the last day I could take legitimate fresh air and exercise – fortunately, not yet the case.

This morning I read something on Facebook purporting to be from a Harvard immunologist which really caught my attention. To cut a long story short, he explained that the really scary part, and what takes this into an entirely new category from flu, is that it is an animal virus that has mutated to jump to human hosts, and that as a result we have no natural immunity to it at all – our immune systems, however robust, simply do not recognise it as a virus. Similarly, there are no treatments for it. And just as I finished reading, Radio 4 told me that a 13 year old had died in South London.

That was enough for me. As it is, I have been watching the BBC news once a day, listening to Radio 4 in the morning, and then shutting off. Not because I want to ignore it, or pretend it doesn’t exist, but there’s only so much negativity I want to allow into my life. I switched off social media for the day too, and threw myself into some physically challenging jobs around the house and garden instead of meditating on the fact that life right now feels a little as though I’m in a Hollywood blockbuster and can Bruce Willis please hurry up and defeat the enemy!

Luckily I am a bit of a hermit anyway, and I’ve always enjoyed my own company – but it took a situation like this to make me appreciate how important human contact really is, however much I might have thought it wouldn’t bother me!

Macabre thoughts aside, I also decided I’m going to get busier with Mum’s Books. I have been reading a lot, and I need to catch up on the books so I can gift them forward – I’m about to post four at once, can you believe it! These are books I have read and loved – as did Mum, and so, if any of them grab your attention, just get in touch, ideally through the Facebook page or Instagram, and I will send them to you with much love from both Mum and I, and hope that escaping into them gives you the relief it does me. Nothing like a good book for escapism!

First, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. I have not read this for a few years, but it’s a Desert Island book for me. Remember me banging on about ‘The Little Friend’ by Donna Tartt? I am certain she was heavily influenced by this magnificent book; here’s an early, scene-setting paragraph –

‘Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow it was hotter then; a black dog suffered on a summer day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum’.

If that doesn’t  make you feel the heat of a 1930’s summer afternoon in the Deep South, I don’t know what will. It’s the story of Scout, Jem, and their father Atticus Finch, a  white lawyer who represents a colored boy in a place and a time steeped in prejudice. It is undoubtedly a classic, and well worthy of reading if you have never done so – and of re-reading if you have. Incidentally, I was somewhat disappointed by the 2015 publication of ‘Go Set a Watchman’, the sequel, but I do have a copy here and will send it with Mockingbird (if I can find it!)

I have two copies of this awesome book to gift forward, one is mine, one Mum’s – we did share an admiration for Ian McEwen! And this one is great. Here’s the precis

‘Michael Beard is a Nobel prize winning physicist whose best work is behind him. A compulsive womaniser, Beard finds his fifth marriage on the rocks but this time it’s different – it is his wife having the affair, and he is still in love with her.

When his professional and personal lives collide in a freak accident, an opportunity presents itself for Beard to extricate himself from his marital mess, reinvigorate his career, and save the world from environmental disaster. Ranging from the Arctic Circle to the deserts of New Mexico, this is a novel of one mans greed and self-deception, a darkly satirical novel showing human frailty struggling with one of the most complex issues of our time’.

Published in 2011, it’s a roller coaster of a read, and I think you’ll like it if you enjoy, for example, Carl Hiassen…which I do. A darker sense of humour, bordering on ridicule, and beautifully written as one would expect from this author. As I said, I have two copies to gift forward…and can I just add that I am enjoying so much seeing the Facebook group sharing Mum’s Books!

This is the 1972 Penguin Modern Classics edition, and I adore the cover, a detail from ‘Montparnasse Blues’ by Kees Van Dongen, painted around 1925 but with a very early 70’s Twiggy feel to it, for me at any rate.

Of course, this is a book pretty much anyone reading this blog will have read, and I would be slightly surprised if anyone didn’t think it a masterpiece. And unusually for me, I really loved all the movies.. I thought the 2013 movie with Leonardo di Caprio was superbly cast and directed, the party scenes were as I had imagined them when I first read this in my teens. The 1949 one with Alan Ladd – excellently atmospheric; the 1974 version – still possibly my favourite…Robert Redford as Gatsby! It is just such a splendid story which lent itself perfectly to the big screen. But in the book, as always, details emerge that simply cannot be fitted into a film.

There’s no date in the front of this. Perhaps it predates Mum starting her habit of noting when she had read a book on the flyleaf; perhaps she had picked it up second hand, as it has a stamp from the Southwark College for Further Education, London SE1, in the front. I lean towards the latter, as this has Biro scribbles on and in it, not something Mum would have done. Someone who ‘did’ it for A  Levels, perhaps.

Here it is, it really is a must read if you haven’t. If no-one claims this, I am going to take the cover off and frame it!

Last but most certainly not least, the astonishing ‘Alias Grace’ by Margaret Atwood, who if you have been following me at all, you will know I regard as one of the best writers the 20th century produced. As did Mum. This Virago edition was published in 2009, but it was first published by them in 1997, and it is enthralling.

The heroine is real. But what Margaret Atwood has done is surreal; she has created an entire life around a person about whom we know nothing beyond a name and the most basic of circumstances. It’s central character, Grace Marks, was a notorious murderess, convicted at the age of 16 of murdering her employer. Her accomplice and fellow servant, James McDermott, was hanged – Grace’s lawyer saved her from the gallows and she spent the next 29 years in prison and an insane asylum.

It is a wonderful read, insightful, and a fascinating glimpse into the time it is set in. And, as one of Margaret Atwoods biggest fans….I recommend it wholeheartedly!

So, there you go – you know what to do if you would like me to send you one of these marvellous books, just get in touch!

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54. ‘Bring Up the Bodies’ by Hilary Mantel.

O. M. G. This series is amazing, I had honestly forgotten how much I enjoyed it, and I cannot recommend it highly enough! Just to recap, I re-read ‘Wolf Hall’ and then this prior to indulging myself in the final volume of the trilogy, the newly released ‘The Mirror and The Light’, and I have positively devoured it!

In this, the second book, we observe through Thomas Cromwell’s eyes the downfall and destruction of Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn. I feel I can say that without fear of spoiling it for you – we all know the rhyme to remind us of the fates of Henry’s six wives, don’t we?

‘Divorced, beheaded, died; Divorced, beheaded, survived’, in case you didn’t.

The Seymour’s of Wolf Hall are coming to prominence, Cromwell has his fingers in every pie and is building his fortunes, Nan Bullen has only managed to give the King a daughter, and, wearying of her feistiness and failure to deliver the promised son, Henry has spotted the meek and demure Jane Seymour among her ladies. I think we can see where this is going…

Interesting characters abound, like Hans Holbein, the portrait artist, and the ruthless Richard Riche, who would become Lord Chancellor to Elizabeth I, and the dialogue and scene setting is once again superb. As I said when I wrote about ‘Wolf Hall’, Hilary Mantel’s writing is in a truly unique style, which some critics and reviewers really don’t like, but for me, it is fantastic.

Now. I was enjoying this in the brief spell of sunshine we had last week, sitting in the garden. I nipped inside for a fresh cup of tea, and came out to discover a very guilty looking puppy caught in the act of chewing the corner of the book. Disgraceful behaviour…off with her head! (Not really!) so it does have a bit of damage, but if you can deal with that, I am looking for a new home for this masterpiece, (or Mistresspiece), so if you feel you would enjoy it, please get in touch.

Although I suspect that the lovely Anne, who claimed ‘Wolf Hall’, may want it first! And yes, I am starting ‘The Mirror and The Light’ tonight, I have been having to switch Radio 4 off all week at lunchtime because they have been reading it, but I’m afraid I bought a Kindle version – the starting point of this entire project was to dispose of Mum’s vast library in an appropriate way and share her love of books, I’m trying to avoid buying any physical books!

53: ‘Wolf Hall’, by Hilary Mantel

Before I started writing this, I popped on to Goodreads to find some reviews from people that did not enjoy it, because I knew there had to be some. Hilary Mantel’s style of writing is completely unique and individual – and one either loves or hates it, a bit like Marmite; there isn’t an in-between, as much as anything because a considerable amount of time needs to be invested in reading one of her works. Sure enough, the first two or three were predominantly negative – complaints about the fact that ‘he’ is used too often to designate who is speaking, which apparently confused many people – another criticising the authors over use of the colon.

I had absolutely no problem with either of these things! And I remember talking to Mum ten years ago when we both first read it, and, no surprise here, Mum had no problems either! Each to their own, of course, but certainly for me, re-reading this has been absolute bliss; (Ooops, there goes a colon!)  I was delighted to be reminded just how brilliant it is, and possibly absorbed it better. It does make a difference when you can read and not be interrupted, one of the luxuries of living alone except for a dog!

Now I have to confess to being a bit of a history nerd – it was certainly my favourite subject at school, and in this splendid era of podcasts, my go to listening while I am working is always a history podcast. The first one I came across was Mike Duncan’s excellent History of Rome – I would also recommend Dan Carlin, especially ‘Armageddon’, his unforgettable 5 part take on the First World War, and ‘Wrath of the Khans’, a solid, enthusiastic and  enthralling podcast about the Mongol Empire – and I am currently enjoying a ‘History of Britain’ by a guy called Jamie from Seattle, this guy knows his Angles from his Saxons, and his Norsemen… but I digress!

This is the first volume in a trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, the blacksmith’s son from Putney who became Chancellor to Henry VIII. It is meticulously researched, and for me, completely immersive – I was IN Tudor London while I was reading it! I’m currently deep into ‘Bring Up the Bodies’, which is the second book, and will then buy the newly released ‘The Light and the Mirror’ – they’re reading it on Radio 4 at the moment and I keep having to turn the radio off! It is a shame Mum won’t be able to finish the story, though.

For those who are not history nerds, there is a comprehensive cast of characters and family tree in the front, and, given that we have complicated dynasties like the Plantagenets and Tudors, multiple cousins, related European monarchs and illegitamacy, not to mention Henry’s swathe of spouses, I think this is a good thing.

The book opens with Cromwell as a child being beaten by his father. It is brutal in its description, be warned. We hear about his escape to Europe, but then we jump forward to the period when he was secretary to the charismatic and powerful Cardinal Wolsey, whose failure to secure the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Katherine of Aragon led to his downfall, beautifully described,..and the eventual accession of Cromwell. However, in later chapters, his horrendous, motherless childhood is quite often referred to, almost as if to excuse or explain the ruthless and calculating behaviour of this complicated self made man, who he became, what motivated him, who he loved and admired, and why. He doesn’t even know what his birth date is.

It concludes as Henry is beginning to notice Jane Seymour, (non-history nerds, she will become Wife 3 and die after delivering Henry’s only legitimate son. Anne Boleyn is repeatedly failing to provide a live male heir, although she has had Elizabeth, who will one day become that famous red-headed Queen), with a visit to Wolf Hall, the seat of the Seymour family. Anne Boleyn id failing to provide a male heir, although she has had Elizabeth, who will one day become Queen

I expect by now you have put two and two together and figured out I LOVED this book.. but if you have not read Hilary Mantel before, I’d suggest read a few pages before you buy. Mum’s copy is going down the road to a dear friend, Anne, who I suspect will be keeping pace with me for the trilogy… but if you can wait, Anne is wonderful at passing the book back if someone else wants to read it – I’ll let you know when it’s available again on the Facebook and Instagram pages!

 

 

52. ‘Black-eyed Susans’ by Julie Heaberlin.

I am still working my way through ‘Wolf Hall’, enjoying every minute of it, but it isn’t one to be skipped through if one wants to really experience Hilary Mantel’s Tudor world…so you’ll have to wait, I’m afraid!

In the meantime though, here’s a book Mum read in October 2016, and one I am sure was an airport buy, possibly read on the way back to London from my sister’s in Spain. It’s a serial killer thriller, and quite a good one – I certainly didn’t spot the villain until the very end! Thriller’s are a genre I enjoy, but don’t usually choose: this one I read in one sitting, it definitely caught my attention!

Here’s what it says on the back cover…

Left with three other girls in a grave shrouded by Black Eyed Susan’s, Tessa alone survived, her testimony helping to put a killer behind bars. Now, sixteen years later, he is about to be executed. But Tessa feels no relief, because somebody is planting Black Eyed Susan’s outside her window. Someone is sending her daughter sinister messages, and there’s a lawyer telling her the man about to be executed is innocent. Which can mean only one thing – the wrong man has been sentenced, the real killer is still out there, and Tessa might not be the last Black Eyed Susan.

Now, on a side note – when I lived in Australia, Black Eyed Susan’s were a rampant weed! I remember planting one on the fence of my chook pen (hen house!) which was well away from the garden proper…and it went berserk, smothering the fence and the chook house, but looking absolutely glorious! Definitely not recommended for planting outside windows in a smaller garden in the subtropics though! and I remember them being more orange than yellow as illustrated on the cover of this book.

Anyway. It’s pretty good, and it is looking for a new home…as always, if you would like to read this, simply get in touch through here or the Facebook page…or Instagram! and I will send it to you with love from Mum and I.

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51. ‘The Little Friend’ by Donna Tartt

The photo above is the message Mum wrote in the front of this copy when she sent it to me in Australia in 2003. Published in 2002, ten long years of waiting since Mum and I had both bought ‘The Secret History’ in Trafalgar Square…and both loved it.

It reads ‘Remember when we bought her first book? This is her second. I hope you haven’t read it – its The Best! Love you, Mum X’

So, although this isn’t Mum’s copy – I believe one of my sisters has that – it is pretty special! As indeed is all of this authors writing, even though there is an inevitable, it seems, wait of ten years between books; I’m looking forward to seeing something in around 2022, and will miss being able to discuss it with Mum.

What is it all about? This time, the author takes us into a small Deep Southern Baptist town in the Sixties, where ten years previously, a much loved ten year old boy was found hanging from a tree in the family back yard, an event which has left his family of mostly women reeling. HIs sister, the stubborn, bookish, and decidedly tomboyish Harriet, was a baby at the time and has grown up with the ghost of Robin – ten years have passed, and at 12, she and her trusty sidekick, Hely, who adores her, set out one summer to track down the culprit.

A broad stage of characters, from Harriet’s afflicted mother and Aunts, to a family of meth addicts living in a trailer, (the Grandma is astonishing!), to a tattooed snake wielding preacher – the snakes themselves play a role too – keeps you turning the pages, and you almost feel the heat and lethargy of a sleepy Southern summer, hear the creaks and squeaks of the children bicycles, and yearn for an iced tea as you read on a porch…

I loved especially the immediate family – and Ida, the coloured housekeeper who has kept the family reasonably functional for years. The Aunts are marvellous, especially when they go on a road trip. The decaying colonial plantation house in the family history, the new sub-division where the children go to find snakes, the garden and the tree itself, are all described beautifully.

It is a cracker of a book; both Mum and I thought so, even though it did get a few rather average reviews when it was released – I guess The Secret History was so flipping good, it would have been hard to match – but, I thought she did it, I almost prefer this to the History.

As always, I am hoping to be able to gift this marvellous read forward. Please, get in touch either here or (preferably!) find Mums books on Facebook or Instagram, and I will send it to you with love from both Mum and I. I admit, there will be a pang parting with this…but I am on a mission!

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50. ‘The Female of the Species’ by Lionel Shriver.

‘Still unattached and childless at the age of 59, world renowned anthropologist Gray Kaiser is seemingly invincible – and untouchable. Returning to make a documentary at the site of her first great triumph in Kenya, she is accompanied by her faithful middle aged assistant, Errol McEchern, who has loved her for years in silence. When sexy young graduate assistant Raphael Sarasola arrives on the scene, Gray is captivated and falls hopelessly in love – before an amazed and injured Errol’s eyes. As he follows the progress of their affair with jealous fascination, Errol watches hopelessly from the sidelines as a once proud and fierce woman is reduced to miserable dependence through subtle, cruel and calculating manipulation’.

Thus reads the back cover of this astonishing book. Mum read this in 2011, I for the first time in January this year, and I found it enthralling. I didn’t like Gray very much to begin with, she had too many ‘super-powers’, but as the story unfolded, which is told very much by Errol, we see her becoming much more human, with all that that entails.

Raphael’s story is told quite uniquely as envisaged by Errol, an interesting technique which I thought fascinating. He has had, shall we say, an interesting upbringing, becoming a ruthless and really quite unpleasant and self serving individual, something Errol sees but of course, Gray, for all her super-powers, misses entirely. Errol cares so much for Gray, and she at one point admits that she feels ‘protected’ by him, something that is hard for her to recognise.

This was Lionel Shrivers first novel, and it really is a stunner, dealing with deep and complex emotions and needs, and bringing together a cast of unique and interesting characters. I definitely recommend it, and am looking forward to reading more of her work; most of her novels are in Mum’s collection.

As always, I’m going to be gifting this copy forward, so if you’d like to add it to your collection, please get in touch here, or through the Mums Books page and group on Facebook, or Instagram, and I will be delighted to send it to you…

 

49. ‘The Stationery Shop of Tehran’, by Marjan Kamali.

Not one of Mum’s books, but one I bought in the airport at Brisbane for the long flight back to the UK at the end of January last. The cover design caught my eye – I’m a bit of a magpie when it comes to bright things – and there’s a plug from Booklist on the front cover that simply says, ‘Kamali paints an evocative portrait of 1950’s Iran and it’s political upheaval .. Simultaneously briskly paced and deeply moving, this will appeal to fans of Khaled Hosseini’.

OK, that caught my attention as well. I know little about modern Iranian history except the bare bones, and I think Hoseini’s ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ is still one of the most deeply moving books I have ever read. So, purchased, popped into my extremely capacious travelling handbag (which usually weighs more than my official hand luggage!), and I settled down to read it on the second leg.

The central character is Roya, a teenage girl living in Tehran with her sister and her very liberated and forward thinking parents, keen for their daughters to gain a good education and pursue careers, preferably in the sciences. Her favourite place to escape the boys pursuing the girls after school, and the political demonstrations, is a stationary shop, and there she meets a politically active and rather handsome boy called Bahman. Their romance blossoms amidst the pencils and the poetry of Rumi, and a few months later, they are to be married, despite Bahman’s mothers disapproval.

They agree to meet at one of the squares in the city one day, but, although she waits, he never appears as chaos erupts and the coup that unseated the last Shah of Iran unfolds. Roya tries to contact him, but eventually, goes to university in California, and begins a whole new life in the States.

A chance encounter almost sixty years later brings them together again, and she, (and we), find out just what happened…and why.

I enjoyed it. Khaled Hosseini it is not, but it had enough twists and turns to keep me engaged, it broke my heart in places, and… I was HUNGRY all the way through thanks to the descriptive passages about delicious Iranian food!

I shan’t read it again though and would love to gift it forward to one of you lovely lot – as always, if you like the sound of it, please get in touch either here or on the Mums Books Facebook or Instagram pages, and I’ll send it to you toot suite!

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