34. ‘Shakespeare’ by Bill Bryson.

Shakespeare

It’s safe to say Mum loved this book as she has two copies of it; the first dated 2008, the second copy, 2011 and 2014….obviously Mum mislaid the first copy,  so she bought it again!

I too thoroughly enjoyed this. It is nowhere near as heavy going as many of the scholarly works that have been written about William Shakespeare – and there are certainly plenty of them – and rather than the plays, it focuses on the eternal mystery of who William Shakespeare the man really was. It is truly amazing how little we actually know about him! Even the three likenesses of him are probably wildly inaccurate, and there is virtually no information that we can rely on regarding his personal life, his relationships, what drove him and inspired him…and many theories that suggest he wasn’t in fact the genuine author of the work attributed to him!

The book is easy to read, and quite short, emphasising Mr Bryson’s assertion that we can know little of the man himself despite exhaustive research. It is remarkable that his works even survived,  for which we can thank his friends and colleagues, John Heminges and Henry Condell, who seven years after his death published the First Folio – about which there is a very entertaining chapter giving us a fascinating insight into the literary publishing world of the 16th century. In fact one of the best things about this book is the way Mr Bryson feeds us snippets about what everyday life in Elizabethan and Jacobean England was like – plagues, superstitions and sumptuary laws abound, together with the robust nature of the theatre, and its remarkable accessibility. Of particular interest are the passages about life in London at that time – Mum would have relished that greatly!

All fascinating stuff, and delivered with Mr. Bryson’s characteristically dry humour, backed up by a solid presentation of the very few solid facts we have, and a measured assessment of the theories that abound. I particularly enjoyed his final chapter in the book, ‘Claimants’, in which he discusses the varied propositions that William Shakespeare did not in fact write anything, including the wonderful story of the decidedly unstable Delia Bacon and her conviction that her namesake, Francis Bacon, was in fact the true author of his catalogue!

A great read, and I have two copies to gift forward if you would like to add this lovely little book to your collection – as always, please get in touch either through the Facebook page or here and I will be delighted to send you one. If you have missed out on one of Mum’s copies but would like to read this, here is a link to Amazon to purchase a copy for yourself…

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24. ‘Diary of an Ordinary Woman’ by Margaret Forster.

A marvellous read, and a very interesting concept – this novel was conceived by Margaret Forster after she was contacted regarding nearly a century’s worth of diaries kept by no-one famous or notable, just an ordinary woman of 98 who had lived through the turbulent twentieth century. In fact, the lady in question remains as anonymous as she ever was, because the proposition to ‘make something’ of the diaries was retracted. However, the seed had been sown, and as a result we have this magnificent book, a fictionalised memoir of Millicent King. What a read! and from an author deeply interested and engaged in chronicling the lives, the thoughts, the feelings of women, it is a winner on every level. Mum gave me the book years ago, I loved it then, and I found her copy deep in one of the bookshelves that are groaning with her library last week, did a little happy dance and then devoured it in a four hour sitting, moving only once or twice for a fresh cup of tea. The Mr had to go and buy fish and chips for his supper. Magnificent.

We meet Millicent in 1914 when she is a precocious and opinionated thirteen, and from the start she captures one’s attention – ‘her’ prose is dryly observational, at times extremely funny, and definitely captivating. She bemoans her fate, criticises her family and friends ruthlessly, and in short sounds exactly as one would expect a thirteen year old diarist to sound. Definitely very petulant and self centred. she records her disappointment at not being able to go to college, her resentment at having to take care of her younger siblings, her disgust that there are so many younger siblings – didn’t her parents have any self control? As she matures, the tone of ‘her’ writing changes as we would expect it to, and becomes more observational and less passionate.

However, the tale she is telling is against the backdrop of the two wars, the tensions in Europe between them, the horror of the Blitz, the civil rights movements, the Greenham Common women’s camp. Millicent is not a political creature, nor is she a romantic heroine. She is simply, as the title states, an ordinary woman doing the best she can with her ordinary life. And as in real life, there are great gaps where a terrible loss has left her silent.

It’s a wonderful read. Regardless of the fact that it is a work of fiction, it is nonetheless so plausible and so well written that Millicent comes alive on the pages as a believable representative of her generation, and of the ordinary people who make a nation what it is.

This one is not available to gift as usual I’m afraid; my eldest daughter arrived the day after I had finished it, listened to me raving about it, and nabbed it immediately, however, here’s a link to Amazon, or ask for it at your local library (goodness knows we need to be using our libraries or they’ll all close!). But seriously, read this. It’s amazing.

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23. ‘Regeneration’ by Pat Barker.

After reviewing ‘Noonday’ last week, and mentioning that the Regeneration Trilogy is in my top ten, and was also much loved by Mum, one of our lovely regular Mum’s Books readers told me she had never heard of it and would be looking for it. This was all the prompting I needed to go and rummage on the shelves and find Mum’s copies….no excuse needed for me to re-read this brilliant work, and so here is the first volume, ‘Regeneration’.

I’ll let you all know right away that Catherine has already reserved this book and I shall be posting it to her this week, but I’ll pop an Amazon link in at the bottom for anyone else who would like to read this…and I certainly recommend that you do, it is simply brilliant!

It is an absolutely masterful blend of fact and fiction, characters from history given additional and authentic voices by the author. This book opens in 1917, and the novel revolves around the meeting of two men. The poet and war hero Siegfried Sassoon is on his way to Craiglockhart Army Hospital where he will be treated by the psychologist W.H.R. Rivers. Both men existed, both are notable. This story explores in depth the impact they have upon one another, alongside the gruesome and barbaric background of the trenches in France, and the additional stories and experiences of other characters, both fictional and real..

It is a profoundly anti war book. In a narrative from Rivers in the final pages, we read,

‘A society that devours its own young deserves no automatic or unquestioning allegiance’.

Words that we would do well to remember, as we also recall the millions of young men who died on both sides with the approach of the hundred year anniversary of the Armistice.

The other characters are also brilliant – both fictional and historical. Wilfrid Owen is also undergoing treatment at Craiglockhart for ‘shell shock’, and Ms Barker tells us of help given to the young Owen by Sassoon in amending his ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ – Sassoon had been published, Owen was an unknown. The fictional Prior is a fascinating and complex creature, a working class lad who’s an officer with all the class distinctions and difficulties that that combination entailed back then, and we shall see far more of him in the next two books. His girlfriend, Sarah Lumb, a munitions worker, and her terrifying mother Ada. Burns, an affable youngster with an appalling consequence to his time in the trenches. Honestly, all superb.

It can certainly be read as a stand alone book – but I intend to re read the other two volumes now, and am thoroughly looking forward to it. If you are looking for a Great War read, you cant go past this trilogy. It has a definite massive thumbs up from both Mum and I.

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I am sure I can put these links in in a more tidy manner! Another challenge for my technically challenged brain! But that will take you to the book on Amazon UK.

As always, I welcome your comments, either here or on the Facebook page. Happy reading!

 

 

22. ‘Noonday’ by Pat Barker.

I had hoped to have this ready to publish for Fathers Day here in the UK, in memory of and honour of my adoptive father, Fred. As I told you all in my last review, I was adopted as a baby, and this book absolutely spoke to me about my adoptive Dad’s experiences as an anti aircraft gunner on the Embankment during this part of WWII – as well as those of my adoptive Mum, who was a theatre Sister in Yorkshire throughout the war dealing with the horrific injuries sustained by civilians during the bombings. My natural Mum, the Mum of Mums Books fame, remembered the later air raids remarkably clearly, and my natural grandfather was a London taxi driver who spent the war fire fighting through the Blitz.

Born in the early Sixties, but brought up by parents who were old enough to be my grandparents and had therefore both seen active service in the second world war, that war was very real and vivid to me. I grew up in London with an air raid shelter in the garden, and with many bomb sites in the area which had been cleared but not yet rebuilt. I grew up with the Dambusters and my Dad’s flying jacket still in the hall cupboard. And with stories like the one of the night Dad decided to transfer from the Artillery to the RAF.

As a public school boy, and coming from a family with a history of military service, he was a reservist in the OTC at the outbreak of war in September 1939, and joined the Royal Artillery as an officer, being posted to an anti aircraft gun post I think in or near Battersea, south of the river anyway. He manned that post through the period of time ensconced by this book, and, after a particularly harrowing night, returned to the Anderson hut he was billeted in to find it had been completely destroyed by a bomb. Along with everyone in it.

At this point, he said, he looked up at the sky that had rained destruction the night before and thought to himself, I’d rather be up there – and as an officer was able to transfer into the RAF, train as a pilot in Saskatchewan, Canada, and fly Spitfires for the rest of the war. Here he is. He’s twenty years old, has just gained his wings as a Flight Lieutenant in the RAF, is flying a seriously amazing aeroplane with reckless abandon, (he’ll crash three of them, flying one straight through an advertising hoarding), and has several girlfriends – within a year, he will commit the unforgivable error of sending the wrong three letters to the wrong three girlfriends. Oops! Still my hero though. Apologies for the poor picture quality – it’s a photo of a photo.

 

And, as a teenager straight out of school, he saw, and fought, the first brutally heavy Blitz in the late summer and through the winter of 1940/41, during which spell of time this amazing book is set. Reading the book, and remembering that Pat Barker is renowned for her accuracy of historical detail, I am once again filled with admiration for my adoptive parents generation. I suppose we can only hope that few of us will ever have to experience that horror, although I’d like to think we would cope just as well. And of course we must remember that there are wars and bombings and incendiary devices alive and well in many parts of the world today. Heaven help us.

After the war, my Dad gained a degree and went on to work for the Home Office until his retirement. He was instrumental in the development of drug and alcohol rehabilitation facilities, cared deeply about the difficulties people face, and did his best to work to help the under privileged. He was one of the kindest souls you’d ever meet, and used the phrase ‘if nothing else, always be kind’ long before it became a Facebook meme. He was a wonderful Dad, I loved him so very much, and he loved me. And I write this review with him very much in mind. He was there.

It’s a wonderful book. I have read and loved Pat Barkers first world war trilogy, and I had no idea this volume was the third in another trilogy until I’d finished it – I just saw Pat Barker’s name in amongst Mums Books, thought ‘Great!’, pulled it out and read it in an afternoon…even missing a World Cup game to finish it. It’s gripping. I think I’d read it again as a stand alone book.

The characters are completely believable, real people. The heat of the summer of 1940 combined with the fear gripping Britain at the time that a German invasion was imminent is palpable. Moving into London in the continuing heat, one genuinely feels the terrifying awareness Londoners had that the shorter days would mean longer nights for bombings. London itself, alway dear to my heart, is beautifully described by someone obviously very familiar with its streets and passages. The blackout and everything it entailed, including, and I shall have to look this up, a passage describing how prostitutes coped with it, nailing tacks into their heels so the tap tap tap of them alerted potential customers, together with a strategically aimed narrow beam of light from a black out torch.

There is a graphic description of the characters involvement in what has been described as the second Great Fire of London, when over the 29th and 30th of December 1940, over 100,000 bombs fell on the city and the East End. Horrifying. But it happened, and this section of the book immerses you in the heat and terror, the taste and the smell of burning bricks, the incredible heat, desperation, and destruction.

I strongly suspect that the principal characters have been involved throughout the trilogy so I am deliberately trying to avoid any spoilers for you should you decide to read them all, (…and I think you should based on my experience of the Regeneration Trilogy.)

I’d recommend a Pat Barker I haven’t read simply because she is one of the best writers ever, and I certainly give this one a solid thumbs up. If you’d like to add this, my Mum’s copy, to your bookshelf, please just get in touch – the whole purpose of this blog is to share our Mums love of reading, and I will be delighted to send it to the first person who asks for it! Here is an Amazon link if you have missed out!

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The other books in the series are Life Class, and Toby’s Room, and I’m buying them.

Here’s to you Dad, and all the other heroes out there. Much love XXX

21. “The Making of the British Landscape – from the Ice Age to the Present” by Nicholas Crane.

It’s taken me a while to write this, for which I apologise – long time between drinks! In the interim since my last review, there’ve been school holidays, (I work with special needs children in a school), during which lots of work went into my little business, and a most wonderful family celebration of my second youngest sisters marriage. It was a large, odd and as always interesting gathering of the clan, and the first without our lovely Mum…and a lovely time was had by all. I think we all appreciated getting together for a happy occasion; the last time most of us had seen one another was Mum’s funeral. Speaking personally, I felt her presence very strongly but without sadness – she would have enjoyed it so much, and was definitely with us in spirit.

Those of you who know me personally are almost all already aware of this, but for my new friends, made through this project particularly, I realise that you may not be aware of the fact that I was adopted at birth, grew up in a loving and lovely family, and then was lucky enough to find Mum when I was about twenty one. I have been feeling strongly that I should come clean about this – not that I am in any way ashamed or embarrassed by it, or feel any concern about sharing it, but there was something I wanted to say about my adoptive mother when I was reviewing Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, and didn’t because I felt sure it would be very confusing if one didn’t know I had two Mums! One of the last long conversations I had with Mum was about my adoption, and I clearly recall saying to her that I felt so lucky and privileged to have been blessed with not one but two fabulous mothers, which is the absolute truth. The flip side of that particular coin being that I have had to face up to losing both of them. But enough of that – it is a subject I shall no doubt touch on again in future posts, and now you all know, I shall move on to the business of this blog – this incredibly good book!

Fantastic, amazing, eye-opening. This is a magnificent book, which I have enjoyed and learnt from even more on this, my second reading. Nicholas Crane writes with skill and sensitivity about the forces, both geological and human, that have shaped the unique islands that comprise the British Isles, these ‘gilded isles’ that I am once again calling home after over thirty years abroad.

Perhaps such a long absence is responsible for my deep reaction to this book, combined with the season in which I have read it again. If the weather plays fair, Spring in the British countryside is an exquisite riot of greenery and blossom. The birds are singing madly, and people are out and about revelling in the longer days and the sunshine after, this year in particular, a long cold dark winter.

Driving through Somerset and Dorset, the fields and hedgerows are astonishingly beautiful – the fresh greens lit up by the bright yellow of rapeseed in bloom, poppies splashing red, great plates of white blossom in the hedgerows. Utterly gorgeous, and mostly man made!

Mr Crane begins as the title suggests with the massive geological upheavals of the last Ice Age, and I love the language he uses – powerful and evocative, the grinding out of great valleys by glacial activity, the tsunami that eventually washed away the land bridge between Britain and the rest of Europe, by which time the first humans are already established as successful hunter gatherers on the island. Little is altered by the human presence until the very late arrival of agriculture, save for the massive monuments which remain cloaked in mystery – the most famous of which is of course Stonehenge. We can only make educated guesses as to what happened there, what it was used for, and as Mr Crane says, ‘Many of these monuments would have been mysterious in their own time, and this perhaps is their preferred legacy; in the absence of knowledge, they’re best seen as gymnasia for the human imagination.’

Mr Crane takes us on an informative and enthralling journey through the development of the landscape through mining, metallurgy, agricultural advances, and the building of permanent settlements. We see further waves of immigration, the development of trade routes and ports…and then the Romans arrive, and everything changes as these ‘psychopathic builders’ push a network of long, straight, paved roads across the country and build permanent settlements and forts. A new religion arrives and flourishes, trade is burgeoning, things are becoming much more recognisably organised. And then, everything changes again as a drought on the Mongolian steppes, thousands of miles away, forces their inhabitants down into Roman territories, and the Roman armies are withdrawn from Britain to protect their homelands.

By the Industrial revolution, we realise how, even though Britain was a late starter compared to the Eurasian city states, the sheer abundance of the raw materials needed for this great leap in technologies put Britain in the forefront of change, development, and growth, and the energetic prosperity which ensued. ‘Britain, so long a net importer of inventiveness, had begun to produce  big ideas. So big that the island would lead the world into a new kind of landscape’. This part of the book is absolutely fascinating, describing how while the industrial landscapes were changing the face of Britain, the ancient towns and cities were also being propelled into new identities. The story of Huddersfield is a fascinating example!

I’m going to finish with a quote from the last chapter of the book – it’s not a spoiler, but a highly thought provoking statement, a jolly good reason to read this book, a startling and honest declaration of love for these beautiful islands.

‘Landscape matters because it is our habitat. It is the only place we have. I wrote this book because I wanted to tell its story. I wanted to explore how we modified this island, from the hearth of the first reindeer hunter to the glass spire of the Shard. I wanted to know where the ideas came from; who built them; what was treasured and kept; what was lost and regretted. I wanted to find the turning points. It is a story of ups and downs. And this paragraph has to end partway through a chapter; beyond the end of the industrial era yet not far enough into the ‘sustainable’ era to know whether we have the time and initiative to confront the accelerated pace of environmental change and population growth. We occupy a land that is in between; an ‘inter land’. Standing back from this manuscript, I see an island richer than I ever imagined. It’s been a long book with a short message; that to care about a place, you must first know its story’.

This is excellent, it’s a hardback copy, Mum read it in November 2016, and I am going to gift it forward to whoever would like to read it and add it to their library – just get in touch either here or through the Facebook page. I really cannot recommend it highly enough if you have any interest in the history of Britain!

I’d also like to add a note that I’m delighted to find that previous recipients of Mum’s books have been gifting them forward after reading, sharing Mum’s love of reading!

Here’s an Amazon link if you miss out on Mums copy.

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9. ‘Georgy Girl’ by Margaret Forster.

I’ve been a big fan of Margaret Forster since Mum gave me her wonderful ‘Diary of an Ordinary Woman’ some years ago. Ms Forster is another of those strong female writers Mum loved so well, with an uncanny ability to observe without passing  judgement, and to record the foibles and quirks of human nature in a completely relatable way. This is a short, strange, seductive novel which I read in one sitting, so fascinated was I by the characters, and where the story could go….and I was left thinking about no end of things when I finished it.

There are few principal protagonists, but with some marvellous characters backing them up. The story moves fast, with lots of twists and turns, some expected, others completely out of left field. It’s set in London in the early sixties, a time of huge social and political change – George wears beatnik clothes, loose and baggy to cover herself, and a leather overcoat as a form of armour. She’s in her late twenties, too big, ugly, and desperate for love and sex, not necessarily in that order. One genuinely feels for her as she alternates between playing the fool and making a door mat of herself for her pretty but heartless flatmate, Meredith, while Meredith herself engendered equally strong feelings of dislike with her callous treatment of absolutely everyone, including her own child.  A lecherous ‘uncle James’ who is her parents employer surprisingly proposes that Georgy becomes his mistress.  Her parents, colourless souls, especially the father, are baffled and bewildered by their big ugly duckling daughter. There’s the neighbour, Peg, so pathetic and grotesque that even Georgy seems almost sylph like.  And finally, the rather pretentious Jos, Meredith’s boyfriend to begin with – I’d be spoiling too much of the plot if I say more than that he finds himself in love with Georgy as Meredith is having his baby.

This novel is a reminder that we humans are a weird and wonderful lot. We are not always terribly nice to each other, and we are especially cruel to those we perceive as different. There is a wonderful scene where Georgy, in desperation, dives into a West End hairdressers, looking for an improvement in her looks, and ends up with her head in a basin of cold water in a public lavatory, trying to remove the result. It made me think about the dramas that are constantly played out behind the closed doors of millions of homes, about the desperation to be more than just ‘ordinary’ that fuels even the smallest rebellion, and about how many people end up resigning themselves to settling for less than they dream of. I think Ms Forster has an astonishing ability to describe the human condition. It’s fast, with funniness and pathos beautifully interlaced. And I recommend it.

As always. please let me know if you would like to read Georgy Girl, and I shall send it to the first reply!