36. ‘A Dark Adapted Eye’ by Barbara Vine.

Dark adaptation; a condition of vision brought about progressively by remaining in complete darkness for a considerable period, and characterised by progressive increase in retinal sensitivity. A dark adapted eye is an eye in which dark adaptation has taken place.

James Drever; A Dictionary of Psychology.

Barbara Vine, who of course is in fact the amazingly skilful Ruth Rendell, has built the most astonishingly complex novel from this concept, with characters and a plot that remain with you long after you have finally put down the book with a sigh of regret that it is finished. I had not read this one previously, and was delighted to find it during an attempt to find something else entirely – Mum and I both adored a good crime novel, especially one of the great British writers in the genre. P.D.James is a particular favourite of mine, and when she died a few years ago, I re read all her novels, most of which came off Mum’s bookshelves, but sadly it seems Mum got rid of them when she moved out of the house as there were none at the flat. However, this little gem of a novel remained, and I have to say I loved it!

It is a difficult novel to review in that almost anything I say about the characters will in some small way affect you, the readers, pleasure in uncovering the twists and turns yourself when reading it. It opens with a family arising in the morning and going about their business in the full and awful knowledge that their aunt and sister will die that morning – and continues to uncover the tangled skeins of lies and deceptions and desires that have led to this morning.

I found myself pondering the title, and the opening paragraph with which I have also opened this blog post, more and more as I progressed through the book. The relevance is clear; we can convince ourselves of almost anything if we think it and believe it and say it enough, and indeed this family live in a construct that is eventually astonishing, and certainly not what it initially appears to be. The conventionality of their lives is in fact underlaid by overwhelmingly passionate desires and feelings, afternoon tea and cake on a nicely laid table about to burst asunder with uncontrollably boiling sulphurous acid, and the author does a wonderful job of keeping the tea on the table while giving us, the reader, tantalising glimpses of what’s going on under the table.

I did find the first probably third of the book rather confusing at times, a lot of characters are introduced, but it is an enjoyable challenge keeping up with who is who and how they are related. As one progresses through the novel, all becomes clearer (sort of), and it’s apparent that this is a device the author has deliberately employed, it is in fact completely necessary to the plot.

One of the things I like the most about our great British female crime writers is the attention to detail, the trimmings as it were, with which they illustrate their work, and this novel is no different. It is set in post war austerity Britain in the 1950’s, pre contraception, pre womens rights…and I find myself again not wanting to say too much and give away the plot….it is written by a woman, about women, and most of all about an eventually lethal struggle between women, and it is magnificent.

In short, I thoroughly recommend this book! I have no idea when Mum read it as she has not initialled and dated this one inside the cover, but I’m fairly sure she bought it in the mid Nineties and read it immediately after visiting me in Australia as it contained an Australian bookmark, just the sort of thing Mum would have picked up while on holidays. It was a lovely treat to find that inside it, as well as the book itself.

As always, if you would like to add this superb thriller to your own book collection, please get in touch with me either here or on our Facebook page, whereupon I shall wrap it up securely in brown paper and string and post it to you as a gift with much love from both Mum and me. I am almost a year into this project now and enjoying it as much as ever, and I would like to add, I am so thrilled by the support you have all shown for it – thank you all!

Here’s an Amazon link if you have missed out on claiming this book but would like to purchase it, it’s only £3.99 on there, or of course you could pop into your local library for it, heaven knows our libraries need supporting or even more of them will close and what a dreadful thing that would be.

Lots of love, Becky XXX

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29.’Sapiens’ by Dr. Yuval Noah Harari.

My third son arrived for a flying visit from Australia this weekend, my second son who is currently living in the UK came to stay as well, and we had an absolutely wonderful time hanging out together! What’s that got to do with a book? Well, Tom arrived bearing with him this non fiction book which he had read on the plane and recommending it highly…I began reading his copy, and then, (he was perusing the bookshelves full of Mum’s books,) it turned out Mum had a copy too, a hardback. I’m not at all surprised, its a great, thought provoking, eye opening kind of a book, and enthralling enough that I did another ‘marathon’ read, not moving until I’d finished it! It was especially enjoyable having Tom to discuss it with as well, since he had only just finished it. Always enhances the pleasure of a good read, having a fellow reader to talk about it with, it’s something I shall always miss about sharing books with Mum.

The subtitle is ‘A Brief History of Humankind’, and Dr. Harari does indeed condense hundreds of thousands of years into about 400 pages, dividing our history into four main sections – the Cognitive Revolution, the Agricultural Revolution, the Unification of Humankind, and finally, the Scientific Revolution. He opens with a big question – why did we, Homo Sapiens, become the dominant ‘human’ species of the many versions of us that existed in pre-history? To quote the inside cover,

How did our species succeed in the battle for dominance? Why did our foraging ancestors come together to create cities and kingdoms? How did we come to believe in gods, nations, and human rights; to trust books, money and laws; and to be enslaved by bureaucracy, consumerism and the pursuit of happiness?’

It is fascinating material, and Dr. Harari has used it to produce a well researched and thought out volume addressing the pro’s and con’s of each step we took as a race along the way. As an example, we tend to think that the agricultural revolution was a massive step forward for the human race – Dr. Harari argues convincingly that the average persons diet actually significantly decreased in nutritional value as a result – when we were hunter gatherers, we ate a wide range of foods, rather than becoming dependent on a single cultivated staple, rice for example. I immediately thought of the potato famines in Ireland – those poor souls would certainly have been better off foraging and hunting in the way our ancestors did.

I remember reading a book called The Human Animal by Desmond Morris years ago, (another volume I highly recommend), which addressed from an anthropological perspective the way we consider ourselves to be somehow superior to all other forms of life on Earth – this is a similarly ‘disinterested’ analysis of who we are, where we have come from, and where we might be heading, equally significant and worthy of reading. It closes with an afterword aptly headed ‘The Animal that became a God’; making the point very strongly that for all our so called advances, we have not necessarily improved the well being of our fellow ‘humans’, and have managed in the process to cause immense misery and suffering to other animals, and potentially destroyed the eco system of our beautiful planet. Minor stuff that we often ignore in our relentless pursuit of happiness. Personally I have often thought that we should strive for contentment, not happiness, but that’s another topic entirely.

I have a strong suspicion that Mum didn’t actually read this book, but listened to it on Radio 4 and as a result considered it worthy of addition to her library, since she has not initialled the inside cover with the date of reading. I certainly believe it is one of those books that genuinely gives one cause to stop, think, and learn from, something that never hurts.

Dr Harari offers a free course related to this book, it’s available on Youtube, link below. And, as always, I’m gifting this book forward to anyone who would like to read it – please simply get in touch below or through the Facebook page –

https://www.facebook.com/mumsbooks/

– and I will send it to you with much love. And if it has already been claimed but you would like a copy, there is also a link to Amazon below!

Much love, Becky X

Link to the Youtube videos…

Link to purchase on Amazon…

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19. ‘Gladys Revisited’ by Sandi Toksvig.

I’m a big fan of Sandi Toksvig on the TV, as was Mum. She is fast and funny, with a wicked sense of humour, and last year did a marvellous job becoming one of the new hosts of Bake Off after Mary Berry’s departure. This is the first of her books that I have read, and I did enjoy it, chuckling aloud occasionally, but it wasn’t long before I began to wonder if an American reader would find her frequent swipes at their culture and way of life quite as entertaining!

In short, Ms Toksvig spent what she later came to believe was the best year of her youth attending a high school in America and becoming a member of the drama group there. That years play was ‘The Skin of Our Teeth’ by Thornton Wilder, and, enraptured by the charismatic drama teacher, she auditioned for and gained a part as the youngest of the three incarnations of Gladys Antrobus. The other two Gladys’ and she formed a club, The Gladyses, which eventually expanded to a group of twelve friends. (I feel as if I have typed ‘Gladys’ far too many times already, and trust that no one reading this is now at a loss as to the significance of the title of the book? No? Good!)

That year, the year of the Gladyses, and her subsequent removal to an English boarding school are not the main focus of this book however. It’s more a conversation about Ms Toksvig’s personal struggles, whether she made the right choices in relationships, career, location; whether she should apply for a British passport even though she has lived in the UK for thirty years on her Danish one, mainly because despite being a politically aware individual, she cannot vote. It’s about how she views America, coming to it again after many years and with a roseate view engendered by her reminiscences of that golden high school year. And it’s about organising to meet up with the other eleven Gladyses. And whether they are as plump as her – we read a fair bit about her tummy!

The opening is really quite hilarious as Ms Toksvig tries her hand at rodeo-ing in Arizona, which ends rather badly, and she maintains a light, easy pace throughout – it is not a hard book to read at all. One by one, across a series of visits to the USA, she does manage to catch up with the Gladyses; some are as plump as her, others are not. Most are suburban wives who refuse to discuss international affairs and thus gain Ms Toksvig’s scorn at the insular nature of Americans. During the course of the book, the terrible event of 9/11 happens, and Ms Toksvig finds herself in New York very shortly after, with the smell of the burning buildings still thick in the air. She describes what and who she sees, the general atmosphere, in a sensitive and moving way, but then complains that the Red Cross Disaster Relief centre has no toilets.

The book becomes Bill Bryson-esque at times, there are nicely written descriptions of visits to strange attractions, meandering drives, and some history and geography thrown in to boot. And by the time she is flying home to England, Ms Toksvig has decided that England is indeed home, and she’ll get the passport, apparently mostly due to the terribly British humour of the pilot of her plane.

Mum hasn’t initialled and dated the flyleaf of this book although I know she read it, and I wonder if it’s because she felt lukewarm about it in the same way I do. Yes, it’s funny, easy to read, interesting in some ways. But my over-riding impression is that most of the Gladyses probably won’t want another reunion after what she has to say about them and their lives, and that reading this has not spurred me to look for more of her books, although I look forward to her presenting this summer’s Great British Bake Off!

So. Not a big thumbs up from me on this one, but if you would like to read it yourself, please let me know where to send it to and it will become yours!

POST SCRIPTUM; Thoughts while in the shower. I find a long hot shower so conducive to thinking.

Our lovely Ma was also in New York a very short time after the Twin Towers attack, with my stepfather Brian to visit Brian’s brother, and she too found it deeply moving. Mum loved America, which she visited several times, never failing to marvel at the size of everything – dinners and domestic appliances in particular. She was tremendously impressed by the white goods! I also had one of the most fabulous holidays of my life when I took a solo road trip across the South from San Diego to Savannah in 2012, in a Toyota Yaris of all things. We both agreed that Americans in general were so friendly and polite and pleasant, not to mention the generally awesomely spectacular landscapes; and the reflection I had in my shower was that while it is extremely easy to poke fun at a population that has managed to elect an orange misogynist muppet to the White House, is it nice to do so?

This is the land that gave us Henry James and Steinbeck, Donna Tartt and Arthur Miller. I have only to think of the way Bill Bryson writes about Britain to recognise that Americans think we are weird too. Many years ago, I emigrated from the UK to Australia, and before I left, I was told to remember that although they speak the same language, it is a different, foreign country. The same applies to the USA, and I think my main issue with this book and possibly Mum’s also is that the poking fun is a little too pointed at times, it’s not kind. And above all else, Mum was unfailingly kind.

14. ‘Heat Wave’ by Penelope Lively.

What an intriguing book this turned out to be – a slim volume packed full of punch. First published in 1996, Mum read it the following year, and kept it, which is an indication of how much she enjoyed it, and I did too. Particularly of interest to me were two things; firstly, that in 1997 Mum was about the same age as I am now, the same age as Pauline, the books central character, and secondly, that Mum had written a short shopping list inside the front cover, obviously gardening related, (Growmore, gravel, small fork…) but including ‘plastic plant’. Mum was a keen gardener, and although her garden was not large, it had a great deal packed into it, and any spots where she couldn’t get a thing to grow, or odd containers, were promptly filled with a plastic bundle of foliage! Like me, she would rail against Monty Don on Gardeners World exhorting you to plant ‘a drift of daffodils’….and just where exactly would one expect to fit a drift of daffodils in a tiny London garden?! After she had retired from teaching, on a warm day Mum could often be found perched out by her little blue shed reading a book with a cup of tea beside her, and that lovely garden hosted many a family gathering. When she moved to her flat, she dug up huge roses and shrubs and potted them up to take with her, and as I write this I can see her lovely old red rosebush shooting out lots of new growth outside my kitchen window…I have her pot plants here as well as her books. A delightful presence in my little house.

In Heat Wave, Ms Lively is exploring relationships, and most particularly, infidelity within relationships, in a perceptive and compassionate manner. Pauline, our heroine, is comfortable with herself at last in her mid fifties, and is spending a long hot summer at her country cottage with her daughter Teresa and her husband and small son in the cottage next door. Pauline is editing a book about romantic love, and this draws her mind back to the past, the years with Teresa’s father, his infidelities, and her crippling jealousy and unhappiness. As the heat of the summer builds, the wheat field outside her window is alluded to frequently; we see the passage of the summer through the changes in the landscape. “Pauline knows this field intimately–its range of mood and colour, its seasonal changes. It is growing wheat–winter wheat, which at this May moment is a rich green pelt.” And as the landscape becomes, instead of a sea of waving, lush, green growth, a field where the wheat has been harvested, and the straw baled into monolithic, vaguely threatening shapes, at last a storm breaks in more ways than one and the book reaches its surprising but very satisfying conclusion.

I loved the way Ms Lively managed so skilfully and successfully to link the weather and the landscape to what was happening to the characters in the book. All is calm and green and lovely to begin with, but as the heat starts to scorch the land, so Pauline realises with anguish that her daughters husband is betraying her, that Teresa is going through the same pain she did with Teresa’s father. There are some wonderfully written conversations, or almost wordless exchanges, between mother and daughter as Pauline attempts to reach out to Teresa while Teresa tries to deny what is happening. And alongside this we see the baby, Luke, just being a toddler, oblivious to the emotional storm crashing around him, something that Pauline marvels at.

It’s a beautifully written story, a very English book, with good manners, attention paid to detail, and some wonderful characters, both the central ones and the peripherals. I thoroughly recommend it as a summer read, and hope we might see a heat wave summer again soon! As always, if you would like to add this book to your collection, please let me know either here or on the Facebook page, and I will send it to you gratis and with love. It’s smashing!

13. ‘One night in winter’ by Simon Sebag Montefiore.

I watched several of Mr Montefiore’s TV series with Mum; we both enjoyed them as we agreed that he, although mildly pompous, was undoubtedly erudite, and presented his topics with an infectious enthusiasm. We especially liked ‘Jerusalem’ – a history of the Holy City, which Wikipedia tells me a film company has bought the option to to turn into a Game of Thrones style dramatic series about the city through the ages. Not quite sure how I feel about that, Mum and I shared a great love for GOT, never mind history – regardless, Mr Montefiore does most certainly seem to know his historical stuff. ‘Rome’ was another great series; I had fulfilled a lifelong ambition to spend time in the Eternal City early in the year this series was televised, and so found it more than usually interesting. However, I do have to say that if history, and more specifically, the history of Rome, appeals then you cannot go past Mike Duncan’s excellent podcast series, The History of Rome. Listening to that while making my own (solitary but no less triumphal) entry into the city on foot from five miles out along the Appian Way contributed enormously to a magnificent moment. And Mum approved my march wholeheartedly when I phoned her that night, whilst wondering how my feet were, bless her! But I digress.

I’d not come across this book before, nor indeed the other two Russian novels he has published, and I have really enjoyed it. It’s set in the post WWII Stalinist Soviet Union, which sounds exactly as I have always thought, a thoroughly scary place to be. There’s an almost seamless blend between a liberal sprinkling of historical events and the people who are known to have figured in them, and a cast of fictional characters to flesh the story out, and whom one can’t help but feel are probably very very accurately representative of the thoughts, feelings and actions of possibly countless unknown real people who lived through this (putting it politely) turbulent time in history. It is the central book of three in a series, and the cover boasts one line reviews from the major papers in the UK which heavily feature words like ‘gripping’ and ‘nail biting’. I read it in one sitting, no nails were bitten, but I did spend a lot of time thinking ‘that’s not fair’. Nothing is fair in here. And I find it interesting that I feel more compelled to write about how vicious this regime was than I’m inclined to write about the novel itself.

Put simply, the book pits the brutal power of the Soviet State machinery against the many forms the power of love can take. And does so rather well. Mr Montefiore tells us in an interesting appendix about the factual event that inspired the book – a case brought after a teenage murder/suicide shooting in Moscow against the children of the Kremlin potentates who attended the same school, obviously not because of any search for justice, but because Stalin realised the power this gave him over the parents, most of whom were members of his inner circle. Twenty six teenagers were eventually arrested, and held in the Lubianka Prison for six months, often in solitary confinement. Interrogated, and forced to ‘confess’, this was horrifying; their families fates were literally in their hands. In the book, the author explores the absolute terror of both the children and their families, neither of whom dared protest against the absolute power of the State aka Josef Stalin.  To quote Mr Montefiore, “what if this interrogation uncovered forbidden love affairs and the darkest family secrets, revelations that could lead to death and destruction?”. (There’s the huge clue to the ‘story’.) But, as the reader, one knows this scenario is set in a country and an era where people genuinely could simply disappear, and no one would dare to ask where they had gone. Even their children. Historians estimate varying quantities, but always in the millions, of people died as a direct result of Stalin, whether through purges, famines, or war. The Children’s Case, unfairly, did really happen.

However. On the bright side, ‘real’ people abound in this book, as we must be reassured they actually did. The love for life, literature, and freedom that motivates the children’s Pushkin teacher to sacrifice himself for them. The love, care and concern of Direktor Medvedeva, their headmistress, that made her secretly pay for the education of the son of a known dissident. The carefully concealed yet eventually foiled love between an American interpreter and a Russian student, daughter of a propaganda film star.

These are people we know must have existed, and these are the characters that bring this novel alive with the human values that ordinary people, not so very different from us, must have struggled with in this period in history. I must add that, as someone who genuinely doesn’t like going out much, and would prefer to be in bed by about ten pm, the idea of being summoned by Stalin to drink with him till daybreak and then go to work early to demonstrate my dedication to Bolshevism, especially when he has just ‘arrested’ my teenage daughter – it’s described beautifully in the book – well. Words, unusually, fail me.

I’m going to say that although it’s not a tough read like ‘Persian Fire’, equally it is not a ‘waiting for a plane’ book like ‘Ghost’. This is much better that it seems initially. It’s quite topical, what with the recent events in Salisbury. I’m going to look for ‘Sashenka’ and ‘Red Sky at Noon’, the first and third books. And, as always, if you would like ‘One Night in Winter’ in your library, please get in touch and I’ll post it to you. I’m pretty confident you will enjoy it, I did.

 

 

11. ‘And did those feet’ by Charlie Connelly.

It’s unusual for a book to actually make me laugh out loud while I’m reading it, but I have to admit this one did…several times. A little treasure found amongst her books, like a lovely surprise present from Mum. This is a ripping yarn that combines history, humour, and travel writing marvellously and I can see exactly what the appeal would have been for Mum. She and her beloved Brian, my brilliant step-Dad, were avid watchers of the original series’ of ‘Coast’, and planned to take some lengthy road trips around the UK once he had retired – sadly this was not to be as we lost Brian, also to cancer, in 2008. I think this was one of the only things that Mum, a perennially cheerful bod, admitted to sadness about, missing doing the things together that they had planned to do. She told me this one day in Leytonstone Tesco, as we watched an older couple laughing together on the way back to their car with the groceries, and as I write this I’m sad too. I’m so sorry you never got to have those long anticipated laughs with Brian in the Volvo, Mum. So, reading this would have been an armchair ride round the UK and Ireland for her, and I’m willing to bet she giggled at the same bits I did – the first one being only a few pages in where the author is debating the level of authenticity he will bring to his walks; “If I was to follow Boudica to the letter, I’d have to burn down Colchester, London, and St Albans on the way.”

To clarify, Mr Connelly writes about walking through 2000 years of British and Irish history, following in the footsteps of the likes of King Harold, Mary Queen of Scots, and of course, the legendary Boudica. One of the things I love the most about the British Isles is that no matter where you are, you’re surrounded by history. People not so very different from you have walked the same routes, felt the same winds, cursed the rain, and seen the same views – minus the power pylons and wind turbines, I grant you, but fundamentally the same. Mr Connelly obviously feels the same way, and sets off initially with a page torn out of a road atlas to walk from Caistor St Edmunds to St Albans. He follows the route taken by the justifiably vengeful Boudica and her ragged army, after her flogging, and the rape of her two daughters by the Romans. Things don’t go particularly well to start with but then, through happenstance, he buys an Ordnance Survey Map and it changes everything. (I loved this part, especially where he describes realising that ‘I wasn’t just looking at a map, I was reading it’.)

From here on he is off the main roads, and travelling deep through the heart of the English countryside. I have to say he does go on a bit sometimes about the weather – this is the British Isles after all – but he entertains constantly with wry humour, delivers some not generally known titbits of historical data in an easily digestible manner, and introduces us to some fascinating characters, both historical and present day. I loved that he shares my delight in prodigious Viking names, and knows of Ivar the Boneless, a notorious Viking with a fascinating name, (being floppy for some reason, he was carried around on his shield but remained ferocious), mentioning him in the chapter/walk of Olaf the Dwarf, the hitherto unknown randy little King of Man who founded the castle at Castletown. Mary Queen of Scots in particular becomes very real in his chapter on her ‘escape’ to captivity in England. We meet an almost six feet tall, auburn, football and fun loving beauty in Mr Connelly’s narrative, who held the best parties Edinburgh had ever seen, but just kept on making bad choices especially in terms of husbands. King Harold is a hero. So is Owain Glyndhur.  Then we meet Bonnie Prince Charlie in drag escaping the clutches of the duke of Cumberland in the Western Isles. It’s riveting.

He concludes by following the path of the Doolough Famine Walk in County Mayo, Ireland. This is the most unsettling chapter, and prompted me into some further research of my own. It’s alarming to remember that the potato famine, which emptied Ireland of around a quarter of it’s population through starvation or emigration, is recent history, very recent given the scope of this book. The Nazi’s happened only about seventy years later. It is not unreasonable to suggest that English policies in Ireland, especially during the famine, were comparable. Mr Connelly notes a fact that I too found confirmed and stunning – throughout the famine, Ireland remained a net exporter of food.

On a practical note, one of the nicest things about Mr Connelly’s prose is that you can put it down after a chapter, and pick it up again whenever. I didn’t, but then again I was snowed in while reading it in a comfortable warm armchair. I thoroughly enjoyed his tales, became inspired to do more walking myself, learnt some stuff I never learnt in History at school, and was reminded of how brilliant it is to casually drive along a road that was once a causeway walked by King Alfred. I’m lucky, I lived overseas long enough to in some ways only now truly appreciate these gilded isles, and this book only enhanced that feeling. A big thumbs up.

As always, if you would like to add this book to your shelf, please get in touch and I’ll pop it in the post for you!

6. ‘The Eye of the Needle’ by Ken Follett

I’ve said before, I do love a good thriller, as did Mum, and this one ticks most of the boxes. I read this one to recover from how disappointed I was with Robert Harris the other week, and I didn’t put it down until I’d finished it. It’s a fast, engaging tale of derring do set against the preparations for the D Day landings, with a cold and professional German spy, Die Nadel, murdering landladies and evading his delightfully British pursuers while trying to ascertain where the Allies will launch their invasion of France.

Ken Follett knows his stuff, and as always, adds plenty of human drama and pathos to the mix – who could forget fearless Christine, the plucky ambulance driver and appalling cook, whose death in the Blitz devastates her husband, Bloggs, and teaches him to hate the enemy. Or his colleague, the academic and historian Percival Godliman, who is drawn away from writing his history of the Plantagenets to become a spy catcher with MI5. And there’s the romance of a young bride and her RAF fighter pilot husband whose marriage is fatally wounded almost before it begins.

I liked this. I liked almost all the characters, I loved the descriptions of Londoners in the shelters rallying together, I liked the ending which contained an unsurprising surprise…yes I know that doesn’t really make sense, but I don’t want to spoil the plot for you! It’s not literature as such, but its a well written page turner from an accomplished story teller, and I recommend it.

As always, if you would like this book, please let me know, and I welcome your comments!

EDIT; Snapped up almost immediately by a local reader!