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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31. ‘Rabbit Proof Fence’ by Doris Pilkington.

Rabbit Proof Fence
Firstly, massive apologies to all my followers for the looooong wait between reviews! As many of you know, I work full time in primary education, and the start of the first term back after the long summer holidays is always absolutely exhausting, plus I am working hard on growing my little online side hustle…there are never sufficient hours in a day, really! I have also been rewarding myself with short reads from a fabulous book of Mum’s, a compilation of the 100 best short stories ever, which is highly engaging and somewhat controversial in its selection…but is taking me an age to get through, it’s a hefty volume! Excuses aside though, here I am with my thoughts about a slim yet deeply moving and issue raising narrative non fiction book, Doris Pilkington’s ‘Rabbit Proof Fence’.
Ms Pilkington is the daughter of one of the protagonists in this book, the half caste Aboriginal girl, Molly. The book recounts the forcible removal of Molly and two other girls from their families to a Native Settlement, their subsequent escape, and their long walk home following the rabbit proof fence. Shortest summary ever for a book that touches on so many sensitive issues. And the author herself was taken from her mother at the age of four and sent to the Moore River Settlement, only being reunited with her mother over twenty years later.
In the opening chapters, Ms Pilkington gives us an account of the initial interactions between the Aborigines and the first white settlers, and on through to the 1930’s when the incidents related in it occurred. Then things get much more specific, and she recounts, almost as if from a distance, the astonishing story of her mother and her aunt’s epic walk to freedom, as told to her by her mother.
I think this book is well worthy of reading purely because, with no fuss, it recounts the story of what happened to so many mixed race children in Australia. The assumption was made that the children of white fathers and Aboriginal mothers would be better off being removed from the ‘natives’ and raised in camps to be trained as domestic servants and so on – it’s important to note, not to be educated as white children were. The idea, inconceivable though it now seems, was to ‘assimilate’ them into white society, marry them to other half castes and eventually ‘breed’ them into white people. This continued in some parts of Australia into the 1970’s, and is often referred to now as the Stolen Generation. It is absolutely tragic, the more so because so many of the white men who fathered these children, enabled it.
Despite their families trying to keep them out of sight and thus safe from being taken, the girls were found and taken south in July 1931. Interestingly, in August 1930, a year earlier, the Government official responsible for the removal of mixed race children in that area, which had been assumed to be good for them as the pure blood natives rejected the half castes just as much as their white fathers generally did, wrote that the children ‘lean more towards the black than the white and on second thoughts, nothing would be gained in removing them’. A blinding flash of intuition for its time – nothing more than common sense to us today, when we understand that despite teasing or bullying because they are ‘different’, children are much better off staying with their own families as far as possible.
In this case, Molly, who was 15, and the two girls, Gracie aged 11 and Daisy aged 9 who were taken with her in 1931, manage to escape the camp after only a short time there, grisly place that it is, and although they had been taken down the coast by sea, she knows that the rabbit proof fence follows a north-south axis, and that if they find it and follow it north, they must arrive eventually home at Jigalong, from where they left, as it is on the fence.
The rabbit proof fence incidentally is another example of the white mans folly in Australia – the early colonists brought over rabbits amongst other things, initially to breed for meat, but then released to provide a ‘spot of hunting’. In the absence of significant natural predators, and with the warmth of Australia allowing them to breed year round, they ran absolutely riot across the land (a bit like the white man did). An attempt to stop rabbits invading Western Australia from the Eastern States was made by building a supposedly rabbit proof fence that ran between Starvation Bay near Esperance on the south coast up to Ninety Mile Beach, east of Port Hedland, effectively cutting off the bottom left hand side of Australia. 1,139 miles of flimsy barbed wire fencing – it failed to stop the rabbits, but provided a lifeline for these girls.
They did better than most kids their age these days would, surviving a thousand mile trek through the harsh Australian bush, feeding themselves on bush tucker and food they scrounged from homesteads, being careful to arrive and leave said homesteads and farms from different directions to avoid being retaken.
I shan’t give away the ending. I believe this is a book that should be read by all Australian school children certainly. The movie was an OK adaptation, but for me it is the matter of fact tone of the book that drives home the bloody awfulness of the truth. After years of campaigning, by the 1990’s things were changing, but even as of today,  Australian Aborigines are mostly still living in far worse conditions and with a much lower life expectancy than white Australians.
In 2000, Phillip Knightley summed up the Stolen Generations in these terms:

This cannot be over-emphasized—the Australian government literally kidnapped these children from their parents as a matter of policy. White welfare officers, often supported by police, would descend on Aboriginal camps, round up all the children, separate the ones with light-coloured skin, bundle them into trucks and take them away. If their parents protested they were held at bay by police.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stolen_Generations
I recommend reading the Wikipedia article above to learn more about the Stolen Generation. And although John Howard may not have found it in himself to apologise for his predecessors actions, I am genuinely sorry that this happened, not only to these three girls, but the countless others who were lost forever by their families, as was my Mum, who after reading this in 2005 rang me up to see if it was all a bit exaggerated ( I lived in Australia between 1985 and 2012). I was so sad to have to tell her, no, it’s all true.
It’s not a depressing read, for all that the subject matter is appalling. There is a great deal of humanity within its pages, and I recommend it to you all. I have Mum’s copy here which I should love to gift forward to someone – please contact me through here or on the Facebook page, Mums Books, if you’d like it, and in case it has already been claimed, here is a link to Amazon to purchase it for yourself.

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26. ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ by Khaled Hosseini.

What a wonderful follow up to The Kite Runner, but this time this story of Afghanistan is told through its women. Mum and I both loved this when it was first published in 2007, and her copy is dated January 2008. I have enjoyed re reading it more than I can express; although I again found it very disturbing in its depiction of the brutality of the regime and of the men, especially the particularly nasty and unpleasant Rasheed, husband to the two women who tell the story.

We begin with Mariam’s childhood on the outskirts of Herat, the plain, illegitimate only daughter of her bullying, epileptic mother. She lives for the visits her charming but insincere father makes, and for her lessons with the local mullah, a kindly man. Her bitter and resentful mother does her best to erode any hope Mariam might have for her future by continually reminding her that as a female and illegitimate to boot, she basically has nothing to hope for, with comments such as, ‘like a compass needle that points north, a mans accusing finger always finds a woman’, but the young Mariam still dreams of a day when she may live with her fathers other children and go to his cinema.

Everything unravels and Mariam realises the truth behind her mothers bitter words when she runs away to Herat to see her father, is shunned by him, and returns home to find her mother has hung herself. Forced to take her in, her father and his wives quickly marry her off to the revolting Rasheed, thirty years older than her, a widowed shoemaker from Kabul with rotting teeth who immediately makes fifteen year old Mariam wear a burqa, and when she fails to provide him with a child, treats her with contempt and brutality.

This continues through fifteen years of Afghan history, during which the Russians leave, the mujaheddin take over, a bloody struggle ensues between tribes, and the Taliban assume control…and that is really a massive precis, Mr Hossain paints an illuminating picture of the tumultuous political backdrop to the lives of his characters.

Laila is the beautiful, wilful and educated daughter of an intellectual father and an unbalanced mother; her brothers die fighting the Russians, her boyfriend loses a leg to a landmine, and at fourteen, she finds herself orphaned by a rocket strike on her home. Worse, she is pregnant by her boyfriend, Tariq, who has fled to Pakistan with his family, and, convinced he is dead, she becomes Rasheed’s second wife, passing off the baby as his.

Initially at odds with one another, after baby Aziza is born Mariam and Laila develop a deep, mutually supportive relationship, allied by their fear of their husband and the daily struggle to survive in an increasingly terrifying Kabul. Mariam’s mothers words haunt her as one man after another points an accusing finger at them, and the frightening reality of life under the Taliban is brought home when Laila has her second child by C section with no anaesthetic.

The story is, as with the Kite Runner, a tale of a deep relationship against the backdrop  of the turmoil that has characterised the recent history of Afghanistan. It tells of the resources these women find to enable them to survive the terrifying realities of their lives. It reminds us how lucky we are to live in the West, the freedoms we take for granted. And, as you may not yet have read it, I am saying nothing about the ending!

As always, now I have read it again I am gifting Mum’s copy forward, and if you would like to add this marvellous novel to your own bookshelf, please get in touch either here or on the facebook page @mumsbooks and I will be delighted to send it to you. Here is a link to it on Amazon if its gone and you feel the need to purchase it!

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25. ‘A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms’ by George R.R. Martin.

It’s not one of Mum’s books, but it certainly one Mum would have bought, being one of Game of Thrones’ biggest fans like myself. Oh, the discussions we had about plots and characters, the delighted email I received once saying simply “I know what a warg is!”, the enjoyment we shared watching a documentary about George R.R. Martin together – we both wholeheartedly approved of his wife’s statement that if he killed off Arya, she would leave him!

BUT…and it’s a big ‘but’. I know that Mum would, like me, be saying, “I wish he would just get on with writing the next volume of the main story!”

That being said, I quite enjoyed this. It’s like the Hobbit compared to Lord of the Rings, although definitely not suitable for younger readers due to the language used, and that’s a shame really, because it does only crop up here and there, and this story of a hedge knight and his squire would have been a lovely read for a youngster. It is also quite confusing at times; trying to keep abreast of who is who in the Targaryen dynasty is a bit of a struggle.  You will have noted however that I did only say ‘quite’ enjoyed it. It does not have the same page-turning punch as the original series, and I found the illustrations throughout the book distracting – again, lovely for a youngster to add to their enjoyment, but does one really want a youngster reading a book with the C word sprinkled here and there, admittedly not as much swearing as the main series, but it’s there.

I keep coming back to PLEASE JUST FINISH THE ORIGINAL SERIES, MR MARTIN!

So, in no way a substitute for the next volume of A Song of Ice and Fire, but if you would like to read it, just get in touch either here or on the Facebook page and I will send it to you – it’s not a book I feel the need to keep, or re-read. Such a shame!

Here’s an Amazon link in case you have missed out on my copy and despite my less than glowing review, want to buy a copy yourself. And I would be very interested in hearing the opinions of others who have read this….were you as underwhelmed as me?

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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