Saturday, 29 November 2008

The Well-travelled Wonderful O

As a youngster I enjoyed reading James Thurber. One book I don’t recall reading is “The Wonderful O” and when I saw someone’s comments on it the other day I thought I’d buy it. I went on line here in the UK and I chose the cheapest copy I could find from a British second-hand bookseller. £ 0.99p plus £2.75 in postage - a grand total of £3.74.

So imagine my surprise when the book arrived from Frankfurt in Germany.

I was even more astonished when I opened it and discovered it had at one time been in the stock of San Bernardino County Library in California. It had been on the shelves of Big Bear Lake Branch Library in California and then at Adelanto Branch Library. What a well travelled little volume I have acquired.


Friday, 28 November 2008

Review – Carole Matthews “The Chocolate Lovers’ Club”

Publ: 2007, Headline
Pensby Library
ISBN: 978 0 7553 3583 1
Genre: Romantic comedy
Pages: 346p
Rating: ***** ***

Another first class romantic comedy from the girl who, in my book, is the queen of the genre. Charming, funny, and with a plot that has so many twists it could easily have formed the basis for a murder mystery.

I’ve read a few Carole Matthews books and she hasn’t let me down yet.

The novel revolves around the lives and loves of the four members of the Chocolate Lover’s Club – Lucy, Nadia, Autumn and Chantal. They meet – usually when one of them has a crisis in her life, which is about every other day - in a cafe called Chocolate Heaven, run by a gay choclatier and his partner. All the right ingredients are there for our heroines – cheating boyfriend, flirtatious boss, disinterested husband, gambling addicted partner, and a drug addict brother. The characters are clearly delineated and so believable – there must be someone in there you recognise.

I love the dedication in this book which includes the comment - “The research for this book has been very taxing – all that chocolate, so little time. A big thanks to all the people who have helped me with my quest and who have turned a passion for chocolate into a major addiction.”

Some of my favourite quotes:-

“But don’t Targa normally find a reason to give the bullet wo everyone who gets pregnant!”
“Only the women,” Crush says with a shrug...

The glow on her cheeks was a dead giveaway that something or someone – had tickled her fancy. Sometimes those quaint British sayings fitted the situation so well.

George Clooney never had these problems. Did he ever have his heist foiled because one of his Ocean’s Eleven gang couldn’t get a babysitter? I think not.

CAROLE MATTHEWS has become an internationally acclaimed author and her books regularly reach the top five of the Sunday Times best-sellers list. “A Minor Indiscretion” reached no 1 in the W H Smith list. In addition to writing novels and television scripts he presents on radio and finds time to rollerblade in Central Park, trek in the Himalayas, take tea in China and snooze in her shed in Milton Keynes – as well, of course, as eating chocolate.

The first of here books that I read was “A Whiff of Scandal” (1998) (aka The Scent of Scandal) then I followed that with “Let's Meet on Platform 8” (1997). Then there was “More to Life Than This” (1999) and “A Compromising Position” (2002). That still leaves me a lot of her books to read including the next book with the same heroines – “The Chocolate Lovers Diet” (2007).

Books to Avoid

Perhaps I should do a posting every now and then on ‘Books to Avoid’. Quite often the reviews by other bloggers send me rushing down the road to the library to see if it’s on their shelves. Equally some reviews make me get my mental notebook out and tick the ‘avoid like the plague’ column. One such book seems to be “Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace. It’s 981 pages (plus 100 of end-notes) mean it is shorter than War and Peace but the fact that it is set in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment (2009 or thereabouts to you and I) gives a clue to its style and nature.

The only problem with avoiding books based on other people’s assessment is that tastes vary so much. One reviewer, for example, couldn’t get into “The Time Traveller’s Wife” by Audrey Niffenegger whereas I absolutely loved it.
But positive reviews of “Infinite Jest” seem pretty hard to come by...

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

REVIEW – Barbara Erskine – “Whispers in the Sand”

Publ: 2000 Harper Collins
Pensby Library (Paperback edition – 2001)
ISBN: 0 00 651207 0
Genres: Thriller; supernatural suspense.
Pages: 574
Rating: ***** *

Recently divorced Anna is on a Nile cruise on which she meets friendly and not so friendly fellow tourists including two men who are either after her body or the little glass scent jar given to her by her great aunt – or both. Anna also has with her a diary written by her great grandmother, Louisa, when she daringly undertook a similar Egyptian trip in 1866. The ancient glass jar was also Louisa’s and seems to attract strange and deadly forces.

The stories of the two trips up the Nile are interwoven throughout the book and the chilling experiences of both women become increasingly similar....

Although it is forty years since I last read a Dennis Wheatley thriller I was quickly reminded of his books when the spectral presences began their rivalry. The introduction of black magic subsequently reinforced that similarity.

This is not the sort of book which I would normally have bothered with and I would have said that I had outgrown my fascination with such supernatural suspense thrillers but Barbara Erskine has managed to weave a tale which kept me reasonably hooked (though it could have been shortened by a hundred pages without too much loss). I especially enjoyed the representation of the Victorian ethos against which Louisa struggled.

In all, an enjoyable piece of escapism.

BARBARA ERSKINE (Barbara Hope-Lewis) is a British author, born 1944. Most of her works combine the dual themes of history and the supernatural and she studied Scottish history at Edinburgh University. She is the author of the internationally best-selling novel 'Lady of Hay', which was translated into a dozen languages and has sold over a million copies world wide.


Not that long ago I read "The Camel Bookmobile", a super novel by Masha Hamilton. Nowe I have come across an article by Simon Romero in the New York Times about a real bookmobile – but this one is dependent on donkeys instead.

"LA GLORIA, Colombia — In a ritual repeated nearly every weekend for the past decade here in Colombia’s war-weary Caribbean hinterland, Luis Soriano gathered his two donkeys, Alfa and Beto, in front of his home on a recent Saturday afternoon.

Sweating already under the unforgiving sun, he strapped pouches with the word “Biblioburro” painted in blue letters to the donkeys’ backs and loaded them with an eclectic cargo of books destined for people living in the small villages beyond.

“I started out with 70 books, and now I have a collection of more than 4,800,” said Mr. Soriano, 36, a primary school teacher who lives in a small house here with his wife and three children, with books piled to the ceilings.

“This began as a necessity; then it became an obligation; and after that a custom,” he explained, squinting at the hills undulating into the horizon. “Now,” he said, “it is an institution.”

A whimsical riff on the bookmobile, Mr. Soriano’s Biblioburro is a small institution: one man and two donkeys. He created it out of the simple belief that the act of taking books to people who do not have them can somehow improve this impoverished region, and perhaps Colombia.

In doing so, Mr. Soriano has emerged as the best-known resident of La Gloria, a town that feels even farther removed from the rhythms of the wider world than is Aracataca, the inspiration for the setting of the epic “One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel García Márquez, another of the region’s native sons...."

To read more about Mr Soriano and see more pictures, please visit The New York Times.

REVIEW:- Susie Dent – Words of the Year

Publ: 2008, Oxford University Press
My own book
ISBN: 978-0-19-955199-6
Genre: Non-fiction – English Language (422)
Pages: 148
Rating: ***** ***

This book is Susie Dent’s selection of words that were either new to the English Language during the year or had new meanings or simply regained popularity as a result of current events. I bought it for myself as part of the Amazon voucher which Bryony and Mark gave me for my birthday. Unusually, I bought it ‘on speck’ not having seen it in a bookshop or library and without any previous knowledge of Susie Dent. It proved to be a good choice and one I would thoroughly recommend to anyone with an interest in the way our language is progressed. On its more basic level, it is, of course, a sort of addendum to one’s dictionaries.

She explains why she has chosen each word and in many cases lists related words which have come into popular usage because of the same circumstances. There are a whole host of words to be found here in categories as diverse as humour (like Earmarxist); scientific (Exoplanet); computing (Facebook); gaming (Exergame); politics (Cleggover); and current affairs (Arguido and Funt). A few of my favourites, selected from “Words of the Year” will appear on my Word blog.

SUSIE DENT is the author of The Language Report and her research is supported by Oxford’s celebrated dictionary programme. She was formerly Editorial Director at Oxford University Press before becoming an independent editor and translator. Born on 21st September 1967, Susie Dent is probably best known as a Lexicographer, in "The Dictionary Corner" on Channel 4's afternoon quiz show "Countdown" since 1992.

Expanding a Blog

What began as a blog aimed at posting reviews of books I had just read expanded into a blog that included some of my old reviews. Then it got caught up with general bookish ideas and literary comment. Now it has reached the stage where I am actually going to have to put REVIEW before anything that is an analysis of something I have just read. This is largely thanks to other bloggers who inspire me to write about literature in general. (I have at least clicked ‘add to dictionary' for the word ‘bloggers’ so that it no longer gets highlighted when I draft my posting!!)

I have always been interested in book cover design and one of my favourite blogs is the Book Design Review. However, when I began this Book Blog, never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would be pointing my readers to a penis on a book cover but here it is -

You may have to enlarge the picture to see it properly – but since the weather is cold in England at the moment that’s not a new problem!!!!

As the cover is one of those which has no words on it you may wish to know that the book is called ‘Microserfs’ and is designed and illustrated by Milan Bozic.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Beg, Borrow or Steal

Booking Through Thursday (BTT) has asked “Why buy books”. The alternative being, presumably in most people’s case, borrowing from a library. My immediate assumption that ‘steal’ wasn’t an option actually reminded me of how many books I’ve lent to people that never got returned. Hint, hint, Irene!

When we lived in a huge Victorian house with a big study, lined on three sides with books, I bought a tremendous number of books. If I wanted to read something I tended to buy it. Often second-hand or from a charity shop but with no space problems the library was something I didn’t bother with much. I bought simply because I love owning books and if the book is on your own shelves you can read it at leisure and refer back to it whenever you want.

Nowadays with both money and space a lot more of an issue I borrow far more books than I buy. So to answer the key question, “Why buy?” I think I have five answers:-
1) the book is a key reference work (for example Chinery’s Collins Pocket Guide to Insects) which I use on an almost daily basis and could not be without. Even in these days of the Internet there are still many subjects which need a reference book;
2) the book is so beautiful or special that I simply want to own it, much as one would have a picture on the wall or a vase on the window ledge;
3) the book is one I want to read at some time but not just at this moment and I came across in a charity shop or other cheap source;
4) the book is one of series that I have collected as a series simply because I like having matching spines on the shelves;
5) the book cannot be obtained through the library. When I worked in Liverpool City Libraries in the 1960s/70s it was almost unheard of for a new book not to be purchased and the collection of old books was inordinately large. Nowadays, the cut-backs in finances for new accessions and the fact that I live in a smaller local authority, mean that there are many books not in the stock. The Inter-Library Loan system can provide some of them but by no means all.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Another Challenge

I'm quite getting into this Challenge idea. I’m really doing J Kaye’s one as a way of supporting my local library - the Pensby branch of Wirral Libraries in the UK. If next year is anything like this I should reasonably easily manage the 50 books I’ve set myself as a challenge for 2009. Hopefully there will be interruptions by going to stay with GB and Helen / Ian again but I may (big “may”) visit their local libraries, The problem is their own bookshelves are so crammed with books I want to read that there’s never enough time. That’s the story of a reader’s life really, never enough time...
I shall list my books at -
Support your local library

W. J. Burley – “Wycliffe and Death in Stanley Street”

First Publ: as “Death in Stanley Street” 1974, Victor Gollancz
Pensby Library - Orion pbk ed. 2003
ISBN: 0 75284 969 7
Genre: Crime; detective
Rating: ***** ***

I think I recall Wycliffe as having been a television series but I never watched it and, perhaps surprisingly, this is the first Wycliffe book I have read. This is the fifth of Burley’s Wycliffe books. Instantly believable as a 1970s DCI, Wycliffe is a traditional British detective hero. The all round good family guy, liked and respected by his juniors and slightly worrying to his seniors.

The plot was also ‘traditional’ but done with enough skill for the murderer to remain hidden for a while with a few sub-plots of lesser crimes thrown in for good measure.

Stanley Street is one of those dilapidated cul-de-sacs near the centre of a West country town where the respectable poor have houses and the prostitutes have flats. It is in one of the latter that its occupant is found naked and dead but she turns out not to be your average prostitute. Apart from anything else, she owns the property and a few others as well. Wycliffe investigates and, being the sort of character he is, does a fair bit of the leg-work as well as the thinking that eventually lands the villain. If (dare I use the name) Agatha Christie had created a British DCI hero it would have been a Wycliffe.

All-in-all an enjoyable easy read and Wycliffe is a character to whom I shall return when I just want some light-hearted escape. Because it was my first Wycliffe and I love discovering ‘new’ authors this one has squeaked into an 8 star rating but when I put future ones as a seven star it will not mean they are necessarily any less good.

It occurred to me on opening this book that not only is the size of the font important but the line spacing is as well. In this case the line spacing is noticeably far apart and, as a consequence, it was without any strain at all that I read this Orion edition.

W.J. BURLEY, born William John Burley in 1914, started his working life as an engineer, and later went to Balliol to read zoology as a mature student. On leaving Oxford he went into teaching and, until his retirement, was senior biology master in a large mixed grammar school in Newquay in Cornwall. In 1966 he began his third career as a writer and two years later he created Inspector Wycliffe in “Three-toed Pussy”, going on to write another 21 Wycliffe novels.

1. Three-Toed Pussy (1968)
aka Wycliffe and the Three-Toed Pussy
2. To Kill a Cat (1970)
aka Wycliffe and How to Kill a Cat
3. Guilt Edged (1971)
aka Wycliffe and the Guilt Edged Alibi
4. Death in a Salubrious Place (1973)
aka Wycliffe and Death in a Salubrious Place
5. Death in Stanley Street (1974)
aka Wycliffe and Death in Stanley Street
6. Wycliffe and the Pea-Green Boat (1975)
7. Wycliffe and the Schoolgirls (1976)
8. Wycliffe and the Scapegoat (1978)
9. Wycliffe in Paul's Court (1980)
10. Wycliffe's Wild Goose Chase (1982)
11. Wycliffe and the Beales (1983)
12. Wycliffe and the Four Jacks (1985)
13. Wycliffe and the Quiet Virgin (1986)
14. Wycliffe and the Winsor Blue (1987)
15. Wycliffe and the Tangled Web (1988)
16. Wycliffe and the Cycle of Death (1990)
17. Wycliffe and the Dead Flautist (1991)
18. Wycliffe and the Last Rites (1992)
19. Wycliffe and the Dunes Mystery (1993)
20. Wycliffe and the House of Fear (1995)
21. Wycliffe and the Redhead (1997)
22. Wycliffe and the Guild of Nine (2000)

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Rating System

For some time I have felt that the rating system of 0 to five stars was inadequate. All too often I dither between is it a 3 or is it a 4; can I really justify a five for this book and so on. As a result I have made things a little easier for myself by making the score out of ten. Broadly speaking, this can be equated to the following table.

10 ***** ***** – As good as it gets. As for example a George Eliot classic with good plot, fine English, an educational content, and fine character delineation. (In the case of non-classics an originality of plot counts for a lot.) Worth reading more than once.
9 ***** **** – A good read all round - especially those with some educational content rather then just a good story-line unless that story-line is exceptional.
8 ***** *** - A good all-round read
7 ***** ** - Enjoyable
6 ***** * - Enjoyable but nothing special – as, for example, the second or third of a series like M C Beaton’s Agatha Raisin novels where the first one might well rank as an eight star but after that they may be great fun but not quite so special. This is a demonstration of how personal this rating system is.
5 ***** – Worth reading – just
4 **** - Less than average and not especially recommended as worth reading.
3 *** – Poor – just about finished
2 ** – Very poor – did not finish
1 * - Did not get past first few pages

I have also taken the opportunity to add the original publisher and, where this is different, the edition I have read follows in brackets.

Naming the specific edition I read will also enable me to comment upon the typeface which is becoming increasingly important as my eyes worsen. (The last Sharpe, for example was a Large Print which, whilst it makes the book heavy to hold, was such a lot easier on the eyes.) The minute print has put me off attempting a few books recently and I’m surprised publishers still persist in a font size which must be difficult for all but the most sharp sighted.

Whether I own or have boprrowed the book will also be noted (for the benfit of my RYOB challenge) when 2009 commences.

I’m also adding a note on the genre where this is obvious. Perhaps I should read an article about genres so as to know where the more esoteric novels fit.


As anyone who has bothered (and has had time) to scroll down the left-hand column of my Rambles from my Chair blog will have noticed, I read a lot of book review blogs. Indeed, I must do a straightforward annotated list of them at some stage. However, they do create a problem. Every day I end up adding at least one book to my Books to Read list in the right hand column of this blog. In addition, many of the books I read lead me to want more by the same author.

Even making two assumptions – that I could increase my reading rate and that I could find all the books – it seems to me I’ve created my own Catch-22. The more I read the more I want to read....

Friday, 21 November 2008

Books, coffee and a crossword

I had to go to Heswall for blood tests yesterday morning. Because I had been forced to fast for the previous 14 hours this gave me the perfect excuse to come straight out and into Linghams.

There are not many independent booksellers left nowadays but Linghams is one of the best, as witnessed by the fact that it was short listed for the Bookseller Retail Awards 2005. But it wasn’t the books I was initially concerned with today – it was a latte (with extra sugar) and a toasted teacake.

I did a Times 2 crossword while I ate and drank and then had a wander around the shop. I bought a book for Jo for Christmas and another for myself (also to be given to me as a Christmas present). With choosing my own Christmas presents it may seem as though I wouldn’t have a surprise on Christmas morning but I’ve forgotten what the book was already so it should certainly be a bolt from the blue!

Thursday, 20 November 2008

RYOB 2009

I keep putting off reading my own books in favour of library books. So I have joined MizB's RYOB (Read Your Own Books) Challenge 2009. This is just the spur I needed to dust off some of my own books. My target is 20 books.

On 1st January I shall do a posting which I shall edit every time I add a book of my own that I've read.

Bernard Cornwell – “Sharpe’s Havoc”

Publ: 2003 ISBN: 0007120109
Rating: **** 4 stars

Sharpe's Havoc: Richard Sharpe and the Campaign in Northern Portugal, Spring 1809. Chronologically this is the seventh book in the Sharpe series but the 19th Sharpe book that Cornwell wrote. A cut above the average Sharpe book and an insight into the impact that the French invasion had on Portugal. Unlike Allan Mallinson, Cornwell doesn’t flaunt his understanding of the workings of Wellesley’s army and yet the detail is all there. The book commences with Shapre and his little band cut off from the main army and instructed to seek out and take care of Kate Savage, the attractive (of course) missing daughter of a wine merchant.

The Sharpe series is not the sort from which I have been tempted to insert quotes in the past but a couple from here will help to underline the subtle humour which underlies much of Cornwell’s approach to his somewhat unorthodox hero who has dragged himself up by his bootstraps to become a lieutenant at this stage.

“We have to level the ground, sir,” Pelletieu said, “because God didn’t think of gunners when He made the world. He made too may lumps and not enough smooth spots. But we’re very good at improving His handiwork, sir.”

“Tongue, like Sharpe, came from London, but Sharpe could not remember where Harris had grown up and, when they stopped to catch their breath and search the darkness for any hint of light, Sharp[e asked him.
“Lichfield, sir,” Harris whispered, “where Samuel Johnson came from.”
“Johnson?” Sharpe could not quite place the name. “Is he in the first battalion?”
“Very much so, sir, “Harris whispered, and then they went on...

BERNARD CORNWELL OBE (born February 23, 1944) is a prolific and popular English historical novelist. As a child he was adopted by a family by the name of Wiggins. After he left them he changed his name to his mother's maiden name, Cornwell.

Cornwell was born in London in 1944. His father was a Canadian airman. His mother was English, a member of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force. He was adopted and brought up in Essex by the Wiggins family, who were members of the Peculiar People, a strict Protestant sect who banned frivolity of all kinds and even medicine. Cornwell was sent away to Monkton Combe School, attended the University of London, and after graduating, worked as a teacher. He then joined BBC's Nationwide and was promoted to become head of current affairs at BBC Northern Ireland. He then joined Thames Television as editor of Thames News.

He married an American, Judy, in 1980 and relocated to the U.S.. Unable to get a Green Card, he started writing novels, as this did not require a work permit. He lives in Cape Cod.

In June 2006, Cornwell was awarded an OBE (Officer, Order of the British Empire) in the Queen's 80th Birthday Honours List.

The Sharpe Series
1. Sharpe's Tiger (1997)
2. Sharpe's Triumph: Richard Sharpe and the Battle of Assaye September 1803 (1998)
3. Sharpe's Fortress (1998)
4. Sharpe's Trafalgar: Richard Sharpe and the Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805 (2000)
5. Sharpe's Prey: Richard Sharpe and the Expedition to Copenhagen, 1807 (2001)
6. Sharpe's Rifles: Richard Sharpe and the French Invasion of Galicia, January, 1809 (1988)
7. Sharpe's Havoc: Richard Sharpe and the Campaign in Northern Portugal, Spring 1809 (2003)
8. Sharpe's Eagle: Richard Sharpe and the Talavera Campaign July 1809 (1981)
8. Sharpe's Christmas (2003)
9. Sharpe's Gold: Richard Sharpe and the Destruction of Almeida, August 1810 (1981)
10. Sharpe's Battle: Richard Sharpe and the Battle of Fuentes De Onoro (1995)
11. Sharpe's Company (1982)
12. Sharpe's Sword (1983)
13. Sharpe's Enemy (1983)
14. Sharpe's Honour: Richard Sharpe and the Vitoria Campaign February to June, 1813 (1985)
15. Sharpe's Regiment: Richard Sharpe and the Invasion of France, June to November 1813 (1986)
16. Sharpe's Siege: Richard Sharpe and the Winter Campaign, 1814 (1987)
17. Sharpe's Revenge: Richard Sharpe and the Peace of 1814 (1989)
18. Sharpe's Waterloo: Richard Sharpe and the Waterloo Campaign 15 June to 18 June 1815 (1990)
19. Sharpe's Devil: Richard Sharpe and the Emperor, 1820-21 (1992)
20. Sharpe's Escape (2004)
21. Sharpe's Fury (2006)

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Old Review - Lyall Watson – “Lifetide”

Publ: 1979 (read 1990) ISBN: 978-0340416686
Rating: **** 4 stars

'Lyall Watson is a biologist who writes with captivating skill, bearing the reader along in his tidal flow of ideas, imagery, and observations into contact with the deeper forces he believes underlie life. Again we have the phenomenon of an English sensibility describing personal experiences of the paranormal, at the same time discoursing in a purely rational mode on DNA, immunity, perception, evolution, and the behavior of assorted vertebrates and invertebrates he has observed at first hand. He takes off with the Hoyle hypothesis that life was seeded on Earth from space....
But at times utterly beguiling, as in the description of the aesthetics of bower birds, the chilling encounter of the wasp and the tarantula, and the odd waking-sleep-like cycle of a fish "with the splendidly salacious name of slippery dick." To be read for the writing - even by the most hardened reductionist.' Kirkus Reviews
I read this book in August 1990 and it seemed to me the rather Taoist philosophy of the first sentence below was quite pregnant and poignant in view of the then current Kuwait oil crisis and the possibility of it precipitating oil crises or world war. in practice the war was confined to the Gulf!

“This is not a time for certainty. We seem in recent years to have grown through the emotional confident adolescence of science into a philosophical maturity, prepared not only to admit our ignorance, but to come to terms with the fact that there are some things we can never know. And that it doesn’t matter. Armed only with the principle of Uncertainty and a host of hidden variables, we seem to be better equipped than ever before to break through some of the misty fringes on the edge of the unknown. Not in search of knowledge, for we can now see that was some kind of conceit, but in the humble hope of more clearly defining an area of understanding.”

The book skilfully tells stories of his observation of animals and the conclusions he reaches as a result. For example, in the story of the ‘hundredth monkey’ he tells of a number of macaque monkeys washing sweet potatoes in the sea, ignored by the remainder of their group When one more monkey also started washing sweet potatoes, all the rest took to doing just that. He thought this could be because once the potato-washers assumed a "critical mass", the washers changed the behaviour of the whole group.

LYALL WATSON, born Malcolm Lyall-Watson, (he later dropped the first name and the hyphen) was born in South Africa on April 12 1939 and died in Australia on June 25 2008. In between he travelled the globe as a botanist and zoologist. Watson joined BBC TV as producer and reporter on Tomorrow's World, and also founded and directed zoos in South Africa, operated a safari company in Kenya and began a marine national park in the Seychelles. He became director of Johannesburg Zoo at 23.

He was the author of new age books like 'Supoernature' (1973) which Mum introduced me to and which were the unofficial 'set-reading' of a generation of students. Lyall Watson combined idiosyncrasy of ideas with the appearance of an elegant action man, dressing in immaculate white linen suits for daring explorations of the Amazon or when taking an active role as a demonstrator against whaling.

He wrote 25 books on a wide variety of topics, of which Supernature (1973), Lifetide (1979) and Gifts of Unknown Things (1976) are among the best known. It took him two years to interest a publisher in Supernature, a questionable, modish exploration of such phenomena as ESP, psychokinesis and telepathy in nature. Once published it went on to become an enormous bestseller.

He had a flair for vivid phrases, and, in particular, a sharp eye for the paradoxes of life. He once remarked that "if the brain were so simple we could understand it, we would be so simple we couldn't."

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Simon Tolkien - "The Stepmother"

Publ: 2003 ISBN: 978-0141010915
Rating: *** 3 stars

The plot of this courtroom drama hinges on the decision of Sir Peter Robinson, a government minister, to side with his mistress rather than his teenage son when the mistress is accused of planning a murder that the son has witnessed. Robinson cuts the boy out of his life. He refuses even to speak to him. As a courtroom drama, The Stepmother passes the first and most important test: it makes you desperate to find out what happens in the end.

SIMON TOLKIEN, born c1959, the grandson of J.R.R. Tolkien,wrote 'The Stepmother', his first novel, after being cut off from his "literary inheritance" by a dispute which has split his family. Having spent a decade as a solicitor, Tolkien decided in 1994 to switch to the bar, specialising in serious crimes. He lives in Chelsea with his wife and two children. After number of rejections, he was rewarded when The Stepmother was sent to agents in America and accepted. That initial failure became an advantage. "I know the book isn't being published just because I'm a Tolkien," he says. "The fact that people said no the first time makes me feel that I have some quality in my own right."

"A courtroom is an extraordinary place. Witnesses often tell their stories in the most dramatic fashion watched by a silent jury who have to decide who is telling the truth (I often think of my readers as if they were the jury). My experiences as a criminal barrister in London have provided me with many ideas for stories, a wide experience of human nature and an insider’s knowledge of the English criminal law which means that I can make my fiction true to life." (Simon Tolkien)

I wonder why Simon Tolkien is not on Fantastic Fiction's site?

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Manda Scott – “The Crystal Skull”

Publ: 2007 ISBN: 9780553817669
Rating: **** 4 stars

The end of the world is scheduled for 21st December 2012. That is according to the Mayan prophecies about which there are also stories of crystal skulls. This combines the ancient Mayan prophecies with a 16th century history of one of the hiding of one of the skulls and its 21st century adventure when the skull is rediscovered. Very good – I especially enjoyed the switching between 16th and 21st centuries.

MANDA SCOTT is a British-born veterinary surgeon, writer and climber, not necessarily in that order. Born and educated in Scotland, she trained at the Glasgow Vet School and now lives and works in Suffolk, sharing her life with two lurchers and other assorted wildlife. She is known primarily as a crime writer. Her first novel, Hen's Teeth, hailed by Fay Weldon as 'a new voice for a new world' was shortlisted for the 1997 Orange Prize. Her subsequent novels, Night Mares, Stronger than Death and No Good Deed, for which she was hailed as 'one of Britain's most important crime writers' by The Times, are published by Headline. The Boudica series are her first historical novels. They are, she says, the books she was born to write.

Friday, 14 November 2008

OLD REVIEW - Joseph Joffo – “Un Sac de Billes”

I knew Bryony’s ‘Book of Books’ would inspire lots od entries in this blog. How, for example, could I have forgotten Un Sac de Billes when listing my favourite books? I first read it (in its original French) after Cléme had told me about it in 1994. She was doing it as a school text and was enthralled by it.

"Un Sac de Billes" (A Bag of Marbles) are Joffo’s own memoirs, written in a novel fashion, telling the account of a young boy during the Holocaust. When Joffo was ten years old, his father gave him and his brother 5,000 francs each and instructions to flee Nazi-occupied Paris and, by foot, train and bus, join their brothers Henri and Albert in Menton on the Mediterranean coast, where they'd be safe. The book "A Bag of Marbles" tells of this journey. And where does the bag of marbles come in? Initially, he swapped his yellow Jewish star for a bag of marbles - for him it was all a game....

JOSEPH JOFFO (1931) is a prolific French author of both fiction and non-fiction but perhaps best known for Un Sac de Billes which has been translated into eighteen languages. He now lives in Paris where he owns a chain of barber’s shops.

Uses for books

If you visit this site one assumes you enjoy reading. However, it seems that there are other uses for books... See Offbeatearth for a variety of different sculptures and uses...

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

A Book of Books

Among my birthday presents was a super book from Bryony – “A Book of Books and Other Thoughts” in a beautiful folder. It is her thoughts, opinions and ponderings on books she has read. There are also comments from Mark in it. It has only just arrived but I have a feeling it will inspire quite a few entries on this blog in the near future.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Allan Mallinson – “The Nizam’s Daughters”

Publ:2003 ISBN: 1841976423
Rating: *** 3 stars

Allan Mallinson is an expert on military history and commanded the 13th Hussars in Cyprus and Norway before working for the MOD and is currently British Military Attache on Rome. He is also an expert of Indian matters and that is this book’s biggest downfall. It continues the career of Captain Matthew Hervey as he ends up in India on behalf of the Duke of Wellington. One of the reasons I like historical novels is that one learns so much but this defies that principal by including lots of Indian words that it fails to translate. Instead of educating it mystified. Even a glossary would have helped though the really clever way would have been to use the text – Hervey, after all, is new to India and could easily require things explaining. If he had managed this vocabulary issue better I would have given the novel a four star rating.

ALLAN MALLINSON – see “A Close Run Thing

Monday, 10 November 2008

Can you judge a book by its cover?

Ever since I was a child I have been enchanted by book jacket and cover design. When I worked in ‘Cat and Class’ (that division of the library system which purchased, catalogued and classified new books (in the days before computers did most of the work) we used to get dust jackets from the publishers as a way of advertising their goods. For some time Judy (a fellow library school student and a librarian in Leicestershire County) and I exchanged correspondence that was written on the backs of these dust jackets.

One of my favourite sets of covers was the Fontana Agatha Christie paperbacks of the 1960s. Initially I collected these and then I collected the Pan set. Strangely the covers of the Fontana set were far more gruesome than anything that appeared in Miss Christie’s novels where all the gore and nastiness were left to the imagination.

Nowadays my favourites are undoubtedly the paperback Terry Pratchetts, the artwork of Josh Kirby. Ronald William Kirby (27 November 1928–23 October 2001), was a commercial artist born in Waterloo, Sefton, Lancashire and educated at the Liverpool City School of Art, where he acquired the nickname Josh. Kirby painted film-posters, magazine and Book covers. Creating a total of over 400 cover paintings, his personal preference was for science fiction jackets and his work on the covers of Terry Pratchett's Discworld series of novels is well known. He worked almost exclusively in oils.

Of late I have also become fascinated by books with no writing on the cover. ‘Evolution’ by Stephen Baxter was one good example but any attempt to illustrate it on the web fails because the book has textured covers which don’t show up properly.

I suspect that some of the books without words on the jacket attract a fair number of buyers in the bookshops simply because they have to be picked up to see what they are about. A classic example of this is “One Red Paperclip: Or How an Ordinary Man Achieved His Dream with the Help of a Simple Office Supply” by Kyle Macdonald . The jacket design by Kyle Kolker is so simple and yet so clever.

Among my other favourites are atmospheric ones like that of Jane Harris “The Observations”, Paul Auster’s “Travels in the Scriptorium” and Chris Paling’s “Town by the Sea” of which the cover is by far the best bit!

The designs for M C Beaton’s Agatha Raisin and Hamish MacBeth books are also attractive and the whimsical nature of the cover is largely what enticed me to read my first one.

There can be no more classic covers than the Penguin ones. There was green for crime, orange for the usual ones, blue for biography, black for classics, and grey for the modern classics.

To quote from the Penguin website:- "In 1935, if you wanted to read a good book, you needed either a lot of money or a library card. Cheap paperbacks were available, but their poor production generally tended to mirror the quality between the covers. Penguin paperbacks were the brainchild of Allen Lane, then a director of The Bodley Head. After a weekend visiting Agatha Christie in Devon, he found himself on a platform at Exeter station searching its bookstall for something to read on his journey back to London, but discovered only popular magazines and reprints of Victorian novels. Appalled by the selection on offer, Lane decided that good quality contemporary fiction should be made available at an attractive price and sold not just in traditional bookshops, but also in railway stations, tobacconists and chain stores. He also wanted a 'dignified but flippant' symbol for his new business. His secretary suggested a Penguin and another employee was sent to London Zoo to make some sketches. Seventy years later Penguin is still one of the most recognizable brands in the world.

The first Penguin paperbacks appeared in the summer of 1935 and included works by Ernest Hemingway, André Maurois and Agatha Christie. They were colour coded (orange for fiction, blue for biography, green for crime) and cost just sixpence, the same price as a packet of cigarettes. The way the public thought about books changed forever - the paperback revolution had begun."

Not only were the standard format covers wonderfully collectable but there were occasional superb departures like ‘Billy Liar’ by Keith Waterhouse - a brilliant, and accurate, pastiche (designed by Tony Meeuwissen) of a Wills Woodbine cigarette packet.

Not only are there a number of books on the subject of book jackets (Jo once had one about the Agatha Christie covers) but there are, of course, blogs and websites on the subject like great-book-covers.

I haven’t read Alan Powers’ “Front Cover” but it is alleged to include the most influential book jacket designs from throughout the 20th century, and the fascinating images track their evolution from throwaway utilitarian “dust jackets” into a powerful modern art form. Three hundred hardcover and paperback book jackets appear in full colour, including many from rare first editions seldom seen outside a serious collector’s library. Accompanying analysis commemorates the contributions of top European and American artists like Victor Gollancz, Paul Rand, and Barnett Freedman; explains how cover art styles helped launch such publishing brands as Penguin and Bloomsbury; and explores the impact of today’s digitally designed covers.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Susan Hill - "The Man in the Picture"

Publ: 2007 ISBN: 9781590200919
Rating: 8888 4 stars

I first came across Susan Hill when I read her excellent book “In the Springtime of the Year” (1973). Her children’s ghost story ‘The Woman in Black” (1983) is well-known but I haven’t read it. “The Man in the Picture” is also a ghost story. Well-written it has a flavour of the Victorian ghost stories about it. A mysterious depiction of masked revellers at the Venice carnival hangs in the college rooms of Oliver's old professor in Cambridge. On this cold winter's night, its eerie secret is revealed by the ageing don....

SUSAN HILL, born 1942, been a monthly columnist for the Daily Telegraph. She has also written several non-fiction books and books for children ('Can It Be True?' won the Smarties Prize), as well as editing short story compilations. As well as writing, she has set up a publishing company, Long Barn Books, inspired by her lifelong admiration for Virginia Woolf and the Hogarth Press. She also runs a literary magazine, 'Books and Company', and owns the lease on a gift shop in Chipping Campden.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

William Napier – “Atilla”

Publ: 2005 ISBN: 9780752861128
Rating: *** 3 stars

An enjoyable and pretty good historical fiction charting the beginnings of the career of Atilla the Hun. It is 406 A.D. and the Roman Empire is in decline and the young Atilla is a hostage in Rome. I suspect that I shall go on and read the remaining two books in this trilogy (Atilla has subsequently been renamed “The Scourge of God”) but there is nothing particularly special about it.

Some quotes:-

God has a thousand and one names.

"Christians of the city condemned all those who did not follow their god as pagani, which meant simply 'country-dwellers'.

"Rest on her lightly, earth and dew,
She put so little weight on you"

I can hardly think of a better epitaph for a young child than the above.

WILLIAM NAPIER is a pseudonym used by Christopher Hart, a British author born in 1965. Under his original name Christopher Hart has written two contemporary novels. Since 2001, he has been writing under the pseudonym of William Napier and his writing has settled on historical fiction, about the final days of Rome and Atilla.