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My Mum

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My darling Mum died in October 2017 after a short illness. Such stark words to describe so very enormous a loss. As she put it herself though, we all survive the most appalling things, things we cannot contemplate we shall ever be able to cope with, because that’s the nature of life. And, although I shall be writing more about her, I have primarily created this blog in order to be able to share one of Mums greatest passions – reading, and her wonderful library of much loved books, which I am surrounded by right now.

When Mum downsized into an apartment from the long term family home a couple of years ago, one of the hardest tasks she faced was culling her vast library. Like me, Mum regarded her books as being old friends – if she had kept the book, she would re-read it. A book deemed unworthy was promptly disposed of, those she loved most of all would have been read many times.

So the majority of the books I am now the fortunate custodian of are ones she could not bear to say goodbye to, alongside new treasures. And I am embarking on what will be a major mission, to read every one of them. For a second or third time in many cases, as we shared very similar tastes in literature; for the first time in others. I’m going to ‘review’ each one and post my thoughts on here. And if the book appeals to you, then please comment or message me, and it will become your book – I’ll post it to you at no cost to you. If you’d care to help me out with this, please hit the Shop Now button on the FB page and check out my little Etsy enterprise – no obligation at all though, as my greatest reward is that I’m pretty sure Mum would be delighted that the tales which gave her such pleasure are going to be bringing the same joy into other peoples lives.

I’m looking forward to this!

23. ‘Regeneration’ by Pat Barker.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

22. ‘Noonday’ by Pat Barker.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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20. ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Where and what is Biafra? Mention that name to anyone in my generation, and the image that springs to mind immediately is of starving children in refugee camps, victims of yet another African famine or war. Mention it to many young people now, and they will ask you where or what Biafra is, because it only existed for three brief, ruinous years as an independent African Republic, breaking away from Nigeria in 1967 and fighting a brutal war the Igbo nationalists were ill-equipped for and which descended into a war of starvation as the Nigerian forces closed the borders, and the rest of the world except for Tanzania refused to recognise it.

That then is the stark and horrific background of this exquisitely beautiful novel, which explores the lives, the loves, and the suffering of its characters in an incredibly sensitive, dignified, and deeply moving weaving of the narrative through time, beginning before the war in a period of peace and for some, plenty, after Nigeria declared independence from British colonial rule in 1960. (As a Brit, I hang my head in shame at much of our colonial history, and this is no exception. Malnutrition is referred to as ‘Harold Wilson disease’). First published in 2007, it bursts with vitality and richness, exuberant colours and scents, and I became entirely wrapped up in the characters, racing through the book much too fast really on this, my second reading of it.

Food, or the lack of it, is an ever present theme. We meet the first two central characters, Odenigbo, a radical professor, and his new houseboy, Ugwu, a village boy, forming a bond through the food Ugwu cooks, and the education Odenigbo, his house, and his visitors provide for Ugwu.

“Ugwu turned off the tap, turned it on again, then off. On and off and on and off until he was laughing at the magic of the running water and the chicken and bread that lay balmy in his stomach.”

Olanna and her twin sister, Kainene, are the daughters of a wealthy Lagos businessman; very different people, and a difficult relationship. After her father again tries to push her in the direction of one of his business contacts, Olanna leaves and moves in with her lover, Odenigbo, while Kainene develops a relationship with Richard, an Englishman who has been drawn to Nigeria by archaeological finds he wants to write about, stays because he falls in love and finds other things to write about. Including, eventually, writing about the war for foreign publications, because the Biafran leadership believe that the outside world, knowing the truth of what’s happening from a white man in Biafra, ‘cannot remain silent while we die’.

These then are our central characters. There is a jump in time, fast forwarding four years, during which something dreadful has happened that we do not learn about for a while, but which we know has had a huge impact on the characters. As the refugee crisis develops, the Nigerian blockade and the refusal of the rest of the world to do anything to help drives the newly born state and its citizens to starvation. We feel our characters grief and bewilderment, recognise and admire their resilience, wonder what has affected the relationship between the sisters in particular.

The language in this novel is lovely, with the cadences and rhythms of African language neatly juxtapositioning with English, and poignant highlighting of the ethnic differences which crucially affect the country; for example, Olanna’s ex-boyfriend is a Muslim Hausa prince from the North. It’s hard for me to say more without spoiling the end for you, but what I am going to say is, this is fantastic. If you have not already read it, you should. I know little of African history save from a British colonial perspective as I was taught in school, which I know is wrong in many ways – Odenigbo tells Ugwu that,

“they will teach you that a white man called Mungo Park discovered River Niger. That is rubbish. Our people fished in the Niger long before Mungo Park’s grandfather was born. But in your exam, write that it was Mungo Park.”

I’m going to embark on Nelson Mandela’s ‘Long Walk to Freedom’, a weighty tome but one I am looking forward to even more now, I need to know more about African history and politics from an African point of view after reading this.

And as always, if you would like Mum’s copy of Half a Yellow Sun, please get in touch with me and I will post it out to you at no cost, this is all about gifting Mum’s love of reading forward.

 

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.

18. ‘Sea Glass’ by Anita Shreve.

I’m going to start by saying that I have never read any of Anita Shreve’s books before. My personal taste tends to run on a different course, but that said, I did enjoy this novel, which I discover with interest is the third volume in a trilogy based around a house on the New Hampshire Coast. It started with ‘Fortunes Rocks’, continued with ‘The Pilots Wife’, and then this. I read it in one sitting, curled up in an armchair and wishing I was on a beach occasionally getting up to walk and look for sea glass and shells, because it is undoubtedly a perfect beach holiday read; nothing too challenging, nothing overly thought-provoking, just a nicely written, enjoyable and relaxing read. I bet Mum bought this for one of her holidays with my lovely sister in Spain, and enjoyed it by the pool!

A synopsis. The central character is Honora, and the story begins just before the Wall St crash in 1929 which will colour the entire story. Honora works in a bank, and one day meets a customer named Sexton Beecher who falls for her, (he is attracted initially by her hands, beautiful hands apparently. I did take especial note of this, as I am the possessor of a pair of hands a bricklayer would be proud of – I have large and very un-ladylike hands. I should add that I’m not particularly bothered by this, these hands have served me well over the years, but I do have ‘hand envy’ occasionally!).

After a brief courtship, they marry. He is a travelling salesman, as shifty as you would expect, and in a burst of hubris he pulls a fast one on a client and buys a ‘do-upper’ house they can’t really afford on the beach for them.  Would have been fine…but the crash happens, and he loses his job. Honora, who, seriously, appears to hardly know the man she is married to, has by this time found joy in walking the beach collecting sea glass – and here I can completely relate to her – Sexton however finds her habit ridiculous and frustrating. He just drinks. So does Vivian, the bored, promiscuous wealthy socialite to a tee, who enters our story by way of moving in with a friend at the top of the beach. Also reduced in circumstance by the Crash.

Eventually Sexton finds work at a textile mill inland. Here we meet the last major characters; McDermott, who although young is already almost deaf from the noise in the mill, and Alphonse, the eleven year old son of an illegal French Canadian immigrant widow working, again illegally, in the same mill to support his family. McDermott and Alphonse form a mutually advantageous bond;  other characters less so, and thus our story is set.

Ms. Shreve has obviously done some solid research into the strikes of the era, and the horrid working conditions that provoked them. She writes convincingly about the grey misery of abject poverty, the terror of having nothing to feed your children, the desperation the working class felt at this time in this place. Honora finds, somehow, food for people who knock on her door, and she and Vivian through their mutual concern are drawn together and become involved in the strike.

I don’t want to spoil the ending, but I will say this; it has surprises, sudden deaths, revelations and a fairly upbeat ending. I would choose this to read on a plane – it is well written and constructed, thoroughly researched and therefore very plausible, and has characters you can find commonality with. (If I come across one of the prequels in a charity shop I may buy it.) But, if I had finished it by the time I reached Changi I would leave it there on a seat for another traveller to find with not a qualm. And I think they would enjoy it too.

As always, it you would like this, Mum’s copy of ‘Sea Glass’, please get in touch with me either here or through Mums Books facebook page, and I will send it to you with love X

 

 

 

 

17. A Fine Balance’ by Rohinton Mistry.

Unusually, I am proud to say that this is a book I recommended and gave to Mum. Particularly after she had retired from being a primary school teacher, it was more often the case that Mum suggested books to me – she had much more time for reading, to her great delight. I was already planning to travel to India to do some voluntary work for three months when I encountered this, (it ended up being closer to two years that I spent there, but that’s another story), and I was reading a great deal about that incredible, diverse, and always and in all ways astonishing country, both fiction and non fiction. This book stopped me in my tracks.

It will break your heart, enthral you, and enlighten you. It is without doubt one of the best books I have ever read; I have read it three times before, and did not hesitate to pick it up eagerly for a fourth round when I found it on the shelf last weekend. What a masterpiece, what a absolute treasure this book is.

It is mostly set in an un-named big Indian city during the mid Seventies, when the then Prime Minister had defied a court order calling for her resignation and instead declared a State of Internal Emergency and imprisoned her Parliamentary opposition as well as thousands of students, teachers, unionists and journalists among others. Against this backdrop of fear and endemic corruption, and drenched with the myriad complexities of Indian societies, castes and religions, we meet the four central characters of the novel, each of whom is engaged in the often gargantuan task of maintaining their often tenuous foothold and occasionally daring to hope for a better future.

The opening passage of the novel sets the scene with an accurate account of the Indian railways –

“The morning express bloated with passengers slowed to a crawl, then lurched forward suddenly, as though to resume full speed. The train’s brief deception jolted its riders. The bulge of humans hanging out of the doorway distended perilously, like a soap bubble at its limit.”

I know that bulge. An evocative description indeed. And it is on that train within the first couple of paragraphs that we meet three of the main characters. Manesh, an only son, has come to the city to study, leaving behind his parents in their ailing business in the hilly north of India. He’s going to be staying with an old school friend of his mothers, Dina, and we will meet her soon. Omprakesh, whose father was an ‘untouchable’, murdered for caste crimes, is travelling to the city with his uncle Ishvar. They are tailors who will soon be working for Dina, who is looking for a way to maintain her independence from her brother after the death of her husband and thus the story begins with a rich tangle of culture redolent of India alone.

As the book progresses, and the lives of the four protagonists become interwoven, we are at once plunged into the minutiae of everyday life – the allocation of specific teacups, the use of the bathroom – and the broader picture of the terrible poverty of the underclasses in the slums, the, (strong word, but I’m going to use it), inhumanity of the caste system, the endless daily struggles to survive. Manesh, Omprakesh, Ishvar and Dina all have their own stories which are superbly told during the narrative of their co-existence. Each worthy of a novel in their own right, in this book they plunge you into various times and facets of India, and it’s in this experience of total immersion that Mr Mistry stands out in my mind as a writer – I can smell the chai and the dust, the incense and the cattle dung, the petrol fumes and the sabzi cooking rising from the pages. Outstanding.

I shan’t give away anything about the story itself, nor the ending. It’s all just too good for me to want to spoil it at all for you.

If you would like me to post you, (at my cost – this blog is all about sharing our Mum’s love of books),  this book to read and enjoy and either keep or, preferably, gift forward, then please get in touch either here or on the Mums Books Facebook page and I’ll send it. If it’s been claimed, this is seriously one for you to get hold of yourself, it’s a top notch book!

EDIT: Currently available; Testament of Youth, A Girl in Winter, One Night in Winter, and Edina, if you don’t send me your address soon….. Heat Wave.