Libraries Week 8th-13th October

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This week is National Libraries Week in the UK.  The theme this year is to promote wellbeing and is being promoted with the tagline “My Time.  My Space.  My Library”

Being a discerning and intelligent bunch reading this I hope I don’t have to tell you the key thing about libraries is use them or lose them.  With local councils continuing to make cutbacks library services  continue to be vulnerable.  If you haven’t visited your local library for a while this week would be an excellent time to put that right.

Before you go check out your local council’s websites as there may very well be special events going on to celebrate the week.  Libraries are no longer just about books and you may discover a whole range of activities which will get you socialising and lift spirits.  Here on the Isle of Wight, where, as I’ve mentioned many times before I am employed as a relief library assistant in a number of the libraries ,  this week we are offering activities such as talks about the history of libraries, art courses, Scrabble Club, initiatives to make poppies to commemorate the fallen of World War I in visual displays, reading , dancing, colouring, music and knitting groups as well as special rhyme times, story times, art activities, Lego and Minecraft challenges for children.  We will be running sessions to get people to use library resources online.  Many areas now offer an on-line book, magazine and audio books facilities free to use for library card holders (here we have recently moved over to Borrowbox and Press Reader which are proving very popular).

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On Saturday at Sandown Library I will be doing something which proved to be very successful last year.  I am holding a Readers Advisory Day.  Hopefully, people will be coming in for advice as what to read next and I’m planning to introduce them to their next favourite author.  I will let you know how I get on.  Those near enough to the Isle Of Wight can find information about the events I have just mentioned by following this link.

The rest of you will just have to look up your local council website to find out up-to-date information on events throughout the week.  Even if your area is not celebrating National Libraries Week why not visit your nearest library sometime during the week for your own celebration.  You might just find what you are looking for.

We have been provided with some fact around the use of libraries from the good people at http://www.librariesweek.org/facts.

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Be good to yourself.  Visit a library this week.  Let me know how you get on………………..

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The Perfect Murder- Peter James (2010) -A Murder They Wrote Review

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My second Peter James novel I’ve read this year is a much slighter affair than “Dead Man’s Grip” which will be in contention for my Book of The Year this year.  “The Perfect Murder” takes my tally of James’ novels to eight which eases him into the anchor position of my Top 10 most read authors alongside Martina Cole and John Steinbeck.  This was because I selected “A Quick Read Novel” from the Sandown Library Russian Roulette Reading Challenge.  This was published for World Book Day in 2010 and can be polished off quite easily in an hour.  The whole Quick Reads enterprise is to tempt people back into reading primarily but it can also provide a cheap, easy read for fans of the author.  Last year I read Minette Walters’ “Chickenfeed” from the same series.  You are not going to get the very best work from an author but hopefully a sampler of what they do in order to tempt you into finding out more.

“The Perfect Murder” is a stand-alone novel set like James’ Roy Grace series in Brighton, although on this occasion it could have been set anywhere.  Victor and Joan Smiley, a rather elderly-seeming pair of forty-somethings are so stuck in the rut of their marriage that the only way out seems to be murder and both are planning to bump the other one off.

Characterisation is broadly drawn yet effective and there are twists to the tale, some of which I didn’t see coming, some I did.  There is a danger when writing these Quick Reads to order that the more limited vocabulary and length these demand can mean that the actual defining style of the author does not come through.  I think this is, to an extent, a valid point in both the James and Walters novellas I’ve read but the Brighton location and very Peter James front cover goes some way to rectifying this.

I know that Peter James has produced at least one collection of short stories and here he displays that he has the knack of conveying a sinister involving tale in a succinct fashion.

threestars

The Perfect Murder was published by Pan Books in 2010.

Frederica – Georgette Heyer (1965)

 

heyerI’ve been meaning to read some Georgette Heyer since reading about her in Christopher Fowler’s “Book Of Forgotten Authors”.  Certainly less forgotten than most of the featured writers, she is regularly taken out in the libraries where I work and was a great favourite of my partner’s mother who was known to stay up the whole night whenever she re-encountered one of Heyer’s titles.

Selecting “a member of staff’s favourite author” from the Sandown Library Russian Roulette Reading Challenge gave me a chance and I chose one of her later historical novels published 44 years into her lengthy career.  I think I was fully expecting a strong Jane Austen influence and that is very much present in this Regency tale.

 After settling down with the endearing opening where the Marquis of Alverstoke tries to avoid hosting a ball to introduce young female relatives to “the ton” at the start of “the Season” and whilst doing encounters distant family members who he is pushed to feeling responsible for I did find myself getting restless.  Much talk of balls and society and possible suitors was making this feel a bit of a dense slog.  It was, however, livened by the odd set piece- a runaway dog, a Pedestrian Curricle ride.  I did begin looking out for unintentional double entendres, which is a sign I’m wandering when reading classic and historical novels- a childish habit I know.  This was because I was finding Frederica Merriville’s attempts to get her stunning sister, Charis, paired up with an eligible man a little too predictable.  However, mid-way through this book did come into its own with the stunning Charis (probably the least interesting character in the novel) taking a back seat as the two younger Merriville boys, Jessamy and Felix take a more central role.  There is real drama in an expedition to watch a hot air balloon and it is from this point that this novel really lifts off (pun intended!).

 I can’t say I got a real feel for the Regency London setting but there’s no denying the amount of research Heyer must have put into her works to get it sounding right.  There’s a joyous use of contemporary slang and terms, many unfamiliar but which do not need further explanation.  Characterisation really won me over and I couldn’t help but feel that if Jane Austen herself had produced this work that she’d feel rather proud of it.  It’s certainly a long way from Mills and Boon historical novels and to be honest I wasn’t expecting it to be.  It’s actually a book that demands hunkering down with making it a better autumn/winter at home read rather than an on the beach one.  I think if time and duties had allowed me to read it in a more concentrated way I would have got more out of it, certainly from the sections I was finding heavy going.  I actually think my late mother-in-law might have had the right idea.

 I now know that there is a lot to enjoy in Georgette Heyer and there are a lot of books to discover.  She wrote 38 historical novels, 12 detective novels and 4 contemporary novels.  Next time I might see how she fares in the world of crime.

 fourstars

Frederica was first published in the UK in 1965.  I read the 2013 Arrow paperback reissue.

One For The Money – Janet Evanovich (1994) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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Selected because I drew “Read A Book From A Female Point Of View” from the Sandown Library Russian Roulette Reading Challenge this is my first Janet Evanovich.  It is also her first book to feature Bounty Hunter Stephanie Plum – a series the author certainly decided to run with as there are now twenty-four novels together with four which fall out of the numbered sequence of the main series (at least the reader will know what order to read them in!).  Book #25 “Look Alive Twenty Five” is due in November 2018.

Back at book number 1 we meet an unemployed Stephanie persuaded by her mother to go for a filing job at her cousin Vinnie’s Bonding Company.  With that position unavailable Stephanie persuades her relative to take her on as a “skip tracer”, tracking FTA’s (individuals who have failed to appear at court).  At this point I thought I was going to be thrown by the complexities of the American legal system but here we get a somewhat hapless inexperienced but enthusiastic bounty hunter attempting to find her place in this dangerous environment.

Cousin Vinnie gives Stephanie a week to track and capture New Jersey’s currently Most Wanted, cop Joe Morelli who has gunned down a man in suspicious circumstances and gone on the run.  The potential pay-off for finding him will sort out Stephanie’s financial problems.

Her main difficulty is that she is clueless about how to proceed and this sets up much humour alongside the crime which is a good part of this series’ appeal and is the reason this author gets such good feedback from crime readers of both genders.  I was concerned, especially with the cover of this Penguin reprint that it might be fairly standard chick-lit with a gun and although Stephanie’s ineptitude does mean she has much in common with many light romantic fiction heroines the crime aspect is well done, actually really quite thrilling which gives the whole thing a different and very satisfying complexion.

I’ve never been a huge fan of first-person American crime fiction when that first person has been some macho action or hard-boiled detective but Stephanie’s point of view is irresistible as her attempts to convey crime noir falls apart as she gets herself into deeper and deeper scrapes.  I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this as much as I did. although I should have known this was Evanovich’s strength and that she really wins readers over.  I often see library borrowers bring back the one book they’ve tried and then check out an armful from the series.  I will certainly be interested in finding out how Stephanie gets on.  Don’t be put off by what might on the surface seem formulaic, this is a winner both in terms of commercial sales and critical acclaim (this first book won the Crime Writer’s Association John Creasey Award).  It all starts here……..

fourstars

One For The Money is published by Penguin Books in the UK.  Originally appearing in 1994 I read the 2004 paperback version.

A Natural- Ross Raisin (2017)

 

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Published in paperback in 2018 this is Ross Raisin’s third novel in a career which has already seen considerable acclaim including the Sunday Times Young Writer Of The Year Award following the appearance of his debut “God’s Own Country.” The publication date is significant here as this book became my choice for the Sandown Library Russian Roulette Reading Challenge “Read a book published in 2017”.

 I’ve not read Ross Raisin before but was drawn to this by some excellent reviews.  It has been compared to Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain” (1997) but here it’s not cowboys but the world of British professional football.  Like Proulx’s short story  which became the basis for an Oscar winning film (2005) this is a very claustrophobic piece, generally grim and paints a fairly depressing hostile environment inhabited by the characters.

 It did make me wonder who would want to be a footballer and brought home clearly the uncertainty and fear in their working lives in the world outside of the top divisions.  This in itself made for fascinating reading but the conflicted sexuality of main character Tom added another layer of misery.  It has been many years since Justin Fashanu was forced out of the closet and had a time so dire that those involved in sport chose not to follow in his footsteps for a considerable period.  Since then there have been initiatives from the FA and of course changing attitudes in the rest of society but from this novel not a lot seems to have changed in the attitudes of the other players, the fans and the clubs themselves.  It would be great to think that a book like this could change things but it all seems so entrenched and those who need to read it wouldn’t.  It gets to the point where the central relationship doesn’t seem worth it for all of those involved.

 I found the lack of joy rather grinding and I felt the same way about “Brokeback Mountain”.  Perhaps there’s some consolation in that none of the characters, whatever their sexuality, seemed happy.

 There’s a lot of football in this book.  I cannot remember reading sport-based fiction where the sport features so heavily.  I’m not a football fan (my secondary school education saw to that) so I did find myself struggling to get enthused about Tom’s world around a third of the way through.  The section of the novel between football seasons came as quite a relief.

 So then, I found it overly negative and with too much football but I actually did find myself getting really involved and this is due to Raisin’s really quite subtle skills as a story-teller and his ability to bridge the distance between what this particular reader would find interesting and draw him right in.  That is an impressive achievement gained by the sheer skill of this writer.  I cannot say I totally enjoyed this book but I was thoroughly impressed.

 fourstars

 A Natural was first published in 2017.  I read the 2018 Vintage Paperback edition.

The Outcast – Sadie Jones (2007)

 

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From the hat of the Sandown Library Russian Roulette Reading Challenge I pulled out “Ask a member of library staff their favourite book” and with there being only two of us working that day, my only option was to ask my friend and colleague Louise for a recommendation. I knew full well it would be “Count Of Monte Cristo” (just too long for now but I will get round to it one day) but as an alternative she asked me if I’d read “The Outcast”. Yes, was my initial response but then I began to doubt and checking my records it seems as if I hadn’t. Nor had I seen the 2015 BBCTV two part adaptation.  But the book seemed so familiar as if it had been sitting on my shelves at home, but it wasn’t. This gave me a curious initial relationship with this book, a kind of half-baked déjà vu. Its strong familiarity must have been because ten years ago it was everywhere and one that I’d earmarked for reading but for some reason had slipped through the net.

It was just the sort of book that I would seek out and with inside cover comparison to Ian McEwan ( “Atonement” feels the closest match and that is one of my Essential Reads) I was delighted to fit this into my reading schedule.

It is a tale of English repression, a stifling tale, impressively written. At the start of the novel it is the summer of 1957 and Lewis Aldridge, aged 19, is released from prison and returns home to his father and step-mother. Lewis is the Outcast of the title and this is his story. It is an easy gripping read but Sadie Jones’ very accessible style hides the emotional complexity that runs throughout. Lewis’ return to his home in Waterford, Surrey, reopens a wealth of emotions amongst family and neighbours, all keen to put on a public face of conformity whatever dark deeds and mistreatment of others is going on. We discover why Lewis has become the outcast and why his attempt to fit back into this community seems doomed to failure.

I did really like this but it just felt a little relentless on the piling on of the difficulties for Lewis, both within and outside his control and at times I just longed for greater contrast from its pervasive claustrophobia. This sounds a little churlish because it feels so close to being a classic novel but it just doesn’t quite pull it off and I think this was because of the frustration I felt towards the characters.  It is, however, a fairly extraordinary debut and one which took the 2008 Costa Award for best debut. In the ten plus years since this appeared Sadie Jones has certainly slipped under my radar because I wasn’t aware of her other titles- three further novels with a 5th scheduled for 2019. Reading this does feel like I’ve filled a small hole in my literary experiences, however, and I would certainly seek out more by this author.

fourstars

The Outcast was first published in 2007. I read the 2008 Vintage paperback version.

 

The Boy At The Top Of The Mountain – John Boyne (2015) – A Kid-Lit Review

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I’m more than happy to delve into the back catalogue of the writer of my current Book of The Year “The Heart’s Invisible Furies”. This book choice was thanks to me drawing from the Sandown Library Russian Roulette Reading Challenge: “Read A Book With A Red Cover”. I do have John Boyne’s newest adult title “A Ladder To The Sky” lined up to read next, thanks to Netgalley, but I thought I’d explore his writing for a younger audience first.

I am still to read “The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas” but I know enough about it (and I’ve seen the film version) to realise that there are parallels here. We begin in Paris in 1936 with 7 year old Pierrot living with his widowed mother. In the first few pages we get shell shock, domestic abuse and suicide all related to his German father unable to adapt to living in post-World War I France. Tragic circumstances pile up forcing Pierrot to leave France for Austria and a home at the top of Obersalzberg.

I actually didn’t know where this book was going (I read nothing about it beforehand) so I’m determined not to give away much plot for there are twists a plenty to satisfy its intended audience.

This is a great novel for an enquiring developing mind. It is a complex book, emotionally speaking.  Perhaps elements of the plot might seem contrived if written for the adult market but it would all make sense for a younger audience and has a moral depth that I’m certainly unused to in Junior Fiction. Pierrot develops from being an extremely likeable character to something of a monster and this feels unusual and chilling. His actions become increasingly difficult to explain away even in a society where the old rules no longer apply. All this would resonate with every reader, child or adult.

There are throughout references to a children’s classic of an earlier generation “Emil And The Detectives” which I certainly loved as a child and Boyne’s novel should have an equally long life for future generations. He has written a powerful, compelling novel which I found difficult to put down and read in a day (which is unusual for me- even for a children’s book) and as in “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” he brought me close to tears on a number of occasions. The characters are memorable and the plot, as in “The Boy With The Striped Pyjamas” would be impossible to forget- and nor should we. It would be a great and lasting purchase for a sophisticated child/young adult.  This is a children’s book now in its third year after publication and its reputation should continue to grow.

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The Boy At The Top Of The Mountain was published by Doubleday in 2015.

 

Mrs Palfrey At The Claremont – Elizabeth Taylor (1971)

 

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I chose this when “read a book with a female’s name in the title” was pulled out of the hat as part of Sandown Library’s Russian Roulette Reading Challenge.  I’ve never read Elizabeth Taylor before but had my eye on her for some time.  She came to mind on a previous challenge when I had to read a book with a main character aged over 60.  This book wasn’t available on the shelves then so I opted for “Elizabeth Is Missing” instead but I was pleased to be able to select “Mrs Palfrey” for this new challenge.

 I know that Elizabeth Taylor (1912-75) was an exquisite writer of short stories, a format I choose to read less of than I should, but I always suspected she would be able to win me over.  This is the 11th out of her 12 novels in a career which dated from her 1945 debut “At Mrs Lippincote’s” (which would also have sufficed for this particular challenge). Virago Modern Classics have done a great job in bringing the works of this author to a new generation and I am sure more or less everyone who reads her will turn into at least a bit of a fan.  In his introduction to this book, Paul Bailey states;

 “I envy those readers who are coming to her work for the first time.  Theirs will be an unexpected pleasure, and they will, if they read her as she wanted to be read, learn much that will surprise them.”

 As one of those to be envied readers I can certainly confirm that I got a lot of pleasure out of this short novel, which I read quickly but which is likely to remain with me for some time.

 

One of these Elizabeth Taylor’s is a giftes British writer and the other is a Hollywood Icon.  Can you work out which is which? !!

Mrs Laura Palfrey moves into the Claremont Hotel in London at the beginning of the novel.  Widowed and finding her house in Rottingdean has become too much for her she up sticks to this slightly down-at-heel establishment feeling she should still remain at the centre of things.  The hotel is a stop-gap for an elderly group of residents, just tolerated by the management, most likely to end in a final move to a nursing home should nothing turn up.  And nothing much turns up for them, even visitors are thin on the ground.

 This is a delightful bitter-sweet comedy of manners where everyone is keen to say the right thing but which is often delivered barbed with hidden meaning.  The residents range from the arthritic Mrs Arbuthnot whose pain is used to explain her spite; the flirty and fun loving Mrs Burton; the out of his depth solitary man Mr Osmond and Mrs Palfrey herself, described as looking like “a famous general in drag.”  When Mrs Palfrey has a fall on the streets of London she starts a friendship with a young writer who comes to her rescue and in an attempt not to look like the lonely widow she is she passes him off amongst the other residents as her grandson.  Other than that, not a vast amount happens, there are quite a few agonising social situations, indifferent hotel meals, a few fadings away and a proposal of marriage and I lapped it all up. 

 This came so close to being a 5* read but I think it ended too soon and left me with the impression that it lacked a little of the depth I would look for in my search for the very best.  This is a great introduction to a new author.

 fourstars 

Mrs Palfrey At The Claremont was first published in 1971.  The Virago Modern Classics reprint first appeared in 1982.

Elizabeth Is Missing – Emma Healey (2014)

 

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One of the big sellers of 2014 and the winner of the Costa First Novel Award this book has been my shelves since then.  I really wanted to read it when I bought it but over the time it has been sat there I’ve wondered whether it might be too whimsical, heart-warming or quirky for an old cynic like me and other books have taken precedence.

 However, out of the Russian Roulette Reading Challenge box at Sandown Library came “read a novel where the main protagonist is aged over 60”, so a perfect cue to discover what the fuss around this debut was all about.

 Main character, Maud, at aged 82 fulfils my brief nicely.  She suffers from dementia and when she believes her friend has gone missing she is determined to find out what has happened.  Only occasionally lucid, she has to rely on her hand-written notes but her investigation strategies are continually forced backwards by her confusion and the symptoms of this cruel disease.

 The past also intervenes as her friend Elizabeth’s predicament becomes aligned in Maud’s brain with the disappearance of her older sister Sukey just after the war, a mystery Maud has never been able to come to terms with.  Flashbacks triggered by the present events seem to bring these days back with greater clarity.

 It is the Dementia aspect, of course, which gives this gentle mystery its unusual slant just as an earlier best seller “The Curious Incident of The Dog In The Night Time” (2003) by Mark Haddon created something similar with his young, probably autistic detective.  That condition was never really made clear in that book and so it felt more subtle than what we have here although there is little doubt that if you loved that book then this is an obviously worthy recommendation. 

 I actually had my reservations about Haddon’s novel and I didn’t find myself totally buying into this either.  I found it to be all a little too much on one level and as well as being frustrated for Elizabeth I found myself becoming frustrated as a reader as I wanted the novel to move on more than it did.  The “mystery” aspect did not work as well as I expected it to, however, the human aspect of living with dementia and the toll this takes on the family works better, but I’m not really sure that I wanted to read this type of book at this present time. The dementia and mystery elements did not integrate as seamlessly as I thought they would. 

I know I’m in a minority here as this book has been so highly praised for both of these elements and I know it is the subject matter that largely dictates my reservations.  If it feels samey it is because Maud’s world is samey and continually challenging.  I did enjoy it but not as much as I was expecting to.

 Emma Healey’s second novel “Whistle In The Dark” has been published this month (May 2018) and the initial reviews are just as promising.  I would certainly be interested in reading this as there is no doubt that it seems to confirm her status as a writer who takes a unique slant towards the crime/mystery genre.

 

threestars

Elizabeth Is Missing was published by Viking in 2014.  I read the Penguin paperback edition.

Commonwealth – Ann Patchett (2016)

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American author Ann Patchett is a former winner of the UK Orange Prize for fiction for 2002’s “Bel Canto”.  Her family-themed novels have seen her compared to two other Queen Annes, prize-winning titans of modern fiction both, Ms. Tyler and Ms. Enright.  With this, her seventh novel she gives them a good run for their money but doesn’t quite eclipse them in the quality fiction stakes.

 I have never read Ann Patchett before but this book I had earmarked to read since publication because of its impressive initial reviews (“Outstanding” (The Observer)/”Dazzling” (The Sunday Times).  When I pulled out “Read a book by an author whose surname begins with a P” from the Reading Challenge box at Sandown Library this seemed an obvious choice.

 I always think I’m going to feel alienated by the Americanness of tales about family life but Anne Tyler has really drawn me in with hers on more than one occasion.  It’s the quality of her writing that does it and this is necessary to convey the complexities of family relationships in a way which feels both honest and convincing.  With “Commonwealth” Ann Patchett also succeeds with this.

 We begin in 1964 at a Christening Party for Los Angeles Cop Fix Keating’s daughter Franny.  One of the guests falls for Franny’s mother and lives shift from this point.  Two families of step-children meet each summer including Franny and her sister Caroline and a tragedy further complicates family relations.  Fast forward to 1988 when Franny is working a waitress in Chicago and she meets a writer who takes her family’s story to use in his own work, also called “Commonwealth”.  Although Franny is probably the central character her parents’ generation of family together with her sister and step-siblings are all well fleshed out.

 Plot-wise there are not too many surprises, which is why, just on the showing of this novel I will put Anne Tyler slightly ahead but anyone who has enjoyed novels such as the bestselling “Spool of Blue Thread” (one of my essential reads) should certainly seek “Commonwealth” out.

fourstars

“Commonwealth” was published by Bloomsbury in 2016.