Sunday, 11 February 2018

English by Ben Fogle - An Immensely Readable Account of the Celebration of Englishness

I've followed Ben Fogle from Taransay in Castaway 2000, to the South Pole; and then all round the world with New Lives in the Wild, so I was intrigued to receive English - A Story of Marmite, Queuing and Weather for Christmas to discover the essence of being English and how it should be celebrated.

You would think that Ben Fogle was the quintessential Englishman, often mistaken for Prince William, but he isn't: his father is Canadian and his grandfather Scottish, but he was born in London, and describes himself as
     
'...a Land Rover-driving, Labrador-owning, Marmite-eating, tea-drinking, wax-jacketed, Queen-loving Englishman.'

So who could be better for the task?

Ben Fogle's style is rather like Bill Bryson's (if you loved Notes from a Small Island, you'll love this), but with fewer facts and figures and rather more action! He takes us through everything that makes the English English from the weather to the perfect cup of tea in an immensely readable account whilst he chases a 9lb Double Gloucester cheese down Cooper's Hill; joins the Royal Household Calvary on their summer holiday at Holkham beach in Norfolk; presents the weather forecast and has a go at tasting Marmite at the factory in Burton on Trent.

I loved this book, and I'm sure that anybody who has an interest in celebrating Englishness would love it too. 

Sunday, 28 January 2018

How to Stop Time by Matt Haig - A Gripping and Entertaining Story of Time Travel

As I have said many times before, I love quirky books about time travel. For example, The Time Traveller's Wife, The Forgetting Time and The Comet Seekers, not forgetting my all time favourite, Tantalus: The Sculptor's Story.
But in How to Stop Time, Matt Haig doesn't just take Tom Hazard back in time to observe how life was then; he takes Tom back through his own life, because although he only looks about forty, he is really well over four hundred years old.

Briefly: born in France in 1581, Tom and his mother flee to England because of the persecution of Huguenots, and settle in Suffolk. However, when the villagers notice that he is not getting any older, she is tried for witchcraft and drowned in the River Lark. He leaves for London and anonymity and falls in love with Rose, a fruit seller, and they have a daughter, Marion, who is an alba like her father: someone who doesn't grow old, and he hasn't seen her since the day he left them in 1617 to protect them both from being discovered.

The novel starts in the present where Tom is about to begin a teaching job in East London, and he visits the places that meant so much to him and Rose, and the story moves backwards and forwards through his memories and key paces that formulated the man he is today.

One key figure in his life since 1891, is Hendrich who has set up The Albatross Society (named because it was believed that albatrosses lived for ever) to protect people like them from the mayflies (ordinary people with ordinary lifespans) who could use the albas for scientific experiments. One rule of the society is that members cannot fall in love in fear of being discovered, and that they must move every eight years with Hendrich finding them a new identity. In return, Hendrich says he will help Tom find Marion.

As Tom's life unfolds, we discover that he has met Shakespeare and Scott Fitzgerald, seen Tchaikovsky conduct, and has also travelled to New York, Paris and the South Seas.

It is a philosophical journey, illustrated by the words of Montaigne, the French philosopher, whose work Marion quotes from the age of eight. Also interestingly another character is introduced called  Sophie. I wonder if this is in honour of the Sophie in Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder who makes her own philosophical journey?

It's a gripping and entertaining story as we follow Tom back and forth: seeing if he will ever fall in love again; finding out whether he will be reunited with his daughter, Marion, and getting a glimpse of what his future might be. I can thoroughly recommend it. I could not put it down!












Sunday, 14 January 2018

Back Home at Firefly Lake by Jen Gilroy: A Wonderful, Wintry Love Story

Back Home at Firefly Lake by Jen Gilroy is a wonderful love story set against wintry Firefly Lake, Vermont; perfect to curl up with by the fire sipping a large mug of hot chocolate!
It's the third part of Jen's Firefly Lake trilogy which focuses, this time, on Cat McGuire, Nick's sister from Summer on Firefly Lake (although each of the books stands alone) and NHL* hero and Olympian ice hockey player, Luc Simard.
However, for me, re-engaging with all the other characters in the previous two books was like going back home, and I'd settled in before the end of the first chapter!
Firefly Lake is a small town community, and Jen Gilroy gives an excellent picture of what you'd imagine it to be like to live there in the winter time: snow, ice, hockey, everyone knowing everyone's business and, romance!
Cat has returned to the town with her daughter, Amy. She has a grant to work on a research project, which she hopes will get her that university job she's dreamt of for years, but she doesn't want to stay with her mother, Gabrielle, at Harbor House, preferring to be self-sufficient and rent an apartment over the craft gallery in return for payment and helping out.
Widower, Luc, Nick's friend, whose dad and brothers run the creamery, has left NHL after a shoulder injury and returned to the lake as well, building a new house where he can make a new start and get over the death of his wife, Maggie, who was expecting their first baby. However, the junior league ice hockey coach breaks his leg, so Luc takes over the training and allows twelve-year-old Amy, a keen hockey player back in Boston, to join the team.
After all these years since they were together at school, when although he was friendly enough, and she admired him from a distance, Cat and Luc can't help finding each other attractive, but is this what they both really want and where will it end, especially when Amy tries to get them together?
It's an engrossing story, full of ups and downs that make you want to keep reading to the final page to find out what happens! I loved it.

*National Hockey League, for those not living in North America!

Sunday, 7 January 2018

The Place We Met by Isabelle Broom - A Great Read for Cold, Dark January Days and Nights!

If you've read my blog before, you'll know that I like to read novels set in the places I've visited. Therefore, I loved The Place We Met, the latest book by Isabelle Broom, especially as it's set around Lake Como, Italy, where I spent a wonderful few days in September.

Taggie works at the Casa Alta Hotel near Como, it's nearly New Year's Eve and her big chance to make her name by putting on a big party and achieving her dream of becoming an events organiser; however, there a heartbreaking event in her own past that she's finding hard to forget.
Then, when she visits her secret beach by Lake Como, and slips into the icy water, strong, gorgeous Marco lifts her out, but is a new love interest what she really wants, or needs?

Lucy treats her boyfriend, Pete, to a New Year's break at Lake Como. She's not usually spontaneous, but surely a few days in such a romantic spot will help their relationship, especially after she finds a shoebox full of photos of a glamorous woman at the back of his wardrobe, and he receives some phone calls that he won't tell her about.

The story is told in turn from Taggie's and Lucy's point of view as the plot thickens and their lives intertwine.

For Isabelle Broom, the lake is an integral part of the novel, another character reflecting the emotional highs and lows of the girls as they come to terms with their past and move forward into the New Year.

I think that this New Year, it's a great read for all these cold, dark January days and nights.

(Look at my photo of Bellagio, it's almost the same as the cover of the book, but lots warmer!)









Sunday, 31 December 2017

Louisa May Alcott, Orchard House, and Little Women

Did you enjoy the BBC adaptation of Little Women over the Christmas holiday? I did.
A few years ago, I was lucky enough to visit Orchard House, Concord, Massachusetts, where Louisa May Alcott lived for twenty years from 1857. The exciting thing is that this is where she set the story, based on her family life during the American Civil War.
Most of the contents of the house are those that belonged to the Alcotts,  so it is like wandering through the home of the March sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, too. You can even see the shelf desk that Louisa's father built for her writing, and Jo sat at a similar one in the BBC dramatisation.
Louisa was very fortunate to grow up amongst some prestigious authors, visiting Ralph Waldo Emerson's library, walking with Henry David Thoreau and putting on plays in Nathaniel Hawthorn's barn!
She and her sisters also acted out her melodramas in the dining room for friends who used the parlour as an auditorium. Always a tomboy, she would take the extravagant male parts, and I wonder if the russet-leather boots that Jo wears in the book were based on some Louisa had too?
I particularly liked standing in Orchard House and imagining the girls all dressed up in their costumes.  It's a shame that Heidi Thomas left these theatricals out of her adaptation; I was looking forward to seeing the girls' Christmas Night play!
Faced with family poverty, Louisa took on all sorts of jobs to earn some money: as a teacher, a governess and even an household servant. However, through it all, she kept up her writing, starting with poetry and short stories, just like Jo March, which were published in popular magazines. She also wrote books, including Hospital Sketches, based on her letters home during the Civil War when she spent some time working as a nurse in Washington DC.
In 1867, her publisher asked her to write a book for girls which she dashed off in just three months at her shelf desk in Orchard House, creating Little Women which has been loved by generations of girls ever since. A lot of this is down to the captivating character of Jo March, a girl who thought her own mind and lived her life her own way, just like Louisa.

For more information about Louisa May Alcott and Orchard House, you can visit http://www.louisamayalcott.org/index.htm




Sunday, 10 December 2017

Paris for One and Other Stories by Jojo Moyes with a Great Christmas Story too!

I've always loved short stories from Roald Dahl to Maeve Binchy.
Paris for One is Jojo Moyes' first collection and I've really enjoyed it. The stories have appeared elsewhere and I have read some of them before, but you always see different things the second time round.
I actually saved the last story, The Christmas List, until December because it's a Christmas one. Hence the Santa in the photo! It's a great tale about a woman who takes a taxi whilst doing her Christmas shopping in London and changes her life.
The best story is Paris for One, a delightful romcom of a read about Nell who sets out for a weekend in Paris with her boyfriend, Pete, but interesting things develop when he doesn't turn up.
The stories have clever twists like those of Maeve Binchy and Roald Dahl, and I thoroughly enjoyed them. I hope you do too!

This book also includes the first chapter of still methe third book which follows Lou Clarke, who appeared in best seller me before you and after you, as she starts her new life in New York.
still me is out in hardback on 25th January 2018, so it's a good opportunity to get reading now!  

Saturday, 25 November 2017

The Daughters of Castle Deverill by Santa Montefiore - A Magnificent Sweep of a Novel

The Daughters of Castle Deverill by Santa Montefiore is the second part of a trilogy about Kitty Deverill, her cousin, Celia, from England, and Bridie, the cook's daughter: three girls who spent idyllic summers together at Castle Deverill on the west coast of Ireland in Songs of Love and War. (You can read my review here)
It is now 1925, and after a catastrophic fire which destroyed the castle, Celia has bought it and intends to rebuild it and make it grander than ever it was; Kitty has married her tutor, Robert, and is bringing up, Little Jack, her father's son with Bridie who has fled to New York and made a fortune marrying an elderly rich man.
So now, Celia has the castle at last; Kitty pines for Jack O'Leary (the man that she and Bridie both loved) who has also gone to America; and, although she's now very well off, Bridie yearns for her son, Little Jack.
Set against the Stock Market crash of 1929 which changes everyone's fortunes, this is another of Santa Montefiore's sweeping stories that she does so well, and I was totally immersed in its depth and breadth. It takes place from the west of Ireland to London, New York and the diamond mines of South Africa. It is romantic, atmospheric, yet also tragic and shocking.
This book also reveals more about the first Lord Barton* Deverill arriving in Ballinakelly to claim his lands (bestowed upon him by King Charles II, for his support to the Crown) and his relationship with Maggie O'Leary, who puts a curse on him and his heirs that their spirits will never rest from their wandering until an O'Leary owns Castle Deverill again.
It is through this curse that we see Kitty Deverill's ancestors, from the raging Barton, to her much missed grandmother, Adeline, a bit like a Greek chorus, observing the family's celebrations and, commiserations.
Told from many points of view, it's a magnificent sweep of a novel and the final part, The Last Secret of the Deverills is out now.

*In her introduction, Santa Montefiore tells how she chose Barton's name from the village sign along the A303 for Barton Stacey. I've often thought it would make a good name for a character, and she's beaten me to it!