The Mirror & the Light

by Hilary Mantel

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

I have just watched the TV series Anne Boleyn. I found it a little disappointing – mainly because “Henry VIII” just didn’t have the presence you expect. But it reminded me I hadn’t finished this series.

This book was another disappointment – one I should have been prepared for really. Lots of my friends have read it & given it 4 or 5★, but there just didn’t seem to be much buzz around it in the bookish world after it was published although there was certainly plenty before. Never a good sign.

The beginning starting with Anne Boleyn’s execution was thrilling and there was some beautiful writing, then more beautiful writing, but the pace was extremely slow. The book only seemed to have any vitality when Henry or (surprisingly) Jane Seymour were on the page.

This reminds me of Sue Grafton‘s later books. When the author is a mega success I guess the editor is hesitant to be too heavy with the red pen. I abandoned this book at 348 pages and I feel 100 pages could have been pruned, even at this early stage. I didn’t feel like ploughing on to see if things improved.

DNF at 39.4%

Real Tigers

by Mick Herron

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A real page turner!

& this was very welcome as I have just had a DNF on a very turgid book!

Slough House has two more operatives- although I am using ‘operative’ in the loosest sense of the word. Slough House is where failed MI5 spies go to finish out their working days – or hopefully take the hint & retire gracefully from the field. (view spoiler)

Nobody left Slough House at the end of a working day feeling like they’d contributed to the security of the nation. They left it feeling like their brains had been fed through a juicer.

This time one of the more likeable pen pushers operatives has been kidnapped & Jackson Lamb’s failures prove that they still have their guts, ambition & a certain crazy loyalty. I found the book nearly impossible to put down.

My only quibbles are that Lamb is getting ever more gross (seriously it sounds like the man never takes a shower) & that most of the Slow Horses (with the exception of Jackson, River & Catherine) seem to speak with the same voice. It does make it hard to distinguish between the characters.

Kustomland: The Custom Car Photography of James Potter, 1955-1959

by Thom Taylor & James Potter (photographer)

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I am by no means a petrolhead (as we say over here) but I do have a weakness for 1950’s American cars & the whole American Grafitti vibe. We had a great time at the Beach Hop earlier this year – never seen our little town so alive!

A brother-in-law who is really into these old cars (he owns a Ford Fairlane) couldn’t make it this year. To make up for the disapointment we are giving him this very collectible book for his birthday shhhhh!

& when a book enters my house (other than sports biographies) of course I have to read it.
This is Kustomland an area in Southern Los Angeles – mainly around Bellfower & Lakewood.

This is such a boys’ (& a few girls world) where their lives revolve around their cars & the customisation of them. One fanatic told the author when he bought an uncustomised car that he drove it to his auto shop as fast as he could, as he was so embarrassed to be seen out & about in it.

There are pictures of the artists at work & of groups of young circling these beautiful cars. There is a helpful glossary of the terms.

But this is a book celebrating the beautiful artwork on these cars & the talented photographer, the late James (Jim) Potter. He was a freelance photographer at this time before he moved to Newport Beach in 1961 and purchased the Powerboat Magazine.

A montage of some of the cars. I don’t like the tongues of flame paintwork so much. All personal taste.

Was this a working phone or a joke?

& I have a weakness both for the fins & the paint job on this particular car, which is described as “candy raspberry over platinum pearl.”

This should be a keeper, but I know Jeremy will get more pleasure out of this book than I will.

Island Zoo

by Gerald Durrell

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I must say that I was very glad when Juanita got better, not only because I did not want to lose her, but also because it is very exhausting to sleep with a playful peccary in your bed.

I’d bet not many people could say that!

As always Gerald Durrell is an entertaining raconteur, even in a book aimed at older children. Durrell never talks down to his audience and his love for the animals he collected for the world famous Jersey Zoo is plain to see. I’m scared to check with Wikipedia how many of the species he mentions are now endangered (the peccaries look to be safe though.)

For me, what makes the book are the beautiful black and white photographs by Wolfgang Suschitsky. Some of the bird pictures – every feather stands out! I will mention some photos could be clearer & this might be due to the challenge of photographing some of these creatures – or that photography has come a long way since the early 60s.

I really fell for this little  guy (for some reason the name Slow Loris makes me giggle!)

Sadly, Wikipedia classifies the Slow Loris as vulnerable.

While Durrell was a gifted writer, he never had a deep love of writing. he did it to raise funds for his beloved animals. This could explain the ending, which is a little abrupt. I could feel the impatience to get back to his work.

The Infinite Air

by Fiona Kidman

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

I read Fiona Kidman’s This Mortal Boy last year and it was one of my favourite reads of 2020. I thought Kidman did a marvellous job of recreating a life of a nearly forgotten figure from New Zealand history, Albert Black.

With famed Kiwi aviator the enigmatic Jean Batten, not so much although I do value Kidman’s more sympathetic than usual interpretation of Miss Batten’s life.

Jean came from a seriously dysfunctional background. Her mother Nelly was obsessed with Jean and neglected her sons, her father was a notorious philanderer. Not too surprisingly, the marriage didn’t work out! Her brothers in Kidman’s interpretation were left to make their own way in the world – in a twist I didn’t know, the younger brother John became a Hollywood actor who did very well for a time.

Jean meanwhile grew into an astonishingly beautiful young girl.

Jean at 15

Highly intelligent, she was also a gifted dancer and pianist. Her father was happy to encourage Jean in her dreams to become a concert pianist. But Jean, even though she was living in near poverty with her mother was determined to fly.

Where Kidman’s account differs from many others, both in newspaper accounts and biographies, is that she doesn’t see Jean as a heartless gold digger who ruthlessly obtained money from men to follow her flying dream. Some of them were infatuated with her beauty but who want to control her- and certainly didn’t understand her. This is indeed the strongest part of the book. I loved being gently lead to a different interpretation of Jean’s character.

Kidman even portrays Jean’s great love Beverley Shepherd as someone who would want to control her.

But the most controlling person in Jeans life was her mother, Nelly. Does Jean ever realise this?

For me, the book quality tails off quite a bit in Jean’s post fame years. It is almost like Jean & Nelly are cardboard cut-outs pasted into different scenes. Jean may have been happy to keep her mystique, but I was a little disappointed.

A Town Like Alice

by Nevil Shute

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Some books I feel I have to give 5★, even if the book has some considerable flaws. For me, Auē was one such book.

A Town Like Alice is another

The story begins gently with an aging London solicitor, Noel Strachan, recounting how he came to meet elderly and wealthy Scotsman, James McFadden, and helped him draw up his will. When McFadden dies, Strachan tracks down his sole surviving relative, Jean Paget. It is fair to say the Noel is charmed by this young lady who says she feels about seventy and will never marry.

So how does this story end up in Northern Australia? I can’t really tell any more without giving away too much of the plot. I can tell you that the middle part of this novel does have considerable impact (in fact some pages were the most powerful I have ever read) & was nearly impossible to put down. I found parts of it very romantic, parts of Jean’s experiences are very distressing. And you have to grit your teeth and swallow a lot when reading about the attitudes of the time, both to women and to anyone who wasn’t white. The use of what would now (if it wasn’t then) be considered racial slurs is very hard to read – I don’t think I have ever seen so many in one book. By the end end it was detracting from my enjoyment of the book, but whether or not Shute shared these attitudes they were authentic for the time and I still admired the hero and heroine of this book very much.

I managed easily to acquire most of Shute’s titles over the years. This one took me longer. I have a feeling this book is a keeper for most people and that is why it rarely turns up in secondhand bookshops.

Further reading; Nevil Shute met Carry Geysel after the war. Due to a misunderstanding he thought her life during WW2 had been even harder than it was.

A Dead Djinn in Cairo

by P. Djèlí Clark

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

I’ve had to think hard about my rating for this novella, as the story did show some fantastic creativity and I loved some of the descriptive passages & I found the end very exciting.

It’s just that I wasn’t totally engaged at the start – in fact, I was more than a little confused! This could say more about me as a reader than Clark as a writer.

Anyway a 3.5★ from me means that i have enjoyed the story enough that I want to read more work by the author & I’m hoping to get to The Angel of Khan el-Khalili very soon.

Jane Eyre

by Charlotte Bronte

Rating: 4 out of 5.

‘ll start off strongly recommending this Penguin edition.

Firstly I loved the cover

– even though I doubt that Jane ever wore pink.

This edition was also very well annotated. I don’t think I have ever made such good use of notes at the back of a work of fiction.

&, last but not least, I read Michael Mason’s very good introduction after I completed the book as I have had too many reads ruined for me by spoiler filled introductions (looking at you Martin Edwards) While not at the Edwardian (heh) level of spoilers, I still think I made the right choice. This was a very thoughtful introduction, that made the point;

Jane Eyre is a novel which it’s readers tend to remember inaccurately at certain points. It may not be mis-remembered more than other novels, but it is mis-remembered more conspicuously than most…

I think this is very true. I have no memory of [Jane’s desperate flight from Thornfield Hall, & her cousins, the Rivers family. My memory of this book is so much more… um chaste that I’m wondering if my previous readings (all over forty years ago) were abridged/censored editions. I was certainly unprepared for the passion in this book.

So I started the book fully prepared for the self-righteous Victorian cruelty to the orphaned Jane, I think I expected the rectitude but was unprepared for the passion. Rochester & Jane’s declaration of love for each other are truly beautiful. Jane remains true to herself and her beliefs throughout except when St John (who I personally really disliked) was doing a form of Christian grooming on Jane. To be honest, I welcomed this (in a literary sense) as the book after Jane runs away from Rochester became a little dull.

Other flaws were a bit earlier. Rochester [ dressing as a fortune teller  – that was a little silly. & Charlotte, as a storyteller, just about ties herself in knots trying to explain Rochester’s pursuit of Miss Ingram. Rochester never looks more unappealing then he does when he tries to explain that to Jane. & frankly, like Heathcliff, Rochester never looks that appealing to me. If any of the Bronte’s ever wrote a male lead that didn’t look like an arrogant sod, please let me know.

While I didn’t totally love this book I admire it enormously -so ahead of its time! & in parts I was totally enthralled. The one thing I didn’t stop doing was admiring Jane.

The Last Noo-Noo

by Jill Murphy

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I was so sad to read that Jill Murphy has recently died from cancer. I loved many of her children’s books when my own kids were young – I loved the clever way they were written on two levels, so that adults also had a bit of a chuckle!

Marlon’s granny (who reminds me very much of my NZ grandmother!) thinks Marlon is far too old to still be sucking on a dummy/Noo-noo/pacifier.

“Well, whatever he calls it,” said Marlon’s granny, “he looks like an idiot with that stupid great thing stuck in his mouth all the time.”

But neither his abrasive granny or the local bullies can get Marlon to give the Noo-Noo up until he is good and ready!

I laughed all the way through. Still love the ending.

Found a free reading on You tube

I don’t particularly like this reading but it gives you a taster. And a chance to see Ms Murphy’s wonderful artwork!

RIP, Jill. You will be greatly missed.

Nightingale Wood

by Stella Gibbons

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Firstly I want to say – just look at the cover of this edition!

Light, effervescent, wonderful colour palette – would have one expecting something Woodhousian, wouldn’t one?

Which this book really isn’t, even though there are flashes of humour. What this book is is a study of the British Class System and social values at a time (late 1930s) when the world is starting to change.

The widowed (& nearly penniless)Viola feels she has no choice but to accept her starchy in-laws offer of a home. The Wither family (great choice of surname!) are frozen in their tyrannical father’s idea of time. The rest of them are miserable! Viola, young, spendthrift and none too bright, is wondering if she made a terrible mistake leaving her friend’s home in London. But then comes the Charity Ball…

I end up liking this book very much, for its wonderful social commentary in the middle. Be aware that the scene setting at the start may feel a bit tedious, but it is necessary for the events that unfold. The ending had too much telling & not enough showing for me, but what I liked was that I didn’t predict the correct ending for anyone!

I am now going to be on the hunt for Gibbons best known book, Cold Comfort Farm.

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