One Life: My Mother’s Story by Kate Grenville

One Life: My Mother’s Story

Australian author, Kate Grenville has written a beautiful biography of her mother Nance Russell. A book that casts light not only on Nance’s life but also on life in Australia for most of the 20th century. Nance was born in 1912 and died in 2002, so she lived through two World Wars, an economic depression and a period of great social change. Nance wasn’t famous, the daughter of a rural working-class couple who became pub-keepers, but she was a remarkable woman.

Kate’s mother had wanted to write her own story and had left fragments of stories about her ancestors, stories her mother had told her, about her childhood, but most about her adult life up to her mid-forties. (Kate Grenville has used some of the stories of her ancestors in her own novels – such as The Secret River, a wonderful historical novel).

So this biography reads like a novel, but is based on Nance Russell’s memories, making it much more than a factual account of a person’s life. It’s is a vivid portrait of a real woman, a woman of great strength and determination, who had had a difficult childhood, who persevered, went to University, became a pharmacist, opened her own pharmacy, brought up her children, and helped build the family home. She faced sex discrimination and had to sell her pharmacy in order to look after her children at home.

Nance had wanted to be a teacher, but when she said this to her mother she ‘exploded. Over her dead body Nance was going to be a teacher!‘  But her parents thought that pharmacy was ‘good for a girl‘. It was 40  years later, after her own children were grown up, that Nance took an arts degree, then a teaching diploma and a diploma in teaching English as a foreign language. ‘She taught French in schools, taught English to newly arrived migrant children, and ran her own business teaching English to the wives of Japanese business men.

My bare account of Nance’s life doesn’t do justice to this book, in which Kate Grenville brings to life both the good times and the bad times, writing about her mother’s heartache, worries, joys and sorrows, of the hard times during the economic depression, all of it as a whole making a rich and fulfilled life. Very near to the end of the book Kate Grenville writes:

One of her last trips [to Europe] was to Florence, where she stood in front of the frescoes that Dante had seen. A line came into her mind from somewhere in all her reading: Suffering pierces the shield of habit. It was a thought that made sense of the unhappiness she’d known, and also the happiness. She knew that ultimately it didn’t matter what happened to you. In the light of eternity, in the light of all those dead writers in whose work she’d recognised the great truths, only one thing mattered. What other people did was up to them. Your job was to live – as richly and honestly as you could – your one life. (page 246)

Reading Challenges: Non Fiction Reading Challenge 2015 and What’s in a Name? 2015 in the category of a book with a familial relation in the title.

A Change of Climate by Hilary Mantel

A Change of Climate is one of Hilary Mantel’s early books, first published in 1994 and  described on the back cover as ‘a literary family saga’ and ‘a first rate thriller’.

I quoted from the beginning of this book in this post. I noted that at the end of the book there is an About the Author section, which I’d just glanced over. In answer to one of the interviewer’s questions about the theme of the book, Hilary Mantel replied that there is a central secret, an enormous destructive secret. I didn’t want to spoil the book for myself so I didn’t read any more of her answers. And I don’t want to spoil it for anyone else so I’m not saying what that secret is in this post.

The ‘enormous destructive secret‘ Hilary Mantel referred to is revealed just over halfway into the book. But the book abounds in secrets and it’s also about family, trust, disillusionment and tragedy, about bereavement and loss of faith, as one character observes, ‘faith is something people chase after, simply to give life meaning‘.

Hilary Mantel writes a compelling story, subtly mixing the past and the present, moving seamlessly between the Eldred family’s current life (in the 1980s) in Norfolk, with their earlier life in Africa in the 1950s. I like her writing very much, never drawing attention to its style and drawing me in effortlessly into both time frames and places.

It’s a family saga (most definitely not an Aga Saga) about Ralph and Anna Eldred, their four children and Ralph’s sister Emma. Ralph and Anna devote their lives to charity, filling their house with ‘Visitors’, described as either ‘Good Souls’ or ‘ Sad Cases’. Just after they were married Ralph and Anna went to South Africa as missionaries and under the system of apartheid there they ran up against the authorities, then moved to Beuchuanaland (Botswana) where a terrible and horrific event occurred and they returned to England.  However, their memories of these traumatic events refused to remain buried, eventually bringing their lives and those of their children into terrible turmoil.

There are many issues raised in this book – chief among them the struggle between good and evil. Ralph thinks:

If we are not to be mere animals, or babies, we must always choose, and choose to do good. In choosing evil we collude with the principal of decay, we become mere vehicles of chaos, we become subject to the laws of a universe which tends back towards dissolution, the universe the devil owns. In choosing to do good we show we have free will, that we are God-designed creatures who stand against all such laws.

So I will be good, Ralph thought. That is all I have to do. (page 235)

But he discovered that it’s not that simple, as the rest of the book goes on to relate. Ralph and Anna can’t escape their past, Anna in particular cannot come to terms with what happened. The book explores questions about forgiveness and tragedy, as well as how to cope with grief.

Hilary Mantel states in the About the Author section that she found it the most difficult of her books to write – the secret just resisted being told:

I found that I was going round and round the point, yet I couldn’t put it on the page. I remember really struggling with it; it was like a wild animal that had to be civilised somehow, and in the end I just wrestled it on to the page by saying to myself, ‘Look, you’ve done this before and you can do it again’. Writing this book stands out as one of the most difficult times of my writing life.

A great book on all counts, characters and locations beautifully described and a well constructed and convincing plot, powerful and challenging on several levels.

FIVE OF THE BEST: JULY 2011- 2015

This was originally Cleo’s idea (Cleopatra Loves Books). It’s to look back over your reviews of the past five years and pick out your favourite for each month from 2011 – 2015. I like it so much it inspired me to do the same .

I really enjoy looking back over the books I’ve loved reading. These are my favourite books for each July from 2011 to 2015 (click on the covers to see my original reviews).

2011

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie. This is one of Agatha Christie’s most well known books, not least because of the films with Albert Finney and David Suchet as Poirot.

Poirot is on the Orient Express, on a three-days journey across Europe. But after midnight the train comes to a halt, stuck in a snowdrift. In the morning the millionaire Simon Ratchett is found dead in his compartment his body stabbed a dozen times and his door locked from the inside.

I liked this book enormously. I liked the characterisation and all the, now so non-pc, comments about nationalities, highlighting class and racial prejudice. I liked the problem-solving and ingenuity of the plot.

2012

The Crimson Rooms by Katherine MacMahon – set in London in 1924, with Britain still coming to terms with the aftermath of the First World War. Evelyn Gifford, one of the few pioneer female lawyers, is involved in defending several cases.

It’s beautifully written and I was fascinated by this account of early women lawyers. It clearly shows the prejudice these women had to overcome just to qualify as lawyers, never mind the difficulties of persuading law firms to employ them and clients to accept them. It’s also a novel about the way people’s lives were affected by the War, how men were unable to resume their old lives, some damaged by shell-shock and the horrors they had taken part in, or witnessed during the war.

2013

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee – this is set in the Deep South of  America in the 1930s, and narrated by Scout (Jean Louise Finch) as she looks back as an adult to the Depression, the years when, with her older brother, Jem, and their friend, Dill, she witnessed the trial of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white girl. Scout’s father, Atticus, a lawyer defends Tom. It’s also the story of Boo Radley, their neighbour, a man who is never seen, who is said to only come out at night.

I ‘d wondered if this book that all the world seems to love would live up to the hype for me. It did! It’s a wonderful book! Now two years later I’m wondering whether or not to read Go Set a Watchman … what if it spoils my enjoyment of To Kill a Mockingbird?

2014

Charles Dickens: a Life by Claire Tomalin was my five star book in July last year. I fully intended to write a post about it, but somehow never did. I thoroughly enjoyed this immensely detailed biography, complimented with maps of Gads Hill and Rochester and Dickens’ London, and a Cast List, copious notes,  a bibliography and an index – all essential reference material.

This biography brings Dickens, his books, his work for the poor, downtrodden and ill-treated, and his world to life. It’s a ‘warts and all’ biography; nothing is left out. And best of all it made me want to read more of Dickens’ own books.

2015

Another non-fiction book takes the top spot in July this year – The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards. This is the story of the writers who formed the Detection Club between the two World Wars. Edwards sets the authors and their works in context – that period when Britain was recovering from the horrors of the First World War, living through an age of austerity as unemployment grew, the cost of living soared leading to the General Strike whilst the rich partied and saw the beginnings of the end of the British Empire.

It is quite simply a tour de force, comprehensive, and crammed full of fascinating information about the period and the authors. Martin Edwards’ love of Golden Age fiction shines throughout the book, (skilfully writing about books without giving away any spoilers).

New-To-Me Books August 2015

Aug 15 bksAnother visit to Barter Books in Alnwick resulted in another pile of books to add to my TBR shelves.

From top to bottom they are:

  • The Riddle of the Third Mile by Colin Dexter – to fill in my gaps in reading his Inspector Morse books. This is the 6th in the series – Inspector Morse isn’t sure what to make of the truncated body found dumped in the Oxford Canal. He suspects it may be all that’s left of an elderly Oxford don last seen boarding a London train days before.
  • Hangman’s Holiday and Other Stories by Dorothy L Sayers – the ninth in her Lord Peter Wimsey series, this includes  four Wimsey stories, six stories featuring Montague Egg (travelling salesman for Plummet & Rose, Wine & Spirits), and two more separate stories.
  • Death Comes as the End by Agatha Christie – this is one of the last few books of hers I have yet to read. It’s historical crime fiction set in Egypt 4,000 years ago, written drawing on her experience of several  expeditions to the Middle East with her husband, Max Malloran, an eminent archaeologist.
  • The Blood Doctor by Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell) – one of her psychological thrillers, described on the back cover as ‘a chilling tale of ambition, obsession and bad blood.‘ I still have a lot of Barbara Vine/Ruth Rendell books to read.
  • Call the Dying by Andrew Taylor – I’m jumping into a series with this book as this is the 7th in the Lydmouth mysteries and I haven’t read any of the others. They are all are set in and around a fictional town on the Anglo-Welsh borders in the years after World War II.
  • The Secret Place by Tana French – the 5th in the Dublin Murder Mystery series. I read the first,  In the Woods a few years ago and liked its psychological elements and the twists and turns.  In this book Detective Stephen Moran investigates the murder of handsome, popular Chris Harper when sixteen-year-old Holly Mackey brings him a photo of Chris with the caption, I KNOW WHO KILLED HIM.
  • Zoo Time by Howard Jacobson – a complete change from crime fiction – a book I bought in Tescos for £1. It’s described on the book cover as  ‘a novel about love – love of women, love of literature, love of laughter. It shows our funniest writer at his brilliant best.‘ I felt like reading something different.

If you’ve read any of these books I’d love to know what you think about them.

My Tuesday Post: After the Fire

First chapterEvery Tuesday Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea hosts First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros, where you can share the first paragraph, or a few, of a book you are reading or thinking about reading soon.

The book I’ve chosen this week is After the Fire by Jane Casey.  I read this in June and have not got round to writing about it yet.

It begins:

There were 224 residents of Murchison House on the Maudling Estate in north London, and on a cold grey late November day  not one of them was expecting to die. Some were hoping to die. some were waiting to die. but no one actually expected to die that day.

This is the sixth book in the Maeve Kerrigan series. It stands well on it’s own, although there are references to past events and storylines that appear in the earlier books.

The Maudling Estate and some of the minor characters featured in the 5th book, The Kill.

Blurb:
After a fire rips through a North London tower block, two bodies are found locked in an 11th floor flat. But it’s the third victim that ensures the presence of detective Maeve Kerrigan and the murder squad. It appears that controversial MP Geoff Armstrong, trapped by the fire, chose to jump to his death rather than wait for rescue. But what was such a right wing politician doing in the deprived, culturally diverse Maudling Estate?
As Maeve and her senior colleague, Derwent, pick through the wreckage, they uncover the secret world of the 11th floor, where everyone seems to have something to hide…

Would you read on? I did and thoroughly enjoyed this book.

Teaser Tuesday is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of A Daily Rhythm. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

• Grab your current read
• Open to a random page
• Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page

Here’s a teaser from 32% on my Kindle (rather more than 2 sentences!):

I felt the familiar rush, the moment a shape began to emerge from the darkness that surrounded the case. A pattern. A connection. A witness and a suspect.

A killer with a face and a name.

Maybe.

The Remorseful Day by Colin Dexter

Chief Inspector Morse is one of my favourite fictional detectives (maybe even the favourite). I first ‘met’ him years ago in the ITV series Inspector Morse and so, just as Joan Hickson is forever in my mind as Miss Marple and David Suchet is Poirot, John Thaw is Morse. The series was first broadcast in 1987, but I don’t intend to write about the books versus the TV adaptations – I’ve enjoyed both. This post is just about the last book in the series – The Remorseful Day.

I’ve delayed reading this for so long (I watched the TV version when it was first broadcast, which was 15 years ago!) because it’s the last of the Morse books and sadly the end of Morse too. So if you’ve not read any of the Morse books I suggest that you don’t start with this one.

Needless to say that I loved it. The plot is detailed, complex and as usual with Morse a puzzle type murder mystery with plenty of challenging clues. Sergeant Lewis is left to investigate the murder of nurse Yvonne Harrison that had remained unsolved for a year – Morse initially refused to work on the case, despite Chief Superintendent Strange’s wishes. Sergeant Lewis is concerned as this looks just the sort of puzzle Morse excels in solving … and Morse’s behaviour has been worrying Lewis recently.  Lewis can’t believe that Morse could have a personal reason to keep out of the investigation. And when Morse phones to say he is feeling unwell Lewis is most concerned – Morse seldom mentioned his health, what is wrong with him?

The plot is complex, but the real focus of the book is on Morse and how he copes with his illness and his drinking habits and it becomes obvious just how alone he is in the world and how devastating his situation is to Lewis. The novel also reveals more about Strange’s character and also about his understanding of Morse. I found it both a most satisfying book and a very sad one.

There are only 13 Morse books. The links are to my posts on the books – I read some before I began to write this blog and I’m hoping to re-read those in due course.

  1. Last Bus to Woodstock (1975)
  2. Last Seen Wearing (1976)
  3. The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn (1977)
  4. Service of All the Dead (1979)
  5. The Dead of Jericho (1981)
  6. The Riddle of the Third Mile (1983)
  7. The Secret of Annexe 3 (1986)
  8. The Wench is Dead (1989)
  9. The Jewel That Was Ours (1991)
  10. The Way Through the Woods (1992)
  11. The Daughters of Cain (1994)
  12. Death is Now My Neighbour (1996)
  13. The Remorseful Day (1999)

As The Remorseful Day has sat unread on my shelves for so long it obviously qualifies for the Mount TBR Challenge 2015. I also included it as one of My 10 Books of Summer, which brings my total to 5.

Austen in August

Roof Beam Reader is hosting, for the 4th year, the annual Austen in August event. This is a one-month event focused on all things Jane Austen, including her primary texts, any re-imaginings of her works, biographies, critical texts, etc.

The Goal: To read as many of Jane Austen’s works (finished or unfinished) as you want or are able to, during the month of August.  Biographies, audiobooks, spin-offs, and re-reads also count.

I haven’t taken part before but as I have just one book by Jane Austen left to read I thought it would give me a gentle push in the direction of Lady Susan, The Watsons and Sanditon.

These are three short works in one volume – Lady Susan is a finished novel and the other two are unfinished fragments.

I may also make a start on reading Jane Austen’s Letters, edited by Deidre Le Faye, but I don’t think I’ll finish the book in August!

Books Read in July 2015

July has been great for reading and I’ve not done badly writing reviews either. I’d not been reading many of my TBR books up to July but I changed all that this month by reading 6 of them. And I added to my non-fiction reading with 2 more books. In total I read 11 books, one of which is a re-read and I loved even more than the first time I read it – The Shipping News.

They are – in the order I read them and with links to my posts:

  1. The Day of the Lie by William Brodrick (TBR)
  2. The Man with The Wooden Hat by Jane Gardam (TBR)
  3. Last Friends by Jane Gardam (TBR)
  4. The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards (NF)
  5. The Outcast by Sadie Jones (TBR)
  6. Stephen Hawking: His Life and Work by Kitty Ferguson (NF, LB)
  7. Five Red Herrings by Dorothy L Sayers (LB)
  8. The Shipping News by Annie Proulx (a re-read)
  9. Zen There Was Murder by H R F Keating (TBR)
  10. The Remorseful Day by Colin Dexter (TBR)
  11. The Outcast by Elly Griffiths (LB)

I’m planning to write reviews for The Shipping News and The Remorseful Day.

As for The Outcast by Elly Griffiths. I did enjoy it but it’s written in the present tense, (as are all of her Ruth Galloway books) which kept intruding making me more conscious of the writing style rather than being totally absorbed in the story. I liked the mix of past and present, although in this book I felt the balance is tilted more in favour of the present and the archaeological element is played down. I liked the introduction to Ruth’s brother Simon and a new character, Frank is also a plus.

It’s so hard to decide which is my Book of the Month and choosing between fiction and non fiction makes it even harder, but it has to be Martin Edwards’ The Golden Age of Murder, which as I said in my post is a tour de force, comprehensive and crammed full of fascinating information about the period and the authors.

Martin Edwards’ love of Golden Age fiction shines throughout the book, (skilfully writing about books without giving away any spoilers) and his book has spurred me on to read more books from this period.

But I also want to highlight The Day of the Lie by William Brodrick, because although it is hard reading in parts, it’s a meaty, layered book, delving into the past, uncovering secrets and revealing crimes. and it’s so well researched, bringing the past to life.

The Man in the Wooden Hat and Last Friends by Jane Gardam

These are companion novels to Old Filth, which I read years ago. The Man in the Wooden Hat is written from the perspective of Old Filth’s wife, Betty.

Blurb:

Filth (Failed In London, Try Hong Kong) is a successful lawyer when he marries Elisabeth in Hong Kong soon after the War. Reserved, immaculate and courteous, Filth finds it hard to demonstrate his emotions. But Elisabeth is different – a free spirit. She was brought up in the Japanese Internment Camps, which killed both her parents but left her with a lust for survival and an affinity with the Far East. No wonder she is attracted to Filth’s hated rival at the Bar – the brash, forceful Veneering. Veneering has a Chinese wife and an adored son – and no difficulty whatsoever in demonstrating his emotions . . .

How Elisabeth turns into Betty and whether she remains loyal to stolid Filth or is swept up by caddish Veneering, makes for a page-turning plot in a perfect novel which is full of surprises and revelations, as well as the humour and eccentricities for which Jane Gardam’s writing is famous.

I suppose you could read this book without reading Old Filth first, but it certainly helps to know what happens in the first book from the husband’s point of view. Both books follow the lives of husband and wife over 50 years, but as The Man in the Wooden Hat is told from Betty’s point of view I got a totally different view of events, particularly of the couple’s relationship with Old Filth’s arch rival in Hong Kong, fellow lawyer Terry Veneering.

Last Friends revisits the same events telling Terry Veneering’s story from Dulcie Williams’ perspective. Dulcie is the widow of “Pastry Willy” Williams, a judge who was also in the foreign service with Old Filth and Veneering. She provides the back stories of these characters, and throws yet more light on the events told in the first two books.

Blurb:

Old Filth and The Man in the Wooden Hat told with bristling tenderness and black humour the stories of that Titan of the Hong Kong law courts, Old Filth QC, and his clever, misunderstood wife Betty. Last Friends, the final volume of this trilogy, picks up with Terence Veneering, Filth’s great rival in work and – though it was never spoken of – in love.

Veneering’s were not the usual beginnings of an establishment silk: the son of a Russian acrobat marooned in northeast England and a devoted local girl, he escapes the war to emerge in the Far East as a man of panache, success and fame. But, always, at the stuffy English Bar he is treated with suspicion: where did this blond, louche, brilliant Slav come from?

Veneering, Filth and their friends tell a tale of love, friendship, grace, the bittersweet experiences of a now-forgotten Empire and the disappointments and consolations of age.

The three books together form a memorable trilogy, of love and life, humour and heartbreak in colonial Hong Kong and the contrasting setting of the English countryside. Maybe Old Filth is the outstanding book, but maybe that is because I read it first and loved it so much, that the others don’t quite live up to it.

I’ve had both these books for a couple of years, so both qualify for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2015, and The Man in the Wooden Hat for the 10 Books of Summer Challenge and the Colour Coded Challenge (the dominant colour of the  cover is white) too.

Partners in Crime – The Secret Adversary: Tommy and Tuppence

Well, I suppose I should have expected this – I was looking forward to the new BBC1 series of the Tommy and Tuppence stories, Partners in Crime advertised as ‘loosely based‘ on Agatha Christie’s novels, but the first episode was last night ,The Secret Adversary was disappointing to say the least as not much of Agatha Christie’s story was left.  I knew it had been moved to the 1950s instead of the 1920s and was wondering what else had been changed.

Well, practically everything else, so much so that most of it bore no resemblance to the original. It was not only the wrong era but also the characters were different – TV Tommy, as David Walliams played him for most of the episode, is a bumbling fool who had not taken part in the War due to being wounded by a delivery van (I think that’s what the TV Tommy said), with a vacant look on his face , and obsessed with bees. Tommy and Tuppence as described by Agatha Christie are ‘an essentially modern-looking couple’, childhood friends who after the First World War were both stony broke and who decided to set up a joint venture under the name of the Young Adventurers Ltd, initially intending to hire themselves out to commit crimes.The ‘real’ Tommy had been wounded in the War, not once but twice, Tommy and Tuppence never met Jane Finn and Julius Hersheimmer was a young white man who says he is Jane’s cousin – not her uncle. I could go on!

OK, so it was easy watching, Jessica Raine made a good, meddling and determined Tuppence and it was amusing at times. But to enjoy this I’ll have to forget it has any connection with Agatha Christie whatsoever and I don’t know that I can do that, for the next five episodes. It’s so annoying to keep saying ‘it’s not like that in the book’.

A book lover writes about this, that and the other