I don’t know what’s up with me at the moment – lots of reading, running, walking, gardening and cooking but can I get myself into the frame of mind to do a simple book review? Can I eck as like….. Maybe it’s because I miss being at work, I miss talking to customers about books I’ve read and loved, but I’m finding it the easiest job to put off. This means I’ve got getting on for ten books from April waiting for reviews so, although I don’t really enjoy doing round up posts, sometimes needs must! They will be a mixed bag because if I start trying to group them by theme I’ll just procrastinate more – as they are listed on my beloved spreadsheet it is….
The Austen Girls – Lucy Worsley
I think I’m being stalked by Jane Austen at the moment. I’ve done a three week course on her life and work with Futurelearn, the Bradford Literature Festival online book group is reading Pride and Prejudice this month and, of course, I’ve been watching Colin Firth in wet shirts on BBC4. In terms of new books I’ve already written about Gill Hornby’s recent look at sister Cassandra’s life so now for historian Lucy Worsley’s book, which focuses on two of Jane Austen’s nieces and their introduction into the adult world of balls, marriage prospects and adult responsibilities.
Jane herself is actually a more minor character in this book, acting as an advisor and advocate for the girls – cousins Anna and Fanny. They both know that it will be their duty to marry but Anna, whose family is quite poor, must try for a rich husband. Fanny will, maybe, be able to look for love also but, if she remains a spinster, her wealth will count for little in the eyes of society. But things get even more exciting than Anna’s engagement to a (rather boring) clergyman when the girls decide they have to clear the name of another man of the cloth, accused of theft and at risk of transportation to Australia, Mr Drummer. With Aunt Jane’s help they solve the mystery and discover that there could be more to life than just becoming a wife.
This book is aimed at younger readers (I’d say from about 9 upwards) and is probably more suited to girls, since it does feel quite feminist. The girls themselves, as I said before, learn that women can have a value beyond being a wife or mother, and we know, even if the other characters don’t, that Aunt Jane is writing novels, not letters, up in her room and is a paid author rather than ‘just’ a spinster. Worsley obviously enjoys giving a solid historical basis to her stories – all the Austen family are fairly realistically drawn – but then adding an angle. In this case a bit of crime solving (although the crime – in fact a scam, a trick played on the unsuspecting Mr Drummer – was one which had been used on Austen’s own aunt, causing great scandal at the time) which shows the girls that there are options for women to use their minds.
The Garden Jungle – Dave Goulson
Like a lot of people lucky enough to have a garden I’m spending quite a lot more time there than usual. I’ve enjoyed messing about with plants and soil since I was little – I loved spending time with my Grandad so fuschias, tomatoes and runner beans were on the list of things I learned to looked after. We still grow the first two of those things but at the moment I am also trying to break my seedling curse – so far, I have failed to kill off lettuce, radishes, thyme and broad beans. This is an improvement but we haven’t actually grown anything big enough to eat yet. Part of my preparation for the spring and early summer’s garden-based efforts was reading Dave Goulson’s latest book. I’ve read one of his previous works – where I learned lots about bees and other pollinators – but this one was about the garden itself, a place where I could, if I chose, make choices to help bees, biodiversity and the planet.
With the help of this book you can discover how not all plants are bee-friendly (no matter what their labels say) and why we should be avoiding peat-based composts (and plants grown in them). Goulson is not afraid to call out various parts of the horticultural industry (or environmental groups) for inconsistencies, but is also keen to give practical things which can be done to help. Of course, most people know they should try to make compost but Goulson introduces us to the multitude of bugs, worms and flying things which would benefit from it as much as the plants would. And as for pests? Well, the kind of gardening described here encourages other insects, birds and small mammals who will gladly snack on the more undesirable inhabitants of your plot. Which means not only fewer chemicals and a cleaner planet but less work and expense for me: result! It can come across as a little gloomy in places but, for every example of poor practice in the gardening industry, there is a positive idea to try instead. Goulson is also not beyond admitting that he does give in to impulse in garden centres – my problem too – so maybe we need to make sure we keep away from the big chains and stick to the local nurseries* who will be more likely to enter into a conversation about their part in helping everyone garden in a more environmentally friendly way.
The Last Paper Crane – Kerry Drewery
The final book in this little group may seem like an odd one to choose during a lockdown – a story based on survivors of the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima doesn’t sound like a comfort read – but it was well worth the read. In the same way that my lockdown diet – much as I’d like it to – can’t consist only of crisps, cake, pizza and wine my reading still has some adventure, darkness and post-apocalyptic drama as it did before to mix in with the romance, history and downright quirkiness. I leave it to you to decide which is the meat, the fruit and veg, the comfort-eating and the booze…
A Japanese man, Ichiro, nearing the end of his life, becomes withdrawn and unhappy – much to the distress of his family. His grandaughter, Mizuki, is finally able to get him to talk about the events, seventy years ago, when he, his best friend Hiro and Hiro’s five-year old sister Keiko, live through the events of August 1945 in Hiroshima. The book moves from the present day, narrated largely by Mizuki and written in verse (including some haiku), and the past, told in bleak but still beautiful prose, by Ichiro. Nothing is missed: the horror of the initial explosion, the confusion of the immediate aftermath or the long and painful recovery which followed. Ichiro and Hiro, injured in ways they don’t yet know by the blast, go to search for little Keiko – as if their only salvation lies in protecting the girl. The emotions are raw, but somehow restrained, in a potent mix of love, honour and searing guilt.
This is a wonderful book. Although it is aimed at children it doesn’t talk down to them or attempt to cover up the terrible consequences of conflict – but there is still enough hope and beauty in there to convince them that they will be able to improve on the world their parents and grandparents leave them. Inspirational.
*You’ll need to check your own area but in this corner of West Yorkshire I’ll be sticking to New Coley and Nord Green…