All tourism is book tourism for me…

Image may contain: sky, cloud, grass, outdoor and natureThis week I’m on holiday. A whole week away from the shop: a whole week without books. Yes, I laughed too! In reality it is a whole week where my reading habit is uninterrupted by having to go to work and, since I’m away in Scotland, I’m not even having to stop reading to do stuff like cooking, washing-up or housework. Okay, I’m also doing quite a lot of (slow) walking, (even slower) running and (not very good) sketching but I’m not neglecting the literary. Yesterday I walked along the Borders Abbey Way between Dryburgh and Melrose (with a bit of a bus ride when the rain got too heavy) and then on to Tweedbank. And from Tweedbank it is just another shortish, but rather muddy, walk to Abbotsford – the home of Scotland’s most famous author*, Sir Walter Scott.

Image result for abbotsford houseI felt a bit guilty going there, to be honest. It was top of my list of places to visit while staying in the Borders but I’m not a fan of Scott’s work. I have read Ivanhoe, which was okay, but have no urge to read more. I wasn’t sure if they’d even let me in! (I’m almost relieved that Dickens’ World has now closed down – I’d definitely not be let in there…) But I needn’t have worried – the visitor centre was a welcome end to my stroll, the tea was piping hot and all the staff very friendly and helpful. The house is fascinating, both architecturally and as the home of an author, with a very good audio guide included in the price; the gardens were large and would have been full of spring flowers if the weather hadn’t spent all of March postponing that season. The weather even co-operated long enough for a wander around some of the woodlands planted by the great man himself.

The exhibition helped me the understand why Scott is a pretty important figure in literature in English. Although he didn’t write the earliest novels (that place is taken by Cervantes, Daniel Defoe, Aphra Behn and the like) but he wrote the earliest commercial novels. His books were based (more or less…) on the history of Scotland but were, at heart, adventure stories. Gulliver’s Travels has adventure but also quite a lot of ‘pondering’ on deeper subjects – that could be the start of the literary novel. Jane Austen’s books don’t really have great adventures, just little, domestic ones – they are the prototype for contemporary women’s fiction perhaps. But Scott’s stories don’t have morals any deeper than that it is better to be good and honourable and are full of battles, intrigue and romance – they seem to me to be the precursor of authors like Clive Cussler, Edward Rutherford, Ken Follett or even Dan Brown. And that, QED, is why I’m not a huge fan – this is a genre I have read a bit of but don’t particularly enjoy. The history side I love but the kind of story where the plot is more important than the historical facts…not so much! The story where adventure rather than character takes centre stage is not for me, on the whole. Not that they are bad – just not my kind of good.

Image may contain: foodSo, if you are a reader of modern adventure stories looking to try some classics I can recommend Sir Walter Scott. And if you like a wander round a quirky house followed by a really good cream tea then definitely try Abbotsford.

Jane

 

*To be fair J.K. Rowling is probably more famous now but, at time of writing, nobody has built a mahoosive statue of her in Edinburgh. It could just be a matter of time…

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Time is a Killer – Michel Bussi

There is a fine line between using stereotypes to denigrate or belittle people from particular countries or regions or to poke a little affectionate fun at them. Yorkshire people are among the most generous I have ever met but I still smile at the reaction of the average Yorkshireman when they realise it is raining and they need to pay 5p for a plastic carrier bag. Fiction, however, can throw up some great ‘types’ set in various regions: love stories set in Paris tend, in my experience, to be philosophical and tinged with sadness, crime novels set in Scandinavian countries are heavy on dark themes and blood-stained snow and books set in Australia will, at some point, feature extreme weather. This is not to suggest that these books are clichéd but they do play to their strengths (or rather the strengths of how people think of those regions). Michel Bussi’s crime thrillers have been set in a range of French settings (the Franco-Swiss border, Giverny, the tropical island of La Réunion) so I had high hopes for his latest – featuring the island of Corsica, a place associated (rightly or wrongly) with crime and the Mafia…

9781474606677Clotilde was 15 years old in 1989. Holidaying, as usual, in her father’s birthplace on the island of Corsica and staying at a campsite on land owned by her grandfather. She is a fairly typical girl of her age – moody, dressing all in black, writing all her thoughts and feelings down in the notebook which never leaves her side – but all normality disappears on the night when the family car goes over a cliff and Clotilde is the only survivor. In 2016, 27 years later, she returns to the island with her husband and her own fifteen-year-old daughter to try to remember the events of that summer. Her memories are sporadic, the notebook containing her thoughts and feelings was never given back to her after her stay in hospital, and the faces from the past she meets give her a variety of contrasting points of view. But then her world is turned upside down when she receives a letter which appears to be from her mother: the mother who perished all those years ago.  Her memory gradually resurfaces as she finds out more about the events of that fatal day, old enmities and romances are rekindled and Clotilde’s family are once again in terrible danger. The need for revenge is still active in Corsica.

I really enjoy Michel Bussi’s thrillers. They are atmospheric stories with very, very French settings and, so far, I’ve not yet spotted the real villain before Bussi is ready to reveal them.

Jane

A Grand Old Time – Judy Leigh

After my previous post’s musing on age it seemed appropriate that my next read was on a similar subject. Older protagonists have become the new ‘thing’ it seems – The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window started it, Harold Fry and then Hendrik Groen took up the baton – but, I’ve noticed that most of them seem to be men. Which is slightly odd given that, on the whole, women outlive men (try buying a 100th Birthday card – lots of florals, very few views of cricket/trains/sailing ships…). Since my older years are rapidly approaching (well, I hope they continue to approach but they can slow down if they like!) I was interested to read Judy Leigh’s book in an effort to even up the gender balance.

9780008269197Evie Gallagher is 75 and is quietly living out her days in a care home. Until she reminds herself that she is only 75 and, despite being very recently widowed, she isn’t dead yet. She walks out of the home and, helped by a big win on her very first visit to a bookmakers, into a new adventure. First she travels from her native Dublin to Liverpool and then on to France, ending up in a small village near Carcassonne. Along the way she meets a variety of people who help her to realise that she still has plenty of life left to live. By contrast her son Brendan, and his wife Maura, seem to be getting older by the minute: their marriage seems to be a matter of habit rather than love, neither of them is happy and they are, understandably, concerned about Evie herself when she disappears from the care home. They decide to follow her to France, with the intention of rescuing her – bringing her home to her old, safe life – only to find that she has other ideas. For Evie seems to have found the love and happiness that Brendan and Maura have lost. She has also been reminded (despite what some are still trying to tell her) that 75 isn’t old – it certainly isn’t too late to start living.

This is a feel-good book, but not without its moments of sadness. We all hope to live to a healthy and happy old age (although we won’t all manage this) but many will get too caught up in everyday pains and sorrows to achieve this. We can’t all escape to live in the South of France but I hope to keep Evie’s energy and joie de vivre in mind as the years creep up on me. She makes growing old disgracefully look so much fun!

Jane

Hall of Mirrors – Christopher Fowler

Getting older is a funny thing. Some mornings my knees and ankles try to convince me I’m rapidly approaching decrepitude: at other times I forget I’m not in my twenties anymore…Some fictional characters can be equally confusing. Hercule Poirot was already middle-aged when he is first introduced in 1920 yet he is still solving crimes forty-six years later. For most of those years he is still described as middle-aged and can’t possibly be – surely no-one could consider that time of life to last into one’s 70s or 80s (although I’ll probably still have my moments when I get there…). But characters in long-running series don’t age normally in our minds (the Famous Five seemed to be at school for far longer than educationally possible) unless we are specifically told about it. Harry Potter and his colleagues are an exception. What this means is that, if we meet characters in a series when they are rather old, we often don’t find out about their youth. It is only on tv that we get the story of Inspector Morse’s early years in the police and, up until now, it has been hard to imagine Christopher Fowler’s pair of aging detectives, Bryant and May, as anything but corderoy-wearing, Werthers Original sucking, curmudgeonly old men. In this latest novel, however, we go back to 1969 and find out what they were like as young men.

9780857523440To be honest, we do find out that Arthur Bryant was never really very good at being young. He is even less comfortable with Swinging London, young women or the country house party the two detectives have to attend while trying to protect Monty Hatton-Jones, the star witness in a high-profile court case attempting to prosecute a crooked property developer. He is particularly uncomfortable being away from London  and finds everything about the countryside scary, untrustworthy  and confusing: to be fair, by the time we get through a couple of dead bodies and two or three attempted murders, some catastrophic weather, dead phone lines and a particularly sinful vicar you kind of get his point. As becomes usual through their long career our two heroes are in trouble with their bosses from the start – as usual they use their unique skills to solve this most peculiar of cases. The author says that he wrote the book as a kind of traditional country house crime novel set just as that way of life was being killed off by the modernity of the 1960s – I was fascinated to think that, in fiction at least, that world of weekends in the country and complex period murder plots is still alive and kicking. But we are no longer the centre of the fashionable world – London is as class-bound as it ever was and only the fashions have changed…

Jane

Trick to Time – Kit de Waal

I think I have discovered the reason why I always have so many problems doing annual round-ups of my favourite books. Sneaky publishers keep bringing out so many wonderful titles in the first half of the year – oh, sure, they are publishing to be considered for literary and popular prizes and to have books to offer at major literature festivals up and down the country but they could spare a thought for book bloggers! Or maybe I should just declare my own timetable and do my ‘best books of the year’ to coincide with the tax year rather than the calendar one? I need to consider this – if I can find time while catching up with all my potential new favourite books: a list in which I am definitely including Kit de Waal’s wonderful new novel.

trick to timeThe Trick to Time is the story of Mona, a dollmaker from Ireland living in an English seaside town. As she approaches her 60th birthday she looks back over her life – a childhood in Ireland, the loss of her mother and her closeness to her father, her escape from small town life and move to Birmingham, where she meets her husband William. There they experience joy, when Mona becomes pregnant, and the horrors of being Irish after the 1972 IRA bomb attack. Mona then has a stillbirth – made worse by the fact that, in the early 70s, it was assumed that the best way to help families cope with this loss was to virtually pretend the child had never existed. Mona now seems to lead a solitary and lonely life but we find that when she does connect with others her aim is to help them – in the way that she was helped at the hardest time of her life.

I’m not sure if I can quite describe what it is that Kit de Waal does in her books which make them so wonderful. Part of it is the characters: they are very ordinary people who are put into, in some ways, everyday situations but the way that they deal with them transcends the ordinary. I think what I love most is the fact that she sees the extraordinary in everyone. I laughed with these people, basked in their love and wept with them. While you read their lives they are as real to you as your own family. It is a deeply emotional experience but it is one I can never regret – I feel the weight of these people’s lives in every page.

Jane

Hero Born – Jin Yong

My childhood was full of slightly odd, and very Westernised, views of China. Hong Kong Phooey was a favourite post school cartoon,  we all sang along with Carl Douglas and occasionally called each other ‘Grasshopper‘. But our first introduction to the reality of Chinese culture came from watching the best tv series ever (imho), Monkey…  In later years I thought I had moved away from (non-edible) things oriental (although I did read and love the book which Monkey was based on) and, like many others, I have been guilty of reducing a great and ancient civilization to a cuisine and a visit to see the Terracotta Warriors at the British Museum so I decided to try to correct this somewhat by reading Hero Born, the first volume in an epic series which has been described as a Chinese version of The Lord of the Rings…As I read it though I was reminded of how much the culture of the Far East we are familiar with now.

hero bornThe story, we are told in the introduction, follows two Chinese Patriots who are part of the fight by those faithful to the Song Empire against the Jurchen invaders. These young men, however, die very early in this volume and we move to the fates of their as yet unborn children. This volume – the first of three – concentrates on Guo Jing, son of Skyfury Guo, who finds himself raised on the Mongolian steppes in the camp of the great Genghis Khan. He is trained in martial arts by a group known as the Seven Heroes of the South (although there are actually only six for most of the story), and aided in secret by a mysterious Taoist. Although he doesn’t know it a battle was arranged for him and Yang Kang, son of the other Song patriot, to take place when they are eighteen and his teachers (or shifus) have been planning this training since before his birth. It is, in many ways, a simple story of a boy who is trained to fulfill his destiny but it is also wonderfully complex. The historical and political situation in 1200AD China is covered in great detail – this is also a very well researched historical novel – and interwoven with a sort of fantasy tale of chivalry and revenge. It also includes a lot of complicated fight scenes, some romance and political intrigue.

I enjoyed this book but think that calling it a Chinese Lord of the Rings is a bit simplistic. Think of it more as a cross between that, the fight scenes from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and a fairly hefty dose of Kung Fu Panda. But without the panda. The pace of the book might seem a little odd – a mix of philosophy and choreographed fights – but this is actually the point where it reminds me of the favourite of my youth, Monkey. Jin Yong is a hugely popular author in China and has been honoured around the world: although national tastes differ I am willing to give a writer who has sold over 300 million books worldwide a try. You could too – you may well love it too…

Jane

 

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman

Everyone has their own view of what is normal. I normally have weetabix for breakfast (lots of milk, a little dash of sugar and a few raspberries, mmmm) but to some that would be quite peculiar. They may hate soggy, milky mush or just not be able to face eating until lunchtime. They may have dietary needs, either through health issues or training needs for some kind of sport, which mean they need to eat a high protein, low-carb meal to start the day: they have their own normal. Some people may baulk at the idea of eating the same thing every morning – they may thrive on creating a unique meal each day. Everybody’s normal is valid for them but, I wonder, do they ever stop to wonder where their view of ‘normal’ comes from? Or, maybe more importantly, where the normal of those they consider to be complete oddballs has its source.

9780008172145Eleanor Oliphant has what she considers to be a very sensible attitude to life. She wears the same clothes to work each day (selected from a choice of a couple of pairs of black trousers, a few white blouses and some sensible flat, black shoes), spends her lunch break eating a ‘meal deal’ from a local shop and doing a crossword (thereby avoiding waste – eating a whole pack of ham/cheese/tuna before it spoils is hard when you live alone – and keeping her mind active) and speaks to her mother every Wednesday (even if she’d rather not). So far she seems like someone I should be emulating – I could have an extra five minutes in bed if I didn’t have to decide what to wear each day and, on the weeks when Rob is away, I do sometimes have to either throw away food or eat the same thing every day for a week. And I should certainly ring my Mum more often… However, Eleanor also buys a couple of bottles of vodka each week – what has happened in her life that she needs to blot out her weekends? That is where you realise that, whatever she claims, Eleanor Oliphant is really not completely fine. It seems she is going to continue with her pattern of work, predictability and weekends of total oblivion indefinitely until two things happen: she sees a man who she believes is ‘the one’ and she, along with a colleague from work, helps an old man who has a fall in the street. These two things lead her to start changing her life – and she discovers that planning for her future leads her to start investigating the past she had managed to forget.

Eleanor is a wonderful character – so well-drawn and yet so deeply, deeply flawed. The more we learn (along with her) about her past the more we realise why she needs to drink a couple of bottles of vodka each weekend: anything to avoid remembering. The book is so well written that you feel with her – the plans to make herself into a more conventionally attractive woman, despite the physical as well as emotional scars she bears, the irritation with those who don’t manage to live in as organised a way as she does and the crippling horror of the memory of a blighted childhood. We may not all share Eleanor’s dark past but reading this book made me realise that we all have our own demons to deal with: her’s are just larger and scarier than mine…

Jane