Tuesday, 14 October 2014

50,000!!!!!'s just ticked over midnight in Australia and the counter has just tipped past the 50,000 hits mark. THANK YOU to everyone who reads my blog, and thanks to those who drop by for the odd visit. Recently, there's been a stack of you from the Ukraine...why, I don't know...but hi, and welcome!!
On the go at the moment, I have Vikram Seth's An Equal Music. Re-reading for the first time in ages, and loving my recently scored first edition. Also on the go, Zachor, I Remember. Will you? A memoir from the Holocaust by Vera Freidin, mother of a good friend of mine.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Book junkie issues #1

New series...prompted by this pic from Facebook this morning:
So, 'fess up people... Who's actually given into this urge?? I have, a few times, and have ended up with a predictable range of responses... There are the curmudgeonly types, who don't want to speak to anyone, hence hiding behind their books. I understand. I have my days like that too! I hesitate to disturb people who are dug in with coffee at a cafe with their book, but I have initiated conversations with people on buses and trains when I was commuting. Someone broke into my reading on a plane a little while ago when I was reading The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul to ask me if it was as good as the hype said it was at the time...and I was pleased to be able to say that yes it was. I'd bought it in the airport bookshop before the flight, and was about a third of the way through it when she asked. And, no, there isn't a post about it, because it was read during one of those messy periods when I was travelling a lot and not blogging much...but it may see the light of day at some point next time I re-read it.

Confessions please - I'll take your stories in the comments...!

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Extra special bookcase porn - secret passages

I don't know what it is about even the idea of a secret passage... There's something magical, alluring, and mysterious that I find quite irresistible. I'm sure that one of the things that got me hooked on The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was that the children got into Narnia through the wardrobe! I remember going to an open inspection just before a house was auctioned, years ago in Adelaide. The house was one of the old ones in a southern suburb - complete with a creek halfway down the huge back yard, that you crossed via a little wooden bridge to get to the orchard at the very back (an orchard...). The whole house was a bit of a fantasy really, but the thing that made me never forget it was the upstairs. There were three bedrooms up in the roof - not little pokey attics, either. They were large airy rooms with big dormer windows (with window seats...) and delightfully mad random sloping ceilings. The best thing was that you wound around narrow passageways in the roof to get to them. The passageways were too narrow and convoluted - especially to the room I'd have claimed as mine if I could have had the house - to be called corridors or hallways. They had an air of secretiveness about them, and that room in particular was tucked away and very private.

I was sent this link on Facebook this morning and just had to share it with you. When I went to Google images for the pic, I found many, many more... If you love a hideaway to read in peace, you'll enjoy these, I think!

Monday, 29 September 2014

Bookish birthday cakes

My birthday was earlier this month, so I've had a huge missed opportunity. HOWEVER - laying down the gauntlet... - this means that if there's anyone out there who feels they're up for the challenge, I'll happily accept one of these cakes in early September 2015! Seriously, how cool are they?! I suspect that Peter over at Kyusireader may well be issuing a similar challenge, there's one cake in this line up that has his name written all over it!

In other matters, apologies to regular readers - and I see there have been a lot of you in the last month or so. I've not been well, hence the lack of posts. I have been reading though, and will endeavour to do some catch up posts soon. Thanks for staying with me.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Tiny Books 4 - The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayam

This is another of my mother's treasures - this particular edition. Somewhere, I have another edition of the Rubaiyat that I picked up in a second hand bookshop years ago, but I do love this leather bound copy with its beautiful engravings.

Mum used to quote odd verses of the Rubaiyat at seemingly random times - to the point that it all seemed quite normal. Mind, she quoted odd bits of other poetry too, so maybe my perception of 'normal' in that regard was a tad off the conventional track! I didn't come to the Rubaiyat as a complete work until I was in my twenties. By then, the custom of sitting at the dinner table after the meal, discussing poetry and reading favourites with my children was beginning to become a favourite pastime.

I don't go back to this book very often these days. It surfaced a few weeks ago while I was sorting through some messy piles of books in the bookcases, and I dropped it onto my desk where it got lost under another messy pile... Now, with a morning that just changed direction, I have time to get it up here, and then it can go back to the now tidy bookcase!

Monday, 28 July 2014

Beatrix Potter

Today - 28 July - is Beatrix Potter's birthday - thank you Facebook for this random bit of information! I spotted a Penguin Books post this morning when I was doing my morning trawl, and it's been sitting at the back of my head ever since. I think, in the world of children's books, there would be very few of us in the English speaking world who'd not had contact with Peter Rabbit and all of Beatrix Potter's delightful characters one way or another.
 Mine started with my baby crockery - which I still have, tucked away carefully. I have my mug, and cereal dish, both of which were carefully used for my own children, and may get handed down if the boys provide me with grandchildren one day!
I have a few of the books, still, from my childhood, along with some I collected for the boys - all in storage. My favourite characters were always Jeremy Fisher and Jemima Puddleduck.

I particularly loved the portrayal of Jeremy Fisher in the Royal Ballet production of Beatrix Potter stories. There was something - to my eyes as a child - so unutterably splendid about the sheer physicality of the dancer's leaps and bounds across the lily pads!

And then, there's the lovely film that was made more recently, Miss Potter, with Renee Zellweger as Beatrix Potter. I missed it in the cinema, but eventually got around to seeing it on DVD - just lovely.

I don't think the books have ever gone out of print. DB and I have bought some for Small Niece, and hopefully they, like mine, will go on to be handed down, because I don't think these little books will ever date.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Big Little Lies - Liane Moriarty

Once again, apologies to my regular readers for my lack of regular posts... Life has been rather getting in the way. However, a bit of added inspiration, via a free pre-publication edition of Liane Moriarty's Big Little Lies in return for a review has got me back on the straight and narrow - I hope...

There were particular outlines required for the review, so you will find this post shorter, and minus plot details (no spoilers!). However, I do hope it will tantalise you as much as the book itself tantalised me in the reading!

The last time I read a book that had me both feverishly turning pages to see what happens next while simultaneously trying to slow down so it didn't finish too fast, was Romy Ash's Floundering. Big Little Lies stirred up the same steadily increasing tension the further I read - part of my mind attempting to second guess what was going to happen, the rest trying to concentrate so I didn't miss any little detail. It was quite a mad experience.

Broadly speaking, the novel, set in the banal ordinariness of an insular seaside community of the local primary school children, their parents and teachers, explores how people interact in communities and in relationships. Moriarty looks at the things that are said and not said, the assumptions and misunderstandings that we're all capable of at some point. The book is full of everyday incidents in the lives of families with school age children, some of them significant, others less so. The varying dynamics between the adult protagonists are governed in part by an unwritten but powerful hierarchy among the parents, which overflows into the lives of the children with unexpected results. There are tensions that exist due to perceived social standing, wealth, status and appearance. And then there are the secrets we all have - the shadowy things that exist in the background that we'd never tell anyone for fear of being 'different' or somehow not acceptable.

The narrative is interesting; both present and future mixed but the clever use of snippets of comments from various characters after the event in the investigation that follows. Among other things, I found myself thinking within the course of the main narrative that I was possibly getting a handle on what was eventually going to happen, and then I'd hit the next page of mini statements, and realize that possibly I was wrong, again.

From the very opening of the book, we know something awful is going to happen. However, how it is all going to unfold doesn't become clear until just as it's actually happening. It's a masterful piece of construction that could so easily have been clumsy in less deft hands. What makes it all the more chilling is that the characters are all so familiar. We all know people like these. It's not the least bit fanciful. It's all too real...

The book was released on sale today, and you can get a copy from the Booktopia website, HERE.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Books about town

LOVE this initiative that's all over London, apparently.... How cool are these benches like big flipped  open books?? Maybe we could do something like this in Oz sometime - what do you think??

Follow this link to see more:

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

A Street Cat Named Bob - James Bowen

DB had a huge weekend of extra work so I'd anticipated not spending much time with him, and then he called to ask me very formally if he could take me out to lunch on the Sunday. He wanted to take me to a place we'd seen but not tried, and to cap it off, he said, there's a cool looking bookshop over the road... So, lunch was had - and very nice too - and then we wandered across the road to check out The Blues Point Bookshop. This is an absolute duck of a bookshop - tiny, but crammed with a fabulous collection of books. The shelves include handwritten precis of many of the books, and it's a wonderful mix of all the things you could possibly want in a bookstore. We spent some time there and I came out with a goodly stack of books, including this one:
Now, this is not the kind of book I'd usually pick up. However, DB has this thing about naming everything 'Bob'. It's become one of those running jokes now, and every time we see a business or sign with 'Bob' in the name, it cracks us up. I had to pick the book up off the shelf to show him, and then, of course, I read the blurb and decided it looked like a lovely read, AND something that DB himself would probably read and enjoy at some point so I added it to the pile.

'Heart-warming' is an adjective you can count on finding somewhere in the blurb or snippets of reviews on the covers of animal stories. This one is no exception. However, I have to say, it's one time that I feel it's entirely justified. London based James Bowen is a recovering drug addict in his late twenties who is living in assisted accommodation, is on a drug recovery programme, is largely isolated from his family (his parents are divorced; his father living in the south of London and his mother in Australia), with a tiny group of friends, some of whom are still using, and has only his busking in the Covent Garden precinct to keep the roof over his head and food on the table. He comes home one night to find an adolescent ginger cat parked on his doorstep. He sidesteps the cat for a few days, but when it doesn't go away, he brings it in and feeds it. Realising the cat isn't well, he takes it to a Blue Cross centre to see a vet, who prescribes medications for an infection and parasites that takes up just about the last of James' available cash.

After a couple of weeks, the cat is much better and James attempts to return him to the streets. The cat refuses to leave. James heads off to catch his bus to Covent Garden for his daily busking routine, and the cat follows. Not wanting to see him killed on the busy roads, James takes him along, riding the bus, then setting up to play, where the cat parks himself on the guitar case. The novelty of the ginger cat calmly staying put in the midst of all the hustle and bustle of busy central London attracts more people than James usually has watching and he has a very good day. He gives in far enough to call the cat Bob. Bit by bit, he comes to realise that Bob isn't going anywhere, and neither does he want Bob to leave.

When his busking is curtailed, he moves on and becomes a Big Issue seller. He is still haunted by his demons, and when faced by adversity, realises he's still making some poor decisions. Bob becomes a huge motivating factor, helping James make the big choice to come off methadone, and take the next step to being completely clean.

This is a short and easy read, and James doesn't pull his punches. In a fairly economical style, he paints a picture of his life on the streets addicted to heroin, and touching on some of the petty crime he committed to feed his habit. The realisation that having the responsibility for something other than himself is an epiphany that opens his eyes to the possibility of real change. Along the way, Bob becomes well known. Initially, while James is still busking they have their regulars who pop up and drop money in the guitar case and leave gifts for Bob. Later, selling The Big Issue, the same thing happens, even when they have to move to a different area after trouble from some of the other sellers due to what they see as James' unfair advantage, because of the attention Bob attracts. Bob becomes famous via YouTube videos, something James finds out from a group of Spanish tourists who recognise them selling magazines near the Angel Islington.

Even if you find animal stories a bit cringe-worthy, give this one a go. It's written in a refreshingly breezy style. There's no mawkish sentiment. It's just a very simple, lovely story about a man and his cat making a go of it on the streets of London.

You can see one of the short films about them here:

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Some great Aussie bookstores

A friend of mine posted this list on Facebook last night - and this time I remember who it was! It's by no means exhaustive, but it is a rather lovely list of bookshops around the company - all of them, except one, in capital cities. I know all three of the Sydney ones, and the Adelaide ones, so roll on some travelling, methinks!

47 random facts about children's books

This video was posted on Facebook today. It might even have been posted to me by some thoughtful person, but for the life of me, I can't remember who it might have been - apologies phantom poster, if indeed that was the case. Anyhow, it's a slightly frenetic, but most enjoyable round up of bits and pieces about a wide ranging selection of children's and young adult's books. It's well worth sitting through the just over eleven minutes:

Sunday, 25 May 2014

The Golem and the Djinni - Helene Wecker

OK, some major kicking myself in the pants to get this post done. The book has been sitting looking (glaring) at me for WEEKS...seriously. Bad blogger! This is for the 'book with non- human characters' square on the Book Bingo chart. It's also a book I kept seeing around the place that I meant to get my hands on, but one way or another, hadn't... So, in an airport bookshop with a three hour flight ahead of me, I figured the time had come.
To preface my review, for those who don't know, the two creatures come from legend or myth. A golem is a figure made of clay that is brought to life by magic, and the legends come from the mystic, or Kabbalistic, end of Judaism. The most famous is the Golem of Prague - a legend about a golem created to protect the Jews of Prague in the 1500s. Typically, they have enormous strength, don't require food or sleep, and are bound to their master - usually the person who created them. A djinni (alternatively djin, or djinn - useful Scrabble word, by the way!) is found in Arabic and Muslim mythology, and is an intelligent spirit of lower rank than the angels. Djinni can appear in human or animal form and can possess humans.

The main narrative is set in New York in 1899, a time of enormous migration of Jews from the Pale of Settlement to the New World, to escape increasing anti-semitism and pogroms. On a ship bound for America is Otto Rotfeld. His life is in ruins, at 33, having frittered away the family business within five years of inheriting it. The solution, he thinks, is to leave and start over. He also wants a wife, but as a gangly and unattractive man, he's never had any success with women. So, after purchasing his ticket, he uses the last of his funds to commission Yehudah Schaalman - a man known to dabble in the Kabbalah - to create a female golem for him. After many misgivings, but lured by the challenge of making such a golem, Schaalman creates her. She's packed into a freight crate, together with instructions for bringing her to life - which Schaalman cautions Rotfeld not to do until he's safely landed. However, on the ship, Rotfeld becomes ill, and in his delirium makes his way into the hold, locates the crate, and activates the golem who, when he finally collapses, carries him back up to the deck to the ship's doctor. However, the doctor is unable to save Rotfeld, and the golem is left masterless, with no ticket, fussed over by the crew as the bereaved wife. She realises that with no ticket, and no other papers, she has no way of getting through immigration - so she vanishes over the side of the ship as they enter the harbour and walks - under water - to shore, emerging on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

Fortunately, early on during the days she is fumbling to learn how to conduct herself, she is discovered by old Rabbi Meyer, who, while not initially believing what he sees, realises what she is. He takes her in, names her Chava (life), begins to teach her how to blend in, gets her a job at the local bakery, and becomes her mentor. However, just as she's beginning to feel reasonably confident, the rabbi dies. Now, without master or mentor, she has to find her own way.

Meanwhile, a few neighbourhoods away in the Syrian community, the local tinsmith, Boutros Arbeely is given an old, battered copper flask to mend and polish. He has barely begun the work when a great bolt throws him off his feet, across the room and onto the floor by a table. Gathering himself back up, he is amazed to find a naked man lying on the floor of his shop. Getting up, the man sees Arbeely and lunges at him, and pins him to the floor with a soldering iron - which grows hotter and hotter in his hand - demanding to know where the wizard is... Reeling, Arbeely starts to realise that the man is a djinni, although he never really believed in the myths he'd gown up hearing. The djinni realises Arbeely is just an ordinary man and releases him, demanding to know where he is. It turns out that the djinni has been trapped inside the flask for many centuries by a wizard who outwitted him back in Syria. With no way of freeing himself, due to the iron cuff on his wrist, which also keeps him trapped in human form, the djinni has no option but to accept Arbeely's offer of hospitality and, when the djinni offers to help him with his business, they become partners.

Eventually, the golem and the djinni meet - although it takes quite a bit of reading to get to that point - and a most unlikely friendship grows. Both creatures that need neither food or sleep, therefore with a lot of surplus time on their hands, both stuck in situations not of their choosing, both powerless to change their situations, they come to understand each other well, and despite very different natures, to care for one another and to feel protective of the other's vulnerabilities. It's not an easy relationship. They are very, very different. They frustrate and, at times, alarm each other. Eventually their pasts catch up with them in a most unexpected manner, and that bond is severely tested.

This is a wonderful read. It kept me going on the plane, and during down times while we were in New Zealand recently. I found myself resenting having to put it down. It moves at a good pace, the contemporary narrative interspersed with the story of the djinni's past, a device that makes sense of the collision of their separate journeys when the story reaches its ultimate crisis. As a debut novel, it's a tour de force. The historical detail in the portrayal of New York's immigrant communities in the late 19th century is meticulously researched. While I am not familiar with the tenor of a Syrian community, the flavour of the Jewish community is portrayed with great authenticity. The blend of human and mythical stories is balanced and believable.

You'll enjoy this book if you have a taste for fantasy that is well grounded in the human experience. You'll also like it if you enjoy myths and legends. I picked my copy up in one of the bookshops in the Sydney International Airport for under $20, so it's also not something you'll have to try hard to justify!

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Poetry for Mother's Day

It's Mother's Day in Australia today. When I was growing up, it wasn't the big commercially oriented day of hype it's morphed into these days. My mother wasn't even remotely interested in fancy presents. I found a huge collection of handmade cards she'd saved from when we were little in  amongst her things after she died. And on the day, some flowers picked from the garden and a box of those thin Red Tulip after dinner mints were more than enough in the way of special treats for her.

Mum loved poetry. As the years go by and we reach Mother's Day each May, the month before she died, I find myself deep in her collection of poetry books that I inherited. I wrote about this back in June 2012 on her yahrzeit (the yearly anniversary of a death) - you can read that post here. Today, finding myself back in the bookcase amongst the poetry books, it was her own poetry I was hunting... She was published, just once, in an anthology she co-edited in 2000. She made me go to the launch to read her poem - she refused to do it herself, although, that's what all the others did. She was never one to look for a spotlight. Having talked with her on a number of occasions about the genesis of this poem, it was fascinating to hear all the interpretations that came at me in the discussion following my reading. They were, by the way, ALL wrong! Although, that's one of the beauties of poetry - we are free to make whatever interpretation we like for ourselves of a poem, as well as possibly seeking out what drove the poet to write it in the first place. In keeping with Mum's own reticence about it (she was a very private person), I'll offer up the poem here, but not what inspired it - and you can take from it what you will...

That Day

Time tunnelled that day
   twisted, turned -
                      this way
                      - and that.

Feeling flustered that day
   feathered, flew -
                       this way
                       - and that.

Touch trembled that day
   trespassed, triggered -
                       this way
                       - and that.

O how we hovered that day
   hollered, hungered,
          threw hats to the wind
            and caution, too -
                        this way
                        - and that.

Love lingered
   languished, left -
                        couldn't stay
                                    - that day.

Judith Finch 1934-2003

Happy Mother's Day to all the mums out there, and my thoughts are with those who are missing their mums.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Rashi's Daughters: Joheved - Maggie Anton

Book two in the book bingo challenge: Rashi's Daughters - Joheved, by Maggie Anton, for the first book by a favourite author category. My copy of this book is SO dog-eared! I guess that more than qualifies it as a favourite, given it got that way from frequent re-reading.

Rashi (1040-1105) - a Hebrew acronym for Rabbi Shlomo ha Yitzhaki - is one of the greatest of the Jewish sages. The first Hebrew book to be printed was his Bible commentary, and his commentaries occupy  the inside column of ever page of the Talmud, surrounded by later commentaries by his disciples and grandsons. He lived in France in the middle ages and founded a yeshiva in the city of Troyes when he came home from studying in Germany after his mother was no longer capable of running the family vineyard alone. At that time, the tradition - as is still the case in the Orthodox Jewish world - was that only boys studied Talmud - Jewish Law. However, Rashi had no sons, just three daughters, Joheved, Miriam, and Rachel. Against their mother's wishes, in response to their interest and his need to teach prior to establishing his yeshiva, he began to teach his daughters. There is also the suggestion that all three girls wore tefillin (phylacteries) when they prayed, also traditionally only worn by men.

There were precedents for these three girls to both study Talmud and wear tefillin. It is said that Michal, daughter of King Solomon, wore them. There are also previous female scholars, one of the most well known being Beruriah - who lived in the second century CE - daughter of Rabbi Chananiah ben Teradion, one of the Ten Martyrs killed by the Romans to prevent the teaching of Torah. Rashi's own commentaries also lend support to the idea that his daughters were both scholars and possibly wore tefillin. He was, at heart, a pragmatist. One of the responsibilities of Talmud scholars is to interpret both Torah and Talmud - the ongoing discussion on Torah - to make rulings on how things should and shouldn't be done in contemporary times. Rashi's time, Medieval France, was a time of prosperity for Jews, particularly Jewish merchants, who travelled far and wide, and congregated at the great fairs twice a year to trade. Relations between Jews and Christians were cordial, but cautious. Troyes, in the Champagne district, was a busy centre of trade, which saw travellers and traders of all nations, with varying customs intersecting and interacting. Rigid interpretations of the laws could have alienated relationships at best, and at worst, caused deep schisms. Rashi's commentaries indicated that he was a man who thought carefully and broadly about various aspects of any given laws and sought to come to positions that would best serve his community in the long term.

There is nowhere in Torah that states that women are forbidden to study, or to wear tefillin (a time bound mitzvah). Discussions in the Talmud move around the issue, with different commentators all offering differing views. Where they agree is that when it comes to time bound miztvot - i.e. those that must be done at certain times, like morning prayers (when tefillin are worn) - it may be difficult for women, especially once they have responsibilities for a household and children, which may prevent her from meeting the time bound requirements. Therefore, women are exempt from having to honour those mitzvot, while men are required to. That has come to be interpreted by Orthodox rabbis to mean that women don't, and shouldn't, observe these mitzvot. There is, in fact, an argument that comes up in this first volume of Anton's three part series (one book for each of Rashi's daughters) that suggests that the more educated women are in Torah and the Law, the better they will be able to observe them and pass them on to their children, so why not allow them to study the same as the boys.

Anton has fictionalised the history of Rashi, his family, students and descendents, filling in the gaps left in the commentaries, histories and documentation. Careful research has resulted in an incredibly rich book that gives a wonderful insight into the lives of Jewish women in Medieval France. Joheved is portrayed as a bright, conscientious girl, who has been taught by her grandmother, Leah, to manage the finances of the family vineyard, in addition to creating a good vintage. She is proficient at spinning - remembering that this is before spinning wheels, so girls and women habitually carried a drop spindle and spun at any odd moments throughout the day in order to create enough yarn to weave into cloth for family garments and household linens. In this time of arranged marriages, she begs her father to find a scholar for her to marry, someone who will appreciate her knowledge and not prevent her from continuing to study. Her wish is fulfilled with her marriage to Meir ben Samuel, younger son of a Jewish lord and sheep farmer, who was once a study partner of Rashi himself in Germany. They go on to have six children, including four boys, all of whom are scholars, and some of whom became revered in their own right for their scholarship.

Anton has, quite rightly, been lauded for her Talmudic scholarship, which is hugely evident in these books. If you've ever wanted to dip your toe into Talmud study, but have been scared to try, Joheved will give you a taste, as there are Talmudic discussions and arguments sprinkled liberally throughout the narrative. It's one reason I keep going back and re-reading this book and the other two - Anton's scholarship is formidable. I love a good story too, so writing these as historical fiction opens them up to a much wider readership than, perhaps, a pure history might have. It has also enabled Anton to fill in the gaps and unknowns in the history of Rashi's daughters as much has been lost through lack of documentation, as is the case for so much of women's history.

The books are available online and in selected bookstores - but don't try and find them in mainstream chains, because they won't be there! I got mine at Gold's Judaica in Bondi. They're a bit addictive. I can't read Joheved without wanting to keep going and read the other two (I'm halfway through Miriam now...). Anton has already published the first of a new trilogy Rav Hisda's Daughter - Apprentice, and the second in that series, Enchantress, is due out later this year. They're set in Babylon after the expulsion of the Jews from the Holy Land by the Romans after the destruction of the second Temple in 70CE. Again, another scholar...lovely stuff.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Peanuts rule!

I love Charles Schulz's Peanuts. They were in the Sunday papers when I was growing up. you could buy books of them. There was a movie. And, somewhere - in storage I think... - is a book for my tiny book series that's just Lucy. So, when someone posted this on Facebook the other day, I had to share it. It cracked me up!!
Might be a little while til my next Bingo post - I put my hand on the place the Mary Wesley novel should have been and it wasn't there. Some gremlin has moved it... You know that feeling when you're planning to read a particular book and you can't get your hands on it? I stood in front of the bookcases last night feeling SO frustrated. My mind was all set for that book. None of the others looked appealing. I got over it - it's not like I lack choice with four six foot bookcases full of fiction, adult and child... But the one I chose was a heftier read than the Wesley novel. So, bear with me...I'll get to the next post asap!

The Wedding Officer - Anthony Capella

This is the first cab off the rank in my self-imposed Book Bingo challenge - a book set on another continent. It's the second book by Anthony Capella, his first being The Food of Love, and you can read my post about that one here. Again, it's a food related romance set in Italy, but it's a beast of a different colour.

The Wedding Officer is set in Naples towards the end of WWII - the Allies have moved partway into Italy, but still have some way to go in beating the German armies and ending the war in Italy. In Finisco, a village on the slopes of Vesuvius, Livia Pertini, the cook in her father's osteria, meets Enzo, a young Italian soldier, during the local apricot festival. Although many of the local boys have been vying for her hand for some years, she has sidestepped their advances. Enzo, however, manages to get through her defences and she, with the blessing of her father, marries him. They move to Naples, and live with his mother and sister. Enzo is sent to the front, and Livia, unable to work, eventually goes back to her father, where it's safer. Despite her urging, Enzo's mother and sister stay in Naples.

Meanwhile, Captain James Gould, fluent in Italian, has been sent to Naples to take up the post of wedding officer. His job is to vet all potential Italian war brides for authenticity, making sure they're not just starving prostitutes looking for the easier and more secure life on British army pay. He arrives to a shambles of an office in an old palazzo, shared by American Intelligence, and a 'local' way of doing things that horrifies his straightforward British sense of how things should be done. He learns how to tell if a girl is earning money through prostitution, and vetoes several applications. He also gets caught up in chasing down black marketeers and Mafia men stealing penicillin from American and British bases. In a short period of time, he manages to alienate nearly all the people he has to deal with, including his CO. In one of his raids on the mountain villages in response to reports of a German tank being sighted, he comes face to face with the tank, being driven by Livia, who has found it and commandeered it to use as a tractor. Their exchange is short and sharp, but for James, memorable.

Back on the mountain, a local Mafia man who has long lusted after Livia begins to pursue her. Food is short, the war is dragging on, life is getting very very difficult, but she holds fast to the hope that Enzo is coming back, and is, in any case, revolted by him, and refuses his advances. In the end, her father and sister tell her she'll be safer back in Naples, so she heads back to find her mother and sister in law. Arriving, she discovers they've been killed in a raid. By then, she has also found out that Enzo has been many years dead on the Russian front. Homeless and exhausted, she goes from one place to the next trying to find work, but can't. Ending up at a black marketeer's restaurant, she is given food and the manager, who has been trying to work out how to get James back to his predecessor's ways, decides that installing Livia as the cook in the palazzo might solve the problem - the idea being that with a full, contented stomach, James will be more relaxed in his dealings with the locals.

In due course, she starts cooking at the palazzo. The shift in culture there is immediate. James recognises her as the girl from the tank, and slowly but surely, falls in love. She's prickly and elusive, but eventually responds to him. Then the beginning of their troubles starts - the Mafia man who had been pursuing her is James' contact for the next raid he's planning, so Livia's hiding place is discovered. Next, while she's on a visit to see her family, Vesuvius erupts - a long predicted huge eruption. James, thanks to warnings from a local scientist discounted by everyone else, has put plans in place, and by and large, they work out and most people are saved. However, as he's trying to get to Livia, he is diverted to the air base on the mountain, who have been out of contact, so they can be warned to get their planes off the ground before the volcanic hail damages them beyond repair, and then is unable to get back to Finisco for some time. Unknown to him, Livia's father was injured when a lava flow came through Finisco, and Livia, in order to get the necessary penicillin to save his life, is forced to go to the Mafia man, who demands sexual favours from her in return. Her father's life is saved, but Livia feels she's lost all hope of any future with James as a result, so when James does finally get there, she turns him away, following up with a letter saying she's ending it.

The Mafia man then pulls his nastiest trick when he finds that regardless of his feelings for Livia, they will never be returned, and has her sent to the Germans as a whore with a group of other women certified as infected with STDs - a plan concocted to undermine the German troops. James finds out too late to stop the boat leaving, and immediately requests a transfer to active duty so he can follow the Allied push and find her. Livia and the other women escape when their boat comes under fire, half staying put where they come ashore, while Livia and a couple of the others set out to walk back through the front lines to Naples. It's not until James reaches Rome and is able to scour the German brothel records that he discovers she's never been there and his search starts again. Eventually he hears through a contact that she's with a partisan group, and is parachuted in with a drop of weapons and they are reunited.

It's not a totally happily ever after ending, because the war setting precludes that, but there is a resolution that works. There is some of the whimsy in this book that characterised The Food of Love, and the common theme of communicating via food is very much a part of The Wedding Officer. It's perfectly possible to recreate various dishes from the detailed descriptions in the narrative, so that's an added pleasure beyond the reading. However, the darker undertones that come from the war setting and Mafia complications make this a different kind of read to the first one. It also has quite a different pace to the other book - periods of intense urgency contrasting parts that are slow and gentle, that I really wasn't in any hurry to get past. There is considerable humour to balance the darker moments, and utterly authentic Neopolitan slang, with accompanying translations!

Definitely an enjoyable book that I'd recommend to anyone with food interests, a love of Italy, or just a good, entertaining read.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Book Bingo

Twenty-two posted this pic on Facebook yesterday, suggesting he and I do it. I thought it might be one way to get myself out of my blogging rut. Peter over at Kyusireader is part-way through a self-imposed challenge to read what he calls 'dead guys' - another term for classics! He's doing it in alphabetical order - you can read his latest post here. The intention was, as I recall, a mix of getting to some of those books one 'should' read, as well as tackling some tomes that had been sitting, unread, on his bookcases for some time. I thought about it, did a cruise of my bookcases, and decided that I'd probably have to buy too many books to be able to justify that particular challenge! I've been VERY good lately, in terms of bookshops, and have managed to stay clear and not spend money I really can't afford, apart from my recent foray in the the National Portrait Gallery shop - although I defy anyone to tell me it's possible to visit a good gallery shop and NOT buy books...sigh!

I like the somewhat random collection of ideas on this Bingo card, so I think I might just go ahead with it. I'm not going to set myself a time limit though - that's asking for trouble! I'll post as I finish each book, and if anyone wants to join me and hop in with comments on their books, please go right ahead. I'll start with a book set on a different continent - because I'm just about finished a lovely re-read of a novel set in Italy. After that, it'll be the first book by a favourite author - because I'm on a Mary Wesley re-reading jag, and I think that it's her first book that's the last one left on the bookcase... Beyond that, check the end of each post so you can keep up with where I'm going next.

Happy reading!

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Knitting Yarns - edited by Ann Hood

So, here I am again, feeling guilty because I've been neglecting the blog. Not for lack of interest as much as lack of energy for sustained writing. I'm blaming the drugs - there are NO nice drugs for my disease, and the side effects over the last few months have messed seriously with my ability to maintain concentration for any significant length of time. Even my reading has suffered - I'm mainly re-reading, and a lot of the books, I've already reviewed here...

However, nothing like some time away to re-jig the system! DB and I had a micro-mini-break to Canberra to see the Incas exhibition at the NGA. It's finished now - sorry if I've inspired anyone to up tracks and head off to see it...but, it was fabulous. We have a well-practiced routine for Canberra now (which is, incidentally, helping me feel more fondness for the place - slowly getting me past the antipathy engendered by an 18 month residence there when Twenty-Eight was a wee small thing): stay somewhere within walking distance to our favourite eatery (Cream), pre-buy NGA exhibition tickets and be at the doors before 10 because once they fill up it's hard to get good viewing space, park over at the National Portrait Gallery (currently free, and even when/if they start charging, a MUCH easier carpark to get in and out of), eat lunch at the NPG (MUCH better menu and space), visit the NPG bookshop, which is awesome and the reason for this post!

I came out of the NPG with a bag of books - a birthday present for Twenty-Eight, a book on Greek mythology for DB, a lovely book of clever, simple clothing patterns by a Japanese designer (whose name escapes me and the book is in the library downstairs, so perhaps another post at a later point...), a fab book on ceramics (I'm back in the studio, so this was a legitimate 'work' purchase...), and this:
I don't know if there is a sub genre of knitting based writing - but I have noticed that books with knitting themes are increasing - perhaps as knitting re-establishes itself even more as a cool pastime for young and old. I have a group of fellow knitter friends, known as the Knotters Club, a title that happened as a result of a typo in some Facebook chat with one of the others. She followed it up with a spot of research and discovered that in Japan, ALL yarn/thread related crafts are known as 'knotting' - which tickled both of us, and reminded me of a dear friend long ago, who famously said - as she laboured patiently with the lace yoke of a sweater - that knitting was "just one big knot".

So, you will all understand that when I saw this book on the shelf, I had to buy it. I had to buy it for myself of course, and if there'd been more than one copy, I'd have bought one for the friend who dubbed us The Knotters, but there was only one, so she'll just have to borrow it - and the others, who may also wish to borrow...

Ann Hood, from the blurb on the back flyleaf, is a fiction, travel, food and spiritual writer. There's a tempting list of other books - one with knitting in the title - that, obviously, I'll have to hunt down. She also knits. In her introduction, she explores the genesis of her own knitting, and that of others she's talked with since picking it up in 2002 - post the death of her young daughter, when she couldn't read or write - and also, why it is that knitting figures so much in writing. She put out a call to writers for essays on knitting, and was inundated.  A selection of those essays were put together to make this book, interspersed with patterns - alas, no accompanying images... The contributors include Barbara Kingsolver, Ann Patchett and Anita Shreve - just a few of the more well-known writers. There are also a few male writers (we have one in The Knotters, and potentially a second, if our get-togethers ever coincide with his availability, given he has a long drive to get to us).

The essays range from memory tales of relatives who taught the writers to knit, to relationships formed and links to departed family members maintained through knitting, stories of knitting failures and disasters, and one that mentions the great relationship knitting jinx - knitters will know about that one, any non-knitters out there will have to get their hands on a copy of the book to read about it!

I like anthologies like this. I like being able to pick them up and put them down - the essays are all short to medium chapter length. I like all the different voices. And I really like finding common ground with so many different writers. Even if you're not a knitter, this book has some lovely writing to explore, so if you come across a copy, have a dip into it, and if you have a knitting friend, it's an excellent gift idea.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Living in a bookstore

...sounds like every book junkie's ultimate fantasy, yes? Well, at the Shakespeare and Company bookshop in Paris, it's possible to make that fantasy real. Molly Dektar took up this opportunity and became a 'Tumbleweed' for two months (not consecutive) in 2013.

To find out more (and drool, possibly...I did!) click on this link:

Monday, 10 March 2014

Dymocks at Eastgardens Westfield gone...

The threat to bookstores and the demise of the bigger chains has been well documented as E-readers rise in popularity. Since our last house move (anyone regularly reading this blog will know that we move about as often as we have our cars serviced!), I've had a whole new area to explore for bookstores, but I have to say, it's been one of the lesser serviced neighbourhoods I've lived in. For a while, there was a pop-up of the Dymocks chain in the local Westfield, but on my last weekly shopping trip there, the space under the escalator was had gone. As far as I can remember, there were no signs indicating that it had a use by date, so I was surprised. It leaves that particular Westfield without a specialist bookstore. The only options now are the ABC shop, Target and KMart, and possibly Myer - the latter being a small version of the department store, and I'm not sure if they have a book department.

I don't know...possibly I'm way out of step, but it feels intrinsically wrong, to my way of thinking, that there is no bookstore in a major shopping precinct. The high rents in Westfield malls are often prohibitive for independent stores, hence the predictable shopping experience you can expect from all to mall, but you'd think that the administration would be looking to service ALL the shopper's needs...and surely that includes books...

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Book junkie quilt!

I have a number of 'crafty' friends - crafty as in those who like to do things with their hands, as opposed to crafty in the Artful Dodger sense! One of them is a very fine quilter, in fact. I love quilts. I don't quilt. I suspect that taking up quilting would be a potentially dangerous thing for me to do, given my already limited space for various stashes - i.e. books, fabric (for dressmaking), yarn (I knit), art supplies, etc...

However, now and again, I see a quilt that almost - only almost... - tempts me. Like this one:
I know at least one person who follows my blog who is going to look at this and have a huge attack of the wants...and he may even leave a wee comment about it...

Who else wants one of these???

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

The List of my Desires - Gregoire Delacourt

What would you do if you won millions in the lottery? Seriously. It's a conversation that DB and I have now and again, revising our list from time to time. I don't think we're alone in this idle moment pursuit - playing with the fantasy of having lots of money to do things with, for ourselves, for others... And, would you tell anyone? From time to time there are articles that tell of the outcomes in the lives of people who are suddenly wealthy from lottery wins, and fairly consistently, they're not necessarily positive.

Years ago, a workmate of my ex-husband's won $1.5M in the local Lotto. He immediately resigned from his job, they bought a house in a nearby coastal suburb, and began to live the life they thought they wanted. Not very long after, we heard they'd sold that house and moved to Tasmania to grow apples. After that, we lost touch with them, and I have no idea what happened to them. Thing was, in quitting his job, he found he had nothing to give his life the routine he was used to; in moving from the neighbourhood where they'd lived for years in their rented public housing townhouse, they lost their community; in other words, they lost themselves. I don't know if growing apples in Tasmania worked for them. I like to hope so.
It was the cover that attracted initially to this book - as I said to the staff member in Oscar's and Friends yesterday (a bookshop across the road from the dry cleaners...REALLY...what's a girl to do...?) I think I have a bit of a thing for buttons... She laughed and agreed, said she had this one on her TBR pile too. It's also just a lovely little book - a glossy hardcover in amongst the many paperbacks. It begged me to pick it up - truly it did!

Jocelyne is 47, married to Jocelyn (Jo) - the one in goodness knows how many chances that she could meet someone with the same name... She has a small haberdashery shop in Arras, France, and a sewing blog. Her children are grown and living their own lives. Her life is ordinary - the kind of ordinary most of us would understand. She's not unhappy, but she is starting to wonder what happened to the dreams she used to have, and if this is as good as it's going to get. She still loves Jo, although that has been tempered by years of marriage, ups and downs, the stillbirth of their third child and Jo's subsequent rage and abuse over many, many months before he got it out of his system. They have regular holidays, weekends away, and she has come to understand that ordinary is OK, maybe.

Then she wins a bit over eighteen million euros in a lottery - encouraged to enter by her friends, the twins who run the hair salon next door to her shop. Even when the new stories start to appear, saying an unknown person in Arras has won but has yet to claim, she says nothing. It's not until the deadline is nearly up that she manufactures a reason to go to Paris, to the lotteries office, to claim her winnings. As far as Jo knows, she has gone to meet with suppliers. At the lotteries office, she meets with a staff psychologist who warns her of the negative aspects of suddenly coming into a lot of money, the potential pitfalls, and the things she may need to do to protect herself. On the train home at the end of the day, Jocelyne finds herself reviewing HER list of desires...and Jo's... The idea that, now, she could make it all happen doesn't seem real, or even wise. She doesn't know what to do. If she tells Jo about the win, will she be able to control the changes that will be inevitable. Will they be good changes, or not? Will the Porsche, large flat screen TV, a nice fireplace for their living room, the complete James Bond DVD set and a Seiko watch be enough to make him happy, or will it just start a continual want for more new things, and even, the desire to leave all they have built over the years behind - all of it...including her?

As the weeks go on, Jocelyne holds on to her secret. She starts to lose weight, stressing about what to do. She reviews her list of desires, and realises that she loves her little shop. The blog is growing and she is interviewed by a magazine interested in the success of a blog that is about the ordinary stuff of sewing - which increases her exposure. They start an online business linked to the shop and that starts to grow exponentially. She employs people. Jo appears to be happy about her success, and takes her away for a weekend. They make love gently again - the violence that was part of his anger and anguish that has had a residual effect over the years seems to be gone. She contemplates perhaps donating money anonymously. She re-evaluates her marriage and how she truly feels about Jo, realising that for all the ups and downs, all the changes, all the dreams that didn't happen, they still built a life, and it is OK.

Jo achieving his list has always been tied to him moving up to a foreman's position in the ice cream factory where he works, and to that end, he's been taking training courses over the years to get accreditation for the promotion. So when he says he's reached the final stage and has to go to Switzerland, to HQ, to do the final course, she packs him off and spends the first part of the week re-reading Albert Cohen's Belle du Seigneur, a nineteenth century romance novel that is a touchstone book she's revisited many times over the years. She also realises that not being able to have all the things on a list at once is part of why we keep going from day to day, working towards achieving them a bit at a time. They are part of what gives us a future.

Quite what it is that makes her realise that Jo's trip is not what he said it was, she doesn't know. She just knows when she wakes up the morning after finishing the book that he's really gone, that he's found the cheque and, by scratching the 'e' off the end of her name to cash it for himself. Going into the wardrobe, she checks her shoe, and it's empty. He must have found it when he made a repair to the hanging rail. She calls his factory, to be told he'd taken a week off and was due in a couple of days. She calls HQ in Switzerland, only to be laughed at for assuming that they'd bring regional workers so far for promotional courses. She pieces together their last few weeks together, able now to read different motives into Jo's actions. Now, she realises that all her forebodings about the potential harm the money could do to them have played out, albeit in a way she couldn't have predicted.

Because she never told anyone about her win, there is little she can tell about what's happened either - just that Jo has gone. She makes a decision to sell the shop, to hand over the running of her blog to the staff she's employed, to go away from Arras. She goes to Nice, taking refuge in a retreat where she had gone after the still birth years before. She realises that Jo's acts have truly killed something in her - and while, unlike the heroine in Belle du Seigneur, she won't act out the wishes for everything to end, she does need to be taught to live again, albeit differently.

Cut to Belgium, where Jo has gone, because they speak French there too, and he's never learned another language. HIS list has changed now that he has the money to create whatever list he wants. And so he indulges himself, constantly looking for fulfillment...and comes to learn, as so many others have before him, that money isn't everything. He starts to understand what the real things were in life. He buys a copy of Belle du Seigneur, to try and understand what it is in the book that takes Jocelyne back to read it again and again, and to emerge from it with a new beauty each time. He writes to her, over many days, and then waits to see if she will reply. And waits...

The ending was not what I expected. I am still thinking about it and pondering on the nature of the themes the book explores. I can see a conversation with DB coming out of reading the book - a mark of a good book, for me, is the journey it takes you on while you read, and beyond...and this little, unassuming novel has that potential... 

There is a lovely clarity in the prose, and both a simplicity and immediacy in the storytelling that I found particularly appealing. There are too many books that are described as telling stories about ordinary people that end up feeling like the people are characters in some unlikely play. In this case, the people really are ordinary - we all know Jocelynes and Jocelyns, and young women like the twins who run the hairdressers next to Jocelyn's shop, and the range of personalities who patronise the haberdashery shop. We would all recognise similar internal 'what if' conversations that plague Jocelyne - before and she wins the money, and the imagined ones afterwards. AND, it's a particularly lovely little book, as I mentioned earlier! I'm not going to divulge what happens in the end...that's for you, if you're intrigued enough, to find out by getting your hands on a copy, which I would genuinely recommend!

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Beyond the Rails - Jack Tyler

Regular readers may remember my December post, I've got mail! That was about the arrival of Beyond the Rails, hot off the press, a gift from the author. It got packed to take as holiday reading, and then got lost in amongst the pile of books I acquired a various stops along the way (oops...) and in the end, I read it in the week after we got back - and it was exactly the kind of escapism I needed to help adjust to being back from holidays!
Beyond the rails started as a series of short stories. Back in August 2012, after many hints from Jack, I eventually got around to reading the first of them, The Botanist, on the bus to work one morning. Steampunk has never been a genre I've sought out, so I was slow to get going. You can read the post I wrote about that experience HERE. I'll confess, now, that I didn't manage to get around to reading the rest of the stories at that point - they were on Jack's website, and I hate reading on screens. Printing them was a long and involved process of copying and pasting, then tidying up corrupted formatting, and so on. Along the way, via emails and conversations via both of our sites, the gentle hassling continued from Jack to read them, while I continued to prevaricate. Then while he was on a new site, the idea that they might become a book started to be bashed around between us. Meantime, the editor of a magazine in the States offered to publish them as short stories, and Jack jumped at the chance. It looked like the book might not happen - until, he discovered that the people at the magazine were happy for him to go ahead. 

While they were written originally as self contained short stories, they involve the same core group of characters - the captain and crew of the Kestrel, an airship carrying freight into the wilds of colonial Africa beyond the train line. They're a motley group of misfits: Patience Hobbs, English, the pilot; David Smith (quite likely not his real name), an American from the frontier, deck crew; Gunther Brown, German, the engineer; and Clinton Monroe, an English ex-serviceman, cashiered out of the army, the captain. They take Nicholas Ellsworth on board in Mombasa, newly arrived from England with his freshly minted botanist qualifications, bound to classify rare flora in the wilderness. Things don't go quite as planned - which appears to be de rigeur for this group - and after many adventures, very little plant classification, and great risk to life and limb for all concerned, Nick finds himself taken on as crew for the foreseeable future. 

There are five more stories in the book, and a preview of the seventh, all of which tell a story in themselves, but become increasingly cohesive with smoother transitions between one and the next, so that they run rather more like long chapters. One of Jack's concerns about compiling the stories into book form was that they'd not been intended to be chapters, they'd not even originally been intended to be a series, as such. He wasn't sure that they'd run together well. He needn't have worried - they flow very well. Volume Two, when it happens, may possibly develop more along those lines, as he will now have a book in mind when there are enough stories written. 

One of Jack's particular strengths is his dialogue. Writing convincing dialogue is a difficult art, particularly if you take into account the different cultural backgrounds of Jack's characters - which grow to include a ramshackle group of Australians in a later story! Part of getting it right means there has to be due attention paid to the characters themselves, and again, here he has clearly spent enormous amounts of time creating his people, their back stories and their individual peculiarities. They're all solid, and the shifting dynamics between them in varying combinations is great fun, and often very amusing.

If Steampunk is your thing, or you just love a good, old-fashioned adventure, go buy yourself a copy. It's available on Amazon - follow this LINK.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Designer bookcases

The Historian posted this link on Facebook this morning - if you're looking for something different in the way of bookcases, look no further! While none of them are geared for a big collection of books (unlike my VERY cheap and boring flat pack numbers...) they are great fun. I particularly like the Lego-based concept, although I'd definitely want it in any other colour than pink.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Tiny Books #3 - The Book Mice, Tony Knowles and Stephen Forster

I bought this book for myself at a wonderful bookstore in Adelaide - The Murphy Sisters. It was a feminist bookstore, and had the most wonderfully diverse selection of books - children's, adult fiction, all the usual suspects in non-fiction categories, and it was just a lovely place to go. It had the added attraction of being at the end of my street (I suspect my then husband was not so impressed with its proximity!). It's moved from there and is in another suburb now and it's years since I've been there. I can wander my bookshelves today and pick out books that came from there that are still part of the permanent collection.

I came across this little treasure and just had to buy it. Twenty-eight was a tiny baby at the time, so I didn't really get away with justifying it as a purchase for him. But it's so delightful, and I had to have it. I have quite a substantial collection of picture books now, all purchased for the illustrations. Thinking about it this morning, this is probably the book that started it.

The Book Mice is the story of a book, and the mice that live in it. The first reads:
Until a moment ago, it was as dark as night inside this book ... dark and very, very quiet. But when you opened the cover and turned to this page, light and sound just poured in. Now you have woken up a Mouse from a long, deep sleep. 
"There's never any peace and quiet around here," he grumbles. "I might as well get up."
And then when you turn the page there he is, travelling across pages two and three, playing with the words, because he's bored. While he's on page five, he hears a noise, so he bends down the top of the page, and there on pages six and seven is another mouse, Kipps, singing a song about socks, strumming along on a stretched rubber band. He calls the first mouse Sock, they make friends and start on an adventure to explore the rest of the book. Venturing outside the book at one point, they discover a bottle of ink and have a marvelous time playing with that, until they tip it over and spill it everywhere. Then Sock, wandering on ahead, spots his inky footprints behind him and becomes convinced a monster is following him, especially when a great black blob starts spreading up the pages below him. When Kipps appears, he's quite off-hand, explaining that it's just the spilled ink spreading through paper. They finish up hopping over to the last page, with Kipps singing a new song about how nice it is to be two of them and friends.

The concept of the book got me first, and then I was captivated by Stephen Forster's exquisite pencil drawings. It's not often that you see a picture book illustrated entirely in black and white, and his mice are delightfully rendered in pencil.

It's a hardcover, published by Evans Brothers, London in 1980, measuring 15cm x 15cm. I've never seen another copy of it.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Reading is good for the soul - science says so!

Random fact for the day - because what's a day without a new random fact?! The Sydney Morning Herald carried a story today that I just had to share. The contents won't surprise a dedicated reader, I'm sure, but the stinger is in the second half of the article when it points out that while the many benefits of reading are well known, the fact that there's now scientific data to support the anecdotal evidence,  means 'the idea seems, rightly or wrongly, more like something you can take to the bank.'

However it's fun reading, so here's the link:
Photo: Quentin Jones via the SMH

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Chosen By a Horse - Susan Richards

Tissue alert! You will need them - lots of them - at the end of this book! It won't matter if you're a horse nut or not, you'll still need them.
This is one of the books I picked up while we were away, and I read it yesterday. It's still echoing today, because it resonated so strongly with me. I don't remember learning to ride. My godmother had a little stock horse mare, Trinket, and all of us (my brother and I, and my godmother's four) were put on her very early. We graduated, variously, to different horses over the years, and my godmother's boys went on to play polocrosse for NSW. Sadly, when the opportunity was there for my parents to buy a ten acre block nearby, my father balked, and insisted on staying in the city, otherwise, I could have had my own horses growing up. As it was, I had the horses at my godmother's on weekends and during holidays. Then we moved to South Australia and lived in a small country town, so there were friends' horses. My mother handed me over to one of the local landowners to teach me some more so she (who knew nothing about horses) felt better about me hooning around on quads because he could tell her I was safe. My mother got me a job in a local trotting stable in the hopes that if all I did was grunt work I'd grow out of it (that didn't work). For a brief time, I had a free lease of a mad, green-broken two year old gelding. Then we moved to the city...and horses were difficult again.

Years later, post divorce, I had a free lease horse again from the neighbour of a friend with a farm in the Adelaide Hills. He bred Australian Stock horses - like Trinket - my friend bred miniatures. The neighbour didn't get the minis at all...! So he offered us both a riding horse from his herd. My girl, Jazz, had always been the surplus horse, because he had too many. She'd grown quite distrustful of people because always, she'd just get to bonding with someone, and then they'd be gone. I had six turbulent months with her with all sorts of dramas, but about three months in, she attached to me. I'll never forget the first day I walked to the fence of their paddock and she glanced up, went back to grazing and then did a massive double take and looked back at me, then came to the fence. Magic. She died in an awful accident, and there's nothing quite so shattering as the mass of a dead horse on the ground. I still see it in my head sometimes. The neighbour came by about three weeks later. My friend had been sending me out on her horse, Missy. Missy was grieving, as was I. My friend couldn't bear to go out by herself. Then the neighbour turned up and offered me "the big mare in the back paddock. You'll want to lunge her a bit, she hasn't been ridden for a few years. And you might want to put her in a ditch before you try and get on..." So we walked across the road to his grazing property to find her. Seventeen hands of Stock Horse/Thoroughbred cross - he wasn't kidding about putting her in a ditch! He'd sold her as a youngster, and she been trained for dressage, and had done quite well. Then he found her in a less than ideal situation and bought her back - that's why he always had too many horses, because he did that a lot. He'd thought about breeding her, but hadn't got around to it. So, we started working her on the lunge to get her fit and used to being handled again, and then started taking her out. She was very different to Jazz, and quite an education to me, because she knew way more than I did about riding aids, given I'd been taught by a stockman! That period of my life was very special, largely because of the horses. It's been a long time, and I'm only just getting back into riding again - albeit very gently, due to my current health issues.

However, I can definitely identify - as anyone who's had anything to do with horses could - with Richards' story. The horse in the title is a rescue horse - a Standardbred (used for trotting) who was one of a huge bunch seized by the SPCA. She already had three horses; bossy Georgia, a Morgan mare, and two geldings, Hotshot and Tempo - a close knit little trio. Her own riding days were behind her as a chronic back condition had left her unable to ride. But the routine of caring for the three horses, and her job in social work had created a safe life where she could heal from a violent and abusive childhood, and a failed marriage. She's quite upfront about the relationships she has with all three horses, particularly Georgia, as a substitution for a relationship with a partner. The last thing she intended to do was rock the boat with the addition of another horse - until the word went out about the mob of rescue horses. One of the critical issues for Richards' was her fear of illness and loss, a legacy from the death of her mother when she was five - which began the years of being passed from relative to relative. A rescue horse, in addition to the potential problems of adding it to her three, also posed the challenge of rehabilitation from goodness only knows what level of illness, behavioural and socialisation problems.

She chose a name from the list of mares and foals. Arriving at the yard where they were being held, discovered a mob of horses so traumatised that they couldn't be approached, let alone separated from each other. Singling out the horse she'd chosen proved impossible, but then one mare took herself and her foal out of the mob and walked into the waiting truck, so Richards' took her - Lay Me Down - instead.

Richards' had to face the horse's immediate illness, brought on by the awful conditions and malnutrition, and her seriously maladjusted and violent foal. Lay Me Down improved quickly and got better. The foal didn't, but the judge on the case ruled that the mares could stay in their foster homes, but all the foals had to be returned to the owner, so any hope of rehabilitating the foal was lost. Meanwhile, Lay Me Down had to be introduced to the other three horses, which produced all sorts of excitement and tensions until a new pecking order was carved out. Richards was getting to know Lay Me Down and discovering that, instead of a shattered and dysfunctional animal - as would have been expected after her experiences - Lay Me Down was possessed of a sweet and loving nature that had somehow survived her abusive environment. And so began a relationship that was to prove life changing.

This is a very special book, and even if horses aren't your thing, have a look for a copy. The healing power of animals is well documented. I know that until we have animals our house, there'll be something missing. A horse isn't an option just yet (but is on the list for down the track), and I'm not fit enough yet for a dog, so a Siamese cat will be joining our household, pending permission from the landlord and sourcing a breeder. There's a sequel to this book - Chosen Forever - which I'll have to find now to see what happened after Lay Me Down.

If you find a copy, just don't forget to arm yourself with tissues towards the end of the book. Don't say I didn't warn you!

Friday, 3 January 2014

Ultimate writer t-shirt!

Hi - I'm back! We had a holiday - a real, honest to goodness pack up the car, drive for hours a long way from Sydney kind of holiday. And it was so good. I have a monstrous stack of new books - new new and second hand new. Those little country towns... excellent book hunting territory. The second hand places are absolute treasure troves, and the new book shops are all quirky independents that are an pleasure to patronise. We're still unpacking and sorting out the piles of stuff - came home with so much more stuff than we took with us...! When I'm done, I'll get the books together and post a pic of my haul - and then get down to the serious business of reading and writing.

We got back to more mail - my mailbox has been much more interesting than usual in recent times. Here's what was waiting for me last night:
I got it from Threadless - which is a great source of original t-shirt designs, where the artists get a percentage of the price, so it's really worth supporting.