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.