I Though You Said This Would Work by Ann Garvin

A freebie, “first read” download on my Kindle and I either downloaded the wrong book or misread the precis! I would describe this book as chick-lit and it really isn’t my type of book.

I suspect if you like books about women who have been friends a long time and a tragedy that pushes them to resolve long time strife between them you would really enjoy this book.

I just didn’t get why, if they had been such close friends, Samantha and Holly wouldn’t have sorted out their differences earlier and not left it 20 years or so.

I didn’t get the point of the kooky, formerly famous chat show host other than to get the author over a writing block of how to get the characters talking. And she was not a credible character. I’m sure there must have been a different way.

I like to learn from books, even fiction. I like to learn about different periods of history or different cultures, different ways of life. This book didn’t give me any opportunities to do that.

Overall, I would say that it isn’t a terrible book, it just isn’t one I would choose to read.

Magic Spanner: the world of cycling according to Carlton Kirby by Carlton Kirby

A fun, easy to read book about the world of cycling commentators. This is a book that avoids the pain of cycling up very big hills, avoids the competitiveness of the cyclists and avoids the angst of whether the sport is cleaner than it was in the Armstrong days.

It is, in parts, a laugh out loud book that gives a different perspective on professional cycling: the challenges of finding a parking space that will allow for a quick getaway once commentary has finished for the day, the quality – or not – of overnight accommodation and some of the other commentators.

I enjoyed finding out more about what it takes to get bicycle races onto television and the challenges of commentating when you have no control over the pictures that are being shown.

I don’t approve of the casual acceptance of doping/cheating, although it’s not uncommon in a book about cycling.

There are though many more reasons to enjoy this book than to disapprove. A great way to spend a quiet Sunday afternoon, curled up on the sofa with a nice glass of wine.

John Halifax, Gentleman by Mrs Craik

Regular readers of my blog might be pleased to know that I’m getting to the end of my haul of vintage books bought at auction. Unless I discover another pile tucked away somewhere I think this book might be the end of them. And what a mixed bag they have been.

The one thing I have noticed though is that they have all been stories with a moral to them. I don’t necessarily mind this, but I do think it makes it really easy to work out what is going to happen at various points in the story and it sometimes makes the story a bit unsatisfactory.

This book is the history of a destitute orphan boy, as narrated by the disabled boy who becomes his close friend. It is set at the end of the 18th century and beginning of the 19th, a period of immense change in Britain and British society. Phineas, the narrator, lives slightly outside of society, in part because of his health and in part because his father is a Quaker. John Halifax lives slightly outside of society, even when he has built his successful business, because he is an unknown. This helps us, as readers, to get a sense of the social structure and norms of the times.

The social status of the main protagonists also helps the reader to get a strong sense of what it was like to live and ordinary life during this period: living through the corn riots, infant mortality, corrupt election practices as just some of the events covered by the story. There are also more universal themes including valuing beliefs and human dignity above wealth, the effect of bad decisions and the love of parents for their child no matter what they do.

My biggest frustration with this book was the unresolved mystery of who John Halifax’ parents were! I kept expecting them, or at least some long lost and repentant relatives, to turn up, a la Dickens, at some point and they never do. Perhaps that would be an interesting prequel for a novelist to take up?

Overall, I would describe this as a pleasant way to spend a few hours: interesting and fairly undemanding.

My Name’5 Doddie by Doddie Weir

I remember Doddie Weir as a fixture in the Scotland rugby team during the 5-Nations competition and as a British Lion. If you’d asked me 2 or 3 years ago, I probably wouldn’t have been able to tell you more than that.

But since then, Weir has because more visible again through his life-changing diagnosis with Motor Neurone Disease and the remarkable work he has been doing to raise awareness of this terrible condition.

This autobiography popped up on my Kindle daily deal list and, with all the local news bulletins about rugby league player Rob Burrow’s deteriorating condition, I though it was a good opportunity to find out more about MND and more about Doddie Weir.

What I found most interesting about this book was finding out more about rugby moving from an amateur to a professional game from someone who was in the middle of it. It’s interesting to reflect on the early days and reflect on how the game has evolved and changed.

Doddie Weir comes across as a likeable chap who has worked hard to do the best for his family and is working hard to ensure MND doesn’t totally define his life whilst using his public persona – and loud tartan suits – to raise both the profile and research funds for MND. Precisely because he is a likeable, normal person, the book is slightly boring in parts and tries too hard in others. That said, I respect Weir for the courage with which he has faced his diagnosis, applaud him for the tenacity he has shown to keep doing as much as possible as long as possible and applaud him for the work he and his My Name’5 Doddie foundation have being doing.

To find out more about the My Name’5 Doddie foundation click here.

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

Another book I found on my shelf that I couldn’t remember buying or why I bought it. It just goes to show that you should reorganise your bookshelves every once in a while. Especially when you have as many books in as many rooms as we have!

I’m so glad I found this book and decided to read it. From the cover I expected to chew my way through it and then send it off to the charity shop. I couldn’t have been more pleasantly surprised and it’s definitely not going to the charity shop.

The book is a fictionalised biography of the Russian composer Shostakovich, starting in 1936 just as his Lady Macbeth of Mtensk has been announced by Stalin to be “a muddle not music”. It finishes in towards the end of his life when he has been backed into a corner, joined the Communist Party and given the role of “national treasure”.

I love Shostakovich’s music and have done since I was in my early 20s: I heard some music on the radio whilst driving and somehow managed to remember the composer’s name. I went into a music shop in York that I’ve always used as a reference point for classical and jazz music. The young man behind the counter was certain there was no such thing as Jazz Suites by Shostakovich but, at my insistence, agreed to look it up. He found the CD, I ordered a copy and spent a happy 6 weeks waiting for it to arrive. When it arrived, I put it on in the car and immediately fell in love with the music. Later in the day I was raving about it to a friend, who promptly nicked my CD, fell in love with the music as well and I’ve never seen my original CD since!

Anyway, back to the book.

The book concentrates on Shostakovich’s inner life so although we meet his family and friends, we never really get to know them other than how he feels about them. At the end of the book I was a little disappointed to not know what happened to them, but I have, of course, already got a proper biography on order so I will no doubt find out.

Barnes comes down firmly on the side of Shostakovich being a closet dissident. Because of this the book is about survival and the tactics used to separate inner thoughts from day-to-day life in a repressive regime. It also shows the fluctuations of fortune in a system that largely relies on the whims of a supreme leader. It will be interesting to read which side the biography comes down on: supporter of the system or dissident?

One of the challenges of reading this book was that I wanted to keep reading it, wanted to know how it would unfold but I think I may have missed nuances and details through reading it too quickly and when too tired to really take it in. Maybe I just need to read it again.

Overall, I loved this book and loved that it was such an unanticipated pleasure.

The Elements of Eloquence by Mark Forsythe

I’ve been looking forward to reading this book and, simultaneously, putting off reading it. Looking forward because I really enjoyed the previous two books in the Ternion Set. Putting it off because I have enjoyed the previous two books in the Ternion Set and there are no more after this one.

I finally got to the point where I couldn’t resist picking the book up and read it in just over a day. I’m still feeling a little bereft at finishing it although there is some satisfaction that the box set is now sitting on a shelf behind my office desk so I can dip in and out of it, or more likely use them to procrastinate.

The previous books in the set were about words. This one is about how to use them the best effect by following the rules of rhetoric.

Reading this book has fired me with enthusiasm to try out some of the techniques to add impact to what I write and what I say – blog readers and fellow Toastmasters, look out! It is a really practical book showing where each rule comes from, giving examples and making suggestions on how to use each rule. One thing I found incredibly helpful were the examples showing how Shakespeare used the rules of rhetoric and, most importantly, how he worked at using them and got better at them. I always think it’s good to be reminded that talented people were novices at some point and that they also need to practice to improve and keep honing their skills.

Just writing this blog has made me want to reread this book again…and try out some more styles on my unsuspecting friends.

River of Time by Jon Swain

A sort of autobiography, travelogue, and history book all at the same time, this is Jon Swain’s love letter to the Indochina he fell in love with in the 1970s.

I think it’s fair to say that Swain, a journalist, likes dangerous places. He chose to go to Phnom Penh and from there to Vietnam to report on the war. He chose to take the last plane back to Phnom Penh just as the Khmer Rouge were about to win the civil war and he chose to go into a danger zone in Ethiopia.

I think it’s also fair to say that this love of danger is what makes this book so interesting and readable. Unlike a history book it takes you inside the events and shows how squalid they were, how humdrum in many ways as well as the intensity, threats, and perils.

Not much of the Vietnam bits of the book came as a surprise to me. I’ve read books by other journalists and Vietnamese nationals. The Cambodian sections were more interesting because I’ve read less about them. I also enjoyed being able to visualise some of the places Swain was talking about, having visited both Vietnam and Cambodia.

What was really shocking was the treatment of the Vietnamese boat people – people escaping from newly-Communist Vietnam – by thugs and pirates living on the coast of Thailand. I’d hadn’t known of this before and I’m horrified by the way people can be so savage to others, particularly those who need compassion and support.

The section of the book dealing with Swain’s assignment to Ethiopia, and his kidnapping, was of less interest to me. It sounds horrible to say out loud but the war there doesn’t really interest me in the same way as those in Vietnam and Cambodia. It’s odd though, to read of the contradictions in the mind of a hostage: immense emotional strain but boring day to day surviving.

Overall, despite Swain coming across as a fairly selfish being, I enjoyed this book and enjoyed adding to my knowledge of Indochina.

It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis

We bought this book just as Donald Trump had been inaugurated as president of USA. All the blub in Waterstones was saying how prescient the book was – it was written in 1935 as fascism was rising in mainland Europe – for the current era of rising populism politics.

Michael read the book at the time and didn’t think that much of it, so I stuck it on the bookshelf and forgot about it.

The book centres around Doremus Jessop, a newspaper editor in a small American town. He isn’t a radical thinker but nor is he a conformist. He is concerned about the up-coming presidential election.

Throughout the book we see democracy being supressed in the name of security and America sliding into a dictatorship as little-by-little individual freedoms are eroded and outlawed. As the country becomes a dictatorship, we see Doremus Jessop change from a liberal, free thinking ordinary man to an underground resistance fighter.

I think the book shows how incremental changes, allegedly for the “good of the people”, can erode individual freedoms and it definitely illustrates Edmund Burke’s quote “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.

Knowing now what happened during Trump’s presidency it’s easy to see the fanfares of prescience about this book as over-hyped nonsense. It isn’t a great book, but it does serve as a warning of what might, possibly could, happen here.

Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

I’m not quite sure I’ve never read this book before. It’s the sort of book my Mum would have encouraged me to read when I was in my early teens. Perhaps she was put off by the thought of having to deal with the nightmares I would almost certainly have had after reading it.

Even now, as an adult much less prone to over-active imagination induced nightmares, I still experienced unpleasant dreams centred around being trapped in a small space and struggling to get out.

It might be heretical to say it, but I can’t say I was particularly impressed by the book. Its relevance and importance are in what it represents more than what it is.

I found Anne Frank, through her diary entries to be, in many ways, a fairly typical self-obsessed, “nobody understands me” type of teenager. As an older adult reading the book for the first time there were quite a few occasions where I thought “get a grip”, that’s not fair on the people you’re living with. I’m pretty sure that as a teenager I would probably have identified more with Anne’s sense of alienation from the adults around her and her feeling of being misunderstood.

What I did find incredible though was the fact that eight people managed to live in secret and in very close proximity to each other for two years without going stark raving bonkers. We think we’re hard done to living in our Covid-19 lockdowns, worry about our mental health!

I also find it tragic that having got within spitting distance of Holland being liberated from the Nazis, the eight hide-aways and two of their helpers got arrested. Of the eight who were in hiding only one, Otto Frank, survived. Anne, and her sister, died of typhus in Bergen-Belsen in 1945.

I’m pleased I read this book. I think it’s definitely a book to recommend to teenagers to read. But I don’t want to read it again.

Dubliners by James Joyce

I’ve read bits of James Joyce books before – mainly in O-level English or English Lit class as part of a consideration of different literary styles I think – but never read a complete one. I think I’ve been put off by the idea that they’re incomprehensible and difficult. I don’t even know whether that statement is true. I certainly don’t know how I came to have this on my bookshelf.

Anyway, searching for something different to read, it fell into my hand and now seemed as good a time to read it as any.

What a revelation! Not difficult, interesting, lots of different characters and a great portrayal of nouveau-poor life in Ireland at the beginning of 20th century.

You might have gathered, from some of my previous posts, that I’m interested in books about people and their struggles with life – both fictional and factual. This book sits very firmly in this genre.

It is a book of short stories about mainly men eking out a living, drinking their wages and leaving their wives and families struggling. But it’s also a book about a city, the way people live, their friendships and their struggles.

There is a sense of hopelessness about the stories. A pervasive feeling of doing things from a sense of duty rather than from choice or an expectation of enjoyment.

As with a lot of short stories I felt I was getting a brief glimpse into someone’s life; a bit like getting a glimpse into someone’s house when the lights are on and the curtains not drawn. With some stories I was pleased to hurry past and with others I wanted to know more about their lives.

In short, I really enjoyed this book and it has given me the courage to find my copy of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man from whichever bookcase it has been buried in.