Books, life the universe

Monday, 31 August 2009

Two books finished

Anne Brooke's The Bones of Summer is a dark and violent read involving Christian fundamentalism, a gay relationship and murder. Craig and Paul - from Maloney's Law - renew their acquaintance. Paul's private investigator skills are needed to unravel and finally lay to rest Craig's violent past. I thought the book was well written and a gripping read. It raises serious issues about the nature of memory and the effect of fundamentalist religion on the human psyche.

I thought the ending was perfect and understated after the violent finale and resolution of Craig's childhood and his teenage relationship with Michael. I loved the character of Pedro - even though we only see him in a few scenes. Paul comes over as a more mature than he did in Maloney's Law which I found interesting as he seems to have grown and developed as a result of the traumatic happenings in that book. Are we going to see more of Craig and Paul? I'd love to know what happened to them after this.

I also finished Richard Hamblyn's Terra which is a fascinating read for anyone interested in planet earth. The 4 events he focuses on are brought vividly to life by the extensive quotations from eye witness accounts and the scientific explanations are easy to understand. He shows how as human beings we fail to learn from our mistakes. Many people survived these events because of good luck or good judgement. I enjoyed it.

I have reviewed both books on Amazon under the pseudonym Damaskcat.

Sunday, 30 August 2009

Current reading

I am still reading Anne Brooke's The Bones of Summer - only about 50 pages left and yes I'm finding it good. I don't think enjoy is the right word because there are so many heartbreaking issues covered not least the non acceptance by some people of individuals who prefer their own sex. The portrait of a fundamentalist Christian - Craig's father - is brilliant. The current climate of thinking it is only the Muslim faith which produces violent fundamentalists needs to be changed. Any fanatic of any religion can turn violent. I will write a full review when I've finished the book and had time to digest it.

I've rather given up on Richard T Kelly's Crusaders though I haven't quite got to the point where I'm prepared to take the book mark out and pass the book to a charity shop. It's a pity because it is my idea of a good plot. There are just too many characters and too much plot and too much of an attempt to make a social point when it would have been better left to speak for itself from the actions of the characters.

I'm also reading Katherine Parker's Save the Males. An attempt to redress the balance between male and female. It's a bit too much along the lines of return the women to the kitchen and the bedroom where they belong and stop them taking jobs from the men who need to feed their families. I shall write a considered review of it when I've finished it.

Then there's a fascinating book called Terra: Tales of the Earth by Richard Hamblyn. It focuses on 4 catastrophic events over two centuries starting with the Lisbon earthquake in 1755. Each section features eye witness accounts which bring the event to life. Naturally there is a climate change message in there but it is not too high profile. The other three events covered are the strange weather of 1783 - caused by volcanic activity in Iceland putting ash and dust into the atmosphere; the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883 and a tsunami in Hawaii in 1946. Interestingly enough all the events were caused by what happened under the earth and I'm sorry but I cannot see how this could have been influenced by carbon dioxide in the atmosphere whether man made or not. What does come over to me is that what goes on under out feet is totally unpredictable and the earth is very much a living, breathing, changing organism.

Saturday, 29 August 2009

More family history

Except I am not being very organised about it and keep hopping off into interesting byeways such as scrolling through part of the 1901 census for Crowland to see if there are any Peppers and Slators I've not come across before. Naturally there are several though they've brought me no nearer finding my great grandmother Sarah Jane Slator. I'm beginning to think she may have gone to America. Some of the Slators from a couple of generations before her seem to have done so.

I've also found someone who was the President of the Chamber of Commerce in St Albans during World War I - a Mr W Fisk - whose parents ran a drapers shop there. These are not my direct ancestors but one of the offshoots from several generations back who are just as intriguing as my immediate relatives. There is also someone - an accountant - who appears to have been in prison in Liverpool in 1844!

It's amazing how much time can be taken up browsing online records and I'm really still only scratching the surface. I'm trying to build up a skeleton - as it were - and then filling in the details later.

Friday, 28 August 2009

Biblical names

I have just come across this fantastic collection of Biblical names:

Solomon Sharpe born in 1815 married a lady called Mary - surname unknown at present. They had the following children:


Jeremiah had a son Arthur who married one of my Pepper ancestors - a 4 or 5 times great aunt called Susan Rebecca.

I wonder whether Solomon just opened the Bible at random when his children were born? I had wondered whether he was Minister of some sort but he was an Agricultural Labourer as were many of my ancestors on that side of the family.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

The car has returned!

We had a phone call yesterday evening to say it was ready - much sooner than expected - so we went and collected it this morning. No strange noise at all and it seems to be going well. I don't think we have anything now that we're waiting to be sorted out - but maybe I ought to keep my fingers crossed while I type that statement!

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Writing reviews

From time to time I get e-mails from authors whose books I review on Amazon and I always think it's nice of them to take the trouble to contact me. I had one yesterday from someone well known in the chick lit field who said reading reviews of her own books was much like 'sticking pins in your eyes' but that she'd been cheered up by my reviews of her recent books. I can understand how authors must feel and in general even if I didn't like a book I'll highlight things which I thought were good so that a review isn't all doom and gloom. I do very occasionally write one star reviews but again I will say what I did like about the book rather than just saying it was unmitigated rubbish. There is always something you can find in a book which was good.

I even gave a book 3 stars because it was a long time since a book had annoyed me so much! Other people gave that book everything from one star up to five stars so it was obviously a book that had a mixed reception.

Why do I write reviews? Because it's the next best thing to writing books and because it often helps me organise my thoughts about what I've read. It means I'm writing virtually every day which is good practice. It's also interesting to watch yourself climbing up the Amazon reviewer rankings - currently 256 and climbing. Being higher up in the reviewer league table does attract its own problems because people are apt to post stupid comments on the reviews or give you a spate of 'not helpful' votes for reasons which aren't always obvious. I find it interesting to watch.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Ariana Franklin

Ariana Franklin's Relics of the Dead is the third in her series about Adelia an early version of a forensic scientist set in the 12th century. In this episode Adelia is summoned by Henry II to try and identify whether two skeletons unearthed in the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey are King Arthur and his queen. Needless to state the the task is far from easy and whatever her final verdict is there will be repercussions.

The Fens near Cambridge are getting too hot to hold Adelia so she welcomes the new commission especially when she is able to renew her friendship with Lady Emma Wolvercote and her small son and the Bishop of St Albans the father of her own small daughter. Adelia travels in the direction of Glastonbury with Emma and her entourage until she is diverted to meet King Henry in Wales. They agree to meet up later but Emma disappears and Adelia fears for her safety. So as well as identifying skeletons she has to try and locate her friend.

This is every bit as exciting as the two previous books with excellent characterisation and brilliant dialogue. This author is often criticised because she has people speak in modern English - minus 21st century references - but as she explains in her comprehensive note at the end of the book it would be impossible to write the dialogue in Old English, or Latin or Norman French which would have been the languages in use at the time. I have no problem with this and to me it brings the whole era to life as I can relate to the characters more easily. I enjoyed this story and it is good to see historical fiction set in unusual eras.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

A good day

I have been up to my ears in family history today - and sinking fast. I keep saying I'll just look at one more person and a couple of hours later I'm still plugging away and finding out all sorts of things. One offshoot of the family from my great great grandmother's generation lived in the same road in Spalding as the office I worked in until recently. I suspect the property they lived in is no longer there though I shall go and have a look next time I'm in the town. They were mainly chimney sweeps which was obviously reasonably profitable in the late 19th and early twentieth centuries.

Mainly people seem to have stayed in and around Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire though I've found offshoots as far away as Wales and Bradford with a few in London. The London ones were mainly where women had married people from elsewhere. I have also found one small family in Cannock in Staffordshire - strangely enough not far from my maternal grandfather!

Absolutely fascinating stuff and I think I could get interested in tracing anyone's family. It's a bit like doing complicated jigsaw puzzles.

Monday, 17 August 2009

Great Great Grandfather's second marriage

I received the copy of the certificate of Alfred Slator's second marriage today. Unhelpfully the vicar - it was a church wedding - has not given their exact ages and his handwriting is the worst I've seen so far! Alfred's second wife was a lady called Martha Butler but I can quite see why it might have been read as Baker. They were married on January 16 1882 at Thorney in Cambridgeshire. At least her father's name is on there - John Butler - which is a start.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Scare stories

I find news stories fascinating chiefly because of the different slant each individual reporter puts on the same story. The current panic the public issue is the one of the Swine Flue vaccine carrying what appears to be a very slight risk of Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS). This seems to relate back to the same thing happening in 1976 in America. The facts - as far as I can ascertain them - are that 40 million Americans were vaccinated and about 500 got GBS of whom 25 died. The American government paid out large sums in compensation as might be expected.

The scare stories relate this to the imminent release of the Swine Flu Vaccine because of some supposedly secret letter issued warning doctors to look out for and report any cases of GBS following vaccination. My interpretation of this is that GBS is a pretty rare illness and doctors need to be reminded that they might come across it and to be aware of it as a possible diagnosis.

The less responsible stories highlight the fact that more people died of GBS as a result of the vaccine than died of Swine Flu. Could this just be because 40 million had been vaccinated and therefore probably did not get Swine Flu? No vaccine is 100% safe from what I can find out any more than anything else comes with a 100% guarantee. I have a flu vaccination every year because it seems sensible to do so even though I do know of someone who died as an apparent result of the annual flu jab. It's all about relative risk again - something the media does not report on.

What scares me more than the above is the apparently virulent (and growing) body of public opinion which is rabidly anti vaccination for any disease. The most common reason put forward is that 'vaccines reduce your immune system's ability to fight disease'. My scientific knowledge is not that great but I was under the impression that vaccination shows your immune system what to fight and therefore boosts it. I remember learning at school about Edward Jenner and cowpox/smallpox which ultimately resulted in smallpox being eradicated in this country if not the world.

I'm also concerned at the number of people who believe the Swine Flu vaccination is compulsory. I believe there has to be an Act of Parliament to do something like this as there was in the nineteenth century to make smallpox vaccination compulsory. Currently it is wholly voluntary.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Family occupations

Strange as it may seem I have only started looking at the occupations of my ancestors over the last few weeks. Since the last list I have come across someone - a great great uncle several times removed who was in 1901 the landlord of a pub called the Five Bells at Gosberton - which is a village about 4 miles from where I live now.

Currently the pub is empty and is being refurbished. I'm not sure whether it's going to re-open as a pub or restaurant so it will be interesting to see what its next incarnation is. I've been travelling past it on my way to and from work on the bus for the last 4 years without knowing.

Friday, 14 August 2009

Bluestockings and How Not To Shop

Bluestockings by Jane Robinson is absolutely fascinating. It is strange to read how women had to fight for any sort of education as they were not considered worth educating. There's a marvellous quote from a sermon delivered by Dean Burgon of Chichester Cathedral in 1884 'Inferior to us God made you: and our inferiors to the end of time you will remain. But you are none the worse off for that.' The author comments that apparently his audience/congregation, brave souls, dissolved into incredulous laughter. I knew Oxford did not award degrees to women until the 1920s but I had not appreciated that Cambridge was even later - 1948!

I'm about half the way through the book which is written in a very approachable style. There is a comprehensive bibliography at the end and the author spoke to many of the women still alive who were involved in the early days of women's university education which really brings the whole subject to life.

How Not To Shop by Carmen Reid is excellent chick lit with great dialogue and characters. Yes there is a happy ending but there are also problems in the background. Annie Valentine - the heroine - is having to deal with her mother's increasing vagueness and with trying to support her sister through IVF. These issues are not reslolved at the end of the book. It's a real feel good read whether or not you've read the previous books in the series.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Blaming the Government/local councils for everything

I was slightly puzzled by a story in the Mailonline today with the headline 'Domestic violence and drug addictions set to soar as councils fail to combat 'second wave' of recession'. So what are councils supposed to do about it? The headline, needless to state is misleading. The article is based on a National Audit Office report. This actually says they're not doing much about fly tipping, stray dogs and abandoned cars all of which increase during a recession. Yes I can understand that.

The article also says councils should cut jobs. In which case how are they going to do more? I can also understand councils need to be prepared for greater demand for, say, school places if people can no longer afford school fees. But as for domestic violence and drug addiction - I'm not sure how councils are supposed to stop these happening. Publicise social services? I'm going to hit my husband/wife/significant other - can you send a social worker to talk to me? Joking apart, most people want to avoid social services so they're probably less likely to have any contact with them and how much help can they give anyway if people have to live on benefits in sub standard houses?

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Where Does it Hurt?

Where Does it Hurt? by Max Pemberton is not quite what might have been expected from his previous book - Trust Me I'm a Junior Doctor. This latest offering is about the time he spent working at an outreach project with the homeless, drug addicts and people generally outside 'normal' society. He meets some real characters - the chap who thinks he's God who takes up residence near the back door of a Tesco supermarket; Molly the 80 year old drug addict and former working girl; Barry the schizophrenic who saves the author's life in a sticky situation; Georgia who goes mad and traps everyone in the outreach project's building; Janice the middle class housewife addicted to over the counter painkillers. Not all homeless people are drug addicts and not all drug addicts are homeless though many of each group have mental health problems.

There are people who want to be helped and others who don't. He is warned at the start he will be lucky if 5% of his patients turn their lives around. He has to go out and find many of his patients rather than them coming to him and he gets to know some of the seedier parts of the city intimately. The main point of this book is that there is no one solution to the problems of society because everyone at the bottom of the heap got there for different reasons.

I found the book moving and uplifting though it is difficult to know what to read after it! I have started Anne Brooke's The Bones of Summer and it looks good - especially seeing Paul from someone else's point of view; Bluestockings by Jane Robinson - strange to think women were first awarded degrees only in 1882 and not until 1920 from Oxford; and Carmen Reid's How Not To Shop - chick lit, which I found just too light and fluffy after Where Does it Hurt?. A pretty diverse selection of reading here!

Monday, 10 August 2009

More family history

I've just received the birth certificate for a lady born in 1884 and called Rose Hannah Slator - she would have been my great aunt and was half sister to my great grandmother Sarah Jane. I wanted to find out who my great great grandfather married following the death of his first wife. His second wife was called Martha Butler (or Baker) depending on which source you consult. So I have sent for the marriage certificate. I do have vague recollections of my father mentioning an Aunt Rose but whether this was the lady I'm not really sure.

I have been trawling through census records for the outer reaches of my family and have found - among other occupations -: general dealer; boy employed to scare birds in a field; colliery clerk; railway clerk; farm bailiff; jobbing gardener; farmer of 14 acres; maid of all work; domestic servant; grocer's boy; cow man; waggoner and of course the ubiquitous agricultural labourer. If I was looking for someone from the nobility then I'd have been sadly disappointed! Having said that though some of my ancestors were sufficiently well to do to have servants - possibly because they tended to have large families.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

The Rehearsal - the review

Having said - erroneously - the story was set in America I am now happy to report it was actually set in New Zealand! I knew it wasn't the UK but it didn't seem quite right for America either so I'm glad to have that point cleared up. I finally gave it a 4 star review on Amazon.

There was some excellent writing in the book and it raised some profound questions about the connections between theatre and reality and how much we are all playing a part in our lives. I got really sick of the Saxophone Teacher - who is never named - but the other characters were well drawn and believable especially Stanley - the drama student and Isolde the sister of the girl involved in the scandal at school.

Some scenes were written as though they were being performed in a theatre and others were described several times from different viewpoints. As I said before it almost didn't matter what order you read the book in but I got more used to that as I got into the story. Overall I did enjoy it though the first 100 pages were very confusing.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

The Rehearsal

After my - sort of - rant yesterday it is actually improving. I read 100 pages so I'm now two thirds of the way through. I do wish authors with pretensions to being literary novelists would realise that they don't have to mess around with the conventional novel structure in order to be well thought of/famous. There is some excellent characterisation and some very well written scenes - all spoilt by the mix and max attitude to plot and timescale. Maybe a definitive review tomorrow.

As light relief I started reading The Checkout Girl by Tazeen Ahmad. I love books about people's jobs and having worked in a supermarket - as a shelf filler rather than a checkout person - I'm finding this interesting. The author, a journalist, took a job at Sainsbury's in order to improve her own finances and has written the book about her experiences. She decided to use it as a means to find out how the recession is affecting people and her descriptions of customers and their purchases are a real slice of life. If I ever decide to write a novel set in a supermarket I shall have plenty of material!

Friday, 7 August 2009

The Rehearsal

The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton. This is not a book I would have chosen to read but the blurb made it look interesting. A scandal involving a pupil and a teacher rocks a high school somewhere in America. In fact a whole community is rocked by it and a local drama college decides to turn it into a play. Sounds OK - reminiscent maybe of Zoe Heller's Notes on a Scandal about which I had somewhat mixed feelings.

As I have to write a review of it I've been forced to persevere with reading it and have managed just over 100 pages so far. It is improving but I'm beginning to think it should have come in loose leaf format so that you could throw it up in the air and read it at random. It dots around in time and space, people seem to say exactly what they're thinking, incidents are described and re-described from the point of view of each protagonist , there's a very strange saxophone teacher keeps cropping up just when you think she's disappeared for good and well I'm not sure where the plot is but it doesn't seem to be contained in anything I've read so far. But even after all that it does have something indefinable about it even though the sentence structure is sometimes eccentric and makes me cringe.

Perhaps I can, with a concerted effort, finish it over the next couple of days and move onto something more interesting.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Mad, Bad and Sad

A description of me? No, a book title. Mad, Bad and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors from 1800 by Lisa Appignanesi. An absolutely fascinating read, though not an easy one. It raises more questions than it answers and provides a great deal of information about many forms of mental illness.

I thought the case histories were most interesting with information about Sylvia Plath and Marilyn Monroe among others. It is intriguing that certain illnesses seemed to follow almost a fashion. In one era hysteria - or anything which could possibly be labelled hysteria - was most common; whereas at other times schizophrenia was the illness of the day. Sometimes it seems women were incarcerated if they did not conform to normally expected standards of behaviour.

My only criticism of the book is that it hardly mentions Jung whereas there are many pages devoted to Freud and his disciples. A strange omission.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009


I've noticed in the last couple of days that we seem to have lots of butterflies around. Not something I've noticed for some years now. Admittedly most of them are the usual cabbage whites but I've seen several red admirals as well - including one drowned in a puddle - at least I assume it drowned. It's really nice to see them out again. I wonder whether it's because there are a lot more well established gardens round here with maybe butterfly attracting plants?

No ladybirds though - unlike other parts of the country. I seem to remember a similar plague of ladybirds in the early 1970s. I was working in a library at the time and remember having to make sure we didn't squash ladybirds in the books!

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Stupid council decisions etc.

I was reading a story yesterday about a local authority who closed down a women's refuge because they wouldn't accept men as inmates. They said they couldn't afford similar provision for men so it would have to close. I can't at the moment locate the story but that was the gist of it. I seem to remember it was somewhere like Weymouth.

Common sense suggests that if there are limited resources you share them out evenly and provide support for both sexes but that doesn't seem to have occurred to anyone. I have no problem with the idea men do suffer from domestic violence so I think they should be provided with support but surely it makes no sense to deprive women because you can't afford to provide for men?

I was shocked to find I actually agree with Harriet Harman when she says male bankers are to blame for the banking crisis. After all the top jobs in such institutions usually go to men so they should take the responsibility. If they want the huge salaries and bonuses which go with such jobs then they should take the flak and the responsibility when things go wrong. It's nothing to do with feminism or doing men down. I don't agree with positive discrimination which is another of her big issues.

Monday, 3 August 2009

Frustrating searches on 1861 census

I've just spent a couple of hours looking for people on the 1861 census - both on Ancestry and on FreeCen. There are several people I'm missing from that year - in fact a large proportion of the people in my family tree who were around then! I belatedly bothered to check how good the coverage of Lincolnshire is on FreeCen and found it isn't anywhere near complete! I suspect spelling errors or transcription errors are the problem with the ones I can't find on Ancestry. I think 1861 is the year I've had most problems with so far. I also suspect the Ancestry site was busy today because of the records of Old Bailey trials being newly available.

Looking on the bright side I've ordered a copy of the birth certificate for a half sister of my great grandmother because I want to see who her mother was and therefore who my great great grandfather's second wife was so that will make interesting reading when I get it.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

I gave up

Not on anything important but on The Russuan Dreambook of Colour and Flight by Gina Ochsner. The cover is attractive but the contents aren't - well not in my opinion. It centres round a run down an apartment block with a pile of rubbish in the courtyard, a rotting corpse which keeps appearing as a ghost to various people, feral children living in the courtyard and to cap it all an outside lavatory. Very realist literature.

It also features a former soldier who wanders around in a motorcycle helmet, a lady who charges for the use of the loo, Tanya who works in the local museum where all the exhibits have been made by the staff and Olga who works in a newspaper office rewriting news items into an acceptable format. There is virtually no plot. I read every word for the first 150 pages and skimmed the rest. As far as I was concerned it failed dismally as entertainment even though it has received good reviews.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Currently reading . . .

The Russian Dreambook of Colour and Flight by Gina Ochsner - I've been reading this for what seems like eternity and I keep thinking I'll stop and admit defeat. It is just too much attention to bodily functions, dirt and incomprehensible people who might or might not be dead.

Crusaders by Richard T Kelly - again I've been reading it for too long and keep thinking I'll give up. It's quite good and an interesting subject but about 150 pages too long and rather over written.

The Third Rumpole Omnibus by John Mortimer - a pick up and put down book as it's short stories and always a joy to read.

Mad, Bad and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors from 1800 by Lisa Appignanesi - I've just started this and it's very interesting. I had completely forgotten that Mary Lamb murdered her mother. Surprisingly enough she did not end up in prison but spent a short time in a private asylum and was then released into the care of brother Charles. She used to have a relapse every so often and would pack her own bag and tell her brother he needed to take her to the asylum.

Waiting in the wings - Anne Brooke's The Bones of Summer and Christopher Booker's The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. I've wanted a copy of this ever since it came out and I finally decided I'd have to buy it. At 700 pages it is going to take some reading but I shall give it a go.

I also need to read - and write a review of - The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton which seems to be a sort of DIY story in that you could almost read the chapters in any order. I've read about 20 pages and have totally lost the plot. I think I'm going to have to start again with it. Reviews seems to suggest it is very clever - which I suspect translates as the reviewer couldn't understand it and hopes someone will enlighten him/her as to the meaning of the whole thing.