The Looking-Glass War by John le Carre

The Looking Glass War cover

The Looking Glass War by John le Carre was first published in 1965. This is the third le Carre book that I’ve read and it’s the one that I least liked, it seems that I’m not alone in that as le Carre said that “his readers hated me for it”, but he was cheered by the fact that it went down better with American readers. I suspect that this tale is just too near the truth for most Brits to want to accept. The two government military intelligence departments involved are rivals, don’t share information and a lot of mistakes are made.

A Soviet defector claims that the Soviets are positioning missiles at Rostock close to the West German border. That information is treated as suspect and in an attempt to get some clarification an airline pilot is paid to divert his plane over Rostock to get photographs of the area. The intelligence officer sent to pick up the film is killed in a hit and run accident but this is interpreted as being a murder by the Stasi. A lot of the book is about a Polish officer being trained to go into the east to send radio messages back to London. Almost as soon as he gets there things go wrong. It’s not going to end well.

This book was written as a satire but mainly hasn’t been read as such.

It shows that lives were/are cheap but as the reader is involved with the spy and the relationship between him and the man training him then the casual lack of loyalty leaves a bad taste in the mouth. For that reason I found it quite depressing particularly as John le Carre was an MI5 and MI6 agent himself and he said it was an accurate representation of his own experiences. It sounds like ‘botched’ is the operative word.

Not long ago the man at the top of such things nowadays gave a speech at St Andrews University, saying that you didn’t have to be an Oxbridge graduate to be recruited by them. I’d advise anyone to just say NO.

The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen

The Last September cover

The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen was first published in 1929 and it was just her second book and I think it shows, although having said that I must admit that her first book The Hotel seemed far better to me. Her books are very hit and miss, I wasn’t at all keen on The Little Girls, but I did enjoy In the Heat of the Day.

Anyway The Last September was fairly recently made into a film and my copy of the book is the tie in. The film starred Keeley Hawes, Jane Birkin, Michael Gambon, Fiona Shaw, Maggie Smith and Lambert Wilson.

The setting is Ireland in 1920 at the beginning of ‘The Troubles’. The problem is that it takes great skill not to make reading a book tedious – if you’re writing about really rather boring parties. Danielstown is the local ‘big house’ which is owned by an Anglo Irish family. They’re very gregarious and as the area is full of very young English officers the house has been thrown open to them for tennis parties and dances. There are a lot of upper class single women around, presumably because so many men were killed in World War 1 and there are some pairings off despite parents saying that such pairings can’t happen because the officers are just out of school and have no money or prospects, or come from Surrey which is just the absolute end to the snobbish Anglo Irish.

But the young subalterns are there to do a job, and they have to go out looking for IRA men and searching for guns and it ends in disaster for some of the young people.

There’s an introduction by Victoria Glendinning who says that this is her favourite Bowen book but I felt that it was in dire need of a good editor, just too much meandering chat and thought, but obviously that appeals to other readers. I wasn’t keen on her writing style. I have to say that I went right off Bowen after reading The Love-charm of Bombs in which it’s described how she regularly took herself off to neutral Ireland during World War 2 when she had had enough of the bombing and lack of food in London.

Elizabeth Bowen was herself Anglo Irish – they were Protestants who were transplanted to Catholic Ireland from England for political reasons generations before, and the tragedy for them was that they weren’t truly accepted by either community, but that’s something that they never seemed to realise. Some of the locals would have been employed by those in the ‘big house’ as servants who I’m fairly sure would have despised them as being English and upper class and so they always lived in fear of being attacked and their houses being burnt down by the ‘real Irish’. That didn’t stop Elizabeth Bowen from actually having an affair with an IRA man – delusional I’d say, or she just liked living dangerously. I remember in the 1970s there were some terrible incidents with Anglo Irish people being murdered in their own homes, but presumably if they left their ‘big houses’ then they would never be able to afford the same standard of living in England.

Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans

 Crooked Heart cover

I borrowed Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans from the library as some blogger pals had enjoyed it so much and I thought that with its World War 2 setting it would be right up my street. To begin with I actually found it quite slow but when I did get into it I really enjoyed it. There are quirky characters and on the surface they seem unlikable but I ended up really appreciating them.

Noel Bostock is an unusual 10 year old, he loves books and speaks like a well-educated adult, which doesn’t endear himself to the other children in the school in St Albans that he has been evacuated to from London. His parents are dead and he’s really alone in the world. He’s billeted with Vera Sedge who is a 36 year old unmarried mother of a brat of a 19 year old son. Her mother is also part of the household, but she hasn’t spoken since Vera announced to her that she was pregnant, the shock was too much for her.

Vera is always short of money and her various nefarious schemes to get out of debt have been unsuccessful – until Noel gets involved. Vera had been lonely as she could never have a conversation with her mother, and her son wasn’t interested in her at all. When Noel begins to actually have conversations with her it’s a pleasant surprise for her, even if he’s often explaining things to her – as if he were the adult. They end up being quite a team.

I’m more used to reading books that were actually written during the war but I think this one captured the atmosphere well, particularly the amount of dodgy dealings that were going on. There used to be a myth going about that criminal activities almost disappeared during the war effort when of course the opposite is true. Often formerly honest people turned to crime. Dishonest people grabbed the new opportunities that opened up for them, and the blackout was a great help to people getting up to things under the cover of darkness.

Amongst the blurb on the back is this: ‘Spirited, quirky characters and a devilish wit… Why is Lissa Evans not one of our best-known and best-loved authors?’ Sunday Express

I’ll certainly be looking out for more books by her.

Chronicles of Carlingford by Mrs Oliphant

Chronicles of Carlingford cover

Chronicles of Carlingford by the very prolific Scottish author Mrs Oliphant is a Virago publication which consists of two novellas – The Rector and The Doctor’s Family, originally published in 1863. There’s an introduction by Penelope Fitzgerald.

The blurb on the back of this book compares Margaret Oliphant with Jane Austen, George Eliot and Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire Chronicles. I would include Mrs Gaskell too.

The Rector is only 35 pages long, the setting is mid 19th century Carlingford which is a small town close to London. A new rector/minister is coming to the town and his parishioners are anticipating what sort of preacher he will be. Surely he won’t be as low church as the last rector. He had gone to the canal and preached to the bargemen there – that didn’t go down at all well with his snooty congregation. Most of them are hoping for something a bit more stylish – and preferrably a bachelor as there are several unmarried ladies apparently in need of a husband. The new rector has spent the last 15 years cloistered in All Souls and this is his first living. He may be a great theologian but he’s absolutely at sea when it comes to human nature and dealing with his parishioners.

Difficult or awkward men seem to have been Oliphant’s forte. There’s no doubt she had plenty of experience of them within her own family, and in fact she came to believe that her managing and competent character contributed to the weakness in her menfolk.

The Doctor’s Family is 157 pages long. Young Doctor Rider has just moved to a newly built part of Carlingford, he doesn’t know it but that is not going to do his business any good. The old established Carlingfordians look down on that area. His older brother had gone to Australia under some sort of cloud and he had married and had a family out there. Things didn’t go any better for him in Australia – well – he is a drunkard – so he had come home and was living at his young brother’s expense.

Dr Rider had decided that although he wanted to marry a young woman he couldn’t afford to look after his brother and a wife and children, so he had given up hope of marrying at all. Imagine his horror when his brother’s wife and children and her sister turn up and billet themselves on him!

Even worse – it turns out that his brother’s wife is feckless and doesn’t even take any notice of their badly behaved children, and for some reason she blames her brother-in-law for the situation that she and her husband are in.

This one is much stronger I think, but they’re both well worth reading and have moments of comedy as well as frustration at enraging characters.

Dolly Dialogues by Anthony Hope

Dolly Dialogues cover

I decided to read Dolly Dialogues by Anthony Hope for the comic novel category in Back to the Classics Challenge 2019 which is hosted by Karen of Books and Chocolate.

This slim book has 144 pages consisting of 20 short chapters which were originally published separately in the Westminster Gazette. The book was first published in 1994 and it is really quite funny with some laugh out loud bits.

Dolly is a young flibbertigibbet who soon changes from Miss Dolly Foster by becoming the wife of Lord Mickleham who is wealthy but rather boring. Her husband’s mother and sisters disapprove of his choice of wife, not that that bothers Dolly.

Dolly has had lots of romances with various young men and Sam Carter is one of them and her marriage doesn’t hold her back from having him as a close friend and according to her mother-in-law – indulging in ‘romping’ with him. This is a fun comedy of Victorian manners.

New to me books

On Sunday we went to the antiques fair at Ingliston, we hadn’t managed to go to the last one they had there as we were down south – in a place that others call ‘up north’ but it’s all relative. It was one of those dodging cameras days as they were filming an episode of Bargain Hunt that day.

Mauchline Box

Almost everything I bought was paper – books and postcards although I also bought yet another Mauchline box although I had decided ages ago that I would collect no more of them, but this one has a particularly pretty decoration on the lid and the image is of St Anne’s Well in Malvern. Next time we visit Malvern I’m going to seek it out as there’s a cafe there now.

New to me Books - and a Box

Anyway – to the books. I bought four books from a travel series called About Britain, these date from 1951 and they have the Festival of Britain logo on the dust jackets. The actual book covers underneath are pristine versions of the dust jackets. I’ve discovered that there were 13 books in the series and I bought:

Book Covers and a Box

Lowlands of Scotland
North Wales
The Lakes to Tyneside
Lancashire and Yorkshire
I’ve checked up on the internet and most of these books are available at a very reasonable price so I intend to complete the collection eventually.

I also bought the official sequel to J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, I’m a bit of a Peter Pan fan. It’s called Peter Pan in Scarlet by Geraldine McCaughrean and is inscribed and signed by her. J.M. Barrie gave his Peter Pan royalties to Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital and despite the fact that the copyright has run out they are still getting the money from it and presumably they gain from this one too.

The last book that I bought is a lovely wee copy of Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol and other poems. This book has been bound to look much older than it is. It was published by Heron Books in 1970 and again it’s dirt cheap. I had never read The Ballad of R G, it was deemed unsuitable for many poetry books I think, so I was keen to read it, it’s long and as you would expect, not exactly uplifting.

The postcards that I bought are old ones of Loch Lomond, years ago I started to collect old postcards from places that we had lived in (I grew up near Loch Lomond) but it’s a long time since I added to them.

Not a lot of money was spent and we had enjoyable chats with some of the stallholders, it was a good day out. Jack didn’t buy anything, but I think he enjoyed himself!

Gardener’s Nightcap by Muriel Stuart

 Gardener's Nightcap cover

Gardener’s Nightcap by Muriel Stuart is a Persephone book which was originally published back in 1938.

Muriel Stuart was better known as a poet apparently and Thomas Hardy described her work as being superlatively good. She was the daughter of a Scottish barrister and was known as a Scottish poet although for most of her life she lived in England.

This is one of those books that you can dip in and out of, opening the book at random you can find an interesting half page on the subject of yellow roses or fragrant shrubs for the garden, leaf moulds or the autumn paeony. I found it slightly frustrating though as I’m sure that most of the plants that are mentioned have been superseded by ‘improved’ cultivars, so they’ll be unobtainable.

There’s even a recipe for making your own rose oil, somewhat different from my efforts to make rose perfume as a wee girl, so the outcome might be better. Quite an interesting read but I think her earlier book called Fool’s Garden which was published in 1936 and was a bestselling book about creating a garden might be even more interesting for serious gardeners although I suppose again many of the plants mentioned would be unobtainable.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

 A Tree Grows in Brooklyn cover

I feel that I might be close to being one of the last females in the western world to read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. The blurb on the front of the book says: Poignant, moving, triumphant – in the bestselling tradition of Angela’s Ashes. I find that really bizarre as this book was first published in 1943 and Angela’s Ashes was published in 1996 and is so much more depressing and frankly distressing than A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

The setting is the Williamsburg slums of Brooklyn where the Nolan family is living a hand to mouth existence, being held back by the alcoholic father who is ruled by his need for alcohol but otherwise is a decent father and husband, greatly loved by his family despite his weakness. The book begins in 1912. Katie and Johnny are a young married couple. Katie married Johnny mainly because he had been her friend’s boyfriend and she liked knowing that her friend had still wanted him, she liked winning him but it wasn’t long before Katie realised that she had taken on a big problem and she realised that she would have to find work with a home as part of the deal as paying rent was going to be a problem. She can’t rely on her husband to come home from work with his wages. To add to their problems in no time Katie and Johnny find themselves the parents of a daughter and son.

Francie is the young daughter who along with her brother Neeley and their mother manage to cope with the poverty and often go hungry when Papa loses his job due to his drinking. He’s a singing waiter (who knew?). Papa has charm though and he’s a popular character, I think Francie inherited his charm. She’s a bookish little girl and her favourite place is the library, despite the fact that she doesn’t get much in the way of encouragement from the librarian. She can hardly wait to get home with her books where she sits out on the fire escape to read them, hidden from the neighbours by her tree. I loved Francie and how she matures in this book but there are other great characters in it too, people that I was happy to spend a lot of time with as this book has 487 pages.

To me there’s a vast difference between this one and Angela’s Ashes as in that one the mother is just as bad as the father is and she just spends her time drinking and smoking while her children die of starvation or suffer from terrible health problems that could be easily dealt with by a doctor. However Katie is the opposite, she’s hardworking and resourceful, but she isn’t able to hide that she loves Neeley much more than she loves Francie and Francie has to take second best all the time. This is how it was back then, in fact it was how it was when I was growing up in the 1960s/70s. Boys in families were treated like kings and the daughters were the maidservants. I hope it’s different nowadays!

I read this one for The Classics Club and I think I’ll probably give it five stars on Goodreads.

WHAT TO EAT WHEN by Michael F. Roizen, M.D. and Michael Crupain, M.D.,M.P.H.

what to eat when

I was asked if I would like to review WHAT TO EAT WHEN by Michael F. Roizen and Michael Crupain and as I’ve never read anything like it before I thought it might be an interesting read – and it was. I must say though that a lot of the information is just what I would call common sense, but I suppose not everyone has common sense. It’s A Strategic Plan to Improve Your Health & Life Through Food.

The main thing seems to be the timing of people’s meals. It’s suggested that people should fast for twelve hours overnight. I do that anyway. Eating late on in the day is not good for you as you’re more likely to put on weight that way as your body’s clock deals with the food differently as you sleep. It seems obvious to me that you shouldn’t go to bed with a heavy meal sitting inside you!

Pay attention to what you eat – that means don’t read or watch TV whilst eating. I so agree with this as people just don’t notice how much they are eating if they do it mindlessly. I would also add that people should chew food properly. Most of the very overweight people that I know eat so fast that the food hardly seems to touch the inside of their mouths. Don’t eat like a ravenous dog!

There are tips on what to eat when you’re stressed and hangry, fighting fatigue, bummed, experiencing grief, when you can’t sleep, when you get a lot of headaches, when you’re sick, when you’re in pain, when you have digestive problems, when you’re trying to get pregnant, when you need to shrink your prostate, when you have hormonal issues, when you have hot flashes, when you want to prevent type 2 diabetes … and many many more situations.

Unsurprisingly the advice is to avoid processed foods and there are tips on how to make that easier, but to me many of the foods suggested seem very uninteresting and quite boring, however I know from experience that it doesn’t take long to re-educate your taste buds. Nuts seem to feature a lot though as substitutes for something sweet. I find that if you are on a healthy eating kick then the best thing to do is to have one day off a week – for me it was Sunday so I always had a lovely Sunday dinner and pudding to look forward to during the week.

I don’t see myself ever getting excited over eating an egg white omelette.

Small amounts of dark chocolate are allowed. My brother in Holland was advised to eat that after he had his triple heart bypass so that must be a universal ‘medication’.

I actually think this is a good book for lots of situations as there’s advice on what to do if you have gout, kidney stones, restless leg syndrome, gallstones and also how to reduce inflammation. All in all it’s – Quite Interesting – and is written in an easily accessible style.

Thank you to Trish Collins of TLC Book Tours for sending me a copy of this book.

tlc

Naming the Bones by Louise Welsh

Naming the Bones by Louise Welsh was published in 2010. Louise Welsh was born in England but I think she counts as a Scottish author as she has lived in Scotland for years and she went to The University of Glasgow.

The setting of this book is Glasgow and Edinburgh but it eventually moves to the Island of Lismore in the inner Hebrides.

Murray Watson is a lecturer in English at The University of Glasgow but his career is not really going anywhere and he has decided to do some research on the poet Archie Lunan who had died in mysterious circumstances 30 years previously. Did he commit suicide or was it an accident? But Lunan had only written one slim volume of poetry and there doesn’t really seem to be any more material for Murray to be able to write anything that would be of interest to anyone.

It looks like Murray’s career is on a downward spiral and when he realises that Fergus the head of the department has discovered that Murray has been having an affair with his wife Rachel, Murray thinks he’ll probably lose his job at the university. In a desperate effort to find out something new about Archie Lunan, Murray contacts the old head of department hoping that he can give him some information on Archie Lunan when he was one of his students. It seems that he can’t but he does imply that the person to ask would be Fergus as he knew Archie well. But Fergus had claimed that he didn’t know Archie at all.

Murray takes himself off to Lismore, the island where Lunan had lived for a while and where he had died. The ‘dry’ island is not a place of joy. Archie isn’t the only person to have come to grief there and during a howling winter gale things go from bad to worse.

This thriller was mildly entertaining but not as good as the other books that I’ve read by the author.