The Pheasants Revolt – Brian Viner – Book Review

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This was one of the books that I recently bought at the annual Hastings Lions Book Sale and the first one that I’ve decided to read. It’s a biographical memoir and follows on where his first book Tales of the Country, which I still have to read, left off. As mentioned in my post about the book sale, I’d already started the book more or less as soon as I got home and it only took three sessions of reading to get through it. His writing flows very easily and you find you’re unable to stop yourself speeding through the stories. Although each chapter is a stand alone story of his family and their life in the British countryside, they are in chronological order so it still, in a way, reads like it’s one story.

It’s not a new book, the ones at the book sale seldom are, and was published in 2007. But from my own experience, although cities change rather quickly, life in the countryside is much slower paced so the stories in this book will ring as true today as when first published.

Although he’s not quite in Bill Bryson’s league as far as one liners go, Viner can still throw in one or two lines to make the reader chuckle along the way, for example – “Applying a razor blade to one’s scrotum is not a job anyone should do in a hurry.” – this from a story relating to his preparation for a vasectomy operation. It’s certainly an attention grabber. Actually, on reflection, he and Bryson do have a lot in common as far as their writing styles are concerned. Both write in the same way that a favourite long-lived uncle would bumble his way through stories of his dim and distant past. Getting lost on the way and taking several side paths before getting back on track to finish the story….and on occasion just getting totally lost.

He’s moved his wife and three children from the city to an old manor house in the Hereford countryside to “live the country life”, but he’s totally inept at country living. His idea of success is being able to walk across a cow paddock without standing in a cow pat, however he does learn how to turn a sheep up the right way…..please don’t ask – read the book.

His predominantly self-depreciating stories cover everything from – being a Beater during Grouse shooting season… the first day known as the ‘Glorious Twelfth’, and to grouse as ‘Bollocks, Is It Already That Time of Year Again?’ – coming home to find that the builders who have come to repair his house have spent a whole day putting up scaffolding against the wrong wall – the disaster faced when finding his two dogs had been out savaging sheep – discussing the delights and the downfalls of country dining – the right and wrong way, from experience, to raise chickens – his experiences of being a very minor celebrity – his discovery that one of his neighbours is, or I should say was, a notorious Madame (Madame Whiplash no less) and more.

It’s a very entertaining read and I will certainly make an effort to track down both his earlier book Tales of The Country, and a later one called Cream Teas, Traffic Jams and Sunburn, about the British on holiday. If they are anything like The Pheasants’ Revolt they will be witty and entertaining reads.

North Korea Journal – Michael Palin (Review).

As I may have mentioned once or twice on past posts on this blog, I enjoy reading travel books and one of my favourite authors (along with Bill Bryson) is Michael Palin. His travel books usually accompany a TV series of the same name as his books. Since 1989, starting with his first ever travel book and accompanying TV show, Around the World In 80 Days, he was connected, almost at the hip it would seem, to the BBC. Usually, his travel series have multiple episodes. This latest book however, is presented alongside a TV show in only 2 parts, which has already been shown on British TV Chanel Five / ITV productions.

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The last time Palin was anywhere near North Korea was back in 1997 for yet another travel book and show Full Circle, but he only got a glimpse of North Korea from the South Korean side of the demilitarized zone. This time he gets a tour of the demilitarized zone from the other side and a frank discussion with the officer in charge. North Korea or we should call it the DPRK – Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – lays out the welcome mat and Palin, now in his 75th year, gets to see one of the most secret and mysterious countries on the planet.

Of course he doesn’t get free reign to go where he wants. He has two official guides who go everywhere with him plus other “ministry officials” who make sure that his guides don’t allow Palin to wander too far off the official track.

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Photo by Harvey Sullivan – The Sun.

He gets to see pristine cities where the streets are almost empty of traffic, giant statues of past “Great Leaders”, and symbols and buildings commemorating the “Great Leaders”. He also visits a state of the art airport – with no planes and no flights, a street of tower blocks built within a year, that seem to house very few people and a massive, symbolic hotel with no guests what so ever. The DPRK seems to be as a country, much like a show home is to a yet to be built housing estate. Everything is there, it appears, as a front, but there is little substance and in some cases no actual function for the building/hotel/airport. As my grandmother used to say – “All fur coat and no knickers”. This was evident in the state of the roads. Within the capital city, the streets were first class, pristine if somewhat devoid of traffic. Once outside city limits though the highways were cracked and uneven – so that every journey felt like a ride inside a tumble dryer.

The first three days – which according to Palin felt like three weeks as it was such hard work to be able to achieve what they wanted and every step had to be negotiated – Palin, his director and film crew are under strict observation and are quickly shut down and moved to another location if anything occurs that may show the DPRK in a bad light. The people he gets to meet are, to begin with, all prearranged, preapproved and very much pro the ruling regime. After a while though, once Palin and company have proved themselves as willing to follow their minders guidelines, they are given a little more rope and get to interact with the general public – some of them rather the worse for drink – at a party in a park and also to enjoy the scenery of the hills and valleys on a hike in the countryside alone when their minders, not dressed suitably for the hike, leave them to it.

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Palin with farm worker and the all important little Red Tractor

At one point they visit a farm – where the workers are in military uniform – and Palin “helps” a female farm worker with some weeding. The shoot couldn’t begin however until a tractor had been moved into the background – to prove that farms are not all manual labour in North Korea and that machinery is available (even if the tractor in question was around fifty years old). When Palin asked the female farm worker how he faired as a farmhand, she quite straight forwardly told him that he was “unnecessary”.

Even with the loosening of some of the rules, Palin only had to hint at a question critical of the regime or of the history of North Korea and he was pulled up short and sharp. He told one of his guides that in the UK “we are able to be quite rude about our political leaders”. But, not wanting to get drawn in to this sort of discussion she countered with “That’s what makes us so different. Our leaders are very great. They are not individuals, but represent the masses, so we cannot criticise ourselves, can we?” One wonders at what he and his guides discussed off camera that didn’t get put into the book – for the safety of the guides themselves.

There are a few extra pages at the end of the book, written by director Neil Fergusson, which covers his own earlier visit to North Korea to meet with officials and to discuss their filming schedule, rules and regulations. He had sent the North Koreans a wish list of places and people he would like to film, but on his arrival the “official schedule” looked absolutely nothing like what he’s asked for. Several days of negotiations followed before a schedule that was acceptable to both sides was reached. Despite promises and signed contracts it wasn’t until Palin and the film crew actually stepped on to North Korean soil that they realised that the shooting or the North Korea Journal was good to go.

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Palin with his two tour guides – Li So Hyang and Li Hyon Chol – his constant companions.

In summarising the 15 day whirlwind trip, Palin says that although there are certainly some differences between how North Korea and for example Britain function as far as regulations and freedoms are concerned, there were far more similarities than he expected.

North Korea feels that it can’t let its guard down even slightly due to the ever present American military threat – no wonder it has the 4th largest army in the world. Almost a quarter of the entire North Korean population are members of the armed forces. These military personnel however also man the farms, the factories and the building sites, so you don’t see them all wandering around the towns and cities carrying weapons.

To directly quote a section of the final paragraph of the book, Palin says “…the trip has been an eye-opener, a chance to look behind the headlines and see this secretive country as few other westerners ever will. As Pyongyang recedes into the distance, we turn and exchange smiles. Of relief, but also of regret. One thing we all agreed on at our farewell meal last night is that none of us would mind coming back.”

All of the travel books by Michael Palin are of good quality and this one is no exception, except for being of smaller format than usual, as you can see from the photo below. It’s an easy and enjoyable read, witty and informative – filling in some of the unknowns about North Korea without being in any way controversial or overly critical. Palin is too nice a guy to stir things up just for viewing figures, or book sales. He was Knighted earlier this year (2019) for services to travel, culture and geography following his career as a writer and presenter of documentaries that have taken him all over the world. I do fear, having reached the age of 75, that this could be Palin’s last travel adventure. I hope not, but time will tell.

Some of Michael Palin’s books on my shelves.

As usual thank you for reading this blog…comments, questions, likes and follows are all very much appreciated.

Book reviews and disaster preparedness.

In these uncertain times there are a fallout shelter load of books by any number of writers, who’s aim is to help us to survive various disaster scenarios. A survivalist by the name of Creek Stewart has put out several books – aimed at educating us to survive through a variety of disaster scenarios – 3 of which are under the “Build the Perfect” banner, as in Build the Perfect Bug Out Bag (2012), Build the Perfect Bug Out Vehicle (2014), and Build the Perfect Bug Out Survival Skills (2015).

I haven’t seen the Survival Skills book yet, but I have recently read the other two….and I’ll give you my take on them shortly. The idea of “Bugging Out” or “Bugging In” is about making the decision to either stay in place, at home (Bugging In), in the aftermath of a disaster, or before the disaster hits, with prior warning – be it a natural disaster such as a damaging storm, earth quake or volcanic eruption, or a man made disaster such as a terrorist event, warfare, EMP etc – OR the other option is to leave home and move to a pre-planned safe zone (Bugging Out).

Creek Stewart – who not only writes about survival skills, but also teaches and lives the survival lifestyle, is based in Central Indiana in the U S A, where he owns and runs a survival school. In his first book in the Bug Out series he discusses the best options for putting together your Bug Out Bag.

Some preppers and survivalists love their bags and their emergency survival equipment and can’t have enough of both. Others rely more on skills and therefore require less emergency equipment. Bags for carrying your emergency preparedness equipment come in ever increasing sizes. For example, the smallest collection would come under the title of your EDC – meaning Every Day Carry. This is the absolute base line equipment that you have on you daily, where ever you may be – just in case of an emergency / disaster. Your EDC could be carried only in your pockets, or it could be in a pouch on your belt, or a small bag, for example a messenger bag or similar. My own EDC consists of my wallet (with the usual cards and money – plus a credit card size multitool), my small, tactical torch, a Truper folding knife (with built in seatbelt cutter and window breaking tool), and a fire steel. These items make up my minimum EDC – along with my cell phone. I realize that a few tools are going to solve the problem of our possible forthcoming extinction, but they could come in handy in any number of emergency situations.

The next size up from the EDC is the GHB (Get Home Bag) – basically gear that will help you to get home in once piece from where ever you may be. The items for this Bag would depend on how far away from your home base your journey took you. Obviously you’d need more equipment if you were going to take several days to get home (such as a shelter of some sort, water/food, possibly wet weather gear etc), than if you were only an hour or so’s walk from home.

Next comes your BOB (Bug Out Bag) – yes, another thing that Survivalists and Preppers love is acronyms. It’s what goes into your BOB and the design of the bag itself that Creek’s book is all about. The Bug Out Bag (your 72 hour disaster survival kit) needs to be big enough to get you through 72 hours of “bugging out” – getting you from point A to point B safely – from your home to your Bug Out Location or safe point – whether it may be the home of a friend or relative, or a remote wilderness area where you plan to tough things out. BUT it also has to be light enough for you to carry comfortably over long distances. Creek suggests no heavier than 25% of your body weight. This I would suggest is OK if you are young and fit and used to taking long hikes. However, if you’re getting on in age, or are not used to extreme physical activity I would say 15% of body weight would be the maximum you’d want to get up to.

Your bag needs to be rugged enough to take the rigors of your journey, have comfortable straps and preferably a waist belt to help distribute the weight on the hips as well as on your back and shoulders. Inside your bag you need the following – assuming that some or all of your bug out route will be on foot – 1. Some form of shelter (this could be a light weight tent, or a tarpaulin, or a full body emergency bivy bag/bivouac sack) something to keep you out of the weather so you can get a good nights rest. 2. Something to start a fire with – for warmth and/or for boiling water, or cooking on. (This could be matches, a lighter, a fire steel and striker). 3. Water (the average adult needs 3 litres of water per day – possibly more if hiking, in order to stay hydrated). You don’t want to be carting around 9 litres of water to last you the entire 72 hour journey, but take 3 litres if you can for the first 24 hours and you’ll also need the ability to collect and purify any water that you come across on your journey. A metal water bottle would give you the opportunity of placing it on your fire to boil water in to sterilize it, or to make a hot drink. 4. Tools – at a minimum I’d suggest a knife and a torch (with spare batteries) – I also have a quantity of paracord and a Leatherman multitool. 5. A first aid kit – a basic kit with adhesive plasters, a couple of bandages and gauze pads, antiseptic cream, pain killers and Imodium – plus any prescription meds you are currently taking – should see you through the 72 hour trip. 6. Although you can easily get through 3 days of travel without food, something to eat to keep up the spirits, even if only trail food like beef jerky, trail mix, cereal bars or chocolate wouldn’t take up too much room in your bag. Something else that you may want to take into consideration particularly if the event/disaster has lead to civil disorder, rioting, looting, is 7. Something for self defence. Creek, being American, suggests a hand gun. All well and good if you’re in the USA and have a concealed carry permit, but if you’re in the UK or New Zealand for instance, this would be illegal.

Here in New Zealand, I live on a fault line, close to the coast, so also have the threat of Tsunami as well as Earth Quake and Volcanic activity. We are advised by Civil Defence to have a “Go Bag”. On my BOB/Go Bag, I carry a brush cutter/machete – which should help to deter any would be robber…unless of course they have a gun. AND it’s also useful for blazing a trail through the bush and for cutting up firewood. I also have a small wrecking bar attached to the outside of my bag which doubles as both a deterrent for would be robbers and a means of access to locked gates or doors – in extreme conditions – and can also be used as a digging tool. It would also come in handy, to force doors, if you were inside a building at the time of a quake and the movement of the ground shifted the frame of the building so that doors became jammed preventing a safe exit.

And finally sanitation – some people wouldn’t bother about personal hygiene and don’t mind wiping their behind on leaves during a few days discomfort on the road. But for the rest of us – pack soap, a toothbrush and toilet paper. You should also pack some extra pairs of socks – your feet need to be looked after if you are hiking – plus clothing suitable for your journey and strong footwear suitable for the task. Common sense and climate will dictate what clothing is suitable for your part of the world and whether heat or cold is the main consideration.

Bigger than the BOB is the INCH bag (although INCH may be a small measurement) – as in “I‘m Not Coming Home” bag – don’t you love these acronyms? This is going to be the biggest that you can carry and will have whatever is essential for you personally. This is used in situations where the home has to be abandoned for example due to flooding, bush fire, or extreme civil unrest emergencies.

When leaving home and bugging out it would also be wise to take with you copies of essential documents such as driver licence, passport, birth and marriage certificates, insurance certificates etc. and copies of any personal photos that you can’t bear to lose. To save space, copy all these onto a flash drive in digital format. They can always be printed out later.

Creek’s book also details a check list that tells you exactly what to pack based on your survival skill level (logic says that the more knowledge of survival you have, the more improvisational skills, the less equipment you will need). Photos and explanations of every item in your bug out bag, resource lists to help you purchase gear (USA retailers), suggestions for practice exercises to teach you how to use almost everything in your bag, demonstrations for multi-use items that save on pack space and weight…and specific gear recommendations for specific disaster scenarios are all covered in this book.

The readers on Amazon.com rate Build the Perfect Bug Out Bag at 4.5 stars out of 5. Although aimed at the American market, most information is useful and can be applied to most countries.

The second book in the series is Build the Perfect Bug Out Vehicle.

As you’d expect, this book follows the same lay out as the earlier Build the Perfect Bug Out Bag book. Creek looks at what makes the perfect Bug Out or “Get Out Of Dodge” vehicle and gives you the pro’s and cons of several options. Again, the people at Amazon rate it highly at almost 4.5 out of 5. And since I rambled on quite a lot about the Bug Out Bag book I’ll cut straight to Amazon’s round up of the book….which is…

Outfit a Disaster-Escape Vehicle!

If an unexpected disaster forces you to suddenly evacuate from your home, is your vehicle equipped to drive you to safety? It will be if you follow the advice in this book.

Build the Perfect Bug Out Vehicle shows you how to outfit any vehicle with equipment and survival gear that will help you quickly drive from ground zero to a safer location. Survival expert Creek Stewart, author of the best-selling Build the Perfect Bug Out Bag, details from start to finish everything you need to equip an everyday vehicle for a drive through and away from disaster-stricken areas―from survival supplies and storage solutions to off-road travel, communication, navigation, and security considerations.

You’ll find:

  • Practical and affordable Bug Out Vehicle equipment and principles that can be applied to any vehicle, even your everyday family car
  • Photos and explanations of every item you need for your vehicle
  • Resource lists to help you find and purchase gear

You’ll also find special considerations for bugging out using alternative modes of transportation including bicycles, boats, ATVS, motorcycles, horses, carts, aircraft and more.

A disaster could strike your home at any moment. Don’t be trapped in the devastating aftermath. Quickly transport yourself and your family to safety by building a Bug Out Vehicle today!

Of course for many of us, finances and convenience dictates our choice of bug out vehicle. In my case it’s my regular every day Ford Ute (pick up truck), which sadly is only 2 wheel drive rather than the ideal 4 x 4 selected by Creek in his book. Neither do I have all the survival whistles and bells fitted as standard such as a winch, nudge bars, snorkel exhaust, roof rack or exterior brackets for jerry cans.

Personally speaking, I would only bug out as a last resort in extreme circumstances. I would much rather elect to stay home and Bug In, as home is where I have everything I need to survive. Shelter, food supplies (stored food – frozen, dried, canned and growing in the gardens), water (tap water supply, bottled stored drinking water and rainwater collection system/storage), means to cook, wash, clean etc.

Both these books are worth reading to ready yourself in the event of a disaster. Forewarned is forearmed. As writer of Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes, once said “Forewarned, forearmed; to be prepared is half the victory”.

Creek Stewart’s website link is – http://www.creekstewart.com/

The Thing About Prague – Rachael Weiss – book review

A few months ago I was looking at the books in my book cases and had one of those “aha” moments. The majority of my books were by male authors, very few were by female writers. I hadn’t consciously been avoiding women writers, it was just one of those things. I found it really quite odd, and wondered why subconsciously I may have been avoiding them.

When I was in San Francisco earlier this year I’d read, not only a women writer, but also a feminist woman writer – Rebecca Solnit’s book ‘Call Them By Their True Names‘ (American Crises And Essays) – and thoroughly enjoyed it.

So, I am now consciously trying to read as many women writers as I do their male counterparts. With that in mind I recently picked up Rachael Weiss’s memoir about her time in Prague ‘The Thing About Prague’ – printed in 2014. Suddenly waking up to the fact that she was not only still single, but also ‘middle aged’ and having nothing better to do at the time, she decides to pack everything up and move to Prague.

The Thing About Prague

Prague is one of my favourite cities in the world, alongside Paris, so I hoped that in reading Ms Weiss’s book it would bring back some happy memories. It did, kind of, but Rachael was there long term as a resident and owner of an apartment, doing the things that residents do….like living their lives… where as I was simply there doing touristy things for a week.

Rachael’s relationship with Prague was more meaningful in that she became, or tried hard to become, part of the community there. She left her home and her pet cat back in Australia to head for the birthplace of her father, to carve out a new and more satisfying literary lifestyle. Her frustrations with the Czech language and with pedantic Czech bureaucracy comes to the boil, overflows even, numerous times as she battles officialdom – what was left over after 40 years of communist rule – trying to firstly obtain her resident visa and then to sort out the mess made by another bureaucrat who changed her job description….trying to be helpful, but in doing so created a mountain of problems for her.

It’s a nice easy read. The words and sentences flow well. She doesn’t feel the need to impress us by using complicated words that would require a quick dip into the thesaurus. It’s simply a straightforward look at the three year period of her life spent living in Prague….a city that whilst bohemian, historic and magical is anything but straightforward.

Her adventures, or should that be mis-adventures, find her doing jobs that she doesn’t like, for people she would rather avoid, but also inexplicably becomes romantically fixated on (like Leonard who foams at the mouth when excited, and spits when he talks – a real catch!)…saw her somehow leading services in a Jewish synagogue – which was more a case of ‘forgive me lord for I know not what I do’…..find her lost in the woods on a hike with a very unattractive Kyrgyzstani who has cannibalistic fantasies….and she spends lots of time in bars partaking in the traditional Czech pastime of drinking copious amounts of alcohol. All while trying to find the time, and to create the right atmosphere, for writing that all important novel.

But it’s her need for romance, to find Mr Right….or even to spend a night with Mr OK, who’ll do for now, that bring us both laughs and intense frustration. It appears, for Rachael, that the phrase ‘desperate times mean desperate measures’ defines her love life. It never ceases to amaze me how a woman who is obviously intelligent and talented could define her self-worth based on whether she has a man or not.

This is Rachael’s third book. Her second book Me, Myself and Prague (2008) was about her first attempt at living for a year in Prague….armed only with an old 1973 guide book. And her first book Are We There Yet? (2005) is another travelogue about a road trip taken with a girlfriend in a land dominated by couples having fun. I haven’t read either one yet, but intend to. Other than her books, she says that her only other claim to fame is coming fourth in the 1996 New South Wales Scrabble Tournament.

The people at Goodreads currently rate The Thing About Prague at 3.31 out of 5. I’d rate it up nearer 4 out of 5. But then I am a sucker for books about writers struggling to write THE novel. Looking on line, it would appear that since these 3 books are the only ones attributed to Rachael Weiss, she is still to write her novel. I sincerely hope that she hasn’t given up her dream.

Hurricane Katrina from one families perspective. “Zeitoun” by Dave Eggers.

Image result for zeitoun book cover

This was one of many books that I bought during my trip to San Francisco back in April/May this year. I finally got around to reading it a couple of days ago and once I had started I couldn’t put it down. What a great read! Eggers spent 3 years researching the book and interviewing the Zeitoun family (and countless others) about their harrowing experiences during and after Katrina hit New Orleans – not only related to the storm its self, but also in the way that the main character in the story Abdulrahman Zeitoun was treat by the authorities.

Obviously I don’t want to give away too much of the story as I would rather you read it for yourselves, but just to set the scene…. The Zeitoun family consist of Abdulrahman, who is a Muslim of Syrian origin, who is married to Kathy, a white American woman who had already converted to Islam prior to meeting her husband to be. She had one child from a previous relationship and 3 more with Abdulrahman, They work as a team running a painting and decorating business…also doing building repairs….they are well known and well respected in the area. As Hurricane Katrina approaches, Kathy makes the decision to evacuate, with the kids, to her sisters home which is outside of the predicted disaster zone. Her husband decided to stay put and keep an eye on the multiple properties that they own in New Orleans and to help other people install plywood boards to protect their homes.

The day after the storm, with streets flooded, Abdulrahman sets out in his old canoe to assess damage and along the route to check his various premises, makes a number of rescues of people trapped in their homes. After this, he goes out every day seeking out people who need help, or deserted pets that need feeding. He feels that Allah has given him a purpose, justifying his decision to stay in storm ravaged New Orleans. He keeps in touch by phone, every day, with family members in Syria and in Spain, and of course with his wife who is safely out of the way being sheltered by friends and family. Until one day….when there are no phone calls from him. What has happened? Is he safe? has the phone system failed or has some ill wind blown the way of Zeitoun?

It’s most certainly worth reading the book to find out. Eggers writes extremely well. The story moves along smoothly and it really is a page turner. I personally rate the book very highly – it would easily be in my top ten of all time reads…..and I have been reading for over 50 years.

Katrina hit in 2005, the book came out in 2009, but more recently a cloud has been cast over the Zeitoun family. There are a lot of accusations of wrong doing in the last few years and the family has broken up, but this should not detract from the book or the story of how this family were treated in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. After reading the book you will never look at “Officialdom”, in the USA, the same again.

Good read’s gives it 4.1 out of 5. I’d rate it much closer to 5 – it’s not prefect, but it’s damn close.

Looking at reviews of the book, of which there are many I’ll share this one with you as the reader who wrote the review shared my reaction to the book.

“I’ve got to give it to Dave Eggers in that there was no Dave Eggers in here. The reason this book succeeded was that he was able to step aside and let Zeitoun and Kathy tell their stories, using the plainest style possible to convey the most heartbreaking, sickening, and devastating episodes.

I don’t know how much of the story I should reveal… it’s better that you just read the book. But I’ll just say that it’s based on true accounts of a family who survived hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, and then survived many other more unpredictable trials. The book as a whole–its before, during, and after of events described–perfectly encapsulates my love/hate relationship with this country.

I urge you to read this (and especially if you would never normally read Dave Eggers). If you give it 40 pages of your attention, I guarantee you will finish the whole thing in a day or 2.”

He was right. 2 days and I had finished this book. A good story, well written, highlighting the ridiculous priorities of government agencies in emergency situations and a demonstration on how they treat American citizens (badly!).

Book Review – When the Lights Go Out – Mary Kubica

On the back cover of this paperback, in block capitals, it says “A WOMAN IS PLUNGED INTO A BIZARRE CASE OF STOLEN IDENTITY IN THIS AMBITIOUS AND RIVETING THRILLER BY THE BLOCKBUSTER BESTSELLING AUTHOR OF THE GOOD GIRL, MARY KUBICA”.

When The Lights Go Out

The word AMBITIOUS should have been a clue, but I opened the book anyhow and started to read. It follows the lives of two women Jessie and Eden told in two stories – Jessie’s story is told in the odd numbered chapters and Eden’s in the even numbered. Jessie’s story is unfolding as we read it, where as most of Eden’s story is from 20 years earlier.

After the death of her mother, Jessie begins to rebuild her life and starts out anew by renting an apartment of her own and applying to college in order to continue her education – which was put on hold while she looked after her dying mother. The forms for the college application require a social security number…..to cut a long story short, her name, Jessie Sloan and the social security number it brings up, refers to a girl who died 17 years earlier. Jessie goes through her mothers papers but fails to find anything that can prove who she is….or who her father was. This obviously troubles her enough to add to the insomnia she is already suffering as a result of her mothers death. Very quickly lack of sleep makes it difficult for Jessie (and the reader) to know what is real and what is imagination as her world implodes.

It seems that the answer to her identity could be revealed in the story of the second woman, Eden and decisions that she made 20 years earlier.

I really do hate to give bad reviews to books I have read. I know how attached writers get to their work and how it hurts to have anyone criticise their ‘baby’ – but what I’d hate more would be for me to give it a good review and you, dear reader, to waste time reading the book and then sending ME hate mail. And you must remember this is only my opinion….who the hell am I anyway and what do I know? Although the story began with promise, once it started to focus on the lead characters insomnia – not knowing what was really happening and what was going on inside Jessie’s head – it quickly deteriorated, and my will to live, never mind my will to continue to read this drivel novel, was sorely tested. I struggled through to page 106 of the 301 pages before the urge to toss the book into the darkest corner I could find, took over. It lays there still….gathering dust.

I looked at some on-line reviews and found some by people who obviously loved the book. They said things like “One of the best thrillers I have read – EVER!” and “Omg! This is one of the best books that I have ever read! Great thriller, love it!” And not a hint of sarcasm, so they must have genuinely thought that this is the best thriller ever written. I am stunned by the thought. I can only assume that either they were paid a huge amount of money for their review by the author’s agent, or have extremely different tastes to me, or they are very easily pleased, or perhaps they have never read any book of substance. I’ve read a few other negative reviews of this book (such as someone called Janine who gave it one star out of 5 on Goodread’s – “Well, that was some bullshit. I should have known better.“) so I’m not on my own in not liking it.

In a bid to add balance to my panning of her book let me say that Mary Kubica is a best selling author who lives in New York (who is probably laughing all the way to the bank and won’t give a damn what I think). Her first novel was The Good Girl released in 2014 and she’s written several others since then. Hopefully with better plot lines than this one. The main character Jessie may have had insomnia, but this book cured mine.

So many books, so little time. (Howards End is on the Landing)

I’ve just finished reading Susan Hill’s – “Howards End is on the Landing”. Any readers who have come across the writings of Susan Hill probably best know her for her novels – of which there are many. I haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading her fiction, but if she writes her stories in the same enthralling manner in which she wrote this book, I am guessing that she will be a delight to read. I will certainly take a book or two of hers out from the local library to see for myself.

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Howards End is on the Landing is a wonderful book that takes us on a search for E.M. Forster’s book, Howards End, among Susan Hills vast and haphazard collection of books – in many rooms, on many bookshelves and in many piles, in corners or on windowsills, or even in stacks on the stairs. The search leads her to discover many books that she has bought or otherwise acquired over the years and never read. As she continues her search for Howards End, she puts a number of these freshly re-discovered books into a “to read” pile….to be joined by other previously read books that she has a burning desire to read again. She decides to compile a list of 40 books from her own shelves to be set aside to read over the next twelve months. As she shares her collection with us we are given the benefit of Susan’s experience – educated as to which books are worth reading, have stood the test of time, are regarded as either “true” classics….or simply also-rans. And as she educates us she also entertains us – regaling us with personal stories about the books, their stories and about authors she admires, has met and/or worked with along the way. And in some instances how her opinion of some writers, she met, changed over the years. Roald Dahl being a prime example. (Read the book to find out what changed her mind about the great Mr Dahl).

Howards End is on the Landing has set me thinking about a number of book related issues such as, compared with Susan Hill, how little I have read of books that are considered to be “the classics”, how many books there are in existence, and how impossible it is to read them all. It also makes me realise that perhaps I shouldn’t waste what time I have left on this earth by reading what she regards as “pulp fiction” …. and also how many books I have collected or amassed over the years, bought on a whim and gathering dust on a shelf unread and, for now, unloved. BUT how does each person know if a book is worth reading or not, simply by reading the notes on the books cover? Even by looking on line and checking the likes of Goodread’s reviews….they are, after all, just other peoples opinions…their tastes may not be mine….the only way to find out for sure is to read each book.

As Susan Hill writes of her journey through her book collection – “What follows is a description of that journey, which has also and inevitably led to my thinking, remembering, ordering, assessing, my entire book-reading life.” And what a full and interesting book reading life that has been. She also mentions the benefits of “Slow Reading” – saying that some books you can rip through as fast as possible, enjoy the thrill of the ride, absorb a simple story-line and then put the book down never to have the urge to read it ever again….comparable to grabbing a quick burger for a snack (fast food – satisfying the immediate urge, but not a long lasting satisfaction), where as other books should be Slow Reading stories – enjoyed in well chewed mouthfuls….savoured over a long period and digested gradually over time. She will read two or three chapters of, for example, Little Dorrit, or To the Lighthouse, or Midnight’s Children – and then go back and slowly chew over each sentence….see how each paragraph has been put together….mull over how each character is developed….what they say, how they say it….she enjoys examining the complexity of language and style. Slow reading, just like slow food is to be enjoyed and absorbed gradually – not gulped down.

In the final chapter of the book she mentions that we owe it to books to bring them to life by reading them rather than letting them sit like decorations on our shelves, simply looking pretty. “…for a book which is closed and unread is not alive, it is only packed, like a foetus, with potential.”

With this in mind I am going to take a good look at the books I have amassed/collected over the years, which are currently languishing on bookshelves in the dining room, bookshelves in the spare bedroom – which doubles as my office – piled in dark corners, in boxes under beds, in long forgotten cupboards, in boxes and trunks in storage in the garage. Some no doubt never have been read, others will be old favourites which have been taken down from the shelves and read several times….others have merely been dipped into…nibbled at in snack sized bites when time allows. I owe them all another chance, so I’ll do what Susan did and take a journey across the shelves, back in time, to re-discover and reclaim the books I once held dear…and come up with a “to read” list of my own.

I’ll let you know in a future post how I get along and what I find of interest. Meantime enjoy your reading and give life to a forgotten book if you can.