The Sixteen Trees of the Somme

Wood has always held a mysterious fascination for me – mysterious inasmuch as I can never quite fathom what it is that I find so appealing. Is it the grain? The texture? Or the capacity (in skilled hands) for it to be made into something functional — sailing vessels, basic furniture and everyday utensils — and also its natural beauty in the form of exquisite designs in churches, palaces, universities, stately homes, contemporary homes and gardens.

I am a person who wanders around tree(s) and ponders on the historical events taking place whilst it grew from sapling stage to its current state. Redwoods, Oaks, Mahogany, Rimu, and even driftwood, knotted and gnarled by life and water, can leave me quite overwhelmed.

So the intriguing title The Sixteen Trees of the Somme set off my internal musings of Nature standing firm amidst man-made destruction, and it made me keen to read this book. I wasn’t disappointed!

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This is the story of Edward — a young Norwegian living on the family farm with his emotionally distant grandfather Sverre. Edward’s life has been emotionally stunted by both his upbringing — his grandfather fought in the German Army during the Second World War, a fact that sets the family apart from the other villagers — but also by being the only survivor in the tragic and inexplicable deaths of his parents. His own disappearance at that time and subsequent recovery four days later when just a toddler is an unsolved mystery. Edward doesn’t fit in and isn’t particularly happy with his solitary condition.

After the sudden death of his grandfather, Edward has a talk with the local minister who provides him with the basic bones of his family history including the introduction of Einar Hirifjell, Sverre’s brother, a master cabinetmaker who had lived and supposedly died in France in 1944 (after a brief period of time spent in the Shetland Islands). How is it then that a dead man manages in 1979 to have a magnificent flame-birch coffin delivered from the Shetland Islands for Sverre? How can such workmanship not be Einar’s?

So, we journey with Edward back in time from 1980s Norway, the Shetland Islands and France to a particularly brutal First World War Battle in the Somme which is the catalyst for the next sixty years of history that will uncover the mystery of Edward’s tragic family losses.

Lars Mytting has produced a tale as historically epic as the circles in the life of, say, a giant Sequoia. And, yes, the sixteen walnut trees of the Somme are hugely significant to Edward in uncovering his heritage but you have to keep reading.

I really enjoyed the fictional story set amidst the reality of history and was very grateful to have the pictorial maps at the front of the book to give me some sense of distances in Edward’s travels.

I’m  almost certain that this is the first love story I have read written from a male perspective.  I did find it a little difficult to emotionally connect with any specific character as they are, for the most part, discussed in reminiscences by other characters in the novel to explain the sequence of events. Emotions are suppressed in striking contrast to the vivid descriptions of scenery, weather, and military battles and of course, those undefeatable walnut trees!

The Sixteen Trees of the Somme
by Lars Mytting
Published by Hachette New Zealand
ISBN: 9780857056047

Persons Unknown by Susie Steiner

I’m an avid reader of thrillers. I read both ‘stand-alone’ novels but also the increasingly popular format of a primary character that features in a series of books.

I am particularly keen – once I have found a character I can empathise with – to read them all, but the main proviso has to be that I read them in the correct order! So, it was with some trepidation that I read “Persons Unknown” as it quickly became apparent that I wasn’t starting off with a new series – Missing, Presumed had already been published featuring the main character Manon Bradshaw.

Most of the time though, even if you start out of sequence it doesn’t really matter as authors have a tendency to hark back to previous cases or anecdotal information that brings you up-to-date on past relationships and any prior connections through historical cases.

CoverI had just started the first chapter when serendipity arrived in the guise of a library borrower wanting a reserve placed on the same book. The customer started telling me what a great book the first one had been and how she was looking forward to receiving/reading this next one. Well, you can’t get a higher recommendation than that! Actually, you can, as when I went to check out the first book Missing, Presumed I found every copy was out on loan!

Persons Unknown has a contemporary UK setting with several well-defined characters investigating a murder in Cambridgeshire which in turn leads back to the ‘wheeling and dealing’, bribery and corruption of high finance in London with its attendant pimps, high-class prostitutes and assorted recreational drugs adding inducements to major players in these corrupt dealings.

As if all of the above were not intricately woven into the complicated plot, Susie Steiner also manages to integrate a number of social issues via her main protagonist, Manon, a middle-aged woman who has adopted a pre-teen black kid but still wants to experience motherhood first-hand and meet, if not Mr Right, then at least Mr ‘I’m happy to be with you whatever the circumstances’.

Manon’s professional and personal life implode when both her adopted son, Fly and her sister, Ellie, are found to have known the murder victim and become police suspects themselves.

This is very much a character-driven novel – Manon’s personal and professional problems, hopes and fears resonate with the reader and you want her to succeed — not only in solving the case but also salvaging her precarious relationship with Fly, who is experiencing racial and institutional injustices and will no doubt be defined by these hugely negative experiences.

After such a riveting read I’m now going to go back to when it all began a few years earlier…

Persons Unknown
by Susie Steiner
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand
ISBN: 978-0-00-812334-5

Cold Cures – relax and listen to an eAudiobook

Right at the end of the School Holidays I succumbed to ‘The bug’.

Temperature, shivers, face-ache, sneezing, splutterings, sore throat, several hot-water bottles, over the counter meds and copious amounts of tea/coffee/honey, lemon and ginger combos later, I am now dealing with a more head cold-like scenario.  What really upset me is my diligence in having the Flu Jab appears to have been for nowt!!  Swiftly moving on …

Streaming eyes and almost constant nose-blowing meant that the only source of entertainment I could tolerate was talking-books … Plug in and LISTEN.  So I did.

First offering from OverDrive audiobooks was Round the Horne Movie Spoofs.  In my weakened state I managed several wry smiles – OK 1960s British ‘camp’ humour admittedly, but quite clever for all that although one offering was sufficient as smiling wasn’t helping the face & teeth-ache symptoms!

Second offering was The Captive Queen the story of Eleanor of Aquitaine – wife of two kings – King Louis VII of France and King Henry II of England, and mother of such notables as Richard the Lionheart and King John (of ‘Magna Carta’ fame).  I just thanked my lucky stars that I didn’t live in huge, draughty castles and gratefully placed my hot water bottles in my ‘nest of rest’ set-up for the requisite warmth and comfort.

Third offering I had picked up from the library prior to being ‘felled’ – I persevered, but really CDs don’t work in a sick-room environment.  The constant getting up to change the discs is tiring.  It takes forever to rearrange yourself back to that exact comfortable position you had previously discovered.  But then, adding insult to injury, just as you start to feel relaxed and drowsy, the sonorous tones of the narrator announce that ‘this ends Disc xx’.  Do this manoeuvre fifteen times and you are ready to hurl said CD Player through the bedroom window.  Common sense prevailed as this would have left me both freezing cold and wet as rain lashed down the east coast of the South Island.  Sufficed to say I can remember little of the plot or characters.

CoverFinal offering is a BBC Radio dramatization of an Ellis Peters ‘Cadfael’ mystery and will keep me going until I feel ready to open the physical pages of a book.

My listening choices will, in all probability, not be yours, BUT the variety that is available is a fantastic resource to have with just a library card and a Pin/Password.

I must now remember to promote OverDrive and BorrowBox for eAudiobooks as well as Overdrive, Askews, Wheelers and Playaways for eBooks to patrons who are feeling ‘under the weather’.

Anne Boleyn : A King’s Obsession

CoverHistory tells us why she died. This captivating novel shows her as she lived.

Alison Weir has an impressive body of work as a historical writer – both non-fiction and fiction – but I was amazed that she was willing to start a huge new series entitled ‘Six Tudor Queens’.

So far she has published Katharine of Aragon: The True Queen and has followed this up with the queen I am most fascinated by – Anne Boleyn.  True, Alison has written extensively on the Tudor period and possibly having previously written The Six Wives of Henry VIII had all the groundwork and research under her belt for such a massive endeavour …

Cover

My fascination for the 2nd consort of Henry VIII began as a child when I used to visit Hever Castle, the family home of the Boleyn family. Privately owned, but open to the public, there were huge grounds for kids to run themselves into exhaustion, Italian gardens, and an impressive lake. More importantly there was a small-scale castle with drawbridge over the moat that housed giant koi carp. Inside the castle there was abundant family history with an Armoury and severe looking family portraits – an ideal way to absorb an episode of English Tudor history!

There has been much information amassed about Henry’s reign and numerous mentions of Hever, but I knew very little about the formative years of Anne which is where this book – although fictional – is truly amazing.  The early relationship that Anne had with her brothers and sister; the education received at the Courts of Burgundy and France, including an early introduction to feminist writers, were the details required to make Anne a much more sympathetic character than previously portrayed.

Through the narrative we begin to understand Anne’s motivations for her behaviour at the English Court, especially concerning her indifference to the increasingly besotted Henry VIII. Political and religious alliances through marriage was something the Monarch had to consider in case it weakened present and future Tudor rule and Anne’s romantic union with Henry Percy was quickly thwarted. Anne’s outrage at this ‘slight’ made her behaviour especially cool when dealing with the King – he was not used to this in women and it had the effect of increasing his romantic ardour.

Anne was quick to realise the power this infatuation gave her. She walked the precarious path to marriage and a Crown, quickly followed by a rapid descent once Henry VIII grew bored with her. Anne, for all her feminist intellect and political astuteness did not make the connection that she was still only female in a male-dominated society — and therefore her only requirement as Queen was to provide England with a male heir. That, coupled with her misguided belief that she was ‘equal’ to Henry, proved to be her undoing.

The personal panic I felt whilst reading this – a young woman who had seriously miscalculated her ability to keep her husband enthralled, and the lengths that Henry was prepared to go to ensure a son would succeed to the English Throne again illustrates the power of the writing.

The fact that Alison Weir takes us ‘along for the ride’ is positive testament to her ability as a writer.  The reader cannot know with certainty what went on, but there is enough fact in this fictional tale to make it totally believable.

Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession
by Alison Weir
Published by Hachette New Zealand
ISBN: 9781472227621

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Seeing Red

CoverLife dealt me the recessive gene MC1R (only achievable through both sides of the family) and I arrived with a ‘reddish’ hue to my hair – together with the obligatory pale skin and, a few years later, a mass of freckles.  I managed to avoid the ‘Tudor’ blue eyes so I actually have discernible eyebrows.  Phew…

When I found this book on the shelf recently it screamed ‘Read Me, Read Me’.  So I did.

What a revelation!  Little did I know about my heritage and what different cultures felt about my red/auburn/ginger ancestors and modern-day counterparts.

Stereotypes of redheaded women range from the fun-loving scatterbrain to the fiery-tempered vixen or the penitent prostitute. Red-haired men are often associated with either the savage barbarian or the redheaded clown.

I’ve never been a great fan of ‘stereotyping’ and especially not of this negative variety.  My only negativity was related to the pitfalls endured on summer holidays where I always ended up swimming in more clothes than I normally wore, in addition to ‘slip, slap & slopping’ in a frenzy and still missing bits that needed TLC in the evening by use of cotton wool balls and calamine lotion. All this angst whilst my so-called friends gambolled and frolicked in the surf like slippery little seals and acquired golden overtones by the minute!

CoverAnne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables was one of my childhood heroines (for obvious reasons) and when she finally walloped Gilbert Blythe for pulling her pigtail and teasing her mercilessly – OK so she might have been fiery but he certainly had it coming!!

Maureen O’Hara was famous for her fiery nature and red hair in the films but she always had to endure John Wayne – so who wouldn’t want to vent their spleen!  Can you see where I am going with this – provocation.  Tease a blonde, brunette and any other hair colour under the sun and you would get the same result.

CoverDwelling in the past isn’t good for you so I quickly read on and sure enough, there were also positives such as redheads being considered the darlings of the Renaissance period.  Acclaimed artists such as Degas, Titian and Rossetti couldn’t do without their favourite ‘red-haired’ muses – the first one of note and possibly the first supermodel of her time being Elizabeth Siddal.

I was unaware that many differing cultures to mine (Northern Hemisphere Celt) such as Russian, Italian, Chinese and even some Pacific Islanders also have the recessive gene that sits on Chromosone 16.

But true amazement came in the form of googling – apparently there is Calendar of Redhead Events, Ginger Pride Rallies all over the world and Melbourne has been voted as Host City for the 2017 Ginger Pride Rally which is being held on 29 April – the event raising funds and awareness for, both children’s anti-bullying and skin cancer non-for-profits.

That’s more like it – Go The Reds!!

The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir

It’s 1940 and the Chilbury village men, young and old alike, are called upon to fight to defend their heritage and their immediate future.

The Chilbury Ladies choir

The Vicar leaves a note on the church noticeboard stating that ‘As all our male voices have gone to war, the village choir is to close’.  This high-handed attitude rattles on the remaining but suddenly defunct females of the choir.  Action has to be taken and it is …

The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir is the result and a few prominent members of both choir and village are prompted to divulge their thoughts, actions, and emotions through correspondence – letters are written; journals are jotted in and generally, the fictional village of Chilbury and its occupants, are brought to life in what is a very uncertain and frightening time.

I debated whether I wanted to read about an all-female choir but it was essentially the ‘glue’ that held all the characters together and propelled the sub-plots along within the main storyline.

Blackmail, black marketeering, village hierarchy and social status combined with a healthy dollop of romance all play a part in the unfolding drama but it is the diverse female characters – young and old – who symbolise what mental and physical reserves of strength were required to survive yet another German invasion when still experiencing the effects of the previous one some twenty years ago.

I especially warmed to the precocious but somewhat naïve 13-year-old Kitty Winthrop who starts a diary as a result of an announcement on the wireless that ‘keeping a diary in these difficult times is excellent for the stamina’.  Her entries are funny, optimistic, deluded and very in keeping with an adolescent who feels she has a very old head on youthful shoulders when, in fact, her inability to understand the subtleties of life, make it both sad and funny at the same time.

The epistolary style of writing is reminiscent of other amazing reads such as The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and The Colour Purple  by Alice Walker.

This novel will prove a very popular addition to any book club list – and at some future point in time possibly as a TV series.

This is Jennifer Ryan’s first novel and I look forward to reading whatever else she has in the pipeline.

The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir
by  Jennifer Ryan
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand
ISBN: 9780008163716

‘Voulez-vous partir with me ….

…and come and restez la with me in France’ – so the Bill Wyman song goes.

Cover of Flirting with FrenchI love a good mixture of Franglish (or Spanglish for that matter).  Eventually, with examples of the above, combined with expressive mime, facial expressions and dexterous hand gestures you can get yourself understood.

My French teacher endured approximately seven years trying to teach me the basics of French conversation and grammar. His perseverance was rewarded when our whole family got lost in Caen at the beginning of our summer holidays ‘under canvas’ and, since I was the only one who had supposedly learned French, I had to locate our first night’s accommodation.

I had seen Maurice Chevalier, Alain Delon and Sacha Distel all speak fractured English on the TV and naively assumed that the majority of the French population could do likewise!!  Duh!!!

To my complete amazement I learned that every French person I accosted (in the street or even in their homes whilst having their family diner – I was desperate), with my pitiful ‘je suis perdu – où est le… hôtel??’, was met with a mixture of indifference or a rush of ‘gauche et droites’ which left me more confused than ever.

The same French teacher had also advised me that ‘gesticulating’ as a last resort might be the way to go. SO bearing this in mind, I bravely flagged down a passing police car and watched, horrified, when a Charles de Gaulle look-a-like stepped out of the Citroen with his hand resting gently on his holster and asked me (in French) what the problem was?  Well, for starters the gun was… Anyway, I managed to impart the necessary information and he quickly rose to the challenge. We were in our hotel 15 minutes later having witnessed said gendarme ‘tearing a strip off’ the hotel owner for turning the neon sign off that would have alerted us to the hotel at least 3 hours ago!

Cover of complete language pack italianAll library customers can avoid painful scenarios such as the above incident by utilizing, with the aid of their Library Card Number and password/pin, the eResource, Mango Languages.  There are 72 languages available (including American Sign Language). Clicking on the option ‘Building the Basics’ after choosing the language you wish to learn is a great way to start your linguistic adventures.

Of course, you can also:

et voilà…

Bonne chance! Buena suerte! In bocca al lupo! Lycka till!

Father’s Day

CoverBring it on – I am prepared!!

On Sunday 4 September I will be armed with both a card and a small gift to celebrate the fact that I have a long-suffering but wonderful father.

When considerably younger I possibly needed a ‘mental jog’ about the impending event from my ‘constantly on my case’ mum, but in more recent times (a few exceptions aside when I was in different hemispheres and the dates were different), I have managed a card at the very least.

CoverMy last-ditch attempts during my self-obsessed teenage years must have been very taxing, but it sharpened up Dad’s ‘acting skills’ as he managed to look delighted when yet another ‘Brut soap on a rope’ appeared.  I hit the jackpot one year when I recycled a mother’s day present (who I found out was not a fan of ‘crooners’), and Dad became the proud owner of Francis Albert Sinatra’s ‘Greatest Hits’. That was indeed ‘a very good year’.

Fascinated since childhood by all things nautical – past, present and future – he has, since retirement, done a lot of reading courtesy of Christchurch City Libraries, ploughing through C S Forester’s ‘Hornblower‘ novels; Patrick O’Brien’s Captain Jack Aubrey works and recently Dewey Lambdin’s main character Alan Lewrie.

If transported through the medium of print or film back to the Golden Age of  Sailing albeit in the form of Egyptian wooden sailing Feluccas, Spanish Armadas, Tea Clippers, early Ocean Liners and Thor Heyerdahl‘s balsa wood ‘Kon-Tiki’ expedition you witness a totally captivated audience of one!

Many a Sunday night we sat down to watch The Onedin Line ; the Pater to appreciate wooden vessels whilst I watched a ‘period drama’ unfold and desperately hoped the seas wouldn’t be too choppy, NEVER having been a good sailor!!

The Christchurch City Libraries holds a wealth of information that keep fathers occupied and out of trouble – what can all its resources offer your Dad? Investigate all the possibilities – books, ebooks, audiobooks, films and report back (especially if I’ve missed a little ‘gem’ in the nautical line).

Oh, and the gift definitely isn’t soap-on-a-rope this time Dad!!

Can I recommend …

CoverI’ve just found a new way to add to the ever-increasing list of book titles that I have great difficulty getting around to reading but have kept on my ‘For Later’ shelf in BiblioCommons. The cliché ‘better late than never’ springs to mind.

My shelf currently stands at a very respectable 17 (I’m sure there are people out there in ‘Library land’ openly gobsmacked at this paltry total BUT I have just had a cull. I was completely ruthless and it took only 2 minutes to cut it back from 27 to 17.

Oh the internal debating and agonising I didn’t put myself through! Most of these tomes have been on my ‘For Later’ shelf for an eternity and have either been recommended to me via colleagues and customers or I have read a favourable review in a magazine or newspaper and placed it onto the shelf before I forget the title.  Then I forget to look at the shelf and pick my next read from it – well nobody’s perfect!

Now I have another method by which I can add to this list – on the front page of the Christchurch City Libraries website right at the bottom of the page is a link called Books. This takes you to New in Books, Staff Picks, On Order and then Recent Comments.

ExampleRecent Comments deals with any comments or reviews of books from newspapers, library borrowers and library staff.  In a steady flow, these brief comments automatically move from one book to the next book that has been recently reviewed. Clicking on the cover will bring up a synopsis of the story line, publisher details followed by the heading OPINION where all the reviews appear.

Sometimes a certain sentence within a review personally resonates and is all that is needed to push you from apathy to action. Before you realise it, you’ve clicked on the book cover and are placing a hold OR adding to your ‘For Later’ Shelf.  If inclined you can even give the book a star rating.

Anyone out there enjoying the freedom of reviewing the books they read or feeling that they would like to give it a whirl?

Lists for the Listless

A popular read for cold, rainy days

It’s been a miserable, dark, rainy afternoon – I admit, it’s the first time in a long time but even so I’ve got used to good weather now …

As Autumn, (crisp and blazing riots of red and orange hued leaves) becomes clumps of wet, slippery mulch on pavements and in gutters, my thoughts turn to hugely enjoyable reads in the warm and dry ‘Inside’ that will blot out the slowly encroaching cold and wet ‘Outside’.

My reading recommendations normally come in the guise of ‘Have you read?’ conversations with friends; looking at the If you like… website page or the close scrutiny of library blog posts such as those recently written by the Library Angels attending the Auckland Writers Festival – I hastily place a hold on the work concerned and cross my fingers that the entire population of Christchurch are a little slower off the mark than me.

Roberta, Masha and Moata: Festival angels
2016 Auckland Library Angels. Flickr 2016-05-05-IMG_4074
a ‘gem’ of a read

Today, I engaged in a spot of ‘playing around’ within the Bibliocommons catalogue and found the following. If you type ‘Rainy’ in the search box and then choose the option ‘List’ from the Keyword drop-down menu you locate page upon page of lists created by people around the world who have the word ‘Rainy’ somewhere in the List headings they have created. Not just recommendations of books you understand, but DVDs, music, crafts for all age groups.

Of course the drawback is that you spend a long time wading through the information and writing down titles to put in your ‘For Later’ shelf but still it’s another way to locate a hidden  gem that needs to be read, listened to or watched.

Anyone else out there utilise this facility?  Anyone make their lists public for all to see and glean information from? Or place anything of interest in their ‘For Later’ Shelf from these Lists?