Annabel's House of Books

Noli domo egredi, nisi librum habes – Never leave home without a book.

Month: July 2009 (page 1 of 3)

Playing with my Penguins (books) …

Whilst I was ‘playing’ with my books today (i.e. moving them around in their piles or on their shelves, looking at covers, blurbs etc), I found a pair of old Penguin books catalogues from 1955 and 1958. I think I got them via a book swap some time ago, put them aside and forgot all about them until today. On further examination these little paperback sized ‘Classified Lists’ are fascinating.

They appear to have been published roughly halfway through the year – 1955’s was in July, 1958’s in May strangely. All the fiction is listed first, followed by crime and mystery. Then we have all the non-fiction topics including Pevsner, plus Puffins for children, and the luxury King Penguins. At the end of the main list is that of forthcoming books for the rest of the year, and finally indexes of authors and titles.

Of course this sent me off to the book mountains to see if I had any old Penguins that were listed. I know I’ve got a first of John Wyndham’s The Kraken Wakes which was published in 1955 but could I find it? Sadly no, but I did find The Blessing by Nancy Mitford which was reprinted in 1958, and a slightly later edition of The Deceivers by John Masters which Penguin published in 1955 as well as five volumes of plays by George Bernard Shaw.

Finally, reading the forthcoming titles in the 1958 list, I spotted ecological dystopia The Death of Grass by John Christopher. It has recently been reissued in the latest Penguin Classics livery which I bought just the other week. Brilliant stuff!

It’s a mug’s game!

Most of us probably have a shelf full of unmatched mugs. I’m no different, but I am gradually managing to replace all the odd ones with these lovely Penguin ones which do look lovely together. They make quite a large range of titles and styles now … which to go for next?

If I only choose the orange ones I’ve got a Penguin book for, I could pick from the following … 1984, Brighton Rock, Jane Eyre, Pride & Prejudice, The Pursuit of Love, or Wuthering Heights.


P.S. Just in case you’re wondering, that’s the Sagan book in the middle, and I don’t have a Penguin edition of Persuasion.

Griff in Abingdon – Tickets on sale now!

I’m doing my bit to help publicise a local event on behalf of Mostly Books, as it all came together at rather short notice. On Thursday August 13th, at 7.30pm in the Guildhall, we’re delighted to welcome Griff Rhys Jones – comedian, author, presenter, sailor and heritage champion.

Griff’s latest TV series started on the BBC last Sunday, and it made for a great hour’s viewing. In “Rivers” he punts, canoes and rows us on a tour of Britain’s beautiful and extraordinary rivers. He writes a veritable love-poem to the British river, exploring its impact on our landscape and culture – and along the way, makes an impassioned plea to get more involved with our local rivers.

Griff also investigates the love affair between cities and rivers from Liverpool’s Mersey to London’s Lea. From reminiscing about childhood holidays on the Suffolk Stour to taking the plunge on a wintry morning in the Tay as it rushes through Perth, Griff shares his personal journeys along the river systems of Britain – always accompanied by Cadbury the faithful water dog.

Tickets cost £5 – with £5 redeemable against a copy of the book on the night. To reserve places, phone 01235 525880, email – or call in at the shop on Stert Street in Abingdon.

I’m sure it will be a wonderful evening – see you there, as I’ll be helping.

Hard to grasp the plot in this confused novel

White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi

A few years ago, Helen Oyeyemi was hailed as one of the future stars of UK contemporary literature, having written her first novel The Icarus Girl to great acclaim whilst studying for her A-levels. Now she’s in her twenties and this is her third …

There’s a lot going on in this book. The Silver family are still in mourning after mother Lily’s death; Lily was a photographer and was caught in a spray of gunfire in Haiti. Luc can’t speak about it, twins Miranda and Eliot suffer in their own ways, and the house – which has been in Lily’s family for generations misses her too.

Luc, a cookery writer has turned the large rambling house in Dover with its creaks and groans into a B&B and this keeps him occupied – too busy to spend much time with his teenage children who are preparing to go to university. Miri has pica – a condition where she feels compelled to eat chalk, and she spent her 17th birthday in a clinic. Behind all of them is always the house. It is suffused with the spirits of Lily, her mother and her grandmother. Miranda is the one who really sees them, although everyone, including the housekeepers and paying guests, can sense the influence of something alive in the house that moves things, has a temperamental life, and symbolically ripens apples in the garden in the dead of winter.

I found it confusing to decide whether the main theme of the novel was Miri, her mental health and coming of age as she goes to university where she falls in love with Ore, or whether the house was the real star – not wanting to let go of its line of women owners. Concentrating on one of these could have made a much stronger novel. The house and its spirits merely made its occupants uncomfortable rather than inducing any real ‘Jamesian’ terror. Miri is a rather unsympathetic character, which makes it difficult to care about her state of mind and incipient anorexia, whereas Eliot was underused – more could have been made of them being twins.

As the rather complex multiple viewpoints of the beginning gradually coalesce into one voice, the book’s second half pays dividends for having struggled with the first, as we met the new housekeeper, Sade and the likeable Ore. There were many good elements to this story, but they were only assembled into an average novel. (Book supplied by the Amazon Vine programme).

Book Two of the Chaos Walking Trilogy

The Ask & the Answer by Patrick Ness

Warning: If you haven’t read the first book in this trilogy The Knife of Never Letting Go, (reviewed here) – don’t read this, rush out and get a copy Book One, then read the second.

Book two starts immediately where the first left off; teenagers Todd and Viola are pitched into a living hell that doesn’t let up for 519 thrilling and chilling pages and it is not for the faint-hearted – there are graphic scenes of torture, both physical and mental.

Haven turns out to be the exact opposite of what they’d hoped, as the Prentisstown army led by the evil Mayor got there first, and eventually the women led by Mistress Coyne revolt – The battle between them reminds me strangely of the relationship between Sarastro and the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s Magic Flute. This leads to countless double-crosses and betrayals, yet through it all shines the beacon of Todd and Viola’s need for each other. The other key element is the treatment of the native alien, the Spackle. They are literally treated like animals in a concentration camp by the charismatic Fuhrer Prentiss. That’s all I’m going to say about the plot, to avoid spoiling it for you… Yet, the overall feel for me is still that of the Wild West frontier, with the Spackle as the native American Indians. It’s Fort Apache meets Gunfight at the OK Corral in a nouveau-Puritan version of Deadwood.

This is a book you’ll devour – but it will leave you gnawing with hunger for the third and final installment. I checked out Ness’s website, but there are no clues as yet to the title. It’ll be out next year – (bites knuckles) I can’t wait! (10/10)

A novel of archaeology, food, pandemics and ghosts

Cold Earth by Sarah Moss

This novel, published by Granta, is lovely to behold. What you can’t see are the beautiful turquoise blue page edges, and the glossy white fibrils of grassy roots insinuating their way through the bones of the skeleton curled up underneath the title. Luckily I enjoyed reading the book as much as I liked looking at it. The author Sarah Moss is an academic and is an expert on the literature of the far north, and food in fiction. This, her debut novel amazingly combines both!

A team of archaelologists are all set to dig in Greenland at the start of the brief arctic summer. They will investigate the remains of a Viking settlement which appears to have been the scene of a massacre. There’s Yianni, the team leader, plus Ruth, Catriona, Jim and Ben, all experienced archaelogists, and then there’s Yianni’s friend Nina. Six very different personalities and all with baggage. They will have to get along together all summer until the plane arrives to take them out. Things get tense right from the start. Nina is a neurotic and prickly English postgrad who is also a real foodie – she is bitterly disappointed at Yianni’s idea of catering for the dig:

Lunch was water biscuits and cream cheese rendered no less nasty by alleged smoked salmon flavouring, followed by powdery red apples.
‘This is all the fresh fruit,’ said Yianni. ‘When these are gone, it’s dried fruit and vitamin supplements.’
‘Then why on earth did you bring tasteless American apples when the English season is just beginning?’ I asked. …
‘They’re just apples, Nina, and there are some lemons.’
‘To ward off scurvy,’ suggested Catriona.
‘And a ration of rum?’ asked the fake American, who turned out to be called Ben.

The first third of the novel is told through Nina’s voice. It would be fair to say that she obsesses about the food, telling us about every meal they have. Also from her first night onwards, Nina hears and sees things – are they the ghosts of the dead Vikings disturbed from their peaty graves?:

It was grey and still. No wind, but the outline of a hand clear on the canvas inches from my face, and the noise of breathing still although I was – was I not? – awake. I froze. The hand slid silently down the tent. Nothing moved away. It was still there, silent, waiting, breathing. I lay quite still, in out, in out, in out. It was still there and I was still there. I was not asleep. I should have called, screamed, but I daren’t not move. In and out and in and out. I sat up and the hand was back, higher now, the thing kneeling or standing over me, and I found breath and screamed and then again. The hand went, but a guy line pinged as something caught on it, and rustled away.

Towards the end of Nina’s section, we begin to realise that all is not well back home. There is an epidemic of an unnamed virus beginning to take hold. The guys start to become obsessed with the lone laptop, and as the days turn into weeks, communicating with outside world becomes temperamental, then effectively stops. It is at this point, that the narratives from the team become less the story of this adventure, and more a last letter home as they begin to realise that the plane may not be coming. Note – this is not plot-spoiling, the blurb on the back of the book tells you all of this.

As the team members take their turns to drive the narrative onwards, and say their goodbyes, we find out all about them and their relationships to their loved ones. Underlying this is a real sense of the past returning to haunt them, as they speculate why the Greenlanders disappeared. The ghosts seem very real, almost straight out of the Icelandic sagas or Beowulf.

Admittedly, the six characters are slightly stereotypical – but if they’d all got on with each other, the drama would be lessened greatly. I found it a totally gripping read which ticked many boxes for me given my predilections for myths and legends and anything dystopian. A brilliant fiction debut. (9/10, book supplied by the Amazon Vine programme)

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