Annabel's House of Books

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

Month: December 2011 (page 1 of 3)

Reunited with a childhood treasure …

Yesterday was a meeting of the Thorn clan: – My daughter & I,  my Dad, my ‘little bro’ and his brood, my two half-siblings and their kids, plus associated partners. One thing that came up in conversation was a book that has now passed through a number of hands and across generations, but has been loved by all…

Amazingly, the actual book still exists and current custodians are my brother’s girls – they went to retrieve it.  What arrived was a volume with a faded and scribbled on lilac cover, no spine, and delaminating boards – it looked even worse more loved than this copy on the right. Originally it would have looked more like the copy below with it’s gaily coloured dust-jacket.

366 Goodnight Stories, illustrated by Esme Eve et al, was published by Paul Hamlyn in 1963 (reprinted ’64).  Our ‘family’ copy was given to me for my birthday in May 1965.Inside is an anthology of little stories and poems, for each day of the year.  Some are no more than a single verse, other stories are a page long, afew of the poems are old classics from Lear, R L Stevenson et al.

There are two particularly charming features of this collection I want to tell you about though …

Firstly the illustrations – each day has a picture or two. The spreads alternate between four illustrators, all with different styles – sadly I couldn’t tell you which is which.  To the right is one of my favourites – bright and cheerful.

Secondly – the seasonality of the book is lovely.  It is arranged starting with spring, so the first story is for March 21st.  Many of the stories and poems relate to the seasons in the countryside, the weather, flora and fauna.  See below for a typical late spring page, featuring more of my favourite illustrations.

In between the nature stories are many more – about toys, trains and cars, dolls and teddies, parties and celebrations. Interestingly, the story for the 29th of December was a cautionary tale  ‘Warning’ about excess guzzling – pity the poor child who had that one on their birthday!

I hope the big pictures didn’t take too long to load for you, but I had to share some of this wonderful book with you. It has been read by three of one generation to four of the next, and so far two of the following one. I wish I’d known it was still in the family when my daughter was a toddler – she’d have loved it too.  I’ve vowed to return it to my nieces who, although they’re now teenagers, are rather loath to let it go – they can guard it for me, or pass it on to the next younguns in the family perhaps, but I think I’ll have to scan in a few more pages before handing it back!

Me & My TBR

I have a love-hate relationship with my TBR piles.

I love having my own personal library to choose from.  But for every volume I pick off my own shelves, I read a shiny newly published title, and maybe add another onto the shelf.

That’s why I’ve signed up for the TBR Double Dare hosted by C B James.

I took part in the first one this year – and lasted the full three months.  I read only from my TBR, and acquired fewer books too, so it was a success, although I didn’t read as many books as I’d have liked – I got derailed by life in the first part of the year. After the TBR dare finished though, I managed to read over 30 books published in 2011 during the rest of the year!

Although I couldn’t/wouldn’t impose a book buying ban on myself, I do intend to try to acquire less this year and to continue to read more from my TBR after the end of March.  I’ll probably be moving and will need to reduce the TBR as much as I can. I keep a lot less books once I’ve read them these days.

It’s not too late to sign up.  I’m in good company – blog-friends Teresa of Shelf Love and Lizzy of Lizzy’s Literary Life are doing the TBR Double Dare too.

… and all this makes me realise – I don’t hate my TBR – I love it!

The return of everyone’s flying car

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again by Frank Cottrell Boyce

When Mr Tooting is made redundant, he decides he needs a project and, with son Jem’s help, they rebuild an ancient old camper van. Then the plan is to go globe-trotting in it. It needs new vintage sparkplugs though despite all their travails. Off they go to a special scrap yard, where they find a different rather large engine old instead.  Fitted successfully, they set off for France – Mum has always wanted to visit Paris however, it soon becomes clear that the new engine has a mind of its own. Before they know it they’re flying and they land on the top of the Eiffel Tower, causing a sensation – Ooh la la!

This is the first adventure on a whirlwind tour that will take in more sights and an encounter with a nasty Nanny and her charge, but one thing is for certain – the engine is in control for Chitty is searching for her missing parts.

This is a splendidly visual story for children from 8 or 9 upwards, made more so by great illustrations by Joe Berger accompanying the text.  There is no need to have read Ian Fleming’s original story (I haven’t), or to have seen the 1968 film scripted by Roald Dahl, (which differs significantly from the book). The members of the Tooting family are all recognisable types: The Dad who always has a plan; the calming Mum; the Goth but brainy teenager daughter; the gadget mad son; the perceptive but he’s too young to recognise it toddler.

In a nice touch of authenticity, Boyce has gone back to the origins of Fleming’s inspirations for Chitty – a series of aero-engined cars designed in the 1920s by Count Louis Zborowski.  The Tootings live in Zborowski Drive, and his name crops up all over the place as Chitty is rebuilt.

I must admit that as an adult, I preferred the build-up to their later troubles, but children will love it. (6.5/10)

* * * * *
My copy was supplied by Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again by Frank Cottrell Boyce

Book Stats – Review of 2011

I told you about my Books of the Year a few weeks ago here, but another thing I like to do at the end of the year is compare my reading stats. Being an inveterate list-maker and cataloguer this always appeals to me, and actually I’ve had a different type of reading year in 2011 compared to the couple before.

Firstly, I read less books:  This year, at the time of writing, I’ve read 93 books, whereas in the previous years I topped the century with 106 and 114 in 2009.

I did read more pages though in 2012 – beating 2010’s 26k with a whopping total of over 29,000 pages read.  I’ll admit that 2100 of those were the first four books in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series (and I’ve still got around 2000 to go to complete it!). A further 1650 were the four Charlie Higson books for older kids that I devoured (and loved) in preparation for meeting and interviewing him back in September. This was the first year I’ve read more than two books by individual authors.

I’m going to talk about my TBR piles in another post, but there are a few other memos to self that I can note:

  • This year I read a lot more books by men – nearly 70% versus 55% last year – not a conscious decision – just the way it went.
  • I continued to try to read more books published before I was born (1960 in case you wondered), and the number is creeping up – 15  versus 13  and 9 in years before – here’s to reading even more ‘old’ books in 2012.
  • I read very little Non-fiction indeed in 2011, something I blogged about here.
  • I read a similar number of books in translation, 10 this year.
  • The lure of the shiny new title continues to do its work – again, around a third of the books I read were published this year.
  • In terms of genres, what I’d broadly describe as contemporary fiction dominated as usual, but I read a good sprinkling of crime, classics, modern classics, YA/children’s fiction and SF/dystopian/spec fiction, plus my first graphic novel.
  • … and finally…  Less vampires this year, but more zombies!  Ho, Ho, Ho.

I’d love to know how your reading year shaped up.


I hope you all have a lovely Christmas, and very best wishes for 2012. 




Spying is a dirty game …

The Envoy by Edward Wilson

A few weeks ago I got an e-mail from Edward Wilson inviting me to a signing he was doing in Ipswich.  I replied saying that Oxford was too far for me to come, but wished him well with his new book. I also told him that I had one of his titles on my shelves. He replied apologising saying he had thought I lived in Colchester – then the penny dropped – he’d mixed me up with Elaine at Random Jottings – who is also partial to spy thrillers.  I decided to read the book I already had anyway …

It’s the 1950s and the Cold War is at its height.  Kit Fournier is the CIA Chief of Station in London. He is a seasoned spy, having served in OSS in Vietnam, then as a diplomat in France, before moving to the dark side so to speak. Now his life is devoted to information and manipulation – sifting through it all to get to the truth and then filtering or doctoring it appropriately onwards towards his bosses and contacts – one of whom is his Russian KGB counterpart, Vasili. They chat at a diplomatic function …

‘Have you heard,’ said Vasili, ‘the one about my friend Boris?’
‘Boris hasn’t been feeling very well lately – and he’s been making some mistakes, so he’s called back to Dzerzhinsky Square to see the chief. The chief says, ‘How are you feeling, Boris?’ Boris says, ‘To be honest, I’m not feeling too good today.’ ‘Well Boris,’ says the chief, ‘would you like to hear the good news?’ ‘Yes,’ says Boris, ‘what’s the good news?’ ‘The good news, Boris, is that you feel better today than you will tomorrow.’

As Wilson writes, ‘The tightrope that Vasili walked didn’t have a safety net.’

Meanwhile Anglo-US relations are difficult, especially since Burgess and MacLean. The US Chief of Staff thinks that the British are trying to play above their position in the new world order in which they’re an empire no longer. It is rumoured that the British want an H-bomb of their own, and there is much covert activity in Suffolk at Orford Ness. Then there is a visiting Soviet warship that hides new technology under its waterline that the Brits want to see – they plan to send in a diver. The US would rather scupper this and damage GB-Russo relations and show them who’s in charge – this operation is Kit’s.

There is also a love interest.  Kit is desperately in love with his cousin Jennifer, who happens to be married to one of the scientists at Orford Ness. He should know better, but can’t help himself, he would do anything for her – not a good situation for a spy.  Kit is a conflicted and cynical man, in his personal life as well as at work.  His whole life is effectively a sham, the job is a love-hate relationship that is moving ever towards hate.

The next day Kit’s secretary passed on a strange message, Someone had rung from a phone box claiming to be Kit’s ‘spiritual adviser’ and recommending him to meet ‘at the customary place’ at ‘the customary time’. At half past three, Kit left the embassy and hailed a black taxi. He thought about telling the driver to take him straight to the rendevous point, but then he remembered what had happened the previous evening. He was weary of counter-surveillance games and all the other puerile spy games. But he had to continue playing them because he was trapped in a deadly adult playground from which there was no escape. Kit told the taxi driver to take him to Harrods. The store with its many entrances and exits was one of the best places in London to shake off a tail. And then from Harrods, a quick hop on the Underground to South Kensington.

The detailed descriptions of the spy’s tradecraft are one of this book’s real high points. Dead letter drops, coded messages, shaking tails, clandestine meetings – they all feel authentic.  Wilson, who was in the US special forces knows his stuff. Equally, the scenes set in Suffolk, where the author, a naturalised Brit lives, are evocative of this tranquil county.

Like Kit, the plot is richly complex, you’re never quite sure who’s exploiting whom. The first half lays out all the groundwork in a leisurely fashion, then in the second it unfolds with precise timing to a surprising denouement that appears to come out of left field, yet is totally consistent with what has gone before.  The world of spies portrayed is endlessly fascinating, and utterly devoid of good intention. No wonder Kit has been corrupted by it.

While I don’t think the writing in this novel is as good as Le Carré – the minor characters are rather one-dimensional on the whole, and some of the dialogue is a little stilted, the story however, is sophisticated and page-turning. I would definitely read more spy novels by this author.  (8/10)

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