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Magic and Mayhem

I cannot remember the first book I read or was read to me.  Way too many decades ago, way too many books.  I will say I can’t think of life without knowledge of books.  Growing up as I did in a middle class home of ‘bookaholics’ it wasn’t as if there was a shortage or lack of knowledge of these wondrous things.  Every room had bookcases overflowing with them.  Not necessarily suitable for my tender years but I read some of them, understanding maybe a tenth. It had been a lean time for books just before and after I was born.  A five year global war had tended to put the writing and publication of books, especially children’s books, on the back burner of priorities. Compared with today’s children we were impoverished indeed.


So along with Victorian morality stories, original Grimm’s (and they were grim, take care when exposing today’s Disney-nurtured youth to them) and colonial adventure stories, from the home’s shelves, I got my fix from the public libraries.  They had been around all through my life and that of my parents and grandparents.  I and my friend lived many long hours in these buildings.


With limited pocket money and few opportunities of earning more, the libraries were essential if we were feed our voracious appetites for the written word.  I always have been, and still am, a reader who likes to possess, mainly because I enjoy re-reading and also have moods when only one book will do; if they sit upon my shelves they are ready and spruced when my hand reaches for them. However, to discover these new authors as a child I could not have squandered my meagre money on ‘don’t knows’, I would borrow, read if enjoyed, save and  buy.  My library habits helped to fuel the book industry!


Along with the novels, these hallowed halls were where one went for the unusual, the exciting, the ‘well what do now!’ books.  Many of the books I had inherited at home, lingering from the past, had been small books of geography, history and cultures written for children (mainly to show how wonderful the British Empire was!) with coloured!- yes coloured - pictures of the crudest sort. They were just made of paper maybe 20-30 pages long and full of easily digested facts and figures.  There were also books on transport through the ages, animals of the countryside and so on and I am sure the children of today have similar – hopefully not so preachy or vainglorious – but this was all we had.  Picture books such as we have today were few and far between, any drawings we had were just that, line drawings.  TV was practically non-existent, computers unheard of let alone the web. There was cinema, but not much else to show us the world we lived in.  The libraries were where we could go for these books.  I developed a lifelong love of those reference shelves. 


The 1850 Public Libraries Act was passed mostly for the improvement of the public through education.  Education, ah now that is the rub.  Can all our technology provide the education we crave?  I sometimes feel as if I am wedded to my computer and will be the first to howl if we are banned from them.  However not everyone, whatever the powers that be like to think, has easy access to a computer.  Not everyone shares their world with emails, texts and tweets.  Indeed not everyone even wishes to.  And when the world runs out of electricity or electrical storms hit the grid?


Take any small child to the local library, tell them they can choosewhatever they like and take them home and mummy doesn’t need to afford it because it’s free, and their eyes will light up.  Read to them, teach them to read themselves.  With the provision of many well written books and maybe some that aren’t, who are we to judge?  With reading sessions and readers groups, libraries connect us to the written word in a way electronics never can.  I don’t know how easy it would be to teach children to read in front of a screen, not impossible certainly, but the companionship of an adult’s arm, or other children, while entering these new worlds for the first time is all part of the experience.  I don’t mind audio books or e-books they both serve a purpose, they are both used in our family, and I don’t feel they will replace the actual books.  Closing libraries may well serve to drive ‘books’ for ever into the hands of those who are financially secure. Those who can afford them, who want to afford them.


In this world of books are so many places, fictional or not, to wander, so much accumulated knowledge over the centuries and world to sip at.  So much beauty, expertise and inspiration.  Not every library can hold it all, as a child I had tickets for at least four libraries, but each can be the introduction to this accumulation of marvels. 


Much has been said about cutting the less privileged members of society from their local small libraries.  As with the closures of small post offices the effect of closing the smaller branch libraries can actually mean dispossessing these people further.  They are those who do not or must not drive, those with no handy regular bus service (they are also being cut), the disabled and those children who come from homes where books are never much considered. Progress it seems must always have a profit for its bottom line, maybe it always has, but people should never be about monetary profit, people are about profit for themselves, families, communities and ultimately their countries.  The profit shows up years later in the case for books.  Later when the child that was led into the library and told it could choose whatever it liked and take it home for free, when that child grows and has fun, learning has developed its curiosity and then contributes.


An end note: as exciting as it was to receive that first published book of my making, the moment I heard our local county library was going to stock it was more exciting still.  My connection, from nearly six decades ago, seemed complete.

This was first posted on 5th Feburary 2011 in support of our libraries on my blog at


I also blog on the Sefuty Chronicles,writing and self publishing on


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At the end of 2010 when I had finally sent my collection of short stories, A Patchwork of Perspectives, to the printers I thought I would try and catch up on my reading.  I set myself a small challenge of two books a week for a couple of months.  Not hard.  After all when in full possession of my reading brain I have always managed two or more a week.  However I had not realised just how much writing had eaten up my time and it has been a struggle to maintain the challenge.  But hey sometimes we fail – no great deal.


I have changed the original list a little, I had two book group selections to read which were not on the list and had to be included.  I also wandered away because I felt like reading something different and on a couple of occasions I was lent books which of course take priority as well.  But over the next few months I shall report and comment on those I have read.


 I am a new recruit to the writings of Joanne Harris and, although I regret not having discovered her earlier, I am so enjoying my Harris-fest now.  I have to confess that Chocolat still hasn’t been read but, it will, it will.  I was introduced to her via one of the reading groups I belong to who had chosen Lollipop Shoes.  I loved it and immediately went shopping for more.  This last month I have read two more books of hers: Five Quarters of the Orange and Gentlemen & Players.


Such a contrast between them it could be hard to say they were by the same author, except for the beautiful writing.  Five Quarters of the Orange is nearer to Lollipop Shoes in the sensuous feel of it all, the mouth-watering foods, the slight feyness.  I wondered if food was always her thing, if the magical always demanded to be included.  It would not have mattered but such a rich diet would have to be firmly paced if indigestion wasn’t to be the outcome. 


However quite another diet came with Gentlemen & Players.  More austere, plainer, less cream and certainly no chocolate!  The same complete characterizations, the same deft juggling of events.  Twists all through to keep the reader guessing, these were harder to decipher than the two before mentioned books. It was a ‘midnight – oh can’t leave it now – oh no 1.30! but only a few pages more’  type of book.


All three books I have read so far deal with altered pasts, new identities, secrets and damaged minds. They deal with histories.  Five Quarters of the Orange stretches back from the present to the Second World War and a series of events that occurred then.  Gentlemen & Players has a history more recent dealing with only thirteen years, and the Lollipop Shoes only four years.  However, the damage done to people, brooded upon, acted upon have the same destructiveness, no matter how long the period.  All three also deal with adult and child perspectives on events, on the mismatches children can make and their consequences but also on the misunderstandings of adults and their equally devastating consequences.


The first two are firmly a part of a French environment, small country town (Five Quarters of the Orange) and big city (Lollipop Shoes) landscapes and populations.  That she has a great delight in food shows in her descriptions of the smells, tastes and colours of foodstuffs as well as in the way she describes her characters in these terms; in the snippets of recipes and cooking methods which blend so well into the narrative and from the mouth-wateringly sensual descriptions of the food and eating.  The third (Gentlemen & Players) is so English one can smell the crumpets toasting by the open fire.  All are as believable as each other. 


I look forward indeed to her back list.   

Let's hear it for reading groups

I used never to like the idea of reading groups – stemming back to school (so, so long ago!) when we had to dissect, cook and chew all the substance out of a good story until I, for one, was left with indigestion.  I hated even discussing a book or play for that matter; that I had enjoyed it seemed too clinical an operation for what to me was my alternate world.  Like dissecting a good friendship, examining the good and bad of a relationship instead of just being part of something wonderful.  I would not join a reading group; books were too precious to dissect.


Twenty years on when I took myself off to gain a degree I discovered that dissecting and discussion were an integral part of the process of donning the cap and gown!  These were text books, academic papers and they begged to be discussed, to be argued with it was what they had been created for.  So I learnt, very slowly, to join in the fun.  Leave the novels and plays alone though!  I wasn’t ready for them to be taken apart, not yet.


Then, as mentioned in previous blogs, I lost my books; the ability to read more than a few words at any one time vanished.  Operations, medical drugs and stress said the doctors, will come back they said.  When?  Sometime!


So about fifty five years after I first discovered the joys of reading I joined a reading group.  As therapy, as homework, as a desperate attempt after four years loss to recover my books.  It worked, slowly but surely the one book a month grew into back to normal reading.


That first book was one of Minette Walters, an author whose books I had never been tempted to try; I have all of them now.  Because, apart from finding books again, one of the pluses of these groups is that one has to try authors and genres that have never been tried before and along the way reading habits expand wonderfully.


My fears were unfounded, the books were not destroyed, if anything they became richer as I mused upon them and discovered subtleties I may have missed in the absorption of the tale.  I now belong to two reading groups and, as both are run by the county’s libraries, I sometimes get a book already read by the other group.  I have never been averse to reading a book more than once so do not find this the problem that others have with re-reading.  I have discovered along the way new authors that I seek out and authors I would not.  It has always been so. 

However, as years advance, expanding my reading range poses problems of its own: where will I find the extra years to read them all?


See Alberta's blogs on writing and in particular the Sefuty Chronicles on


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Books Return

I had been rea
ding for 47 years.


Then one dog walk, one crashing fall later, one broken leg, ankle and wrist later, I had nothing.  During the painful month of operations and treatment in hospital the loss wasn’t even noticed.  Being told I would be in plaster for months I thought with pleasure of all the books I could read in that time.  I did not happen.


Start to read and my brain saw and understood nothing, it simply switched off.  Even the great standby of audio books did not help, my brain would not listen. The loss was physical.  I couldn’t believe it.  Various doctors, who obviously didn’t realise the seriousness of the loss, could only suggest it was stress and that it would come back. 






I came out of plaster eight months later, we moved house, I waited for the books.  I was still buying them, a lifetime habit is so hard to break, but almost in despair.  A whole bookcase of unread books.  One year passed and then another and depression haunted me.  I felt as if all my friends had died.  I was so lonely and no one seemed to really understand the loss.  In the third year I managed to read some short articles in various magazines.  A little hope then,  but no books, it just never happened. 


In the fourth year, in an act of desperation, I thought of joining a book group.  If I treated reading as a chore, a piece of homework, maybe I could get there.  I didn’t really believe it but I tried. 


I made reading into homework, set aside a time.  I could do homework, hadn’t I just recently gained a degree.  It worked and slowly but surely the books came back – oh, the bliss of picking up a book for the sheer exhilaration of reading.  My friends were back with never an apology for their absence.  So we continued happily trying to catch up on the piles of unread magazines and books from that period.


Two years ago I had a whole load more stress dumped into my life and the books disappeared again like startled rabbits.  This time I knew they would come back.  I was still a member of two book groups so I went back to the homework regime but at least two books a month were being read and the magazines stayed put.  Sure enough back came the books with hardly an apology!

The brain is a very strange being!

updated from a post on http://www.didyoueverkissafrog.typepad.com on 29.04.10



Look at the picture not the picture frame

Cumsy child!  Well yes, I thought, that’s what I was always called.  Stupid child, yes again.  I stopped to read the article.  It was fairly short and outlined the problems the journalist had had with her son who was suffering from something called dyspraxia.  Never heard of it I thought, but the clumsy child tag had caught my attention.  After I had read it I read it out again over coffee to the rest of the family.  ‘This remind you of anyone?’ I asked before I read it to them.  ‘Oh yes’ said my mother.  ‘That’s you when you were young, right down to the socks around the ankles’.  We had a laugh but she was right, the article had described many of the problems and I filed it in my mind.  To look at later.


The article had listed various problems including said socks and poor co-ordination, a lack of ball-playing skills, lack of social skills, poor at maths and very clumsy.  Well, many people could claim these and as she also mentioned poor reading skills I dismissed the thought that it was me.  What I could do was read, always, since before starting school.


It niggled in the back of my mind though, whatever else occupied my mind at any one time and, from time to time, I checked any websites I could find on the subject.  The list of “can’t do’s” grew longer.  The list of difficulties experienced grew longer and the list of all the symptoms that I had had or still had also grew longer until I realised that when ticking boxes on the checklists I was scoring

7/8 on motor skills,

3/5 fine motor skills,

2/3 speech and language,

7/8 perception(interpretation of different senses),

6/8 for learning, thought and memory and

5/6 for emotion and behaviour.

Oh for scores like that in maths tests at school!!  Only the reading and handwriting seemed to be wrong.  Then I learnt that you didn’t need to have all of them to be dyspraxic. 


I started to wonder about dyspraxia.  Family and friends tended to say no they were always tripping over themselves, they couldn’t stand on one leg either, or they were hopeless at spelling . . . maths . . . or whatever I mentioned.  Social skills oh no, they would say, they were dreadfully shy, most people are.  They were right, I thought, and anyway what did it matter?  I was a grown woman, had made my way, done what I wanted.  Why worry?  Why indeed.


But, I would think, would it explain so much of my life that had bemused and blighted me?  Would it somehow validate me, even if it was just to myself?  Too late for school and I doubt they had even heard of it back in the 50s and, even if they had, it most probably would not have made any difference.  I still couldn’t make the final leap.  Then one evening coming back from singing I was frustratedly telling a friend that I had often thought there was something wrong inside my brain as I could read, understand and appreciate reasonably complex thoughts, especially in science and anthropology, but could never get it back out to explain to anyone else; why I always failed any exams because of the lack of time to regurgitate my knowledge.  She reminded me of my thinking about dyspraxia and said wouldn’t that explain it.  After one last research I was ready to take the leap.  Admit that maybe that was what was wrong with me.   Fifteen years after reading that article!

I read.

One day I took the dog for a quick walk, telling the family  ‘back in half an hour’.  Four weeks later I returned home.  That day I lost books; my friends, my solace and my brain comfort food.  I stopped reading that day for four years.


I learnt to read sometime before the age of five.  I was fluent when I went to school.  It was something I did, well, fast and confidently.  Too fast for the powers that be.  I was skipping; I obviously didn’t understand what I read.  I was tested again and again before they accepted that I was reading swiftly and understanding what I read.


From then on I always had one, sometimes two, occasionally more books on the go at any one time.  My happiest moments in a fairly solitary life.  The flights of fancies the books engendered within my mind when I could be transported to another infinitely more exciting world, as I walked to school, as I washed the dishes or was engaged in other mundane tasks, this was my bliss as I grew up.


As a child I belonged to four libraries and most of my pocket money was spent on books.  My parents also had an extensive library of books, and I did read many books that were just way too old for me to understand at the time.  I received something from them all.


When I began my travels I never travelled light, I had to be sure of a supply of books, oh for e-books back then!  Some places are remembered partly by the books I read, the wilds of Afghanistan, and the Himalayas had War and Peace running through them; The Seven Pillars of Wisdom was read in the early dawn light of a Sydney seafront.


I bought my cardigans with paperback size pockets and handbags to accommodate the same; even an evening bag had to have room, for who knew when your date would be so boring a book would be an answer!!


It was a done deal I read.  Then one day I didn’t.






 this post was first published on http://didyoueverkissafrog.typepad.com



my top four books

Quite often when joining a writing community one is asked to mention a couple of favourite books.  The last time I did this was on a writing forum and immediately afterwards was standing at the stove preparing and cooking dinner. As I chopped and diced, stirred and tasted, I pondered on my choices and what made them part of my life.


They are:

To Kill a Mockingbird

The Cruel Sea

The Jungle Books

The Lord of the Rings


I realised they had all been read, and more than once, before I had left my teens – that means four and half decades ago, so long!  I have read all of them more times than I can remember, but all of them at least three times a decade and three ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, ‘Lord of the Rings’ and ‘the Jungle Books’ every couple of years. 


If there are only half a dozen plots then all these share one just one.  They are all ‘the personal journey’.   They tell of the evolution of a person or group of people while living through momentous events, great events or just life events; how the outside world changes the course of a life.


Young Scout (Mockingbird) observes a time of challenge and danger – not just the trial and its brutal aftermath but the painful acceptances and transitions of children growing towards maturity. As a child I did not always understand the subtleties but the tale is so beautifully written it can bear constant readings.  I have found as my life has progressed to maturity I can understand and sympathise with the other characters as well. 


In the Cruel Sea the are men sent to war in ships – ordinary men, bank clerks, journalists – sent to confront terrible danger and incredible personal losses; some manage, others fail.  The failure, though, was not their fault – even as a young child I could realise this.  Some events overwhelm.  Life – I learned early – was down to great deal of luck.  Not a conventional war book, very little gore (forget the film of the book!).  This was about a group of individual men turning into a disciplined crew and the effect that five stolen years have on them.


Mowgli – well what a journey he has to make: from feral child to member of society, and his losses are tremendous.  His family and friends may have been animals but he had to leave them all and his loss can be mirrored in every story of every refugee.  I always thought he would have been a wise village elder one day because of his tribulations (again forget Walt Disney and his film!).


The Lord of the Rings – what can I say?  I fell into Middle Earth at 12 and have never lost my connection.  I was given the hardback set for my 21st.  I had the paperback to accompany me on my own wanderings. A six-week stint at a peach canning factory in SA paid for the deluxe leather-bound version with its bible-thin pages.  Of course the video, the DVD and the unabridged audio version sit on the shelf with the boxed set of the BBC’s dramatised version.  As long as no one messes with the story it’s still mine.  I don’t speak Elven, cannot quote chapter and verse, muddle the battles and cannot for the life of me pronounce the names but oh how I love their adventures.  From silly hobbits frolicking to mighty heroes saving the world, despite themselves.  Their task, as in the ‘Cruel Sea’, is too great for one individual; it must be a team effort.  Their guiding force, as in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, is justice and preserving a decent society.  For some members of the fellowship the losses are more than can be borne; in victory, defeat.


The mince tasted excellent even though I say it myself – one of my better creations!