Life on the Lancaster Canal – Janet Rigby

Back to the library again, and I had a good browse of the “transport” section this time. I am currently quite interested in canals, due to a combination of some new local knowledge, memories of narrowboating holidays and Canals: The Making of a Nation on the BBC, which was a fascinating history mini series (available for the next week or so). This one jumped out at me, so home it came.

Cover of Life on the Lancaster Canal

Historical facts are interwoven with recollections from former Lancaster Canal families, so the changing canal gains a personal face, one which sparks both nostalgia for an age that has passed, and relief that life has changed. It explores why the canal was built, what the main trade was and then its decline. But also moves onto the future of the canal network, and links between the modern towns and cities to unveil the history of the canals beneath them.

She references her main contributors, both her own family and others, notably including:

  • May Ashcroft
  • Charles Ashcroft
  • John Parkinson
  • John Tickle

The same names appearing over again is of course not unexpected in quite a closed community. But she also discusses movement and links across geography and industries.

This was a very personal history, but also one which explores a tiny piece of the country’s history in great detail.


The BBC National Short Story Award 2015 (with Book Trust)

I was vaguely aware of these awards, but hadn’t really paid much attention. But it looked like the perfect size for my journey home when I found myself in Birmingham New Street station (now including Foyles) without a single piece of reading material. I am fond of short stories, as is stated in the introduction:

… the art of making the fewest words carry the greatest burden of narrative drive, tension, atmosphere, sentiment, wit, even humour. You can summon an entire world in 8,000 words or fewer, and the pointed brevity of your words will make it resonate in your reader’s mind with a force that is out of all proportion to the slimness of the word-count.

With just five tightly-written stories, exploring key human experiences of death and familial love. I had hear of only 2 of these authors, and had only previously read work by Haddon. From this collection I was very impressed by Jonathan Buckley’s Briar Road, where we explore grief, mysticism and cynicism, and Frances Leviston’s Broderie Anglaise, dealing with a conflicted mother-daughter relationship in adulthood. Both of these were the sorts of story where afterwards it was necessary to rest the book for a while, and let the story echo through my mind for a few minutes. I will be looking out for more of their work in the future.

The remaining stories were also strong, but not to my personal taste. It reminded me that I can’t get on with Hilary Mantel, and the others were just too grim for me. Maybe I just needed something lighter after a long day and an early start!

Knitting for Tommy – Lucinda Gosling

One of the things which public libraries excel at is “people’s history”. This is a good of the examples of this type of work: a short piece illustrated with contemporary magazine clippings.

Knitting for Tommy coverKnitting for Tommy is an interesting book on the knitting to support the war effort during World War One. There is some political context included: such as the ration of 3 pairs of socks for every 6 months being bought by the War Office (clearly insufficient), and the wool shortages which were highlighted (of course) by the wool industry. However a lot of the content is simple collation of clippings, advertisements, postcards etc. to illustrate that knitting took place, rather than any critical look at why the War Office couldn’t promote more commercially produced items, a process that would have been much more efficient using mechanical knitting that had popular since the 1590’s. The morale argument is presented, but not the converse, that more men being warm and dry with limited wool supplies may have been more helpful. It is also not made clear how much of the enthusiasm was purely due to advertising and encouragement by the wool companies rather than genuine need.

There is an interesting look at who knitted: from schoolchildren to the elderly and across all social classes. Men were also included, both at home and those in Prisoner of War camps. It was made clear that this was an accessible part of the war effort, which was contributed to despite natural talent or experience. A few patterns or “recipes” are included towards the end, to add to the body of evidence presented in terms of the types of garments and skill level required. Unsurprisingly the skills are basic, tips are included to make socks more hard-wearing or mittens that a solider could shoot a gun in, and the items are generally designed to be produced rapidly in hard-wearing wools. Whilst they are of historical interest, I am unlikely to decide to knit any soon with this year’s knitting already planned.

Knitting for Tommy would be a good secondary source of information for further research, and the author’s access to less widely available collections means this is an interesting peek at material that is not commonly available.

I have now also started off on a path looking at some more local history, so I am likely to raid those shelves next time I visit the library.

Old Man’s War – John Scalzi

“The colonies are saving their best technology for the military… I think you’re right, Harry. We have no idea what we’ve gotten ourselves into”

This is Scalzi’s first published novel, but is a strong opening to this series. I want to hear more about this setting and how characters develop, so will be picking up the rest in some form or other.

Old Mans War

The premise is interesting as a starting point, people are given the opportunity to become young again through joining the Colonial Defence Force (aka, off-planet army). Scalzi then, as always, handles the emotional and social considerations of this as well as he does the practical side.

Then we have some planetary wars, making friends and all the other fun stuff one could hope for.

I quite like the later plot development as well, although it does stretch suspension of disbelief a bit too far! There are only so many incredibly unlikely things that can happen to one character, even in a novel.

Happy New Year!

The 2015 WordPress report tells me that this year I published 48 posts. Two of those weren’t book reviews, so that’s 46 new books read this year.

Slightly under average, but this year I have been knitting much more than reading, mostly due to being very busy and tired with everything else going on in my life.

So thank you all for reading/following, and hope you carry on in 2015!

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 450 times in 2015. If it were a cable car, it would take about 8 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Slightly Foxed No. 47 Autumn 2015

Groups of books, often for entirely sentimental reasons, have been taken out of the library’s chaotic but well-meant order and encouraged to associate.

This was my last ordered copy of Slightly Foxed. I’ve enjoyed them, getting me a bit out of a rut, but now I find myself reading more non-fiction and “worthy” fiction, which was the whole aim. So its onto a different subscription for 2916 (Analog; more on this when it gets here) but I’m keeping my copies of Slightly Foxed on a shelf because they are pretty timeless in their writing style and recommendations.

From this one yet again I have a handful of books I want to read, from Reginald Perrin, through Asylum by Patrick McGarth to Bryon’s Don Juan. Some I will pick up from the library in due course, and some I may stumble across in the future.

They have universally delivered on the promise of a well-read talking to you about books they love, and I’m going to miss that quarterly chat about books.

On a related note, I’m thinking of trying to found a book group in my town. Has anyone successfully done this, and do you have any tips?

A Room with a View – E. M. Forster

Grabbed this to read from the shelf in a hostel on a wet winter weekend. Between the low clouds and short days, our trip was definitely lacking in any kind of a view.

Forster transports us to the intrigue of an English Pension in Italy in late-Victorian times. Lucy our young heroine is touring, and navigating with the aid and occasional hindrance of her chaperone the adult world and male relationships as best as she is able.

We learn how she explores Florence, in both its artistic beauty and the more violent nature of the city, whilst battling the constraints placed upon her. Then we return home, and she has to decide what course her life will take, whilst worrying about social expectations, her family and her own happiness.

I quite like the appendix, which I don’t think was included in the early text. This puts those decisions against the context of the later two World Wars, and how her choices will have been tested by wider changes.

A great novel which puts youth and pivotal changes into context, whilst promoting youth and hope.

Human Universe – Professor Brian Cox & Andrew Cohen

Cox calls this book a love letter to mankind, but it is more than that. It is a humanist manifesto for the future.

We learn about how the universe came to be, and how we came to be in it. This includes a fly-through of physics from the classical view of the world to general relativity and beyond. All described in language which feels accessible (although having failed Gen. Relativity at final year degree level, my starting point might be higher than expected). Then we cover biology, and the whole thing is wrapped up with basic statistics, and especially that our high level of unlikeliness is irrelevant, because to be asking that question we had to have happened.

Of course, being Cox he wants to see us in space, an idea I support, given the whole universe out there.

It is a desire to reach out to others, to attempt contact even when the chances are vanishingly small; a wish not to be alone. The golden disks are futile and yet filled with hope.

(on the Voyager space probes)

He has an infectious enthusiasm for what humanity is capable of, given how little we’ve changed since we walked out of the Rift Valley, and inspires a belief in the idea that we can do more.

Being in the midst of rereading The Sense of Style, I really appreciated the Classic Style writing in this book, it is beautifully written, and flows fantastically. I however appreciated less the thought experiment as to how I could tell I wasn’t on an aeroplane. Pro tip: works better if you aren’t really on an aeroplane at the time.

Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland – Sarah Moss

I enjoy non-fiction about lives in other countries, and find it especially accessible if written from the perspective of a Brit expat. This of course is a slightly limiting frame of reference, and Moss herself acknowledges that there are things about Iceland that she entirely misses for my of her time living there. But it also ensures that the obvious contrasts are generously highlighted and parallels appreciated.

This book is a wonderful exploration by a family who know they only have a limited time, but still have enough time to make friends and build some kind of a life. Not only that, but it is set in a very specific time, just after the Icesave crash. The country has suddenly lost of lot of wealth, and import ability, and is left to rebuild.

Life in Iceland is therefore hard financially, especially in a culture that expects family support, and there are parts of it that Moss simply can’t grasp (such as where the toddlers are in winter), but she discusses how they manage with the weather and tough financial constraints.

There is light though, in friendships struck up and discoveries made. I enjoyed her relating of oral history and links to mythology through ghosts and elves and back to modern Iceland in a seamless fashion to produce a narrative. The “anything is possible” atmosphere mixes pleasingly with a rational English academic narrator who knows that elves aren’t real.

Then there are specific gems that can’t easily be picked up about how she finds opportunities, like the open air museum that opens in Advent, or how Icelandic women (and sometimes men) still knit at every opportunity with wool from Icelandic sheep. She even discusses meeting Ragga, a knitting pattern designer who left her job to start a knitting business in the bottom of the financial crisis.

These details open up a new country for deeper investigation, and in parallel let in a little window on the author’s life.

Have you discovered a new land through travel fiction recently?

The Will of the Empress – Tamora Pierce

I love this out of all the post-Circle Opens books (I refuse to try and claim the three belong together).

The four are back together and have grown up and apart. So now its time to face a new foe and work out what family means now they are adults. Daja and Tris are hurt and feeling like they don’t have a home, Briar seems to have PTSD and Sandry is heartbroken that they are no longer one.

But of course its time for a crisis, where they all travel together to meet a new challenge and explore yet another new country (spoilers below the cut).

Continue reading “The Will of the Empress – Tamora Pierce”