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Tuesday, March 31, 2015

A History of St Martin's Dorking

Bookcase 20's A History of St Martin's Dorking see me complete the Local History section.

It has to be said it was a very boring book and at the end I didn't feel much wiser about the various churches it describes than when I started it. There's lots of minutiae in the book about every detail of the churches and all the vicars and servants of the buildings over the years. I don't have much interest in the subject matter so it's probably unfair of me to criticise it too much but I award it just 3/10. I was hoping for a few more passages to spark my interest, the Memories of Dorking book which preceded this one certainly offered a few, but much of the words washed over me as I dutifully ploughed my way through its pages.

Bookcase 21 sees me enter a new section of the library, the ninth so far. I have chosen Titanic: Building the World's Most Famous Ship by Anton Gill to read. It's a book about the construction of the ship, not the destruction which most people remember the vessel for of course.

It's amazing how many bookcases already contain a book have I have read. There was one the first transport bookcase, Into the Abyss by Carol Shaben, a book about her dad Larry Shaben who survived an aircraft accident in the 1980s. I wasn't overly impressed by it as I recall. Let's hope the one I picked is a bit better.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Memories of Old Dorking

Bookcase 19's Memories of Old Dorking was an interesting book containing the memories of three different people told at the end of their lives and largely covering the 19th Century.

The bulk of the book is devoted to the first person's account set in the 1830s and 1840s I think and that was the most interesting. What a different world it was then before trains, cars and when travelling more than a few miles was risky, dangerous and costly. Travelling to London by coach took several hours and there was always the risk of being caught by a highwayman on the way to Epsom!

All the authors remember lots of ordinary people who would have otherwise forgotten. Most history books focus on the famous, but this book focuses on the mundane characters whose extant descendents today are probably even only dimly aware of in most cases. Almost everybody lived and worked in the town and the shops and businesses in the town provided for the basic needs of the residents. It's a far cry from the present day when most of the shops in the town sell or provide non-essential services.

Some things haven't changed. All the authors complain of the demise of the Dorking markets, a complaint that you regularly hear today! The livestock and poultry markets in Dorking completely took over the town by the sounds of it when they took place in the nineteenth century. The increase of transport gradually reduced their scale, a demise which has continues to the present day.

The second two parts of the book are quite tedious. The authors travel metaphorically around the town describing the history of almost every building. It's frankly quite boring to plough through most of this, other than the bits of the town that I know well or have lived near.

Memories of Old Dorking gets 6 out of 10. It was interesting and revealing in places, with lots of fairly dull parts. It would be better if someone (ideally Bill Bryson!) used this material to write a more popular account, quoting and embellishing the most interesting parts.

Bookcase 20 is the second local history shelf and from this I have selected A History of St Martins, Dorking.

This is a book about the diocese not just the current church, which is I believe the fourth to be built in that location. I am not expecting a page turner, but I will expect this book to be similar to Memories of Old Dorking with some interesting bits and some boring sections.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Half Way Round the Library

While I am reading Choosing a Care Home by Independent Age, which I have to physically read in the library because it is a reference book which I am not allowed to take out, I can take stock of how far I have come so far. I have literally traversed half the library already, although that sounds far more impressive than it actually is. In reality I have only chosen works from the very outermost of bookcases with their backs to the wall. Like the skin on an onion, there are many more layers of bookcases to traverse around again as I spiral my way inwards to the centre of the library and my ultimate goal of reading at least one volume from every bookcase. I have also skipped a large part of wall where the self-service machines, returned books and the librarians are located. There is much still to come but I have at least made my way from the door to almost the furthest point away from the door in the first quarter of the first year of my project, and this is going to take more than a year - I can be certain of that.

As I look back I can see I have completed all the cases in the following sections: True Crime, Book of the Week, Teenage, Graphic Novels and Language. Five sections that I don't have to return to until this project is over. Each section had their moments and kept me entertained over several days' free time, courtesy of our library service.

Pending my next trip to the library to continue with Choosing a Care Home, which I can't take out the building, I have moved on to the next section, Local History, which forms Bookcase 19 and 20. Seemingly as ever, on Bookcase 19 there was already a book I have read before - Blood of the Isles by Bryan Sykes, which is in the Genealogy section tucked at the end of local history on bookcase 19.

I have mentioned before in this blog how I love reading books about the past which explain the world we find in the present and the book I have chosen from Bookcase 19, Memories of Old Dorking, I am hoping will shine light on some of the present features of the town I have lived in for over 16 years.

I have of course read books about the history of Dorking before (I especially enjoyed Dorking, a Surrey Market Town Through Twenty Centuries by Alan A. Jackson when I read it ten years ago), but this book is different because it is written at the time by contemporary sources rather than a local historian many years later. I have read similar books before in other subject areas and they have a rawness about them which modern narrators struggle to convey. There is of course a price to reading sources close to the original material, in that the language and vocabulary of the 1840s, when the first part of Memories of Dorking is set, is a bit challenging to the modern reader, but hopefully that won't be a problem with the Internet to aid me if needed. I think there are three sections to this book set in different times and with three distinct authors, all the more interesting.

The book itself is dated now as well, being printed in 1977, when I was still reading books in the children's library and had never heard of Dorking, never mind set foot in it. This copy has stayed in the library system for nearly 40 years and no doubt it has seen big changes in the library around it during those decades, almost on a par with its subject matter. Hundreds, if not thousands, of Dorkinians must have held this work in their hands. So much has changed in Dorking since the book was compiled in 1977, but that shouldn't detract from my enjoyment of Memories of Dorking, it might even add to it.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Spell It Out: The Singular Story of English Spelling by David Crystal

Bookcase 17's Spell It Out: The Singular Story of English Spelling by David Crystal was interesting if not gripping.

The book is basically a history of English spelling. I love reading books which explain why things are the way they are, and our English language is a classic example of something we just take for granted. English is though the work of thousands of people for over a millennia, not to mention the much longer period when speech and communication evolved. Untold legions of monks and scholars have puzzled over the spelling of words for centuries and we've inherited their work either directly or indirectly, yet few of us realise the gift we have been given.

This book is certainly not a blow by blow account of our complete spelling history, it picks examples of words which have changed their spelling throughout the history of our language, and explains lots of apparent anomalies while telling the main events in the story of English. It could be a lot longer, and it kept me interested with not many boring sections filled with lots of detail, so I felt the length was about right for a popular non-technical account which this is.

David Crystal is not Bill Bryson, I'd recommend reading Bryson's Mother Tongue for an overview of the history of English. This focuses entirely on spelling so is more detailed in that area than Bryson's work. But it's not quite as easy to read: Bryson has a singular talent of making even the most boring subjects interesting, which it is unfair to expect of others. I award Spell It Out 7 out of 10, it's a good book.

Bookcase 18 is devoted to Reference, and contained only about four books that were prose, the rest being mainly dictionaries and directories. Amazingly I had already read one of the four books (Surrey: A County History by John Janaway) I could have chosen. That left me with very little choice, and one of the books, Gray's Anatomy, was several thousand enormous pages long, and few will have read from cover to cover as I need to. I plumped in the end for a book about Choosing a Care Home by the organisation Independent Age

Although I don't have a need to find a Care Home at the moment, it's quite possible it will be something I need to look into at some point in the future for a relative, so this book may contain useful background knowledge I might come back to one day. I used to work in the Care industry as well a few years ago, writing software used by companies who ran homes, so I already know a bit about the funding options for paying for care, but it's not very fresh in my mind.

Choosing a Care Home is not a book I am allowed to take out the library so I am going to read it in the library itself. As it is only 80 pages long it shouldn't take very many visits to finish it.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Murder Me Dead by David Lapham

Bookcase 16's Graphic Novel (i.e. comic) Murder Me Dead was nowhere near as bad as I thought it would be. I was expecting to give it 1 out of 10 but instead I give it 5.

That said I won't be rushing out to read adult comics because it's a limited form of story being mainly centred around pictures superimposed with the odd word. Murder Me Dead actually had a proper storyline, plot, characters, dialogue and chapters like a normal book, it wasn't War and Peace but it held my interest more or less throughout. Sometimes it was hard to figure out what was happening from pictures alone, and I had to keep flicking back to make sure certain characters were the person I thought they were. But I often have that problem in conventional fiction books, especially when there is a giant cast (I've given up reading War and Peace on at least two occasions because I just get overwhelmed by the sheer number of people in it!).

The effort of drawing up to 20 pictures a page must be immense. It's a huge achievement for one person to publish something of this scale. I imagine it would probably appeal to more "arty" than "literary" people", and if I had to pigeon hole myself in either camp it would definitely be literary. I don't expect to read many comics again but it's been a interesting aside and I won't be so dismissive of them I hope in the future.

Bookcase 17 actually saw me skip a case because the second case in the language section of Dorking library contains entirely audio books, sometimes with an accompanying text to help you learn the language. I did say at the beginning that I was only going to read prose and poems, and not reference books like dictionaries and phone books. I've already skipped "maps" on my route so far, a very useful section of the library, which I often make use of when travelling, but obviously outside the scope of his project. I suppose I have already made an exception for "graphic novels", but I draw the line at language courses because they are not written prose. I don't want to have to devote the next month to learning Italian!

My omission of the second bookcase still left the first bookcase in the language section. I've been quite impressed how many cases so far have contained something I have already read, or at least an author I have already read or part read.  I didn't expect to find anything in Languages but there was: The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature by Stephen Tinker.

I think I found The Blank Slate a bit hard going from what I recall so I picked something hopefully a bit lighter this time: Spell It Out by David Crystal.

I enjoyed Bill Bryson's Mother Tongue about the evolution of English, and this is a similar subject matter except it concentrates on spelling rather than the language as a whole. I am always fascinated by books that explain why the world today is the way we find it, and English is such a fundamental part of my life, I am looking forward to see how spelling evolved. This is probably the first example so far of a book that I might have chosen anyway during the normal course of my reading.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Breaking Butterflies by M. Anjelais

Bookcase 15's Breaking Butterflies is a well written book, and it shows great promise for a young writer, but I didn't like it. It's about two girls who plan their lives at the age of eight and this plan comes true. The story then fastforwards to the present day and the narrative switches to their offspring (one from each mother), now teenagers, which the plan ordained would be born. Something happens, which I won't reveal, which throws the plan into disarray and the rest of the book is about the struggle to break away from the plan.

The whole basis of the book is of course this plan based upon a conversation between two young children along the lines of "what shall I do when I grow up". From that point on the lives of the characters are pre-ordained until the next generation by this childish game, which of course is absurd. But then it's basically a Magic Realism book, so the normal rules of life do not quite apply.

The major theme of the book I suppose is living with someone with mental illness and how it affects the people around you. Had that been wrapped in a more realistic plot and around characters who weren't bound by a made up "plan", then I might have found it more absorbing. As it was the book, even though relatively short, I only give 4 out of 10, but I expect more of this author in years to come.

The Teenage section is now complete. All in all though the quality of the three books was good. I was expecting simple stories set in schools and revolving around "first love" relationships. None of the books were like that at all. The Piper was a fairly basic supernatural tale, but the other two explored real life issues and were essentially adult books with teenage characters.

Bookcase 16 is for "graphic novels", a euphemism in my eyes for comics. I must admit I hate comics, I hate cartoons, especially on American themes like Batman and Superman (which seemed hackneyed even was I was young). However I did manage to find a book in this case that looked a bit different with no suggestion of superhero characters.

Murder Me Dead promises to a tale of "love and murder", which doesn't rule much out as most books I have read so far have been about one of the other! I'll be surprised if it gets much more than 1 out of 10 though!

Sunday, March 8, 2015

The First Wife by Emily Barr

My second attempt at Book of the Week (Bookcase 12) was The First Wife by Emily Barr. This is a tale of a naive young girl who has been isolated from the world by living with her grandparents (even though she went to school presumably with other people, whose input to her life seems to have been zero).

This girl Lilly turns out to be something of an Ugly Duckling who becomes a Swan because not only is she very talented, but she is also beautiful - attributes which must have been overlooked all the time she was at school when she barely passed an exam and never even kissed a boy. She gets a cleaning job and soon attracts the attention of the local celebrity, a former soap actor now working as a lawyer. The adventure begins as Lilly gradually blossoms only to find that her new life isn't quite as perfect as she thought it was.

There is a secondary story of a man in New Zealand who finds out his wife is having an affair and leaves her, eventually moving to Barcelona. Inevitably the two stories eventually join up, but the Lilly story is the main thread of the book

The plot is fairly simple, but the book is 400 pages long, so it's quite drawn out and takes a long time to develop. The ending feels rushed as well, so I'd say the balance of the book is wrong. All the characters too are just so "nice", friendly and helpful. Even though one of the characters turns out to be a villain after all, that character even is presented in the book just like all the others until the latter pages. Emily Barr must really like people because she finds it hard to write a bad thing about them.

I suppose this book is a sort of fairly light suspense/mystery novel if I had to pigeon hole it (which I do as it's been presented as Book of the Week!). It's probably more aimed at women than men, the cover is certainly not something than men would be attracted to, I suspect. So once again I am different to the average reader of this book and respond in a different way to most of the target audience. That though is the whole point of this exercise, I am stepping out of my comfort zone. I award The First Wife 5/10, it's well written and easy enough to read but I'd prefer a more complex plot and slightly more plausible characters who aren't all so incredibly likeable!

Next up it's back to Bookcase 15 for the final Teenage book, Breaking Butterflies by "M Anjelais", who himself is a teenager I believe.

If so it's quite an achievement to be a published author at that age so I look forward to reading the book, it must be something special.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Shahana by Rosanne Hawke

Shahana is a very different book to the other teenage book I read last week. The first book, The Piper, is a fairly simple supernatural tale. Shahana is not a complex story, but the characters feel like real people and it explores real life problems and issues. It is set in Kashmir and is all about child exploitation and the effects on families of living in a war zone. The story is told through the eyes of a teenager who has lost her parents and has to look after her younger brother.

The eponymous Shahana gets to know two men a few years older than her who are both reluctant militants, and in their own way are just as much victims of the conflict as she is. The novel basically raises awareness of the victims of this conflict but at the same time hints at a better future: the Kashmiri villages may be cut off from much of civilisation but the Internet allows them to connect to the rest of the world and highlight the suffering they are being forced to go through. I award it 6/10.

Dorking Library now have another book of the week so I have returned to I have Bookcase 12 to try and tick this case off. The latest offering to been chosen by the library is The First Wife by Emily Barr.

It's about a woman who lived in more or less total isolation with her grandparents until they died and then is forced to make her way in the world. It's a book which is probably more targeted to men that women but the whole point of this exercise is for me to transcend boundaries and target audiences of books. The teenage books have both been worth reading, I won't be rushing to read more like them, but they have helped be reconnect a little with young people. Maybe The First Wife will offer something that I might not have anticipated?