Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Ship of Brides

I was so impressed by The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society book that I couldn't stop talking about it, I really loved it. After one such conversation my good friend Sian said that she had a book which I might like to read as it was also set in 1946 and was about the the post war era. As it turns out she was absolutely right, I really did enjoy this book.

The Ship of Brides by Jojo Moyes is based on a true story and is about a group of women who travel on the British Navy aircraft carrier, HMS Victorious, to England from Australia to meet up with the husbands they married during the war. The story follows the journey of four of 650 'brides' on board the ship. These four share a makeshift cabin together and they make the six week long voyage away from their family and friends in Australia to an unknown and brand new life in England. But the ship has other passengers; the full navy crew of the Victorious is still on board which comprises of 1,100 men along with 19 aircraft and all the related equipment which makes an aircraft carrier work! The navy has agreed to bring the brides from all around the world back to Britain to be reunited with their husbands after the war is over. They commission the Queen Mary and other luxury liners to do the job, but, time is short and there are a lot of brides to relocate so they decide to revamp the Victorious so it can carry some of the brides from Australia.

The book begins with a rambling first part which I found a little boring, to be honest, but once we meet the four girls and get into the real story, then it becomes 'un-put-downable'! We are introduced to the ladies as they are told they have a place on a 'bride ship' which will take them on the journey to England. We accompany them as they say their goodbye's to family and friends at home in Australia. The comparison between their lifestyles is quite fascinating as they each come from different backgrounds and have differing relationships with their families and their husbands. The departure scene is very moving and I did shed a tear or two as the girls climbed the gangplank and left everything familiar to them behind.

Then the journey begins and it soon becomes clear that the shear logistics necessary to make this trip without discipline problems is a huge headache, especially as the captain of the ship is a lifetime navy man without a wife of his own. To help maintain the status quo marines are posted outside the ladies living quarters and strict rules are enforced to make sure the ladies and the servicemen are kept apart, but, six weeks is a long time to be alone at sea and a great deal happens to the brides and the men.

As the days unfold, so do the relationships between the women. The story really is about friendship, betrayal, secrecy and trust and of course, it is mainly about love. It is a fascinating tale with believable characters who show their true colours in one way or another as the journey progresses.

One of the most interesting things about this book for me was that, as unbelievable as the story may seem in parts, this really did happen to these women. I found it particularly telling of the times that some of the brides on board received telegrams or radio messages telling them "Do Not Come - Not Wanted Here" in which case they were put off the ship at the next port of call and arrangements were made to send them back to Oz, without any recourse at all! I did a bit of checking after I read this book and found out that Australia lost almost a complete generation of it's female population to foreign servicemen during the war years, mainly those from the US and the UK and both British and American authorities sanctioned that arrangements must be made to pick these women up and transport them to join their husbands in America and Britain after the was over.
I was spellbound by the book which is a great story with lovely characters and also by the real story which is absolutely true. I would definitely read this book again at some point and recommend it wholeheartedly.

Did you know about the 'brides' story? (I had no idea!)

Does reading a story based on fact alter your enjoyment of it is any way?

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Liar - Stephen Fry

Whilst I was on my break from blogging I managed finally to read some of the old timers of my TBR pile, one of them was The Liar by Stephen Fry. I wasn't sure what to make of it at first and became a little confused as the story jumped backwards and forwards through time, but, it didn't take me long to be completely absorbed in this wonderfully witty and amusing tale of people who keep secrets and tell lies.

Adrian Healey is the central character in this story and he is witty, bright, intellectual, snobbish and quite daring. The first time we meet Adrian it is clear he is not like other boys at his school:

"Adrian checked the orchid at his buttonhole, the spats at his feet, gave the lavender gloves a twitch, smoothed down his waistcoat, tucked the ebony Malacca-cane under his arm, swallowed twice and pushed open the changing room doors.

'Ah, my dears,' he cried. Congratulations! Congratulations to you all! A triumph, an absolute triumph!'

'Well, what the fucks he wearing now?' they snorted from the steamy end of the room.

'You're and idiot and an arse, Healey.'

Burkiss threw a flannel onto the shiny top hat. Adrian reached up and took it between his forefinger and thumb.

'If there is the slightest possibility, Burkiss, that this flannel has absorbed any of the juices that leak from within you, that it has mopped up a single droplet of your pubescent greases, that it has tickled and frotted even one of the hideously mired corners of your disgusting body then I shall have a spasm. I'm sorry but I shall.'

In spite of himself, Cartwright smiled............."

And so I was hooked. I had the most vivid picture of the scene and particularly of Adrian Healey in my mind from this moment, and as the story unfolds, the picture becomes more and more colourful.

Adrian proves to be a total liar and looks on the world as his play ground. The book charts Adrian's life through the latter part of public school, during a time when he becomes a runaway and through his university years. He is cool, courageous, rebellious and always in trouble of one kind or another, particularly with the police, various school masters and his parents. Nobody can see through Adrian until he meets Professor Trefusis, who is a master at St Matthew's College, Cambridge where Adrian is reading Philology under his watchful eye. The story turns into a romp of the most extraordinary kind taking in Piccadilly rent-boys, Dicken's lost pornographic novel Peter Flowerbucke and an international espionage conspiracy.

I cannot remember when I last enjoyed a book so thoroughly and laughed out loud so many times. It is an astonishing achievement of comedic writing and now I am on a quest to seek out more of Stephen Fry's books. The only thing I would caution against is that some of the language and some of the descriptions of sexual encounters contained in the story (all of which add to the landscape of the portrait being painted, by the way) might be shocking to more sensitive readers, so, if you are in this group perhaps this is not the book for you.

It was another of those books I did not want to end. It is not the kind of book I would normally choose to read but I do adore Stephen Fry and so when I saw it in the bookshop I picked it up. Then as it been sitting so long on my TBR pile, I thought I should give it a try and I'm so glad I did. Just think, I may not have read it at all, which would have been a terrible loss for me.

Have you read anything by Stephen Fry?

Have you ever picked up a book you would not normally select and loved it so much you follow it's trail?

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Speaking of Hilary Mantel, let's talk about Fludd

Congratulations to Hilary Mantel on winning the 2009 Man Booker Prize!

Not being one for getting involved in reading whole collections of books on long lists, short lists or any kind of lists truth be known, I was interested in the choice of the shortlist for this years Man Booker Prize simply because I noticed Hilary Mantel's latest book, Wolf Hall, was on there. I have now read two Mantel books and loved both of them, so the shortlist piqued my interest. Then I read a review Wolf Hall and that interested me even more. The book is a work of historical fiction about life at court during Henry VIII's time and particularly about Thomas Cromwell's part in it. Oooo... right up my street, history, fiction and Thomas Cromwell and his mates! So, as I haven't read it yet I am not in a position to review it here, but, it is going on my Christmas Wish list and if it arrives in my Christmas stocking I'll let you know what I think of it then!

I am going to talk about another book of Hilary Mantel's though, one that I recently read during my book reading fest whilst I was absent from blogging - Fludd. The story is set in a fictional village called Featherington which is a cotton town in the north of England and the action takes place around 1956. It is a work which looks at religion and religious mysticism and one which asks some searching questions about the Catholic Church of the time. Although the word Catholic is never mentioned in the story, parallels to the faith are clear. Mantel's disclaimer at the front of the book is obviously aimed at a higher power than any human authority. An amusing beginning to a very entertaining book.

Father Angwin is the parish priest in Featherington and is particularly old fashioned in his ministry. One day the bishop comes to call and orders Angwin to get rid of some of the decrepit statues from the church and to spruce the place up a bit. The old priest doesn't want to part with the relics and starts to devise a plan to keep them. Before the bishop leaves that day he mentions to Angwin that he will be sending a curate to "help and assist" him. The priest is dismayed by this news because of a guilty secret he has that he believes will be uncovered; for the last 20 years he has not believed in god but he does believe in the devil and what's more, he believes the devil incarnate is one of the local villagers sent there to taunt him because of his lack of faith!
Not long after the bishop's visit a young man appears on the doorstep of the priest's house wearing priests clothes and carrying what looks like a doctors bag. He is a curious priest called Fludd and seems to have a mysterious effect on everyone he meets. People seem unable to tell Fludd anything but the truth and he has the unusual ability to clear his plate of food and empty his glass of whisky without anybody ever seeing him eat or drink. As the story unfolds Fludd becomes a confidant to Sister Philomena who is one of the young nuns in the parish convent. She has been sent into the convent from Ireland after a childhood bout of psoriasis is mistaken for stigmata. Their friendship develops and Sr Philomena becomes the only person to discover the truth about Fludd.

Hilary Mantel masterfully draws the picture of life in a cotton town in Lancashire in the 1950's. Her wit is sharp and often scathing and inevitably this story becomes a commentary on the Church and a debate about good versus evil. It is also very funny and when Sr. Philomena states that in her world a priest in the family is worth three or four nuns, I was instantly transported back to my own school days attending a convent and had pictures in my mind of the nuns who always seemed to be able to float along the corridors there. It is a wonderful, thought provoking book and well worth the read. I can hear Sister Sheila Mary telling us off in assembly as we speak!

Have you read this or any other Hilary Mantel books?