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Judy Croome: Author on the Prowl

Judy Croome lives, writes and reads in Johannesburg, South Africa.  A novelist & poet, Judy loves cats, exploring the meaning of life, chocolate, rainy days and cats (who already appear to have discovered the meaning of life.) Visit Judy on www.judycroome.com or join her on Twitter @judy_croome

Book Review: House of Light by Mary Oliver

House of Light - Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver really is a magnificent poet - her images of nature conjure up perfect visuals of whatever natural scene she's describing. I do tend to find her poetry very intellectual as opposed to emotional (Charles Bukowski; Pablo Neruda - two of my favourite poets whose work is molten with emotions). However, despite this somewhat austere element to her poetry, her collections are always a worthwhile read and HOUSE OF LIGHT is no exception. Some favourites from the book:"Spring"; "The Hermit Crab"; "The Kingfisher"  and the unforgettable, amazing and brilliant "The Summer Day" (with the exquisite ending couplet that resonates so deeply no matter how many times I read it "...Tell me, what is it you plan to do/with your one wild and precious life?")

Book Review: The Cupboard by Rose Tremain

The Cupboard - Rose Tremain

Takes patience and time to let the author unravel the complex threads of the stories within stories. These could have perhaps been unravelled a bit quicker as I found the pace slow. Not as enjoyable as The Colour or Music & Silence, both of which are magnificent works by Rose Tremain. Her writing is as great as ever though - the characters very real and Tremain captured the rambling quality of an 87 year old woman's conversation very well.

Heyer doesn't disappoint

Black Sheep - Georgette Heyer

Starting off the year with an easy read (actually a re-read!). Heyer never disappoints. While BLACK SHEEP is not one of my top 5 Georgette Heyer regencies, it's a delightful romp packed with very human characters playing out their lives in Heyer's usual exquisitly crafted setting of Regency England. Because this isn't one of my top favourites, I haven't re-read it so often and found little details that I'd forgotten or missed in previous reads. Abigail is a strong but compassionate heroine and, as Miles himself says, everyone loves a rake, & I'm no exception so Miles is a perfect match for Abby!

Book Review: The Snow Queen by Michael Cunningham

The Snow Queen - Michael Cunningham

Well written, but so depressing. Other than a mild empathy for Barrett, I can't relate to any of the characters. The book has had some good moments, but I'm abandoning it at 32% read (kindle). Life's too short for me to read books I'm not enjoying. For readers who can connect with the lives and personalities of the main characters, I'm sure this will be a good read.  

Book Review: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life - Anne Lamott

Warm, wonderful and witty advice on writing. There were times when the humour was too obviously contrived, but as Lamott explains, humour was her defence mechanism in childhood. On the whole a book every writer should read for its honest look at the writing profession. Even as an experienced author, the emptiness of the blank page had almost overwhelmed me - after reading Bird by Bird I'm fired up with enthusiam again.

Book Review: Faith by Jennifer Haigh

Faith - Jennifer Haigh

Well-written enough to keep me reading until 01h30 in the morning so I could finish it. I guessed early on what had really happened, so perhaps that influenced my feeling of the end being not as good as the beginning and middle of the book. Sheila, the narrator, and her half-brother Art were somewhat unknowable - Mike, the other sibling, was the most accessible character. The interplay of the family relationships was well-portrayed, and the child abuse scandal of the Catholic Church in the 90's sensitively handled. Overall, I enjoyed the story.

Book Review: Travels with my Father by Karen Jennings

Travels with My Father: An Autobiographical Novel - Karen Jennings Poignant and lyrical, TRAVELS WITH MY FATHER takes the reader on a meandering journey through past and present. I'm not overly fond of memoirs - usually finding them dry, dusty and too factual - but, through the lens of coming to terms with her grief at her father's dying, Jennings has woven a masterful record of life to which everyone can relate. Whether describing the small and personal details of her life (the "desperately ugly" ashtray she thought belonged to her grandfather) or minor details of her travels (the visit to a museum in India, filled with mouldy, stuffed animals - "a bat has fallen off its perch and has been put back so that it stands on its feet"), Jennings's writing is vivid and vibrant. It is also searingly, at times painfully, honest ("The Jenningses do not speak of things that are unpleasant or relate to emotion in any way"). She often mentions her struggle with depression; her disappointment in the smallness of her father's life as he got older. As one reads, her words wrench emotion from one - too often, this is deeply coloured with melancholy and a quiet despair. At one point, her father said to her "Oh, girl, why do you have make things so difficult?" There is no linear pattern to the stories and anecdotes filling the book. The reader is effortlessly carried along a stream-of-consciousness exploration of a period in the author's life starting with her father's death and ending with the scattering of some of his ashes in Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. (A delightful scene near the end of the book, which reflects the end of mourning and the beginning of a new phase in her life). This adds to the sense of being personally, intimately involved in this journey of a daughter working through her grief at the loss of her very human, but much loved, father. There are no order to our memories, and TRAVELS WITH MY FATHER reflects that in its seemingly rambling (but exquisitely crafted) style. Whether it's a lesson on the history of the places she visits on her travels triggering a memory of her childhood, or the discovery of a new notebook of her father's triggering memories of her family history, or her new lover's bow legs reminding her of her father, Jennings's masterful control of her subject and her dramatic use of words creates a compulsive need to continue reading. Despite the ending, at that point when Jennings finds in her father's notes a reassurance of the very ordinariness of life that ties together all the threads of an ancestral line stretching both backwards into the past and forwards into the future to a time when she, too, will grow old and die - her acceptance of the cycle of life, in a way - when I finished reading, a darkness persisted, leaving me unsettled and edgy all day. In a way, my lingering sadness is a tribute to the high quality of Jennings's skill as a writer, but my more optimistic personality prefers to leave a book filled with a brighter sense of hope.

Book Review: Someone to Love (Westcott #1) by Mary Balogh

Someone To Love (A Westcott Novel) - Mary Balogh

A pleasant start to the new Mary Balogh series. Interesting lead characters in Avery and Anna, and interesting secondary characters who I presume will be the leads in future books in the series. A quiet, slow-paced book, with gentle emotions and gentle, but strong, lead characters.


I liked Anna's dignity and Avery's mystery; the interesting twist in the main plot.


I struggled with some long-winded passages, necessary, I suppose, to set-up the series; the romance was not strong enough and the setting didn't feel like a Regency, felt more like an old-fashioned romance.


Nothing like the strong emotion in Balogh's older books such as Summer to Remember, Heartless, Longing, The Temporary Wife, The Secret Pearl and others. Still, I'm interested enough to want to find out what happens to the cast of characters we met in this first book.

Book Review: Letters to Sister Benedicta by Rose Tremain

Letter to Sister Benedicta - Rose Tremain

Nearly 200 pages of predominantly prose, with little dialogue and white space, and yet, I could hardly put the book down.


Different to the other Rose Tremain's I've read & loved (particularly The Colour and Music & Silence), the Letters to Sister Benedicta trace the inner rambles of Ruby's fracturing self after a traumatic year bringing her safe, ordinary and quietly unhappy life tumbling down. That destruction ultimately frees Ruby to begin a journey of self-discovery.


We don't get to see that journey, only the events leading up to Ruby's first tentative steps outside the cocoon of her previous life in which she was smothered by personalties far less sensitive and far more selfish than she. Her parents, mean & miserable with their fading memories of previous glory; her urine soaked grandmother in the crumbling manor house; her domineering & unfaithful husband; her ghastly mother in law- an eternal victim; her morally bankrupt children; her weak English lover, supplanted in his wife's affections by a swarthy skinned & passionate foreigner and the ominously silent Sister Benedicta all play their part in deepening the confusion Ruby experiences around who she is and what kind of life she's capable of living.


On the surface, this is a novel of hope, but there's an oppressive thread of melancholy interwoven in this story. Ruby, too, is so passive, so very smothered by her lack of self-love and her desire to please/help everyone but herself that even the beginning of her Great Adventure at the end of the book leaves one with a niggling doubt that, here too, she fell into that path rather than actively choosing it for herself.


This short but complex story has excellent characterisations and provokes deep thinking - Ruby, in her self-destructive passivity, having been so cowed & diminished by the "soldiers" in her life, is the perfect analogy for the countries colonised under Queen Victoria's push towards the Great British Empire: India, in particular, as India is where Ruby & her parents lived, but also Zimbabwe & South Africa, all left with a low self-esteem about their abilities, their true natures and their warm vibrant passions so unlike the cold superiority of the colonising western empire. In Ruby's ambivalence about Leon's dying - her almost unrecognised longing for freedom, buried in her Pavlovian responses of sacrificing her identity & her needs to serve her dying husband, and in her first tentative steps towards an independent self-hood free of the smothering rules and demands so alien to her true nature, I see an echo of the path previously colonised countries had to walk when the conquering soldiers finally left.


Another gem from Rose Tremain, even if its depths are not immediately clear in the quiet ordinariness of Ruby's sad existence.


Memorable quotes:


"Leon had such a sure sense of his own identity and was so absolutely purposeful in all that he did, that within a very short time I had put away most of myself"


"Godmother Louise being “a good Marxist” and found it rather strange. I think I decided that she was only a good Marxist deep down in her soul and that she let the rest of herself be rather a bad Marxist. And the bad Marxist in her kept on and on going to five-star hotel rooms where enormous bouquets arrived “courtesy of the management” and where she sipped away, guiltless, at the finest champagne a bourgeois capitalist society can produce. At least she had been right about India. Her loathing for the idea of empire had been as strong as Queen Victoria’s love of it. She despised my parents for their snobbishness and their loveless ways. It was a kind of sickness, she said, their terrible pride and reserve, and I must be cured of it. I must forget the school for the daughters of the high-ranking officers, no longer think of myself as a daughter of a high-ranking officer, or even as a Catholic, because these were the masks to hide behind and until I threw them away, these masks, threw them away and never put them on again, I wouldn’t know myself. “This is why so many of us are lost, Ruby,” she said, “this is why your mother and father are so lost: they are crouching down behind their masks; they believe they are their masks and without them they will be nothing!”"


"No one in India seemed to have a feeling for helpfulness, only a feeling for what is right, and it took me a long time to see that almost everything they thought was right was actually not all that right, but in fact rather wrong. And this deficiency in helpfulness, I mean, I’ve had it all my life and I blame India, but who can say if it was India or if it wasn’t born in me..."

Book Review: Surprised by Joy by C S Lewis

Surprised by Joy - C.S. Lewis

I might not have been surprised by joy as I read this book - it was far to factually autobiographical for me, and not what I expected - but I was surprised by how much I enjoyed parts of it.


Both Lewis's description of his childhood education (and the hotbed of homo-eroticism that private boys-only schools were) was brilliant and non-judgemental and his glossed-over, but no less harrowing, account of his experience in WW1, provided an intriguing glimpse into a byone era.


Perhaps this was my biggest problem with the book - I expected a deeply inspiring, imaginative and very personal account of his spiritual awakening. Instead, this book is mainly autbiographical with a few paragraphs here and there covering his spiritual journey. Emotion was thin on the ground - intellectual scholarship was densely packed into each sentence.


Thanks to my long ago classical studies I could wade through the allusions without getting too lost, but still ... I wanted to be inspired, to feel what Lewis felt as he journeyed back to his God.


Instead, it took me nearly two weeks to struggle through it because as a rule, I don't read autobiographies. Ultimately, this was more biographical than it was spiritual and thus SURPRISED BY JOY didn't meet my expectations as a reader.


(This review is for the Kindle edition with the below cover)



Book Review: Duck, Death and the Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch

Duck, Death and the Tulip - Wolf Erlbruch, Wolf Erlbruch, Penelope Todd, Catherine Chidgey

A sweet, simple and sad story about death. The drawings add depth to the text, which became quite poignant towards the end. From the moment Duck became aware of Death's hovering presence, their inevitable relationship deepened into friendship. In the drawings, Death's gifts Duck with a tulip - but the text makes the assumption that the reader will know the significance. Perhaps that was deliberate - ultimately death cannot be fully known, only guessed at.


While I enjoyed the book, especially the smiling, skull-faced Death and the quaintly appealing Duck, I was left feeling only sadness, where a similar book "Cry, Heart, But Never Break" uplifted me despite the poignancy.

Book Review: The Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam

The Selected Poems - Osip Mandelstam, Clarence Brown, W.S. Merwin

Some brilliant poems (#223; #344;#351;#388 to name a few), but overall I couldn't connect with the poet's voice on any deep level. Perhaps the dense classical allusions, which forced me to rack my brain for my long ago Classical Culture studies, stopped me from being drawn into this volume.

Book Review: The Adulterous Woman by Albert Camus

The Adulterous Woman - Albert Camus

Three very different short stories from French writer Albert Camus, translated by Jusin O'Brien:

- "The Adulterous Woman" poignantly confronts existential loneliness and what we do to avoid it

- "The Silent Men," my favourite of the three stories, shows the complex interaction between the haves and the have-nots. With heart rending simplicity Camus shows how a changing society leaves everyone adrift and alone

- "The Guest" is the most depressing story as it shows how an act of good will by the teacher is misinterpreted and misunderstood with threatening consequences.

Worth the read for Camus' evoctave descriptions and cutting insight into the human condition.

On a practical note, the small size of the book was convenient to pop into my purse and read as I found a chance!

Book Review: "The White Cat and the Monk" by Jo Ellen Bogart

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem "Pangur Bán" - Sydney Smith, Jo Ellen Bogart

A re-telling of a 9th century Irish poem which, by its very simplicity, captures the essence of Zen spiritual enlightenment through the relationship between a monk and his white cat.

Throughout these few elementary words and the delightful accompanying illustrations, neither cat nor monk dreams of glorious rewards for work done. They exist, finding joy in the execution of their everyday tasks: for the white cat, the pursuit of mice; for the monk, the pursuit of knowledge. Therein they find that mystical inner peace which no amount of aggressive action can ever catch.

A beautiful book that I'll return to often to lift my spirits with a quick and inspiring read.

Book Review: "Cry, Heart, but Never Break" by Glenn Ringtved

Cry, Heart, But Never Break - Glenn Ringtved, Charlotte Pardi, Robert Moulthrop

The great appeal of this book begins with its title, which encapsulates all that is resilient about how we humans cope with the saddest of life's natural cycles: death.

Written for children, the language and story is simple, but the emotions it arouses are not. Four years after my Dad died at the ripe old age of nearly 84, I felt my heart cry again at the interaction between gentle Death and the 4 young children grieving the imminent loss of their beloved grandmother.

Packed with beautiful illustrations, inspirational and touching, Cry, Heart, But Never Break will give adults and children alike an increased acceptance that we are born into life and we must, therefore, die ... but in the time between we can feel joy as well as grief, sorrow as well as delight.

A marvellous, touching story.

Savage Solitude: Reflections of a Reluctant Loner - Maighread Medbh

An unusual and interesting book, more snippets of philosophy than poetry by this Irish poet. Set in an easy to read format the, at times, deeply profound content is made easier to digest by its presentation. Written in 3 viewpoints - One, The Other, I - the text takes the reader on a journey through the poet's consciousness and reaction to life in the context of these different perspectives, with quotes from famous people as a starting point. Fascinating, challenging and thought provoking, I would have preferred more raw emotion to balance the highly intellectual ideas. My favourite piece was 175. safe love. This text is a keeper as, at a different times in life, a reader will always find further meaning in the words.