Monthly Archives: June 2021

Miss Benson’s Beetles

Phil: Does anyone else look a book up on Amazon and immediately head for the 1 star reviews? I bet I’m not alone in doing this, we all like to see a bit of moaning.

Anyway, for this book, they tell us a lot more about the reviewers than the book itself.

Not yet read books so can’t comment” – well then DON’T!

Packaging ok but book, bought as a gift, was damaged inside and the dust cover was torn. ” – Not really telling us much about the book is it?

This was a good book until it wasn’t. Billed as a friendship saga but ends in heartbreak.” – SPOILER ALERT! Life, even fictional life, isn’t all sunshine and roses.

Anyway, none of that tells us much about Rachel Joyce’s latest story.

It is 1950. In a devastating moment of clarity, Margery Benson abandons her dead-end job and advertises for an assistant to accompany her on an expedition. She is going to travel to the other side of the world to search for a beetle that may or may not exist.
Enid Pretty, in her unlikely pink travel suit, is not the companion Margery had in mind. And yet together they will be drawn into an adventure that will exceed every expectation. They will risk everything, break all the rules, and at the top of a red mountain, discover their best selves.

We are in a very different world to today. Margery is a traditional spinster, with all this suggests. Her life hasn’t been easy. Often overshadowed by a terrible tragedy that takes place right at the start of the novel, she has a lifelong passion for exotic beetles, and suddenly sets out to travel around the world in order to discover a specimen rumoured, but not proven to exist. This is a drab world of rationing and slow recovery from conflict. Somewhere were women got married, had children and did what they were told.

Lone women travelling would be very unusual, so she engages the services of an assistant, who initially turns out to be hopelessly unsuited to the job. Eventually though (this is a story after all) they come to understand and support each other.

In many ways, this is a character study of women in the era. As well as our two heroes, there are ambassadors wives on a remote island who have nothing to do other than find ways to stem their boredom. They live a round of social events and craft sessions, always aware that they were very much second-class citizens – and appendage of their husbands. Along come two apparently independent women and this causes some consternation.

If I’m being honest, while I enjoyed the book, you need to suspend your disbelief and also ignore the extraneous POW character who seems to serve no purpose, even when he comes into his own at the end. I’d have simply edited him out entirely, but it’s not my book.

It’s also worth remembering that the 1950s didn’t offer the same level of information to anyone, especially women. Foreign travel was rare and exotic so ending up in the sort of place beetles are found, was a leap in the dark. Travel was hard, but then the normal world wasn’t short of discomfort either. In many ways, Margery escapes a stifling existence in her own, unconventional way.

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Rediscovering the Library

Candice: Over the last few years I’ve got out of the habit of going to the local library. It’s been too easy to pick up a book from the supermarket or the charity shop, or get one from Phil. However, during lockdown, it has been harder and harder to get hold of physical books so I have had to look at other options.

At one point I tried to set up a share group with the neighbours, but we either didn’t like each others type of book, or they read on a kindle so couldn’t share.

Phil and I have posted books back and forth, but that has still be dependent on what I can get hold of, and I refuse to buy too much from Amazon as I like to support the local stores instead.

But then there was a lightbulb moment in the family the other week. Why not use the Library? It’s particularly relevant as my daughter is reading more and more, and finding the right books for her is also a challenge.

She loved her first trip there, and was very proud of having her new library card. The slight problem is her having picked about seven books up, and only managing to read one in the three weeks she has them, but I am not knocking that excitement!

However, it has also helped me to discover the extensive range at Solihull Library. In fact, I got more lost in the options than she did; quick reads, Richard and Judy reads, murder mystery, chick lit, something completely different. I’m reading something at the moment I would not have picked up in a shop.

The downside is I can’t share them with Phil, but I can at least recommend and he can go and find them in his own library.

There are lots of other things happening at the Library too, there were some children doing craft activities last time we went in so I need to find out how to sign up to them, plus reading groups and summer clubs.

Lockdown has changed a lot of things but also brought other things to the fore that we’d forgotten about – using the local park is one and now using the Library is another. Don’t forget to use yours – its a great, free service and will open you up to lots more things than books.

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We’re 500 miles from comfortable Colganland

Img_4181Phil: When you simply need a book to dip into to relieve the stresses of the real world, then something by Jenny Colgan is a good safe bet. Woman’s Weekly call her “the queen of feel-good” and you don’t mess with them.

Five Hundred Miles from You is classic chick-lit. We have two nurse practitioners who for various reasons need to swop the places they work for three months. Over shared patient notes, they fall in love. You know what’s going to happen from the back cover blurb, and it doesn’t matter. We are here for the journey, not the destination.

What I love about this book is that one of the locations is Kirrinfief in Scotland. Loyal readers will remember the tiny town from Colgan’s previous novels and this adds an interesting twist to the story. Characters who were central to plots in the past suddenly, and quite logically, turn up in the supporting cast here.

If you are in on this, it’s all great fun. For new readers, it makes no difference – but they might be tempted to pick up some older novels and read the back-stories.

Aside from the story telling element, this makes a lot of sense from a writer’s point of view. If you are going to invent an entire town full of characters, why discard them after a single book and start from scratch? If nothing else it saves a lot of work.

Personally, I love the idea that the characters have a life beyond a single story. Nina from The Bookshop on the corner is still dispensing books from her van to as a form of literary medicine. I can imagine that she and the others are still having adventures, and all we need to do to find out more, is open the covers of another Scottish-themed book.

Five Hundred Miles? I enjoyed it. Maybe the culture shock for both characters suddenly finding themselves in either London or Scotland is laid on a bit thick, but them I have travelled north of the border a bit and visited London many times, so perhaps I’m just more familiar with both.

It certainly seems odd to read of an ex-soldier who appears not to have visited the capital before, but then I worked with a lady whose squaddie husband managed to travel by train from Kent to the Midlands, including changing in London, and hadn’t found a single place to eat anywhere along the journey. Or at least that was what she claimed, and at the time, even I worked out that saying “He couldn’t find food in London and yet they let him have guns” wasn’t the most sensible thing…

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