Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves - Rachel Malik

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I cannot tell you how much I loved and enjoyed this book.  Rachel Malik's maternal grandmother was the inspiration - a woman who left a husband and three children (one of whom was Malik's mother) and just got on a train and never looked back.  She (Miss Hargreaves) became a Land Girl, working on farms in WW2, and was sent to Starlight Farm, where she met her soulmate, Miss Boston.  They ran the little farm together until they were cheated out of it by a lie from the farmer next door who was on the county committee for categorisation of food production on farms during the war.  They became itinerant farm workers, travelling from one farm to another, working for their keep and a roof over their heads until the late 1950s,  when they settled in a small rented cottage in Cornwall.

As Malik tells you in the Afterward, this is a work of fiction, although the two characters are based on real people and her research traces the lives of the two women.  But fiction or not, this is simply a magical book, even though the women are not really great talkers, so conversation is not the high spot of the book.  The descriptions of life in the countryside, and the walks they take and the adventures they have are just wonderful.  You know that they care for each other deeply, even though they do not speak about "love" or "closeness", they just are.  It is only half way though the book that a real threat arrives to rock the boat, and the book then changes it's tone.  I found myself reading faster because I needed to know how this would end, but also putting the book down because I didn't want it to end.  This is currently only available in hardback or on kindle - Penguin please note that I do hope it comes out in paperback because it needs to be on that front table in Waterstones!  (Although the cover does not really lead you in, so perhaps a change there).

Recommended - it will continue to haunt me long after I pass it on.  

Monday, 19 June 2017

Tracks - Louise Erdrich

Chippewa Fleur Pillager is central to this tale of loss but it is not only about her.  It tells of  a lifestyle lost because of  the influence of government and religion, lost family structures and loyalties and a big shock for me, allotted land lost on the reservation.  As I knew next to nothing about Native American Indians, this short book of survival and endurance was a read that made me feel so sad for what the Europeans did when they arrived in a new land.  The book is set in the early 20th century, not when the settlers first came across the natives but a good while later, although the influence is  still there (the church, the trade offs, the taxes charged for land already owned......)  The story is told in two totally different voices, Old man Nanapush and the sanctimonious but damaged Pauline.
Descriptions are wonderful, they have you seeing exactly what the author wants you to; and the feelings of the last few "true families" in an area damned already by tree felling (an early scorched earth policy) have the usual hatred, deceit, love, memory  are perfectly described.
I will say that this took me a few  chapters to "get the rhythm", but once I did it was a fascinating read.  The author of The Master Butcher's Singing Club amongst many others, Erdrich is part-Chippewa herself.  Here she brings those people of her past to life.

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Tuesday, 13 June 2017

The Peppermint Pig - Nina Bawden

Here's a younger children's book by Nina Bawden (Carrie's War) that I really enjoyed.  It reminded me of The Railway Children mainly because father had to "go away".

Poll and Theo are the two younger siblings  of four, they live in a nice house in London at the turn of the 20th Century.  Father owns up to something he didn't do which has grave repercussions, and it means that the family are left without money and without Father too - as he has gone off to join his brother in California.  The children and Mother are now forced to decamp to Norfolk, to live next door to two elderly spinster aunts in a very small terraced house.

In the course of a year, Poll and Theo learn quite a lot about how grownups behave;  how everything is not necessarily what it seems; they grow up (literally in Theo's case) and begin to understand the world according to adults.

It's a lovely old fashioned adventure, great for good readers eight and upwards. I did wonder what a young reader might make of the statement "......the sound of Mother's stays creaking".  For those of you who are bewildered, stays were a kind of corset - today's equivalent might be Spanks!

Sunday, 11 June 2017

The Ninth Life of Louis Drax -Liz Jensen

I really enjoy Liz Jensen's books;  really quirky, all different and this one is no different.  Louis Drax is a nine year old "difficult" child.  He has had several life changing experiences in his short life, he has been seeing a shrink, his mother and father love him dearly.  And then, on a family day out, he has a bad accident and is left in a coma.

I am not telling you anything here that you won't find out from the  back cover of the  paperback, but there is so much more to the story that is revealed slowly over the 220 odd pages.  The voice of Louis  -  a rather naughty wee boy who is called "Whacko Boy" at school where he has no friends, and who sees a therapist on a regular basis. It is clear that he as problems, but he is unwilling or unable to reveal all to his therapist, so we have little clue at the beginning what the problem might be.  But very shortly the voice of a new character, Doctor Dannachet arrives, the doctor at the clinic where Louis has been transferred.  The clinic has some success rate with patients who have been comatose for long periods, we hope that Dannachet will do the same for Louis.  Maybe he will be lucky?  But circumstances surrounding Louis' accident, and the people involved in his life have several different points of view,  and all of them build a picture of the real Louis.

Brilliant read - a "couldn't put it down" kind of book that I enjoyed immensely.  The cover I have is not the one shown below, which I don't like at all.  For some reason the publishers changed the original to one that whilst eye-catching, does not really capture the heart of the book.  Oh well, can't have it all.  Certainly a good read, bad cover or not!

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Wednesday, 7 June 2017

A friend is dead

My friend Lou is gone.  For a whole group of people a lovely and loyal friend is gone.  For Adam, a supporter and lover and wife and fun-maker is gone.  The funeral was just this week.  So sad she's gone, but so glad I knew her.... let me tell you a little.

I first met her when she joined my workplace.  She was 28, with the remainder of "gothness" about her.  Her hair was dyed the colour of port; she did something a bit strange with the styling of it, she had several piercings in each ear, and a tattoo of three hares on her arm. So not like me with my linen clothes and matching earrings.  It took about two days before I decided I liked her a lot  I don't know how long it took her to like me, I never asked, but we became good friends.

I'd only known her a year or so when she had major surgery.  Really major, because from her father's side of the family she had inherited a bloody awful condition*.  Imagine that you are born with a terminal illness.  It happens.  It happens to lots of people, some much younger than Lou, but she was my friend.  She told me early on that her father had died at 35 from the same thing, and she thought she wouldn't make 40 - in fact she died at 48, not from this condition, but because of it.  She contracted e-coli  and in hospital they found sepsis and a liver no longer working, and this was her last fight.

The funeral, held high up in the hills of Dorset was a thing to remember and a glory.  She was a white witch and so of course, a pagan.  Two shamans and a singer held the service, family, friends and husband spoke of her and poems were read.  We learned that she was carried on the wind, to be part of the stars, the sea, the trees, the earth.  Her totem animal was the hare and she will run with her always now.  At the graveside the wind blew from all sides, buffeting and slapping against us all - her last goodbye, I think.

My memories are mostly laughter.  Holidays spent with a group of my friends, mostly older than she and Adam - dressing up for Murder Mystery dinners, making new friends from that group, all entirely unlike either of them. Her garden party every year to raise money for a charitable cause;  that week we had in Pembrokeshire;  but yes, mostly laughter. Every so often we'd have a telephone conversation about what a bastard her condition was, the complications that were or would arise, the depression because of it.  But in the end she managed to slip away from all of us, much sooner than we wanted, she to be carried on the wind, me with a sense of relief that the pain and the fight was over.  RIP my friend.


Monday, 29 May 2017

Mrs Mac Suggests...... what to read in June

Wet end to the month of May here in Dorset - but the garden is lapping it up!  And when you are tidying back and clipping and weeding, everthing gets wet - your trousers, shirt, shoes..... So the best thing is to come indoors and grab a book and a cuppa!

I wondered what to suggest because Springtime is not the time for a big chunkie read on the sofa with the fire alight, is it?  My attention span is always shorter in spring because I want to be gardening, and this year I am melancholy because a lovely friend died last week, and I am currently only reading mags and newspapers - and those with the attention span of a gnat!  So it didn't take me long to find an apt subject for a read in June, and I'm suggesting that even though you may never have read one before, just the thing for a quicker read might be

A graphic novel

You may huff and puff and mutter "comics!" under your breath, but believe me there is some good stuff out there.  Have a look in your local bookshop, or talk to your library.... you may be pleasantly surprised!  One of my favourites is some years old now, but in two volumes, I can really recommend

Maus - Art Speigleman

Set in WW2, all the characters are animals, Jews are mice, Hitler is a cat.  There are pigs and other animals too, but please don't imagine this is a children's book.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Beloved Stranger - Clare Boylan

Another of those "Cinderella" books (left on my shelves for too long) which I am pleased to have found and read at last.  Superficially, this is the story of a marriage - a marriage of 50 years. Married young;  Dick, young, handsome and sexy; Lily, young, pretty and submissive.  Their marriage has been long and happy,  it has produced one child.

But after a frightening incident one night, Dick is diagnosed as bi-polar.  As we read, we realise that his "moods" throughout the marriage have a root cause.  And when he suffers an episode of paranoia, he is sectioned.  And now we begin the see how Lily has relied on Dick for their life.  We also see how much Dick has relied on Lily for every home comfort.  We also realise that we only know what people want to tell us and behind closed doors, things may be very different.  Dick's paranoia worsens; Ruth their daughter attempts to help but she has a different view of the marriage to her mother.  Very readable with a metaphorical "kick in the bollocks" at the very end.

A serious look at mental illness through the looking glass of a loving couple, this may make you think "what if.....".  Sady, Boylan, who died in 2006, didn't write enough books for me.  This is the last one I had on the shelves, although there are a couple to seek out.    

Sunday, 14 May 2017

The Secret Rooms - Catherine Bailey

A mystery discovered whilst researching for another book altogether meant that the author, with the permission of the current Duke of Rutland, set out to solve a riddle from the past and in doing so found two more.

The 9th Duke of Rutland died in 1940, in a small set of rooms on the ground floor of Belvoir Castle, Rutland.  His wife, the Duchess had called the doctor as a matter of urgency but when he arrived he was not permitted the enter, the Duke's footman had been ordered by the Duke not to let him in until he had "finished something" - he died next day, and his son ordered the rooms locked and sealed.  They stayed that way for over 60 years.  And there the mystery starts, although it begins much earlier, in 1898 when Haddon, the first child and heir and the elder brother of the 9th Duke, dies.

Catherine Bailey discovers three gaps in the family papers, and when she sets out to find out what those gaps covered in the history of the Manners family she finds things that you couldn't make up!  For me, this was as exciting as a thriller, only better;  it was shocking - the word Machiavellian comes to mind when thinking about John, Duke of Rutland's mother Violet!  It was truly a tale of power that goes with place;  it will bring you up with a shock on on sorts of subjects; and it was a real page turner!  Oh, and it will give you a feel for the way things were then in the upper classes and in society and Parliament.  You may think again about how politicians behave now;  and it is certain that our current armed forces are better supported by senior staff now than they were then..... If you remember the last series of Blackadder and the running joke about Haig's Drinks Cabinet - well, think again.

The book Catherine Bailey started out to research was originally about the number of workers from Belvoir Castle and the Belvoir estate who marched off to WW1, and she has added the entire list of the war dead from Belvoir towards the end of the book.   Recommended.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Run - Ann Patchett.

As you may have noticed, I have read several books this year that have been on the shelves far too long. I am continuing to do the same because it seems a shame if I miss another lovely read because I am too keen to pick a new book!  This is one of those Cinderella books ( left on the shelf).

Today's book, recommended to anyone who loves a well told tale that does not involve murder and mayhem, is by an author I have only read one other of.  That was Bel Canto.  Ann Patchett seems able to get beneath the skin of people so that you understand easily that what you see is not always what you get.

Doyle is the father of a mixed family and he's a widower.  His oldest son Sullivan is white, and living in Africa, seldom home, and then for only very short visits. Why did he leave home?   His two younger brothers are adopted, black, and in their late teens.  Good school, nice area, they are doing well, and Doyle looks forward to them leading rewarding lives - politicians perhaps?  The boys themselves, Tip and Teddy, have other ideas.  Tip wants to be a ichthyologist (scientist who studies fish) and Teddy, because of a much loved uncle, is leaning towards the priesthood.

There is another family that has a connection with that one.  Tennessee, a single black mother, and her daughter, Kenya.  And on the night of a dreadful snowstorm when Tennessee pushes Tip to safely out of the path of an oncoming vehicle, the two families will become linked forever.

There are several threads in these pages, and eventually they will all come together.  Patchett has a gentle style, even when things that are not so gentle are being discussed, or when things happen that make the reader silently say "oh no!".  But she seems to understand that behind every family there is a story, and behind closed doors there is sometimes a mystery.  Liked this one a lot.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Fledglings - what are they?

The birds in the picture are collared doves.  Easily identified by the dark feathers at the neck. I have some that visit my garden, although this is not a post specifically about collared doves (or doves of any kind!)  It is about fledglings - and until I found an article in the newspaper about fledglings, I was totally ignorant of what that actually meant.

So when I spotted a smallish bird with the same colouring but without the dark feathers, sitting quite happily on a garden bench, I wondered what the hell I had found.  I was worried not only about cats (we are on the end of a route taken by several neighbourhood cats and as the main road is next, they return they way they came); but also because we have lost several birds to sparrowhawks.  I know raptors are glorious - but not when they take another bird in front of me.  Anyway, I kept my eye on the one on the bench.  He seemed to disappear about 8pm and reappear around 7 am for about a week.  Sometimes two adults would join him - and appeared to be showing him how to stretch his wings..... and I still never caught on!!  Then I saw the article in the paper an appeal from the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) - part of which I reproduce here, for interest, information, and general edification!

Just before baby birds are ready to tentatively extend a wing, wiggle a tail feather and take flight for the first time, they leave their nest - "fledge" as it's called.  They then spend a couple of days on the ground and round the nest developing their final flight feathers.  The fledglings will appear fully feathered, and will hop around your garden in broad daylight - hence why members of the public are convinced they need rescuing.  Fledglings are extremely unlikely to be abandoned.  The parent birds are either gathering food, or more probably nearby with a beady eye on their youngster waiting for you to leave.  They know best about rearing their young.  Removing a fledgling from the wild (or your garden) significantly reduces it's chances of long time survival, so please don't "kidnap" the baby, even in a well-meaning way.  There are only a couple of situations when the public should give a helping hand.  If the bird is found on a busy road or pathway, pick it up (carefully) and move it a short distance to a safer place. It must be within hearing distance of where it was found.  

Similarly, if you find your cat or dog eyeing up a fledgling, keep the animal in for a couple of days (or the dog on a lead).  If you find an injured fledgling, contact (in the UK) the RSPCA.  You might phone your local vet as they do sometimes treat wild birds for free.  

Finally, if you discover a baby bird on the ground either with no feathers or covered only with a little coat of "down", it has likely fallen out of the nest ahead of schedule.  Occasionally it is possible to put these babies back in the nest, but only if you are 100% sure of the nest it fell out of.

So now you know.  Why, at my age, didn't I know how fledglings behaved?  We have at least two sets of nesting blackbirds in our hedges every year, and at some point there is always a lot of running up and down the grass and bobbing up and down with several of them at once.  Now I know that they are using our grass for take-off practice!  Keep your eyes open now, you may come across a fledgling for the first time.
Image result for collared dove

Friday, 5 May 2017

Elsewhere - Gabrielle Zevin

  What happens when you die?  An interesting question, and a rather lovely answer in this Young Adult read.  Liz awakes on a boat.  In the bottom bunk of a cabin.  In the top bunk is another girl and neither of them know how they got there and where they are going.  At last the boat reaches shore, and on disembarking, Liz is greeted by a woman who says she is her Grandmother, even though Liz has never met her before.  And where is she?  She is Elsewhere.

Yes, the woman is Liz's grandmother, dead before Liz was born, but certainly appears younger than she should be.  And that's because life in Elsewhere goes backwards - one begins to get younger from the day one arrives.  And one has to get a job, too.

Liz never wanted to die - she wasn't a suicide, she was the victim of a hit and run driver and now she's never going to see her family of best friend again - is she?

There are lots of books about the afterlife, some are best sellers, some are constantly borrowed from  library shelves, some never sell.  This one is probably one of the better ones, and certainly has a lot of charm.  Written for a younger audience, I see no reason why any age group should not read and love this.  I did.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

After Moses - Karen Mockler

Why was this on my shelf for eight or nine years?  No idea, especially now I have read it and know that it is a damn good read!!   I looked it up for reviews after I'd finished, and could only find one on Amazon UK.  When I look at the US reviews there were only about five - and yet this book has been floating around since 2003.  I've reproduced the UK cover, but although clever and does have a bearing on the story, it is not striking in any way and perhaps that is the problem.  Even on Goodreads the book has quite a small group of readers.

Moses is a small boy.  Around five when his mother is murdered and her will decrees that he should be brought up by his Aunt Ida.  Ida is the middle of three siblings (Shoe (Susan) the mother of Moses, Ida and Johny).  There is a father, but Shoe leaves him before he knows she is pregnant with his child because she realises that he is not the man she wants as a father for that child.  She didn't know she was going to die, but she had left a will, and so Moses goes to live with his grandparents, with Ida being the surrogate mother.  Ida's an artist - she could probably be a best selling artist, but she lives at home, paints her dreams, and is not worried about sales.

And then a man called Max arrives in her life.  This is when the book takes a completely different turn, and I found myself sort of drawing myself away whenever Max spoke.  At first I regarded him as seedy, then manipulative, and then..... then...... No, you are going to have to get hold of a copy somewhere and see what this man really is.  But it will be worth it.  You know those fat books you buy at the airport for a long flight?  Me too.  And I usually forget the story about three days after I turn the last page - but not this one.  This is not the usual page turner at all.  It is beautifully written, and that feeling of dread that crept up on me was so well drawn that I believed that some harm would  come to someone before the book's end.  I was compelled to finish it, and read it in just 24 hours. 

It seems that this is Mockler's only book - pity.  She has been writing another for some years, but I guess life has taken over and she may or may not get round to finishing it.  Wish she would if it is as good as this one!

 ** Please note there are a couple of scenes of a sexual nature in this book.



Saturday, 29 April 2017

Mrs Mac Suggests....... what to read in MAY

May is such a lovely month here in the UK.  Trees are flowering, summer flowers are budding up and ready to go, the world is a pretty place, even when war is tearing countries apart and bullies are winning.  Be that as it may, I looked on my shelves tonight for

A book that looks boring!
 Adopt that old maxim that you can't judge a book by it's cover and see what you can find on your shelves that looks boring at first sight.  I don't know where I got my choice, but it's been on the shelves a while.  The cover is a group of adolescents showing off in the street, a black and white photograph, which has never looked interesting enough - but now it's off the shelf it seems to be much more interesting than it looks.... it's

Liza's England by Pat Parker


Thursday, 27 April 2017

The Emperor of Paris - C S Richardson

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 A quiet little gem, this one.  If you like beautifully written sentences, fairy tales, a hint of romance, then you might seek this one out.  There are several characters in this book and at first their lives seem to have nothing whatsoever to do with each other. Time skips about a bit too.  But wait.  And read on.  At about the half way mark the threads start to knit up.

There is Octavio, born on the 8th August, 1908 (what else would he be called?), the son of a baker; and there is Isabeau,  with her scarred face, painting restorer at the Louvre.  Both are shy and lonely.  Then there is Octavio's father, who returns from the Great War mentally broken; Jacob the artist who cannot sell a sketch; and Henri, the second hand bookseller - together with other lesser characters, these threads will eventually come together and form a wonderful picture of Paris in the first part of the twentieth century, and involve you in some stories about life, some hopeful, some sad.  Lovely.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Brown Angus Butterfly

Did I see a Brown Angus in my garden a few days ago?  What I thought I saw was a brown butterfly with yellow spots.  I have looked at dozens of pics of both butterflies and moths since then, and the nearest both in identity and location would seem to be the Angus Brown.  I am not a lepidopterist (is that the right word?).  There is a blue that is similar (not true blue with with the blue tinge, but it was not that), but this was def. brown.  Sadly I did not see the underneath - or rather did not notice, perhaps - as it was there and gone in a couple of seconds.  But I had never seen one before, so tried to identify it.  This is not my picture, either, but it does give a clear identity of the Brown Angus.       
Brown Argus (upperwing)

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck

This is only the third Steinbeck that I have read.  I came to him rather late, probably because when I was at school we didn't have to analyse the arse off a book to know what literature was (and still is).  From Amazon, I learn that there are loads of editions of this with notes to help you understand........ Really?  This is a novella of just over 100 pages, and even if you are a slow reader, you could polish this off in a couple of days and you'd understand it, too.  And I know from remarks from other booky folk that they don't "do" Steinbeck because they were sick of him before school ended.  Sad, sad, and a loss for them, for they are books to grip the heart in a number of different ways.

Let me tell you a little about this one.  There is no date or time line for it, but as it was published in the late 1930s originally, it's a sure thing that the setting was the American Depression.  It's about men.  About how they do things, how they feel about things, how they get along.   It shows it's age - remember that sexism was not invented in 1937;  people still called those with a dark skin "niggers"; and in this book a woman with just a bit too much rouge, lipstick and curled hair is a "tart".  But don't take offence.  The world was a different place then.

Lennie is a giant of a man, tall, broad, huge hands and with a heart of gold.  A mental age of maybe 5 years, and not much of a memory, except for the things George tells him.  We don't need to know what the original relationship was when they were children, but they have certainly known each other most of their lives, and George is now stuck with Lennie.   The two of them are drifters.  They hitch lifts, they walk, they take menial farm jobs all over California.  They do what they can, and they dream.  The same dream for both of them.  They are going to save enough to buy a small farm, some hens, enough vegetables to feed themselves, a couple of pigs for slaughter every year, and the rabbits.  Lennie is addicted to soft things - animal fur, velvet; so the thought of keeping those soft furry creatures is his part of the dream.  But Lennie has no idea of his own strength.  And that is how trouble creeps into their itinerant life.

If you've never seen a film of this book, don't go looking for it, because no-one can, I think, do justice to Steinbeck's word pictures.  Just read the book, with all its beauty, its hardship, its cruelty, its sadness.  But do read it.

Friday, 14 April 2017

Should You Ask Me - Marianne Kavanagh

I loved this.  I couldn't put it down, and read it in a day.  Has just the right amount of mystery that keeps you reading, and the ending is just right too.
In the weeks approaching D-Day, 1944, Wareham in Dorset is full of Amerian soldiers.  The Second World War is in full flow.  London is being bombed and people are tired.  When two bodies are discovered near the coast it seems likely that they are old bodies, and they are likely to be the result of an old quarry accident.  That is, until Mary Holmes walks into the local police station and states that she knows about the bodies and she killed them both.  She's over eighty, and the Sargeant asks a young policeman to take her statement. She tells a long and meandering tale, and it may not even be true.  And wihilst William, the war damaged constable listens to Mary, he is thinking.  For he too has a tale to tell and it is tearing him apart.
Set on the Isle of Purbeck, Kavanagh has got everything so right.  The village names, the  geography, even the names of businesses in town (Frisby's shoes, for goodness sake!).  She has a style that is easy to read, involves you staight away, and produces empathy for both the leading characters. A real page turner, a short of old-fashioned thriller (no serial murders or drugged wives here!), so good that I'd recommend it it anyone who enjoys a read a little off the mainstream. 

Thursday, 6 April 2017

These Dividing Walls - Fran Cooper


 I felt quite at home in Paris reading this book. It has a familiar ring - a large city, trouble brewing in a hot Summer, and the residents of a apartment block, which at one time was a whole house or two. I got to know several of the people who live there, some better than others and some not really at all. Into this building comes Edward, a young Englishman who has taken the offer of the use of a friend's flat for a while, after suffering the devastating loss of his beloved sister in a traffic accident. I think it is fair to say that when people live in blocks of flats or apartments, they get to guess things about their neighbours, but don't necessarily get to know them. There's a family with three children under five, the mother washed out and on the verge of a breakdown. There's a couple in love and married for 30 years but she doesn't know that he no longer has a job to go to and leaves the house every morning to go across Paris and sit in a cheap cafe reading the paper all day. Then, a newly married Muslim couple buy one of the apartments, and move in...... It's a really hot Summer in Paris, tempers are frayed, things go wrong, and in the middle of it all the man without the job has a conversation with a new "friend".
The tension can be felt, just there, under the surface. What is going to happen? Someone is going to get hurt, aren't they? I found myself worrying about Edward;  the wife with the children, and the man without a job, and the rough sleeper across the road - and the others too. I dislike the mob mentality that large groups wear, I just see no way to stop them. Perhaps something that hot Paris Summer will change things for everyone concerned.
The author is English, but spent three years in Paris, and she certainly gives you a feel for it. I liked her style a lot - just a story about people, but the mounting tension made it a page turner for me. I recommend this and look forward to more by Fran Cooper.