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I read so much that I have finally decided to go beyond just recording titles via GoodReads or in my journal and taking time to properly review books. This book by Plum Johnson is a thought provoking memoir, which many readers will enjoy but which will resonate particularly for those of us of a certain age who have recently lost parents:

“They Left Us Everything”,,9780143189053,00.html
by Plum Johnson enchanted me from its ambiguous title to the moment I finished reading it.

It’s a memoir of both her parents’ lives and of the aftermath of their deaths as she and her three younger brothers work out how to clear out the accumulated possessions and all the memories they evoke after sixty years in a rambling, lake front house in Oakville.

As the oldest, and the only daughter much of the emotional care of her spirited, cantankerous Southern belle of a mother fell to Plum, especially after the slow decline into Alzheimer’s’ Disease and death of her upright, British father. Her relationship with her mother was not an easy one, something that both recognized and regretted.

The clearing of the house was such a vast project that Plum moved in, leaving her own house and life in Toronto behind. Her brothers came and went helping when they could, as did friends. In the nearly two years it took her, the house remained a focal point of the family’s life hosting two weddings.

Johnson writes well, with a gift for description that draws the reader in and her clear sighted honesty turns what could have been just another family story into something much more: a meditation on the power of memory, its elusiveness, and fragility; a sharp eyed depiction of other times, their mores and expectations; and, above all, a study of the familial ties that bind us whether we will it or not.

Disclaimer: This book was sent to me in e-galley form by Penguin Canada via NetGalley.
06 January 2014 @ 02:12 pm
Although I still have been reading LiveJournal,I was shocked that I have not posted here in over a year. Sometimes, it seems there are just too many ways to reach out. I have been getting to grips with FaceBook, Twitter and GoodReads. Now that someone has introduced me to HootSuite, I intend to cross post and want to concentrate more on books that I have been reading, spreading the word about new authors I discover or books that I feel have been overlooked.
14 November 2012 @ 10:26 am
Next big thing: What I’m working on now…

Writers are tagging each other with a questionnaire about what they’re working on now. I was tagged by Gary Barwin.
I would like to tag Anne Grey, Kurtis Scaletta, Ann Ewan, Geraldine Durrant and Gisela Sherman.

What is your working title of your book?Not the Slightest Chance

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

 It’s the story of a young Canadian soldier caught up in the doomed defence of Hong Kong in 1941.

Where did the idea come from for the book?
 This is my second book for Scholastic Canada’s I Am Canada series. I have always been fascinated by WWII and there is a personal connection here as my father in law, a doctor in Hong Kong, was called up to serve with the British forces during the invasion and then siege of Hong Kong by Japanese forces. The British commandant of the hospital where he was working sent him and the other Chinese staff away when it became clear that the Japanese were close. He feared that the Chinese staff would be massacred.

What genre does your book fall under?
 Historical fiction.
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition? 
Gabriel Basso (Super 8) for the young soldier, and that fine Canadian actor Nicholas Campbell for his Sergeant Major.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency? 
I am represented by Dean Cooke of The Cooke Agency. The novel is already sold to Scholastic Canada.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript? 
I am still researching it!

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre? 
I would like to think of it a version for younger readers of novels like James Clavell’s King Rat or Martin Booth’s Hiroshima Joe, both of which show how completely the experience of war can change someone.

Who or what inspired you to write this book? I am a military brat so grew up hearing stories of WWII from my father and his friends so it has always interested me. Hearing my husband’s father’s story fascinated me so I was happy to combine these two strands in researching the story

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest? The role of the two Canadian regiments sent to defend Hong Kong is little known these days and it’s a story of great suffering and true heroism. They were deemed “not combat ready,” but the Winnipeg Grenadiers and the Royal Rifles of Canada were sent to Hong Kong as a matter of political expediency. The Prime Minister of Britain, Winston Churchill knew that the colony could not be defended, so sending the Canadians was a cynical act. The Canadians arrived in mid November; most of their equipment did not. They had scant time to familiarize themselves with the rugged landscape and heat of Hong Kong, as well as learning to use their borrowed equipment. When the Japanese invasion started only two or so weeks after their landing, they fought bravely against insurmountable odds, holding out from December 8th until the Governor of the colony finally surrendered it to the Japanese at 3:00 p.m on Christmas Day. The Canadians were in the worst of the fighting and the Royal Rifles were the last to lay down their weapons. Once captured, they spent three and a half years in the hellish conditions of Japanese Prisoner of War Camps. Many died, and most suffered for the rest of their lives because of their experiences in Hong Kong.
10 October 2011 @ 11:26 am
papersky's post prompted me to post after such a long silence. I have been reading LiveJournal, but somehow the imperative to post has been missing in action.

So, Thanksgiving . . .  It's one of those holidays that still seems alien to me, even after twenty one years in Canada. I like the concept, but the actual trappings have never worked. Initially, without much family or friends in Canada we were a duo with nothing to do but cook ourselves a very nice meal.  Once we had made friends and IndependentBoy (the being known formerly as GolfBoy) arrived on the scene, we made more of an effort and the last few Thanksgivings have always included a big meal with friends.

This year is slightly unusual as my dearly beloved is but a week away from a milestone birthday so one of the many celebrations he has planned mixed up with Thanksgiving and we had what can only be described as a posh pot luck. Ten friends came and it was a wonderful mish mash of culinary cultures. We started with a wine tasting with beautiful cheeses. After this came a sharks' fin soup which we made (I feel I need to add a disclaimer here - this is the last of some sharks' fin we were given, and, once it's gone, we will not be purchasing more). Our second appetizer was a plate of sashimi, snapper prepared crudo style, and a tuna tartare, all elegantly presented with matching oils and dressings. After that came another of our courses - Cantonese duck. This was followed by lamb Rogonjosh (cooked by me the day before), rice, Chinese greens, and Shanghai noodles with shrimp and chicken. Finally, the birthday cake ( a feast for the eyes as well as the mouth) arrived a huge, home made Black forest gateau. Wine flowed freely and the conversation ranged far and wide.

What am I thankful for this year: our good friends who share important milestones with us: that IndependentBoy has made a successful transition to boarding school, and loves it; that two books have been completed (one will come out next year to coincide with the bicentennial of the War of 1812, the other has just been revised and sent to the publisher who requested the revision); I have a new contract for a book about the Fall of Hong Kong in 1941; that we are healthy, despite some scares earlier in the year: and for living in Canada which has given us not only physical space, but also emotional and creative space?

Happy Thanksgiving!
He was the middle of three children, born in London as a new year dawned.  From what he said, Jimmy's childhood was not unhappy, but he gave the impression that he didn't get on with his own father particularly well and his mother, although much younger than his father, was largely crippled due to severe rheumatoid arthritis. Little things added up, his story of having to buy his own bike, doing odd jobs, and the fact that his father would not pay for him to take the RAF entrance exam so that he could pursue his dream of being a pilot.

The RAF formed him, made him who he was, educated him, and expanded his horizons through travel. When war broke out in 1939, he was 18 and had just finished his four year apprenticeship at Halton, graduating as an artificer. Years later when I asked him how he felt when war was declared, his answer surprised me as he said that he was excited: this was what he had trained for and now he might be accepted for pilot training. So many young men had that same dream and the the RAF was swamped with applicants. Jimmy was accepted instead on a course to train as a tail gunner and even seventy years later bitterly regretted that he was pulled from the course because the average life expectancy of a tail gunner was a mere six weeks and the RAF had just spent four very expensive years training him.

By June 1940, he was enjoying a summer in France: long periods of boredom interspersed with sudden calls to go and retrieve a downed plane. The weather was glorious, the wine and pernod cheap, and the proprietor of the Cafe des Sports in Boos had two nubile daughters. It all came crashing down when the Germans invaded and Jimmy, a newly promoted sergeant of 19, was left behind with two men to disable the planes that had to be abandoned when the rest of the squadron flew back to England. Villagers who had been friendly now stoned the Englishmen whom they felt were deserting them. Taxed with getting themselves out, Jimmy and his men took a flat bed lorry, loaded it with what they could scavenge - mainly cans of petrol, tins of fruitcake, and cigarettes - and then "beefed" it up by mounting tommy guns on it. Their journey was horrific although in the retelling of it, it was the humorous moments that Jimmy told, a series of narrow escapes, any one of which could have ended in capture or death.  It wasn't until he was in his late eighties that he finally unburdened himself of the shame that he still felt all those years later about opening  fire over the heads of the refugees packing the roads in France in a vain attempt to clear a path for their lorry. The story of that journey is for another time and telling.

In late 1940, Jimmy was sent to South Africa where he remained for the rest of the war as a gunnery instructor and where he met the love of his life, Pat. She left her family and travelled to England in 1945 to rejoin Jimmy who had gone before. Patrick, their son, was two and Pat was pregnant with Gerald who was born in Brighton a few months after her arrival. I didn't come on the scene until some nine years later.

Jimmy was a brilliant dad for a little girl, treating me like a princess, but expecting me to be tough at the same time and live up to his RAF standards, even going so far as to jokingly make me salute to get my weekly pocket money. If my passions for history, mythology and books sometimes bemused him, he never let it show and would take me to the museums or historical sites I begged to see even if his philosophy was, "Seen one museum, seen them all!" His brusque military persona hid a playful side and I can still see him, dressed in the uniform of the fifties' father- viyella shirt, cavalry twill trousers and tie - crawling in the forest he created out of upturned furniture so that we could play endless games of Big Brown Bear and Little Black Bear on rainy Saturday afternoons.

Although his RAF career prospered, life was not always easy when his beloved Pat suffered many years from depression which slid into a diagnosis of premature senility. Although not always the patient of men, he looked after her, keeping her at home, long after many others would not have done. He became a creditable cook and his steak and kidney pie was legendary. Occasionally, he would wistfully talk about the travelling he had hoped they would do once he retired. If he didn't get to all the places he had dreamed about - Germany where he and Pat had spent their best posting; the Channel Islands which, for some reason, were high on his list, and even South Africa - he was able to manage regular visits to Canada to see us through the benison of respite care for Pat. Once she moved into a care facility these visits were easier and he gained his own coterie of Canadians who were charmed by his gregariousness, humour and relish for life. It was on one of those visits that we had the phone call that Pat had had a stroke. It was Boxing Day lunch time but we managed to get Jimmy a seat on a British Airways flight that night.

Jimmy's last years were happy ones. When his own health gave concern he moved to East Grinstead into a flat near to Patrick and his wife, Geraldine. Here he enjoyed being part of their family, seeing his grandchildren grow up, sitting in the arm chair with a large gin and tonic in his hand at family celebrations. Patrick and Geraldine cherished him. His youngest grandson,  my son Theo, coming so many years after the others was another joy and any phone call or e-mail always started with a question about how the "boy" was.

Even as his body betrayed him, and betray him it did with mobility problems, deafness, COPD, Diabetes and Prostate Cancer, he was cheerful and engaged in the world. In his mind, he told me, he was still the young man who could out dig and out march the men in his command, who blew up old bombs for a living, who had once (and it was always this example of his organisational ability that he mentioned) moved a squadron of men with all their dependents to Malta with minimal fuss.

Jimmy would have turned ninety on January the first of this yeat. We had planned to celebrate in style with him, but it was not to be.

I think about him every day at least once, if not many more times. The strangest things can cause a wave of sadness. Last week on the new book shelf in our library there was a book by P. T.  Deutermann a writer whom I cannot read at all, but whom Dad loved. I found myself jotting down the title, thinking that I must tell Dad about it and then remembering that I could not.

I chose the photograph for this entry because it seemed to sum up the Jimmy I loved - happy, positive and absolutely present in the moment.

Happy Fathers' Day, Dad.
Current Mood: melancholymelancholy
23 April 2011 @ 10:04 am

Back at last. So much going on, none of it dreadful, but I have not felt the urge to post at all.
The good news is that the 1812 book is done, I think. The second lot of revisions went back mid-week. Now I can concentrate on the semi-secret project.

The following was gakked from matociquala and it amused me to do it, since I grew up reading Gollancz science fiction and fantasy books in England. With their bright yellow dust jackets they were always easy to spot on library shelves.

Gollancz has listed its fifty best science fiction and fantasy novels,  The rules are “bold if you’ve read it, italicise if you own it”:


A Case of Conscience by James Blish
Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan
Brasyl by Ian McDonald
The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
Dune by Frank Herbert
Fairyland by Paul McAuley
The Female Man by Joanna Russ
The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
Flood by Stephen Baxter
Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
Gateway by Frederik Pohl
Hyperion by Dan Simmons
Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon
More than Human by Theodore Sturgeon
Pavane by Keith Roberts
Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke
Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds
Ringworld by Larry Niven
Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner
Tau Zero by Poul Anderson
The Time Machine by H. G. Wells

The Separation by Christopher Priest
The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts


Beauty by Sheri S. Tepper
Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie

Book of the New Sun (Vol 1&2) (Vol 3&4) by Gene Wolfe
The Book of Skulls by Robert Silverberg
Conan Volume One by Robert E. Howard
Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris
Elric by Michael Moorcock
Eric by Terry Pratchett
Fevre Dream by George R. R. Martin
The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson
The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan
Graceling by Kristin Cashore
Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill
I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch
Little, Big by John Crowley
Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees
Memoirs of a Master Forger by William Heaney
Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
The Runes of the Earth by Stephen Donaldson
Something Wicked this Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
Tales of the Dying Earth by Jack Vance
Viriconium by M. John Harrison
Wolfsangel by M. D. Lachlan

29 November 2010 @ 09:16 am

When she arrived in England from South Africa in 1945 her new family thought she was glamorous and exotic and looked like Dorothy Lamour.

How strange it must have been leaving the warmth of South Africa and coming to a drab, war-wracked Britain where rationing still ruled. For a city girl who had grown up in Pretoria, it must have been stranger still to live on isolated R.A.F. stations miles from anywhere with a husband who was often posted away on unaccompanied trips, leaving her to cope with three children.

She never returned to the country of her birth and as Alzheimer's disease stole away her memory ceased to talk about it at all. I wonder if deep inside she yearned for the warmth and colour she had once known.

She died in January in 1999 on a cold, bleak day. Now, her Jimmy has joined her in death and I like to think of them, lithe and young as they were on the brief honeymoon they snatched in 1942, watching a South African sunset and listening to South of the Border, another of their favourite songs:

Patricia Durrant (Flaherty) November 29th, 1916 - January 9th, 1999
Jimmy Durrant  January 1st, 1921 -July 4th, 2010
11 November 2010 @ 01:11 pm

He was twenty when they met. He had somehow escaped from the Fall of France in the summer of 1940, more by luck than anything else, but that's a story for another time.

Jimmy Durrant, Curly to his mates, went on a blind date organised by his friend, Ace. They were young Englishmen in South Africa at the end of 1941, working as gunnery instructors in the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. Ace had hooked up with a local girl who worked at the CTC  (Cape to Cairo) department store in Pretoria and got her to bring a friend along for Curly. She brought her boss, Patricia Flaherty who, at twenty six was a little older.

After buying the girls a drink and finding them a table, Ace and Curly spent the rest of the dance at the bar, only returning at its end. Pat wasn't impressed but she let  Curly see her home and agreed to go out with him again. They had a lot going against them: the age difference; the fact that Curly was English and would leave South Africa when his tour of duty ended; the devout Catholicism of Pat's mother and family. It didn't matter. They married in October 1942 and Pat left her family behind, never seeing her sisters or brother again, to come to England where Curly became Jimmy.

They were married for 57 years, had three children, and together they weathered difficult times. Pat coped with the children when Jimmy was posted abroad. Together they faced Pat's depressions and slow slide into the fog of Alzheimer's disease.  There were good times, too. The three years they spent in Germany  were a whirl of parties and outings with friends.

After Pat died in 1999, Jimmy said that a day never went by when he didn't think about her and when asked what she was like he had only one word for her - marvellous.

This was their song: Frank Sinatra singing "i'll be Seeing You."
I hope you enjoy it and think of those who are not with you any more.

Pat Durrant 1916-1999
Jimmy Durrant 1921-2010
25 October 2010 @ 05:15 pm
It was the right cousin and he passed my e-mail over to his sister-in-law who was visiting him in South Africa. She has been researching the Flaherty family for some years and once she is home and has access to her notes, she will e-mail me. I have so many questions about my mother's family - some about my mother and some more mundane ones such as medical histories as I know nothing of that at all.My doctor who believes in preventative medicine has always started up the routine female tests early.
Current Mood: excitedexcited
20 October 2010 @ 03:50 pm
I am still in limbo as I have not received the edits due back in September, but I am not chasing them at the moment.

Since my return from my father's funeral in England in the summer, I have been thinking a great deal about how easy it is for us to lose our histories. It became clear as we prepared for the funeral that we all had pieces of our parents' history but not necessarily the same ones. My oldest brother didn't know that "I'll be seeing you," sung by Frank Sinatra was our parents' "song." Nor did he know the story of how they met, whereas I did. I think I was in the lucky position of being the last child at home, eight and ten years younger than my two brothers, and that meant my parents often told me things about their young lives. I'll admit to being an insatiably curious child who probably asked too many questions.

So, the last few weeks I have been looking at things that I had already written about my family and one bit of gold was finding an account I wrote of my father's flight from France in 1940. I think I should probably call it a collaboration as he answered endless questions over the phone and by e-mail and quite liked the finished piece. There are other stories he told me that I will write down and I will gently try to nudge my brothers into doing the same and we can leave these for our own children, along with stories of our own childhoods.

While doing this, however, I was disturbed by how little I knew about my mother's early life and family. She was a war bride from South Africa and, once she left there in 1945, never once went back or saw her siblings again. One nephew, or perhaps, the child of a cousin, visited us in Germany in 1963, when I was nine, but this was the only visit. My mother's siblings were twenty, fifteen and ten years older than she was. Contact by letter seems to have been sporadic, but talking to one of my brothers today, he remembers receiving parcels containing South African newspapers and strips of biltong, but thinks these stopped in the early fifties. Quite how or why contact was lost, I don't know, but from the mid sixties onwards there were no more letters. My mother struggled first with Depression that gradually slid into Alzheimer's Disease and our opportunity to ask her was lost.

I think that my disquiet at not knowing things was brought to a head by reading Martin Booth's memoir, Gweilo (Golden Boy in America), a book he wrote at the request of his children when he was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumour in 2002 as they wanted him to expand on the stories he had told them of his boyhood in Hong Kong in the early fifties. His book ends too suddenly - as he and his mother reluctantly leave Hong Kong, he mentions that they returned four years later, but of course, the book detaiing that time was never nor will it ever be written. My husband who is a few years older than Booth and who was a teenager in Hong Kong at the time described in the book read it, too, entranced by his own adolescence being brought back to life for him and realising that he witnessed several of the events described by Booth. We have both decided to start writing descriptions of our own childhoods to leave for our son, so that he knows where he came from and can, perhaps, share that with his children in due time. 

My mother's incomplete story has to be finished first and with the help of my sister-in-law I have started to dig around and to see what I can find out. She sent me copies of my mother's birth certificate and of my parents' marriage certificate, both poignant as all such documents from the past are, the little details so telling, such as the designation of the bride and groom as European on a certificate issued in Pretoria, South Africa in 1942. As I was looking at them, I remembered that I had been given a packet containing some old letters and cards. I hadn't looked at them at the time -  I think it was in the middle of a family visit - but had just stored them in my filing cabinet. When I got them out yesterday, I realised that here was a way in. As well as my mother's school leaving certificate, my ration book dated the year of my birth in 1954, and some clothing coupons from 1946, there were two letters from South Africa both written in 1964.  Although both have addresses on them, I doubt that there is any point writing to to them forty six years later, although GoogleEarth did show me a small, neat bungalow at one of them. One is from my mother's older sister who would be one hundred and four if she were still living, but the other was from a niece and in it, she listed her children and their ages, four of them all a few years younger than I am, three boys and one girl. I googled the names of the boys adding South Africa to try and winnow the hits down, and I think I have found my second cousin and an e-mail address.

With a certain amount of trepidation, I wrote to him, explaining who I was and why I was trying to contact his family. Now, I have to wait and see if he is indeed the right one and if he replies. So, we might be able to fill in some gaps in our lost history. Keep your fingers crossed.