Book Review: RHS Latin for Gardeners

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If you love language and you love plants, then you’ll love this book. RHS Latin for Gardeners by Lorraine Harrison  explains all those tricky-to-pronounce botanical words attached to our dear plants, herbs and flowers.

The book itself – a hardback – has a lovely cover and is nicely bound… it looks pretty on your bookshelf! It is perfect as a reference book and for the odd dip into while drinking a cup of coffee. The main body of the book is an alphabetical list of botanical terms, each explained, with a pronunciation guide too. Here’s an example:

helix HEE-licks:

Spiral-shaped; applied to twining plants, as in Hedera helix

Now, I never knew “helix” meant that, but it makes sense….

I also never knew that the “novi-belgii” in Aster novi-belgii means “connected with New York”.

Or that the “bonariensis” in Verbena bonariensis means “from Buenos Aries”!

Or that “saccharata” in Pulmonaria saccharata means “sweet or sugared/as if dusted with sugar”.

And the list of discovery goes on!

I was pleasantly surprised how many I had guessed correctly, such as Cymbalaria muralis (“growing on walls”), and the information hidden within these words delivers excellent guidelines for planting… if a plant is from Buenos Aries it will like heat and sunshine, right?

A bonus is the pages in between the list… a few plants are profiled, with notes on how they got their name or certain associations and uses. And some famous plant hunters are also given a page or two, with examples of the plants they discovered on various continents.

This is the ideal gift for a keen gardener, and absolutely perfect for anyone fascinated by botanical plant names. It is already a favourite of mine, and the gardening season hasn’t even begun!

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Book Review: Weeds

Weeds: The Story of Outlaw Plants: A Cultural History

Richard Mabey


I should love to go on a walk in the countryside, or indeed anywhere with a hint of greenery, with the author of this book, Richard Mabey. He explains so well – and with such knowledge, humour and charm – where each weed we may come across has originated and how weeds have been the bane of humanity for hundreds of years. Our comprehension of their uses, purpose, growth habits and so on is so limited, yet Mr Mabey seems to know it all! This book is so fascinating I found myself taking notes!

First of all, he looks at how to define weeds, which only exist where humans are. Ploughing, for example, provides the optimal conditions for plants which sow themselves out regularly and grow rapidly.

He also examines the history of weeds; as medicine or food, in literature and common folklore, in superstition and religion. The allocation of characters and meanings to certain plants are discussed, as well as the weeding process in past ages. Poets and writers have referred to weeds and wild flowers since time began with nostalgia and familiarity, and Mabey frequently quotes one of my favourite poets – John Clare – whose pet subject was country life; our alienation from nature’s ways, and the changes in agriculture and horticulture are very clear when looking at old poetry. Mabey quotes from Clare’s The Shepherd’s Calendar:

“… Each morning, now, the weeders meet

To cut the thistle from the wheat,

And ruin, in the sunny hours,

Full many a wild weed with its flowers;—

Corn-poppies, that in crimson dwell,

Call’d “Head-achs,” from their sickly smell;

And charlocks, yellow as the sun,

That o’er the May-fields quickly run…”

The origins of many weeds found in the UK – some of which are extremely invasive – are explained too; how they were transported on ship hulls, in bales of cloth, in wood exported as building material, and nowadays in pot plants and birdseed, and even in coffins!

But my favourite part of the book was Mr Mabey’s reference to my most hated weed – Ground-elder. He says  “ there is one weed species that is beyond the pale even under our laissez-faire regime … in the herbaceous borders it permeates every inch of soil….. insinuating their white subterranean tendrils, as supple as earthworms, around and through any root system in their way.” His wife has contracted the name into Grelda, describing its witch-like qualities at the same time!

“Weeds” is very readable and entertaining, and yet at the same time extremely informative.

I highly recommend it!

Book Review: Mary Swann

Mary Swann

by Carol Shields

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This engrossing novel unravels the story of an ordinary woman who wrote poems – beautiful lines written on scraps of paper by a farmer’s wife. And it seems that is exactly all she was – a poet.  Yet the four major characters are involved in trying to discover who the “real” Mary Swann was. The actual “story” is more a character study – as a biographer, a retired editor, a librarian and an English professor are revealed to us with regard to their connection to Mary Swann.

These four characters are finely outlined and presented beautifully, without criticism, yet laid bare.   They are all ordinary in their own way. Just as Mary Swann was. One of them (the editor) sums things up nicely: “… the lives of most people are pretty scrappy affairs. And full of secrets and concealments.”

The theme that dominates this book is how people deceive and are deceived, concocting and exaggerating stories in their struggle for recognition and praise, love and respect. In the search for truth they distance themselves ever further from it.  “Forgive me the sin of untruthfulness” says the atheist librarian, Rose. The fact that “ordinariness” can be great is not accepted in our society, so the search for a deeper meaning behind words (or actions) will lead to… what? When meaning is not found, do we invent it? Do we give the words of a poet greater weight and interpret meaningful influences and symbolism?

They all seem aware of their deceit, but are unable to admit it. “I want to live for a time without irony, without rhetoric, in a cool, solid metaphor”, says the professor. When they all come together at the end… well, I must not give away the plot! Let’s just say the ending is triumphant!

This is a great study of human behavior, with a slight wryness, barely susceptible. It is comforting in that it gives ordinariness some kind of significance.


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Carol Shields is one of my favourite writers – I also liked “Unless” and “Various Miracles“. She won the Pulitzer Prize and was short-listed for the Booker Prize with ‘The Stone Diaries’.

Book Review: Why Willows Weep

Why Willows Weep

edited by Tracy Chevalier

Why Willows Weep

Why Willows Weep is a collection of nineteen short stories written by well-known contemporary British authors (an impressive list, as you can see on the cover above!). They are all fables, explaining some of the mysteries surrounding our trees. For example, why are crab apples sour, why are lime trees sticky, and why does the horse chestnut bear white candles?

All the trees are native to the UK, and for every book sold, the Woodland Trust (the UK’s leading woodland conservation charity) will plant five native trees.

The book is magical, with a few of the stories really standing out above the others. Yet all are enjoyable. Each story is only a few pages long, and they are all linked by their style – brief and poignant. The simplicity is a gift. There is some beautiful language in there!

Some of my favourites were most definitely “Why Willows Weep”, written by Sally Vickers, “How the Blackthorn Got Its Flowers” by Susan Elderkin, and “How the Oak Tree Came to Life” by Maggie O’Farrell.

If you love words and trees, this will appeal to you… A moving, peaceful and charming read for a rainy Sunday afternoon!

Book Review: The Library Book

The Library Book

by Ann Cleeves, Seth Godin, Susan Hill and Tom Holland

In the light of government cutbacks in the UK hitting public libraries across the nation, this collection of “short stories” is primarily a fund-raising project for The Reading Agency, a charity that promotes reading, especially among the young.

The stories are mostly recounts of the influence libraries had on these authors’ lives. They are all well-known writers and entertainers who have contributed, such as Stephen Fry, Julian Barnes, Alan Bennett, and Zadie Smith. And they are all united in their support of British libraries.

I must admit I was slightly disappointed that, although most of the writers are able to speak for their younger selves, they have not succeeded in explaining why libraries are so important TODAY. Only few touch on the social side of libraries, and the necessity of well-trained librarians to help us access all the knowledge there is, either in book form or on the internet.

Having said that, this book is a nice read. It’s cosy, very English and reminds me of my childhood experiences of libraries. The chapters are short, so the book can be dipped into at leisure. (Ideal for a Kindle to put in your handbag/pocket). It made me smile and even laugh at times; Stephen Fry is so clever with words, and Lucy Mangan’s rules for her own library are charming! One of my favourite chapters was a short story by Kate Mosse, where a scary mystery is solved! And another was Susan Hills’s story which included her encounter with E.M. Forster in the  London Library when he dropped a volume of Elizabethan poetry on her foot – a historic moment she will never forget!

One of my own earliest libraray memories:

I can see myself now, waiting at the roadside for the door of the mobile library van to hiss open like magic. I literally have to climb the HUGE steps into the back of the big brown vehicle. My satchel slung over my shoulder clunks against the door on the way up. It’s mostly adults at our stop, so I am left to my own devices… no instructions where to find anything, but although there is not a great deal of choice for a reader of my age,  I still enjoy the rare experience of carrying home one or two books that I have chosen myself. They will be read several times over before they have to be returned…

What are your thoughts on or memories of libraries?

Book Review: “Afterwards” by Rosamund Lupton

Last year I read Rosamund Lupton‘s novel “Sister” and loved it. The twist at the end was absolutely ingenious, making me want to read it all over again!

Last month I read her second novel “Afterwards“, again a detective story.

This time it is not the sister, but a mother trying to solve the crime committed against a member of her family. Except this mother is lying in hospital in a coma…

On a summer afternoon a terrible fire breaks out in the primary school. As it is sports day the building is practically empty. However, Grace, our protaganist, knows her teenage daughter is still in there, standing in as school nurse for the day. Grace tries to rescue her, but both are badly injured and burned. This is where the story begins.

I’d call it a fantasy detective novel…

In a state between life and death Grace and her daughter Jenny are able to walk around the hospital, invisible to everyone, and listen in to the investigations and conversations around them… It is actually Grace’s sister-in-law who has to solve the crime of who laid the fire, since Grace is unable to communicate with the real world.

I admit I had real problems with this situation at first. The word “far-fetched” comes to mind. Yet after my brain had accepted this state of affairs, with the two main characters existing outside their bodies, I was able to focus on the story itself.

With loads of suspense, lots of red herrings, and plenty of emotions, it’s quite a roller-coaster ride! I got completely caught up in it, and found it riveting (even though I had to keep telling my common sense to switch itself off!).

A mother’s limitless love, an aunt’s fierce protective nature, a child’s fear and trauma, the strong connection between husband and wife…

… these are all portrayed with depth and emotion. Rosamund Lupton creates a drama with almost flawless family relationships. Perhaps this is what kept my attention most.

There ARE  flaws in the storyline, and my constant struggle with this out-of-body thing distracted me the whole time, but despite my first impression that it was weird(!), it got good later on and with all the false leads and the dramatic suspense I found it a very enjoyable read.

Only, the ending was not what I would have wished…

If you have read it, I’d love to hear what you think!

Book Review: Nelson Mandela – Conversations With Myself

Today is Nelson Mandela’s 94th birthday, and International Mandela Day

Wikipedia: “Mandela Day is an annual international day adopted by the United Nations. Individuals, communities and organisations are asked to donate 67 minutes to doing something for others, commemorating the 67 years that Nelson Mandela gave to the struggle for social justice.”

“Nelson Mandela: Conversations with Myself”

A few years ago I read Long Walk To Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela, and was very impressed with the style as well as the content ; Mandela is extremely gifted at using words to express his ideas precisely and concisely.  It was therefore a little strange when I started reading Conversations With Myself, since Mandela did not actually write it… They are indeed all his words, but are presented in a collection of interviews, letters and transcripts of conversations, selected by a team of nine.

However, after a few pages I had already adapted to the style, and was soon engrossed in this historical insight into the life and imprisonment of one of the world’s most known and loved freedom fighters.

This man’s story is so important.

Vaclav Havel said: “We need politicians willing and able to rise above their own power interests, or the particular interests of their parties or states, and act in accordance with the fundamental interests of humanity today…”

Nelson Mandela is such a man, and was such a political figure. His integrity and humanity are present at every stage of his story. His compassion knows no bounds: he wrote to his children that it is

“never wise to single out individuals and lay blame on their shoulders… They may merely be the means through which more powerful forces operate” 

forgiving his guards for their part in his imprisonment, and the judge who sentenced him to separation from his family. Respect towards his imprisoners, and an incredible capacity for forgiveness mark Mandela as an example to us all.

There is no sentimentality here, but passion – both for his cause and for his wife. His letters to Winnie Mandela were passionate and honest, and the harsh reality of his 27-year imprisonment – the hard conditions and inhumane treatment – seems secondary to the pain he felt at being separated from his family, and at being unable to protect them. Mandela wrote that he was convinced that social equality is the only basis of human happiness, and in a letter to his wife in 1970:

“One day we may have on our side the genuine and firm support of an upright and straightforward man, holding high office, who will consider it improper to shirk his duty of protecting the rights and privileges of even his bitter opponents…”

Mandela also worried constantly during his time in prison about, among other things, the fact that he had perhaps not shown enough appreciation for the kindness of others who had helped him… Yet here was a man enduring terrible conditions where a new razor blade, a letter, or a little beef stock in his food once a week were major events, recorded in his journals.

If you’re looking for a chronological history you will be disappointed. This is more an insight into Mandela’s character and his outlook on life… a remarkable outlook and a remarkable man.

Nelson Mandela on his 90th birthday in 2008.

(Picture: wikipedia)

News on Mandela’s 94th birthday:  (Birthday Song)