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Surrey, United Kingdom

Friday, 31 December 2010

2010 Catch-Up

As another year draws to a close, I am shocked to realise that I have not blogged on here since July!  As I have no chance of ever catching up on reviewing all the books I have read since then, I thought it would be easier to do a quick listing.  I shall then be able to start 2011 with a (nearly) clean sheet!

In a Dry Season by Peter Robinson
Not much to say about this book - Peter Robinson is one of my favourite crime writers and I always enjoy his Inspector Banks novels - but I must just comment on the recent TV adaptation.  While I was thrilled to finally see Inspector Banks as a TV drama I was disappointed not only by the casting of Stephen Tompkinson in the lead role, but also in their jumping in at book number 12 (especially as it wasn't one I have read!)  I have nothing against Stephen Tompkinson as an actor, but I didn't feel he was right for the role.  Also, by jumping in so late in the series, we missed out on getting to know and understand Alan Banks - his background, his morality and even his personality.  I think I would have enjoyed the TV version, had I not already been such a fan of the novels.

Among the Bohemians: Experiments in Living 1900-1939 by Virginia Nicholson
My favourite sort of non-fiction book - one that reads almost like a novel with a wonderful cast of interesting and diverse characters.  A perfect 'jumping-off point' for anyone interested in this era.

The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt
I have never read any A.S. Byatt before, despite having Possession on my bookcase for several years now. The Children's Book had appealed to me because of it's Bohemian setting (having not long read Among the Bohemians by Virginia Nicholson) and I loved the allusions to real life characters from the world of literature and art of the time.  The world Byatt creates is magical and the way the story moves from character to character while never becoming bogged down or too complex is indicative of her great writing talent.  On the downside, it is an overly long book and I did feel that it could have done with more aggressive editing.

Stone's Fall by Iain Pears
This is the second novel I have read by Iain Pears - the first being An Instance of the Fingerpost.  Strangely I could probably write the same comments for both: an interesting and unique plot, fascinating characters, well drawn and with great period detail.  And yet...both books seem to lack something and I am not quite sure what it is.  I enjoyed the story, I cared about the characters, but I found it difficult to read - not because of the prose, more because of a lack of impetus.  The plot could be plodding and slow-moving in parts.  For once, I almost wished there was a TV or film adaptation that I could watch, rather than reading the book.

The White Queen by Philippa Gregory
Another thoroughly enjoyable historical fiction from Philippa Gregory.  She has moved back from the Tudor age now and this is the first in her trilogy about the Plantagenets.  Elizabeth Woodville is the central character of this novel and is written as a strong and admirable female character with a strong sense of loyalty and family.  Not being a history scholar I cannot really comment on how historically accurate the plot and characterisation are, but what I love about these novels is that they arouse your interest in the subject matter.

Bess of Hardwick by Mary S Lovell
Fascinating and very readable biography.  Having visited and loved Chatsworth as well as devouring Lovell's biography of the Mitfords, this was a perfect book choice.

David Blaize by E F Benson
The only Benson I had read before were the Mapp and Lucia books, which are wonderfully observed and subtlely humorous.  David Blaize gives you more of the same, this time set in a boys' boarding school.

Good Behaviour by Molly Keane
Aroon St Clare is an absolutely wonderful comic character and this story follows her stumbling from one social faux pas (including the almost-accidental murder of her mother) to another, all in the name of 'Good Behaviour'.  I adored this book and will certainly be reading more Molly Keane in the future.

The Princes in the Tower by Alison Weir
Having read The White Queen by Philippa Gregory I was keen to learn more about Edward V and his brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester.  Alison Weir is very readable and accessible - her books feel learned and scholarly without being fusty and exclusive.  Whether I agree with her conclusion that Richard III was responsible for the princes' murder I am still not sure, although it seems there is no other viable explanation.

Rabbit Run by John Updike
Not really my kind of novel, and certainly not what I would normally read, but I had heard such great things about John Updike that when I found a copy of this is my local charity shop I thought I would give it a go.  I'm so glad that I did - this is a really wonderful book, both comic and tragic in equal measures and with an anti-hero that you cannot help but empathise with.

The Present and the Past by Ivy Compton-Burnett
Again, this was an author I had never read, but had heard about through other book bloggers and so picked up a second-hand copy in a charity shop.  I am ashamed to admit that I didn't finish this book (I very rarely give up on books - in fact, I would say this is one of only three or four books I have ever cast aside) - I found it far too rambling and without direction.  The language, and indeed most of the characterisation, seemed unrealistic and I just had no interest in what the characters would say next, or what would happen to them.  One review on Amazon says that Ivy Compton-Burnett is an acquired taste - based on this novel, I wholeheartedly agree!

The Fry Chronicles by Stephen Fry
I adore Stephen Fry and I have to admit that there are very few ways in which this book could have failed to please me.  Telling the story of Fry's escape from a delinquent adolescence to Cambridge University there are celebrity anecdotes and plenty of soul-searching from Fry as he tries to understand and explain his addictive personality and his drive for fame.  It ends with Fry on the brink of National Treasure-dom and hints at an impending cocaine addiction.  Fascinating, honest and written with humour and candour I loved every page of this biography.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides is one of those books that it felt like everyone except me had read. You know, the one that all the commuters seem to be reading and that you see in charity shops by the bucketful.  I was therefore quite pleased when this got suggested as a book club read.  I hadn't even realised it was by the author of The Virgin Suicides which I had read and loved a year or so ago.

The great thing about this book was the number of ways in which I enjoyed it. It had the sweeping family saga (three generations!), the undiscovered secret and romance. With all of that in one story it is no wonder it has been enjoyed by so many people. The writing style is easy, straight-forward and familiar and while not comic in the traditional sense, there are certainly amusing incidents.
For such a chunky book, this was an incredibly quick read.  Although there was no real mystery in the novel, I felt I had grown to know the narrator so well that I wanted to find out how everything ended up, like listening to a friend telling you their family history, warts and all.  It's a really delightful book, despite, or perhaps because of, its unusual subject matter.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Clara Reeve by Leoni Hargreave

Clara Reeve by Leoni Hargreave was given to me by my brother-in-law who is a literary fanatic, with a book collection that could probably put the British Library to shame. His main area of interest however is science fiction, so I was very surprised when he gave me this book, of which he mistakenly had two copies. So, how does a sci-fi enthusiast end up with not one but two copies of a Victorian pastiche novel? Well, Leonie Hargreave is a pen-name, which the author Thomas M Disch was advised to use when publishing this novel which was so different to his usual output of science fiction work. 

As a fan of all things Victorian, I was absolutely delighted and couldn't wait to get reading.  With the background knowledge of the book being written by a) a man and b) a sci-fi author I was very much prepared for the worst.  Thankfully, I was pleasantly surprised.  Hargreave/Disch really managed to evoke the sensation novels of the Victorian era and all the trademarks are there - the mysterious continental man-servant, the mentally unstable wife, the question of inheritance and a dark secret bubbling under the surface.  The period detail is well created and it really felt quite authentic, perhaps even so far as it being quite a verbose and hard-going book at times.  The main character of Clara is endearing and sympathetic - all her troubles are visited upon her for no apparent reason other than an accident of her birth; very much a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  What I did find frustrating was that the denouement was so late in the book and consequently, I felt, a bit rushed.  

Not one of the most memorable Victoriana novels I have ever read - it's no Fingersmith or The Crimson Petal and the White (which also was rather a departure from the authors usual subject matters and writing style) but I like to think it was one of the more authentic and unusual.

The End of the Affair by Graham Greene

I can't remember the how or why of this being on my to be read pile, but there it was.  The End of the Affair by Graham Greene is not the type of book I would usually choose to read, although having said that I am not really sure what kind of author I thought he was.  I think I imagined his books were all about cold, wet seaside towns (Brighton Rock?) and espionage (no idea where that impression came from...)  So I guess it was the title that first caught my attention.  That in the period setting, and rather more specifically the cover of this particular edition which I really liked.

It wasn't what I had expected (although I'm not really sure what that was) but I did enjoy reading it.  The narrator is a fairly unlikeable fellow, I thought, and through his eyes we see his and the woman's lives beginning to unravel as their affair begins, ends and resumes.  He is a rather arrogant and selfish man who seems to have little regard for the effects of his actions on others.  The woman is an interesting character - self-serving yet not selfish, pleasure-seeking yet not vacuous.  For a book by a male author it is quite a surprising depiction of how women of the time were looking to create lives and interests of their own and how they tried to balance being a wife whilst maintaining their sense of self.  

The most unexpected part of the novel for me was the exploration of faith and Catholicism.  I had expected some intrigue, but not along the lines of whether someone believed in God or not, and the effect that had on those around them.

It's not a book I would jump to recommend, but it is an interesting examination of love, it's power (both for good and for bad) and how very differently people choose to live their lives in pursuit of happiness and fulfilment.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

Having read Wolf Hall for our last book club we all agreed that Brooklyn by Colm Toibin seemed like a good 'easy read' choice for our next book.  It was the winner of the 2009 Costa Novel award and longlisted for the Man Booker 2009 and so we had high expectations.  The story is of a girl from a small town in Ireland who moves to Brooklyn to start a new life and follows her experiences there.  Whilst we all thought it would be quite a light read, I think we were all surprised by just how light it turned out to be.  The one male in our book club felt he had been duped into reading a chick-lit novel and, much as it pains me, I tend to agree with him.  What we all felt it lacked was any depth, any real emotional tie and, indeed, any real point.  I didn't feel I had learnt anything at the end of the book.  The emotions and plot were all things I have read before and I failed to find anything 'novel' about it all.  Few of the characters seemed likeable.  Plenty of opportunities for interesting storylines seemed to be passed over (the department stores attitude towards black customers for example) and neither of the love interests fitted my idea of a romantic hero.

Who knows, perhaps we all missed the point of this book?  In its defence, it is a very easy read and you do get swept along in the story.  It's just that I constantly had the sense of waiting for something to happen, for a plot development that never really came.  The dramatic incident that brings Eilis back to Ireland even felt to me a bit underwhelming and skimmed over.  Maybe I'm too big a fan of melodrama - what do you think?

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

I am ashamed to admit that I have never read any du Maurier, and apart from the opening line I knew nothing about Rebecca. So, having finally finished Wolf Hall I decided that what I needed was the kind of book that I could really get swept away by and everything that I had heard about Rebecca made me think it would be perfect.

And it was.

The atmosphere, the palpable sense of dread and uncertainty throughout the story and the pace of the plot make it a true page-turner.  What I found most interesting was the almost supernatural sense that du Maurier creates.  As I said, I knew nothing about the story and I was kept guessing right the way through.  I thought that Mrs Danvers could be Rebecca, or that all the other characters were ghosts.  The twists and turns in the plot don't feel like twists and turns - they all make sense and are perfectly possible.  Somehow the fact that none of it was supernatural made the whole thing seem more sinister.

Love from Nancy: The Letters of Nancy Mitford

My fascination with the Mitford sisters seems to have a never ending source of fuel.  My latest venture into their lives came in the form of Love from Nancy: The Letters of Nancy Mitford  These letters have been edited by Charlotte Mosley, Diana's grand-daughter-in-law.  Faced with what must have been an inexhaustible supply of materials, Charlotte Mosley has produced a comprehensive and highly readable volume.  We follow Nancy from childhood right through to her last days.  The beauty of reading a volume of letters as opposed to a biography is that you hear the subject's true voice and consequently feel you are really getting to know them.  Nancy's dry and sometimes caustic wit rings clearly through all the letters, yet it is so liberally tempered with warmth and affection that it is hard to imagine anyone ever taking it the wrong way and being upset by her manner.  Nancy's life was not easy - Diana and Unity's associations with Nazism and Hitler caused her moral anxiety and pain, as did Jessica's elopement and emigration to the USA.  Even her love life was not straight-forward - her marriage to Peter Rodd whilst not necessarily an unhappy was certainly not a fulfilling one and her affection for 'the Colonel' never seems to have been fully reciprocated.
A wonderful insight to a wonderful lady - this collection is well worth reading.  I had it on my bedside table for some time and found it perfect to dip in and out of when no other reading material seemed to be the right choice.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

The Go-Between by L P Hartley

I wasn't sure about this book for about the first two chapters. It seemed to start very slowly and I even wondered if I had made a big mistake in choosing to read it. Like most book-worms, I hate wasting time reading a book I am not enjoying (when there are so many other books out there to be enjoyed) but at the same time I'm not one to give up halfway through and not finish the book. So, much to my delight, The Go-Between by L P Hartley does get into it's stride almost at the exact point you begin to question whether you want to continue reading it.

The edition I read was a Penguin Classic, with notes and a textual appendix. For all the additional information it gave me (there are a lot of classical and Shakespearian references throughout the book) I found this quite distracting - flicking to the relevant note broke the flow of reading and by then I was so caught up in the story that I resented being taken away from it. What I did like about the notes though was the extra dimensions it brought to the story. It reminded me of reading books for my A-Levels, when rather than reading the books for enjoyment you were focusing on the themes and symbolism in the story. I really enjoyed discovering these themes in a more relaxed way, without worrying about how I could discuss them in an essay and it surprised me how much you absorp without realising it - a good writer should make the themes more like an atmosphere, or a feeling, than just flashing beacons and footnotes and I really think that Hartley achieved this in The Go-Between. I utterly felt the heat of the Summer, the oppression of the weather conflicting with the (to begin with) care-free nature of Leo's stay at Brandham Hall.

The story centres around the memories of Leo of the Summer he spent at Brandham Hall - the family home of his school-friend Marcus. With Marcus struck down with measles, Leo is left to fend for himself. Marcus's sister Marian takes him under her wing and he begins to carry messages for her to the local farmer, Ted Burgess. Marian is engaged to Lord Trimingham, the local Viscount who was disfigured in the Boer War. Leo also becomes a go-between for Lord Trimingham and Marian and slowly these errands begin to reveal to him the adult world, with all it's complications and secrets. We live through Leo's triumphs at the village cricket match and after-game dinner when he sings solo, as well as his confusion and bewilderment at being thrust into a world and life he knows nothing about. Leo's worries and embarrassment are all too recognisable and throughout the story there is the feeling that as the heat rises, we are moving faster and faster towards an inevitable tragedy.

In fact, everything was so beautifully and vividly drawn that I wondered why I had never seen a film of it - it seemed absolutely perfect for an adaptation. A quick search on Amazon revealed that it had been made in to a film - starring Julie Christie and Alan Bates. I cannot think of a more perfect casting for this film, and I hope this gives you a sense of the novel itself.

The story is tragic and heart-breaking, but told in such an authentic and believable way. The characters seem real and there are even humorous passages, which of course heighten the sense of foreboding which runs throughout the story. A real gem of a book and one that, I think, should be more widely read.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Over the past months I have read a number of rave reviews for We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, so when I was lucky enough to stumble across a second-hand copy in my local charity shop I snapped it up! Having just finished Wolf Hall I was looking forward to reading something compact and manageable.

I loved this book - everything about it was just magical. It was funny and sad, sinister and heart-warming. The characters are wonderful and so engaging - even Jonas the cat feels like an old friend. The atmosphere is so well built up with the mystery of the Blackwood family being revealed slowly and never spelt out for the reader until the very end, making the book a real page-turner.

Merricat (Mary Catherine), her sister Constance and Uncle Julian live in the family home, hidden away from the villagers. From the beginning we know a terrible tragedy has befallen the Blackwood family and that it has made the villagers wary of the remaining family members. The villagers fear and resentment eventually boils over in a frightening and destructive attack on the Blackwoods, before calm is restored once again and Constance (true to her name) and Merricat continue to live their reclusive lives.

A chilling but thoroughly enjoyable book, I am sure it will stay with me for many years to come.

Friday, 19 March 2010

The Perfect Summer: Dancing into Shadow in 1911 by Juliet Nicolson

I have quite mixed feelings about this book. I had been really looking forward to reading The Perfect Summer: Dancing into Shadow in 1911 by Juliet Nicolson, particularly as it was written by Vita Sackville-West's great grand-daughter. While there was much of interest, I couldn't help but get the feeling it was more like an anthology. There were plenty of extracts from writing of the time and interesting little anecdotes, passed down through the generations. Unfortunately, I think it just made the book as a whole feel a little incoherent. It jumped from one tit-bit to another and I didn't really feel that it drew any conclusion, or made any comment on the social circumstances of 1911. It did leave me wanting to find out more (particularly about Lady Diana Manners and the life of domestic servants) so from that point of view, it was very successful! I am not giving up on Juliet Nicolson though - I have The Great Silence: 1918-1920 Living in the Shadow of the Great War to read too...

Thursday, 4 March 2010

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

I have been wanting to read The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters since it was released, but what with waiting for it to come out in paperback and a heavy reading schedule (or rather, getting distracted by other books) I have only just got around to it. Thankfully, it was very much worth the wait. I don't know what it is about Sarah Waters, but she makes good writing seem incredibly easy. There is nothing particularly startling or unusual about her writing style but she can create atmosphere so well you can almost taste it. Her characters are always engaging and fascinating and within a few pages I felt like I knew the Ayres family and Dr Faraday like old friends. That is not to say that her characters are run-of-the-mill or stereotypical, it is simply that her writing brings them to life; the subtle use of idiosyncratic movements (Mrs Ayres twisting the rings on her fingers, Caroline biting the tips of her fingers) makes them seem so real and ordinary, while also absolutely creating tension and heightening the sense of the unknown. Even Hundreds Hall becomes a living, breathing thing - and it is the house really which is the central character of the plot. I won't discuss the plot as I can't help thinking that, like revenge, this book is best served 'cold'. But rest assured that it builds and twists, gives and takes, just as the very best gothic tales should.
Dr Faraday is an unusual narrator. In some ways he very much reminded me of Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited (a tough read, but a fantastic story with memorable characters). There is something distasteful about his obsession with Hundreds Hall and his attitude towards the Ayres is in turns condescending and arrogant, but for me having this 'unreliable narrator' gave me licence to believe and trust more in the Ayres family's point of view.
Highly recommended...as are all Sarah Waters' novels. They are accessible but a cut above the rest.

Current Reading:
The Perfect Summer: Dancing into Shadow in 1911 by Juliet Nicolson - An examination of the period of May to August in 1911 as Britain danced towards disaster.

Next book club book:
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel - This year's Booker prize winner is an obvious choice for a book club. It's a doorstop of a book but I can't wait to get started!

Sunday, 21 February 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

There has been a great deal of hype around Larsson's Millenium trilogy of novels, the first of which is The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. This is, I'm sure, in part to the sad death of the author before any of the books were published. As always when a book has been lauded as 'the next big thing' I felt rather reluctant to read it. I was sure that it would not live up to the hype and would actually be quite average; if it hadn't been chosen for my book club I am not sure I would ever have considered reading it. So, I started from quite a negative frame of mind. As it turned out, I really enjoyed the book - to a certain extent. The plot is wonderful and the denouement was surprising, but not completely unexpected (which I like - if it's totally out of the blue I always feel that the author has been dishonest in telling the story; you should have enough material to feel suspicious of the perpetrator without necessarily considering them as a serious contender). I also thought that the descriptions were vivid and Larsson really creates a believable image of a small Swedish community. So that's the good stuff. There were, however, a few things about the novel that I wasn't so keen on. I haven't read many books in translation, so don't really know if this is a common problem, but there were several occasions when I found the prose rather 'clunky'; it didn't have quite the right ring about it. While I don't think this detracted from the story-telling, I did find it distracting, like finding cornflake in a bowl of coco pops ;) There were also times when it almost felt like an exercise in product placement. During the discussion with the other members of my book club we talked about how the emphasis on the specifications of the computer equipment that Lisbeth used was part of creating and explaining her character. Whilst I agree with and understand that, it was just another thing that broke the rhythm of the prose for me. Finally, I struggled to find any character that I really liked and I actually found some of them quite objectionable. They were all fascinating and well drawn, but there just wasn't any character that I connected with.
In conclusion, I did enjoy this book and while I might not be rushing out to read the next two in the series, I'm interested to know how the characters develop and will certainly get around to reading them at some point. I'm prepared to forgive quite a bit in this novel, given the circumstances of its publication; with some editing and revision and read in the original Swedish I think this could be an excellent book.

Currently reading:
The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters - I've read and loved all of Sarah Waters work so far, so have high hopes for this novel which made the Booker short list.
The Fiend in Human by John MacLachlan Gray - Great book so far; atmospheric, sinister, but not taking itself too seriously.

Next Book Club choice:

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Wednesday's Child by Peter Robinson

While waiting for my next book club book to arrive, I decided to grab the next novel in the Inspector Banks series - Wednesday's Child by Peter Robinson I have reviewed Peter Robinson's Inspector Banks stories before, and I'm not sure there's much more to be said about them. They are reliably enjoyable - intriguing plots and strong believable characters. There's humour, pathos, mystery and enough over-arching storyline to make Inspector Banks a familiar and welcome returning character (along with his police cronies). My only real criticism is that it is high time someone picked this up as a new TV series.
Currently Reading:
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson - the next book club book. I've heard great things about this and while only 50 pages in I am already eager to read more and pretty convinced I will need to complete the trilogy...
The Fiend in Human by John MacLachlan Gray - I read White Stone Day by this author last year and thought it was wonderful. Atmospheric and grimy, but with a sense of humour. Goodness knows why this author is not more widely known, nor why I stuggled for so long to get my hands on a copy of The Fiend in Human.

Becoming Queen by Kate Williams

My first non-fiction read of 2010 is one I have had on the shelf for a while: Becoming Queen by Kate Williams Of course, being an avid fan of all things Victorian, I had seen the film Young Victoria, which used this book as a basis for it's depiction of the early years of Queen Victoria. Having not researched the book anymore than hearing its name in connection to the film, my first reaction on reading it was surprise. There is much more to this work than the early years of Victoria. One thing I love about reading is those times when a whole new area of interest is opened up for you. Strangely I have never been a huge fan of the Regency or Georgian period, much prefering the Victorian and Edwardian era. This book however really piqued my interest. The Prince Regent and his many brothers and sisters are all given distinct personalities and really brought to life. The story focuses on Princess Charlotte, daughter of the Prince Regent (William IV) and Caroline of Brunswick who was heir to the throne and adored by the British public. Kate Williams suggests that it is partly because of Charlotte's tragic death in childbirth that the British public was so ready and willing to take Victoria to it's heart.
I really enjoyed this book and the easy, familiar style in which it was written. I love a book with a family tree and it is well illustrated with some striking portraits and, my favourite, a photo of Princess Charlotte's memorial in St George's Chapel, Windsor. I was also interested to read that Princess Charlotte had lived at Claremont, near Esher. My husband and I visited their only recently for a cobweb-blasting walk just after Christmas and I can completely see why the young princess (and Victoria after her) fell in love with the beautiful countryside and landscape garden.
So, a great read with a captivating story. My only question is what to read next? Is there a good biography of Princess Charlotte and/or Caroline of Brunswick? Can you recommend any non-fiction books for a new-comer to Regency history? Are there any good historical fictions of the era? I'd love to hear what books about/set in this period you have read and enjoyed.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman

Wow. For such a small book, this certainly packs a punch. It's a while since I read something that made me pause to think. These are forty short stories or imaginings (and I mean short, the majority are two pages) of what the afterlife might hold for us. They are like fairy tales for grown ups and raise some interesting philosophical questions. David Eagleman, the author, is a neuroscientist which I found made the whole thing even more interesting - what would someone who has studied neuroscience have to say about faith and death? Well, there are plenty of interesting and thought-provoking ideas: we are already in Heaven but God has stepped outside for a while, we are all actors playing parts in other people's lives, we can choose what we wish to be in the next life or perhaps rather than God being outside and bigger than us, He is actually an intrinsic part of each of us. Each imagining gives just enough detail and suggestion to explain the idea, leaving you to consider and expand on the implications and possibilities. This is not so much a book to sit down and read cover to cover, as one to dip into every now and then and even to return to over time. I am now intrigued to read Eagleman's other book - Wednesday is Indigo Blue: Discovering the Brain of Synesthesia

The Art of Love by Elizabeth Edmondson and The Mesmerist's Apprentice by Lee Jackson

I've had rather a slow start to reading in 2010. The snow has meant I have been working from home for a few days which meant I lost my commute/reading time. I sometimes wonder how I would find time to read if it wasn't for the half hour journey to and from work every day. I try to read a chapter of something every night before bed, but nine times out of ten my eyes start drooping as soon as I pick up the book. It is also a habit - I notice how quickly the evening disappears when I come straight in from work and put the tv on. It doesn't help that hubby and I bought The Sopranos DVD boxset just after Christmas and now watch nothing else. I am surprised by how much I have got hooked on The Sopranos - it's so well written and the characters are all so strong and memorable. I think its secret is that it's basically a soap-opera and concentrates on a few key characters, without trying to spread itself too thinly. We're on series 4 now, so only three more to go after that and then perhaps I can start doing something more constructive in the evenings?

So, the books I have completed are two library books I took out just before Christmas...

The Art of Love by Elizabeth Edmondson follows our heroine as she uncovers her true identity. It's set in 1930s London and Paris and involves devious dealings in the art world. Our heroine (Polly Smith, or as she then learns, Polyhymnia Tomkins) is an artist struggling to make her way. The novel is trying to be about identity and how we are who we are, despite our names, up-bringing or circumstances. It's just that it all seems quite weak and half-hearted. The plot holds no surprising twists (unless I was just lucky in guessing how things were going to turn out, but I am not usually the type of person to decipher a mystery!) The characters are merely sketched - I didn't feel I got to know or care about any of them particularly. One other thing which spoilt the book for me was the number and frequency of typographical errors, from spelling, to grammar and even missing or incorrect words. I try not to be a pedant about such things, but I just kept noticing errors and it became rather distracting. I don't know much about publishing, so not sure where the fault lies and I am not saying that I would have enjoyed the story any more than I did if there were no errors, simply that I found it annoying and it re-enforced my impression of the novel being rather 'slap-dash'. A shame, because I think this story had potential.

The Mesmerist's Apprentice by L.M. Jackson (who also writes as Lee Jackson) is the third of his novels that I have read. They are all set in Victorian London and owe a debt to the detective and sensation novels of the time. What I enjoy about Jackson's novels are his attention to detail and obvious love of the period. The books are littered with interesting historical and social facts. This particular novel also focuses on one of the Victorians' great obesessions - spiritualism. The main character, Sarah Tanner, is our eyes and ears through the novel. She is a strong and independent woman in a time when these qualities were not encouraged and, as with all good heroines, there is a sense of tragedy past about her. There is humour, romance, murder, intrigue and mystery in this novel and it trots along at a great pace. I'll certainly be going back to read the first Sarah Tanner novel A Most Dangerous Woman, as well as following Lee's blog The Cat's Meat Shop and VictorianLondon Twitter updates...

Currently Reading:
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - inspired to read this after seeing Guy Ritchies recent Sherlock Holmes film and the embarrassing knowledge that I have never read any of them...
Becoming Queen by Kate Williams - the biography behind the recent film. There seems to be a theme in my reading at the moment!

Thursday, 7 January 2010

The Shrimp and the Anemone by LP Hartley

This is an absolutely delightful book. There is no huge, romping plot, but it is a beautifully drawn picture of the relationship between two Edwardian siblings, Eustace and Hilda. I distinctly remember reading the opening passage as an exercise in an English lesson at school and it has stayed with me all these years (at least 20!) Eustace is the central character and is such an endearing and loveable character. His worries and terrors are so well portrayed and, while seeming ridiculous are exactly the sort of thing that children do fret about. His fertile imagination is perfectly balanced by Hilda's sensible and reliable nature. For all the wonderful qualities of these two children there is the underlying sense of suffocation which is so well evoked with the opening image of the shrimp and the anemone. In parts it reads almost like a fairy tale, with a heavy emphasis on right and wrong.
I have had LP Hartley's The Go-Between on my TBR pile for some time after picking it up second-hand in Hay-On-Wye last year and am now really looking forward to getting started on that. I've just looked at the customer reviews on Amazon and one reviewer has likened to two books I really enjoyed: Atonement by Ian McEwan and Spies by Michael Frayn. Has anyone else read any of LP Hartley's novels? What are the other Eustace and Hilda novels like (I believe there are two others, The Sixth Heaven and Eustace and Hilda)?

Currently Reading:
The Mesmerist's Apprentice by LM Jackson - I have read a couple of other books by this author (under his other name of Lee Jackson) and they are just wonderfully Victorian and sensational.
Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman - this is my next book club read (suggested by me!)