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The Vanishing Act Of Esme Lennox - Maggie O'Farrell

I'm really not sure how to rate this book. On one hand, it led to some fantastic discussions in my book club, and raised some very disturbing questions about society's perception of individuals. On the other hand, the book isn't the best written I've read, which is a real shame.

Let me give you the gist of the story. Iris is a contemporary working girl, with serious relationship issues (in love with her step-brother and involved with a married man...don't ask!) who one day receives notice that her great-aunt is being released from a mental institution into her care. The problem is that Iris has never heard of this great-aunt as her family never even mentioned her. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn that the great-aunt is Esme Lennox, who was a bit of a rebel in her youth and was committed to a mental asylum for the sins of wanting to study beyond basic schooling and not wishing to be married. Iris (and the reader) is shocked by the fact that in the early 1900s, women could be incarcerated for life if their father or husband wished it, and they only needed a GP's signature to do so. In Esme's case, the evidence against her is simply her refusal to conform, and her sister's witness given in spite and jealousy.

Such an interesting storyline, so much potential, but none of them are realised. O'Farrell gives her best, but the story just isn't gripping enough. Her description of the inhuman conditions in the asylum are heart-wrenching, but it has been done better in Sarah Waters' Fingersmith and Sebastian Barry's A Secret Scripture. I will not lie, I was very interested in the book while reading it, but when I finished it my only thought was "Is that it?"

The best thing about the book was the fantastic evening I had with my book club, discussing the moral issues. Esme was normal by modern standards but spent her entire adult life in a cell, while Iris lives a precarious life and doesn't have to face any censure. It made me feel glad I was born in the 20th century.


R.I.P. IV Challenge

I'm coming slightly late to this challenge due to real-life taking over my reading time, but I have been mulling over my choices for the challenge for well over a week now. That was fun enough, I imagine actually reading the books will be even more fun.

During my teen years, I went through a very intense period when I read only horror/supernatural/dark thriller genres. But my over-active imagination resulted in this phase ending badly. I often dream about the books I read, which is bad enough when you're reading The Time Traveller's Wife, but how much worse when you're reading The Stand. When I moved to my own place, I stopped reading scary stories to spare myself the usual nightmares. Carl's R.I.P. Challenge (now in its fourth year) is the perfect excuse to return to the genre.

I'm going to indulge in Peril The First which is to read FOUR books from the "scary" genrre. My choices are:

Out by Natsuo Kirino - This is an overlap with the Japanese Literature Challenge. I read Real World by the same author last month and I'm eager to get started on this book. This should give me the added impetus.

The Fall Of The House Of Usher by Edgar Allen Poe - No, I've never read this short story/novella and yes, I've always regretted it. Poe is considered the father of the suspense/thriller genre, and this book will fill in a huge gap in my reading list.

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter - I've never read Carter and I think it would be best to ease myself in gently into her world and what better way to do it than with her subversive version of Grimm's fairy tales.

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis - An odd choice perhaps. But I have my reasons. Fact 1 - this is an acknowledged classic. Fact 2 - it is known for its graphic description of violence aand is actually banned in some countries. Fact 3 - I would never pick up this book voluntarily unless I had an ulterior motive (book group, challenge etc etc). I'm still not sure if I'll get through this book, but I'll give it my best shot. Then at the very least I can say I tried and it wasn't for me.

As the nights draw in and Halloween approaches, this challenge is pitch-perfect. I'm off to light the fire and heat up some mulled wine


A Literary Life

This is a fun quiz that I've seen on several blogs and thought it would be enoyable to try. The trick is to answer the questions only using titles of books you've read in the last year (2009). It's much harder than it sounds!

Describe yourself: The Uncommon Reader (Alan Bennett)

How do you feel: All Passion Spent (Vita Sackville-West)

Describe where you currently live: The House At Riverton (Kate Morton)

If you could go anywhere, where would you go: Cranford (Elizabeth Gaskell)

Your favorite form of transportation: Out Stealing Horses (Per Petterson)

Your best friend is: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (Steig Larsson)

You and your friends are: Until It's Over (Nicci French)

What's the weather like: When Will There Be Good News (Kate Atkinson)

You fear: Dark Fire (C J Sansom)

What is the best advice you have to give: Mercy (Jodie Picoult)

Thought for the day: The Unbearable Lightness Of Scones (Alexander McCall Smith)

How I would like to die: One Hundred Years Of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Marquez)

My soul's present condition: Love Over Scotland (Alexander McCall Smith)


They Knew Mr Knight - Dorothy Whipple

This was my first Dorothy Whipple; the first of many to come I think. They Knew Mr Knight is the story of the Blake family, an ordinary middle-class family. The father, Thomas, is a salaried engineer working in a factory that used to be owned by his father. His only ambition is to re-purchase the works. His wife, Celia, is mild-mannered, with no burning ambition, and generally content with her domesticity. This difference is made clear in the very first chapter, with their contrasting attitudes to a new morning. Their three children are also ordinary and their lifestyle is, erm, ordinary. Into this ordinary world enters Mr Knight, a financier from the City, who drags Thomas up into a richer world.

This is a very simple book, so simple that the plot is perfectly transparent from the minute Thomas bumps into Knight (literally). What makes it different is Whipple's attention to detail. I loved Whipple's descriptions of Celia, and her thoughts. Celia is the only person in the family to be less than enthusiastic about their sudden rise in the world, and suspicious of Knight's motives. Her bafflement at the speed at which the rest of her family adapt to their new lifestyle is endearing.

As expected, Knight ruins Thomas Blake financially, and the family is thrown back into circumstances more dire than they had ever had to endure. They cope with this turn of fortunes in different ways, and in the end the family emerges stronger than ever.
The characters are all brilliantly drawn. With the exception of Mr Knight, there is no obviously good or evil character, everyone has their moments. Even Freda, the eldest daughter, comes across as flawed rather than unpleasant. I felt terribly sorry for her when she rushes into a less-than-satisfactory marriage. Whipple makes it clear that one of the reasons of the tragedy is Celia's detachment from the outside world. She knows nothing of finance or office, "a man's world". Hence she can neither warn Thomas, nor realise when he's falling in over his head. Nor can she financially support the family when their new world comes crashing around them. This is a lesson on why female empowerment is so important.

Thomas and Mr Knight are second-hand figures, seen through their wives and children. We very rarely get to hear their thoughts, and surely not in the depth we know, say, Celia. I wonder if this is because Whipple didn''t want to attempt a man's voice? I have not read anything else by her, so cannot be sure. Celia's moment of religious fervour was a bit far-fetched in my opinion, but that is probably a sign of the times. Perhaps readers contemporary to Whipple were nodding their heads and approving of Celia's moment of communion with God! My favourite characters were Celia and Mrs Knight. They very rarely interact with each other, but when they do the effect is very comic. My favourite scene is Mrs Knight showing off Field Hall to Celia who wants to buy it off her.

A must-read! I would recommend this to anyone looking to buy a new Persephone.


Goodbye Bank Holidays

I'm back (that is, if anyone noticed I was gone in the first place). After spending the entire bank holiday weekend on the M4 in back-to-back traffic (well, it felt like the whole weekend) I am so glad to be home. Even an overflowing laundry basket and an empty refrigerator cannot cool my enthusiasm. The only thing worse than standstill traffic is standstill traffic when you're supposed to be on holiday!

One good thing that came out of it was that I got to extend the fabulous Persephone Week for myself. I packed They Knew Mr Knight by Dorothy Whipple with me, and it was the most amazing read. I will be posting the review shortly. Just as soon as I've finished kissing all the door frames in the house. Yes, I am THAT happy to be back.


Round About A Pound A Week - Maud Pember Reeves

I'd chosen Persephone books to read this week that came from different genres. So I had The Victorian Chaise Lounge which was a very short thriller and the soon-to-be-reviewed They Knew Mr Knight which is a quite thick but quite funny story by Whipple. And the book I will be talking about today is Round About A Pound A Week which is a non-fiction title.

Coincidentally, co-host Verity has just reviewed this as part of her Virago Venture (review here) while I was reading the Persephone version.

A few weeks ago, I had a spirited discussion with a friend on the benefits system, and if it should be scrapped. I'm not going to go into the argument as I'm sure you're all familiar with both sides of this much-debated topic, but I do think that everyone who thinks the poor should receive no help at all from the state should read this book. In 1909, the general consensus was that the poor were poor either because of indulgence in vices like drinking, or because of poor management. The impression is that some middle-class men undertook an experiment to survive on about a pound a week and found that it could be done comfortably. To shatter the myth, some Fabian women undertook a study of about 40 women in Lambeth in London, living on the poverty-line. These were not even the poorest of the population as the men had steady jobs, and even they lived precariously.

Among other things, the study found that the men could not indulge in drinking or gambling because they had no money to spare. And the women were astonishingly good managers, as they must be to make a pound pay for all the bills, clothes, boots and food!

The insight into the life of the Lambeth families is heart-breaking, mostly because of the quiet pride of the women interviewed. None of them seem to complain or sound bitter, preferring to just get along with things. The fact that the Lambeth children never tasted milk once they were weaned off their mother's breast was a shocking statistic. Well-meaning officials went around these communities advertising the benefits of milk, completely overlooking the fact that the children did not get milk because their mother could not afford to buy it, not because she was ignorant of its importance. It is this well-meaning, but ignorant, middle-class interference that provide some dark humour. For instance the mothers are encouraged to give their children porridge, which the Visitors consider a cheap and filling staple food, and they are baffled when the mothers ignore their advice. Finally one woman says that porridge made without milk or sugar is so horrid that even starving children turn their nose up at it, and sugar and milk is beyond their means!

It is impressive how far the women of Lambeth make their pound go. It is, of course, at the expense of the nutrition of her own children and herself. And even one unexpected expense, like a doctor's bill, or a sudden employment can throw them into disaster. There is a very sad example of a mother who pawned her only pair of boots to buy work clothes for her daughter, and stayed indoors for months till she could afford to get back her boots. It is a life on the edge of a knife.

It is a very sad read, shocking at times, but it brought about a huge change in public awareness and led to the State exploring more effective methods of helping the poor. Three cheers for Maud Pember Reeves and the Fabian women.


Architects in works of fiction

This week is promising to be a very busy one, with work deadlines colliding headlong (as usual) with my daughter coming down with a D&V bug. I was imagining myself curled up in the garden for long stretches reading Persephone books (aren't they like a comforting chilled milkshake in book form) but reality is going to be much more chaotic.

I may not be making much headway with reading, but I am enjoying reading everyone's reviews of various Persephone books. Verity at The B Files reviewed Bricks And Mortar yesterday; this caught my attention since it "tells the story of an architect over 40 years of his life in the 1890s". For those in the know, I'm an architect, and this book would hold great interest for me especially as Verity felt that Ashton got into an architect's way of thinking. One for my TBR list!

This, though, got me thinking about the paucity of architects in fiction. The only book I can think of is Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. This is a beautiful book and a classic, and also one of those books that every student of architecture must read. I think we all go through an idealistic phase of imagining ourselves as Howard Roark before real life and commercial pressures force us into turning into Peter Keating. I honestly cannot come up with any other book.

There are many more architects in films. Off the top of my head, there's Michelle Pfeiffer in One Fine Day (struggling to find childcare and present a design on the same day), Tom Selleck in Three Men And A Baby, Doug Roberts in Towering Inferno (who must bear the public's scorn even though it is the developer's cost-cutting that caused the inferno), David Murphy in Indecent Proposal (who auctions his wife because of financial difficulties), and Healy and Tucker in There's Something About Mary (both pretend to be architects to get the girl).

It's strange that authors rarely choose to make their protagonists architects although they are more popular with film-makers. Does anyone have any architect-centric books to recommend to me?

A Persephone Teaser Tuesday

"The question of vermin is a very pressing one in all the small houses. No woman, however clean, can cope with it. Before their confinements some women go to the trouble of having the room they are to lie in fumigated. In spite of such precautions, bugs have dropped on to the pillow of the sick woman before the visitor's eyes. One woman complained that they dropped into her ears at night."

Round About A Pound A Week
Maud Pember Reeves


The Victorian Chaise Longue - Marghanita Laski

This was the first Persephone book that I've read, and it was a fabulous introduction. I read this book in one sitting (nearly), which isn't as impressive as it sounds because (a) the book is very slim, and (b) I could not have put the book down midway for anything short of a nuclear holocaust.

The Victorian Chaise Longue is the story of Melanie Langdon, a spoilt upper-class woman who has recently had a baby and is also recovering from tuberculosis which she contracted very early in the pregnancy. The obviously sad situation did not evoke any sympathy in me because of Melanie's flippant and flirtatious attitude. But this attitude is central to the character; the others mollycoddle her like a precocious child. For the first time in months, Melanie is allowed to leave her bedroom and rest on her as-yet-unused chaise-longue, where she falls asleep and....

....wakes up in Victorian England! Yes, that's how sudden and shocking the time-shift is. No blinding light, or spinning Tardis. Just a woman waking up in a time not her own. And that's when the terror starts. Melanie is now Milly, who also suffers from tuberculosis and has recently gone through a terrible experience, the details of which are revealed in the final pages.

The horror of being trapped in a body not your own, in a time not your own, surrounded by people you don't recognise is the stuff of nightmares. Laski has evoked the fear that Melanie experiences superbly. Of course, in a world that has read Stephen King and Dean Koontz, this book will be tame, but it must have been terrifying in the 1950s when it was originally printed.

Adelaide said wearily, '[It is] the twenty-second of April, eigheen hundred and sixtyfour.'

For an instant, for ever, Melanie was bound in timeless fear. Her eyes were forced open, rigid and unblinking, her mouth hung open, the rigid lips stretched in a terrible grin, all her being was rigid with unimaginable terror...only from her mouth there came incoherent dribbling whimperings.

The ending is ambiguous, and I liked it that way. What was more important was Melanie’s realisation that she and Milly are more than just superficially similar, what is different is how society views them.

Persephone Week starts

The Persephone Week is up and running! The hosts, Claire at Paperback Reader and Verity at The B Files have already started the show with quizzes. I've attempted both (one with more success than the other) and I've also started reading the Persephone books that I'd kept aside for this week.

I chose to start with The Victorian Chaise Longue by Marghanita Laski for a variety of reasons; it was a gift by my husband and if he sees me wnjoying a book he's bought he's more likely to buy me more (that's my theory anyway, it never hurts to try!), and because the story is a psychological thriller. From the reviews I've read it seems to border on supernatural horror as well, with a fair bit of time travel thrown in. As a life-long fan of Doctor Who, anything to do with time travel is pushed right up on my TBR list.

I've only just started on it and am still in the scene-setting part of it, with all the characters being introduced. Melanie, the protagonist, comes across as a spoilt rich woman who's making suffering from TB into an art form. I do love the way she swans and moans at the doctor and her husband, who are both more than a little enamoured of her. I'm looking forward to getting more into the story and see how Melanie's character develops.

Now that my own little brat is having her nap, I'm going to settle down with this book and a hot cup of tea. Oh yes, I also have to take the phone off the hook and put up a huge "Ring the doorbell at your own risk" sign up on the front door.


Persephone Reading Challenge

Paperback Reader and The B Files have posted reminders that their Persephone Reading Challenge starts next week. The rules are simple; read as many Persephone books as you like, one or ten, it doesn't matter. The important bit is enjoying the works published by Persephone. It sounds like many readers are participating and I'm excited to join in.

I already have three books ready on my bookshelf. It was very hard to resist the temptation to start early, but I've managed (just).

The picture's not very clear, so the three books are:
1) They Knew Mr. Knight by Dorothy Whipple
2) The Victorian Chaise-Lounge by Marghanita Laski
3) Round About A Pound A Week by Maud Pember Reeves


Real World - Natsuo Kirino

My reading list for the Japanese Literature Challenge included Out by Natsuo Kirino, which had got glowing reviews from Jackie at FarmLaneBooks. However, the book is still "in the post" even though Amazon assured me it was dispatched over ten days ago. I have no idea now if I'll still receive it; I can only hope. Best laid plans, and all that jazz.

So, when I spotted Real World by the same author in my library, I grabbed it as fast as I could. And finished reading it in one sitting today! Yes, it is the type of book that you just can't put down. And the fact that I'm writing this review at 1am, fifteen minutes after finishing the book speaks volumes about it.

The very-slim book revolves around four teenage high-school girls, cramming for a University place through their summer holidays. All four are very different in character; there's quiet and dependable Toshi, confused lesbian Yazun, intellectual Terauchi, and the "well-brought-up" Kirarin who is actually sexually experienced and dangerously addicted to chat rooms. When Toshi's neighbour Worm kills his mother and goes on the run, the four are drawn by the danger and try, in their own ways, to help him.

This is not a murder mystery, as we know from the beginning who the murderer is. The book is more concerned with the characters of the five protagonists, going into great detail about their backgrounds and thought processes. I found it very disturbing to be trapped in the head of a teenager. There was a very real sense of the difficulties the girls were faced with. They are having to deal with a world their parents are not familiar with, showing how fast Japan has moved in a single generation. This increases their isolation, and the steps they take to deal with this is very disturbing (even without the murder!). Kirino describes some very seedy parts of Japan, and the pressures the girls have to confront is unbelievable. I would have cracked under less. I am not familiar with Japan to judge whether these things are usual there, or if Kirino has plumbed the extremes of society. I would be very interested to find out.

This is a dark study of teenage angst, and in this the author has succeeded. But the voices started to grate after a while. Call me cynical, but I wanted to shake the girls, and Worm, very hard to jolt them out of their misery. To my surprise, I found the language very clunky; this is definitely not the best translation I have read. I assume (hope) Kirino's other novels had a better translator as I have not heard any complaints about the language-structure before.

I have nothing to compare this book to, but I assume it is not one of Kirino's best works. It is a good taster though, and I look forward eagerly to getting my copy of Out. If only Royal Mail and/or Amazon get their act together. Grrr!


Library Loot and New Acquisitions

I picked up a huge pile of books from the library today, and I can't resist shawing them off a bit.
Real World - This is perfect for the Japanese Literature Challenge. I had planned to read Out! by the same author, but it still hasn't been delivered to me yet. So when I spotted this in the display, I could not resist. This will be first on my TBR list.

March - This has been on my wishlist for a long long time. Little Women is one of my most favourite books of all time, and I go back to it periodically. This is the story of what happens to Mr. March during the time that Little Women covers. It should be interesting.

Trainspotting - Again, this has been on my wishlist for ages. I have been wary of reading it before because of its supposed graphic content, but I think after reading Real World nothing will be too grotesque.

The library was also getting rid of some of its stock due to lack of space, and I picked up the following for 10p each.
Quartet in Autumn - One of Barbara Pym's later novels, it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1977. It tells the story of four friends in retirement.

People in Glass Houses - This is a collection of short stories by Shirley Hazzard, satirising the workings of large organisations. I'm not usually into short stories, but this one sounds interesting. For 10p, I think I can give it a go.

The Handmaid's Tale - Everyone knows about this book! I have not read any Atwood before and I'm looking forward to this book very much.

And finally,

Olivia - I didn't get this from the library, it was passed on to me by Verity at the B Files. She read this as part of her Virago Challenge and her review (here) intrigued me. She had an extra copy and I grabbed at the chance. It is a very slim book, so I'm planning to read it over a weekend when I have more free time than during the week.

Not a bad haul, even though I say so mmyself. Now I just have to find the time to fit them all in.


The Road - Cormac McCarthy

The Road follows a father and son (both unnamed) as they walk through a post-apocalyptic America (I think), travelling south to the sea and warmer weather. That really is it, no more no less. Everything they have, which is not very much, is loaded on to a supermarket trolley, and they carry essentials in knapsacks.

This is a very bleak, very haunting tale. McCarthy has not explained how the end of the world came about, nor does he go into details about the ensuing fallout; socially, politically or individually. The ash-ridden landscape with all plant and animal life destroyed suggests a nuclear holocaust, but that is just guesswork. What is definite is that some of the survivors have since turned to cannibalism. Even the background of the father and son is sketched out very hazily. All we know is that they have survived for a number of years (the mother gave up the struggle very early and took her own life) and that they are now heading south because they cannot survive another northern winter. The lack of detail bothered me to start with, but once I got pulled into the story, the questions became irrelevant.

The book is a meditation of survival and, as a result, of death. The duo fight starvation constantly. And they fight the fear of the unknown. Every person they meet on the road could be a potential cannibal or a thief. Several times in the book, the two argue over whether they should help another person they come across or whether they should jealously guard their meagre provisions. I found myself arguing this question with myself. What would I do?

I have not read many post-apocalyptic novels so I don't have much to compare this with. Actually I've read just one, The Stand by Stephen King, which was epic in proportion, and vastly different from The Road. I loved the language McCarthy has used - it is a pared down version of English, with no words or punctuation marks wasted. In fact he has completely done away with quotation marks and apostrophes. This takes some getting used to, but makes complete sense.

In one of the flashbacks, the mother urges him to kill their son rather than expose him to the harshness of life and to the possibility of capture by cannibal tribes. The father refuses. At this point I had to put the book down for a while and take control of my thoughts. One of the drawbacks of being a parent is that you can't read anything involving children without getting hopelessly involved!

One thing that spoiled the book for me is the current weather. The sun has finally come out in Wales and the weekend was a scorcher. Great, except that the book is set in freezing cold and the duo have to struggle with the chill every step of the way. I simply could not imagine it. Tip - do not read this book lying on a beach with a gaggle of toddlers building a sandcastle inches away!

I was interested to know that there is a film under production due to release this year. I could not find any videos, but here is a still. I must admit I imagined the boy as much younger, probably around 6 years. The boy in the film looks about 12; how did they survive 12 years?


Giveaway magazines

Following on from my last post about the children's magazines I got from the giveaway at Stuck-In-A-Book I have now had a chance to raod-test it with my little one. What can I say, it was a resounding success.

I was quite impressed with the quality of the magazine. There are different sections, a story to read aloud, cartoon strips, general knowledge, all in full colour. I loved the tone of the magazine, that was fun throughout and not at all preachy, even in the obviously educating parts.

Special mention here about the animal section. Every issue focusses on a different animal and tells intersting and fun facts about them. All good, but I was very very impressed with the
illustrations. Very realistic!

My daughter was not quite ready for the activities section. Quite understandable, as the magazine is marketed at 3-6 year olds, and at 2.5 years she is much too young for join-the-dots and crack-the-secret-code puzzles. But I imagine that if these are lying around the house, she is likely to attempt them sooner rather than later.

And, last but not least, they came with a CD with an audio of all the stories in the magazines. Perfect to slip into the car CD on long journeys.

I am very tempted to order a subscription to the magazine. If you have small children, do go have a look at Bayard Magazines. They produce magazines suitable for 3 to 12 year olds, so there's something for everyone.

Thank you Simon for a great giveaway.


Story Box Giveaway

A little while ago I won the giveaway in Simon's blog for two children's books. I thought it sounded ideal for my little girl, and I could hardly wait to receive it. Well, the wait's over! We came back from our morning in the library (there was a Bookstart Bear event, worthy of a post on its own) to find the package waiting for us.

I have only had a chance to flick through it yet, as the little one has gone off for her afternoon nap, but it looks very very promising. I will report back on how she likes it as soon as we've read it together. Meanwhile, here are the covers - I love the illustration on the first one, with everyone dancing.


All Passion Spent - Vita Sackville-West

Last night I went to my monthly book club meeting where we discussed All Passion Spent. It was a depleted group as a lot of people were on holidays, but the conversation was as stimulating as ever.

All Passion Spent is one of Vita Sackville-West's most famous works, and features Lady Slane, an eighty-eight year old recently widowed woman, who, for the first time in her life, is free to do as she wishes. The book opens with the death of her husband, a distinguished politician (former Viceroy of India and former Prime Minister of Britain, no less!) and Lady Slane's children discussing and deciding her future. They all expect her to go along with their plans, but the elderly woman shocks them by taking control and renting herself a small flat of her own in a London suburb, where she lives with her maidservant Genoux.

The best thing about a book club is that you are exposed to so many opinions, and others see things that you didn't even notice. Lady Deborah Slane herself caused a lot of discussion, with some sympathising with her and others being annoyed by her. I must admit I fell into the second camp. Deborah wanted to be an artist in her youth but could not pursue it because she was rushed into marriage, then spent the rest of her life feeling sorry for herself. I felt that a person who has artistic interests will find a way to fulfil it in some way. After all, she led a full and interesting life, travelling to India and Africa and attending glittering functions and soirees. Could she not have found a way to indulge in art in any form with all that life experience to draw from? Equally disappointing, she did not even try to paint when she finally set up independently. I couldn't help feeling she was living in a bubble. Her relationship with her children was also a talking point. A lot of us felt that she was too emotionally distant from her children, finding it scarily easy to cut them from her life. There were instances in the book where she was shown cuddling them as babies, but the impression was that she distanced herself once they grew up and developed persoonalities (in most cases, similar to their father's). But then, perhaps this was a normal feature in middle-class families of the era, when children were mostly raised by nannies and house-staff.

Without exception, we all loved her for indulging in an unconventional and liberated lifestyle in her old age. The relationships and friendships she formed were idiosyncratic and of her own choosing, and all the more poignant for that.

One question that led to a very interesting discussion was that though women have so much more freedom of choice and opportunity than Lady Slane, has anything changed for politicians' wives (as she was)? After all, most politicians' wives have to fit themselves into a mould, indulge in "acceptable" hobbies and causes, and place their own career secondary to their husbands.

Overall, this was an interesting read, even though the language is in places rather stilted (a product of its time) and situations contrived. In all honesty, Sackville-West's own life makes more interesting reading than Lady Slane's, but this is a book worth reading at least once.


Japanese Literature Challenge

With so much talk going on about Bellezza's Japanese Literature Challenge, I could not resist joining up. The challenge requires you to read only one work of Japanese origin by January 31, 2010. I think I can definitely meet that requirement, and hopefully a bit more.

I'm quite clueless about Japanese literature, the only books I've read would be Memoirs of a Geisha and Toto-Chan : The Girl In The Window which was part of my school syllabus. I do have a Murakami languishing in my book-shelves, and this challenge may be just the motivation I need to correct this gap in my reading.

My potential book list is:

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle By Harulki Murakami
A Pale View Of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro
Out by Natsuo Kirino
Hard Boiled / Hard Luck by Banana Yoshimoto

I am looking forward to this challenge. Thanks Bellezza for setting this up.



Olive Kitteridge - Elizabeth Strout

Olive Kitteridge is the winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize and author Elizabeth Strout's third work. It is an unusual novel, in that it is not really a novel but a collection of 13 short stories. I don't usually enjoy short stories very much, as they seem to finish just as I start to get involved with the characters, leaving me with a sense of incompleteness. But I made an exception for Olive Kitteridge and I'm glad I did.

The stories are all set in a small town in New England, and each is seen through the eyes of different residents. Olive features in all of them, though in some of them she is only mentioned (The Piano Player and Ship in a Bottle, for example). Taken together, they draw a picture of Olive as a person; whether it is a complimentary picture or a derogatory one is up to each reader to decide (the sub-title on the cover is "What will you make of her?" ). Personally I found Olive very disagreeable and brash and I would struggle to spend a lot of time with her. And yet, in the stories that are from her point of view, I couldn't help but feel terribly sorry for her. "She didn't like being alone. Even more, she didn't like being with people." This complexity in her character come through most forcefully in the story Security where she visits her son in New York and ends up having a blazing row with him, all the time wishing inside her head that the argument would stop.

There is a sense of overwhelming sadness in almost all the characters. Most couples are in dysfunctional relationships and most children have unexpressed grievances with their parents. I was most relieved to meet Jane and Bob in The Winter Concert, an elderly couple still in love. When their contentment is threatened by a possible past indiscretion, I almost cried out "NO".

So, what did I make of Olive. I'm not sure if I'd like to be her neighbour or a member of the Civil War group she attends as I think I'd find her too overbearing, but she'd probably make a very stolid relative. As Jane says about her husband Henry, "He loves her. That's how he can stand her."

The book is well worth a read. It is a relatively quick read and easy to digest. I think it would make a good book club read; you can discuss Olive for hours!

If you have read the book, which story did you like best?


Penguin Cover Design Awards 2009

The winners for the Penguin Design Award for 2009 was announced recently. The brief was to design a new cover for The Secret History by Donna Tartt, giving the cult classic "a fresh new bring it to a new generation of readers."

First prize went to Peter Adlington from Stockport College
...and second prize to Jia Ying Gnoh from Staffordshire University.
This link showcases the winners and the shortlisted entries. Do have a browse through, each one of them is a work of art.


Little Stranger - Sarah Waters

I finished reading Little Stranger by Sarah Waters two days ago, but I felt I needed a bit of time to absorb the book before writing a review. Sarah Waters is one of my favourite novelists, with Fingersmith ranking in my Top 10 books, so a new book by her is always something I look forward to. I have never been disappointed by any of her books yet; I can only rate them by comparing each to her other works. This book is no exception. Those following the Man Booker Prize will know that this is on the longlist. Being nominated generally means increased sales, but Little Stranger is already way ahead of the other books in this respect.

Set in post-war Warwickshire in the crumbling great house of the Ayres family, Hundreds Hall. Once grand and the centre of the community, Hundreds Hall and its owners have fallen in hard times. Mrs. Ayres struggles to maintain a facade, but the truth is that money is scarce, their farm is failing, and they cannot afford to maintain the house. The Ayres children, Roderick and Caroline, struggle to maintain a semblance of family life and keep the estate solvent. Into this setting comes Dr. Faraday, a GP who comes from humble origins (his mother was a domestic servant in Hundreds Hall) and still carries a vague obsession with the house and the lifestyle it represents. And then strange events start happening. Is Hundreds Hall haunted?

Dr. Faraday, the narrator, is very unimaginative and logical, offering rational explanations for everything. This can get irritating at times but, in hindsight, is essential. I don't want to give much away but some of the scenes are spectacularly spooky, and Dr. Faraday's explanations act as a cold damper to the tense situations. What intrigued me was that the book reveals nothing, right up to the last page. There are allusions and hints, but nothing is clarified, and the narrator's dry voice adds to the sense of mystery and frustration that the Ayreses themselves must be feeling. Waters leaves a lot of work to the reader who is free to make his own suppositions. It is very possible that every reader will come up with his own explanation, but I think I will build my assumptions around the concluding line of the book. A quick look around other blogs tells me that many others are doing the same.

For me the triumph of the book was the fantastic period atmosphere. As in her previous novels, Little Stranger benefits from historical research; the class distinctions in particular are wonderfully brought out. The Ayres family is baffled by the changes in social order and, for his part, so is Dr. Faraday, neither knowing quite how to treat the other.

This is the only book on the Booker list that I have read so far, so I cannot speculate on its chances, but I will admit to enjoying it a lot.


My First Persephone

I still cannot get over my very lucky find. I was browsing through the bookshelves of a charity shop when I saw the spine of a dove-grey book. Noooo, I thought, it couldn't be. But it was; a Persephone book sitting there with a price label of £1.79! And, believe it or not, it even had the bookmark in it. The spine is barely creased, it really looks and feels brand new.

I bought it without even looking at the title. It was only when I got home that I realised that I'd got They Knew Mr. Wright by Dorothy Whipple, one of Persephone's star authors.
I think I will save it for the Persephone Reading Challenge hosted by Paperback Reader and The B Files . At the moment, I am very happily stroking the cover, very much like Gollum with his ring. "It's mine."


The little phone

A rather embarrasing incident happened to me last night. I was in two minds whether to write about it as it paints a very silly picture of me, but judging by the hilarity it has brought into my house, I thought I'd share.

I was up last night reading Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. Those who have read it and blogged about it will know that certain parts are quite spooky. Once my husband had gone to bed and the TV was thankfully switched off, I could really immerse myself into the book. At 2am I had just reached the bit where Simon describes his haunting on the night of the party. I don't want to give away plot details, but a very heavy object starts moving on its own. I was engrossed in it when I was disturbed by a low buzzing sound. I looked up and saw my mobile on the table...moving towards me. Now at any other time I would have realised that I had only received a text message and my phone was on vibrate-mode. But I was already made so nervy by the book that logic had gone out of the window. I shrieked, threw the book at my phone (those who've read the book will know that's no easy feat) and dashed out of the room. Of course, the scream and/or my undignified dive into the bed woke my husband up and I had to tell him about the moving phone. Even while telling the "story" I had started to realise how foolish I sounded, and I was mortified when I discovered the real reason behind the "incident". My husband roared with laughter for what felt to me like an hour.

It's 12 hours later, and he has still not let me forget it. He has taken to sending me texts saying just BOO. Ah well, a tale to tell the grandchildren.


Out Stealing Horses - Per Petterson

A friend has been singing the praises of this book for several months now. Originally in Norwegian, it was translated into the English by Anne Born, and has won a handful of awards including the 2007 Dublin IMPAC Award. My curiosity was piqued enough to request it from the library. I must admit that the cover did nothing for me; a rather desultory image of a horse grazing outside a ramshackle timber house. But here is a lesson on not judging a book by its cover - from a few pages in, the writing had begun to draw me in. Don't let the title put you off - the book is not about thieving, or even about horses. The phrase is simply a code that crops up several times in the story.

An elderly Trond Sander has cut ties with his life in the city and moved to an isolated cabin in a remote area of Norway. His wife and sister are dead, and he has not bothered to tell his daughters of his plans (a fact we learn later in the book). His only neighbour is another elderly man in a cottage a little distance away, a man who keeps to himself. Until one day, Trond meets him, and it triggers memories of a summer far back in his past, a summer that has shaped his life and character.

The story moves in three strands; Trond in the current time coming to terms with his life, the summer of 1948 which Trond spends with his father, and a third storyline set during the war and focussing on Trond's father. The story is narrated inside Trond's head, so there is very little dialogue. It is in effect a coming-of-age story told through the medium of an old man's memories. What sets the book apart is the writing. The prose is dreamy and languid, and the story unravels in the most unhurried pace. Petterson's language is very evocative; he describes haymaking and timber-felling in minute and poetic detail. His descriptions of nature are among the best I've read.
"I switch on the torch. It is blowing massively, there is chaos in the light from the torch when I swing it round, the reeds lie flat on the lake, white foam on the water, and there is a howling sound from the bare treetops bending over."

Be warned, the story is so simple that you might be left feeling a little let-down. If you're looking for a page-turner packed with incidents, this is not for you. This is a book in which nothing much happens, but the nothing much happens beautifully.


Happy Birthday

Today is my grandmother's birthday, her 75th. It isn't the happy occassion it should be as it will be the first she will celebrate without my grandfather who passed away earlier this year. After nearly 6 decades together, they had formed their own rituals and traditions, one of which was that he was always the first to wish her a happy birthday. She has decided not to celebrate her birthday this year and we are torn between respecting her wishes and trying to cheer her up with some cake and candles. Mmm...not sure which way we'll go yet.

What does this have to do with books, you may ask? Nothing, except that my grandmother was a huge influence in my life, and loved books. Admittedly she only read in her vernacular language (which I cannot read) and loves poetry (which I'm very slow to grasp) so we never discussed books. But watching her read was what started my love affair with books. Every free minute she got, she'd grab her book and curl up on the couch. I know I do the same now, so I hope I set as good an example for my daughter as she did for me.


The Uncommon Reader - Alan Bennett

If I had to use one word to describe this book, it would be quirky.

The Queen accidentally stumbles on the mobile library that visits the palace ground every week. Initially borrowing a book just to be polite, the Queen is soon develops an insatiable appetite for books. This apparently harmless activity throws her staff into disarray and confusion. She often becomes so lost in books that her maids fear she is becoming senile, and her private secretary worries how she will connect with a population who no longer reads for pleasure.

This is a very funny book, and I found myself sniggering at several parts. One image that had me chuckling is of the royal couple having a row just before setting out in the carriage to open Parliament, and the duke "waving viciously" to the gathered crowds. I have never imagined the Queen and Prince Philip rowing like any other married couple. And Bennett has got the voice of the Queen and the Duke just right, they almost jump off the page. For example, when asked about Cecil Beaton, the Duke says "Never liked the fellow. Green shoes." Spot on!

As much as this is a story starring the Queen, it is also a story of readers everywhere, and those who have to share a life with them. Reading is described as a "selfish activity", and I wondered if that was true. After all, we readers are off in our imagined lands living through fantastic tales, and our family and colleagues have to wait patiently for us to come back to Earth and reconnect with them. My husband often says that he knows when I'm reading a good book, as I stop speaking to him. Oops!

Did anyone else like this book as much as I did?

The House At Riverton - Kate Morton

I read Kate Morton’s second book The Forgotten Garden earlier this year and was captivated by the story, finishing it in two days flat. I was eager to read her debut novel but my TBR pile was so high that it took me half a year to get started on it.

From its opening line, I was hooked.
“Last November I had a nightmare. It was 1924 and I was at Riverton again.
The very obvious reference to du Maurier’s Rebecca sets the tone for the rest of the book. It's a Gothic mystery set in a sprawling English country house, a family torn by misunderstandings, jealousies and thwarted ambitions. It even has a mysterious death in a lake house. Instead of the scary Mrs. Danvers however, we have the charming Grace who joins Riverton's domestic staff as a naive girl of fourteen and who narrates the story as a ninety-nine year old woman at death's door. In 1924, a famous poet shot himself at the lake house at Riverton on the eve of a glamourous society party, witnessed only by the Hartford sisters. It is a clear case of suicide, but Grace is privy to the secret of what really happened, a secret she is determined to take with her to the grave.

The mystery itself is intriguing. I tried to second-guess the author through the book, and the ending still came as a surprise. But the mystery isn't all that appealed to me. The first half of the book brilliantly brings to life the divide between the people upstairs and downstairs. It made me empathise with the bond of loyalty that tied the servants to the household, a feeling that we in the modern world struggle to understand. This way of life is rocked by WW1, and again Morton brings to life the damage the war iinflicted on the soldiers who returned but could not assimilate into 'normal' life.
"[the war] took perfectly normal young men and returned them changed. Broken."
And forming the backdrop to all these events is the effervescent 1920s, the decade when the social order and constraints of the previous century were overturned.

The only criticism I would make is the pace of the book, especially in the first half. Some editing in the first hundred pages would have improved the tempo immeasurably. In spite of that, I would recommend this book, especially as a light summer read.


And so it begins...

Thus I enter the world of book-blogging...

I'm no stranger to blogging, but so far I have only written about the antics of my little girl, meant only for family and close friends to read. This is my first foray into writing for a wider (and more invisible) audience. I do hope someone comes to visit and read my musings, or my blog will remain the cyber equivalent of standing on a lonely road and shouting into the night.

Between looking after The Cheeky One and running my own architectural practice, I get very little spare time. But every minute I do get is spent on reading and baking - there's nothing better than a good book with a slice of yummy cake. Unless, of course, it's a cup of strong tea.

Wish me luck! And do join me in my journey into the blogosphere.