Sunday, 10 August 2014

Otto the dog and Recent Reads

The good news is that Otto held on to his second place in the Best Behaved dog class at the village flower show.  The competition was tough - only Labradors in the final, of course, other breeds eliminated in the first round.  All very tense, the crowd agog.  Other villagers won prizes for chutney, gladioli or beans, but we were v happy with the blue rosette.




Sorry to have neglected the blog for so long but here are some Recent Reads


 The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
Set in seventeenth century Amsterdam—a city ruled by glittering wealth and oppressive religion.  On a brisk autumn day in 1686, eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam to begin a new life as the wife of illustrious merchant trader Johannes Brandt. But her new home, while splendorous, is not welcoming. Johannes is kind yet distant, always locked in his study or at his warehouse office—leaving Nella alone with his sister, the sharp-tongued and forbidding Marin.
Johannes presents her with an extraordinary wedding gift: a cabinet-sized replica of their home. To furnish her gift, Nella engages the services of a miniaturist—an elusive and enigmatic artist whose tiny creations mirror their real-life counterparts in eerie and unexpected ways . . .


Johannes’ gift helps Nella to pierce the closed world of the Brandt household. But as she uncovers its unusual secrets, she begins to understand—and fear—the escalating dangers that await them all. In this repressively pious city to be different is a threat to the moral fabric of society, and not even a man as rich as Johannes is safe”


Atmospheric, great stuff, but bad things happen eventually, be warned.  Do read this book and also google Jessie Burton – she sounds great fun. 




 The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt..  A must-read, gripping, prize-winning novel.


Aged thirteen, Theo Decker, son of a devoted mother and a reckless, largely absent father, survives an accident that otherwise tears his life apart. Alone and rudderless in New York, he is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. He is tormented by an unbearable longing for his mother, and down the years clings to the thing that most reminds him of her: a small, strangely captivating painting that ultimately draws him into the criminal underworld. As he grows up, Theo learns to glide between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty antiques store where he works. He is alienated and in love - and his talisman, the painting, places him at the centre of a narrowing, ever more dangerous circle.





What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty.  Alice fell in a gym class and lost the memory of the last ten years of her life.  An amusing take on the developments in the last ten years.  Alice becomes a Rip Van Winkle figure and can’t understand the changes in her life and her marriage.  She can’t even remember her children.




We are all completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler.  A very interesting and worthwhile novel but to review it is to spoil the surprise half way through the book.


The Third Wife by Lisa Jewell.   Interesting and readable, of course, but I wasn’t always entirely convinced that all the wives would get on so, so well.  Or maybe the point was that they didn’t.


 This Boy the autobiography of Alan Johnson, who had a difficult deprived childhood.  It is amazing what he achieved.  Do read it.



The Woman in the Picture by Katharine McMahon continues the great story of brave female barrister Enid Gifford from the Crimson Rooms.  It does stand alone, but it is helpful if you read the latter first.   London, 1926. Evelyn Gifford is not a woman to let convention get in her way. One of Britain's first female lawyers, she has taken on the male establishment. Outside the courtroom, however, Evelyn's life is not going to plan. Following a devastating love affair, she has left the confines of her family home and has moved in with Meredith, a headstrong artist and the mother of Evelyn's beloved nephew. But now Meredith is threatening to leave for France, taking the child with her, and even Evelyn's formidable Aunt Prudence is off to India.


The only thing left for Evelyn is to throw herself into work. London is tense in the days leading up to the General Strike and Evelyn finds herself embroiled in two very different cases - one involving a family linked to the unions, the other a rich factory owner who claims not to be the father of his wife's child.


As Evelyn faces the hardest challenges of her career, an unexpected proposal from someone close to her coincides with the return of her former love. Evelyn must ask herself what matters most - security with a man she admires or passion with the man who might just betray her?”



Thursday, 16 January 2014

Happy New Year




  I’ve read lots of books since I last blogged, too many probably.  It’s so tempting to buy via the Kindle late at night instead of re-reading one of the hundreds of books I already possess.

 
Here are some of the December reads that stayed in my mind.  More to come soon.

 
Whatever You Love by Louise Doughty.  Gruelling and compelling story of a mother whose child has been killed crossing the road.  Well written and unputdownable.

 
I wasn’t quite so convinced by Close My Eyes by Sophie McKenzie but nevertheless found it compelling and hard to put down too.   It's been eight years since Gen Loxley lost her daughter, Beth: eight years of grief in which nothing's moved forward. Gen has settled in to a life of half-hearted teaching, while her husband Art their fortune. For Gen, life without Beth is unbearable - but still it goes on. And then a woman arrives on Gen's doorstep, saying that her daughter was not stillborn, but was spirited away as a healthy child, and is out there, waiting to be found...So why is Art reluctant to get involved? To save his wife from further hurt? Or something much more sinister? What is the truth about Beth Loxley?

 
The Sea Change by Joanna Rossiter seemed a little too consciously writerly at the beginning but became an interesting, affecting story.  Well researched WW2 background about those left behind in England, including a horrific ‘friendly fire’ accident and a devastated village in Wiltshire.

 
The Detective’s Daughter by Lesley Thomson.  Atmospheric. Kate Rokesmith's murder changed the lives of many. Her husband, never charged, moved abroad under a cloud of suspicion. Her son, just four years old, grew up in a loveless boarding school. And Detective Inspector Darnell, vowing to leave no stone unturned in the search for her killer, began to lose his only daughter. The young Stella Darnell grew to resent the dead Kate Rokesmith. Her dad had never vowed to leave no stone unturned for her. Now, thirty years later, Stella is dutifully sorting through her father's attic after his sudden death. The Rokesmith case papers are in a corner, gathering dust: the case was never solved. Stella knows she should destroy them. Instead, she opens the box, and starts to read.

 
The Silent Tide by Rachel Hore
When Emily Gordon, editor at a London publishing house, commissions an account of  English novelist Hugh Morton, she finds herself steering a tricky path between Morton's formidable widow and the ambitious biographer. But someone is sending Emily mysterious missives about Hugh Morton's past and she discovers a buried story that simply has to be told… In 1948, young Isabel Barber arrives at her aunt’s house in Earl's Court having run away from home.. A chance meeting leads to a job with a publisher and a fascinating career beckons. But when she develops a close editorial relationship with charismatic young novelist Hugh Morton and the professional becomes personal, not only are all her plans put to flight, but she finds herself in a struggle for her survival.

 

The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty   Good writing, vivid characterisation.

 
What I’ve really enjoyed reading are all the Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard.  Somehow I missed them first time around.  Do read them if you’re interested in the realistic story of a upper middle class family during the war and after.  The children are particularly vivid, possibly because it’s partly autobiographical.  Reminds me vaguely of The Forsyte Saga in the sense that it’s a family story, though obviously of a later period.  Shall look forward to the latest episode.  Google Elizabeth Jane Howard if you want to find out more about this interesting writer, who recently died.  Her private life and marriages to difficult men, particularly Kingsley Amis, affected her writing considerably.




Thursday, 12 September 2013

Good books




So many books read, no time to write about them properly. 

Most gripping book by far was the much praised Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty.  A respectable scientist in her early fifties begins a risky affair with a stranger and finds herself in dock.  The court scenes have been brilliantly researched.  Do read it.  I wouldn’t fancy al fresco unions in St. James’s (of all places) though – mind boggles.   Here is a review.

Am absorbed in EJ Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles at the moment.  A rather more peaceful read, despite the wartime background.

 Kiss Me First by Lottie Moggach was an interesting modern high-tech thriller, though the main protagonist became somewhat wearing.

 The Silent Wife by ASA Harrison, another thriller.  Interesting enough but not a must-read.  Moral of the story, don't forget to marry your other half if you're not self-supporting.

And The Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini was as imaginative and instructive as one might expect.  Well worth reading.

 Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver grew on me. The main protagonist is a young poor white American and there are a few long early chapters about shopping in bargain basements that could have been shortened.   Finally though the heroine won me over and the way she was drawn into working for a scientific survey of over-wintering butterflies was convincing.  It’s a worthy green eco book we should all read, I dare say.

Almost English by Charlotte Mendelson is an amusing easy read.  Absolutely loved the Hungarian aunts who rather stole the show.  Laura I did find tiresome - Joanna Trollope would definitely have told her to stiffen her upper lip.  Not quite sure why it was long-listed for the Booker.  Here is a review.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Otto triumphs again


To our amazement, Otto won second prize in the Best Behaved Dog class at the village flower show, despite nearly knocking over the judge at one point.  Below, dog and buttercups.




A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar by Suzanne Joinson

 It is 1923 and Evangeline English, keen lady cyclist, arrives with her sister Lizzie and their zealous leader Millicent at the ancient city of Kashgar to establish a mission. As they encounter resistance and calamity, Eva commences work on her Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar...

In present-day London, Frieda opens her door to find a man sleeping on the landing. Tayeb, a Yemeni refugee, has arrived in Frieda's life just as she learns that she is next-of-kin to a stranger, a woman whose abandoned flat contains many surprises. The two wanderers embark on a journey that is as unexpected as Eva's.

I found Eva’s story fascinating, frightening and absorbing (and not very much about cyling – in fact I’d have thought the terrain and climate hardly lends itself to the pastime)  I was struck by the bravery and naivety of the ladies in 1923 and it’s interesting to realise that people could and did travel freely to Central Asia in those days.  Eva’s story stayed with me long after I had finished the book, so much so that I kept googling the Silk Route for weeks.  Oddly enough, I found Frieda more difficult to get to grips with, fey and strange as she appeared.  I think I’d have preferred to stay in 1923.  But it’s a good read and I look forward to reading more from this author.  Here’s a Guardian review.

 

The Girl Who Fell From the Sky by Simon Mawer.  Thoroughly researched and convincing this is the story of a female SOE operative in World War 2.

Marian Sutro is an outsider: the daughter of a diplomat, brought up on the shores of Lake Geneva and in England, half French, half British, naive yet too clever for her own good. But when she is recruited from her desk job by SOE to go undercover in wartime France, it seems her hybrid status - and fluent French - will be of service to a greater, more dangerous cause.

Trained in sabotage, dead-drops, how to perform under interrogation and how to kill, Marian parachutes into south-west France, her official mission to act as a Resistance courier. But her real destination is Paris, where she must seek out family friend Clément Pelletier, once the focus of her adolescent desires. A nuclear physicist engaged in the race for a new and terrifying weapon, he is of urgent significance to her superiors. As she struggles through the strange, lethal landscape of the Occupation towards this reunion, what completes her training is the understanding that war changes everything, and neither love nor fatherland may be trusted.

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky is both a gripping adventure story and a moving meditation on patriotism, betrayal and the limits of love.

I had the feeling I’d read some of this book before, because similar stories have indeed been told.  It’s a war story, realistically so, and if you like wartime thrillers you will enjoy this book.  It’s in no way girly or romantic, because the times were too serious for that.  The description of Marian’s training took up the first half of the book but then, once she was in France, one’s fear increased.

.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Althorp Lit Fest and Coton Manor Gardens

There will be better photos of Coton Manor, Northamptonshire on their website  I always love the peace and beauty of this interesting extensive garden.

I had a great day at the Althorp Literary Festival, home of the late Princess Diana.
First I heard Artemis Cooper talk about her biography of Paddy Leigh Fermor, war hero, traveller and lothario. “Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915-2011) was a war hero whose exploits in Crete are legendary, and he is widely acclaimed as (one of?) the greatest travel writer of our times, notably for his books about his walk across pre-war Europe….Artemis Cooper has drawn on years of interviews and conversations with Paddy and his closest friends as well as having complete access to his archives. Her beautifully crafted biography portrays a man of extraordinary gifts - no one wore their learning so playfully, nor inspired such passionate friendship.”  Or indeed love in so many women, often rich ones. Fascinating.  Here is a review from the Independent.
 
Then it was The Return of a King by William Dalrymple. This is the story of a British disaster, not something we were taught at school.  Gripping stuff and embarrassing too.  Here is the blurb.
In the spring of 1839, the British invaded Afghanistan for the first time. Led by lancers in scarlet cloaks and plumed shakos, nearly 20,000 British and East India Company troops poured through the high mountain passes and re-established on the throne Shah Shuja ul-Mulk.
On the way in, the British faced little resistance. But after two years of occupation, the Afghan people rose in answer to the call for jihad and the country exploded into violent rebellion. The First Anglo-Afghan War ended in Britain's greatest military humiliation of the nineteenth century: an entire army of the then most powerful nation in the world ambushed in retreat and utterly routed by poorly equipped tribesmen.
Return of a King is the definitive analysis of the First Afghan War, told through the lives of unforgettable characters on all sides and using for the first time contemporary Afghan accounts of the conflict. Prize-winning and bestselling historian William Dalrymple's masterful retelling of Britain's greatest imperial disaster is a powerful and important parable of colonial ambition and cultural collision, folly and hubris, for our times.”
Then I heard the lovely Alexander McCall Smith who is just as charming and amusing as you might expect from reading his books.  I sat there enchanted as he chatted away to one of the Althorp presenters about the numerous characters in his numerous books. When asked how he manages to be so prolific, he said he wrote very fast(!), sometimes getting up at 4am to write, then goes back to bed again.  He was funny about the supposedly pushy mothers of Edinburgh of whom Irene in the Scotland Street books is the shining example.  I queued for ages to have a book signed and was then tongue tied when I shook hands with him.  I wanted to say I was a great fan of the frightful Irene’s and that I hoped he wouldn't ever write her away from Edinburgh.

Friday, 19 July 2013

Holiday reads



Deep Blue Sea by Tasmina Perry.

Fans of Tasmina Perry will enjoy this escapist blockbuster mystery/thriller.
Beneath the shimmering surface lies a dark secret... Diana and super-rich businessman Julian Denver have the world at their feet. With grand houses in London and the country, Diana's life, to the outside world, is perfect. But nothing is as it seems...
When Julian dies suddenly and tragically, Diana is convinced there is more to it than meets the eye. She calls on the one person she had never wanted to see again - her sister, Rachel.
A former tabloid reporter, Rachel appears to be living the dream as a diving instructor on a Thai island. The truth is she's in exile, estranged from her family and driven from her career by Fleet Street's phone-hacking scandal.
Rachel is determined to make amends for the past, and embarks on a treacherous journey to uncover the truth - wherever it may lead...
This extra-long novel starts slowly and Diana’s reaction to Julian’s death, and the funeral arrangements in general didn’t strike me as entirely convincing (but maybe that was to keep us all guessing) However, gradually the plot thickened and, while the characters jet-setted around the world, I became drawn in.  An undemanding blockbuster holiday read with good descriptions of all the many luxury locations:  not that much sex’n’shopping - more of a glamorous whodunwhat as it eventually develops into a complex plot.

 
The House by the Sea by Santa Montefiore, another pleasant holiday read.  I loved the Italian story, though sometimes the English characters annoyed me.
Ten-year-old Floriana is captivated by the beauty of the magnificent Tuscan villa just outside her small village and dreams of living there someday. Then one hot afternoon, Dante, the son of the villa’s owner, invites her inside and from that moment on Floriana knows that her destiny is there, with him.
Decades later and hundreds of miles away, a beautiful old country house hotel on England’s Devon coast has fallen on hard times. Its owner, Mariana, hires an artist-in-residence to stay the summer and teach the guests how to paint. The man she finds is charismatic and wise and begins to pacify the discord in her family and transform the fortunes o the hotel. However, it soon becomes clear that he is not who he seems…
From the Italian countryside to the English coast, The House by the Sea is a moving and mysterious tale of love, forgiveness and the past revealed.




Friday, 7 June 2013

Dalmatian Coast, Croatia

 

 
Back from a walking holiday in Croatia - all very enjoyable, informative and good for fitness in general. Some of my relations rudely expressed doubts about my walking stamina - and I have to admit am glad to have been advised to choose a 'one-boot'* guided hols, ie the least strenuous, but still quite a lot more energetic than lying on the beach.  Our guide was excellent, by the way.
 
Croatia is interesting culturally and historically, a dramatic mountainous country. We had a taste of rural or island simplicity and town sophistication, with good hotels in Dubrovnic and Trogir. Can now speak at least five words of Croatian and have drunk a suitable amount of Croatian wine.
 
Am rather pleased with the photos of the huge waterfall in the National Park in Krka above. The boardwalks - without handrails -  in and out of the falls would definitely been closed in England for wimpish health and safety reasons. As river was in spate, it was quite an experience to see the fast flowing white waters a few inches below one's feet and, not far away, swirling in and out of the trees.
 
Dubrovnic (last photo) was badly damaged in the war in the 1990s but has been declared a World Heritage site, rebuilt and restored. 
 
Croatia seems relatively unspoilt by tourism so now is probably the time to go. 
 
(*in the Headwater brochure, walking holidays are graded one-boot - easiest - to three-boot.  I was glad to have  taken a telescopic walking pole, proper walking shoes and waterproof jacket and trousers and I rubbed on J and J blister-prevention wax which worked.)

 
Inside the city walls of Split, Diocletian's palace.  By the way, I saw rather few dogs in the area, and certainly no Dalmatians. (Click on the pics to enlarge them)

Monday, 6 May 2013

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Reading notes & early Otto



Above is a photo from this date two years ago.  Not a single one of these daffodils is flowering yet. (Admittedly there wasn't a whole host fluttering and dancing in the breeze in the first place.  Cute puppy, though.)

Life after Life by Kate Atkinson.  Bound to win lots of lit prizes. I don't think it's spoiling the plot to say that Ursula, born in a well-to-do family in 1909, has a chance to be re-incarnated time after time, to change her life, not that she is aware of this phenomenon.  Or was she? Which was her real life?  You the reader can decided that for yourself. KA is a brilliant writer, and particularly good on the Blitz, amazingly vivid.  You have to concentrate on this book though. Having saved it for a 7-hr Eurostar journey I gave up and surrendered to the chatter.  It may even be too much if you are on your sickbed: you need all your wits about you, or at least I did.  Here's a link to her website.
Do read this novel.

The Paris Winter by Imogen Robertson.  Well-written, well-researched, a historical crime thriller.  Again it begins in 1909 but in a totally different milieu 'the dazzling joys of the Belle Epoche'.  The dark and dangerous side of Paris at the time is also brilliantly evoked, particularly the flood (you can google for photos of this event).  As for Maud, the impoverished and (eventually) vengeful main protagonist, I almost lost touch with her towards the end in the complications of the plot.  If you like Paris history with a good dose of intrigue and art, this is one for you.
"Maud Heighton came to Lafond’s famous AcadĂ©mie to paint and to flee the constraints of her small English town. It took all her courage to escape, but Paris eats money. While her fellow students enjoy the dazzling pleasures the city, Maud slips into poverty.
 Quietly starving and dreading another cold Paris winter, Maud takes a job as a companion to young, beautiful Sylvie Morel. But Sylvie has a secret: as addiction to opium. As Maud is drawn into the Morels’ world of elegant luxury, their secrets become hers. Before the New Year arrives, a greater deception will plunge her into the darkness that waits beneath this glittering city of light."

Bertie Plays the Blues by Alexander McCall Smith.  Always amusing and thought provoking.  I can never totally believe in his young things/young-married characters, so philosophical for their age-group, but they're charming, of course.  This is an Edinburgh-based book, so that's fun too. It could hardly be set anywhere else.

Dearest Rose by Rowan Coleman. I enjoyed this good romantic read. (A winner of an RNA award)
When Rose Pritchard turns up on the doorstep of a Cumbrian BandB it is her last resort. She and her seven-year-old daughter Maddie have left everything behind. And they have come to the village of Millthwaite in search of the person who once offered Rose hope.
Almost immediately Rose wonders if she's made a terrible mistake - if she's chasing a dream - but she knows in her heart that she cannot go back. She's been given a second chance - at life, and love - but will she have the courage to take it?

My Animals and Other Family by Clare Balding  Interesting autobiography, but you need to be horsey/keen on the turf to appreciate it fully, as it deals with Clare's racing years.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Alps and reading

Early morning in the Alps

Happy Easter to all.

Back from ski holiday in one piece, though managed to hurt a finger on the Eurostar as it hurtled along! Two ski holidays?  Well, I didn't have a summer hols last year, you see. It was all to do with the family.

Reading
Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie o'Farrell   Here is a Guardian review of this excellent novel.  I loved it and as soon as I had finished, began to read parts again.  I very seldom do this, but the language and the characterisation were so brilliant that I wanted to re-savour them.  I bought this for the Kindle and  I'll buy the paperback too eventually as it is one I want to keep.  It's not much to do with the heatwave of 1976, but it is helpful for a writer to set a book before the invention of mobile phones, for a start, and at a time when perhaps morals were more clear cut.  Or at least people pretended they were. That's the point of this novel about an Irish family with many secrets. Here's the blurb but I'm not sure it entirely does justice to the book which has nothing to do with greenfly:
It’s July 1976 and London is in the grip of a heatwave. It hasn’t rained for months, the gardens are filled with aphids, water comes from a standpipe, and Robert Riordan tells his wife Gretta that he’s going round the corner to buy a newspaper. He doesn’t come back. The search for Robert brings Gretta’s children – two estranged sisters and a brother on the brink of divorce – back home, each with different ideas as to where their father may have gone. None of them suspects that their mother might have an explanation that even now she cannot share.
Maggie O’Farrell’s sixth book is both an intimate portrait of a family in crisis, and the work of an outstanding novelist at the height of her powers.



Husband Missing by Polly Williams.  'Gina has only been married six months when her husband Rex goes on holiday to Spain and vanishes without a trace, tipping her dream new marriage into nightmare. As a frantic search gets nowhere, Gina is adamant that he's alive and vows never to give up hope. Speculation is rife: he's drowned at sea, lost his memory...or just walked away. Troubling stories start to emerge about Rex's past that are hard to square with the man she married. How well does she really know her handsome, charismatic husband? They'd fallen in love so quickly, so passionately, that the past had seemed barely relevant to either of them. Now an explosive secret threatens to rewrite the story of their love affair.' Good stuff, more of a chick lit mystery/holiday read/zippy contemporary novel, on-the-button.

A psychological thriller, When Nights Were Cold by Susanna Jones.  Not too scary but very interesting concerning as it does female climbers in the early 1900s, members of the Mountain Climbing society of their Oxford-type college.  Grace calls her friends by their surnames and they hide their long skirts before they start their climbs, first in Wales, then near the Matterhorn.  But, as is often foreshadowed in the time-shifting narrative, disaster strikes.  Well worth reading, bated breath and all that.

DVDs
Gave up on Vicky Christina Barcelona, despite the excellent cast (Penelope Cruz, Scarlett Johansson and Sylvia Tietjens/Rebecca Hall)  Much, much too introspective and WoodyAllen-esque

Watched The Mother with Anne Reid and Daniel Craig - phew. Keep smelling salts to hand and see it on your own.  Not a family film.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Quick Reading Notes



Me Before You by Jojo Moyes.  This is a terrific, compelling contemporary novel, one of the best I’ve read recently.  Its chick-lit cover is totally misleading as it deals with a serious subject: a young man is now a quadriplegic, having been injured in an accident.  A cheerful young girl has been hired by his mother to bring light into his life, but will she be enough?  Unsentimental but moving.  I was bowled over. Do read it.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, a best-selling, almost-impossible-to-put-down US thriller.  A terrifying read, told from two viewpoints. Amy is a seriously sarcastic NY girl having problems in Hicksville, but we soon begin to worry about her husband. On a warm summer morning in North Carthage, Missouri, it is Nick and Amy’s fifth wedding anniversary. Presents are being wrapped and reservations are being made when Nick Dunne’s clever and beautiful wife disappears from their rented McMansion on the Mississippi River. Under mounting pressure from the police and the media—as well as Amy’s fiercely doting parents—the town golden boy parades an endless series of lies, deceits, and inappropriate behavior. Nick is oddly evasive, and he’s definitely bitter—but is he really a killer? As the cops close in ....

Sad non-fiction.  The Music Room by William Fiennes, author of The Snow Goose.
The story of his brother’s mental illness and their childhood in a castle.

Up Close by Henriette Gyland (Choc Lit) An unusual thriller/love story set in Norfolk. 

More good reads to come soon.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Happy Valentine's Day


Here's the cake a friend made for the village OAPs' tea party at my house today.
Chocolate hearts on each plate, in case you wondered. You might think I'm a domestic goddess despite myself, but have to confess all the food was made by others.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Christmas scenes, past & present


Merry Christmas and a Happy and Peaceful New Year to all




Sunday, 2 December 2012

Labrador Otto is Two

Official photograph of Otto after his second birthday.

Reviews:
A Half Forgotten Song by Katherine Webb.  A great read, original too. Luckily this author is young so we can expect many more good books.
1937. In a remote village on the Dorset coast, fourteen-year-old Mitzy Hatcher has endured a wild and lonely upbringing - until the arrival of renowned artist Charles Aubrey, his exotic mistress and their daughters, changes everything. Over three summers, Mitzy sees a future she had never thought possible, and a powerful love is kindled in her. A love that grows from innocence to obsession; from childish infatuation to something far more complex and even dangerous.
Years later, a young man in an art gallery looks at a hastily-drawn portrait and wonders at the intensity of it. The questions he asks lead him to a Dorset village and to the truth about those fevered summers in the 1930s ...

The Glass House by Simon Mawer (Booker shortlist, 2009)
Built high on a Czech hill, the Landauer House, commissioned by rich newlyweds Viktor and Liesel, is one of the wonders of modernist architecture in concrete and glass. But the idealism of  the 1930s that the house seems to engender quickly tarnishes as the storm clouds of World War Two gather. Viktor is a Jew and so, as Nazi troops enter the country, the family must flee.
Yet the family’s exile does not signify the end of this spectacular building. It slips from hand to hand, from Czech to Nazi to Soviet and finally back to the Czech state.

Based on the story of a real house, the Villa Tugendhat, this is a fascinating novel. Not suitable for a Christmas book for maiden aunts, probably.

At Sea by Laurie Graham.   Loved this one, an amusing witty writer.
Does any woman really know her husband? Enid has been married to the handsome, charismatic lecturer Bernard Finch for over twenty years. But after one fateful supper on board a cruise ship she starts to wonder, is Bernard quite what he seems? He always says life began when he met Enid. But Bernard has a past, and it’s threatening to catch up with him.

Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland by Sarah Moss  If you have ever lived abroad, particularly with young children, you will empathise with this non-fiction account of the author’s year teaching at an Icelandic university.  I found it very interesting to learn something about Iceland, though began to tire of elves at one point.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Autumn reads around the world

Quick book list

The Light Between the Oceans, by ML Stedman
Gripping, unusual, set mostly on a lighthouse off Western Australia, a bestselling first novel by an Australian lawyer now living in London. Tom, traumatised after WW1, takes a job as lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, 100 miles off the coast where he hopes that the emptiness will bring him peace. After many miscarriages his wife hears a baby's cry and discovers a dead man and a baby in a washed up dinghy by the lighthouse. She feels her prayers have been answered. Her husband is not so sure.  The ensuing tragedy is inevitable. Well written, haunting.

Sarah Thornhill by Kate Grenville
Another Australian historical novel, this time set in New South Wales.  I discovered this was the third book in a series about early settlers in Australia. Fascinating stuff.  An illiterate but intelligent rich girl Sarah is born in 1816, her father an ex-convict who’s made good in the new colony of Australia. Three hundred acres, a fine stone house, William Thornhill is a man who’s re-invented himself. He never looks back, and Sarah grows up learning not to ask about the past.
 Her stepmother calls her wilful, but handsome Jack Langland loves Sarah and she loves him. What could go wrong? But there’s a secret in the Thornhill family. It comes out, as secrets will, and casts a long chill shadow over life in the Hawkesbury valley.
Click on Kate Grenville’s website for more details. She’s won the Commonwealth Writers Prize and has been shortlisted for the Booker.

Thursdays in the Park by Hilary Boyd
Nice to read a book with a goodlooking grandmother as heroine. Most of the North London protagonists seemed to have had Issues with a capital I and, again, dark secrets. The writer has been a marriage guidance counsellor and has written several non-fiction books on health related subjects, parenting etc, so knows about these things. (Bargain on the Kindle.)

The Forgotten Waltz by Ann Enright. 
Well written but, trouble is, the heroine, embroiled in an illicit affair, is not an appealing character, nor is her lover, so I lost patience with them all. The Irish setting is interesting though. Here’s a Guardian review.

The Road Back by Liz Harris.  Published by the small indie women's fiction publisher, ChocLit. ( Good price on the Kindle). The unusual setting draws one into the romance. When Patricia accompanies her father on a trip to Ladakh, north of the Himalayas, in the early 1960s, she sees it as a chance to finally win his love. What she could never have foreseen is meeting Kalden – a local man destined by circumstances beyond his control to be a monk, but fated to be the love of her life. Despite her father’s fury, the lovers are determined to be together, but can their forbidden love survive?

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Queen Victoria's retreat and recent reads

Osborne House, Queen Victoria's holiday home on the Isle of Wight is well worth a visit.  A charming 'family palace' with a relatively cosy atmosphere and attractive gardens. More lovely pics on the English Heritage website.

Michaelmas daisies in my garden - they grow more or less wild.
 Not quite as tidy as Queen Victoria's garden, I admit.

Quick book list

I much enjoyed Ghastly Business by Louise Levine. However, be warned, the brilliantly funny black humour, including graphically described post mortems, might not appeal to everyone. 
1929. A girl is strangled in a London alley, the mangled corpse of a peeping Tom is found in a railway tunnel and the juicy details of the latest trunk murder are updated hourly in fresh editions of the evening papers. Into this insalubrious world steps Dora Strang, a doctor's daughter with an unmaidenly passion for anatomy. Denied her own medical career, she moves into lodgings and begins life as filing clerk to the country's pre-eminent pathologist, Alfred Kemble. Dora is thrilled by the grisly post-mortems and the headline-grabbing court cases and more fascinated still by the pathologist himself: an enigmatic war hero with bottle-green eyes and an air of sardonic glamour - the embodiment of all her girlish fantasies. But Dora's job holds more than a few surprises.’
The writer has a witty turn of phrase, but it’s quite a bleak novel in many parts - a scene with green blotting paper made me wince more than the autopsies, and the frivolous attitude to the death of another character jarred.  But I do recommend the novel, if you are not of a delicate turn of mind.

Missing Persons by Nicci Gerrard.
When Jonny went missing everything changed. His mother's heart is full of terror and sadness instead of joy. His father's study overflows with newspaper cuttings and profiles on missing people instead of the academic texts that were there before.
His sister, once carefree, now carries the weight of the world on her shoulders.
His bedroom at home remains untouched and ready for his return. A place is set for him at the table on Christmas day each year. His birthday is always celebrated; unopened gifts for him gather dust. The hands on the clock continue to move forwards and yet Jonny hasn't returned. Where is he?
A good read, more character based than the Nicci French thrillers that the author writes with her husband.  Felt annoyed with the entire family in the end.

The Love of my Life by Louise Douglas.  One couldn’t entirely sympathise with the femme fatale heroine, but this proved to be a good read too (well written, not as depressing as it sounds and a bargain on the Kindle at 89p)
Olivia and Luca Felicone had known each other nearly all their lives, but when they fell in love as teenagers and eloped to London, they broke the hearts of those closest to them.  When Luca is killed in a car accident Olivia abandons her job and returns North to where Luca has been buried in Watersford, just to be close to him – even though she knows she will not be welcomed by his family. Luca’s married twin brother, Marc, is experiencing a loss as painful as Olivia’s. Their desolation draws them into a dangerous affair.


Monday, 27 August 2012

Otto's triumph

Otto won third prize at the Village Flower Show for the dog with the waggiest tail.  Here is his yellow rosette.  We decided to save the obedience competition until next year.

Holiday Reads


The Cornish House

First of all, I must tell you that lovely Liz Fenwick is an RNA friend of mine but I bought her book with my own money, so no strings attached!

When artist Maddie inherits a house in Cornwall shortly after the death of her husband, she hopes it will be the fresh start she and her step-daughter Hannah desperately need.
Trevenen is beautiful but neglected, steeped in history. Maddie is enchanted by it and determined to learn as much as she can about its past. As she discovers the stories of generations of women who've lived there before, Maddie begins to feel her life is somehow intertwined within its walls.
Still struggling with her grief and battling with Hannah, Maddie is unable to find inspiration for her painting and realises she may face the prospect of having to sell Trevenen, just as she is coming to love it.
And as Maddie and Hannah pull at the seams of Trevenen's past, the house reveals secrets that have lain hidden for generations.

The Cornish House is a good holiday read, not chick lit (though there is a handsome hero or two) as it deal with serious matters - the heroine Maddie is a widow, with quite a few problems. No money, as often happens, but worse an astonishingly rude teenage stepdaughter, Hannah. Hannah’s vile behaviour can be explained, as not only has her father recently died of cancer but her own mother deserted the family when Hannah was a child. There are numerous others strands to this complicated plot, but the hope that Maddie would finally be able to cope with and become close to Hannah drew me on into the novel. I was also intrigued by Maddie’s investigations into her Cornish birth family (she was adopted as a baby).


Liz Fenwick’s love of Cornwall is clear and many people enjoy a ‘dilapidated country house with a history’ novel. I know I do.


Monday to Friday Man by Alice Peterson (only 20p on Kindle) was a pleasant amusing read, more chicklit than the above. The Bridget-Jones heroine has a lot of charm, though I couldn't fall for the true-love hero who wore a hat all the time, even indoors. Seemed a ridiculous affectation, or was there some reason for it that I missed?
There is a touching subplot about a disabled sister.

The Making of Us by Lisa Jewell. Slightly unlikely but interesting plot about siblings all sired by the same sperm donor. Lisa is a good writer, getting under the skin of different characters, and her fans will enjoy this one. 'Lydia, Robyn and Dean don't know each other - yet. They live very different lives but each of them, independently, has always felt that something is missing. What they don't know is that a letter is about to arrive that will turn their lives upside down. It is a letter containing a secret - one that will bind them together, and shows them what love and familyand friendship really mean...'


I've only just found my way back to Old Blogger. Don't know how long I'll be able to. Lots more books to report on soon.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Olympics and reading notes

Aren't the Olympics terrific? Even our terminally gloomy downbeat journos haven't found much to complain about. It's so good to see healthy polite young people having a great time. (Blogger has changed again, can't find how to post photos as the usual icon is not there. And Blogger has decided off its own bat that I need comment moderation, so sorry Nan and Jane that it has taken me a couple of months to realise this.)


A big gap to fill. I’m never going to be able to report fully on all the books I’ve read since I last blogged so here are a few notes on the highlights, in no particular order.

I find I buy more books than ever now that I have a Kindle as I don’t feel guilty about adding to the groaning shelves around the house.



First two books featuring a mentally unhinged woman

Tideline by Penny Hancock, a gripping psychological thriller with wonderful, evocative descriptions of Greenwich. R & J choice. A good read. The main protagonist behaves very badly, but one begins to sympathise with her delusions.



The Mistress’s Revenge by Tamar Cohen. Here the main protagonist has lost touch with reality because her long-term lover has ditched her. She moans a great deal, but with such a dry witty turn of phrase that you almost forgive her. Despite her long-term partner and two children, she’s so fixated on her affair with her ghastly ex-lover that she becomes more and more involved with his wife and daughter. The ending was unexpected, so that’s good.



If Morning Ever Comes, an early book by Anne Tyler, before she got into her stride.

Not nearly as good as her more mature novels but interesting for the devoted fan.



Night Waking by Sarah Moss. Again wonderful descriptive writing, this time of the Inner Hebrides where the main protagonist and her vague ineffectual husband, both somewhat over-precious academics, are living on a small island. She is meant to be writing, while her husband counts puffins. The antithesis of a domestic goddess and struggling to cope, the self-pitying heroine is in need of a visit from Supernanny as one of her children, toddler Moth (short for Timothy, in case you wondered) doesn’t sleep much and the older child is obsessed by death and destruction. Moth is amusing and any mother will recognise his antics with a shudder. I enjoyed it, but don’t read this if you have no children because it may either bore you or put you off for life. On the other hand the rest of us can think, well, I wasn’t perfect but at least I managed better than Anna. Along with the modern story, we read about infant mortality through the eyes of a Victorian nurse unable to communicate with the Gaelic-speaking island women. Sounds grim but it was in fact evocative and interesting. Here's a Guardian review.





I Remember Nothing and other Reflections. Essays about life from the late Norah Ephron who is always worth reading.



The Importance of being Kennedy by Laurie Graham. Told from the point of view of one of the Kennedy family maids, this is an amusing and poignant novel from another witty writer. Rose Kennedy comes out badly and it is the brilliant Kick who suffers.

I’m always interested in the way Laurie Graham mixes fact and real life. But Kick’s story, like Princess Diana’s, is more dramatic than fiction.



I'll read more books by the above interesting authors.


Sunday, 3 June 2012

Scarecrows Competition

In a nearby village they've had a scarecrow competition. About 50 lifesize figures are dotted about on the verges - amusing and surreal. Fear they will have been drowned out today.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Otto, White Lie and Pilgrimage


I was fascinated by The White Lie by Andrea Gillies. Unusual, interesting characters, but perhaps somewhat unlikely and perhaps rather too long. She’s very good at descriptive writing but there is a lot of it. A great many jet-black lies are told by this remote, dysfunctional, upper-crust Scottish family and, though I wasn’t always entirely convinced at first, I found myself swept slowly along by the story, so much so that eventually I became so absorbed I couldn’t get it out of my mind.

I couldn’t find a way of enlarging the family tree on the Kindle, so I made one of my own from the Look-Inside page on Amazon and after that I found it easier reading. (Previously there was a tendency to come to a halt and say now who the hell is Rebecca.)

There was a kind of closure at the end – but in real life the ending would lead to new drama, I suspect. Anyway, judge for yourself.



I enjoyed the Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce very much at first but eventually began to get annoyed with Harold (particularly when he gave away his soap powder). On reflection I realise I was taking the story too literally – I am of a practical nature and it worried me that he was walking across England along the main roads, without a map, or change of clothes. But of course one shouldn’t worry about the day-to-day details. It’s a modern and indeed unlikely pilgrimage, allegorical, like Bunyan’s, spiritual but not religious. Some Buddhist monks have to live as simply as Harold, without possessions, I remembered.

Though I found it sentimental at times in the second half, it is a book worth reading. The nurse at the hospice told Harold that his former friend Queenie, dying of cancer, was hanging on until he arrived, but another question is would one want to hang on in her particular circumstances. So, yes, food for thought. Here's a Guardian review.

(It's not a solemn book, by the way, despite the subject matter. In fact it's often amusing, with subtle satire.)