Tuesday, March 31, 2009

02 May 2008 Semi-Detached by Griff Rhys Jones

As Griff Rhys Jones is just a year younger than me, I was looking forward to a read full of reminders of my own childhood. At first I was not disappointed with humorous tales of family life, I found myself laughing out loud!
Unfortunately I found it started to drag somewhat especially after he went to university. Being a contemporary I carried on to the end, otherwise I do not think I would have done.
My conclusion therefore is that unless you are going to be able to relate to any of his experiences, you will probably not find this worth reading.This is now marked as AVL on my bookshelf if any of you are interested?

28 April 2008
Picture Perfect by Jodi Picoult

The fifth Picoult novel I have read and certainly not the best. It was first published in 1995 so I assume one of her early ones. I think that her writing has improved a lot since the, as this lacks the depth of her more recent novels.

Even back then she was already writing in what appears to have become her trademark style about very controversial subjects. In this one the protagonist Cassie is the victim of abuse at the hands of her beloved husband Alex. It takes her the four years that this story covers to actually be brave enough to confront her situation.
The novel starts with Cassie being rescued form a cemetery suffering from amnesia by Will, a half Sioux Red Indian working as a policeman. It turns out that she is the wife of Hollywood superstar Alex Rivers who takes her home to her wonderful mansion and helps her recall her life.
Will seems to have a Sioux instinct that her life is not as ‘Picture Perfect’ as it seems on the surface, promising to help her if she ever needs it in the future. Just as well as gradually memories of Alex’s repetitive abuse return.
At one time he tells her “If he could have found a way to turn the red rage into himself instead of toward her, he would have done it in a heartbeat”. Not true as not once during their marriage did he ever try to seek outside help. The problems within the relationship were always kept a secret, even after she finally left him; he lied about what was happening.
The contrasting lifestyle of Cassie and Alex compared with those of the Native American Indians make an interesting link expanding the story beyond straightforward abuse.

25 April 2008
That Certain Age Elizabeth Buchan
Unusual style in that there are two parallel stories running throughout the novel. Throughout I was trying to work out if there was going to be a link between Siena and Barbara, the two female protagonists.
They are two women living fifty years apart but both struggling to come to terms with having reached ‘That Certain Age’! In their different ways due to the very different life styles they are trying to find answers and compromises between their desires and love for their families.
There is a link but it is very tenuous and not made apparent until the very last pages of the novel.
Unless you have concentrated you may even miss that!
I must admit that I have read better novels by Elizabeth Buchan. It is still diverting enough to make it worthwhile reading, just for the contrasts between the life of a young 21st century woman and one in the fifties.

21 April 2008
The House at Riverton by Kate Morton
An excellent debut from Australian author Kate Morton. I will certainly look out for any more of her work published in the UK.
Certainly one of my favourite reads out of the twenty or so books I have already read this year.

The protagonist Grace is an old lady of 98 and with flashbacks recalls the story of her life from age 14 as a servant for the Hartford family. The family home is Riverton Manor and within its four walls was a secret that Grace as a loyal servant to Hannah and Emmeline kept until she died.
Grace is such a realistic character that she draws you in to the story that she is narrating. She is certainly the sort of old lady that I would love to meet, if she was real and not just a character in a novel!
Having transported you to the early 20C and the world of grand houses and below stairs staff it is an
undemanding but captivating read which for me was very reminiscent of ‘Atonement’, ‘The Go-Between’ and ‘The Mitford Girls’.
Some of the plot is maybe a little predictable, but for me did not spoil the story at all.

The House at Riverton would make a wonderful film or TV drama.

18 April 2008
Empress Orchid by Anchee Min
During the last days of the Ching dynasty and the opium wars of the nineteenth century Orchid a young girl from an aristocratic but impoverished family auditions to become one of Emperor Hsien Feng’s concubines. She does this to escape marriage with an unsuitable cousin and rescue her family from poverty. She successfully gains a position not just as one of the Emperor’s three thousand concubines, but as wife number four. A prestigious position in the hierarchy, but one that still does not bring her close enough to Hsien Feng to attract his attentions. Orchid learns how to satisfy a man sexually just so that she can bribe her way into the royal bed!
Successfully giving birth to the Emperor’s only son does not however bring Orchid the happiness she hoped for. She continues to feel very dissatisfied with the restrictive life she is forced to live within the walls of the Forbidden City, surrounded by the other royal wives, concubines and enuchs within a web of conspiracies and jealousies. Hsein Feng dies at a very young age and Orchid along with another wife Nuharoo become Empress’s to support her son the young child Emperor Tung Chih.
Maybe the author has twisted the historical facts, but this is a novel and an enjoyable way to learn something about the history of China.
It gives us an interesting account of life in the royal court at the time, described in intricate detail, even the colour schemes of the décor! My only real disappointments were that the characters lacked depth and that the story ended when Orchid was only thirty. However what the characters lacked the very vivid descriptions of life style certainly made up for. Some I found rather disturbing such as the description of the indignities that Orchid underwent during her interview. Then very much later in the book (page 316) One-cough’s description of how to perform a successful beheading.

To summarise Ancheee Mins fictional novel based on historical facts about a strong independent young woman, who goes on to become a famous historical figure is fascinating.

15 April 2008 May Contain Nuts by John O'Farrell
http://www.bookcrossing.com/journal/3843005The time when our children are totally dependent on us is actually such a short phase of our lives.At the time you think they will need you for ever, requiring us to make The time when our children are totally dependent on us is actually such a short phase of our lives.At the time you think they will need you for ever, requiring us to make every decision in their young lives. Beware of overanxious parenting as it hinders your enjoyment, as seen in this satirical novel, which works so well because it is based on home truths!Every second of the children’s lives is run to a strict timetable with constant activities. Sadly this reflects today’s society with many parents over obsessive behaviour with regards to their children’s future. Unfortunately this method of parenting leads to stressed children.Hilarious look at middle class pretension, however will reading this make those pushy parents think again? Sadly I doubt they will even read it! May Contain Nuts is a very readable novel that will amuse all those interested in middle class snobbery and paranoid parents. every decision in their young lives. Beware of overanxious parenting as it hinders your enjoyment, as seen in this satirical novel, which works so well because it is based on home truths!Every second of the children’s lives is run to a strict timetable with constant activities. Sadly this reflects today’s society with many parents over obsessive behaviour with regards to their children’s future. Unfortunately this method of parenting leads to stressed children.Hilarious look at middle class pretension, however will reading this make those pushy parents think again? Sadly I doubt they will even read it! May Contain Nuts is a very readable novel that will amuse all those interested in middle class snobbery and paranoid parents.

12 April 2008
Black Swan Green by David Mitchell
As the author David Mitchell was born in 1969 there is no doubt at all in my mind that this novel is strongly based on his own life experiences. It is no surprise therefore that as he and Jason were both thirteen in 1982 that he succeeds in portraying the protagonist Jason Taylor so well.
When I first started the book I was not at all sure it was going to appeal to me. My husband, having read and enjoyed it himself, fortunately encouraged me to preserve. I am glad he did so as I enjoyed it more and more as it progressed. Nostalgically it recalls in great detail life in the 1980’s in rural England. A time, I remember well when I was bringing up a young family.

Black Swan Green is the name of the village he lives in and the book centres on his life there over the period of a year. Jason is a bright sensitive boy, who writes poetry in secret and suffers with a stammer. Jason is desperate to fit in at school and be a popular student but his stammer makes him an easy target for the school bullies. It is a sometimes painful account of male adolescence as Jason struggles to come to terms with everything that is going on his life; his poetry, the bullies, his parent’s relationship, girls, the Falklands War and gypsies.

Definitely worth reading.

08 April 2008
Revenge of the Middle-aged Woman by Elizabeth Buchan
Nothing particularly exciting or memorable about this novel but as Elizabeth Buchan is a writer of such a high standard it held my attention. It was an enjoyable and easy read.

47 year old Rose Lloyd is stunned when Nathan her husband of over twenty years tells her he has been having an affair and has decided to leave her for the other woman. Having not even suspected her husband it is a real shock to discover that the other woman is Minty her work colleague. It gets worse because she looses her job, her beloved cat dies and as a final blow Nathan decides that he wants the family home for himself and Minty to live in!

During reading the book the title did not seem quite relevant but once you reach the ending it becomes clear. Satisfactory revenge!

02 April 2008
Little Face by Sophie Hannah
http://www.bookcrossing.com/journal/5880974Sophie Hannah’s wish was to produce a ‘gripping novel’ and I certainly feel she succeeded. This psychological thriller provided me with some compulsive reading, once started I found it difficult to put down. Thrillers are not my favourite genre but this one is very cleverly written and unusually kept me guessing, right to the very end.
Alice Fancourt goes out for the first time since giving birth, only for a couple of hours leaving her husband David looking after their two week old daughter Florence. But when Alice returns and walks into the nursery, her terrifying ordeal begins; for Alice insists the baby in the cot is a stranger she's never seen before.With an increasingly hostile and menacing David swearing she must either be mad or lying, she tries to make the police believe her. The story continues as we are told how the next nineteen days unfold through the two narrators, Alice the baby’s mother and Simon Waterhouse one of the detectives working on the case. As well as switching narrators the chapters switch back and forth between past and present, meaning that sometimes you already know what is going to happen but from the other narrators perspective, an interesting contrivance. Every character is so well portrayed that you really get to empathize with them, in particular, David and Vivienne Fancourt who are so annoying and nasty beyond belief.
The only other work by this author that I have read is ‘Cordial and Corrosive’ which is very different to this one, her first psychological thriller. A talented young writer with some interesting ideas and I will be looking forward to reading more of her work in the future.I would be happy to do a ray or whatever if any of you would like to read this one?

30 March 2008 Divided Loyalties by Patricia Scanlan
I knew this was just a chick lit novel when I purchased it but I thought at nearly 700 pages it would be just right for when I fancied a light read. I was looking forward to a good easy read about a family and its ‘Divided Loyalties’, well I was disappointed. This was the first book and I suspect the last that I have read by this author.
Three Irish siblings with contrasting lifestyles and problems. No real story line as such, apart from following the family ups and downs over four years. Their father Noel was my least favourite character and I hated the way the author portrayed him as an old man at 65. Ok he was 69 when the story ended but I just feel that this is not considered old these days and therefore his behaviour annoyed me immensely.
The other very annoying thing about this novel for me was the author’s use of grammar. She used ‘bring’ where I would have used ‘take’ and ‘in’ where I would have used ‘at’! Is this maybe an Irish foible?
I did surprisingly finish this book as I just kept hoping it would improve but disappointingly it never did.


28 March 2008
One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson
http://www.bookcrossing.com/journal/5880955A Jolly Murder Mystery is the subtitle of this latest enjoyable novel from Kate Atkinson. This is so much more than a crime novel and in my opinion it is wrong to see it as belonging to this genre.
The author is an expert at weaving complicated tales and ‘One Good Turn’ is no exception. Taking place over just four days the action is fast and furious. At first I found it difficult to keep track of both the characters and the situations as they were introduced. The fairly large cast of characters and the incidents described initially appear to be unrelated but a gradual disclosure of information shows that they are all linked. Coincidence upon coincidence, incident upon incident which all seem to stack together like the Russian Stacking Dolls that keep appearing, along with the witty style of writing should keep you guessing.
To some readers it may seem that these coincidences are highly improbable! Let’s remember though that this is a novel for our entertainment that sets out to amuse. I think very successfully.
The plots and twists along the way all come together in an ending that certainly took me by surprise!I have now marked this title as AVL until I decide how it should travel. Do let me know if you are interested in reading this one, sooner rather than later, before it moves on.

17 March 2008 Cordial and Corrosive by Sophie Hannah
A humorous mystery story about how far people will actually go to get what they want in life. Kate sets out to solve the mystery surrounding her husband’s latest job application. Sebastian has been short listed for a position that she felt he deserved! She decides to take matters into her own hands and investigate why he was not the first choice. Possibly even persuade the other candidates to turn down the position, so that it will be offered to him after all.
Kate discovers that all is not as it seems and discovers that the mystery surrounding this situation is full of some extremely strange events and very mixed emotions.
This was an introduction to Sophie Hannah’s work for me and I will definitely be looking out for her more recent novels.

03 March 2008
Book Review
I started out thinking I was going to enjoy this as the character of Lady Arabella Cunningham-Smythe is a tremendously funny and feisty lady. Determined to commit suicide, but only on a Tuesday so that she can join her husband in the after life, it seemed more of a black comedy than a thriller. Arabella has a precocious granddaughter Naomi, the artificially inseminated child of Arabella’s lesbian daughter Verity and partner M’buta. The plot started to disintegrate for me almost immediately the kidnap took place. I just cannot believe that people behave in such a situation as these characters did. Especially Verity and M’buta who were far more concerned about other things going on in their lives; than the fact that their daughter had disappeared. Their behaviour I felt did not fit in with the story line somehow either.
Without saying anything to spoil it for those who may enjoy this, it did not take me long to work out the connections and by the time Arabella went off to her weekend retreat I knew generally how it was going to end!
Disappointingly weak and if it had not been for my personal wish to read all of Transita’s publications I doubt I would have ever read this let alone finished it.
I do not enjoy writing a bad review, as writing a novel is not an easy task, but one that is easy to criticise. So preferring to end on a good note I must mention that Blood Precious is a great title and I loved Naomi’s use of the phrase.

01 March 2008
Book Review
The Travelling Hornplayer by Barbara Trapido

The protagonists of this novel are Ellen, Jonathan and Stella whose lives and those of family friends and lovers become intertwined by coincidence upon coincidence. It is a wonderfully complex and comic tragedy with unexpected twists. Peopled with a cast of eccentric and lively characters that you will love or hate, possibly even change your opinion of. The story holds ones attention throughout and all comes together in an extraordinary ending!

25 February 2008
Book Review

Tuesday Night at the Kasbah by Patricia Kitchenhttp://www.bookcrossing.com/journal/4954303
Within its genre there is no doubt that this book is an amusing light and quick read. Unfortunately the last two books I have read preceding this one were very powerful novels, leaving me with lots to think about.
In comparison therefore I found this a very shallow story line, though amusing. I also doubt that I would have chosen to read this had it not been for a personal challenge to myself to read Transita’s entire catalogue of books.

Six women, Judy, Fiona, Shauna, Maggie, Cathy and Naz; not one of whom is happy with her life.
All searching for fulfilment of some kind they all join the same evening class and as the new girls become a ‘group’. The class is for ‘belly –dancing’ and I have to say this held no appeal for me at all, so the endless descriptions of the costumes were tedious.
Apart from the well crafted characters in this novel I found it all rather farcical. A tangled web of affairs and relationships

25 February 2008
Book Review
http://www.bookcrossing.com/journal/5168858Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See
A very descriptive memoir style fictional account about the role of women in C19 Chinese Society; where friendships among the women were of great importance. Until comparatively recently Chinese women led a very controlled life. They were made to feel worthless for having been born female in the first place, with their only use in society to give birth to sons.

This is a beautiful story of the strong friendship between Lily and Snow Flower. As little girls of six these two became ‘laotong’ that is young girls that are matched by such things as date of birth and social standing to become soul mates for life. These relationships were considered as important as their eventual marriages would be.
The story follows the complex friendship from the beginning of ‘laotong’ pairing to the end of their lives. Together Lily and Snow Flower share the joys and sorrows of their lives; from foot-binding, arranged marriages, wedding feasts, birth of children and other festivals within the larger picture of disease, famine and war. Lily is now 80 years old and relating the story of her relationship with Snow-Flower and how they developed a lifelong bond through secret ‘nu shu’(a written coded language created by women for women exclusively) messages to each other over the years. In telling her story she feels she is seeking atonement for mistakes she made, which for forty years have worried her.

The process of foot-binding I have always found disturbing, but the account in this book is the most vivid I have ever read. Apparently perfect feet are 7cm in length! This practice is known to have still been carried out in rural China within the region that Tongku is located in until as recently as the early 1950’s.

I recommend this highly not just as a beautiful story but because it is one that will impact you deeply and teach you much about the role of women in the history of Chinese culture.

19 February 2008
Book Review
Atonement by Ian McEwanhttp://www.bookcrossing.com/journal/4579587/J_9922052An intricate, intense and wonderfully written character driven novel set in three main locations. Firstly we are treated to a wonderful description of country house living just prior to WWII, then Robbie’s wartime experiences in France and those of Cecilia and Briony as nurses in London.The underlying theme is about writing and the pleasure and pain it can give to both author and reader by the subtle use of words to deceive ourselves and others.It certainly gave me a few hours of pleasurable reading. The suspense built all the way through as we follow Briony Tallis, her sister Cecilia and family friend Robbie Turner as the story takes one from 1934 to the end of the twentieth century.Not just their lives, but those of others were changed for ever on that hot summer afternoon in 1934. Briony at thirteen is precocious but still did not understand things that she should never have witnessed anyway; misconstruing these events led her to spend the rest of her life trying to seek atonement for her wrong doings that fateful day. Briony’s character develops from that of a spoilt youngest child to an adult regretting her mistakes. Fortunately Cecilia and Robbie’s love is not dimmed by the cruelty of Briony’s actions and although circumstances separate them they remain in touch with each other.I should have read this 7 years ago and wish that I had not taken so long to get round to reading it. It is only the fourth book I have read by this author and it is certainly my favourite and the best in my opinion. So far that is as I shall definitely read more of his work in the future, especially looking forward to his most recent one, On Chesil Beach.As I also prefer to read the book first, I can now also look forward to seeing the film.

12 February 2008
Book Review
If any of you have still not read this I am going to do a Bookray which you are welcome to join.http://www.bookcrossing.com/journal/4582265My Sister's Keeper by Jodi PicoultA heartbreaking story; moral, ethical and medical dilemmas facing a family with a terminally ill child. Sara and Brian Fitzgerald, son Jesse and daughter Kate seemed the perfect happy family; until at age two Kate is diagnosed with acute promyelocytic leukaemia.Sara and Brian decided to conceive a child genetically programmed to be a future donor for Kate. Of course her parents were full of good intentions when they conceived Anna, believing she would add to their family's happiness while literally keeping her sister alive.Anna has always known since she was old enough to understand that she was brought into this world for the benefit of her sister's well being.A huge responsibility that weighs heavily on her shoulders, one that she can no longer endure and leads her to sue her own parents.Traditionally one expects parents to make decisions for a child that are in the child's best interest. However this does not appear to be the case for Anna, as she now questions the choices her parents have made.The big question is it ethically right for Anna Fitzgerald's body to have been used without her consent, to donate repeatedly for thirteen years to her sister.Was it legal, immoral, cruel, foolish, crazy, yes all those things, but it felt right to the parents. Let's remember as parents you always put your children first and want to do what's best for them. However you love all your children so how an earth do you decide, when something that helps one child, may just harm another.If this novel does not tug at your heart strings, then I do not know what will.

07 February 2008
A Thousand Days in Tuscany
In search of a new life Fernando cuts all his ties with his birthplace Venice and takes his wife Marlena to live in Tuscany. She is not keen to leave the Venice she loves but understands her husbands desire to leave the demons that trouble him behind. Will this new beginning work for them or will his melancholy follow them.
They settle in the small village of San Casciano dei Bagni near the borders of Tuscany, Umbria and Lazio meet. Life is still ruled here as it has been for centuries by the seasons and the foods available around them. They become very close to two locals Barlozzo and Floriana and through them learn of the rhythms of life and love in a Tuscan village. As the story of these two couples unfolds it puts life into perspective for the four of them.

It appealed to me because of my own love of Italy and all things Italian, some of the episodes were oh so familiar; particularly as I know the region Marlena is writing about and have sampled similar dishes to those she includes recipes for at the end of each chapter.
However unless you are a dedicated Italiaphile I feel you may find this is just another Life in Tuscany book. Very similar to the many others available and does not particularly stand out from the crowd apart from some of Marlena de Blasi’s poetic prose.

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