Category Archives: Blogging

New job. New book. New mantra…

Firsty, for those of you looking in for a review of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters as promised at the end of my last post, well, there has been a change of plan. Rather than a review, this post is more of an update about what’s been going on with my reading life over the past few weeks.

commuter readA little over a month ago I began a new job and happily anticipated poring over the pages of Wives and Daughters during my new rather heftier commute. My intentions were good. After the first couple of weeks of work, it became abundantly clear to me that Wives and Daughters  was not a book I was going to especially enjoy reading. Within two chapters I was forced to acknowledge to myself that I was, well…bored. Never mind, I thought, I’ll soldier on, I’ve done it before with other books. Then my attitude began to shift. This, I think, is where I began to draw a distinction between reading at home in my armchair, and reading at bus stops and on buses. Continue reading

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Long overdue.

books 1(3)I am sorry.

When I was little and my brother used to say these words to me by way of making up for some wrong he had done me, I would reply with the very churlish retort “well, sorry is supposed to be when you won’t do it again”. Perhaps it is time for me to eat my words. At the opening of my last blog post…many, many moons ago, I offered my apologies for my lack of blogging. I have repeated my offence. It has now been over two months since I last put finger to keypad and posted. Why? I will hazard a guess. When I began In my good books…, way back in March 2011, I made this statement

“One of my major motivations when starting this blog was to use it as a means of keeping me on the straight and narrow, so to speak. Not in the sense that blogging will distract me from a life of crime, but more that it will (hopefully!) prevent me from re-reading the same books over and over and over again.”

I think, bizarrely, that within the gaps in this sentence lie the reasons for my lack of posting. It’s hard to neglect great loves…and it’s even harder to ignore them when they whisper sweet nothings to you from a nearby bookcase…

“It is a truth universally acknowledged…”  

“Trust me, I’m telling you stories.”  

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit…”  

                                 “…she always had the feeling that it was very, very, dangerous to live even one day.”

“…do it from the heart or not at all.”

books 6

I have been re-reading, indulging. When I began In my good books… I had the best of intentions, I sought to broaden my reading, to experience new books. I think, somewhere along the way, I made an error. Somewhere between “I must read more classics” and “I like re-reading” I surmised that my love of re-reading precluded my reading new books. From this conclusion I seem to have created a sort of shame, an unhealthy disdain for my urge to re-read. Having created this disdain, I think I have consequently become ashamed to acknowledge my re-reading habits…past, present and future. Consequently, when I have re-read, I have not blogged. When I think about it, this seems incredibly naive and foolish.

books 5In another post I labelled myself “a re-reader by nature” and acknowledged that my battered copy of Pride and Prejudice has never been allowed to sit unread on the shelf for a whole calendar year. I wonder exactly when I decided that I must go against my character, or rather, that I must conceal it. I think that I must adjust my attitude to my reading. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that from now on I will re-read to my heart’s content and bury my library card in the garden. I am saying that from now on I will strike a happy medium. When I re-read, I will blog about it. When I read new books, I will blog about them. I guess that previously I had made some sort of unconscious distinction between ‘books’ and ‘reading’ and, somewhere along the way, I decided that blog posts must be about books. I revise this premise, from now on blog posts will not only be about books, but also about the act of reading books, both old and new.

So there you have it. I guess this goes some way to explaining the gaping holes that have hung like dropped stitches in the knitting pattern of In my good books… – I’d say it’s fairly safe for you to assume that where there are gaps in time, there was re-reading. I have re-read Pride and Prejudice at least twice since beginning In my good books…, I have re-read The Lord of the Rings trilogy, I have re-read Persuasion by Jane Austen, I have re-read the first three Harry Potter books, and probably more that I can’t recall. I think it is abundantly safe to infer that I will always re-read books. I have found true love on the pages of my favourite  books and I very much hope that it will last a lifetime.

books 3So what of The Story of English in 100 Words? I hear you cry (!). Well, I have almost finished it. Only a few lonely  pages to go. I have also, as is my wont, begun simultaneously reading other books. Another reading habit which I seem to have begun in early childhood. From the days when I first started reading books by myself my mother would despair at the pile of bookmark-stuffed books beside my bed. It’s a habit I’ve tried to kick. It’s never particularly conducive to mental clarity to have several different plot-lines and, lord knows, how many characters  all buzzing about your head simultaneously.

I have, however, made it my intention to read (or should that be re-read) Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women over the festive period. I first ‘read’ this book when I was a child, I say ‘read’ because it was actually read aloud to me by my Mum. I have never actually held the book in my own hands and turned the pages and I think it’s about time. So, armed with a beautifully bound Penguin classic, I intend to read its pages for myself for the first time.

books 2I suppose this post has turned into rather an odd ramble about my reading habits. I apologise to those of you anticipating a book review. I think, in the end, this post has turned out to be more of a ‘reading review’. It seems clear to me now that this review (like most of my others!) has been long overdue.

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Blessings and disguises…a review of Nancy Mitford’s The Blessing

bookcase2I guess first and foremost, I have to express no small degree of embarrassment about the length of time which has passed since my last post. Secondly, I have a further confession to make…I have, since I last posted, fallen into that ever-enchanting trap of re-reading. Whilst I have spent my time reading The Blessing, I have also luxuriated in the pages of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy and been captivated by a less fictional offering…David Crystal’s The Story of English in 100 Words.

There you have it, confession confided.

tolkienBefore I write about The Blessing, I do want to make some attempt at justifying my falling from grace and head-over-heels into the trap of re-reading. As I have already mentioned since I began blogging, I have always had a huge tendency to submit to my obsession with re-reading my favourite books…they sit there on the bookshelf like old friends calling to me across a crowded room. Old friends who I love dearly. Old friends who have comforted me during hard times. Old friends who have inspired and succoured me over many years. It is hard to resist them; and while In my good books… has helped to loosen my dependency upon re-reading, I’m not sure I ever wish to be entirely cured of it. I love re-reading, others have asked me many times what I get from it and the answer is fairly obvious…I get something different from every book each time I read it.

Take The Lord of the Rings books, for example, I must have read them every year since I was about fifteen. So (without divulging my exact year of birth), it’s safe to say I have been turning the pages of these lovely books for well over a decade. This summer, my parents made a big change in their lives – moving from the suburban house in the Midlands (centre of the UK) where I spent my childhood, to a rambling Victorian sea-front house on the Welsh coast. Naturally, I was there alongside them to enjoy the highs (and lows!) of such a big change. During the downtime from unpacking boxes, I felt my fingers itch; without thinking, I plucked their battered copy of Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring from the bookcase and was instantly enthralled. Wales always makes me want to read Tolkien, you look out of the window and the landscape on the page simply continues across the vista. wales 2Craggy mountains of stone, lush green woodland, and, to the West, the waves lap against the shore…for me, Middle Earth will always be Wales. So, where was I? I think I was hoping to explain and justify this year’s dalliance with Mr Tolkien. As has happened many times in my life, his words carried me through huge change and into new possibilities. Plus, I found a new pun – I’m a sucker for a good pun – Mum and Dad’s house being situated on the extreme West coast of the UK, I figure they now live in one of the ‘last homely house[s] east of the sea’.

Well, perhaps, it’s time I returned to my pre-destined course of reading and Nancy Mitford’s The Blessing. This, as frequent visitors may recall, is the third of Mitford’s books that I have reviewed. Possessing, as I do, a compilation text of Love in a Cold Climate that also contains The Pursuit of Love and The Blessing, I thought it was about time I got around to reviewing the final book.

book coverWhen I finally begun reading, I wholeheartedly enjoyed The Blessing. As I expected and hoped it is another enchanting novel about the upper echelons of British society, although, this time, it largely takes place in France. The novel centres principally around its heroine, Grace, and her relationship with her husband, the captivating Charles-Edouard. Like Mitford’s other books this novel is, ostensibly, laced with somewhat frivolous concerns in terms of the world-view, but in terms of the internal view of Grace’s relationships it does ask some weighty questions. I don’t want to give away too much of the novel’s main plot points for prospective readers, but suffice to say Mitford’s story brings to the fore the differences to be found, not only in upper class marriages, but also in French marriages compared to English ones. The story commences during the Second World War, although the bulk of the narrative takes place in later peace-time years. I think of the three Mitford novels I have read, this is perhaps the most light-hearted and (not to diminish the book in any way) trivial. However, I think it is one of my favourites. Despite Love in a Cold Climate’s being the most well-known of the books, I think, with consideration, I prefer both The Pursuit of Love and The Blessing. The characters in both of these two books are more endearing, I cared more about their journey. In some ways, this story reminded me of the plot of Madame Bovaryalbeit on a slightly more moneyed level. Thankfully, though, The Blessing‘s heroine is infinity more palatable and appealing.

Chevaux_de_MarlyAs for the book’s title, which refers to the nickname Grace and Charles-Edouard give their young son, well, let me say the old idiom ‘a blessing in disguise’ comes to mind – although, in his case, the disguise is sugary sweet. Siggy (as they call him) is by no means entirely worthy of his pet name.

The Blessing is engagingly written with an experienced hand. Humour and satire are penned with expert precision and Mitford’s descriptions are vivid. I have yet to be disappointed with one of Mitford’s novels, they are saturated with fleshy comical characters who you cannot help but love, despite their many faults and excessive vices. I think the message of The Blessing is one of pragmatism and acceptance. The novel is littered with disguise and deception, from the candy-clean American politician who turns out to be a Bolshevist to the evening when all of the characters attend an elaborate costume ball. However, the over-arching morality of the book seems to suggest that we should accept our loved ones for what and who they really are, warts and all. Be understanding of their faults and forgiving of their mistakes, but alongside this, do not become a doormat, forgive so that you can forget…show understanding in order to understand your loved ones better. Oh, and never spoil an already precocious child.

crystalAs I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I have also been reading David Crystal’s The Story of English in 100 Words. Having only ever studied English Literature, and not English language, at school and university I had never encountered one of Crystal’s books before. The book was recommended to me by the course director of a phonics-based reading programme I recently trained to teach. I ordered it on something of a whim and was thoroughly rewarded. Crystal, who is traditionally more of an academic writer, has penned an entertaining, easy-read. The Story of English in 100 Words is very fun to read and educational but interesting. A hard balance to strike. I haven’t finished reading the book yet, so I won’t say anything more now, but I have already bought it as a gift and recommended it to others.

Unsurprisingly then, I will (hopefully sooner than last time) shortly be reviewing David Crytal’s The Story of English in 100 Words.

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The natural inheritor of its Victorian hardback ancestor…Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger.

I am alive, I promise. I am still here.Her Fearful Symmetry

I have never gone so long without posting before and I’m a little ashamed about how long it’s been. While I’ve been away In my good books… turned two years old. Time really has flown by. Believe it or not, despite my long absence, I have logged on to view my stats almost daily and have not discarded In my good books… as much as it might seem. I have been reading Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry and I have been thinking about what I will say about it.

Her Fearful SymmetryIt has taken me an extremely long time to read this book, and I have to confess that I have erred from my intentions and dallied with other books in the meantime. Along with the rest of the world, it would seem, I read Niffenegger’s bestseller The Time Traveller’s Wife several years ago and loved it. Hence, when I saw Her Fearful Symmetry, I bought it immediately. I don’t know exactly what I was expecting, I suppose I was looking forward to the same level of gripping narrative and unpredictable plot lines that I’d found in The Time Traveller’s Wife. I’m not entirely sure whether or not I found them. Her Fearful Symmetry certainly contains a lot of twists and turns as far as the narrative is concerned, although sadly, for me, I did tend to see them coming. I won’t spoil the plot for any potential readers out there, but suffice to say that there are two giant plot twists in this book, the first I spotted just a few pages in and the second suddenly dawned on me only a few pages before Niffenegger herself revealed the truth.

Her Fearful Symmetry is something of a Victoriana-ophile of a novel. Niffenegger saturates the novel with Victorian overtones. Firstly, there is the looming presence of Highgate Cemetery which seems to almost smother the characters’ lives like a damp mist. Secondly, there is the novel’s fixation with twins and the way they are wired; I have to say Niffenegger’s narrative very much reminded me of the way in which the Victorians would happily exhibit people such as Valentina and Julia (one of the sets of identical twins in the story) like ‘freaks of nature’ to be gawped at for entertainment.highgate

While reading this book I often found myself feeling as though Niffenegger was trying too hard. Trying to throw hip and cool ingredients into her recipe for a ‘hip and cool 21st Century novel’. Graveyards, identical twins, Victorian London, family secrets, chronic OCD, death, oh and let’s chuck in the odd ghost and Ouija board to make things really cool. Perhaps I’m being a little too catty? These ingredients certainly do make Her Fearful Symmetry an intriguing book to read, but, as I said, I couldn’t help feeling that the ingredients were a little clumsily added. The Time Traveller’s Wife is a lovingly and carefully plotted book that keeps you hanging off every line. I think Her Fearful Symmetry tries to be the same thing and doesn’t succeed with the same ease and grace.

The novel’s plot is an interesting one. It explores that strange connectivity between identical twins. Families often seem close and weird to those outside them, but a family with two generations of identical twins makes for an even closer and even weirder mesh. Elspeth and Edie are Niffenegger’s first generation of identical twins and they are followed by the next generation: Valentina and Julia. The book explores how time can often go full circle where families are concerned, some narratives are just set to repeat themselves over and over again.

Her Fearful SymmetryThe cover of my edition quotes the Scotsman saying, “dark and delicious”. Her Fearful Symmetry certainly has darkness within its pages, in fact, I would go so far as to question if there is enough light. Without a more even balance of light and shade the novel suffers from an overtly morbid ambience. Right from the first couple of chapters the dark overtones of the novel intimate to the reader that this story can only go one way. It’s a conscientiously dark novel, and as I have already said, I feel that this darkness is crafted clumsily and far too obviously. For a modern novel to be truly chilling, I think there should be a little more of the 21st century in there. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that Niffenegger should have dumped her gloriously gothic setting or refrained from her Victoriana, I’m just saying that in addition to this, I feel there could have been a little more of modern life in there. Sure, she throws in the odd reference to the Tesco metro down the road and Valentina and Julia take their trips on the London Underground, but I don’t think there is enough of contemporary London and contemporary life in there to flesh out the story and make it completely legitimate.highgate

I think I would recommend Her Fearful Symmetry, it’s never going to become one of my all-time favourites like The Time Traveller’s Wife, but it’s very readable and entertaining. It’s a weird story, so weird perhaps that it’s hard to relate to it in terms of your own life, but it raises questions and presents its own answers – whether you think they’re credible or not is up to you. The bottom line is this…Her Fearful Symmetry is a 21st century paperback ghost story – the natural inheritor of its Victorian hardback ancestors. It would seem, as in life, so too in literature…some things just have to go full circle.

I move on to Charlotte Gray by Sebastian Faulks. I attempted to read this book when I was a teenager and never got very far…I’m hoping that a gap of well over ten years will make all the difference.

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