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Refreshingly pithy…a review of The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith.

The SilkwormAs more regular readers will know, I reviewed The Cuckoo’s Calling (the first in Galbraith’s Cormoron Strike novels) back in April last year and thoroughly enjoyed it; so, when I heard that a second book was coming out I knew that it had to go on my ‘to read’ list. Sometimes when you read a good book and then hear about a sequel you can feel a little apprehensive – unsure whether the author will be able to work the same magic a second time, or wondering if the premise of the story will stretch to a second novel – not so with Galbraith (or should I say J. K. Rowling as she was unmasked as its author shortly after the publication of the first book).

I never had concerns about The Silkworm, feeling that with Rowling I was undoubtedly in safe hands. I wasn’t disappointed. Just like A Cuckoo’s Calling, I was totally gripped by The Silkworm and tore through its pages at an alarming rate. Rowling’s writing, whatever her subject, has the smoothest flow to it, it’s never clunky or overly wordy. Rather like the strikesmooth pints of ale her hero likes to consume, her prose streams cooly from the page to your brain with very little effort on your part and leaves you feeling refreshed. I think, for me, ‘refreshing’ very much hits the nail on the head for how I would describe Rowling’s writing. It is such an uninterrupted easy read; and I have found this to be true with every book of hers I’ve ever read – from Harry Potter to The Casual Vacancy, each book is imbued with her beautifully flowing, concise style.  Continue reading

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Filed under 21st century, Books, Fiction, J.K. Rowling, Novel, Robert Galbraith

On Jane Austen’s doorstep…

Austen doorIt’s been roughly two years since I posted about having moved to a new town and, surprise, surprise…I’ve done it again. This time I have moved south to the beautiful Georgian city of Bath. Those of you who are familiar with my love of Jane Austen can imagine, I’m sure, how excited I am to be walking the same streets she walked.

Austen plaque Bath

Not a stroll goes by without me spying a street name mentioned in Northanger Abbey or recognising a location from Persuasion. And I’ve become rather a pain when it comes to spotting and reading the little historical plaques that adorn the buildings in Bath  in which famous men and women have lived or stayed. Only the other day I made my long-suffering other half cross Great Pulteney Street in excess of four times in order to check if any of the plaques mentioned anything about Austen.

Great Pulteney Street © Charlotte Jones, 2014I thought, therefore, with the landscape, literally, on my doorstep that it was only polite to re-read Austen’s two novels which are largely set in Bath. Naturally, there is no self-interest whatsoever in my having to read two Austen novels. Cough cough. Continue reading

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Filed under 19th century, Books, Fiction, Jane Austen, Novel, Re-reading, Reading

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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Filed under 20th century, Blogging, Books, Fiction, Nancy Mitford, Novel, Re-reading

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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Filed under 21st century, Audrey Niffenegger, Blogging, Books, Fiction, Novel