Tag Archive for books

Book Review #23: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

It’s been a while since I’ve read fiction that has absorbed me to the point of ignoring everyone else. I love books that utterly pull you in so that all you ant to do is lie on your bed, or curl up on the sofa and read. Water for Elephants was so good that despite it being on my Kindle, I didn’t even knit while I read and I finished it in 24 hours, which is no mean feat if there are 4 children and a house to deal with too!

The story follows Jacob, a young Polish origin vet in America who experiences a huge life changing tragedy and runs away to the circus, quite by accident. (As you do!) The book is a snapshot of life in a travelling circus in 1930′s America, the brutality, the incestuous relationships within people, the partition between performer and worker and the camaraderie that lies along side all the darker elements of a group of people pressurised into being together all the time. Jacob experiences all of these things, fresh from the real world and able to see things with both the clarity and naivety of being a young man with ideals and ethics that have not yet been corrupted.

Water for Elephants is also a love story, a tangled tug of war and an exploration of numerous twisted characters and relationships. It is beautifully narrated by the 90 year old (or 93!) Jacob, sitting out the end of his life in a care home and alongside the story of his past, is a delicately drawn picture of how life can end for even the most vital of people, people who had a youth which seemed it could never end in solitude. The brief and touching friendship that develops in that part of the story is heartbreakingly and heartwarming.

I’m incredibly grateful to Cara at Freckles Family who invited me to her book group and recommended this to me. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

Book Review #20 Lady Chatterley’s Lover – DH Lawrence

Even if I was academically up to the task, (which I’m not!) a review of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in terms of themes, message and relevance to the world wouldn’t suit this blog for one and is hardly a world requirement for another ;) The literary world does not need to know what Merry thinks of a classic in order to sell more of it :lol:

Probably more relevant is what I got from it anyway. And that was a lot; my age old apathy about reading ‘classics’ or ‘worthy’ books was not so in force here, as I read another DH Lawrence as an S Level book while in my final English A Level year. I loved Sons and Lovers, one of the few books, along with Cider with Rosie, that really spoke to me in those years. Perhaps it is that I like a connection to an author who write autobiographically or partly so; I seem to remember really enjoying the Sheila Hocken books about Emma and Blue Above the Chimney’s too. Plus DH Lawrence was writing about a landscape familiar to me, as I grew up in Nottinghamshire and in fact went to the school opposite his too. As did my uncle. (And Ed Balls, but we won’t dwell on that!)

So, having enjoyed Sons and Lovers, I did expect to enjoy Lady Chatterley – and I did. What really struck me though, was my preconceived ideas and also the hang over of ideas and misconceptions and downright prejudices that lurk in my brain.

What I thought I knew of Lady Chatterley was that it was a book about a woman who has an affair with the gardener and that it was salacious in the extreme at the time it was published. I’m a bit old to get the trembles from that and didn’t expect it to be exactly shocking in this day and age (it isn’t, unless you could the talking to willies bit!) but what I didn’t know was anything about why she has the affair or how it ends.

What Lady Chatterley really is is “desperately lonely and unhappy woman who wants to be adored, held and have a baby” something many if not most women can probably relate to at some point. And what really struck me is that buried somewhere in my brain is still some outdated, repressed private school and middle class notion that if a woman has an affair, it is her failing and her fault and she’s in the wrong and if the affair is saucy, it’s probably sordid and she’s just a no good from the start.

I love the book on many levels, the characters, the language, the rude and brutal sexuality of it, the coal miners and the images of pit heads and dirty villages I can still recall. But what I liked the most was it reminded me again to keep my mind open, not judge, check why I believe why I do – and celebrate myself for being a woman who loves rude and dirty passion, deserves to be wanted, acknowledged and respected for herself (I am) alongside cuddling, being loved and longing for happiness.

Book Review #18 A Perfect Proposal by Katie Fforde

Katie Fforde has long been one of the authors I rely on for a cheerful easy read that makes me feel good. I bought my first book of hers, The Rose Revived, when I was at college and it has remained one of fail-safe favourites through the years. Up until a few years ago, I read each one as it came out and always enjoyed them; then there was a period of time when her heroines became women ahead of me in their time line and I couldn’t relate and a couple of novels where perhaps I had read too many by one person and they lost their magic. On reflection, I think that says more about where I was at the time and how my reading changed; I wanted to be surprised more and stretched more and perhaps you shouldn’t look for that in books which are unashamedly chick lit :)

Katie is a friendly soul on Twitter and I’ve been enjoying chatting to her, which motivated me to download some of her back catalogue on to my Kindle. A Perfect Proposal is a return to her ‘young slip of a thing’ characters and, with daughters growing up around me, they are somehow appealing again. It feels like the days of working in cafes might be behind me, but they probably aren’t far off becoming part of household life again and Sophie was believable, if something of a cautionary tale in how not to become a pushover. The story had a flavour of American, New York life to it, reminiscent of some of Jane Green’s novels, which made for a change of scene that was fun and if the love story twists didn’t stun me into gobsmacked silence, there was plenty of familiar ‘oh god, will this work out… is he a rat or a duck?’ to it. The two older members of the cast, around whom the plot revolves to a greater extent, were lovely – I wanted to go and meet them – and I was giggling at the description of a really hideous element to Sophie’s family, who made a cameo appearance :lol:

What I missed for a while in her stories was some of the “let’s do the show right here!” immediacy; I loved the way her original books focused on detail down to ‘clean the boat, make the tea, what the hell am I doing on this side of town with no money?’ – it always feels like I am right in the book when a story is like that, the nitty gritty of problem solving and life all laid out to sink right into. A Perfect Proposal had more of that again and I enjoyed it more for the descriptions of train journeys and trying to find places to stay for the night.

I’m back to enjoying her books again and am now rightly pleased to have several more that I can wile away the Summer on – hurrah for Kindles and Katie Fforde!!!

Book Review #17 Chances by Freya North

I’ve always been a huge Freya North fan; she writes great books, her characters are sassy and pithy and her story lines unpredictable and wise and her prose is witty and sexy and makes you want to read more. I’ve loved all the books she’s written and they’ve grown up along side me more or less; Chloe suited me when I was raw and new and Cat when I was ready for a challenge and Thea when I was needing to think about what I wanted and what sacrifices were necessary and reasonable.

I like her too because I once emailed her in response to a dedication in the back of her book and she replied and I appreciate people who make that sort of effort. I’ve enjoyed reading her blog recently too and so was looking forward to Chances coming out. If I was made a bit sad that she deleted a comment I left there (which went something along the lines of ‘I’m really hoping you’ve written a book that isn’t about people dying or babies because I’m really looking forward to enjoying another of your novels’ in what I thought was a cheerful if ironic voice) perhaps I understood better when I’d read it, because in fact the book is about dealing with loss and grief (ha! thanks universe!) and there is even the odd baby. Perhaps she was worried I had secretly already read it :)

I did also read that she’d had a hard time personally during the writing of this one. Perhaps it has been obvious from her last couple of characters that’s she’s feeling more melancholy. The women have been a little more squashed in character, a little more broken and the themes of the books has been more about ‘picking up and moving on’. This isn’t a bad thing, in fact, at my age and in my circumstances, I think it might even be a good thing, but they’ve made me laugh less. Perhaps I’m not in the mood for laughing so easily.

Chances is about two people shaking off the tendrils of the past and the relationships they’ve been in which have ended for various reasons and taking the risk of starting again. As far as that goes, it is well drawn and actually I think I believed in the character of Oliver, the potential love interest and Tim, ex-rat, most of all. Vita seemed a little passive but that was okay, because she was being passive and her friends and the people around her gave her a metaphorical slap for it. I think we all have times in our life like that. My favourite character of all was Jonty, Oliver’s son and Oliver was enough like Max for me to honestly believe that Jonty really was as nice and well balanced as he was. I liked Jonty, I wanted it to end well for him. It half made me laugh too that two of the characters owned a crafty shop and go to trade shows. Perhaps she’s been reading my blog…. ;)

Chances isn’t the pacey, sexy novels of Freya’s back catalogue but it isn’t less enjoyable for it. It’s believable and it ticked all my boxes of drawing a picture, making me feel I knew the characters and letting me see the village and a snapshot of a life. It was that, a snapshot, a whimsical, fleeting turning point moment for a five people. It didn’t challenge me and at one point I worried most that it wouldn’t have the ending I was expecting. I liked them all and wanted it to end well for them. For that, if not for a ripping yarn I sighed in satisfaction at the end of, I liked Chances well enough.

I’d like some sassy, sexy characters back now though. I really hope the tough time is past for her and the sparkle flickers back into her next heroines; I always love them, they always feel like friends and I want to keep meeting new people from her imagination.

Book #16: The Hare with Amber Eyes

The is the story of a family, a Jewish family from… well, all over Europe, the Ephrussi family. It tells the story of them across several generations, how they lived and operated, how they lived an opulent and wealthy life, a powerful family across Europe with banks in all the major capitals and fingers in every money making pie. Beginning with Charles, it describes their art collections, their holidays, the delight of having money, being good at making money, being close to painters, poets and artists, being patrons and collectors and a family who could, by speculating with grain and supply and untold wealth, effectively hold a country to ransom in the name of fairness and saving their people.

It is the story of being Jewish, wealthy Jewish, at the end of the 19th and early 20th century and in some ways, it describes perfectly how the Jews of their class provoked such jealousy and hatred. Anti-Semitism was hardly new, of course, but it is a catalogue of how to be disliked. They were a family who wanted to be ‘assimilated’, wanted to live as the French and the Austrians in the countries they moved to did, but they were set apart by not just success, but attitude, effort and their own unique ability to fashion a world around them.

It is also the story of a collection of netsuke, tiny Japanese figures and how they passed from hand to hand, through the generations until they came to the hands of the author.

I found the early part of the book slowish – interesting, but slow. De Waal has a knack for words and brings the characters to life, he has a talent for painting a picture with his descriptions and in the early part I found myself googling for the painting mentioned and discovering that, yes, the one I had in my head from the bottom staircase at school, was indeed the one her meant. I learned a lot, not least why so many Monet pictures are Japanese influenced. I enjoyed it, I enjoyed following hisjourney in uncovering his past, but I wasn’t grabbed.

Then came, in Vienna, the first world war and that caught me; it keyed into something I knew about, bizarrely enough from Chalet School books and I was fascinated by this different view of a war I know about. I raced through it, keen to know they all survived.

And then… and then… with the inevitable crunch of knowing history… the Anschluss. He can’t hide his emotion and his horror at what happens as the Nazi’s march in with planned and premeditated attacked on the wealthy Jews happening within hours, was absolutely gut wrenching. It is, quite simply, horrific to read descriptions of a house you have come to know being pulled apart and people you care for, with all their quirks, being beaten and rendered to nothing. It touched part of me from other books I know and love; the Chalet School in Exile, the proud and desperate characters of those children’s books and the stoical fortitude of the Jewish characters in The Morning Gift by Eva Ibbotson. It was like lifting a rock you know well and finding the slime and creepy crawlies underneath that you knew about but pretended didn’t exist.

I read the second half of the book in a morning, I simply couldn’t leave them in the limbo of being half read. And The Hare with Amber Eyes went from 3 stars to 5 stars in no time at all.


Real Home Ed

The real home ed, of course, continues to happen between times and probably the best times of all are the car ed moments. They always have been.

Fran has been reading the Diary of Anne Frank; I think I read this at 14 but she is at a great age to read it, as she is almost exactly the age Anne was. She’s been incredibly moved by it and really stuck at it too, also looking up various bits of information and asking questions along the way.

In the car the other day, she suddenly choked up. “How could they do that to people? it just isn’t human.” How indeed? We talked for a long time about the death camps, the way people were treated, the nature of gas chambers and death marches, the concept of genocide as opposed to just racism, why the camps have been left as memorials. We discussed Schindler’s List, the feelings of the Germans as opposed to the Nazi’s, the difference in residual feelings in this country about that war now, as opposed to how it was when I was growing up, when it still didn’t seem that long ago.

This is big stuff when you are 12; it is even bigger stuff if you are 8 or 6 and listening in.

We talked lots about whether it is ‘racist’ to prefer to send you child to a predominantly English speaking school, for example and how complex the lines are when you start to draw them around wanting safety, protection or good opportunities against wanting to not be with people purely due to colour, race or religion. We discussed how people might begin with one mindset but fall into another, positively or negatively and how we have to guard against beginning to hate people for simply what they are, not who.

I’m reading The Hare with the Amber Eyes, which happens to be discussing who Jews were seen in Paris at the end of the 19th century so that was an interesting part of the discussion. We talked more about whether it is right or wrong to make money from Anne Frank’s house as a museum, or use pictures of piles of bodies, even anonymously, to remind people of that horror. We have to remember, but it is also true those are people, someone’s son or daughter. It’s a complex issue.

For the girls, the hardest thing was understanding that this happened again only recently in Europe, still happens. History is a great distancing agent for kids; they believe we get better and horrors from the past are because people were less aware then but of course, the truth is that bad people are just bad people.

The girls have been loving Dad’s Army recently – it was interesting to set Anne Frank clearly against that and see how they felt about the funny side of the home front (or that side made funny) alongside the brutality and the fact that we knew it was happening and did so little to stop it until we were threatened ourselves.

However hard, it was a fascinating conversation. Must hurry up and do that side of the war with them.

Other stuff going on – Fran blogged our day out at Wood Green Animal Shelter. (She’s her mother’s daughter when it comes to proof reading!)

Today we went to the Stockwood Discovery Centre, fairly briefly, but will definitely go back as it looked excellent.

We’ve done lots of gardening but that’s another blog.

We had another trip into Oundle and this time the girls and I browsed the bookshop there while Max shopped; it is lovely and we’ll be using it much more I think. Loved how much the girls enjoyed just settling into the arms of a bookshop and enjoying it. Fran wants to know about Huckleberry Finn. All I can remember is I fancied the boy who played him in the series :lol:

Book #15 Love Stories in this Town

For reasons which will become obvious, I read this quickly and with one eye slightly shut to minimise the impact; it became a bit of an honour pact with myself to get through it and prove I could do, without falling apart.

Love Stories in this Town is a collection of short stories, focusing first on a set of people and then on Lola, a girl who turns gradually into a woman. As a set of stories, they are well written, tender snapshots of brief moments in the life of people. It struck me this is exactly what I might like to write – and could write. Whether I could do it well enough to get published is of course a moot point, but as a project it felt like someone starting out in writing and doing a good job of their first project. So from that point of view, very well written and worth reading. I’d go and read more of her later works based on this.

From a personal point of view though, it started with ttc, went on to miscarriage, included infertility, marriages falling apart, fear, childlessness, loneliness, lost babies and even a brain damaged one. So not really one for the babylost :roll:

I do think books should have warnings on them sometimes. I picked up one solitary book in the library last week and it was about a Frederick – even Amelie said the other day that both her current reads have Freddie’s in them.

However, an okay book. Not brilliant or unputdownable but a very solid collection of short stories to showcase an undoubted reading talent.

Book #12 Started Early, Took My Dog

The first time I read a Kate Atkinson book, it was because Max, having heard a review of it on the radio, bought me Behind the Scenes at the Museum. It remains one of my all time favourite books. After that came another couple by her, neither of which caught me enough to read them again (although now, I wonder if I was just a bit young, I might try them again) and then she moved on to her Jackson Brodie series.

Jackson is a private detective; he’s a decently good one too, without being a Poirot style, wrap it all up character. Bits of story trail through the books so that you can never be entirely sure that something, or someone, is finished with – unless they are dead. Which does, admittedly, happen a fair bit. Even to Jackson. Set in the UK, mostly in the north, they are the definition of gritty and it is hard to imagine Jackson having a day that is light hearted and in bright sunlight. He’s always up against it – and it is usually raining.

It is impossible not to like Jackson. He’s remained endearingly the same throughout the series, while also changing as his experiences go from the bizarre to the slightly insane and surreal. He’s recognisable from the first book, certainly, and the cast of characters surrounding him fleshes him out enough that I always feel he could potentially just turn up at my house and I’d find myself asking about his daughter and ex-wife.

Kate Atkinson has a great style; it’s neat, funny in a razor at your throat for a joke sort of way and reads as if she is speaking. Phrases drop in and out of it like afterthoughts but they are beautifully placed so that reading her work is pacey but a delight. I’d kill to write like she does, to be quite honest.

Started Early, Took My Dog is certainly more out of the same mould; it’s a good story and perhaps more than ever it has a huge sense of who Jackson Brodie is. He’s at a cross roads in his life, brought to a particular place by circumstances that have left him rootless and bemused and it shows. His detective work is less clinical than previously and you sense that he’s a man with much on his mind who happens to get answers by luck and experience as much as by cunning. The strength of the book is in fact in the characterisation of some of the other people, Tracy and Tilly in particular. You really get to know them even though, in some respects, they are almost incidental to the plot. Tilly in particular is the most extra-ordinary characterisation of an elderly woman plummeting fast into dementia. She’s beautifully drawn despite having just two moments where the plot actually pivots on her at all. Tracy, well, I sense she has more to tell us yet.

There were aspects of this I found less perfect. For the first time, Atkinson seemed determined to place the novel in time, with lots of references to the current financial crisis (I’m sensing she’s angry!) and recent programmes like Life on Mars. It made me wonder how well it will age, in some respects. Some of the cast, a nondescript bunch of thuggish policemen, were hard to grasp and separate – this may have been deliberate, as a device it would certainly work, but their identities were important at various parts and I struggled to keep hold of who was doing what.

A solid 8/10, maybe even close to 9. I’d read it again, I’d happily recommend it, I read it on my Kindle but it could well end p on my bookcase too.

For BabyLostMamas – this is a bad one; there is a mother mourning her baby, a host of lost/gone/missing children and babies, grief and emptiness, abortion, miscarriage, stillbirth and even a little white coffin being carried in loving arms. So err… you know…

Book #10 Wedlock: How Georgian Britain’s Worst Husband Met His Match

You can sum this story up in one phrase: “What a rotter!”

If you want a 400 page documentary on why you are lucky not to live in Georgian times, then Wedlock: How Georgian Britain’s Worst Husband Met His Match is probably it. You’d have to be having a bad life indeed not to feel you got off lightly compared to Mary Eleanor Bowes.

Wedlock is a factual account of the life of the Countess of Strathmore, ancestor of our ‘Queen Mother’ – the Strathmore surname was Lyon and subsequent generations amalgamated the two names, for reasons which become apparent during the book. A woman of quite extraordinary wealth, and apparently either a slight lack of foresight or a very gullible nature, it tells the story of her two marriages, starting with the moment (between the two) of a dramatic duel in her honour and then exploring both her life up to that point and her life afterwards. Despite not being fiction (which I didn’t realise when I started!) the book is engagingly told and contains enough drama, information and salacious detail to rival most stories. Wedlock is as much about the time as the people and the exploration of the changing role of women, their legal status and the way in which Georgian law and society was operating and altering during the late 1700′s. In fact, this is the great strength of the book for me, as some elements of the narrative left me a little cold at times.

The bulk of Wedlock regards her marriage to Andrew Robinson Stoney and it gives no more away than the title does to say he is something of a cad and a bounder! This book was my library reading groups choice after Washington Square but Stoney leave the villain of that piece standing! He is sadistic, vile, manipulative and abusive who really out villains the very worst of fiction. I’d go as far as to say I might have abandoned the book as being unlikely had it been a story rather than history.

The best of this book was certainly the insight into the times. For me, the least appealing aspect was the endless focusing on his cruelty and violence and I did eventually begin to feel I was reading one of those endless “my mother locked me in a cupboard for 18 years ” books. Just as I was beginning to consider giving up though, the plot move on t the conclusion, which was a relief as I thought the endless catalogue of domestic violence was a little overplayed.

For a Kindle reader, the narrative itself stops at 75% (just in case you start to lose the will to live!) and the remainder is footnotes. This type of book perhaps lends itself less well to a Kindle as flipping to the footnotes is not really an option in the same way you can with a paperback. I enjoy being able to do this with historical books and I didn’t bother to look at the sources etc with Wedlock in the way I would have done had I read it conventionally.

My favourite bit? Discovering that the expression “Stoney broke” is attributed to this unpleasant character’s tendency to be in debt and out of cash.

For the babylost? Mild to moderate; there is significant birthing of babies, in a non graphic way, considerable discussion of abortion the 1700′s way and she is separated from her children for many years. But I coped fine with it.

For me – of course virtually every date quoted was either my birthday, or the 2nd, 13th or 28th April! I don’t think I would read it again, but I would certainly recommend it and it whet my appetite for more fiction from that era in a way that nothing else particularly has.

7/10  an interesting read.


As is customary in the Puddle household, last week we took ourselves off to Centerparcs. It’s always a good way for us to have a low maintenance wind down holiday after the busy Xmas period and one of those holidays which, being a large-ish family, has not too much effort attached. In fact, it’s easy, get up, lounge, swim, lounge, eat, lounge, play badminton, swim, eat, lounge. This year was even easier as the kidlets are largely self-sufficient, can go shopping, pack their swimming stuff reliably*, go swimming ahead of us, help to tidy, pack, organise, entertain themselves etc.

I was worried I’d have horrible flashbacky ‘last year we were pregnant moments but actually most of the last few years of CPing have had baby sadness in them and I was immune; we went to a different one last year anyway and I pro-actively booked a different style lodge to try and minimise the feeling. But we’ve been so often that last year was not really my most coherent memory anyway. So in point of fact, to get it out of the way and pat myself firmly on the back, I had a really good week, the closest thing to a break from grief that I’ve had yet. I made myself do it and succeeded, which is an achievement I think. Max fretted a bit but I wanted them to have a good week, so I made sure I did and apart from a slightly*shriek* moment when I gave myself a birthpool flashback and the inevitable pain of a little cerebral palsy boy who was so beautiful and happy, I did really well.

Another milestone.

(New style villa; very different, but we liked it. Might even redo our floor downstairs having lived with boards for a week.)
The kids had a lot of fun; Fran did get her nose out of Inkheart occasionally, but was mostly immersed and we played a great game of Ticket to Ride Europe one night, but mostly we just swam endlessly and flumped in between times.

Knitting & Reading
I discovered that Kindle (love it, love it!) means I can knit and read!

Babmington ;)
Maddy was the unexpected badminton demon and wants us to find a club to play at.

The blackboard on the wall in the villa was a big hit, particularly as we’d decreed a no ds holiday thanks to last years crime outbreak at that particular resort. That meant a lot of reading, drawing, card playing etc went on, which was great. This is Maddy’s version of a Gogo, something which is inexplicably popular in this house :roll:

We also had friends there; we didn’t see much of them as we felt a bit of a need to hunker (as we often do :/ ) but meeting up at swimming was great. At least this year I could go on the slides anyway. I will find positives.

On the last day I got to go to the spa, which was great. I thought, made some plans, didn’t cry and got to stick my hand in a tank of the fish that eat your feet. They felt very, very weird, but I might have a go another time.

Good holiday. It felt like I might never have another one, but I did. We all did.

*apart from Amelie who arrived without a costume on one occasion.