Category Archives: Novels

The Letter – Kathryn Hughes

This was one of the “3 for £5 ” books I got the other day. It appears to have been printed on the strength of high e-book sales – many of them are quoted in the opening pages and I have to say that they aren’t entirely misguided in their enthusiasm.  It is not a bad book at all and takes serious subjects seriously – domestic abuse, the Magdalen laundries.  The story flows swiftly and is well structured and there are shades of Maeve Binchy however it lacks Binchy’s  lively characterisation and compassionate humanity. The people in “The letter” are more situations than characters and while empathising with their plights in some cases I never found myself really caring what happened to them. There is also perhaps a little too much coincidence and I think the last scene was an unnecessary mistake. No need to tie up every last end and it just seemed spiteful.


More nostalgia – Pony Club bliss

Last week I stayed with my aunt and retrieved  a couple of bags of random stuff that hadn’t made it into storage for various reasons. So alongside the sheets that needed washing, some clothing that I wanted to hand but seemed too summery when it was threatening snow and other bits and bobs that got overlooked was an extremely battered copy of Josephine Pullein-Thompson’s “One Day Event” the penultimate volume in the West Barset Pony Club series. I rather fear the  others were abandoned in the loft but Amazon is looking hopeful and I console myself with newly acquired knowledge that the Armada paperbacks were edited.

As you may have gathered, the experience was joyful.  They are period pieces but they are funny and informative and I remembered lots even after so many years…  One of the bonuses of this series which it shares with the other favourite series from childhood, Antonia Forest’s Marlow’s series, is that JP-T allows her characters to age.  This apparently displeased the publishers which is why the series did not continue however it makes them so much more readable as an adult.  I was ridiculously delighted to learn that JP-T informed enquiring readers that Noel and Henry did eventually marry despite Henry falling for a German dressage rider.

Actually nostalgia IS what it used to be….

Maybe it is a reaction to the loss of my childhood home or maybe it is a coincidence but  I have been indulging in a certain amount of nostalgia lately. Having put most of my possessions into storage most of my reading until the last couple of weeks had been either borrowed or picked up in charity shops (I don’t have a functioning e-reader just now),  There were a few exceptions which I hope to get to write up at some point – the wonderful “Notes from an Exhibition” by Patrick Gale and “Elizabeth is missing” by Emma Healey but there has been a heap of frothy, forgettable chicklit that probably isn’t worth remembering.

However, captivated by the covers (think old school railway posters) I picked up a couple of the British Library collection of vintage crime fiction, then got a reduced Nikki French with a paper, I then went to London and bought a couple more contemporary books at the station and todant to  a discount store and bought, amongst other things, a set of Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers series.

They are a hoot with modern eyes, though rather oddly the money but nothing else has been updated which is a bit weird.  Apart from the distrust of foreigners, their strange accents and funny ways there are gems such as “Alicia didn’t see why she should give up Darell’s  companionship completely just because Sally had come back. Why not a threesome until Betty returns?”

I intend to talk more about the vintage crime novels when I have finished the book on forensic by Val McDermid (one of the other recent puchases.  however they do have some things in common with the Blytons in the attitudes to foreigners, women though the Hey is perhaps rather more tongue in cheek.  Nevertheless it is less substantial than Sayers’ Gaudy Night published the same year.

Thoughts of both books were with me when I visited Oxford for the first time in ages last week. There is a certain pleasure, which I experienced also when reading two of Graham Hurley’s Faraday’s novels last year, in reading books well located in a familiar place.  And then I walked down Pembroke Street and found a reminder of my favourite literary landscape, but the Story Museum was closed and, though I uttered password with far less hesitation than  Gandalf, the doors remained shut,

If I were a horse, there would be a stewards enquiry…

I have read five books since the last post and have made a small dent in my “bought not read pile”. It is amazing how much you can get through when they weather is bad and you have no internet connection…

I am still a way off a book a week but I am not far off the fifty pages a day quota. By now I should have read 35 books or 12,250 pages. I have only got to 27 books but I have read 11,256 pages. If I counted the genealogy book, Dad’s war diaries and the two “fastbacks” I had to take back before I finished them I would be about there… also am a hundred or so pages into “The Book thief”.

I am assured that this is read, if not commented on so I may try to catch up. I haven’t hated any off them. Not even “The Blind Assassin” which I have struggled to get into for years but I haven’t really loved any either. Not even the David Sedaris who I have loved on the radio but not really read before. It is clever and funny but I think it does work better read aloud with his impeccable timing and tone… and nothing in this is perhaps as howlingly funny as “Jesus shaves”.

Flight of fancy

The hen who dreamed she could fly by Sun-mi Hwang is a bit like Le Petit Prince, a bit like Jonathan Livingston Seagull with added hints of Animal Farm and Winnie the Pooh. it is also the second of the belated birthday present books.

Not a bad companion volume as it also handles themes of cross species differences and similarites, the family, understanding and reconciliation. The style is very different as this short book is presented as a modern day fable. The self named Sprout is a caged hen who longs for the outside world butabove all to hatch one of her eggs. When by strange chance her wish is fulfilled she discovers the world beyond can be cruel, especially to those who don’t fit in and her life is a relentless struggle for survival.
It is a quick read at under 150 pages but is one of those short books that promise to linger long in the memory as a story of hope, determination and maternal love

A truly thought provoking read

We are all completely besides ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler was one of the two books I received last week as a belated birthday present from a friend. It is always interesting when people are brave enough to buy you a book .. brave partly because it may reveal their opinion of you, because anything obvious you are liable to have already, because buying someone a book is an imposition on someone’s time which is possibly more arrogant than even the impostion on space of most gifts. Not something that can be displayed or worn when they visit and then quietly forgotten.

You may have gathered that I am nervous of giving books…yet some I love so much they must be shared and then I fear that their recipient will not love them as I do and so my love for one or the other will diminish as a consequence.

I don’t think my friend suffered such agonies and given that we have been friends since the first week of A level English Lit oh-so-many-years-ago, I think that friendship is safe. She hasn’t read either book herself so took a lucky dip. She chose well.

The other consequence of having a book bought for you is that you approach it as a blank canvas, free of preconceptions, no knowledge based on other works, biographical detail, reviewers’ opinions, even the blurb reading and page skimming done in bookshop or online pre-purchase. It is not often that I embark on a book so untainted: a long haul version of the primary readings we did at university. And this maybe was a good book to approach in innocence.

I do not want to spoil the story for others by revealing the mystery. It did tantalise me at least.. I thought I had an inkling having read “The memory keeper’s daughter”, though one of the hints didn’t fit but despite an A-level in psychology and recent media highlighting of comparable experiments I was taken by surprise.

It is a very cleverly written book, at first the knowingness of the first person narrator annoys but as the book progressed I realised the slight irritation induced by the narrator is the product of a remarkably deft handling of a character who struggles to make connections with other people,

This novel handles big issues with a light touch, identity, loyalty, memory and family as well as ethical issues which question man’s place on earth. This is a very timely and fascinating novel, moving but with a rich vein of humour that is never far from the service. Would be a really good book club choice.

Well by now I should have read 32 books

And …I haven’t. The two last read have been stonkingly long. I think a paper edition of “Can you forgive her?” must be over eight hundred pages and Gorky Park five hundred and fifty. Bit of a slog with moments of brilliance… rather like Rossini’s back handed compliment to Wagner. However I struggle with the twists in spy novels and with keeping track of Russian names so it was a bit of a double whammy. Renko is a hugely attractive hero but I wonder if it suffers being read out of time. It has unintentionally become a historical novel.

Anyway I am rewarding myself by reading another, earlier, work by Jo Baker who is the author of Longbourn (still my favourite book of the year). 60 pages in and it is showing the same subtlety and intelligence.