Tag Archives: 2010

The Poet’s Wife – Judith Allnatt – 4/10

Poet's Wife Picked up from the library (I love living across the road from a decent-sized library!) after seeing a few recommendations around the blogosphere. This is a fictionalised biography of John Clare’s wife Patty – how she copes with his mental illness, a large family and increasing poverty.

While I enjoyed the writing, which was fluid and imaginative, I got a bit bored with the tales of country life on the poverty line. I found much of the story quite uncomfortable, because one does sympathise with the protagonist caught between her mad husband who is convinced he married his childhood sweetheart as well as her, and her philandering son-in-law.

Patty was a strong character – too strong in many ways, I wanted her to break down and scream and shout and be human. Eliza annoyed me, as did John (although the abrasive effects of his illness were the intention), I did like Parker (he reminded me of my own grandfathers), and there wasn’t really space to develop many more characters.

 

The Sky is Falling – Sidney Sheldon – 5/10

Sky is Falling Summary: Dana Evans, newscaster extraordinaire with the perfect boyfriend and an adoptee from Kosovo, stumbles onto a conspiracy to kill off a family of impeccably behaved philanthropists. Can she figure it out before the bad guys get her?

Picked up as part of a huge box lot for £60. One of the more amusing revelations from the box!

This contains so many stereotypes that it’s highly entertaining. There is a “royal family” of do-gooders who are indubitably wonderful, but actually one of them had a dark secret. Our heroine is beautiful, talented, generous. Her boyfriend doesn’t get much of a description, but his ex (who is, of course, a model) is still after him. She manages to fly all over the world at a moment’s notice chasing down leads and enlists help at the Pentagon…

Trashy it may be, but I thundered through this in about 4 Tube trips and loved it. As long as you’re accepting of the inevitable plot devices (quick trip to a nuclear plant in Russia, anyone?) and can ignore the are-they-aren’t-they bad guys issue, this has a snappy pace, plenty of twists and generally everything that you ask of something to read before 9 a.m.!

 

Death of a Perfect Wife – M. C. Beaton – 7/10

Summary: Hamish Macbeth is quite pleased with the quiet life of a parochial policeman… until a pushy housewife arrives from London and starts reforming the town. No wonder she turns up dead – but who did it?

This meets the definition of “cosy crime” exactly for me. A pleasant, polite, short (192 pages) murder mystery with a few personalities but no particular danger. PG-rated, for once, which was a nice change!

I was a bit disappointed by the style – it was all a bit simplistic for me. The characters were almost caricatures, because they were so lightly developed – each had one or two defining features and that was it. Everyone in the town had a motive and plenty of access to the poison, so there wasn’t really a puzzle to figure out who did it, we just had to wait for PC Macbeth to figure it out and tell us.

That said, the village depicted had some fun personalities and the murderer and his/her motive were amusing when they were revealed.

 

Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe – 8/10

Things Fall Apart Summary: Proud clansman Okonkwo has built himself up from nothing. His exile for an accidental murder and the arrival of the white man throw his world into disorder.

This has been on reading lists since I was 9 so it’s about time I got around to reading it! It reads very much like a school set text – clear moral teachings on colonialism, pride, treatment of others, community etc. At first, the text felt quite minimalist – only the essentials of each episode were told in order to move the story along, but as we progressed to Okonkwo’s adulthood, more anecdotal episodes were thrown in, which was a pleasant development.

Similarly, only the main characters were given any time at all, but those which were developed were drawn skilfully, almost all through deeds rather than words. Every now and again there is a monologue from an older clansman, but these are well-spaced enough so as not to become tedious.

I enjoyed reading about all the customs and the beliefs etc – the book describes a fictional tribe, but Achebe presumably drew his inspiration from real-life practices. I was starting to wonder at the halfway point when things were going to fall apart, although it had been a very comfortable and entertaining read up to that point – but I did not see the major plot turns coming up! And things duly did fall apart…

While I recognise that it is a well-written text, morally clear and presumably “before its time” in terms of “colonialism bad, missionaries bad, indigenous traditions and ideas not all bad”, either I’ve missed something or the simple style has garnered a lot more critical acclaim than it deserves. I’m inclined to think the former.

 

Interview with the author: The New York Times

Touching Distance – Rebecca Abrams – 8/10

Touching Distance

Summary: Talented young doctor Alec Gordon is mystified by a fever killing otherwise healthy new mothers. His methods to treat it are greeted with scepticism and are mostly unsuccessful. His accounts show that he is treating many more patients than can afford to pay for his services, and his colleagues at the hospital are not keen on his candour and lack of politics. At home, his wife is struggling with depression and flashbacks of her life in the West Indies. Based on a true story.

I know that the book is based on a true story, although you always have to wonder how much is “true story” and much is artistic licence… but the succession of deaths and the increasingly brutal methods attempting to save the mothers are shocking enough without knowing that it did actually happen! In the postscript, the author points out that the fever which was eventually discovered is still a major cause of death in less developed countries. As I found with The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, the historical aspect of medicine was fascinating – the ways which were accepted as best practice now seem almost barbaric.

I also thought that the demonstration of the social mix was an interesting idea and well-developed: the idea of a young doctor from a poor background, with a lawyer and a farmer for brothers, marrying into a once affluent family with sugar plantations in the West Indies; the settled politics and hostility to an outsider, particularly one who won’t play by the rules, etc.

I thought Alec Gordon was a bit too perfect and Elizabeth a bit too useless – in fact I found all the characters a little polarised, although Robbie was pleasantly well-rounded. Elizabeth had her own sub-story – her malaise at home, waiting for her husband to come back from house calls at the ends of the city, her detachment from her child – with which I didn’t have much patience. The marriage was depicted as very bitter, which seemed out of keeping with the two characters.

A pleasant and informative read, but not about to trouble literary prize committees.

The Distance Between Us – Maggie O’Farrell – 9/10

Summary: Stella runs away from her life in London to work at a Scottish hotel. Jake survives a crowd crush in Hong Kong, finds himself in the wrong life in England, and goes in search of his father in Scotland. Stella’s sister Nina has never coped well without Stella, and Stella’s Italian-Scottish family isn’t thrilled about her new life choices either…

I loved this. The bond between the sisters was so strong and real, and O’Farrell seems to have the knack of coming up with seemingly insignificant anecdotes which touch on the core of what she’s trying to convey – in this case, the protectiveness of a bigger (though younger) sister, teenage rebellion, different attitudes to life and love and yet that unswerving loyalty to one another.

Like in The Hand That First Held Mine, we have Europeans living in Britain, learning to be bicultural, touches of another language thrown in haphazardly – which appeals to me so much because it’s exactly what I have lived. According to Wikipedia, a stint working in Hong Kong (which she draws on in this novel) is O’Farrell’s only “foreign” experience, so I wonder where she got this bilingual slant from. Anyway, I think it’s fabulous.

Also as in THTFHM, there was a sort of mystery to be solved, or an undisclosed event which was revealed towards the end and had a transformative effect on the characters’ lives, but finding it out wasn’t really the aim of the book, which was quite pleasant. The deed in question was pretty clearly signposted but I didn’t think that detracted from it.

The reason this doesn’t get 10/10 is because the ending was a bit disappointing and twee – too neatly wrapped up. But I guess that’s a matter of personal taste.

 

The Missing Person’s Guide to Love – Susanna Jones – 3/10

Summary: Isabel returns to the moors of England for a schoolfriend’s funeral. The disappearance of her best friend aged 15 has never been resolved, but she has always suspected the dead man. Isabel now lives in Turkey with a husband and a toddler. Can she solve the decade-old mystery on a quick trip home?

This was a perfectly pleasant read until the ending at which the mystery was revealed… in a pretty pedestrian manner. It seems as though the author got to the end with all sorts of issues unresolved and decided to solve the mystery and throw in a twist and tie everything up in the space of 4 pages. Not happy at all with the ending (feels like a really cheap ending to a well-sustained mystery).

The main body of the book was all right – I liked the Turkish influence, and Jones describes the stifling town of the English countryside well – very few stay behind, and those who leave might as well be dead as far as the residents are concerned. Of course there’s an eccentric aunt who lives in London – I rather liked her. The mystery was sustained, although not really developed (the girl goes missing near the start of the book, all the motives and potential attackers are laid out almost straight away, and then there are no further developments for ages), for the whole book.

Not worth the time.

 

The Hand that First Held Mine – Maggie O’Farrell – 8/10

Having seen thisreviewed all over the blogosphere, I had to try it out for myself. It suffered a little for being the story of two generations, set in London in the 1960s and 1990s/2000s – just like The Last Letter From Your Lover, which I read immediately before it.

I found some parts of this really quite uncomfortable, particularly the evident trauma of birth and new motherhood on Elina and the obvious doom lurking around Lexie and Innes’ relationship. However, if anything that made this a better read – challenging the reader and not allowing the book to become a cotton candy-coloured cloud like Last Letter.

The characters were exquisitely formed – each very different and all strong and vibrant. I loved Lexie. Her fiery adherence to her principles in the face of the prospect of an “easier life” (particularly her refusal to apologise to her university – which I can only assume from the context is supposed to be Oxford/Cambridge – for using a door meant for men when exiting an exam hall and her seaworthy expletives while giving birth, despite the nurses’ admonishing). Innes and Ted are both strong male characters (for once! Everything I read seems to be filled with either philandering fools or foppish, useless Mummy’s boys) whose love for their partners is fierce and unyielding. Margot, too, is a solid creation, difficult and emotional.

My favourite character was definitely Elina, however. I was delighted to see an author tackle the bilingual experience – both the compulsion of the bilingual to speak their non-English language in certain situations, and the perception of this by their partner. And O’Farrell blesses Elina with inherent coolness (“Often, after one of those walking-about nights, she’d had that look the next day; a woman preoccupied, a woman with a satisfying secret”) which serves as a counterpoint to the exhaustion and apathy of motherhood.

For the first four-fifths of the book, this is simply two interwoven stories, when suddenly a mystery is flung into the plot, suddenly livening up the ending (by which point there’s not much space for character development any more) – which really impressed me.

I will definitely be recommending this, although I will have to advise readers to stick with it and get used to the back-and-forth chapters, which I found quite off-putting at first. Very much worth the effort.

Reviews from other blogs: Savidge Reads, dovegreyreader, Other Stories, Cornflower Books, Fleur Fisher

The Last Letter From Your Lover – Jojo Moyes – 4/10

This was the pick for the Open University Student
Book Club
and as there was an opportunity to win books, of course I went to
get this from the library… I have to say I was disappointed by the OU choice –
I would have expected a university book club to come up with something a bit
stronger. I should state at this point that I have no time at all for
infidelity – there is no excuse, and I’m tired of reading books about it.

This chronicles two affairs carried out in London – one in
1960s London where the wife of a mining magnate is unfaithful with a
journalist, and one in the early 2000s where a journalist has an affair with a
married author.

The 1960s wife has just awoken from a coma after a car crash
with no memory of anything before the crash, and attempts to piece her life
back together through her distant husband, vivacious girlfriends and aloof
mother. When she encounters letters addressed to her from an anonymous lover,
she realises that the distance she feels from her husband is not imagined, and
sets about trying to find the journalist. We see (in alternating chapters) her
life before the car crash, so we know all about the affair when she doesn’t –
which I found irritating. Better either to present the affair, the crash and
the resolution, or for us to learn about the affair with and alongside her.

Even more confusingly, we have interleaved with this a
terrible Bridget-Jones style story of a fairly useless journalist who can’t
stand her manager and is grumpy because her boyfriend, an author with a wife
and a small child, isn’t at her beck and call. I found Ellie irritating and
alienating, not least because she seemed to gain nothing at all from the
affair, which (of course) turns out to be rather expensive for everyone
involved.

Only the couple in love in the 1960s are reasonable
characters – everyone else (including the modern protagonists) are dull and
flat. Mostly it feels like this novel was written intentionally direct for
screen. I did find the scenes in the Riviera and the ideas of 1960s London and
the African conflict around the same time engrossing; and I loved where one of
the characters turned out to have ended up, but not enough to make up for the apathy
of the rest of the characters and plot.

A Faithful Spy – Alex Berenson – 8/10

I have a weakness for spy thrillers, but most of the ones I
have read have either been FBI/CIA/NSA within the USA (usually by David
Baldacci
, for whose plots I express unreserved awe mixed with amusement) or
secret international sect protected by naughty governments around the world is
exposed by brainiac with sidekick (Dan Brown and his copycats – some reviews here,
hereand here).

This one was a little different – following a CIA sleeper
agent inside Al-Qaeda. One of the reasons I really enjoyed this was that Berenson
considered the alienation and solitude of such a man quite carefully –
remaining undercover for 8 years in such a hostile environment, and then the
culture shock of returning to the USA after so long among fundamentalist and
militant Islam.

There was also a heavy focus on the Islamic motivations
behind Al-Qaeda, and the characters of a few of the “bad guys” were quite
thoroughly developed.

Of course we had the stock physical attributes – stocky,
attractive and slightly exotic male spy, leggy blonde promiscuous sidekick with
a past, uptight jobsworth bureaucrat with too much power… so that was a bit
disappointing.

Definitely worth it for spy thriller lovers – much better
than most of the usual fare!

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