Summer in books

“My personal hobbies are reading, listening to music, and silence” – Edith Sitwell

It’s been pretty quite round here on the Western Front, hasn’t it? There’s been much going on behind the scenes but alas, very little of it exciting. On the plus side, I’ve got a lot of reading done recently…

M. R. C. Kasasian, The Curse of the House of Foskett

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After enjoying the first in the Gower Street Detective series, I looked forward to devouring this one. Building on our characters and bringing them out their shells, I enjoyed the changing relationship between our personal detective Sidney Grice and his young ward, March Middleton (more than the mystery, which I found surreal and confusing at points). It’s daft, there’s some tongue in cheek humour which won’t appeal to everyone (I enjoyed the silliness in amongst the rather dark observations of Victorian London), and March’s back story was a little jarring despite how necessary it was, but I still found myself looking forward to picking it up. What can I say? Period murder mysteries are my thing.

Alexander McCall Smith, The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine

Screen Shot 2016-07-11 at 22.25.16The Number One Ladies Detective Agency series books are – to me at least – comfort in literary form. The characters are warm and inviting (but suitably flawed, McCall Smith is a romantic but a realist), and despite not having read any of the more recent instalments, I enjoyed diving back in. The main plot involves Mma Ramotswe taking her first ever holiday and struggling to leave things to Mma Makutsi (the fear of being undermined or usurped is one that a lot of us probably recognise…) but it was the sub-plot involving a young boy Mma Ramotswe becomes involved with which I felt was particularly well woven in. Samuel’s tale contrasts the wealthy side of the main characters with the reality of the poverty of Botswana and without being jarring. Easy to read but thought provoking.

Marian Keyes, Angels

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After struggling to finish a couple of her later novels, I realised there were a couple of earlier Keyes’ books I’d not read – and I’m glad I gave this one a go. Rather slow to get going, it focuses on Maggie Walsh, the eldest of the five sisters, and her ways of coping with the end of her marriage. What could (particularly given Maggie’s backstory) be a rather dark tale ends up being brightened by a couple of dated and ridiculous, but still entertaining, sub plots. Cheese aside, it’s Keyes’ sense of humour combined with her uncanny ability to tap into the darkness in people’s lives which make her writing so enjoyable, and in Angels she goes one step further, adding a powerful manifesto on Irish women’s rights into the mix. Much more than the chick lit label.

Jean-Paul Didierlaurant, The Reader on the 6.27*

screen-shot-2016-09-07-at-20-57-22After seeing this pop up on other blogs and hearing good things about it, I was excited to continue my foray in to French literature. Every morning Guylain reads random pages from discarded books to his fellow commuters, as a form of therapy for the way he spends his day. Any literature lover will empathise with his predicament – his job involves destroying the very things he loves, and gives him huge amounts of pain. It was the very simple premise which drew me in, although I found myself rolling my eyes a little at the over the top descriptions in the first few chapters. I’m glad I stuck with it, as I loved how the quiet Guylain was drawn out – through his support of his former colleague and his new found elderly friends, and later as he develops a quest to find the owner of a diary he ‘rescues’. It’s hard to discuss without giving away the plot too much, but I loved the way in which so few characters told such a rich story. Highly recommended for a rainy afternoon.

Trudi Canavan, The Magician’s Apprentice

screen-shot-2016-09-07-at-20-58-20I’m a latecomer to Canavan’s trilogy, which introduces us to Sonea, a slum girl who realises during a street riot that she has magical powers. Cue a chase, and a disagreement about who will be her mentor… I’m not sure how I felt about this one. While not a fan of fantasy fiction in general, I did enjoy the back story and setting. But oh, it’s slow – so slow that I found myself zoning out a little – partly because it feels very much like the book is scene setting for the rest of the trilogy, and partly because very little happens. It passed the time, but I’m not sure I’ll be rushing out to pick up the next one.

Fern Britton, Hidden Treasures

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Every now and then I find myself picking up something ‘easy’ to read – a bedtime book, if you will. I went for it after seeing some good reviews. Oh, how wrong they were… it was terrible. The (probably not ghost-written, given how bad it was) plot revolves around Helen, who relocates to a little village in Cornwall and rapidly finds that the vicar is in love with her, while she’s got a thing for the local ‘historian’. That pretty much says all you need to know – stereotypes, clichés and some questionable subplots abound. Please, recommend some better alternatives to me!

Susan Cain, Quiet

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I’ve been meaning to read Quiet for a few years, so when I finally got around to it, after watching Cain’s excellent TED talk, I had quite high hopes.  I really enjoyed parts of the book – discussing the ‘history’ of extroversion in the USA and how the cultural shift towards group work and behaviour happened was interesting, as was the (only) scientific part discussing amygdala responses, but I wasn’t convinced by the rest. At a couple of points, I felt that Cain hadn’t quite worked out her definitions (this, by Elaine Aron, whose book I read a few years ago sums it up nicely) and I found that undermined her points somewhat. I suspect this is the downside of a non-fiction work written by an interested enthusiast. It’s very approachable, but it’s clear that Cain isn’t a psychologist (or even a journalist) and that’s ultimately what lets it down for me.

M C Beaton, Agatha Raisin and the Haunted House

screen-shot-2016-09-07-at-21-02-14Another attempt at a bedtime book – I read the first few Agatha Raisin books online a few years ago and thought I’d have a go at revisiting the series. It started off optimistically – a fun and silly Cotswold set murder mystery, but was marred somewhat by a lot of padding and a slightly daft (i.e. highly implausible) love triangle. I suspect the downside of the series is that, for the most part, the eponymous heroine’s home village provides an excellent supporting cast. When the mystery is taken outside, as in this case, the ‘charm’ is somewhat missing and it all feels a bit… flat. Entertaining enough but not the best book I’ve read recently.

Agatha Christie, Poirot’s Early Casesscreen-shot-2016-09-07-at-21-02-57Ah, this is more like it. Eighteen short stories, all featuring our favourite Belgian, as told by his sidekick Hastings. Brought together in the 1970s into one book, the mysteries were originally published in the Sketch periodical and American anthologies before being brought together, and there is an element of Agatha Christie in ‘training’ in a few of them. Coming after, chronologically speaking, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, which introduces Poirot, they very much set the scene for what is to come –  murders, thefts and scandals abound. Unlike some of the novels, in places the mysteries can be a bit rushed (unsurprising, given the length) and it does feel a little like the recurring characters are in “development” but as a one-a-night collection, they’re ripping good fun.

J.K Rowling, Jack Tiffany, Jack Thorne, Harry Potter and the Cursed Childscreen-shot-2016-09-07-at-21-03-37Is it a book? Is it a play? Is it a book and a play? Given my distaste for sequels, prequels and any form of ‘spin off’ (literary forms more so than televisual), I was reluctant to read HPATCC and it took me a few weeks after the rest of the world to get around to it. Honestly? I wish I hadn’t. The plot was… sketchy (rushed, and without the padding which makes the original series so ‘real’), the characters were nothing like their younger selves (Ron in particular infuriated me, as his portrayal as a rather dim and bumbling idiot was such a step backwards from his character arc) and all I could think was “this is fan fiction”. Perhaps it works for the stage – I don’t know – but nothing about it worked for me.

Katie Fforde, A Summer At Seascreen-shot-2016-09-07-at-21-04-36I’m not sure why I bothered, to be honest. I knew it’d irritate me from the off – our heroine is Emily, a single woman in her early 30s, who loves her life… so of course the plot line is that she’ll fall in love and give it all up. Of course she will. Because a single woman in possession of a successful career must be doing it because she’s secretly in want of a husband. Add in an unrealistic set of friendships with an old lady and a young girl, a will-they-won’t-they romance, the Northern Lights, some negative stereotypes about GPs attitudes to home birth, some complete falsehoods about an English trained midwife not being able to work in Scotland, and you have yourself A Summer At Sea.

 

And so there we go, a decided mix from the last few months. It’s been rather handy to reflect back – definitely a good way of working out what to read next! Any suggestions for easy reading but not terrible books will be gratefully received…

 

*provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

In Loving Memory

imageOne of the advantages of walking, as opposed to hopping on the bus, is how much more I notice. Rather than pull my book or phone out, I have an audiobook or the radio in my ears and taking my time means little things catch my eye.

Over the last year I’ve passed this bench several times a week on my way to work, but I only noticed it recently. There’s a lot of benches dotted around the city, so it’s not until I stop to tie my shoelace on one of them that I read the inscription. Now every time I go past I wonder a little about who Ms Warne was. Her bench is outside of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, so I assume there’s a link there. But fearless and independent? What a wonderful way to be remembered – there’s so many things I want to know because of her simple epitaph.

Did she have adventures? Did she stay at home and push for things she believed in? Was she actually a bit of a nightmare – one of those people we hate to work with but are also in awe of? And would she have held court and entertained us with her stories if she’d joined me and my friends for brunch? I suspect so.

 

Art On Sundays

image Back at the beginning of May I made a bit of a pledge to myself. Do more with my weekends. Get out. See things. Go places. Be brave, and go alone if there’s no-one to go with. Be brave, and go alone even if there is someone to go with.

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Why? Well, if I’m completely honest, I’ve found myself struggling with motivation recently. My day job involves talking to lots of people, and I am an introvert. It’s inevitable that a quiet weekend of pottering about the house, going to the gym, and cooking myself something lovely is how I’ve ended up switching off.

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I’ve also realised that there’s a difference (for me at least) between switching off and relaxing. Switching off is distancing myself from work. Relaxing is re-energising by doing things I really enjoy. If I’ve got a week, that happens organically but if I’ve got two days? Not so much. I’ve mentioned before about how I struggle to relax, and after various conversations with friends I’ve realised that to relax on a weekend, I need to do stuff.

imageAnd so, back to my May pledge. I’d got myself into a bit of a rut. I was over tired from work, and verging on bored. I’d hygge-d my way through winter, but now it was well and truly summer and I was beginning to resent my own lack of productivity. When it’s 23C outside and you can hear children playing in the park over the road, it’s no longer comforting to spend the weekend lying on the sofa watching box sets. Instead it feels lazy.

imageI made plans. I put something in my diary for every weekend – preferably something I could do on my own, but also things I could combine with my usual Sunday afternoon catch ups with friends if I felt like it.

imageAnd it felt good. It worked. On Tuesdays (the worst day of the working week for me, usually my longest shift), I’d start to look forward to my activity rather than looking forward to my own space. I took part in a sketching class hosted by one of my favourite museums with a well known local artist. I spent a weekend learning the basics of ceramics and working with clay, and discovered that using a wheel is much harder than it looks on TV. I visited a local arts festival (although admittedly spent longer sampling the local beers with a friend than browsing the exhibits) and discovered a new gallery round the corner from my house.

imageIt’s been good. It’s reminded me of when I lived in London. I used to take great pleasure in visiting the V&A, stopping half way round to read my book in the cafe with a pot of tea and a meringue the size of my head. I’d head home feeling like I’d achieved something with my day off. The downside of living in a beautiful vibrant city is that it’s easy to become complacent. The museums, the galleries and the festivals will always be there. It’s been lovely to take advantage of it – and now that I’ve forced it to become a habit, I know it’s one I’ll keep.
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May in books

“Doctor Who: You want weapons? We’re in a library. Books are the best weapon in the world. This room’s the greatest arsenal we could have. Arm yourself!” – Russell T Davies

A hit and miss month, in which I venture away from my usual crime novels – and find a gem – and attempt to build on my recent ‘self help’ disaster and get no further…

Anna Mazzola, The Unseeing*

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Sarah Gale, a seamstress with a young illegitimate child, was sentenced to death for her part in a murder – that of a love rival – in Victorian London. The case was sensational, given the brutality of the killing and the distribution of body parts across the city, but Gale’s story has disappeared into history. Mazzola has brought back Sarah Gale in this reimagining of a true crime, telling the case through the eyes of the struggling young lawyer brought in by the home secretary to investigate the conviction. But why is Sarah so reluctant to receive the help she needs? What is she hiding?

It’s incredibly difficult to review this book without accidentally letting out an enormous spoiler, partly because the plot is so very simple. The portrayal of Gale herself is the biggest success, simultaneously appealing to the reader because of her vulnerability, but also one of the most infuriating protagonists I’ve come across (there were a few times I wanted to shake her!). Characters and murder aside, I’d probably say the biggest theme in The Unseeing is how utterly horrific life was for impoverished people in the nineteenth century. Gale’s fall from grace, mirroring that of another minor character, is a stark reminder of how vulnerable many women and children were.

Frustrating, exasperating and at times harrowing – I loved it.

Heron Carvic, Picture Miss Seeton*

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When retired art teacher Miss Emily Seeton leaves a Soho theatre and finds herself a witness to a stabbing, little does she think that it will draw her into a dark criminal underworld involving drugs, murder and mayhem… 

A forgotten classic from the 1960s, Carvic pastiches the earlier Golden Age spinster detectives in Miss Seeton, who is somewhat of a cross between Miss Marple, and Mapp and Lucia. Miss Seeton isn’t the most intellectual of heroines, and I found this rather refreshing – rather than setting out to solve crimes, she does it by accident which means we get to know our supporting cast rather better than in other cosy crimes, but also allows Carvic to introduce a lot more dry humour along the way. I’ll be honest, the plot had me slightly baffled (clearly I wasn’t paying enough attention to pick up the finer details in the opening chapters – it’s both silly and subtle) but I enjoyed the period setting, and the 1960s backdrop allowed for a little bit more scandal than my usual Agatha Christie crimes. Not my favourite crime read of the month, but recommended for fans of the classics.

Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

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Brown, a social worker by background, draws on years of academic research to offer ten guidelines for wholehearted living – or – on how to live with authenticity. Reflecting on topics including courage, compassion and shame, Brown encourages her reader to develop confidence in themselves.

I was really looking forward to reading this – having first heard of Brown via her marvellous TED talks and enjoyed reading some of her online articles, I was expecting to get on rather better than my first foray into the world of “self improvement”. After all, Brown is an academic, and my inner snob was reassured that someone with a PhD in the topic would be worth listening to. And so I downloaded the audiobook, listened while I was walking home from work for the rest of the week… and that’s all I have to say. Bizarrely the entire 7hour tome seems to have gone in one ear and out the other because I remember next to nothing, other than a couple of anecdotes. I realise this makes for a rubbish review but in some ways I think it’s telling that, despite my initial hopes, this book made absolutely no impact on me whatsoever. Oh well – lesson learnt… no more self improvement for me.

Marie-Sabine Roger (trans. Frank Wynne), Soft In The Head*

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Originally published in French, the inspiration for the 2010 film “My Afternoons with Margueritte” has been retranslated and republished for an international audience. Following the friendship of Germain, a mid-40s man with a learning difficulty who bonds with mid-80s Margueritte over pigeons in the park, this gentle tale explores friendship and family – and the joy of reading.

Oh, how I devoured this one – it was the perfect accompaniment to a long train journey. Easy to read, charming and with gentle but realistic characterisation, I really enjoyed getting to know our leads, particularly gentle Germain. Roger manages to draw out a realistic depiction of someone who calls himself “soft in the head” without putting a label on him (a rather nice contrast to The Rosie Project), exploring Germain’s neglectful childhood, and allowing the reader in to understand just why the friendship is so important to both Germain, and Margueritte.

I don’t want to give away too many spoilers – this is another take with a very simple plot, but again, because it’s done so beautifully well it works. The translation was excellent (sometimes I feel that humour or wordplay are missed, both of which are a key feature here), the only criticism I would have is that it’s very French and I found myself googling references to literature at several points. That aside though, a gorgeous read. Highly recommended.

 

*provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Five Things I’ve Realised By Going Vegetarian

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About a year ago, after many more years of deliberating and cutting down, I decided to go veggie. Except I didn’t. My attempts at changing my eating patterns came just before I went on a ten day cooking holiday to Italy, so that put a dampener on things, and then I was a bit worried about telling friends and being that awkward dinner guest, so I ended up being a veggie who ate meat when other people cooked for her. Oh, and the occasional bit of fish because fish don’t have feelings and because I was doing some research into Vitamin D for work, and became convinced I was deficient.

I properly became a veggie after a week at home over Christmas, which included a day when I managed to eat five different types of pie in one twenty four hour period. Yes, five. Yorkshire is amazing. But, like most people who indulge in things which they don’t normally eat, I felt incredibly unwell and decided It Was Time.

Now, I’m not going to bang on about why I made my choice (see my first point below) – but I have been pondering diet, health and food, particularly as it’s National Vegetarian Week. And so, I present Five Things I’ve Realised By Going Vegetarian.

Nobody Really Cares

It used to be that being a vegetarian was a sign of fussiness, a political statement or an attempt to be interesting – luckily things have moved on since my mum’s 1980s foray into the world of lentils and about 20% of my age bracket are now veggie. I’ve read a couple of articles written by vegetarians who are apparently interrogated about their food choices but I’m happy to say that either my friends have better manners, or they’re just not bothered. Vegan seems to be the new thing. As always, I’m behind the times.

Eating Out Is Boring Now

So boring. It’s pretty much macaroni cheese, mushroom risotto, or a sodding veggie burger. Occasionally a beetroot and goat’s cheese tart. I quite frequently look at the Instagram food pictures of friends in London, Leicester and Manchester with envy. Despite Edinburgh apparently being the vegan capital of the UK (I’m raising my cynical eyebrow) options are usually pretty dull unless you go to one of the vegetarian only restaurants in town.

No, I Don’t Miss Bacon

I’ll admit that I’ve not been asked whether I miss bacon (I’ve never been a massive fan) but it does seem to be trotted out as a standard quip whenever giving up meat is mentioned. The thing I do miss? Oddly, it’s sweets. I have a weakness for chewy sweets, most of which are made with pork gelatine which does sneak its way in to a lot of things. Low fat yoghurts were a particular surprise. For a lot of veggies this isn’t a big deal, but it’s pork in particular which I’m keen to avoid, so thank goodness for M&S and their green eared Percy Pigs.

I’ve Become Obsessed With Protein

When I was a student I’d be chatting to my mum about cooking and she’d frequently ask me about my protein levels. I never really understood what her obsession was… and now that is me. I find myself frequently bemused by vegetarian recipes which have no protein in them, irritated by people who tell me that I’ll be deficient in all sorts of nutrients if I don’t eat meat, and I have recently discovered the joys of almond butter. I don’t know who I am anymore.

Life Becomes An Ethical Minefield

I am one of life’s over thinkers, and therefore this probably won’t surprise anyone, but the more I contemplate the ethics of vegetarianism the more I worry that I’m going to become that woman who only eats bananas. I can see how people become vegan and why buying leather shoes could be hypocritical – but then I also don’t like the idea of oil-based plastics and I’d rather have one high quality pair that will last me two years. Choosing makeup brands which don’t do animal testing is straightforward, so I’ll stick with that. Ultimately I think it’s about picking your battles and my one woman crusade against mushroom risotto is currently absorbing most of my energy.

April in books

“Where is human nature so weak as in the bookstore?” – Henry Ward Beecher

April saw me (yet again) ignore blogging… But I did read a bit, so there’s that…

Daphne Du Maurier, Jamaica Inn

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When 23 year old Mary Yellan’s mother dies, she finds herself alone, and travels to Cornwall to live with her Aunt and Uncle at Jamaica Inn. Finding herself in the middle of a smuggling ring, Mary must establish week is telling the truth – and how to stay safe…

I read Rebecca years ago and enjoyed it, so I was intreagued by how different Jamaica Inn was – while the rather Gothic tension was familiar, that was the end of the similarities. Jamaica Inn isn’t the most challenging book I’ve ever read – the plot is surprisingly simple – and at times I found myself wondering why it is so lauded. It’s slow. Nothing much happens until the last few chapters. The “twist” isn’t really that surprising… But it is incredibly atmospheric, something that I find a lot of more modern novels lack. I suspect I would have enjoyed it more if I’d been curled up next to a log fire with the wind and rain outside, but it was a good pick anyway.

Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic

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Elizabeth Gilbert, bestselling author of Eat, Pray, Love, shares her advice and wisdom on living creatively in this self help slash biographical tome. Outlining the reasons why people don’t explore their creativity, and encouraging us to ignore the “fear” which stops most of us from exploring our full potential, Gilbert writes frankly about her own experiences to encourage the reader.

I’ve found myself struggling to find my creative mojo recently. In absolutely no way did this book help – if anything, I finished it feeling more frustrated than I did to begin with. While I have no doubt that Gilbert is well intentioned, her never-ending stories about her own success frustrated me and I found it increasingly repetitive. This could be because I listened to it rather than read it, which did tend to emphasise how little she actually says. A one hour TED talk? Yes. A six hour audiobook? No. Ultimately it also failed to address the key reason that a lot of people I know are not “living creatively” – frankly, we’ve not worked out what we are good at yet. If you’re into her books, or think writing is your thing, give it a go. If you’re looking for advice and inspiration? Don’t bother.

Rosalie Ham, The Dressmaker

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Myrtle Dunnage shocks the Australian town of Dungatar when she returns from a long absence to look after her mentally ill mother. Why do they all think she is cursed? Why did she leave, all those years ago as a teenager? And how did she become such a skilled seamstresses? Rosalie Ham’s debut novel, set in the 1950s, explores themes of prejudice, love… and fashion.

After seeing trailers for the film version of this book at the beginning of the year, I decided to give the original a go. Myrtle – now known as Tilly – is a fascinating lead character, an outcast who has been wronged by her community, and I enjoyed watching her revenge playing out over the course of the novel. To an extent though she is more of a vessel to tell the story of a town inhabited by individuals who struggle with their own happiness, and despite the slow first third of the book, I found the ekeing out of the stories of the other personalities just as interesting as Tilly’s, if not more so. It’s hard to describe The Dressmaker without giving anything away, but its fair to say that Ham has a knack for drawing a character and I found myself both laughing and crying at different parts. Worth a read, particularly if you didn’t catch the film.

Alexander McCall Smith, The Novel Habits of Happiness

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The tenth novel in McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie series sees our philosopher heroine drawn into a mystery of identity – that of a small boy, Harry, who is convinced that he has lived on this earth before and who is unsettling his mother with tales of another family. Isabel’s professional life is also thrown into disarray as she discovers that her unpleasant former colleague may be relocating to Edinburgh…

There’s several reasons I enjoy McCall Smith’s “philosophy” series, and I suspect they are the same reasons that other people don’t. The setting is in many ways the star, which suits me fine but I suspect would put others off as the nuances (such as the significance of where characters live) are likely to be lost unless you know Edinburgh. Similarly, McCall Smith has a tendency to add in smatterings of what I can only assume are his own interests – Auden poetry and ruminations on morality for example – and I do find myself wondering if there is an element of biography in the series. But despite these niggles he writes an excellent character and is one of the only male authors I can think of who can successfully write a woman. One of the reasons that Isobel is such a strong lead character is that she is flawed, particularly in this book, where she finds herself repeatedly ill at ease. In many ways not much happens plot wise, I suspect that it’s largely scene setting for later in the series, but even still McCall Smith offers a gentle but firm reminder to his readers that quite often our assumptions are wrong – and that the adage that we are all fighting our own secret battle is often worth remembering.

Kerry Greenwood, Flying Too High

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In the second of the Phryne Fisher mystery series, we discover that our daring investigator is not only clever and beautiful – she’s also an excellent pilot! After a rather daring day at an airfield, Phryne is asked to investigate two different mysteries. The first – the murder of an unpleasant businessman whose son is protesting his innocence despite being charged. The second – the kidnapping of a young girl just weeks after her father wins the lottery. Can Miss Fisher save the day?

After enjoying the first in this series last month, I thought I’d keep going and give the second a try. In many ways I enjoyed it more than the first as we get to know not only Miss Fisher a little better, but her growing band of sidekicks too. The novel itself is pretty short but captures the essence of the 1920s incredibly well, particularly the controversial nature of women’s roles in society. While it would be easy to write off the series as daft, frankly I’d rather call it entertaining fun – and we all need a light-hearted read now and then. I’m looking forward to the next already.

March in books

“Eating and reading are two pleasures that combine admirably” – C. S. Lewis

March saw me reading more than I blogged (whoops), although February’s habit of getting a few chapters in before deciding a book “wasn’t for me” took a while to wear off. Luckily a couple of long train journeys and a few days off work did the trick, as did speed reading a couple of choices for Alex’s Blogging Good Read series!

Henry Marsh, Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery

Screen Shot 2016-04-10 at 20.25.24Part autobiography, part philosophy, Do No Harm is a collection of short anecdotes by one of the world’s leading neurosurgeons. Published in the months leading to his retirement, the book chronicles both Marsh’s own career and the changes to the NHS over a forty year period.

I picked this up on a whim after being vaguely aware of good reviews, but it took me a long time to get round to reading it. It was worth the wait – this is one of the most moving and thought provoking books I’ve ever read. Marsh has an astonishing way of exploring the people behind the operations he performs, and is incredibly honest in describing how he remembers his failures rather than his successes (a scene where he visits a former patient in a long term care facility and realises that he recognises many of the names is heartbreaking). He explores his own ego and is surprisingly aware of his own faults – this makes him all the more impressive, particularly as none of the ego is demonstrated when he talks about his voluntary work teaching in post-Soviet Ukraine. Don’t let the somewhat gory subject out you off, Do No Harm is much more an exploration of life, death and kindness.

Helene Hanff, 84 Charing Cross Road

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First published in 1970, this collection of letters between Ms Hanff, a writer in New York, and the staff at Marks and Co., situated on Charing Cross. Spanning four decades and hundreds of exchanged parcels, the letters begin some unlikely but lifelong friendships.

It’s an unusual book, this. I often find letter- formed stories hard to read, so I listened to it as an audio book, which worked well. The upside of the letters is that, as far as we are aware, they are all real and the correspondents slowly come to life as the years go past. The downside? I can’t help thinking they are edited. There are considerably more from Hanff to the bookshop than the other way around, and unfortunately I found the London characters much more interesting. Hanff comes across, despite her generosity to the staff in sending food parcels, as somewhat of a diva, and I often found myself rolling my eyes at her. It’s a pleasant enough tale but unfortunately not quite up there with The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society, which I couldn’t help but compare it to.

Michelle Birkby, The House at Baker Street

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When Sherlock Holmes turns down the case of Laura Shirley’s blackmail, his housekeeper Mrs Hudson is appalled – and is convinced that she can help. Roping in Mary Watson (and several other familiar characters), to help her, she quickly realises that lives are at stake as well as reputations.

I’ve already mentioned how much I enjoy Holmes adventures, and this was a rather good spin-off. I found the first couple of chapters rather frustrating (lots of “more on that later” type talk which never quite got explained) but the story quickly became gripping and I found myself racing through it. Conan Doyle pretty much ignores his female leads, so it was fun to have them come out of the shadows. The plot itself was quick paced, and although there were the usual historical liberties taken, I easily forgave them, because it was an enjoyable read. I hope there’ll be another in the series soon.

Kerry Greenwood, Cocaine Blues

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The first of the Miss Phryne Fisher series, Cocaine Blues introduces us to our heroine. Phryne is persuaded to return to her native Australia to investigate the suspected poisoning of a family friend, and finds herself caught up in a mysterious Cocaine racket – with dangerous consequences…

After enjoying the Australian TV adaptions, I thought it was time to give the novels a try. Phryne is not your typical 1920s heroine, she’s sparky, scandalous and would fit in rather well with my group of girlfriends – despite her modernity being a little jarring against the backdrop at times, she is rather marvellous. In some ways, the mystery is secondary as the book is really a scene setter for the rest of the series (it reminded me of the pilot episode of a TV show, introducing people rather than plot), with Melbourne’s seedy underworld being explored and Phryne’s new friends introduced. For the second time this month, though, I’m looking forward to the next adventure.

Jostein Gaarder, The World According to Anna

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Published on the twentieth anniversary of his famous “Sophie’s World”, Gaarder’s latest novel is a Young Adult tale of a teenage girl who finds herself receiving messages from the future, when her great granddaughter asks her to stop climate change.

I was really looking forward to reading this – having never quite got around to picking up any of his other classics I was excited to see what the fuss was about. Oh, how disappointed I was. Gaarder’s premise was interesting, but there was no explanation of how Anna recived her messages, and the characterisation was, in my humble opinion, dire (particularly Anna’s psychiatrist, who was a cartoon). I also found myself rolling my eyes at how far fetched and inaccurate some of his assumptions of climate change are. I’m not the biggest fan of YA, as done badly it can read like it was written by a YA, and sadly this fell into that category. Not for me at all.

Who Are You? What Do You Do?

CramondA couple of weeks ago I met a friend for coffee and a catch up. After a while, we got to talking about meeting new people (she’d been to a wedding as a +1 the day before) and how, when you’re an adult, the first things people ask when they are introduced to you are “how do you know the host?” and “where do you work?” When we were teenagers it was about the music we listened to, at university it was the course we studied. Both were vague indicators of personality or taste. Our jobs? Not so much.

Most of my friends fall into two categories. Those who knew what they wanted to be when they were starting their careers and are now doing it (the doctor, the primary school teacher, the musician). The rest of us have fallen into our jobs with varying degrees of satisfaction. I suspect, if we are really honest, a lot of us just don’t know what we want to be when we grow up. Some folk are ok with that, some are not.

For the friend I met for coffee, talking about her job is a source of frustration. It’s what she does – but it’s not who she is, and while she is unhappy at work, she’s enjoying so many other ways of spending her time. She volunteers. She runs. She’s doing an evening class. But those things rarely come up in conversation.

It led me to thinking about how I’d answer “how do you spend your spare time?” if I was asked that, instead of about work. I swim. I read. I cook. I lift weights. I go to art galleries and museums. I practice my photography. Except, as I realised while talking to my friend, I’ve not been so good at doing those things lately. When I’m busy with work and tired at the weekends I find myself putting hobbies on a back burner. I end up putting off who I “am” in favour of what I “do” to pay the bills.

With that in mind, I dragged myself to Cramond with my camera on Sunday and went for a walk along the beach. The light was awful with clouds rolling in over the Forth, it started to snow, and the wind was howling. I only took one, maybe two decent pictures, but it was so nice to be out in the fresh air, reminding myself of how I enjoy spending my spare time and forcing myself to switch off and relax.

February in books

“Most of what makes a book ‘good’ is that we are reading it at the right moment for us” – Alain de Botton

This month I have mostly been getting two or three chapters in to a book before realising it was due back at the library, or getting bored and deciding that it wasn’t for me. Any bedtime suitable page-turner recommendations? In the mean time – here’s what I did finish…

M R Kasasian, The Mangle Street Murders

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When Marge’s beloved father dies, she moves to London to live with her guardian, Mr Sidney Grice, the famous personal detective. On her first evening in his home, their tea is interrupted by a woman desperate for their help – her son in law is being tried for murder, and she’s convinced he is innocent. Marge believes her, but Mr Grice is not so sure…

I thoroughly enjoyed The Mangle Street Murders – largely because of the unusual starring characters, more than the mystery itself. Marge, an outspoken gin drinking rebel, would be welcome on a night out with me any day. Her uncle? Not so much… Grice is an unusual hero, an unpleasant vegetarian with a penchant for a cup of tea, he’s clever and entirely motivated by money. At least he’s honest about it. The murder itself wasn’t a huge surprise to me (although there were some fun twists and tangles), but I’ll be reading the next one with glee anyway.

Jojo Moyes, After You

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After You picks up where Moyes’ bestselling Me Before You left off (consider this your spoiler warning…), revisiting Lou as she tries to come to terms with what happened when we first met her. Eighteen months later, and she’s living in London, working in an Airport bar, barely in touch with her family. But then she has an accident, and a visitor, and she’s drawn back into Will’s world.

I loved Me Before You. Loved it. I did not love After You. While I was keen to revisit the story, having since read more of Moyes’ books, I was sceptical as to where the plot would take Lou next. When we left her, she was grieving but ultimately the first book ended on a high, with options and possibilities in Lou’s future. After You sees them dashed rather spectacularly (to say nothing of the personality transplant our leading lady has had in the mean time) and Moyes relies heavily on additional characters to push the story forward. I eye rolled a lot. Never a good sign.

Lesson learnt: don’t read sequels.

Dan Brown, Inferno

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The fourth in Brown’s series (so, technically not a sequel) about Robert Langdon, cryptologist and star of his famous Da Vinci code, Inferno begins with Langdon waking up in a Florentine hospital with no idea how he got there. He quickly realises it’s related to a mysterious alerted image of a painting depicting Dante’s Inferno. But why does Langdon have the image? Why is he being chased? And why does he keep having flashbacks?

Sometimes you just to suspend all intelligent thought and go with the flow of a book in order to enjoy it. This is one of those books. The plot was bonkers. Utterly ridiculous. A polymath doctor and a university professor solving riddles which may save the world from an unknown major threat? With the UN involved? Three weeks after finishing it I still have no idea what on earth was going on – but regardless, I did enjoy it, probably because it was set in Florence and made a lot of references to nice art and buildings. I’m not sure I’ll be rushing to read another though.

Anna Freeman, The Fair Fight

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The Fair Fight tells the tale of Ruth, born and raised in a Bristolian brothel in the 1790s. Too ugly to join the family trade, she finds herself training up as a pugilist – a boxer. Intertwined with her story is that of Charlotte, her financial backer’s affluent but miserable wife.

The first thing that struck me about The Fair Fight was the language. The crude local dialect brought the characters to life quickly, and I loved how Freeman changed her words to indicate the social class – and genders – of those giving the narrative. I also really enjoyed the setting, for once not in London, and not the aristocracy. Parts of the novel are brutal, particularly in the descriptions of neglect and poverty, but they are so subtly written in to the plot that they don’t stick out or become judgemental. The only downside? The multi narrative format. As well as Ruth and Charlotte, a third character, George, tells the majority of the first third of the tale. It’s jarring, in a book about women – although he gives additional details and context which pop up later, I found his section long winded. An impressive debut.

Orkney

imageI started a new job last year, quite a step up from my last one, and I’ve finally got my head around it. It takes a while to work out where the pencils live, how the photocopier works, and how to fill in what may be the most complicated time sheet I’ve ever seen.

The job is going to involve quite a bit of travel – in no way is this as exciting as it sounds (think Boots Meal Deal on Scotrail rather than sushi on a BA flight) – although I did find myself on Orkney last week.

I’ve never been to a Scottish island before. Despite being fond of history and scenery they’ve never been on my to-visit list, so I didn’t have any particular assumptions before I went. From the taxi driver who told me his entire life story to the security lady at the tiny airport who joked that my makeup was being “randomly” drugs tested because I was the only woman on my twenty five seater flight, I was pleasantly surprised by how friendly and welcoming everyone was (although my colleagues did laugh and wish me luck when I mentioned being vegetarian while asking for dinner suggestions…)

Despite it being decidedly wet and cold and Februaryish, I found an hour to explore Kirkwall in between meetings while the sun shone. I’m so glad I did. It turns out Orkney’s history is pretty unusual and interesting (and completely new to me, as my degree was in modern history), and still present in the culture of the islands and the beautiful Orcadian accent.

Despite the main site being closed for the winter, I took a quick tour of the outside of the Bishop and Earl’s palaces. Built in the 12th century when Kirkwall was the leading settlement of the Norse northern islands, the Bishop’s palace was the home of the founder of the spectacular St Magnus Cathedral over the road. The Earl’s palace, on an adjoining bit of land, was built in the early 17th century after the then Earl of Orkney decided he wanted something fancier. He was apparently a strong contender for the least pleasant nobleman in Scottish history and a fan of slave labour – but he built a rather spectacular house…

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Over the road from the palaces is the spectacular St Magnus Cathedral, which dates back to 12th Century and is the most Northerly cathedral in Britain. I do love a graveyard – I find the tombstone inscriptions fascinating – and St Magnus’ was a testament to the history of the island with stones dedicated to the memory of young sailors alongside those of more affluent men who left the island for Edinburgh.

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imageNow that I’m back home and thawed out, I’m finding myself more interested in finding out about Orkney – and it’s neighbour Shetland. I hear there there’s an excellent series on the BBC at the moment (although I’m not sure it’s a documentary…)