A Blogging Good Read - February

Monday, 8 February 2016

Lack of internet has meant a brief hiatus over here - bet you didn't notice! All sorted now though and normal service can resume with the first Blogging Good Read of the year. Char and Lucy are back for more reading and reviewing.

I went for an old favourite - I Capture The Castleby Dodie Smith:

As you probably know if you've read more than about two BGR posts, my book tastes lean largely towards novels set in country houses. No surprise that I love I Capture The Castle then, is it? I'm just surprised I haven't chosen it already!

 The Mortmain family are rather down on their luck - a castle might be a romantic place to live but when your entire family income rests upon the shoulders of an author with writer's block, life isn't exactly full of luxuries. The Mortmain's social circle expands when a rich American family inherit the local hall and move in. The two sisters naturally see the American men as their way out of poverty (in a romantic way, obvs) and their pursuit unfolds, complete with an infamous fur coat incident.

The story is narrated by Cassandra, the younger of the two Mortmain sisters, and as with all first-person narratives, if you don't warm to her voice then you're probably going to struggle with the book a bit. I love her and I adore the book. It doesn't tread the path you expect and it doesn't end on the obvious note either. The fact that the girls basically have no money and no real prospects to escape comes across as a rather grim reality (albeit in picturesque surroundings) rather than just being a plot point. The book is still a joy though. Read it.

(I'm also going to recommend the 2003 film, mainly for young Henry Cavill.)

Did Lucy like it?

This book has become something of a cult classic recently but I must admit that when I read it some years ago I was not enamoured, though on paper a book about a young woman living a secluded life in a tumbledown castle with her eccentric family should be right up my street.

But I just didn’t get the hype. I found the characters quite fickle and self-serving and not likeable at all, and I find the way Cassandra addresses the reader directly quite jarring (I never used to like the straight-to-camera bits on Blossom or Clarissa either). I would have liked to have chance to read this again now to see if I still felt this way or if I’d missed some nuance the first time round and not really understood it, but unfortunately life got in the way and I didn’t have the time. It will be interesting to see what the others say about it and if they can convince me of a re-read!

What did Char think?

I'm ashamed to admit that I only read this book for the first time in March 2015. Since then I've listened to the Radio 4 dramatisation, and then read it again and thoroughly enjoyed it a second time around, too. I love Cassandra's way with words as she makes the castle come alive in her descriptions. Obviously, I like the other characters as well, but Cassandra stands out to me with her wry wit and her outlook on life. Definitely a book I'll keep coming back to.

Char picked Swallows and Amazonsby Arthur Ransome:

When my Mum was young, she lived in the Scottish Highlands and had access to an island and their own rowing boat. She used to tell me of this and I was always super jealous. Not many islands in the Midlands! I think this is the reason that I went through a childhood phase of reading as many island-y adventure books as I could get my hands on. I loved Enid Blyton's The Secret Island and Swallows and Amazons was up there - a book I read so many times. 

It's probably been fifteen years since my last read, but picking it up again made me remember how much I enjoyed it. I did this time around as well, although this time the parents' comment from the end of the book rather resonated with me. In response to the children saying they are planning to come back to the island every year, forever, their parents tell them that this is what everyone thinks when they are young. A poignant reminder that things move on?

I love this book so much. Ok, so I'm not entirely captivated by all the sailing malarkey (boats are decidedly not my thing) but it's easy enough to skip over those parts and just enjoy the rest of this rollicking good yarn. As Char has already mentioned, it's very like The Secret Island in tone and that's probably my favourite Blyton book, so it's a good sign.

Rereading it this time, I was struck by just how ace the parents are. The infamous telegram from their father at the beginning of the book has always really amused me but this time round I really appreciated how their mum lets them get on with their adventures. Obviously you'd never actually do this with your kids in real life (well maybe they did in the 50s, who knows?) but as a fictional scenario it works so perfectly and the conversations she has with them are utterly charming and adorable. In fact, all of the grownups are great. I'd completely forgotten the whole Captain Flint/Uncle Jim misunderstanding, apology and then the wonderful Battle of Houseboat Bay. Like the whole book, it's marvellous.

Did Lucy like it?

This was the only one of the three that I’ve not already read and -confession time- I haven’t managed to get very far through it, even though it was on my to-read list anyway. I gather it’s a bit “Blyton on a Boat”, telling of the adventures of four siblings who go off on a camping trip on an island by themselves, getting into all sorts of scrapes. It took me a little while to get into the linguistic style, and I really struggled through the first few chapters which were very heavy on the sailing terminology, but I’m actually starting to really enjoy it now and yearn for a simple life of camp fires, minnows, and vivid imagination!

Lucy chose The Readerby Bernard Schlink:

I’m a bit of a BGR veteran now and whenever I have to pick a book, I always try to go with one that has really affected me and remained in my consciousness long after I turned the final page. The Reader by Bernard Schlink certainly fulfils this condition, but I’m struggling to review it without giving away the entire plot. 

Our protagonist is Michael, a fifteen year old boy who meets an older woman by chance, and embarks on an illicit affair, in which he reads great works of literature and philosophy out loud to her in between bouts of passion, until one day she disappears. The first half of the book is the kind of writing I love, effortlessly simple and poetic, and dealing with the minutiae of the everyday.

Years later, Michael comes across Hanna once more, as a law student observing a Holocaust trial in which she is one of the defendants. Suddenly the pace of the book increases, or certainly the pace of my reading did, as we find out more details about Hanna’s alleged crimes, the possible motivation for her actions, and the reasons behind her plea. I devoured the last few chapters and was left reeling, mind racing with questions about culpability, shame, hindsight, and Hanna’s own question to the judge and jury: “What would you have done?”

Did Char enjoy it?

I hadn't heard of this book before so was intrigued. When the library finally managed to track it down for me, I got stuck in and was surprised at how easy I found it to immerse myself in the story. In a weird way the relationship between Hanna and Michael was probably the section I liked the most, although I thought it was clear from Michael's account that we as the reader are supposed to dislike Hanna. Yet, his obsession continues to haunt him, even though he thinks he will never see her again.

As for the reveal of the secret (I don't want to provide any spoilers!) I totally sympathised with Michael and the tough decision he had to make. I think he made the wrong choice, but can see his reasoning.

This is the point where I hold my hands up and admit I didn't read The Reader. Shame. On. Me.

I loved the film - does that count? No? Ach.  I did have every intention of reading it, I promise. The library let me down with the copy I'd reserved and then I forgot to buy one and oh dear, I am rubbish.

However, I've already read all three of the books for next month's edition! Woo me. If you want to join in with the chat and comments, we'll be reading 44 Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith, Gulliver's Travelsby Jonathan Swift and Murder Must Advertiseby Dorothy L. Sayers. 

Thanks Char and Lucy for taking part this month. You rock.

Books Of The Year

Thursday, 31 December 2015

I was pondering what I'd read during 2015 and struggling to decide on my book of the year, or even to narrow it down to a shortlist. Then, handily timed, came Janet's blog post about her 2015 reading. So I've borrowed Janet's categories (I did check first to see if she minded!) and here are my results.

Best Book You Read In 2015 (broken down by genre if necessary)

YA fiction
The Rest of Us Just Live Hereby Patrick Ness. This was easily one of the best books I read this year and it's a wonderful piece of YA fiction - clever, touching and dark.

Crime fiction
Mystery in Whiteby J. Jefferson Farjeon. Most of my crime fiction reading this year has been rereads so it seems a bit unfair to pick one of those. This was the perfect festive crime book - atmospheric, enthralling and very satisfying.

I love Adam Nicolson's writing about nature - he's one of the few people who can really get the sense of a landscape onto the printed page - but I think on balance I liked Gentry: Six Hundred Years of a Peculiarly English Classbest out of his books I read this year. It's more obviously about people than nature, but it's also very much about how ties to land and the duty of care towards a place you're only a temporary custodian of can shape lives. Honorable mentions to H is for Hawk(one of my BGR picks from earlier in the year) and Empty Mansions,which although it tailed off a little towards the end, was a fascinating glimpse into a lost world of unbelievable wealth.

Literary fiction
I read very little of this genre as a rule - recommend me some good, non-pretentious options please! - but We Have Always Lived in the Castlewas a real highlight of the year. 

I really must do a proper blog post or two about romance fiction soon cos it has so many separate genres within it that I could list about another 6 categories. Laura Florand is always brilliant and she writes super fast which is always nice! Her Paris books just edge out the new La Vie en Roses series for me, so my pick of the year from her goes to All for You. Tessa Bailey's Make Meand Chase Mewere both enormous fun and I am dying to read book 3 but it's still £6 on Kindle and I'm having a stubborn strop about it because on US Amazon, the bundle of the entire trilogy is the same price. SO UNFAIR.

And onto the more specific choices!

Most Surprising (In A Good Way) Book of 2015
I'm going to go with Carry Onby Rainbow Rowell. I'm a huge fan of hers but I think Fangirl is possibly my least favourite of her books, so the prospect of a spinoff from it didn't massively thrill me. Also I was very wary of just how much of a Harry Potter ripoff it was going to come across as. I very soon forgot about that though and it's a book that totally stands (and dazzles) on its own merits.

Book You Read In 2015 That You Recommended Most To Others
The Martian. Not that many of my friends and family have similar reading tastes to me but this was a great book with pretty broad appeal, so I tipped quite a few of them off about it.

Best Series You Discovered In 2015
The Game On trilogy by Kristen Callihan. I read book 3 (The Game Plan) first, adored it and promptly snaffled up the other two. Turns out that if you tweet a book review which basically reads "NFL playing, tattoed, manbun-wearing, virgin, beta hero", I autobuy it. I love me a beta hero.

Favourite New Author You Discovered in 2015
I'd be tempted to whack Kristen Callihan on the list but it depends what she writes next - her previous books are all paranormal historical romance and I don't get on with paranormal. I had a massive Jessica Day Georgemoment in April (lots of her books were available via my Scribd subscription) and loved everything of hers - I've picked one of the Princess books for BGR but the Dragon series is also excellent and the Castle books remind me so much of Diana Wynne Jones and there can be few higher compliments than that!

Book You Were Excited About & Thought You Were Going To Love But Didn't
There weren't many huge disappointments this year but Janet has excellent taste in books so I was expecting her BGR choice, This is Not a Love Story, to be good and I really didn't like it.

Best Book That Was Out Of Your Comfort Zone Or Was A New Genre To You
S.by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst is probably out of most people's comfort zone - it's utterly unlike any other book I've ever come across. It's really worth the effort though.

Book You Read In 2015 That You're Most Likely To Read Again In 2016
Loads of them! If I like a book, I'm very likely to reread it so pretty much everything else I've mentioned in this post will get picked back up at some point.

Favourite Book You Read in 2015 From An Author You've Read Previously
Take your pick from several of the above!

Best Book You Read In 2015 That You Read Based SOLELY On A Recommendation From Somebody Else
I think it's a tie between The Martian and S, both of which were BGR choices that I loved and would never have come across otherwise. Ooh, or possibly Longbournwhich was just as good as I'd been told it was.

Favourite Cover Of A Book In 2015
I don't own them, but I really want the new set of Penguin Nancy Mitford books. Those covers are stunning.

Book That Had The Greatest Impact On You In 2015
Call me shallow but I can't think of anything that was a standout.

Book You Can't BELIEVE You Waited Until 2015 To Read
Nothing is particularly springing to mind for this...um, does it count to say Carry On and The Rest of Us Only Live Here? Both authors are autobuys for me but the books were released in October and August respectively and I saved them both until the post-Christmas period, I think that deserves praise on my part!

Book That Had A Scene In It That Had You Reeling And Dying To Talk To Somebody About It? (a WTF moment, an epic revelation, a steamy kiss, etc.) Be careful of spoilers!
Wow, I really can't think of anything in particular. I quite often want to fangirl with others about things I've just read but I can't recall any particular scenes.

Favourite Relationship From A Book You Read In 2015 (be it romantic, friendship, etc)
There's no concealing my love for Dominique Richard, one of Laura Florand's French chef characters, and he popped up again in All For You. (Spoiler: he's still amazing. Treat yourself to a secondhand pb copy of his book, The Chocolate Touch ) His relationship with Celie is part boss, part big brother and completely lovely. 
Mikey and Jared in The Rest of Us Just Live Here are my new favourite pair of friends though.

Most Memorable Character In A Book You Read In 2015
Mikey from The Rest of Us Just Live Here haunts me a little bit.

Genre You Read The Most From in 2015
Romance. It's always romance and only in part because they tend to be shorter and easier to glom. Having said that, I read a lot of shit this year and I really need to start being more selective about what I spend my time on.

Best 2015 Debut
Act Like Itby Lucy Parker was a very pleasant surprise and I'm really looking forward to seeing what she writes next.

Book That Was The Most Fun To Read in 2015
The Church Mice at Christmasis part of my Christmas Eve tradition and it is so much fun to read. Lovely story and inspired illustrations.

Book That Made You Cry Or Nearly Cry in 2015
Loads of them! It's not hard to make me cry. I had a bit of a meltdown near the end of Adorkableand the start of The Shepherd's Crownmade me absolutely sob. Heartbreakingly poignant.

Book You Read in 2015 That You Think Got Overlooked This Year Or When It Came Out
Hmmm. Maybe S? Just on the basis that I had never even heard of it before reading it for BGR and I feel like it should be a lot better known. Also on that tack, I wish a lot more people knew about the existence of Laura Florand's books. They are a complete joy.

Total number of books read in 2015
338. Busiest month was April (59) as I was on holiday for a week and in a car for pretty much four solid days driving to Orkney and back. Quietest month was July with a feeble 13 - work kicked off big style and I had zero free time.

I don't do resolutions but in 2016 I definitely need to read more quality and less rubbish. 338 is a lot of books but it's surprising when I looked back at the list of titles just how few of them really made a mark. It's not a good sign when you read the title and author details and recall nothing about the plot and characters. And no, I don't have a bad memory. They just weren't very good! I'm open to any and all recommendations so please send them my way.

Christmas Is Coming

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

The run-up to Christmas is always extremely hectic at work and this year it was no different - I clocked up 80 hours over Halloween week, took a mild breather at the start of November and then it was full festive steam ahead, culminating in several 15 hour working days. Oof.  The plus side to all of this is that we shut up mid-December and I get to use up my annual leave by having three weeks off over the holidays.

It's not exactly peaceful to start with - I get no chance to do anything at home when I'm basically at work all the time, so when I'm finally off there's a lot of housework to catch up on! Also I don't know why but I always manage to forget about the pre-Christmas socialisation. I've been out for a party, a retirement meal, brunch, pub dinner and a birthday meal in the past six days! For shy old retiring me, that's quite some effort.

But the house is finally ready for Christmas and even if I do say so myself, it looks awfully pretty. My endless to-do lists are nearing completion and I am very much looking forward to a relaxing, fun, family time.

My stash of books to be read on Christmas Eve are waiting for me.

As it consists of Wodehouse books this year, I've christened my book tree the Whathohoho Tree.

I've even put baubles in the bathroom. Well, why not?

The stairs are garlanded

Appleyard London sent me this gorgeous Advent Bouquet which is brightening up the hall a treat. This is my usual spot in the house for fresh flowers but I was despairing of finding a Christmas bouquet I actually liked. This one is beautiful - the perfect solution!

Advent calendar has nearly all been scoffed

Cards are up wherever I can fit them and Father Ted is being brightened up by some holly lights.

Altogether, things are looking festive and jolly.

I'm now ready for a whole lot of loafing around, snuggling with Phil and reading books. Bliss.

Party Time

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Despite being a big old introvert who doesn't like parties, I made an exception for the work Christmas do. Well you have to, don't you? My colleagues are a lovely bunch, plus there was an open bar. Yoicks! I frocked up, whacked on some red lippy and went out.

If I were a proper organised sort of blogger, I'd no doubt have scheduled in a separate photoshoot outdoors, in daylight, in front of a colourful doorway to show off my outfit to optimum effect. Instead I completely forgot, got drunk and then flung my phone at someone at the very end of the night and shrieked "Don't take any pictures where I look fat!". Classy.

(Why, oh why, is red so hard to photograph? Admittedly we were in a fairly dark hotel lobby and both the photographer and subject had had a shandy or twelve but still, grrr.) This frock is the absolute perfect shade of red and I love it. You may have to see it in real life to appreciate what it actually looks like though.

London skyline tights FTW.

Dress - Dorothy Perkins
Heels - Shelly's, Spartoo
Bag - gift
Jacket - vintage, from Kinky Melon
Tights - can't remember! They're epic though.

Despite my antisocial tendencies, I had a lovely night.