A Blogging Good Read - October

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Hello all.  It's time for the October edition of A Blogging Good Read.  Joining me this month are Steph (who doesn't blog but you can find her on Twitter @mrs_sock ) and Danni from Danni the Girl.

The first book under discussion this month was Steph's choice, The Water Babies by Rev Charles Kingsley:

As a child, my mum's favourite book was The Water Babies by Rev Charles Kingsley. When I was a child she bought me a copy. It is a hard back edition and I threw the dust cover away as I preferred the underneath. I still have it. I tried to read it many times and this book has always lived on my shelf, it is a definite favourite, and yet I've never read every page. Until now.

Am I the first person to have been utterly disappointed with my book choice?  As with many Victorian stories, I found the text to be wordy and irrelevant, my brain was screaming "get to the point" and "what are you on about?" It's such a shame as I love the story of Tom the chimney sweep, how he becomes a water baby and the adventures he has. I just wish it was written by someone else. The moral of the story is clear, and I love the characters, who are well written. It is supposed to be a children's story but I can't see that most children would get past the first page. My mum has since told me that she had a child friendly version, so maybe if you want to read it you should try that one first!

What did Danni think of it?

Hmm. This was an unusual book. Loosely, it is about a naughty chimney sweeps apprentice who gets turned into a water-baby and goes through a journey to grow up and stop being naughty. The first half was ok once I had decided just to read it as a children’s story. It was ironic and clever and easy to imagine it being loved 150 years ago by slightly older children who didn’t like being patronised by the usual fairy stories.

BUT, mostly, and especially in the second half, it was just too much and I began to stop caring about the main character. There was too much fantasy (sorry, I don’t like fantasy), it was over-descriptive and a bit too moralistic. The ending was confusing and if I understood it correctly threw the rest of the story out a bit. To be honest I finished it not liking it, even though it started off well.

Ach, I didn't like it either.  The basic problem is that it is very much a piece of Victorian children's literature and you have to be on board with what that means: long sentences (extremely long - whole paragraphs in fact), a certain degree of patronising "as you may know, children" language and an awful lot of waffle.  It was particularly bad on the last point - the story would be chugging along nicely and then suddenly the author would go into pages and pages of whimsy about an imaginary character who had no relevance whatsoever. I ended up staring at my Kindle pulling the "huh?" face.

If you persevere beyond that, or you have a higher tolerance for Victorian writing styles than I do (admittedly mine is very low - it is not my favourite period), then I can see why it would be enjoyable.  The story is interesting and he sketches out the characters, even the minor ones, in lovely detail.  I can't help thinking that I'd have enjoyed the child friendly version that Steph mentioned more than this version though!

Danni chose The Paris Wife by Paula McLain:

My choice is The Paris Wife. A beautiful, descriptive but slightly melancholy story of Ernest Hemingway's first wife Hadley and their life in Paris. I chose this because it has fantastic descriptions, it's set in fabulous 20's Paris and yet the narrative voice is unsure of herself and her relationship while also being completely in love. It felt so personal I had to keep reminding myself that this was an authors interpretation not Hadley's real diaries - although a lot of what is written is based on reality.

Did Steph enjoy it?

Set in a time that seemed to be such fun despite the hardships faced, I was looking forward to reading this book. However, it left me a little disappointed. The story would hook me in for a few pages, be really interesting and then lose me for a few while the author waffled on.

The characters were generally well written, believable, and McLain brought Hemmingway to life. There was just something about the way the story was written that frustrated me. A hopelessly romantic account, highlighting that love is not always enough, and how once doubt sets in it can become a disease. There are better and worse books out there, but I can see why this is a favourite of many.

I thought there was a lot to like about this book.  A fictionalised account of Ernest and Hadley Hemingway's marriage: it's a simple enough tale about two very complex people. It's beautifully written and I wasn't surprised to read the cover flap and discover that the author is a published poet - her use of language is so lyrical. There's such a sense of place too. The book isn't just about Paris - it covers Prohibition era America, bullfighting in Spain, skiing in the mountains and glamorous, angst ridden holidays across most of Europe - and each separate location comes across in vivid, colourful detail.

Yet I wasn't entirely captivated by it overall and I think that's for technical reasons rather than anything else. I didn't like the drops into Ernest's point of view - they're not frequent but I didn't think they were necessary. I had similar issues with Hadley's omniscience. It wasn't entirely written as if she was looking back - most of the text solidly keeps you to the present of the story - yet there were odd, jolting moments where she'd refer to a story or a person and make reference as to what they went on to be and the fame they achieved. Neither were major flaws but they prevent me from entirely sinking into the book.

My selection was Ancestral Voices by James Lees-Milne:

This is a diary rather than a novel and it covers the period 1942-1943, a time when the author had been invalided out of the Army and rejoined the National Trust in his pre-war job as Historic Buildings Secretary. It was a very different organisation to the one you may know now, with hardly any staff and only a handful of houses open to the public. Yet this was a time when finances were dwindling, heirs were dying and country houses were fading out of their former glory. His role was to tour the country and talk to owners of these houses to see if any could be handed over to the Trust.

So this book provides a lot of upper-class gossip (he was v. well connected - friends with the Mitfords, Emerald Cunard, etc), a unique perspective on country house life, opinions on buildings (some of which sadly no longer exist) and it's also a vibrant account of life in London during the war. He's an acerbic commentator - his opinions are brutally frank and often rather bitchy - but he writes so well and this diary captures a long lost world in vivid detail.  It's an unusual book to pick and you do have to have your diary reading hat on when reading it, but it's one that I find endlessly fascinating.

Did it fascinate Danni?

This book to me was one of contrasts. It was good, but I wanted it to be over quicker; it was interesting, but there was too much information and although I liked the historical aspect, I wanted more personal information.  I thought the author James Lees-Milne was a very nice chap who just seemed so normal that I liked him immediately. I also really liked the language and I keep talking rather like the author now…

However as I said above, there was just too much information in this book for the average reader who knows nothing about historical buildings (Alex I’m guessing you were ok there!) or society at the time. It was really interesting to read the diary of a normal middle-class man in the middle of the war and the way all the middle/upper classes of society seemed to know and gossip about each other, but there were only a few names I recognised and really, there was a new name (or a recurring one that I’d forgotten) every few words. There are footnotes on every page which my eye was always drawn to but these just elaborated on the titles etc. of the people mentioned in the text.

If I wasn’t rushing this book (oops) I might not have minded that it just trundles along with no real “story” thread but then I also might have committed the sin of leaving in unfinished as I am a very lazy reader.
If you like diaries and non-sensational social commentary then this one is for you. However if you like storylines and big events in your books then I wouldn’t recommend it.

Did Steph share Danni's mixed views?

This is not a book I would ever have picked up by choice, I am no history fan. I can see why it appeals to Alex! I won't say that I loved it, but I didn't hate it either. It was easy to read, and because of the diary format, also easy to put down and come back to.

A very personal, but sharply written account. Milne gives insight into the times, and to how he felt as a young man, post discharge from the war. The characters are well observed. A must read for anyone with an interest in 40s/ WW2 era history, the National Trust etc. I would have been happier with more gossip and less houses!

Thank you ever so much to Steph and Danni for joining in.  There was a bit of an unintentional historical theme running through the picks for this month but if you'd like to read along and join in next month then the books under discussion are very different!

We'll be reading Goodnight Mr Tom by Michelle Magorian, The One From The Other by Phillip Kerr and Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. 


  1. :-) glad to have taken part, thanks for hosting it!

  2. I have a very old copy of the Water Babies - having grown up watching the film version a LOT when I was a child. Have yet to actually read it yet.
    I am STILL reading The Paris Wife, having completely fallen out of read mode. I must get back to it - I like what I have read so far!

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