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A Blogging Good Read - June

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Joining me for the inaugural edition of A Blogging Good Read are Bex from Futures and Char from T*rexes and Tiaras.  Bless them both for coping with my timescales and reading so fast!  People joining in for future editions, you will have more notice than they got.  Promise.

To summarise what this is all about, we each pick a book, explain why we chose it, then the other two read it and review it.  Simple as that!

First up is Char's choice, Handle with Care by Jodi Picoult.  Here she is to explain why she chose it:

Since reading My Sister's Keeper a few years ago, I've been a bit of a fan of Jodi Picoult's books and have subsequently read my way through most of them. I like that fact that she is a step or two away from what is commonly considered chick-lit, and that her books deal with some of the more emotionally involving issues. Her books often feature a court case, which I think is one of the things which draws me to them; during my degree I was always intrigued by the details surrounding the cases we studied.

In Handle With Care, Willow suffers from osteogenesis imperfecta, causing her bones to break easily at the slightest impact. After a particularly severe injury, Willow's parents decide to take legal action against the medical practitioners whom they feel should have notified them of their unborn childs' condition, in order that they can bring a 'wrongful birth' case to court. What follows is an emotional struggle for Willow's mother, Charlotte, to decide whether or not she can stand up in front of the court, her best friend who happens to be her doctor (and more so in front of her daughter) to tell them she would have preferred it had her child never been born.  The impact of the court case hangs over the whole family, all of whom deal with it in their own ways, and all of whom tell their stories to Willow throughout the course of the book, which I like. I remember reading this book and that the story stuck with me for a while afterwards, which I always consider to be the mark of a thought-provoking read and I will be interested to see what the others think of it.

So, what did we think of it?  Over to Bex:

As a mother myself, I was dubious to how I'd find this novel. I did enjoy it although I could see certain incidents happening pages before they did and I found Charlotte to be a very selfish and self-centred character who didn't seem to care how this court case was affecting the people she should be caring about most: her husband, her children, her best friend. I would liked to have found out more about Marin's story, as I felt both her story and the court scenes were a little rushed and I was a little disappointed with the ending.

As for me, I must admit I didn't like it very much.  I tend to come away from Jodi Picoult books feeling as if I'd been beaten around the head with 500 pages of Important Issues and so I haven't picked one up for a while. I was hoping things would be different this time but alas not.

For starters, I'm not especially keen on switching narrative points of view so regularly throughout a book, especially when it's written in second person.  It makes it even more of a difficult read when you actively dislike most of the characters and can't warm to a single one of the narrators.  There were certain issues within this book that were a bit of a sore spot for me, plus I only have limited patience for books so heavily focused on motherhood and birth, so I can't say I was ever going to be the ideal target reader for this one.  But having said that, it did have its good points.  For such a big book it was very readable and some bits of character backstory were delightful - it's just a shame they were so brief. And I'll give the woman her dues because she's certainly done her research into the topic! I liked the courtroom scenes best so would have enjoyed it more had the book been slightly more balanced in favour of this element, but overall, it's just not for me.

Bex's choice was The Girl on the Landing by Paul Torday and she chose it for quite a mysterious reason!

I recently received it through the post, no idea where it came from. I took a look at the blurb and it seemed like a very interesting read - obviously someone thinks it is interesting enough for me to read too!  This was the book I was most wary of, I really felt like I wouldn't enjoy it. It was actually my favourite of the three! The way Michael and Elizabeth tiptoe around each other really helped the story develop, they were both too frightened to confront the 'elephant in the room'. I find it a little hard to believe that in all their years of marriage, Michael managed to hide that big a secret from his wife, but the way it comes out is definitely explosive!

So what did I think of it?  Firstly, I agree with the pull out quote on the cover above.  The way that the story is revealed is both clever and gripping and the novel unfolds in such a way that it's actually quite difficult to write a review of it because I don't want to spoil it for anyone who hasn't read it.  It starts off very sedately - just an ordinary tale of two people who are settled in their ways after ten years of marriage.  Then a brief encounter with the mysterious girl on the landing and everything is different.  It doesn't seem sinister at first but things very swiftly start to unravel and I zoomed through the rest of the book to try and discover what was really happening.  Torday is very clever in how he plays with ideas of truth and reality and the idea behind one possible explanation for Michael's behaviour absolutely fascinates me, although I can't elaborate for spoiler reasons. 

And here's Char's review:

Another author I hadn't read before. For the first hundred pages or so I found it a little bit pedestrian; plodding it's way between Michael and Elizabeth's narratives with each chapter, and I didn't feel like there was much to the plot. As I got further on, however, I began to think this was probably Torday's intention. The slow and steady thumping of the plot started to become a little eerie, reflected in Michael's nature and actions. Once Michael meets the girl on the landing, life for Elizabeth and Michael begins to change. All of a sudden (or so it seems to Elizabeth) their marriage becomes so much more fun; suddenly there are spontaneous weekends away and Michael's most important bedroom task is no longer hanging his trousers in the trouser-press. His priorities change, and Elizabeth enjoys this to begin with, although after a while is wary that there is a reason for this, so begins to search. As she gets closer and closer to finding the truth, the pattern of the alternative narrative chapters is broken, and a more chaotic pace ensues, leading up to the crescendo, which I think is effectively reflected in the circumstances of the ending. Without wanting to spoil any of the plot, all I will say is that I did end up enjoying this book a lot more than I thought I would from the first few chapters and that it's definitely worth a read. 

Finally, onto my choice, The Secret Countess by Eva Ibbotson.  I'll just mention at this stage that this book was originally published under the title The Countess Below Stairs which I think is a much better (and more accurate) title than The Secret Countess.  As both Char and Bex mention in their reviews, Anna's past isn't exactly a secret in the book.

This book utterly charms me.  It was the first of Eva Ibbotson's books that I ever read and I loved it so much that I now own everything she's ever written, even the books that are solidly aimed at the under 5 market.  This one in particular is my go-to comfort read.  It's not complicated or issue-ridden, it's just a very good story, beautifully written and described.  The (not-so) Secret Countess is Anna Grazinsky, part of an aristocratic Russian family who have had to flee their homeland during the Bolshevik Revolution and start a new life in England, in much reduced circumstances.  She goes to work as a maid at Mersham, a large country house which has been a bit unloved during the war years and is now being spruced up for the return of the new Earl and his new (and extremely rich) fiancée.

In the hands of a lesser writer, this would be all cliches - swooning embraces behind the potted plants, cardboard characters and the evil fiancée destroying their happy little world.  It's not.  It's magical.  Well ok, Muriel is a complete horror and she does manage to upset an awful lot of people, but even that is is done beautifully in a very insidious sort of way.  The characters, even the minor ones, are so real and vivid that the worlds of Mersham and post-WW1 London sparkle to life.  It's the mark of someone really talented that they can write such a large and interesting cast of characters. Eva Ibbotson has passed away now, and she never did write sequels anyway, but I am still a little bit sad at the fact that I'll never be able to read about the Honourable Olive as a grown up.  God, I would have loved that book to be written.
Anyway, I could talk about this book all day but I should try and let the others get a word in edgeways. Did they like it as much as I do?

Bex said:

Although it took me a little while to get into, I grew to love this book tremendously, falling a little bit in love with Anna myself and thoroughly detesting Muriel and the loathsome Doctor. I was willing everybody to find out Anna's true identity for chapters before it was actually revealed and found myself getting angrier and angrier with each near miss. This book provoked emotions in me, I really felt as if I was involved personally.

Char's thoughts were:

 Although I hadn't read any of this author before The Secret Countess, I must admit when I read the overview on the back, the premise sounded familiar. I was expecting something heart-warming and gentle, and I wasn't disappointed. Russian countess Anna gets thrown into poverty and is forced to join the team of servants at Mersham, an English manor house. I thought it a little odd that the existing servants all knew immediately that she was well-educated and of a higher class, and that also it became obvious fairly quickly to Rupert upon his return to the house; the countess didn't seem to be much of a secret to me.

I enjoyed the gentle nature of the story, although felt Anna's character was perhaps a little too storybook-perfect. She seemed to have no trouble at all getting all of the members of the house -including the dog- to love her.
I took an instant dislike to Muriel and was therefore pleased when Proom's plot to get rid of her was taking shape. Proom and his servants tied up all of the loose ends and managed to get Anna back to Mersham and into the arms of her beloved Rupert, in an ending which I felt was sweet but perhaps a bit too speedy. A sweet, happy ending though and an enjoyable read.

Hope you all enjoyed this edition!  Have you read any of these books?  If so, I'd love to know your thoughts on them.

I'll be back at the start of July with two other contributors and three new books.


  1. Great reviews! I loved seeing the 3 opinions! That said, I am relieved I didn't join in in the end, it's been a bit too crazy to fit it in (and also Jodi Picoult-ahgrh!!) but love the fact you chose Eva Ibbotson, one of my favourite authors! A great start!

  2. I dislike the new covers and titles of republished Ibbotsons. I find them generic and cheesy. I understand that publishers believe their target market to be young adults, but I don't understand why they would actively choose to limit the books appeal with bad cover design.

    The problem with Eva Ibbotson is that her heroines are cookie-cutter perfect, so Pollyanna-like. The best of the lot is the heroine from Which Witch and Anna comes in a far second. The worst was the heroine from A Morning Gift; I wanted to reach into the book and murder her. That said, Ibbotson's heroes are the most wonderful outside Austen and Heyer—intelligent, witty, and sufficiently flawed. Quin, Rupert, and all the other heroes would be worth the read alone, but IMHO it is the humour in her prose that makes Ibbotson one of my all-time favourite writers.

    And yes, someone needs to write a book on the Honourable Olive. If it is even possible to do Eva Ibbotson justice.

    I am not going to touch Jodi Picoult, but I will give Paul Torday a try. I think it's time to read some grown-up literature. :)) Thanks for coming up with this idea, Alex, I can't wait for your next installment!

    A Plus B in the Sea

  3. What a great idea! The Girl on the Landing especially sounds like my cup of tea. As if I need more books to add to my Amazon wish list :) Jen x

  4. The Girl on the Landing sounds really good, I may have to visit Amazon. I really enjoyed reading the reviews, great idea x

  5. It makes such a good idea hearing (reading) other peoples views on the same books. Like Jen said it give you ideas ready to add to your own reading list.

    X x

  6. I loved "A Countess Below Stairs" when I first read it a few years ago. Maybe it's time for a re-read.

  7. I love 'The Secret Countess' it's such a lovely book.
    I guess you're right in the fact its in a cliched genre and subject but I love love love this book! It sweet. I think I need to re-read it now!

    ~Hannah xx

  8. Brilliant start to the series. Looking forward to July already. Must get online and order my Aug read before time creeps up on me and we're there already! xx


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