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A Blogging Good Read - June

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Joining me for book chat this month are Becks from Just Me and Rosie from A Rosie Outlook. What did we read? Scroll down to see!

Rosie picked Cold Comfort Farmby Stella Gibbons:

I chose this book as it's been on my 'to-read' list for a long time and I thought it would be a good excuse to grab it down from my bookshelf. I've heard a lot of people say that it's a really funny, fun book and I fancied reading something quite light-hearted. I must say, it wasn't what I expected - it was written in 1932 and the writing style is very unique and I enjoyed the satirical elements and how it referenced other early twentieth century novels and novelists from the romantic/rural persuasion. It centres around the character of Flora Poste, who goes to stay with her cousins on a farm in Sussex. The characters who live on the farm, and her various relatives, are completely zany and bonkers and there is a good dose of out and out silliness in the things they get up to and that the protagonist gets involved in. It wasn't always 'laugh out loud' funny but there were a lot of things that did make me smirk and I really enjoyed getting to know the characters (I particularly liked the cows - Graceless, Aimless, Feckless and Pointless, one of which lost one of its legs somewhere on the farm and was considered being sold to the circus). It was an enjoyable, light read and I'd definitely recommend it.

I watched the BBC version of this long before I ever read the book and pretty much all I remembered was an aged crone shrieking "Oi saw something narsty in the woodshed!"  I finally got round to reading it a few years and had managed to forget enough of the specifics in the meantime to make this re-read almost like picking it up for the first time. I still really enjoyed it.  It's got that slightly arch 30s sense of humour about it that really appeals to me but minus the level of black humour that characterises other short comedic novels by other authors of the period. To sum up the plot in a couple of sentences: Flora Poste is orphaned and sets about finding one of her relatives to go and live with. Settling on the Starkadders of Cold Comfort Farm, she decamps to deepest, darkest Suffolk and sets about resolving their many problems.

It's not exactly a laugh out loud read (there aren't many authors that make me chortle outwardly) but I found it thoroughly amusing the whole way through. Who doesn't love a cast of bonkers characters and one sensible one who sets about sorting them out? I love the way it pokes fun at the cliched bucolic novels of the times and the general air of deft silliness that runs throughout the pages.  The one thing I always forget about this book is that little note at the start saying "set in the near future." My brain quite happily accepts handsome young posh vicars flitting about the country in planes instead of cars so it's not until the mentions of video phones and Anglo-Nicaraguan Wars start to creep in further into the book that I remember it. Still perhaps a touch jarring, but then this story does have a farcical tone so ultimately it's just one more element to nod and go along with.

Did Becks enjoy it?

I read this back in 2012 as part of my Not Really Resolution to read 12 Classics a year. I decided that I wouldn't need to read it again for this challenge and then remembered that I have the world's worst memory when it comes to books. I desperately searched in vain through my archives to see if I'd ever managed to write a review of it. Of course, I didn't. But I did call it the "biggest disappointment" of the Classics that year. Ouch. 

I think part of the problem was that I had such high expectations for it because people always go on about how it's a must read and how it's so funny and yada yada. I just did not hit it off with this book at all. I didn't laugh. I didn't care about anyone in it. I spent most of the time waiting for this moment of clarity when I would join in with everyone on the massive joke - but it sadly never happened. I felt like it was a poor relation to Evelyn Waugh's and Nancy Mitford's books and it is most telling that it is one of the very few Classics which no longer remains on my shelves, having been given to charity. A damning review indeed.

Becks selected Instructions for a Heatwaveby Maggie O'Farrell as her book choice:

One of the good things about having a much older brother & sister (11 and 13 years older than me) is that their stories about their childhood really do wildly differ from mine sometimes. I always remember them telling me about an immense winter where it snowed so much they couldn't go to school, my sister's birthday party being disrupted by the rolling black outs that were a result of the strikes in the 70s and one story in particular - the mega heatwave that took place in 1976. When I heard Maggie O'Farrell on the Open Book podcast talking about this book and that it was set during this infamous heatwave and that it was about my favourite kind of book topic, a family saga; I took it as a sign from above that I had to buy it. (Not really. I need no excuse to buy books.) To really get into the spirit of this book I took it away with me to America and read it in the 30 degree Phoenician heat in March. 

The book follows one family, the Riordans. The mother Maggie and her three adult children. When their father, and Maggie's husband, disappear, the children flock home and in the journey to discover why Robert has left we skip backwards in time to understand the inner workings of the family, which affects their reactions to Robert's disappearance. Michael Francis is unhappy in his marriage and unable to let go of 'what might have been', Monica having trouble being accepted by her stepchildren as well as dealing with all the burdens that being an oldest child comes with, and youngest child, Aoife, who is struggling with dyslexia and an estrangement from her family. I am a sucker for anything involving families and this was no exception, I lapped it up and the only thing I could find to complain about was that I didn't know more about each family member. I found O'Farrell's treatment and description of Aoife's struggle with her dyslexia particularly thoughtfully dealt with and I have to admire her ability to allow me empathise with all three children, even though there are actually several elements of their characters which more than verge on the irritating. In fact this book is proof that it is possible to write about families, allowing the reader to get involved in the characters, and do it in the space of a reasonably sized book. All too often, family sagas end up being that, sagas, which stretch over 5,000 pages. This book is to the point and yet still packed full of emotion and nostalgia.

What did Rosie think of it?

When I saw this listed as one of the books for reading this month I was really excited as I've loved every one of Maggie O' Farrell's books - her debut novel, After You'd Gone is probably one of my favourite books, and I love her style of writing. Although the book started promisingly, with her signature descriptive, poetic prose, I began to lose interest about a third of the way in and found that the book delivered interesting characters but very little in the way of a clear plot. 

The story revolves around one family and the relationships, politics and inner workings of all of the family members, and the main plot strand is that the father goes missing and they all come together in an attempt to find out where he has gone and what drove him to leave. The story however does not really focus on their actions or indeed, the mystery of his disappearance, but rather on their relationships, secrets and back-stories. The context of the heatwave of 1976 was woven in and out without any real significance and I must admit that I found the book generally fairly slow-going and unengaging. The book also almost 'fizzles out', with no real ending or conclusion, which I found really frustrating. As always, I enjoyed her writing, but I needed a lot more in the way of a plot and developments for me to enjoy this book.

I'd never read anything by Maggie O'Farrell before picking this up, although The Vanishing Act Of Esme Lennox has intrigued me from the library bookshelf many times. I can't call this book an unqualified success for me, although there were parts of it that I liked very much and I'll definitely be reading more of her work. Appropriately, given the setting, the language is involving and intense, verging on the claustrophic at times, and this worked so well. It really sucks you in and makes you keep reading. All the more impressive given that not much really happens plot-wise!

My main problem with it was that so many of the characters were so very annoying. I have limited tolerance for reading about people who have terrible, woe-is-me lives and it seemed like almost everyone in this book was drearily resigned to their fate, rather than actually doing anything about it.  I understand equal(ish) page time had to be given to all the members of the Riordan family but I have a sneaking suspicion that had this story been just about Aoife, I'd have liked it a lot more. She was by far the highlight for me: a really fascinating, beautifully described character.

My pick was Black Diamonds: The Rise and Fall of an English Dynasty by Catherine Bailey:

Quelle surprise: Alex chooses a book about an English country house. Bear with me though because this is something a bit different to my usual selection. It's non fiction for a start! It tells the story of Wentworth Woodhouse, the largest privately owned country house in England, during the twentieth century. Now I consider myself fairly knowledgable about country houses and I had never heard of this place before reading Black Diamonds. It's bigger than Blenheim for heaven's sake! How did I not know about it? That intrigued me for a start and the more you learn about this palatial structure - so big that it has wings christened Bedlam and The Village - and the Fitzwilliam family who lived there, the more interesting it all gets. As was common with so many country houses, Wentworth started off the century as a place of incredible wealth and extravagance and ended up as something very different.

The story of the downfall of the house throughout the twentieth century is inextricably linked with that of the coal mining industry and Catherine Bailey does a really interesting job of sharing both sides of the social history coin. So many books in this genre will focus entirely on the grander side of things but the family were very good, conscientious, local landlords and, in the best sense of the word, somewhat feudal.  It therefore makes perfect sense to tie in the story of the wider estate and tenants with that of the Fitzwilliams and the author has clearly done her research very thoroughly in this area, to contribute to the wider story as a whole. This book could perhaps do with slightly less of a focus on Kick Kennedy - she's relevant but we don't need chapters dedicated to the entire history of her first marriage and struggles with her religious scruples! - but other than that, it's very well written and hugely interesting. The ending of it never fails to sweep me up and make me hugely angry with that small group of people with a vindictive agenda who thought it was ok to desecrate our heritage in such a way, against the wishes of almost everyone concerned.

Unfortunately Rosie ran out of time to read and review this one (fair enough - it's a not exactly a short book!) so we'll move on to what Becks thought of it:

On paper this should be a book that I would love - family saga, lots of historical facts, set in Yorkshire - but somehow I just couldn't really connect with it. I found Bailey's writing style a little irritating. I like my non-fiction to be non-fiction - I don't want you to add in flowery "The moon was shining like so and so and the smells were like this...." - you can't know that, don't say it! I also found it rambled a little unnecessarily at times. I think this is probably a result of trying to piece together the life of a family that destroyed all its records in the 1970s. The amount of research she must have had to have undertaken to piece this story together must have been vast but there was a sense that she wanted to put in everything that she had found out. 

I think this book probably suffered from a few things that may have led me to judge it unfairly:- I read it after having completed the final book in the Game of Thrones series. If you've seen the size of these books you'll get it. I was tired and embarking on another hefty book might not have been the best idea.- I already knew a lot of the political story from doing A-level History which made it feel like a slog- I read it on my Kindle and I just don't love reading books on that I'm afraid. Having said all of that, after a long time I did really start to enjoy this story and was really grasped by the 'decline' of a family set against the backdrop of the changing political landscape. But I had to get a good 40-50% of the way through the book before I became interested and if it wasn't for the fact that I had to read it for this feature I would probably have given up on it.

Thanks Becks, thanks Rosie! We didn't all love each other's choices but sometimes I think that makes for a more interesting review!

Joining me next month are two different book lovers and we'll be reading The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden by Jonas Jonasson, Pompeii by Robert Harris and The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. See you then!


  1. Oh Alex, you are naughty, you keep making me spend money! Your fantastic reviews were then followed with next months reads and among them a Neil Gaiman that I have yet to read, clicking on your link seems to have transformed into a purchase of the said book! Can't wait to read it now.

  2. I loved Cold Comfort Farm! Great post :) Really curious to read the other books...

  3. Oh man yes I forgot about the Kick Kennedy thing! I was on the train reading that part and when I figured out it had nothing to do with ANYTHING I nearly went round the twist. If it wasn't for the fact it was at the end I think that might have been the last straw for me!

  4. I found the old-fashioned futurism of Cold Comfort Farm a bit off-putting too. Like Becks, I had heard so much about how it was brilliant, funny, touching, etc, that I ended up a bit disappointed. I'm glad I read it though.

  5. I too am a huge Maggie O'Farrell fan but I also felt that the story in Instructions for a Heatwave was just a bit weaker than her other books and it limped towards an ending, although there were still plenty of passages that made me long to be half as talented a writer as she is. I would definitely recommend both Esme Lennox and The Hand that First Held Mine as stand out novels though.


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