Monday, 27 January 2014

My Animals & Other Family - Clare Balding

I have to admit to having only a passing knowledge of who Clare Baldwin is but, as a friend had read this autobiography and recommended it, when the opportunity to read this for the Britmums' Book Club arose I thought I'd give it a go.

As the title suggests, Clare uses the different animals in her life to track her experience of childhood, from dogs to ponies, weaving a tale of personal and family struggles with humour and affection.  Fortunately you don't have to be a big horse racing fan to enjoy reading it, although an appreciation of the importance of pets is probably a factor.

The style is very easy to read and the humour carries you through what could otherwise be at times a rather depressing story of wealthy child neglect.  From a work-a-holic, distant father to a domineering grandmother and a downtrodden, unsympathetic mother, Claire childhood was not ideal.  However, she responds - both in childhood and as a writer - to her treatment by these three characters without any self-pity and with a rare understanding of the situations each was in.  I can only imagine that writing this was cathartic for her.

I did find myself sympathising with her mother more often than not as Clare describes her 'rascally' behaviour - not really naughty, but certainly heedless.  I can imagine this woman, with little support from husband or mother, trying to manage a headstrong, tomboy of a daughter who seems to have little appreciation of danger, and ultimately despairing.  In fact, there are occasions when I found myself wondering how Clare - or more often her brother - managed to survive the various accidents and incidents that occurred through her own impulsiveness or her father's carelessness.

As she grows up her passion for horses carries you into the world of horse racing, and you'll find yourself wishing you could join her in the chase.

A great book to read on lazy evenings in front of the fire, with  your own children safely tucked up in bed.  Or, dip in as time allows to read a chapter or two, revelling in the affection of animals and the crazy capers of small children and the drive of young people with ambition.

Saturday, 30 November 2013

The House on the Strand by Daphne DuMaurier

I have never been quite so surprised by a book as The House on the Strand.  Not only by the story itself but by my enjoyment of it.  I was literally having to force myself to put it down at night or I wouldn't have slept at all until I finished.

The story begins with mystery and continues throughout to build until the first mysteries are revealed but another has been formed.  The themes fall into the category of "Journey", both personally for the main character and into the past.  Addiction, obsession, love - that's how some have described it.  I probably wouldn't have read it if you'd told me that's what it's about (although it is in part) but it's more than that - it's about the power of science, the risks of exploration of any kind, self discovery, faithfulness, loosing yourself, friendship.

The story centres around an experimental drug that enables the main character, Dick Young, to view the past - specifically the 14th Century past of the part of Cornwall where he is staying.  He gets increasingly drawn into that world, and as a reader I found myself in the same predicament as him - emerging from the book struggling to remember exactly what was fiction and what was my reality as I look around me.  This, I think, is the power of good fiction generally - wondering why the sun is shining when you were just in the middle of a blizzard in your mind.  The intense power of the drug transports Dick into the past in a way that becomes more real than the present although he can only watch and any attempt to interact with the past brings him abruptly back to the present.

A master at work, the story has pace and originality.  The characters are described in such a sympathetic way that I felt myself sharing the author's obvious affection for them all, with all their flaws and struggles.  The shift from past to present throughout the novel is refreshing, keeping my interest in each parallel story and I didn't feel frustrated as I do sometimes with other books that jump between worlds in this way

I would highly recommend the book to anyone who likes a very human mystery.
Go to for more reading suggestions.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I very consciously did not watch the film before approaching this book.  The first thing that strikes as I started to read was the sheer extravagance of the sentence structure.  This is entirely a matter of taste, and of course the writing era,  but for me it is overdone and distracting - on one page I noted there were only four sentences.  The plot itself is a very simple one with very little in the way of subplot, making it a very quick read - assuming you can get your head around the writing style.
The narrator is the only character to whom I warmed at all.  I have no doubt that this is intentional.  The story is about the brokenness of people, obsession, corruption, the carelessness of wealth and you are not meant to sympathise with the characters.  You are meant to share the narrator's disgust when he scratches the very thin veneer and discovers the corruption lying beneath.

The story is often disjointed, jumping between plot elements without warning at times.  I found myself re-reading pages to see if I had missed anything and I hadn't.  It's a little bit like a dream sequence, slightly fuzzy with moments of intense clarity, jumping from one thing to the next and back again.

Yet, having said that, it is a compelling and engaging story that draws you in.  Atmospheric and slightly haunting.  Well worth a read if you have the time to concentrate on it.

Monday, 26 August 2013

Valentine Grey by Sandi Toksvig

I wasn't sure what to expect when I picked this book up, certainly not the compelling and compassionately told story that I found.
In some ways this is a book about rejecting society's expectations and choosing your own destiny, with Valentine choosing to reject the staid, controlled society of Victorian women to go to war as a man, and her cousin Reggie choosing to explore the apparently liberating homosexual underworld of Victorian London.  Neither quite gets what they expect, and the result is the ruin of one and the making of the other.  A story of self-discovery, of loss, of friendship, of war, of humanity and inhumanity.
The settings, both in London and in South Africa, are evocatively described, rich in detail.  The plot unfolds with honesty and increasing intensity, not shying from the brutality and inhumanity of war or the disfunction of forbidden love.  At times deeply disturbing, it is a story about the human spirit and well worth the struggle.

Monday, 19 August 2013

Dusting Down Alcudia by D A Nelson

This is a new book by a fellow blogger ( and author of the YA books DarkIsle and DarkIsle: Resurrection.

The story follows the adventures of Nina, a young archaeologist working for the British Museum, out to solve a historical mystery - searching for a legendary Roman necklace in Mallorca, where her father came from.  It fits in what I call the "Archaeological" genre - sub genre Romance.  Think Romancing the Stone rather than Indiana Jones and you'll have the right tone.  Along the way Nina has to deal with some romantic entanglements from her past and has to discover who she can trust.

If you're looking for a light, entertaining read, this is definitely worth a try.  Once I'd started reading, I didn't want to put it down and would have happily read into the night if my commitments had allowed it.  Hopeless romantic that I am, I desperately wanted to know how the relationships
would develop.  The love scenes come under "Oh... I'm blushing" on the Ask Me About Books website analysis and, being a bit of a prude, I certainly was - even skimming quickly over them.  The plot itself is not particularly taxing on the brain, but there is enough action and mystery to keep it interesting - just don't expect the kind of complexity you'd find in Matthew Reilly books.

The descriptions of Mallorca are lovely and the scenes with Nina's Spanish family are very rich and engaging.  Nina herself is an endearing character, incredibly naive and slightly pathetic at times.  I did find myself growing impatient with her as the story progressed, wishing she would show a bit more common sense.  I'm tempted to say she's brash and foolish, but it's more that she's completely obsessed with her search and a bit childish in her reactions to what is happening.

All in all a fun read - definitely one to put on your e-reader to take on holiday.

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Dear Poppyseed by Alice Grist

A Soulful Momma's Pregnancy Journal

In essence this is a book about the spiritual journey of a pregnant woman.  It is a very personal account, full of personal hopes, personal philosophy and personal struggles.  Some people will find it speaks exactly to where they are at; others will find many elements that they connect with while appreciating someone else's perspective; still others will find themselves puzzled by the experiences Alice describes.  If you're not engaged with the story after the first entry, don't read on - it's not for you.  That said, I think those people will be in the minority.

As someone who is deeply spiritual, but in a very different way, I found this book somewhat challenging to read from that perspective.  I will do my best to write an open review, but if you're uncomfortable with new age philosophies, I would advise you to avoid this book.  I, personally, found myself intrigued with her thoughts and experiences.

Alice's journey is a unique one in her spiritual choices and path, but at the same time, at heart, what she expresses is something most mothers will have felt on some level - the joy of feeling that small life growing within you (although many will not feel anything in the early months).  When someone is so connected with her own spirituality, her own self, it is not surprising that she would have a greater awareness - perhaps because of greater expectation - of what is happening to her body, and her reflections make fascinating reading.

A mother of five, who has learnt to be at peace with my own chaos, I have always enjoyed being pregnant, that sense of privilege having a new life given into my care.  And so I feel great sympathy with the emotions Alice expresses - yet I can't help a certain amount of fond scepticism reading the hopes and expectations of this new mother and smiling knowingly as she comes to terms with elements of this truth:  As spiritual as it is in essence, (for me) pregnancy, childbirth and parenting is probably one of the most earth bound things in practise.

One of the lovely things about this diary, is the way Alice writes to her child, describing the world they will enter with a real grace that recognises the bad and encourages the good, wrestling with her own fears.  I think we all, as parents, need to help our children to have a realistic picture of the world - protecting them, without leaving them unprepared; arming them without creating anxiety or aggression; empowering them to be the agency of positive change in the world they are born to.

Alongside the spiritual journey, which is the unique selling point of this book, this is simply an honest description of the emotions, struggles, joys, guts and gore of pregnancy - and not just pregnancy but relationships and self-discovery.  It's about the hopes you have, the things you resolve you will do, and the ways you measure up to and fail those hopes and resolves.  If you are pregnant I would recommend trying to read it alongside your pregnancy rather than all in one go.  If you read it before you're pregnant, I think you'll find the whole thing a bit overwhelming - but then that is true of many birth stories.

Reasons you might like this book

If you like books that are beautifully written, the style is emotive and elegant
If you feel being pregnant is / was / or should be the centre of your life while you experience it
If you want a fresh perspective on what is happening in your body that goes beyond science or even emotion.
If you enjoy life stories

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Keen reader age 7 seeks books...

My daughter is reading Terry Prachett's The Colour of Magic.  She is seven years old, and although we went to the mobile library that comes to our village and picked up two new books only yesterday, she has nothing to read - having read them both already.  So we look to our book shelves for something suitable for a seven year old - and something interesting to one as well.

Daddy hands her The Colour of Magic and she settles down to give it a try.  "Mummy what does 'Astrozoologist' mean?"  Understandably this isn't a word she has encountered before.  18 pages later and she's struggling a bit.  "It keeps jumping from one thing to another."  And I realise a major difference between the books she is used to and more grown up books is the single focus narrative.  Of course, Disc World books aren't for everyone, and the style of writing can be hard for adults to get their heads round, so it's back to the bookcase again for another try.  This time I've offered a Louisa May Alcott book (Author of Little Women) called an Old Fashioned Girl, which I hope will capture her imagination.  It's a light hearted, social-moral story about children of her age in another time and place but with issues not all that far removed from my childhood - and hopefully not too distant from hers.  I suppose themes of friendship, identity and wealth are constants and she hasn't put it down yet.

What would you give a seven year old girl (reading age 10) to read from your own personal library of books?  She's read most of Enid Blyton, loves Daisy Meadows' Rainbow Fairy books.  I might try CS Lewis next.