Like Mother Like Daughter?

I’ve just read another two books about mothers and daughters. These short novels are rather different to the mother and daughter story in my last post though …

Troubling Love by Elena Ferrante

… is the first novel by one of Italy’s most acclaimed contemporary authors, a Neapolitan, who shuns publicity and is rather an enigma.

I found it very hard to engage with this book. The tale of a daughter returning to her home town after her mother’s death and discovering her mother had a secret life was interesting, however the author’s preoccupation with bodily functions and secretions made it a little too earthily blunt and somewhat sordid for me. However symbolic it was, I didn’t need to know every time Delia had to change her tampon!

The sultry heat of backstreet Naples did come through though, and combined to make an emotionally claustrophobic short novel that I recognised as being a great debut from this secretive Italian writer, but not one that I enjoyed reading. (5/10)

The Book of Proper Names by Amelie Nothumb

…was very different. It’s a comically disturbing and definitely absurdist ugly duckling story.

The story of Plectrude, an orphan born of a mother who murdered her father when he suggested a silly name for their baby. Her mother then committed suicide, leaving Plectrude to be brought up by her sister, who always wanted to be a ballerina. Plectrude has a difficult time at school, but then gets accepted by the ballet school, and learns to be anorexic before finally finding love and becoming a swan.

I hope that real ballet school is not all like that in this book, where the girls are ruled by a rod of iron that make them willingly starve themselves and drive their emaciated bodies to the absolute limits of their endurance. The vicarious pleasure that Plectrude’s aunt took in her charge’s body was also troubling.

Both serious and silly, this short little novel has plenty to say for itself, and I enjoyed it – racing through to see how Plectrude would fare in life, especially once she finds out about her mother… I would definitely like to read more by this Belgian author. (8/10)

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Source: Own copies. To explore on Amazon UK, please click below:
Troubling Love by Elena Ferrante, Europa editions paperback.
The Book of Proper Names by Amelie Nothumb, Faber paperback.


Songs of Blue and Gold by Deborah Lawrenson

A few weeks ago the author of this book Deborah Lawrenson, having followed a trail from a comment I’d left on dovegreyreader scribbles to my blog, sent me a note to ask if I’d like to read her latest book. I was absolutely delighted, as once I’d visited Deborah’s website her books sounded very much my cup of tea. Being a relative newcomer to the blog world, being offered books to review is a fantastic bonus.

Songs of Blue and Gold is a novel about knowing yourself and where you come from. Melissa’s life is in crisis, her marriage is cracking up and her mother is increasingly lost to the erasing power of Alzheimers. During brief minutes of clarity, her mother gives her a gift which hints at a secret past involving the great writer Julian Adie, who lived in Corfu when her mother was younger.

Melissa decides to take a break from it all and heads out to Kalami to find out what happened back in the late 1960s.Adie has been modelled closely on the writer and hedonist womaniser Lawrence Durrell who got through four wives, and had a rather bohemian lifestyle lived mainly in Kalami in Corfu, and later the Languedoc. He wrote a lyrical semi-fictionalised account of his early Corfu life called Prospero’s Cell, and after he became a literary superstar with the publication of the Alexandria Quartet, the White House in Kalami appears to have been quite a tourist attraction in this quiet corner of the island.

Enough potted history, at this point, I must declare that I have never read any of Lawrence Durrell. Like many of you I’ve read (and seen on TV) his brother’s work My Family and Other Animals and that was the extent of my knowledge of the family. My Mum gave me three out of four of the Alexandria Quartet last year funnily enough, and after reading this super book, I will definitely seek them out, but you don’t have to have read any Durrell to thoroughly enjoy this novel.

Melissa uncovers that her mother had an affair with Adie and even appeared to have had a grounding influence on him – now single after his first wife died. But for the presence of an old flame – a woman who drowned that summer and the locals couldn’t, or wouldn’t say what happened. When an academic writing a biography of Adie turns up on the scene and implies that her mother was involved in the accident, Melissa runs away to her family’s holiday home in the Languedoc, where she uncovers her mother’s writings which help her complete the story, and finds more local connections to Adie.

Running alongside the quest is a lovely will they, won’t they romance between Melissa and Alexandros, a historian who lives in Kalami; and Melissa’s attempt to try and re-build a relationship with her husband.Interestingly, the author prefaces the different sections with selections from the academic’s biography of Adie, and Melissa’s book putting things straight, which questions the purpose of biography without the full story. And we hear the story from the academic, the daughter, and her mother – a PoV device which Durrell used to great effect in the Alexandria Quartet (apparently).

There is so much more to this book than the washed out cover photo suggests. What is it with cover designers these days? It screams women’s novel at you, but it is not really that at all; although the romance element is satisfying it deserves a wider readership. The Corfu sections in particular have a great sense of place, and the ex-pat community in the 1960s really comes alive. I highly recommend this novel, and look forward to reading others from this interesting author. (9/10)

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Source: From the author – Thank you. To explore on Amazon UK, please click below:
Songs of Blue and Gold by Deborah Lawrenson, Arrow paperback

To star or not to star …

Opinion has always been divided about whether or not to give ratings for books – be it points out of ten, stars out of five, or any other system you choose. When all is said and done, the words written about a book reveal far more than a mere rating. So why bother with the rating at all?

On a personal level, it’s a useful aide-memoire, a quick way of seeing how much I enjoyed a particular book – my inner librarian at work. But people’s tastes are so different – is that any use to anyone else who doesn’t know me? I don’t know about that, but a little flag-waving, especially when in I my humble opinion(!) think a book deserves five stars, is an at a glance recommendation. Something that once spotted may encourage others to further exploration and good reading adventures. What do you think?

Now I’m aware that last year I was probably guilty of awarding the full five stars to far too many books – 22 out of 114 read. This year I’m being tougher so here’s what I’m now thinking of when I rate a book.

***** A five star book has to be truly exceptional with no niggles. A keeper, one I’d definitely like to re-read in the future.
****1/2 (Yes I know I’m really running a points out of 10 system!) – Also exceptional, a keeper too, but maybe just a very minor niggle preventing it from getting the full five.
**** A superb read – well-written; not necessarily a book I’d want to re-read but one I’d recommend to others. Maybe just lacking a little of that je ne said quois needed to make it really special. Could be a keeper, or maybe not (see my book-keeping rules here).
***1/2 Better than average. An enjoyable read. Recommended but with some reservations perhaps. Probably not a keeper.
*** An average read, OK but maybe a bit derivative or didn’t engage me fully.
**1/2 or less. Below average. A book I really didn’t engage with, one I had major reservations about.

Checking on Librarything, I find I’ve only ever rated 15 books at **1/2 or less. Am I too lenient, or do I manage to mostly read good stuff ?!?!? I hope it’s the latter – whether by accident or design.

Spread the Word – World Book Day – The Shortlist

The Spread the Word shortlist is out. This is part of World Book Day, and the 100 books to talk about have been whittled down to the last ten as voted for by vistors to the site. You can vote until Feb 27th for the winner.

One of the books on the longlist that didn’t make it through to the shortlist but which I particularly enjoyed last year was The Glassblower of Murano by Marina Fiorato. It was one of the first I reviewed on my blog here.

In fact, Marina will be visiting Mostly Books, my local prize-winning indie bookshop, in Abingdon next Thursday (Feb 26th) at 7.30pm.

Also there that evening will be Bethan Roberts another Spread the Word longlisted author whom I’ve not read yet …

It is a ticketed event as space is limited, so contact the bookshop if you want to come.

Great title, great cover …

Up a Tree in the Park at Night with a Hedgehog by Paul Robert Smith

Could the second book I’ve read in the past few months to feature the word ‘hedgehog’ in the title possibly be as good as the first here?

Sadly, no – Up a Tree in the Park at Night with a Hedgehog by P. Robert Smith drew me in with its wacky title and plug by Douglas Coupland on the front cover, then when I read the blurb on the back I decided it was probably going to be great fun.

I didn’t expect it to be quite so laddish though. I should have read the first page in the bookshop which does set the tone – propriety forbids me from describing the request made by the novel’s main character of his new Korean virgin girlfriend (I am very broad-minded, just don’t need this on page one). Suffice it to say, if I’d read that far, then I would have been unlikely to buy it. It was a bit like all the other similar books about but nowhere near as intelligent as the best. It was a quick read though!

It features Benton, a thirty-six year old who has never grown up, and is sex mad and commitment-phobic. All the people around him have bizarre accidents, or die in horrid ways – their misfortunes being the only really interesting things in his life worth telling us about. I must admit, I quite enjoyed some of these bits, and did chuckle occasionally. But they are no more than vignettes interspersed with the current state of Benton’s relationships which are rocky, and far from being funny or having real depth – unlike those of Rob in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity – a book I adore.

In retrospect, the thing I most liked about the book was the cover, which if you look carefully is peopled with little figures and things around the letters of the title and tells you the entire story! **1/2

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Up a Tree in the Park at Night with a Hedgehog

Probability Angels by Joseph Devon

I won a copy of this book on a giveaway over at Me and My Big Mouth. Based on the snippet of blurb it sounded quirky and intriguing. I was surprised when it arrived on the doormat, as a) it was sent out from the USA, and b) it turns out that the author Joseph Devon is a self-publisher. I’m grateful to him for sending it at his own expense, especially as it’s not available in the UK yet.

It’s starts off being about a chap who’s dead, (you presume he’s an angel), and what happens to him when his wife then dies. It turned out to be rather different to what I’d expected – less Five people you meet in heaven and more Dawn of the Dead! Not my usual type of reading, but that’s not to say that it wasn’t an enjoyable read for a change.

For a dark fantasy it discussed many interesting notions about afterlife and the choices people make; that angels can get involved in steering peoples’ lives, and what angels do when they get tired of bring angels etc. Then when the zombies get introduced, it becomes more of a classic good versus evil battle and chase. Good fun and I wish him luck with it.

Reducing the TBR mountains & Giveaway result!

As one commenter said, when they offered some of their non-wanted books as giveaways – no-one else wanted them either.

Back at the beginning of the month I offered three of my books, culled under my new book-keeping rules, and in truth I wasn’t overwhelmed with offers to take them off my hands, but a few were keen, so here are the winners –

I’ll contact you for your snail mail addresses and get them in the post to you – Happy reading!

Bring on the revolution?

The Courilof Affair by Irene Nemirovsky

The Russian Minister for Education, Courilof, is notorious for his cold-bloodedness and brutality and has been selected to be liquidated publicly to send a message to the masses that the revolution is coming. It’s 1903 and Leon M is assigned to the task. His initial job is to become part of Courilof’s household so that he is not suspected, and after several months posing as a Swiss doctor treating the ailing Minster, he begins to understand and develop some sympathy for his target and see him as a fellow human. Courilof meanwhile has cancer and wishes ultimately to die on the job with the favour of the Czar rather than be assassinated. I won’t spoil the plot with further details.

For a short novel, this had a slowburn start which rather got me bogged down at first, then once the young revolutionary was in place it picked up. The subject of terrorism versus tyranny is of course very relevant today and this raises many questions – this and the novel’s shortness would probably make it a good choice for a book group. I shall look forward to reading more of this author too. 8/10

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Source: own copy. To explore on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Courilof Affair by Irene Nemirovsky, Vintage paperback, 176 pages.

Kitchen chemistry

As I’ve been very busy this week, and I’ve let myself get bogged down in a short novel of only 165 pages, I’m writing about something else again today…

One of the nicest parts of working as a lab technician in a school is when you get to help the children in the classroom during practicals – I used to work in a senior school and only had rare opportunities to do this. At Christmas I moved over to the prep school, and it’s really fun working with the younger pupils who often need assistance.

We did a great short practical experiment yesterday … getting the iron out of cornflakes. Yes, you did read correctly – most breakfast cereals are fortified with extra iron amongst other vitamins and minerals. If you happen to have a good strong magnet, this is a good example of kitchen chemistry that anyone can do at home with their kids.

· Get a cupful of cornflakes and pulverise them finely. We put them in a Ziploc bag and used a rolling pin.
· Put them into a container (e.g. sandwich box) and add enough hand hot water to make a really watery slurry – about a cupful. You need the grains to expand, go really mushy and disintegrate.
· Cover your magnet with a double layer of clingfilm – make sure you will be able to unwrap it easily.
· Then stir the slurry gently with the magnet for about 5-10 minutes. Try not to touch the bottom of the container.
· Get a sheet of white paper or card and unwrap the magnet so the wet side of the clingfilm is face down on the card. You should see some little black specks – that’s the iron!
· There is just 2.4mg of iron in a 30g bowl of Kellogg’s cornflakes, so don’t expect too much. Interestingly(!) having just been shopping I found that Nestles cereal like Cheerios have more iron, and Tesco own brand has more still.
· One of my scientific friends tells me that with a higher iron cereal you can float a flake on water and drag it round with a magnet … Next time I’m buying I must check that out.

Now enough of school – I’m on half term. YIPPEE!

I’m not going out on Tuesdays now (unless I get back early!)…

Last night saw the return of one of my favourite TV series from last year – the second season of Mad Men started, and it looks just as good as ever.

Everything about this show is so stylish, they put an immense amount of research into getting it exactly right for the period at the start of the 1960s in New York. The dresses are so fabulous and woman-shaped, and Christina Hendricks deserves a medal for bringing real curves back into fashion as Joan Holloway, the Office Manager. Jon Hamm as Don Draper the Ad Agency’s Creative Director makes it all hang together and is always good to look at.

If last night was your first episode though, you’d be forgiven for not understanding half of what was going on between all the characters, as the show’s creators are expecting you to keep up. Plotwise it was rather slowburn too, although there was one real cracker of a scene. Don was taking his wife out for Valentine’s night at a very swanky hotel, and she bumps into an old school-friend accompanied by a much older man. Polite conversation ensues and after they go Don and Betty talk along these lines …

Betty: I never thought she’d end up with someone that old.
Don: I don’t think the relationship’s permanent!
Betty: I don’t understand.
Don: She’s a party girl.

Party girl – That’s a good one!

The bits I like best are those where the ad-men plus Peggy (secretary turned junior copywriter) get creative and are throwing slogans and ideas around. One of my ambitions at about eighteen was to be a copywriter in an ad agency – whatever happened to that eh?

So Mad Men is required viewing for me. Even though I have Sky+, it’s one I’ll happily stay in for. You can catch up on the show in some detail on its official website here.