Monday, 29 September 2014

Guard Your Daughters - Diana Tutton

As this now out-of-print novel was lacking a blurb or cover illustration, I was expecting from the title for it to be something about an incorrigible Regency rake, or similar. I was definitely not expecting this to be a story about a family of five home-schooled girls just after World War II.

It opened with an alarmingly chirpy attempt at quirky humour, and for the first few chapters I thought it was going to be simply a warm, fluffy book about an eccentric family.  Something didn’t feel quite right, however – something dark lurked beneath the main character, Morgan’s, desperately bright laughter and her excessive affection and protectiveness towards her mother. Throughout the novel Mrs Harvey is treated as being delicate and in need of care – even a minor argument has her in bed for days, and she is completely housebound.

As the novel progresses we see just how insular and shut out of real life the girls are (especially contrasted with their older sister, Pandora, who has married and lives in London), and how much they yearn for even the slightest forbidden social contact with others.

In spite of the deliberately light-hearted tone (or perhaps because of it), I found Guard Your Daughters deeply unsettling. Looking at other reviews out there, it seems that it’s intended as a warm, emotional tale with a certain touching poignancy, but I really am unable to see past the tragedy of an entire family living stunted lives, and the most disturbing part, for me, is that the they seem entirely unaware of it, and perfectly contented. It made me think of Emma Donoghue’s novel Room, in which we see the story through the eyes of a young child who has never left the shed in which his mother has been imprisoned for the past few years.

So yes, I found it really quite bizarre and disturbing. It’s either an extremely clever and subtle exploration of mental illness affecting a family, or it’s an incredibly badly judged cosy comedy. I still can’t decide which.

Next up: The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

Saturday, 27 September 2014

The Grand Sophy - Georgette Heyer

Having not really enjoyed Cousin Kate, I was pleasantly surprised by The Grand Sophy. The titular heroine, Sophy Stanton-Lacy, stays with her aunt, uncle and cousins in London while her father, Sir Horace, is travelling in Brazil. Of course, she refuses to fit in with conventional polite society, but ends up changing their lives for the better.

Sophy is a likeable (if exhausting), confident and well-meaning main character, and we are given a villain you love hating in her cousin’s sly and manipulative fiancée, Miss Eugenia Wraxton. Also included in the colourful cast are a wonderfully distracted poet and a pompous know-it-all suitor. No character misses out on their share of amusing quirks, and the convoluted schemes Sophy comes up with lead to some really bizarre and funny situations.

This is Heyer at her best – sparkling, light-hearted and full of fun.

Next up: Guard your Daughters by Diana Tutton

Thursday, 25 September 2014


This week's Booking Through Thursday is:

Okay, show of hands … who has read Shakespeare OUTSIDE of school required reading? Do you watch the plays? How about movies? Do you love him? Think he’s overrated?

I have to admit that the only Shakespeare I've read apart from my studies is his poetry, but that's not because I don't like the plays. It's simply that plays aren't designed to be read silently to yourself - that's what makes them so dull and lifeless when you see them on the page.

I've seen a few of his plays performed live by an outdoor theatre group that used to visit the town I grew up in every summer, and it really is the expression, the actions between the words, that brings it to life. I prefer the comedies, Much Ado About Nothing being perhaps my favourite, with Twelfth Night a close second.

While most of the film adaptations I've seen have been wonderful, a few don't quite work, for me. I think one of the amazing things about Shakespeare's work is how timeless it is - it's about essential human passions, love, pride, jealousy, ambition, and so on - and people will always be that way, no matter how much time has passed. If you think just how many successful modern adaptations have been made of the plays he wrote 400 years ago, I think that's pretty impressive. 10 Things I Hate About You is great, as is Joss Whedon's adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing. Much Ado was actually very interestingly done - it was shot entirely in black and white, and none of the dialogue was modernised, but it was set in fairly recent years, with modern clothing and context. I thought it was very clever and it was amazing how well it worked, with the combination of old and new balancing together perfectly. I don't think that the Leonardo DiCaprio version of Romeo and Juliet works anywhere near as well, however - the original language didn't really fit the modern style or scenario, and the action had obviously been stretched to its limits to allow the language to remain in place.

As to my opinions of Shakespeare himself as a writer, I wouldn't say that I love him unconditionally. At such a distance of time, it's very difficult to prove that all of it actually IS his work, and given the absence of copyright laws and the collaboration culture of the time, it seems likely that the vast majority of it is at least heavily influenced by co-writers or leading actors. While many of his plays stand out as incredible timeless classics, there are a few less well regarded ones more condemned to obscurity, but I do think that most of his work shows him to be a very impressive playwright, with a wonderful understanding of human nature.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini

This one is quite simply incredible. I don’t normally choose to read things just because they’re popular, but I really can see why The Kite Runner became the best-seller it is.

It tells the story of the young boy Amir and his friend Hassan, the son of his Hazara servant. We see them growing up together, their separation, and how their destinies ultimately intertwine. This very personal, human story is set against the harsh inhumanity of the Afghan war, from which Amir escapes as a teenager, and revisits the country later in life.

Hosseini’s stark, direct style somehow conjures up vivid images far more effectively than florid description could have done, and what is left unsaid is at least as important as what is stated openly. Hope and love go hand-in-hand with searing heart-break throughout, sometimes even within the same paragraph.

The use of foreign words in the text, for food, clothing, religious terms, and so on, isn’t intrusive or confusing, and very much adds to the flavour of the novel. On a personal level, I grew up with family friends from the Afghan area, and filling in some of the blanks about the dangers and hardships they’d seen and escaped from on coming to the UK really hit home for me.

As I’ve said before, I don’t usually go for modern novels, especially those with a political or war-based setting, but this one’s amazing. If you haven’t already read it, do so. You won’t regret it! (Unless it makes you burst into tears in public, that could be awkward. Try not to do that.)

Next up: The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer

Friday, 19 September 2014

Thursday, 18 September 2014


This week's Booking Through Thursday is:

Do other people in your family also like to read? Or are you in this on your own?

My two brothers are more into practical things, and never seemed to enjoy reading much even when we were children - although I do remember the elder one being very keen on the Hardy Boys series at one point. The younger one devoured information - dinosaurs, cars, animals, pretty much anything else - on any media he could find, including encyclopaedias, TV programmes, and so on. He never went for fiction much either, though.

My mother loves reading, and even though she often told me off for staying up reading when I was a child I know she does exactly the same thing! My father, oddly enough, isn't even able to picture scenes in his head when he reads - he has to process each sentence, think about it, and move on to the next one. He does his fair share of reading, though, but it's all educational. Many of my memories of him reading are of my getting up (fairly early in the morning) to find him sitting with his reading glasses and a cup of tea, learning a foreign language or a new academic subject.

How about you? Any fond (or irritating!) reading memories of your family?

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

The Winter Garden Mystery - Carola Dunn

The body of a young parlour-maid is found buried in the grounds of the grand house Miss Dalrymple just happens to be visiting to write an article about for her magazine, and she gets involved in the investigation when it becomes obvious to her that the local police are far too obtuse and incompetent to identify the real killer.

This style of this novel is reminiscent of the Jeeves and Wooster series, which I grew up watching and still adore. I found it difficult to get on board with Wodehouse’s prose, but maybe I was just a bit too young for it. The light-hearted tone and quaint idioms used are amusing, and outdated social prejudices abound, although not in the heroine, who is suitably modern and open-minded.

As this is the second novel in the series, I felt a little excluded when familiar characters from the previous novel were introduced, although they were always briefly explained rather than just shoved in without any background. The narrative voice has an odd habit of jumping around between characters unexpectedly, in the middle of a scene rather than between sections, and this as well as the exaggerated period language made it difficult for me to really immerse myself in the story.

That said, the characters are all easy to picture and for the most part very likeable, and the Parslow family in particular, who own the house where the body is found, are all wonderfully vivid. Some careless editing means that the occasional punctuation mark is absent, which I personally find very annoying but I know it probably wouldn’t bother most others as much. All in all, The Winter Garden Mystery is a charming light read, and the mystery keeps you guessing right until the end.

Next up: The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

Sunday, 14 September 2014

The Girl who Played with Fire - Stieg Larsson

I don’t normally go for novels written about the present-day, but Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy really is outstanding.

Even in translation, Larsson’s writing is clear, concise and driven. Intriguing hints and new twists combine deftly with touching moments and action-packed scenes, making it one of those books where ‘just one more page’ becomes another hour. The only criticism I have is that the writing style stays exactly the same even when we switch point of view characters, but each character still stands out as an individual, and it’s quite possible that some subtle differences were lost in translation.

In this, the second novel of the trilogy, the focus moves closer to home – to Stockholm, where both Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander live. When Salander becomes the suspect in the investigation of a multiple murder, the police and the press begin to dig into her private life and her past, and we, the reader, discover some of what happened to make her the unique and contradictory heroine she is.

The combination of bleak isolation and desperate empowerment contained within this novel is very compelling, and makes the trilogy utterly memorable and definitely well worth reading.

Next up: The Winter Garden Mystery by Carola Dunn