Category Archives: Reading

Taking back the commute – listening to audio books

There was a brief period last year between moving house and changing jobs when I was commuting to work on the Metro trains.  For those 6 weeks, I read more than I have ever done before.  The Metro journey was only 20 minutes each way, but those 20 minutes belonged to me and my reading.  I just gobbled up books during that period – it was fantastic.

Then I started a new job in a town just over 20 miles away and so I was commuting by car.  The extra reading time was lost, or so I thought.

A couple of months ago, I became absolutely sick and tired of listening to the same songs played on the radio over and over again, and so I decided to try something a bit different – I borrowed an audio book from the library.

It took a little bit of getting used to at first.  I started off with Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan, which I found a little hard to follow for the first few tracks on the CD as I got used to being read a story rather than reading it myself.  But once I had settled in, I really enjoyed listening to the story and now I am a total addict.

It is very rare that I will have more than one book on the go at the same time, and I was a bit concerned about getting confused between the audio book and paper book.  I need not have worried though as the audio book is very much in the car, so when I shut the car door I can leave it behind, then pick it right up again when I get back in.

The one drawback of listening to audio books is that I can’t read back over what has just happened when I get back in the car.  I’m not sure if I can rewind CDs or not, so if it has been a couple of days since I have driven, I am dropped back in the middle of where I left off, and can’t always remember exactly what happened immediately before, but it has been quite easy so far to pick up the thread again.  I do think that listening to the story adds an extra dimension to it as well – the reader is important as they do help bring the characters to life and help in creating the impression of the characters.

I always had the impression that audio books were just for old ladies.  I thought that I would find a library full of Catherine Cooksons and Agatha Christies and nothing much else.  I was really pleasantly surprised by the huge array of books on offer, modern and old, in all genres and for all age groups.

So through audio books, I have taken back the commute as my time for reading, and once more I am reading more than I ever have before.

The ones that got away…

I just can’t bring myself to let the 30 day book challenge go yet without one final post.

I have spent the last month enjoying a trip down memory lane, thinking about all of the books and authors that I love and trying to narrow these down to one or two per post.  But there are a lot of strong contenders which didn’t get a mention, some of which I have only thought about after the original posts went live.

So to round off the 30 day book challenge, I’m going to do a summary of those answers to which I could say “close but no cigar”.

DAY 1 – A book series you wish would just end already OR one that you wish would go on longer

His Dark Materials should go on – the ending was heart breaking and I have always wanted to see what happened next.

DAY 2. – Favorite side character

Ygritte from Game of Thrones – for being a wild northern woman and for making Jon Snow more interesting.

DAY 3. – The longest book you’ve read

Game of Thrones – all of them are hefty books, but books 3 and 5 are so enormous they had to split them into two volumes.

DAY 4. – Book turned into a movie and completely desecrated

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – my favourite Potter book of them all.  The movie was the biggest disappointment of them all.

DAY 5. –  Your “comfort” book

The Time Traveller’s Wife – one of my all time favourites and I know that I can pick it up and will love it more each time.

DAY 6. – Book you’ve read the most number of times

Who Killed Peggy Sue – a real favourite of my teenage years – my copy of this book is literally falling apart at the seams.

DAY 7. – A guilty pleasure book

Angels and Demons by Dan Brown.  I live with a scientist who would be appalled if he knew just how much I secretly enjoy this book with all of it’s bad science!

DAY 8. – Most underrated book

Katherine by Anya Seton – originally published in 1954, she is a forerunner to Philippa Gregory and has produced an excellent book about someone I had never heard of but whose offspring went on to found the Tudor line.

DAY 9. – Most overrated book

The Great Gatsby – my sister is obsessed with this book.   I thought it was just okay.

DAY 10. – A book you thought you wouldn’t like but ended up loving

Room by Emma Donoghue – I read it to find out what the hype was about really and didn’t really think it would be my cup of tea, but it was un-putdownable – disturbing at times but such great writing, and she never faltered in maintaining the voice of the child narrator.

DAY 11. – Favorite classic book

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte – quite an obvious answer but Jane Eyre is a woman before her time, and for a classic it is an easy read.

DAY 12. – A book you wanted to read for a long time but still haven’t

Grimm fairy tales – I finally have a copy and it is on my to read pile!

DAY 13. – A book that disappointed you

Dissolution, C J Samson – this medieval murder mystery sounded right up my street, but it fell flat for me.

DAY 14. –  Book that made you cry

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne – the horrifying events that we understand as adult readers but which are not understood by the child narrator gets me every time.

DAY 15. – A character who you can relate to the most

Robb Stark from Game of Thrones – also a strong contender for favourite side character, he really brings out the rebellious northerner in me.

DAY 16. – Most thought-provoking book

Incendiary by Chris Cleeve – a scarily realistic account of a terrorist attack on London which really makes you think about how far we should we should compromise the values that we are supposed to be fighting for,

DAY 17. – Author I wish people would read more

Chris Cleeve – some people may be put off by the lack of blurb, but give him a go – you will not be disappointed.

DAY 18. – A book you wish you could live in

The Faraway tree by Enid Blyton – as a child I was obsessed with this tree where the different lands rotated in the high branches and the children discovered a new adventure in the tree every time.

DAY 19. – A favourite author

Chimanadna Ngozi Adiche – her stories about Nigeria, and in particular the food, are so evocative that they make me want to visit the country for myself.

DAY 20. – Favorite childhood book

Sweet Valley High – I adored this series of books, I devoured them as a child and used to imagine that one day I would find a long lost twin and we would be just like Jessica and Elizabeth!

DAY 21. – Book you tell people you’ve read, but haven’t (or haven’t actually finished)

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – this was a Christmas gift last year and I’m still working my way through it.  I would probably say if asked that I had read it, but it is still a work in progress.

DAY 22. – Least favourite plot device employed by way too many books you actually enjoyed otherwise

Coincidence – totally unbelieveable most of the time and should be used very sparingly in my opinion.

DAY 23. – Best book you’ve read in the last 12 months

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel – I thought Philippa Gregory had done the Tudors for me, but then I read this.  Truly excellent writing and a different perspective on a well known story.

DAY 24. – Book you’re most embarrassed to say you like/liked

PS I Love You by Cecilia Ahearn – I usually avoid chick lit like the plague.  This is one exception, but I don’t like to admit to it!

DAY 25. – The most surprising plot twist or ending

Love in the time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez – I didn’t like the majority of this book, but I thought the final chapter was sublime and more than made up for the rest of the book.

DAY 26. – Book that makes you laugh out loud

The Fiend books by Sheila Lavelle – these belonged to my younger sister and I pinched them and read them when I was probably too old for them, but they made me laugh and so I didn’t care.

DAY 27. – Book that has been on your “to read” list the longest

The Beautiful and the Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald – I have been putting off reading this one after being underwhelmed by The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night.

DAY 28. – Favourite quote from a book

“You’re a wizard Harry” – classic.

DAY 29. – A book you hated

December by Elizabeth Winthrop – hate is a strong word for this one but this book did nothing for me and I couldn’t stand the end.

DAY 30. – Book you couldn’t put down 

How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff – another one I completed in one sitting – I loved reading about their foraging seeing Daisy adapt and grow in very difficult circumstances.

I really am done now.  I will now start posting fresh content in which the words “30 day book challenge” will not appear!  It has been hard work at times but I have genuinely loved every minute of it.

I’m always on the lookout for new books/authors to try, so if you would like to share any of your own answers to the above questions, then please leave a comment!

30 day book challenge – day 30 – Book you couldn’t put down.

I can’t believe the end is here already.

This blog is still really new, and participating in the 30 day book challenge has been such a fantastic way to get used to blogging as well as taking a wonderful trip down memory lane, thinking of books to write about in answer to these questions.

Thank you to everyone who has been reading along with me so far, especially those who have commented, and thanks to Becky from Blogs-Of-A-Bookaholic for the brilliant questions.

Okay, that’s enough of the Oscar speech.  I will get on with the post.

There are a lot of books that I haven’t been able to put down, especially when coming to the end.  There are some books where I get to a certain point that I will physically not be able to stop until I have finished, no matter what else I need to do or what the time is.  I call that point the “run in”.

However, some books I find it very difficult to stop from beginning to end.  The last book I read where I genuinely couldn’t put it down and read it all in one sitting was The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold.

This is the story of Susie Salmon, who is raped and murdered by her neighbour.  Afterwards, she becomes stuck in a kind of limbo, stuck in between earth and heaven where she can build her own world and watch over her family as they struggle to cope with her murder and the fact that her body is never found.

This book grabbed me right from the first line:-

“My name was Salmon, like the fish, first name Susie.  I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973”.

The writing is so good I couldn’t stop – Alice Sebold deals so sensitively with the issues and the reactions and coping strategies of her family are so real.  The glimpses of Susie’s life before she was murdered are so intense, such as her first kiss with Ray.  I particularly enjoyed Grandma Lynn, whom Susie had never really warmed to in life but loved her in death as she became the linchpin of the family.  I also loved the drama of Susie’s father and sister coming to suspect their neighbour, especially when Lindsay is almost caught snooping in the house.  I loved the imagination behind the world that Susie inhabits.  I loved the loose endings – those that were tied up and those that weren’t.

This isn’t the kind of book with a massive cliffhanger at the end of every chapter.  But still at the end of each chapter I couldn’t help but read on, just because I felt that I knew these people and I wanted to see them all (including Susie who has to come to terms with her own death) come out the other side.  So I stayed up to the small hours, devouring every single word.

And that’s that.  The 30 day book challenge is over.  I hope you have enjoyed reading along.  I know I’ve enjoyed writing it.

30 day book challenge – day 29 – A book you hated.

There are very few books that I have actually hated.  There are some that haven’t captured me, or that I’ve struggled to get through, but I usually find something to like about them.  It is rare that I actually hate a book.

There is one book that I read and despised so much that I couldn’t actually bear to have it on my bookshelves and so the instant I finished it (and I really don’t know what possessed me to force my way to the end), I took it straight to the charity shop.  The only trouble is, I can’t remember what it is called.

Here is what I do remember – it was some creepy ghost story set in small town America.  The main character was a male and he was either having marital problems or his wife was just away in business/holiday.  For whatever reason, he was in their new house alone and his life started to fall apart as a result of the fact that his house turned out to be haunted.  In the process of finding out about this ghost, he developed a completely inappropriate relationship with the pregnant teenage daughter of his next door neighbours and some very, very weird things happened when he eventually saw this ghost.

If anyone knows what book I’m on about, please let me know so I can avoid ever reading it again.

I don’t think I can really answer this question by writing about a book that I can’t remember the name of, but there is another book that I really did not like at all:-

The Return by Victoria Hislop

I was so very disappointed by this book as I really enjoy books set in other countries, particularly if they have a historical element and I can learn about something I knew nothing of before.  The Return ticks so many of these boxes as it tells the story of the Ramirez family in Granada during the Spanish Civil War.

Here are my issues with The Return:-

1. The split time narrative

I have already talked about this in a previous post as being a much overused plot device.  The Return is a classic example of everything that I hate about it.   Rather than just telling the story of the Ramirez family in the Spanish Civil War, Hislop uses the modern character of Sonia as her way into the story, when she gets talking to a waiter in Granada that tells her the Ramirez story.  I found Sonia utterly pointless – I didn’t care about her relationship or her obsession with flamenco dancing or the weird connection she felt with the waiter.  Sonia’s story was just filler for me and took away from the much more interesting story about the war.

2. Too many coincidences

Use of coincidence is another one of my least favourite plot devices.  It is all too convenient that out of all of the cafes in Granada, Sonia just happens to end up in the one that was run by the Ramirez family (who she doesn’t realise until later are actually her mother’s family) and that she gets talking to someone who happens to know their whole story.

3. Underdeveloped clichéd characters

I read the book without feeling I ever got to know any of the characters truly, because they were all so superficial and they were such clichés.   Sonia’s friend Maggie was the carefree girl who would dance and drink and have casual sex and be ready to throw herself into any opportunity, whilst Sonia was more serious and reserved and cautious.  Then there is the Ramirez family with flighty and passionate Mercedes, the protective older brother Antonio, another brother who is an arrogant matador, who clashes with the thid brother who is a serious and intellectual.

4. Too much telling

The rule of “show don’t tell” is pretty much the the first rule that is spouted in creative writing textbooks, writing classes and courses.  This book does an awful lot of telling, and it is really frustrating and seems to create a lot of distance between me as a reader and the characters that Victoria Hislop is trying to describe.  She is writing in the third person and switches between characters very quickly which is quite unsettling.

5. The ending

For anyone not wanting to read spoilers, stop here.

The ending is just awful.  Sonia finds out that the old waiter she has been talking to is her mother’s old lover Javier who has been running her mother’s family restaurant since the end of the civil war.  He feels he should rightfully pass this over to Sonia, who is conveniently given an escape from her unhappy marriage to a controlling alcoholic.

If only real life were like that.  I’m still waiting to go on the holiday where I come back with the keys to a successful  business and new life free of charge.

For all that I don’t like about The Return (and there is a lot), I can still be positive about some aspects of it.  Some of the writing about the war is quite good.  There is one particular scene which describes planes firing upon a line of refugees that really sticks out in my mind.  If the modern story was entirely jettisoned, then I think I might be able to get past my issues with the characterisation and writing to quite enjoy the book.

30 day book challenge – day 28 – Favourite quote from a book.

I don’t really collect quotes from books, so this is quite tough for me to answer, but there are a few quotes and passages that I really like and that have stuck in my mind:-

The Song of Achilles – Madeline Miller

“I shift, an infinitesimal movement, towards him.  It is like the leap from a waterfall.  I do not know, until then, what I am going to do.  I lean forward and our lips land clumsily on each other.  They are like the fat bodies of bees, soft and round and giddy with pollen.”

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox – Maggie O’Farrell

“He takes Iris’s hand.  He lifts it.  He places it slowly, very slowly on his chest.  Just above his heart.  Iris can feel it jumping and jumping, as if it wants to be free…

“That’s my heart,” Alex says, without moving his eyes from the television.  He has kept his hand over Iris’s pressing it down into his chest.  His voice is even, conversational.  “But it’s yours really.” ”

Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier

” “You have a very lovely and unusual name”

“My father was a lovely and unusual person” ”

Bring up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel

“The things you think are the disasters in your life are not the disasters really.  Almost anything can be turned around: out of every ditch, a path, if only you can see it.”

The Historian – Elizabeth Kostova

“It was strange…that even in the weirdest circumstances, the most trembling episodes of one’s life, the greatest divides from home and familiarity, there were these moments of undeniable joy.

On a sunny morning in Boulou, Barley and I boarded the early train for Perpignan.”

Of all of the above quotes, my favourite is the quote from Madeline Miller in Song of Achilles.  This is my favourite ever description of a kiss in a book, and I absolutely love the image of their lips like bees.

In preparing to write this post, I have been looking back over old notebooks to see if I had written any quotes down.  I was surprised to find that I had written down quite a few passages, though some were far too long for this blog.  What I did find is that I write down a lot of real life quotes from magazines and newspapers, and it wasn’t until flicking back through the old notebooks that I realised just how much I do this.

I was recently given a notebook for my birthday and I am going to start using that to pull together in one place all of the little bits of writing that I discover when reading, but also real life quotes too.  It will be my own little book of inspiration.

30 day book challenge – day 26 – Book that makes you laugh out loud.

This is quite a hard question for me, as I don’t tend to read books that are funny.  Or rather, some books have some funny moments, but on the whole they are not intended to be written or read as comedy.

The exception to this is the two Bridget Jones’ books – they really make me laugh every single time I read them and they just don’t get old for me.  But I’ve already written about Bridget Jones in a previous post so I’m not going to repeat myself.

Then there is my beloved Harry Potter,  That has some moments of pure comedy.  I’m thinking Ron belching up the slugs, Ron getting attacked by the brains, Ron asking out Fleur and pretty much anything involving Professor Lockhart!  But I have also written about Harry Potter so many times that I’m decided to put a bit more thought into this and came up with…

A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon

This is the story of a family coming apart at the seams in the wake of the eldest daughter Katie’s remarriage to Ray.  Her father, George, is looking forward to a comfortable, quiet retirement, her mother, Jean is having an affair and her brother Jamie seems to have the perfect life until he fails to invite his partner Tony to the wedding.  As for Katie, she has no idea if she actually wants to marry Ray or not.  And so, chaos ensues.

It’s actually been a while since I have read this book, so I don’t remember all of the fine details of the plot and the characters.  What I do remember is an overall impression of this book making me laugh.  George and Jamie in particular provided some great moments.

I was first introduced to Mark Haddon by a friend who recommended that I should read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time.  She described this to be as being really sad.  So I gave it a go, and I actually found her comment quite condescending (and I told her so!) as it is not a sad story at all – it deals with some difficult issues in a remarkably positive way and by the end I was left wondering how much time we actually waste in not saying what we mean and not meaning what we day.

A Spot of Bother is similar to this.  It is dealing with a family where every member is going through their own personal crisis whilst they are supposed to be trying to pull together for a wedding.  It covers some potentially heavy issues, such as adultery, being a single parent, sexuality etc.  However like The Curious Incident, it does not get bogged down in being too serious and provides so many comic moments that overall it is a very positive and light hearted read.

I have The Red House sat on my bookshelves waiting to be read and I hope that it will provide the same comedy and lightness as A Spot of Bother.  I am also adding A Spot of Bother to my re-read list to remind myself of all the laugh out loud moments that I have forgotten since I originally read it.

30 day book challenge – day 25 – THIS ONE CONTAINS SPOILERS!!

Today’s topic is about the most surprising plot twist or ending.  I’m going to be talking about two books by Lionel Shriver  – The Post Birthday World and We Need to Talk About Kevin.  If anyone hasn’t read these books and doesn’t want to read any spoilers then stop reading now…

Lionel Shriver is truly one of my favourite authors.  Her writing is powerful, frank and so full of honesty.  There is not a single wasted word in a Lionel Shriver novel.  One of my favourite aspects of Lionel Shriver’s novels is her endings, because they always leave me thinking for ages afterwards.

The Post Birthday World is the first book that I read by Lionel Shriver.  I think it was a freebie, because I had never heard of her before and probably wouldn’t have picked it out myself.  It has a similar premise to the film Sliding Doors, as it tells two versions of the story of the main character Irina – one where she stays in a safe, loving but dull relationship with her long term partner Lawrence, and the other where she embarks on a passionate affair with a married friend, eventually leaving Lawrence for her much more volatile relationship with Ramsey.

It is cleverly written throughout, as many aspects of the two stories mirror each other.  In one story, she has the affair and leaves.  In the other, Lawrence has an affair and leaves.  There are ups and downs with both sides of the story as well.  But my favourite part of the whole book was the ending.  Ramsey (in one story just a friend, in the other her lover) dies of cancer and the final chapter is his funeral.  But we are not told whether Irina is attending the funeral of her friend or of her partner.

It leaves the reader with the question – was it better for her to have stayed safe and never had an affair with Ramsey, or was it better to have experienced this hugely passionate love but then lost him?

We Need to Talk About Kevin

Wow.  What a book.  This is a story about the mother of a child (Kevin) who commits mass murder in his school.  The story is told through a series of letters written by Eva to her husband, Franklin.  The letters range over the early parts of their relationship, their decision to have a child, her difficulties with Kevin as a child, the birth of their daughter Celia and the eventual build up to the shooting.

Some of it is very tough to read.  Eva is a classic unreliable narrator who portrays Kevin as some kind of abnormal child from birth and cannot see her own failings as a mother.  There is one scene when she throws him across the room as young child and he breaks his arm.  Even this she twists into being Kevin’s fault, and describes him looking at her with triumph as he knows that he now has one over on her.

The ending totally took me by surprise and I did not see it coming at all.  We knew all of the way through the book that his attack in the school was going to take place, but what Lionel Shriver kept so cleverly concealed was the attack that happened at home first of all.  The whole way through I believed that Eva was writing to her estranged husband.  We find out at the end that he is actually her dead husband, having been killed by Kevin before he went on his rampage.

Maybe I’m just slow and perhaps other readers of the book will have picked up on this much sooner than I do.  It is not often that a book takes me by surprise in this way, but I had genuinely not seen it coming and that just reinforces to me what a clever writer Lionel Shriver is to keep her secrets so well concealed.

30 day book challenge – day 24 – Book you’re most embarrassed to say you like/liked.

I’m not normally shy or embarrassed by what I read – I will even admit that I quite like Twilight under duress (though typing that did make me cringe).  There has only been one occasion when I have been too embarrassed to own up to reading something, and it was not just a book, it was a whole series:

The Last Vampire series by Christopher Pike

I was 13 years old, I had just started High School and it was one of our first English lessons.  The teacher was going round the class asking us to speak about our favourite books and what we had most recently been reading.  She was getting closer and closer to me and my mind was going into panic mode.  I had come from a small school in a small village where your classmates come to be like family.  Now I was in a big school and I hardly knew anyone.  I didn’t want to be judged for what I read.

I don’t know what I actually said that I read.  I might even have got away without answering the question altogether.  The truth is, at that age I was vampire obsessed and The Last Vampire series was my absolute favourite.

Sita is a vampire, but she lives among humans.  She is thousands of years old and so she has decreased sensitivity to the things that would normally harm vampires (e.g. daylight, crucifixes etc.) so she is able to lead a pretty regular life.  Except that she is super strong and agile and she drinks blood (but not human blood).  There are six books in the series, in which she has to battle the First Vampire, a bastion of evil.  However, the humans that she is trying to protect see Sita as the threat and so she becomes a hunted woman.

I guess I must have thought that these books were pretty poor to be ashamed to admit to reading them, or maybe it is because I was so ahead of my time and didn’t want to admit to being a vampire lover!  But even though I was too embarrassed to say that I liked them, I really did like them.  I wanted to be Sita – I loved her strength and her abilities.  I even started writing a story at the time about a 13 year old girl who thinks she is ordinary until she finds an old diary in the attic from which she finds out that she is descended from vampires.

I loved Christopher Pike’s vampire series so much that I read pretty much everything else that he wrote.  It is my one venture into sci-fi and I loved it.  I can still remember a lot of the stories quite well, having not read them now for almost 15 years.

I find it hard to be objective about childhood books because I do view them with a lot of nostalgia – if I read them again maybe I would think that the writing is terrible and the plots make no sense.  But writing this post does make me want to read them all over again, and be less ashamed of admitting it this time!

30 day book challenge – day 23 – Best book you’ve read in the last 12 months.

This is a tough one to answer as I have read some great books within the last 12 months, but the one that really stands out for me is Parade’s End by Ford Maddox Ford.

Set over a decade around the First World War, Parade’s End is the story of Christopher Tietjens – a man who belongs in the 18th century and struggles to reconcile himself with the modern, changing world.  Tietjens is married to the beautiful but cruel Sylvia, when he meets Valentine Wannop, a young suffragette, with whom he is constantly linked.  When war breaks out, Tietjens is forced to re-address everything that he believes in.

This is not an easy read.  I knew within the first couple of pages that I was going to struggle with it and that Ford’s very unique style was going to take some getting used to.  There were times when I thought I would never get to the end, and times when I wanted to give up.  It is hard to get used to the jumps in time in the story – there will be huge leaps forward and you will have to fill in the blanks in between from what is said in the present of the story.  That can be unsettling and it is a challenge.

I persevered and I’m so glad I did, because this is not only the best book I have read in the last 12 months, it is one of my all time favourites.

It’s difficult for me to put into words what it is that makes this such a brilliant read, but I will give it a go.  Firstly, it is the characters.  Tietjens is so strict and regimented in his belief systems and he has such an unshakeable self-control.  He does not care what people think about him at all.  He is hopelessly mismatched with Sylvia, who is modern and fun loving and incredible passionate, for all that she is cruel.  She needs someone to be passionately, hopelessly in love with her and doting on her every word.  She does not have that with Tietjens – he is the epitome of a reserved English country gentleman, and marriage has nothing to do with passion.  The book begins with Sylvia asking for Tietjens to take her back after she has run away with another man.  Tietjens doesn’t believe that a man should divorce a woman and has scrupulously ensured that no hint of scandal has attached to his wife’s name.  But he takes her back in such a businesslike manner that Sylvia takes every opportunity to be cruel to him just to provoke him and to try to make him drop his facade.

Then there is Valentine Wannop.  She has had a tough life – from being brought up by her father to be well educated and to speak Latin as well as she does English, she is forced to take any work she can (including as a main, a secretary and a teacher) when her father dies to support her mother.  She is also a suffragette, and that, along with the hardships she has faced would suggest that she should be quite a hard character – she is obviously a survivor.  But she is not.  She is very soft and gentle and kind.  Sylvia in contrast had always had every privilege, and so you would expect her to be a soft character, but she is not – she is passionate, yes, but she is cold and cruel.

The relationships between Tietjens and Sylvia and Tietjens and Valentine are exquisitely drawn.  The whole way through I was debating does Sylvia actually love Tietjens, and will Tietjens ever be able to act on his love for Valentine or will his principles stand in the way?

Although set around and hugely influenced by World War One, this book isn’t really a typical book about the war – it is about Tietjens.  The war provides the catalyst for change within Tietjens by which he re-evaluates what it is that he stands for; but this works both ways and the change in Tietjens is representative of the sweeping social change triggered by the war.   However, for anyone interested in this book for the War alone, those parts of the book really are excellent and realistically depict the total chaos for the troops on the ground, the terror of the shelling and the snipers, and the near impossible strain that this places on a man.

If anyone is thinking about reading this book, my advice is do it.  If anyone is reading it and thinking about giving up, my advice is persevere.  It will be worth it.  It is one of those books that I couldn’t stop thinking about after I had put it down, and I immediately wanted to pick it straight up again to look for all of the little things that I might have missed the first time around.

I would also highly recommend the BBC TV adaptation – it ends earlier than the book does, and it skims over parts of it (such as Tietjens complicated relationship with his brother Mark), however it is a really well written and well acted adaptation.

30 day book challenge – day 22 – Least favourite plot device

Or to give this post it’s full title, least favourite plot device employed by way too many books you actually enjoyed otherwise.

The split time narrative does it for me.

What I mean by this is books that focus on two main protagonists in different time periods.  They tend to follow the same pattern all the time – something happens to protagonist A in the past, which ends up becoming some kind of secret or mystery.  Many years later, protagonist B finds out some little piece of information that sets them on the path of uncovering the secret of protagonist A.  We then follow as protagonist A’s secret is slowly revealed both by following the action as it happens to protagonist A, and by following the investigations of protagonist B, each moving on the other’s story.  Protagonist B’s also goes on their own journey and their life changes as a result of learning about protagonist A.

Sounds neat, doesn’t it?

It is neat and I actually do quite like this.  My issue is that it is now used to often, or maybe I’ve just read it too often because the types of books I’m drawn to are the type that will use this device.

I first read it in Labyrinth by Kate Mosse.  I thought it was really an original way of telling a story and both parts of the story complemented each other really well.

But I feel like this is so overused now and is such a trend in modern literature.  I now steer clear of books with a split time narrative unless I am really, really attracted by the story or I don’t realise that it is going to be used.

My other problem is that it is rare for authors to write both stories so that they are evenly balanced, which means that I usually find that I prefer one part of the story over the other (and for me, it is usually the historical story).

The best example of this is The Conjurer’s Bird by Martin Davies.  This ended up on my bookshelves quite randomly as the third book in a 3 for £5 offer, so I didn’t expect very much of it, and parts of it I absolutely love.  The story is described in the blurb as being about the modern day search for The Mysterious Bird of Ulieta, a bird once owned by the naturalist, Joseph Banks.  To solve the puzzle, the modern protagonists,  Fitz and Gabby must find out about the woman that Joseph Banks loved, who has effectively disappeared from the history books.  It is a race against time, as they are not the only people hunting for this mysterious bird.

For me, this book is not about Fitz and Gabby.  It is about Joseph Banks, his work and his love for his mistress, the unconventional Harriet, whose love for nature matches Banks’ own, but as a woman, she is denied the opportunities that he has.  The historical story was beautifully written, the characters were well drawn and a really tender relationship flourished between them.  Banks accepted how society viewed women, but he never saw his Harriet in the way that society did – he saw the real talent that she had and nurtured this.

The modern story added nothing at all to this.  It is described as being a complicated and dangerous search for the bird, however the reality is that it was neither.  I felt the modern story was all filler.  The book would have been very small if it had only focused on Banks and Harriet, and really would have been a short story or a novella.  But it would have been so much better as a result – the modern story just got in the way and left me frustrated for interrupting the historical story that I was enjoying so much more.

I do think that there still is a place for the split time narrative if it is done well.  I particularly enjoy the way that Maggie O’Farrell uses it in her stories, dicing up and jumping between events in the timeline of her characters.  It is very clever, because it draws the reader in, only gradually coming to know and understand the characters and the relationships between them as the story moves on.  It gives a real depth to the characters and their relationships, and ramps up the intensity.

I think the split time narrative can still be done really well,  but on the whole I do think that it is overused.  Most of the time, I would much rather read a straight historical story, or a straight modern story.