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Having caught up with all my completed novels in Thursday’s post I made a bit of a rookie error, because I didn’t finish the book I was in the process of reading at the time – so now it’s a failed challenge week!

So to replace books tonight I will tell you about another new challenge I have taken on – learning to sew. I was inspired by a chat with Mrs Fox over at Mrs Fox’s Finery about making clothes that suit our own styles. That led me on to a conversation with a friend who lives a few doors from me about finding a sewing coach – and she offered to coach me herself!

So today was day 1 and I made a mini cushion cover, a prototype for a project I will be working on soon.  It was really just to give me a change to get familiar with the machine using basic stitches but I was very proud of my slightly wonky creation.  I would have shared an action shot if it weren’t for the problems I am having with my newly-upgraded computer…

I do love that rush of excitement when something works out; and until I feel up to proper writing again this is a less intensive way to fulfil my creative needs.

Anyway, that’s taken us a long way from the book talk I am here to share.  I will probably finish the book tomorrow, irritatingly, and will therefore tell you all about it next week!

Happy reading,

EJ

🙂

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Having got myself all geared up for a bit of crime, this week I chose…

The Dressmaker

Book 17 – The Dressmaker, by Rosalie Ham. This is the story of Tilly  Dunnage, who returns as an adult to the small Australian town she was forced to leave at 10 years old. Her return is unwelcome by both the townsfolk, who remember her implication in the death of her classmate, and her mother, Mad Molly, who lives with a possum in a dilapidated shack on the hill overlooking the town tip.

As Tilly’s dressmaking skills allow her a small glimpse into the town, and the love of local football hero Teddy give her strength and support, she starts to feel hopeful for the future.  But despite her skills, she is not acceptable, and her ejection from social life starts a chain of events that lead to the transformation of the community and the chance for Tilly to finally get her revenge…

There are a couple of spoilers ahead, which I have highlighted.

This book gives me pause.  It wasn’t at all what I was expecting and I think that’s part of my issue.  About three chapters in, there was already a huge amount that I really didn’t like. In fact, I thought it was pretty vile and almost stopped reading. The townspeople were nasty, ugly-souled, cruel and indistinguishably horrible. I carried on, but I never really got a lot of joy from the book.

The more the fashion came into it, and the more the outward appearances were improved as a result of Tilly’s skill, the more it became clear that it was their insides that were wrong. If I had to say what was the strongest part of the book, it was the use of the beautiful wardrobes and the wonderful materials to show how appearance was all.

But our heroine wasn’t entirely heroic either. In fact (spoiler alert) her vengeance at the end of the book was arbitrary, damaging even those who had stood beside her when she was an outcast (spoiler over!).

There are some lovely elements to the writing and the story, little poetic moments and scenes where the characters seem genuine and believable.  One of my favourites was Mad Molly whose erratic and dangerous behaviour was interspersed with the mundane and the beautiful; this was a believable portrayal of dementia.  Unfortunately, the underlying ugliness – and removal of its counterbalance in Teddy and his family – meant the story was just shade, with no light available.

This is a book I have to think about a bit more, because despite its commercial success (having been made into a film) I just didn’t feel it. I looked at goodreads, and it does seem to be a Marmite book.  A lot of my own discomfort is reflected – too many characters, who are too stereotypical, and too predictable in their behaviour; too much abusive behaviour; too much random description of genitalia in weird contexts.  It all took me out of the book and made me a little impatient to be getting on.

I liked Tilly as a woman, but the ongoing references to her beauty as though it made her somehow better than others was obvious.  And (spoiler alert again) the description of her ‘country-ruddy’ face just before she destroys the town weirdly suggests being normal-looking is related to cruelty and wickedness, at least in the universe this book inhabits (spoiler over).

Yeah, the more I type, the more I think this book wasn’t for me.  It was so frequently unpleasant, and no amount of glamorous outfits overcame that.  I’m sure some of you would enjoy it but it’s not my style at all.

Next time I’m reading something that’s fun!

Happy reading,

EJ

🙂

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This week, I’ve read four – yes, 4! – new books, all written by Alexander McCall Smith.

Book 3 – The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency.  This book introduces us to Precious Ramotswe, owner of the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency, the only detective agency in Botswana.  The story follows her as she sets up her business, employs Mma Makutsi as her secretary, and undertakes a variety of investigations – from freedom-seeking daughters to the possible death of a child at the hands of a witch doctor.

Book 4 – Tears of the Giraffe continues the story of Mma Ramotswe.  Newly engaged and the target of a campaign she knows nothing about, she is approached by an American lady to discover the fate of her son who disappeared a decade ago.  Meanwhile, Mma Ramotswe find her own family unexpectedly growing…

Book 5 – Morality for Beautiful Girls sees the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency in financial trouble despite some interesting cases, including the quest to uncover a poisoning plot and the boy who smells of lion…  As she struggles with her business worries, Mma Ramotswe’s fiance Mr J. L. B. Matekoni struggles with depression and Mma Makutsi finds her feet as both Assistant Detective and Assistant Garage Manager.

Book 6 – The Kalahari Typing School for Men sees Mr J.L.B. Matekoni returns to work following his illness, Mma Makutsi sets up her own business and Mma Ramotswe has to face the challenge of a new Detective on the block – and a moral quandary when a case seeps into her personal life.

As they are four of a series I have decided to do a joint review, which I hope will make sense as you read it!

I initially started with book 2 of the series, and could not get into it at all, but having bought 6 or 7 at a book sale I was determined to persevere, so I sought out book 1.  I really feel this series has to be read from the start, because so much builds on previous knowledge.

(Incidentally, there are some continuity issues – such as Mma Makutsi is a widow in book 1 but this is never being referred to again, and subsequently she is identified as a single lady who has never found love. Equally, some of the timescales do not fit with earlier information provided, which I suspect I only noticed having read them in a block.   However, they didn’t really bother me much.)

The style of writing is unusual, and I do smile that after 4 books Mma Ramotswe still refers to her fiance as Mr J. L. B. Matekoni – I have no idea of his first name, and neither apparently does anyone else!

It took me a while to get into the flow but once I did, I devoured these books.

They engage the reader in Botswana so the country itself is a character, its dust and sky and cattle elements of its personality.   The country is spoken of with such love, respect and pride that I went and looked up holidays there after the third book!

The characters are engaging and although some elements don’t lead where you expect – such as Mr J. L. B Matekoni’s depression – they create an opportunity for another character to change, leading them to develop and grow in the narrative.

These books evoke a different world, and even within the storyline it’s a world that is steadily disappearing.  There are questions of morality, respect, attitude and culture that are not universal, and make the reader think about their own responses to the situations.

However, they are not morality tales, and the overriding feeling when experiencing the world through Mma Ramotswe’s eyes is that everyone is human, no-one is perfect, and mistakes can be forgiven.  That’s not a bad underlying message in my eyes.

I add a little bonus star for the gender dynamics displayed; the sense that women are starting to challenge the male dominated power in a land still identifying with traditional familial roles.  The gentle way stereotypes are set up and squashed in the book – such as the disabled girl who wants to be a mechanic, and the detective who suggests only men are able to investigate,only for him to fail in his job – are not uncomfortable or excessive, but show the people of a young country changing as the world around them changes.

I would recommend these books; for as long as I am reading them, I am transported out of the rainy, grey January of the UK and into the open skies and dry air of Africa.  I like Mma Ramotswe and her ‘traditionally built’ body, her appreciation of new dresses and bargain shopping, her kind and generous nature and the evident hope that she can do some good in the world, or at least ease the pain of those who have been wronged.  I enjoy her showing me the world she knows, and my favourite parts of the books by far are her viewpoint sections.

Plus, if nothing else, I’ve learnt a little of Botswana’s history along the way!

Happy reading

EJ

🙂

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I got one finished!!

Unfortunately, it was another one of the Wheel of Time so this isn’t so much a review as a discussion point.  There are (sort of) spoilers ahead!

Book 48 – A Crown of Swords, by Robert Jordan.  This is book 7 of the series, so I’ve reached the halfway point and the speed has slumped somewhat.  However, that is not what I’m going to talk about today.

No, what I’m going to talk about is sex.

For a fantasy novelist, Jordan’s descriptions of sexual encounters is a little shy.  When sex is mentioned it leads to blushes, fingernail marks or haylofts…  This is good because badly written sex scenes are uncomfortable to read, but it does mean we are in a fantasy world with Victorian morality.

In this particular book there are three sexual encounters that really stood out as being different:

  1.  A man is ashamed of having sex with a female character, calling himself a ‘monster’ for ‘forcing himself’ on her despite the fact that she initiated the encounter and was as willing as him.  I do not understand this scene.  It took the story no further forward, made very little sense and made the male character seem foolish.  Arguably, it shows the female character as being empowered in some way but as the most likeable of the women it wasn’t really necessary.  I think what it mostly identifies is that the male character has a great deal of responsibility on his shoulders that makes him hard and potentially cruel, and that he fears being cruel to women more than anything.  That would gel with the character but we’ve seen that enough times not to need it again!
  2. A woman sleeps with a man she hates, to save herself from a man she fears.  This made sense in the scheme of the story, and for the character.  It was treated as a serious event, something from which she would have to recover and shown as something deeply painful, more painful than the physical danger to her – it hurt more than she would have realised.  For this particular character, it highlighted both how far she was from the world she knew and how alone she felt,despite being surrounded by people who cared for her.  The tone of this section of the book was sombre and reflective.
  3. A man is pursued by a more powerful woman and, ultimately, raped.  This section gave me great pause for thought.  The character is cajoled, starved, dragged, bullied and ultimately threatened at knifepoint to sleep with a woman who has taken a fancy to him, with the laughing help of various women.  The situation is treated as comical, with one of the key female protagonists mocking him for it and saying it is a taste of his own medicine (despite it being clear he would never force his attentions on anyone).  It is revolting, and there is absolutely no reason for it to happen in this way or for the reaction to be as it is.  Despite not liking the female protagonist anyway, I can say it is utterly outside her normal behaviour and is another example of Jordan writing women badly.  Quite honestly, as the male character is only in this situation to aid the female protagonist and keep her safe, I kind of hope he doesn’t bother again.

I love the series for the world it creates, and the complex weaving of magic and its own internal history, but there are such unnecessary choices sometimes I find it frustrating to read.

The series is long – the total series length is about 4.25 million words, discounting the prequel! – so it is hard to maintain a sense of focus when the story meanders into sections that negatively impact on both the progress of, and my enjoyment of, the tale.

I remember struggling with these middle books before, and nearly stopping.  The only thing that keeps me going is my historic inability to give up on books – I have overcome that with new reads, but because I know I got past this point before, and the books get better again, I will keep going for now!

If you’re reading with me, just don’t expect to understand the morality of Rand al’Thor’s world.

On another point – I won’t get through 52 this year, but I gave it a good go and am reading a very long series!  Here’s to adding a few more to the numbers next year!

Happy reading,

EJ

🙂

 

 

 

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I finally finished the second Germany trip book, only to find it didn’t finish!

Book 37 – Wives and Daughters, by Elizabeth Gaskell. This book follows the life of Molly Gibson. She is the daughter of the widowed village GP, a quiet and well-behaved girl who has a close and fulfilling relationship with her father. But, as she grows up and a young man who Dr Gibson is training falls in love with her, the Dr realises things need to change. She is set to visit a nearby invalid lady who has no children of her own, and Dr Gibson proposes to a seemingly suitable woman.

As the story develops, Molly’s life changes remarkably. Gone is the warm closeness of her home life and instead she lives with daily irritations and frustrations. HOwever, what she loses on the one hand, she gains on the other with a beautiful and irresistible new sister.

However, that sister seems destined to deprive Molly of the one man she could ever love…

I knew how this story would end – but sadly, it doesn’t. Gaskell died part-way through the serialisation of the story, and all we are left with is a rounding up of a few loose strands by the editor of the magazine in which it was published. I was really disappointed, actually – I was invested in Molly’s relationships and the people she met. I wanted to see what happened next to more than just her.

I enjoyed it, and thought the characters – especially Molly, Dr Gibson and Roger Hamley, all very sympathetic characters – were incredibly charming, for varied reasons. Mrs Gibson veered towards caricature but had redeeming features which rounded her off a little, and the rest of the characters all had their own quirks which gave them a sense of individuality. It’s worth reading – but without an ending you need to make up your own, and in this case it wasn’t quite as satisfying as I thought it might be!

Book 38 – Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, by Newt Scamander (Ok, J.K. Rowling!). This book was sold for Comic Relief and is a real-life version of a book referred to in the Harry Potter stories. There is an introductory section about how a magical book could be for sale in the Muggle world, then Newt Scamander’s intro and the A-Z of beasts. Inside, there are margin notes by Harry, Ron and (just once, I think!) Hermione.

This isn’t really a book for review like the others – I bought it for fun because it was being sold for charity, and I do love the way the Harry Potter universe is so intricate and detailed. It’s not long, and it’s light-hearted, and it’s easy-going. It’s quite clearly aimed at children, and I may use some of the creatures described as inspiration for the decor for my family Halloween party!

If you are interested in the Harry Potter world this is a fun addition to the bookshelf, and if not, it’s sold for a good cause!

Happy reading,
EJ
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I have feelings about this one.  I am not sure where they will end up, so this review is as much about unpacking them as sharing with you!  There will be spoilers, but I will try to keep them to a minimum

Book 36 – The Miniaturist, by Jessie Burton.  Nella Oortman is just 18 when, in 1686, she is married to a stranger and sent to live in Amsterdam in a house full of shadowy conversations and unexpected characters.  Her husband Johannes barely looks at her, her sister-in-law is sharp and evasive, the maid is rude and the man-servant is a black man who, whilst deemed free, has a hazy past in which his status is very much a mystery to Nella.  Trying to give his wife something to focus on in her many hours alone, Johannes presents her with a replica of their house, for her to fill at will.

Nella feels a degree of aversion to the replica but after events lead her to reassess her situation, she seeks out a miniaturist to fill the house with things that will fill the voids in her own life.  However, the items she receives are far more than she expected, and set in motion a train of events that may, or may not, be influenced and controlled by the artist.  As Nella’s life judders out of control, and terrible secrets are revealed, she finds herself unable to stop them all heading for disaster.

This book has been lauded by critics, and is certainly an interesting take on the historical novel genre. There were some lovely details that gave the book depth and texture: the era was integral to the tale.

However, I did feel the characters were very modern in a number of ways: *spoiler alert* for example, the household’s acceptance of, and reaction to, homosexuality seemed out of kilter with what we knew of their characters and the era *end of spoiler*.  I felt that the growth of Nella, in the course of the story, was out of keeping with anything that could be expected of a young lady of her background.  The use of foreshadowing and signposting sometimes took away some elements of suspense for me as well.

I also felt that the miniaturist storyline was less engaging than it should have been. It started extremely strongly but as the story grew it felt less and less integral to the plot, and it concluded without the punchy impact I wanted.

Still, the way the story ended for Johannes and his sister was very powerful because it highlighted the view that people cannot hide from fate.  There was a strong sense of what is, and is not, inevitable throughout the book.  Nella exhibited a sense of arrested childhood due to situations outside her control, had constant distractions when seeking out the Miniaturist, and had to think in a brand new way to cope with the future she was facing.  All these things made it seem that her path was not of her own choosing, but that fate helped prepare her for what would come to her.

I liked the book – it was very hard to put down once I started, and the language was satisfying.  Repeated motifs of shadows and light were used to good effect, but with subtlety.  However, I also found its central pillar – the Miniaturist storyline – a little unsatisfying and vaguely concluded.  It never really went where I expected and seemed to hang just over the horizon in some way.

The characters were interesting, if a little out of time, and their strangeness to the Amsterdam norms neatly reflected Nella’s own feelings of not belonging.

I think this may be more enjoyable second time around; not only because details might be more readily picked up but also because I wouldn’t be waiting for evidence that my assumptions were right!  So perhaps I’ll pick this one up again in a few months and see if I can sum up my feelings any better after a repeat read…

Happy reading,

EJ

🙂

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In two weeks, I’ve read one book – I need to pick up the pace a little, I think!

Book 28 – Moll Flanders, by Daniel Defoe.  This book is described as a true account by the eponymous Moll Flanders of her life as, variously, ward of state, whore, wife, mother, thief, adulterer, convict, transportee, plantation owner and Christian.

Moll’s tale starts with her less than illustrious birth to a criminal mother, some good fortune in coming into the care of a good woman, and her subsequent favour with some wealthy benefactors.  Her life starts to stumble downwards from there as she falls in love with the eldest son of the house, who takes her virtue and pays for her silence.  From there is a catalogue of marriages, barely-there children, good fortune, bad fortune, crime and punishment.  Some of the more dramatic elements include unwittingly marrying her own brother, being paid for sex by a Baronet and then robbing him (and finally becoming his mistress), repeated bigamy, and the robbing of people whose home was burning down.

This is an earthy tale, one where the key character both hides and reveals her wickedness, with lewd comments veiled over and sexual behaviour covered with off-hand comments.  I can imagine that, for its time, it was quite shocking in subject matter.  However, Moll, despite her evident ‘wickedness’ remains a character the reader can sympathise with – her initial, bruising encounter with the wrong type of man set her on a path that inevitably tested a young woman of the time, and many of her trials, and poor behaviours, were a direct result of the fear of poverty.  Her later avarice seems inevitable when you consider how many times she has lost everything.

I also think, as a modern reader, some of the ‘sins’ she committed – such as sex outside of marriage, and having a child as a result – would be viewed very differently – so it seems doubly cruel that she was so damaged by it.  In fact, I mentioned to my husband when I started reading it that this book probably couldn’t be written in such a way nowadays.

Of course, an attempted theft wouldn’t lead to hanging or transportation now either, so some of the horror and fear was a little lost on me at first, but the depiction of the prison reminded me how far removed we are today from the plight of our forebears.

This book is a classic, but having never read it before or seen an adaptation of it, I didn’t know what to expect.  What I got was a long book, with an engaging lead character and some really odd narrative choices.  As the book may be based, in part, on the real-life experiences of Moll King, it is possible that Defoe was trying to utilise some of her experiences.  However, the choice to inadvertently marry Moll to her brother seems a little weird to me!

Nevertheless, I enjoyed it and I think it bears reading again.  Moll is a character who, even when utterly penitent about her previous criminal life, still lives with a twinkle in her eye.  She’s never dull, and she’s never hateful, and she owns her own mistakes even as she repeats them.  This book has a surprisingly modern feel considering its age, and it was a far easier book to read than many others I’ve tried!

Happy reading,

EJ

🙂

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