Book club

22/03/2018

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I started reading The Happiest Kids in the World (How Dutch Parents help their kids and themselves by doing less) by Rina Mae Acosta and Michele Hutchinson because I am always interested in finding out about different parenting styles from around the world. Especially if they help improve my own. As parents I believe we often get struck in sub conscience thoughts of “well this is how its done, this is how my parents did it, how my friends are doing it and everyone seems to be turning out fine”. But what if there are other ways that we have not even thought about that with just a few small changes could improve our own lives and our children’s?

But in my desire to take myself out of my comfort zone and open my mind to other parenting styles I was disappointed by this book. As although it was only published last year some of its ideas (which it troupes as being very Danish and therefore not known to the rest of the world) are nothing new. For instance the chapters devoted to “cry it out method” where parents are encouraged to let their children cry at night until they fall to sleep (after checking that they are well fed, dry and not hurt or ill) is very well known and something I used with JKD to wonderful effect 3 years ago.

I was also disappointed to see this book falling into the trap of comparing one culture to author and exaggerating at least one. The wonderful old fashioned and yet somehow now amazing fresh and modern Danish compared to the stressed out, worried and pushy British and Americans. This (in my eyes) over emphasising of the negative UK and USA world where anxious parents played “baby Einstein” to their womb and used flash cards from day one-was just not true (again to me).

However the aspect of the book I did find interesting was the way the Danish government had set up its schooling system to help with the Danish parenting style. Everything from teaching sex, love and relationships from nursery age, to having biking safety lessons compulsory for first year high schoolers. And I greatly admired the Danish teaching style and of letting children find what they like and pointing them in that direction, rather than the British route of the pressure of passing every test in order to be a happy adult(something my own generation know all too well to be painfully untrue). And I hoped that when JKD starts school this September I will remember a lot of these ideas and discuss them with her teachers to find out what there approach is.

But what stuck out the most for me was the freedom Dutch parents give to their children compared to the helicopter parent style I do see (and do use) in the UK. As while I loved the idea of letting JKD ride her bike to school and of letting her play outside all day without my supervision this is just not logical in many British areas.

Rina and Michele argued British parents have been turned into over protective monsters because of the British gutter press, with stories popping up on an almost daily basis of child abductions, paedophile rings, murders and suicides. That in turn has created a parental society scared to let their children out of their sight for even a moment in case something terrible happens.

And yes I do agree with Rina and Michele that the world is not as dangerous as the press would like us to believe. When I think of my own childhood and talk to my friends about theirs none of the dangers that we encountered where ever because of strangers or accidents, unfortunately they instead usually came from things much closer to home-such as family itself.

And yes, like many neighbourhoods of the past we had a local pervert, but like the local madwoman or drunk you knew who they where and you kept away. So I know through living my life that the dangers the media shouts at me are actually very small.

And yes I can see the benefit of letting JKD scrap her knee or fall out of a tree and learn a lesson that she would not have learnt if I was there

But still I can not help think-WHAT IF? So as much as Id like to give JKD more freedom and can see the benefits of it I simply can not follow this piece of advice.

Overall I’d give this book 6/10. It was an easy read and the style of having two different authors with different backgrounds and children of different ages and interests did make the book more rounded and informative. However I have read much better lifestyle parenting books-such as French Children Don’t Throw Food by Pamela Druckerman  and cross culture comparison books such as The Year of Living Danishly (Paperback) Helen Russell


25/03/2018

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I have a love hate opinion of this book.

I love it because it was a real gripping page turner of a book which I devoured in two weeks. The main character is a maverick detective who fights for justice and stands up for the little man even if it means crossing the thin blue line in leaps and bounds. He’s the cop you want in your corner. The scene where he takes revenge on a criminal that got off lightly is the kind of thing we all wish we could do, but don’t have the skills…or balls. To back up this hard as nails policeman is a just as cool and strong ex female detective-turned private eye. The scene where she kills several assassins while protecting a key witness and all told from her point of view screams girl power at its loudest. There is also a brilliant baddie who is as bad as bad can be. And whose only joy in life is to kill and preferable by splitting his victims throat. He is dark and intelligent and smells of the earth. I also enjoyed reading the story from several different characters point of view, from the poor stooge who you cant help but feel sorry for given his bad life and the teacher witness who brings the dead back to life by telling there stories.

However for all its positives I also have to point out the fact that this book was written with no heart. It’s writer tried to think of a story to tell that would sell books and make money. He then went through a tick list of all the primary elements that are needed to accomplish this. The typical brooding detective, a possible love story, an old mystery, a chase scene through a distant land. Call me an old romantic but I prefer books that have been written because the writer had a story to tell, a message they just had to get off their chest, from the heart. This is not that. Its a book you pick up and read at the airport, its the soap opera of books and even ends with cliff hanger.

There was also some scenes and characters in the book that I just didn’t like. Such as the young smuggled girl who is the ultimate victim and who I screamed at throughout the book-GET OUT OF THE CAR! RUN!WTF! DO SOMTHING! And when she finally dies (although in a horrendous way) you cant help but think WELL WHAT DID YOU THINK WAS GOING TO HAPPEN???

The blood lust and body count is also lot higher than what I’d like. And the mystery is solved rather too quickly and easily. But then the novelist makes this into a not who, or how or why but getting enough evidence to convict them or getting close enough to kill them.

 


26/04/2018

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Overview

Arthur and George by Julian Barnes is an historical novel that tells the real life story of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (the writer of the famous Sherlock Holmes novels) investigation of the true crime of animals being slaughtered in Staffordshire in 1903. For these crimes George was accused and sentenced. However Arthur believes the case against him is built on racism (George’s father is Indian Parsee) and circumstantial evidence and decides to prove the police wrong and vindicate George.

The storey is told from the point of view of both of the main characters and charts their life story from their first memories right up to old age and death.

Overall it is a very enjoyable and engaging read. Julian Barnes shows a lot of knowledge of the case and the time. He treats George with delicacy and obviously has a great deal of respect for Arthur Doyle, however this does not stop him showing the faults of this great man; including being a little egotistical and naive.

Arthur Doyle

Arthur’s faults are most clearly shown in his affair with Jean Leckie while he is still married to Louisa Hawkins. He convinces himself his behaving as a perfect gentleman by not sleeping with Jean (although as his brother in law Earnest points out this is not the point), by keeping his invalid wife in the dark over his affair he is saving her feelings (although we later find out she knew) and that by being open with his closest friends and family he is not behaving like a cad (although his sister disagrees.) Even his mother notices his hypocrisy when he starts his affair-despite the fact he has condemned her own (noting how she too was married to a person she could not love emotionally or physically and ended up in a relationship with a junior)

There is also the possibility of him being deceived by Jean Leckie -as his long time secretary Woodie (who jokingly takes on the role of Watson when investigations into George’s case begin).  Woodie has a great deal of respect for the first Mrs Doyle and has nothing but contempt for the new Mrs Doyle. (However we must take his views with a pinch of salt as there is a underlining tone of homosexual attraction from Woodie to Arthur who he serves loyally for years and is willing to take on any role, including being his foil, to please his master and takes on an almost jealous drunken rant at Arthurs second wedding reception)

However we also see a moment of thought from Jean  when during the difficult transition period from Louisa death to Arthur re-marrying where, in order to engage his love and interest in herself again she must behave more like the late Mrs Doyle and become more engaged with Arthurs interests including his battle for George. Later on we see deceit go even further as she takes a complete one eighty in her view of spiritualism. A religion Doyle is deeply involved in and yet something which at first repelled Jean, she instead becomes an active advocate. This duplicity and insincerity to her character is a trait Arthur is completely blind to and shows his naivety and lack of judgement (unlike his famous detective character)

Arthur’s faults can also be seen in the way he investigate Georges case. George (as a lawyer) contemplates later in the book, all of his evidence is circumstantial, he too has jumped to many of the same conclusions as the police in believing the letters and the cattle crimes where linked, and he steals the main piece of evidence. Although he tries to apply Holmes methodical methods they appear out of place and awkward in real life. George even relates how “It was all, George decided, the fault of Sherlock Holmes. Sir Arthur had been too influenced by his own creation.”

However it is also through Arthurs investigations for George that Arthur is able to overcome the grieve and guilt over his wife’s death and focus his attention on another subject, thus enabling him to carry on with his life personally and professionally, Jean realises this when she thanks George at the wedding, telling him how he will never know how much he has helped bring about this special day.

George Edalji

While Arthurs life is full of drama and overflowing emotion in contrast Georges life is one quiet solitude and unspoken unrest. For instance George is unable to ask his father if he can move out of his bedroom, he also is unable to tell him he wants to move and get married. And there is something uneasy about the Edalji family. The fact that the father does not move the son out of his bedroom and into his own room-even once his brother has left, the supposed invalid sister Maud  grew up to be a perfectly healthy and capable woman. The younger brother who moves away and changes his name as soon as his is able to, the wife who after death chooses not to be buried next to her husband, the mother also contemplates how her husband insists they stay in a village they are being harassed in as he believes it is a test by god , that Maud later contemplates that George bad eyesight and lack of human understanding enabled him to be blind to a lot of what was happening around him in life and at his home, George overwhelming fear when he believes the spirt of his father has come back to speak to him. For me this all appears to point to some form of abuse by the father. Does the wife insist on sleeping with daughter to stop him sexually abusing her or the wife? Is he sexually abusing the younger son and that’s why he keeps him separate? Is he emotionally and mentally abusing the family through his devote religions belief?

The mystery of the Edalji family is just one of mystery’s in this book, the others are who is responsible for the letter writing and the animal mutilation? Is it a gang or one person? Many ideas are put forward for these questions and no absolute conclusion is met which is both frustrating but in keeping with the true to life set up of the book after all not all cases are solved with a cute little bow as in the Sherlock cases.

English racism

I can not help but compare this book to anther historical novel A Gentleman and a Spy by  Robert Harris about the racist Dreyfus case in France in which an innocent Jewish man was condemned for a crime he did not commit and found guilty purely for being Jewish. In Barnes book this comparison is also made by George who  wonders why his case never achieved the fame of the Dreyfus case in France. Edalji had his champion in Conan Doyle just as Dreyfus had his in Zola, but “for all this the name of Dreyfus had constantly increased in fame, and was known around the globe, while that of Edalji was scarcely recognised in Wolverhampton … he suspected his obscurity was something to do with England itself.” And it is this very point of how the English show/hide their racism which is dealt with in the novel. Racism in the book is shown to be something that only the poor stupid country folk of Staffordshire openly admit to, while the more intelligent police and commissioners hint at it or only discuss privately, so instead of there being an overt/overwhelming obvious motive of racism in the case it is instead so subtle and underplayed that even the near blind George fails to see it and instead believes himself, as his father has told him, ‘that he is English, he is a student of the laws of England, and one day, God willing, he will marry according to the rites and ceremonies of the Church of England’. And instead asks Arthur to not think of racism as motive, hinting that it would be crude and stupid to suppose this was the motive. Arthur Doyle is except from this kind of attitude through as his is not English but instead Scottish and points out to George ‘You and I, George, you and I, we are unofficial Englishmen.’ In this spirit, Conan Doyle used the trumped-up case against his friend to expose the endemic racism and corruption in the police force and beyond.

The unseen

To me one of the main themes of this book is about what we don’t see and don’t know for certain. While Sherlock Holmes dealt with pure facts and always caught his man, real life is much less tangible and loose. In George and Arthur we see Arthur is blind to the truth that his wife knows of his affair, that his secretary may secretly like him, that his lover is using him and that his family think him foolish. We see George who is unable to see (literally) and that he can’t see how his own skin colour effects how people view him, hiding away from the abuse he receives at school and work and in the legal system. We as a reader are unable to see what abuse may be happening in the Edalji family and the public at large never see who the real letter writer or criminals in the case are. Throughout all this lack of seeing is this theme of religion. Georges father is a devote Christian and believes in a god he cannot see. Arthur is a spiritualist as he believes it has been proved to him through various ways, while George is a none believer as he does not believe either religion can truly prove itself. However in the final chapter George attends a spiritualist gathering in Arthurs honour and while waiting outside in the park has feels an overwhelming connection to the now deceased Arthur and to the world and time at large. This scene and George’s emotions feel to the reader to be more true to life to everyday peoples experience of another world then either Christianity or spiritualism is described in the book. Also the fact George is finally moved by something which is unseen and which he cannot explain can be related back to when Arthur was moved to believe George did not commit his accused crime-he did not know why-but he believed it.


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The plot of the Magpie Murders is Editor Susan Ryelands is given Alan Conways’s new novel to edit over the weekend. She (like us) becomes ingrossed in the story of Atticus Pund – a German Detective, investigating several mysterious death in a beautiful English village in 1955. However when she gets to the end and finds the last chapters are missing and then that the writer himself has seemingly commited suicide in odd circumstances she becomes involed in her own real life murder invitigation.

This is a wonderfully clever book, which uses many devices throughout such as…

  1. The two books in one:  Here we have a modern day murder investigation and a Agatha Christie 1950s version. I have to say I liked both stories but for completely different reasons. Alan Conways story is romantic and classic, with its beautiful village that makes you want to live there, “At half past one there was to be cricket on the village green. There would be an ice cream van, children playing, visitors having picnics in front of their car, The tea shop would be open for business. A perfect English summer’s afternoon” and the captivating forest that even stirs the non pulsed Pund “There was something curious about the wood. It wasn’t a wood at all. It was a dell, much smaller and yet now they where in it there seemed to be no edges, no obvious way out, everything was hushed”. The world Conway creates (although surrounded by murder) makes me feel safe and snug as we when greeted by an old friend. While the modern day murder did feel more real and gave an interesting perspective of how a novice would behave in a murder investigation. Susan Rayland’s points out throughout the book she does not have the aid of the police or a side kick as is often found the murder mystery’s. That she has no hard facts and has to go on heresy and conjecture. She makes many mistakes throughout, especially towards the end of the novel. But it is the fact that she is such a avid murder mystery fan and she tries to apply there fictional ideas into the real world often blurring the line between fantasy and reality, that make the modern day book so interesting to read. “Much later that night, I thought the door opened and a man came into the bedroom. He was learning on a stick. The didn’t say anything but he stood there, looking sadly at Andreas and me, and as a half shaft of moonlight came slanting in through the window I recognised Atticus Pund”. 
  2. The involvement of the reader as a character: Although Conway has created a wonderful detective series out of Atticus Pund, we find out that he was playing games with his reader throughout, for instance the fact he names his characters in similar ways, gay writers, birds and rivers. We are told he does this to stop himself becoming bored, while Susan Ryelands, reflects our own view of this as the reader, that we feel mocked for not noticing it. We also find there are anagrams throughout Conway’s books as well, including in his book titles and his detectives name, all of which is done to make the reader feel stupid. It is also this mocking of the reader which ultimately leads to Conway’s death, however I did find this a unbelievable motive as I don’t believe it would have damaged sales. Some hard core fans may have felt cheated but ultimate a new way of marketing them could of been found and was “By now the whole world knew the nasty truth behind the detectives name but in short it didn’t matter. All the publicity about the real life murder and trail made people more interested in the book”
  3. The endings: While I was able to quickly guess the ending to the modern day murder (a big clue is given at the beginning) I was not able to decide who the murderer would be in Conway’s book. This was frustrating as I also felt fooled by Alan Conway, the unlikeable but intelligent writer. You as the reader want to shoot him down (pun intended) and out trick the detective/writer. However as Susan points out a she too is unable to guess the killer and it could be anyone. But this is a sign of a good mystery, the murderer must not be easy to guess, (the reader wants to be worked a little to feel clever) “…it is the first law of whodunnits that the most likely suspect never turns out to be the killer.” The reason for this being no one would read your books if the killer was so easy to guess and the case easy to crack.
  4. Real crimes vs frictional crime: I love the speech Detective Richard Locke gives to Susan Ryland’s about the how real life murder is nothing like the fictional world.   “People don’t plan these things. They don’t sneak into there victims houses and throw them off roofs, they don’t send out letters, hoping they are going to be misinterpreted.” The reader (and Susan) is yet again made to feel foolish for being so ghoulish it its search for a murder and a murderer and in some ways this makes me feel cheated by the ending. Because ultimately the detective is right, in real life people do not “put on wigs and dress up like they do in Agatha Christie”  Murder is often committed by “perpetrators who are mad or angry or drunk.” However at the end of the novel we are told to believe that actually this is what happened. With an intelligent person murdering another person in cold blood. But I can forgive this a little as the murderer was also a fan of classic murder mystery’s-so there logic would have been to  cover up the crime in interesting ways. Also by the end of the book reality is suspended with, with the murderer showing up just at the right time and then Susan being rescued out of the blue. In many ways I wish Susan had died in the fire, as this would have made the novel feel more real.  For me Anthony Horwitz only saving grace at the end of the book is that he shows the cruel reality of what it is to actually be a murderer and how scary and horrible it is to be involved in a real life crime “Charles had parted company with the rest of humanity the moment he pushed Alan off the tower and the man who was standing over me know was no longer my friend or colleague. He was empty”. 
  5. Writers using there real life in their works. I studied English Literature at University and one of the things we students always found fascinating about novels was what was the writer reliving about themselves and there private life in there own works. For instance David Copperfield is often seen to be Charles Dickins writing about himself with the initials turned backwards (DC, CD), While Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was suppose to be inspired by her own thwarted love interest. Here we see two writers using there real life in the books. First Anthony Horwitz who mentions his own previous works, such as Midsomer Murder in the novel and Alan Conway who uses everything and everyone around him. Indeed reading the last chapter of the novel is hard as you are reading two stories at once. Alans real life and the Attic Pund book. For instance Atticus Pund is dying, as is Alan Conway so when Pund contemplates life we have to wonder if these where also Conway’s last thoughts and Pund letter to his friend, becomes Conway’s suppose suicide letter.

All in all I greatly enjoyed this book and would highy recommend it, espically to any other murder mystery fans


23.06.2018

The Wardrobe Mistress by Meg Evans

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Now this is not a book I would usually pick up, but one of the reasons of being in a Book Club is to read books you wouldn’t normally read (and I am not so hypocritical as to dislike a book before actually reading it.)
The main aspect of the book that put me off was the fact its a romance. Don’t get me wrong I like a bit of romance every know and then, my favorite ever book is Jane Eyre closely followed by Lady Chatterley lover. But these books had substance and meanings and I was worried the Wardrobe Mistress would fall more into the realms of trashy, none-thinking, over nostalgic tat, that you throw in your bag when you go on holiday and can read on the beach. But each book has its place and, as one of my Book Club members said, ‘you cant always be in the mood for highbrow’.
The story is set in London 1945 and tells the story of Vanessa Kingcourt, a young war widow, with a passion for the theatre, laid deep by her recently deceased father. After serving her country during WW2 she has returned to the city she loves clutching the key to a mysterious inheritance. She gets a job at her fathers old haunt The Ferran as a Wardrobe Mistress, however she has no experience and no budget for supplies, leaving Vanessa to use her intuition to create beautiful costumes from whatever scraps survived the blitz. It’s a seemingly impossible task, and one which unravels family secrets sewn deep into the very fabric of the London theatre scene.
I know…its sounds terrible, but once I starting reading it I began to see there was more to this book then first meets the eye (as are the majority of the characters in the book). For instance I liked the connection between Oscar Wilde’S Play, Lady Windermere’s Fan and the plot that unravels in The Wardrobe Mistress (WARNING PLOT SPOILERS FOR BOTH!!!)
Lady Windermere’s Fan is the first play that the Ferran puts on when it opens after the war with Vanessa as Wardrobe Mistress and love interest Alistair as the Manager. As Alistair is still married at the time, to a wife he suspects of cheating, one of the characters (comically) points out it may be inappropriate to start with this play, as it is about a marriage on the rocks and suspicious of inferdelity. But the connections do not stop there.
Lady Windermere’s Fan was Oscar Wilde’s first play and is the first play shown at the Farran after WW2, it makes him famous and in the book the play is a success and marks a profitable return of the Farran.
Another similarity is that Oscar Wilde was notoriously sent to prison for being gay and relocated to France after his release. While the costume designer Hugo is also gay and flees to France to escape capture from the police.
I also like how Evans uses the play to look at the ideas of ‘modern and old fashioned’. For instance Oscar Wilde was seen as a modernist writer while in the story there is a lot of worry about the play being too old fashioned for the new modern crowd and at the end of the story Vanessa and Alistair open a Modern theatre. However while Oscar Wilde wrote Lady Windermere’s Fan over 50 years ago in the book and despite being seen as old fashioned for some of the characters many other characters in the story can be seen to still struggle with many of the issues raised in the original play. For example Vanessa’s real mother and adopted mother both worry about a scandal when a baby is conceived and no husband is around. Fern is also worried about her reputation both socially as a lady and from the point of view of her new in laws, as she will be a divorcee, who had an affair while married. Fern’s father is also concerned about reputation and ruins a lot of peoples lives by not granting a divorce.
The story line between the play and the novel also share other similarities. For instance there is a husband falsely accused of cheating, Lord Windermere and Alistair both of whom are actually protecting their wives. There is a mother who abandons her daughter and there are several love triangles.
However Wilde and Evans have two different emotional goals in their writing. For while Oscar Wilde was able to write about the pain of infidelity, the sadness of a mothers abandonment and seriousness nature of a persons reputation and make it light and funny. Evans tries to show us the more serious side to it, but, in my opinion, never quite getting there. For instance the very tragic character of Eve the poor original Wardrobe Mistress has a terribly sad life – her baby dies in childbirth while she wait for her useless actor boyfriend to get off the stage. He then takes her child’s identity in order to cover up her other lovers illegitimate daughter. Then five years later she is given only a few minutes with the little girl who has taken on her dead daughters life. Then to have half her face blown off while she goes to help her drunken lover, who promptly dumps her because of her disfigurement and spends the rest of her painful life in a nunnery, unable to talk because of her injuries. This poor woman is a woman to feel truly sorry for and yet we never truly do. The reason being Meg Evans writing never really lets us get there, for she is in too much of a race to get everything else done, including getting Alistair and Venessa in the sack, or find out Vanessa’s true identity or find if the Farran will survive.

The over piling of narratives continues with the novels overrun of characters, many of whom are never fully shaped. For instance the evil Miss Bovary’s never more than a caricature of herself, draped in black, holding séances in a dark empty theatre, her transition from high flying scantily clad trapeze artist to a figure often mistaken for a ghost is never explained. While her soppy sister, egotistical nephew and malice brother in law are never developed beyond a few lines. I also ended up losing track of all the different actors and there back stories-to be honest I wasn’t very interested by this point and I sympathised with Alistair when he complains that Oscar Wilde must have had a lot of actor friends as the world and his mother had parts in his play-as that is how I felt about the book-there was just too many people!
I also became very frustrated with Vanessa and Alistair’s continual will they wont they. It was beyond irritating, with one thing after another stopping them from jumping in to bed with each other, either she says the wrong thing, or he does, or they are interrupted by wives or theatre staff. And finally Evans explains (rather well) the truly moral reason why Alistair (despite his attraction to Vanessa) will not sleep with her and I thought, well that makes sense, I get that, ok so they cant sleep together until he is divorcee, only for 10 minutes later all his resolve to come crashing down as Vanessa is naked in his bed!!!!!!!!
However despite all of that I did enjoy reading it and did like the wonderful character of Fern who was beautifully self involved, I also felt Evans did a great job of transporting her readers back in to time to a post WW2 London. The details of the cloths and food and hairstyles were brilliant, with little touches of feminine knowledge, such as using coco powder for tanned legs and having to keep mark up warm to put it on correctly in the winter. And although it was far too much of a Disney movie ending I was happy to see Vanessa and Alistair getting their happy ever after, but I doubt I will be picking up another Evans book in a hurry

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