Book reviews

I couldn’t figure out what was going on in John Le Carre’s Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy and was so bored by the politics and the jargon of the spy-games the characters were playing that I didn’t finish the book.

I loved the first chapter which told of a new school teacher arriving at a boy’s school sometime in the 1970s. Bill Roach, one of the students, was fascinated by Jim Prideaux, his car, his trailer, his military style and his easy way with the boys he teaches. I read far enough into the book to learn that Jim was a former spy who had been injured during a former spy operation.

In chapter two the story moved to George Smiley, a has-been spy whose job it was to figure out who was the mole (double-agent Russian spy) in the Circus (British Intelligence). Suddenly a cast of thousands arrived in the story, including a spy who had previously been thought to have defected to the Russians. This was when things got too complicated for me.

I lost faith in George’s ability to work out what was going on in the Circus when I learned his wife was messing around with one of his colleagues. Since I didn’t finish the book, I don’t know if either story line was resolved.

Obviously my opinion should not be taken as the last word on this subject as John Le Carre is one of the most respected and beloved writers in this field. I’m not very good at keeping secrets, whatever I’m thinking shows on my face and I can’t understand why all of our countries can’t just get along, so perhaps I should have realised earlier that spy novels are not for me.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was book fourteen in my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2023.

A Different Kind of Evil by Andrew Wilson was not authorised by Agatha Christie Ltd. I should have heeded the warning on the preface page and not read the book. As it was, I got to a particularly abhorrent scene somewhere around the middle, then decided I’d had enough.

In A Different Kind of Evil Agatha Christie is a character, telling the story in the first-person. It begins with Agatha, her daughter and her daughter’s nanny on their way to Tenerife in 1927 where she was sent to investigate the death of a British Secret Intelligence Service agent.

On the journey, Agatha witnesses the suicide of another passenger’s wife, a stowaway, who jumped overboard. The passenger was travelling with his mistress. On arriving in Tenerife, Agatha involved herself with several unpleasant and potentially dangerous characters, all of whom may have had something to do with the death of the agent.

I found the portion of the book I read to be overly complicated, overly dramatic and overly nasty.

I’ve been enjoying reading my way through Ann Patchett’s books, most recently State of Wonder which I thought was readable, although not up to the standard of Bel Canto.

State of Wonder follows an American scientist, Marina Signh, whose colleague recently died in the Amazonian jungle while carrying out investigations for the company at an outpost laboratories in Brazil.

Marina was sent to the jungle to follow up by her boss, Mr Fox, who wanted her to find out what happened to Anders Eckman to give Eckman’s family closure, but also, and more importantly for the company, to learn how Dr Annick Swenson’s development of a drug which allows women to remain fertile their whole lives is progressing.

Marina’s journey to the remote tribe somewhere living in a rainforest somewhere in Brazil is not for the faint-hearted and when she arrives, things in the laboratory were not as expected.

Marina’s romantic involvement with Mr Fox complicates matters, as does the fact that the abrasive and driven Dr Swenson was Marina’s idol and teacher when she was in university. The horrible nightmares caused by the anti-malarial drugs Marina takes further complicate the decisions she needs to make.

The story seemed overly muddy and complicated to me, with characters who didn’t add much getting in the way of the story. There was too much detail about things that didn’t matter and not enough details about those that did. I struggled to believe in Marina’s relationship with Mr Fox, mostly due to the differences in their moral values and strengths and also because after a year of seeing each other Marina was unable to call him by his first name.

I think State of Wonder is a book Ann Patchett fans will enjoy, but not the book I would recommend to someone new to this author.

I nearly cast aside Cressida Connolly’s After the Party as after reading several books set around World War Two recently I was ready for a break from stories set during this time. However, I started reading and realised that these character’s viewpoints and situation was one I had never thought much about before.

The story is told by an English woman, Phyllis Forrestor, who along with her husband and young children returned to England in 1938 after being overseas for years. Phyllis and her family soon became immersed in her sister’s social groups, Patricia’s, a rich, privileged and nasty bunch of snobs, and Nina’s, a jolly political group concerned with ‘peace work’

The chapters are set between 1938 until 1941 which alternate with others from 1979, as Phyllis explains the events of the earlier time which caused her to have been jailed in Hollingsworth, a women’s prison.

When Phyllis returned to England in 1938, her sisters Nina and Patricia were both heavily involved with the British Union of Fascists or British Union Party. For Phyllis, assisting Nina shop for and feeding the members of the peace group at a summer holiday camp allowed her to feel useful and as if she belonged somewhere after being away from England for so long, and with Patricia, she got to know members of the group on a more social footing, which she also enjoyed very much. A visit from the party leader, Oswald Mosley, was the social event of the summer for all of the sisters.

I was genuinely shocked when characters who I thought were just normal, good-mannered, considerate people expressed anti-Semitic views and condoned their children’s behaviour as they harassed others with beliefs different to their own. (Obviously I didn’t know anything about this political group before I started reading this book, so much like Phyllis, believed and went along with everything I was told until this event forced me to question what the story had told me so far).

Phyllis is the middle sister, a pleaser by nature who became caught between her sisters’ issues with each other. She didn’t want to rock the boat when her husband had an affair with Patricia, and this unwillingness to ask questions and think for herself about political issues in particular led to her and her husband being jailed for their involvement with a party whose ideologies she didn’t really seem to understand. Phyllis seemed to me to be a (mostly) good person, who did her wishy-washy best for her family and friends as she tried to fit in with and please both her sisters. However, as the law says, ignorance is no excuse and to be fair, Phyllis’ best was really not good enough.

The other main strand of this story was more personal. Through Patricia, Phyllis met and befriended a very rich and exotic woman, Sarita, whose story ended sadly. As Phyllis looks back at her life in 1979, she was sadder about how her own behaviour had affected Sarita than she was about her involvement with the party, her time in prison or even that her own family no longer saw each other.

The Mitford sisters weren’t mentioned, but I suppose their glamourous and notorious lives influenced this story enormously. While After the Party isn’t a great book, this is an interesting look at a viewpoint which I’m fairly unfamiliar with and now, slightly intrigued by.

Well, there’s a first time for everything. I don’t think I’ve ever been awarded anything before, (showing my age here, as children today are encouraged to help others, be kind and to try their best with these and similar motivational awards which are regularly presented at school assemblies. In my day, the only award going was for the school dux and let me tell you, I would never have been in the running to win that).

I’m delighted to have been nominated for The Blogger Recognition Award 2019 by FictionFan, who is a far worthier recipient of this award than me. Check out her blog, you’ll like it.

The Award Rules

1. Thank the blogger/s who nominated you and provide a link to their blog.
2. Write a post to show your award.
3. Give a brief story of how your blog started.
4. Give two pieces of advice to new bloggers.
5. Select 15 other bloggers you want to give this award to.
6. Comment (or pingback) on each blog and let them know you have nominated them and provide the link to the post you created.

3. In the beginning…

I had wanted my own book review blog for ages, but had two excuses for not starting one, 1. I felt too frightened to expose myself, 2. I didn’t have much free time.

On holidays from work a few years back I finally found the courage and time to begin and I haven’t looked back since. As it turned out I had plenty of time to blog and instead of exposing myself, I’ve become part of a lovely community.

4. A couple of pieces of advice for new bloggers.

My advice is aimed particularly at book reviewers, since that is my area of interest.

1. Write your reviews a day or so after finishing a book. If you start too soon you won’t have given yourself time to figure out what the book meant to you and if you wait too long, you’ll forget what you wanted to say. My method is to write a rough review, then leave it for a week or so before editing.

2. Don’t forget to preview your post before hitting the publish button. I don’t know why, but I always find mistakes in ‘preview’ that I’ve overlooked in my drafts.

5. Select 15 other bloggers to give this award to.

Although I follow and read loads of fantastic blogs, I don’t think I can bring myself to do this. I may not have ever won an award in school, but I did once bring home a chain letter and my father was terribly angry with me for wanting to participate. (I think the idea was that I had to send 20 cents to the person on the top of the list, then send the chain letter on to a number of other people so that eventually everyone would get bags and bags of letters of their own, each with a 20 cent piece inside). I know an award like this isn’t really comparable with chain letters or pyramid schemes but this is outside of my comfort zone, so, even this isn’t really in the spirit of the award, this one is going to stop with me.

Now I’m wondering if I should have declined the award, so it could have been offered to someone else who would have kept it going? Is there an etiquette here that I’m unaware of?

I was charmed by The Strawberry Thief, the fourth book by Joanne Harris featuring the characters from Chocolat. Vianne Rocher is still making chocolate with a dusting of magic in Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, but now her daughter Anouk has grown up and gone to Paris. In this once upon a time, Vianne’s younger daughter, Rosette, is the main girl when the wind begins to blow.

Rosette is a delightful heroine. She is Vianne’s ‘special child’ and prone to ‘Accidents’ which happen when her magical powers get out of hand. Rosette doesn’t go to school and rarely speaks, instead communicating with her mother, friends and community by making bird noises or somehow inserting her words into other people’s heads.

The story begins with the death of Narcisse, who was the florist from across the square. Narcisse surprised everyone by leaving some land to Rosette in his will, knowing she would treasure the woods which house a strawberry patch and an old well. This infuriated Narcisse’s daughter, who inherited the rest of Narcisse’s estate, which was far less valuable for her to sell without the wood.

Almost overnight, a mysterious stranger opened a tattoo parlour in Narcisse’s old shop, enticing many of the town people, including Reynaud the priest, Vianne’s lover Roux and her dear friend Josephine to get a tattoo. Vianne is the only one who is wary of the tattooist and warns Rosette to stay away from the tattooist and her magic.

The Strawberry Thief is a lighter, quicker read than some of the other books in the Chocolat series, but makes up for this with its bewitching charm. As usual with Joanne Harris’ books, for me this was one I didn’t want to put down.

Tom Jones by Henry Fielding

I spun up Tom Jones by Henry Fielding in the most recent Classics Club spin and immediately panicked, because this book is huge. I realised I was right to panic, when after a week of solid reading I was only up to page 120, with 660 pages to go. In all honesty, if I had realised how long the book was I would never have added it to my list.

However, perseverance eventually got me through and I can truthfully say that I enormously enjoyed my first Fielding novel.

I had no idea before I started reading that the book is a comedy and that I would particularly love the humour in this book. There are funny twists and turns throughout the plot and the characters often say and do hilariously silly things, but the best humour comes from directly the author, who has inserted himself and his opinions into the story as the narrator, although he is completely uninvolved in the story as a character.

As often happens to me when I read a book from another place or time, I initially struggled to become immersed in the story (I might have been worrying too much about how long it would take me to finish the book rather than concentrating on the plot) so I successfully applied my old trick of reading aloud until I caught the narrator’s voice and could hear it in my head. Henry Fielding’s narrative voice is extremely descriptive and he leaves nothing that goes through his mind during the telling of this story as anything less than fully explored. Each of the 18 sections which make up this book starts with a chapter in which Fielding discusses some idea or other, many of which are entirely unrelated to the story.

To the actual story. Tom Jones is the name of a foundling who was left in the bed of Squire Allworthy, the richest and most important man in his local village. Tom’s parentage and how he came to be in the Squire’s bed was unknown until Allworthy’s housekeeper made investigations and found that his most likely parents were a local schoolmaster and his (alleged) mistress. Allworthy, who is as good as his name suggests, arranges for the woman to go somewhere where no one will know her reputation and asked his sister to bring up the child as her own.

Tom is a happy, loving, honest boy who often got into what most people would call innocent mischief. He was brought up alongside Allworthy’s sister’s child, Bliful, who was the opposite in temperament of Tom, being deceitful, greedy and jealous of Tom. Tom’s reputation often suffered from Blifil’s lies, particularly with Allworthy and other members of their community.

At a young age, Tom fell in love with a local girl, Molly, who became pregnant. Tom had to face up to his own actions with Allworthy, but when it turned out that Molly had several other fellows on the hop at the same time, Tom had a change of heart and fell in love with the beautiful Sophia Western, his childhood friend. Sophia also fell in love with Tom, whom she had idolised since their childhood, however her father wanted her to marry Blifil so their estates would be merged.

When some unlucky and misconstrued events about Tom disappointed Allworthy, he sadly turned Tom away from his home (with a large sum of money) which started a series of adventures for the broken-hearted Tom, who genuinely loved his adopted father Allworthy.

Tom’s adventures and the people he met were hilarious. His adventures were mostly amorous and were helped along by the sweetness of his temper, combined with his angelic face and presumably his fine physique, which were irresistible to a great many of the women he met along his way. The consequences of Tom’s inability to say no to any of the women who wanted to go to bed with him were being caught out by Sophia, who had run away from home rather than marry Blifil, whom she detested. Sophia, while jealous of Tom’s lovers, was more angry with Tom for supposedly bandying her name around a variety of public houses than she was with him for his multiple love affairs.

The characters in this story are fantastic. They are all caricatures of their virtues and vices, for example, Sophia is impossibly good and beautiful and Squire Western, Sophia’s father, is a foul-mouthed bully who lived for hunting. He regularly declared that he loved Sophia more than life itself, but exposed his truest desires when he joined in with a passing hunt while searching for his missing daughter.

Black George, a gamekeeper, was beholden to Tom in numerous ways, yet could not resist stealing everything Tom had from him. Another servant was consistently insidious and untruthful in order to ingratiate herself with Sophia, while other characters were ludicrously cowardly, or frighteningly clever, or pious and hypocritical. All of the characters are presented by Fielding with humour and up to a point, affection.

I was very amused by a landlady who constantly and successfully needled her second husband by constantly referencing the wisdom of his predecessor by starting every sentence with “As my first husband used to say.”

Many of the character’s names were, like Squire Allworthy’s, indicative of their values and behaviours which reminded me of the fantastic character names used by Charles Dickens in his novels, for example, Mr Thwackum is an ominous name for a boy’s tutor…

I did not expect to find Tom Jones to be so funny. The story is also clever and thought-provoking and entertaining. I will read more books by Henry Fielding in future.

My only advice for anyone planning to read Tom Jones is to allow plenty of time to read the book (it took me a month) and find a good quality hardback version or read it on an electrical device, as holding a paperback book of this size open was a physical challenge.

Tom Jones was book thirteen in my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2023.

Tag Cloud