Author Archives: Siobhan

Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan


For the Classics Challenge 2016, February edition, I decided to hunt through my to read pile (part of my bid to spend less money on books by reading the ones I already have, rocket science, I know) and came up with Francoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse. I may or may not have been swayed to choose this modern classic, ranked 41 in Le Monde’s 100 books of the century, because its short length matched the shortness of the month….

Bonjour Tristesse, narrated by seventeen year old Cecile, tells the events of a summer she spends on the French Riviera with her vain, self-indulgent father and his mistress, Elsa. When Anne, a family friend, comes to stay and threatens Cecile’s cosy, vapid existence and bourgeoning love affair with a local boy, she begins plotting to be rid of her.

As classics go, this novel is small but perfectly formed. Although she initially appears naïve and innocent, Cecile is one of the most detestable narrators I’ve ever encountered- loaded with a raging Electra complex, vindictive and self-excusing. The skill with which Sagan manipulates the reader’s feelings from supporting Cecile and seeing Anne as the villain of the piece at the novel’s opening to a total inversion of this by the end. When you consider that Sagan was only 18 when she wrote this novel… pretty incredible.

If you’re looking to dip a toe in the classics with an accessible read, or a fan of unreliable narrators and characters that you love to hate, this is a great read for you.

Persuasion by Jane Austen

“I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures. None of us want to be in calm waters all our lives.” Persuasion by Jane Austen

In the past, I may have compared Jane Austen to porridge. Not that I have anything against porridge per se, or Jane Austen really, but there are only so many marriage plots that you can really embrace before you feel a little jaded.

My not-quite-antipathy of Jane Austen has been compounded by the fact that I found Northanger Abbey one of the most irritating books I’ve ever read. But after being given a beautiful folio box set of Austen’s collected works for my 30th birthday, and deciding that Daniel Defoe’s The Storm (a groundbreaking work of 18th century journalism… apparently) was a little too dry to start off the 2016 Classics Challenge, I decided to try Persuasion to see whether Austen, or I, had improved with age.

And, do you know, maybe we have? For one thing, I enjoyed it. While, as with many a marriage plot, the story is fairly light and predictable, Jane Austen’s claws are out in a way that they just aren’t in her other books. Pretentious and vapid characters are mercilessly mocked, while the Cinderella-ish, sensible and practical heroine (who is feared to have lost her bloom at twenty-eight… I know…) gets her happy ending (and her bloom back).

Any Austen novel will always be considered among the classics, but I really do think this has a little more zest than her other books. Though it still has characters rigidly observing and believing in the class structure of the time, it doesn’t pull any punches on the subject of snobbery and seems quite forward thinking for the time, at least where the “ideal marriage” and roles of women are concerned.

Obviously I would recommend this to Jane Austen fans, but for anyone who wants to read probably the earliest, and most certainly one of the best, fictional love letters in English literature needs to check this out.

 

Voyager by Diana Gabaldon

A review of Voyager by Diana Gabaldon, aka Outlander number 3, in which I visit the Outlander series once more, with spoilers.

And now that little disclaimer is out of the way…

I’ve decided that if you’re going to buy into the love story of Jamie and Claire beyond book one in the series then you have to do so with total moral ambivalence. They are a pair of absolute wrecking balls, so focused on themselves and each other that they trample on the lives of everyone around them, especially those closest to them, with barely a backward glance.

Jamie wakes up lying on the battlefield after Culloden, Jack Randall’s head on his thigh. Well of course he does, sometimes the love stories with sudden, tragic endings are the most compelling, but it wouldn’t be much of a reunion with Claire if he expired in the opening pages. More interesting from my point of view was how Jack Randall’s corpse came to be lying on Jamie- did Jamie finally take his revenge or did Jack Randall save Jamie on the battlefield, thus throwing in yet another example of the Outlander series perpetrating the myth that sexual violence has anything to do with love? Well, finishing off this paragraph of spoilers with another spoiler… reader, you won’t find out in this novel. But I daresay it will come up again later in the series.

It looks as though he’s going to be executed, but his life is spared by the brother of John William Grey, the young soldier who tried to rescue Claire from the rapacious Scot in Dragonfly in Amber. From there we have a whistle stop tour of Jamie’s last twenty years without Claire, with such highlights as seven years in a cave, a spell in prison, fathering a child in a sex scene with a seventeen year old girl called Geneva which raises even more question marks about the sexual politics of the series, before heading back to Scotland with a pardon to take up a career in sedition and smuggling. Oh, and marrying Laoghaire. Remember her? The one who tried to get his one true love burned as a witch? Yeah, he married her.

So when Claire arrives back in the 18th century, after a few cursory glances into her last twenty years for good measure (which knock Frank of his pedestal and bring out the Randall genes, in case anyone had been left feeling sorry for him…) she’s roughly the same age as Jamie again, removing our prospect of a January/May romance and allowing her to favourably compare her appearance with that of every woman she comes across. And she used to be such a strong character.

It isn’t long before the cat is set among the pigeons by Laoghaire (Jamie’s second wife) catching him in bed with his first wife and taking a gun to him. Fair enough really. And it explains why Mr Willoughby, Jamie’s pet Chinaman (yes, he’s taken in a Chinese man that he found at the docks, adopted a paternalistic attitude towards him and given him a pet name… let’s not start with the imperialist, race relations connotations of this) keeps calling Claire honoured first wife.

Aaaanyway. To buy himself out of marriage with Laoghaire, Jamie needs to sell some treasure that he’s found and left in the middle of the ocean on at LEAST three separate occasions, meaning that his young nephews have to risk their lives to retrieve it when the family needs money every now and again. Why wouldn’t you just keep it hidden in the priest hole or his cave? This time, when his youngest nephew tries getting some treasure to buy off the lady scorned, he finds himself kidnapped by pirates meaning that Jamie, Claire and Fergus (with his fifteen year old wife) have to chase him around the globe to get him back.

I found this to be the weakest book in the series so far. A bit like the last novels of the Hunger Games, it feels a little like this was planned and written after the success of the initial novel so the plotting isn’t as considered as that of a novel which was conceived as a part of a series (like the Harry Potter books). Although the novels do refer to one another, it feels as though Jamie and Claire are now causing a lot of the problems they find themselves caught up in rather than finding themselves the pawns of fate. The reappearance of Gellis Duncan was problematic for me as well, and the whole forensic anthropologist moment with the skull at the start of the novel was just trite.

The Drums of Autumn is the next book in the series, which apparently will see Jamie and Claire’s abandoned daughter travel back in time to save her parents’ happiness. Looking at the dates and location I can only presume that the wrecking balls are instrumental in starting the American War of Independence… I think I’ll be taking a break before reading it.

Book Cover Beauty Pageant

Exciting news for those who like to judge books by their covers. Yep, me too. The New York Public Library has undertaken a huge digitization project to make over 185,000 of their book covers, maps, illustrations and other images available to anyone. And they are free from copyright.

Definitely worth a browse. Just look at some of these beauties:

 

 

The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell

I’ve been reading lots about the Danish concept of hygge recently, it doesn’t have a direct translation in English (or any language apparently) though I like to think that it’s quite close to the Welsh cwtch. I tend to get a bit of Seasonal Affective Disorder in the winter, so was keen to learn more about the Danish secret for surviving winters with only three hours of sunlight a day. Anyway, during this course of this reading where I came across interesting blogs like Hello Hygge and Hygge House, I came across The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell.

A successful journalist, Helen was quick to spot that the Danes are routinely rated the happiest people in the world. So when her husband was offered his dream job at Lego’s headquarters in Billund, she decided to go freelance and investigate the Danish secret of happiness and see how she could apply these to her own life.

In some ways the concept sounds a little bit like Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project, both books are structured to apply different “happiness lessons” on a month by month basis. But while Rubin alludes to large amounts of research then tends towards anecdote, The Year of Living Danishly actually delivers concrete statistics to back up numerous, very entertaining observations and recollections. If The Happiness Project is the prim, preachy and slightly inauthentic maiden Aunt (I’m not sure you should be allowed to give us proles tips on keeping your home free from clutter when you employ a cleaner…) The Year of Living Danishly reads like an old friend you could let your hair down with. Within ten pages, I’d woken the baby giggling at Russell’s turn of phrase. Worth it.

Though the book touches on some of the darker sides of Denmark (high rates of violence against women) it does tend to focus on the positive takeaways, which is kind of the point in a book on why everyone is so happy- if you want to debunk the Scandi myth there are other books for that kind of thing. What I would say though is that the causes of happiness that it identifies are highly credible and most of them are changes you could easily adopt into your own life (bar genetics and a secure social welfare system).

I’d really recommend this book. My boyfriend rolls his eyes every time I bring up a fact from the book, but we have a box set of The Bridge and I’m already plotting a city break to Copenhagen.

The Killing of Polly Carter by Robert Thorogood

I’ve never seen Death in Paradise, but I am a big fan of murder mystery novels, so I was excited to be review The Killing of Polly Carter by Robert Thorogood, who originated the BBC series and the detective Richard Poole.

The second in a new series of Richard Poole novels published by MIRA Harlequin, it tracks back in the timeline of the original detective (spoiler for the TV series- Wikipedia tells me he was killed off so the actor could spend more time with his family) in Death in Paradise as he investigates the apparent suicide of world famous supermodel Polly Carter on Saint-Marie. Being a murder mystery, it naturally isn’t too long before foul play is suspected.

Murder mysteries are, by their very nature, pretty formulaic. Even when you’re not reading locked room mysteries, they have a fairly limited cast of characters, nearly all of whom are suspects, and the test of the author’s skill is to play the reader like a fish, throwing out red herrings and characterisation as bait. The problem with The Killing of Polly Carter, for me, was that it didn’t do either of these especially successfully.

It is a proud tradition for the lead detective in murder mystery novels to be quirky but brilliant, but while Richard Poole is quirky in a heavily stereotypical, Englishman-abroad sort of way, I was unconvinced of his brilliance. “Clues” were nodded to heavily, while red herrings, alongside detective insight. were in short supply. This was compounded by an unnecessarily large team of detectives (there was a ratio of about four detectives to seven suspects) swarmed over the novel making limited progress. Throw in an unengaging subplot involving the lead detective’s strained relationship with his parents, couple that with a summary of the murder which was very much at odds with the initial description, and  for me, any sparks of interest were lost.

I think that part of the problem in this respect was that the novel was written almost as a storyline for a TV episode which gave basic stage directions as to the layout of the scenery but which still needed the set designer and wardrobe department to come in and fill in the colour, then the actors to inject their own sense of personality from the limited description which had been provided. The Caribbean setting was certainly a novelty, but for me, the plot didn’t live up to the promise of the setting.

Maybe one to read on a Caribbean holiday, but I prefer my murder mysteries with a few more chills and thrills.

Happy New Year

IMAG2643Happy New Year! And only five days late! As you can see, I was spoilt with books over Christmas once again, so coupled with my renewed love of my local library (they have a fish tank, it makes for a great day trip with Phoebe) I’ll have plenty to be getting on with in what little free time I have in 2016.

As regular readers will know, until the safe arrival of Phoebe in late June, the first six months of 2015 were truly awful for me. But from her arrival, the final six months have been the best of my life.

I hope that you all have a 2016 which is as wonderful as my 2015 with my little family has been. Read what makes you happy, even if it is Jane Austen.

And speaking of Jane Austen… I was given a beautiful folio set of her collected works for my 30th birthday, so prepare to bear with me when I revisit the lady I have (possibly) much maligned.

 

Dragonfly in Amber by Diana Gabaldon (Outlander 2)

Be warned, this review will contain spoilers for Outlander (book 1) and for Dragonfly in Amber (Outlander book 2). With that in mind…

Dragonfly in Amber, book two of the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon annoyed me in a number of ways. I picked it up wanting to head straight back into the story of Jamie and Claire who I’d left in 18th century France at the end of Outlander, only to be confronted (and frustrated) with a frame narrative which led me back to the Scottish Highlands of 1968. The frame narrative picks up a minor character from the first novel, Roger Wakefield, who has grown from a shy orphaned child to an Oxford scholar specializing in the Jacobite period who Claire and her (tall, red-haired) daughter task with tracing the destinies of the men of Lallybroch after the Battle of Culloden. As part of the project, they find Jamie’s gravestone near that of Jack Randall in a church yard far from Culloden, which leads Claire to breakdown and tell them the story of her time with Jamie following on from the events of Outlander. And about time too.

I may be getting censorious in my third decade, but if I were to give the Outlander novels descriptions in the style of Friends episodes then I’d have to go with something like The One Where Claire Makes a Concerted Effort to Give Her Unborn Child Foetal Alcohol Syndrome and Jamie Demonstrates That He is an Unsuitable Father. Coming so soon after my own pregnancy problems earlier in the year the description of Claire’s pregnancy made me really, really dislike Claire and Jamie. Apparently FAS wasn’t discovered until 1973, so coming from the sixties Claire probably wouldn’t have been aware that the copious amounts of alcohol she consumes in the novel would have harmed her baby, but she does knock back so much wine, brandy and brandywine that she feels drunk on several occasions. That coupled with her and Jamie’s insistence on rushing into peril at every available opportunity left me unsurprised if saddened when their daughter Faith is stillborn at five months gestation.

In fact, for me, the whole France section of the novel felt like an unnecessary farce to link the end of the first Outlander section of the novel to Claire and Jamie’s return to Scotland and the build up to the Battle of Culloden in the second. Claire and Jamie behave in ways which feel entirely at odds with their characters from the first novel, with Jamie especially transforming from the cultured, intelligent Scotsman to something which reminded me of one of my friends’ ex-boyfriends… nice guy, but rash and slightly apelike. Which is how he ends up in the Bastille…

Still, by the time Claire has sprung him from prison for the second time (the less we say about King Louis XV and the rose oil the better) and they are back in Scotland, the novel got back on track and I found myself once again engaged with the story, though I have to say I find the degree of sexual violence in the novels, especially that implied in Jamie and Claire’s relationship, unnecessary and a little uncomfortable.

The Scottish Rising section of the novel is especially interesting to me, because it brings up the question of the influence a time-traveller can exert on a period they visit, especially in the context of a sensitive and emotive period of history. For me it begged the question of whether Claire and Geillis Duncan had created something of a causal loop. Geillis in Outlander 1 claimed to have raised £10,000 toward the Stuart cause, and Charles Stuart has some initial success in waging war in Scotland. Would the Scots still have been defeated at Culloden in Jamie and Claire hadn’t worked so tirelessly to prevent him achieving his aims?

At the end of the novel, I found that I’d switched from hating the frame narrative to appreciating it when Roger (who throws up a nice little time-travel conundrum in being a descendant of Geillis Duncan… was she her own Grandpa, in a manner of speaking?) discovers that Jamie didn’t die at Culloden as planned but was one of the few Scots to survive…

So yes, obviously I hopped straight on my computer and reserved the third book in the series from the library.

Harry Potter Parenting Hacks

True, they may have had five children under the age of seven at one point, but it occurred to me earlier (after three days of disrupted sleep, while singing Morningtown Ride for the seventeenth time in an hour and pacing the house with my overtired, teething baby) that Molly and Arthur Weasley probably had it pretty easy. Why? Magic my friends. Raising a baby is much easier if you can wave a magic wand and get things happening.

Don’t believe me? Let’s review the evidence.

ron weasley baby mandrake

 

Sleeping Draughts

A moral grey area, but need I say any more? The Weasleys had access to safe, effective sleeping potions. I’m not talking your Draught of Living Death type of potion here, just a drop or two of standard sleeping draught on the tip of a dummy and everyone’s happy. No more overtired baby, and the job’s a good ‘un. True, the baby would have to consume a small amount of flobberworm mucous as part of the potion, but let’s face it, babies have been known to put worse in their mouths.

the choice between what is right and what is easy

Time-Turner

You might need special permission from the Ministry of Magic to use one, but if Hermione Granger’s academic record was considered sufficient justification then I’m pretty sure that having five children under the age of seven (and two more not much older) would be enough to get you authorisation.  I’d hate to be the Minister of Magic who said it wasn’t. This one is less ethically tricky than the sleeping draught, your children are taken care of by their parent, but you plan your day carefully so that you can head to a quiet room, turn back time and nap for five hours before moving on to the next crisis. Prison and mortal peril are on their living room clock for a reason, just saying.

ron weasley piss off

Housework Charms

Mrs Weasley’s knitting does itself and the potatoes peel themselves. I daresay she had similar charms for nappy changing, clothes washing and folding. Imagine how much more you’d get done (and how much money you’d save) if you could just tell your garden to get on with growing vegetables which then cook themselves into a healthy dinner, wool that makes itself into clothes which then wash themselves… all while the dusting is getting itself done. I mean, come on, it’s practically cheating, isn’t it? No wonder she has time to make her own toffee and read Witches’ Weekly.dobby finger click

 

The Summoning Charm

I’ve always thought that this was potentially one of the most useful spells in the Harry Potter universe. Especially for the new mother. You left the nappy rash cream downstairs? Accio Weleda! The baby’s thrown up milk and you can’t find the muslin that you had two damn seconds ago? Accio burp cloth. Poo crisis but you can’t leave the baby unattended to get them clean clothes? Accio baby grow! Keep your wand handy and you will never lose anything again. And it’s no trouble if you’re across the room and spot your baby about to put something deadly in their mouth. Just summon it out of their chubby little fists then distract them with a tiny snowstorm you’ve conjoured up.

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Undetectable Extension Charm

Remember Hermione’s tiny beaded handbag? The one in which she packed everything she, Harry and Ron would need to escape the wedding and fight Voldemort? Yeah, well imagine being able to use that. You’d never run out of storage space in the house again. The toy box would never overflow so that you had to stack toys on top and then dig around for ages to find the favourite teething toy of a sleepy baby which is somehow hidden under a rustley sensory blanket, the jingliest jingle bells and a drumkit… Also, you could pack everything you needed into a small, stylish handbag and sashay out with your baby and pram without being bowed under the weight of baby paraphernalia. No need to have that internal debate about whether to take the second change of clothes… you could even take a change for yourself. Not that you’d need it, you could probably magic the milk vomit off your robes.

So, as I see it, the wizards have this parenting malarkey tied up. But it’s all good. My Hogwarts letter is due any day now…. Any day. In the meantime, well played Wizards. Well played.

Best Secret Santa books of 2015

The Mindfulness Colouring Book has been everywhere this year. Practicing mindfulness has been credited with reduced stress levels and improved focus, but really speaking, who doesn’t love a colouring book? The Mindfulness Colouring Book is a grown up twist on everyone’s favourite childhood pastime full of the kind of beautiful patterns you used to draw for yourself then carefully colour in.

 

 

 


I’m a big fan of Game of Thrones tv series, so I was very excited to hear about the Game of Scones: All Men Must Dine cookery book when it was announced a few years ago. I’m even more excited now that it’s been released, full of recipes like Tyrion’s Shortbread, and Jamie and Cersei’s Family Mess. On a similar note, Breaking Bad fans might like the Baking Bad cookbook

 

 

 


The Magpie and the Wardrobe is an enchanting collection of folklore, traditional recipes and quirky facts tumbled together in a beautifully designed book. With a chapter for each month of the year, there’s something to interest everyone. For example, did you know that people started hanging glass baubles in their windows to trap witches?

 

 

 

 


Doing Good Better is a must read for anyone who wants to make a positive difference in the world. It challenges the reader to re-examine their assumptions about altruism to take an evidence based approach to charity. Effective altruism is rapidly becoming a hot topic.

 

 

 

 


Versions of Us is one of only two fiction books I’ve put on this list as I think that it’s quite a subtle area of interest to judge when buying a Secret Santa present, but I couldn’t resist this book which has been described as a bit of a literary sliding doors and asks the question, what if you had said yes?

 

 

 

 


Britannia Obscura takes an alternative look at Britain, exploring different ways of engaging with the landscape- via networks of caves, through the skies, by canal and around leylines- and exploring the worlds of people who experience the country through these. This would be an unusual gift for ramblers or map fanatics.

 

 

 

 


The other fiction book I’ve put on this list is the newly released, illustrated Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone. The illustrations are just perfect, and it would make the perfect gift for Harry Potter fans young and old. I can’t wait to start reading this with Phoebe when she’s older.