The Miniaturist


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In a sad turn of events, its been absolutely ages since I’ve felt utterly enthralled by a book. With a far-too-busy reading schedule of lacklustre book group choices and dull ARCs, I’d really begun to wonder whether the art of telling a cracking good yarn had got lost along the way somewhere.  Last week, I finally experienced that wonderful feeling of wanting to go to bed that little bit earlier so I could leap back into my other, ‘literary’ life and find out what happens next.

So, without further ado, I thank you Jessie Burton for restoring the faith and keeping me thoroughly happy and entertained for an entire week! Historical fiction is becoming my slightly lazy, go-to genre that I arrive at when I need a quick literary fix. Burton’s début offering, The Miniaturist (widely hyped up in the press) did not disappoint. For once, yes, you can allow yourself be drawn in…

Petronella (‘Nella’) Oortman is growing up. Now Petronella Brandt, married to wealthy Amsterdam merchant Johannes Brandt, we follow close on her heels as she arrives at her new home; a luxurious mansion on the Herengracht canal. The welcome she receives from her new husband and adoptive family is less than perfect. With Johannes largely absent, leaving the marital bed cold, his sister, Marin, frosty and sanctimonious and the servants unusually brazen, Nella feels deeply unwelcome and adrift in her draughty new abode.

In a gesture that his new wife interprets badly as a mockery of her young age and 18047651inexperience, Johannes buys her a dolls’ house. Exquisitely carved, encased in tortoiseshell and inlaid with pewter, the house is, quite spookily, an exact replica of the Herengracht mansion. Despite this slight on her maturity, Nella chooses to treat the house as a mockery herself, ordering items from a mysterious miniaturist in the city to provoke her new sister-in-law. As beautiful items begin to arrive unasked for, with each object and doll more spookily intrusive and prophetic than the last, Nella soon realises that all is not as it seems in this outwardly enviable life as a merchant’s wife.

I really needed this book to kick me sharply out of the reading (and blog-writing) funk and laziness that I’ve found myself in of late; common for me at this time of year when the sun comes out and life inevitably starts to happen. (I even forgot about Paris in July!) Like all truly superb historical fiction, Burton is heavy on the sumptuous domestic detail, bringing the contrasts between the grimy, dangerous Amsterdam streets and political arena and the safety of her new home right into my own living room. Add the edge of some subversive twists and turns and the touch of magic the miniaturist lends the story, then we have something very special indeed.  Although intrigued, like his sister Marin, by Johannes adventures across the waves, Burton is wise not to spread her fledgling talents too thinly, focusing instead on the dramas unfolding back home.

My only reluctant criticism of this book, which has stood up to the hype well and fully merits it’s rather marvellous display in Waterstones’ window (i.e. a big wooden house with books inside!), would be the last few chapters, where I found conclusions sometimes rushed and often incomplete. Are these the trappings every new author faces when caught up their own great story? Some characters are clumsily welcomed back into the fold, presumably to afford a logical ending, whereas one nameless, yet crucial, figure disappears altogether, with no satisfying conclusion reached at all about their whereabouts.

Nitpicking aside, clumsy endings did not spoil the impression The Miniaturist left on me, walking along in a lovely Dutch daze for a good couple of days afterwards. Like most excellent stories, Burton is inspired by real life. Petronella Oortman was the name of a real noblewoman, whose spectacular dolls’ house (see painting above) is very real indeed and now on display at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam to be loved and admired by all. Like a few talented of authors of late (Hannah Kent, Jane Harris…) Burton presents a portrait in time of outwardly ordinary yet inherently strong women. The many dangers women faced; from pregnancy to the obscurity of marriage are addressed here, including the fate of those on the very margins of conventionality.

Ten Book Cover Trends I Like/Dislike


DSC06629 (2)Although I am completely aware that it is what lies beneath that really matters, I, like many other sheepish bookworms out there, am a shameless judge of covers. I’m ashamed to say it, but I will often not even bother with a blurb if the look doesn’t appeal……

Here are some of my most loved/hated trends in cover design, courtesy of The Broke and The Bookish’s Top Ten Tuesday:

Top 5 Hates:

2524991. Historical fiction = Lady in a dress - I love historical fiction but I’m quite happy to just imagine the flouncy dresses. It gives popular authors’ (such as Philippa Gregory) books a trashy vibe that just doesn’t float my boat.

24400382. Black and white photo, italicy coloured writing - Puts me in mind of that creepy ‘painful lives’ section of Waterstones. Lord knows why Orion used this design for Jennifer Worth’s superb memoirs.

67811833. Pastel colours - Pure pastel girlishness just ain’t my thang….

220379854. Kindle editions - Ha!

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5. Film/TV tie-ins - surely the most off-putting thing of all? Blurgh.

Top 5 Loves (yey!)

157293081. Twirly, swirly, vintagy twiddly bits - pretty.

toledo-jane-eyre2. The unique, modern and slightly queer.

4259333. Fancy, shadowy photos - à la Vintage editions.

99779194. Actually, on reflection, anything by Vintage Books. Everything they publish is simply sumptuous. Does that even count as a ‘book trend’?

117996455. Velvety and three-dimensional.

Slightly Foxed


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Over the past four years blogging has introduced many wonderful bookish things into my life; new friends, book groups, eye-opening book recommendations, the works. Far more than I ever could have hoped for, and then some.

Even after all this time you brilliant people out there are constantly introducing me to the excellent things I must have in my life right now. Slightly Foxed was one of them and it was this scrummy post by Bundleofbooks that led me to it.

SF was set up a decade ago by two editors with heaps of industry expertise and a desire to create a beautifully crafted, quarterly publication for book-lovers without an agenda. Rather than bombarding readers with the same ‘hot’ book or ‘hot’ author, the focus would be on the countless long-neglected, sorely-overlooked yet sublime writing out there that needed a champion. From forgotten classics to niche authors and their back catalogue, there’s no glamour or pretense here, just quality.

Discovering this magazine has really put me in a bit of a bookish daze. From the flawless customer service (i.e. a personal phone call from a lovely lady at SF HQ when there was some confusion with my credit card), to the sumptuous presentation (my first spring issue came bedecked with ribbons and, since it was my first, thoughtfully stuffed with goodies – bookmarks, etc – from previous issues I’ve missed) to the perfect writing and literary musings within, my experience so far really couldn’t have been better. Focusing on a huge range of topics from childhood favourites to well-loved literary figures, I’ve learnt so much already and have already added a number of new discoveries to my wishlist.

 

Slightly Foxed on Gloucester Road

As well as all this marvellousness, the Slightly Foxed peeps don’t just stop with a magazine. Not content to merely wax lyrical about these neglected books, they are making an attempt to restore some of those previously unavailable back into our literary lives through a series of expertly printed and bound editions; handcrafted in that-there Yorkshire. If that wasn’t enough, rumour has it that their bookshop in that-there London is now officially the best way to while away the weekend……now, someone direct me to Gloucester Road!

Slightly Foxed on Gloucester Road

The Moor


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The older I get the more dramatically my reading habits change. From reading entirely new genres, to joining groups and getting a bookish debate going to…well, not finishing the darned things if I’m simply not feeling it. I am far fussier these days and, let’s face it, we’ll never manage to read all the books we want in our lifetime so why mess around?

Once upon a time, unfinished books would not even feature on this blog but being honest with myself as to why I don’t like something is becoming increasingly important to me. Particularly when it comes to something I really should have lapped up.

The Moor by William Atkins is a travelogue cum historical cum natural cum literary landscape of the moorland of Britain. Travelling from the deep south of Bodmin and Dartmoor to the lofty heights of the Scottish borders, I was unreasonably excited about this book before I even received it; expectations that were always going to be far too high to fulfill.

Our little village sits just under the lee of a hillside that leads swiftly up to vast, inhospitable moorland; littered with gritstone outcrops, gobbly red grouse and hazardous pools of peaty muck. I adore it. Wet and wild is the landscape for me. One that authors throughout history have drawn inspiration from (Wuthering Heights being the all too obvious example) and one that inspires me, after a long haul out on the hills, to curl up in front of the fire with a good book and a cheeky tipple of some sort.18808199

Surely, therefore, I am William Atkins’ target market? Why then, did I abandon this admirable project? The simple answer is that I became so very, very bored (a bit like the man on the front cover).

This theme is fascinating but there is only so much one can soak in the way it is presented here; an opinion I feel quite guilty about because within these pages clearly lies a very personal journey for the author. One that, if you have experienced moorland and its pull as profoundly as Atkins has since childhood, you can’t help but sympathise with.

This book contains intervals of great poetic beauty and an impressive understanding of the colour, taste and topography of a landscape. That said, the monotonous descriptions of black peat and warbling grouse did start to get on my nerves after a while and an enduring feeling of déjà vu prevailed, with the desire to get out a red pen and conduct some much-needed editing.

Negativity aside, there are some informative little montages that added depth to the monotony that I simply can’t wait to try out on the boyfriend when we next go moor-hopping; an exploration of the austere HMP Dartmoor and its inhabitants was hugely intriguing, as was the portrait of a bee-keeping moorland monk I so loved. Atkins’ sense of history, particularly of the local variety, is flawless and the plethora of true/legendary stories attached to the moor are unstoppable.

William Atkins clearly understands English moorland in all her wild beauty, but he doesn’t understand me. I’m a fickle, feckless reader and perhaps I simply don’t have the stamina for this kind of contemplation at the moment, whatever the topic. Alternatively, is this book just a little too ambitious? The topics too wide? The style too plodding? …. All you moorland lovers out there, do give it a shot and let me know what you think. I’d love to give this book another go.

Top Ten Books That Should Be In Your Beach Bag This Summer


Ooo beacheroo, how I love you! I would gladly give my right arm from one of these spanking beach huts…and my left arm to be lying on a roasting hot beach right now, with a just a cocktail and a stack of books for company.

So, when the need for serious relaxation and escapism strikes us, what would I take to the white sands with me? The Broke and the Bookish’s Top Ten Tuesday, as always, has the answer.

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1. In the Time of the ButterfliesJulia Alvarez – This true story of three remarkable sisters and their tireless battle against an oppressive dictatorship will both inspire and move you to tears.

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2. Life After LifeKate Atkinson – This is a great book, simply said. Kate Atkinson has a staggering imagination and such a comfortingly English turn of phrase, I was swept away into this groundhog world and you will be too.

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3. Music for ChameleonsTruman Capote – A superb collection of short stories to dip in and out of when the time is right is a must for any beach holiday. These beautifully written, incredibly varied stories by Capote are just the ticket.

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4. Frog MusicEmma Donoghue – this dusty San Franciscan tale of murderers, cross-dressers and burlesque dancers takes entertainment to the max the historical fiction way…

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5. Someone Else’s SkinSarah Hilary – I know a lot of people like to take a bit of crime fiction away with them. I’m gradually opening myself up to the genre and this is the best I’ve read yet.

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6. The LanternDeborah Lawrenson – a lovely, light ghost story and a ‘beach book’ in the greatest sense of the word.

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7. The Valley of AmazementAmy Tan – although this book didn’t necessarily ‘amaze’ me, I think, given a beach, a cocktail and some sunshine, it would have done. A nice chunky, sumptuous beach book.

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8. When God was a RabbitSarah Winman – this cosy novel made me feel so happy, I’d happily relive that warm fuzzy feeling all over again.

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9. Our Man in HavanaGraham Greene – A little piece of Graham is a must for any holiday. This witty book would be my choice for any beach.

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10. The Darling Buds of MayH.E. Bates – Bates’ Darling Buds series are books I will return to time and time again in times of trouble and strife to readjust and realise what is important in life; i.e. heaps of food and drink.

beach huts by Carly-Jane via Flickr

Addiction


Addiction is a charged word. A word certainly not to be used lightly or spread around willy nilly to describe any old problem.

I am an addict. A book addict. And I’m here today to share the very real problem I have physically releasing my grasp from my paperbacks and getting a life. As you know we recently jetted off on holiday to India for three weeks. Three whole weeks limited to merely a rucksack of belongings. I panicked. Not about my clothes or my shoes (who needs more than one pair after all?!) but about a) about the sheer amount of reading time I was sure I’d most certainly have and b) the selection of fiction on offer. I mean, this is only the second most populous country in the world and Delhi only has 11 million people living there…I’m sure there are no places to buy any books should I need them (What a fool.)

Rather than bow to the boyfriend’s very real pleas for me to take my eReader and save him a lot of back ache, my puritanical streak meant that I staunchly refused and took these instead:

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On reflection and now I’ve come back down to earth, this pile is gasp-inducing and, through it I’ve come to realise that I treat my library as somewhat of a safety-blanket. With utter reliance that I will never have a moment of my day where I don’t have on-hand entertainment and escapism at my disposal.

I’m not completely bonkers. After all, we were travelling to the Himalaya, away from civilisation and potentially into a severe weather/stuck in your guesthouse situation. Not only did I need good books I needed a wide variety. I mean, good god, imagine if I suddenly acquired a taste for some non-fiction and all I had with me was the opposite. *Shudder*.

Clearly I didn’t bank on the power of illicit Dairy Milk bars and India’s very own ‘Tata Sky’ box, which, after days spent tramping the hills, provided endless hours of rom-coms, Two and a Half Men and Doc Martin episodes to wrestle with. Hurrah. My brain finally received a much-needed break. Here, as a result, is what I actually did read:

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Even this picture is cheating somewhat. I obviously didn’t read the Rough Guide cover to cover and both Jane Harris and Philip Pullman were started/finished at the tail ends of the holiday. I therefore, in three weeks, read just two books in their entirety; the newly acquired Delirious Delhi by David Prager and The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy….which wasn’t nearly as good as I’d been led to believe.

As well as the physical break from my actual job, it seems clear that I needed to also abscond from Bookland for a good while and indulge in some Anne Hathaway/Owen Wilson nonsense for a change. I have returned with a new lease of life and enthusiasm for those great unread works sat on my bookshelves. This literary relaxation, however, did not extend to what I brought back with me and, due to the raucous book-haggling in Daranganj and the beautiful bookshops in Shimla, this is the pile we returned with:

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Although some of these new acquisitions belong to the other half, they didn’t make for easy carrying. I am itching to begin Mulk Raj Anand’s Coolie, after buying Untouchable earlier this year; both heart-rending portrayals of the lower echelons of India’s ruthless caste system. Delirious Delhi, on a separate note, provided a hunk of light relief as I followed David Prager and his wife’s one-year stint in the Indian capital. An account that is both illuminating and entertaining for the intrepid Delhi-lover and a book I have long wanted to pick up after having followed the couple’s excellent blog for many years.

There’s no doubt that these pictures are a little embarrassing but a steep learning curve; don’t take what you can’t carry and don’t rely on your books so much! I will always be an utter bibliophile but, as much as I dislike it, my eReader may eventually feature more on such adventures along with a teeny tiny pile of trusty paperbacks.

I will, however, be taking a huge stack to Scotland with me later this year. The weather might be bad and we will be in the car so….surely that doesn’t count? …

Feeding my addiction/Henry Miller tastes like chicken by poppet with a camera via Flickr

Life After Life


I’ve said it before, and I’m sure I’ll bore you all to tears by saying it again, I am not one for hype. The one sure-fire way to put me off a book, any book, is when I hear people gushing about it on every corner, even more so when it’s a blogger mentioning it in every single post. Call me crazy, it just starts me thinking – it really can’t be that good, can it?

Yet again I have been proven wrong and clearly need to learn my lesson. The only way I was ever going to pick up Kate Atkinson’s much-raved about and prize-winning novel Life After Life was if the Manchester Book Club picked it out for discussion….and they did!

The opening scene of this novel really has to be the most gripping I have read so far this year, with our heroine, Ursula Todd, levelling a revolver at Hitler’s face. Yes. The Führer himself. Now Atkinson has our firm attention, we travel back in space and time to the snowy English countryside, where, at a cottage delightfully named ‘Fox Corner’, Sylvie Todd awaits the birth of her third child. As the local doctor desperately fights through the snow to reach the expectant mother, the child is still-born, the umbilical cord gripped around her neck. The next chapter sees us return to a staggeringly similar scene, the baby on her way, though this time the doctor makes it through and we all live happily ever after…for a while that is.

18273521Ursula’s ‘second chances’ at life come, perhaps unsurprisingly, more frequently in childhood. As she grows and her different choices allow us to witness lives in both war-torn Berlin and London, that nagging sense of déjà vu gradually transforms into a realisation far more terrifying and one that will set Ursula off on a track that could alter the history of the entire world.

When I was a child I absolutely adored those ‘choose your own story’ books (can you still get those!? If so do they do adult versions?) and this wonderful, imaginative novel gave me that excitement all over again, albeit with Kate Atkinson making the myriad of choices on my behalf. Some have said they found the first section (snow, birth, death, snow, birth, death, ad infinitum) confusing but I really don’t see that. This tiny life of a baby in its various permutations was actually a period I could have remained with for a bit longer.

Atkinson’s imagination clearly knows no bounds. The opportunity to explore the numerous possible facets of one woman’s life during such a seismic period in history is unmissable and gave our little group oh so much to talk about. Have any of us almost died and, if we had, what would we have missed? What decisions in our own lives have we made that have clearly altered us entirely? Ursula’s groundhog life explores all this. Events such as rape, war and subterfuge keep us gripped, with a brutal portrait of domestic violence proving the most harrowing and effective of all.

This is clearly the writing of a dab hand and is meticulously planned. A novel that could have The_Second_World_War_1939_-_1945-_the_Home_Front_HU1129become massively confusing under another pen. (We’ll bypass the bits where I clearly wasn’t concentrating properly and became confused. It really doesn’t count.) Although the Hitler assassination theme seemed slightly farcical at first, it really is all good fun and the portrait of Blitz-era London is, without a doubt, the best I have ever read (and that is with a lot to choose from). Certain scenes created visceral imagery that is just so exact and will simply never leave me. Superb.

As a solid juxtaposition to the disquieting is the anchor of ‘Fox Corner’; the utterly English, comfortably rural Todd family home where Ursula grows up and the only place that appears quite timeless, regardless of the drama surrounding it. It is a type of cosy domesticity that Atkinson writes so so well and the many scenes there were just a lovely woolly blanket to wrap myself up in whilst readying myself for some time travel.

This is bob-on historical fiction and the perfect book club book. Upon hearing the boyfriend’s mother bemoan her inability to find anything decent to read I pressed this into her hand. I do hope she enjoys it as much as I did…..though she is still stuck on those first few chapters!

Snowy gateway to heaven by Earthwatcher via Flickr