Wednesday, 23 July 2014

My Last Duchess by Daisy Goodwin

Cora Cash comes from one of the wealthiest families in America and is used to the best of everything.  Her ambitious mother arranges for them both to travel to England in the hope of securing a match with a titled but relatively impoverished English gentleman, thus raising the status of their family.  Well aware of the game her mother is playing, Cora isn't expecting to actually fall in love, and when she does, this blinds her to the intrigues around her.  Nothing in England is quite what it seems, and Cora soon finds herself vulnerable.

I picked up My Last Duchess looking for a fun, easy read and I wasn't disappointed.  It's the kind of book where you have to suspend your disbelief a little bit, plunge in head first and just enjoy it.  It's not a believable story by any stretch of the imagination, but it's certainly an entertaining one.  Cora herself is a well rounded character but some of the other characters are merely stereotypes or one-dimensional, such as Cora's mother the fortune hunter and her love interest Ivo, the mysterious and reserved English gentleman.

What I did like about this book was that it went further into Cora's story than I was expecting it to. I thought it would be a straight-forward marriage plot with Cora's wedding and happy ever after in the final chapters.  But it wasn't - Cora gets married very early on and we follow her as she attempts to be happy.  And to give credit to Goodwin, this isn't easy for her.  Cora has married for love, but it's unclear whether her husband has, and she's married into a society that isn't welcoming at all.  There's plenty of ups and downs and even at the end, it's unclear whether Cora will ever be truly happy.  I liked the lack of a definitive happy ever after, and I liked that we got to see beyond the wedding.

You'll enjoy My Last Duchess if you like books that are purely escapist and you don't mind if the story is unrealistic in parts.  I had a lot of fun reading it and it was perfect for when I was up in the small hours of the morning feeding the baby.

Source: Personal copy
First Published: 2011
Score: 3.5 out of 5

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Sam Sunday #55: Normality

It's now been exactly four weeks since Giles was born, and we're attempting to return to some sort of normality in our lives.  Tom has finished work for the six week summer holiday, so having two pairs of hands around the house means that we both get a bit of time to do things that aren't baby related.  Whilst I've still been reading, I've missed blogging and I'm looking forward to doing something that's just for me again.

The past four weeks have been so strange.  It's true that you can never truly be prepared for having a baby.  At first, I couldn't see how I could ever do anything apart from change nappies, feed him, hold him, rock him and try to stop him from crying ever again.  Even simple things like taking a shower or grabbing lunch aren't simple when you are on baby-schedule.  I've done a lot of eating one handed.  And of course sleep has gone out of the window - if he manages three hours in the night, we count ourselves lucky!  Earlier this week it seemed as though he was getting into a schedule at night and sleeping for about five hours at a time, but then we had a heatwave and that has completely ruined it - hot babies are grumpy ones that fight sleep and keep you up all night. Having a newborn is hard work and exhausting too.

But I think we're both adjusting to the change now and of course the past four weeks have been full of so many wonderful moments.  I have changed a lot, and for the better.  Giles is doing really well and has grown so much already, he was a big baby when he was born and he's growing at a rapid rate - already he doesn't fit into his newborn clothes any more.  He's starting to be interested in the world around him now, and you can see him trying to respond when you interact with him. He is a wriggler and hardly ever stays still.

I've had to wipe my feed reader blank as I had hundred of unread posts, but I'm hoping to be able to keep up more now that Tom is home and I'm able to have a bit of time for myself.  I'm looking forward to getting into blogging again :)

Friday, 11 July 2014

The Birth of Love by Joanna Kavenna

The Birth of Love contains three intertwining stories that deal with childbirth in different time periods.  In 1885, Dr Semmelweiss is being ridiculed by the medical profession for his suggestion that doctors washing their hands could dramatically lower the rates of childbed fever.  Cast out and pursued, the story finds him in a lunatic asylum, convinced that he is a murderer.  In 2009, Brigid is preparing for the home birth of her second child, hoping for a natural birth.  And in 2135, in a dystopian society, a group of prisoners are on trial for the crime of concealing a pregnancy.

I've been wanting to read The Birth of Love for ages, but I didn't want the depictions of childbirth to put me off before I had my own son, so I kept on delaying it.  And I'm glad I did - Kavenna doesn't shy away from any part of Birgid's experience and her labour is described in extensive detail, taking up roughly one third of the book.  The way it was described was so powerful - I know my own experience of childbirth is fresher than most people's, but I'm sure any woman reading this who has given birth would find themselves relating to Birgid's pain and fear.  I found it quite cathartic to read about birth in such an honest and unflinching way, to read about Birgid's rapidly changing emotions and her struggle to manage the pain in different ways, from her optimistic determination in the early stages, through to her dark relief at intervention in the end.  It felt like an unadornished portrayal of what labour is really like, and in this way I found it reassuring - I'm not the only one who felt like that!  My own labour was actually very similar to Birgid's (although I ended up with forceps rather than a caesarean), and this made it even more powerful to me.

The other two stories were interesting too.  It seems crazy to us that doctors in the past didn't wash their hands and indeed went straight from an autopsy to an internal examination of a woman in labour, but this is what happened, and boy did they fight against hand washing!  The dystopian story was probably the weakest - there was too much in the way of telling rather than showing, and I wanted to know why pregnancy and parenting had come to be seen as so disgusting.  I did like all of the little links between the three stories, as this reminded me a bit of Cloud Atlas, one of my favourite books.

The main flaw that The Birth of Love had was pacing.  All of the stories were slow paced, particularly the Dr Semmelweiss strand, and this made reading the book tedious at times.  It really would have benefited from a good edit, as quite a bit could have been cut out to leave a more fast paced and coherent novel.  I can imagine some readers will be put off by the slow pace of the novel.

On the whole, I really enjoyed The Birth of Love, mainly for Birgid's story.  Childbirth and pregnancy features in a lot of books, films and popular culture,  but rarely is it dealt with honestly.  My high rating of the novel is largely due to this.

Source: Personal copy
First Published: 2010
Score: 4 out of 5

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Sam Sunday #54: Two Weeks Old

I think we're slowly getting used to having a baby now.  Giles is two weeks old today and we're starting to get into a rhythm more.  It helps that I'm feeling so much better physically, more like my old self again.  I'm under no illusions that it's going to take a good couple of months to feel 100% again, but I feel pretty good considering everything that happened during the birth.  It's helped that Tom and our families have been great at pitching in, so I've been able to take a lot of naps and I've not had to think about housework or cooking, or any other run of the mill jobs.

The good news is that Giles is thriving.   He's already gained some weight compared to his birth weight, which is fantastic.  He's starting to stay awake for slightly longer periods of time now, and really studies whoever is holding him.  We had a stressful day on Friday, when he just cried and cried and cried for about seven hours, but apart from that he's been pretty chilled. 

Tom is back to work tomorrow after two weeks paternity leave, so I'm a little nervous about doing everything by myself.  My sister is taking the day off tomorrow and coming round, and Tom finishes work for the summer holidays on the 17th, but I'm still a bit scared!  I'm able to drive and walk around a bit more now, so hopefully that will help over the next week and a bit.  I am looking forward to all of the quality time I'll get to have with just me and him.

Over the past few days, as we've got into more of a routine, I've had a bit more time for reading, and that's been really nice.  I'm just a few pages off finishing Joanna Kavenna's The Birth of Love and I'm looking forward to picking out a new book.

Hope everyone had a great week :)

Friday, 4 July 2014

Catching Up: Mini Reviews

Thank you to everyone who took the time to congratulate me and comment on last week's post about the birth of my son, Giles.  One of the best things about blogging is the friends that I have made, and I was reminded of that when I read through all of the comments :)  I'm continuing to recover very well, and am feeling almost normal again.  Of course, life itself is a bit of a blur of feeding, nappy changing and trying to get a very wide awake baby to go to sleep at 3am in the morning.  I have been able to read a bit (kindles are great for one handed reading!) but most of the following reviews are for books I finished up whilst waiting for Giles to arrive.

1. A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin
This was a reread that I started as soon as I became overdue and needed distraction!  I loved this book the first time around and loved it even more the second.  I picked up on more of the clues for what was to happen in the future, I was able to see how much the characters had developed and I liked the simplicity of the plot-line.  This is the only book in the series where most of the main characters are together for most of the time, which makes it more coherent than the other volumes.  Escaping to Westeros was just what I needed, even if I can't see myself re-reading the rest of the series any time soon. 5 out of 5 stars.

2. The Constant Princess by Philippa Gregory
When I first started reading historical fiction, I quite liked Philippa Gregory.  I soon grew out of her, but her books are kind of a guilty pleasure for me.  The Constant Princess is about the life of Catherine of Aragon, and focuses particularly on her marriage to Arthur, and the beginning of her subsequent marriage to Henry VIII after his brother's death.  As always, Gregory takes a bit of a liberty with the facts but this book was a quick, fun read.  3 out of 5 stars.

3.  Guns by Stephen King
As a Brit, the debate about gun ownership in the USA really fascinates me.  Here, guns are a non issue - people aren't allowed to own them, and I can't think of anyone I know who would want to.  Only small sections of the police are armed, and most people would be scared rather than reassured to have a gun in the house.  So I'm not going to comment on King's arguments, which seemed logical and practical to me, as I'm not the intended audience.  I will say that the whole thing felt a bit rushed, as if it were hurried for publication, and this ruined my enjoyment of his writing a bit.  3 out of 5 stars.

4. Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
This one I read after Giles arrived, in the night time moments when he wasn't quite ready to be put into his Moses basket yet and just wanted to be held.  It's about twin sisters Cath and Wren, who begin to grow apart when they start university.  I really liked the main character, Cath, and could relate to her shyness and awkwardness around people.  The love story was very sweet, and the whole thing was extremely hard to put down.  I've come to the conclusion that I just enjoy Rowell's young adult fiction more than her adult books.  4.5 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Sam Sunday #53: Giles

If you follow me on twitter, you may have already seen that last Sunday I gave birth to our son.  He was born at 1.40pm, weighed 8 lb 6 and we've called him Giles.  To be honest, the time since then has been a blur of nappy changing and cuddling, and we've both spent hours just staring at him and trying to work out how to do this parenting thing.  It's amazing and wonderful how much your life can change in an instant.

I've also been spending a lot of time recovering.  I had a textbook labour right until the very end when he twisted and got stuck.  This meant that I needed forceps.  Luckily Giles was just fine and not distressed at all, but I ended up needing surgery and three blood transfusions.  Considering all of that, I am doing really well, but it's still early days yet.  Tom is on paternity leave and he's been great at helping me as much as possible, giving me plenty of opportunities to cuddle with Giles while resting and getting my strength back.

Hope everyone has been doing well over the past week, I'm looking forward to slowly getting back to blogging over the next few weeks and months.  Let me know in the comments what I've missed over the past week :)

Sunday, 15 June 2014

The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald

"Things are sweeter when they're lost.  I know - because once I wanted something and got it.  It was the only thing I ever wanted badly.  And when I got it, it turned to dust in my hands."

Anthony Patch is living off his grandfather's allowance in New York when he meets lively society girl, Gloria Gilbert.  Once they marry, they quickly become known for their decadent lifestyle full of alcohol, constant partying and a refusal to settle down to adult life.  At first, they are happy but when Anthony's money starts to run out, the cracks in their lifestyle and marriage begin to show.

Truly, I love Fitzgerald.  No one writes misery and disillusionment better than him, and The Beautiful and Damned fits his themes perfectly.  It's all there - the boredom that comes from not being productive, the reliance on alcohol as a crutch to get through the day, the shallowness of happiness that comes from constant partying, and the steady decline of a marriage.  This is the third Fitzgerald novel I have read (the other two being The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night), and I know that this semi-autobiographical style of writing can become repetitive, but Fitzgerald is just so good at it that it doesn't matter at all.

It goes without saying that the writing is beautiful.  Fitzgerald particularly excels when he's writing about emotional conflicts, arguments or the consequences of them.  He has a poetic way of putting across feelings, and he's remarkably perceptive about human nature.   There's no attempt to varnish Anthony or Gloria, to make them more appealing than they are, and I loved that.  Gloria is portrayed in all her shallow desire to remain beautiful at all costs, and Anthony's lethargy and passiveness (combined with an undeserved arrogance) are shown as key flaws.

However, The Beautiful and Damned is probably my least favourite of the three Fitzgerald novels I've read so far.  It's still extremely good, but I feel like Gatsby had more polish and Tender is the Night had more emotional engagement.  The trouble with Beautiful and Damned is not that the characters are unlikeable, which they most certainly are, but that I never really bought that they had strong feelings for each other.  Tender is the Night is heart-breaking as the two central characters can't work it out despite loving each other, but Anthony and Gloria seemed to just fall into marriage and even their arguments seemed affected by their lethargy.

The Beautiful and the Damned isn't a book to pick up if you are after happily ever afters and characters you can root for, but it is a remarkably perceptive and beautifully written book.  I've now finished all of the Fitzgeralds on my classics club list, but I'll definitely be adding more when I compile volume two.

Source: Personal copy
First Published: 1921
Edition Read: Vintage UK, 2010
Score: 4 out of 5

The Classics Club

The Classics Club: Book 28/72
My full list of classics to read (and existing reviews) can be found here.