Tuesday, 15 April 2014

The Astronaut Wives Club by Lily Koppel

When NASA's original seven astronauts were announced in 1959, it wasn't just their lives that changed - their wives were catapulted into the spotlight and became minor celebrities, trailed by paparazzi.   As the competition over who would be selected to go into space intensified, the wives had an important part to play; much like politicians, only astronauts that had a perfect family life could hope to be chosen.  As more and more astronauts joined NASA and missions started leaving Earth, the wives leaned on each other to cope with the stresses of launches and the problems that being married to an astronaut could bring.  Covering the announcement of the first astronauts through to the final Apollo mission, The Astronaut Wives Club aims to show what it was really like to be married to an astronaut.

I was looking forward to The Astronaut Wives Club, it's always interesting to see how the lives of people around those with important jobs are impacted.  I can't imagine what it must be like to know that your husband is going to be blasted into space on a mission that has a high likelihood of something going wrong - how do you cope with that kind of uncertainty?  Unfortunately, whilst The Astronaut Wives Club was thoroughly researched and gave lots of information about the wives, it never really gave me that sense of what it was like to be them, what it was like to watch the launch of a rocket carrying your husband, or what it was like to not know if he would live or die.  There was a lot of distance from the wives in the book, so I never really got to be in their shoes.  And that's what I wanted out of this book most of all.

Similarly, a lot of the topics introduced were never fully explored.  Koppel writes on several occasions about the rise of feminism in America at this time, and how this contrasted with the need of the wives to have a cookie cutter perfect family and always look their best.  Some of the wives were talented in their own right, but Koppel never really examined these tensions, and whether this caused resentment in their marriages.  Lots was made of the infidelity of the astronauts and the resulting divorces, but again this was just reported - I didn't get a sense of what it was actually like.  The book would have been better if both of these themes were investigated more thoroughly.

Because of these issues, The Astronaut Wives Club missed the mark for me.  It was still an interesting read, and I admire the research Koppel has undertaken, but it wasn't engaging or as thorough as it could have been.

Source: From the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.
First Published: 2013
Edition Read: Headline, 2014
Score: 3 out of 5

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Sam Sunday #49: Easter Holidays Part One

It's been so lovely having time off work this last week for the Easter holidays, and I've managed to find a good balance between staying at home and resting, and going out with friends and family.  We had all of our nursery furniture delivered early on in the week, and I went baby shopping with my Mum and sister on Wednesday, so we're starting to get ourselves organised with the things we will need when the baby comes.  I have enough clothes and all of the big things like a car seat, pram and moses basket sorted out, now it's just for the smaller bits like nappies, wipes etc.  I want to get as much as possible sorted in this break, as I know I'm going to be exhausted when I return to work.  Plus, I'll be 38 weeks pregnant when my maternity leave starts, so there won't be much time/energy to do things then!

I've been cutting back on my book spending lately but I found the bookish bargain of the year this week and just couldn't resist.  Earlier in the week I reviewed W. Somerset Maugham's The Painted Veil, which I loved, and which convinced me that I need to read more Maugham.  And then later in the week, we were browsing some charity shops in the high street when I came across a set of 10 of his novels in the Vintage editions, for £10!  There was so way I could leave them on the shelf for someone else to buy!

I love Vintage classics, and this set includes:
  • The Painted Veil (My spare copy is going to be gifted to my sister, who I think would love it)
  • Liza of Lambeth
  • The Narrow Corner - 'a tense, exotic tale of love, jealousy, murder and suicide'
  • Up at the Villa
  • Cakes and Ale
  • The Magician (this is the one I will probably get to first)
  • Catalina - set in the Spanish Inquisition
  • Christmas Holiday - about the Parisian underworld
  • Ashenden
  • Don Fernando
Unfortunately, it doesn't contain either Of Human Bondage or The Moon and Sixpence, but I'm still absolutely thrilled with it.  I'd love to hear if anyone has read any of these titles before.

As always in the holidays, I've had lots of time to read (between naps), and I've been enjoying every moment of it.  Today, Tom is painting the hallway, so I'm taking the opportunity to have a bit of a mini-readathon.  This week, I've been reading:


Reviews posted:
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (4 out of 5 stars)

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Agnes Magnusdottir was the last person to be executed in Iceland, for her role in the murder of two men in March 1828.  In Burial Rites, Hannah Kent tells the story of Agnes from her conviction to her death.  As Iceland had no prisons at the time, Agnes is sent to live and work with a rural family in the North of Iceland, to await her sentence.  A very much unwanted guest, particularly in the eyes of youngest daughter Lauga, Agnes examines her past and tries to come to terms with what has happened to her.  The priest she chooses to absolve her, Assistant Reverand Thorvardur Jonsson (Toti), is keen to be on her side, but Agnes is reluctant to share her story with anyone.  As the time of her execution draws closer, will anyone apart from Agnes learn the truth?

Burial Rites is a book that has generated a lot of buzz, something that is sure to increase now that it has secured a place on the short-list for the Baileys Prize for Women's Fiction.  I was keen to read it from the moment I heard about it, but also a bit hesitant as I'm not a big crime reader and I wondered whether it would have enough cross-over appeal to work for me.  Thankfully, Burial Rites lives up to the hype and I certainly enjoyed the reading experience.  Kent's novel is an engaging story of a woman who was largely the result of her circumstances.  Agnes is a fascinating and complex character, who reveals only part of herself to the other characters, and who tells her story in snippets as the chapters progress.  I found myself drawn in by Agnes, and keen to find out what really happened the night of the two murders.

However, the biggest draw of the book for me was the way Kent wrote about Iceland.  The rural North of Iceland is a main character in the novel, and Kent completely immerses the reader in the Icelandic culture of the time, from the role of the sagas in everyday life, to the badstofas the families would huddle in during the colder months.  Life in the North was hard and unforgiving in those times, and the bleakness of the environment adds a lot of atmosphere to the novel - the harshness of the setting mirroring the harshness of Agnes' life.  I loved reading these parts, and was impressed at how Kent, an Australian woman, was able to transport me completely to Iceland.

Having read Burial Rites, I can see why it was short-listed for the Baileys Prize.  It's not a perfect novel, and I found the pace in the middle a little slow, but there's something engaging and haunting about it that will stay with you after you have turned the last page.  I'm still rooting for Americanah to take the prize, but this would be a worthy winner.

Source: Personal copy
First Published: 2013
Edition Read: Picador, 2014
Score: 4 out of 5

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

The Painted Veil by W.Somerset Maugham

At 25 years old, threatened by the news that her younger sister is engaged, Kitty marries the first man she can convince to propose, bacteriologist Walter Fane.  Beautiful, shallow, selfish and not in love with her husband, it doesn't take Kitty long to start having an affair with the Assistant Colonial Secretary in Hong Kong, Charles Townsend.  In fact, she convinces herself that she is in love with Charles and will somehow be allowed to ride off into the sunset with him.  But it's not meant to be; Walter discovers her affair and Charles makes it quite clear that she was just a bit of fun.  When Walter insists that she accompany him on a trip to a cholera stricken region of China as an act of revenge, the terrible circumstances around her force Kitty to examine and challenge herself for the first time in her life.

Oh man, I loved this book.  I picked it up mainly for the interesting premise - a woman having to journey into a cholera epidemic because she had an affair, and I was thrilled to find out that this was backed up by wonderful writing and characterisation.  The Painted Veil is a quiet, in-depth examination of human nature that doesn't shy away from the shallower or less attractive parts of what it means to be human, and I loved it for that.  All of the characters are extremely real and mostly unlikeable, especially Kitty in the beginning of the novel, who is completely self-absorbed and child-like, unwilling to think about others at all.  She knows her husband is desperately in love with her, but still thinks he should show more concern for her feelings when he finds out about her affair!  Charles is almost as selfish as Kitty and even Walter is unappealing.  I know some readers have problems with unlikeable characters, but I always admire an author for writing them, because life is fully of people like Kitty, and I like that Maugham didn't feel the need to varnish her in any way.

The main theme of the novel is Kitty's growth.  As she spends time in the town stricken by cholera, eventually volunteering at a convent, she comes to question herself and her behaviour.  She comes to see the bigger picture, to see that her life is small compared to the world, and that life only has the meaning that we ascribe to it.  Kitty's journey is long and tough, and at no point does Maugham take the easy way out. There's no tearful acts of repentance or forgiveness here, only Kitty trying hard with the reality she finds herself in.  Even at the end of the novel, nothing is straight-forward for her, and there is still a long way to go and some things that can never be fixed.  Life in The Painted Veil is much like real life, complex and full of shades of grey.  I loved that and think that Maugham had a very perceptive eye when it comes to human nature and relationships.

There's absolutely nothing I didn't like about The Painted Veil.  It's in some ways a quiet little book but it's a powerful one too, one that made me think about my own life and choices.  I'll definitely be reading more by Maugham in the future - any recommendations?

Source: Personal copy
First Published: 1925
Score: 5 out of 5
The Classics Club: Book 24/72
My Classics Club list can be found here.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Sam Sunday #48: Looking Back on March

Friday was my last day at work before the two week Easter holidays, and I could not be more relieved.  It's starting to become difficult to get through the days at work now, so two weeks of rest is just what I need before going back for my final half-term. I'm currently seven months pregnant, so very much on the home run and starting to feel both excited that it's almost over and also scared that I'm actually going to have to give birth soon!

March was a great reading month.  Most evenings after work I was so tired that relaxing in bed with a book seemed like the perfect option. This has led to me getting through a lot of books, including some hefty chunksters.  I'm well ahead of pace for my goodreads goal of 80 books, and I'm sure that I'll get through a lot more books during my break from work, long may my reading mojo continue!

March reads:

I don't think I've ever read 9 books in one month before! (Links to my reviews)
  1. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides - Much more literary than Eugenides' previous books, a satire of the study of English literature and an examination of whether straightforward love stories have any place in the modern world.  4/5
  2. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston - Powerful story of a black woman finding herself through three marriages and the hardships of life. 5/5
  3. Magic Study by Maria V Snyder - Disappointing sequel to Poison Study, best avoided. 2/5
  4. Almost English by Charlotte Mendelson - Promising plot line about a young Czech girl seeking to become as British as possible by attending boarding school, but unfortunately the immigration theme was never fully explored and the execution was a bit of a let down. 3/5
  5. The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare - Not my favourite Shakespeare, but a fun read, and I liked the portrayal of women.  4/5
  6. The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton - Every bit as impressive as it has been made out to be, a truly epic mystery set in gold rush New Zealand.  Don't let the length put you off. 4.5/5
  7. Kindred by Octavia Butler - A young black woman is transported back in time to the slavery era.  A really gritty read with no moral simplicities.  5/5
  8. Pregnancy for Modern Girls by Hollie Smith - I appreciated how straight-forward and plain-talking this pregnancy guide was. 3.5/5
  9. The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert - Panoramic of the nineteenth century, told through the eyes of botanist Alma Whittaker.  Lots of big themes. 4/5

Looking ahead to April, I'm going to continue to read according to my mood, and just pick up whatever I feel like reading.  I've got a few Baileys long-list books checked out from the library, and hopefully I'll make it through at least some of the those, but I'm not going to make myself pick up anything.  

How was your reading in March?  Any plans for April?

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Nefertiti by Michelle Moran

I was off sick from work one day last week, and I wanted something light and entertaining to read, that would absorb my attention as much as possible whilst I rested.  Nefertiti, historical fiction about one of Egypt's Queens, seemed to fit the bill.  Told through the eyes of her sister, Mutnodjmet, Nefertiti follows the Queen from the time of her marriage to Akhenaten, a controversial Pharaoh who renounced all of the old gods, taxed their temples heavily and insisted that everyone should worship the sun, Aten.  Akhenaten in the novel is driven, greedy and ambitious, a man who possibly murdered his older brother in order to secure the position of Pharaoh for himself.  In order to gain more power, Nefertiti must resort to playing her own games, setting different factions of the court against each other and treating her family as pawns.  As Mutnodjmet watches the lengths to which Nefertiti will go to carve out a place for herself, she becomes increasingly uncomfortable and yearns for a more simple, carefree life.  But will Nefertiti allow her to live her own life?

The quote on the front of my copy of Nefertiti states that it is 'compulsively readable', and I have to agree with that sentiment.  I powered through this novel in a day, and it was perfect reading for someone feeling under the weather.  There's not a lot of substance in Nefertiti, but there's a lot of plot and events move at a very quick pace, making the book hard to put down.  I have a feeling Moran might have been playing hard and loose with some historical facts, but she has created an extremely gripping, readable book that was a lot of fun to read.  I loved the Ancient Egyptian setting, and I enjoyed reading about the depths that Nefertiti would sink to in order to consolidate her power.

Whilst I definitely enjoyed Nefertiti, it has it's faults.  As I mentioned above, I'm not sure that the story is in keeping with what we know about Akhenaten and Nefertiti from history, and it's very much a light, scandalous type of story, in which some of the characters act like they are living in the modern day.  The descriptions of Egypt and the temples/culture were great, but it felt a bit like the main players were superimposed upon this background, rather than truly living in it.  To be honest, I normally prefer my historical fiction a bit more serious, a bit more of the time period, but this is such a fun book that it didn't really matter.  It's not one to pick up if you want historical accuracy and literary writing, but it is extremely entertaining, and sometimes that's all you want.

Source: Personal copy
First Published: 2007
Edition Read: Quercus, 2008
Score: 3 out of 5

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

Alma Whittaker is born in the very first year of the nineteenth century, a time of great change as the world opens up and scientific discoveries abound.  Growing up in a family that encourages her to have an open mind and better herself through intellectual development, Alma devotes herself to botany and the study of mosses.  However, she is unprepared for society in general and her personal life suffers through comparison with her beautiful adopted sister, Prudence.  A panoramic of Alma's life and the nineteenth century in general, A Signature of All Things examines the difference between intellectual and personal fulfilment, and the contrasting roles of science and spirituality.

The Signature of All Things is a very difficult book to summarise as it's an ambitious, epic book.  Alma may be the centrepiece and the main story-teller, but the book is about big topics such as science, spirituality, marriage, missionaries, the abolition of slavery, the discovery of evolution and the role of women. Gilbert has certainly aimed high, and for the most part the novel is very successful.  None of the themes felt rammed down my throat at any point, and the panoramic view of Alma's times reminded me a bit of Dickens.  Gilbert does a great job at conjuring up the ethos and atmosphere of the times, when botany was truly an exciting career and it felt as though scientists were uncovering the mysteries of God.

Although Alma is an interesting and easy to relate to main character, I found myself most drawn to the story of her adopted sister, Prudence.  Despite being very intelligent herself, she isn't quite in Alma's league and so suffers in a different way to Alma.  I enjoyed reading about her becoming drawn to the abolitionist movement, and the waves in society she was prepared to make for her beliefs.  In a similar vein, I enjoyed the latter sections of the novel, when Alma journeyed to Tahiti and came into contact with a different way of life to her own.  I love that whole nineteenth century explorer theme in historical fiction, and the meeting of different cultures.

On the whole, I really enjoyed The Signature of All Things. It was one of the titles I was most excited to read from the Baileys long-list, as the theme of women scientists was always going to draw to me.  However, it's a hard book to review as I could pretty much sum up my views by simply typing "I liked this book."  There was nothing I disliked about it, but neither did it grab me and worm it's way into my heart as a favourite.  It's simply a very well written story about a topic that engages me, and I'm glad I spent several nights with it over the last week.

Source: Library
First Published: 2013
Score: 4 out of 5

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