Wednesday, 30 March 2011


Confinement by Katharine McMahon

I love the cover of this book. So did a complete stranger (a middle-aged man) who commented on it while I was sitting waiting for a train at Southampton station.

It's one of my favourite type of novels - set in two time periods. In Victorian England, Bess Hardomon is teaching at the Priors Heath school for the daughters of clergy. She's determined to improve the welfare and fortunes of the girls. In the 1960s/70s, Sarah Beckett is a student at Priors Heath girls' school. She's studious and hard-working, but befriends wild child Imogen. In the 1990s Sarah returns to Priors Heath, now a comprehensive, as a teacher. Imogen is the new head teacher, trying to update the school in her own way. Throughout, the theme of women being confined by their gender and duties is explored.

The school itself becomes a character in this novel - I love the way it develops over the years, changing with the times but not losing its identity. Thoroughly enjoyable novel - the third of McMahon's I've read and it won't be the last.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Touching the Void

Touching the Void by Joe Simpson

I used to read a lot of mountaineering accounts but that was before this one was published, and while I knew the story I had never actually read the book or seen the docu-drama that was later made. Bought this book in the little Waterstones in Aviemore when I was there last week, and decided to read it straight away while the memories of walking up mountains in deep snow were still fresh.

Warning - people of a nervous disposition should not read this book. It's a brilliantly written but harrowing story of survival against all the odds.

The author and fellow climber Simon Yates were descending a remote Andean peak after a difficult ascent, when Joe Simpson fell and badly broke his leg. They had miscalculated how long the climb would take and were already out of fuel for their stove and food, so despite the incoming storm they decided to try to continue descending. Simon lowered Joe, rope length by rope length, much of the way down the steep snow slope, until on the last lower, Joe went over an unseen ice cliff and was left dangling. After some time Simon found himself being pulled over, and realising the choice was between one death and two deaths, decided to cut the rope.

Joe fell, Simon assumed he'd be dead, especially when he saw the crevasse Joe had fallen into and continued the descent back to base camp. Joe amazingly landed on an ice bridge across the crevasse, still alive. With supreme mental strength he managed to get himself out of the crevasse then crawled and hopped his way for the next two days across the glacier, down the valley and back to base camp, arriving there close to death.

It's an incredible story. Both men showed enormous mental strength throughout. If you like real-life adventure then this is almost certainly one of the best ever. Joe is a brilliant writer. He's written several others which I think I will have to search out.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Fairytale of New York

Fairytale of New York by Miranda Dickinson

My son bought me this for Christmas as he knows the song of the same name is one of my all-time favourites. I was intrigued to read the author was a member of Authonomy and this book came through that process. I've never looked much at Authonomy though I was once a member of YouWriteOn which has a similar set-up. I'm always pleased to read of any author finding success through these less than conventional routes.

The book is narrated by Rosie, an English woman living in New York, running a floristry business. She's emotionally scarred from having been jilted at the altar, and is unable to form any new relationships. She meets handsome and charming Nate, who is himself engaged but clearly keen on Rosie. And then there's serial-dater Ed, her best friend and work colleague. When her ex, David, turns up in New York and asks her to do the flowers for his wedding, Rosie has to confront her feelings and learn to move on.

The book is written in a lively style which I've come to associate with the best of chick-lit. So it carries you along nicely. I found a few aspects of the plot seemed a little unbelievable but maybe things are different in New York... The ending was satisfying if a little predictable.

Overall it was a pleasant read - would be a good one to take on a long plane journey when you need a little escapism.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

Him indoors raved about this book and its sequels. I'm not really into crime novels or thrillers so this was a departure for me.

There was huge hype surrounding this book, maybe partly because the author died after completing the trilogy but before publication.

Hmm. What can I say about this book?

At the beginning I couldn't get into it, but stuck with it because so many people seem to love it. After 200 pages my main thoughts were that if those 200 pages had been edited down to 100 pages, they might be quite reasonable. The plot picked up later on, and at times was intriguing, but the main whodunnit was guessable from an early point. The other crimes, and the ideas behind the novel, are clever and I suppose that's the other aspect that fuelled the hype.

But overall I found the book flabby, with too many sentences along the lines of 'He took off his clothes and went to bed.' Too much pointless detail which didn't move the story on or provide characterisation. The main characters are interesting in a way, but they all talk the same. The dialogue sounds alike whether its the 40-something journalist, the elderly industrialist or the 20-something female Goth computer hacker talking.

There are two further books in the trilogy. Jury's out re whether or not I'll read them. Possibly as holiday reads, skimming over the flabby prose.