Category Archives: Blogging about books

Blogging about books – Love Nina by Nina Stibbe

Okay, I’m now giving up all pretence of trying to finish reading the books on my shelves before buying new ones.  I spotted this in Waterstones (apostrophe deliberately left out because I don’t know if it’s the name relates to one Waterstone or a group of them) in Aviemore and had to buy it, having loved the TV adaptation.

In 1982, the young Nina Stibbe escapes from Leicestershire and moves to London to work as a nanny for Mary-Kay Wilmers, editor of the London Review of Books.  Her duties include looking after Mary-Kay’s two sons, cooking and as little housework as she can get away with (spoiler : very little).  This is a far from ordinary household in a far from ordinary area – neighbours include the novelist Deborah Moggach, Ursula Vaughan Williams (widow of composer Ralph) and the playwright Alan Bennett, a regular – if not necessarily invited – dinner guest.

Nina’s exploits in the big City are conveyed through a series of letters to her sister, Vic.  Her relationships with Mary-Kay, the boys, Alan Bennett et al, along with her romance with Nunny, the student who works as a temporary carer for another neighbour, are beautifully drawn through little anecdotes and snippets of conversation.  By the end of the book I felt that I knew them personally.

Partway through the book Nina leaves Mary-Kay’s employment to study for a degree in English Literature.  Although she remains a regular visitor I felt the book lost some of its charm here.

There has been minor controversy surrounding the book; Mary-Kay had reservations about its publication but was reportedly happy once she read it, Alan Bennett has expressed the opinion that Nina Stibbe “misremembered” him, and some readers suspect the letters have been heavily edited to make them more amusing than the originals.  This may well be true, but “Love Nina” is still a little gem of a book, one that bears re-reading.

Blogging about books – The 8-Week Blood Sugar Diet by Michael Mosley

Okay, so I have a confession to make.  I said I wasn’t going to buy any new books until I’d read everything on my bookshelves.  However, most of my books are currently in storage waiting for our new house to be habitable so I had to buy new ones.

And I just can’t help myself.

So on to The 8-Week Blood Sugar Diet, helpfully subtitled “Lose weight fast and reprogramme your body”.  For most of my adult life, barring a few months after my cancer surgery, my weight has tended to be a few pounds higher than I’d like but not enough to be an issue.  But for some reason, diet books fascinate me.

This one, as is common in the genre, takes a very simple principle and spins it out over 272 pages.

Eat less.  Drastically reduce carbohydrate intake.   Move more.

That’s basically the entire book reduced to eight words.  Okay, it adds a bit of science, a few case histories and some recipes, but you could really save yourself £8.99 by being too busy to read the science, googling low-carb recipes, keeping to about 800 calories a day and going for a walk.

In fairness, there probably is a need for a book of this kind – the principles behind it are sound and, if followed, could greatly reduce the incidence of Type 2 diabetes.  It’s not the author’s fault that it’s so simple, and people are more likely to change their habits after paying £8.99 to be told to do so by an actual qualified (though non-practising) doctor than by getting the same information free (and considerably more concisely) by a pharmacist and hypnotherapist.

But what I’d really like to see is a book that would help Type 1 diabetics in the ongoing battle they fight with their weight as a result of their constant efforts to balance insulin with carbohydrate intake.

How about it Dr Mosley?

Blogging about books – The Missing by C L Taylor

This is nobody’s favourite section of my blog (not even mine) but I said I was going to do it so here we are again.

I should start by saying that The Missing has nothing to do with the BBC TV series of the same name.  Instead, it is a psychological thriller about 15 year-old frankly unlikeable Billy, who goes missing one night, and his mother, Claire, who attempts to find out what happened to him.

This is stretched out (and I mean stretched) over 512 pages during which Claire suffers a number of dissociative fugue episodes, forgetting who she is, where she is and why she’s there.  This is far less interesting than it sounds.

The narrative is interspersed with WhatsApp conversations between two characters, one of whom we assume to be Billy, the other the person responsible for his disappearance.  These serve the dual purpose of showing us that the author is a thoroughly modern person with her finger on the technological pulse and revealing that, as is so often the case, naughty old sex is at the heart of things.

We eventually, and with some relief (remember the 512 pages) learn the truth about what happened to Billy, and I have to admit this is not what I was expecting.  Unfortunately it’s also not very believable.

This book has been very well reviewed by other authors in the genre, so maybe it’s actually a really good psychological thriller and I’m not the target audience.  But I had to force myself to read to the end because although I wanted to know what happened, I didn’t really care.

Never a good sign.

Blogging about books – The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena

About once a year, a book comes round that becomes a huge bestseller largely on word of mouth recommendations – like Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl or Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train.  I don’t tend to enjoy these books – Gone Girl was deeply unsatisfying with its collection of unpleasant characters, the most unpleasant of whom comes out on top, and The Girl on the Train was just dull.

I was hoping The Couple Next Door might buck that particular trend but I was to be sadly disappointed.  The plot seemed promising enough – having been let down by their babysitter, Anne and Marco go to dinner with their next-door neighbours leaving baby Cora alone in the house.  Lest you think they are totally neglectful parents, they do take the baby monitor with them and go back to check on her every half hour.  It’s probably obvious that I’m not a parent when I say that this does not seem entirely unreasonable – okay the house could catch fire but it’s not very likely and any other problem would be identifiable from the baby monitor.  And while I don’t think it’s an unreasonable solution to the problem I find it hard to believe that a new mother would be emotionally capable of leaving her baby alone like that – I don’t have children, that doesn’t make me an inhuman monster.

Anyway, to get back to the plot, when Anne and Marco get home they find Cora has been kidnapped and there then follows the interminably slow tale of the police investigation into her disappearance.  This is all told by an omniscient narrator so the reader is party to practically everything any character thinks, says or does.  I assume this is intended to generate tension as we know things the other characters don’t but it actually has the reverse effect, slowing things down and rendering large chunks of the plot irrelevant.

Yet again we have a book in which it’s hard to like any of the characters – I can summon up a small bit of sympathy for Anne and I suppose Cora would be likeable if her parents cared enough about her to convey any hint of her personality, but everyone  else is just vile.  I don’t understand why it is that writers of thrillers, in particular, fail to recognise that readers need someone they can root for.  It’s much easier to appreciate a book if you can identify with a character and that’s just not going to happen if they’re all horrible.  Unless the reader’s a sociopath.  Maybe this books aimed at sociopaths.

Without wanting to give too much away, I can say that after many (too many) trials and tribulations Anne and Marco appear to be in with a chance of rebuilding their lives.  Only the author just won’t let them go, ending with the most ridiculously melodramatic twist it has ever been my misfortune to read.

I gave this book away.  Quickly.

Blogging about books – Evil Games by Angela Marsons

Evil Games was a book given to Iain by our cleaner and not really the kind of thing I choose to read.  However, I picked it up one day, read the first few pages and found myself hooked.

The second in the author’s series of D.I. Kim Stone novels, it begins with a raid on the home of a suspected child abuser.  While the investigation into this case continues, a sociopathic psychiatrist uses her knowledge of the human mind to manipulate her patients into committing murders.  This is not a spoiler – it’s made quite clear that this is happening very early in the book.

Kim Stone seems at first to be something of a stereotype.  A strong woman in what is still, to some extent, seen as a man’s world, she is tough, dedicated and as hard as the hammers of hell.  But as the book progresses, it becomes clear that this is not just lazy writing and poor characterisation as we learn about her background and the reasons she behaves the way she does.  And we do see small signs of softening – at one stage she adopts a murder victim’s dog.

The two cases – child abuse and murder – are unconnected and this adds a sense of realism to the book.  Contrary to the impression given by TV, the victim in one case does not generally turn out to be the perpetrator in the next.  However, there is a neat little link when something that happens during one investigation provides a serendipitous clue to another.

While I’m sure no-one would claim Evil Games could be described as great literature, it was an entertaining and satisfying read and I would certainly read further books about Kim Stone.


Blogging about books – Happy Money : The New Science of Smarter Spending by Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton

I’m not sure anyone ever reads this bit of the blog but I said I was going to do book reviews so it’s up to you.

I don’t really know why I bought Happy Money – obviously something about it appealed to me but I can’t remember what.  It’s quite a short book that basically tries to persuade us to change the way we spend our money in order to increase our happiness.

It’s a fairly well-established fact that once we have enough money to comfortably meet our needs, the impact of more disposable impact on our happiness is much lower than we would expect.  We might think a top of the range Mercedes would make us happier, but if we can get from A to B in an old Fiat Panda that added expenditure probably isn’t going to make a huge difference.  And if we’ve got one top of the range Mercedes is another one really going to make us happier?

This book suggests that money can buy increased happiness if we follow these five principles :-

  1. Buy experiences – good seats at a concert by your favourite band won’t last as long as a designer shirt but may well give you more pleasure.  Sometimes the reasoning behind a purchase determines whether it is a possession of an experience – for example, a book is an experience if bought to enjoy reading it, but a possession if it looks good on your shelves.
  2. Make it a treat – if you drink the finest champagne every day it just becomes routine.  Drink it on special occasions only and you’ll enjoy it more.
  3. Buy time – spend your money on paying someone else to do the cleaning, the ironing or any other job you hate.  That way you get time to do the things you enjoy.
  4. Pay now, consume later – the reverse of our “buy now, pay later” culture.   When you pay for something in advance, like you usually do for a holiday, it almost seems like it’s free when you actually come to enjoy it.
  5. Invest in others – it really is better to give than to receive.

These principles all make sense to me, and for anyone with more money than they need to be comfortable they seem like a good basis on which to make spending decisions.  The book is less convincing, however, when it attempts to apply the same principles to expenditure by governments.

Overall, the premise behind Happy Money is an interesting one, but the material is stretched too thinly.  There is a good magazine article here but it doesn’t quite work as a book.

Blogging about books – Neuro-linguistic Programming for Dummies by Romilla Ready and Kate Burton

Warning – if you’re not interested in NLP you might want to skip this post.

Neuro-linguistic Programming for Dummies appeared on the reading list for my Hypnotherapy Diploma Course, which was handy as i’d been given a copy for Christmas and was halfway through it when I started the course.

I’ve been interested in NLP for several years without any clear understanding of what it is.  Unfortunately, this book really hasn’t helped in that respect.  The formal definition of NLP, given at the beginning of the book  is “the study of the structure of your subjective experience”.  While the authors can’t really be blamed for this, I really didn’t feel that definition helped me at all.  And by the end of the book I was none the wiser.

One of the problems with NLP is the huge amount of jargon involved – modalities, submodalities, meta models, logical levels, anchors.  All of these terms need to be clearly understood in order to make any sense of the subject, but this book seems very vague on what some of these mean and of what relevance they have.  An attempt is made to demonstrate the practical use of some of these concepts by way of anecdotes, but far too many of these relate to corporate business situations which are of limited interest to the general reader and turned me (as anti-corporate as it’s possible to be) right off.

The elements of NLP that have been introduced in my course so far have tended to be organically drawn out of examples of their use – the anecdote comes first, followed by an explanation of the point it demonstrates.  This makes them far more palatable and understandable.

It may well be that NLP is not a subject that can easily be learnt from a book and the authors have actually made a valiant but failed attempt at sharing their knowledge of the subject.  I’ll probably come back to this book when I know more about it – maybe my opinion will change.

But probably not – I forgot to mention that it’s really boringly written!

Blogging about books – The Various Haunts of Men by Susan Hill

I bought The Various Haunts of Men for Iain, probably more than ten years ago.  He never read it but I just have, hence this review.

Described as the first of the Simon Serrailler novels, it is the story of a missing persons enquiry which ultimately becomes the search for a serial killer.  In a similar way to the Adam Dalgleish novels of P D James and the TV series Unforgotten a range of disparate characters and apparently unconnected storylines come together over the course of 550 pages.  Living in and around the small fictional city of Lafferton, the characters have a reality which makes the reader believe in their existence before the start of the book and, at least for those who aren’t murdered, after it ends.

Interspersed with the story of the murders and there investigation are excerpts from tape recordings left by the killer.  These provide a chilling insight into his mind until they reveal his identity about three quarters of the way through the book and the focus of the story turns to whether he can be caught before he kills again.

One or two plot threads seem to just disappear without having served any purpose either in furthering the action or casting light on character but perhaps these are taken up in further novels.  Similarly, the enigmatic Detective Chief Inspector Simon Serrailler seems something of a bit-player in a novel which supposedly introduces him.  No doubt his character is fleshed out in the rest of the series (I think there are eight novels in total).  On the subject of DCI Serrailler, I did have problems with his name.  How should it be pronounced?  It It sounds silly if given a French pronunciation but the particular combination of vowels and consonants doesn’t look English.  Not something that spoiled my enjoyment of the book but it did cause me a bit of concern each time I came across it.

I’m not a great lover of crime fiction, other than a nice old-fashioned cosy Miss Marple, but I thoroughly enjoyed this book for its decent, likeable characters, believable setting and intriguing mystery.

When I’m allowed to buy books again I may well revisit the world of DCI Simon Serrailler.

Blogging about books – introduction

One of the things I plan to do with the blog this year is post reviews of every book I read.  I used to be a member of a book club here in Berwick.  We would meet every six weeks or so in one or other of our houses, ostensibly to talk about a book one of us had chosen, but really to have a bit of a gossip, eat crisps and drink wine.  After a time, members started to drift away and our attempts to recruit replacements weren’t terribly successful.  Eventually it just died – no-one made a conscious decision to call it a day, we just never got round to arranging the date of our next meeting.
From time to time next-door neighbour Shelagh and I talk about reviving it.  I hope that one day we will, but until there this can serve as my own one-man book club – a sort of Billy No Mates book club.  If, however, anyone out there wants to read the books I review (or has already done so), then please feel free to add your comments.
Given my current interest, quite a lot of the books I review will be about hypnotherapy and related subjects but I promise there’ll be lots of fiction too.  Oh, and there’s a sort of little rule I’ve set myself – my shelves are groaning with unread books so, with the exception of recommended texts for my hypnotherapy course, I won’t be buying any new ones until I’ve worked my way through all these or moved them on to new owners.  Obviously this doesn’t apply to huge reference tomes like the Royal Horticultural Society A-Z Encyclopaedia of Garden Plants (1078 pages) but you just have to trust me to play fair.
One more thing.  Our cleaner very kindly brings us her husband’s unwanted crime novels.  I am working on the basis that these are really for Iain as he is the one who expressed an interest in this genre of fiction.  So I don’t have to read them or give them away but I can if I want to.
And finally, I know I promised a post about the first module of my hypnotherapy course.  Trust me – it’s coming, and sooner than Christmas.