The Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif

Okay, so this is another one of those ‘historically-based romantic fictions set in another country’ which I like, but I promise it will be the last one for a while! Yet another risk at the charity shop, I still feel mixed about this one.

It centres on two women, Anna Winterbourne in 1901 and Isabel Parkman in the early 2000s, and their links to Egypt. Anna is Isabel’s great grandmother and when Isabel discovers a trunk of Anna’s old letters and journals, she travels to Egypt to find out more about Anna’s life there. Anna is a widowed English lady who dreams of a more meaningful life in exotic Egypt after using paintings of the country to find solace after her husband’s death. When she is accidentally kidnapped on a sightseeing trek, she finds herself in the house of Sharif Pasha al-Baroudi, who she quickly falls in love with and later marries, and so begins to see a whole different side of the country and it’s politics.

As Isabel unearths Anna’s story, she stays with the sister of her new Egyptian lover Omar in Cairo, who also turns out to be the descendant of Sharif’s sister. Isabel discovering her own heritage and coming to terms with who she is in relation to it, and to Omar, is the basic romantic plot that drives the story along. It is a little confusing at time with switching between eras and narrators, but once you get used to the different styles (and helpfully different fonts for some), it isn’t too hard to follow.

The hard part was the political side of things, which I had not expected to feature so heavily and slowly grew in length until at times I just wanted to skip through them. I know very little about twentieth century Egyptian politics, and this book unfortunately assumed you did and so it was a little hard to keep up with the people and plots. The book is still readable, the plot is interesting, many of the characters engrossing, and it is well written, but this political aspect did cause me to read it quite slowly as I just tried to figure out what was going on (with the help of Wikipedia)! Not fantastic if you want a book you can really get stuck into. Overall, it is good but maybe not one I would recommend to the average reader, without a strong suggestion to do some background reading first!

We are all completely beside ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

My mum gave this book a few weeks ago now, and it has taken me ages to read it unfortunately due to work, but I’ve finally had time to curl up for a few hours and enjoy it. I wasn’t sure about it at first, as the blurb doesn’t give a lot away (for obvious reasons later) and it just sounded like not a lot would happen. And in a way, this is true- not a lot does happen but it still managed to captivate my mind and heart by the end by it’s witty and yet nostalgic feel.

The story focuses on Rosie, and begins in the middle really- she’s at college and remembering her childhood before her brother and sister disappeared. As you read, you start to suspect hers was not a normal childhood, but it’s not until page 70 or so that you realise why. If you read any further, this review will give this plot twist away. I don’t think it will ruin your enjoyment of the book any, but I thought it’d be fair to give warning.

Rosie’s wild, adventurous sister Fern who disappeared when she was five was a chimp. Her parents were phycologists who basically experimented on the two of them to study their communication and development side by side. By the time Rosie is in college, her brother has run away from home in search of Fern and has become a fugitive wanted by the FBI for domestic terrorism involving animal rights in his quest to fight for Fern. Her parents have lost all their spark and her mother has clearly had a breakdown over the guilt of giving her chimp child away- because how else could you think of Fern? Rosie is torn between her need to not be seen as the ‘monkey girl’ of her childhood but also a huge and painful longing to know what happened to Fern, which she slowly pieces together when reunited with her mysterious brother.

Although the plot swings back and forth in time, it is easy to follow, the twist about Fern is very well done and the book is punctured with witty lines from Rosie as she narrates her life. It really makes you question the idea of what makes us human, or a family and how we all cope with loss. Of course, the main theme is to do with animal rights- does (or can) Fern, who has been brought up human, ever deserve to be seen as an animal? How can humans treat some animals the way they do when they can be so human-like? Fowler has clearly done a lot of research into the subject and the real families in the past that had ‘chimp babies’ which makes the book that bit more believable. I really enjoyed it and while being a good book for a lazy weekend afternoon, it still makes you think about it for a while after- something which I always want from a book!

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

This was another of my impulsive charity bookshop purchases, and I have to say I am getting good at these, and finding some real gems- ‘The Shadow of the Wind‘ being one of them. I know I seem to have a trend with historical fiction set in other countries or cultures, and my ‘to read’ pile does have other genres in it, but now the summer holidays have ended, the rate I’m reading has really slowed so I’m allowing myself to enjoy my little guilty pleasure.

The Shadow of the Wind‘ is set in post-war Barcelona, and focuses on the life of Daniel Sempere, the son of a bookshop owner. For his 11th birthday, he is taken to the secretive Cemetery of Forgotten Books where he chooses the ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ by Julian Carax from among the lost and forgotten books treasured away there. He is totally engrossed by it and becomes obsessed with finding more out about the mysterious author. In doing so, he comes across tales of the sinister Laín Coubert who is on a mission to destroy all of Carax’s books, who is actually the name of the devil character in Carax’s book to make things even more mysterious and almost certainly troublesome for Daniel.

After a slightly odd few chapters on his childhood and love for Clara, the much older girl who tells him more about Carax and his mysteries, the teenage Daniel and his rather eccentric yet lovable friend Fermin Romero de Torres (a former government spy on the run from the sadistic Inspector Fumero) try to track down Julian and instead discover his troubled childhood, the doomed love between him and Penelope from 1919, and the tangled web of loyalty and hatred he left behind- wherein lies the answer to Daniels questions. I won’t give the plot away as there are some fantastic twists and a really heart-warming story not only between Julian and Penelope but one of Daniel’s own.

I really enjoyed this book- yes it was historical fiction but for a lot of it, you wouldn’t notice and although the actions of the past during the war are relevant it still feels like a normal, exciting mystery/love story tale (sorry for the vague-ness of the genre, but that really is the best description I can think of!) It’s about growing up, and love and friendship, and best of all it’s a book about books! I think the quote to the left sums it up pretty well. There are sequels to this based on Daniel’s character, and while I did love Zafón’s style of writing and the tale itself, I’m not sure I want to read them for a while, if at all. I’m always wary of sequels, and I think I need a break of something else before coming back.

My Summer10 Review

IMG_9562 (1)Autumn is definitely here. The rain has started, I’m wearing jumpers and I’m back to work (boo hiss). I feel that this idea of summer 10 has been great as it’s given me a bit of motivation to get stuff done and experience things, even though I haven’t completed them all, or only done a small amount of others. It was all about something to aim for, and I plan to finish a few of them off in the next few weeks, so they still count, right? I am tempted to do the same this term, and set myself some kind of challenge to keep me going and not constantly thinking about work! Anyway, here’s my review of how this summer’s resolutions went:

  1. Go camping- technically I did this during my DofE, but this isn’t what I really meant. I had wanted to go with the boyfriend and camp somewhere near Whitby, or in the Lakes and this just never happened as he got busy with work. And now it’s September, it just isn’t really the weather to show him the joys of camping, so this one will have to wait until spring unfortunately.
  2. Draw something- I had one go. It was fairly hopeless and I gave up, which I know isn’t the attitude to take! Oh well, this is going to be another one to try later I guess.
  3. Have friends round for dinner- Again, another failure. Well, more like a near miss- we had my parents round a few times for dinner, I went to a friends for dinner, I’ve been out for dinner with friends and we’ve cooked some really good meals just for ourselves, but not quite achieved this one. Saying this, I am inviting a few work friends round for a drink and maybe food next weekend, so we will get there eventually.
  4. Complete my Gold DofE Award- DONE! COMPLETED! FINISHED! I have finally achieved this and am feeling more than a little proud! It’s being sent off this week and then I’ll be off skipping to the Palace to pick up my award and hopefully meet the Duke!
  5. Learn basic Spanish– Also achieved, but it is very very basic ‘un vino blanco por favor’, just about read a menu and ask for my towel to be changed. I also learnt a few more unexpected ones being on an archaeology dig- ‘una pala’ is a spade for example. We did try to compile a digging dictionary but I don’t have a copy of it unfortunately. It is a pretty language and so I might keep working on this one slowly, as there is lots more of Spain I want to visit!
  6. Read a book every week– Just about managed 6 books in 6 weeks, although have been a little slow reviewing them. It has been lovely to sit and relax, but now I’m back at work I’ve hardly touched my new one which is really disappointing. I’m going to make an effort to keep reading instead of worrying about work on an evening, but I doubt it will stay at one a week!
  7. Go to the seaside- This was a lovely day out at the beginning of the holidays. The parents and I took a trip to Bridlington and enjoyed a stroll in the sand, paddling in the sea and a huge ice cream to top it all off. I absolutely lovd it! However, no sandcastles or penny arcades- I was told I was too old to relive my childhood! Humphhf.
  8. Sort out the garden– Not even touched it. It’s turned into a full on jungle but we just ended up busy and forgot about it. However, the boyfriend has promised to attack it in the coming weeks, and apparently autumn is the best time to cut things back anyway, which is totally the reason why it wasn’t done over summer….
  9. Get fit and healthy– This one is obviously a hard one to judge. I have lost weight, despite piling on the pounds in Spain- boy, do they know how to enjoy food! I’m the lightest I have been since I’ve started keeping track, and probably since leaving university so I am very happy. Mostly it’s been keeping an eye on how much I’m eating, packing in the fruit and veg and long walks. I haven’t been swimming or cycling since getting back from Spain 3 weeks ago, but plan to start swimming again at least tomorrow. Cycling will depend on the weather!
  10. Revamp my lessons- Yes and no. Some have been totally re-thought, some tweaked and some are still waiting. I’ve borrowed a whole load of good ideas from other blogs and the internet (Mrs Humanities especially, so a huge thank you!) and plan to get these into lessons over the next few weeks and see how they go. Teaching is a never ending process of learning and changing things, but I feel somewhat more prepared this year.

Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett

The late Terry Pratchett was a genius, there’s no other way to put it. His creation of the Discworld has kept me entertained for many years, and although his style changed a bit with the onset of Alzheimers his later books were still very, very good. Raising Steam was the only novel of his that I hadn’t read before (not including the Shepherd’s Crown which isn’t out until next month) and when I bought it for my Dad’s birthday, I knew I would get to read it when he had finished!

The book centers on the character of Moist von Lipwig, a talented con-man and scoundrel who is also in charge of the Royal Bank and the Post Office through rather odd circumstances dealt with in Pratchett’s other books. There is also a whole host of other recognisable Ankh-Morpork characters such as Sam Vines and the City Watch, City ruler/tyrant and assassin Lord Vetinari, trolls, dwarfs, vampires, goblins, and the endearingly Yorkshire Dick Simnel, the inventor of the steam engine. For those of you who have no idea what I’m on about at this point, I apologise, but you really need to read the Discworld novels to keep up. Basically, this one is set in an alternate magical universe which roughly coincides with our British industrial revolution.

The railway is big news obviously, and becomes vital when a Dwarf civil war threatens in Uberwald (think Transylvania). The grags (uber strict dwarfs who don’t approve of anything un-dwarfish… like sunlight) try to remove the Low King and it is up to Moist to get Simnel’s train up and running, and return the Low King from a meeting with the Diamond King of the Trolls to Uberwald before the crazy grags take over (and Vetinari decides Moist is no longer worth keeping around- he is a tyrant after all, he can do these things).

Pratchett’s amazingly well written characters and humour shines throughout the book and it is very much one I didn’t want to put down- I have to admit a 5 hour stint yesterday to finish it while feeling ill and sorry for myself in bed! The plot doesn’t sound like a lot, but Pratchett’s skill was in the interaction between characters and the small, funny events and comments that make up everyday life, rather than an epic adventure tale. Once again, he sucks you into the Discworld universe, and I can’t wait to return and re-read some of his books. As heartbroken as I was when he died, he did leave a wonderful legacy, and this book is another fantastic piece of it.

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

I love Bill Bryson’s books- I think we may even own all of them and his travel ones are definitely the best of the bunch. Despite a lot of them being written in the 1990s, and therefore a little outdated in places, they are still very funny and hit the mark. I decided to read A Walk in the Woods after returning from my Duke of Edinburgh expedition, and it absolutely hit the spot. The struggles with getting all of that kit into the rucksack, eating you weight in Snickers Bars, getting horribly lost and meeting all of the odd characters along the way are something any hiker will recognise and therefore get funny looks for when chuckling at it on the train.

In this one, Bryson decides to walk the Appalachian Trail which is one huge path through 14 states- I think possibly the longest in the world at roughly 2,180 miles long (but as Bryson points out, nobody can agree on precisely how long) and climbing the equivalent of 16 Mount Everests along the route. Impressive if you can do it, and certainly putting my DofE experience to shame, but unsurprisingly, Bryson only does about 1/3 of the length before giving up- which is still a bloody long way!

Throughout his adventure, he is accompanied by Stephen Katz his old friend who is horribly unfit, unaware of what he has got himself into and dreams constantly of what is on TV that night. There’s a point where Bryson suspects a bear outside their tents and Katz just does not care about their impending and bloody deaths. Although a book about walking doesn’t sound interesting to begin with, Bryson’s fantastic story-telling skills as well as unwittingly hilarious mishaps and witty anecdotes makes this worth reading whether you’re into walking or not. Apparently, they’re even making it into a film, which I can’t wait to see!

The Ballroom Cafe by Ann O’Loughlin

Okay, so as promised in my Summer 10, I have been trying to read one book a week during the summer holidays as it is something I really love and miss during term time when I am so busy with work, so here is the first of my catch-up review posts! I have to admit, I chose this book partly because it was free on Kindle, which during my travels in Spain was the only way for me to access English books, but I was pleasantly surprised by it. It may not be a well known, best-selling author or a book that has won dozens of prizes (which is probably the reason it was free), but it really was a very enjoyable book, and I will be keeping a lookout for more by this author in the future.

The story revolves around Ella O’Callaghan, who lives with (but never speaks to) her sister Roberta in their old family mansion in Ireland. With the bank threatening to take the house to pay for their debts, Ella decides to put her baking skills to use and opens a cafe in the old ballroom which invites the gossipy outside world into their home, much to the disgust of Roberta. Enter Debbie, an American woman trying to find her birth mother before her cancer forces her to return home. Debbie ends up working for Ella in the cafe while trying to unearth the secrets of her past, and boy does she unearth some interesting ones in the small town!

The plot is basically set around the Irish adoption scandals of the 1960s and 1970s that films like Philomena brought to the public’s attention, which adds that little bit of history to a book that I always like. It is estimated that nearly 2,000 Irish newborns were taken from their unmarried Catholic mothers and sent to America, while their mother’s were told the baby had died. I can’t imagine what that must feel like when these women found out about the scandal, but this book does a pretty good job in this aspect. The characters are realistic and funny, and you can feel their heart-break as the layers of secrecy come to light- you even end up feeling sorry for Roberta a bit, despite what she has done.

I really enjoyed reading this book- it was well written with a few good twists yet is a nice gentle story despite the topic. It was a perfect holiday read and I would certainly recommend it.