A Game of Thrones – the guest review

Here is a book review with a difference, one that would not normally appear on Northern Readers Blog.  A personal favourite of mine. A Game of Thrones by american writer George R.R. Martin.

A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 1)

First published way back in 1996 this book has recently come into the public eye through the superb HBO television series adaptation.  George R.R. Martin has been described as “the American Tolkien” and certainly he is a man who has bought a dark twist to the world of fantasy and pushed it into the public consciousness. This is the first book in the Song of Ice and Fire series, where readers are introduced to the land of Westeros and the Houses that make up that realm.

The book and world in A Game of Throne (AGoT) is influenced heavily from the War of the Roses.  Instead of two houses there are many different ones each with their own agenda and loyalty, which provides a lot of delicious twists and turns.  The land of Westeros may be in a medieval setting but the politics are straight from Ancient Rome.  The political maneuvering provides many of the book’s plot surprises and one of the book’s strengths is that you are never given the full picture all at once which makes you want to read the rest of the book and series.  Another part that makes the book is in the characterisation, Martin writes from characters point of view (POV), this means that you are only getting one interpretation of the story at any given moment in time.  The main characters are all engaging from an exiled princess, a dwarf who may or not be as bad as his reputation makes out to a Lord whose main virtue is his honour but could be his downfall.  These are just for starters, there are a few more main characters and a large cast of minor characters.  Each character large or small is described in detail and all help to drive the plot on.  Martin has put a lot of thought into the characters and their purpose in the story.  The same can be said with all his descriptions of the world of Westeros and the lands beyond the sea, these really bring the story to life and provides a lot of flavour text  that just adds so much more colour to the book.  The plot is gripping from the first to the last page and bought to life with exceptionally skilled writing.

AGoT is not for the faint of heart, bad things happen to good as well as bad people and one persons virtue may also be a vice.  Incest, blood and sex are in the book which makes it a darker side of fantasy, however with a plot as engaging and rewarding as this AGoT is certainly a book that everyone should read and you will find it impossible to put down.  This book redefines the fantasy genre as it stands and is a world apart from your average fantasy book.  Even if you would not normally read a book like this I urge you to give A Game of Thrones a try, you will not be disappointed.

Southern Reader

(Guest Reviewer MRHH)

100 and not out! (Oh, and several books…)

Well, I finally made it – one hundred posts! I also checked and discovered that I actually began this blog in early July 2010 so it is already over one year old. Impressive or what!?

You’ll be relieved to know that I’m not going to attempt to review 100 books in this post. Somewhere I have written about how many books out of one hundred greatest books I have actually read. I usually make over half in that sort of list… Last year I read 120+ books, but that did include being snowed in. I fully intend to take two bags of books on holiday, partly because I can never make up my mind about what I’m going to feel like reading. Long suffering husband says he will by me a Kindle (or similar ) when I’ve read all the books in the house – impossible ! While I’m on the subject of statistics, I have read 70 books so far this year, which isn’t bad compared with last year. That does include quite a few easy reads, as well as the big books like Lodge’s A Man of Parts – educational on all sorts of levels… I’m also a member of two book groups, which obviously determines some of my reading choices. At the moment they are Gods behaving badly by Marie Phillips

Gods Behaving Badly

which comes highly recommended by Daughter. She said that it was not a book she would have anticipated liking, but actually thought it was very good. I have started it, enjoyed it so far, again finding it very educational in all sorts of ways…

The other book club is reading Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

This comes highly recommended by friend CB who called it a ‘big’ book. I have started it but am not grabbed so far. I have got until September – or until someone demands to borrow a copy before the next meeting.

A book I have finished, though it is only the first of six, is the highly unusual and idiosyncratic Mapp and Lucia by E. F.  Benson. This is the sort of book, like the Provincial Lady series, that I have been meaning to read. I am glad I did, and thought that its portrayal of the rivalry between the two ladies of the title in a small town   was very funny. It has the same surreal humour as Wodehouse, with a very feminine twist. The two ladies battle to rule the social life of the small town of Tilling, by competitive bridge games, dinner parties and art exhibitions. These books are not for everyone; they deal with small incidents  writ large, and depend totally on characterisation. The wonderful Cogito Books of Hexham  sold me the collected volumes of all six books, and I felt all virtuous for supporting an excellent independent bookshop. Another trip planned for tomorrow! This is to accompany the MHH, or Southernreader, who is going to write the next post. So watch this space… my first guest reviewer!

So thank you to all who have read this blog faithfully, even when I’ve wandered, rambled and generally wallowed in books. And if you have only ever read the odd post – well, welcome! and see you again sometime…

Nearly there! Harry Potter Books as well…

Nearly there! This book blog is nearly one year old, and it’s Post no.99! More looking back things next time, but I thought we could look at a very (the most?) influential series of books for a long time: Harry Potter.

When I was teaching in both primary and middle schools, this series of books would be so popular that in some classrooms every desk would have a copy ready for reading time. One student teacher was loudly criticised by Son Two for mispronouncing Hermione. He was obsessed from early on, from when I bought the first two books wondering what all the fuss was about. Before number  three he had set up a shrine (which we all remember in the hallway), using the books and a stand of some sort. I also remember taking our three plus three extra children to buy the later books at midnight. Friend MHH used to set up the Hogwarts experience in the local branch of a certain bookshop where he worked, and transformed himself into a very fetching Hagrid. (There must be photos somewhere…must ask him during his visit to Northern parts next week) In this house we have many volumes; I used to have to buy about four copies at a time to enable simultaneous reading, and we also have copies bought at sales, in French, Latin… And the memorabilia, the broomsticks. By some weird chance our old college colours were the same as Gryffindor, but honourary grandmother was still pressed into knitting some scarves.

What about the books though? Son One found a copy of “the Philosopher’s Stone” for me to re read last night. It is my ambition to read them all again. I have had this ambition before, so have read book one quite often, but have only read six and seven once, I believe. I have seen, probably quite a few years ago, the original handwritten text of book one. It is fascinating to see that Rowling wrote in longhand on ordinary paper, at least to begin with. It would be interesting to see if she kept that practise going through all the novels, or whether she was lured by the attractions of a PC?

I think that the style of book one is deceptively simple. It reads as if written by a child, pleased to avoid an odious babysitter, fed up with his family, mystified by so much. Of course the books get more complex, the style grows with Harry and the others, as well as the readers. For me one of the most powerful images is of the bereaved Harry, having lost his godfather who represented so much to him, breaking up Dumbledore’s study. The anger, the rage, the lost hope is described so realistically that it would stand up against any separate piece of writing about the confusion and emotion of being a teenager. It is difficult to separate the writing from the story as a whole. Compared with something like Lord of the Rings (sorry if anyone is offended) these are nonacademic, simple narratives featuring one story arc without all of the different viewpoints which can confuse and bewilder the reader.Yes, there is additional information, different perspectives, but the central story, the central characters remain strong and unambiguous, except where they have to be to maintain the tension.

It is difficult to read the early books now without picking up the trails and the hints  which will become significant in the later books. For example, the fact that Harry doesn’t mind spiders (because of his cupboard bedroom) contrasts with Ron’s fear of them, especially in book two, and enables Harry to deal with Hagrid’s obsessions, until the wretched things get too big at least. Another memorable emotion is the trapped feeling when the evil forces move into the school and change the rules and ultimately dismiss Dumbledore as Headmaster. I can believe that many children liked the idea of boarding schools from reading these books, and the theme of getting rid of the parents early on is a well worn path in literature. (Great Expectations, Jane Eyre, etc etc) But these are young people in danger, frequently, and the fear can be safely explored in the mythical setting.

A lot has been written criticizing these books, and pointing out their faults. I think that they are a great achievement, a saga of discovery, exploration, of the battle between good and evil, even when that seems to involve risk and self sacrifice. They are enjoyable books for those who do not usually enjoy reading, they are essential reads for many children, teenagers and adults, and they, together with the films, have given me a great deal of pleasure over many years.

And my favourites;

Who both enjoyed the films far too much…


Untold Story – an unsettling read

Around the time of the Royal Wedding I read about a book coming out concerning Princess Diana, a work of fiction obviously released to cash in on the increased  interest surrounding the marriage of her eldest son. The comment I saw suggested that it was a cynical trick to release such a novel at this time, But having read Untold Story  by Monica Ali, I’m not sure that such criticism is fair. To me it seemed to be far more about identity and the choices we all make whether trying to hide one of the biggest secrets in the world, or simply coping with the challenges of life.

A lot has been made about how ‘Lydia’ in this book is in fact Diana, who having narrowly avoided death in Paris fakes her death later in the same year. It switches between her hideaway in Kensington, USA, and the diary of the man who has helped her to disappear, a man who knows that his own time and capacity to help is short. The thriller element is present, especially towards the end, when it looks like Lydia’s cover is about to be blown, and at that point I wondered how on earth it would end. This book is good, however, on the inner feelings of its main protagonists. We get a picture of a woman with enormous personal magnetism, but who found relationships impossible to manage. She looks back on the pressure she was under, and its effects on her sons. It questions the need for separation, when there are no answers, and finding the best way to cope. Lawrence, the ex security organiser who not only masterminds the disappearance but who mentors the changes necessary that follow it, reflects on both his own life but all the pressures that forced various actions.

This is a considered book, a book for all those who have ever wondered about what it would feel like to be so famous that nothing is hidden. It is about survival when everything has to start again. It is about the desperation of choosing actions that may hurt others but which may be unavoidable. It is about what makes us what we are.

I must admit that I almost gave up on this book when the first chapter seemed to revolve around life in a small American town. I cannot say that I enjoyed every chapter; sometimes it seemed unduly depressing. I am glad I persevered though as it was an interesting book, not at all jumping on the bandwagon, because there are many themes and points of interest here that go way beyond Diana – worship. I think it is a fascinating book, very different from my impressions of Ali’s work, and worth reading.

The Last Dance – if you are going to read a History Book…

Life here seems busy…summer has suddenly hit the North! Sadly the weather forecast for tomorrow is fairly horrible and there are 3 weddings at church. Eek! More to the point, perhaps, I’m singing in a concert for the first time in many years (decades?!?) I’ll be the alto at the back…

So, a book or two has been  read in among all the other distractions of life, including a really brilliant book about a fascinating time in recent history: The Last Dance  1936 The Year Our Lives Changed by Denys Blakeway.

So far, so boring, you may think. But this is the year that is central to a certain film: The King’s Speech  (cue unnecessary but enjoyable picture)

This book takes the main themes of events in the year; the death of King George V, the Berlin Olympics dominated by Hitler, and of course the Abdication crisis. They are roughly in chronological order, but each chapter gathers the main points of the events in a logical way, using diaries, letters and other documents to show what the main protagonists and observers really thought. Thus we see those politicians and minor aristocrats who were mesmerized by the  rise of Germany, the people who tried to keep Edward on the throne (surprisingly few) and why the Jarrow march was so different from the other hunger marches, as well as the town it sprang from. Husband was pleased to see a chapter about his favourite film, The Night Mail which, for those who have so far escaped / missed it, is a film of Auden’s poem about the transportation of post through Britain. If anyone is interested, he can and will recite said poem ( and surrounding documentary).

The style in which this is written is very readable, not dry or sticking rigidly to the strict facts. Equally it is not a flimsy work; it contains about eighty pages of notes and index. It would make an excellent resource for further study of the period, as well as tempting the more casual reader to look further at particularly interesting points. It covers the same ground in some respects as Juliet Gardiner’s Thirties, obviously in a more focused way, and this is a far less daunting prospect to read.

I had spotted this book about to go paperback and was really pleased to find a new copy in my library. I think that it is readable, interesting and does not feel at all like a heavy history book. Even the photos are informative, including a portrait of Diana and Unity Mitford and a photograph showing a telling gesture on the part of Wallis Simpson.  As modern history goes, this is a fascinating year to examine, and if you enjoyed the King’s Speech (who didn’t?) this is a really interesting interpretation of the background of the film.



An Alexander McCall Smith book – whatever next?

I’ve done it before, I may do it in the future – but I have recently succumbed to an Alexander McCall Smith novel. Well, there are so many of them about, it’s hard to avoid one or two now and again. After all, he does appear to have four series of novels going at the moment; even at one each a year that is quite a lot of books. I suppose there are benefits of writing a series of novels in that a writer does not have to reinvent the characters, setting and type of book every time. I was surprised that this book, The Importance of Being Seven, was quite so densely written, given McCall Smith’s impressive writing rate. I don’t know if he dictates each book like Barbara Cartland was said to do, and certainly there is a little unevenness in his style, very short chapters about one set of characters then he goes onto a different set without necessarily resolving any situations. This book was readable and it flowed, but it shouted (to me at least) that  “this book is only one of a series”. It does stand up on its own – just- and it is relatively easy to follow even if you haven’t read all the ’44 Scotland Street’ novels leading up to this one. I believe that I did read the first one several years ago, and gave it away as not being something I wanted to keep. It began life as a series of stories in a Scottish newspaper which would explain the short chapters, and the need to keep it going in certain strands which the reader could keep up with on a weekly basis.

I decided to read this because I heard McCall Smith talk about it at the Tyneside Cinema a few months ago. (A lovely place in which you sit in armchairs and are implored to eat your popcorn ‘responsibly’ , which is fine until the bottom of the box falls apart…)He was doing a talk and signing his books while introducing the marvelous film Casablanca.

(not the lego version – but this looks like fun…see walyou.com)

A lot of his stories and anecdotes were familiar while still being funny, and he read a section of this book in which one of the heroes, six year old Bertie, is being comforted by his schoolmates when his mother disappears. As this involves lurid descriptions of ears being  chopped off and accompanying ransom demands being dismissed as junk mail, Job’s comforters could learn a thing or two…

This is a good book in the style of newspaper serials. Some editing and overlaps need sorting out, I was confused about some of the characters, and it just feels like an ongoing section out of a very long series. I admit I have missed 4 books in the series, but I suppose it suggests that each book does not follow the lead up, crisis, resolution pattern.  I gave up reading The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency series when on book four or so I felt like I was reading the same novel over and over again. Maybe the secret is like eating very rich cake; a little bit goes a long way and you mustn’t do it too often. This is a jolly little book, not so much a novel, but would be quite useful to fill a sunny afternoon or two when anything else would be too challenging.

The Bad Quarto – Cambridge climbers

A little while ago I posted about The Attenbury Emeralds by Jill Paton Walsh, a book that I really liked mainly because it dealt with the afterlife of Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane.  I wondered what Walsh’s other books were like, especially those set in Cambridge. I know it’s changed a lot since my days there, but essentially after the Morse phenomenon I wondered what a writer could do with modern day colleges etc. This was especially true because I love books about medieval Cambridge, especially those of Susanna Gregory.

Unfortunately I have to say that I was a bit disappointed. The Bad Quarto 

by Jill Paton Walsh is not the first in the series concerning the college nurse, Imogen Quy, so I was a little confused as to why she was so omnipresent and omniscient. It would seem that she is best friends with the Master of a college and wife, which is fair enough, but she seems best buddies with everyone else. She seems to be quickly embroiled in many situations beyond what I would expect of a college nurse; not that I would criticise the profession who helped keep me sane…

I learnt a lot about canal boats, Hamlet and nightclimbing from this book. There was even some interesting stuff about foster care. The “mystery” though was a bit weak, I felt, and the setting was incidental rather than important to the book. It was a bit indistinct as to when it was set; partly present day and partly revealing the Cambridge of many years ago. All things considered it’s not as good as her Sayers books, though I realise if I had read these books in order they may seem better. If another book in the series turned up in the library I would borrow and get round to reading it, but I am not trying to track down the rest to buy. It’s not a bad book, but a bit of a let down after her others.

More Wodehouse! More (nearly) Austen!

I have mentioned from time to time my obsession with P.G. Wodehouse. Obsession is possibly a bit strong; I just think that his books are such a ‘safe’ read. No one (important) dies, he has a lovely turn of phrase, and they are dependably easy to understand (as long as you can work out which oddly named character is which). There is not a great deal of variety, even if there are stand out series such as the Blandings and Jeeves, but this is part of their safe, reassuring charm. They speak of life as it probably never really existed, but filled with great characters such as the awful aunts, the daft heroes, the girls who variously urge theft, impersonation and general madness. There are (male)  secretaries who throw plant pots by night, lady doctors driven mad by the frequent assumption that they cannot possibly be competent, smuggling jewels, impersonation, arson and general madness.  One introduction to the nature of the beast is to be found in Plum Pie.

This book contains many short stories about the famous Jeeves and Wooster and other characters such as the optimistic Ukridge and Freddie Threepwood of Donaldson’s Dog food fame. (you have to read it..) There are also very funny pieces of American news stories which reflect where Wodehouse lived much of his later life. I realise that he was a controversial character and there were issues about wartime broadcasts and presumably tax.  He did create an innocent world for readers around the world and decades after; I enjoy him as the perfect relaxing read and always guaranteed to raise a smile.

Today’s other book is a nearly Austen; another book written from the point of view of a character, often the male lead, featured in one of the Austen canon. Henry Tinley’s Diary by Amanda Grange is just what it sounds like, a diary account supposed to be written by Henry Tinley, hero of Northanger Abbey. These books depend on a working knowledge and affection for the original book, if only because the diary format does not permit long descriptions of place and time. It includes quotes from the original and is strong on character and the motivation and attitudes of the male’writer’.

I have also read two others in this series; Darcy  and Captain Wentworth.  They are not Austen. They lack much of the style, grace and subtlety of the original. But if you are an  Austen fan and ever  wondered what motivated the male characters to behave as they did, how they got to be as they were, these books are worth tracking down.They are enjoyable and not off putting in their knowledge of the novels. It would be interesting  to read one if you didn’t know the original, as to whether they would stand on their own. I suspect that they would and would definitely like to read the others in the series, including Wickham’s …

Just a quick plug for where I am getting my wonderful, brand new, just published books. My local library is doing a great job, trying to enroll more people in the community, publicising what they offer, as well as allowing me to borrow books which I have read about and would cost a fortune to buy. Providing you get them back in time, or renew them online, you can borrow books for free. So, the message is obvious. If you are buying, try your local independent bookshop. But if you are happy to borrow, read and return, remember your library…

Our Vicar’s Wife…and A Surrey State

A short series of books that I have read recently has the character of “Our Vicar’s Wife” – a talkative lady who intends to stay for a few minutes and ends up staying for hours. Any resemblance to anyone…

The book is The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield

This edition actually has four novels included: The original Diary, The Provincial lady goes  Further, The Provincial Lady goes to America, and The Provincial Lady in Wartime.

The first novel is probably the best one, being the one that sets the characters up. The Lady is writing her Diary which features largely her inability to cope with her unruly children, her tricky servants and her mostly silent husband, Robert.  The locals are strange and wonderful, including Lady B, old ladies who have a strange attraction for everyone, their daughters, and of course the Vicar.

It may not sound so interesting, but the misfortunes and reactions of the lady makes for a very funny book, written in diary form. It is set in the early thirties, though obviously the following three books progress until 1939/1940. The lady is a writer, mainly of short magazine pieces, and her problems sometimes become the subject of her writing. She also does talks for the WI and other groups, and gets herself in all sorts of awkward situations.

The other books deal with odd holidays in France, a writing tour of America, (where everyone asks her the same questions ) and then finally trying to find something a proper job in war time. Odd characters turn up, such as another daft old lady who believes that everyone loves her, other workers in a shelter, artistic types and evacuees, all coping with blackouts, shortages and the general confusion of the early part of the War. Yes, these books won’t appeal to everyone, but they are the same daft humour as PG Wodehouse and others, set in a time familiar to readers of Persephone books.  I enjoyed the first and last books most, the other two just not being as strong, but all are funny, interesting and feature some great characters.

For those of you who remain unconvinced, a more modern version ( the author says she was directly influenced by the above when beginning this novel) is A Surrey State of Affairs by Ceri Radford.


In this book the heroine, Constance, begins a blog online detailing her relationship with her lawyer husband, her son – with -a- secret, her rebelling daughter and her excitable au pair. Her friends are also challenging in many ways, and include Reginald, the Vicar. Bell ringing is discussed, as are  the underhand tricks employed by another church team. I recognised some of this lady’s preoccupations, as she struggles with her family, facebook and life in general in a wonderfully comic way. Again she goes abroad, and tries to even up the odds against her. This feels like a very up to date book, as written for a newspaper apparently, and I wonder if it will last as well as Delafield’s. It too is very funny, and a good antidote to more serious and worthy books. I suppose is is Bridget Jones for older women…or what happened to Bridget after a few years of married life. I enjoyed it, anyway.