2015 Book Challenge – #15 – The Pillars of the Earth

First post of the 2015 book challenge is here

This book was recommended by a friend who knows I like historical fiction, and knows that I like books that are thick.

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett is apparently 980 pages long

I was lent a physical copy of this book – normally I read everything on my Kindle – and as such it took me until I went on holiday to get into it. I started it a couple of times before and only got as far as and then the family had their pig stolen before putting it down and not feeling inclined to pick it up again.

I was glad that I did pick it up again. While it can most easily be described as a book about building a cathedral, this is really a multi-generation family drama set in the 12th century, during a time of political unrest where if you had a horse and a sword and a bunch of friends with horses and swords you could pretty much do as you pleased, because nobody was really in power to tell you off.

Our protagonists do not have horses and swords, and plenty of people nearly die of starvation. Everything seems very precarious.

The sex scenes are admittedly excruciating, but elsewhere the over-the-top detail is great for knowing what people’s houses were like, where they slept, what they ate, etc. I love this kind of thing and much prefer a museum of everyday objects to one of fancy pieces. I’d rather see the cup you really drink out of than the vase that sits on a shelf.

Amazon says something about a TV adaptation, so I’m now off to look that up!

2015 Book Challenge – #14 – The Children of Men

First post of the 2015 book challenge is here

I picked this book up in a charity shop, having spotted the title and wondered if it was the same as the film. I’ve not read much PD James but I know her as a crime author and also as the author of Death Comes To Pemberley (which I do recommend if it sounds at all like the kind of thing you would enjoy).

The Children of Men by P D James has much more to it than the film that it inspired.

I am not even sure I can say “the film that was based on the book”. I spent the first half of the book wondering if the film was based on the second half, and the second half realising that even the denouement played out quite differently.

This is a very thoughtful book, with a wonderful examination of what it’s like to be in the middle of a slowly-happening gentle apocalypse. The world outside of Britain is not revealed to us but I suspect that it is rather unpleasant. Inside, things seem reasonably pleasant as long as you. Dystopia-implied or dystopia-light rather than a full-on disaster, but the clues are there if you look for them.

2015 Book Challenge – 13 – The Girl On The Train

First post of the 2015 book challenge is here

The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins has been talked about quite a bit as “this year’s Gone Girl”. I don’t think that’s quite true, but there are some similarities.

I enjoyed reading it partly because I used to have a long commute and so understood the feeling of being on the train looking at the backs of houses.Cans of gin and tonic on the train are definitely very familiar!

I raced through it pretty quickly and enjoyed the multiple points of view.

I found it more like Before I Go To Sleep than it was like Gone Girl – even saying that might be too much. Reviewing “twist books” is hard.


2015 Book Challenge – 12 – Birdsong

First post of the 2015 book challenge is here

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks was recommended to me by a friend with the strict instructions to NOT read Human Traces.

The first part of this book starts off in pre-war France, and for a moment I thought I was back in the Suite Francaise. Lingering descritions of the hot sultry summer, the slight pressure of a foot resting against and ankle. It all sounded stifling, and I was relieved when the war began. While the writing did start out as too atmosphere-based for my taste, I enjoyed little observations such as that the pattern on a teapot showed “small pink roses set, improbably, on trails of honeysuckle”.

Descriptions of the conditions in the trenches were engrossing. The cameraderie of the “pals” who had joined up together, and the sense of loss when their numbers dwindled, was strong without being overly sentimental. Jack Firebrace was particularly worth paying attention to.

Reading about optimism before the Somme – “casualties will be ten per cent” – was excruciating (as I’m sure it was designed to be).

In an introduction I read that there was very little written about the First World War for many decades after it happened – I suppose the interludes in the 70s were designed to highlight this. I was not entirely convinced that I cared much about Elizabeth or her maried lover or her employers, but the descriptions of her “career woman” lifestyle made interesting reading. As well as the war, it seems that the flu epidemic of 1918 (which I’d now consider to be widely heard-of) had also passed out of common knowledge.

The 70s pieces did give my favourite quote

“She had taken a job because she needed to live; she had found an interesting one in reference to a dull one; she had tried to do well rather than baady. She could not see how any of these three logical steps implied a violent rejection of men or children.”

Second favourite quote:

“Stephen had a false eloquence lent by drink; it could have led him to adopt any opinion with fluency.”

2015 Book Challenge – 11 – Whose Body?

First post of the 2015 book challenge is here

This book is interesting in being recommended not by the internet, not by a person I know in real life, but by another fictional character. In To Say Nothing Of The Dog (which I highly recommend) a man time-travelling to the late Victorian era models his behaviour on this series’ protagonist, to reasonably good effect.

Whose Body? by Dorothy L Sayers is the first in a series of books about Lord Peter Wimsey, a gentleman detective. And there is plenty of whimsy.

This is, in essence, a good old Agatha Christie sort of thing, with dead bodies and clues and riddles and butlers and  mispaced pince-nez and a handy this is how I did it at the end to round everything off.

The most interesting part to my mind came at the end. After the denouement, the book had an extra piece that seemed to have been added on in the manner of “a note from the author on reissuing an edited/amended version”. However in this case the note was not from the author, but from the main character’s (fictional, of course) uncle, noting that Miss Sayers had corrected some errors and giving us some back story that was sorely missing from the main part of the book. It feels rather as if this was not intended to be 1 of a series, so little effort was made in telling us precisely why Peter suffers from “shell-shock” – or perhaps at the time this was no so unusual as to require explanation. After a number of books were written, perhaps the author decided that a deper introduction to his past and character was required.

If you like this sort of thing, you’ll like it. If you do not, this will not convince you. Will I read some more? Maybe, if I am feeling in the mood.

2015 book challege – #10B – Far From The Madding Crowd

First post of the 2015 book challenge is here

#10A was a failure – I did not read the book. I’m OK with that though. It would have been worse to force myself to read the book, such was the extent of my non-enjoyment. So this is 10B.

10B is Far From The Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy, because I had seen that a film was coming out and I always prefer to read a book before seeing the film if I possibly can.

The only Hardy I’d read before was Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and I’d written him off as a bit of abastard who hates his characters. Not just because he makes horrible things happen to Tess (I read Geroge R R Martin after all!), but because it seems that at many junctures the narrator muses on what might have happened.

If at this point Tess had done X, all would have been better, but instead she (perfectly reasonably) does Y, and so the rest of her life is shit.

FFTMC is much softer and lighter than Tess, even if our protagonist has a ridiculous name that seems doomed for disaster. I don’t know precisely what “Bathsheba” reminds me of – is it Biblical? – something from Arabian nights? – but it sounds far too dramatic for a calm life. Do not name your daughters Bathsheba. It will not go well.

I enjoyed this book and found Hardy much less of a bastard in his treatment of his characters. We can also feel assured that Jane Austen was not alone in her admonitions to young ladies not to trust a man in a red coat who has the easy art of pleasing with words. That’s not a spoiler, it’s evident (at least to my eyes) from the very beginning.

Dialogue written in dialect usually irritates me, but I found the Wessex accents easy enough to read that they did not interrupt my flow.

Best quote

It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in a language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.

Most amusing xenophobia

…the line where sentiment verges on mawkishness, characteristic of the French.

Compliment that now sounds a bit off

She was of the stuff of which great men’s mothers are made


Lunchbox noodle soup

Not quite a complete “lunchbox” – you need access to a kettle and microwave – but a lot cheaper than buying lunch out.

I’ve been trying not to buy £5+ lunches so often, after my live below the line challenge, but I’ve never been a fan of sandwiches.

This is a low-prep lunch that means  get something hot for not too much money.

lunchtime noodle prep

The night before, I chopped up some green beans, some red onion, red pepper, and put a handful of spinach into the tub. Sugarsnap peas are also good. If you use carrot you’ll want to cut it very very finely or use a peeler to get ribbons – carrot is too hard otherwise as none of these veg will get much cooking. Water chestnuts or bamboo shoots (from a tin) would work well too.

I have little individual packets of 50g of rice noodles from the Chinese shop, but you can get some that are just as good in the supermarket (these are a little thicker which is nice to eat, but the nests are not individually wrapped). Wheat egg noodles would be OK too if you get fine ones.

For flavouring the liquid I had a spoon of thai curry paste – I’ve also done it with half a stock cube and a spoonful of ginger (the kind that comes ready-prepped in a jar). A splash of soy sauce always makes liquidy things taste better.

Put everything into a bowl, cover with water from a hot kettle, and microwave on high for 4 mins or so.

noodle bowl

Voila. Lunch. Slurpy slurpy slurp. (Make sure you have some napkins)