RICHARD ASKWITH – Feet in the Clouds: A Tale of Fell-Running and Obsession

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21 Mar 2009 – Oxfam

An excellent book and one I wouldn’t have dreamed of picking up a few years ago!  Askwith both details the history and present of the sport of fell-running and his own involvement with the sport, alternating chapters about the old heroes with autobiographical pieces about his attempts, mixed with a month-by-month portrayal of a typical year in fell-running.  This makes for an interesting and varied read, often very funny, but intelligent and moving too.  While we road-runners are a lot more cossetted than the wild and woolly (and frankly often insane-seeming) fell-runners, there are enough parallels between the two branches of running (and Andi Jones, who won the last Bham Half-Marathon, makes an appearance on the fells) to make me able to identify with the trials, tribulations and triumphs depicted in the book.  Certainly, this passage made a lot of sense to me:

"Great sports are about much more than the rarefied activities of their elites.  Their souls come from the mediocre majorities who know how difficult the achievements of the superstars really are."

and he makes the point several times that you get to run with the elites in your sport, in the same run, if not in the same frame, and it’s one of the few sports where you can do that.

There is also a discussion of the role mental attitude takes in achievement and it’s inspiring to see things coming together.  We also get to cheer Askwith on as he makes several attempts at a punishing 42 peaks in 24 hours Lake District challenge.  Which brings a shudder to this nice warm road-runner with her clean trainers and full set of toenails!

An excellent sports and in fact general read.
 

EARLENE FOWLER – Kansas Troubles

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Acquired via BookCrossing 26 May 2009 – on a book spiral

Fowler approaches the difficulty of where to set the new book in a series without it getting stale by moving the action to Benni’s other half Gabe’s home town, family and friends.  This allows us to explore Benni’s reaction to a new environment, a new cast of characters (while keeping some older ones in the picture through a hilarious family road-trip) and her evolving relationship with Gabe, as well as a new murder and the issues around old and newer friendships.  Good stuff.

IRIS MURDOCH – An Accidental Man

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Bought ?1980s

Our May-June IM A Month read.  It took me a while to get through it, mainly because I was writing my notes as I went along rather than festooning the book with postits and writing them up afterwards.  Sophisticated and using different formats, such as disjointed cocktail party conversation, internal and external narratives and letters, it’s also chapterless which makes it a little harder to read.  Austin, perhaps the "accidental man" of the story, seems unlikely to get through the narrative unscathed.  The young people are unlikely to end up in the pattern in which they started.  Tragedy and farce will come along together and nothing and no-one will be untouched by the dread hand of Austin (pun intended) by the end.

DAWN FRENCH – Dear Fatty

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Acquired via BookCrossing 12 Jun 2009 – on a BookRing

I enjoyed this.  Like some other people have commented, I don’t feel I totally got to  know the "real" Dawn, however at least this was pretty upfront, I am sure other, esp "celeb" biographies have the same effect, but maybe more hidden.  She is clear about protecting her family and, indeed, her best friend, who is mentioned a lot but not pictured much or clearly – and you have to commend her for that.  In other places this is very frank and open, also very funny but also touching and moving – and it’s great to see friends celebrated and cared for very deeply as well as family.  I didn’t mind the Madonna letters so much, there weren’t too many of them and although written in a fairly irritating style, what they had to say was quite serious underneath it all.

It’s not damning the book with faint praise to say it was better than I’d expected it to be!

PAUL SCOTT – The Alien Sky

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Acquired via BookCrossing 04 Apr 2009 – at the Shrewsbury meetup

Scott takes a cast of common Last Days Of The Raj characters – the dissatisfied wife, the earnest, India-loving farmer, the portly sahib having it off with the local women, the self-hating Anglo-Indian, the elderly woman who doesn’t want to leave, and the man of action (or violence – and sets an American on a mission among them.  The dust, heat and portenteous times are vividly evoked and the psychology of the men laid bare.  A twisting plot in a short read means it never drags like some of the Raj Quartet did for me.

ELAINE RIPPEY IMADY – Road To Damascus

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03 June 2009 – LibraryThing Early Reviewers programme

Unlike some books I have had from ER recently, this was what it promised.  Well, and a bit more too, actually.

Basically the story of small-town American Elaine, living in New York, who met Mohammed at University in the 1950s, fell for him there and then, married him and moved to Damascus in Syria to live in an apartment block with his extended family.  The story covers the first fifteen or so years in detail, including both the good and bad aspects of expatriate life in a very different community. 

Elaine is fortunate in her extended family, who welcome her with open arms and take great pains to help her settle in, guiding her gently rather than criticising, making allowances and providing her with a lot of emotional and practical support.  While she gains a lot from her non-Syrian friends, her "support group", she grows to identify very closely with her family too.  A lot of this is to do with the kind of person she seems to be – embracing Islam, learning Arabic and the local dialect, keeping her loves such as reading while bending into the ways of the family.  She, and we, find this behaviour vindicated when she is accepted as a natural member of the family at a funeral.  Interestingly, she also draws closer to her own sisters.

It’s not all autobiographical and what I tag "immigrant experience" though.  Where this book gains a lot is in the chapters interspersed through the book, where Elaine faithfully records the stories of her husband’s family and, as a result, the history of Syria in the 20th century.  These parts are told very well, using different idioms and styles which are evocative of the different people who told her the tales.  I learnt a lot about Syrian history through these sections, and the history she recounts finds uneasy echoes in the experiences the family goes through during the conflicts of the 1960s and 70s.

Unsparing of the more difficult aspect of life in Syria, but ultimately positive and celebratory, this is both an excellent example of the Immigrant Abroad narrative, and a good introduction to the history of the area.

VICTORIA CLAYTON – A Girl’s Guide to Kissing Frogs

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21 Mar 2009 – Oxfam shop

Clayton’s novels are always delightful, with this one no exception; her lovely acerbic voice, reminiscent of Barbara Comyns’, always lifts her out of the chick-lit canon.  The usual scatty heroine, unusual hero, loopy secondary characters and mouldering old houses, mixed with gorgeous descriptions of clothes and food are all here, along with a jolly storyline and lots of atmospheric detail, in this case about the ballet world.  Marigold spends the book agonising about putting her dancing before her parents, her love life and, in fact, her self, and is a lovely heroine we can root for as she comes to terms with the richer family her family has always been bound to, her mature feelings for her childhood crush and the injury that causes her to lose her greatest love, dancing, for a while.  Add in a delightful and very much alive at the end pet rabbit, and there’s a recipe for a lovely, escapist and enoyable read.

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