The Taxidermist’s Daughter book review

The Taxidermist's DaughterThe Taxidermist’s Daughter
By Kate Mosse

The Taxidermist’s Daughter is a very different novel from Kate Mosse’s Carcassonne trilogy. This time she explores the village of Fishbourne in West Sussex just before the outbreak of World War I.

It is 1912 and young Connie Gifford struggles with fleeting images of the first 12 years of her life, which she has no memory of, after she suffered a trauma falling down the stairs. The memories are starting to return, however, but Connie can make no sense of them. She lives a lonely life with her widowed father at Blackthorn House on the edge of the village, with only a housemaid, Mary, for female company. Gifford, Connie’s father, has become a depressed alcoholic who mutters incoherently, and his daughter has been forced to take over his struggling taxidermy business.

A sequence of events takes place over a few days, which at first seem to bear no relation to one another: a dead woman is found floating in the stream by Connie’s house; a local man is being paid to watch the Gifford house, but we don’t know why; and then Connie’s father and the local doctor go missing. As the stormy weather moves in, Connie realises that she is embroiled in something dark and foreboding and, along with the doctor’s son, Harry, she seeks to find out the truth.

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The Most Beautiful Thing – book review

The Most Beautiful ThingThe Most Beautiful Thing
by Fiona Robyn

Someone gave me The Most Beautiful Thing as a present a couple of years ago and it’s been sitting on my shelf ever since. I’m not sure what put me off picking it up to read, but the cover definitely played a part. It’s in a matt-laminate white with the lettering in rainbow-coloured capital letters. It reminded me of a book I was given at Sunday school once for good behaviour. (The less said about that the better!)

So finally I took the plunge and read it – and I am so glad I did. It tells the story of 14-year-old Joe who is on his way to Amsterdam to stay with his aunt Nel. He alludes to difficulties at home and as his story unfolds, we understand that his Dutch mother has mental-health problems and his father is struggling to look after her. For Joe, his aunt Nel is a breath of fresh air. She has issues of her own to deal with: two ‘unsuitable’ boyfriends, an impoverished career as an artist, as well as mood swings. But what we see develop between the two main characters is a very strong bond and this is my favourite thing about the novel. Nel is happy to adapt to her nephew, who doesn’t say very much, is obsessed with birds and meteorology and likes to have a daily routine laid out for him. At the same time, Nel’s lifestyle is completely chaotic, yet Joe manages to find a place for himself in it, one where he feels secure. The pair couldn’t be more different, but they connect.

The novel is divided into two halves. The second half deals with an older Joe who, now 29, revisits his aunt in Amsterdam. Although he has succeeded with a career in meteorology, Joe is struggling both romantically and with work relationships. Nel tells Joe about her own upbringing, which give the reader a deeper insight and understanding of why the family appeared to be so dysfunctional in the first half of the novel. For example, when the young Joe pays a visit to his Dutch grandparents, their behaviour is so startling, yet believable at the same time. In fact all of the characters in the book seems very real, perhaps because they are all flawed in some way.

Fiona Robyn’s main strength is her ability to tell the story through Joe’s eyes and to get into the head of both a 14-year-old boy and a young man. We see the world as he does and we start to wonder if perhaps Joe has Aspergers or mild autism. He finds it difficult to communicate in a ‘normal’ world and gets comfort from familiar objects and people. The story meanders gently and there are a few twists, which help to pick up the pace a little at the end.

Verdict:
This is a gentle and comforting read. It’s the sort of novel I’d go back to once more in a few years’ time and one that I would definitely encourage my teenage children to read.

Score: 4/5

Before I Go to Sleep – film review

Before I Go to SleepBefore I Go to Sleep
Dir: Rowan Joffé

This thriller wasn’t as bad as I was expecting it to be, which is a good lesson to all those people who read critics’ reviews before deciding whether they will go and see a film.

I’d noticed that most newspapers were giving this a far from glowing review and had decided to give it a miss myself. However, Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode on Radio 5 convinced me otherwise. They didn’t mind the film; in fact Mayo quite like it. I was also inspired to watch it when I heard Nicole Kidman’s candid interview with Mayo, in which she was both gracious and honest about her bad movie choices, notably the disastrous Grace of Monaco. She didn’t wriggle out of the discussion nor make excuses. In fact, she stood by her decision to continue to make films that tested her and accepted that sometimes those choices won’t always be the right ones. Good for her, I thought.

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The Keeper of Lost Causes film review

the keeper of lost causesThe Keeper of Lost Causes
Dir: Mikkel Norgaard

Having read all four of Jussi Adler-Olson’s Department Q novels, I was keen to see how the first one, Mercy, would translate to the big screen. Renamed The Keeper of Lost Causes, the film follows the book very closely and successfully manages to negotiate the tricky path of having to deal with two parallel narratives interspersed with lots of flashback.

The opening scene is moody and tense. It drops the audience right in the middle of a story, and we’re not sure why we’re there. The scene ends abruptly with gunfire and before we’ve had time to work out what it’s all about, we’re transported to police headquarters to meet our main characters.

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Boyhood film review

BoyhoodBoyhood
by Richard Linklater

It’s not often that a film comes along that blows you away. I thought I was going to see an over-long film, a meandering story about a small boy growing up, but I wasn’t prepared for this extraordinary piece of film-making. It brings out so many emotions in you as you watch it. And the biggest emotion of all is love. You really begin to love these characters, despite their flaws, and you want to stay with them. At least I did.

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Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan review

sweet tooth

I’m a big fan of Ian McEwan and have loved most of his novels, especially his darker ones. Both The Cement Garden and The Comfort of Strangers stayed with me long after I read them and I loved the strong plot line of Atonement, although I was thrown by the way McEwan played with the reader at the end.

Some of McEwan’s plots are better than others and this for me is one of his weaker ones. I was unconvinced by his first-person female narrator, Serena Froome. McEwan keeps reminding us that she is beautiful and several men fall at her feet, yet for the reader she remains elusive. There is very little depth to her character and she simply comes across as frivolous and pasty. I also had to keep reminding myself that I was reading the words of a female narrator. This isn’t usually an issue for me and again I think it’s because Serena’s character is underdeveloped.

Sweet Tooth is set during the Cold War period of the early 1970s. Miss Froome is recruited to MI5, having been groomed by a former lover who brutally rejected her. She soon falls for her MI5 handler, Max, only to be rejected by him too. Then, she is handed an interesting case to work on: Operation Sweet Tooth. Her objective is to recruit up and coming writer Tom Haly on behalf of a fictional arts foundation. The foundation will supplement Haly’s salary so that he can focus on his anti-communist writing, which MI5 is keen to promote. Continue reading

Alpine summer adventure with teenagers

Adventure in the Alps

After a successful, but fairly exhausting Californian road trip last year, we wanted a summer holiday closer to home in 2014: a mix of relaxation and activities before we’d have to return home for A level and GCSE results.

The three males in this family are keen road and mountain bikers, so we decided that a trip to France, which would take in the Tour de France final and some alpine summer activities, would be ideal.

Demonstrations in Paris

Demonstrations in Paris

Paris – 3 nights

We arrived in Paris on a hot and bustling Saturday afternoon. We’d booked an apartment in our favourite area: the Marais. I lived here several years ago and still love walking through this Jewish quarter with its bakery windows piled high with bagels and the delightful smells emanating from the falafel takeaways. Today this area is filled with trendy boutiques, bars and restaurants but has still retained the charm that captivated me so many moons ago.

Our apartment, on the fifth floor with no lift, challenged even the fittest of us (I’m sure all five of us would put in a case to claim that accolade!) as we struggled to negotiate the narrow, winding staircase with heavy bags in tow. The apartment looked out onto the liveliest street in the Marais, the rue Vieille du Temple, so we really were in the ‘happening’ part of the quartier – and more so than we imagined when we looked out of the window shortly after our arrival to see what all the shouting and police sirens were about, only to reel back choking from tear gas, which the police had thrown at the anti-Israeli demonstrators in the street below. This was turning into an even more action-packed holiday than we were expecting!

Jardin de Tuileries

Jardin de Tuileries, Paris

The following morning, after a leisurely breakfast in our apartment, we set off to take in the atmosphere of the Tour de France final, which proved to be as exhilarating as we’d hoped it would be. We strolled along the rue de Rivoli, past the Louvre and into the Tuileries gardens where Co and her brother shared a fairground swing, which took them into the clouds and beyond. Here we watched the women’s race: ‘La Course by Le Tour’ as it has been named. There were no big screens and no running commentary that we could hear, so it was difficult to know who was in the lead. But one thing’s for sure, those women were fast – very fast! Afterwards, we enjoyed a takeaway picnic on the Tuileries grass, until a woman in uniform came and told us to get off. I won’t get started on the ‘Keep off the grass’ rule which the French are sticklers about.

Le Tour de France final, Paris

Le Tour de France final, Paris

Late afternoon, we wandered up the Champs Elysées where we sat on the doorstep of the smart Hugo Boss store and waited for the Tour de France to arrive. The good thing about the Champs is that it has a long and gentle incline, so we could watch the cyclists at a slightly slower than their average breathtakingly fast pace as they ascended the Champs. The descent was a completely different matter and all we could see was a blur of colour accompanying the echoing rattle of hundreds of wheels hurtling along on the cobblestones. As there were seven laps to enjoy, we tried several viewing spots, the best of which was to stand on a pavement bench just a few metres away from the action. We didn’t have time for the podium presentations as we had been invited to friends for dinner. However, we’d seen enough and were now craving a sit down and enjoy some food and drink.

Tip: the Arc de Triomphe has big screens for you to follow the final on. This is also where the live commentary takes place, so it’s a good place to stand if you don’t want to miss out on any action.

Annecy – 4 nights

We drove at a leisurely place to arrive at our hotel in Annecy just after lunch. Les Trésoms is a perfect hotel to enjoy a summer’s break with its unbeatable location overlooking the lake. Also, it has tennis courts, bike hire, an outdoor pool and a Turkish bath, sauna and steam room.

Annecy Lake

Lake view, Annecy

First impressions of Annecy were that it was very touristy and very busy. However, this is a town that grows on you and after three days of doing very little other than swimming, playing tennis and eating, we had all fallen in love with the place. The lake water is the perfect temperature to swim in. The children loved the Imperial Beach, which offers sunbeds, slides and diving boards. We spent two of our three full days here, paying the 11 euro family + 1 entry price, which we thought was good value.

Tip: in summer, reserve ahead for eating in Annecy as the restaurants are heavily booked. We had two excellent meals at Le Pichet and Le Bastringue.

Morzine – 7 nights

As we are a family that skis regularly every winter, it felt somewhat surreal to see the Alps in summer, covered in lush green grass, wild flowers and bell-ringing cows grazing on the mountainside.

Morzine

Co on the Luge, Morzine

Morzine has successfully managed to transfer seamlessly from a winter sport destination into a summertime hub, with all the ski rental shops neatly converted into bike hire stores. There is a plethora of activities on offer here and it was difficult for us to pack it all in. Best of all for us were the white-water rafting and the mountain biking. Never have I seen my 16-year-old son so happy as when he charged down the muddy slopes on his dual suspension bike, right behind our guide Tibault. In summer, the chairlifts are fitted with bike carriers, so there’s no cycling uphill to be done. Tibault showed us how to ride a mountain bike properly: bum off seat, with pedals perfectly parallel and arms straight. I did feel a bit too old for this activity, which is popular with a predominantly young male crowd, but can’t deny that I loved it and felt totally exhilarated at the end of an exhausting day.

Morzine also offers para-gliding, zip wires, a luge, high ropes in the trees, canyoning, abseiling, some fantastic walks, its own leisure centre with a 50 metre pool, ice-skating and tennis.

We stayed at the wonderful Hotel la Chaumière, booked through Simply Morzine and had a fantastic week.

Morzine

Lunchtime break from mountain biking, Morzine

On our penultimate day, we drove to Evian, famous for its bottled mineral water, which feels more Swiss than French, with its clean streets and beautifully manicured gardens. Here we visited the outdoor swimming pool, which sits on the edge of Lake Geneva. We were spoilt for choice as there was so much on offer: slides, diving boards, a 50 metre swimming pool as well as the lake to swim in. There was even waterskiing and wakeboarding.

Tip: make sure you purchase the Portes du Soleil multi-pass, which gives you free access to the chairlifts, swimming, tennis and other activities. It costs 2 euros per day and is well worth it.

Verdict

This was a fantastic holiday for all of us and we returned home healthier and fitter, yet also rested and recharged – all ready to face those dreaded exam results.