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I feel very 'cultured' as I tell you how I came to read this book - if I remember rightly I saw it reviewed in something like Times2 (or some other such 'stylish' read!), and was immediately drawn to reading it. I liked the reference to Jane Austen, whose novels I can't help but love, and I thought it would be an interesting read after enjoying other books set in Middle East war zones (namely The Kite Runner/A Thousand Splendid Suns). I was also intrigued by the mention that the book is a series of emails, a correspondence between two women living in completely different worlds. I don't know very much about Iraq and so all these reasons conspired to convince me to buy a copy of this book.
As I mentioned, the premise of this book is an email correspondence between two women; one living a busy, middle class, family-and-work-centred life in London, and the other struggling to survive as a university lecturer who teaches English Literature - hence the Austen reference - in central Baghdad. May (the Iraqi) is originally contacted by journalist Bee (Rowlatt - wife of Justin Rowlatt who you may have seen on the One Show etc.?!), who wants to gain an insight into how the invasion has come to affect ordinary people living in the midst of the apparent turmoil and unrest. May replies promptly, seemingly eager to develop a friendship that will allow her to escape somewhat from her reality. What follows is a series of engaging, informative, funny and thought-provoking emails which bounce back and forth across continents for many months. Without giving too much away, the book culminates, and is always aiming towards, May and her husband leaving Baghdad, but I won't give away whether their dream comes true or not.
This book is written in a really engaging way. I suppose this is because it is so easy to read emails, as they are written in a colloquial style, without naff descriptions and difficult-to-follow plot twists. We can all relate to this way of writing, and we are used to reading this style of text. The conversations that May and Bee share are so wonderful and interesting that you feel like you want in on them, you want to become friends with these two selfless and honest people. At times I was worried that Bee, being so busy with work, family, illness, etc., would back away and let May down, but I had misjudged her - she became a loyal and kind friend to May, and I came to feel amazed at both ladies' generosity and altruistic natures.
This book is very eye-opening and actually quite brave politically because it offers the reader a different account of the war in Iraq. I cannot claim to have a deep understanding of how and why the invasion was started (please don't judge me) but I learnt such a lot from reading this book: May's stories demonstrate how difficult and different life became for Iraqis because of the invasion. 'Amusing' stories that she shares of risking her life to natter with friends and have her hair cut, are actually laced with the grim reality of living in a dangerous war zone where being high up in any job could result in you being placed at the top of a hit list. She would daily drive past the shells of exploded cars, and read about friends who'd been killed. It ended up being ironic that two women could discuss Austen in the same email as bombs and death and horror. How May coped is beyond me; this book made me question myself and really examine how much I appreciate the liberties and freedom that I live with.
At times I felt particularly sorry for, and then surprised by, May, because quite often she emails Bee with details of a horrific day in Baghdad, and she promptly receives a reply full of nice stories and happy goings on in England. What surprised me is that May doesn't respond to this like I would - she doesn't appear jealous or annoyed with Bee's apparent insensitivity. Instead she craves these moments of idyllic daydreaming. This was a really lovely addition to the story, and it makes me wonder again about my own values and attitude.
This book unfortunately lets itself down in my opinion. The last third of the book drags on endlessly, following the depressing bureaucracy of trying to go through the process of leaving Iraq. Countless emails are sent from May charting her and her husband's outlook steadily sinking as they make efforts to seek asylum in the UK (a ludicrously difficult process) which are met over and over again with refusal, discouragements and hurdles that seem impossible to overcome. I am sorry to admit that this made for very boring reading (or maybe I'm just a boring person), and I felt that it wasn't all necessary.
In conclusion, I enjoyed reading this book for its educational and thought-provoking content. There aren't many books I have read that have made me question myself and have challenged me to be more thankful for what I have. The book is very easy to read and was a compelling and engaging subject which I am glad to say widened my outlook and taught me new things about the world and politics. The only down point of this book is that for most average joes, the ending drags rather and is set at a hugely slower pace than the beginning of the book - there is an abrupt change from a nice run to a slow plod. I think the editor missed part of their vocation when preparing the emails to be turned into the book. Overall however, I would recommend this book - perhaps just skip a few chapters towards the end!
You may think that I am unqualified to write a review about a place I've never stayed in, however the ten minutes or so that I spent in this hotel have given me ample experience to write about. Indeed, in those ten minutes I experienced the following: nausea, claustrophobia, disgust, deception, intimidation, fear and weariness. And so you begin to see how I can justify writing a review on a hotel I've not actually stayed in.
How did I end up in this hell hole? (OTT? Probably) My husband and I were looking for a place to stay after a wedding in Derbyshire so I used the website laterooms.com to search for hotels in and around Derby. There were a few to choose from within our price range and I chose the Heritage Hotel because of its reasonable price (I believe it was on special offer), free parking and complimentary breakfast. The hotel website gave details of the building's recent refurbishment works, and the photo showed rooms of a similar condition to those you might find in a Premier Inn.
We rocked up at the hotel, which is located right in the centre of Derby so is useful for access to the city's attractions, at around midnight. I had been experiencing a growing sense of trepidation, because as the Sat Nav had been informing us that we were getting closer, our surroundings had been getting dirtier and less salubrious. We turned the final corner and were greeted with a garish and shabby hotel sign attached to a tiny, hostel-like shop front, at the sight of which our hearts sunk. With relief we spotted our actual hotel on the opposite side of the street, which was larger, brighter and more welcoming, but we also noticed that there were quite a few smokers and a bouncer standing around at the doors of the hotel. My sense of trepidation was not going away.
We struggled with parking; the website claimed free parking (when I looked again after getting home I noticed it said 'limited free parking') but there were no spaces left in the tiny car park to the left of the hotel (this is strange as the hotel has 92 rooms). We were directed by the very helpful and polite receptionist to park in the NCP car park round the corner so we headed there, determined of course to demand repayment in the morning. So we drove round to the back of the hotel, and saw more drunk, dressed-up revellers, a static police van, street pastors and several bouncers - our hotel building backed onto a large nightclub. We immediately began imagining being kept up all night, but were trying to be positive so we parked up and walked round to the hotel reception (passing a man being questioned in a corner by three policemen).
The front of the Heritage Hotel isn't too bad - the name is bright and the reception is large and spacious, newly decorated with pale cream tiles on the floor and wall. Spotlights in the ceiling gave a 'glittery' feel to the room. It was bright, clean and inviting. The reception was to the left, and the lifts were straight ahead as you walked in; there were two comfortable black leather sofas opposite them. To the right, the narrow stairs led you upwards, and to the right of the stairs a door led into a large, bright bar area with more comfy looking sofas. The only down point was that there was a strong smell of smoke because there were people smoking right outside the large double doors. At the reception we checked in and had to pay before we'd completed our stay which I wasn't best pleased with but we handed over the debit card and just hoped for the best. We were charged £45 for our night's stay and breakfast, which is a low price for a Saturday night. Check-in was easy and hassle free, and the receptionist was again polite and friendly.
Our room was on the 5th floor, so we headed to the stairs (I don't like lifts.) On the stairs there were a few people hanging around who we had to struggle through, and then we realised that there was a function on the first floor of the hotel (this explained the smokers at the door!). We had to squeeze past people waiting on the stairs to pay to get into the event. The smell of smoke wasn't going away. The stairs were carpeted in a strange pattern comprising of beige spots and the hotel logo on a dark blue background, which did not give very stylish impression. The walls were papered in beige with a raised floral pattern. The corridor was horribly narrow and dingy, and followed the same décor as the stairs. We could hear noise from someone's room. With a deep breath we used the key card to open our (horrible, MDF, grey-beige) door.
I move on to my description of the room, which I will admit is not thorough or extensive because we were in there for no more than 2 minutes, so sorry if it does not give you enough details. The room was very pokey, dark and dingy (I know it was dark outside, but still.) The far wall housed a large, single glazed window that afforded the most awful view of the local surroundings if you looked straight, and drunk clubbers around the club door if you looked directly below. The window had been left open so the room was cold and stank of smoke. I pulled a rackety glass shutter across the window. The curtains were dark brown. The walls were covered in painted wooden panelling. The bed was neat but looked horribly uncomfortable and not at all welcoming. A small analogue telly hung from the ceiling. There was a constant thud-thud coming from the night club. We immediately knew that we couldn't and wouldn't stay there. As we left, we glanced into a small but neat bathroom with a shower, bath and toilet, complete with complimentary toiletries.
The only redeeming point about the hotel was that the man on reception refunded our £45 immediately. He didn't kick up a fuss or say anything about cancellation policy, so I have to say that the customer service in that respect was excellent. It makes you wonder it it's ever happened before. I will, at this point, make another admission. When we arrived home, I looked up the hotel website again. Upon closer inspection it was easy to see that the photos had been taken very cleverly, with careful positioning of the camera to show each part in a better light. I had also made the huge error of not reading any reviews on the hotel (stupid for someone who's just discovered this site where you can read reviews on pretty much anything); if I had done so I would have learned that most customers were unhappy with the hotel and had lots of complaints of noise and smokiness. I realise that I should have done more research into the hotel rather than just accepting it at face value. I feel foolish for falling into that trap, and will certainly never make that mistake again. I can with confidence, however, still maintain that the way the hotel represents itself online is deceptive and unrepresentative of what customers should expect.
In conclusion, the last thing I would do is recommend this hotel to anyone. Even if you were looking, like us, for a stop-over point - not expecting or requiring anything too fancy - this is not the hotel for you. We preferred to take the 1hr 45m drive home at 12:30am than stay there. To state that £45 was reasonable or good value would be untrue - I would expect someone to pay me to stay in that room, not the other way round.
If Cassandra were a nice name, I would name my first daughter after her, for she is the protagonist and narrator of one of my favourite books in the world. Sometimes I wish I were her, other times I long for her to be my best friend, but I always wish she were part of my life. And I suppose she is in some ways. Don't worry; I am not barking mad. But I sometimes find myself using phrases that sound like the type of thing Cassandra would say, or telling anecdotes in a similar style to her. When you read this book, I hope you will understand.
We are privy to reading Cassandra's journal, in which she documents all the goings on of her apparently boring (if living in the crumbling ruins of an old English castle with a fairly crazy father and a bohemian stepmother can be called boring) but then increasingly interesting life. It is the 1930s and life is plodding on, towards imminent poverty, for Cassandra and her beautiful sister Rose, until one night two American brothers arrive to make their home in a nearby manor. The narrative then follows the ups and downs of the next few months (love - both requited and unrequited, adventure, friendship, guilt, sisterhood... traditionally referred to as "coming of age" I believe), with a good ol' twist to finish with.
Dodie Smith has created the most amazing heroine-narrator, a girl whose naivety makes her charming and incredibly readable. The whole book is believable because you believe Cassandra; the whole book is entertaining because Cassandra is entertaining; the whole book is sad and thought provoking because Cassandra is sad and thought provoking. She is amazingly insightful and can retell stories with wonderful sensitivity to different characters' experiences of the same event. You become a fly on the wall because Cassandra is the world's best fly on the wall.
In my opinion this book would be a good read for lots of different types of people, because there are so many characters to relate to. Cassandra's father is a writer struggling to start penning his second novel after a short imprisonment for brandishing a knife at his now dead wife; he is such an interesting and complex character that it is easy to read between the lines and add your own aspects to his personality. You can have fun explaining to yourself his strange ways, and trying to decide whether he is mad or whether he is brilliant (the same predicament that Cassandra has). His new wife, 'Topaz,' is as bright and beautiful as her name implies. She is an artists' model which would point most readers to label her as a bit ditzy. However, she is quite the opposite. Topaz upholds the children and family life throughout her husband's writers' block with tenacity and good humour. She shows unflinching love for her husband and does everything she can to support her family during their struggle from poverty. She is a superb character. As 'supporting cast' these two are Oscar worthy. With so many bright stars attached to this novel, have I done enough to convince you to read it yet?!
I hate reaching the end of this book; not because it's not good, because it is. It's because it's so realistic, and also you feel like you don't want to let go of the Mortmain family just yet. Even so, there is a certain amount of scope for the reader to add their own ending, which is nice because you feel like Cassandra is moving on from the events of the story, leaving others to take over as she begins focussing on new areas of her life. You begin to feel like you are both ready to part company and that Cassandra has arrived at a point where she can manage better and start to look forward.
I know I keep banging on about Cassandra, but it was she who first inspired me to write. She made it look so easy. She sat in the kitchen sink and simply wrote. So I thought I'd try it too. I started writing about things I was doing, or thoughts that were buzzing around my head. Admittedly I didn't sit in the kitchen sink, nor did I spend my evenings swimming in the moat surrounding my castle, or lying naked on the top of a hill 'communing with nature,' but nevertheless it was fun. She is and always will be brilliant, as is this book.
I feel like this book tricked me into reading it. For weeks it was jumping at me, throwing itself at me shamelessly, from the shelves of the numerous charity shops where I like to spend my Saturdays browsing. This is always a confusing sign; you have to ask yourself, 'Is this book in so many second hand shops because it was so popular that hundreds of people bought it, so of course a few will end up here,' or 'Was this book so bad that everyone who bought it almost immediately donated it to other poor readers?' I've not quite decided which bracket it falls into, and I must admit that there is one huge thing about this book that I am impressed with: despite not enjoying the experience of reading it, I have thought about, talked about, and pondered on many aspects of what I read many times since, which in my book is automatically a good sign. The next step is to write about it. Here goes.
To set the scene before I begin, this novel takes place at the turn of the twentieth century, and sees Sigmund Freud arriving by boat for his first and only visit to the United States. With a fascinating mixture of historical accuracy and the author's personal interpretation and invention, the reader is taken on a mystery tour surrounding the brutal rape and murder of a young high society girl in Manhattan. Another girl is similarly attacked, not killed, but suffers from muteness following her ordeal; Freud and his followers attempt to solve this mystery by use of psychoanalysis. The plot also deals with Freud's relationship with American and European 'thinkers,' with one of its aims being to hypothesise as to why Freud left the US and never returned.
When I turned the last page and closed the book, I breathed a physical and emotional sigh of pure and extreme relief. The brutality of the attacks made on the two women, which were described very technically and clinically almost, nearly made me stop before I'd really even begun. The way the author approached them came across as callous and without emotion; I felt like I was given no time to grieve what had happened, either as reader or through the eyes and emotions of another character within the novel. Everything happened without a mourning period which as a reader I realised I need.
The other big turn-off for me was learning about Freud's Oedipus complex theory (that children are innately sexually attracted to their parent of the opposite sex). Don't get me wrong, one of my biggest pleasures in reading a book is when it teaches me something, anything, about society, history, culture or geography. And Rubenfeld's explanation and exposition of Freud's studies and theories were certainly eye-opening and educational. I feel slightly closer to being able to perhaps one day take part in a discussion on psychology! What I mean by it being a turn-off was that it was very cleverly written in such a way that you are forced to consider his theories from a more positive point of view. He was, in my opinion, a highly intellectual yet deeply troubled man, who saw ugliness and horrific, sexual reasons behind patients' problems, where others would 'simply' see difficulty and deep-rooted pain. His attempts to help these people were admirable, but I didn't enjoy reading about why he thought people behaved the way they did. I am a girl of simple yet firm beliefs about human nature, and so I found it difficult to churn through and contemplate such complex and repulsive ideas.
Despite his obvious obsession with Freud, my respect and admiration for Jed Rubenfeld grew when I read the Author's Note after the close of the novel. Here I was almost more interested and entertained than I had been throughout the reading of the story. Rubenfeld explains the immense and intricate research he went into before writing his book. I am still bowled over by his dedication to his work. Details such as the position of buildings on particular streets in relation to other buildings and landmarks at the time were painstakingly researched so that they were as realistic as possible. It was fascinating to discover that lots of the characters really existed; their storylines altered slightly but nevertheless real people who were embroiled in thick plots of intrigue and mystery. It amazes me (someone whose research methods involve 'googling' or using Wikipedia) that someone can have such passion and interest in a small area of history and society that they can go to extreme and difficult measures to procure facts and anecdotes. Like I said, I love to learn through reading novels, and Rubenfeld certainly didn't let me down.
To finish, I find that I still don't know whether I like this book or not. I felt glad as the novel drew to a close that the resolution of the mystery was quite complex and therefore let me down gently; I realised that I had been sort of reading the book obsessively and was all caught up - I needed an ending that wasn't going to keep me hanging on. And normally a book that I obsess about and get caught up in would get a big thumbs up from me. But nevertheless there is something stopping me from loving this book. If it were not for my obsession with owning books (my dream of having a library of my own one day never fading far from view), I probably would have got rid of it straight after reading - too much grotesque description and abusive ideas and scenery, and too many incestuous theories and sexual psychology. Perhaps you will have to make up your own mind about this book - let me know!
As I often tend to be, I was initially drawn to this Agatha Christie because of its front cover (which isn't very helpful to anyone reading, as my copy is different to the one shown). However, no matter what the cover looks like, you can be sure on picking up a Christie book that you will be in store for a jolly good murder mystery, and this example lives up to expectations. During the course of the story, you find yourself being introduced to cyanide, meeting ex-film stars camped out in old English manors, plenty of red herrings, along with three murders to boot!
Set in the village of St Mary Mead, which you will discover if you read a few more Christie books has a remarkably high murder rate, this novella sees Miss Marple tackle a taxing investigation from the comfort of her armchair. When an American film star moves into the local mansion with her newest husband, the village is buzzing with interest. She hosts a fete on the grounds of the mansion, where a guest drops dead after drinking a laced cocktail. Previous to the murder, the host is reported to have frozen, as if staring at something frightening and alarming, her face recalling to mind lines from The Lady of Shalott:
Out flew the web and floated wide-
The mirror crack'd from side to side;
"The curse is come upon me," cried
The Lady of Shalott.
Intrigue ensues, with two detectives flummoxed as to why to host should look like that, but, as two other poor souls are murdered, Miss Marple of course manages to solve the crime without leaving her house more than a couple of times!
This was the first Miss Marple book that I read, and after initiating my entry into the world of crime novels with Colin Dexter's Morse books, I found this book to be in my opinion slightly less intellectually written. However, this can't really be counted against Agatha Christie's books as I don't think she ever set out to write anything more than stories full of entertaining and intriguing plot twists and surprises. I like to be able to engage with at least one of the characters, and I found the protagonist, Miss Marple, easy to get along with and generally consistent in her character. She is traditional yet ballsy, and is always eager to help others, which can sometimes appear as nosey. She has an amazing aptitude to recall in people she meets characteristics similar to those of an old acquaintance, and it is often the similarities she draws between the two that lead her to clues about people's motives. I often found myself wanting to call Miss Marple to the side and just entreat her to whisper what she knew to me so I knew where was going with her enquiries, and so that I could keep up! She has amazing insight into human nature, which of course means that Agatha Christie possessed the same skill and intuition.
I frequently feel amazed by crime writers, as with all authors I suppose, that they have the capacity to invent such fantastic story lines, and to then be able to reveal them in the most perfect way. The surprise with this book, however, was that I guessed whodunit, and 'whytheydunit!' I think it was just a lucky guess, as I have not managed to match the feat since!
I enjoy reading books where I learn something about society or history, and the interesting addition to this book was the differences in certain turns of phrase (this book was written in the 60s). For example, characters speaking about a past event often used the phrase 'at the moment' (for instance: When my daughter was born, I felt tired at the moment) which we have come to reserve for only the present tense. At another point, Miss Marple bashfully referred to another woman's pregnancy, because it turns out it used to be quite below the belt to talk about such affairs. There were other differences which I enjoyed noting. There were also one or two references to black people in ways that today could be deemed inappropriate or, heaven forbid, politically incorrect.
All in all, I enjoyed this book and will certainly recommend it to anyone who enjoys easygoing escapism. It is not intellectually challenging, and is very much 'tea time reading' (by which I mean not gripping enough for bed time reading!) and obviously fairly charming but there is a certain feeling of achievement in reaching the end and discovering the answer to all your questions, and, I will warn you now, it is quite likely that an addiction to crime novels will be initiated by reading a book like this.