Sweet Tooth, by Ian McEwan

4 stars

4/5

If you are a fan of Ian McEwan’s writing then Sweet Tooth shouldn’t disappoint.

Jonathan Cape, 2012 edition, 336 pages – gift

Set in the early 1970s in the shadow of the Cold War and IRA violence, the story follows Sylvia Frome, an attractive and bright young woman as she muddles her way through Cambridge university and then after a brief affair with an older man, tries to find her feet in the secret service. At a time when women were considered most usefully employed as paper-shufflers or secretaries Sylvia’s expectations are fairly low until she becomes involved in a special mission to seed literature with appropriate political undertones into public consciousness.

Sylvia is a likeable character – passionate about reading and knowledge. She has a quality about her which Spark’s Miss Brodie might call ‘instinctive’. She doesn’t always seem to know what path she is treading but makes the best of what is given to her. She doesn’t pass as a true ‘heroine’ because she isn’t quite formidable or solid enough – the reason for this lies at the end of the novel.

I admit that I was thrown a bit by what I expected from the novel (from the premise and early part of the story). I would recommend that you don’t pick this up thinking ‘ooh Ian McEwan does female James Bond!’ Sweet Tooth is really much more a book about character development, the feeling of a certain era and literature, with the spying element being more of a vehicle for this. Have I confused you enough with that explanation?

The pace of the novel is fairly leisurely and McEwan – skilled writer as he is – uses language to create sounds, scents and to pull the reader into his character’s memories. I marked the page for this short but lovely sentence;

“It became one of those childhood paradise places burnished by nostalgia”.

I found it fascinating to read about how the government tried to influence people’s political views through literature, especially in light of some of the recent discussions I’ve heard since the Olympics about China’s use of “Soft Power” to increase it’s national profile worldwide.

It is worth mentioning that critics of Sweet Tooth, would probably say that it doesn’t really go anywhere concrete, and some readers may feel tricked by McEwan. It won’t be for everyone (especially if you are  looking for a thriller) but I really enjoyed this, perhaps because I rather like to be led down unexpected paths when I’m reading.

An enjoyable and surprising read for me, and thanks Simon for giving me a copy for my birthday – his review is here.

Have you read or would you like to read Sweet Tooth?

In the post…

A exciting week is ahead for me as today was my first day in my new job (lovely people and fab office – good start!). I’ve still got a pretty serious commute so plenty of time for reading (currently I’m totally absorbed in The Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller) and possibly blogging as I have a nice light laptop courtesy of work.

So it’s just a quick post today to share some lovely arrivals in the post:

Firstly, I was delighted to receive a lovely new edition of The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov and The Intelligent Woman’s Guide: To Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism and Fascism, by George Bernard Shaw (both Alma Classics) – I’m hoping that The… Guide is one that I can just dip into rather than read cover to cover as I do normally prefer novels, however I do also love George Bernard Shaw. Also a copy of My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante which looks dauntingly chunky but interesting.

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I’m very excited about my tickets to Sleeping Beauty. I’ve seen a couple of other Matthew Bourne’s adaptations courtesy of Mr Savidge Reads and really enjoyed them. Plus it’s just the thing for the Christmas season.

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Finally, the DVD of Jane Eyre, arrived from Love Film so that’ll be one to curl up with at the end of my busy week 🙂
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Has anyone read or seen any of my new arrivals?

And here are the books I read while I was away…

Over the past few months I guess I maybe haven’t read as much as I usually would. I’m not sure if that was just being very busy doing other things, or a bit of reading-fatigue.

I do think I felt less motivated to read as my head was so full of ‘to-dos’ and, as you may have gathered from my previous post on blogging principles it had started to feel a bit like a chore. Participants of Riverside Readers will also recognise that the selection below are almost exclusively book group choices. When you’re on a slow-reading run, reading a monthly book group choice can mean you don’t get to read much else but thankfully our members made some good choices.

Favourites;

Wide Sargasso Sea was my choice for Riverside Readers, a dark and moving tale which imagines the background and once vibrant personality of Antoinette Cosway a character Rhys plucks from Jane Eyre. Rhys’ sparing prose and darkly vivid descriptions of post-colonial Jamaica kept me spellbound. One that I would like to re-read.

Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus will always bring me fond memories, as I was reading it during my holiday to Prague where I became engaged to be married. It was such a delight to read about the magical world of the circus and it’s also a romantic story on many levels. Unusually for a book I’m enjoying, I found myself wanting to read it slowly so that I could savour it. One of the things that I loved was how the circus popped up all around the world (including Prague) so I could enjoy the descriptions of all the places that I have been. I also loved the imaginative characters.

Sweet Tooth is the last book I put down. A certain Savidge Reads gave me a copy about a month ago – we are both big fans of McEwan. I was a little uncertain about how much I would enjoy it as his last book Solar (review here) was was well written and topical but I wasn’t blown away with it as I was with other novels like Atonement or Enduring Love. In the end, it was that perfect combination of being both enjoyable to read and clever too. I also enjoyed reading from the point of view of Serena and the secret service plot-line although the storyline turned out a little differently than I thought it might – in a good way.

Worth checking out;



I also enjoyed Charlotte Rogan’s debut The Lifeboat which uses the plot device of  a stranded lifeboat to examine human behaviour in a claustrophobic and life-threatening situation. For me it read like a very well written television series – it was gripping but ultimately accounts of human behaviour under pressure such as Golding’s Lord of the Flies or Shute’s On The Beach (review here) disturbed me much more deeply.

God’s Own Country was excellent and also very dark. In the wild setting of the North Yorkshire countryside we meet local Sam Marsdyke who strikes up an unlikely friendship with a young girl who has just moved to the area with her family. Raisin keeps the reader in an ambiguous haze as to Sam’s mindset – is he just a naive country bumpkin or are his motives more sinister?

The House of Sleep is the first novel that I’ve read by Jonathan Coe and one that I very much enjoyed. Featuring an insomniac and a narcoleptic who have a tormented relationship as well as a slightly evil doctor who studies sleeping habits it is an original and involving story. I found the narrative at the start of the book which jumps between different time periods a little confusing, but the way that the plot develops towards the end is very satisfying.

Fifty Shades of Grey. Well a friend gave me a copy of this though I’m not ashamed to admit that I was intrigued to read it. Long story short – a bit racy (oh I sound like a maiden aunt don’t I?!) but not that racy in the scheme of things (you’re wondering what else I’ve been reading now…). Not a literary feat, but not as terrible as I had been led to expect. Am I intrigued to find out what’s next for Christian and Ana…? Erm… kinda. Will I get prioritise reading Darker and Freed… probably not.

The Rough Guide to WeddingsThe wonderful Claire (of Paperback Reader) who comes along to Riverside Readers book group with me, and is going through her own big life-stage moment doing her new house up, gave me this one. I’m not going to lie – I at first thought “Ooh that’s absolutely lovely but I don’t need this, I am not after all BRIDEZILLA!”. Well you know what. I do need it and it is great. I started reading it on the tube home and I’ve read it cover to cover and referred back to it at least ten times already. It is also the most un-bridezilla wedding book as it is very practical and encourages you to think carefully about how nuts you want to go. Or maybe it is a bit bridezilla but I just can’t tell now because I’ve already transformed!

Patrick Gale’s A Perfectly Good Manis one of those that I really enjoyed reading at the time but now can’t really remember much about except that I enjoyed it. I remember it being quite clever and prompting a good book group discussion but main threads… gone!

The rest;

Jasper Kent’s Twelve was Sakura’s choice for book group. I was really quite excited about this as the synopsis sounded thrilling – a vampire novel set in the Napoleonic wars in Russia. I was expecting a romp. It was a bit long and drawn out and not quite romp-ish enough. The main character was also really annoying and the female characters were totally unexciting. Overall quite entertaining but I wouldn’t read the next one unless I was on holiday, it was on the hotel bookshelf and I’d run out of books.

The Terrible Privacy Of Maxwell Sim by Jonathan Coe was quite good but paled in comparison to The House of Sleep as mentioned above. It follows a some poor bloke whose life is falling apart as he goes on a mission to sell a prototype toothbrush to the furthest corners of the UK which involved going a long way out into the middle of nowhere and going slightly batty talking to his Sat Nav. Nice Novel Insights was thinking ‘poor old Maxwell Sim’ and nasty Novel Insights was thinking ‘oh sort it out!’

The Curfew (Vintage Contemporaries)by Jesse Ball was the choice of one of our lovely book group members Armen. I look forward to Armen’s choices because he always picks something I wouldn’t have heard of and often from a far-off land. This one just didn’t do it for me though. Maybe it was just a bit ‘too Kafka’ for me and you know I don’t always like that

I hope you enjoyed that whistle-stop tour of the books I’ve been reading and maybe saw one or two you are interested in.

What books have you read in the last six months that really stood out as favourites?

Never-ending Knitting and other random updates!

Firstly a big Happy Birthday to two very important ladies in my life, Mum and Step-Mum!

Secondly, yesterday was very exciting as the Photographer fiancé and I both went along to the registry office to officially ‘give notice’ that we plan to get married. We met a lovely lady and probably gossiped far too much about irrelevant things but finally signed our pieces of paper (pink for me and blue for him colour co-ordinated for filing and kind of cute). I also booked one appointment at a wedding dress shop. Woo!

Liberty Print Wedding Scrapbook

‘Homemade’ Liberty Print Wedding Scrapbook

This is pretty good progress as apart from booking the venue I haven’t done much planning unless you count starting a wedding scrapbook which I covered with some pretty Liberty cotton and watching lots of episodes of Don’t Tell The Bride (highly entertaining UK show where the groom plans the wedding).

As a nice segue into my next topic I’d like to say thank you to everyone for your encouraging and insightful comments on my last post about blogging principles. It seems many of you don’t mind or indeed actively enjoy a bit of random personal stuff on a blog. Not sure about how interested you are in knitting but you only have yourselves to blame, and I do promise to put some bookish updates on over the next few days!

You may or may not remember that I started knitting a rather ambitious jumper way back in Autumn 2011, full of confidence after completing my first cardigan.

Debbie Bliss Cable Knit Cardigan

The cardigan of doom…

What with being distracted Christmas knits, spring coming around and it generally being a huge, never-ending project I lost my momentum. I did make some progress:

Cable knit up close

Pretty cable and moss-stitch in 100% merino wool

The back – with A4 knitting pattern book for scale

Left front panel

Work in progress…

So now the nights are closing in and there are episodes of Downton and The Paradise for me to catch up on plus the first series of Homeland (yes I’m letting TV steal my reading time but at least it’s not TOWIE!), I’ve decided to crack on.

Oh, only eleven-and-a-half balls of wool to go!

Anyone want to guess when I’ll be finished?

My blog…

Taking a break from Novel Insights has allowed me to think afresh about what and how I want to post on my blog and I came to the following conclusion:

#1 goal; blogging must be enjoyable… for me.

You may be thinking that sounds a little ‘me, me, me’ (well tough it’s my blog) or that I’m stating the obvious (it’s surprisingly easy to lose sight of the fun side of things after nearly 4 years – yes my first post was in Nov 2008!)

Writing at whim

In the spirit of not getting OCD about anything I’m going to keep away from strict rules and give myself the following simple guidelines:

  • Post out of love not duty
  • Try not to be too earnest
  • Don’t over-structure

In practise, this means I’d like to bring a bit more ‘whim’ back into my blog. For example, I may decide not to post about every book I read and if I do it might be a full review or I might occasionally write a snippet on a subject related to the book rather than a review.

I was prompted to consider the point about not being ‘too earnest’ by the book I’ve just read – Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan. Serena who writes for a university magazine, describes how she becomes more and more self-conscious about her writing and as a result she loses some of her natural style and verve. This doesn’t mean though that I plan to write insincerely or not be thoughtful in the way that I express myself and naval-gazing / waffle is perfectly allowed in my blog!

Finally I want to put it out there that although I love books, realistically I am a 1-2 book per month reader so posts might be sporadic (once a week probably) and I really am not going force myself to post unless I feel I have something I fancy saying. I can’t promise that there won’t be some other random un-book related fluff going up though – you have been warned!

If you are a blogger, have you ever reviewed your posting principles? What do you think of mine (be honest!)? As a reader, what are the things you look for in a blog? Do infrequent posts put you off?

So leaving you with those questions, I’ll sign off now before I get too earnestly introspective…!

Where have you been Novel Insights?

The last 5 months have been a whirlwind of activity! A little update post should catch things up and might explain why I’ve been so quiet.

The house-hunting has been a little lacklustre, not helped by me never seeming to have a weekend free, and feeling a bit stressed from travelling up and down the country for work each week! With that in mind, I also spent some of the summer interviewing for yes… a new job!

Richmond – not too shabby a place to grab my working lunch!

I have some brilliant colleagues so I am a bit sad to leave, but I am very excited about my new role and the new people I’ll be working with. I’ll also be in lovely Richmond. One of the first things I noticed was that my new office is opposite a library – unfortunately it’s a reference not a lending library. Hmph!

I’m also looking forward to moving about less, but the downside to not travelling up to the North West Is that it won’t be as easy for me to visit dear Simon, The Beard, and Oscar the kitten. I still have a long commute but I can take the overground train and catch up with reading Savidge Reads (and other favourite bloggers) in the morning along with my latest novel of course!

Miaow!

In other reading-related news;

I got a Kindle…. yes a KINDLE!

For my thirtieth birthday… yes my THIRTIETH birthday!

Yes after listening to glowing comments from other readers I decided to go over to the dark-side (owning an e-reader that is, not turning thirty which is after all inevitable) and my Nan sweetly bought me one as my present. I still like reading a physical book, but I am enjoying being able to download books at whim, especially when it’s not one that I’m really bothered about keeping. I also was pleasantly surprised to discover that you can ‘lend’ people your Kindle books for 2 weeks during which time you can’t read it yourself. Anyone with a Kindle out there want to try borrowing Patrick Gale’s A Perfectly Good Man or Twelve, by Jasper Kent?

My birthday in August was lovely, and move into the big “three-oh” decade was softened by the following factors:

1) My fiancé turned thirty just before me. Ha!

2) A fab birthday-slash-engagement garden party (perfect weather)

3) I spent my actual birthday in New York and was spoiled rotten by my family and my fiancé who as usual took great shots of our trip

New York Traffic

Awesome cupcakes

Best birthday ever

Staying with family and a furry friend in Brooklyn

Alan’s splendid shot of Manhattan – click the pic to see more on his website.

I’ve only just started really thinking about wedding plans. I don’t think I’ll get used to saying “fiancé” which I feel slightly daft about, although I’m sure it’ll be much stranger referring to my “husband” in about a year’s time. So we have actually set a date in summer next year (hooray!) and I am tentatively turning my mind to related wedding frippery which is both fun and alarming when you see just how much tat you can buy.

I’ve also been lucky enough to have been to a couple of wonderful weddings recently which is fun for getting ideas as well as celebrating family and friend’s love for one another of course.

My friend’s fab two day celebration in Washington DC meant I got to wear a rather gorgeous sari for day one, and then play princess in a Grecian style dress. What a glam bride!

Bridesmaids in pink!

Glam bride & groom

Then just a few weeks later my Uncle’s wedding took place in the beautiful Devon countryside. Ahhh!

Ahhhh….!

Beautiful setting

Finally, I want to say thanks to everyone who supported me by sponsoring me or cheering me on for the Bupa Great North Run.

It was brilliant day – emotional actually seeing so many people raising money for charity. Which reminds me; if you have a spare minute do visit the Mind website to find out more about mental health issues and how you can help whether that be through sponsorship or just being a friend.  I managed to finish the full 13.1 miles much faster than I thought I would in 2 hours 9 mins before flaking out at the finish line and pretty much being rolled home by my Alan and Mum, and my Sister (who ran with me).

Phew!

I think that’s me caught up except for what I’ve been reading. That post will follow!

WordPress is trying to tell me something…

I just wrote a fairly lengthy post about why I went on my blogging break and why I’m back however while trying to add a photo, WordPress helpfully wiped everything I’d written. Grrr….!

So the long and the short of it is that you’ve been spared the text-heavy waffle post, and instead you’ll get a nice photo update in the next few days.

Until then… Hello everyone it’s nice to be back!