Saturday, 30 November 2013

Best of the Books Part Three: The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

It's been a very good year for books - not all of them have been published in the last 12 months, but I've read some crackers in 2013. Admittedly, I've also read some shockers, but for the most part, I've enjoyed almost every book that came my way. However, my end-of-year list is reserved for my absolute favourites, so I've had to be a bit pickier than I normally am, but that doesn't mean I want to ignore all those other books I loved. So now, before I go into my review of my best book, I'd like to make a mention of a few that almost, but didn't quite, make it into my top ten:

  • Where'd You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple - this wasn't one I enjoyed at first, but grew on me, and sometimes the growers are the ones you appreciate the most. This erratic tale of a mother gone AWOL was a little too clever for me at first, but eventually found my funny bone.
  • And The Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini - as mentioned in the Top Ten for 2013, it was Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns that really got to me, but it was And The Mountains Echoed which turned me onto Hosseini's writing, so it deserves an honourable mention. A fantastic story in it's own right, it follows two estranged siblings across the years and over continents as they struggle with the paths they find themselves on, each always aware of the absence of the other.
  • The 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear by Walter Moers - this would've made it into the top 10 somehow if I'd ever finished it, but the truth is, I'm still struggling. It's not the story that's the problem - it's the sheer size of the book. It's bloody massive - look how huge it is in comparison to an average-sized paperback!:
    So you can see why I've not finished it; it's a bit impractical for reading. But that doesn't mean I don't love it. This tale of a Bluebear's life, lived in caves of pitch-black, on ships with mini-pirates and on islands that look like paradise but will actually eat you is the kind of eccentricity that you usually only get in Monty Python. With some fantastic illustrations and some excellent use of font, it's no wonder this is such a huge book; it's just a shame its size makes it difficult.

So, with the honourable mentions out of the way, I'd like to round off my Best-Of list that started with Rules of Civility and was almost topped by Gods Behaving Badly, by presenting to you my absolute favourite read of 2013: The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey.

I must confess, there was never really another contender for the top spot of this list: The Snow Child simply amazed me when I first read it in March of this year, and has hovered in the back of my mind ever since. It's set in the 1920's and is about a middle-aged couple, Jack and Mabel who, after burying their stillborn baby, move to Alaska to start afresh. When we join the couple at their new homestead, they are struggling; Jack is doubting his ability to farm the land, and Mabel fantasises about disappearing between the ice of the nearby river. It is not until they are befriended by their nearest neighbours, the sturdy, brash Bensons, that life becomes possible, and it is not until the mysterious child Faina appears on their doorstep that life becomes worth living. But who is the child who came to them on the night of the first snow, and what will become of her in the summer?

At first it was hard to put my finger on what I loved so much about this book, as there is so much to enjoy. The language is beautiful, with descriptions of landscapes and people being neither too flowery nor too vague; you learn enough about them in time, as you would with any relationship. There's a touch of humour to it as well: Esther Benson, the kindly, larger-than-life Alaskan farmwife provides a lot of the earlier warmth that the novel lacks, whilst a few sweet moments - impromptu snow-angels and snowball fights - take the edge off a bleak first third. However, it was the raw, feral beauty of the Alaskan setting that really caught me: the way in which the suffocating nature of snow and the claustrophobia of winter is portrayed is remarkable, especially to a town-mouse like me who has never really experienced that kind of extreme weather.

There is also the way in which Jack and Mabel rally to their cause, with their mysterious foster-daughter and the kindly Bensons, that makes this book a joy to read. The novel has it's dark moments - Mabel's recalling of the days after her child dies is harrowing, and sometimes I found myself frustrated with the setbacks the couple encounter - but that, I suppose, is the nature of life; not everything is plain sailing. Having said that, for the most part the story is a tale of love, family and triumph, and despite it's cold physical setting, it is a novel to warm the heart, and one that will stay with you long after you close the book.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Best of the Books 2013: Part Two

So here we are, carrying on my countdown of the best reads of 2013. If you're joining us for the first time, these are the best books I've read for the first time ever in the past 12 months, so they won't necessarily have been released this year. As per last year, I'm doing this in 3 parts, so pop on over to Part 1 to get the lowdown on numbers 10 through to 6, then scurry back here for 5 to 2. We'll wait for you, don't worry.

....

...

... Ready?

Okay, here we go...

5. Instructions For a Heatwave by Maggie O'Farrell
This book followed me all year. Not in a creepy, weird way, just in that I kept noticing it everywhere. It popped up on posters on my way home, in papers I read and was even recommended to me by Amazon (who once tried to sell me Miranda Hart's Is It Just Me? based on the fact I'd read Wuthering Heights. Yeah, I didn't get it either). So this was one of those books that nagged at me for ages, tempting me, drawing me in. I tried to elude it, thinking it didn't sound like my cup of tea, but eventually I succumbed and I am so, so glad I did; it's a warm, witty story of a dysfunctional family on the surface, but has a darker core that deals with the secrets within that family. It begins in a blistering summer in the seventies, when Robert Riordan, a man who lives for his routine, goes out for the paper and uncharacteristically doesn't come back, leaving his loud, brash, Irish-Catholic wife to inform their three adult children of his disappearance. As the brood descend on the familial home to support their mother and ponder their father, it becomes evident that each is relieved for the distraction from their own secrets and disappointments - but, as anyone with a family will know, secrets eventually come out. It's not nearly as menacing as I think I've made it sound, but there's certainly a few moments where I caught myself holding my breath. Yet it's the unexpectedly funny aspect of the writing that secured it's place in the top 5 of my list, proving that you can write a serious novel and be humorous at the same time.

4. Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty
Now this is a novel that blew me away. From the outset, it's a churning, mysterious ball of building tension, where you're never given enough information to form an opinion, but just enough to keep you hanging on. Whilst reading this book, I gasped out loud several times, had to re-read several pages because I couldn't believe what had happened, and at one point actually looked up from it in shock to peer round at my fellow commuters, as if to ask them if they knew what the hell had just happened in my book (they didn't know). It all starts with a woman in the dock, being prosecuted for an unknown crime, with an unknown accomplice sat elsewhere in the courtroom. Within pages, the prosecutor mentions a location - the titular Apple Tree Yard - and at this point it becomes clear that this place is about to be the undoing of our nameless narrator. This is one of those excellent examples of where first-person narration can be the best thing yet; our narrator plays all her cards close to her chest so right to the very end, you never know where you stand. I don't think I've given away too much but I shan't say anymore, just in case. I will end on this though: it was almost impossible to put down. Only sleep, work and food got in the way of this one.

3. The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick
I read this book before I saw the film, and as per usual, it's the book I prefer (though obviously kudos to the fantastic Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, who both deserved their Oscar win/nomination for their performances). I just found Pat's character to be far more sympathetic and less humorous, which is unusual for me because I love laughing. His recovery from his emotional breakdown - and the slow release of the reason for the breakdown - is much like watching a little boy try, and sometimes fail, to understand the world around him, and captures that feeling of bewildered innocence I'm sure we all felt at one point. He's not necessarily a likeable character - at times you share his family and friends' frustration with his almost blind determination to avoid the truth, but for the most part he's a wonderfully sweet character. Tiffany, Pat's friend, provides a healthy dose of brashness and bluster to prevent this from being a sickly-sweet story, although she is harbouring a hurt just as great as Pat's. It's a sensitively-told story about the effects of mental illness and stress, with just enough humour to keep it light, but most of the focus on the recovery of the main characters.

2. Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips
Now anyone who knows me personally will be able to make a pretty good guess as to why this book is so high in this list. For the unaware - I flippin' love Greek mythology. I love it so much, I did my degree because of it. This is a book about the gods of Ancient Greece - Apollo, Hermes and all the rest of 'em - living in modern day London. The reason? They're immortal, but no one believes in them anymore, so they have to eke out some kind of appropriate living - Dionysos owns a bar, Aphrodite answers dirty calls, Artemis walks dogs - whilst they wait for a solution to restore them to their former glory. Meanwhile, a timid would-be mortal couple called Alice and Neil find themselves inextricably mixed up in a squabble between Apollo and Aphrodite, which is about to blow everything apart for Olympians and their mortal associates alike. As you might expect, it's a humorous novel - though not without its poignant moments - and is full of in-jokes and references that Greek-nerds like me go nuts for. It's also really well imagined; for example, the underworld is a suitably eerie space with a genuine feeling of infinity, which is something hard to convey in print. With a pacy plot, fun characters and some great writing, it's a book I think many of you will enjoy - but for the Ancient History nerds out there, you'll love it.

So there they are, four of my top five. When you're ready, the Best Read of 2013 awaits you...

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Best of the Books 2013: Part One

Well it's that time of year again - it's time for me to review my top ten best reads of the year. I'm starting a little earlier than I did last year, but that's because I'm simply too darn excited about all the books I have read and I want to tell you about them. In fact, some I have been holding back on especially for this time of year (what can I say, I'm a planner). Sadly, this does mean that any books I read after this point won't be eligible, but if I find any that I go nuts for then I'm sure I'll let you know.

As per last year's format, I'll be reviewing in three parts, counting down to my all-time, best book of the year, which will get itself reviewed in full. It's also not a list about books released in the past year; it's the best ones I've had the pleasure of reading in the past 12 months. If you fancy refreshing your memory on what made the top last year, and why, have a quick gander here (for part one), here (part two) and here for the winner.

Right. Ready? Well then, let's go. Kicking off with....

10. Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
I once complained a bit how I never got given books as presents, but it seems that dry spell is over because The Boyfriend came good with this one. It's about a young woman, Katey, living and working in New York in the 1930's, and the tense, unbalanced relationship she has with her best friend, Evie, and the handsome stranger who enters their lives one New Year's Eve. It's one of those books where you kind of know how it's going to end, but in no way does that ruin or affect your experience of the book. It's slow-paced but well written, with beautiful descriptions that whisk you out of the 21st century and back to the thirties (after the Depression but before the war). Having said that, it's in no way idealistic; Katey wrestles with her Russian heritage whilst Evie struggles to get a foothold in the glamorous New York social scene. It's not a happy book, but it's not a sad one either - I suppose what I enjoyed most was that it manages to convey the absurdity of time, when certain things matter so much in the present but lose their importance and become almost trivial as time passes.

9. Whispers Underground by Ben Aaronovitch
I've been working my way through these, the PC Grant novels, as slowly as I can - it's been tempting to dash through them because they're really very, very good. And maybe it's because this is the most recent one I've read, or maybe it's because Aaronovitch has really gotten into his stride, but this, the third of four books, is my favourite of the series so far. It's got a more solid, cohesive plot than the previous titles, with PC Peter Grant using his magical skills to help solve the murder of a young American, found dead on the tracks of Baker Street tube station having been stabbed with a shard of pottery. With his one-time love interest Lesley and the mysterious Nightingale as his partners-in-crime-solving, Peter has to delve into the dark tunnels of London's famous underground network as he discovers that there's more than just a stabbing to this death. It's no secret that part of the appeal in this series is the familiarity of the settings - London is full of landmarks both famous and banal - but there's also the charm of the main character and the originality of the story to help make such an entertaining read.

8. You Had Me At Hello by Mhairi McFarlane
Now, I'm not one for chick-lit; I will read it from time to time, but generally it ends up reminding me why I don't bother with the genre much. This, however, has restored my faith somewhat. Yes, the love story has the most prominence - two best friends reconnect after years apart - but it also doesn't patronise the reader. Rachel, the protagonist, is very suddenly single at the beginning of the book, having abruptly broken off her engagement with her long-term boyfriend/fiancé, Rhys. Naturally, now would be a good time for an old kind-of flame to make a reappearance - and, naturally, he does. Ben, her best friend at uni whom she had always kind of fancied, moves back to the university city that she never left, and they start seeing each other again, causing Rachel to reassess her time at university and question the decisions she made. With a slightly predictable yet likeable supporting cast of friends, it's a genuinely funny story with a few twists, and it is full of nostalgia for those heady uni days when daytime drinking and lecture-skipping were the biggest concerns. I was wary when I bought it, but enjoyed the read so much I've pre-ordered McFarlane's next story. I suppose it's because it's a chick-lit story that doesn't actually feel like one.

7. Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
Everyone must know this name by now, surely; Flynn pretty much blew everyone away with Gone Girl, the twisty, turny, gasp-out-loudy tale of the most messed up relationship ever. I certainly enjoyed it - couldn't put it down - and on finishing, promptly decided to read the other two Flynn had written previously. I have to say, Sharp Objects unexpectedly turned out to be my favourite. Camille, a journalist with a troubled history, is forced by her editor to return to her hometown in Missouri to cover the violent, odd murder of two little girls. It's a place that holds nothing but bad memories for Camille, which resurface violently when she finds herself back in her menacing mother's house and speaking to her old high school friends, all of whom now seem to be carbon-copies of each other. There's just the right mix of paranoia, tension and secrecy that I've come to expect from Flynn, but with the added bonus of a sympathetic main character - unlike Gone Girl and Dark Places, Camille is a protagonist that is likable, so you care just that bit more about what happens to her. Maybe a bit slower than Gone Girl, but worth it.

6. A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
I'm a little late to the Hosseini party, but I got here eventually. I read his latest offering, And The Mountains Echoed, first, and was so enchanted by his writing style that I decided to go for another one. A Thousand Splendid Suns charts the lives of two Afghan women, Mariam and Laila, who are coerced into marrying the same man, and the ensuing relationship that sprouts between them. Told over the course of several decades that bridge either side of the Taliban's rise to power, it has some brutal scenes that caused me to physically recoil as I read them, but for the most part this is a heartstring-tugger, with the focus of the story being on the familial love between the women and the strength they draw from each other. It didn't move me to tears, but it certainly made me stop and think about how lucky I am to live in a world where I have the freedom to dress how I like, work where I like and marry someone I love, and I think that makes it a novel worth reading many times.

Stay tuned for part two, counting down 5 to 2...

Sunday, 20 October 2013

The Nine Bookish Commandments

In my previous post on Book Rage, I referred to the third rule of Reading, a guide which I have been working on to promote polite book decorum. Now, for your reading pleasure - and for the harmonious reading of books for all - I present to you... The Nine Bookish Commandments (because I couldn't think of any more). Heed these well, and you shall discover a higher plane of reading joy.


1. If thou dost borrow a book, thou shalt start reading it as soon as possible, and return it post-haste.
And, obviously, post-read. Because if someone has lent you a book, it's only polite to not hold on to it for ages and ages.

2. If thou dost lend a book, thou shalt not pester the borrower about where they are up to in it.
Because pressure is not the friend of the reader.

3. Thou shalt not start reading a book whilst someone else is reading it.
Let them finish first, dammit!

4. Thou shalt endeavour to conceal endings from those who have not quite finished yet.
Spoilers aren't cool, kids.

5. Thou shalt respect all books by reading at least 50 pages before giving up.
It's perfectly acceptable to not enjoy a book, or even want to finish it. But give it a proper try - 50 pages is a fair go.

6. Thou shalt not judge others for reading something you don't like.
So you're not into science-fiction, or romance, or whatever? That's fine - just don't make others feel bad if they are.

7. Thou shalt not interrupt a reader mid-read.
And ye shall know them by the bowed head, the vacant expression and the open book. Leave them be, for they are in a Book Trance, and to disturb could have grave consequences.

8. Thou shalt not read a book over someone's shoulder.
Lest they conk you on the nose with said book for your rudeness.

9. Thou shalt not be ashamed of thy read, if ye enjoy it.
 'Nuff said.



To disobey the Bookish Commandments will result in nothing, except perhaps a vague feeling of guilt every time you break one. But that's not the nicest feeling, so best to try and stick to 'em, just in case.



P. S. Naturally, I have disobeyed pretty much every Bookish Commandment at some point or other - but then, they didn't exist before, so technically, I was okay. Of course, from now on I'm screwed - I suffer from Catholic guilt, which means I feel guilty pretty much 99% of the time.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Book Rage - When Reading Goes Bad

Do you read? Of course you do, why would you be bothering with this old thing if you didn't at least have an appreciation for the written word? So let's assume that my question was a stupid one and agree that we're all people who like books. So I imagine that, on more than one occasion, you have found yourself nearly boiling over with rage as you encounter some book issue or other. Maybe you're annoyed at someone, or something, or even yourself, for pulling you out of whatever literary landscape you're wandering about in, forcing you back into the real world. Perhaps a book didn't end the way you wanted. Whatever gets your bookish goat, here's my (rather comprehensive) list of things that cause the red mist of Book Rage to descend on me: and I'm warning you, there's a lot here that will set me off.


1. So there I am, curled up on the sofa, or in bed, or wherever, and suddenly, someone comes in and starts a chat. I'm clearly in the Reading Position: book open, check. Eyes trained on page: check. Vacant expression on face as I'm clearly not quite 'in the room' right now: check. Yet, regardless of all this, it's apparently the perfect time for a chinwag. Don't they know that interrupting an engrossed reader is almost as dangerous as waking a sleepwalker?* Don't they understand what they might be barging into? If I want a chat, I'll come find you, but right now - I'M READING. GO AWAY.

2. Something of a subset to the above - so you're sat there, merrily reading away, not a care in the real world but plenty going on in the book world, and some bright spark asks, 'So, what're you reading?' WELL, I DON'T KNOW NOW, DO I, BECAUSE I'M NOT READING ANYMORE BECAUSE I'M HAVING TO TALK TO YOU. Oh, great, now I've lost my place and the Book Rage has got my blood up so I can't get back into it. Thanks a bunch. Doofus.

3. Public transport is, and always will be, the frenemy of the reader. Friend, because it's a great time to get stuck into a book - surely that fantasy world is a better place to be in than here, with my nose in that man's armpit, even with all the dragons and whatnot (in the book I mean, not in his armpit)? But enemy, because the better the book, the greater the possibility that you'll miss your stop, and end up in some godforsaken nowhere with only your book and that lonely figure in the shadows for company. Or, you could misjudge how long your journey is going to be, put your book away in determined anticipation that you won't miss your stop again, only to find you've put it away far too early and now you have to sit and do nothing for ages, except quietly seethe as you calculate how much you could've read if you'd timed it better. Or, even worse, you overshoot and think you can totally finish this chapter before the train arr- wait, what, we're here?! GREAT, now I have to stop in the middle of this really exciting bit because I have to negotiate getting off this damn thing. Excellent. See? Public transport - the ficklest of friends.

Me, with most books.
4. Book hangovers occur when you've been reading a book so mind-blowingly good that, when you finish, you spend up to several days after mooning around wishing you were still reading that book and regretting finishing it at all. This puts the kibosh on finding another book to read, because no other book measures up to it, meaning you spend several days bookless. Actually, the more I think about it, it's less of a book hangover and more a book break-up, but I don't like that way of describing it because then it sounds like you've had a bad experience with books, and it's actually quite the opposite. Anyway, I did touch on this subject a little while ago, but more in relation to the post-read world, and not the cause. The main gist though: you're sad when the book finishes and you can't settle on anything else to read, which sucks, because a reader without a book is like, I dunno, a hipster without a silly moustache/thick-framed glasses - something just seems off.

5. Everyone has a book they love that, inexplicably, no one else has heard of. For me, it's Company of Liars by Karen Maitland, which I talk about frequently, have mentioned several times on here, and has even made it very comfortably into my all-time favourite reads. And yet I've only ever met one other person who has read it. ONE. And that was the person who told me to read it in the first place! Okay, I get that maybe what I love, perhaps not everyone else loves - and I've made my peace with that. But it's so infuriating to find that a book you cannot stop raving about, somehow slipped under everyone else's radars - it's unfair that the author is not getting credit, and it's unfair that you haven't got anyone to talk to about it. (Incidentally, if you've got any books that you feel are underrated, head on over to www.bookriot.com, one of my favourite sites, where they are currently conducting a poll on the most underrated books - get in there quick though, it closes on 21st October).

6. Multiple Plot Syndrome, or MPS, is a condition resulting from having too many books on the go - or, as normal people might call it, being greedy. So you've come home with a great stash of new books and you can't choose which one to read first - so you compromise, and basically start them all around the same time. The result? You keep expecting the old-timey gent from Book #1 to reappear, only to realise you're on Book #4, which is about turn-of-the-century Japan, and categorically does not feature old-timey gents. And why has Book #2 stopped mentioning what happened to the wizard? Oh right, that's because the wizard is in Book #3, and of course Book #2 isn't going to mention wizards, it's set in 1930's Germany. Nice one, brains - you've just contracted MPS**.

7. Book envy. So you're reading a book, and someone else is reading a book. All is well in the world. Then, when you both reach a natural, uninterrupted break in your reads, you discuss what you're reading and oh, dear god, THEIRS SOUNDS BETTER AND I WANT IT. Suddenly, your poor book isn't good enough because whatever's going on in that one over there is where you want to be. Except you can't go there, because someone else is reading that and the third rule of book reading is "Thou shalt not start reading a book whilst someone else is reading it". So instead, you have to wait for them to finish, and in the meantime struggle through your now-inferior tome (which is doubly unfair because it was a good book before you found out about that other one).

Got your own bookish issues? Is there anything that someone can do whilst you're reading that might cause you to Hulk-out on them? Tell me - I want to know, then we can Hulk-out together.

*It's not, really. Well, maybe for the person doing the interrupting, but not the reader.
** Not a real condition, I made it up. Should be, though.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Irresistible Titles

So ever since I got a Kindle, I've been finding myself increasingly reliant on a good title; previously, I would've made some kind of judgement based on the cover (because let's face it, who doesn't?), but the issue with that and my Kindle is that it's all in black-and-white - usual tell-tale signs of books that I won't normally like (candy-colours, skinny women in heels, etc) are less obvious, and the description of the book is less accessible than on a print title. Of course, when shopping on the laptop or phone, it's far easier to see what the cover looks like, but it's still in miniature - subtle details are easily missed. A good example of this is Honeymoon for One, a book I read on holiday which features in the corner a bloody steak-knife stuck in the sand. Now, when I downloaded that book, I completely missed that little sign in the corner, so when I read it, the murder came as a bit of a surprise. Had I seen the full-size cover - say, in a shop - I might have spotted it. That's not to say it was an unwelcome surprise; on the contrary, it turned a run-of-the-mill chicklit into something a bit darker, and subsequently more interesting, but I think I would have been a little less dismissive of the book had I been aware of that plot point to begin with.

The point I'm slowly rambling towards is that, now I am purchasing more ebooks than print books, titles have greater importance to me. A good title will give you an inkling of the kind of story you're going to get - Murder in Deathsville, for example, would clearly be a crime novel, whilst Love In A Cake Shop is bound to be a chick lit (and an awful one at that). So on that note, here are some books that I think are wonderfully titled; some I have already read, and the rest are on the to-read list.

An Evening of Long Goodbyes by Paul Murray
Status: Read
I love this title because it sounds so poignant. It trips off the tongue quite nicely and hints at a melancholy, bittersweet story, possibly involving some kind of sad ending for a pair of lovers, or the inevitable demise of a family member. As a matter of fact, the name is shared with a greyhound in the story who does particularly badly at an ill-fated night at the dogs for the main characters, which include an uncouth van man, a flamboyant and woefully inept heir, and his desperately miserable sister. It's a one of those books which is funny to begin with, but evolves into something far deeper, as so many of these kind-of-funny-with-a-serious-edge books do; it's a good story, but I have to admit it was certainly not the one I was expecting when I picked it up. Nevertheless, it's grown on me over time, and whilst I'll always be wondering about the novel I thought it was going to be, it'll be a long time before I part with it.

The Fault In Our Stars by John Green
Status: Unread
I don't know an awful lot about this book, beyond the rather funny-in-a-sad-way first chapter (which I read in the back of Green's other novel, An Abundance of Katherines), and that it's caused something of a twitterstorm. This is a title that sounds both hopeful and warning; to me, it seems to be a reminder of the danger in having dreams, whilst acknowledging that one must have them. I can't tell you why it gives me that impression - I suppose it's more than something to do with the fact that stars seem to be irrevocably linked with dreams, and whilst it's a beautiful title, it's a bit cynical and cautionary. I certainly picked up from that first chapter that the protagonist is a cynical person - but then, she's a teenager with incurable cancer and an oxygen tank, so I suppose she has every right to be. Either way, the title caught my attention every time I saw it on a billboard or in a paper, and that first chapter has cemented my desire to read it.

And The Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini
Status: Read
Khaled Hosseini is the master of poetical language; I've read two of his three books now (the other being the just as well-titled A Thousand Splendid Suns) and throughout both I found myself marvelling at his command of language. This, his latest offering, follows the lives of two siblings from an early age, right through to late-middle age, across three continents and with a host of supporting characters that either hinder or help them on their way through life. The title reflects this: the idea of an echo reaching across the world and down through time is a beautiful one, and there has always been something romantic about mountains (to me, anyway). It is title that conveys both the timescale and the geography of the novel, but also hints at a desperation and sadness that maybe can't be overcome. It's a great book that lives up to it's epic-sounding title, and one of the best novels I've read this year, with an added mini-story at the beginning that wouldn't be out of place in a fairytale compendium.

INTERLUDE
You know, when I first started writing this post, I had no idea it was going to be full of such melancholy-sounding titles. I'm writing this now, having finished the bulk of the post, but I just had to come back to this point and say that I genuinely wasn't expecting such sad titles. I mean, I knew which titles I would write about, but having only really been thinking about them properly now, it's only just occurring to me that they all sound quite sad! But please don't stop reading - there's some cheery ones coming up, I swear.

This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz
Status: Unread
Easily my favourite title at the moment, and I know nothing about the book. Well, I know it's a collection of stories, all linked together in some way, but that is it. Yet the title itself is o desperate, cautionary and vaguely menacing that I can't help but be drawn to it. I'm not a miserable person by nature; I mean, I am prone to get hangry (angry if hungry), and I've thrown some monster tantrums in my time, but mostly I love nothing more than laughing; it may sound stupidly obvious but I am genuinely happiest when sharing a joke or laughing at something. So despite what is clearly a recurring theme in this list, I don't feel a lot of love for sad books, and this, if anything, sounds like a sad book, with it's hint at not just loves lost, but relationships breaking down, couples falling apart. I've always been intrigued by the notion of what happens after the couple get together - basically, do they actually stay together, or does it all turn out to be a big mess? These are themes occasionally explored - Helen Fielding recently broke hearts of half the female population by revealing Mark Darcy is dead in the new Bridget Jones book - but I don't think they're looked at enough; romance is all very lovely, but what about fallout? That's what I think this book looks at, and that's exactly why I want to read it.

Vampires In The Lemon Grove by Karen Russell
Status: Unread
In acknowledgement of the slightly emo feel to this post, I thought I'd quickly try to turn it around with this quirky-sounding book that features vampires who own a lemon grove... yeah, pretty much all the details are there in the title, so there's no mistakes to be made here in that this is meant to be a humorous title. It does have to be said that this is a collection of short stories, not a full-length novel, of which the vampire story is only one. Nevertheless, it hints at humour, a touch of horror and fantasy, maybe a bit of a whodunnit - lots of themes to get stuck into. Personally, I just like the title because it's immediately jarring - how on earth would one find night-dwelling bloodsuckers in a sunny fruit farm? Then, of course, there's the absurdity of it - phrases such as 'spiders in the bath' and 'next doors' dog in the garden' are the kind of thing everyone has said at some point, so this title is taking that banal turn of phrase and turning it on its head. Whether it's a good or bad book, this title has been stuck in my head for about six months now, and I doubt it'll be getting out any time soon - even when I read it.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Status: Read
Another saddish one I'm afraid; this tale of an alternate world in which children are reared away from parents for some initially unknown purpose is full of bittersweet nostalgia and the weary knowledge of adult life. It's another brilliantly-written novel, but my love of the title stems from the romance in it. Whilst the story itself is not fully centred on love, the feel of the title is that of a couple who desperately want to stay together - it's a heady, first-love, I-love-you-I-always-will-do-you-love-me etc thing to say, which echoes the childish nature of the first half of the novel, and the inevitable ending of the second half. I won't say any more, lest I give it away, but it's a desperately romantic title and one that has a sentiment to it that is often missing in most full books, let alone their titles.

1000 Years of Annoying The French by Stephen Clarke
Status: Read
Finishing on a cheerier note here - this is a non-fiction book, charting the often tumultuous relationship between France and England over the past millennium, and the contributing factors to each altercation we've had with our neighbours across the Channel. What I love about this title is how deliberately inflammatory it is - I actually bought it for a flight to France, and then barely read it on the plane because I was worried I might rile a French passenger. It also covers the bias in the book - obviously, the English come out on top in pretty much every historical point covered, whether it's a moral victory, or an actual one. I've read this book several times now and each time it's made me smile when I glance at the cover and think of the sheer pettiness of it - like the entire time, all we've been trying to do is wind up our Gallic chums, and succeeding at it to boot.


Well, that's it for now - if there's any titles you've always had a soft spot for, do let me know. I now love a good title almost as much as a good book these days.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

The Autumn Review

You may or may not have noticed, but I haven't blogged anything for a while - about 6 weeks, in fact. The whole of September I went AWOL, and the reason is that, quite simply, I'd run out of things to say. "WHAT?!" I hear friends and acquaintances cry, "YOU ran out of things to say?!" Well yes, yes I did actually - in terms of book stuff, anyway. I felt I covered everything I'd want to cover, and hadn't read anything recently that made me want to go reviewing. But recently I've been on a massive roll with some excellent reads, so I thought I'd share with you those books that I have enjoyed immensely over the summer and first weeks of autumn. So sit back, relax, and take your pick from these sumptuous books - guaranteed to help while away the impending stormy afternoons...

1. Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson
One for the ladies, this - it's something of a romance, charting the budding relationship between retired Major Pettigrew and Mrs Ali, the Pakistani lady who runs the local village shop. The pair have always crossed paths over the years - he as a patron to her shop - but the relationship takes a decidedly intimate turn when Mrs. Ali pops round to collect the paper-round money, just as Major Pettigrew discovers his younger brother has died. After dispensing the obligatory cup of tea for comfort, Mrs Ali quietly makes her excuses and leaves, but this is only the first in several encounters that will bind them closer together. Set against the backdrop of a quintessential English village - complete with lord-of-the-manor and infuriatingly bigoted neighbours - it's a story that is comfortingly predictable, but all the more charming for it. With a subplot involving a family squabble over a pair of matching shooting guns, it is at times almost irritatingly pastoral, but the blustery persona of the Major, paired with Mrs Ali's quiet dignity, will win you over as you wonder if they'll ever get together.

2. Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty
You've probably already heard of this one, because it's done pretty well in the charts and suchlike, and no wonder; it's a gripping tale of intrigue, deceit and mystery. The cold-open is one of the best I've read; within the first few pages, you know the narrator is in court, is being prosecuted, and has an accomplice of a sort. You join the proceedings just as the prosecution start to question the narrator - as yet an unnamed woman - about the enigmatic Apple Tree Yard, and it's immediately evident that this place, wherever it is, is about to be the undoing of our narrator. What you don't know is who she is, or whether to be sympathetic or not; you don't know who her accomplice in the dock is, or why they're there, and the whole book is the lead-up to this point, to this damning line of questioning. It's not exactly fast-paced, but the way in which information is leaked to you - a little fact here, a little story-filling there - is so well done that you never feel like you've got the whole story yet, and that contributes to a feeling of increased tension as you read. The whole time you're reading it, you're thinking, "yes, but...", and that crucial little word, "but", sums up the whole novel. I won't give away any more, but I will say this: just as you think you've got it sussed out, you'll get hit with a curveball that takes the breath out of you. Don't say I didn't warn you...

3. Moon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch
If you haven't discovered the PC Peter Grant novels yet, then allow me to claim the honour of being the one to do so (although I had to be introduced to them myself). This is the follow-up to Rivers of London, about a trainee wizard apprentice in a little-known department of the Metropolitan Police, is (as a friend described it), 'like Harry Potter for grown-ups'. The aforementioned Peter Grant was, in the first novel, a lowly PC on the beat, trying to work his way up the ranks. When he discovers he can see and converse with ghosts, he attracts the attention of the mysterious Inspector Nightingale, who investigates crimes with a touch of the magical about them. I liked Rivers of London well enough, but Moon Over Soho is what caught my attention; Peter is an immensely likeable, if fallible, protagonist, and his calm acceptance of the unusual world he finds himself in is contrasted nicely with the chaos that he stumbles into. Moon Over Soho features jazz vampires, human embodiments of rivers, a fair bit of black magic and a bizarre cast of characters. From time to time it feels like you're reading your bog-standard detective novel, and then it hits you with the magic element, and that's what makes this book special; it makes the impossible world of magic seem like it might just actually be true. For anyone who still hasn't quite got over not getting their Hogwarts letter, this will you a bit of hope that you might actually be a wizard, and it's just that no one has noticed yet.

4. An Abundance of Katherines by John Green
This is probably a familar name, as John Green has recently published his critically-acclaimed teenage-cancer-love story, the beautifully-titled The Fault In Our Stars. Well, I heard of The Fault In Our Stars first, and so promptly bought his earlier offering, An Abundance of Katherines (because that's the kind of thing I do). This particular story is about Colin, a child genius with a penchant for dating girls named Katherine (not Catherines, Katharines, Katies or Kates - Katherines). Having just been dumped by the nineteenth Katherine, and at the same time coming to terms with the fact that he is no longer worthy of the title 'genius', Colin is suffering an identity crisis. So what do you do when your esteem is at an all-time low? Go on a road trip with your semi-religious, overweight best friend, of course. It's not so much a coming-of-age story as it is a coming-to-terms-with-yourself tale; learning to realise that your path is not set out for you from day one. For Colin, this means realising his genius status and obsessions about Katherines are not the only things that define him, but its the way he learns it that makes the novel. There's an excellent cast of characters here - no stereotypes, just a lot of people trying to work themselves out - and it's funny in a very understated way. You may not laugh, but you'll definitely smile.

5. Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman 
This is one of those odd books where you're not quite sure who it's aimed at - I suppose this would now be termed 'New Adult', a kind of sub-genre that refers to books that can be comfortably read by pretty much anyone aged 16 and up, such as The Curious Incident Of The Dog In the Nighttime. In fact, Pigeon English is very similar to Curious Incident, in that it is told from the point of view of a younger child, Harrison, and so the language is that of his age group, which can be hard to follow initially. The story begins with a community mourning the death of a murdered boy and evolves as Harrison attempts to investigate the death in his own clumsy way, only vaguely aware of the dangerous line he is treading with the menacing older boys of the estate he lives on. The story manages to capture the feeling of freedom, immortality and curiosity that all children have, whilst also cloaking the novel in a feeling of dread; you find yourself genuinely worrying for Harrison as he blindly runs around, treating everything as if it is part of a game or a TV show. It's a beautiful book, amazingly well-written and thoroughly deserving of it's Man Booker Shortlist nomination in 2011, because whilst the adult in you will worry themselves sick about Harrison's escapades, the child in you will be running around with him.

6. Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
When I first finished this book, I decided I didn't like it, although I wouldn't have been able to tell you why. But it's grown on me since then, even though I've only read it once, and I've now changed my mind and decided it's actually pretty damn good. Bernadette is a reclusive mother in a community full of people who expect involvement - pushy playground mothers, interfering neighbours and husbands with corporations that refer to themselves as 'families'. Naturally, she struggles, finding solace only in her 15-year old daughter, Bee. The really interesting aspect of this novel is that it is mostly told in a series of letters, articles and emails between various characters, which at first seem to be completely at odds with each other, but slowly intertwine to create a much bigger story. The title of the novel alludes to - as you might expect - the sudden disappearance of Bernadette, but there is more than one way for a person to disappear. It's funny in a cynical way, full of people you despise and judge for their small-minded ways, people you laugh at for their pettiness. Bernadette herself may well come under this banner, but as with everyone else, the more you learn, the more you understand. Admittedly, the clever concept of telling the story through correspondence does make it a bit hard to stick with at first - it's so bitty - but eventually you'll get into the swing of it and you'll be rewarded.

So there you go - a bit of something there for everyone, I think. Let me know if you do give any of these a read - I'd love to know your thoughts!

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Review: The Completely Fab Confessions of Georgia Nicolson, by Louise Rennison

Ages and ages ago, I blogged about Literary Nostalgia, which was essentially just an excuse for me to reminisce about my favourite childhood stories. I discussed what kind of books people seem to remember most, and compiled a list of my own personal favourites. Yet throughout the whole process, I had forgotten about a series of books I read as a teenager, following the exploits of a group of girls as they negotiated boys, school, boys, parents and boys. However, when I discovered that I could download the entire collection of Georgia Nicolson books for less than five quid (the very same e-collection is now retailing at £49.99, which is crazy), all the memories of those books came flooding back, and I very nearly had what Georgia would term a 'nervy b' (nervous breakdown) from excitement. What you have to understand is that I discovered the first book when I was about 12 (which is a guesstimate based on the fact that I can recall thinking the 14 year-old Georgia seeming very grown up to me), and read the first three books on a very regular basis until I felt I had 'outgrown' them. Now, I was to find that not only were there another seven books in the series, but I could read them all in one go! Naturally, I didn't hesitate to buy, and whilst I had to wait a few weeks until the books came out, I found myself looking forward to a trip down memory lane to visit my teenage self.

There was, of course, some trepidation, the main concern being - what if I don't find them as funny as I did back then? I'm - theoretically - a grown-up now, and I did wonder if maybe my sense of humour would have changed so much that I wouldn't find them funny anymore. Also, what if my initial reason for leaving these books behind - that I had outgrown them - still remained? After all, over ten years have passed since I first started reading these books, and I like to think my priorities have changed in that time; you see, part of Georgia's charm back then was that I could empathise with her, because I too was a teenage girl with parents who annoyed and embarrassed me. Now, however, I quite like my parents, and frequently embarrass myself without any assistance. I suppose the point I'm trying to make is that it's always a bit of a risk to rediscover something you once loved, especially if it was something from a long time ago; you've changed, your life has changed, and there's no telling that a few good memories will be enough to keep the magic going. I don't think I'm far off the mark by comparing it to meeting up with an old schoolfriend who you were once close with - after the initial buzz of seeing each other, there's always the risk that once that's died down, you'll realise you have nothing in common anymore. I feared a similar fate with Georgia.

Within about three pages, all fears were cast out the window. Georgia's life was still as hilarious to me now as it was over a decade ago. The escapades of a group of fourteen/fifteen year old girls is not the usual reading fare on your average commuter train, yet I found myself repeatedly suppressing laughs every morning as I travelled in to work. It's essentially Bridget Jones for teenagers; told in a diary format, chronicling life as teenagers know it, with all the ups, downs and embarrassing situations one would expect the average teen to encounter. Admittedly, the focus of the story is around Georgia's attempts to ensnare various boys - from Robbie the Sex God to Masimo the Italian Stallion, the epicentre of the stories move where the boyfolk move. As a theoretical adult, I'd quite like to scoff at Georgia's boy-mad behaviour, but if I'm honest, part of the appeal of these books is that it reminds me of being that age too - including, of course, being boy-mad. In fact, Georgia is actually more adept at getting her man than I imagine the average teenage girl is - I certainly never got myself a Sex God, or a Lurve God, or even a minor deity, and on the occasion that I did manage to persuade a boy that he might quite like me, it fizzled out just as quickly as the crush flared up. Mind you, though, I never employed quite the same tactics as Georgia did.

Then there's the nostalgia factor; there's something really poignant to reading about something that reminds you of your own childhood. For example, in one of the books, the 'Ace Gang', as they call themselves, go on a school trip to Paris, which of course brought to mind all the school trips I went on, including a visit to a German theme park, making a friend a makeshift showercap out of a plastic bag and hairbands in Paris, and getting lost orienteering in the wilds of Essex. They were fantastic trips where I never laughed so hard and had such a great time, yet I barely thought about them until recently. Then, of course, there are the endless battles with teachers, which made me think about the constant fear my friends and I all lived in of being caught with our skirts rolled up, especially by certain teachers. And that's not even considering the non-school related stuff, like references to now-defunct magazines or using phoneboxes to ring friends.

Admittedly, there were some points were my adult side did tut at Georgia internally ("if I counted up the number of times I've been tutted at... I could open a tutting shop"). I mean, she's 14 in the first book, and when she gets her first boyfriend, he's about 17 or 18. Now, I remember being 14 (just about) and I can safely say that I was terrified of everyone over the age of 16, and very reluctant to talk to any of them, let alone try to snog them, so reading about her pursuing of boys of that age did cause me to raise an eyebrow. But then, I also remember reading these books when I was in the age-group at which they were aimed, and I'm pretty sure I was thoroughly impressed with Georgia back then, so what do I know?

I flipping loved these books back in the day - I had forgotten I did, but I remember now that they were the best books I owned. They weren't just funny, or a reminder that I wasn't the only teen with impossible parents and mad plans to get boys to like me - they were also my bible for life (which probably explains why none of my boy-entrapping plans worked). I even, for a long time, mentally referred to the Ace Gang's Snogging Scale (which, if you're interested in, can be found here) when talking to my friends about our latest boyscapades, never mind the endless beauty tips (lemon and hot water cleans your skin; don't shave your eyebrows; don't fall asleep after applying fake tan, etc). Sure, the plots are repetitive, and yes, the characters are somewhat bland - with the exception of Sven, an enormously tall Swedish exchange student with flashing trousers and no self-awareness - but then it's a book told from a schoolgirl's point of view; it was never going to be on the same level as Samuel Pepys. You don't read Georgia Nicolson for the story, you read Georgia Nicolson for the laughs and the memories her life will conjure up - and in some ways, that give them as much worth as a Booker-winner.


P.S: the full list of Georgia Nicolson books can be found here - there's ten of 'em, and they've all got long titles, so I'm not writing them out!

Monday, 22 July 2013

My Ultimate, All-Time, Top Nine Favourite Books Ever

I've been writing this here blog for quite a while now (about eighteen months) and I figure now I feel comfortable - and confident - enough with it to finally put down, in writing, my top nine all time favourite ever books (nine, you say? An odd number? Yes, I say, because I only have nine I can definitively call a favourite). Taking into account the methodical and serious planning a good list requires (The Rob Gordon Way), I've been thinking about this seriously for a while now because, wanting to do it properly, I'm going to do this in NUMERICAL ORDER. Yes, that's right - there is going to be a NUMBER ONE SLOT. Now, for me, this is huge, because I flip-flop between a handful of titles all the time, so to definitively say 'that's the one' is kind of a big deal for me.

So here they come - the books that mean the most to me. If any seem silly, please don't judge harshly; this is basically my soul I'm bearing here.


9. The Railway Children by E. Nesbit
I've never actually been a particular fan of E. Nesbit; despite the many stories she wrote for both children and adults, I just haven't been as enraptured with her as others. The exception is, of course, The Railway Children. The story of three children who are suddenly uprooted from their comfortable, middle-class life to go live in a dark cottage in the middle of nowhere, coincidentally at the same time that their beloved Father goes away, is at times almost annoyingly idyllic. The children seem to settle in all too quickly and comfortably and, whilst they do bicker and fight, they very quickly 'make pax'. The main character, Bobbie, is almost too perfect, too understanding and too helpful to bear. And yet... Yet it's still a fantastic story; their railway-centric escapades are charming, there's more than a few thrilling moments and the climactic scene is guaranteed to have me sobbing. It's hardly a commentary on country life in turn-of-the-century England, but it's an enchanting escape from the modern world.

8. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Bit of an obvious one here; I'm sure Pride and Prejudice features highly on many a top-whatever list. But it's the original romantic comedy; embarrassing relatives, handsome men, red herrings, misunderstandings and a whole lot of wit. Elizabeth is a great heroine, dealing with a houseful of idiots and an uncertain future with poise, calm and a rather wicked sense of humour. I've never actually made it through another Austen book, despite many attempts, but I don't think I'm missing out much; what love story can compare to Darcy's and Elizabeth's? It's not one I read very often (say, more than once a year) but when I do, I love it, and I rarely pass up an opportunity to read spin-offs and sequels whenever they come up - Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, Death Comes to Pemberley and Bridget Jones' Diary to name but a tiny few.

7. The Help by Kathryn Stockett
Probably the most recent addition to the list, in terms of publication-date, this tale of black housemaids in the Deep South is a hilarious, yet heart-breaking story of the relationships between women: mothers and daughters, best friends, mistresses and servants all feature in various guises, many of them unexpected or almost unbelievable. Nevertheless, the characters are all incredibly engaging, whether they're hateful or your favourite, and whilst the story does occasionally veer towards the stereotypical, it manages to keep itself from being ridiculous. It's never brought me to full-on tears but I have had to remove some dust from my eye whilst reading it from time to time (ahem), and it's always guaranteed to make me laugh.

6. Company of Liars by Karen Maitland
This is the only horror story to feature on this list - in fact, it's one of the few horror stories I'm capable of reading, as I am a massive scaredy-cat, and prone to jump at my own shadow. This delicious tale of a group of travellers trying to out-run the plague in medieval England - whilst being stalked by an unknown, malevolent force - is a well-written, pacey, tense thriller with an unpredictable cast of characters. Each member of the company has a secret to keep, but how well can they keep it, and what will happen if anyone finds out? It's a hard one to put down, and the dreary, rainy backdrop just adds to the chill that surrounds this story. I'd recommend it as a winter read; nothing like curling up in the warm with a book that gives you chills.

5. High Fidelity by Nick Hornby
Introducing the man who gave me my love of lists - Rob Gordon. The emotionally-stunted record shop owner has been my window into the male psyche - whether for good or bad - for nearly a decade now and I've loved this book from the first read. His journey through the past, defined by his all-time top five break ups, is one of the funniest, yet poignant, things I've ever read. One minute you're laughing at his ungainly attempts to control his nerdy staff; the next, you're pitying the poor man as he apologises to his childhood self for turning out such a mess. It probably wouldn't be classed as a coming-of-age story, as Rob is too old to be considered for the genre, but I'd argue it is; there's a definite sense of a man growing up throughout this story, and that's what gives it such a heart-tugging edge. Not to mention that there's probably at least one situation or scrape in this book that everyone has gotten themselves into at some point.

4. McCarthy's Bar by Pete McCarthy
The only non-fiction title in this list is one that I have read so many times, it is literally sellotaped together. Pete's journey of self-discovery is almost equal parts hilarious and poignant; whilst trying to work out whether he can feel at home in Ireland despite never living there, he encounters some of the most eccentric people that simultaneously welcome him in with open arms, whilst reminding him of his stiff-upper-lip English roots. His claim is as tenuous to the country as mine, which just increases my connection to his story, and it never fails to make me laugh like a drain. At times it is almost unbelievable, and at others it does seem almost too 'Oirish', but mostly it's just a wonderful story of a man trying to work out where he really belongs in the world.

3. His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman
A recent - and welcome - return of this trilogy to the top ten; I re-read all three books last month, after a lapse of nearly four years. I made the mistake of watching the abysmal film, The Golden Compass, based on the first book in the trilogy, Northern Lights. It riled me so much that I simply refused to read the books after that, until I was finally tempted back in. The protagonist, Lyra, finds herself in the midst of a huge adventure when the mysterious Gobblers kidnap her playmate, Roger, and she sets off to rescue him. There's little indication in the first book of just what Lyra is getting herself into, but I can tell you that it involves talking bears in armour, witches, angels, monsters, Spectres, other worlds and a myriad of fascinating creations. And if that's a bit too action-y for you, there's also the greatest love story I have ever encountered. Pullman created an absolute masterpiece here, one that deservedly features in many a Must-Read list, and I urge every single one of you to read these books: Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. You will not be disappointed.

2. Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day by Winifred Watson
Narrowly missing out on the top spot - and I do mean by a whisker - is this Cinderella tale from the 1930's. Featuring Miss Pettigrew, the mousiest, dowdiest, saddest heroine ever and Delyisa, a glamorous sexpot, the story follows the two women as their two very different worlds - and morals - collide when Miss Pettigrew answers an advertisement for a job. It's full of wonderful clothes, rakish men, strong cocktails and bursting dancehalls, and as Miss Pettigrew gets swept up in this exotic world, so do you. Taking place over the course of a day, there's never a dull moment in Delysia's world and I always find it near impossible to drag myself away once I've got started on it. It's not thought-provoking, or deep, or even clever; but it is pure indulgence and delights in that fact. Even just reading a chapter of this book - if I can manage so little - is guaranteed to put the biggest smile on my face.

1. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Let's face it; we all knew there wasn't really a competition here, don't we? There was never really any other book for the number one slot. Ever since the first read - over ten years ago - I have been captivated by Scout's adventures with her brother, Jem, and friend, Dill as they play in 1930's Alabama (a world away from Miss Pettigrew's decadence). The story follows the three as they grow up over the course of three summers, discovering that the town they have always known is not what it seems. Whether they're trying to get Boo Radley to come out of his house, rolling down the street in tyres or witnessing the injustice of the law, there's an almost painful nostalgia to the story that anyone reflecting on a happy childhood would recognise. There's a reason this book has never been out of print; it's one of the greatest stories of all time, and if you haven't read it, then you really, really should because it has everything; crime, romance, thrills, laughs, bits you'll cry at, bits you'll be outraged at - literally, everything. I just love it.

Monday, 1 July 2013

Review: The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

It's been a while since I wrote a full-blown review for a book and, if I'm honest, it's been a while since I've wanted to; I've read some good books lately, some great ones even, but none that have ultimately made me want to write about them at length. However, that particular dry spell ends today with The Penelopiad. Everyone knows the story of Odysseus' prolonged journey back from the Trojan War to his beloved Ithaca and wife; even if you're not familiar with the full poem, you'll know bits of it, such as his tussle with the Cyclops (probably his most infamous adventure). Not much, however, is written about his adored wife, Penelope, left to manage Odysseus' kingdom and bring up his son alone for twenty years, all the while resisting the unwanted advances of the greedy Suitors and praying for her husband's return.

As you might have guessed, The Penelopiad is the flip-side of Odysseus' story, following the young Penelope from her childhood in Sparta to her reunion with her husband after his many years away. Obviously, it can't be a direct retelling of The Odyssey because she wasn't there for most of it; any mentions of that side of the story are made in reference to the rumours she hears, which are cleverly juxtaposed with potential real situations that could have been twisted to become the myths they now are ('Odysseus had been to the Land of the Dead to consult the spirits, said some. No, he'd merely spent the night in a gloomy old cave full of bats, said others.') Instead, the story is actually about Penelope herself, and the infamous twelve maidens who, having ingratiated themselves with the wicked Suitors, were hung by Odysseus and his son, Telemachus, for their supposed crimes. So, instead of hearing boastful stories about slaying monsters and sleeping with goddesses, we get what in comparison probably sounds like a rather dull yarn; a wife, left at home whilst her husband goes warring.

Well, I have to admit, it's not entirely the complete opposite of that; the main characters don't exactly stray from type. Helen is as vain and shallow as you'd expect, and Odysseus is portrayed as being too clever for his own good  - as usual. I had hoped that Penelope would perhaps be portrayed a little differently; given that, during the time Odysseus is away she doesn't feature in the story, I thought there would be a bit more room to play with her character - flesh her out a bit more. Instead, she is still a loyal, wise, quiet character, easily dominated and overlooked by everyone else. The more interesting aspect of the story is actually in relation to the aforementioned twelve maidens; Penelope's relationship with them gives a more interesting spin on the story, as often the women in Homer's original poem are either harlots or goddesses (with, of course, the exception of the noble Penelope).This part of the story gives Penelope a bit more weight; suddenly, she's not quite so virtuous, and a bit more than the sobbing, mourning wretch we're used to seeing.

With the exception of the twelve maidens, there's nothing particularly new here; it's short story (I managed to read it in about an hour and a half, which is quick even by my standards), and given that the story is so well known, I imagine Atwood felt restricted by her source material - there's only so much you can do with a well-known legend. However, I couldn't help but compare it with the Troy trilogy by David and Stella Gemmell which, I will be the first to admit, is trash-fiction; yet the Gemmells managed to come up with reasonably believable twists on the Trojan legend to give their story a bit more oomph (example: Helen was actually a plain, shy girl, but in order for Agamemnon to legitimately wage war on Troy, he and Menelaus made out that she was the ultimate prize, thus leading to the whole Face That Launched A Thousand Ships persona). It wasn't easy for me to find myself comparing the likes of the great Margaret Atwood with what is, essentially, cheesy historical fiction, but I did feel that there was more that could be done with the story.

Nevertheless, I struggled to stop reading it; my daily commute involves about an hour spent on trains, and today I was treated to blissful journeys to and from work, in which the time flew by. Penelope's narration is wry, full of regret and yet also understanding; she's telling her story from the Underworld and during modern time, so she's had plenty of time to think things through. The careful mentions of modern culture and society also lend a fun edge; I always enjoy seeing historical figures in a contemporary context (Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure is proof that it's a great idea). The chapters are also interspersed with messages from The Chorus, made up of the twelve maidens, recounting how and why they met their untimely demise through song, speech and occasionally little skits.

It's obviously a feminist approach to The Odyssey, but if you're the type of person to be put off by that, then try broadening your horizons for once. There are so many female characters in Greek myth, and yet they're so often pigeon-holed; they're either wives, victims or evil, and it's rare that we get their perspective. Penelope's character may not have changed much, but it is nevertheless refreshing to hear her voice, and as the story of the twelve maidens is one that barely features beyond a byline in the main poem (except as a warning against servants with ideas above their station), it's one that deserves a closer look. The story as a whole may not have wowed me in the way I expected, but there's just something about it that I know will pull me back more than once - and not just because I love anything to do with Greek myths.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Holiday Reads 2013: The Verdicts

Well, I'm back from my 'olidays, and as you've probably noticed, I've brought some rain with me... Sorry about that. In my last review, I had a shot at reviewing my intended holiday reads before reading them. Well, it seems I overestimated my ability to read that quickly, because out of the fourteen I had downloaded specifically for the occasion, I only managed seven. But come on, I still think that's a fair number - one a day isn't too shabby, right?! It's probably for the best anyway; I'm not sure even I could hack reviewing fourteen books in one go, and I'm willing to bet you'd get bored of reading them all, right? So I suppose it all works out for the best in the end!

The Boy Who Sneaks In My Bedroom Window by Kirsty Moseley
What I said: This isn't my usual type of book, seeming a bit too angsty and weepy for me, but the low price and the plot (a girl's brother's best friend secretly protects her every night from the monster that comes into her room) was enough to pull me in.
Predicted score: 4/10

The Verdict: It was rubbish. Just... rubbish. I went against my instincts on this one, and don't I know it. I won't even go further into the plot because it was just terrible (despite being a promising idea). The characters were unbelievable, there was awful dialogue and the writing - my God, the writing! I lost track of the amount of times characters ranted and chirped. Seriously, what's wrong with someone just saying something? And also, quick question - is it possible for some one to 'grin happily and smile excitedly' at the same time? Because that happened in this book several times. One of the worst books I think I've ever read - avoid at all costs!
Actual score: 0/10.


Honeymoon for One by Beth Orsoff
What I said: This is my guilty-pleasure read; it's not big, or clever, it's just an easy-to-read, easy-to-put-down romantic comedy - simple holiday tosh.
Predicted score: 6/10
The Verdict: Well, it was the aforementioned easy-to-read romantic comedy, but was actually quite hard to put down. This turned out to be a chick-lit with a twist; a woman who is jilted the day before her wedding decides to go on her expensive honeymoon alone, despite dreading being in a couples-only resort alone for 2 weeks. Faced with that humiliation, she misguidedly agrees to pretend she is married to a stranger she meets in the airport. However, when the agreement turns sour, she and her fake husband agree to go their separate ways - and the next day, he turns up dead on the beach, and she's the number one suspect in his murder. It's still got the same old lurve story in the bones of it, but the murder-mystery twist and the exotic location of Belizeadds a bit more meat to it, making it that bit more interesting.
Actual score: 7/10

Inferno by Dan Brown
What I said: Dan Brown is the king of crap holiday literature, plus I'm hoping this will finally inspire me to actually finish Dante's Divine Comedy, the poem around which Dan Brown's - sorry, Robert Langdon's - latest escapade is centred.
Predicted score: 5/10
The Verdict: Brown's crown is still firmly atop his disillusioned head - good literature this ain't, but it made for comfortably numbing reading in the sun. It's the same old formula; Langdon finds himself in another European city, being assisted by another young, attractive and intelligent woman, as they simultaneously try to solve a mystery and avoid some forces pursuing them. Brown's go-to cash cow is starting to get very tedious, but as this one was set in Florence and Venice, there were enough descriptions of architecture and art to keep me vaguely interested. It wasn't awful, but it certainly wasn't good - I'd only recommend if you really like Brown's unique brand of bland, or if you're sat on a beach and are happy to be completely distracted from reading by the view from time to time (as I was).
Actual score: 3/10

Last Chance by Sarah Dessen
What I said: I actually got this as a free book with a magazine on another holiday years ago, and although I've lost the hard copy, I loved the story so much as a teenager that, for pure nostalgia, I downloaded it.
Predicted score: 8/10
The Verdict: Every bit as enjoyable as I remembered it to be, though a lot shorter than I thought. The story of a social outcast finding unexpected friendship as a waitress in a cafe one summer is maybe not the most original story, but Dessen's writing makes it feel like more. There's some poetical descriptions, likable characters and a strong theme of finding confidence and self-esteem. I read it as a teenager, and it's still obviously for that market, but definitely one of the better novels I read as an awkward teenager, and years later, it did not disappoint.
Actual score: 8/10

Midnight in Austenland by Shannon Hale
What I said: It's a murder-mystery set in a Pride and Prejudice theme park, essentially; what's not to love?!

Predicted score: 8/10
The Verdict: This is actually a sequel, to a novel called Austenland, which involves a single woman with a slightly unhealthy love of Mr Darcy from Pride and Prejudice jetting off to merry old England for a 2-week holiday in Austenland - a Regency mansion in which everyone dresses and behaves as if they were in an Austen novel. The holiday package is aimed at a female audience, so there are male actors on hand to 'woo' the ladies as their own personal Darcys, Bingleys and Ferrars. Midnight in Austenland is essentially the same story, with different principle characters and a murder-mystery thrown in for extra edge. It wasn't exactly gripping - Hale couldn't seem to decide whether this was meant to be mystery-focused or romance-focused, and the result was a clunky mess of the two, resulting in the romance feeling contrived and the mystery tacked on. It was still enjoyable, but I found myself getting a bit bored from time to time, and it certainly wasn't as good as the first.
Actual score: 6/10

Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch
What I said: It was recommended to me as a bit of a crime-thriller meets Harry Potter type book, and seeing as I'm enjoying my crime thrillers, and I'm a massive Harry Potter fan, sounds right up my street.

Predicted score: 8/10
The Verdict: This tale of a young copper, Peter, who finds himself enlisted in a tiny branch of the Met Police dedicated to investigating supernatural causes was actually a pretty good yarn. It wasn't as funny as I was anticipating - maybe it needs a second read for that - but the actual plot was refreshingly original. A seemingly random yet brutal attack is carried out by one stranger on another, who then also dies after they've dispatched their victim - but not before their face caves in. It soon turns out that this isn't the only such attack, but the only apparent link between them all is the whole face-caving-in thing. Enter Peter and his enigmatic boss, who have to try to work out the pattern behind the murders before more people die. It's extremely well written, very witty and the supernatural aspects are surprisingly believable - I really, really enjoyed this and will definitely be reading the next one, Moon Over Soho.
Actual score: 9/10

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes
What I said: Everyone on the Twittersphere seems to be talking about this time-travelling murder thriller, and I've heard it's a bit like Gone Girl which... I really enjoyed.

Predicted score: 9/10
The Verdict: This was one of those stories which you finish, and can't decide if you enjoyed or not. It certainly had me gripped from page one - the story follows a man who finds a house that allows him to travel through time, and uses it to hunt down his 'Shining Girls' - girls that he believes the house has picked out for him to kill, which he does, with gruesome aplomb. His murders are made even more sinister by his time-travel visits to each of the girls, years before he actually murders them, just to add to their fear when he reappears, years later, to kill them. One of the girls survives his hideous attack, and tries to find out who did this to her - but how do you find a killer who can live out of time? It's a tense, unhappy book, with a tough, jaded heroine and a despicable, sick villain - I'm even considering re-writing my entry on hateful literary characters to accomodate him - but you will find yourself unable to put this book down, even if you find yourself questioning if you enjoyed it at the end, like I did. I will, however, definitely be reading it again.
Actual score: 8/10.

There you have it - the ones I managed to read. I can't say, looking back over them, that maybe it was the greatest selection, but at the time, I was hoping for easy reads, and for the most part, they were. If I had my chance again though (including the holiday, which was GREAT), I'd probably perform a few swaps - namely, The Boy Who Sneaks In My Bedroom Window for Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman (because WHY did I choose that rubbish over an apocalypse novel?!), and I'd also swap Last Chance for Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn, because in hindsight, I wasted a good opportunity to get fully immersed in a new book.