Saturday, 24 March 2012

Review: 'Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day' by Winifred Watson

I mentioned this book in an entry I wrote for World Book Day, commenting that I would be reviewing it soon... Well, I've taken my time and finally gotten round to it. The reason for my pause is that this is one of my favourite books of all time, and I wanted to ensure I did it justice - something which I am now going to attempt to do.

Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day is a novel that focuses on a character who has almost reached the bottom of the barrel; Guinevere Pettigrew is a hapless, middle-aged, unsuccessful governess who is unable to hold down a job - time and time again she returns to her agency for jobs of decreasing prestige. She finally acquires an interview for a post with a Miss LaFosse, an interview which she must succeed in, or suffer eviction (it sounds pretty depressing so far, but you have to stick with it, because it is crucial that the reader is aware of just how much trouble poor old Miss Pettigrew is in, or nothing that follows will have the same impact). Feeling utterly dowdy, downcast and lacking even the merest scrap of confidence, it is with a heavy, anxious heart that Miss Pettigrew approaches the door of Miss LaFosse, expecting a brisk, no-nonsense matriarch to open the door, and promptly slam it back shut. What she encounters instead is a glamorous, flighty minx of a woman with a man in her bed, another coming round to visit and no end of despair for the fix she is in. Miss Pettigrew gets caught up in the whirlwind that is Delysia LaFosse's life, and embarks on a day that is to change her world forever.

Set in the 1930's and told over the course of a single day, with each chapter divided into unequal portions of time - forty-five minutes here, two hours there - it follows Miss Pettigrew as she becomes assimilated into the luxurious, decadent life of Miss LaFosse and her associates. I've recently become a bit of a fan of these types of novels - stories that are set in a long-gone era where women wore evening gowns, men wore suits no matter what time of day it was, and everyone wore hats if they left the house - The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald, The House At Riverton by Kate Morton and so on. Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day fits perfectly into this genre; there's darstardly men, cigars, sherry at eleven in the morning, flowers for button-holes, nightclubs with waiters, pianos and singers, corsets... everything one could associate with those bygone times and classes where the men are all brash and bold, women are coquettish and flighty and no one cared much for the consequences of their actions, if they were rich enough. This in itself is glorious enough about the novel; it's sheer escapism to a time where life seemed simpler and, from my point of view, a lot more fun.

This, however, is not the main attraction that the novel holds; this honour goes, of course, jointly to the two female protagonists, both resembling two versions of women that are recognisable to all. Miss LaFosse is the confident, happy-go-lucky beauty with all the odds in her favour, whilst Miss Pettigrew is the nervous, unhappy mouse with all the confidence of a ripped paper bag. As the relationship between two women at opposite ends of the spectrum develops, we begin to see how they need each other, and how they begin to feed the better parts of the other, whilst pruning back the more unpleasant aspects of their personalities. For example, Miss Pettigrew helps Miss LaFosse to escape the clutches of a rogue who's no good for her, and swap him for the ideal man. Miss LaFosse, meanwhile, helps Miss Pettigrew discover confidence in herself through the time-old, fail-safe remedies of uniting against men and a make-over. Miss Pettigrew becomes the mother-figures Miss LaFosse needs, whilst in return, Miss LaFosse becomes the best friend Miss Pettigrew has been missing all her life.

It's a story that is unashamedly positive, and this is why I love it; even though Miss Pettigrew begins the book as - to use the age-old metaphor - an ugly duckling, she is well on the way to being a swan by the end of her day of living. It's a fairytale in the most traditional sense of the word; there's a fairy godmother, a handsome prince of a man, a villain and a happy ending. Better yet, this formula is used twice, for both Miss LaFosse and Miss Pettigrew, so you get two fairytales running alongside each other, for the price of one. As a pick-me-up, it doesn't get much better than this; it restores your faith in good fortune and good people, and personally, it makes me hopeful for such a day when all my fortunes turn around... that's not to say I'm not fortunate, but let's face it, there's a part of everyone's life that you wish a fairy godmother would come and wave her wand over!

I must confess that I acquired my copy of this book through illicit means; I actually 'borrowed' it from my sister, and never quite got round to returning it - and I probably never will. When I took it, I was just looking for something to while away a three-hour train journey; what I got instead was one of the friendliest, feel-good, most well-written books I've ever read; the characters are well-rounded and believable, the settings are enchanting, the dialogue is hilarious and the whole plot is, whilst simple and another version of the Cinderella story, original enough to be forgiven for it's borrowed plotpoints. It's nostalgic, romantic and brazenly shallow in places, but so enjoyable you'll revel in the scenes that wouldn't look out of place in a modern chick-lit. Boys may not be interested by such a book, but honestly guys, it's so much fun you're missing out. I just wish more people knew about it.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Childhood Favourites: You've told me yours...

Inspired (as I hoped I would be) by all the many contributions I received in regards to my previous entry on Childhood Favourites, I think I've finally managed to cobble together a list of some of my old favourites from my younger years. I'll tell you what though, it wasn't easy; at one point, said list was about two dozen books long, and it took a fair bit of ruthless trimming to get it down to the more manageable selection below. I would like to take a few moments, though, to remember the few that didn't quite make the list...
  • The Animal Ark series, by Ben M. Baglio under his alias, Lucy Daniels. As a child, I was convinced I wanted to be a vet when I grew up, and this series of books about a girl who's parents are both vets, and who manages to rescue dozens of animals, was right up my street. 
  • The Twins At St. Clare's, by Enid Blyton. Much in the same vein of Mallory Towers, this was the first book in a series about two Irish twins and their escapades at their boarding school. It was jolly ripping to read and excellent fun, what with the circus and the midnight feast and all. Spiffing!
  • Danny, The Champion Of The World, by Roald Dahl. Like most people who mentioned Dahl, I found it really hard to pick just one, but eventually I succeeded. This was a close second, what with all the drugged pheasants, trout-tickling doctors and general espionage.
 Valiant though these books are, they aren't quite so close to my heart as my (current) selection, but I still felt they deserved a mention at the very least. I've also not included Vampire Park by Willis Hall, or Winnie The Witch by Valerie Thomas and Korky Paul, as they were both mentioned in my previous entry on the subject, and I felt it was time to make room for a few more. It also freed up two more spaces, so I'm being economical.

So we've had the starters - onto the main event!

George's Marvellous Medicine, by Roald Dahl
  This was a genuinely tough choice, as I've recently had the pleasure of being able to re-read most of Roald Dahl's books. My parents bought one of my cousins a boxset of all the most popular Roald Dahl books - about 15 in all - for a Christmas present one year, and I was so insanely jealous that I spent a good half an hour organising the books in the order I thought my poor cousin should read them. Apparently the hints I dropped later in the car were heard, because the next year, I got the same boxset all to myself, and I've worked my way through it more than once. Now, when I asked all my Facebook and Twitter chums what their favourite books from childhood were, Roald Dahl cropped up more than once, though mostly as a general choice. I challenged myself to pick one, and it was hard; there was The Giraffe, The Pelly And Me, about a young boy who opens a sweet shop with a giraffe, a pelican and a monkey; the aforementioned Danny, The Champion Of The World, and of course, a girl after my own heart, the book-gobbling Matilda. But in the end, I knew it had to be George's Marvellous Medicine. Why? Because it's the only book I ever tried to copy. I used to lock myself in the bathroom, fill the sink half up with water, and then add bits of everything I could find in the bathroom - soap, shampoo, face cleanser, toothpaste, sun cream and aftersun, all mixed together with the end of my sister's toothbrush, and topped off with a squirt of my dad's shaving foam to give it that 'mediciney' look. I'd do the same in the summer months, except with a bucket of water, and bits of all the plants in the garden, with soil to thicken it up. I never dared drink either mixtures, of course - even I knew that such concoctions were more likely to send me to A&E than sixty feet up in the air - but it was excellent fun, especially the bathroom medicine, which always went a cool shade of turquoise thanks to the toothpaste and mouthwash. Roald Dahl never forgot what it was like to be a child; he knew how they thought, and he certainly had the measure of kids like I was when he wrote this.

A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett
 I was a tomboy when I was young - I fractured my arm playing football, got in trouble for taking off my Holy Communion dress to climb a tree before anyone got to take a photo, and had to be helped out of a conifer by a neighbour on a ladder after I climbed up too high and couldn't get back down (protestations that I knew what I was doing, and was taking my time, were not believed). But, like so many little girls, I loved the idea of being a princess, and this story - a riches-to-rags-back-to-riches tale of a young girl at a boarding school - captured my heart. I actually read a 'modern' re-write first, which I don't remember a lot about, apart from the main character was American and got her computer taken away - but that first taste was outclassed by the original tale. It's not just the fairytale-like qualities that I loved; it was the overcoming of obstacles by Sara, the main character, and the strength of her mind, her kindness and her belief in happy endings that attracted me. Sometimes now I do read it and Sara does seem a little bit too perfect - her one 'weakness' is a slight temper, which is revealed once in an altercation with an older pupil at her school - but the feeling the story gives me remains the same; a sheer childlike delight at the 'Magic' that Ram Dass works, her love of the Large Family across the square, and the pantomime-villain behaviour of Miss Minchin, the antagonistic proprietor of the school.

Adventures Of The Wishing Chair, by Enid Blyton
 I'm a bit embarrassed at how I forgot about Enid Blyton's books when I first tried to think of my favourite children's books; she wrote so many, after all. But when I got down to some serious thinking on my own favourites of hers, it was this one that popped up in my head first. I don't think it was as popular as The Magic Faraway Tree, which I have to say I've never read, but I think it was in the same vein. Mollie and Peter get rescued by a flying chair from an antique shop whilst shopping for their mother's birthday present, and when the chair stays with them, they discover it can fly them to Fairyland, and all other kinds of magical places! Naturally, they go on many jolly adventures, and even rescue a pixie, Chinky, who comes to live in their toy room and look after the chair for them. I've got to admit; I don't actually remember any of the places that they go on said chair, but it's the feeling that counts here; the idea that, with the right kind of transport, you can visit the most amazing places. Much like all of Blyton's books, they are a bit sickly-sweet; everyone's ever so nice to each other, and ever so remorseful when they're told they're being a bit beastly, and it's not a proper meal unless it's washed down with lashings of ginger beer - but I don't think it's the proper Blyton experience unless it's got that Wartime-Britain style patter to it. I've heard that quite a few of Blyton's series have since had 'new' titles written for them in recent years - More Wishing Chair Stories, published in 2000, is an example - but I really don't agree with this; it's just publishers trying to cash in on the nostalgic feel of Blyton's books, and you can't recreate that. Adventures Of The Wishing Chair is maybe not the best of Blyton, but it's a magical collection of tales that still, from time to time, make me hopeful that the next chair I sit in is a wishing chair. So far, no such luck.

Just So Stories, by Rudyard Kipling
 Anyone who's read this blog a few times will probably know that I am a sucker for a beautiful looking book - I'm a bit shallow like that - and this has got to be the first book I fell in love with, lookswise. The particular edition, pictured - which I have had for as long as I can remember - has the most gorgeous illustrations by Isabelle Brent, with metallic highlights, spectacular borders and a feel of magic to them; it's a joy to look at, and I remember flicking through the book to just look at the pictures more than once when I was a child. But the magic of the book is not, of course, in the pictures; it's in the stories, and O, Best Beloved, what stories they are! Written in a way that is almost lyrical, yet with a childlike feel, this collection of short stories explains the answers to such questions as How The Leopard Got His Spots, How The Alphabet Was Made and The Beginning Of The Armadillos - which, by the way, are my three all-time favourites of the Just So Stories. It's hard to explain why I love this book so much; again, I think it comes down to how it makes me feel. When I pick up the Just So Stories, I am transported to beautiful, hot, mystical countries, which are home to speaking animals, Djinns, and men of infinite-resource-and-sagacity. You can tell just from reading these books that Kipling was a man who read much, saw much and lived in exotic countries, but also had children, and had written these stories for them. For a long time I thought my love for this book was largely down to the illustrations by Isabella Brent, but a few months ago I found an edition in what might be considered a 'grown up' format, and I was so excited I snapped it up at once. Even without Brent's pictures, I still felt the same joy as I read through the stories, and this is how I know I love the Just So Stories.

Prince Caspian, by C. S. Lewis
 First of all, I'd just like to say - it was flipping difficult, trying to find an image for this entry, because thanks to Disney and Ben Barnes, all that came up on Google images for ages were stills and promo shots for the film! Anyway - this might seem like an odd choice, as surely the obvious option is The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe? Well maybe - if I'd read The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe first. As it happens, I actually read Prince Caspian first, as when I was growing up it was the only one of The Chronicles Of Narnia that we had in the house, for some reason - in fact, it wasn't until I was writing my university dissertation on Classical influences in Narnia that I even read the full series. I think what appealed to me most about this book was the fact that I didn't know what happened in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, beyond what the characters discussed - this meant that I felt more curiosity about this Golden Age of Narnia, and of Aslan, as I was not familar with their roles, or the events, of LWW. For instance, I didn't know why Edmund didn't get a present from Father Christmas, and I didn't understand the curious nature of Narnian time in relation to Greenwich Mean Time. Consequently, even though it's technically a sequel, it was an entirely new novel to me, with brand new characters to become acquainted with, new mysteries to understand and geography to become familiar with - the ruins of Cair Paravel were a particular example of this, as I managed to get a sense of nostalgia for the magnificent palace it once had been without ever knowing it as said magnificent palace. Prince Caspian not only introduced me to Narnia, but also instilled in me a fierce desire to know more about the fictional country, and it's inhabitants; it may even be partially responsible for why I was able to write my dissertation with as much enthusiasm and interest as I did. When I read Prince Caspian now, I remember how I felt those first times I read it - the nostalgia for something I didn't really know, the desire to learn more, the interest in Narnia - it reminds me why I love books; the power they have to make you want more.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Childhood Favourites: Literary Nostalgia

A few days ago, I was pondering what subject to write about next, when I realised my mind had wandered over to a book called Vampire Park, by Willis Hall, which I had owned as a child. I hadn't thought about this particular book in years, had forgotten about it's existence, even, until the forage in the loft at my parents' house that helped to kickstart this blog. Since then, and I'm not entirely sure why, it's stuck in my head. It's not exactly a literary classic; the story is about a 'veggie' vampire (take that, Cullens - and you thought you were the only ones!) who only drinks tomato juice, and who returns to his castle in Transylvania after a holiday to discover his distinctly un-vegetarian, British cousin Freddie has turned up, with claims to the castle and a plan to turn it into a theme park. Count Alucard is too mild-mannered to question Freddie and so lets him get on with his plans, though there's something odd about this cousin of his...

Alright, it's not the stuff of great literature - copies are currently selling for one english penny on Amazon Marketplace if you're interested, though the postage will cost more - but for some reason it's a book that sticks with me; from what I can remember, it was a bit clever, there was a decent plot, and it was funny, and when you're ten years old there's not a whole lot more you'd ask for from a book. If you asked me now what my favourite book as child was, you'd be waiting a good while for me to come up with an answer, and I'd hope it wouldn't be this, but maybe ten-year-old Jasmine would answer differently. It did, however, get me thinking hard about what my favourite book from childhood would be, and I struggled so much with the answer that I started to give myself a headache. For starters, I couldn't really think of any books from my childhood, apart from fairly obvious ones, which made me sad - so instead, I enlisted the help of Twitter and Facebook to see if anyone else remembered their childhood favourites.

They did, and I was quite surprised by what I found, for it seems that I'm not the only one who struggles to pick a favourite; a quarter of all the people who responded to my nosey question couldn't pick just one. Indeed, one friend kept coming back again and again, with contributions ranging from the little-known The Mennyms by Silvia Waugh, to Mallory Towers by Enid Blyton. What surprised me more, though, was that 42% of books mentioned were published pre-1980; for a lot of the respondents, that's before they were born. Of that 42%, a third were Enid Blyton titles, the most popular of which was The Magical Faraway Tree series, though The Naughtiest Girl In The School and The Secret Seven did get a look in (surprisingly, no Famous Five - not a lot of love for Timmy and George, then). In fact, a lot people answered with what could be considered 'classic' children's literature; The Hobbit, The Chronicles of Narnia, Heidi and Little Women to name but a few. I wasn't expecting this, if I'm honest; I suppose I had half hoped that more people would come up with slightly shameful examples, such as my dear own Vampire Park, but no, I've been put in my place. There were a few authors and titles that I was expecting, such as Roald Dahl, which I got (curiously, out of the mere four people who mentioned Dahl, only one went for a specific book - The Twits, if you were wondering - whereas the rest went for just 'Roald Dahl'), Jacqueline Wilson, who also cropped up, and J. K. Rowling, which I didn't get. That was a bit of a shocker; given that my generation grew up with Harry Potter, I was under the impression that books from the series would come up a fair few times, but no, not even once. I suppose that might be due to the fact that it was still being published when we were all in our late teens and early twenties, so to call it a childhood series to people of my age might not ring quite true. Funnily enough, Enid Blyton never even occurred to me as being an option, and yet, as mentioned before, her name came up over and over again, more than anyone else, in contributions by men and women alike.

Another surprise was the number of, dare I say it, 'baby' books that came up; The Hungry Caterpillar, Not Now, Bernard and Peace At Last! all got a mention, and, to my delight, a personal favourite of mine, Winnie the Witch. On the flipside, there were a few surprisingly 'adult' entries, of which The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, aged 13 and 3/4 and The Lord of The Flies are two examples. I myself was a bit shocked to see The Lord of The Flies associated with childhood by a contributer, as I read it when I was about seventeen and personally would not consider it a childhood book; a teenagers', maybe, but not childhood, not by a long shot. I suppose this just goes to show that there isn't an age limit to childhood, that the term 'childhood' itself holds no boundaries, and the same applies to books from that age. If you considered yourself a child when you read a certain novel, then it was a childhood book. Maybe this is why Harry Potter didn't crop up; I was considering myself a bit of a grown-up when I first read The Philosopher's Stone, at the grand old age of twelve, and because I still own copies, and still read them, they're not children's books to me; they're a weird kind of in-between, books that are, technically, for children, but appealling to age groups far outside the ages of 'childhood'.

What I loved most about the responses that I got, was the number of people who seemed to have put thought in; one contributor offered a reason for why The Magic Faraway Tree was one of theirs ('my mum used to read them to us complete with banging saucepans when she was reading about the saucepan man'), whilst others offered a book for each of the three stages of childhood - toddler, child, young adult - which just seemed to prove to me that you can't put an age on childhood. It's definitely given me food for thought in terms of my favourite childhood books, and I'll be compiling a list soon to sit alongside this entry. In the meantime, though, if you happen to remember a book from your childhood, let me know; I've loved reading all your thoughts, and all the surprise entries - Goosebumps was one I never expected to see, but I know I read nearly all of them and I even had the board game to One Day At Horrorland - and if you have any more, I'd love to know. They might be some forgotten favourites of mine that I'll want to reclaim.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

The Holiday Collection, Part One: First Impressions

Following on from my previous post on judging books by their covers, I thought it'd be a good wheeze to take in a first impression of the books I am taking with me on me jolly 'olidays in a few weeks' time, and do a bit of a compare-and-contrast when I get back. I haven't read any of these before, although in some cases I know a bit about them, so I will be attempting to divulge the contents based entirely on the cover, the blurb and just the general feel I get from the book. So, to business!


Why I'm taking it: It is, of course, about to become a major movie franchise, in the vein of Harry Potter and Twilight, and I've decided I want to read the book before I see the film. I learnt this lesson with the first in the Twilight series; if I had read the books first, I may have realised that it is, in fact, a horribly misogynistic depiction of the deeply unhealthy infatuation a young girl has for a dead man, and death. I may have noticed earlier on that, while the relationship between Bella and Edward probably seems deeply romantic to a fifteen year old girl, it's actually a very bad example to set to young girls, especially New Moon, where Bella goes off the rails because Edward dumps her. It's a bit sick, this portrayal of 'love'. As it happens, I saw the film first, promptly got all girly over Robert Pattinson and his brooding good looks, devoured all the books in a single week and took longer than I'd care to admit to realise that they are, in fact, rubbish. I would like to avoid such a fate with The Hunger Games, and give the book a chance first.

Previous knowledge: From the trailers that I've seen for the film, it's about a big tournament in which young people compete for the entertainment of millions of people watching around the globe... But I think it's a bit more serious than The X Factor, because no one seems to want to take part in this one. I also know it combines elements of the Theseus myth, which involves the hero travelling to Crete as part of a retinue young of men and women, who are a tribute to the Cretan king, Minos, who will then feed said tribute to his pet, the Minotaur. It seems to be like an Olympic Games where you don't want to be in it, because if you lose, you get eaten... Or something.
What the cover says: Well it... it doesn't give much away, does it? I'm assuming that  the gold symbol is that of The Hunger Games, much like the big red X of The X Factor. I can't work out what kind of bird that is, though I am reminded of the myth of Procne, Tereus and Philomela, all of whom were turned into birds... but that's probably just because I've got myths on the brain. The arrow though, that's got to mean something, as I know from an exerpt from the film that Katniss - the heroine of the novels - is a pretty nifty archer. Aside from that though, it's anyone's guess. It's quite a sophisticated cover though - you wouldn't need to publish adult-covers for this one, as with the Harry Potter books.

What the blurb says: 'Winning makes you famous. Losing means certain death.' Blimey, that's a bit harsh! I'm already hooked though. The rest of the blurb gives very little away - as expected, The Hunger Games is a television show in which 'there is only one rule: kill or be killed.' Katniss is also appearing to be a bit of a bad-ass; I suspect in a Twilight/Hunger Games fight, she'd take Bella out in seconds. 

How I am feeling about it: Quite excited. The movie hype is starting to get to me, and I'm really glad I won't get a chance to see the film before I go away. Before I go, I may even buy the other books to take with me, because I suspect I will be wanting to read them as soon as I finish this one. I also love a good series of books - I am only full of admiration for authors who are able to write not one, but several, books about the same characters, and have come up with plots for each book, whilst also tying the whole series together. I even include Stephenie Meyer in this, whom I disagree with strongly over what exactly 'true love' is.

How much am I looking forward to it: On a scale of one to ten.... 9

Order of Reading?:  Second. I'd like this to be one I read only on holiday,  and not on the plane or anything, as I want my reading of it to be as uninterrupted as possible - no tannoy announcements, no air hostess offering me a beverage, nothing. I want to give this one my full attention.


Why I'm taking it: I always have to take a fat book with me on holiday, because it's pretty much the only one I can guarantee that I won't finish in a day (I once read three books in one day on holiday one year... true story), and this is the fat book. It's also slotting pretty nicely into the 'Da Vinci' mould, and I do like one of those on holiday. You know the ones I mean: The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, Angelology by Danielle Trussoni, The Righteous Men by Sam Bourne... These are all psuedo-historical thrillers, involving some far-fetched plot, a few bizarre references to real texts or paintings, and a wildly speculative outlook on some unproved theory or myth. They're excellent fun to read, require hardly any extra thought, are easy to pick up and just as easy to put down, and invariably overlong, so perfect for lolling by the pool or on the beach.

Previous knowledge: None. I pretty much picked it up because I saw it and thought, 'Ooh, that's a good-looking book, and it's fat too.'

What the cover says: It's all old-looking and parchmenty, so I guess that must be representative of the titular Map. It's also got a tagline, 'Decipher the clues, Discover the truth', so I'm bang on track with comparing it to The Da Vinci Code and suchlike. I can't even guess, however, what that symbol in the middle of the page is - I'm reminded of the Vitruvian Man, bizarrely, and a helix, so to be blunt about it, I've no idea what's going on. 

What the blurb says: Yep, this is seeming more like another Da Vinci Code with every glimpse. Typically, there's a few portentous statements such as 'A band of black magic worshippers has gathered... An ancient mystery is calling...' The main character is, it seems, a man called August Winthrop, who's name I quite like, who is guarding a map that leads to labyrinths, and as usual, he has to keep it out of the bad guys' hands. Sounds fun. Oh look, and the last section says a bit about Dan Brown - 'a sophisticated, relentlessly exciting thriller in the tradition of Dan Brown, Robert Harris and Kate Mosse.' Well, I like the use of the word 'sophisticated' as it implies it's as clever as it's predecessors, but 'relentlessly exciting' sounds a bit desperate. 

How I am feeling about it: It's hard to tell, as I am looking forward to it, but I'm not currently desperate to read it.

How much am I looking forward to it: On a scale of one to ten.... 7

Order of Reading?: Most likely to be third. This will be because, if I stick with the current reading order, I'll probably steam through the first two by the mid-week point of my holiday, panic, and grab this one to try and delay finishing all my books before the holiday ends (although it always happens, and I always have to get started on my boyfriend's books).


Why I'm taking it: I've read the first two of the Thursday Next series, which is set in an alternate universe where literature is held in extremely high esteem, one can 'read' themselves into a book (literally, and physically) and dodos have been re-created, so it seemed a logical progession to move to number three. I enjoyed the first two immensely - although I did enjoy the first novel, The Eyre Affair, more than the second, Lost In A Good Book, so if this is a sliding scale then maybe I shouldn't get too excited. However, I am considering this my 'safe' read, the one I am almost guaranteed to enjoy, so fingers crossed it'll pull through.

Previous knowledge: Well, without giving too much away about the previous two novels, I know that Thursday is currently trying to get her husband back, whilst attempting to avoid both an evil corporation that's after her and the consequences of changing the ending of Jane Eyre. I also know that it's a quirky, fun, referential series that focuses on all things bookish and bring characters from other books out into the world - imagine the Cheshire Cat as a librarian, for example, or Miss Havisham as a petrolhead - so I'm expecting some laughs at the funny bits and some snobby smirks at the literary bits.

What the cover says: Not a great deal, actually. The previous two books in the series both feature cars streaking through an unusual landscape for a car to be in, so this is just in keeping with the theme, I guess. The first book's car cover was related to the story (in a way) but the second one wasn't, so whilst I'd hazard a guess and say that I think the person in the car may be the aforementioned petrolhead, Miss Havisham, beyond that - and the fact she's driving through a library - I've got no idea what's going on. It looks fun, though.

What the blurb says: The Well Of Lost Plots actually crops up in Lost In A Good Book; we are told it is the place where all literary ideas are, even the ghosts of vague background characters (like Terry Boot in the Harry Potter series, for example). The blurb reminds the reader of what happened in the previous book, and why our heroine, Thursday, is now living in 'an unpublished novel of dubious merit entitled Caversham Heights'. We're also told that there's some killing going on in this one, so I'm a bit nervous as it sounds like a few characters are going to get the chop. It's shaping up to be like it's predecessors though, which can only be a good thing, considering how enjoyable they were.

How I am feeling about it: Pretty good - I'm feeling like it's meeting up with a new friend that I'm getting to know, so I'm looking forward to it.

How much am I looking forward to it: On a scale of one to ten.... 8.

Order of Reading?: First, probably - don't want to ruin continuity by having too many books between this and the previous!


Why I'm taking it: It's a book I've never read (obviously), but always thought I should... And seeing as I plan to have a verrrry lazy holiday, it seems as good a chance as any to read a book I've never really found the time to read.

Previous knowledge: Barely any. I cannot stress this enough - not only have I never read this book, but I genuinely have no idea what this is about. I mean, I know that it's set in what was Orwell's future, in a dystopian world where everyone was governed by an all-seeing authority. I also know this is where Big Brother comes from, a concept which I naturally find uncomfortable, and a programme which I found equally unsettling. I think it's also where Room 101 comes from, but funnily enough I'm not expecting it to be an amusing talkshow with Paul Merton. Also, having read Animal Farm, and being aware of what a disturbing novel that was, I'm expecting something else unsettling. That is pretty much all I know about it.
What the cover says: It's a creepy-looking edition, isn't it? All those eyes, all over the place... they're obviously representing Big Brother always watching, and I can see some propaganda-type writing scrawled faintly over the eyes; I can make out, 'Ignorance is Strength', which is ominous, and the words 'War' and 'Freedom' but that's it, so there's some politics in here somewhere. I'm pretty sure the red symbol must mean something too but I can't work it out, so that's something I'll look out for in the book. Finally, I can see something furry in the corner, by 'George', which could be a rat but is too faint for me to be sure. Rats are associated with dank, dirty places, and can squeeze through tight holes and get pretty much anywhere; they're also evil, as anyone who's seen Lady and The Tramp will tell you. So far, this is looking like an intriguing, but terrifying, read.

What the blurb says: Well, it's told me that a man called Winston, who works at the (evidently ironically named) Ministry of Truth, is re-writing history to 'suit the needs of the Party'; so there is some politics then. Apparently he doesn't like this job much as he is 'inwardly' rebelling - what does that mean? Assumedly he can't outwardly rebel due to Big Brother always watching. Winston, it appears, also falls in love, which seems to be the point at which the novel truly begins. Already I'm asking questions to myself - 'is love banned in this world? What is being rewritten in history by Winston? Why did Orwell fear for such a world?'. I think it'll make for an interesting read, though not an enjoyable one.

How I am feeling about it: Kind of resigned, actually. I'm reading it because it's an opportunity to read it, and because I feel I should, not necessarily because I want to. I'm not really a fan of 'futuristic' novels and this is one of the best-known ones out there.

How much am I looking forward to it: On a scale of one to ten.... 4

Order of Reading?:  I'm going to say fourth, because I know I'm not looking hugely forward to reading it, but I may have a change of heart and try to get it out of the way early on.


Why I'm taking it: I'm not, actually; my boyfriend is currently reading it, and since I'll probably run out of my books, I'll be reading this when he's finished.

Previous knowledge: Not a whole lot; I do know it's an American classic, focusing on a family travelling across America to try start to afresh in California, during the Great Depression, and like 1984, it's a book I feel I should read, but that's pretty much the extent of it.

What the cover says: A surprising amount, actually; there's the outline of an eagle, America's representative creature, and a long, stretching road through a somewhat desolate-looking landscape that disappears into the horizon. It's already a transparently American novel, involving a road trip of sorts - something that America does better than anyone. I'm getting a feeling of both possibility and fear from the landscape, and I'm also finding it a bit intimidating.

What the blurb says: Well, it covers the journey to California element, and the reason why they're leaving, but also hints at disappointment, arguments and  'uncertainty about what awaits their arrival...' Frighteningly, though, there is a little afterword from the author himself : 'I've done my damndest to rip a reader's nerves to rags, I don't want him satisfied.' This does not sound like a relaxing read, but unlike with 1984, for some reason this piques my interest.

How I'm feeling about it: Intimidated; it sounds a bit heavy going, and like I'm going to be confronted with issues I've never encountered before. My knowledge of American history is pitiful, so I think I'm going to learn a lot, and not all of it I'll want to know. I am looking forward to it, strangely.

How much I am looking forward to it: On a scale of one to ten.... 7

Order of reading?: Fifth, seeing as I'll have to wait for the boyfriend to finish it first.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Books from Birthdays

It's my birthday soon, so I thought I'd have a flick through the back catalogue of books I have been given as birthday presents over the years by various people. Funnily enough though, despite being a lover of books since, well, forever, people just don't seem to buy me books, and I'm not entirely sure why. Maybe they think I'll have them already, or perhaps they're worried I won't like them... I don't know! So, given that fact, I've stepped outside the box, as it were, and gone for a bit of a megamix of books I received as gifts - Christmases, Birthdays, just-because books, and picked out my favourite ones - or at least, the ones that stuck with me.

1. Maus, by Art Spiegelman
This was given to me by a friend for my 20th birthday, I think it was. I'd recently discovered graphic novels in the form of Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, and was quite intrigued by this world of 'adult comics'. I'd discussed Watchmen with said friend - a fellow literary fan, though of a more intense nature than myself - who bought me this. It came as a bit of a surprise - I found it difficult to act pleased when I saw a huge swastika under the wrapping paper - but I'm so glad they bought it for me. As you might have guessed from the German title and Nazi imagery, it's about World War Two; and what's more, it's the real story of a man who's father was a Polish Jew, and somehow - always a horrifyingly amazing feat - survived the Holocaust. This is his story, of how he went from being a fairly well-to-do young man, to being on the run from Nazis, to Auschwitz, and how he survived it all. It's harrowing, as all literature, imagery and films to do with World War Two and the Holocaust are, and made all the more awful - as with A Child Called It - by the fact that this is not a story in the usual sense of the word; it is true, every last ghastly detail. The story is told in a way that, I suspect, is meant to somehow 'lighten' the content - the Jews are portrayed as mice, the Nazis as cats and the Americans as dogs. Owing to the natural relationships of cats, mice and dogs, it's an interesting plot device - and also helps depict certain aspects of the war in an easier-to-understand light; for example, the Polish are depicted as pigs, so when the Jewish mice try to disguise themselves to avoid being carted off by the Nazi cats, the mice wear pig-nose masks on their faces. It's childish and chilling at the same time - the first time I saw it, I wanted to laugh, then remembered what I was reading. Then, of course, the Nazi cats can be shown to have sharp teeth and spiteful claws, whilst the American dogs - playing man's best friend here, as in life - are shown as friendly, smiley creatures. It's this plain, black-and-white imagery - enhanced by the fact the entire book is drawn in black-and-white - that makes the horror all the clearer. Spigelman - quite rightly - does not scrimp on details; he has not written this to sugar-coat it, and so there are some nasty images, and some even worse descriptions. However, if I would ever recommend a book on the Holocaust, this would be it; it's heart-breaking, horrifying and will keep you awake at night, but there's also some light-hearted moments and it certainly increased my understanding of what the Holocaust was, and what it meant to survive it.

2. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, by J. K. Rowling
Going to throw in a completely different direction here, because I fear I've depressed you all with Number One. This was given to me as a Christmas present and is the only Harry Potter book I ever received as a present - being a fan, I always pre-ordered my copy of the rest of the series, and promptly read them all the same day. I love all the Harry Potter books but this remains one of my favourite of the series, for many reasons, but mostly because this is (in my opinion) the one where everything changes. The previous books - The Philosopher's Stone and The Chamber of Secrets - are more childish, as expected, given that the protagonists hadn't yet entered their moody teens, and whilst most people choose Goblet of Fire as the turning-point - given it's deeply darker content, and mid-way point of the series - I tend to think Prisoner of Azkaban is the real set up for some deeply dark goings-on. For starters, this is the only one without a noticeable Voldemort presence in some form - which I found disturbing as I'd generally prefer to know where old Voldy was, and he is distinctly quiet in this one. Secondly, this is the one where the servant rejoins the master, which is deeply ominous, given that if said servant had been killed, like certain characters wanted to, the rest of the books would not have panned out like they had - Voldemort would not have risen to power as quickly without him (or her - I'm deliberately trying not to give too much away, after a misplaced Facebook comment about a bet ruined the end of the seventh book for a friend). Thirdly, this is the first book to feature death - kind of - in relation to a character who is not evil (Ginny is never believed to be dead, just close to it, in Chamber of Secrets, so she doesn't count) - it's setting you up for a full-on execution in the next book, and the next, and the next... All in all, whilst this isn't the obvious turning point of the series, it is the one that prepares you for a darker view of the wizarding world, as Harry begins to grow up and discover just what being 'The Boy Who Lived' really means.

3. Any Human Heart, by William Boyd
This was a book that I was very unfair to, in the beginning. I was given it as a Christmas present, but basically ignored it for about seven months, which is quite unlike me; I tend to at least try to give a book a go. There was nothing about it that particularly bothered me, or put me off; I just simply found other things to read. Also, I think I'd heard that there had been a TV mini-series, with the affable Jim Broadbent, and whilst that wasn't off-putting either, I can't say it inspired interest. To put it bluntly, I didn't care. Oh, how wrong I was! Though, I must admit, it's only with finishing the novel that I found how much I appreciated it. To summarise, it is the story of a man, Logan Mountstuart (I love that name) throughout life, from teenager to elderly pensioner, told through journals that he kept throughout his life, with some intervals between ages, where Logan seems to stop writing his journals for a while. The fact that it is a life told from near-beginning to end, in as realistic terms as possible, is an incredible feat, and the way in which Boyd is able to convey the changing character of Logan as he ages - starting off as a typically boisterous schoolboy, all the way through to a lonely, elderly man - is even more impressive. I've occasionally dabbled in writing myself (not a groundbreaking revelation, I'm sure) and one thing I've always struggled with is characterisation; yet here is one man, from 18 to 80 (more or less), and you can see him aging before your very eyes. Half way through I actually stopped and flicked back to the earlier pages, and marvelled at how much Logan had changed, and how far he had come, and how seamless it all was. I couldn't understand how it was done, and did find myself half-wondering if Logan Montstuart was a real person, and that William Boyd had published his journals for him. That, in essence, sums up the book; the transition through life, as Logan struggles through the lows and soars through the highs of his life, is seamless. I can't really describe it any other way. I was a good two-thirds of the way through and still expecting some kind of climax - a revelation, perhaps, or the return of a long-lost friend - when the penny finally dropped; this is meant to be like life. And alright, so there are not going to be that many people who had spats with Virginia Woolf, or a friendship with Ernest Hemingway, but nevertheless, Logan's is just a life, like everyone else's; he suffers heartbreaking disappointments, breath-taking moments of sheer luck and stomach-dropping betrayals, and yet throughout all these moments, it never quite occurs to you that THESE are the climaxes, these are the moments that will affect the rest of the novel - simply because it doesn't feel like a novel, it feels like you are reading the journals of a man who lived a full, rich life, across several continents and careers, with many interesting people and some perfectly dull ones.

 4. The Iliad and The Odyssey, by Homer
I'm mentioning this, not because I love the stories, or even because it's a marvellous new interpretation, or translation, or anything clever like that. I'm mentioning it - in a bit of a gushy way, so I'll try to keep it to a minimum - because it was a present last year, from the boyfriend, and it is a bloody wonderful edition. Probably published entirely for suckers like me, who can't resist an attractive book, it's bound in blue leather with gold script on the covers, as well as embossed Greek-like images, and has gold-edged pages. It is beautiful, and I love it. I love it so much, in fact, that I don't really read it, because I'm a bit scared I'm going to rip the pages. What I love most about it, however, is the fact that it was bought for me because said boyfriend knew it was something that I would want, instantly, because it is a beautiful edition of two of my favourite stories, held together in glorious binding and splendour, suited to the royal heroes of the pages within. It's also probably the first copy I'll have of either story that won't be decimated by myself - The Iliad paperback has been in the bath, and I'm on my second copy already of the paperback Odyssey, having left the first out in the Egyptian sun on holiday one year, the result of which was melted glue and Book One in the swimming pool. And finally, I know a few fellow Classicists have been known to read my little blog, so guys, if you're there, and you want a decent copy of The Iliad and The Odyssey in one book, in prose, to keep for years and years and years - behold! Look no further. It's got everything - the wonderful epics, maps, and a cover that not only matches the brilliance of the poems it is translated from, but pays homage to them. It may not be worth anything in years to come, but I already treasure it as if it were a family heirloom - and I kind of hope, one day, it will be.

5. Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, by T. S. Eliot
Now, I could tell a bit of a fib here, and say 'this is one of the first books I was given, and has been a favourite of mine since childhood', given that it's fairly obviously a book for children. The truth is, however, that this is present from my mum and dad, the annual Christmas book. Every year, I get one - sometimes two - and whilst, for the most part, they are pleasant, they're also generally of somewhat more nostalgic than sentimental value, and so I don't tend to go mad for them. This, however, was one of those rare books that I was genuinely surprised, and delighted, to receive. I've been a fan of T. S. Eliot's poetry since studying them for A Level English Literature, but had no idea he had written this collection, and was even less aware of the fact that my parents knew I liked his work; it's not the kind of information I was expecting them to know about me, to be honest. This collection, as you can probably tell, is all about cats - so, given that I am an owner of two cats, combined with an appreciation of Eliot's poetry, this was a pretty sound choice of gift. There are fifteen poems in all, and they all feature excellently-named felines - my favourites being Growltiger, Mungojerrie and Mr Mistoffelees. They are a mixture of what I am tentatively titling 'Cat Appreciation', in that they are mini odes to cats, focusing on their habits - my favourite poem being 'The Ad-dressing of Cats', which dictates the proper manner in which to greet a cat (for example, if you find an unfamilar cat, it's best to err on the side of caution and address him thus: 'I bow, and taking off my hat, ad-dress him in this form: O CAT!') Given that cats are somewhat snobbish creatures, it's this kind of ludicrous formality that exists throughout the poems to make them a hugely enjoyable read. Coupled with some beautiful illustrations by Alex Scheffler, the illustrator who also gave life to The Gruffalo, you've got a collection of poems that are beautiful to read, wonderful to hear and gorgeous to look at.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Review: 'All My Friends Are Superheroes', by Andrew Kaufman

A while ago, it started to dawn on me that books I love were being adapted into bad films; for example, the adaptation of Philip Pullman's 'Northern Lights' (or, 'The Golden Compass' as it is known on the other side of the pond and in Movieland), in which Chris Weitz removed religion from the plot of the film and just referred to an ambiguous, all-encompassing authority - which completely defeated the object of the entire 'His Dark Materials' trilogy. Meanwhile, the adaptation of Alice Seabold's 'The Lovely Bones' was overshadowed by Peter Jackson's visions of heaven, and how much fun he could have with the special effects. Whilst I'm sure that, to others, they were enjoyable movies, by the time I got to see them I knew the novels almost by heart, and so was bitterly disappointed when I saw what a hash Hollywood had made of them. Consequently, 'All My Friends Are Superheroes' is a story that I really, really hope is never made into a film.

I can't really explain what it is about this book that I love so much; there are so many things that make me happy when I read it. I guess the first and foremost thing is, of course, the story.
The story is about a man called Tom. Tom is your average bloke, who happens to be married to a superhero, The Perfectionist. In fact, he is the only 'regular' guy in his group of friends, in that he doesn't have a superpower of any kind - he can't time travel, or calculate the net worth people on the street, or absorb the stress of others....In fact, the only thing irregular about him is that he is invisible to his wife, and only his wife, as her ex-boyfriend (the cleverly-named Hypno) hypnotised her to never be able to see him. He has only one aeroplane flight in which to convince her that he is real, before she uses her superpower - the ability to make everything around her perfect - to move on and start a new life. The main drive of the plot is centred around his recollections of their relationship, the realisation that she is entirely oblivious to him, and his attempts to persuade her of his existence. It is a beautiful ode to love. Tom is utterly convinced that he can appear to his wife again, and tries with increasing desperation to reveal himself to her. Meanwhile, the scenes in which The Perfectionist believes she is living alone after Tom's apparent disappearance is quintessential of a person struggling to move on after a relationship; she mopes, rationalises, persuades herself that he will come back if she completes certain tasks, and eventually tries to escape the memories of him.

Then, of course, there is the fact that it is set in an alternate reality where there are superheroes! Well, superheroes might be a bit of a stretch - the general perception of a 'superhero' is  a costumed wonder-person who uses their special powers for good: these ones, though, are as normal as a person with a superpower can get, in that they don't really do anything with their powers (superpeople might be more apt, but it doesn't have the same ring to it.) One of the more central characters to the plot, The Amphibian, is a bike courier, because 'he can survive on both land and water , but really, what use is that? Who's going to give him a job for that?' (Actually, I came up with a few - retriever of golf balls from lakes, diver, swimming pool cleaner, like Tom... But I suppose that ruins the magic a bit). If anything, some of the superheroes seem a bit weary of their powers - The Ear, for example, always stuffs his ears with cotton wool because, as you may have guessed, his hearing is so sensitive he can't bear it. This is a strange quality of the book - the superheroes of this novel just don't consider themselves special, because they've all got a superpower of some sort, and in a strangely fitting way, it makes the novel more special; it highlights how people tend to underestimate their own talents, and shy away from using them.

The way the peripheral superheroes are introduced is a also a bit different; some are part of the main plot, such as The Ear, The Perfectionist, Hypno and The Amphibian, but others are just 'thrown in' as a representative few of many examples of superhero there can be, such as The Businessman, The Dancer, Mistress Cleanasyougo... They are all introduced via intervals in which a list of other superheroes are detailed, with the basic breakdown of their power, how they use it and how it affects their lives. These brief hiatuses add background to the world in which the story is set, whilst also amusing the reader. I myself was particularly impressed by Falling Girl, who's special power sounds suspisciously like my own issues with gravity... 'A small sample of things she's fallen from include trees, cars, grace, horses...' and so on.Then there are the briefest of chapters - barely a page long - discussing how one might discover themselves to be a superhero, or how supervillains don't really exist, which all add to the gently amusing tone of the book, giving explanations and arguments as factually as if you were reading a textbook.

There is, as you might expect, an element of magic to this novel - I mean, you've got the superheroes, you may as well take the fantastical side a bit further, right? - which just further increases the all-round loveliness of the story (I'm running out of adjectives for lovely by now, but the book really, really is just that). One of my favourite scenes involves an encounter with an Anxiety Monster, which is not only actually quite terrifying, but personifies perfectly the feelings you get when you are incredibly nervous, or anxious, and indeed does it so well that I found myself half-wondering why I'd never seen one before. It's little touches like these that Kaufman has added that turn this into... (I don't want to use the phrase, I'm using it too much in this blog, I'll get typecast....) Oh, alright, a modern fairytale. There, I said it. But that's what it is! It plays on the childlike love of having a superpower, vanquishing monsters, fighting for the love of your life, whilst coupling it with realistic aspects of adult life, the kind you didn't consider as a child: jealousy, lost love, jobs, burglary, fights. You're allowed to feel that same innocent joy you might've felt with Cinderella, whilst also nodding wisely at how real life isn't all fun and games.

I guess I might as well just come out and say it; I love stories that are like fairytales for grown-ups, because I don't see any reason why the kids should get all the good ones, and this is one of the best I've come across. It's sharp, clever, poignant, romantic without being sentimental, fantastic whilst retaining elements of realism. It's a short story - barely a hundred pages long - but strangely, I didn't feel disappointed when I reached the end; instead, I was glad it was so short, because it means I can read it in one sitting, should I ever need a quick pick-me-up on a dark day. It's witty, but not funny in a laugh-out-loud kind of way: whilst you may never chuckle while you're reading it, you'll be smiling for hours after you've finished it.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

World Book Day: What do you want from a book?

HAPPY WORLD BOOK DAY, EVERYONE! To celebrate, I'm pondering on what exactly makes a good book, which could take a while as it's not an easy question, as everyone has a different answer and even then it can depend on what kind of mood you're in. For example, on a day when I'm feeling a bit classic-y, I might say 'Oh, I simply adore Emily Bronte's 'Wuthering Heights' (though hopefully I wouldn't say it in such a pretentious way.) Alternatively, if another day I'm feeling a bit... cooler, shall we say, I might go for 'High Fidelity' by Nick Hornby. (Incidentally, I said 'High Fidelity' was my favourite book in a job interview once... I didn't get the job. Probably should have gone for 'War and Peace' by Tolstoy, or something. Though I did talk about 'The Chronicles of Narnia' for about half an hour in my interview for my current job, so maybe the first interview people just didn't like Nick Hornby). Generally, though, I'll go for 'To Kill A Mockingbird', by Harper Lee, because I love it; it's simple, nostalgic (and by that I mean the kids playing, coming-of-age, and so on - not the inherent racism of the Southern USA in the 1930's), and has an excellent plot that seems to give more to you each time you read it. But what about the technicalities of a good book?

When I was at school, I was taught that there are three key elements to a good story: a beginning, a middle, and an end. I have since found out that this is only true if you are under the age of eleven and writing something for homework, as some of the best books I've ever read have had whopping cliffhangers, and some of the earliest examples of Western storytelling start in media res, or in the middle; yes, I'm talking about The Iliad and The Odyssey. The former actually starts about nine years into the Trojan War, and recounts everything that has happened prior through characters swapping memories about the events leading up to the poem's beginning. Similarly, our first real glimpse of Odysseus is nearly at the end of his journey home, when he's stuck with Calypso on her island; he's already bumped into Charybdis, Scylla, Circe and the like, and it's not until he's washed up with the Phaecians that we hear about any of these adventures. So that's beginning-middle-end out of the window; you can start a story almost anywhere you like; it just adds to the mystery. How did this person end up there? Why are those people arguing? What mistake are they referring to? You've barely made it past the first page and already you're needing to know more.

One thing I, in particular, like about a novel, is when it's told from the first person. With first person narration, you only get to see what they get to see, and hear what they hear, so you have to figure things out alongside them. This can be enjoyable, because if you're more emotionally invested in what you're reading, it's a more interactive reading experience. However, it can also be misleading; as I mentioned in my last entry, I found myself sympathetic towards Alex of 'A Clockwork Orange' fame, even though he had committed obscene acts of violence and degradation. Even though I knew he was a bad person, because I was seeing the world from his point of view, I could only see things his way. Similarly, a first-person narrator needs to only tell you what they want to tell you, so if they want to leave out a crucial piece of information, and save it til the end, they can. I love stuff like this; it allows the author to develop a character with many levels, and add extra nuances that a novel with something more of an ensemble cast just can't quite achieve.

I also love it when an author can competently manipulate plots into a certain direction, without directly pointing out to the reader. I like to think things like, 'Now what's going on here?', 'What does he mean by that?', and 'Why have I been told this now?'. This is one area of my life where I actually enjoy being strung along; I detest books where the big twist, or the climax, is not only being hinted at every page, but isn't even being hinted at; there may as well be a big neon Post-It stuck in between the crucial pages, with the words, 'BIG TWIST COMING: [PERSON W] AND [PERSON X] DISCOVER [PLACE Y] AND [PERSON Z] ARE NOT WHAT THEY SEEM - AND PERSON X DIES!' I mean, come on. Don't take me for an idiot! If you're going to have some kind of crucial moment, be subtle - gently hint, suggest, imply, lead up to it; don't have every chapter finish in a 'menacing' cliffhanger that alludes to the same thing (I'm looking at YOU, 'Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters'). I love having those moments where you almost cannot believe what you're reading, and have to rifle back through the previous chapters to double check you're getting it right. Not only does it improve that first read, but it makes later ones better; even though the next time around you know what's coming, you can still start to look out for the hints. 'Company of Liars' by Karen Maitland was particularly good at this, and even now, about four years after the first read, I'm still discovering new elements that allow me to view the entire novel in a different way.

I'm going to be a real nerd here; I love a proper plot. As my anti-Starbook rant of a few entries' ago, I flipping hate a book where nothing happens. This is why I've yet to read 'The Corrections' by Jonathan Franzen, even though it's been on my shelf for over a year and even though it's becoming a film soon, which I'll probably go see rather than (gasp/horror) read the novel, because as far as I can tell, nothing happens, and I'm sorry, I'm not wasting a week on reading something where my wandering around the house as I read it is the most action I encounter.... *Sigh*... *Relaxes*.... Sorry about that; outburst over. I just really loathe books without a structure, because you don't feel like you're getting anywhere, and that's frustrating. I don't care if it's is a metaphor for life, or something; I like pace, I like information, I like characters who interact with each other. Realism I can get everyday; give me something to stay up til 3am for! One of the things that I think made the Harry Potter novels so successful was their structure; by centering the main plot around the school year, the target audience were able to relate to the books, and so were able to keep pace with it. For example, you generally discovered something crucial around Christmas, and you always knew you were getting close to the climax when the Easter Holidays and exams were mentioned. A journey works just a well; then you have a destination for the novel and the characters, something to work towards; it just helps the novel flow better.

Realistic characters; that's another one. I know I just said I don't like books that focus on day-to-day issues, but I do like my characters to generally be relatable,although this is not applicable to all novels; one of the reasons I enjoyed the Troy series was because the characters were so thoroughly predictable, and it allowed me to get swept up in the overall story. In other books, though, such as 'Ralph's Party' by Lisa Jewell, realistic characters are what make the novel. I loved this book because it showed the characters as if they were real people; they were selfish, anxious, occasionally neurotic, enthusiastic, apprehensive, sometimes in denial and at other times so certain. There weren't any cliches, the good people could be bad and the bad people weren't as they seemed; it was characterisation at it's best, and you can't have a good book without decent characters - they're the force that drives the novel.

Now's about the time when I might start to think of a conclusion, but the truth is, I could keep typing this forever (not literally, of course). There are so many things that make a good novel, and whilst I think plot/decent characters/narration are fairly logical points to make, there are so many more that could be mentioned. For example, Jasper Fforde, author of 'The Eyre Affair', 'Lost In A Good Book' and all the other Thursday Next novels, starts each chapter with an exerpt from some essay, or interview, that not only hints at what's to come in this chapter, but also gives you a background knowledge of the universe in which the novels are set. And then, of course, there's the much lauded 'One Day' by David Nicholls; whilst I didn't actually care that much for the book, I did appreciate just how achingly clever it was to only set it on - of course - one day each year, for twenty years. That's the kind of plot device that makes me want to claw my face, it's so unique. But of course, there's only one thing that can truly make a good book, and that is - to bring this thing full circle - how it makes the reader feel. All the people in all the world can be telling you to read such-and-such a book because it's, I don't know, representative of a generation, or thought provoking, or it's so funny you'll cry. But if you don't feel it's representative of a generation, or if it doesn't keep you awake at night as you mull it over, or if you remain stoically unamused, it's not going to be a good book for you. I've thought for a long time that any music is good music if it makes you feel something, be it happiness, laughter, or sadness, and this is applicable to books too. I've mentioned before that my favourite novel is 'To Kill A Mockingbird', and it is; but it's tied in that place with a little-known novel called 'Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day' by Winifred Watson, which is a true rags-to-riches story that is so delightfully fairytale-esque that I go back to it again and again. I love them both, but in different ways, because they make me feel different things, and I think there you have my answer; a good book makes you feel something, anything, and it makes you want to read it, and re-live it, over and over. Good books are the ones on the shelf that are dog-eared and battered, and they'll be different in every home.