Saturday, 19 May 2012

Review: High Fidelity by Nick Hornby.

In hindsight, I should have included this in The Disappointments, my entry on authors who had me hook, line and sinker at the first book, but eventually let me down. I read High Fidelity for the first time when I, ahem, 'borrowed' it from a friend of my sister's and just never gave it back (I seem to have a habit of doing that... sorry). Since then, I have read several of Nick Hornby's novels, and none of them have quite lived up to the brilliance and the wittiness of High Fidelity. None of them have been as funny, or as relatable, or even as intelligent as this book. Since the very first read, there has been something about this book that has somehow tugged at my heart in a way that I have not been able to recreate with anything else; it's something in the characters and in the writing that, as far as I am aware, cannot be emulated.

The story centres around a man called Rob, owner of a record store, friend/employer of the 'Musical Moron Twins' and recent victim of a break-up; at the beginning of the novel, his long-term girlfriend, Laura, has seen fit to break up with him for reasons as yet unspecified. What follows is a chronicle of Rob's attempts to understand why he has been rejected yet again, by means of contacting the women from his All-Time, Top Five Ultimate Break-Ups, in order to ascertain why exactly they broke up with him.

The best thing about this book is Rob, who is easily one of my favourite characters of all time; he is, to put it bluntly, a bit of a bastard. He's not a bad man - in fact, he goes into lengthy detail of why he is not a bad man, and why, despite his distinct averageness, he is a good boyfriend. However, he is a bit of a bastard in the general sense of the word; he can be insensitive and selfish, and he makes mistakes that he can't always own up to. But that's the beauty of his character; he's so clueless and exasperating that I always find myself mentally rolling my eyes at him. You kind of want to give him a bit of a shake and tell him to man up, but in a way that won't upset him - despite being a man in his mid-thirties, Rob is very childlike. He justifies actions that aren't really justifiable, he secretly revels in rivals' disappointments and boy, he can sulk. Yet despite all this, you're on his side; not because you want him to be right, but because you want him to be better. Meanwhile, Laura is a character you feel slightly less sympathetic towards; there are two people in this break up, as there always is, but she's the one who instigates it at the beginning of the novel, and it's not until you're well and truly assimilated into Rob's world that it's revealed just why she's broken up with him. However, as a strong woman, you gradually realise - along with Rob - that she's the strength behind this relationship.

The rest of the supporting cast are also brilliant; the Musical Moron Twins - his employees, Dick and Barry - are just as comical and frustrating as Rob. The two are polar opposites of each other; Dick is timid, quiet and unassuming, whilst Barry is arrogant, brash and a bit of a bully, especially towards Dick. However, the two of them are nevertheless united against the rest of the world; these are men who struggle to view the world in any other way except through other people's music. Barry rubbishes any viewpoint on music that doesn't coincide with his own, whilst Dick is defined by his carrier bag that sports the logo of a painfully-fashionable record label. Along with Rob, they are essentially teenage boys trapped in men's bodies (an argument I have sometimes heard made for all men generally). They don't understand women, so they unite against them; they don't know how to discuss genuine, life-changing events - like breaking up with a co-habiting partner, or death - so they compile Top Five Lists. They fight for five minutes - sometimes physically - but moments later, it's forgotten.

Then, of course, there is the style of Hornby's writing; as the story is told from Rob's point of view, we get his way of viewing the world, and it is a hysterical combination of disbelief and confusion. Consequently, there's a slight undercurrent of panic to everything he recounts. It becomes clear throughout the novel that Rob is actually a very unhappy man, and we begin to understand why he is so bitter about the world. Yet at the same time as all this bitterness and cynicism, it's really funny; like Barry, Rob has begun to think in lists, and the entire novel is peppered with Top Fives - top five episodes from Cheers, top five foreign-language movies, top five recording artists, etc. There's just something about the way Rob thinks that translates amazingly well to the page; he's quietly confident sometimes, a good man most of the time and really acerbically witty all the time, but essentially he is weighed down by the same insecurities, fears and flaws as the rest of us. Rob is as a character who isn't just relatable, but believable.

What I enjoy so much about this novel - which is a bit unusual for me - is just how normal it is. There's no big, defines-the-novel climax; everything is careful and measured, interesting enough to hold your attention, but at a slow-enough pace to be representative of what life can be like. It's in the subject matter that the story gains it's appeal; the novel is about one man's love/hate relationship with the entirety of womankind. He doesn't understand them. He's always felt inferior in some way, either to these women, or as a result of a relationship with them. He can't live with them, but he can't live without them. It's a love story, but not a romantic story; Rob's slow-burning realisation of what Laura means to him, and the steps he takes to try to win her back, would not sweep many women off their feet. But this is why I love it; because so far it's the only book I've read which seems to be truly representative of the way men think. I don't know if men who have read this book would agree - I'd very much like to hear your views on it - but, if men are from Mars and women are from Venus, I feel like it's given me an insider's view on just how men work.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Rediscovering The Classics

Recently, I've mostly been reading new books - every now and then, I go a bit mad, and beg, steal or borrow whatever new reads I can get my hands on. I'm easily bored and distracted, you see, and there's usually nothing quite like a new book to anchor your attention. The most recent burst of newreaditis has been quite lengthy; it's encompassed locations as wide-ranging as Ancient Greece in Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, and the Old West with The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt. I've visited modern New York with Girl In Translation by Jean Kwok, walked across England in The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce and struggled across Nazi Europe in Random Acts Of Heroic Love by Danny Scheinmann. I've ridden through deserts with assassins and hidden in toilets with illegal workers; I've travelled with Austrian Jews, hiked with elderly gents and sailed with legendary warriors, and I've had a rip-roaring time of it. But, like all long journeys, I began to feel something like homesickness; I began, in literary terms, to yearn for my own bed, a proper cup of tea, and my mum's cooking.

I've discussed this subject before, in an previous entry titled The Lost Art of Re-Reading A Book, although then I focussed more on the literary benefits; you learn more about characters, you can discover new aspects of the plot, you can find new perspectives from which to view events. However, I was being a bit cold about it, if I'm honest, and at the time I hadn't actually re-read anything in flippin' ages even then. But, after my literary Odyssey, I chose for my Ithaca of a homecoming the sublime To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. It's one of my absolute favourite books of all time, for so many reasons, and I even wrote my recent review before I had actually finished reading the book for the umpteenth time - I just love it so much, and know it so well, I simply couldn't wait for it to end before I started writing. Once I was finished, however, I felt like I wanted more; the comfort I got from it was sustaining, but not quite enough.

So I have embarked on a journey of rediscovery, and you know what? I'm enjoying it as much as I enjoyed my little visits to new worlds, if not more so. There's something incredibly comforting about reconnecting with a beloved story, and if the books are like home, then the characters are like family; they make you laugh, some of them make you cry, others are so annoying they make you grind your teeth, and others still are your secret favourites; the ones you're always happiest to see, even if you'd never admit it. Streets in the towns of these books feel as familiar as your own hometown, and best of all, it never changes. When you come back home after a protracted absence, something has always changed; a new building has gone up, an old one has been torn down, a new shop has opened, a friend has moved away - but in books, everything and everyone is right where you left them, and that's a comforting stability that you rarely get now.

New books are always fantastic to read; you never know quite what you're going to get with them, and each new book you pick up, you could well be a discovering a new favourite. I love that feeling of opening a book for the first time, reading the first line and feeling my heart beat that little bit faster as I absorb the words; there's sometimes a flurry of anticipation and excitement that THIS is going to be one of those life-changing books, the ones that stay with you forever. However, there's something equally exciting about reaching for one with slightly browned pages, creases in the spine, curling corners. Arguably, the anticipation is greater, because you know what's coming. With an old favourite, you have bits to look forward to, bits to dread, bits that make you laugh before you even get to it. One that is always guaranteed to make me laugh is Spike Milligan's war memoirs, particularly Rommel? Gunner Who? There's an excellent bit in there in which Spike recalls an exchange between two fellow soliders:

'Our cook, Gunner May, a dapper lad with curly black hair and Ronald Colman moustace was doling out Porridge. He spoke with a very posh voice and Porridge.
"Where'd you get that accent Ronnie?" asked Gunner Devine.
"Eton old sausage."
"Well I'd stop eatin' old sausages," says Devine. With the flick of a wrist, May sends a spoonful of Porridge into Devine's eye.'

As far as humour goes, it's not big, it's not clever, it's probably not even that funny to those of you with more refined tastes than mine - but the first time I read it, I laughed so hard I had tears streaming down my face. Now, having read this exchange probably about fifty times, I still laugh so hard I cry - except the chuckles start about two pages earlier, when I realise what's coming, and if anything, it's this anticipation that makes the exchange all the funnier. It never gets old, and even better, because I'm laughing before I get there, the hilarity, for me, is prolonged. I love reading something for the first time, but the emotion of an exchange, or the wittiness (or not, in the example above) can only be heightened and improved by a re-read.

I was planning to get stuck into a list of Top 100 Books to read, in an effort to make myself more worthy of writing a blog about books. However, it appears that I've now got myself stuck in a bit of a nostalgia rut; you see, now I've started, I can't seem to stop. I've just finished High Fidelity by Nick Hornby for what seems like the bazillionth time - review to come at some point - and I'm currently a few chapters in to Company Of Liars by Karen Maitland, which is possibly the only horror book I've ever enjoyed. I thought I could stop there, but I've just had to add Rommel? Gunner Who? to the list, and whilst I'm thinking of slighty ridiculous non-fiction, I may as well throw McCarthy's Bar by Pete McCarthy in there as well. I thought I'd had enough of reading the same books, that I'd got bored, and that it was time to discover some new favourites; however, it  seems to be that - much like in real life - in the literary world, there's no place like home.

Dammit. Need to re-read The Wizard Of Oz by Frank Baum now.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Review: To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

This is one of my most favourite books ever. I've loved it since I was about fourteen, when I was too young to appreciate most of the themes covered in the story, and have read it so many times that now, when caught with a copy in my hand, I'm often greeted with an incredulous, 'you're reading it again?!' And yes, I am reading it again. I will always be reading it again, because I don't think there has been a better book written. My other favourite - Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day by Winifred Watson - is in a constant struggle for first place with To Kill A Mockingbird, because whilst I love the two more than anything else I've ever read, they offer me such different things that I can't really choose between them; Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day is a frivolous, feel-good, optimistic story that restores my faith in the notion that good things lie just around the corner. To Kill A Mockingbird is... something else entirely. I can't really describe it because there is so much to it; it's a political and social commentary on racism in the Deep South of 1930's America, and it's a coming-of-age story. In places it's a comedy, in others a tragedy, and sometimes it's a horror story. It covers adult themes, but is told through the eyes of a young, pre-teen girl - although much in the text suggests that the story is being recounted by the same girl, many years later. You can probably now see why I struggle to generalise it; unlike Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day, which I read for sheer indulgence and is, at heart, a forerunner for modern 'chick-lit', To Kill A Mockingbird is a timeless, ageless novel that I read not just because I enjoy it, but because I respect it.

I first came across To Kill A Mockingbird in the most unlikely of places; I can recall reading about it in a Babysitter's Club book. For those unfamiliar with the series, The Babysitter's Club focused around a group of teenage girls who have formed a mini-business, offering their babysitting services to their friends and families, naturally having all sorts of adventures and making all kinds of discoveries along the way. In the particular story I am thinking of - the actual title of which eludes me - the children's department of the local library is beset with a campaign by irate parents who wish to ban 'inappropriate' titles - of which To Kill A Mockingbird was one. I had absolutely no idea what the story was about, but as I was about eleven at the time, I figured any book that had a title with the word 'kill' in it was probably a bit inappropriate. It wasn't until sometime in secondary school - I can't remember which year - that I actually read To Kill A Mockingbird, and started to become fascinated with it.

The story recounts a number of years in the young life of a girl named Scout Finch, her brother, Jem, and a firiend, Dill, in a small town in Alabama in the 1930s. To begin with, the novel takes the usual turns a book told from a child's point of view would; there are plots, games, confrontations with the maid, Calpurnia, friendships and rivalries with both neighbours and classmates. The three become more aware of the world and people around them as the novel progresses and they start to grow up, but it is not until around a third of the way through the novel that the children are confronted with concerns beyond their years; their father, Atticus, a lawyer, is instructed by the state to defend a black man, Tom Robinson, who is accused of raping a white woman.

It's the narrative that makes this story; in the voice of Scout, Harper Lee successfully entwines a naive, childlike outlook on the world with the beneficial hindsight of age. We're both able to see events from a child's point of view, with the additional help of an adult's clarification. In a story that a child would not understand, yet is told from a child's point of view, many crucial plot points could have become vague and ambiguous. However, with the voice of the elder Scout, observations are made that, whilst subtle enough to pass as an almost conversational recollection, become not only clarifications for major events but also provide a stark contrast between the naivety of childhood and the wisdom of old age.

The trial of Tom Robinson is considered by many to be the main topic of the story; including the lead-up to the trial, and the fall-out afterwards, it does take up around a third of the novel, and given the themes it covers, it is as relevant now as it was when written. It is indeed a major plot point, for it is here that Scout and Jem are forced to finally confront the real face of their society. However, as far as I am concerned, it is merely the climax, and whilst it is a heavy, brutal climax at times, it is only the pinnacle to a period of growth that the two Finch children and Dill go through. There are several key plots throughout the story that contribute to their discovery that life is not divided as simply as black people and white people, adults and children, rich and poor. Their part in Mrs Dubose's final battle, their witnessing of their father's secret talent and the slow realisation of why Boo Radley won't come out is as crucial to the plot as their observation of the trial of Tom Robinson; people just remember the trial most, because the crime the accused supposedly commits - rape - is still as abhorrent and unforgivable now as it was then, whereas the racism depicted amongst the town elders is unacceptable now, but commonplace then.

I won't try to explain why I love this book; there's no point, because I don't know. What I can tell you, though, is that it embodies everything I love about literature. When I read To Kill A Mockingbird, I laugh, cry, fear, think, discover, pity, hate, love and question; everything that there is possible to feel, I feel when I read this book, and when I finish, it stays with me long after. I can never stay away from it very long, and yet despite so many repeat visits, it never disappoints; I never scoff at the dialogue between characters (a bad habit I have), I never question the part certain characters or storylines play, I never skip through bits I find boring or too horrible, and I always find myself reluctant to reach the end.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Review: The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt

This was an unusual choice for me; I knew it to be set in 1850's America, in the Old West, and as a general rule Westerns have never appealed to me. I think it's because no matter how much you romanticise it, the way in which the West was won was brutal to all - both for the Native Americans who lived there first, and for those first pioneers who struggled to get there, and I've never quite understood why people do romanticise it, considering the truth is so much more interesting. But another reason why I've shied away from such books is that - for me - they are set in a period of time that is too recent, historically. I know, I know, 160-odd years ago is hardly 'recent', but my personal interest in history tends to be a lot further back - I tend to lose interest around the time that politicians start running the world, as opposed to crazy monarchs (so, in British terms, around the Georgian era). All these little things meant that, for a time, I resisted picking this novel up. Yet there was something about the book that just drew me in; every now and then I encounter a book where I feel I should have no interest in it, yet I can't seem to avoid it - in an odd way, I feel like the book is following me. Eventually, I just went for it, and what followed was something completely at odds with anything I had anticipated.

The story centres around two notorious brothers, Charlie and Eli Sisters, who have been contracted to hunt down a gold prospector by their menacing employer, the Commodore. The two set off from Oregon City, where they are based, to San Francisco, where another employee of the Commodore - a scout called Morris - will be waiting to assist them on further details. However, things are - as always - not as simple as they seem. The novel is narrated from Eli's point of view, and straight off the bat you are aware that there is a noticeable difference between the two brothers; Eli seems gentler and quieter than his brother, and appears younger too - a sulk about a horse is particular evidence of this. Charlie, meanwhile, is more ruthless, wily and suited to this career path the two brothers have started down.

Because I was anticipating something entirely different, I was somewhat blindsided by the content. Now I think about it, I'm not entirely sure what I was expecting; more confrontations with Native Americans, I guess, and more shoot-outs in saloons. And there actually is all of that; but it's told in such a way that, what have become clich├ęd staples of the 'Old West' culture, become all at once unremarkable and almost normal. There's even a duel in the street, and yet even this becomes something of a non-event; you're paying more attention to the brothers' and their interaction with the other members of the onlooking crowd, than you do the life-or-death situation they're watching.

The brothers are difficult to understand; throughout the novel, you are reminded several times of the formidable reputation these two men have, and yet, because you have seen them in their more vulnerable moments, you cannot reconcile the notoriety of these men, with how you know them. For example, knowing that Charlie is petulant, and that Eli is something of a sulker, does not make it easy to think of them as infamous killers. Eli, in particular, is a well-written, complicated character; he confesses to moments of bloodlust, yet at the same time is saddened by the life he leads, and yearns for something simpler. Charlie, meanwhile, is more straight-forward; his ambitions do not take him from the path he is on, and so he has no qualms with anything he does, seeing it all as a means to an end. You get the impression that Charlie always sleeps well.

 On the surface, this is a story about greed; the lengths a man will go to to acquire wealth, women, fame. Nearly all of the characters are motivated entirely by want; the Commodore covets what the Prospector has discovered, whilst the Prospector wants gold, and the Sisters Brothers want whatever they can get, and more. However, this is really a story about brotherly love. As with so many novels, the true story lies in the actual journey, as opposed to the events that occur when the characters reach their destination. As we travel with the brothers, the precarious relationship between the two becomes increasingly apparent; Eli is a romantic at heart, reluctant to continue in his role of assassin and dreaming of a woman to love and a shop to own, whilst Charlie revels in the fame and fortune it brings, and seems perfectly content in his life. This disparity between the two naturally causes some disagreements, yet the two remain united in the face of much adversity; when challenged, they stand together, and when they fall, they fall together.

I'm not surprised to say I really enjoyed this book; I always suspected I would, so I can't entirely explain why I took so long to read it. To say I was expecting the usual Western nonsense would be a disservice to Patrick DeWitt, but I certainly wasn't expecting to be drawn in as much as I was, nor was I expecting the characters to be so human. I felt deeply sympathetic towards them both; Eli, for regretting following his brother down this path, and Charlie, for being on it at all. What becomes clear throughout the novel is that what they think they're after is not what they'll find, and that will cause them to question everything that has lead them to this point. Being set in the Old West becomes, as in all good stories, superfluous; it could've been set in Tudor England and still would've packed the same punch. It's not a drastically clever novel, and is fairly linear in it's plot - no surprising cliffhangers here -  but it has it's own nuances and twists that lend it a certain intrigue which mean that, whilst it isn't exactly fast-paced, you are left somewhat breathless by the end.

The Disappointments

I'm moving house soon, so thought it was time for a good clear-out; there's a surprising amount of stuff in what is actually quite a small flat, so it seemed as good a time as any to get rid of the clutter. I duly purged my wardrobe of all and any clothes that were too small, too old, rarely worn or just inexplicably in there, and either donated them or chucked them. Feeling cleansed, I then moved onto the books, which was a painful, and far less successful, attempt. In the end I only managed to whittle my collection down by nine volumes - and one of them is getting donated because I have two copies of it already (no one needs three versions of The Odyssey, especially when two are the same translation). It was a pathetic effort, but I did notice that, of those nine books, there are two pairs of books by the same authors, and one by an author I no longer care for. This lead me to muse on the subject of disappointing follow-ups, when you read a book that you think is brilliant, buy some others by the same author, and discover that actually, the first book was the best. So, now I present to you, my very own selection of The Disappointments - the authors who never lived up to the first read.

David Nicholls
The First Read: One Day
The Disappointments: Starter For Ten and The Understudy
 Before I get started, I should just clarify - I don't actually like One Day a great deal. I think the concept is excellent - each chapter focuses on the same date, over the course of twenty years, allowing you to follow the characters through their lives, with all the ups and downs they experience. I didn't like the characters, though - Emma was a bit annoying and Dexter was worse, and they kind of ruined the magic for me. However, it enchanted me enough with it's originality to make me want to read more by David Nicholls. Starter For Ten was the first one I read - focusing on a student's desperate attempts to simultaneously make it on to University Challenge and win the heart of his dream girl, it seemed like it would be an entertaining romance - far more so than I found One Day. But I didn't get on with it. I found the characters predictable, the plot a bit boring and just felt it was a bit of a non-event, really. Still, when my sister leant me The Understudy, I remained hopeful - maybe it would be third time lucky? Not so. Again, the plot was intriguing - a failing actor, who is convinced the big break that will propel him to stardom is just around the corner, suddenly finds himself the understudy (and reluctant friend) to a film star who is treading the boards for the first time. But again, I was a bit bored. The love story felt contrived and forced, the characters a little one-dimensional, and I felt that the overall plot was just a bit too bleak. In fact, I generally get that from Nicholls' books; in his determination to write something 'real', he seems to feel the need to deliver unnecessarily harsh blows to his characters, which, for me, doesn't really improve the narrative. I wouldn't ever say One Day is a favourite of mine, but I was sufficiently impressed by it - it's a shame the others were not so.

Karen Maitland
The First Read: Company Of Liars
The Disappointments: The Owl Killers and The Gallows Curse
I LOVE Company Of Liars. It's one of my favourite books ever. It's chilling, it has a fantastic plot, the characters are compelling, the pace never slackens and around every corner, there's a new twist. It's a rare horror story that I enjoy. Every time I read it, I discover something new, and even though I know the ending, I still find myself looking over my shoulder when reading it to make sure no one's there in the scary bits. So when I found The Owl Killers - the story of a group of women living together, who incur the wrath of the local population when they remain mysteriously untouched by plague - naturally, I snapped it up immediately. However, it was nothing like Company Of Liars; for starters, the plot felt clunky - there was too much going on, and not enough pace to propel it forward. I lost track of the actual plot a few times, and when the final, shocking climax eventually arrived - I was not shocked, and didn't even notice it was a climax until I'd already finished and realised there was nothing more to come. Still, The Gallows Curse might have more welly to it, so when that came out, I bought it too - and whilst it did have a more cohesive plot, and a bit more pace to it than The Owl Killers, I found it was still lacking in the same impact and chill-factor that I had found in Company Of Liars. I think the problem is, Maitland was trying to pull the same tricks with different plots, and it didn't work quite so well; if you keep writing the same kind of twists over and over, they become predictable, and cliffhangers aren't cliffhangers if you're expecting one.

Lisa Jewell
The First Read: Ralph's Party
The Disappointments: 31 Dream Street, The Truth About Melody Browne and After The Party 
Lisa Jewell has written nine books, and I have read all but one, the latest title. As regular readers may know from Books I Love To Hate, as a teenager I fell in love with her way of writing, and fell hard; in the beginning, she was funny, witty, observant and sharp. Her plots were original and her characters relatable. Ralph's Party is still my favourite, with it's messages of optimism, fate and hope, but there's a special place in my heart for A Friend Of The Family, a novel focusing around the lives of three brothers who are none of them where they feel they ought to be in life. For a long, long time, I bought nearly every book she's written - I think the only ones I don't own are Vince And Joy - which I did own, but was borrowed and never returned - One Hit Wonder, which I borrowed from the library and The Making Of Us, the latest publication, which I have avoided. Up until 31 Dream Street, I was perfectly satisfied with the relationship; she wrote cracking books, I happily devoured them time and again. It was good, we were happy. But 31 Dream Street, and the titles that followed, changed everything for me; I don't know whether I outgrew her, or if something had changed in her life to make her a bit more cynical, but the magic was gone from her novels. The Truth About Melody Browne sounded appealing - there's a cult, and family secrets - but turned out to be a bit dull, and After The Party almost ruined two of my favourite characters for me. I don't know what it was that changed everything, but the love affair is over.

Jasper Fforde
The First Read: The Eyre Affair
The Disappointments: Lost In A Good Book and The Well Of Lost Plots.
I think the problem I have with Jasper Fforde is that he's too clever with an already genius idea. The three novels listed above are all from a series about a literary detective called Thursday Next, and are set in an alternate universe which values literature very highly; there's a roaring trade in black market copies of classic novels, and so many people have changed their names to that of their favourite authors or characters, the authorities have had to insist on numbers being tacked onto the end, like a chatroom avatar (example: Mrs Dalloway32). The first in the series - The Eyre Affair - was a fast-paced adventure, with a race against time to save a beloved character and restore the plot of a classic to it's former glory - or something better. Being a bit of a book nerd (if you hadn't realised), I loved all the literary references and in-jokes, and enjoyed the little nuances that seperated that world from this; actual neanderthals who drive the buses, dodos that have been re-created as pets, airships instead of trains as the first option in cross-country travel. But the next two books in the series lacked the same panache; new characters aren't as compelling as the old, villains are less villainous and the plots are considerably - and unnecessarily - more complicated. Furthermore, even though they all seem to be books of roughly the same length, it still takes me longer to read the later ones than the first. I don't quite know what happened, but it seems Fforde is determined to out-do his first, excellent novel, with the result that there's an element of desperation around the others. It's a real shame as well; there's so much about the books that I find appealing, and if Fforde was maybe more focused on developing this world he has created, as opposed to make each book more action-packed than the last, it might work - as it happens, they are starting to feel over-done.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

My Library

The Angelica Library, Rome, Italy
Some of you may have heard about my intentions to, one day, have my very own library. In an ideal world, my library would look something like one of these, particularly the one pictured, or at least the library Beast gives to Belle in Disney's Beauty And The Beast. However, I am aware that such a library is going to be completely out of my grasp, unless I happen to stumble across a few billion quid on my way to work one day. But the dream isn't to have a huge, beautiful library; it's to have just a room, of my own, in which I can sit surrounded by my favourite tomes. Other people will be allowed in, of course - I won't have Mr Bennett from Pride And Prejudice's attitude of 'this is my room, keep out.' However, the single armchair in the room will probably be enough of a hint for most people.

Allow me to give you an imaginary tour of my dream library. You'll step in through a door and enter into a reasonably-sized rectangular room, and as you close the door behind you, you'll be standing in the bottom right corner. It's a big, bright room, as it has two windows; one on the wall to your far left, and one larger box window, which is in the centre of the wall opposite you. It's got a window seat covered with large, red cushions perfect for curling up on, and overlooks a garden. Big, heavy red curtains - much like Mrs Reed's in Jane Eyre - hang on either side, but the high ceilings and size of the window mean they are not too overpowering in the room. In the cold months, they will be pulled shut, making the room decidedly cosy. The smaller window can be covered by a light cream Roman blind, but mostly it'll be left open, as that window affords a view of the front path, so I can still see the comings and goings of the world outside. The floorboards have been stripped bare, and protected with a dark, almost black varnish, but a large cream rug in the centre of the floor helps lighten it. As you look around, you'll notice there's a fireplace, on the same wall as the door through which you have just entered, directly opposite the box window; it's not a big fireplace, with only room for a small log-burner, but that will be enough to heat the room in the winter months - it's not a huge room, after all. The mantlepiece is mostly bare, with the exception of a small plant, a photo and a small model of Michelangelo's David - if it has survived my butterfingers for so long - that a friend brought back from Rome for me many years ago. A painting - possibly one of my mother's, if she ever finishes any - will hang above.

My chair may have slightly fewer studs.
Besides the window seat, there is only one other chair; a red wingback, much like the one pictured. It sits just in front of the large window, facing the fireplace, and a small, dark wood table is stood next to it - this table is large enough to hold a single drink - be it a cup of tea in the morning, a lemonade in the afternoon or a glass of red in the evening - a small plate, so I can snack whilst I read, and whatever book I happen to be reading at the time.

Then of course, the bookshelves. This is, after all, a library, and it would not be a particularly good one without bookshelves, and books. There are no shelves on the wall with the fireplace or the door - not enough space, besides the potential warping the heat from the fire could cause. However, the other three walls, where they are not taken up by windows, are covered in dark cherry wood shelves that reach from about a foot from the ceiling - this is a room with very high ceilings, as this house is a Georgian build - and stop about two feet from the floor. Not just stopping in midair, of course; the rest are small cupboards, where games, boxes of photos and various other bits and bobs that don't always have a definitive home can all be kept. I quite fancy the idea of having a bust of Pallas sat on top of the shelves somewhere, a la Edgar Allen Poe's The Raven, but to tell the truth I'd be too scared of it and the possibility it might attract Lenore to the house, or a raven. Mostly, there's just dust up there.

Finally, the books. Given how my library appears, I imagine you'll probably expect them to all be leatherbound - but I'm no Ron Burgundy, and anyway, this library smells of cherry wood and the fireplace, not rich mahogany. My books are all as they are when they are bought, either from second-hand shops, or new-buys, or ones that somehow never quite made it back to the local library* (ahem). So, even though my library is decorated in manner more suited to a Dickensian gent, the covers of the books within are of a far more kaleidoscopic range of colour. Some may, indeed, be leatherbound, but the large majority will be dog-eared paperbacks, and hardbacks that have lost their dustjackets at some point. There will be every book I've accumulated over the years, from history books, to 'chick-lit', to fairytales, to good-old fashioned I-can't-put-this-down reads. If I have children, there'll be some shelves dedicated to their books, which will be a funny mix of ones I've saved from my own childhood and ones I've bought especially. There's only one proper chair in the room, but I'd happily share the space with anyone who wanted to.

It might seem like a very snobbish thing to want - especially when, in the case of some people, a luxury of a spare room at all is beyond their current reach - but it's a dream, and it's my own. I doubt it'll ever come true; apart from the fact that it'd cost a small fortune to kit a room out as I have imagined above, I just can't feasibly imagine I'll ever be in a position to even own a house big enough to have it's own library. But then, you never know: even now, I am on the verge of achieving something like this dream - a room in a house that I can dedicate to books - and whilst it won't look anything like my dream library, it'll still be my library, and really, that's all I care about. So long as there's a chair, a table and I'm surrounded by books, I'll be happy.

*DISCLAIMER: I've never actually stolen books from any library. I don't intend to either - if I was going to turn to a life of crime, I'd kind of hope it'd be more interesting than nabbing books I already have free access to.