Monday, 22 July 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 1 July 2013

Review: The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

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

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

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

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

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

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