Friday, 21 November 2014

Blogging Break Reads

Whilst I wasn't blogging over the last month or so, I was most definitely still reading.  Here are some quick thoughts on the titles I finished:

Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch

Peter Grant thinks he is headed for a dull life of police paperwork when he finds himself interviewing a ghost following a murder in central London.  This leads him to Chief Inspector Nightingale, the last wizard in England, and the person in charge of policing the parallel, magical London.  The number of gruesome murders across the city is increasing, and it's up to Grant and Nightingale to find out and apprehend the supernatural culprit.

I had high hopes going into this book, as it's the first of a very well regarded series, but I was disappointed.  I liked the urban fantasy atmosphere and the originality of the supernatural elements, but ultimately this book was too much crime, too little fantasy for me.  I wasn't interested in solving the crime alongside Peter and as a result the pages dragged.   This one has been donated to the charity shop, and I won't be continuing with the series.
2.5 out of 5

A Little History of Literature by John Sutherland

I love the Little History series, and this literature based volume did not disappoint.  Covering everything from Greek myths to the future of printed books, this book is divided into short, bite-sized chapters that give an overview of authors and trends from the Western canon.  There's also chapters dealing with the development and history of the publishing industry.

I studied science at university, so I was missing a general overview of the history of literature, and this book filled that gap nicely. It's perfect to dive in and out of, as each chapter only takes a few minutes to read. Although I would have liked to have seen more on non-Western literature, I loved this book as it inspired me to pick up more classics.  Highly recommended.
5 out of 5

The Impressionist by Hari Kunzru

Pran Nath is the son of an Indian woman and English man.  Throughout his life he experiences being a privileged son, a cast out, exploited in a backstreet brothel, a political pawn, a student at Oxford university and finally an anthropologist.  Pran is able to flit between these roles effortlessly, assuming new identities, but what are the consequences of lacking a true identity?

This book is truly epic in scale, covering three countries and a dazzling array of side characters.  It's also utterly engrossing, mainly for the minor characters and the settings, which are bought vividly to life.  I really enjoyed this for the story, but have a feeling I missed some of the deeper meanings involving post-colonialist identity.
4 out of 5

The Dragon Reborn by Robert Jordan

The third volume in Jordan's epic fantasy series, The Wheel of Time. This series is a bit of a guilty pleasure for me.  Objectively, I know there is lots to dislike about it - the repetitive descriptions, the fantasy clich├ęs, the gender stereotypes, the unnecessary, pace-slowing detail - but I just can't help but find this series utterly compelling.  It's just wonderful escapism, especially now Jordan has broadened the world somewhat and introduced new places in this volume.

I wouldn't recommend this series to everyone, and I'm not even sure why I like it so much, but like it I do.

4 out of 5

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Changing Things Up on the Blog

Pile of books in Mr Tulk © Mark Chew
Image Source
I started this blog four and a half years ago, and it has always been a book related blog.  I wrote my early posts during my first year of being a fully qualified teacher, and it was a way for me to switch off from the chaos of having my first class, and devote time to my favourite hobby of reading.  I was delighted to discover that book blogging was a thing, and to slowly build up a community of readers to share thoughts and recommendations with.  For a little while I did get distracted by stats and review copies, but this blog has always been foremost about having a community of blogging friends, quality interactions rather than numbers.

For a few years, I  just posted reviews.  It was rare for me to take part in memes or post hauls, and I kept my personal life strictly off the blog.  My motto in this regard has always been to never post anything that I wouldn't want the parents of the children I teach to see, if they happened to stumble across my blog.  I am a bit jealous of bloggers who have more posting freedom, but at the same time I wouldn't want to be someone who put everything on the internet for anyone to see.

As the years went by, the more I realised that what I enjoyed about blogging wasn't necessarily writing reviews, but interacting with other bloggers, that I had come to regard as my friends.  I opened up a bit and started posting weekly personal updates, as well as experimenting with Twitter and Instagram.  Again, I still have to be very careful about what I post, but I love that I'm now actually getting to know other bloggers, rather than just talking about books.  Talking about books is great, but getting to know other bookish people is so much better.

Ever since having my baby boy five months ago, I've been struggling with my blog and where to take it.  Part of that is due to time restrictions - I simply do not have the same amount of time to read and review any more.  When I return to work, I suspect I will have even less time, just snatches of time in the evenings when Giles has gone to bed and my planning/marking is completed.  I'm also finding that reading is taking up less of my mental space; I'm still a big bookworm and suspect I always will be, but I haven't got the mental energy to keep book blogging at the pace I was.

But I do still want to blog.  I love having something that is just for me, and the creative outlet of writing posts is good for me.  So I've decided to open up my blog even more.  I will still be posting about my reading (although maybe not one dedicated review per book), and reading related topics, but I'll also be writing about whatever takes my fancy too.  There might be baby posts, cookery posts, posts about my cat, or photos from trips we have taken together, or just random ponderings.  The only thing I won't ever post about is teaching.  I hope that this way I can carry on blogging and keep in touch with everyone that I've met through my blog.

Have you ever considered changing the way you blog?

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Sam Sunday #60: Hopefully I'm Back

So this little blog has become rather neglected over the past month or so.  There are quite a few reasons, the main one being that there are things going on in my private life that I'm not comfortable sharing with the internet, and I haven't really felt up to posting much.  Me, Tom and Giles are all well, but it's been a tricky couple of months.  Giles is also what our Health Visitor refers to as a 'velcro baby', in other words he protests loudly at being put down, even if he is asleep.  It's not often that I have two hands free for long enough to put together a post!

Speaking of Giles, he is going to be five months old in just a couple of days and I can't believe it.  He is still a big bundle of energy that doesn't stop going from the moment he wakes up to the moment he falls asleep.  He is so completely determined that he will be mobile as soon as possible; he's already pulling himself up to standing, rolling all over the place and pushing himself along the floor.  I have a feeling I'm going to spend the next ten or so years running around after him, he is going to be a terror when he learns how to crawl!

Now that he is going to sleep at a decent time every evening, I'm getting in much more reading time. I have a post planned in a couple of weeks detailing what I've read whilst I've not been blogging, but basically I've been mood reading and completely enjoying my reading freedom.  In fact, I'm enjoying it so much that I've decided to completely stop receiving or requesting review copies and just focus on what is on my shelves.

As I've been away for so long, I'd love to hear what everyone has been up to.  I've missed all of my blogging buddies!

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton

Ava Lavender is the daughter of a woman scorned in love and the granddaughter of a woman haunted by the ghosts of her past.  She also happens to have wings, which she was born with.  In The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, Ava traces the history of the women in her family, and the ways in which love in all its forms has caused them pain.  Their stories lead naturally on to her own, as her wings make her the focal point of a dangerous obsession.

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender is an unusual book that is hard to describe.  The thing I enjoyed most about it was the quirky tone and narrative voice.  Walton's world just hints at the magical, and at the fairy tale, a world in which wings, ghosts, children with different coloured eyes, and cakes infused with the feelings of the baker, are possible.  I love books with atmospheres like this - our normal world painted in vivid technicolour.  Ava Lavender is as a result a very visual book, and one that would be great turned into a film.

I mentioned above that this story is a bit like a fairy tale, and therefore there is a darker side lurking underneath the surface.  Emilienne and Viviane (Ava's mother and grandmother) are troubled by love in rather ordinary ways, but Ava really experiences the darker side of obsessive love.  The later sections of the novel deal with brutal events, which seem even harsher set against the imaginative setting. I found what happened to Ava to be problematic, not because I don't think violence against women shouldn't be written about, but because there was a glamour to the scene.  Ava's sorrows are beautiful, it's all in the title, and her attack and it's consequences are written about in the same, fairytale, beautiful-tragic way.  When really it's just tragic and there are fewer things in life that would feel less beautiful.  I'm sure this was completely unintentional, but it still bothered me.

I found that I connected with Emilienne and Viviane better than Ava herself, as Ava remained a bit of a mystery throughout the novel.  I particularly connected with Viviane's story, her years spent pining after a lost love that didn't really turn out to be a love after all.  Including all three women in the narrative was definitely a good decision.

On the whole, I did enjoy The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender.  The writing style and the magical elements worked fantastically together, and it was a pleasure to pick up.  Fans of Sarah Addison Allen will enjoy this one.

Source: From the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.
Published: 2014
Score: 3.5 out of 5

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Jacob Jankowski is a veterinary student about to sit his final exams when he receives the devastating news that his parents have been killed.  Desperate and unable to cope, he hitches a ride on a freight train that turns out to house the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth.  The circus has fallen on hard times due to the Great Depression but Jacob's background ensures him a job as the circus vet.  Jacob is seduced by the exotic animals, glamour and romance of the circus life, but there are darker currents running underneath the sequins and glitter.  When he falls in love with married performer Marlena and the circus acquires Rosie the elephant, Jacob finds himself tested.

As always, I bought this book when it was surrounded by a lot of hype but then failed to read it in a timely manner.  I also failed to see the film, so I went into Water for Elephants with completely fresh eyes.  I was expecting a light, sentimental type read, and that's exactly what it was.  Even though Water for Elephants discusses some heavier themes such as animal cruelty, murder and the brutality of circus life, it does so in a Spielberg-esque way that left me in no doubt that things would be OK in the end.  It's like life without the sharp edges, and it makes for comfortable if not challenging reading.

My favourite element of Water for Elephants was the setting.  I'm not surprised this novel was turned into a film, as it's so visually evocative of both the time period and of the circus.  I could almost smell the popcorn and taste the excitement that the circus bought to the dreary towns it stopped in.  I also really enjoyed the character of Marlena, who had more guts than I initially took her to have.  The bits dealing with Rosie and the other animals made me want to try Gruen's novel Ape House, as I liked the way the animals were characters in themselves.

However, there were some flaws.  Jacob falls in love with a married woman, which could have made for some interesting complexity in the novel, but Gruen shies away from this by making her husband to be a bad guy.  This seemed a little too convenient for the plot.  As I mentioned above, there's never any doubt that things will end well for Jacob, and this takes away some of the tension.   Despite this, Water for Elephants is a really fun, escapist read.  I loved immersing myself in the world of the circus for a while.

Source: Personal copy
First Published: 2006
Edition Read: Two Roads, 2011
Score: 3.5 out of 5

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Everyday Sexism by Laura Bates

In 2012 after being sexually harassed on London public transport Laura Bates, a young journalist, started a project called Everyday Sexism to collect stories for a piece she was writing on the issue. Astounded by the response she received and the wide range of stories that came pouring in from all over the world, she quickly realised that the situation was far worse than she'd initially thought. Enough was enough. From being leered at and wolf-whistled on the street, to aggravation in the work place and serious sexual assault, it was clear that sexism had been normalised. Bates decided it was time for change.  (from Goodreads).

Everday Sexism is a thoroughly depressing and yet important book.  Bates has collated the normal, run-of-the-mill experiences of countless  women, on a range of topics, and together it makes for pretty grim reading.  I was shocked to find out that one in three girls from 16-18 have experienced unwanted sexual touching at school, that women are still missing out on jobs in case they decide to take maternity leave, and that the unemployment rate for men in the recession has increased by only 0.32%, whilst for women it has jumped by almost 20%.  The statistics were shocking enough, but what makes this book more powerful is that Bates includes the individual stories of the women that have tweeted her and posted on the everyday sexism website.   I could identify with so many of the experiences - the newlywed woman being asked when she is going to start having babies, the pregnant woman who only ever gets asked about her pregnancy, and the teenage girls who know they are more than their looks, but can't escape their insecurities.   Bates also shows how these experiences are normalised in the context of 'banter', with women who protest to e.g. sexual comments getting responses like "can't you take a joke?" or "you should be flattered."

I think the chapter that made the most depressing reading was the one concerning teenage girls.  I was lucky enough to be a teenager before the internet was everywhere (the days of dial-up), and I'm sure that it's so much harder now social media means that sexual bullying is common.  I was shocked to read about the amount of rape jokes reported in secondary schools, but when I asked my husband about it (he's a secondary school teacher), his experience matched those in the book.  When I was at school, boys might have joked about how girls looked, and that is cruel, but to be the subject of jokes about raping you, or what they want to do to you, or to have private photos shared - I can't imagine how hard that must be.  Bates reports on the girls that have committed suicide as a result of all these things.

I've always known that if I had a girl, I would raise her to be a feminist, to value herself for more than her looks, and to know that she can do anything that she wants to do.  Reading Everyday Sexism, I've realised that it is just as important for me to raise my son to respect women, to see them as more than objects, but as friends, colleagues, partners and equals.  I don't care if my son wants to cry when he is upset or play with dolls, and I certainly will try my best to ensure that he judges men and women in the same way, as people.  

I'd definitely recommend Everyday Sexism.  It's depressing reading at times, but does end on a note of hope, with stories of how women are starting to protest against the current culture, and how things could change for the better.

Source: Personal copy (kindle)

Published: April 2014
Score: 5 out of 5

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

The Bellwether Revivals by Benjamin Wood

Oscar is a care assistant working at a nursing home in Cambridge. Despite being very intelligent, his academic career was cut short and he has always dreamed of attending one of the famous colleges near by.  One night, he finds himself drawn into a concert by the haunting sound of the organ, and there he meets Iris Bellwether, a medical student at King's College.  Through his relationship with Iris, Oscar becomes part of a group of students revolving around Iris' brother Eden, a gifted musician.  Eden is charismatic, bizarre, brilliant and perhaps a little insane.  As Eden begins to develop strange and possibly dangerous theories about the power of his music, Iris reaches out to Oscar for help.  Is Eden a great genius, or will his arrogance and instability damage the group?

I should start this review by pointing out that I've never read The Secret History or Brideshead Revisited, although plenty of other reviewers have noted similarities to these titles.  I went into The Bellwether Revivals with fresh eyes and I found it a bit of a mixed bag.  There were parts I loved, and parts where the narrative seemed to drag a bit.  Mostly, I loved the setting and the characterisation of Eden.  I'll read pretty much anything set at Oxbridge or amongst privileged individuals (I know, I really do need to get to The Secret History). so I was guaranteed to love this part of the book, the exams and colleges, textbooks and bicycles, grand houses and wealthy parents.  Wood's Cambridge has a slightly gothic atmosphere as well, which only added to my enjoyment of the setting.

The characterisation of Eden was superb too.  Wood perfectly captures that kind of person who is either manically clever or completely insane.  Eden has a magnetic personality that draws other people to him and his charisma is almost a force.  I enjoyed all the little details about Eden, like his notebooks full of scrawling, his air of superiority towards Iris, and the crazed way he plays the organ.  Wood keeps plenty of ambiguity about Eden, so you're not quite sure whether he is what he says he is throughout the novel.  Although Eden was such a well developed character, some of the others felt flatter.   Oscar was a bit of a bright-boy-held-back-by-working-class-family stereotype, and some of Eden's friends (Jane and Marcus particularly) just seemed to be there to make up numbers.

My main issue with The Bellwether Revivals was one of pace.  The book opens and closes with the same dramatic event, but the middle section felt a bit heavy by comparison.  I was keen to keep reading to find out what was going to happen, and I enjoyed the big reveal at the end, but it felt like I had to wait a long time to get there.  I'm not sure what Oscar's favourite patient Dr Paulsen added to the narrative; I know he had to be there for the plot to work, but his sections could have been cut considerably.

On the whole, The Bellwether Revivals was a worthwhile read.  If you enjoy books with academic settings or mysteries, you're sure to like this one.

Source: Personal copy
First Published: 2012
Score: 3.5 out of 5