Tuesday, 31 July 2012

The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

It's 1914 and newlywed Grace Winter is travelling to New York on board the Empress Alexandra when it begins to sink.  Her husband, Henry, manages to secure a place for her on a lifeboat that is already over capacity.  As the days pass and those on board the lifeboat wait to be rescued, they come to the realisation that for anyone to live, some of them will have to die.  The passengers break into groups and malicious gossip starts to spread as everyone tries desperately to save themselves at the expense of others.  Grace has to decide which dominant personality she will support -  Hardie, a sailor, or the powerful Mrs Grant, who already has the backing of all the women on board.  Grace ends up on trial for murder in New York, but did she commit the crime?

I thoroughly enjoyed The Lifeboat and sped through it in just two days.  It's a short, tightly paced novel where not a word is wasted.  I tend to enjoy books that examine human nature in times of difficulty, so it was fascinating to see how the passengers changed as the threat to their survival increased.  We may all think of ourselves as considerate and humane, but no one truly knows how they will react in a situation like this until it happens and for some of the passengers, the veneer of civilisation was stripped away completely.  It became about power politics, about being in a group of passengers that could command power over everyone else.  Of course, the view of humanity wasn't completely bleak, but it was the most survival-minded that lived long enough to be rescued.

Rogan's writing was simple but effective. I appreciated that she dove straight into the story rather than filling the first few chapters with background about Grace.  Starting with Grace in jail was a good hook, it made me want to read on to find out whether she deserved to be there or not.  I also liked how Rogan made Grace an unreliable narrator; the story is set up as though you are reading her diary, but there are quite a few gaps and errors in her account that are contested by other passengers later on.  If anything, I wanted to see this theme further developed - I wanted it made very clear that Grace was not to be trusted and I wanted some closure as to who exactly was telling the truth at the end.

One criticism I will make of this book is that it was a bit tame.  Maybe it's because I've read Jamrach's Menagerie recently, which also deals with survival after a shipwreck, but Rogan seems to shy away from what survival would actually entail.  Grace complains of hunger and weakness but we never really feel the desperation and despair of the lifeboat passengers.  I was expecting things to get a lot more grim than they did before the survivors were rescued.  Jamrach's Menagerie was a bold, direct look at survival at all costs, The Lifeboat was more polite and more focused on the moral implications and decisions rather than the physicality of surviving.  Out of the two, I preferred Jamrach's Menagerie although I still enjoyed The Lifeboat.

Overall, I found The Lifeboat to be an impressive debut novel and I'll be looking out for the next book that Charlotte Rogan writes.

Source: Library
First Published: 2012
Score: 4 out of 5 

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel

In the sequel to the Booker prize winning Wolf Hall, Thomas Cromwell has enabled King Henry to marry Anne Boleyn but not everything has worked out as he had hoped.  Although Anne has given birth to the Princess Elizabeth, she's had many miscarriages and seems unable to bring a child to term.  Worse, the English people haven't accepted Anne as rightful Queen and relations with Rome are at an all time low.  When Henry spends time at Wolf Hall and notices Jane Seymour, Cromwell seizes his chance to both help the King and take revenge on those who have acted against him in the past.  As he works to bring about the final days of Anne Boleyn and her courtiers, Cromwell makes new allies and seeks even greater power.

I should start this review by mentioning that I was ambivalent towards Wolf Hall.  I know it was loved by many bloggers but I found it a stuffy and tedious read that was hard to get through. I'm pleased to report that many things that I found difficult about Wolf Hall were not present in Bring Up The Bodies; the pacing was tighter, the pronoun use was clearer and there was more action in the story.  Like Wolf Hall, one thing I admired was how Mantel has taken a well known and much written about period of history and made it fresh and relevant. There is no screen of sentimentality, it feels as though Mantel is writing about how it must have been like to actually live then, rather than just look back on it.

Thomas Cromwell is a fascinating character.  I admired his slyness and intelligence in Wolf Hall, but he takes it to new levels in Bring Up The Bodies.  It becomes clear that this is a man who never forgets a thing, who watches all of those around him and is always poised, waiting for the right moment to strike at his enemies. This can come across as downright chilling;

"Would Norris understand if he spelled it out?  He needs guilty men.  So he has found men who are guilty.  Though perhaps not guilty as charged."

Overall, there was much I admired about Bring Up The Bodies.  In my opinion, it was a tighter, more successful novel than Wolf Hall.  But despite admiring the characterisation and the writing, reading this book just wasn't a pleasurable experience for me.  I've been thinking about it over the last few days and I can't quite put my finger on why, but reading Bring Up The Bodies was an effort.  I never wanted to pick the book up and it seemed to take forever to get through it.  Enjoyment is such a big part of the reading experience for me, so even though I admired the book, it fell short at this vital hurdle.  I know I'm in a minority on this one, but I didn't enjoy reading it, it just didn't 'click' with me.  I doubt I'll pick up the third volume in the series when it is released.

Source: Library
First Published: 2012
Score: 3.5 out of 5

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Library Haul

Regular readers will know that despite having a TBR pile numbering into the hundreds and review commitments, I can't stay away from the library.  I have managed to cut my book spending dramatically, but my library habit means my TBR pile still isn't getting read.  I especially can't resist the library when I'm on summer holiday, and can spend a leisurely morning in there browsing my way along the shelves.  Here's my loot, all impulse picks rather than reservations:


1. The Vampire Lestat by Anne Rice - I read Interview with the Vampire whilst on honeymoon in New Orleans and had a mixed reaction to it, mainly because of Louie and his whining.  But Lestat is a much cooler character, so I'm excited to read this volume in the series.  Gorgeous cover.
2. The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan - I've been seeing this everywhere on blogs and was very surprised to see my library had a copy I could pick up, rather than go on a long reservation list for.  Love the blue colour on the edge of the pages too, this is a lovely edition.
3. The Constant Gardener by John Le Carre - Loved this film of this and wanted to try something outside of my reading comfort zone.  Looking forward to starting this.


4. Baking Made Easy by Lorraine Pascale - I actually got a few cookbooks but I thought I would share this one as it contains a recipe I am very excited to make - Mojito Genoise Cake.  It's our first wedding anniversary tomorrow and I'm making it for my husband as a treat.
5. Ghost Train to the Eastern Star by Paul Theroux - I'm a sucker for a good travel book and couldn't resist this one about a train journey east to Asia from London.
6. Empires of the Indus by Alice Albinia - This is part travel, part history as the author travels along the Indus river and explains it's role throughout history.

So, plenty to be going along with in the next few weeks!
Have you read any of these books?  If so, what did you think of them?

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Across A Bridge of Dreams by Lesley Downer

In nineteenth century Japan, the Southern clans have risen against the Northern and claimed victory.  In the new capital of Toyko, reform is on the way as Western ideas such as eating meat, changing style of dress and the destruction of the Samurai class take precedent over tradition.  Taka is the daughter of General Kitaoka from the Southern Satsuma clan and is able to escape her fate as the daughter of a geisha by enrolling in a new Western school.  One of the servants in their household is Nobu, a boy from the Northern Aizu clan who would have been a Samurai but instead must eke out a living any way he can.  The two become close but must keep their friendship a secret.

When General Kitaoka returns to the South in anger at the corruption in the new government, things become dangerous for Taka and Nobu.  The Satsuma clan are planning another rebellion and Nobu joins the Japanese government army to fight them.  Taka is being pressurised into an arranged marriage by her mother and soon war breaks out with dangerous consequences.  Nobu is in the impossible position of fighting the Satsuma whilst trying to protect Taka and look to the future all at the same time.

Unfortunately, I was underwhelmed by Across a Bridge of Dreams.  To start with the positives, it was clear that Downer had completed a considerable amount of research into Japan at this time and that shone through the writing.  I knew nothing about the Satsuma rebellion and appreciated learning about it through the story.  The different settings in Japan were clearly evoked with the more tropical South being distinct from Tokyo and the geisha districts.  There were fantastic little bits of information that added historical accuracy, for example the fact that married women used to blacken their teeth or explanations about the honor of being a samurai wife or daughter.

I also liked the characterisations.  I often find that the female characters in historical fiction have modern ideas and this can be jarring.  Taka did have modern ideas, wanting to marry for love and resisting an arranged marriage, but in this case it made perfect sense as she had been sent to a Western school and experienced freedom.  The female characters as a whole were well developed and interesting.

Where I think Across a Bridge of Dreams fell down was that it was completely missing grit.  I didn't mind the romance but it needed to be more balanced with sections about the harsh reality of war.  Downer did write about war and touched on some horrific scenes, but everything felt too light and fluffy, especially when you compare her writing with someone like Lisa See's.  As a result, I never felt scared for Taka or Nobu or fully engaged in the story.  There was a sense throughout that everything would work out well in the end, which ruins any suspense.

Downer also relied on some pretty fortuitous circumstances to keep reuniting Taka and Nobu throughout the story.  I know they needed to meet to move the plot along but the situations felt very  unlikely to occur in war time.  Nobu also keep running into Taka's brother out of all the soldiers in the Satsuma rebellion, something that also felt contrived and thus took some enjoyment away from reading the story.  Without spoiling the ending, it felt too neat and too 'easy', given that Downer had spent so long previously in the story explaining the enmity between Satsuma and Aizu clans.

So Across a Bridge of Dreams was a mixed bag of positives and negatives.  Unfortunately it didn't live up to my expectations.

First Published: 2012
Score: 2.5 out of 5

Read Alongside:
1. The Calligrapher's Daughter by Eugenia Kim - Another strong female character, this time in Korea.  Kim deals with changing culture under Japanese rule very well.
2. Shanghai Girls by Lisa See - This is how I wanted to see Downer deal with the reality of war.  I love all the Lisa See books I've read so far, but Shanghai Girls is my favourite.

Monday, 23 July 2012

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is the first volume of Maya Angelou's autobiography and deals mainly with her childhood in the rural town of Stamps, Arkansas.  Sent to her grandmother after her parents separate, Maya and her brother come of age in a Southern small town in the 1930s where segregation is total and racism everywhere.  At eight, Maya moves to St Louis to live with her mother and is raped by her mother's new boyfriend before later experiencing new freedoms as a teenager in California.

I've been meaning to read this book for the longest time and it certainly lived up to my expectations.  Angelou writes in a very simple way but her writing is extraordinarily evocative of place.  Whether it was the general store in Stamps, the gambling clubs in St Louis or the slums of California, I felt as though I was right there with Angelou.  She even manages to capture the atmosphere of each setting and infuse them with a sense of time and history.

There were some fantastic character portraits too.  I enjoyed the sketch of the cotton pickers lining up at dawn outside the store full of optimism but back later in the evening with half empty sacks and wounded hands, full of worry about how they would feed their family through winter.  Maya writes without judgement, which means she can provide a balanced portrayal of her mother, who wants to be a good mum but who is caught up in the excitement and glamour of life.  Of course the character of Maya's grandmother comes through very strongly as she was the person who had the most impact on the young Maya.  Her pride, strength and values are clear to see.

Even though this book deals with a lot of 'issues', I was pleased to see that it was also a coming of age story.  Whilst racism, crime and rape are dealt with powerfully by Angelou, at it's heart I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is about the universal experience of growing up and contains hope as well as hardships.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading it but did find the ending a bit abrupt.  I know there are several other volumes in the autobiography but it would have been nice if this volume had a more complete ending, rather than just suddenly stopping at a new life event.

Recommended to everyone that's not had a chance to read it yet, this is an important book.

Source: Personal copy
First Published: 1983
Score: 4 out of 5

Sunday, 22 July 2012

A Suitable Boy Readalong Starts Tomorrow!

Just a reminder for those of you wanting to join in that the A Suitable Boy readalong starts tomorrow, Monday 23rd July.  Here's a recap of the schedule:

Book 1 : 1.1 to 7.46 (July to August)
Book 2 : 8.1 to 13.38 (August to September)
Book 3 : 14.1 to 19.16 (September to October).
Being bad about sticking to reading rules, I've already had a sneaky read of the first four chapters, set at a wedding arranged by Lata's mother, Mrs Rupa Mehra.  If these four chapters are anything to go by, the book is going to be vibrant, well written and events are going to move at a brisk pace for the size of the book.  I was surprised at how quickly lightness of skin and caste were mentioned as themes in the novel, and at how I can already see ideological differences between the older and younger generations.

As I'm now on school holidays, I'm looking forward to spending some time settled down with this book.  If you're joining us, hope you enjoy the first month of reading!

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

More intimidating in the flesh!

I posted a few weeks ago about a reading slump and how I had sourced a collection of sixteen Dickens books in gorgeous editions as a motivation to get on and read.  And more than that, get on and read quality books over the summer holidays.

Well.  My collection arrived today and safe to say sixteen Dickens books are much more intimidating in the flesh than they are on a computer screen.  So bulky, such thin paper, such a small font!  They do look good all together but I think I will be working on this collection for quite some time.....

In other news, my summer holidays start in just two days time.  I can not wait!

Monday, 16 July 2012

The Caliph's House by Tahir Shah

Tahir Shah is one of my favourite writers.  His love letter to Morocco, In Arabian Nights, is up there amongst the books I treasure because it perfectly invokes the magic, mysticism and wonder that I picture when I think of bazaars, spice markets, coffee houses, winding alleyways, snake charmers and Eastern story-telling.  So it was with high expectations that I picked up a copy of The Caliph's House, his earlier book, in the library.  It's an account of the first year Shah and his family spent in Casablanca, renovating a dilapidated traditional house and attempting to fit in with the locals.

Unfortunately, not all of my expectations were met.  In many ways, The Caliph's House is a wonderful book full of simple but absorbing writing and Shah certainly does a good job at describing Casablanca and Morocco itself.  Although there are sketches included, they aren't really necessary as, reading the book, I felt as if I was actually there with Shah and his family.  The culture of the Moroccans (for example their belief in Jinns) is described with respect but a gentle humour that shows the high regard Shah has for his adopted country.

As someone who has often daydreamed about packing everything in and moving to an exotic location, I enjoyed reading about the renovation of the house and how the traditional Moroccan artisans worked.  But this was also where I felt the book fell down a bit; Shah's writing is much more suited to stories and atmospheres, not practicalities like finding a carpenter or fixing a sewerage pipe.  The passages about the Moroccans and his visits around the country were enchanting, but the renovation sections seemed to drag.  There's only so many times I needed to read about workers not turning up on time or the guardians of the house panicking about something the resident Jinn might or might not have done.

All that is not to say The Caliph's House isn't a wonderful book - it is.  It's just that In Arabian Nights is better (more about Morocco, less about house renovation) and I happened to read that first.  The Caliph's House was worth reading for the descriptions and for the friendships Shah struck up with some of the Moroccans in the slum bordering his house; I had a soft spot for the refined stamp collector, Hicham.  I look forward to reading some of Shah's other books in the future, particularly In Search of King Solomon's Mines and Trail of Feathers, about Peru.

I'm going to end this review with my favourite passage from the book:
"I was tired of our meagre existence and the paltry size of our flat, where the warring couple next door plagued us through paper-thin walls.  I wanted to escape to a house of serious dimensions, a fantasy inspired by the pages of the Arabian Nights, with arches and colonnades, towering door fashioned from aromatic cedar, courtyards with gardens hidden inside stables and fountains, orchards of fruit trees, and dozens and dozens of rooms."

Source: Library
First Published: 2006
Score: 3.5 out of 5

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Group Read: A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth

On Tuesday, I posted my list of Top Ten books I have been meaning to read for years, and one of them was Vikram Seth's masterpiece about India, A Suitable Boy.  It turns out that I'm not the only one who has wanted to read this book for a while as Jo from JoV's Book Pyramid got in touch and we decided to read the book together for encouragement.  Soon Aths (Reading on a Rainy Day) and Ana (What I Have Been Reading) were also involved and it turned into a proper read-a-long.

Here's the Goodreads synopsis:
"Vikram Seth's novel is, at its core, a love story: Lata and her mother, Mrs. Rupa Mehra, are both trying to find -- through love or through exacting maternal appraisal -- a suitable boy for Lata to marry. Set in the early 1950s, in an India newly independent and struggling through a time of crisis, A Suitable Boy takes us into the richly imagined world of four large extended families and spins a compulsively readable tale of their lives and loves. A sweeping panoramic portrait of a complex, multi ethnic society in flux, A Suitable Boy remains the story of ordinary people caught up in a web of love and ambition, humor and sadness, prejudice and reconciliation, the most delicate social etiquette and the most appalling violence."

Sounds good, right?  We're reading the book on a schedule that works out to roughly 500 pages each month.

Starting Date: Monday 23rd July 2012.

Book 1 : 1.1 to 7.46 (July to August)
Book 2 : 8.1 to 13.38 (August to September)
Book 3 : 14.1 to 19.16 (September to October).

After each book, we'll all be posting an update on our impressions of the book so far and our reading experience.   I'm excited to start as the book contains many themes that I love to read about; the Indian setting, the establishment of post-Partition India, the personal lives of the characters contrasted with the life of society, romance and family life, politics etc.

This is going to be a very casual read-a-long so you're all welcome to join us if you like the sound of the book.  Although there is a schedule for reading, you can post as little or as much as you like and just join in whenever you feel like it.  All you need to do to join is drop me or any of the other bloggers a comment and then repost the image on your blog to advertise (you can find it on my flickr stream here). I'd love to get as many people involved as possible, this is a big book so it's perfect for the encouragement that a read-a-long offers.
Will you join us?

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Jasmine Nights by Julia Gregson

Saba Tarcan is a half-Turkish girl living in Wales during World War Two who dreams of using her voice to escape her mundane surroundings.  She auditions for ENSA and is delighted to be offered the chance to travel to the Middle East and be a part of performances to boost troop morale in the desert, even though her father threatens to disown her.  Saba plunges in head first, eager to soak up all the experiences life has to offer her, including a romance with injured fighter pilot Dom.  When she is approached by the secret service for a mission she is uniquely qualified for, Saba is seduced by the idea of doing something exciting and important, oblivious to the danger the offer also entails.  But life during war is not a fairy tale, and Saba and Dom are both in for some hard lessons.

Jasmine Nights is all about the naivety of youth.  Saba and Dom both think they are untouchable, that nothing will happen to them, that hardships and suffering are for others but never for themselves.  They both throw themselves willingly into dangerous situations, thinking of the glamour and adventure rather than the consequences.  Saba is entranced by the glitter and shine of wartime Egypt, the praise she receives for her voice, the beautiful dresses and the chance to finally live her dream.  She ignores warnings given by everyone around her and behaves as if her life is a Hollywood movie in which she has the starring role.  Dom has already been shot down once but willingly requests a move to an active company so he can continue to fly.  They fall completely, dramatically in love and trust in a happy ever after ending.

The first half of the novelwas like this and I was starting to question whether Jasmine Nights would be a book for me.  Where was the grit?  The realism?  But as I read into the second half and Saba became more involved with her spying mission, the grit gradually seeped in and both Saba and Dom learned some hard lessons indeed.  The technique of making the first half so light and glamourous was a success as it provided a great contrast with the events nearer the end of the book.  The final sections were gripping to read and I think Gregson was clever to structure the novel in the way she did.

Overall, I did think there was too much romance.  I don't mind reading about characters falling in love and it was well written, but in this book what I really wanted to read about was Saba's role in the secret service.  I knew that women served as spies during World War Two and I find this completely fascinating.  I wanted the character of Mr Cleeve, Saba's agent/boss, to be further developed, especially his reaction in the aftermath of events at the end of the book.  For someone intelligent, Saba shows remarkably little curiosity about the secret service - I wanted her to find out more so I could be in on the secret too!  Altering the balance slightly away from romance would have made this novel work better for me.

All in all, I enjoyed Jasmine Nights. The setting of WWII Egypt was of course wonderful and I was satisfied with the ending.  I just found the first half a bit too light and fluffy and a bit too long.

Source: From the publisher (Simon and Schuster) via Netgalley
First Published: 5th June 2012
Score: 4 out of 5

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Top Ten Books I Have Been Meaning to Read for Years

This is my first week participating in Top Ten Tuesday, run by The Broke and the Bookish.  It's a freebie week, which means we get to make a top ten list about anything we like.  Like many other bloggers, I have a TBR pile amounting to hundreds of books so I decided to make a list of the top ten books I bought years and years ago, desperately want to read but for some reason just haven't picked up.  Who knows, it might even spur me into action!

1. Roots by Alex Haley
This is my husband's favourite book and he has been wanting me to read it for years.  I think it sounds very interesting and I loved Haley's careful editing in The Autobiography of Malcom X so I am pretty much guaranteed to like this too.  One day!

2. The Red Tent by Anita Diamant
Regular readers of my blog will know I'm a huge historical fiction fan, especially if the book centers around ancient history, women or the Jewish religion.  The Dovekeepers is one of my favourite reads of 2012, so why haven't I picked up and read The Red Tent yet?

3. Secrets from the Sand by Zahi Hawass
Zahi Hawass is one of my idols.  Not only is he an Egypotologist (I'm fascinated with Ancient Egypt) but I really admire his quest to get artifacts back to Egypt where they belong and to raise Egyptian awareness of their heritage.  I've watched most of his documentaries and read some books he has contributed to, so I'm itching to read his autobiography.  It's a gorgeous book too, with lots of full page colour photographs.

4. A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
I must have owned this book for five years or more without reading it.  The length puts me off, I keep intending to save it for the summer but then get sidetracked by shiny new books when sumer finally comes around.

5. The Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Geene
I'm a part time astro-physics student and this book is my holy grail.  I've watched Brian Greene's documentary series but have found this book too difficult in the past.  When I finish the module I am doing now, I am going to read this book, understand it and enjoy it!

6. Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
I call myself an Austen fan, but I've only read Emma and Pride and Prejudice.  I even have a beautiful edition of Sense and Sensibility, so there is no excuse really.

7. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell.
When Cloud Atlas first came out, it was my favourite book for quite a while.  I was so excited at the release of Jacob de Zoet that I pre-ordered a copy. That was in 2010, and I've still not read it!

8. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafron
Again, I am years behind the hype with this one and again, it was bought with the intention of reading it quickly.

9. To the Holy Shrines by Richard Burton
Richard Burton's version of Arabian Nights is just beautiful and he had quite a life too.  To the Holy Shrines is his account of being the first Western man to visit Muslim holy sites.

10. The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
Another epic book I've been promising myself I will read for years.  I've heard nothing but good things about it and I'm sure I will love it.  I even have the TV series saved on my sky+ box for when I've read it.

Am I the only one that buys books they really want to read, and then hoards them?  What books have you been wanting to read for years?

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

Lee Fiora is a smart fourteen year old who dreams of the life of privilege and happiness promised by the glossy magazines for East Coast boarding schools.  When she is accepted to Ault on a scholarship, she has high expectations for her fantastic new life but is soon overwhelmed by those around her.  Lee retreats into a shell, becoming hyper-sensitive to others and unwilling to draw any attention to herself.  She is both fascinated by and contemptuous of the wealth and intelligence of her new class mates and gets into a serious of intensely one-sided relationships with her peers.  At heart a coming of age story, Prep also has a lot to say about closed and exclusive environments.

I'm going to come right out and say that I liked Prep a lot and the main reason for this was that I could identify with Lee completely. At primary school, I was picked out as a 'bright' pupil and encouraged to apply for a selective secondary school where I had to take a series of exams and attend a few interviews to get in.  It wasn't a fee-paying school like Lee's, but it was by far and away the best school in the area in terms of results and wealthy parents got tutors for their children to help them get in.  I was the only person in my new class who hadn't been tutored and I was the poorest person there by quite a way.  Don't get me wrong, my family never struggled, but I was surrounded by people who jetted to the Alps for skiing during half term holidays and spent the summer on Carribean islands; I dreaded the 'what did you do on your holidays?' conversation every September.  Like Lee, I might have developed a bit of a chip on my shoulder and become defensive in the face of so much privilege.

I was also socially awkward as a teen and any shy person will find it easy to relate to Lee.  I understand why other readers find her frustrating as a main character but shyness is not a logical thing - I too used to desperately wish not to be noticed by others and then feel lonely when no one did.  I too was hyper aware of others and thought they they would be hyper aware of me when confident people just don't feel that way.  So whilst at times I wanted to shake Lee, I found her completely believable and reading the book was a bit like revisiting my own teenage years.

That's not to say the book was without fault; the characterisation was excellent but the plot could have done with tightening up a bit.  In the middle sections it dragged and didn't seem to be heading in any clear direction.  Prep was a long book at 400+ pages and could have comfortably lost a hundred of them without the reading experience suffering.

Prep is a book that's not going to work for everyone.  It will work best for fans of The Bell Jar, or for keen observers of human nature, or for anyone who has ever felt shy or underwhelming around others.

Source: Library
First Published: 2005
Score: 4 out of 5

Friday, 6 July 2012

Getting out of a slump with Dickens

I've just not been feeling reading lately.  Part of it as that I've been busy at work with end of year assessments, report writing and parents evenings, but part of it is that I've been in a bit of a general life slump lately.  The kind of slump where I've been eating takeout food far too often, slacking off on household chores, not keeping up with my astrophysics module and not going out enough with friends.

One of the reasons is that I am tired.  It's now only two weeks until the end of the academic year and I've got bone-deep exhaustion that my current unhealthly lifestyle is only making worse.  Simple tasks feel like a lot of effort and I've perfected the art of staring into space doing nothing!

I'm hoping to make some lifestyle changes in the summer, but for now it's a case of getting through the next few weeks.  And I miss the pleasure that reading brings into my life.  I have been reading, but not particularly inspiring books and it's taking me over a week to read each title, under half of my normal reading rate.  I have a bit of free time tomorrow, so I hope to finally finish Prep and then have a mini reading marathon tucked up on the sofa.  I want to get some joy from reading again, I want to think "Oh yes, this is what reading is about."


As a bit of a mood boost, I've ordered myself a sixteen book Dickens set from The Book People for £26.  I love the Vintage editions of classics and the Dickens novels are no exceptions.  Despite studying English Lit for a while, the only Dickens I have ever read all the way through is A Christmas Carol and I'm hoping to rectify that.   Those of you that have read Dickens, which of the following titles do you think best for getting out of a reading slump?

1. Martin Chuzzlewit 
2. A Tale of Two Cities
3. David Copperfield
4. A Christmas Carol
5. Little Dorrit
6. Our Mutual Friend
7. Dombey and Son
8. Bleak House
9. Great Expectations
10. The Old Curiosity Shop
11. The Pickwick Papers
12. Hard Times
13. The Mystery of Edwin Drood
14. Nicholas Nickelby
15. Barnaby Rudge
16. Oliver Twist

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

For me, Speak was a victim of it's own hype.  Ever since starting blogging almost two years ago, I kept seeing reviews of it on other blogs and everyone seemed to agree how important it was as a book.  It's still popular more than ten years after initial publication - I was on a hold list for quite a while before finally getting a copy.

Melinda Sordino seems like an ordinary teenager until she attends a party one night the summer before starting high school.  She becomes known as "the kid that called the cops" and isolated by her peers.  As we follow Melinda, she becomes more and more insular and full of complex emotions as the year goes on and she stops communicating with those around her.  But what really happened at the party to have such a big impact on her?

I really wanted to love this book.  I enjoyed reading it and think it is an important book in some regards, but unfortunately I just don't see it as the modern classic that others do.  I'm going to set out my 'problems' with the book below, some are subjective to my reading experience and some are more objective.  If you love this book, I'm sorry!

1. I already knew what was wrong with Melinda before reading.  This meant that there was no emotional kick in the teeth for me when the reader finally finds out what happened to her.  I applaud Laurie Halse Anderson to drawing attention to the issue and hope that teenagers reading the book learn more about how horrific an experience it could be.  Having said that, I felt like the perpetrator was a stereotypical example and it would have been more realistic if he was Melinda's boyfriend rather than a random? (Trying to not spoil the book for anyone else).

2. I couldn't relate to Melinda's high school experience.  I'm not American and the school environment Melinda describes was worlds away from my own experiences.  I know it's subjective but it meant I wasn't transported back to my high school days, like I would have needed to be to really feel for Melinda and connect with her.

3. Some of the writing was too obvious.  I liked that Anderson wrote about how the enormity of what had happened to Melinda literally stopped her from talking but at times it felt like this device was over-used.  Particularly when Melinda gets sores on her lips and requires medical attention; it just felt like too much.

4. I didn't think the writing was especially great in general.  The simplistic style was a good choice but it felt clunky and awkward.  I much preferred the writing in her later book, Chains.

5.  Melinda's parents - I understand they were busy and frustrated with her and each other, but I found it hard to believe they would do nothing for so long.  As an adult this especially bothered me as absent parenting is something I've noticed a lot in YA.  There are plenty of absent parents out there but sometimes it feels that writing them this way is just a convenience for the author.
I don't want to be too negative about the book as I enjoyed reading it and, as I said, it spotlights an important issue to a vulnerable group.  It simply wasn't all that I had been hoping for.

Source: Library
First Published: 2001
Score: 3 out of 5

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Do you have to like the main character in order to enjoy a book?

When I start to read a book, I always find it in goodreads and change the status to 'currently reading' (if I already own it) or add it if it's a library book.  Whilst doing this, I skim over the average rating and look over the first few reviews from the general goodreads community.  And lately, I've been noticing a trend - that lots of people simply don't like a book if they dislike or can't connect with the main character.

I noticed it first with Vanessa Diffenbaugh's The Language of Flowers (link to my review).  It's about Victoria, a girl who has spent her life in the care of social services, shunted from foster home to group home and back until finally left to her own devices at age 18.  At times, she is very unlikeable as she pushes away people that care about her, is irritatingly passive and waits for a happily ever after to just appear.  This has led to many negative reviews of the whole book.  But it just didn't bother me because whilst Victoria may not be the most likeable character, she is believable and I find that to be far more important.  Her likeability or lack thereof never entered my head as an issue until I started looking at other reviews of the book.

I'm noticing it too in the book I'm reading at the moment, Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep.  It's a coming of age tale set in a prestigous New England boarding school and the main character, Lee Fiora, seems to have set a lot of reviewers teeth on edge, judging by the amount of one star reviews on goodreads.  I'm only about a third of the way in but I can see why readers might find Lee irritating - she is painfully socially awkward and like Victoria, she is passive.  She bemoans her lack of friends but when people do invite her out, she turns them down.  As someone who has rather socially awkward as a teenager myself, I can relate to Lee but I can see why others can't.

It all got my thinking - do you really have to like the main character in order to enjoy a book?  Judging by other reviewers, the answer for many people is a resounding 'yes'.  But I gave The Language of Flowers 4.5 out of 5 even though I didn't warm to Victoria.  I think it all goes back to expectations - I don't expect to like every protagonist of every book I read, just like I wouldn't expect to like every person I meet in real life.  Sometimes I prefer it when I don't like the character, as who really would want to read about shiny, likeable characters all the time?  The world just isn't like that, so I have no interest in books being like that.

I can understand why people find it hard to enjoy books when they actively dislike the main character as so much of the reading experience is about connection, about seeing a part of yourself in a fictional character.  I love it when I really relate to a main character, like I did in Agnes Grey, but that's not the be all and end all of reading.  I want quality writing, an interesting setting and plot and above all, I want to understand more about the world and the people in it.  Unlikeable characters can be the most fascinating as long as they are plausibly and believeably written.  I like to get in the head of someone who is completely unlike me, even if just to get away from myself for a moment.

How do you feel about it?  Is your reading experience soured if you dislike the main character?  Do you embrace unlikeable characters or is it just something you are prepared to overlook if other aspects of the novel are good?