Monday, 25 November 2013

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

The Bloody Chamber is a collection of fairy tales.  But not fairy tales as you would remember them from your childhood; grown-up fairytales full of violence, horror and sexuality.  From Bluebeard to Beauty and the Beast to Puss in Boots, Carter reinvents the traditional tales in haunting ways.  

I'm never quite sure how to review short story collections.  Novels are easier as they tend to have one over-arching plot to comment on, where as short story collections have so many.  I think I will mention some of the stories that made the most impact on me, before offering general thoughts on Carter's writing.

Without a doubt, the most powerful story was the titular one, The Bloody Chamber.  In this retelling of the Bluebeard legend, a young woman journeys by train to the castle owned by her wealthy new husband, a Marquis.  The Marquis has been widowed three times and his castle is truly a gothic masterpiece set against a roaring and angry sea.  When he has to leave on a business trip, he hands his new wife the keys to all of the rooms in the castle, including one that he forbids her to enter.  Of course, her curiosity gets the better of her, and what she sees in the forbidden room hints at a terrible fate waiting for her.  I loved this stoy the most as it was so genuinely thrilling; I had guessed what would be in the room, but Carter still weaves this wonderful web of suspense, that made me feel genuinely scared for the woman, yet unable to stop turning the pages.  The writing is so rich and full of sensuality as the sexual awakening of the main character mingles and becomes confused with the danger she is in.

I also loved The Erl-King, which was just so atmospheric.  A young woman is drawn into the dark heart of a sinister forest by the mysterious sprite-like Erl King, who seems to be made from the forest itself.  He has total power over all living creatures and she is completely under his spell.  But as her visits continue, the young woman realises that she is trapped, and that the Erl-King only means her harm.  I enjoyed this story in particular as it was just so haunting, Carter conjures up what it is about deep, dark forests that speaks to us somewhere buried inside, and puts all of the that into the character of the Erl-King.  As with The Bloody Chamber, sex and danger are two elements of the tale, and the main character also takes steps to get herself out of a threatening situation.

To be honest, there wasn't a single tale in The Bloody Chamber that I didn't enjoy and savour.  In fact, I had to force myself to slow down whilst reading it and appreciate each individual story, as my initial impulse was to devour the book in one sitting.  Carter's writing is just so rich and descriptive, so full of atmosphere that it simply sweeps you away.  I fell in love with it within a few days and didn't stop admiring it all the way through.  She completely reinvents familiar tales in ways I would never have thought of and personalises them, so the characters actually feel emotion and respond appropriately (something that you don't get to see in the original stories).  Carter's characters think and feel in this wonderfully lush setting and the result is simply wonderful.  I can't think of enough glowing sentences to describe just how fantastic this book is, you're just going to have to trust me when I say it's simply brilliant.

If you haven't read it, you need to go and get yourself a copy.  It's the best thing I've read all year.

Source: Personal copy
First Published: 1979
Edition Read: Penguin, 1986
Score: 5 out of 5

Monday, 18 November 2013

Classics Club Spin Number Revealed

Last week, I posted my selection of books for the 4th classics club spin.  Today the lucky number was announced to be number 10, which means I will be reading.....

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo.

I have mixed feelings about this!  On the one hand it's a book I'm genuinely excited to read but on the other hand, it's just so long!  At least it will give me a push to pick up one of the longest books on my list. I have a feeling I will be reading it alongside other titles and hoping to get through this mammoth book by Jan 1st.

If you're taking part, which book did you spin?  Are you happy with your pick?

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Sam Sunday #33: My Nephew is One

The big event of last week was my nephew turning one on Wednesday.  He's the first baby in our family for a long time, so I hadn't been round babies much before he was born.  It's amazing how much has has grown and changed in just the space of a year.  On Saturday he had a party and was of course spoiled rotten by everyone for the whole day!  My husband and I bought him the wooden rocking horse he is sitting on in the picture above, which he liked, to our relief.  At the moment, he's very into clapping, high fives and waving.

Everyone around me seems to be getting into the mood for Christmas, and the weather is even starting to get colder to match, but I'm just not feeling it yet.  I know I need to start thinking about shopping and gifts, but I will probably end up leaving it for another few weeks. At the moment, all the cold weather makes me want to do is curl up with a book under a blanket. Which is no bad thing!

Next week,  I'm looking foward to the announcement of the Classics Club spin number.  I finished Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber this morning (awesome book) and I'm debating whether it's worth starting another one tonight or whether I should wait and just dive into the spin book tomorrow.  I'm also looking forward to the release of Catching Fire, which my husband and I are hoping to go and see next weekend.

In other reading news, if you haven't done so yet, you should check out the posts for A More Diverse Universe over at Book Lust.  All the reviews are for sci-fi/fantasy books written by people of colour and I've added so many of them to my wishlist already.  It's my first time participating in the event but I will definitely be doing so again in the future.

This week, I've been reading:

Reviews posted:

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

Adoulla is a ghul-hunter.  For years he has battled ghuls and demons, protecting the citizens of Dhamsawaat and the Crescent Moon Kingdoms.  Just when he is thinking of retiring, he hears news of a strange and gruesome murder in the family of the woman he loves.  As he and his assistant, the dervish Raseed, investigate, it becomes clear that they are up against an opponent stronger than any that came before.  The murder is only the most recent in a series, including the whole tribe of Zamia Badawi, who has the power of the Lion-Shape.  As the three attempt to track and destroy the man controlling the ghuls, Dhamsawaat itself is caught in a battle of wills between the despotic Khalif and the 'Falcon Prince', a man who claims to fight on behalf of the poor.  As the final battle draws closer, the city is immersed in civil war.

I read Throne of the Crescent Moon for Aarti's A More Diverse Universe event, in which readers try speculative fiction written by people of colour.  I love fantasy but the settings can get a bit repetitive after a while, so it was refreshing to pick up a book like this, that takes more from A Thousand and One Nights than it does Medieval Europe.   In fact, the setting was my absolute favourite part of the book; Ahmed has taken all of the mystic elements from stories like Aladdin and created a world that is full of ghuls, burning sand, teashops, white robed holy men, curved swords, overly zealous religious police and silks.  I honestly wanted to dive right into the book and explore Ahmed's world, I've never read a fantasy book quite like this.

The overall plot was a traditional fantasy one of overcoming evil with magic and fighting.  I enjoyed the main characters of Adoulla and Raseed, although Zamia felt a bit like a stereotype of a fierce, strong woman rather than a complex character in her own right.  I would liked to have seen a different side to her, more vulnerability or uncertainty.  On the other hand, the Falcon Prince had a lot of moral ambiguity that was exploited particularly at the end of the novel, and this made it much stronger.

I'm sitting here trying to work out why I didn't love everything about this book and I think it's because the world was so magical and wonderful that the plot was always going to fall slightly short.  At times the pacing of the story seemed a bit off and there wasn't any real urgency until the final battle scenes.  But it's still a book that I thoroughly enjoyed, one that I escaped in and one that completely captured my imagination.

Check out other books reviewed for the event here. 

Source: Library
First Published: 2012
Edition Read: Gollancz, 2013
Score: 4 out of 5

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Classics Club Spin #4

It's time for another Classics Club Spin!  Readers select and number twenty books from their lists, and then a number is posted on the website, on Monday 18th November.  You have to read the book that corresponds to that number over the next couple of months.  Usually I pick categories such as 'books I'm excited about' and 'books I'm dreading', but this time I have chosen pure randomness.  I used to select twenty unread books on my list, not including rereads.

Here's what came out:

1. The Painted Veil - W. Somerset Maugham
2. The Awakening - Kate Chopin
3. Persuasion - Jane Austen
4. Cannery Row - John Steinbeck
5. Their Eyes Were Watching God - Zora Neale Hurston
6. The Hobbit - J.R.R. Tolkein
7. Goodbye to Berlin - Christopher Isherwood
8. Bonjour Tristesse - Francoise Sagan
9. Peter Pan - J.M. Barrie
10. Les Miserables - Victor Hugo
11. The Good Earth - Pearl Buck
12. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall - Anne Bronte
13. Orlando - Virginia Woolf
14. Anthony and Cleopatra - William Shakespeare
15. Hard Times - Charles Dickens
16. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest - Ken Kesey
17. Kim - Rudyard Kipling
18. Cranford - Elizabeth Gaskell
19. Moby Dick - Herman Melville
20. Othello - William Shakespeare

Overall, I'm happy with how that turned out.  My list is awesome up until book 13, as all of the books before then are ones that I am so keen to read, including Les Mis.  After that it gets a little bit intimidating with Virginia Woolf, whose books scare me.  I have to admit that I'm not really in a Dickens mood at the moment, and I won't be happy if Moby Dick is selected, although I will have to read it at some point. really wanted me to read Their Eyes Were Watching God as it's number came up about four times during the selection process.  I'm secretly hoping for The Awakening or the Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

Are you taking part in the spin?  I'd love to see your list if you are.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

I write this review as someone who is not a Neil Gaiman fan.  I loved Stardust (although that is probably more to do with the brilliant film version) and The Graveyard Book, thought that Coraline and Neverwhere were just OK and to be honest, didn't like Anansi Boys at all.  I think Neil Gaiman has wonderful ideas but his writing has always been hit and miss for me.  I wasn't going to try Ocean at the End of the Lane, but it's been getting so much hype that I decided to give Gaiman one more chance.  This was going to be a make or break book; if I didn't like it, I was prepared to give up and admit that Gaiman just isn't for me.

But I did like in; it fact I more than liked it, I loved it. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is the first Neil Gaiman book I have sped through, completely enchanted and desperate to find out what would happen next.  It's the story of a man who has returned to his home town for a funeral, and who ends up visiting the farm where he met Lettie Hempstead, her mother and her grandmother.  As soon as he reaches the property, the memories start flooding back, starting with the suicide of a lodger staying at his house.  This suicide allows dark creatures to enter the world, who want to destroy him and his family.  The only people who can help are the Hempsteads, who claim that the pond in their garden is really an ocean, and that they are as old as the Big Bang itself.

What I loved most about The Ocean at the End of the Lane was the atmosphere and nostalgia of the book.  I am just about old enough to look back on my childhood fondly and miss some of the simple pleasures and imaginations of being young.  Gaiman captures this feeling perfectly; even when something bad is happening in the book, there's this sense of childhood and time, and having the freedom to check out stacks of books from the library and devour them in your bedroom.  It's a bittersweet portrayal of childhood memories and it's one that certainly worked for me.

I also enjoyed the magical elements of the story.  They are kept mysterious and the line between what actually happened and what was distorted by memory or imagined is deliberately kept blurred.  The ending fit in with this theme and was perfectly bittersweet.  As with all Gaiman books, the rather ordinary main character is allowed his moment to shine and there's the theme of doing the right thing, even if it isn't the easy thing, and of ordinary people finding courage within themselves.

To be honest, it's hard to put into words exactly what I loved so much about this book, as it was more of a feeling than anything logical.  The book just enchanted me, swept me away and left me with a big smile on my face and a contented feeling inside.  It's short and bittersweet and I would highly recommend it, even if you think Gaiman isn't for you.

Source: Library (although I will be buying my own copy).
First Published: 2013
Score: 5 out of 5

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

In the sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (my review), Huckleberry Finn is centre stage.  This made me excited to pick up the book as Huck was by far the most interesting character in Tom Sawyer.  Tom is a lot of fun and his imagination is amazing but he comes from a sheltered, loving family, whereas Huck is that child from the wrong part of town.  If Huck existed nowdays, he'd be the child who always turns up late to school without any equipment and in the wrong uniform, who hasn't been washed in a few days and who has been forced to grow up too quickly by being exposed to things he shouldn't have been.  In the story, Huck's main problem is his abusive, alcoholic father, who he eventually decides to escape from.  On the way, he meets runaway slave Jim, and the pair travel down the Mississippi together.

Huck Finn is a better book than Tom Sawyer, and it's all because of Huck himself.  Huck could have been a stereotypical character but Twain writes him in a wonderfully complex way.  Despite all that has happened to him, Huck has retained his essential goodness and also the bravery to go against society if he needs to.  We get to see him really grow up throughout the novel, as he goes from someone who is lacking in self-confidence and looking to those around him to decide what to do, to someone who makes their own decisions, even if society tells him he is wrong.  All through the book, he wrestles with the fact that he should hand Jim in, as this is the way he has been taught to think about slaves.  But Jim is actually one of the only people looking out for Huck, and the development of their friendship and Huck's decision to stick by Jim, even though he thinks that makes him a bad person, are handled masterfully by Twain.

I also liked that Huck Finn is a darker book than Tom Sawyer.  There's no sense that everything has to work out well in the end, and Huck and Jim have some horrible as well as fun adventures.  This was summed up perfectly when Tom himself makes an appearance, when Jim has been recaptured.  Tom agrees to help free Jim but wants to turn it into some prison release fantasy, complete with letters written in blood and tame rats, but Huck knows the seriousness of the situation and just wants to help Jim. Tom's protected from the real world, Huck has to live in it.

A lot has been made about the use of word nigger in this book, especially recently.  For me this was a non-issue as Huckleberry Finn is far from a racist book.  Huck would have thought and used that word all of the time, as he was a product of the society he lived in.  It doesn't make the book racist and I certainly don't think it needs to be taken out, that would be like rewriting history to remove the nasty bits.  There are far more racist books out there that don't have the word nigger in them.

As you can tell, I very much enjoyed The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  My only real complaints would be that sometimes the stories felt a bit disjointed, almost as though I was reading a short story collection rather than a novel, and that the ending was way too happy/convenient compared to the rest of the book.  It was as though Twain suddenly remembered that this was supposed to be a children's book and decided to make everyone happy by the last page.  Even so, it's still a wonderful book and I'd definitely recommend it.

Source: Personal copy
First Published: 1884
Edition Read: Penguin English Library, 2012
Score: 4 out of 5

The Classics Club:  Book 19/72
My full list can be found here.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Sam Sunday #32: RIP Wrap-Up

The end of October means the end of the RIP VIII reading event, where participants read spooky and/or dark books throughout September and October.  I was aiming to complete Peril the First, meaning I was hoping to read four books for this challenge.  I did post a rather ambitious book pile at the start of the event:

Of course I didn't get through all these titles but I did read:
  1. Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion - This was OK, it had a very sweet romance but it didn't set my world alight.
  2. Fevre Dream by George R.R. Martin - This atmospheric vampire novel set on a steamboat on the Mississippi river was probably my favourite RIP read.
  3. Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman - This wasn't on my original list, but I wanted to read it.  I loved the concept, but something about Gaiman's writing didn't work for me.
  4. The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon - Another unplanned read, this is a darker fantasy story about clairvoyants in a brutal society.  It was very good, but could never live up to the hype surrounding it.
  5. The Turn of the Screw by Henry James - I was really looking forward to this classic, but the ambiguity in the story stopped me from enjoying it.
Although I didn't read all of the titles I wanted to, I'm happy to have read five.  This was my first year participating in RIP, and I'll definitely be signing up again next year.  I loved snuggling up on the colder evenings with creepy or darker books.

In other news, I'm back to work tomorrow after the half term break.  It's been a very relaxing break which was just what I needed, as boy was I run down before the holiday started.  I'm hoping to improve my work-life balance once I'm back at work and not let it completely take over my life.  I will make time for reading and blogging!

This week, I've been reading:

Reviews posted:

Saturday, 2 November 2013

The First Time: True Tales of Virginity Lost & Found by Kate Monro

Our modern societies are obsessed with virginity and the loss of virginity, but it's not something people talk about openly very often.  In The First Time, Kate Monro aims to shine a light on what virginity means to us by conducting interviews with men and women of all different ages, religions and experiences, be they straight, gay, disabled or asexual.  The interviews are organised into chapters on defining virginity, the changing roles of women during the twentieth century, virginity loss for men and the reasons people might decide to stay a virgin.  Each chapter contains interviews as well as some commentary on relevant social issues by Monro.

I actually really enjoyed The First Time.  I was impressed by the range of experiences that Monro was able to find and document; there is no heterosexual bias in the book and Monro goes out of her way to include experiences by disabled people as well as those who were coerced or even raped in situations of domestic violence.  Although not all of these experiences made for happy reading, the book was strengthened by the diversity of the interviewees and it meant that it could offer a more panoramic portrait of what virginity loss is like.

On the whole, the social commentary was informative but it was nothing ground-breaking, and this made it the weaker element of the book.  In particular, the chapter on women was full of information that anyone who has even a most basic knowledge of feminism would be familiar with.  It was interesting to see how women's attitudes towards virginity had changed over time as their roles in society changed, but the commentary itself was nothing new.  On the other hand, the chapter about asexuality was much more interesting, as this isn't something that is widely discussed in society.  We have a tendency to think anyone who doesn't have sexual urges is very strange, so it was good to see Monro exposing and challenging that mindset.  I also liked that Monro adopted a very open definition of virginity loss, acknowledging that it means different things to different people.

On the whole, The First Time is well worth reading for the interviews alone, as the commentary is a bit hit and miss.  Anyone particularly interested in social history or gender issues will surely get a lot from this book.

Source: Personal copy (kindle)
First Published: 2011
Score: 3.5 out of 5