Friday 31 December 2010

2010 in Review

2010 was the year I started this blog, and I'm so glad I did as I never realised how enjoyable book blogging would be.  I only started seriously in August and it's swallowed up all my free time ever since (in a good way!).  I love discussing books, seeing what others have read and writing my reviews.  I've read and enjoyed some fantastic books that I would have never ever have heard of if it wasn't for the blogging community.

I've also just hit the landmark of 100 followers, which I'm really pleased about.  It felt daunting at first getting my blog out there, but the effort has definitely paid off. 

In 2011, I hope to become a bit more organised with my blog.  I won't be completing any reading challenges as I change my mind a lot about what I want to read, but I will be keeping better track of what I have read and hopefully adding some new features to my blog.  I also hope to read a good proportion of classics.

Aside from my blog, I hope to be a bit less consumerist in 2011.  I've been sale shopping over the past few days and seeing how people push and shove past others just to get at more stuff has left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth.  I have enough stuff.  I'm going to try out only buying what I need, and then treating myself on a fortnightly basis to something small I don't need.  I'll be using my library more and reading the books I already have.  I'll be cooking dinners from scratch most evenings (I do this anyway, I've just been a bit naughty with the takeouts).  My Lovefilm account is going to be used properly so I don't buy anymore DVDs.  Eating out and going out is fine, it's physical stuff that I'm hoping to tackle and the whole feeling of "I've had a bad day so I'm going to go and buy something to cheer myself up".

Unfortunately I didn't keep a track of all the books I read this year, though I'm guessing I'm somewhere in the region of 65.  Here are the top-rated books from my blog:

 The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber
Small Island by Andrea Levy
Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson

Thursday 30 December 2010

The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber

I love long, rambling, Victorian style novels, and this one had been high up on my 'to-read' list ever since I first saw it mentioned on a friend's blog.  When my local library finally acquired a copy, I had to read it.

Synopsis: Sugar is a prostitiute in late 19th century London.  Forced into prostituition by her mother at a young age ('here's a gentleman to keep you warm'), she hates men and spends her time writing a revenge novel.  Soon to be afflent business-man William Rackham falls for her and first buys her a place to live, and then installs her as the governess to his daughter Sophie.  As Sugar rises up socially, she meets a large cast of characters from all walks of society.

Score: 4.5 out of 5

This was an unputdownable book.  I was worried about the length before starting (800+ pages, small font) but within the first chapter I was sucked into Victorian London and just wanted to read on and on.  Sugar's world jumps out at you from the page and it feels like a true representation.  There's no happy ever afters,  prostitution is not at all glamorised and bad things happen to good people all of the time.

By far the biggest strength of Faber's novel is the characters.  Even the minor characters were well developed and rounded (Caroline, the doctor) and the major characters started to feel like old friends by the end of the book.  Faber seemed to have an especial talent for female characterisation - the determination and drive of Sugar was contrasted wonderfully with Rackham's wife, Agnes, a woman who had managed to bear a child without knowing anything about how her body functions and thinks that a demon is causing her menstruation.  I also had a soft spot for Mrs Fox, a widow who didn't care about society's rules and was trying to help prostitutes in her own blundering way.  Compared to this, the male characters were equally complex, but weak.

This was also a book that had a lot to say on a number of issues: prostititution, the role of women, class, poverty, depression, religion, insanity, healthcare, attitudes to children, social climbing and marriage. But thankfully all this took a back seat to the story and Faber never came off as preachy.  All of the characters went through a decent amount of development and by the end of the book I didn't want it to be over.  I could happily have read about the next 30 or so year's of Sugar's life.

The only criticism I can make, that stopped it from receiving 5 stars, was the abrupt nature of the ending.  Even though I can appreciate the artistic merit in the ending, I wanted to know what happened next!

Recommended for historical and gothic fiction fans.

Tuesday 28 December 2010

Hospital Books

I wasn't intending to neglect the blogging world so much over the Christmas holidays but unfortunately I was taken into hospital for three days before Christmas and I'm only slowly regaining my strength now.  I managed to pick up gastroenteritis from somewhere (probably a child in school), which in turn triggered a flare-up of a pre-existing bowel condition.  It was horrible.

Anyway, I'm feeling a lot better now, if a little weak.  I felt like I had been run over by a bus when I first came out but each day I am feeling a little better and a little stronger.

Whilst in hospital I read two quick, easy reads for distraction:

Club Dead by Charlaine Harris (Sookie Stackhouse 3)

Bill goes missing whilst on a secret assignment and Sookie must team up with a werewolf to help find him.  Like the other two, easy to read and fun.  Sookie gets more and more likeable with each book in the series.  As always, I wished there was more about the secondary characters.

The Secret Dreamworld of a Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella

I first read this back when I was 15 or 16, and my sister got me a 30p copy from the hospital gift shop.  I don't read much chick-lit, but I enjoyed this book just as much on the re-read as I did the first time around.  Financial journalist Becky Bloomwood is terrible at managing her own finances and just can't resist shopping.  It took me to another world, didn't tax my brain, and passed the time.  The ending was suspiciously tidy, though - I don't think getting out of debt is that easy.

Monday 20 December 2010

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

Now that it's the holidays and I'm also stuck in bed with a horrible cold/virus, I have plenty of time to read.  I chose A Farewell to Arms because I've never read any Hemingway (or indeed much American literature at all) and because of all his books, the war-time setting of this one appealed to me.

Synopsis: An American in the ambulance service of the Italian army, Henry/Tenete starts to see the darker side of war and soon realises that he doesn't actually know what he is fighting for.  He falls in love with a British nurse, Catherine Barkley, and becomes an army deserter.

Score: 3.5 out of 5

I think my personal reading of this book suffered from the fact that All Quiet on the Western Front is one of my all-time favourite books, and A Farewell to Arms just didn't seem to have as much grit or reality.  It was still a good book, and the reality of war was still portrayed well, but it just lacked an emotional impact to me.

I wasn't familiar with Hemingway's bare and sparse style before reading this novel, and it took me a while to get used to it.  But once I had, I found it refreshing and I liked how some parts were left for the reader to fill in for his/herself.  Hemingway didn't write much about how the characters were feeling, but left that for the reader to work out through actions and dialogue.  Maybe that's why it lacked an emotional punch?

The structure of the book worked very well, with sections about the war broken up by the romance sections.  It was clear that Catherine and Henry were not very well suited, and that the constant threat of death had forced them into an early intimacy.  In fact, Catherine came over as very obsessive and a bit crazy.  She didn't want him to see anyone else (even his friends), she went to bed with him whenever he wanted 'to please him' and even spoke about cutting her hair off so they would look more alike!

Without giving away the ending, I'm sure lots of parallels could be made between what happened in their relationship and the war in general.  Overall the book was surprisingly easy to read (I always worry classics will be a struggle) and a good example of war literature.  But it wasn't as good as I was hoping it would be.

Sunday 19 December 2010

Living Dead in Dallas by Charlaine Harris

Sookie Stackhouse #2

I'm officially addicted to this series.  I'm slowing myself down by reading other books in between but could easily if I let myself read the whole series in one go over the Christmas break.

Synopsis: When the vampires save her life after an attack, Sookie is in their debt.  She gets sent to Dallas to investigate a missing vampire, whose disappearance may be linked with a fundamentalist anti-vampire church (think Westboro but for vampires).

Score: 3 out of 5

I enjoyed this book a bit more than the first one, probably because I haven't seen True Blood season 2 yet, making the whole plot new to me.  I approved of Eric having a more central role, and like the first, it was a quick, lively and engaging read.  Sookie as a narrator keeps the pace fast and light, and the more I read her narration the more she grows on me.

That said, there were downsides to moving all of the action to Dallas.  I missed some of the regular Bon  Temps characters, and the new Dallas ones didn't seem as well rounded or developed.  There were lots more supernatural creatures involved, and I do hope the series doesn't start to get a bit silly over the next few books.

A perfect relaxation read.

Friday 17 December 2010

Ramesses by Joyce Tyldesley

I chose this book because I love Egypt.  I've loved it ever since I first learned about it back in my primary school days, and now, many trips to the British Museum later, I still love it.  I also get to teach it for an entire term every spring, and it's my favourite thing to teach.  I chose this particular author as I've read one of her books before (a tie-in to a BBC series about Egyptology pioneers) and found it to be both informative and well written.

Synopsis: Joyce Tyldesley presents what history knows about Ramesses, one of Egypt's most famous pharoahs.  Using a number of different sources, she separates myth from fact.

Score: 2 out of 5

You know how some non-fiction books are so well written and lively and engaging that you feel like you're reading a fantastic work of fiction and you just can't put them down?  This book wasn't like that.  In fact, this book was the opposite - it managed to make a fascinating topic that I already had some knowledge of seem dull and it was a battle to get to the end.

Part of the problem was that Tyldesley had organised the book thematically, with chapters such as 'Ramesses the Husband' and 'Ramesses the Warrior'.  This meant there was no overall arc to the book, making it hard to place the various events and leaving me with no clear impression of what Ramesses was actually like.  Whilst I appreciate that much about his life is not known, I would still rather have had what is known organised chronologically.

The book also couldn't decide whether it wanted to be academic or popular non-fiction.  The other book of hers I've read Egypt: How a Lost Civilisation was Rediscovered was clealy supposed to be a popular non-fiction book.  There was an attempt to make the writing lively.  Ramesses was different; there were notes at the end of each chapter, a further reading list, and way too much scholarly detail.  At one point she spent about 30 pages outlining the names and lives of all of Ramesses children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren.  And the history of all his scribes, advisers etc were also included, down to their position of birth and where they died.  That kind of stuff is too much for the interested but not that knowledgeable reader.

All this is not to say there was nothing I enjoyed about the book.  There was some interesting facts about his family life (it seems he married practically all of his female relations) and about the way society in Egypt was organised.  Ramesses was also a master of propaganda, and modern politicians could learn from him.  Even now he is remembered as a great warrior pharaoh, but his 'victories' seemed to have been largely made up.  And his famous statues either plagarised or stolen from previous pharoahs.

To sum up: only really for the serious Egyptologist or those that enjoy very winding family trees.

Thursday 16 December 2010

A Bit of Poetry

I'm reading about Egypt at the moment and it's reminded me of one of my favourite poems.  I don't read much poetry in general, but when I find a poem I like it really stays with me.

Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert.  Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well these passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear: 'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:  Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains.  Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Monday 13 December 2010

Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris

Confession: I can be a terrible book snob.  I worked in a bookshop at the time when the tragic lives genre was massive and I became judgemental against it.  I thought it was faddy, largely poorly written and I would sometimes totally judge people for buying it.  My feelings are the same for the paranormal romance genre (it never used to have a section in my book shop!) and any other faddish/trendy genres.

And then I watched True Blood with my fiance and loved it.  After making some noises about how much I enjoyed it, I came home one day to a complete boxed set of Sookie Stackhouse novels.  So I decided to get over myself and give it a go!

Synopsis: In this first book of the series, telepathic waitress Sookie meets the vampire community.  Whilst vampires have "come out" and are known of publicly, some vampires are more mainstream and conventional than others.  Sookie's romantic interest, Bill, drinks synthetic blood and only wants to be accepted, but others are more sinister.  And someone is going round brutally murdering all of the women that associate with vampires.

Score: 3 out of 5

I found the beginning of this book to be quite tacky.  At first Sookie came across as shallow and cliche, but as the book progressed I found myself enjoying her narrative more and more.  Her voice was very distinctive and as she developed throughout the book she became more mature and relatable.  In fact, all of the characters were very memorable and well rounded.

I could not help but compare it to the TV show.  True Blood was deeper, darker and more about other characters, therefore being more rounded.  The book was purely Sookie and seemed to be a bit lighter, although maybe because in general I'm much less likely to be creeped out by a book.

Overall, I'm all in favour of judging a book by what it actually is, not comparing them all against the same standard.  Dead Until Dark is an easy, light read that I just whizzed through and enjoyed immensely.  It may not be classical literature or even have the best writing style, but it took me into another world and I could not wait to pick it up again after putting it down.

I'll definitely be reading the rest of the series, just with breaks in between for other kinds of books as well.

Lesson learned: don't be such a snob!

Saturday 11 December 2010

Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

This is my first Tracy Chevalier book, although I don't think it will be my last.  I bought it after reading positive things about it on other people's blogs, and because I spent nearly all of my childhood holidays on the Dorset coast where the story takes place.  I also find natural history interesting.

Synopsis: This book tells the tale of two historical fossil hunters in Lyme Regis; working class Mary Anning who hunts to make money, and higher class Elizabeth Philpot, who starts looking as a hobby but soon finds herself captivated.  This is a story of friendship and society at a time when women were seen but not heard.

Score: 4 out of 5

I could not put this book down.  At certain points not much appeared to actually be happening, but I was so engaged with the characters and with the bigger themes (friendship, the role of women, questioning the church) that it was hard to stop reading.  As I mentioned above, every summer when I was growing up, my family would rent a cottage somewhere in Dorset or Devon, and I've spent at least three holidays in Lyme Regis.  Thus I knew a bit about Mary Anning already and have walked many times along the beaches and cliffs where Anning found her specimens.  This added a lot to my personal reading experience, but I still believe it would be enjoyable without it.

The story is told between the alternating viewpoints of Mary and Elizabeth, which kept the pace brisk.   I enjoyed Mary's viewpoint and it felt authentic.  However, if all the book had been from Mary's point of view, Chevalier would not have been able to touch on the wider history, on how people were starting to question explanations offered by the church.  A lot of the stuff on the role of women also came from Elizabeth - it was clear to the reader that she was intelligent and talented, and it was therefore frustrating when she kept coming up against roadblocks because of her gender.  Although Mary was eventually acknowledged for her role in finding fossils, this was a result of a long battle.  This was also true for matters of class.

It was hard to distinguish between fact and fiction in the novel, which might be off-putting for some.  At times it felt like a lot was elaborated or filled in by Chevalier, especially the relationship between Mary and Colonel Birch.  For me, that's the only serious criticism that could be aimed at the book.

Which Chevalier should I read next?

Sunday 5 December 2010

God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens

And now a return to regularly scheduled programming!
I chose to read this book because even though I'm not at all religious myself, I've always been fascinated by religion.  My fiance is a secondary school religious education teacher so he's always recommending books about religions from all perspectives. 

Synopsis: Hitchens aggressively takes on religion, attempting to demonstrate that it is "man-made, dangerously sexually repressive and distorts the very origins of the cosmos" (from back cover).  He puts forward the theory that religion has caused profound damage to society at all levels.

Score: 3 out of 5  for quality of writing but 2 out of 5 for quality of arguments.

Before I share my thoughts on this book, I should probably explain the viewpoint I read it from.  When I said in the introduction that I am non-religious, I meant that I have never been exposed to religion personally at all - I was not baptised/christened and can count the times I have been to a place of worship on one hand.  No one in my family is religious either and I didn't miss it growing up.  I was taught instead to treat others as I wished to be treated, to be respectful and to realise that life can be tough, and sometimes it's bad luck, and all you can do is be ready for it and make the most of the time you have.  I didn't even meet a strongly religious person until I went to university at 19 and became friends with an Orthodox Jew.

So I was kind of in the middle with this book.  I have no bone to pick with religion myself; I do find it hard to understand why people are religious but each to their own as long as they aren't bothering me.  Hitchens in his book had a completely different attitude - I've read Dawkin's "The God Delusion" as well and Hitchens makes Dawkins look like a moderate!  I can only describe Hitchens' views as militant/fundamentalist atheism, in that he sought to make everything the fault of religion without acknowledging any of the good religious people have done or even that religious people can't be lumped together as one homogenous entity.  And that seriously weakened his arguments for me.

Hitchens also approached the topic from a mainly literal/historical perspective, which would have been fine if he had stuck with it, but he also veered into the scientific arguments.  The problem with this was that he made some mistakes - I know enough biology to know that his conclusions about ears were wrong, and if you're going to write such a controversial book, you better make sure your facts are straight!

In places his conclusions were too simplistic.  Concerning American slavery, he basically argued that religion caused slavery - correct me Americans if I am wrong, but whilst religion may have defended slavery for a while, there was more to it that that.  Societies the world over have taken slave from conquered areas since the dawn of time.  Hitchens was bending over backward to show that "religion poisons everything" when he would have been much more convincing if he had argued "religion makes things bad, sometimes" or "religion can prolong bad things".

That's not to say that all of his arguments were weak.  It has been historically well documented that parts of all the major religions have been man-made (Council of Nicea etc), and when Hitchens stayed with history or culture, he was on strong ground.  His sections on the use of condoms in Africa and Muslim protest against vaccinations were also very effective.

So overall, a mixed bag.  There were some good points struggling to get out but Hitchens was just too angry and a bit fundamentalist.  I can definitely see why some atheists argue that he gives them a bad name.

Saturday 4 December 2010

I'm Engaged!

I've been neglecting my blog this week but with good reason - on Thursday I got engaged!!  

We have been together for over seven years and we had been talking about marriage, but I didn't think it would be so soon.  So I was shocked, but in a good way :)

Wednesday 1 December 2010

Non-Book Related: My Kitten!

In two and a half weeks, I am getting a new kitten and I'm so excited about it already!  He's a boy kitten and we're going to call him Joseph.  As I know lots of bookish people also love cats (has anyone else noticed that?), I could not resist posting adorable pictures of him at three weeks.

I have owned cats before, but this will be my first one since moving out of my parents house.  I can't wait!

Isn't he cute?  We're bringing him home on the 17th December, just in time for Christmas.

Tuesday 30 November 2010

The Hidden Diary of Marie Antoinette by Carolly Erickson

Every now and then I need some brain candy.  Now is one of those times:  I have a stinking cold, I fell over in the snow/ice and hurt my knee and a recurrent health issue is well, recurring.  For all these reasons, I wanted some pure, escapist, historical fiction fluff.  I chose The Hidden Diary of Marie Antoinette as I've already read Antonia Fraser's excellent biography of her, so I knew it wouldn't tax me too much.

Synopsis: Infamous French Queen Marie Antoinette keeps a secret diary from her teenage years, through to her marriage and ending during the French Revolution.

Score: 3 out of 5

First off, I should say that this book was exactly what I was looking for.  It was light, easy to read and very enjoyable.  It completely took me away to another world and part of that was due to the writing skills of the author.  I was also impressed with the way that Marie Antoinette's diary entries matured throughout the book - she felt very young at the beginning and then wiser towards the end.

That's not to say that the book was without its faults.  I personally do not expect historical fiction to stick to the facts, but this book played fast and loose with history.  A whole host of secondary characters were introduced that simply did not exist, and furthermore they drove some of the plot.  I don't mind some made up background, but made up key characters is slightly annoying.

The basic premise was also a little hard to believe at time.  Erickson kept reminding us through Antoinette's entries that keeping a diary was dangerous but I simply didn't believe that it was possible, especially when she was in prison.  And even though it was a secret, her maid 'conveniently' managed to add a passage about her execution.

All that said, I did enjoy this book.  It was fun, hard to put down and pure escapsim - sometimes that is exactly what is needed!

Sunday 28 November 2010

Small Island by Andrea Levy

I chose this book about immigration to post-war Britain because I had heard only good things about it from others.  It has won both the Whitbread Book of the Year prize and the Best of the Best of the Orange Prize.  The Orange Prize has always been a source of good books for me, and this one was no different.

Synopsis: The story is told through four central characters whose lives intertwine.  Queenie is a British housewife liberated by the war, Bernard (her husband) is a British soldier out of his comfort zone keeping the peace in an India struggling for independence, Gilbert is a Jamaican recruit trying to make it in Britain and Hortense, his new wife, is struggling to reconcile the wonderful Britain she dreamed of with the reality.

Score: 4.5 out of 5

This was such a clever and well written book.  It took me just over a week to read, but had I had the time, I could have devoured it within a day.  The narrative technique of telling the story from four different points of view works very well and each character retains their distinctive voice and identity. I particularly enjoyed the way Levy wrote the prejudice of the British characters - they didn't know they were being prejudiced, but Levy let the reader read between the lines of the characters thoughts and pick it up for themselves.  It was all very subtle, and not too far from the kinds of things people still say today.  In fact the great strength of the book was it's perceptiveness.

Levy also wrote well about the experience of the Jamaican characters, Gilbert and Hortense.  Having been brought up in the British empire and on tales of how wonderful the "mother country" is, as a reader you really felt for them when they actually got to Britain and were severly disappointed.  Hortense with her BBC public-school accent couldn't understand the East Londoners around her.  Gilbert struggled to understand why he couldn't get a job easily, having fought for Britain during the war.  Both gradually became bowed down by their new experiences and were in danger of being sucked under.

I didn't see the twist coming at the end, although had I been aware that there was going to be a twist, I might have.  I thought it tied together all of the stories nicely and the ending was satisfying.

Overall, even though this book has a 'historical' theme it definitely still feels relevant today, especially where I live.  Highly recommended.  I'll be hunting out some more Andrea Levy soon.

Saturday 20 November 2010

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Last Christmas when I received my Sony Reader, it came with the first chapter of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy as a teaser.  Much to my surprise, I really enjoyed it and decided to read the whole book when I got a chance.  Almost a year later, I finally got around to it!

Synopsis: Arthur Dent is saved by his friend Ford when the Earth is completely destroyed to make way for an intergalactic bypass.  With only the interactive Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy for help, they find themselves caught up in a series of highly improbable adventures.

Score: 3 out of 5

First off, I very much enjoyed the irony and humour of the book.  There was one section in particular when Adams was satirising philosophers that had me genuinely laughing out loud.  The humour added to the pace of the book nicely, keeping things ticking along without getting boring.  The main character, Arthur, was an "everyman" and very easy to relate to and root for.  The secondary characters were interesting too, if not fully well rounded.

There was just something about the book that put me off - it seemed crammed full of in-jokes that people enjoy because they are an in-jokes rather than because they are actually funny.  Like some kind of exclusive club.  Yes, it was slightly amusing for the answer to life, the universe and everything being '42' but I just didn't get why it has become such a big thing in popular culture.

In some ways, Adams was very clever in the book.  The Hitchhiker's guide, an interactive book where users add their own content, could be thought of as foreshadowing Wikipedia (and Adams was writing back in 1972).  If only his plot showed the same creativity too.   The improbability generator just seemed like a very convenient way to get the characters out of some very sticky situations without actually thinking it through.  If there are any massive fans out there, please don't hate me for this!

So whilst the book was a light, enjoyable read, it's not one I would read again, and nor will I be reading any of the sequels.  It's rare for me to say this, but I much preferred the film adaptation to the book.

Monday 15 November 2010

The 19th Wife by David Eberschoff

I chose this book because I read a glowing review about it on another blog.  It certainly won't be the last I choose for this reason - my to read list is expanding daily thanks to all of your wonderful reviews!

Synopsis: This book is split into two strands.  One strand tells the story of Ann Eliza Young, the 19th wife of the Mormon leader Brighman Young as she fights to leave her marriage and make polygamy illegal.  Alongside this is the modern story of Jordan Scott.  Cast out of the First Latter Day Saints for holding the hand of a girl, he recieves the news that his mum (also a 19th wife) has been arrested for killing his dad.  As he attempts to find out the truth, he discovers more and more about his family and religion.

Score: 3 out of 5

I liked this book but unfortunately not as much as I was hoping to.  I very much enjoyed the historical section of the book and the way the author told this tale through newspaper clippings, memoirs, diary entries and even fake wikipedia entries (I'm a sucker for this style in general though!).  Although I don't know enough about Mormon history to discern between what was real and what was embellished by Eberschoff, the historical characters rang true and had a lot of depth.  Ann Eliza wasn't made to be a hero and Brigham wasn't demonised, which added to my interest.

Unfortunately the modern section didn't hold my attention as well.  I started off enjoying it but as the book progressed I found myself wanting to skip through the Jordan section in order to get to more about Ann Eliza and Brigham.  Jordan didn't seem like a real person - he was one dimensional and his relationship with Tom was much too cozy and convenient to be believable.  The revelation of who actually killed his dad was a let down too, even though by that point my interest had waned.

I think part of this book's problem was it's length at 600+ pages.  There was a gem of a story in there trying to get out, but there wasn't enough action to sustain the length and some sections could have been severly edited down (Brigham's prison diary, all the stuff about the dogs).  By page 400 or so I was ready for the resolution of both strands of the novel and was impatient to finish.  It's a shame as I feel the concept for the novel was a great one.

Recommended for historical fiction fans.

Saturday 13 November 2010

What on Earth is Going On? by Tom Baird & Arthur House

My boyfriend and I are one of those sad couples that like to read aloud to each other.  We don't do it every day, and it takes us a long time to get through a book.  Therefore we have the following criteria when choosing a joint book:  topic has to interest us, the book has to be relatively short and chapters must be short enough to be read aloud in ten to fifteen minutes.  Previously we read Animal Farm (my pick) and enjoyed it, and this time he picked What on Earth is Going on?

Synopsis: The subtitle of this book is 'A Crash Course in Current Affairs', and it pretty much does what it says on the tin.  It's divided into chapters arranged alphabetically, each of which is about a different current affairs issue (from topics such as politics, health, the economy, other nations etc).  Each chapter is then divided into shorter sub-sections that give you a brief outline of the issue, assuming you have no prior knowledge of the subject whatsoever.

Score: 4 out of 5

I consider myself to be a relatively well-educated person and I both watch and read the news, but whilst reading this book I was amazed at how much I didn't know.  I found the history of nations with conflicts particularly interesting, especially the chapters on Sri Lanka, Burma and Georgia.  The chapters dealing with economics or finance were less interesting for me personally, but still informative.  I would like to say I now fully understand hedge funds, but that would be a lie!

The best thing about this book is that it gave you lots of information at a beginners level and beyond without being at all patronising.  The writing style was simple and straight-forward and the information chunked into short memorable sections.  There is also the odd touch of humor to keep things light and away from the academic zone.   There could always be arguments about what is kept in and what is omitted, but as an introduction or a refresher in current affairs, I don't think it could be beaten.

The major downfall is that this is the kind of book that will date extremely quickly.  Already reading it in 2010 rather than when it was published in 2009 there was some out of date information: Gordon Brown is no longer Prime Minister, and the last UK coalition goverment wasn't in 1945 anymore!  The whole book is written from a UK perspective, but I found there to be a good balance between domestic and foreign issues. 

Overall, it was easy to read, informative and a good refresher course in what is going on in the world.  Recommended.

Thursday 11 November 2010

Letter To My Daughter by Maya Angelou

I picked this up from my local library as I need something easier after ploughing through Arabian Nights.   I hadn't read any Angelou before (although I own I Know why the Caged Bird Sings) but had only heard good things about her and her writing.  I'm not ashamed to admit I'm a sucker for a good cover too.

Synopsis: Part autobiography, part politics and part essays, in this collection Maya Angelou writes to all her 'daughters', young women around the world.  She covers a diverse range of topics and even includes some poetry.

Score: 3 out of 5

It's not that I didn't enjoy reading this - I did - it's just that this particular collection felt hashed together at the last minute and self-indulgent.  I was very interested in the concept of Angelou writing in particular to young women and was honestly expecting the main focus to be women's issues and being a woman.  Although there was some of that, most of the collection could easily have been called "Letter to My Children".

There was a distinct lack of organisation too.  Each mini-essay was well written but they seemed to be thrown together in a random order with no attention paid to overall themes or messages.  It read a bit like essays from other sources had been cobbled together in a collection in order to make money.  The editors had also bulked out the book considerably by giving the title of each essay a page of it's own, with the consequence that I read this book very easily in one evening.

Despite all these criticisms, I've given this book a 3 out of 5 because I liked Angelou's writing and felt like she did have a lot of important things to say.  And if I had gotten my hands on this at the age of 18 or 19, I probably would have got even more out of it.  The basic thread running through all of her writing seemed to be acceptance, politeness and hope, and I can't argue with that.  I'm also now looking forward to reading I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.

Wednesday 10 November 2010

Arabian Nights by Richard Burton

I love a good story, and somehow I had just never got around to reading Arabian Nights.  I chose the Richard Burton version as he had travelled around the region and spent time learning the local languages.  It's also one of the oldest.

Synopsis: On discovering his wife cheating, a sultan beheads her and then marries a new woman every night only to kill her the following morning.  To escape this fate, Scheherazade tells her new husband a new tale every night for 1001 nights, never quite giving away the ending.  Most of the stories are therefore "stories within stories".

Score: 4 out of 5

First of all, I very much enjoyed Richard Burton's translation.  Although others have complained of the language being too old-fasioned, or of his practise of inventing new words, I felt that the old-fashioned-ness added to the atmosphere of the stories; the biblical language suited the grand tales.  Burton's footnotes were great too - some were helpful and some were overly focused on sex, to say the least, but all were entertaining.  I also enjoyed reading the introduction about Burton's life - it seems he was a real life Indiana Jones.

My favourite thing about the stories was that they just transported me to another world.  After reading them all I wanted to do was walk in the desert sand, meet a genie, steal a cave full of golden treasure and take a voyage with Sinbad.  Sometimes after putting the book down it was hard to return to the modern world.  The more interesting stories were generally the more well-known ones; Ali-Baba and the Fourty Thieves, Aladdin and the Lamp, the Voyages of Sinbad.  Some of the ones that were unfamiliar to me were very enjoyable too - the Ebony Horse was a real epic of love and adventure and the City of Brass was fantastic too.

Of course, in any collection as long as this, some of the stories were not as enjoyable as others and sometimes it felt like a slog.  There was a good balance between long and short stories though, which did make reading easier.  I have to admit that whilst I admire Burton's efforts to translate the original rhyming poems, I didn't enjoy these parts and felt they took away from rather than added to the stories.

Others have said the stories are sexist/colonialist/racist, but there are so many stories with so many viewpoints that you could argue just about anything.  Women may be looked down upon in some stories but in others cross dressing women take on the role of sultan and in Ali Baba it's down to a clever slave woman to save his life repeatedly.  I'm not a fan of over-analysing stories in this way anyway - I read them as stories and nothing more and in that sense they were wonderful.

I would recommend this collection to anyone who likes a good story, even if it's only to read a few of the more famous ones.

Friday 5 November 2010

Literary Blog Hop: Dracula

This weekend, The Blue Bookcase is hosting a literary blog hop.

The prompt is to highlight one of your favourite books and discuss why you think it is literary.  I've chosen Dracula by Bram Stoker. 

I've chosen this particular book as it is my favourite kind of literary book - one that is also easy to read and contains a great story.  Although I have enjoyed most of the literary books I have read, some of them can be a hard slog and can sometimes seem like more effort than they are worth.

Not so Dracula.  It opens perfectly with a chilling diary sequence from Jonathan Harker, sent to Eastern Europe to conduct property negotiations for Count Dracula.  Although the clues that Dracula is a vampire seem a bit heavy handed to a modern audience (he has fangs and only appears at night - run!), the writing is a masterpiece of slowly building suspense and tension.  Although this section is not at all gory compared to modern horror, I found it genuinely creepy.

The book continues as a "band of heroes" attempt and finally suceed to hunt down Dracula and destroy him.  Again, it's not a gory book but it's wonderfully descriptive, and for me that makes it creepy.  Every time I read it I get sucked right in to the world of the characters.

So why is Dracula literary?  For me most of all, it's down to the language and writing style.  I love old gothic books, and enjoy the slow, descriptive style.  For me it all adds to the tension.  And secondly, Dracula is literary due to it's impact.  Whilst I am not a fan of Twilight, the impact of Dracula can not be ignored - Bram Stoker took some folkore and turned it into one of th defining stories of all time.  There are countless vampire books and imitations, although for me none are as good as the original.

Have you read Dracula?
Were you scared?

Monday 1 November 2010

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

This is a book whose reputation precedes it, so of course I wanted to read it.  It caused outrage when published and has never been far from controversy.

Synopsis: Humbert Humbert has a preoccupation with "nympets", pre-teenage girls.  After marrying her mother and a lot of plotting, he abducts and abuses his step-daughter Lolita.  All told from Humbert's perspective.

Score: 4 out of 5

Given the subject matter, this could easily have been a sleazy read, one to make you uncomfortable.  But part of Nabokov's talent is that it isn't.  He treads a fine line between making Humbert seem human and making his crimes excusable, which must have been tricky. 

Although his crimes are at no point glorified or made to seem acceptable, Nabokov slowly makes you relate to Humbert so that in the end, you catch yourself feeling almost sympathetic to him and then feel horrible for it.  Humbert's excuses that Lolita was not innocent and that she seduced him go through the whole book and are almost believable until you catch the glimpses of Lolita that the writer allows to slip through whilst Humbert is asleep or unwell - Lolita crying herself to sleep every night, Lolita desperately trying to catch the attention of others and escape.

The book was well written and easy to read.  You would never have guessed that Nabokov was not a native English speaker.  There are lots of allusions to classics and the language is rich and poetic without being stuffy.  The sentences are long and winding, so although I found it easy to read it's one to read slowly rather than rush through.

I did feel that the book lost steam about two thirds of the way in though.  I found it hard to keep up with Humbert's paranoia (which took up a lot of lines) and found the part about who helped Lolita finally escape long and a bit tiresome. I did enjoy the ending though, where Lolita was finally able to confront Humbert many years later.

Have you read Lolita?
What did you think?

Saturday 30 October 2010

Boys Don't Cry by Malorie Blackman

I generally don't read teenage fiction, but I will read anything Malorie Blackman writes.  Her Checkmated series is in my top ten reads of all time, and when I was younger I loved Pig-Heart Boy.   This book came out in September, and I finally got around to buying a copy last week. 

Synopsis: Dante is nervously waiting for his A-Level results which will hopefully lead to him going to a top university when his ex-girlfriend turns up with a baby in tow.  Explaining that she just can't cope with a baby on her own, she dumps the baby on Dante and leaves. 

Score: 5 out of 5

I loved this book and read it in less than a day.  Like all of Blackman's books, it felt very real and believable.  I've not been a teenager in almost six years now (I feel old!), but reading this book, I was transported right back in time.  Like with the Checkmated series where she turned racism upside down, Blackman took a cliche and turned it on its head - rather than the teenage mum left holding the baby, the teenage father is.  And he gets a lot of stick for it - in one passage that jarred with me as a teacher, social services come calling because surely a 17 year old boy can't raise a baby on his own?  Child protection is such a thorny issue, and Blackman had a new take on it.

Alongside the main story of Dante coping with his life being turned upside down, we also get the story of his brother Adam, who is being bullied for being openly gay.  Blackman has lots to say about the use of "gay" as a derogatory word as what starts out as this is tolerated by all of Adam's school friends and even Dante but soon turns into something much more serious.  There was also hints of Mel, the baby's mother, suffering from post-natal depression - she gives the baby to Dante as she is "scared of what she will do".

But although the book had lots of "messages" and "issues", it was above all a good story.  The writing style was simple but with lots of emotional impact and as a reader I really cared about the characters and wanted to find out what would happen to them.  It was overall a coming of age story about facing life's responsibilities and growing up and at no point was the reader patronised. 

Highly recommended.

Friday 29 October 2010

Perfume by Patrick Suskind

Perfume by Patrick Suskind

I had high hopes for this book as it was recommended to me by a friend,  someone who I usually share the same reading taste with.  It sounded like an original adult fairy tale, something I would love.

Synopsis: Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is born in 18th century Paris with an extraordinary sense of smell.  As he has no scent of his own, he is driven further and further in his quest to create the perfect scent.

Score: 2 out of 5

Unfortunately, I found this book to be silly.  I did enjoy the writing style and how the author described the setting and the people in a fairy-tale way, but it was just too silly for me.  I am prepared to suspend belief for a good story, but this seemed to have been plucked out of the air in a pretentious kind of way and not thought through properly.

The main problem I had (aside from the silly ending, which I won't spoil for others who want to read it) was that Grenouille was just not a developed character at all.  He didn't change or react to anything around him and although I could tell Suskind wanted him to be an anti-hero, I just didn't care what happened to him.  Some of the secondary characters were far more interesting and developed; the wet nurse, Richie, Baldini.  Grenouille seemed more like a plot device than a real person.

The 'magician's apprentice' chapters where Grenouille was learning his craft were interesting and it was a quick easy read.  Just one I was happy to be finished with.

Have you read this book?  If so, I would love to know whether you agree with me or not.

Tuesday 26 October 2010

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

I've had this book a while; I got it in a set of books short-listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction.  I avoided it for a bit as it had won the Man Booker Prize and I've yet to have a great reading experience with a Booker book - I usually find them hard going.  But, as I do love historical fiction and I'm on a week's holiday from work, I finally decided to give this one a shot.

Synopsis: The story of Henry VIII's divorce in order to marry Anne Boleyn is the back-drop to the life story of Thomas Cromwell, a commoner who managed to persuade and manipulate his way into becoming one of the most powerful men in England.

Score: 3 out of 5

This book had many strengths, the major one being Mantel's ability to make this much written about period of English history somehow seem fresh and modern.  It didn't seem like a Phillipa Gregory style period romance, or even a period book at all - the characters all jumped off the page and events seemed immediate and compelling, even though everyone knows how it was going to turn out.

The character of Cromwell was a masterpiece, he was so complex and I loved how Mantel showed the distinction between what he was thinking and what he was saying as he slowly manipulated people and got his revenge.  Although there was plenty of historical happenings and legal proceedings, these were interspersed with personal events from Cromwell's life, which gave the book a balance and broke things up a bit.

But there were definitely things I didn't like so much about the book.  It was a hard slog - whilst I didn't have trouble keeping track of who was talking as others seemed to (the 'he' pronoun causing difficulties), it's the kind of book you have to concentrate on and be fully awake to read.  I know a fair amount about this period of history but sometimes it was hard to follow all of the minor characters and the legal proceedings.

And one of the book's strengths was also it's biggest weakness - writing as Cromwell gave the book immediacy and something fresh, but it also meant there was no room for the back story of other characters.  People going into a meeting don't spend twenty minutes reviewing the life stories of all the participants in their head beforehand, and if Mantel did so the book would have seemed a bit stuffy.  Consequently, not at lot was explained and Mantel was relying on you knowing your history.  I knew a bit about Cranmer and More, but not enough.

Now that I've finished it, I'm glad I read it, but it was hard going at times.  It's like spring cleaning your house - you may find it boring at times and tough, but you love having everything sparkly clean once it's all done.  There's a sequel on the way, not sure if I will pick it up or not.

Saturday 23 October 2010

Some of my Most Favourite Books...

I don't have a favourite author, or even a favourite book, but I do have quite a few books that I keep coming back to whenever I don't know what to read or I want something to make me feel passionate about reading again.  In no particular order, here are a selection of them:

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

This book was on my Christmas list back in 2004 and I got the lovely black hardcover copy with the black embossed pages.  Writing in a style that imitates 18th century literature, it tells the tale of the return of magic to England through the stuffy, academic Mr Norrell and his prodigy Jonathan Strange.  I loved the style, the detail and all of the little footnotes - I found the world Clarke had created very consistent and believable.  And the interaction between the two main characters was great.  It seemed a plausible continuation of folk tales and fairy tales.  Not for anyone who likes a quick read or an action packed story.

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

At the time of my first reading of this book, I was going through a bit of an African history kick, so this fitted in nicely.  It tells the story of a missionary, his wife and four daughters as they settle in the Congo.  I really enjoyed that each daughter had her own "voice" in the novel, and felt that all of the main characters were distinct and believable.  I couldn't put this one down, and although the action slowed down towards the end, I did want to find out what had happened to all of the main characters afterwards.  I've recommended this book to practically everyone since first reading it.

 Wild Swans by Jung Chang

Covering three generations of a family, Jung Chang tells the story of herself, her mother and her grandmother, from the ancient Chinese custom of footbinding to the communist revolution.  One of the reasons I loved this book is that ever since studying the Russian revolution for my GCSE history, I've been sort of fascinated with Communist history.  I just think it's so interesting.  But this book has a lot going for it apart from that - it's a well written biography with a good blend of personal story and history.   Even though the lives she describes are so different to modern Western ones, you can't help but empathise with all three of the women.

Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman
(and the rest of the trilogy, but not Double Cross).

I worked at Waterstone's for a while and ran the children's/teenage fiction section.  Loads of people were buying this trilogy so I decided to try it myself and I'm so glad I did.  It's about racism, but everything has been flipped so that darker skinned people are "in charge" and whites are second-class citizens.  White girls dream of getting bum implants and have chemical treatments to get afros.  It's a clever story about racism, terrorism and inter-racial relationships.  Because everything has been flipped, it really makes you think about prejudice - alongside enjoying the story of course :)

Have you read any of these books?
If so, what did you think of them?

Sunday 17 October 2010

Dracula: The Un-Dead by Dacre Stoker & Ian Holt

Dracula: The Un-dead by Dacre Stoker & Ian Holt

The original Dracula by Bram Stoker is on my top ten list of all-time favourite novels.  I love slow-paced gothic literature, and for me, Dracula is the best of the bunch.   I love the characters, the letters/diaries style and when I first read it as a 12 or 13 year-old, I was scared.  I don't like the modern Twilight-style vampire stuff at all, but I did very much enjoy The Historian.  Given that this 'sequel' to the original bears the Stoker name, I was looking forward to reading it.

Synopsis: Quincey Harker, the son of Mina and Jonathan, starts working on a production of Bram Stoker's Dracula at the Lyceum Theatre.  There he starts to discover the secrets of his family as one by one the heroes from the original novel are destroyed.

Score: 1 out of 5

This may sound brutal, but here it is:  there is nothing to like about this book.  Please don't read it.  It is a blatant attempt on cashing in through the use of a famous surname and should never have been an authorised sequel to what is a classic and much-loved book.  

What offends me the most about it is how the original characters have been twisted and 'developed' into something completely beyond what Bram Stoker had imagined them to be.  Mina has become a sex-crazed vampire affecionado, Jonathan a sad drunk who likes prostitutes,  Jack a crazy morphine addict, Van Helsing a sell out and Arthur a sad and lonely old man.  And Dracula, an undeniable villain, has become a tragic romantic hero, 'God's crusader' who was merely misunderstood.  He doesn't even drink human blood anymore!  And Bram Stoker even appears in it as a plagerist! It all seems a bit disrespectful to me.

There was also a high proportion of silliness in the plot.  Don't get me wrong, I don't mind a bit of tackiness or suspending belief - but Jack the Ripper really being the Countess Elizabeth Bathory?  When the authors of a book take so much liberty with both the original story and the timeline of history that they have to provide an afterword to explain themselves away, you do start to wonder.

To sum up, I am sure Bram Stoker would have been appalled to have learned of this treatment of his novel if he was alive to witness it.  If you like the original, steer well clear of this one.

Friday 15 October 2010

The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard

The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard

 I don't particularly read sci-fi (though I loved Michael Moorcock's 'Behold the Man') and got this book as my free book in a 3 for 2 deal at Waterstone's.  I just thought it sounded worth a shot.  It's my first Ballard.

Synopsis: Fluctuations in solar radiation mean that the ice-caps have melted and temperatures reach up to 150C.  Most of the cities of the Northern Hemisphere are submerged in tropical lagoons populated with prehistoric animals and massive bugs of all kinds.  The main character, Kerans, is a scientist sent to study the animal life forms but soon gets caught up with all kinds of people.

Score: 2 out of 5.

I liked the premise of this book, and indeed the initial third or so of it was amazing.  I liked the scenario of the increase in temperature leading to all of these prehistoric animals in a kind of de-evolution and thought I was in for a fantastic adventure story, in the style of Conan Doyle's 'Lost World'.  I wanted battles with giant iguanas and crocodiles as enormous as blue whales!

But there wasn't actually much of a story at all.  The main character was very passive (intentionally) and the book just kind of drifted with no purpose.  I get that this was because humanity and the world as a whole were drifting with no purpose, but it didn't make for fun reading. The sections on what happens to humanity when civilisation is stripped away were interesting, and all the looting and plundering seemed applicable to life now.

The main problem for me that this book appears to have been written in a psycho-analytic time.  Don't get me wrong, I did a psychology degree, but I have no time for the "collective unconscious" or "regressing to the womb" or other such Freudian arguments.  Ballard seemed to be arguing that the heat was activating some kind of genetic memory we all have of the time of our ancestors, and this was captivating and entrapping the main characters, making them seek out hotter lagoons.  It made no sense!  If I was Kerans I wouldn't be thinking "Hmm, 150C is a little mild, I'm going to leave this nice air-conditioned scientific facility with all the food provided and venture south where it is even hotter and I will have no resources whatsoever!"  Despite the shortness of the book, there was a lot of waffle about this.  A bit disappointing, really.

To summarise:  I liked the idea, but not enough pace or story. 

Has anyone read any other books by Ballard?  I want to read 'Empire of the Sun', but this one's put me off a bit!

Sunday 10 October 2010

A Journey by Tony Blair

A Journey by Tony Blair

I am a part of 'Blair's generation' in that I was 11 when he came to power in 1997 and 21 when he left power in 2007.  I grew up in his schooling system, was one of the first to take the new AS-Levels and when I went to university, I had to pay the new top-up fees.  I voted for Labour in my first election (2005) but also joined in the marches against the Iraq war.  I was interested to read his autobiography for all of these reasons, and especially interested as he is such a divisive figure.  People either love him or hate him (and most hate him), but no one seems to actually listen to what he has to say anymore.

Synopsis: Autobiography of Tony Blair, Prime Minister of the UK between 1997 - 2007.

Score: 3 out of 5

This was a long book.  It wasn't just long in terms of the number of pages (just under 700), but it felt long due to the poor organisation of the book.  The chapters were extended and seemed to ramble round a few different topics aside from the chapter heading in no particular order.  I like that the book was organised thematically rather than chronologically, and I liked the informal, chatty writing style, but think the book would have been much improved by splitting it into many smaller chapters just restricted to one theme.  The chapter on Iraq also had a few pages on university fees and Northern Ireland, for example.  This made it hard to follow at times and hard to get an overall sense of the passing of time.

That aside, I did enjoy reading the book.  My favourite sections were the parts dealing with international issues and summits, which felt honestly told and full of fascinating characters and relationships.  There was a sense that not much was held back and Blair had made a real effort to tell his side of the story.  He wasn't apologetic or trying to covert you to his side of things, he was just telling it as he saw it.

The book was largely ideological.  As someone who is interested in politics, I enjoyed that side of it and felt that understanding the ideology helped me to understand the decisions and actions made by Tony Blair as prime minister.  However, the ideology was repeated constantly throughout the book, which is a bit unnessecary.   Well worth the read for anyone interested in politics or current events, though.

What do you think of Tony Blair?


Saturday 2 October 2010

Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson

Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson

When I was at university as an undergraduate completing my psychology degree, I took two modules in the history and development of the major languages of the world.  From that moment on, I've been hooked.  If that wasn't enough of a reason to read this history of the English Language, I also spend a considerable amount of time teaching children to read and write, and sharing their frustration when you can't just 'sound out' every word in English.  Plus, I love Bryson.

Synopsis: A potted history of the English language, from its early development to its evolution to British and American English.

Score: 4 out of 5.

This was an entertaining, easy to read book.  As always, Bryson has a talent for making quite complex subjects and explainions clear and easy to understand.  Although the book did go into quite a bit of detail, it never felt dry or stuffy.  More academic chapters were interspersed with chapters on the history of swearing and amusing anecdotes.  My favourite was from the chapter on names - a street in London that was famous for prostitutes was once called 'Gropecunt Lane'.

I thought Bryson was especially strong when explaining just why English has become one of the trickiest languages to learn (aside from non-alphabetic languages like Chinese).  It was interesting to see how each of the peoples that invaded or migrated to England added a little something to the language, resulting in a bit of a mixing pot of all different spelling patterns and sounds.  I also found it interesting that in Elizabethan times, most words were said exactly as they are spelt now - for example there was no silent 'k' in know, knee etc.  And the classicly posh British accent wasn't around until well into the 18th century - so all those Elizabethan costume dramas are competely off the mark!

I was always going to love this book as I'm interested in the subject matter and have read a lot on it before.  I think it serves as a good general introduction and is entertaining enough to be enjoyable to most.

Sunday 26 September 2010

Four Lovely Blogs

Recently I have been given the 'One Lovely Blog' award by Jo's Book Journey and Lisa.  As part of accepting the award, I get to choose some of the blogs I am reading to pass the award on to.  Here are some blogs I think are lovely:

Baja Greenawalts Cozy Book Nook: I love the design and style of this blog.  I like that the reviews are a little eclectic and don't follow the same format every single time.  All the books mentioned are interesting in some way.

Borough of Books: I know the author of this blog from livejournal, but what I love about her book blog is how straightforward and honest the reviews are.  I've also found out about lots of books outside the genres I don't usually read from this blog, which has been interesting.

Man of La Book: I love the variety of books that this blogger reads - I never know which genre is coming next.  A good mix of well-known and not so well-known books.

Paper Adventures: This blogger won me over with her post about banned books.  In the reviews there's a good balance between summary and opinion.

All of these blogs are worth reading, if you aren't following them already, you should do so straight away!

Saturday 25 September 2010

My Favourite Picture Books

I work as a primary school teacher and my favourite time of any day is story time.  I love to read, and all children love good stories.  Over the past few years, whilst training and teaching, I have acquired a box full of my favourite books, which have captured the attention of all the children I have read them to.

 Miki by Stephen Mackey.

This book is just beautiful.  It's about a girl, Miki, who wants to find a star for a tree and goes on a magical underwater adventure in Antarctica.  The language is just as descriptive and lovely as the pictures.  I've found that all children tend to love stories set in wild and exotic places.  This one has the right balance between being sweet and being too soppy.

The Whisperer by Nick Butterworth.

This picture book is part Romeo & Juliet, part gang warfare, but all told through cats.  The black cats and ginger cats are separate gangs that hate each other, and must figure out what to do when a black cat and a ginger cat fall in love.  Told simply without being patronising, it's a story that leads to a really good discussion.  Gangs are very common where I teach, and all the children have strong views on them.

Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers

This book is just adorable.  A boy wakes up one day to find a penguin waiting for him.  Thinking he is lost, the boy goes to great lengths to help in back to Antarctica.  But on his way home alone, he realises that perhaps the penguin was just lonely...

Michael Rosen's Sad Book by Michael Rosen

I'm a great believer that children know more than we let on, and that we shouldn't patronise them.  Michael Rosen wrote this book after the death of his son, and it is one of the most touching books I have ever read.  All children respond to it and I've had some really positive things come out of sharing this book.

Hansel & Gretel by Anthony Browne

I love Anthony Browne books.  The pictures in them are amazing, there are always hidden parts and clues, and the books deal with big issues while still being picture books.  In this retelling of the fairy tale, the parents kick out Hansel and Gretel because they simply don't care about them and would rather spend their money on cigarettes.  It's a lovely story of friendship.

Click, Clack Moo by Doreen Cronin

This book is simply hilarious.  The cows get fed up with their working conditions and decide to send a ransom note to the farmer.  This leads to a lot of other animals wanting in on the act too....

Little Mouse's Big Book of Fears by Emily Gravett

Everyone is scared of something, although not everyone wants to admit it.  I love this story about the mouse who is scared of everything.  Children love the pull out parts and old fashioned style, and it leads to lots of great discussion about fears and why we have them.

Wednesday 22 September 2010

The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown

The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown

I'll admit it: Dan Brown is my brain candy.  Especially lately, whenever I feel in need of something easy and page-turner-y to read, I turn to Dan Brown.  I don't think it's high quality literature, but it's formulaic and therefore comforting to me!

Synopsis: Robert Langdon (he of Angels and Demons & The Da Vinci Code) is asked to Washington to deliver a lecture by his long-term mentor.  However, when he arrives he makes a gruesome discovery and ends up investigating the secrets of the Masons.

Score: 3 out of 5

I found this book a bit disappointing.  It was easy to read, and I was always expecting it to be formulaic and silly, but some of the later sections really seemed to be pushing the boundaries of credibility.  Without giving too much away - am I really supposed to believe that such a thing as breathable liquid exists?

Part of the problem is that the Masons are just not as glamourous as the Holy Grail or the Illuminati trying to wipe out the Vatican.  Their 'secrets' were not as exciting and there didn't seem to be as much action to keep the pace going smoothly.  There were large sections where not much happened.  The final revelations seemed to me to be an anti-climax after all of the build up through the book.

I also noticed that there was a lack of well developed secondary characters.  The bad guy, although a good bad guy, was a simplistic, pure evil type character and there was no one with any moral ambiguities to balance it out, as in the previous books.  There was also of course the appearance of a perfect female sidekick.

Looking back on this review so far, I have been quite harsh.  Despite all of the above, I still enjoyed the whole reading experience and the book definitely held my attention well.  I just think it wasn't as good as previous offerings from the author.

Saturday 18 September 2010

'Les Liaisons Dangereuses' by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos

Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos

I'm one of those people that enjoys reading books that were 'controversial' in their own time, and I've been meaning to read this one for a while.  The film Cruel Intentions is based on it, and Marie Antoinette is rumored to have had a secret bound copy.

Synopsis: Two members of the French aristocracy, the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquis de Meurtil engage in a number of plots, among them the seduction/corruption of an innocent teenage girl in love and ruining the career of an aristocrat.  Told through letters written between the various characters.

Score: 3.5 out of 5.

This book took me a long time to read - it was one to savour slowly rather than rush through.  The letters were often long and full of flowery language (declarations of love etc), but this was part a satire of the French aristocracy before the revolution and part of the appeal of the book.

For me the best part of the book was the characterisation.  It's quite a challenge to write letters from at least six different characters, each of whom has different relationships with everyone else, whilst at the same time making them all seem real and well developed.  This was done very effectively by the author; all of the characters had a distinct 'voice'.  The contrast between the letters written by the Marquis de Meurtil was particularly good: in one letter she could be polite and considerate, in another, scheming and manipulative, all whilst retaining the sense that it was definitely her writing the letters.

The book also felt surprisingly modern in it's take on emotions and relationships, which is perhaps why it was so controversial when it was published.  Today, it's hard to imagine anyone taking offense to it.  It's greatest crime at the time was being too honest about not everyone being a nice person, and worse, that women could be just as manipulative and 'evil' as men.

Overall, it was an enjoyable read, although it occasionally felt like an effort.  Definitely something more easy going coming up next.

Sunday 12 September 2010

School Libraries

Great news!  I've been offered the chance to 'take over' my school's library for the forseeable future, and I'm really excited to do so.  We don't have a school librarian, although the library is up and running with the facilities in use to check out books onto individual student library cards.  One of the teaching assistants helps with the running/sorting of the library and is available at the beginning of every lunchtime for children who want to check out books.

I teach in a primary school, which is for children aged 4 - 11, and my class are all currently seven years old.  Each class has an allocated half hour slot in the library each week, which is used for taking out new books and also for storytime. The library is small, but it is inviting with comforting chairs etc.

I'm hoping to be able to set up some kind of book group/after school reading club, but wondered if any of you book-loving people had any other ideas to inspire children to love reading?  I teach in a socially disadvantaged area and most families don't prioritise reading at home, so anything I can do at school with the library to help children enjoy reading would be fantastic.  All ideas welcome :)

Sunday 5 September 2010

The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory

The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory

I borrowed this book from my local library - I've started my new term teaching and I wanted something relatively light that would keep my attention and take my mind off my new class.  Something to lose myself in.  I love Tudor history and historical fiction in general, and whilst I have read 'The Other Queen' by the same author (and enjoyed it), I never gor around to reading this one.

Score: 4.5 out of 5.

Synopsis: Mary and Anne Boleyn have a sisterly rivalry that increases when Mary becomes the mistress of Henry VIII at the age of fourteen.  Anne's ambition takes over as she becomes determined to do whatever it takes to marry the king and give birth to a son.  As more and more time passes, Mary becomes sickened at the ambition of her family and is determined to not simply do as they say anymore.

Review: This book was actually more substantial than I was expecting.  I found the characters to be well rounded, and all of the main characters had some good character development throughout the course of the novel.  The novel covered a large span of time, but it didn't feel rushed or unbelieveable, as the characters matured as the book progressed.

What I liked most about the book was that the author left everything Anne had done very ambiguous, you could make your mind up as to how far she had gone in order to get what she wanted.  There were no moral judgements either, and you could sympathise very much with Anne near the end of the book, even though she was horrible and quite unlikeable.  There was no black and white, it was all shades of grey.  I liked how the author managed to pull off writing from the perspective of Mary, but also giving us a deeper insight into Mary than she herself had - she wasn't as good as she thought she was.

Some of the minor characters were less well written - Mary's second husband was too perfect and understanding, with very modern viewpoints, and Uncle Howard only had one personality trait - evil.  However, the pace and plot made up for this, and it was one of those books where time just flew as I was reading it.  Recommeded.