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?