Friday 30 December 2011

Thoughts on 2011

Books and Blog:
I'm pleased that I've continued to enjoy reading and blogging throughout 2011.  As the year has gone past, I've become less worried about number of followers and frequency of posts and the types of books I review and I've just settled in and enjoyed it more.  There are a number of bloggers that I feel like I've developed friendships with this year, so thank you to all of you who keep visiting and commenting :)

I've also managed to meet my own vague personal goal of reading 100 books, which I am chuffed with.  I'm going for the same next year, but without any pressure.  All I want in terms of reading is to read and enjoy some great books, then share my thoughts on them.

On a more personal level, 2011 has been the most intense year of my life so far.  There have been so many good and even wonderful things about it and a share of bad too, and it feels in some ways that someone pressed a fast forward button on my life this year.  I don't usually discuss personal things on my blog, because it's a book blog, but I wanted to share some things that happened in 2011 for me:

At the start of the year I had proper health problems for the first time. I actually ended 2010 in hospital and spent a lot of 2011 at hospital appointments and having diagnostic tests.  Luckily things are well under control now and I feel better than I have done in ages, but I never really realised how important good health was, and how much not having it can effect everything in your life until this year.

And then in April we moved house.  Wasn't planning to so soon, but we are so glad we did now as we moved from a flat to a proper house with a garden (still renting, when is the housing market going to settle?) and we're both happy here.  After April all my time was taken up with wedding planning as I got married at the end of July.  All of August was spent having the most wonderful honeymoon touring the southern states of the USA.  That was definitely my favourite part of the year and we're planning to go back to New Orleans at some point in the future.

September was a difficult time.  The new school year started and I had some new things at work to get used to.  My granddad also passed away at the end of this month, which I haven't felt OK typing about until now.  My grandparents lived in the house opposite us during all of my childhood and teenage years and I'm lucky to have so many happy memories.  He had been ill for a very long time, but it was still hard.  I'm getting there now.

And then in December, a welcome happy event as my big sister got married.  My poor parents - both daughters married during the same year, I'm sure it was a challenging year for them too!  It was nice to be so involved with the ceremony (I was a bridesmaid) without the pressure of making all of the decisions.

Thankfully, my Christmas holidays have been relaxing and low-key.  I'm planning a quiet New Years Eve, cooking a curry for my husband and parents and staying in.  I hope to have a quieter 2012, and to have time to take pleasure in the simple things.  And read a great many good books of course!

Happy New Year Everyone!
Are you happy or sad to see the end of 2011?

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

Regular readers will know that I don't read much YA, but every now again I like to pick up a YA book from the library and see what I am missing.  Before I Fall is the story of high-school student Sam, who is killed in a car accident whilst being driven home from a late-night house party (not a spoiler, it happens right at the beginning).  But rather than moving on, she finds herself reliving the day of her death over and over again in a Groundhog-day type scenario.  As she starts the same day afresh every morning, Sam must learn that every action and even inaction that she takes has consequences for those around her.

I liked the main character of Sam in this book.  At the beginning, she was not a very nice person - not the sort to start bullying others but the kind that will readily join in without feeling guilty.  She's distant from her parents and has cut her best childhood friend out of her life in order to be seen as popular.  She's obsessed with wearing the right thing, saying the right thing and even eating the right thing at lunch-time.  She's self-absored in the way that only teenagers can be, and Oliver wrote this part beautifully. But then as the book went on, I got to see Sam slowly change and mature.  Of course the whole process was sped up by the groundhog day scenario, but it read like a real reflection on the growing up process that happens to all of us.  I appreciated that Oliver didn't create a perfect main character (like I've seen in a lot of YA books) but instead let us watch her develop throughout the course of the story.

When I was reading Before I Fall, I felt as though I had gone back to my own teenage years, as Oliver perfectly captures what it is like to be a teenager when you aren't sure of yourself and the world of school and your relationships with other teenagers are the most important things in the world.  At points I wanted to reach into the book and shake the characters, saying "it does get better when you get to the real world."  And that's the essential problem for me with this book and with YA books in general - I don't always want to be transported back to my teenage years.  In fact, I'm quite happy to be out of them.

But Before I Fall is definitely one of the best YA books I've read for a long time.  It's addictive, hard to put down, well written and contains a cast of decently developed secondary characters.  There are no stereotypical teens present in Oliver's book.  As the story goes on, you do find yourself rooting for Sam and hoping that she will be able to change herself into a better person.  I would recommend this book to anyone who likes YA, or anyone who wants to be reminded of what it is like to be a teenager.

Verdict: A good YA book about a teenage girl in a ground hog day scenario who must learn to be a better person.
First Published: March 2010
Source: Library (random browsing)
Score: As YA, 4.5 out of 5.  For me overall, 3 out of 5.

Thursday 29 December 2011

The Ruins Of Us by Keija Parssinen

The Ruins of Us hits the ground running.  Rosalie, an American woman married to a Saudi man, Abdullah,  is shopping for a gift for her daughter when the shop-keeper casually asks if she enjoyed the anniversary gift her husband bought recently.  Knowing that the gift was not for her, it doesn't take Rosalie long to find out that her husband has secretly taken a second wife, Isra.  The after-shocks of this revelation are the real meat of the story as everyone in the family is affected.  Rosalie must decide what to do whilst Abdullah hides behind the shield of tradition.  Their daughter feels oppressed by the contradiction between her upbringing and the rigid rules for Saudi women but it is their son, Faisal, who is holding a deep resentment against his mother and her American-ness.  As he becomes further drawn into extremist activity, events start to spin out of control.

The Ruins of Us is an impressive novel that straddled several genres comfortably.  Different chapters in the book are told from the different perspectives of each of the main characters and Parssinen managed to make each voice distinct.  I was particularly drawn to the story of Faisal as he became radicalised and this remained undetected by his family.  Parssinen did a fantastic job of showing how bored, wealthy young men are often easy targets for extremists- in the news here it's not unusual to hear of young men from moderate, successful families ending up in terrorist training camps abroad, and I felt that this part of the story showed real insight.  Faisal's guilt at being half-American was easily manipulated and used against him as he was desperate to become more Saudi and more Muslim.  As his family struggled to deal with their own issues, no one noticed what was happening to him as he started to idealise poverty and suffering and rebel against his wealthy upbringing.

Parssinen also successfully showed the emotions that each family member went through as they came to terms with Abdullah taking a second wife.  I felt for Rosalie, even if I couldn't understand her choices.  Having grown up on an oil reserve in Saudi Arabia, she was as much in love with the country as she was with Abdullah.  There was also some good examination about what it means to truly belong somewhere, and to be caught between two very different cultures.

One criticism I will make is that I wanted to hear more from Rosalie and Abdullah's daughter, Mariam.  Whereas Faisal was rebelling by becoming more extremist, Mariam was busy fighting the strict rules for women in Saudi Arabia by decorating her abaya (outer covering worn by Saudi women) and writing an anonymous blog.  These issues about life for women in Saudi Arabia were just touched upon through the characters of Mariam and Rosalie and I would have liked to see some more examination.  But this is just a minor criticism - I thoroughly enjoyed this book and will look out for more by the author in the future.

Verdict: Good examination of family dynamics and culture clash in modern-day Saudi Arabia.
Source: From the publisher via NetGalley
Score: 4 out of 5

The Ruins of Us is published on January 17th 2012.

Wednesday 28 December 2011

Christmas Loot!

I'm having a relaxing day today after a busy Christmas.  I have had a lovely few days and thoroughly enjoyed my first Christmas as a married person, as well as the first Christmas in our house (last year we were in a tiny, poky flat so it's a definite upgrade).  The majority of my presents were not books as the fact that I own a lot of books is well known and generally puts people off buying any more for me.  However, I did receive some books that I'm very happy with ....


The Night Circus was a gift from my parents.  I bought the same book for my sister as a gift and when it came in the post I read the first chapter.  That was enough to get me hooked and I added it to my own Christmas list straight away.  My parents always get me a beautiful hardback book for Christmas - last year it was The Passage and the year before, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.

The Marriage Plot was a gift from my husband, and he had specific instructions about which book I wanted!  I've been desperate to read this ever since I started seeing reviews pop up on other people's blogs.  I am a big fan of both The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex, so fingers crossed I will enjoy this one too.

My final bookish gift was a wonderful surprise present from my in-laws - a hardback collection of the Penguin classic editions of Arabian Nights!  I read the Burton translation of Arabian Nights earlier in the year and loved it so much that at the time I did mention to a few people that I would like a beautiful copy to keep on my shelf.   These are going to look great on my bookcase next to my other hardback Penguin Classic editions.  I can feel the urge to collect coming on....

Each of the three books has a different cover. The paper inside is just beautiful too.

My favourite.

So I have lots of reading to keep me busy over the next few months!  I want to dive straight into my new books but I do have some review deadlines coming up as well as some books on hold at the library that I need to finish before the return date. I will have to practise restraint...

All in all, a great Christmas.  Did you receive any books as gifts?

Tuesday 27 December 2011

The Oracle of Stamboul by Michael David Lukas

The Oracle of Stamboul is a charming fairytale about nine year old Eleonora Cohen, who is precociously intelligent.  She can memorise anything she is given to read and converse in seven different languages.  When her carpet-seller father leaves for Stamboul (Istanbul) on business, Eleonora secretly follows him.  But her intelligence and gifts can not stay secret for long, and she soon finds herself wrapped up in the Sultan's court.
I have to admit that I chose this book purely because it is set in Istanbul during Ottoman times. The Ottoman Empire is one of my favourite parts of history and I'm always looking out for new books about this period.  Where I think Lukas definitely succeeded with this novel was in the way he described the city and the Sultan; he really captured the exotic, other-worldliness that we as Westerners often think of when we imagine Istanbul at that time.  I wouldn't have been surprised if at some point a flying carpet or a genie appeared.  There were spice markets and mosques and tiled mosiacs and the call to prayer and at some points I wanted to climb right in through the pages.

The setting was so wonderfully described that at times the story was secondary to it.  The basic story line of a gifted child and a worried Sultan was a good one, but it is Stamboul itself I will remember from this book.  The story was told in the way you would a fairytale, which I am not usually a fan of, but it did work well in this case.  Because of this method of storytelling, the magical elements did not seem out of place and they didn't bother me at all. In much the same way the secondary characters were slightly underdeveloped, but again it didn't matter as the whole novel was like a fairytale.

The Oracle of Stamboul is a quick, charming read which I liked but didn't love.  It's perfect for a cosy Sunday afternoon in front of the fire but it's not one I will reread or remember for years to come.

Source: Library
First Published: 2011
Score: 3.5 out of 5

Saturday 24 December 2011

Best of 2011: Part The Third.

Welcome back to my Best Of 2011 posts, where I am highlighting my favourite book from each month of the year.  


The Sandalwood Tree by Elle Newmark

The Sandalwood Tree is the story of two Western women in India at different times.  American Evie has moved to India in 1947 with her scholar husband Martin, and whilst she is there she finds a cache of letters written by two Victorian women, Felicity and Adela.  This is a very evocative book and both stories are delightful.  You'll definitely want to visit India after reading this one.  Recommended for armchair travellers and fans of historical fiction.


Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff

This is hands-down the best history book I've read all year, the one that has the best balance between being readable and satisfying history buffs.  It's full of great little facts and manages to place Cleopatra's life in the context of the time in which she lived, rather than mythologising her.  A good introduction to reading non-fiction if you're not a regular reader.


The Cellist of Sarajevo by Stephen Galloway

This is simply a beautiful book about normal people and normal life during the worst siege of modern times.  When death becomes a random act and the person next to you is gunned down by a sniper whilst you survive, how can you continue to live as normal?  Quite a philosophical book, it still has a story that is devastating in places.


Purge by Sofi Oksanen

There's not much I can say about this book apart from: it's amazing and go and buy a copy right now.  It's a harrowing story about the abuse of two Estonian women during the late twentieth century, but it also has lots of elements of a psychological thriller and one of the creepiest characters I've read about in a long time.  Go and read it!

I hope you've enjoyed this run-down of my favourite books of the year, I've certainly enjoyed reading the lists on other people's blogs.  I'll be celebrating Christmas with my family over the next few days, so see you all on the 27th...Merry Christmas!

Thursday 22 December 2011

The Calligrapher's Daughter by Eugenia Kim

Najin Han is born in Korea just as it becomes a colony of Japan in 1910 and grows up in a country that is mourning the loss of its freedom and age-old traditions.  Her father clings on to traditional views and customs in the face of rapid change and discrimination, making it hard for Najin to gain an education and employment. As the rule of Japan becomes more oppressive and opportunities for Koreans narrow, Najin must do all she can to support her family and balance her traditional upbringing with Japanese rule and the reality of modern Korea.

The Calligrapher's Daughter is a leisurely read packed full of lovely description.  From the winter snow to the rustle of clothes to the smell of cooking, I felt as though Kim had transported me back in time and half way around the world to Korea.  Unlike a lot of historical fiction, she used showing rather than telling as her main literary device.  Despite not being explicitly told that 'yangban' meant a respected class of people in former Korea, it was easy to guess this through the use of the word.  And there was a lot of this trust in the reader to work things out for themselves, which I really liked as it made me feel like an observer to the story, rather than the main reason the story is being told.

Najin was a likeable main character and it was hard as a modern woman not to sympathise with her struggles against her father's traditional views.  Najin goes through hardships and good times during the course of the novel and I definitely empathised with her when things were rough.  A lot of the story is apparently based on the story of Eugenia Kim's family, which added a bit of weight to the story and my reaction to it.

I do think there were some pacing issues with this novel. It starts with a very slow, leisurely pace which I personally enjoyed as it was like being immersed in Korea at the time and I love the little details in historical fiction. This slow pace continues through most of the book.  By the last third, I was used the characters spending time thinking about the events of the novel when suddenly things sped up.  I don't know if Kim wanted to finish the book quickly, or convey some kind of urgency, but I found the change in pace and the swiftness of the ending unsettling when compared with the rest of the novel.  I still very much enjoyed it, but I felt a bit unsettled after the end.

Verdict: Intriguing novel set in Korea during Japanese rule; a portrait of a country struggling to balance traditional beliefs with a more modern world.
First Published: 2009
Source: Library
Score: 4 out of 5

Wednesday 21 December 2011

Best of 2011 Part Two: May To August

Welcome back to my Best Of 2011 posts, where I am highlighting my favourite book from each month of the year.  


Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

I went into this book expecting a story about a hermaphrodite, and it is that, but it's also so much more.  It's an epic family saga of three generations of a Greek-American family and each story is distinct.  My favourite was the story of Cal's parents, who immigrated to America from Greece, and who shouldn't have fallen in love with each other.  I was expecting to be disappointed with this book as The Virgin Suicides is one of my all time favourites, but I loved it.  Recommended for literary fiction fans.


Tiger, Tiger by Margaux Fragoso

Tiger, Tiger is a controversial book.  It's the true story of a relationship between a fifty-one year old man and a seven year old girl.  It's also brutally honest, to the extent that many reviews I've read of this book have been a bit victim-blaming, as Fragoso perfectly describes the process of grooming and how she eventually became the instigator.  It's a disturbing read, especially as many of the adults around Margaux do seem to be aware to some level of what is going on, but unwilling to face the horrible truth.  Recommended especially for anyone who works with young children.


On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

On Chesil Beach is the story of newly-weds Florence and Edward on the day of their wedding.  Both nervous about the intimacy that is to follow, for different reasons they are apprehensive about their wedding night.  Edward has performance anxiety but Florence is repulsed by the very idea of sexual contact.  Unable to communicate effectively, as a reader you watch as they effectively throw away their love for each other.  This is a short book but packed full of astute observations about being human and relationships.  Recommended for anyone who has ever felt awkward.


Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman

This was my pick for the Booker prize.  Eleven year old Harri arrives in London from Ghana with his Mum and sister and is overwhelmed by the new sights and experiences.  Without realising exactly what he is doing, he soon becomes caught up with local gangs and the murder of a teenager.  I loved this as you completely get inside Harri's head and it's a perfect examination of how growing up in an inner-city area like the one in the book can destroy childhood.  Recommended for anyone who wants to escape themselves, or has connections with the inner-city.

Next time, the last installment: September - December.
I'm really enjoying looking back over all of the books I have read this year.

Tuesday 20 December 2011

Talking About Jane Austen in Baghdad by Bee Rowlatt and May Witwit

Talking About Jane Austen in Baghdad is a true story told in a collection of emails exchanged between two women, Bee and May.  Bee is a Londoner who needs to find an English-speaking Iraqi to interview for her job with the BBC world service.  After she interviews May, a university professor from Baghdad, the two remain in contact and become close friends.  Bee shares details about life in London and her family and May responds with the brutality and horror of the Iraq invasion.  As things become worse for May, Bee does everything she can to try to help her escape the country for good.

I enjoyed this book at first. It was interesting reading the actual emails the two women shared as their friendship developed and progressed.  These initial emails contained lots of information about family history, everyday life and current events - it was a good way to get to know the two women.  But as the book continued I found myself getting irritated with the fact that every single email ever written between them had been included.  This made things very repetitive at times, especially when May is trying several ways to obtain a visa for the UK and in my opinion, a sensitive editor could have avoided this problem completely.  Some emails could have been cut without the overall effect of the book being diminished.

I also found myself getting a bit annoyed with the English woman, Bee.  She often writes cheerful emails full of family news in an attempt to cheer up May, but this does at times come across as insensitive.  Bee obviously comes from a well-off family and her constant chat about weeks away, holidays and complaining about having to train a new au-pair whilst May is being shot at in the street seems a bit tactless.  At times she is also very blunt with May, and I cringed whilst reading the sections where Bee tells May in no uncertain terms that she won't financially support her when she arrives in England.  

May's emails, on the other hand, perfectly convey how hopeless and frustrated she feels with the situation in her country.  During the periods where her and her husband are basically prisoners in their own home due to the danger, I really empathised with their depression and loneliness.  I was rooting for May throughout the whole book and did become emotionally invested in her.   This was the key strength of the book and I felt it would have been improved by focusing less on Bee and more on May, rather than including every single email written between them.

Verdict: Interesting true story told through emails that could have benefited from a sensitive editor.
Source: Owned
Score: 3 out of 5

Monday 19 December 2011

Best of 2011: Part One

Believe it or not, 2011 is the first year in which I have kept a record of every single book I have read and as of today, 19th December, I have read exactly 100 books.  I'm thrilled with that and still hope to finish a few more before the start of 2012.  Having kept such a record for the first time, it has been easy for me to look back and see what books I have very much enjoyed this year.  I've highlighted one favourite book from each month to share with you all over a series of posts.  Today's post covers Jan - April:


The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman

This retelling of the life of Jesus is a thoughtful examination of how stories change depending on who is telling them and on the role of the church in creating and shaping myth.  Pullman separates Jesus into two characters - Jesus (in the Jewish tradition) and Christ (who starts to create the new Christian ideas).  Despite it attracting a lot of controversy, I found that most of Pullman's anger was directed at the institution of the Church, not religion itself.  A great book for anyone who likes to be made to think.


Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This is all about human lives against the backdrop of civil war in Nigeria.  This book was my first introduction to Adichie, and since then I have read all of her published books this year.  Adichie alternates sections about the war and sections about life before the war to show how the war has altered everything and how everyday concerns just vanish in the face of extreme difficulty.  Recommended for fans of historical fiction, literary fiction and armchair travellers.


Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

OK, OK - this one is in here partially because I am proud of myself for completing it, but mainly because I am proud of myself for enjoying it.  I hadn't read much classic Russian literature before trying this book and I was pleasantly surprised by how accessible and soap-opera-ish it was.  It's a true epic with many interweaving characters and stories threaded together by Tolstoy's wonderfully perceptive observations about what it is to be a human.  Recommended for fans of classics, even if you think you can't do it.


People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

People of the Book is historical fiction at it's finest.  Hanna works as a book conservationist and is sent to war-torn Sarajevo to restore an immensely valuable Jewish Haggadah.  Through the use of many characters in settings such as Spain at the time of the Spanish Inquisition, Venice and Yugoslavia, Brooks lets us see the journey of the book and the factors contributing to it's survival.  Recommended for historical fiction fans and general book lovers.

Next time: May - August, including some non-fiction as well as fiction.
Interestingly, three out of these four books were library books.  I use the library a lot more than I really should, given the amount of unread books I actually own, but I have been introduced to some great authors through randomly picking books up off the shelves.

Saturday 17 December 2011

Cain by Jose Saramago

Cain is the last book written by Nobel Prize for Literature winning author Jose Saramago, published after his recent death.  It is essentially a retelling of the Old Testament through the eyes of Cain, who was marked forever for murdering his brother Abel.  Cursed by God to wander, the Cain of Saramago's book witnesses Abraham almost killing Isaac, the destruction of the Tower of Babel, Sodom and Gomorrah, the trials of Job and the building of Noah's Ark.

Throughout all of this Cain is a stand-in for scepticism and the desire of humanity to argue with God.  How many people, even Christians, have wanted to be able to argue with God, just for one minute?  Cain gets to do so on a regular basis and he exposes some flaws in God, who is painted by Saramago as the Old-Testament God of vengeance rather than the New-Testament God of love.  At times in this book God miscalculates (he instructs Noah to build the Ark in the wrong place), doesn't take time to punish only the guilty (Sodom and Gomorrah) and displays poor time-keeping (Cain has to rescue Isaac as God's angel is going to be too late).  Saramago does seem to want to shock, and I think this book would be offensive if you are a fundamentalist sort of Christian, but more than that he wants to poke fun in a gently mocking sort of way.

The story is told in a folksy style that has more in common with oral language than spoken language.  I thought this worked well with the subject matter.  Cain is the first Saramago I have read so I was immediately struck by the run on sentences, the eight page paragraphs, the lack of capitals and the complete absence of speech marks.  Apparently this is common of his work and whilst I am all in favour of being experimental with narrative, the lack of paragraph breaks irritated me and I wanted proper grammar.  I had to use much more attention than usual to keep track of who was speaking at what moment.

Whilst I did like this book, it didn't blow me away.  I felt like Philip Pullman's The Good Man Jesus and The Scoundrel Christ was a better and more thought-provoking re-examination of biblical stories.  Cain passed the time nicely but it didn't really make me think in the way that perhaps the author intended.

Verdict: Retelling of Old Testament stories from a sceptical Cain, in a sometimes hard to follow style.
Source: From the publisher via NetGalley
Score: 3 out of 5

Thursday 15 December 2011

BBC Documentary: Books - The Last Chapter?

If you live in the UK, there is a nice documentary on iplayer at the moment called Books - The Last Chapter? (here)  It's mainly about whether e-readers will ever take over from printed books but it's also a nice story of why we all love books so much, with a presenter that is clearly a bibliophile.

I don't know yet where I stand on the issue of e-readers.  I will always be a lover of printed books, especially beautiful editions such as the Penguin hardback classics, but I also appreciate the convenience of my kindle.  If I'm going to buy a standard paperback, I'll probably buy a digital version.  It's likely to be cheaper, it saves space in my house and I can access it instantly.

In the future, I can see my library of digital books growing and my library of printed books shrinking to much loved childhood editions and 'special' books that I will always cherish. I have some battered copies of childhood classics like Little Women and A Little Princess that I will never be parted from, likewise my hardback adult favourites like Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, but for my three star rated books, I'm indifferent whether they are printed, from the library or on my kindle.

How about you?  Do you have any strong views either way?

Monday 12 December 2011

Purge by Sofi Oksanen

I first heard about Sofi Oksanen's Purge through Willa's blog, and as soon as I read her review of it I knew I had to read it for myself.  Finally, almost four months later, I managed to get my hands on a copy.  Set in Estonia during the 1940s and 1990s, it is the story of two women who have both suffered abuse.

Aliide Truu is living an old-fashioned life in rural Estonia, cut off from all her neighbours.  She is happy being self-sufficient until she finds Zara, a badly beaten woman, in her garden.  As Aliide begins to help Zara, she is forced to look back on her own past and involvement with both the Estonian Nationalist Movement and the Soviet state.  Zara is a young Russian-Estonian girl who is visited by a friend and promised a luxurious life in the west, only to be sold as a sex slave and kept captive.

Purge is not an easy story to read.  Both women go through experiences that you could only describe as horrific and some of the things that happen to Zara in particular will make your stomach churn.  Aliide's story doesn't hide from the use of rape as an interrogation technique by Soviet forces.  These experiences are described graphically but not gratuitously by Oksanen, and you really feel for both women.

I went into the story knowing that there would be descriptions of sexual abuse, but for me the most disturbing thing about this book was the character of Aliide herself.  Oksanen slowly reveals more and more about her and her thought processes with the result that she has created a wonderfully three dimensional and distasteful character; at times I felt very sorry for Aliide but at other times I felt disgusted with her.  I didn't guess the revelation about her that comes in the closing section, and I felt that this was very clever of Oksanen.

Despite dealing with difficult subjects, Purge is definitely a worthwhile read.  I finished it a few days ago and yet my mind is still buzzing with thoughts about it.  It has illuminated a chapter of European history I knew very little about.  Purge is also a page turner, I found it almost impossible to put this book down as I was desperate to find out what would happen to Zara and why Aliide was the way she was.  It's a book that has a great impact and I would strongly recommend it.

Verdict: Powerful story of the abuse of two women in Estonia.
Source: Library
Score: 5 out of 5

Saturday 10 December 2011

A Beginner's Guide to Acting English by Shappi Khorsandi

Shappi Khorsandi is an Iranian born comedian who is quite well known here in the UK due to her performances on Live At The Apollo and as a panellist on shows such as 8 out of 10 Cats.  A Beginners Guide To Acting English is a memoir of her childhood during the Iranian revolution.  The family originally left Iran as her father had a job opportunity in London, but when he later tries to return after the rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini, he only just manages to escape with his life.  Unable to go home, the family must come to terms with becoming refugees and getting used to the English way of life.

A Beginners Guide To Acting English is a well written memoir.  It is written with a light and humorous touch, which make the occasional 'heavy' moments more profound.  Stories of learning English and getting to grips with English food are interspersed with worry about family members left in Iran and the constant fear that Shappi's father will be targeted by radicals, even in London.  The emotional anchor of the book is really the later sections in which the family must enter police protection for a time to keep them safe.  Shappi describes the all-consuming fear she felt realistically and also manages to do so from the point of view of the child she was at the time, who didn't really understand everything that was going on.

That said, there were things about A Beginners Guide To Acting English that didn't work as well.  Whilst I thought  it was interesting to read about family members left in Iran, Shappi's technique of writing them in the first person didn't really work.  All these other family members ended up speaking in the same voice, which dulled any impact they might have had in the memoir. I also think the title is a bit misleading; there wasn't too much about the culture shock of moving to England, and more about events in Iran and lives of other Iranians in exile.  I did find this interesting, but the title does lead you to think this memoir is about things it isn't.

Overall, this was an average memoir.  It passed the time nicely but I probably wouldn't recommend it to others.  For me, Persepolis is a much better memoir of the Iranian revolution and life in exile.

Source: Library
First Published: 2009
Score: 3 out of 5

Thursday 8 December 2011

The Secret Countess by Eva Ibbotson

Winter is the perfect time for reading fairytales.  In The Secret Countess, Anna Grazinsky, a Russian Countess, has to flee to England with her family after the Russian Revolution.  With all her money lost, Anna takes on a job as a servant in the house of the Earl of Westerholmes and tries her best to fit in with the staff.  But it's soon obvious that she is different to the other servants and matters become even more complicated when she starts to fall in love with the Earl, Rupert, who happens to be already engaged.

The Secret Countess is an enchanting, magical book.  Ibbotson certainly has a way with words and this simple plot caught me up in it's web within the first few pages.  Even though I knew what was going to happen, I couldn't put it down.  I loved the glamour of the Russian characters, the cosiness of the English country house setting and the understatement of the love story.  Although the romance is a central part of the plot, it is written with a light touch and shown rather than told, making it more powerful.

It is true that Ibbotson's characters are either very good or very bad.  Although Anna goes through some tough times, she remains impossible bright, vivacious and full of life.  Her counterfoil, Rupert's fiancee Muriel is all bad; she believes in eugenics, is cruel to the staff for very little reason and can be very spiteful.  Usually I would have a problem with these all-good, all-bad characters, but within the fairytale like elements of the setting and plot, it made sense.  After all, no one complains that the evil witch in Hansel and Gretel lacks good characteristics alongside her evil ones.

The Secret Countess was a perfect escapist read, like watching an old-fashioned film.  It didn't challenge me intellectually or introduce any new ideas but it did whisk me away to a stylised version of early twentieth century England and caught me up in it's story.  I will be reading more by Ibbotson soon.

Verdict: A cosy, escapist read for a Sunday afternoon.
Source: Library
First Published: 1981
Score: 4.5 out of 5

Tuesday 6 December 2011

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

I usually don't read books that attract a lot of hype.  When they are in the middle of that bubble of buzz, my expectations are raised so high that rarely does the book actually live up to it.  I've found that if I let the hype subside with time and read the book as just another book, I have more chance of enjoying it.  So it was probably about time that I dusted off my copy of The Lovely Bones and gave it a shot.

Susie Salmon is a normal high school girl who is brutally raped and murdered at the age of fourteen.  Unable to leave her family and friends, she watches their lives afterwards, desperate both the see how the world carries on without her and for them to realise who the murderer is.

I should start this review by stating that I enjoyed the first half of this book very much.  I liked that Sebold reveals who the murderer is straight away and instead focuses on Susie's family and how they try to carry on with life after her death.  The emotions and actions of the characters at this point felt realistic and the impact was occasionally powerful.  I liked the scene where Susie's sister, Lindsey, is forced to sit through an interview where her principle expresses his condolences and the way she looks through people to avoid having an emotional reaction.

I also enjoyed some of the characters, especially Susie's glamorous Grandmother, who tries to help the family carry on functioning.  Some of the other characters I could have done with seeing less of, particularly Ruth, the child-genius-lesbian who could sense death; I felt that she was very cliche and predictable.

So there I was, enjoying my reading - until I got to the end of the book.  I'm not going to give away the ending in case some of you haven't read the book, but something very silly and unbelievable happened and it completely ruined the book for me.  Took away all credibility from the story and I felt annoyed to have invested so much time in the book only for this paranormal inspired ending to happen.  I know I'm supposed to feel touched and moved, but I completely didn't.  I was just annoyed.

Verdict: Good first half, shame about the silly ending. 
Source: Owned
Score: 2 out of 5 (2 points for the beginning sections).

Sunday 4 December 2011

Sunday Salon: My Sister Got Married Yesterday!

Apologies for my blogging absence over the last few days but yesterday was a wonderful day as my older sister got married.  Because I am a proud sister, I just wanted to share a few photos.

(L-R): Me, the groom, my sister, Mum and Dad.

Hope everyone has had a wonderful weekend too.  I'm looking forward to catching up with you all over the next few days.

Wednesday 30 November 2011

Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore by Stella Duffy

Theodora of Constantinople was the daughter of a bear trainer who became a dancer, actress, prostitute, religious convert, mistress, Empress and finally Saint of the Orthodox Church.  In Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore, Stella Duffy provides a fictional biography of the first part of her life, from when the death of her father forces her on the stage to the moment she becomes Empress.  A sequel is planned.

I found this book to be underwhelming.  Theodora certainly had an interesting life, and it was obvious that Duffy had done a great deal of research into her character, setting and time period, but this novel was just an average piece of historical fiction for me.  It was one of those books I was anxious to finish so that I could get on to something else.

I think part of the problem was the way the characters, especially Theodora herself, spoke to each other.  I have nothing against swearing or crude language, but it was all done with modern phrasing.  Didn't the Ancients have their own swear words and phrases?  It was jarring for me as a reader to be transported back in time only to have the characters come out with very modern dialogue.

What I enjoyed most about Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore was the settings.  Constantinople and Alexandria were written vividly and I could easily imagine what it would have been like to live in them.  The sights and smells were all invoked skilfully.

Verdict: Average piece of historical fiction about a woman with a fascinating life.
First published: 2011
Source: From the publisher via NetGalley
Score: 2.5 out of 5

Sunday 27 November 2011

Sunday Salon: How Far Ahead Do You Plan Your Reading?

One thing I've noticed since starting this blog is that I am a very unorganised reader.  When I finish a book, I have no idea what I'll be reading next or even no clear idea of what books I actually own.  I have a goodreads account (add me!) but I'm only about a fifth of the way through adding my physical books and I've not even made a dent in adding my kindle library.  I buy books on a whim at different times, put them in all different places and forget I have them until a few months later.  This means a lot of them just don't get read and my TBR is out of control, to say the least.

I know other people are not like this.  It's the time of the year when sign-up posts for challenges start appearing and I've noticed that some bloggers are very organised with their reading plans to the extent that they know which books they will be reading and in which month.  I don't know what I'm reading next, let alone what I am reading in 2012.  I also don't have a dedicated TBR pile of books that I want to read soon, all of my books are mixed in together.

I think the reason I am like this is that my inner rebel doesn't like having a schedule or time deadline for reading, I like to just read on a whim based on whatever takes my fancy that day.  I like that I have such a stock of unread books, because I have an available book for any genre or mood.  I like rediscovering books that I have forgotten I bought and I like the feeling of finally reading a book that I have owned for many years, because the time and my mood are right.

How about you?  What are your reading plans and how far ahead can you list what you will be reading?  Are you unorganised like me, or strictly organised?

Wednesday 23 November 2011

The Cellist of Sarajevo by Stephen Galloway

The Cellist of Sarajevo is an extraordinary novel about ordinary people caught up in a war they did not want and have no control over.  The siege of Sarajevo is the longest running siege in modern history, lasting from April 1992 to February 1996 and killing around ten thousand people.  An average of 329 shells hit the city every day and snipers in the surrounding hills targeted civilians, making everyday tasks like a game of Russian Roulette.  When the difference between life and death becomes totally random and out of your control and the person walking next to you can be shot down whilst you survive, life becomes unimaginable.

The Cellist of Sarajevo follows three characters.  Dragan has managed to get his wife and son to safety but was unable to leave the city he loves himself.  Kenan must make several dangerous journeys to find fresh water for his family.  And Arrow has joined forces with the counter-snipers, trying to defend her city.  All of them are struggling to come to terms with what happens when civilisation as you know it melts away.

Despite all of this, it is not a novel of despair.  There are moments of humanity and hope amidst all of the destruction, such as people coming under sniper attacks themselves in order to save strangers.  All three of the main characters struggle with how much humanity and civilisation they are going to allow the snipers to take away from them, and for one of them the simple act of walking with your head held high and greeting passers-by becomes an act of defiance;

"He will behave now as he hopes everyone will someday behave.  Because civilisation isn't a thing that you build and then there it is, you have it forever. It needs to be built constantly, recreated daily.  It vanishes far more quickly than he ever would have thought possible." p216

The most powerful part of the book for me was how random death had become for the inhabitants of Sarajevo.  At one point Dragan is waiting to cross an intersection and he witnesses some people cross without incident whilst others are gunned down and tries to figure out why some are targeted.  But there is no answer and I can't imagine having to come to terms with that.

I was very impressed with Galloway's writing.  Considering it is quite a slim book, he didn't need many words to create a powerful impact.  The ending was extremely powerful and it's a book that I've carried on thinking about long after I put it down.

Verdict: Profound portrayal of the impact of war on ordinary people. Highly recommended.
Source: Owned
First Published: 2008
Score: 5 out of 5

Monday 21 November 2011

Venice in February - Help Me Pick!

Regular readers will know that I'm not one for reading challenges.  I don't work well with the pressure of reading certain books at certain times, which is also a reason as to why you won't see too many ARC reviews on my blog either.  I'm an eclectic reader and I like to be free to choose my next book on a whim, rather than based on how many challenge boxes I can tick.

When I saw the Venice in February challenge on Dolce Bellezza's blog, I thought 'that sounds nice' and I was all prepared to move on until I saw the selected titles and I was hooked!  I had no idea how many wonderful sounding books are set in Venice!  Please do visit Dolce Bellezza or Snow Feathers and check out the reading suggestions.

At the moment, I'm torn between the following:

A Thousand Days in Venice by Marlene di Blasi
A travelogue of sorts from a woman who transformed her life by following a man she loved to Venice.

A Venetian Affair by Andrea Di Robilant
A forbidden romance in 18th century Venice, based on a cache of real life letters.  I love good historical fiction.

Casanova by Ian Kelly
Historical biography.  This one is very tempting.

In The Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant
16th century historical fiction about Roman courtesans who flee to Venice.

Othello by William Shakespeare
This one needs no introduction.  I am a big Shakespeare fan, but have never read Othello.

The Four Seasons by Laurel Corona
Another historical fiction, it's becoming clear I like this genre!  This one is the story of two sisters, one of whom is taught by Vivaldi.

So help me choose - which one(s) would you read?  I am hoping to read at least two of these books, but won't have time to read them all.  If you were me, what would you pick and why?

Saturday 19 November 2011

Next To Love by Ellen Feldman

Next to Love is the story of three American women caught up with World War Two.  Babe, Millie and Grace are left at home whilst their husbands go to war and must deal with both the waiting and not knowing and the reality of life after the war ends, a life that will never be the same again for any of them.  Broad and sweeping, Next to Love follows the lives of the three women and their children for many years and deals with a multitude of issues including bereavement, anti-semitism, grief, madness, adultery, snobbery, women in the workforce and the creation of a consumerist society.

Next to Love was one of those novels that was fun to read but that didn't make a big impression on me. The writing was smooth and flowing and I read through it quickly, but I think it suffered from trying to deal with so many issues at once.  For me, all of the power and impact of the story was in the opening sections dealing with the actual war and the immediacy of grief.  Some of these parts were heart-breaking to read and the subsequent chapters dealing with everything that happened years later just lacked in impact compared to that.  I wanted Feldman to concentrate on just the one thing.

The multiple perspective changes could also be confusing at times.  I don't know if this was just because I had a review copy on my kindle, but perspective changed a lot within chapters without any warning, which was confusing at first.  I like each chapter to be from the same perspective.  I also felt that the voices of the three women were distinct, but not distinct enough to warrant a lot of the perspective shifts.  The voice of Babe stood out more than the voices of Grace and Millie.  

Despite these issues I had with the book, reading it was an enjoyable experience.  Feldman created the atmosphere of WWII America well and there were lots of nice touches, like a section dealing with the creation of the credit card and everyone being confused by it first of all.  I also very much liked the ending of the story (which I didn't see coming), as it allowed me to look back on the book in a different way.

Verdict: Issue-packed story of three American women affected by WWII that loses steam towards the end.
Source: From the publisher via NetGalley
First Published: 2011
Score: 3 out of 5