Monday 31 January 2011

Dead as a Doornail by Charlaine Harris

Sookie Stackhouse #5

I'm slowly but surely working my way through the Sookie Stackhouse novels and still loving them.  This one wasn't my favourite (that would be Dead to the World) but I liked how this one had multiple plot strands and drew on events from the previous books e.g. the death of Long Shadow.

I also like how I can see Sookie's character changing with each book.  She's not as naive or as set in her principles as her experiences slowly change both her and her perceptions.  She does things she would once never would have done and finds out that she is stronger than she thought she was.

I do feel that there was a slight amount of "filler-ness" about this book relative to the whole series.  Not much was resolved, and many plot strands were left hanging for future books.  I also found it easier than in the other books to guess who at least one of the suspects was. 

Reading this was a wonderfully relaxing way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Score: 4 out of 5

Saturday 29 January 2011

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

I'm using my new kindle to read more classics, and Jane Eyre was my starting point on my mental list of classic books I have always wanted to read but never actually gotten around to.   And a great starting point it was too.

Synopsis: Jane is an orphan girl bought up by her aunt, Mrs Reed, who despises her and only keeps her because of a promise she made to her dying husband.  As soon as possible she is shipped off to a boarding school where pupils are treated cruelly.  After finishing school and working as a teacher, Jane becomes a governess at Thornfield Hall.  There she meets and falls in love with the owner, Mr Rochester.  But his past soon catches up with them and Jane must make her way on her own again.

Score: 4 out of 5

When I started reading this book, I knew next to nothing about it.  I didn't have to read it in school, I've never seen a film adaptation of it and whilst I had the assumption that it was a romance, I didn't have a clue about any of the characters or other story lines.  I started it with a bit of trepidation as I read Wuthering Heights last year and it put me off the Brontes a little bit.

But I was pleasantly suprised to find that the book was lively and engaging with a lot of pace.  I liked that Jane was the narrator, and I liked that the novel was written in the style of an autobiography.  The beginning sections concerning Jane's childhood and time at school were my favourites and I found myself wishing that I had read this book as a teenager, when it would have meant even more.

Jane herself was a wonderful character who simply lept off the page.  Due to the autobiographical writing technique the reader knew all of her thoughts making it easy to relate to her.  She was far from being a typical heroine (just as Mr Rochester was not a typical hero) - she was stubborn, determined, clever, feisty, principaled and willing to stand up for what she felt was right, even if it would make her unhappy.  She was determined to make her own way in the world and control her own destiny.

I felt there was a lot of social commentary in the book, and the sections where Jane was teaching in a village school really rang true for me as a teacher who works in an area with a lot of poverty and unemployment.  There were also the themes of social class, money, family obligation and illness.  But the novel never felt over-loaded by these themes, everything took a back seat to the story.

If I had to criticise this book I could perhaps say that I just didn't like Mr Rochester that much, or his flowery speeches that went on for pages.  I appreciated that Bronte made him almost an anti-hero, that he wasn't the good looking knight rushing to save the day, but I couldn't see why Jane liked him so much.  The trick he played on her by letting her think he wanted to marry someone else so as to force a confession was just cruel.  But it's a minor criticism.  I rushed through this book and couldn't wait to pick it up again as soon as I had put it down.

Tuesday 25 January 2011

Wonderful Wednesdays #1 (Childhood Books).

So here it is, my first attempt at creating a meme.  Bear with me and please join in! :)

The meme is called Wonderful Wednesdays and it's all about spotlighting and recommending some of our most loved books, even if we haven't read them recently.  Each week will have a different theme or genre of book to focus on.

This week's theme: a book you loved as a child.
 We all have a book that we read over and over again as a child and still think of fondly as an adult.

 One of my favourite books as a child was A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett.  I remember my parents got it for me one Christmas when I was about 10 or 11 and I have read it over and over again since.  For those not familiar with story, it centres around Sara Crewe who comes to England from India.  Her father finds her a place at an exclusive boarding school and lavishes her with gifts, turning her into a show pupil.  On her eleventh birthday news arrives that her father has died and Sara is transformed from show pupil into low class servant.  She isn't given enough food, forced to work all hours of the day and has to wait on the very pupils that once looked up to her.  Sara retreats to her imagination in order to survive.

The main reason I love this book is that it was the first one I read that showed me it was OK and indeed a good thing to have an imagination.  I was a daydreamer as a child and always felt that this was a bit of a bad thing, that reality should be preferred to fantasies.  A Little Princess and Sara Crewe taught me that it could be a strength, and that there is something to be said for having an active imagination.  I also enjoyed how Sara was a bit flawed - she flew into a temper easily and thought a bit too much of herself.  It made her much more real and relatable.  All of the characters were well developed and I also loved the historical feel of the book.

I went on to read all of Frances Hodgson Burnett's books and whilst I liked them all, A Little Princess always remained my favourite.

How about you?
I want to hear all about your childhood favourites!  If you want to take part, grab the button above and make a post in your blog.  Then link up your blog below, so I can come, read and comment on all of your entries.

I would love to have lots of participants :)

Sunday 23 January 2011

Weekend Round Up

I've had a lovely peaceful weekend (after a hectic week) and have managed to get two short books finished.  I am also the proud new owner of a kindle, which I plan to use to read more classics.  I've made a start with Jane Eyre and so far I'm enjoying the kindle experience.  The books I finished this weekend were:

The Night Bookmobile by Audrey Niffenegger.

I am not a Niffenegger fan (I know I'm in a minority, but I didn't enjoy The Time Traveller's Wife at all) but saw this in the library and thought it might be a quick, fun read.  I loved the concept of the bookmobile containing all the books she had ever read; it appealed to the part of me that wishes I knew the same.   I found the second half a bit over-dramatic but it raised some interesting questions about how much we sacrifice in order to read and how much of life is missed.

Drina Dances in Exile by Jean Estoril

Did anyone else read the Drina series whilst growing up? The stories were all about Drina and her friends as she attempts to become a ballerina and I simply adored them.  I read them so many times that Drina came to feel like a friend rather than a fictional character. I recently found my copies at my parents house and was interested to see whether they had stood the test of time.  Whilst coming off as a bit dated (this one was originally published in 1959) I was surprised that it was still an enjoyable read.  The characters were all strongly developed and the book wasn't as fluffy and light as I had remembered. 

I was thinking earlier that when I started this blog I wanted to write about books in general and not just the books I am currently reading.  I wonder if anyone would be interested in a weekly/fortnightly meme where we spotlight some of our all-time favourite reads, maybe by genre or age range?  I was thinking Fabulous Fridays, Wonderful Wednesdays or Terrific Thursdays?  Let me know what you think, whether it would be worth setting something like that up.  I know I would be interested to read about everyone's 'favourites' rather than just what you are all currently reading.

Saturday 22 January 2011

Leo the African by Amin Maalouf

I've had a completely hectic week work-wise and the only book I've managed to finish is the enchanting Leo the African by Amin Maalouf.  It is based on the life of Hasan al-Wazzan, a sixteenth century traveller and writer.  And he had quite a life too; he was born in Granada and witnessed the end of Muslim Spain, before also being present at the Ottoman seige of Cairo and the sacking of Rome.  On the way he is captured by pirates, sold as a slave, flees the Spanish Inquisition and becomes personal advisor to Pope Leo X.  A real life Indiana Jones if ever there was one!

Score: 4 out of 5

I was always going to love this book because I find both the time period generally and the Ottoman Empire in particular fascinating.  But I loved it even more because the writing was just beautiful - at times I felt as though I could have been reading stories straight from Arabian Nights.  Maalouf described all the towns, cities and landscapes poetically and I could practically smell the spices and hear the chatter of the people. 

The novel is divided into four books, corresponding to the four main places where Leo spent his life (Granada, Fez, Cairo and Rome).  Within each book one chapter corresponded to a year of his life.  This structure worked very well at the beginning of the book, especially as Leo was growing up, but it seemed a bit restrictive in the section on Rome, which needed more detail than the structure could give.

What really struck me about the book was how unattached to everything Leo was - he happily left behind wives, children and friends without a second thought and was able to start afresh wherever he was.  He was gifted (or cursed) with the ability of always being in the centre of major political and religious events everywhere he went.  Whilst reading the book it seemed incredulous to me that one man could witness so much (a sixteenth-century Forrest Gump?) but it seems that Maalouf hasn't embellished on the major historical events at all.

My only criticism is that I would have liked to see more in the book of Leo himself rather than just him acting as a historian or reporter.  At one point he converts from Islam to Christianity and I would have liked to read more about the arguments he went through and his thoughts.  Overall a wonderful book though, highly recommended.

Monday 17 January 2011

Cleopatra's Daughter by Michelle Moran

This book was almost an accidental reading because I was really on the hunt for Michelle Moran's Nefertiti.  However, Cleopatra's Daughter was the only Moran my library had and I had heard enough good things about the author to go with one of her other books.

Synopsis: After the victory of Octavian/Augustus and the defeat of her parents Antony and Queen Cleopatra, Selene and her twin brother Alexander are taken to live in Rome.  Although things seem welcoming at first Selene must struggle to make herself useful to Augustus and avoid being seen as expendable.

Score: 3.5 out of 5.

I really wanted to love this book for what it was - a light, easy going piece of historical fiction.  But I just couldn't love it.  I enjoyed it and found it hard to put down but it was missing that something special for me.  Part of it could be my own personal bias in that I don't find Rome as interesting as Egypt or Greece.  But really it just felt like the book lacked a bit in depth of emotion, especially in the earlier sections.  Selene's parents have been killed and she is living with the sister of the man who did it (the man who could choose to murder her at any time) but she doesn't seem negatively affected.  She goes to school and worries about boys.  Moran does make up for this in the later sections, but the beginning felt too fluffy.

I picked this up from the adult section, but in fact it would probably be much better marketed towards young adults.  At the age of 15 or 16, I geniunely would have loved the coming of age sections of the book and the descriptions of school life.  The light writing style felt more suited towards YA too.

However, I did enjoy Moran's writing.  She has a talent for describing whole cities and ancient worlds with very few words - I felt like I could smell, touch and taste Rome as I was reading the book.  The plot was developed at a nice pace in which it was hard to put down the book but things didn't feel rushed.

I think that even though this Moran was probably not for me, I'll definitely hunt out and read Nefertiti.

Sunday 16 January 2011

Wedding Planning

 After a lot of discussion yesterday, the fiance and I have decided to go ahead and get married this summer.  As we are both teachers we get a lovely six weeks off for summer which makes it the perfect time.  The plan is to get married in the first week and then go on a three week honeymoon.

The honeymoon plans are the easiest thing as we've already decided what we want to do - American road trip.  I've never actually been to America (we both live in the UK) and we wanted something a bit adventurous, not a beach package holiday.  Something where we can decide what we do and when we do it.  The plan is to fly to Florida and work our way along the southern States doing all of the stereotypical tourist things we can.  American friends, I will be bugging you for information at some point in the future!

The wedding is more tricky.  The sheer amount of things to organise and the cost is a bit daunting.  We are lucky in that our local registry office is beautiful (see picture) and we've agreed to get married there.  I'm going to ring on Monday and officially book the date.  We're hoping to hire a lovely Italian restaurant near us for the reception.  I'm going to start wedding dress shopping in a few weeks.  I know I want a knee-length wedding dress with straps, which will probably be quite difficult to find.

We both want our wedding to be quite relaxed and low-key.  I want people to see it as a nice day out rather than as a big thing.

Wish me luck with all the planning!

Friday 14 January 2011

The Writing on my Forehead by Nafisa Haji

The pace of my reading has slowed considerably since going back to work.  Keeping me company during my tired evenings this week has been The Writing on My Forehead, a book I picked up from the library last weekend.  It's about what the writer calls "cultural schizophrenia", the clash of cultures that children of immigrant parents can feel.

Saira comes from an Indo-Pakistani family but was born and bred in America. In contrast to her sister Ameena she has always rebelled against what she sees as the strict, conservative views of her parents.  On a trip to a wedding in Pakistan and later on a visit to London she uncovers some family secrets that have a big impact on her when she later goes through a family crisis of her own.

Score: 3.5 out of 5

I really enjoy books that are about different generations of the same family, as this one was.  The first three quarters of the novel were a slow, wonderfully written description of the lives of the last few generations of Saira's family.  The characters were well rounded and some jumped off the page to the extent that I found myself thinking about them hours after putting the book down.  Big Nanima had to fight for her education in pre-partition India.  Mohsin, Saira's cousin, had to face coming out to modern but still conservative London parents.

Haji managed to hold all of these separate but interlocking stories together well.  She has a particular talent for dialogue; a lot of the scenes packed an emotional punch from the inferences that could be made based on the conversation between two characters.  I enjoy authors that leave that little bit unsaid for the reader to figure out on their own.

Unfortunately the last quarter of the book was a bit of a let down.  It honestly felt like Haji just wanted to get the book finished already - it went from a slow, leisurely examination of family to a series of dramatic crises in two page chapters.  Saira's crisis seemed a bit far-fetched (without spoiling it for anyone) and unneccessary, like Haji felt her book needed something dramatic and soap opera-ish when it didn't and she should have let her writing and characters speak for themselves.

Slightly disappointing, but still an enjoyable read.

Tuesday 11 January 2011

Midnight Tales by Bram Stoker

As some of you know, I love the novel Dracula and gothic fiction in general.  So I was excited when I came across this collection of short stories by Bram Stoker at the library.  It promised to be "chilling", "terrifying" and full of horror classics such as vampires, werewolves and mummies.

Unfortunately it wasn't really what it said on the tin.  The collection had twelve stories and at least three of them were definitely not horror.  For another one or two it would be debatable.  Now that wasn't always a bad thing - I really enjoyed The Red Stockade, an adventure story in which sailors battle pirates - but I do think that if you call a book Midnight Tales and advertise it as a horror collection, you should stick to it.

As with most short story collections, some of the tales were much more enjoyable than others.  The Squaw, about the Iron Maiden torture device, was very creepy.  One of the tales, The Dream in the Dead House, had originally been included in Dracula (Jonathan Harker on his way to Dracula's castle) but was cut at the publisher's insistence. The Spectre of Doom was originally written for children and had a lovely macabre fairy tale feel.

Unfortunately two of the stories contained my literary pet peeve - writing in another dialect.  I know Bram was Irish but I absolutely can not stand reading a story where the spelling has changed to reflect the accent.  These two stories were not bad, but all my enjoyment was sucked out of them by the writing technique.  Take this example from The Shorrox Man; "She had shkin like satin, wid a warrm flush in it, like the sun shinin' on a crock iv yestherday's crame".  If you enjoy that, I admire you, because it is beyond me.

Content aside, this collection was generally well editied.  There was a historical/biographical introduction at the beginning and a brief but interesting intro before each story outlining Bram's inspiration and how the story was originally published.  I just feel that if the editor had kept the collection strictly horror it would have felt more cohesive and functioned better as a whole book.

Score: 3 out of 5

Sunday 9 January 2011

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman

This retelling of the story of Jesus' life is part of the Myth series that gave us Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood and Jeanette Winterson's Atlas.  I chose it because I love Philip Pullman, and will read anything that he writes.  I know that it is controversial for some Christians (who Pullman had already annoyed with the His Dark Materials trilogy), but I read it without any pre-judgement.

The key difference between Pullman's story and the one you will find in the Bible is that he has split Jesus into two twin brothers - Jesus and Christ.  Jesus is passionate, friendly, loving, inspirational and firmly rooted in the Jewish traditions.  Christ is more detached, logical, cynical and philosophical.  As children, Jesus is the free-spirited one and it's often down to Christ to get him out of various fixes.  As adults Jesus starts to preach and gather followers whilst Christ is left trying to understand and interpret his message.

My own personal feeling was that if this book was anti- anything, it was anti- the organisation and structure of the Christian church rather than anti-God or anti-Jesus.  The character of Jesus could be seen as the "historical Jesus"; he tells his followers to follow all of the Jewish laws, he isn't interested in appealing to Gentiles and he wants the Kingdom of God to come rather than to found a church.  He doesn't perform miracles either - in the story of the multipling fish and loaves, Jesus simply encourages and inspires people to share what they had but were keeping for themselves.  His message is simply of love and respect.  Jesus preaches about the dangers of men taking power in the name of religion and the corruption that would grow in any Church that bore his name - the punishments for disbelief, the exploitation of the poor and the wars.

In contrast, Christ stands for the church and it's interpretation of Jesus.  Whilst supposedly 'recording for history' what Jesus has said, Christ is always embellishing it, making it more appealing for the "simple minded" who he thinks need miracles to believe in something.  When a solitary person waves a palm leaf as Jesus enters Jerusalem, Christ turns this into Palm Sunday.  He sees his brother's life as a story, something he can change and make more appealing to converts.  He is willing to commit immoral acts for the sake of this good story being the foundation of his new Church and has no concern that he is misreporting what actually happened and changing what his brother said;

     "Sometimes there is a danger that people might misinterpret the words of a popular speaker.  The statements need to be edited, the meanings clarified,  the complexities unravelled for the simple-of-understanding.....we shall begin the work of interpretation." p74.

One of the most enjoyable parts of this book was the writing.  Pullman writes simply and leaves the reader to interpret events however she/he wishes.  There was one or two 'cheap shots' against religion, especially concerning the conception of Jesus but to a non-Christian like me it appeared as though Jesus' message of love was respected.  I think this book would only be offensive for Christians who view the gospel as literal fact rather than a message.  It's not intended to be a serious biography of Jesus or in anyway historical, it's just a literary version of it designed to make people think about the development and roots of Christianity.

Score: 5 out of 5

Friday 7 January 2011

The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf

I consider myself to be an intelligent, successful woman.  At the age of twenty-four I have a very good education, a meaningful job, the respect of my colleagues, the love of my friends and family and I'm engaged to be married to a man who loves and respects me inside and out.  I know all of this, but as much as I tell myself that I want to be judged on these qualities alone, I can't help but want to be thought of as pretty too.  I worry about my appearance - the length and colour of my hair, the clothes I wear, my complexion, my glasses and what others think of the way I look.  A negative comment about my level of attractiveness would probably upset me more than a negative comment about the level of my intelligence.  And on top of that, I feel guilty for worrying about all of this physical stuff when I logically know how unimportant it is.

Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth addresses all of these concerns.  It's about how our society and culture perpetuates a very slim idea of what beauty is and then leads us to a kind of obsessive pursuit of this definition of beauty.  Through the circulation of images and adverts, women end up constantly comparing ourselves to a standard of beauty that is unattainable.  This leads to low self-esteem, which is where the beauty, diet, cosmetic surgery and advertising industries come in to profit with expensive products that promise to make us more beautiful.  Beauty is seen as a responsibility and goal that can be achieved through hard work and the selection of the right products - 'ugly' and ageing women only have themselves to blame.

Wolf's real argument, that permeates the whole book, is that beauty myth is about more than appearance - it spreads into all areas of life.  Women that conform to standards of beauty are more likely to receive promotion.  Women in the public eye can be dismissed as 'too pretty to be taken seriously/have a brain' or 'too ugly for attention'.  Diet programs encourage women to think of their natural bodies as damaged and lead to semi-starvation - some recommend less calories per day that prisoners were given during the Holocaust.  Beauty is linked with sex in that it's believed that only beautiful women are sexually desireable and enjoy sex.  This encourages women to see themselves from the outside and desire only to be desired, not wanting sex if they do not meet a certain standard.  Female fat is repulsive.  Healthy women are encouraged to risk dangerous cosmetic surgery to become more beautiful.  Older women disappear from our media completely unless they make concessions by fighting the ageing process.  Women who do not go along with it all are labelled "ugly feminists with hairy legs" and surely no one would want to be a feminist as it makes you completely undesirable.

Personally, I found Wolf's arguments to be very thought provoking.  I didn't agree with everything she said, and it got a bit conspiracy theorist for me at times, but I do agree with the general argument.  I do believe it is in the interest of lots of industries for women to feel ugly, and to feel like there is some kind of hierarchy or caste system of beauty.  If we all accepted that beauty means different things to different people, and that beauty is not a threat to others, then sales of beauty products would dramatically fall.

I found particularly interesting the strand of the argument that covered how women perceive themselves to be in competition with each other.  Surely we've all heard comments like "Don't you hate women who can eat like that and not put on weight?"  Beautiful women are seen as threats.  I've also been in the situation where, wanting to cheer someone up or show appreciation, I'll say something like "you look really nice today" or "what a pretty dress", which just goes to show how much of our self esteem is tied to how beautiful society thinks we are and our ranking in the beauty hierarchy.  I'm not so sure of her argument that the beauty myth purposefully keeps women divided to prevent women becoming more politically aware and focussed - that's a bit conspiracy theorist for me. I'm not sure there is some phantom male organisation out there deciding these things.

In some places, the book did feel a bit over-long and main arguments were repeated a bit too much.  It was originally published in 1990 and therefore the research was a bit dated, although it could be argued that the theories are even more relevant today.  For example, in one part of the book Wolf imagined that eventually surgery would exist to make a "tighter vagina" - 20 years later it does.

For thought-provoking-ness, I give this book 4 out of 5.

Thursday 6 January 2011

My Kitten: 2-8 weeks

Not book related but I thought I would share some photos of my new kitten Joseph. We've had him for almost three weeks now and having a pet around is lovely.

2 weeks old - eyes not open yet.

 Three weeks.

Four and a half weeks, just after we had chosen him out of the litter as the one we wanted.  He loves to cuddle.

Four and a half weeks

Four and a half weeks.  He hasn't kept his blue eyes, they are greeny-brown now.

Seven weeks - a few days after we brought him home.

Seven weeks.  Our bed is his favourite place to settle for a long sleep.

Eight weeks.  He is at that very cute stage where everything is new and exciting and he wants to play all of the time.

Joseph is definitely not a book fan.  He likes to play in my stacks of books and climb the bookcases, but if I am reading something and not paying him attention, he will attack the book to get it out of his way!

Wednesday 5 January 2011

Dead to the World by Charlaine Harris

Sookie Stackhouse #4

I'm really enjoying the Sookie Stackhouse series and I'm not ashamed to admit it!  I'm off work this week, still recovering from my hospital stay, and they are the perfect books to make constant resting bearable and pass the time alone enjoyably. 

This book, Dead to the World, is my favourite of the series so far.  Sookie has a lot of problems to deal with in it: her brother Jason goes missing, Eric gets amnesia and there are a bunch of evil witches around.  Eric is my favourite character, both from the books and the TV show, so I was happy to see him elevated to the status of a major character in this book.  I was also happy to see the action back in Bon Temps and Shreveport, with all the local characters I had enjoyed from the first book having a larger role to play.

I think that what makes the series so successful is that in each book there's a good mix of old and new characters.  The old ones are beginning to feel like old friends and the new ones keep the interest going.  The mix of supernatural creatures is expanding with each book too, which is OK at the moment, but I do hope things don't end up getting a bit silly.  I'm cool with vampires, werewolves, shape-shifters and even witches but a fairy?  Not so much.  I could see this becoming more and more of a problem as the series progresses, with Charlaine Harris having to involve new supernatural creatures with each book to keep the interest level up.

I do enjoy the way the books are written too.  There's a slight tongue in cheek sarcasm to them, which I love.  Charlaine isn't taking herself too seriously.  In fact, reading the books remind me of watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  You know you aren't watching Oscar quality entertainment and that you could be watching something more meaningful, but that wouldn't be anywhere near as fun.

Score: 4 out of 5

Tuesday 4 January 2011

The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories by Susanna Clarke

Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is one of my favourite books of all time, so as soon as I discovered that she had also written this collection of short stories set in the same world, I had to read it.  Better four years late than never!

The stories in The Ladies of Grace Adieu are all set in a green, forested England where the boundary between magic and reality is very blurred.  Before writing Jonathan Strange Clarke spent a lot of time researching English legends and folklore, and this has paid off as the stories read like authentic Grimm-style fairy tales.  Most of the stories centre on the world of Faerie and it's inhabitants, the kind of world where you might wander down a never-ending path, kill someone with embroidery or fall victim to a trickster Faerie prince.  There are eight stories in the collection.

Score: 4.5 out of 5

I had high hopes for this collection and it didn't disappoint.  I just love the world that Clarke has created and the sinister characters in it.  In some ways, the Faeries and the setting reminded me of all the Enid Blyton books I used to read as a child with fairies, goblins and dwarves (and I mean that in a good way).  Like Jonathan Strange, Clarke has made this book quasi-academic with an introduction by a "professor of faerie studies" and footnotes in some of the stories.  She also continues to copy the 19th century writing style.  Personally I enjoy these techniques, but I know they aren't for everyone.

The stories were varied in length and some were more engaging than others.  I particularly enjoyed Mr Simonelli, about a man who discovers his father was a fairy and does battle with a fairy prince.  Antickes and Frets was about Mary Queen of Scots attempting to kill Queen Elizabeth by embroidering a curse into a gift for her.  In The Ladies of Grace Adieu, a Jane Austen meets Brothers Grimm kind of tale, Jonathan Strange discovers that women have ancient magic too and The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse is set in the village of Wall, from Neil Gaiman's Stardust. There wasn't a single story in the collection I didn't enjoy, although I thought Tom Brightwind  was a touch too long.

The theme of most of the stories was humans coming up against and battling wits with fairies and other forms of magic.  The secondary themes that I could see where the role of women in society and friendship between humans and fairies.  The main problem with the collection was that the stories didn't seem particularly organised and there was no over-arching plot or links between them.  Susanna Clarke had put together seven of these stories from previous publications and added the eighth for this collection, and it did have a slightly cobbled together feel.

But that's a minor complaint.  The writing was beautiful, the book itself was beautiful and I very much enjoyed reading it.  Definitely recommended for Jonathan Strange fans, it would also serve as a good introduction to Clarke's world for those put off by how long Jonathan Strange is.

Sunday 2 January 2011

The Extraordinary Cases of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I should start this review with a confession.  I was put off Sherlock Holmes at an early age by my year 7 English teacher ( I was 11).  We studied some of the short stories in class and the teacher was the kind of teacher that would randomly pick you to read aloud, and then force you to do the appropriate accent.  If your accent wasn't good enough, he would make you re-read it as many times as it took until he was satisfied it was acceptable.  I clearly remember that I had to read the part of Abe Slaney in an American gangster accent and I was a shy thing at 11 and somewhat traumatised, which does ruin your reading experience.  The same teacher has also put me off Tom Sawyer/Huckleberry Finn for the same reason.  Imagine a bunch of middle class English kids attempting Southern American accents...

Anyway, I decided it was high time I tried again, with no accents required.  Sherlock Holmes is a freelance detective who uses logic and a scientific method to solve a number of cases from the smallest of clues that others might overlook.  His friend Watson records them.  This collection contains eight short stories, including "The Adventure of the Speckled Band", "The Reigate Puzzle" and "The Musgrave Ritual".

Score: 3 out of 5

I don't think I am the kind of reader that will ever get the most out of detective stories or mysteries.  I know that you are supposed to be trying to solve each case as you go along, and that you're supposed to see if you can outwit Holmes and notice something from the clues, but I'm just not that kind of reader.  I'm content just to read and see what happens, so in that sense I didn't solve any of the mysteries for myself.  I am impressed with Conan Doyle's construction of the stories though, and how he buries the clues subtly throughout each.  I can see why this is regarded as detective writing at it's best.

One problem I had whilst reading the collection was that I found Sherlock Holmes himself to be insufferably smug.  At one point, he introduces himself as "My name is Sherlock Holmes. It is my business to know what other people don't know" and generally gives off an air of 'I know everything and would tell it to you but your brain is so under-developed you wouldn't be able to understand.'  He constantly reminds Watson that he's already solved it, but he doesn't feel like telling Watson about it yet.  How annoying would that be in a friend? 

Despite all that, I found each story to be engagingly written and I enjoyed the content of the mysteries.  My favourite was probably "Speckled Band" because I loved the idea of the crazy step-father preventing his young step-daughters from marrying with a selection of wild animals roaming the grounds.  I also liked "The Adventure of the Dancing Men" because I enjoyed how Holmes decoded the new 'language'.  In general, each story was action packed, full of old-fasioned things like diamonds, bizarre rituals, snakes, gentleman killers, rubies and chivalrous doctors. 

So whilst my opinion of the book has improved since the age of 11, I don't think I'll be hunting down any more Sherlock Holmes as the detective genre maybe just isn't for me.   I actually preferred Conan Doyle's "The Lost World" to his Sherlock Holmes mysteries.