Monday 28 February 2011

The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling

I'm in a classics reading mood lately and The Jungle Book had been sitting patiently on my shelf for too long.  Before I get into the actual review I will admit that it was impossible for me to read this without constantly comparing it to the Disney film, which I loved as a child.  The book is completely different, but I couldn't help myself thinking thoughts like "But Kaa is supposed to be the bad guy!".

Synopsis: After escaping from the tiger Shere Khan as a toddler, Mowgli is raised by wolves and must learn all of the laws of the jungle.  Kipling also includes some other stories, such as Rikki Tikki Tavi and White Seal.

Score: 3 out of 5

If I could rate just the story of Mowgli, I would have given this book a 5 out of 5 without a doubt.  Mowgli's story was fast-paced, full of adventure and very well written.  It packed an emotional punch at times, for example when Mowgli is disowned and betrayed by the wolf pack he feels his eyes start to water and Bangheera tells him that now he knows for sure that he is human and not wolf.  Mowgli's inability to fit in fully with either wolves or humans was resonant too, and something that most people can relate to.  Mowgli's tale fits easily into the category of "children's books I wish I had read as a child".

But unfortunately the book doesn't finish with Mowgli.  I wasn't expecting other tales and whilst I enjoyed Rikki Tikki Tavi in particular, none of the other stories had the pace or emotional connectedness that Mowgli's story did.  I find myself reading them just to get finished.  In my opinion the book would have been better if Mowgli's story was expanded and the others simply left out.  But that is just my opinion - I can't fault the writing at all and still appreciate why it is classified as a classic.

Up next on my classics binge - Anna Karenina.  Wish me luck!

Sunday 27 February 2011

Non-Book: Renting a House in London

Warning: upcoming rant!

At the moment my fiance and I are trying to move house.  We currently rent a two bedroom flat which we are desperate to move out of because we have a damp/mould problem that requires constant attention, the shower doesn't work properly and the electricity needs rewiring.  As we pay £775 a month for this, we want to do better.  We want to move as soon as possible because we're getting married in July and don't want to be moving whilst getting married in the same month - too stressful!  We have to be out by June 17th when our agreement runs out.

What we would really like to do is buy a house but that's impossible.  An average two bedroom house in this part of the woods (outer London, not inner) is around £250,000.  Because of the recession most mortgage companies want at least a 20% mortgage and we just don't have £50,000 knocking around.  We have savings but it's hard to see how anyone without rich parents who could give them a hand could get a first mortgage with that kind of deposit.  Some companies offer a 10% deposit, which may be possible in a few years but definitely not now.  We could afford the mortgage payments but not the deposit.

So until either a) we win the lottery b) mortgage companies calm down or c) ten years pass, we need to rent.  And the rental market is just ridiculous.  Yesterday we saw a lovely house to rent in our preferred area for a reasonable price.  We rang the agent only to be informed that it had already been let - it went on the market at 9am and was let at 9.30am.  This has happened over and over again and because we're both teachers we can't make these early morning viewings.  We schedule after school viewings only to find the property has gone in the day.  It's just too fast and it seems you have to be in the right place at the time, which is very frustrating.  We've given up getting excited about properties because 9 times out of 10, they are gone already.  That other 1 time out of 10 the landlord is usually reluctant to rent to us because we have a cat. 

Between this and wedding planning though, I'm getting a bit stressed!

Friday 25 February 2011

The Virgin Blue by Tracy Chevalier

I chose this book solely because I recently read and loved Chevalier's Remarkable Creatures.  The Virgin Blue tells the story of two women from the same family born almost two centuries apart.  Ella Turner has recently arrived in France from America and struggles to fit in with the culture and people.  To make herself feel more 'French' she starts to research her family's history.  Isabelle Tournier is forced to marry into the Hugenot Tournier family after becoming pregnant, but she is tormented and made to feel like an outsider.  The family even suspects her of witchcraft.  As Ella researches her family history, we find out what happened to Isabelle.

Score: 3.5 out of 5

The Virgin Blue was engagingly written and easy to read.  Even though it was possible to tell where things were going from quite soon into the book, I found myself wanting to carry on reading it to find out as quickly as possible.  So it was a page turner.  But it also felt very much like a debut novel in terms of writing style and plot - the writing was a bit clunky at times and some of the plot connections felt a bit contrived.  Chevalier's writing just wasn't as polished as it was in Remarkable Creatures.

What I did really enjoy about it was the way Chevalier wrote the relationships between all of the characters, from both time periods.  There were no 'easy way outs' for either of the women - they fell in love with the wrong men, were betrayed by friends and had to face up to difficulties.  I enjoy reading about family relationships in general, so that part of the book was good to me.

I also enjoyed the historical aspect of the novel.  I knew nothing about the Hugenots before reading The Virgin Blue, and Chevalier dealt with the religious conflict well.  However, it was though she wanted to make the connection between the two women apparent at all times, which led to the characters having premonitions/dreams and a spiritual connection, even reciting the same words at the same time.  Any kind of mystical stuff like that really does put me off and I don't think the novel needed it - it would have worked perfectly fine with Ella just researching her family.

So well worth a read, but not a favourite.  My next Chevalier will be Girl With a Pearl Earring.

Wednesday 23 February 2011

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksander Solzhenitsyn

Until I read this book, Russian literature and I just didn't get on.  I tried to read Crime and Punishment back in secondary school but can't even remember anything about it now - I read it just to finish it and didn't enjoy it.  This book has changed my mind and persuaded me to read more Russian classics.

Synopsis: This novel, as it says in the title, is all about one day in the life of Ivan Denisovich, sentenced to ten years in the gulag for escaping from a German camp (they assumed he was a spy).  Solzhenitsyn follows him from waking up to going to sleep through the harsh working conditions, bribes and other features of camp life.

Score: 4.5 out of 5

I thought this was a very clever book, especially the format of focusing on just one day in Denisovich's life.  It really emphasised how every day in Denisovich's life was the same, how everything had blurred together to him and how he could only think about the camp.  At one point he even wondered if he wanted to be free anymore, because having all the major life decisions made for him was in a way easier than going back to looking after himself and being responsible.

It was also very clear how harsh the gulag was to live in - at one point some of the prisoners had to strip for an inspection in temperatures of minus 27 Celcius.  The amount of food was very little.  They were inadequately protected against the winters.  One of the characters was a baptist who had been sentenced for 25 years just because he was a baptist.  Everyone got the same sentence regardless of crime and freedom was a carrot dangled in front of them to be removed at the last moment when sentences were extended.  All links between the crime and the convict's punishments had long been lost, making most of the prisoners apathetic.

But what I found most powerful was when Denisovich complained: "A convict's thoughts are no freer than he is, they worry about the same thing continuously.  Will they poke around in my mattress and find my bread ration?  Can I get off work if I report sick tonight?  Will the captain get put in the whole or won't he?  How did Tsezar get his hands on his warm vest?".  For me it really showed how the gulag took over the whole being of the prisoner - Denisovich admits that he never though about his family back home or about the outside world at all.

I found this book easy to read and the translation (by H.T. Willets) was very clear and understandable.  I don't think I'm quite up to War and Peace yet, but I will be looking out for more of Solzhenitsyn's books.

Monday 21 February 2011

Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson

After reading non-fiction for a week I needed something a little lighter, so I turned to teenage fiction.  I had been wanting to read Chains ever since I read about it on Stephanie's Blog and was delighted to see that my local library hada copy.

Synopsis: Thirteen year old Isabel and her sister Ruth are slaves sold to a new mistress in revolution-era New York.  Isabel struggles to keep her hope that eventually they will be free until her owner does something incredibly cruel and the British invade and Isabel's life is turned upside down.

Score: 4 out of 5

A good indication of how much I liked this book is that I stayed up late to finish it, and I'm someone who needs lots of sleep to function.  Chains had a bit of a slow start but after one third of the way in was unputdownable.  I just had to keep on turning each page to find out what would happen next.

Chains was also a lot darker than I was expecting.  The sections when Isabel was very melancholy were quite affecting and Anderson had a talent for saying a lot in very few words.  It was definitely not a light piece of YA fluff but a deep, dark story that worked on many levels.  Anderson didn't shy away from the darker side of slavery and of human nature.

After finishing this one I'll definitely be hunting down Forge to find out what happens to Isabel next.  I'll also be keeping my eye out for Speak by the same author.

Sunday 20 February 2011

Lords of the Horizons by Jason Goodwin

Work and wedding planning gobbled up all of my time last week, so I wasn't around much and there wasn't much time for reading.  What time I did have I devoted to Lords of the Horizon, a wonderful history of the Ottoman Empire.  I should say here that I'm fascinated by the Ottoman Empire and have been for a few years, but I hadn't managed to find a readable history about them.  I'm fascinated by the Ottomans after reading The Historian, because Islam has always interested me and because in an Orientalist kind of way I love the old tales of sultans and grand viziers (Edward Said would not be pleased with me!).

Synopsis: This history covers everything from the beginning of the empire to its fall.  There are chapters on especially famous events (like the siege of Vienna) and Sultans (like Suleyman the Magnificient).  The book is roughly in chronological order but battle chapters are interspersed with thematic chapters about the cities, Ottoman life and janissaries.

Score: 4 out of 5

What I really loved about this book is that Goodwin had really made an effort to make it beautiful to read.  It read more like a poetic fiction book than a history and in my experience of many stuffy history books, that is very rare.  Goodwin also had a gift for selecting the most interesting events and personalities, and then making them come to life with description.  My favourite chapter was the one about Sultan Bayezit (the Thunderbolt) who named his children after major religions, enjoyed being hated, was the son of a Byzantine princess, wrote to the Pope asking if the manger at St. Peters could be used to feed his horse and loved rum so much he asked the Caliph in Cairo to annoint him as the Sultan of Rum.  The whole book was stuffed with characters like these and the language made me feel as if I really was in Istanbul.

As I read it, I found myself wishing that I had learned about more of this kind of history at school.  Being British, we did a lot of British and Western European history, and then a little bit about the Russian Revolution but I knew nothing about Eastern Europe/Turkey.  And it's honestly fascinating and I want to read more about it.  It wasn't only the Ottomans themselves that were interesting in this book - I also enjoyed reading about the Wallachians, Hungarians and Asian people.

This book is a great argument for those that keep on arguing that Muslims are uncivilised, or trapped in the 'dark ages'.  The Ottoman Empire was the most advanced of its time, and the most tolerant.  When the Jews were expelled from Spain and most of Western Europe couldn't wait to get rid of them, the Sultans welcomed them with open arms.  People in territories captured by the Ottomans were free to continue to practise their religion in whatever way they wished.  There were even many Europeans along the Ottoman borders who defected and became Turk as life was perceived to be better there.  The Ottomans didn't care about nationality, birth, status or rank - anyone could become an Ottoman and rise to whatever they were capable of.

Overall, a fantastic book and one I would definitely recommend to anyone interested in history.  The only slight criticism I could make is that the pace slowed a bit towards the end, but then the fall of the Empire was long and drawn out.

Tuesday 15 February 2011

Wonderful Wednesdays #4 (Guilty Pleasures)

Welcome to edition four of Wonderful Wednesdays!

Wonderful Wednesdays is a meme 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 is guilty pleasures.

What books do you love but don't want to admit you love?

My own guilty pleasure is the Sookie Stackhouse series by Charlaine Harris.  It's definitely a guilty enjoyment because I'm one of those snobs that looks down on paranormal romance and goes on about how they mainly read literary fiction/classics! :P

But I'm a sucker for a good story as much as anyone else and when I'm tired or had a bad day or my brain isn't working properly or it's been too long since my last holiday, I love the pure escapism of these books.  I like getting inside Sookie's head for a while and I like that I know most of the characters before I even open the first page.  Reading one of these, my mind is always taken off whatever is worrying me.

How about you?
I want to hear all about your favourite personal guilty pleasures!  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.

Sunday 13 February 2011

Re-reading Books (Dracula by Bram Stoker)

When I was younger, I would often repeatedly re-read books that I had enjoyed the first time round.  I've read Little Women countless times, and the same goes for The Secret Garden and adult books like Gone With the Wind and The White Family.  I didn't feel any guilt in it either - if I felt like reading a particular book again, I just read it and enjoyed it.

But now, especially since I started this blog, I feel guilty about re-reading.  I feel like there are so many books and so little time, so that re-reading is 'wasted' time.  I'm more conscious of how many books I'm reading too, and of how long each book takes to read. I get so many good recommendations from other blogs that my wishlist is very long and I feel like I should crack on with that rather than re-read.  And I have lots of unread books on my shelves, which again make me feel guilty about reading an old favourite.

But I've resolved to re-read more, and to make reading just about enjoyment again, rather than putting pressure on myself over what to read or how long it takes.  In the past I've often enjoyed a book more the second time round and I want to go back to that kind of enjoyment and simply read what I want to read, when I want to read it.  Besides, I'm never going to be able to read all of the books I want to read, as more get published all of the time.

With that in mind, this weekend I re-read Dracula by Bram Stoker.  I'm sure everyone knows the plot, and I've blogged before about how much I love this book, so I'm just going to focus on the re-reading experience.  For despite this being in my top ten list of favourite books, I've only read it once.

And it was definitely much improved on the re-read.  I noticed details I hadn't noticed before, and was more free to savour the descriptions of the Eastern European countryside, as I wasn't so worried about what would happen to the characters.  I was surprised by how much of the details I had forgotten, and I had also forgotten how much I enjoyed the narrative style of the diaries, letters and telegrams.  Definitely not reading time wasted!

How about you?  Do you re-read or do you feel guilty about it?  Is it worth re-reading favourite books?

Friday 11 February 2011

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Okay, time for a bit of a history lesson.  I knew nothing about Nigerian history before reading this wonderful novel, but here is what I learned:  Nigeria was ruled by the British until the late 1960s.  During this time of colonial rule the Igbo people were perceived as doing better than the other tribes.  After the British left, there were mass uprisings/ethnic cleansing against the Igbo people, especially by the Hausa tribe.  This led to them breaking away and forming their own state, Biafra.  The flag of Biafra was half of a yellow sun.  The Nigerian forces deliberately used starvation as a tactic against Biafra and eventually it fell.  Both sides recruited child soldiers.

I learned all of this without realising I was learning it by reading Adichie's novel.  It's narrated by three distinct people: Olanna, the daughter of an Igbo chief; Richard, an Englishman who has fallen in love with Nigeria and later Biafra; and Ugwu, a houseboy for an Igbo professor.  All of their lives overlap and they are thrown together as the war descends.

I can't describe just how much I enjoyed reading this book.  It was a real epic and dealt with some harrowing topics - rape, genocide and child soldiers - and the central characters were just so vivid that everything had more impact.  What I thought was really powerful was how Adichie had them becoming less and less concerned with their previous problems as the war overtook them.  Olanna hadn't spoken to her sister in years but when she witnesses war, all of that fades away.  It seemed to me like a realistic portrayal of war, although thankfully I have never experienced it.  The whole book had lots of emotional impact, to the point where certain scenes were hard to read.

The structure of the novel broke up the harrowing parts from the pre-war parts well, and it was all anchored by extracts from a book about the conflict that one of the characters was writing.  Although Adichie is Nigerian, it never felt like she was trying to preach or convert, simply telling a story about what happened to millions of Biafrans during that time.  The writing style was simple, but very powerful.  The pace moved from slow in the sections about the time before the war, to almost frantic as events escalated.

Can't recommend this one enough.

Score: 5 out of 5.

Tuesday 8 February 2011

Wonderful Wednesdays #3 (Novels Set in Another Country)

Welcome to edition two of Wonderful Wednesdays!

Wonderful Wednesdays is a meme 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 is novels set in another country.

I want to hear about the novels that have inspired you and made you want to travel to an exotic location. 

My own pick is The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver.  It's a story about a missionary and his four daughters as they move to the Congo just before independence.  The novel has lots of themes, religion, colonialism and family amongst them, but as I read it I just loved the lush descriptions of the Congo.  The scene with the swarm of ants really stood out for me - I would hate to be there myself for something like that but it was fascinating reading about it.

The Poisonwood Bible inspired me to read lots of other books set in the Congo, and in Africa in general.  I moved on to The Heart of Darkness by Jospeh Conrad, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe and I'm currently reading Half of a Yellow Sun.  One day I will get around to finishing off The Famished Road by Ben Okri.  I doubt I will ever visit Africa, but I love travelling there through books.

How about you?
I want to hear all about your favourite novels set in another country!  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.

Monday 7 February 2011

Orange Prize Appreciation Post

I'm currently reading Half of a Yellow Sun, which is the winner of the 2007 Orange Prize for Fiction and loving it.  It struck me just how many good books I have read have been either Orange winners or on the short-list.  It's got to the point where I will pick a book up solely if it has won the prize, because I know it will be good.  The balance between being literary and pretentiousness is just right.

Prize Winners I Have Read and Loved:
The Lacuna - Barbara Kingsolver (2010)
We Need to Talk about Kevin - Lionel Shriver (2005)
Small Island - Andrea Levy (2004)

Short-Listed Books I Have Loved:
The Accidental - Ali Smith (2006)
The White Family - Maggie Gee (2002)
White Teeth - Zadie Smith (2000)
The Poisonwood Bible - Barbara Kingsolver (1999)

Orange Books I Have Been Meaning to Read for Too Long:
The White Woman on the Green Bicycle - Monique Roffey (2010)
The Outcast - Sadie Jones (2008)
The Inheritance of Loss - Kiran Desai (2007)
The History of Love - Nicole Krauss (2006)
The Night Watch - Sarah Waters (2006)
A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian - Marina Lewycka (2005)
Purple Hibiscus - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2004)
The Siege - Helen Dunmore (2002)

The full list of Orange prize winners and the yearly short-list can be found here.  What do you think of the prize?  Have you read any winners?

Sunday 6 February 2011

A Brief History of the Middle East by Christopher Catherwood

Once upon a time, before I started this blog, I used to read more non-fiction than fiction.  My favourite non-fiction genres were science, history, politics and linguistics and I read some amazing books.  But ever since I started this blog, I read about so many good fiction books that I usually now go from one fiction book to another without much non-fiction slotted inbetween.  I picked this non-fiction book up from the library to try to redress the balance and because I've always found the Middle East interesting.

Synopsis: Catherwood gives a brief overview of the Middle East from the time of the pharoahs, through the birth of the three monotheistic religions, the Ottoman Empire and finally the conflicts of today.  He shows how the roots of the present day conflicts can be traced back through history, especially to the fall of the Ottomans.

Score: 3.5out of 5

This was a well written non-fiction book that was genuniely engaging.  It wasn't overly academic (although some theories were discussed) and Catherwood didn't assume prior knowledge of the history or the area. He focused on themes  rather than dates/names/individual countries, which made it much easier for the reader to absorb and keep up with all of the information.

I did have a slight problem with the balance of the book. There was lots on the birth of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and whilst I understand that this is crucial to understanding the Middle East, I wanted a bit more politics and less religion.  The sections on the modern day situation had a balance that worked better for me personally. I also felt that the inclusion of so much religious stuff squeezed out the Ottomans. The Ottoman Empire is one of my favourite parts of history and I wanted to read more about their battles, conquests and society. Instead they only got a few pages, presumably as they don't fit so well with the religious theme.

It was nice to read a book about this area that was fully up to date (this edition was published in 2011, my library must have got a hold of it quickly!).  I haven't read the 2006 edition but the extra chapters on Iran on terrorism were very interesting.  It did feel like the revision was just a few chapters tacked on the end though, because at other points in the book Catherwood had statements like "the current situation now in 2006", which could easily have been picked up on and changed by a good editor.

To sum up, well worth a read if you're interesting in Middle Eastern history/politics, especially if you want to learn a bit more about religion too.

Tuesday 1 February 2011

Wonderful Wednesdays #2 (Biographies)

Welcome to edition two of Wonderful Wednesdays.

Wonderful Wednesdays is a meme 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 is biographies.

 My pick for this theme has to be Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang.  It tells the story of Jung herself, her mother and her grandmother as they live through some of the changes China faced in the 20th century.  It starts with foot-binding, goes through civil war and a communist victory and ends with the cultural revolution.  All of this is told in clear and engaging prose.

Part of what attracted me to this book and why I enjoyed it so much is that the lives of the three women are so different from my own.  I especially enjoyed the section about Jung's mother, who is married but forced to live separately from her husband and liable to be sent anywhere for work.  The sense of optimist she had about Mao coming to power was contrasted well with the sense of disappointment and fear when things started to turn nasty and the older generation starts to fear the younger.

Whilst there was a lot of history in the book (which isn't a problem for me), it was mainly a wonderfully told story of the lives of three women.  I loved every page of it, and look forward to a re-read at some point in the near future.

How about you?
I want to hear all about your favourite biographies!  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.