Saturday 30 April 2011

The Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger

The Mistress of Nothing is all about snobbery, class and convention.  Lady Duff Gordon (a real historical figure) suffers with tuberculosis and is advised to winter in Egypt for her health.  She takes her lady's maid, Sally, with her and it is through Sally's eyes that we witness Egypt as Europeans rediscovered it in the nineteenth century.  Lady Duff Gordon soon hires Omar to assist them in this new country and Sally feels the hierarchy and restrictions of England beginning to soften.  But she must soon realise that this was all an illusion, that class and convention is as powerful in this new country as in the old, and suffer the consequences.

This was a slow-burning kind of book.  It started with languid descriptions about floating on the river Nile, visiting the ancient monuments and casting off heavy English clothes for Egyptian dress.  I felt as though I was in baking Egypt, made tired and languid by the sun myself.  We also witness the slow process of Lady Duff Gordon and Sally leaving behind the shackles of the rigid conventions of English life - they begin to take meals together, learn Arabic together, and entertain the local villagers as well as visiting Europeans.  The reader can feel Sally getting swept up in all of this, getting carried away by it into thinking that Lady Duff Gordon has become a friend as well as an employer.

Without revealing what happens in the middle of the story (although it isn't hard to guess), Sally is soon dramatically reminded that it's not that easy to rid yourself of snobbery.  The book changes pace dramatically, and this was cleverly done by Pullinger as it really captures Sally's shock.  Even in Egypt, Lady Duff Gordon still holds all of the power and is capable of making Sally's life a misery.  And once Sally is cast-out, we see a different kind of Egypt, one full of seedy hotels for seedy European tourists, and with as many restrictions and hierarchies as England.

I really enjoyed reading this one.  I liked that it didn't have a completely happy ending (that would have been unrealistic), and I liked how Pullinger played on the inner snob inside of all of us.  I definitely enjoyed the historical setting, the three dimensional characters, and I'll be reading Lady Duff Gordon's original letters home from Egypt soon.

Verdict: A slow burner, but with a sting at the end.
Score: 4 out of 5

Wednesday 27 April 2011

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

I love both books about books (like any self-confessed bibliophile) and also books about Jewish tradition/history, so when I saw this one at the library, I had to read it!

Synopsis:  Hanna, a book conservationist, is hired to complete some restorative work on a Haggadah, an ancient Jewish text, in late 1990s war-torn Sarajevo.  We follow Hanna as she finds clues about the past of the book and Brooks allows the reader to see the meaning of these clues.  Covering the expulsion of Sephardi Jews from Spain, the Spanish Inquisition, Tito's freedom fighters and Catholic Venice, the book has a long historical sweep and covers many eras.

I was really impressed with this book, with the writing, the content, the research that had clearly gone into it and the characters.  Brooks managed to suck me in to all of the different time periods and characters without making anything feel disjointed or abrupt.  My personal favourite was the section where the book is in danger of being burned under Papal Inquisition and it falls to a Catholic to save it.

In fact, both Muslim and Christian characters did as much to save the book as Jewish ones, and one of the messages of the book seemed to be multi-faith tolerance.  In her afterword, Brooks explains that these sections were actually based on the real life history of the Haggadah, and I found that pretty inspiring.  We hear so much about different religions hating each other that it's always nice to find a story of people going beyond religion and putting differences aside.

The characters were all well written and vivid.  Hanna was probably my least favourite as she felt a bit like an 'everyman', without many defining characteristics of her own.  The characters from the historical sections were far more interesting - like Lola, a Jewish teenager turned rebel freedom fighter turned undercover Muslim and a Rabbi in Venice with a secret gambling habit.  The real strength of the historical sections is that Brooks gave us enough hints to suggest that life had gone on before and after; like she was telling a part of a continual tale rather than making up stand-alone events.  I think that's really difficult for a writer to do.

When I was looking at the reviews for this book on Amazon, lots of people complained that Hanna never got to find out all that the reader did.  But for me, this was one of the strengths of the book as it would be impossible for her to work all of that out from the clues without some kind of paranormal interference, which would ruin the credibility of the book.

Verdict: Would definitely recommend this one.
Score: 5 out of 5

Sunday 24 April 2011

Kraken by Wendy Williams

I am one of those people that started appreciating science a bit too late.  I thought it was OK at school but it was only halfway through a psychology degree when I started taking (and loving) neurobiology modules that I discovered that science is amazing.  Had I known it earlier, I would have done a biology degree and maybe ended up down a completely different path.  Anyway, I make up for it now by reading all I can about science and day dreaming about one day having the funds to complete a neurobiology masters/doctorate. 

I received this copy of Kraken through the publishers Abrams Books at NetGalley.  It tells the under-rated story of squid (and octopus and cuttlefish) and how they have had a vital role to play in advancing understanding about human health and function.  It also debunks some giant squid myths and contains some amazing facts about their life.

First off, I was really impressed with the writing style and accessibility of the book.  I've read a lot of dry science books in my time that manage to make interesting topics dull, but this wasn't one of them.  Williams writes for an interested novice, putting across all the science information in an easy to understand way but also adding interesting details about the scientists and animals themselves.  This gave the book a good balance and meant that it was easy to read.

And there was no shortage of interesting trivia and facts.  I didn't know much about cephalopods before reading, and was blown away by some of the information - about their blue blood, tool use, how they can bite off their own tentacles and make them light up to divert a predator, how a cuttlefish can camouflage to almost any background, how the suckers on some tentacles are more dexterous than human hands, how part of their brains are wrapped around their throats.  The startling information for me was just how intelligent they are as a whole, but in a different way to humans.  A cuttlefish can be trained to understand simple if..then rules e.g. if this signal comes up, go left; if a different signal comes up, go right.

Williams' agenda in writing the book did seem to be to show how intelligent they are and to argue that mammalian intelligence isn't the only kind of intelligence on the planet.    The other parts of the book seemed to almost be a cry for more funding for cephalopod research by showing how useful limited research has been. I thought it was very interesting how scientists used the giant squid axon to find out about human brain function and how this could lead to treatment for diseases like Parkinson's.  I agree with Williams that we should be spending more money on marine research.

If I had to find a criticism of this book, I would say that the title led me to believe there would be more about giant squid mythology/history.  I wanted to read about Krakens and monstrous octopuses and ancient mythology alongside the science and there wasn't much of that, only a quick debunk of some giant squid myths.

Score: 4 out of 5
Available: Now!

Saturday 23 April 2011

Justine by the Marquis de Sade

In the classics section of my new library, they have a set of Perennial Forbidden Classics.  I selected Justine from them because I've heard so much about how shocking and controversial the Marquis de Sade is, and wanted to judge for myself.

For me personally, the book felt more like a philosophy argument than a story or novel.  The main character, Justine, is made to suffer purely because she is a good and moral person.  Throughout the book she is repeatedly tortured, both physically and mentally, and sexually abused.  Every time she helps another person it leads to yet more abuse.

The actual content of the book does sound shocking when written down - there are repeated and prolonged rape scenes - and it's definitely not for the faint hearted, but there was something about it that stopped it from being powerful or affecting.  I read it expecting to be upset at all the abuse, but I just wasn't.  And I don't think that's because I am a horrible psychopath, I think it's because De Sade has written it like a philosophy treatise with no emotional connection whatsoever.  You never find out what Justine is thinking, or why she keeps on trusting strangers.  She never has a moment of doubt, or anger, or self-pity.  She's supremely detached in a way you just wouldn't be - at one point she comments that someone cut off her toe as if she is discussing the weather.  I suppose it lacked the realism and emotional connection to make it truly shocking or disturbing.

On to the philosophy sections, which were obviously dear to De Sade's heart.  His main argument is that in a corrupted world, there is no point in being good or virtuous, because you can profit better from following vice.  He loves this argument so much that he has every character that abuses Justine repeat it.  By the end of the book this gets pretty tiring. 

At the beginning and end of the book, there are moments when it feels as though De Sade is doing a bit of damage limitation, as he knew how shocking his novel would be.  He is at pains to state that he is only writing the story to inspire others to be virtuous, because if Justine can remain virtuous after everything that has happened to her, surely everyone else can.  This doesn't really ring true with the way the book is written and has an air of 'get out of jail free' about it.

I'm glad I read this, if only to find out for myself what all of the controversy is about.

Score: 2.5 out of 5

Friday 22 April 2011

The Passage by Justin Cronin

I received this book as a Christmas present and started reading it without really knowing what it was about, apart from a vague idea that it might have something to do with vampires. I was hoping for an epic adventure, and I definitely got it!  Without revealing too much of the plot, it is sort of about vampires, but mainly about how humans deal with an apocalyptic event and what happens afterwards.

The book is split into two parts - before and after the life-changing events and the first part was amazing.  I just loved all the stuff about humans trying to contain a crisis, FBI involvement, child smuggling, medical research gone wrong and crazy nuns.  The pace was brisk, the plot was interesting and it was easy to engage with and relate to all of the characters.

But unfortunately, the part about after everything had gone wrong was just OK.  And this was about two thirds of the book.  There was a really abrupt shift between before and after, which was a bit disorienting, and I found the newer characters harder to relate to and identify with.  The writing seemed to suddenly get a lot more waffly too, and the book began to remind me of a Stephen King novel.  A character couldn't be introduced or reintroduced without Cronin telling us everything about them, including their early history, likes and dislikes and probably even what they had for breakfast this morning.  This slowed the book down considerably and there were parts where I was thinking "just get on with the story already!".

That's not to say I didn't enjoy reading the second section - I did - I just think it could have done with a good edit.  The story ideas were still good (although I think Cronin copped out by giving someone superpowers to keep everyone else safe) and the plot still interesting, I just wanted things to move faster and the tension to remain high.

When I read this, I wasn't aware that it's apparently the first book in a series or trilogy and consequently was a bit disappointed with how unresolved the ending was.  Now I know it's a series it does make more sense to leave some loose ends but I can't help but think that Cronin should have been able to tell the whole story in a book of this size.  Maybe it's because series are popular with publishers?

After all of the above moans, I should say that I did enjoy reading this book.  It's hefty, for sure, but it's an easy read and some parts are truly unputdownable.  I'm unsure as to whether I'll read the next one when it comes out.

Score: 3.5 out of 5

Wednesday 20 April 2011


Today was an exciting day because we finally got around to booking our honeymoon.  After months of umm-ing and aah-ing over exactly where in America we want to go (I've never been, and it's full of great places), we decided just to make a decision and stick with it.

So the plan is as follows:
1. We are flying into Las Vegas first, where we will be staying at the Venetian hotel in their luxury suite for three nights.  And fabulously tacky it looks too, I can't wait to ride the gondola!
2. During this time we will take an excursion to the Grand Canyon.  This is the only part yet to be booked, I'm thinking helicopter breakfast?  We are going in August, so it will be hot.
3. After three nights in Vegas we are flying to Houston, Texas, where we pick up a rental car.
4. We then have 19 glorious days to see as much as we can of the Southern States.  As Houston is on the Louisiana side of Texas, we're going to definitely go to New Orleans.
5. After 19 days, we have to be in Nashville to return the car and fly back to London.

I'm still not great on distances, but there are several ways we can get to Nashville, some short some long.  American friends or people who have visited the South, how much can we realistically hope to get done in 19 days?  Tom's only sticking point is that he must see Graceland (Memphis) and my sticking point was Nashville, which is the end-point anyway.  We are both into history and sight-seeing and I fancy seeing some Gone-With-The-Wind-Style plantations and houses and of course the Mississippi river.  Tom absolutely loves blues music and wants to soak up some Southern atmosphere.

I'm so excited now that we have actually booked.  I've travelled all over Europe but have never actually been outside of the continent (long-haul flights = expensive, but that's OK for a honeymoon).  Tom's only ever been to Florida as a child to do Disneyland and all the Theme Parks, so it's new and exciting for both of us.

Tuesday 19 April 2011

Two Short Reviews

Still playing catch up from my short time away from the internet.  It's the Easter holidays over here and I'm enjoying the two week break from work, with one of the upsides being that I have much more time to read than usual.
And of course, like a true teacher, one of the first things I read is a book about teaching.  It's Your Time You're Wasting is subtitled A Teacher's Tales of Classroom Hell and is a memoir about teaching teenagers in inner-city Britain.  Now, I don't teach teenagers (thankfully, I would be awful at it), but I teach in inner-London and sometimes I honestly feel as though I am banging my head against a brick wall with the behaviour problems and hostility, from parents as well as teachers.  It's Your Time You're Wasting wasn't a remarkable book, it was heavily biased and quite defeatist in tone, but I recognised myself and my job in lots of it.  I love being a teacher and I love my school (wouldn't exchange it for a leafy suburban school for the world) but my job is a lot harder than a lot of people realised, and it was a bit nice to see that acknowledged in book form.

I also used part of my holiday to catch up with my guilty pleasure: the Sookie Stackhouse series.  In Definitely Dead Sookie has to travel to New Orleans to put her vampire cousin Hadley's estate in order.  There are of course life-or-death moments and sinister plots and most of the book revolves around the werewolf rather than vampire community.  For me personally, this isn't as interesting but the book was still lively and pacey and simply fun.  Can't wait to read the next one!

Sunday 17 April 2011

Jerusalem Maiden by Talia Carner

Apologies once again for my absence lately.  I was having phone line troubles at the new house as the previous tenant didn't pay the bills and was cut off, and apparently re-connection isn't as easy as you would think.  But fingers crossed everything is sorted now and I can catch up with everyone's blogs :)

I recently read an ARC copy of Jerusalem Maiden.  It tells the story of Esther, born into a very Orthodox Jewish community in Israel in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire.  Growing up in poverty, she is taught that as a Jewish girl in the Holy City, it is her role and responsibility to marry an Orthodox man and hasten the coming of the Messiah by having as many children as possible.  Esther struggles against these expectations and also against the commandment not to make idols as she is a talented artist.  Spanning several decades and historical changes, Jerusalem Maiden follows Esther through her attempts to break free from convention and live according to her wishes rather than responsibilities.

I enjoyed this book; Carner is a talented writer and her descriptions of the locations in the book (Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Paris) were very vivid and I had to remind myself of where I actually was when I put the book down.  As I find religion fascinating, I loved the parts dealing with her childhood and community and felt that it was done very well - informative but not over the top.  Carner had also obviously completed extensive research about her era and setting as everything just felt right, like being transported back in time.

Esther was a great main character in that she was easy to sympathise with.  She was engaged in a constant push-and-pull with her religion; as soon as the desire to escape became overwhelming and she actually left her community, the fear and obligations would pull her back.  She couldn't truly be happy anywhere.  However, some of Esther's thoughts seemed a bit modern for the historical setting of the book, especially with regard to her children and sex.  I know that Esther had a somewhat radical art teacher as a child, but it was hard for me personally to imagine someone with such a sheltered and conservative upbringing having such liberal, up-to-date thoughts.

The relationships in the book were well written.  Although it was soon clear who Esther wanted to be with (Pierre, not Jewish), I liked that Carner didn't take the easy way out by making her husband unlikeable.  He just came across as a nice man who couldn't understand his wife and her desires.  I also liked how the romance was a large part of the book, but didn't dominate it - it was mainly about Esther and her struggle to find her own way.

Overall, well worth a read.  It reminded me of The Historian in that the setting was just as important as the characters and I was left with an urge to visit Jerusalem and go back in time to pre-WW2 Paris.

Score: 3.5 out of 5
Publisher: Harper Collins
Release Date: 31st May 2011

Tuesday 12 April 2011

Peyton Place by Grace Metalious

Whilst I was still at secondary school, my sister was completing her English Literature degree.  She did a module called American Bestsellers, and one of the great books she introduced me to after that module was Peyton Place.  In the spirit of not feeling guilty about rereading favourites, I decided to give this one another go, despite having read it at least three times already.

Published in the 1950s, Peyton Place was one of the first books to 'lift the lid' on suburbia and pop the skeletons of ordinary closets one by one.  It hit a bit too close to home for lots of readers at the time and became very controversial - no one wanted to admit that their small towns were anything less than perfect.

The story centres around three women.  Constance Mackenzie had a child without getting married first and has spent her whole life trying to hide this from her neighbours.  Selena Cross is trying to make something of herself but is hampered by being from the wrong part of town and having a cruel step-father.  Allison Mackenzie wants to write but feels suffocated by her environment.  In the course of the novel there is murder, rape, incest, abortion and lots of other things that have made many write the book off as trashy or sensationalist.

And the book is trashy, but in the best possible way.  It's trashy in the I-can't-wait-to-see-what-happens-next kind of way.  The whole book is written with a brutal honesty, and there's a lot to be said for that kind of writing.  There's also a lot of stuff on women's rights that can be contradictory at times - one of the women has to get raped before experiencing sexual pleasure (which doesn't seem very forward thinking to me) but there's also arguments about sexual freedom and the freedom to pursue a career away from men.

If you've read this book, let me know what you thought of it.  If you haven't, put it on your wishlist straight away!

Score: 5 out of 5

Sunday 10 April 2011

The Fear by Peter Godwin (Non-Fiction/Zimbabwe)

I am all settled in the new house.  Still awaiting bookshelf delivery and I've got too many books to make moving an easy task but the new house feels very homely already.  We're going to be spending the Easter holidays painting. 

Keeping me company during the move was an ARC copy of The Fear by Peter Godwin, which is about the recent elections in Zimbabwe and Mugabe's battle to impose his will on the voting public.  It was quite simply a wonderful book.  Godwin was born and raised in Africa and practised as a human rights lawyer in Zimbabwe before becoming a foreign news correspondent.  The Fear is part history, part politics, part travelogue and is written as Godwin travels the country as events unfold, talking to  Zimbabweans.

The name of the book comes from what Zimbabweans called the period between the two elections.  In the first Mugabe lost and before the second the ruling party used any method possible to 'convince' people the change their votes.  The Fear refers to the toture, random beatings and repression that came to anyone suspected of having voted for the opposition party.  There are some very harrowing stories of torture and rape contained in the book (for example, a man who had wire tied around his testicles and was led around by this wire) and Godwin doesn't shy away from the more horrible stories.

The courage of ordinary Zimbabweans really shines through.  Despite torture, most that Godwin talks to remain defiant and focused on their goal of change, no matter how Mugabe responds.  Godwin himself gets in quite a bit of danger throughout the book and is at one point forced to leave the country.  The technique of writing the book as a travelogue gives it immediacy, stops it from being too dry and makes it very relatable.  Even though I already knew the outcome of the crisis, I found myself swept up in the human side of it, the side that was missing from the news reports.

I would highly recommend this book as a good example of well written, readable non-fiction. 

Score: 5 out of 5
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Available now.