Wednesday 31 August 2011

Back To The Books Blog Hop

I Am A Reader Not a Writer and Buried In Books are hosting a giveaway hop from September 1st through September 7th.  I've decided to giveaway a copy of a book that I read and loved before starting book blogging.  The choices are:

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke.  
About rival wizards in historical England, this one is a cosy gothic-style read.

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver.
Boy raised in Mexico meets Trotsky and Frida Kahlo, before coming under suspicion in McCarthy era America.

Inkheart by Cornelia Funke.
Who hasn't wanted to go into the pages of their favourite book?

Notes On A Scandal by Zoe Heller.
A female teacher having an affair with one of her pupils is in the power of a creepy 'friend'.

The rules are simple:
* This is an international giveaway.  As long as the Book Depository can ship to you, you can enter.
* I like new followers :)
* One entry for everyone.
* Winner will be selected using and the winner will be announced on September 8th.

Fill out the form to enter:

List of Participating Blogs:

Rereading Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell

I first read Gone With The Wind when I was sixteen and I knew next to nothing about the Civil War or Reconstruction (I’m not American, but that’s not an excuse).  When I read it, I was all about the romance and whether Scarlett would wake up and realise that she should be with Rhett and not Ashley.  Since then I have seen and enjoyed the film a few times but not revisited the book.

Visiting the Margaret Mitchell house in Atlanta inspired me to reread, and I’m so glad I did because I got a completely different and much deeper reading experience the second time round.  I feel like I only skimmed the surface of the book the first time and missed out on so much of what is wonderful about it.  So rather than providing a synopsis or a typical review, I wanted to write about what extra I got out of it on the reread.

I found that it was almost impossible to pin down what Margaret Mitchell actually thought about a range of issues.  Like Rhett, she both mocks and romanticises the old Southern society, making her true feelings hard to work out.   This is also true of the main character Scarlett; Mitchell both builds her up and tears her down, at some points applauding her for breaking out of the prim world of women and at others mocking her for her greed and lack of morals.

One question I thought about was – can a book be racist if it is only portraying the ideas of people living at the time?  The patronising way Scarlett and other Southern characters talked about their slaves did grate on me after a while, but maybe that was the point?  Although I do have to admit the way Mitchell wrote about the Ku Klux Klan as merely disgruntled Southern gentlemen making a point against oppressive Northern rule, almost as if it has nothing to do with race, was hard to swallow.

Another question– can a woman like Scarlett be called a strong women if she sometimes gets her way by fluttering her eyelashes and relying on the men?

I enjoyed how there are no simple answers to any of these questions in the book, just as in real life it’s not easy to point out right vs. wrong.  Mitchell did a good job of showing how complex the Civil War and reconstruction was, and how difficult life was at that time for everyone caught up in it.  If you haven’t read it yet, I would highly recommend it.

Score: 5 out of 5
Source: Bookshelf

Sunday 28 August 2011

Sunday Salon: Blogging Balance

I think something we all struggle with on our blogs is balance; whether that's balance between reviews and memes/features or balance between bookish things and other things.  Personally, I tend to post mainly reviews, as that's the reason why I started this blog and the content that I like to read on other people's blogs.  I love nothing more than reading a good review about either a book I have read myself, or one that I really want to get my hands on.

But lately I've been thinking about the kinds of blogs I like to read, and I've found that the ones I really enjoy and always visit have a bit more personality.  There might be some personal photos, or posts that are not just reviews or the same old memes that I see everywhere else.  And for that reason, I've decided to spice up my own blog a bit.

It is a bit trickier for me as I work as a teacher and am not allowed to post anything to identify my school or reveal anything about my job or opinions about it.  I also don't want to post anything publicly that I wouldn't want anyone to be able to know about me or that would be awkward if a parent was to find my blog.  

So what I've decided to do is try to take one photo each day that I would be able to share with anyone, a photo that sums up how things are going for me at the moment.  It might be vegetables freshly picked from my garden, a photo of my cat curled up asleep on a lazy Sunday, or of the clock when I'm working late and under pressure.  Each Sunday, I will post the selection of photos from the week before.  Hopefully this way I can share a bit more about me but not get myself in trouble!

What about you?  How do you try to provide balance on your blog between reviews and everything else, and do you think you succeed?  Does your personality come through on your blog?

Saturday 27 August 2011

Mary and Elizabeth by Emily Purdy

Also published as The Tudor Throne by Brandy Purdy.

This book was an impulse buy.  I was in the supermarket and there was a 2 for £7 offer going on.  As I am a fan of historical fiction, I got it.  From the cover and the synopsis on the back cover it promised to be about the sisterly relationship between Mary and Elizabeth Tudor as they grow up and England changes.  I hadn't heard of the author and had read none of her work before.

I saved this book for the plane ride on the way home, thinking it would be a nice light read to pass the time.  And it was, but it was also a lesson against impulse purchases.  Starting with the death of Henry VIII, it follows Mary and Elizabeth through the reign of their brother Edward, through Mary's reign and ends as Elizabeth becomes Queen.  Written in the first person, each chapter tells the point of view of an alternate sister, meaning that we get to read both sides of the story.

This novel was not for me.  I like my historical fiction to stay relatively close to fact, although I can understand a little artistic license.  But this book was the most sensational piece of historical fiction I have ever read.  Every rumour about the Tudor period was treated as fact and the pages were filled with scandal after scandal.  And because of this, I really didn't like the way Purdy wrote the two central characters.  Elizabeth was man-hungry and slept with practically everyone; Mary was a silly immature girl who was happy to betray her country in order to sleep with her new husband.   Now, I'm no prude and I know history only tells us the boring bits, but Purdy took it way too far.

The only good thing I could get out of all of the sensationalism was by telling myself that maybe Purdy was making a point about the power play between men and women and how women had to resort to their sexuality to gain power.  And how men held all the power in intimate relationships as well as in society.

I didn't think the writing was bad, and I liked how we got to see the viewpoints of both the women, I just think this book could have been a lot more than it was.  Plenty of interesting topics were just glossed over - their differences in religion, Mary's experiences growing up cut out of the succession and forced to be Elizabeth's maid, Elizabeth's role in the plots against Mary, Mary's treatment of Protestants during her reign.  I would have liked to read more about these, and about the relationship between the two sisters, and less about sex and scandal.

Verdict: A sensational story that strays too far from fact.
Score: 2 out of 5
Source: Bookshelf

Friday 26 August 2011

Transworld Book Group Reading Challenge

If you're in the UK or the EU, there's a great reading challenge offered by Transworld Book Group where you get to read and review four free books, out of a choice of twelve.   You don't even need to be a blogger, you can post your reviews on Amazon instead.  All you need to do is leave a comment by following the link below and away you go.

 I signed up and received my first book (The Sandalwood Tree) in the post this morning.  I can't wait to start reading it! My selections (summaries from Transworld):

The Sandalwood Tree by Ellie Newmark
It is 1947, and Evie and Martin Mitchell have just arrived in the Indian village of Masoorla with their five-year-old son. But cracks soon appear in their marriage as Evie struggles to adapt to her new life, and Martin fails to bury unbearable wartime memories.

When Evie finds a collection of letters, concealed deep in the brickwork of their rented bungalow, so begins an investigation that consumes her, allowing her to escape to another world, a hundred years earlier, and to the extraordinary friendship of two very different young women.

And as Evie’s fascination with her Victorian discoveries deepens, she unearths powerful secrets. But at what cost to her present, already fragile existence?

Crippen by John Boyne
July 1910: The grisly remains of Cora Crippen, music hall singer and wife of Dr Hawley Crippen, are discovered in the cellar of 39 Hilldrop Crescent, Camden. But the Doctor and his mistress, Ethel Le Neve, have vanished, much to the frustration of Scotland Yard and the outrage of a horrified London.

Across the Channel in Antwerp, the SS Montrose sets sail on its two week voyage to Canada. Amongst its passengers are the overbearing Antonia Drake and her daughter Victoria, who is hell-bent on romance, the enigmatic Mathieu Zela and the modest Martha Hayes. Also on board are the unassuming Mr John Robinson and his seventeen-year-old son Edmund. But all is not as it seems…

The Obscure Logic of the Heart by Priya Basil
In a bustling London cafĂ©, Anil, now a famous architect, sits waiting for Lina. It is years since he last laid eyes on her, the love of his life. Lina is running for the train – punctuality has never been her strength. After all this time she cannot be late to meet Anil.
Together, they think back to tragedies both personal and political, betrayals large and small. A past played out across three continents that house their rival worlds: Sikh and Muslim, wealthy and modest, liberal and orthodox, corrupt and moral….
Lina has one more revelation that must be shared with Anil. Might it unite them once and for all, or has it come too late?

The Secrets Between Us by Louise Douglas
A chance encounter: When Sarah meets dark, brooding Alex,she grasps his offer of a new life miles away from her own. They’ve both recently escaped broken relationships, and need to start again. Why not do it together?

A perfect life: But when Sarah gets to the tiny village of Burrington Stoke, something doesn’t add up. Alex’s beautiful wife Genevieve was charming, talented, and adored by all who knew her. And apparently, she and Alex had a successful marriage complete with a gorgeous son, Jamie. Why would Genevieve walk out on her perfect life? And why has no one heard from her since she did so?

A web of lies: Genevieve’s family and all her friends think that Alex knows more about her disappearance than he’s letting on. But Sarah’s fallen in love with him and just knows he couldn’t have anything to hide. Or could he?

Interested in joining?  Click the link below

Monday 22 August 2011

The Margaret Mitchell House, Atlanta

My honeymoon hasn't really involved many bookish destinations, so when we decided to visit Atlanta for two days, I insisted that we go to the Margaret Mitchell house.  I first read Gone With the Wind when I was about 16 or 17, and have been a fan of both the book and the film ever since.

Ignore the wonkiness of the photo, but this is the Margaret Mitchell house.  She lived with her second husband in an apartment on the ground floor whilst she wrote the majority of the book.  We had an informative tour by someone who knew a lot about the both the house and Margaret, but unfortunately were not allowed to take any photos inside the actual apartment.  The best part was that everyone on the tour was clearly a massive book geek!

The attached museum has lots of book and film memorabilia.  This portrait is used in the film, when Rhett and Scarlett are living together.

Creating my own masterpiece!

And just for fun! :P

We're leaving for home tomorrow.  As we didn't book the most expensive flight available, we have a midnight three-hour stop over at Toronto before heading on for London.  In 23 days we've visited eight states and I've driven over 2000 miles.  Not bad :)

Sunday 21 August 2011

Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman

Eleven year old Harri has recently arrived in London from Ghana with his Mum and sister Lydia.  Living on a council estate in the city, he is fascinated with his new surroundings.  He is mesmerised by the fact that trains travel underground and loves the view from his high-rise tower block.  But his naivety has a darker side too and he doesn't realise the danger he is in when he starts to investigate the murder of a local teenager and the Dell Farm gang start to notice him.

I should start by saying that I wanted to read this book because I teach in an area very similar to the one Harri is growing up in, inner city London with large numbers of recent immigrants and some gang culture.  Other reviewers have complained about the flippant way Harri discusses violence and accepts it as part of life, but for me it rang true.  His childlike acceptance of it was one of the most disturbing parts of the book - he didn't even know that there was more out there, that he deserved better.

I also enjoyed Harri's slang (I wanted to go around afterwards saying 'Advise yourself!' and 'Asweh') and the way Kelman wrote his inner monologue, forever jumping from one topic to the next.  One moment he is missing his baby sister in Ghana, the next he is considering what superpower he would like, and the next he is running away from a gang initiation.  And I think that is what an eleven year old's inner monologue would be like.

In fact, I loved the whole thing.  I enjoyed seeing the world through someone else's eyes, and grew very attached to Harri, his sister Lydia (who made the wrong friends), and their mother, working all hours to pay off her debts and therefore not able to be around much.  I know from experience there are countless children in London in the same position as Harri, and for that reason it was a powerful read for me.   I couldn't put it down and couldn't stop thinking about it afterwards.  I would really recommend this one.

Verdict: A powerful read about growing up around gang culture in inner-city London.
Source: Kindle
Score: 5 out of 5

Friday 19 August 2011

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

Fourteen year old Lily is growing up in 1960s South Carolina during the struggle for civil rights.  With her mother dead and her father abusive, the only person Lily feels close to is her black maid, Rosaleen.  When Rosaleen is arrested after a tense altercation about race in town, Lily and Rosaleen go on the run.  They end up staying with a beekeeper and her two sisters, who might have a connection to her mother.  A coming of age story set during one summer, The Secret Life of Bees is a whimsical novel with lots of dreamy qualities.

I wanted to love this book.  I thought the topic was interesting, and the real strength of the book was the way that I got such a sense of time and place.  Sue Monk Kidd really bought alive the South of the time; the suffocating heat and tense atmosphere.  Maybe it's because I read it whilst being in the South myself (now in Atlanta!), but I felt as though I was right there with Lily.  Lily was a good protagonist too - her mood swings and rushes of emotion were consistent with what I can remember of being a teenager.

But I couldn't love this book.  The main problem was that it was too sweet and saccharine.  I know it's written to be 'dreamy', and maybe it's my stiff-upper-lip Britishness coming out, but there was too much sentimentality for me.   There was too much discussion of empowering your spirit and being a strong woman for me.  I agree with all of the sentiments, and thought August was a wonderful character, it was just a bit much for me. I also found it hard to believe that everything would have worked out as well as it did, especially the resolution with Lily's father at the end.

I did enjoy the book and it was hard to put down, but it's not one I would pick up again.

Verdict: Evocative descriptions of the South of the 1960s but a bit sickly sweet.
Source: Owned
Score: 3.5 out of 5

Tuesday 16 August 2011

Becoming Marie Antoinette by Juliet Grey

Ever since I read Antonia Fraser's excellent history and biography of Marie Antoinette, I've had a weakness for books about her.  But good portrayals of Marie Antoinette in the historical fiction genre are hard to find; I was recently disappointed by Carolly Erikson's The Hidden Diary of Marie Antoinette, which took too many liberties with the facts and didn't convey that part of Marie Antoinette that I find so interesting - that she wasn't what the popular myth would have her be, a greedy, selfish, spendaholic that said 'Let Them Eat Cake'.

The good news is that Becoming Marie Antoinette is a well researched and interesting novel.  For me, it's a fine example of what good historical fiction should be - it sticks to the facts and just uses the fiction genre to fill in emotions and conversations.  The first part of a trilogy, it covers Marie Antoinette's life from a child of the Austrian Royal Family, through her marriage to the French Dauphin and ends when she becomes Queen of France.  Heads are all still attached to bodies so far!

One part that I found fascinating was Marie's makeover before she could marry Louis.  The French king deemed certain parts of her unacceptable so she had to go through some horrible things, including truly gruesome dental surgery without anaesthetic, before she could be shipped off to France.  For me it reinforced how royal marriages at that time had nothing to do with romance or love, they were business transactions between different countries and the feelings of the parties involved had no consequence.

I also enjoyed how Juliet Grey portrayed the relationship between Marie and the Dauphin.  He was famously awkward and the fact that he couldn't bring himself to consummate the marriage for a long time is notorious.  Grey handled this sensitively and bought the character of Louie to life so much that you really did feel sorry for him at the end.  It was also interesting to consider what an unusual situation it would be now - forced to marry someone you have never met, and then expected to have a baby as soon as possible.

This novel contains a wealth of historical detail about clothing, royal protocol, minor nobles and the court at Versailles.  I enjoyed this level of detail, but I imagine it could be off-putting for some, especially those that are just after a story.  This isn't a fast-paced book.  Anyone reading this novel should also go in with the knowledge that it is only part one of a trilogy, and therefore the ending isn't completely resolved.

Verdict: Great piece of historical fiction, can't wait for the next installment!
Source: ARC via NetGalley
Score: 4.5 out of 5

Saturday 13 August 2011

Interview With The Vampire by Anne Rice

I should start by saying that I was a bit hesitant to read Interview With The Vampire as the film is one of my all-time favourite films.  Which is weird, as I don't like Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise that much, but I've loved the film for years now and was worried the book wouldn't live up to my expectations.

The book opens with a vampire, Louie, telling his story to a young journalist in New Orleans.  It covers him becoming a vampire and his life after, focusing on the moral dilemmas of killing humans and the relationships and power struggles within the vampire community.

Whilst reading it I suffered from that problem you always get when you've seen the film or TV show first - I couldn't picture the characters in my mind as any different from the film.  Louie was Brad Pitt in my head, and Lestat was Tom Cruise.  Which was fine for me, as the film adaptation in this regard did seem faithful to the book, but perhaps I missed some parts of their characters because of this.

The actual story itself was wonderful.  I've read quite a few books with vampires in them and I think Anne Rice strikes the right balance between human and monster; her vampires aren't sparkly and even though they have human emotions they are still vicious killers.  Claudia, who was made a vampire as a little girl, is a truly fascinating character and it's interesting to wonder what it must be like for your mind to become adult but not your body.

The main problem I had with this book was that it was waffly.  A character couldn't take an action without deliberating over it for several pages and then explaining him or herself to everyone in the vicinity over and over again.  Louie was especially guilty of this.  You know that bit at the end of the film where Lestat pops up and is listening to the recording of Louie's interview and he says "for centuries I've listened to this whining!" - that's the way I felt at the end of this book!  Some parts are essentially nothing more than an extended monologue on morality and self-pity, which got very repetitive and boring to read.  Louie wasn't great as the main character.

I think I will read the next one in the series, as Lestat is a much more interesting character than Louie.  I hope it has less whining.

Verdict: Great story but very slow paced
Source: Bought in New Orleans!
Score: 3.5 out of 5

Friday 12 August 2011

Book Purchases So Far ...

I'm trying to be restrained with my book purchasing whilst on honeymoon, as I do have to lug these books back across the Atlantic, but sometimes (usually in a second hand book shop) I just can't help myself!

So far I have bought:

Book Lust To Go by Nancy Pearl

I bought my sister the original Book Lust for her birthday, and think that the lists of recommendations are amazing.  As an armchair traveller and lover of books set in exotic climes, I couldn't resist Book Lust To Go. It will probably lead to lots more book purchases in the future! 

And of course, whilst I was in New Orleans, I couldn't resist Anne Rice's Interview With The Vampire.  Loving it so far too :)

Voodoo in New Orleans by Robert Tallant

My husband the Religious Education teacher was fascinated with the voodoo culture in New Orleans, and dragged me from voodoo shops to museums galore.  He is currently reading this classic on voodoo, written in the 1940s, and really enjoying it.

This despite my resolution to only take my Kindle and not buy any books!

Tuesday 9 August 2011

How To Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran

Caitlin Moran is a British journalist who writes columns for The Times, and How to Be A Woman is part autobiography and part feminist rant.  It tells of her working class background and experiences and also includes her views on being a woman and on feminist issues such as abortion and beauty myths.

This book was OK.  The conversational style made it easy to read and it was funny at points.  Coming from a working class background myself, I could relate to Moran's experiences and she wrote about growing up as a girl in late 20th century England very well.

However, after this enjoyable section of the book the rest became very disjointed.  Her experiences as an adult were randomly spliced with the parts about feminism.  And although these parts were interesting, she was hardly writing anything I hadn't heard before.  If you want feminism, there are lots of books I would recommend over this one.  And if you disregard the feminism parts, all you have left is a very average memoir.

I don't want to be too harsh about this book, as I did enjoy reading it and it wasn't horribly written; I just wouldn't recommend it to others.

Verdict: OK read, funny in places.
Source: Bought it for my kindle
Score: 2.5 out of 5

Monday 8 August 2011

Sunday 7 August 2011

Honeymoon Reading So Far - Dear John / Shanghai Girls

I've been driving all day (from Houston towards New Orleans) and we've decided to stop and spend the night in a hotel in Lafeyette, Louisiana to recharge the batteries so I've actually got time to update my blog with the books I have read so far on my trip :)

But first I must say that driving in America is weird.  And it's not just the wrong side of the road thing, because I was expecting that, it's all the little things like you have to push your key in to take it out (you don't at home), the gas pumps sometimes have levers, and there's no clutch pedal to control speed when slowing down so I've been coming to some sharp stops!  But I've not crashed so far!

On to the books!

I wanted something light as a plane read, so I chose Dear John by Nicholas Sparks.  It's about a long-distance relationship between John, who is in the army, and Savannah.  After 9/11, John re-enlists and this puts pressure on his relationship.  I've not read anything by Nicholas Sparks before, or even seen the film of The Notebook, and I wasn't overly impressed.  It was nice to read a romance novel from the point of view of the man, but I didn't really care about either character and as such wasn't affected during the tear-jerker parts.  I don't think I'll rush to read Nicholas Sparks again.
Source: Owned
Score: 2.5 out of 5

My next choice was Shanghai Girls by Lisa See.  I recently read and enjoyed Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, so couldn't wait to read this one, and liked it even more than Snow Flower.  May and Pearl are sisters living comfortably in decadent 1930's Shanghai and working as models.  When the Japanese attack, they are forced to migrate to America, where they encounter prejudice and hardships.

This novel is one of my stand-out favourite reads of 2011 so far.  I wasn't expecting it to be as gritty or in-depth as it was and I loved how the relationship between the two sisters was portrayed, especially as I'm very close to my own sister.  The immigrant experience was captured well, as was the fear of all Chinese in America after Mao came to power, and the involvement of the FBI.
Verdict: Not a happy story, but a powerful one.
Source: Kindle
Score: 5 out of 5

Wednesday 3 August 2011

Greetings From Vegas!

I'm having a great time on honeymoon!  We're half way through our time at Las Vegas and I can honestly say that I've never been anywhere like this before.  I'm loving the tackiness of it and how everyone is happy or at least seeming to be having a great time.  It's more of a theme park than a city, but a very luxurious one

We're staying at the Venetian hotel, which as you might be able to guess from the name, contains a replica of Venice.  Earlier today we rode on a fake gondola whilst being seranaded by an opera singer, which was quite the experience!  We've also enjoyed the Luxor hotel (Egyptian theme, the photo shows me by a statue outside of it) and the shark exhibit at Mandaly place.

We have gambled a little bit but I've not been very lucky - my biggest winning was 72 cents.  Tom on the other hand turned 1 cent into 10 dollars on his first try!  He should have gambled a lot more, that's a great winning as a percentage.

Tomorrow morning we're getting up very early for our Grand Canyon tour so it won't be too hot when we're there.  The heat is definitely oppressive here, it's like a giant heat blanket outside.  I always imagined America would be similar to England but so far it's been a bit of a culture shock.  But then Vegas is hardly typical America so I'll reserve judgement until I see a bit more.

Hope everyone is OK, and reading some great books :)