Wednesday 30 November 2011

Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore by Stella Duffy

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday 27 November 2011

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 23 November 2011

The Cellist of Sarajevo by Stephen Galloway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday 21 November 2011

Venice in February - Help Me Pick!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday 19 November 2011

Next To Love by Ellen Feldman

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday 13 November 2011

My Antonia by Willa Cather

I have to admit to not knowing much about American Literature. I know lots about English Literature but the only real American Literature I've read is Hemingway's A Farewell To Arms and I didn't like it much.  Fitzgerald and Hawthorne are strangers to me, as are Zane Grey, Henry James and Melville.  I never even read Little House on the Prairie whilst growing up.

My Antonia was a first attempt at rectifying this situation.  Jim Burden, a lawyer, recounts his childhood on the plains of Nebraska and particularly his friendship with a Bohemian immigrant girl called Antonia.  Rich in detail, it is a love letter to a way of living that has since been lost and a poem to American midwest.

I liked My Antonia as a coming of age tale.  I've read other reviews where the major complaint is that not much happens in the novel, but I enjoyed the cosy, lazy Sunday afternoon pace and the descriptions of a childhood spent in the great outdoors.  At certain times it did feel as though Cather was romanticising her own experiences of growing up on a farm, as none of the hardships ever felt particularly real.  In their first winter in America, Antonia's family are caught unprepared and have little in the way of food or warm clothes.  Antonia runs about barefoot in the snow in only a cotton dress, but even this is looked back on in a nostalgic sort of way.

Behind the cosy narrative, a lot of powerful themes were lurking.  I read this as a tale of immigrant experience, of the separate classes that grew up of 'Americans' and 'foreigners'.  In My Antonia this whole system is mocked as the foreigners are the resourceful, enterprising ones who by doing things that the Americans find distasteful, such as sending their daughters to work, are able to become more successful in the long run.  But the boundaries between the two groups remain firm; Antonia and Jim could never have married.

There was also a lot on the theme of gender.  Antonia and Jim were both androgynous characters, with Antonia taking on classically masculine characteristics such as physical strength and Jim having a lot of feminine elements.  Throughout the book, the female characters are the strong ones.  I thought this was interesting in the light of Cather's sexuality and how she herself used to dress as a man whilst she was growing up.  It was nice to read a book in a rural setting where the women do more than keep the house and prepare meals.

Overall, My Antonia was a well written coming of age story that kept my interest.  It had a cast of lively characters and evoked life on the plains very well.  I would recommend it as a good example of American literature.

Source: Library
First Published: 1918
Score: 3.5 out of 5

Friday 11 November 2011

The Shadow Of The Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski

I love the Penguin Celebrations series.  With this latest acquisition, I now have sixteen out of thirty-six, which is not bad, and every single one I have read has been enjoyable.  This one is from the travel and adventure range and is a series of dispatches from Africa written by the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski.  Arriving in Ghana in 1957, when many African countries were just throwing off the shackles of colonialism, his reports cover a range of countries in sub-Saharan Africa from the 1950s to the 1990s and is as much of a love letter to Africa and it's people as it is a travel journal.

Kapuscinski has the good fortune to often be in the right place at the right time.  He witnesses a coup in Zanzibar, the action of child soldiers in Liberia, another coup in Nigeria, meets key players such as Mugabe and generally witnesses history in the making.  His constant quest to experience the 'real' Africa and not remain sheltered in European areas makes for some dangerous episodes too; at times you feel as though you could be reading the plot for the next Indiana Jones film.  Kapuscinki also catches a nasty bout of malaria and when he refuses to go back to Europe, he contracts TB, which almost kills him.  He drives head first through a herd of buffalo on the Serengeti plains, gets caught in a monsoon storm whilst trying to escape in a small boat off the coast of Zanzibar and becomes delirious with thirst when his truck breaks down in the middle of the Sahara desert.

These adventures add a bit of spice to his writing and keep the pace brisk.  What I liked most about this book was the balance between factual reporting and personal impressions.  Kapuscinski does give you the background on the political situations of each country, but he also writes about what it is like to be there in the blinding heat and describes as best he can his experiences with the local people and wildlife.  This meant it wasn't unbiased reporting, but I very much enjoyed the personal touch as it gave me more of a sense of what Africa is like.

The writing itself was gorgeous too, and the love Kapuscinski felt for Africa came across in every sentence.  I'm going to end this review with my favourite quote;
 "More than anything, one is struck by the light.  Light everywhere.  Brightness everywhere.  Everywhere, the sun." 

Verdict: Engrossing travel journal of Africa during a momentous time in it's history.  Recommended.
Source: Owned
First Published: 1998
Score: 4 out of 5

Sunday 6 November 2011

The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The Thing Around Your Neck is a short story collection by one of my favourite authors, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.  Having previously read and loved Purple Hibiscus (my review) and especially Half of a Yellow Sun (my review - go and get a copy now if you haven't read it), I couldn't wait to get my hands on this collection, her only work published in book form that I had yet to read.  And I wasn't disappointed.

The Thing Around Your Neck is a short story collection about women, the immigrant experience, things not working out the way they should and homesickness.  All of the women in the stories have a connection of some kind with Nigeria; some are on their way to America to marry Nigerian men who have already made it, some are caught up in violence, some are writing about it and some are missing it with every bone in their body.  Nigeria appears as almost a character in it's own right -  a whirl of colours, smells, sound and vibrancy compared with a grey, bland, tasteless America.

Aside from that, the other major theme that I could identify was disappointment and expectations not being met.  The stories are full of Nigerian women who have moved to America anticipating a land of milk and honey and found themselves disappointed, both with their new country and their new husbands.  In The Arrangers of Marriage, Chinaza is encouraged by her husband to cook only American food, change her name and be as American as possible, resulting in a deep homesickness.  She can't write home about her misery as her relatives all assume she will have a big house, a car and all the perks of living in America.

I had several favourite stories from the collection.  One was A Private Experience, a story of an unlikely friendship between a Hausa Muslim and Igbo Christian during race riots in Nigeria.  Another was On Monday of Last Week, about the loneliness of a woman working as a nanny for an American family.  Although Tomorrow is Too Far didn't really fit in with the themes of the rest of the collection, it was a very creepy story about sibling rivalry.

But my favourite story was Jumping Monkey Hill, about a group of upcoming African writers invited to a safari lodge in South Africa for a writing seminar by a white sponsor.  It seemed as though Adichie had used this story to vent all of her frustrations about the attitude towards and labels given to African writers as most of the stories the Africans write are disparaged by the white sponsor.  He wants them only to write of war, desperation, hunger and stereotypes, not the truth of their experiences and countries.

To sum up, I would highly recommend this well written collection, especially if you are interested in the immigrant experience.

Source: Library
First published: 2009
Score: 4.5 out of 5

Wednesday 2 November 2011

Bookish Acquisitions

During our trip to Derby and the Peak District last week, I managed to acquire some great new books!

One of the places we visited was Chatsworth House, Mr Darcy's house in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.  Of course it has many other features too, but from a bookish perspective it was great to visit Mr Darcy's home.  The gift shop had a great selection of Jane Austen books, sequels by other authors and non-fiction books all about the world of Austen. I managed to find Talking About Jane Austen in Baghdad.  

Synopsis from goodreads:
May's a tough-talking, hard-smoking, lecturer in English. She's also an Iraqi from a Sunni-Shi'ite background living in Baghdad, dodging bullets before breakfast, bargaining for high heels in bombed-out bazaars and battling through blockades to reach her class of Jane Austen-studying girls. Bee, on the other hand, is a London mum of three, busy fighting off PTA meetings and chicken pox, dealing with dead cats and generally juggling work and family while squabbling with her globe-trotting husband over the socks he leaves lying around the house. They should have nothing in common. But when a simple email brings them together, they discover a friendship that overcomes all their differences of culture, religion and age. "Talking About Jane Austen in Baghdad" is the story of two women who share laughter and tears, and swap their confidences, dreams and fears. And, between the grenades, the gossip, the jokes and the secrets, they also hatch an ingenious plan to help May escape the bombings of Baghdad...
I'm hoping it'll be a nice cosy read.

And then we found a nice independent bookshop and my husband bought me two book from the Penguin Classics hardcover series that I've been coveting for the longest time.  They are both beautiful, bound editions with page markers.

Dracula by Bram Stoker.
I already own this book, but it's one of my favourite books and I wanted a nice edition to keep.

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen.
Believe it or not, I haven't read this one yet.  How gorgeous are the patterning and covers on this book?

What I love about the Penguin editions is that the pages are nice and thick, the font is just the right size and type and there are page markers included.  One day I will have a whole shelf of Penguin Classic Hardcovers....

Have you acquired any great books or bookish treats lately?