Wednesday 29 February 2012

A Bend In The River by V. S. Naipaul

This is going to be a hard review to write, because it's hard for me to find a standard by which to judge this book by.  Told from the point of view of Salim, who has moved from the coast inland to a nameless African country with remarkable similarities to the Congo, A Bend In The River is an observation of life in Africa following decolonisation.  There is violence, corruption, political instability and periods of relative stability.

The reason this book is so hard to review is that techincally, it's not a story.  So on all my assessments of narrative it falls short.  There isn't really a plot, let alone one that it engaging.  The main character is a vehicle for Naipaul's thoughts rather than being a 'real' character so I certainly didn't connect with him.  The lack of these traditional story elements made this book hard for me to read and despite it being only 300 pages or so, it has taken me over a week to finish it.  I got to the point a few days ago when I just wanted it done already.

But on the other hand, A Bend In The River is an extremely powerful piece of observational writing.  Yes, not much happens but some of the things Naipaul writes about are very profound and clever.  The character of Ferdinand for example, goes through a series of changes that reflect what is happening in the African countries themselves.  One moment he is polite and dedicated to school and his bright future, the next he is doing all he can to get in with whoever has power at the moment, the next he is eschewing education for emphasising his tribal connections.  Naipaul does an excellent job of showing the underlying tensions between groups of people that threaten to blow up at any moment, and this particularly works as Salim is an 'outsider' too.

The writing is very good too.  Naipaul uses a simplistic style but there are plenty of underlying messages, meaning that the book repays any time spent analysing it. And that was the problem for me - I read this book at the wrong time.  Some days I only had twenty minutes or so to devote to it, and the lack of plot became too much for me.  It's a worthwhile book, but it requires time and concentration.  If you like fast-moving plots, this isn't the book for you.   If you enjoy reading about Africa and African history and go into it knowing that it is mainly observation, then this could be a very enjoyable read.

Verdict: Right book, wrong time.  Powerful observations of Africa post-Independence.
Source: Library
First Published: 1980
Score: 3 out of 5

Sunday 26 February 2012

Shopping Spree!

I have been very good recently about using the library and reading from the books I already own, but last week I had a bit of a bad week and my husband convinced me to go book shopping (I didn't need too much persuading!).  Of course, he also ended up with Skyrim for his xbox, so I'd say a good time was had by all.  I managed to get two books I've wanted to read for a while from a charity shop for the bargain price of £1.50 each:

The Peculiar Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender:  I'm not too sure on this one, as I didn't like Perfume and the concept sounds a bit similar but despite this I've wanted to read it since I first saw it.  It's about a girl who can taste the emotions of the person who has made the food she is eating.

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain: I've seen this book everywhere recently, and as I have read a Hemingway (even if only one) and an F.Scott Fitzgerald, I feel as if I am allowed to read this fictionalised account of the marriage between Hemingway and Hadley Richardson.  I love the Jazz Age.

I know supermarkets are part of the reason independent bookshops are not doing so well, and I really shouldn't buy from them, but their 2 for £7 deals are too good for me to pass up on. From Sainsburys:

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt:  I've had this on hold from the library for four months already and I am still number 23 on the list.  So I bought the book and cancelled the reservation.  I love the sound of this tale set in the West, with prospectors and outlaws.

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles:  Again, I love the Jazz Age.  Set in 1930s New York, this is about two girls who head to the city to have the time of their lives.

The Somnambulist by Essie Fox:  Regular readers will know that I am a sucker for Victorian settings and gothic plots.  This book is about a lady's companion in a grand country house that soon starts to uncover dark secrets.

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, aged 13 3/4 by Sue Townsend:  This is a bit of a modern British classic but I still haven't read it.  I hope it is as funny as it is supposed to be.

And finally, from Waterstone's:

The Turn of the Screw and other stories by Henry James:  This was technically a joint purchase, as the husband wants to read it after he finishes with Game of Thrones.  I think I will save this spooky story for Halloween.

I also got a new notebook with books all over the cover.  I've almost finished my current journal, so snapped this one up.

Have you done any impulse spending recently?

Friday 24 February 2012

Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch

Myself and any books short-listed for the Booker prize usually don't get on so I was a bit hesitant to read Jamrach's Menagerie at first.  But it has so many elements I was interested in that I had to eventually give it a go; Victorian London - check, wild animals - check, adventure - check, focusing on squalor rather than riches - check.  Plus, I am from the East End of London myself and all of these features combined made me excited to start this book.

It's the tale of Jaffy Brown, a young boy who one day encounters a tiger walking down the street.  Despite being carried in the jaws of the the tiger, he is unharmed and his bravery catches the eye of Jamrach, wild animal dealer.  Soon Jaffy's life is transformed as he is offered steady work and opportunities start to come his way.  He accepts a position on a whaling ship hunting down rumours of a dragon but has no idea of what lies in store for him...

Above all else, Jamrach's Menagerie is a good, old-fashioned, rip-roaring adventure story and I loved it.  From the very first lines I was transported back to Victorian London in all the filth and stench of the docks areas and working class population.  The sights, smells and tastes were so evocative that sometimes I had to look up from the book and physically remind myself of what the here and now actually is.  That rich writing continued all throughout the book, even when Jaffy is at sea.  The beautiful sunsets, tropical islands and acres of space are described so cleverly by Birch that I almost feel as though I know what it would be like to be a sailor.

At times, this descriptive writing takes you to places you would rather not go to.  I went into this book without knowing what the shocking element of it was (and if you don't know, I'm not going to spoil it), so was completely captivated when events at sea started to unfold.  I didn't realise how invested I was in Jaffy as a character until things started to go wrong for him and it's not an exaggeration to say that I was on the edge of my seat, turning the pages of the book as fast as I could.  I lost sleep in order to find out what would happen next, and I'm someone who needs sleep to function.

I've seen reviews of this book stating that it didn't 'deserve' to be on the Booker short-list, that it was all about controversy and that's what caught the eye of the judges.  I can't comment on the Booker selection, but what this book is is a well-written, well-paced, fascinating adventure story with some sensational elements.  It's a lot fun to read, in the same way Treasure Island or King Solomon's Mines are and it's the perfect book to completely lose yourself in.

I borrowed this book from the library, but will be purchasing a copy so I can reread it in the future.  

Verdict: Fun adventure story that will keep you gripped.  Highly recommended.
Source: Library
First Published: 2011
Score: 5 out of 5

Tuesday 21 February 2012

Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

This book had been on my radar for quite some time but it took a friend lending me his copy to inspire me to finally read it.  Told using text and vintage photographs, it's the story of Jacob, who has grown up disbelieving the creepy stories his grandfather has told him about monsters and children with special gifts.  But when Jacob witnesses something scary himself and voyages to the children's home in Wales his grandfather stayed in, he soon learns that perhaps the stories weren't so far-fetched after all...

This novel was hit and miss for me.  I'll start with the 'hits' - I liked the concept of the home for children with special abilities and as a fan of epistolary novels, I loved the idea of including more than just text.  And for the most part, the photos worked well and did add a creepy element to the story.  I thought the inclusion of the handwritten letters was a nice touch too.

Unfortunately, there were more 'misses' than 'hits'.  The core problem I had was that I didn't buy the fantasy elements, especially concerning the bad guys.  Whilst I appreciated the idea of the children's home being a refuge, I didn't find what they had to hide from all that creepy or well thought-out; the fantasy behind it seemed a bit shallow.  I also don't see the need for this book to be part one of a series, when there was such a good opportunity for the story to be wrapped up in one novel.  Why are so many YA books part of a series now?  It's one of my pet peeves and also one of the key reasons I don't read much YA.

I also had a problem with some of the vintage photos.  In some parts of the novel they added to the story well (when Riggs introduces the children, for example), but in others it felt as though Riggs really had to stretch the story in one direction or another to fit with the photos.  It reminded me of a game we play in my class, where I give the children a series of words or images and they have to come up with a story using the prompts.  It was like Riggs had done that; changed his story for the images rather than let the story tell itself.

Verdict: A mixed reading experience.  I won't be hunting down the sequel.
Source: Borrowed from a friend.
First Published: 2011
Score: 2.5 out of 5

Sunday 19 February 2012

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (reread)

There's nothing quite like settling down with one of your favourite books, is there?  The Secret Garden has been a favourite of mine since childhood and I've lost count of the number of times I have read it.  It's the story of Mary Lennox, a spolit and sullen ten year old girl who lives in India until her parents die of cholera.  Sent to England to live in a large, neglected house under the care of her grieving uncle, Mary learns to look after herself for the first time and discovers a beautiful secret garden that is key to her development.

I just love this book, and I think the reason I love it so much is Mary herself.  She is introduced to us on page two as "as tyrannical and selfish a little pig as ever lived."  To say Mary is spoiled is an understatement; she can't even dress herself as she is so used to servants tending to her.  She doesn't hesitate to slap her servants round the face when they displease her.  She is stubborn, selfish, sullen, headstrong, outspoken and downright rude.  And I like that, I like that Burnett has created a character who isn't perfect and yet somehow still makes you root for her and cheer her on when she starts to change.  Mary is refreshingly flawed, a product of her upbringing. 

And I think one of the other reasons I liked this book so much as a child was the same as the reason I liked Roald Dahl; Burnett doesn't talk down to or patronise her readers.  From a modern perspective, Mary is neglected both by her parents and her uncle.  There's some passages that deal quite frankly with grief and the prospect of dying young (Mary's cousin, Colin, another delightfully spoiled character).  And Burnett offers no easy solution to any of the problems of the novel and we see that only time and small changes really change or heal any of the characters.

"Thoughts - mere thoughts - are as powerful as electric batteries - as good for one as sunlight is, as bad for one as poison.  To let a sad thought or a bad one get into your mind is as dangerous as letting a scarlet fever germ get into your body.  If you let it stay there after it has got in you may never get over it as long as you live." p321

Rereading The Secret Garden as an adult, I couldn't help but analyse the story a lot more and identify the key themes; the idealisation of the working poor, theories on how to bring up children, attitudes towards other races, the sneering at the medical profession, a bit of anti-intelligence, the role of servants.  One thing that bothered me this read was how much Martha and her family are held up as a shining light of happiness.  Mrs Sowerby has twelve children living in a three bedroom cottage and there's not enough food for everyone, but yet the whole family (especially Martha and Dickon) are constantly shown as happy and carefree.  I know money doesn't buy happiness, but Burnett seems to gloss over the hardships of being poor at that time in order to prevent some kind of rural idyll.

But even as I was anaylsing the book and it's messages, I was kicking myself for doing it, as I never did this as a child - I just got lost in the story.  What is it about being adults that makes us lose the ability to do this?  Anyway, The Secret Garden is a magical story that I would recommend to everyone, even if you haven't read it as a child.  At it's core, it's about simple pleasures and finding happiness.

Source: Personal copy
First Published: 1911
Score: 5 out of 5

Friday 17 February 2012

The Peach Keeper by Sarah Addison Allen

Sarah Addison Allen is a new author to me and The Peach Keeper is a book I chose purely after reading reviews of it on other blogs; I would never have heard of it otherwise.  It tells the story of two very different women, Willa and Paxton, in the fictional town of Walls of Water, North Carolina.  Willa is trying to escape from her small town roots and past without actually moving away and Paxton looks like she has the perfect life but is a mess of anxieties underneath.  When a human skeleton is uncovered under a peach tree on the grounds of a house they are both connected to, the two women are thrown together and discover a lot about themselves and their family histories.

I don't think I am the right reader for this book.  There was technically nothing wrong with it, it's light but well written and the story skips along at a pleasant pace.  There are elements of magical realism but they are on the whole well done and there is decent character development.  Despite this, I came away from this book overwhelmed by the sweetness of the whole thing.

It's the same feeling I got after reading The Secret Life Of Bees, there was just too much that was cliche, too much sisterhood and female bonding and far too many happily ever afters.  Too much sentiment for this particular reader.  The male characters seemed to exist solely for the reason to make the female characters happy (but of course only at the end of the novel).  The plot developments were predictable and  as the tone didn't mesh with me, there wasn't much pleasure in watching them unravel.

I've just reread that last paragraph and it does sound very harsh.  Don't take just my word for it, there are plenty of reviews I've seen praising this book highly.  As I said, it's not poorly written and there are elements I enjoyed; it's just not my kind of book.  If you don't mind a bit of sentimentality with your escapism then it could be the book for you.

Verdict: Well written story of two women in small town America with magical elements, unfortunately too sweet for me.
Source: Library
First Published: March 2011
Score: 2.5 out of 5 

Thursday 16 February 2012

The Book Of Human Skin by Michelle Lovric (Venice In February)

The Book Of Human Skin is an epic, sensationalist and gripping tale of sibling rivalry taken to the extreme.  Born in 18th century Venice, Minguillo Fasan has already dispatched of his older sister by the time his younger sister, Marcella, is born.  What follows is the account of his attempts to ruin her life and disinherit her; involving lunatic asylums, nunneries in Peru and much physical and emotional torture.  Told by five different narrators, The Book of Human Skin spans continents and decades and contains some of the most delightfully wicked characters I've read in a long time.

The Book Of Human Skin may not be literature of the highest quality, but it is a fun roller-coaster ride of a read full of sensational elements and cliff-hangers that keep you turning the pages.  My favourite characters were the two evil ones, Minguillo himself and the crazy nun, Sor Loreta.  Whereas Minguillo knew he was committing evil acts and indeed revelled in it, Sor Loreta attempted to hide her evil deeds under the guise of religious fanaticism and a penchant for self-mutilation.  She scourges, burns, cuts and otherwise disfigures herself as a mark of her devotion to God and flies into self-induced religious 'rages' where she punishes the other nuns for not living up to her expectations.  She was such a fascinating character (did she know she was bad, or was she deluding even herself?) that I didn't want her sections of the book to end.  I was even more fascinated to read the after-word and learn that some nuns at that time did indeed drink the pus of small-pox victims and have visions about licking the blood from the wounds of Jesus after his crucifixion.  Creepy.  And don't even get me started on the nun that would only break her fast for food covered in cat vomit, so she would be sure not to enjoy her meal.

But the central story is that of Minguillo and Marcella, and as a reader you can't help but feel sorry for Marcella as she can't seem to get a break.  She is crippled and made incontinent, and that's only in childhood.  Throughout the story she gradually becomes accustomed to the torture that has been her lot since birth and trades her fighting spirit for passive acceptance.  Despite the help of many other characters, Marcella seems destined to always be in the hands of the sociopathic Minguillo.  Although Minguillo is a clear-cut villain without many shades of grey, he is nethertheless very fun to read about.  Lovric encourages complicity in the reader by writing his sections directly to the audience and making them in this way involved in what is going on.  As soon as Minguillo said 'This is going to be a little uncomfortable....' to anyone, I learned to expect something gory.

The most powerful image in the novel was skin.  Minguillo becomes fascinated with books bound in human skin and spends all of his money adding to his collection (the passage where he talks about the binding softening from the heat and grease of his hands made me feel queasy).  Marcella learns about the pain that can come from the skin.  Sor Loreta disfigures hers.  The doctor, Santo, becomes interested in diseases of the skin and falls in love with Marcella due to the luminous quality of hers.  We even learn about the state of Napoleon's skin diseases.

However, there are a few criticisms to make of this book.  After all the gothic evil-ness of the book, I was disappointed with the ending.  It's also true that the characters are very black-or-white, good or bad.  Would Marcella really stay that nice and forgiving after everything she had gone through?  Whilst this kind of characterisation would usually bother me in a novel, I didn't mind it so much in this one as the whole tale had elements of a gothic fairy-tale about it.  Think Patrick Suskind's Perfume meets Hansel and Gretel.  Not a story full of realism, but one to enjoy for it's fairy-tale elements, wonderful characters, pure escapism and sensationalism.  I'll be looking out for the rest of Lovric's books.

Source: Kindle (owned)
First published: 2011
Score: 4 out of 5

Tuesday 14 February 2012

The Apple: Crimson Petal Stories by Michel Faber

Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and The White is one of my favourite books (see my review).  It's a Victorian-style gothic tale about Sugar, an angry prostitute that manages to rise through society by making a wealthy man fall in love with her.  But it's more than that too - it's a panoramic of London in the Victorian times, in all its squalor, filth and inequality.  When I closed the book back in December 2010, I wanted more as Faber's style was just so distinctive and captivating.  So I was excited to read The Apple, a collection of short stories set before, during and after Crimson Petal, featuring both main and secondary characters from the original novel.

Once again, the best thing about this collection was the way Faber wrote about Victorian London and the people on the seedier side of it.  I knew I was going to love the writing from the very first lines;

"Close your eyes.  Lose track of time for a moment - just long enough to be overtaken by a hundred and thirty years.  It's December 1872.  Feathery snow is falling on that dubious part of London between Regent Street and Soho, a hodgepodge of shops and houses crammed between the opulent avenues of the well-to-do and the festering warrens of the poor."

Aside from the vividness of the writing, it was nice to be able to read from the point of view of some of the more minor characters from Crimson Petal.  For that reason, my favourite story in the collection was 'Clara and the Rat Man', about a maid who, having lost her job, is forced into prostitution and must deal with a very unusual client.  As I read each of the stories, I found myself mainly wishing that I had read this collection soon after finishing Crimson Petal, and I also found myself wanting to reread it.  I was happy to find out a little bit about what happened to Sugar and Sophie after the end of the novel.

My only criticism of the book was concerning the longest story, 'A Mighty Horde of Women in Very Big Hats, Advancing'.  It takes place quite some time after the events of the novel and the setting of quite wealthy women in Edwardian time fighting for women's rights didn't click as well with Faber's writing as Victorian London.  But I still enjoyed the story for the element of finding out what happened to certain characters.  I think that only people that have read Crimson Petal would enjoy this collection, as it would lack a lot of emotional impact and connection to the characters without that background.

Verdict: Good collection, go and read Crimson Petal first if you haven't already!
Source: Kindle
Score: 4 out of 5

Sunday 12 February 2012

Sunday Salon: I Hate Abridgements!

Last week, I was in the mood for revisiting a favourite book, so I took down my childhood copy of Little Women from my shelves.  I have had this copy since I was about eight or nine and it's rather dog-eared as both my sister and I loved the book and read it numerous times between us.  I was all ready to settle down and read it when, as I was looking up what year it was published in out of curiosity, I saw the dreaded words abridged by in tiny letters.

And I just hate abridgements!  The whole time I've been saying that Little Women is one of my favourite books and it turns out I haven't really read it at all!  I do feel that if a book is an abridgement, it should say so on the front or back covers, not just in tiny writing buried behind the title page.  So of course I started wondering what had been left out of my copy, what I have missed and decided that I had to buy a 'proper' copy right away.

After much rooting around on various websites, I found this gorgeous copy.  It's part of the Penguin Threads range, and is just stunning.  It's not released yet, so I pre-ordered it and am expecting my copy to arrive in early May.  The Penguin Threads range was designed by Jillian Tamaki and the protoype books were hand-stitched.  Unfortunately the range is small at the moment, but I'm hoping it will expand in future as all of them are beautiful.

As we all know, one purchase leads to another and I found myself ordering the Penguin threads version of Emma, as I only have a tatty mass market paperback copy of it.  I also treated myself to two of the Puffin Hardback children's classics; Peter Pan and The Secret Garden.  The Secret Garden is one of my favourite books, but I've never actually read the original Peter Pan.  Now I will have the perfect excuse.


More and more I'm finding that if I love a book, I want a nice copy that I can treasure and reread.  I very rarely purchase any books I've not already read as I have a fabulous library system near me.   Books have to earn their spots on my shelves, especially as space is limited.

How do you feel about abridgements?  And are you willing to spend more on beautiful copies of books you love?

Saturday 11 February 2012

The Book Of Unholy Mischief by Elle Newmark (Venice In February)

So the first book I read for Venice in February was a bit of a disappointment.  I had high hopes for it too, since I very much enjoyed Newmark's later novel, The Sandalwood Tree.  The Book Of Unholy Mischief tells the story of Luciano, a street thief who is lucky enough to become the apprentice to a top chef in Venice in 1498, just as it is being swept up in mania over a mysterious book, that apparently contains a formula for eternal life as well as the secrets of alchemy.  But why has he been chosen above so many others?

To focus first on what I did like about this novel, I was pleasantly surprised at how in-depth the culinary theme was.  As someone who likes cooking, I enjoyed reading about all the different dishes the chefs prepared and how the busy kitchen worked.  I also liked that the mystery was in some way tied to cooking and cook books (without giving anything away), as this seemed a novel approach.  Some of the dishes sounded absolutely delicious too.

The description of Venice itself was very evocative.  Newmark's Venice is one of secret corners, torture dungeons, dark alleyways and silently moving gondolas.  I could easily imagine the maze of streets and was transported back to the vision of Venice Newmark created;
"Over that bridge, the Cappa Nere conducted criminals and heretics to dark underwater caves where the poor wretches lay chained in dank cells listening to the plash of oars as gondolas passed freely overhead." p66.

Despite this positive aspects of the book, it had two fundamental problems.  The first was the lack of connection I felt with the characters and events of the story.  The main character, Luciano, was a bit of an everyman and the cast of secondary characters were indistinct from each other to the point where it was hard for me to keep them apart in my mind.  The only characters that were memorable were the chef, and the main villain of the piece.  This disconnect meant that it was a struggle for me to get through this book - it took me a week to read it, unheard of for a book I am enjoying.

The other problem was the mystery itself.  There was so much build up in the initial stages of the novel about what might be contained in the mysterious book (eternal life? alchemy?), that when the secret was revealed, I couldn't help but be a bit let down.  There also wasn't that frantic pace towards the end that I associate with a good mystery or thriller, everything moved much too slowly.

For me, these two problems were much larger than the other, positive aspects of the book.  I can appreciate that it was well written and that the historical setting was very vivid, I just didn't enjoy reading it.  One I am glad I borrowed from the library rather than purchased.

Source: Library
First Published: 2008
Score: 2.5 out of 5

Tuesday 7 February 2012

Howards End Is On The Landing by Susan Hill

One thing most bibliophiles love is books about books and Howards End Is On The Landing is one of the best I've read.  British author Susan Hill decides to spend a year rediscovering and rereading the books she already owns, and Howards End documents her thoughts during this period.  Loosely organised into short chapters, it is a manifesto for reading for total pleasure and for reading without any guilt or pressure.  Susan Hill believes you should read what you want to, when you want to.

This book will only appeal to certain kinds of readers.  If you are a very organised reader who always has a list of what is going to be read when and perfectly alphabetised shelves, this probably isn't the book for you.  In fact, the rambling style will almost certainly put you off.  But if you are more of a spur of the moment reader, you'll find yourself nodding your head to many of the points Susan raises.

A lot of themes of the book seemed to coincide with things that we as book bloggers think and worry about.  Hill cautions against getting caught up by new releases, against not taking the time to reread favourites and worries about the rise of e-readers.  My favourite part was when she writes about people who want to read as many books as they can in the shortest possible amount of time;

"A strange competitiveness has emerged among some readers in the last few years.  I have known book-bloggers boast of getting through twenty books plus a week, as if they were trying for a place in the Guinness Book of World Records.  Why has reading turned into a form of speed dating?"

I think most of us (myself included) are guilty of that a little bit, the urge and pressure to read as much as you can so as to always have new content up on our blogs.  Howards End is a gentle reminder of why we like reading in the first place and to not change our reading habits too much.  It was a timely reminder for me, as I can get so caught up in review deadlines and new releases that I forget to both read the books I want to read, and reread the ones I loved.  I used to do that all the time before I started blogging.

Much like the arguments it is making, the book is written in an unorganised, quite rambling style.  It comes across as Hill writing down her thoughts about reading as and when they strike her.  This took me quite a while to get used to, but I definitely appreciated the laid back approach by the end.  But this may not work for anyone - if you like clear structure, this isn't the book for you.  The only other thing that was hard for me was that many of the books Hill refers to are not popular now, meaning I couldn't always relate to the stories of her reading.  But this didn't bother me too much, as the arguments of the book were so clear.

Verdict: A well written, persuasive manifesto for reading without restriction.
Source: Library
First published: 2009
Score: 4 out of 5

Sunday 5 February 2012

Sunday Salon: Venice In February

Now that it's February, it means that it is time for the only reading challenge I am taking part in this year, Venice in February.  Hosted by Dolce Bellezza and Ally from Snow Feathers, the aim is simply to read books set in Venice, as many or as few as you feel the urge to.  There's a review site where people have already started to link their reviews.  I feel comfortable participating in this challenge as there are no deadlines and definitely no pressure.  I have a good idea of how many books I would like to read for it, but if I don't read them all, it won't be the end of the world.

I started my Venice in February reading this morning, with The Book Of Unholy Mischief by Elle Newmark.  Having read and loved The Sandalwood Tree (my review), I have high hopes for it.  I also have a copy of Crossing The Bridge of Sighs sent to me by the author, that I'm hoping to read over the next two weeks.  Beyond that, I already own a copy of Miss Garnet's Angel and there's always the two Shakespeare plays: Othello and The Merchant of Venice, neither of which I have ever read before.  Plenty to keep me busy!

Are you participating in Venice in February this year?  If so, what's on your reading list?

Saturday 4 February 2012

The History Of Love by Nicole Krauss

The History of Love is about loneliness.  An old man called Leo Gursky lives alone and spends his days deliberately creating chaos in shops and cafes so someone, anyone will remember him if he dies.  Fourteen-year-old Alma Singer is desperately trying to cure the loneliness of her mother, who has lived in a fantasy world ever since her father died.  Alongside these two main characters resides a cast of secondary characters; Alma's brother Bird, who thinks he is the Jewish Messiah, Leo's childhood sweetheart, Alma's friend Misha.  All are tied together in very clever ways by a manuscript Leo wrote before the Holocaust called The History Of Love.

I so wanted to love this book.  When I mentioned that I had owned it for ages but not yet read it, lots of bloggers told me to read it as they had loved it themselves.  And I did like it, I just didn't love it.

There was lots to like.  Krauss experiments a lot with writing structure and different narrative devices (especially the use of short sentences to convey emotion) and in general, it works.  Her writing feels fresh and exciting and she manages to make each of her characters distinct, despite writing from multiple perspectives.  The characters themselves are original and a bit quirky, different from anything I have read before.  Some of the writing is just beautiful;

"Once upon a time there was a boy who loved a girl, and her laughter was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering.  When they were ten he asked her to marry him.  Their love was a secret they told no one.  He promised he would never love another girl as long as he lived.  What if I die? she asked.  Even then, he said."

But despite all of this, I just didn't love The History of Love.  I thought it was interesting and clever and well written but I didn't connect to any of the characters apart from Leo.  Leo was the only one I felt for and rooted for and because of this, some of the other sections dragged.  I know that I was supposed to be guessing and working out the connections between the characters as I progressed through the book, but I didn't want to as I didn't connect enough with the book.  Some of the characters and styles were so quirky that it felt as though Krauss were being deliberately 'different' and 'literary' and that's always a turn off for me.

But don't take just my opinion on this.  Plenty of other people have read and loved this book a lot more than I did.

Source: Personal copy
First Published: 2005
Score: 3 out of 5

Wednesday 1 February 2012

Paris, My Sweet by Amy Thomas

Paris My Sweet is a memoir of a year in the life of thirty-six year old sweet-addict Amy, who gets the chance to work for Louis Vuitton in the city she has always dreamed about.  Part guide book to the best bakeries in town, part love letter to Paris, part almost mid-life crisis, Amy must learn to live as an American ex-pat in an utterly foreign city.  For readers with a sweet-tooth, there are many mouth-watering descriptions of the various pastries and cakes she tries, along with recommendations and information about famous chefs and pastry trends.

Paris My Sweet is a light, cosy read.  Although it is a well-written memoir, it's written with a light tone that makes it easy to breeze through and escape into.  I must admit to not being a massive dessert fan myself (I'm more into savoury snacks), but I did enjoy the descriptions of all the food and imagine that someone who enjoys cakes would love them even more.  My favourite part was the passion and joy with which Amy wrote about Paris, I've visited Paris only once and her descriptions made me want to visit again.  After reading this book, you too will want to cycle along the Champs D'Elysses, stopping at cute patissiers whenever the mood strikes you.

The parts that I felt didn't work as well were the parts when things became tough for Amy and she starts to feel very isolated living alone in a foreign city.  Her feelings are definitely understandable, but the tone of the book is so light (it's like a chick-lit memoir) that it's hard to connect with Amy and really understand what she is going through.  The writing jumps from loneliness to cupcakes too quickly to have any real impact.  There's also a lot about the ticking of biological clocks that again feels a bit shallow.  Paris My Sweet was more about the cakes and the wonderful setting than it was about any real identification with the author.

Still, this is a fun read that's perfect for any armchair traveller or pastry enthusiast.  It's quick, breezy and will make you want to travel to Paris and gorge on cake immediately.

Source: From the publisher via NetGalley
Score: 3.5 out of 5

Paris My Sweet is published on the 1st February 2012.