Sunday 29 April 2012

The Origins of Sex by Faramerz Dabhoiwala

Subtitled A History of The First Sexual Revolution, The Origins of Sex promises to explain how the Western world, and England in particular, went from policing sexual behaviour to a more liberal viewpoint in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Drawing on court records, novels, newspapers, art and debate, Dahoiwala argues that the Enlightenment changed sexual behaviour in ways that still impact us today.

I was excited about starting this book as I'm usually a big fan of social history.  I was instantly hooked by the descriptions of attitudes towards sex in the 1600s, of men and women hanged and beaten for engaging in adultery or pre-marital sex.  The idea of sex as part of public life, policed by the community rather than something private seems so foreign to us now.

Dabhoiwala then goes on to explain how attitudes changed.  There are four main arguments made throughout the course of the book; that the breakdown of religious authority led to people being allowed to have contrasting views, that the Enlightenment made society more liberal, that women started to have a public voice for the first time and that mass media publicised sex and made celebrities out of famous mistresses.  All these factors meant that sex came to be seen as something private, not something to be policed by the legal system or by members of the community.

I found the arguments convincing and the subject matter fascinating but unfortunately reading this book was a struggle.  The same arguments were repeated over and over again, just with the use of different examples.  I know Dabhoiwala had completed an impressive amount of research, but I don't think the reader needs to hear about all of it in order to appreciate the arguments.  The tone of the writing is also very academic and dry and I don't think I would have finished the book if I hadn't agreed to provide a review for it.  It's just a shame as the subject is so interesting but yet the writing makes it less so, by the time I was half way through I was wanting to move on to something else.

Verdict: Fascinating subject matter but hard to get through.
Source: From the publisher via NetGalley
Published: 1st May 2012
Score: 2.5 out of 5

Read Alongside:
City of Sin by Catharine Arnold - History of prostitution in London.

Thursday 26 April 2012

Going a Bit Crazy at the Library....

Does anyone else have a problem with taking more books out of the library than they can possibly read in the time allocated?  I've gone back to work so my reading time has been cut but at the same time going back to work has meant I need a pick me up so I've ended up taking out too many books.  I keep telling myself that it's OK as library books are free to borrow but I have so many of my own book and review books to read that I really should steer clear.

Here are my books.  Some I already had checked out and some are new:


1. Baba Yaga Laid An Egg by Dubravka Ugresic: I adore the Canongate myth series and this one has appealed to me for a while.  I'm not familar at all with the Baba Yaga stories, apart from knowing she is a crazy old woman, and I like that this was written by someone born in Yugoslavia

2. A Continent Called Palestine by Najwa Kawar Farah: This is a memoir of a Christian woman growing up in Palestine as it existed pre-Israel.   I find the Middle East fascinating, so I'm looking forward to this.

3. Island of Wings by Karin Altenberg: This was on the Orange longlist and my hold only came in after it failed to get shortlisted.  I'm still looking forward to this story of a minister and his wife sailing to the Hebrides in 1830.


4. Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte: Anne is the only Bronte I have yet to read, and this is quite short, so I'm hopeful I will be able to do it.

5. The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives by Lola Shoneyin: I read the 19th Wife a while back and find the idea of polygamy interesting.  I've seen so many good reviews of this one.

6. Madame Tussaud by Michelle Moran: I've read Cleopatra's Daughter and have wanted to read more Moran ever since.  So ignoring the two others I actually own, I decided to take one out from the library!


7. Mirrors by Eduardo Galeano: This is a non-linear, non-chronological history of the world told in snapshots.  I picked this up randomly and it promises a lot.

8. Daughter of Dust by Wendy Wallace: Wendy Wallace is a journalist who has written about the life of Leila in Sudan, who was shunned by her family and who has experienced female genital mutilation.

9. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky: Just to see what all the fuss is about.


10. The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood: Because I recommended this in my Song of Achilles post and it made me want to read it again.

11. A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini: This will be my first Hosseini book, I like the sound of this one better than Kite Runner.

12. March by Geraldine Brooks: Because my Penguin Threads copy of Little Women came in the post finally and I thought this would be a good companion read.

So I have a problem, right?  
There's also the fact that despite having all these books out, I chose to read an ARC about the history of sex which is absolutely fascinating but a long, slow reading.  I've been reading it since Sunday and I don't anticipate finishing it before next week.  Thank goodness for online renewals!

Am I alone in my library addiction? 

Monday 23 April 2012

Before I Go To Sleep by S.J. Watson

Christine wakes up every morning with no memory of who she is or why she has aged two decades overnight.  Her husband Ben must  explain that she lost her memory in a car crash and each day Christine must come to terms with her condition all over again.  But then she starts to be treated by Dr Nash, who encourages her to keep a journal. On the inside cover she has written 'Don't trust Ben!' As her memories start to return, Christine must learn that not everything around her is quite what it seems.

Before I Go To Sleep is the very definition of a page-turner.  I started it on Saturday morning and by lunch time on Sunday I had finished it.  Watson cleverly gives you just enough clues in each chapter to keep you guessing and reading on to see if your guess was correct.  He also makes things deliberately ambiguous so it's not too easy to guess where the plot is going (although I certainly had a vague idea of what might happen at the end).  I've not read too many thrillers but have the feeling that the structure and pacing was perfect in this one.

Christine's condition was dealt with very well too.  In the hands of another writer the repetition of each day, of Christine waking up and not remembering anything, could have become very tedious.  But Watson manages to keep the writing fresh and you end up feeling very sorry for Christine and rooting for her as she makes more discoveries.

Despite all these strong points, I found Before I Go To Sleep to be only an average read.  The majority of the book is written in diary entries and I just couldn't suspend my belief enough to accept that Christine would write dialogue, pages and pages of it, word for word in her journal.  Watson told me it was a journal, but it read like a normal story so I never really bought into the concept.  The end of the book annoyed me too, after all the horror and violence of the preceding events everything just fits together conveniently and nicely like nothing bad had ever happened.  Life just isn't like that.  And without going into spoilers, there were quite a few plot holes, especially surrounding Christine's release from a mental health institution.

Verdict: Before I Go To Sleep is a fun, addictive read. Just don't think too much when you read it!
Source: Library (reserved)
First Published: 2011
Score: 3 out of 5

Sunday 22 April 2012

The Gunpowder Plot: Terror and Faith in 1605 by Antonia Fraser

Pre-blogging, I was a big non-fiction reader.  I probably read about 60% non-fiction and 40% fiction and didn't think twice about getting lost in a hefty non-fiction tome for a few weeks at a time.  Since I started blogging I've become more aware of all the great fiction books out there and gradually non-fiction has taken a back seat.  But every now and again I still get a craving for a history or science book and the urge struck last week, leading me to pick up Antonia Fraser's The Gunpowder Plot.

On the 5th November 1605 a group of Catholic plotters attempted to blow up the Houses of Parliament with the aim of killing both King James  and the government in whole, enabling them to mount a Catholic resistance and gain control of the country.  One of the plotters, Guy Fawkes, was caught in possession of gunpowder in the cellar and the plot was foiled.  This much every school child in Britain knows but Fraser goes beyond that, looking at the causes of the plot, how it was discovered and the consequences on the minority Catholic community for years afterwards.

Antonia Fraser is my favourite historian and reading The Gunpowder Plot, I was reminded why. Even though her books are very scholarly and impressively researched, they are written for the non-expert and have the right balance between academics and lively writing.  Fraser writes history as a narrative, showing why events happened and the motivations of each historical figure. This makes it very easy to get caught up in the 'story' and reading a Fraser book never feels like a chore.

Whilst reading The Gunpowder Plot, I realised that I didn't know as much about it as I thought I did.  For example, Guy Fawkes has got the lion's share of the blame throughout history (we still burn effigies of him on Bonfire Night) but he was really only a minor player. The real mastermind, Robert Catesby, was killed in a musket fight trying to escape the authorities and faded into obscurity.

I was also unaware of the situation facing Catholics in the early 1600s and how that was exacerbated by King James I.  After the vehemently Anglican rule of Elizabeth I and the confusion about who would succeed her, James made all sorts of slippery tongued pronouncements about freedom of worship leading Catholics to feel betrayed when this turned out to be just talk.  To me as a modern Brit it's hard to understand why Anglicans felt the need to suppress Catholicism but at the time they were not allowed to receive Mass, make confession, have the last rites or get married in a Catholic way.  Failure to turn up at your local Anglican church on Sunday would lead to large fines that would be impossible to pay off.  Fraser explains why some turned to violence without condoning it.

I also appreciated the links Fraser made throughout with modern terrorism.  Although the word terrorism didn't yet exist in 1605, the Gunpowder Plot if it had been successful would have been clearly a terrorist act and Fraser puts it in context with other terrorist attacks and shows that throughout history the causes have been similar.  Anyone who thinks terrorism solely comes from Muslim extremists should read this book.

The only criticism I have to make is that parts of this book were too detailed. The plot contained a large number of men by the time of its execution and Fraser tells us about all of them and the links between them and their families.  I was able to follow what was going on but felt like we didn't really need to know everything about some of the more minor players, and that this distracted from the more exciting parts of the book.

Verdict: Impressively researched, well written history of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot
Source: Personal copy
First Published: 1996
Score: 4 out of 5

Read Alongside:
Antonia Fraser has written lots of histories but the following are my favourites.  I read all of them pre-blogging:
1. Mary Queen of Scots - Biography of Mary showing why she acted the way she did and investigating whether she really was plotting against Elizabeth I
2. Marie Antoinette: The Journey - This is the book the Kirsten Dunst film was based upon and does a great job at showing Marie as a young Austrian princess, unfamiliar with the rules of the French court.
3. The Six Wives of Henry VIII - Shows each wife as a person independent of her marriage to Henry, giving details of their lives before becoming Queen.

Thursday 19 April 2012

Thoughts On The Orange Prize Shortlist

The shortlist for the 2012 Orange Prize for fiction was announced on Tuesday.  As regular readers know, I've been trying to read as many of the longlisted books as possible this year and then predict which ones would make it into the shortlist and even go on to win the prize.  It seems that I'm definitely not an expert yet but I have had some small successes.

I was pleased to see Madeline Miller's Song of Achilles make the list as I completely fell in love with the love story of Patroclus and Achilles when I read it.  Song Of Achilles remains my pick for the overall prize.  Similarly, I very much enjoyed Esi Edugyan's Half Blood Blues, a tale of a black American jazz player caught up in the seizure of Paris by the Nazi's during World War Two.  I didn't love it as much as Song of Achilles, but thought Half Blood Blues was a well crafted book with a strong narrator that stands a decent chance of winning.

I also had some success with books I had more lukewarm reactions too as they didn't make the cut.  Stella Tillyard's Tides Of War had a decent story of women finding their own way during the Peninsular war but simply had too much going on.  Emma Donoghue's The Sealed Letter had a great closing section but a slow start.  And Francesca Kay's The Translation of the Bones was lovely, but too quiet and understated for the Orange Prize.

However, I was completely wrong about Jane Harris' Gillespie and I, about an elderly spinster that isn't all she makes out to be.  I simply adored the book and felt certain it would be short-listed and was torn between backing this and Song of Achilles for the overall prize.  Maybe the judges didn't want too much historical fiction in the shortlist?  Or maybe it was too similar to The Sealed Letter? Either way, I was most definitely wrong!

I also dismissed some of the shortlisted books without reading them.  I had intended to read both State of Wonder and Painter of Silence already (just waiting for my holds to come in) but I didn't reserve either Foreign Bodies or The Forgotten Waltz.  Now that they have been shortlisted I will give them a go, to see if my initial reaction was too hasty.

Have you read any of the shortlist?  If so, what would your pick for the prize be?

Monday 16 April 2012

Gillespie and I by Jane Harris

When the Orange Prize long-list came out, I was ambivalent about whether or not I would read Gillespie and I, especially as I hadn't read the author's debut novel, The Observations.  But then in the comments section of my long-list post a few people mentioned that they had heard it was supposed to be very good.  So I checked it out from the library and it sat languishing in my room until last week when I suddenly thought "Hang on!  The short-list is coming out on Tuesday, I better read Gillespie and I!".  And now that I've finished it, all I can say is that I'm kicking myself for not reading sooner and you all need to get hold of a copy of this book, asap!

This review is going to be tricky to write because Gillespie and I is one of those books where the less you know the better and knowing too much would completely ruin the reading experience. It starts in London in 1933 where elderly spinster Harriet Baxter is writing a memoir about the artist Ned Gillespie, who she met during Glasgow's Great Exhibition of 1888.  Subsequently she became close to the whole Gillespie family as they went through a traumatic and scandalous time.

And that's all I'm going to say!  Harris completely fooled me as I thought this book was going to be a cosy Victorian read but believe me, it's anything but.  Harriet Baxter is one of the best examples of characterisation and unreliable narration I've come across in a long time.  This is a book to make you question what you think you know about the characters and their motivations, to unsettle you.  It's quite a large book but I was completely glued to it, could not put it down, desperate to see if my suspicions about Harriet were correct or not.

So you're all just going to have to trust me on this one as I don't want to spoil anyone's reading experience - this book is amazing.  Go and grab a copy and get started!

Source: Library
First Published: 2011
Score: 5 out of 5

Read Alongside:
1. Notes On A Scandal by Zoe Heller - No similarity in plot but the narrators are quite alike.  The story is about a female teacher having an affair with a pupil and relies on an older colleague for support.
2. Purge by Sofi Oksanen - Again, the similarity is with the main character and the way she is portrayed by the author.  This one is a hard hitting story of sex trafficking and rape in rural Estonia.

Sunday 15 April 2012

Sunday Salon: Back To Work

So today is the last day of my two week Easter holiday from work and I have a little case of back-to-school blues.  It's been lovely sleeping in, going on days out, having time to try out cooking some new meals and of course lounging on the sofa with a good book or two.  My blues aren't as bad as Calvin's above but it's always a chore to go back after a nice long break.  

Tomorrow I have a training day and then the pupils come back on Tuesday, so at least I'm eased into it gently.  I imagine it'll take a day or two to get back into a working routine rather than taking everything at a leisurely pace, then I'll be just fine.  I plan to spend the rest of today making the most of last day of the holidays by doing practically nothing at all - just reading, watching trashy TV and maybe a bit of gardening.  How are you planning to spend your Sunday?

Seeing as I've been off work, I've managed to get a decent amount of books read this week.  I've finished the following:

And posted reviews for:

Friday 13 April 2012

Enchantments by Kathryn Harrison

Set in Russia during the 1917 Revolution, Enchantments is narrated by Masha, daughter of the infamous 'mad monk' Rasputin.  After her father is murdered by those suspicious of his links with the Tsarina and her son Aloysha, Masha and her sister are taken under the protection of the Tsar.  But as the Revolution continues and the royal family are put under house arrest, it becomes clear that Masha and the Romanovs are in grave danger.  For Masha and Alyosha, their growing friendship becomes a way of escaping the present and Masha becomes a kind of Scheherazade, telling fantastical stories of their past, present and future.

I studied the Russian revolution as part of my GCSE in history and ever since I've been fascinated with Russian history.  Of all the characters in Russian history, Rasputin is one of the most interesting - an unwashed, illiterate peasant who claims to see the future, seduces lots of women and manages to earn the trust of the Tsarina.  He was famously hard to kill, being poisoned, shot and bludgeoned on the head with an axe before finally being drowned.  Reading Enchantments, I was very impressed at how Harrison dealt with his character as she managed to keep the curtain of myth and romance around him.  Rasputin was shadowy throughout the book and hard to pin down, a charismatic figure shrouded in mystery, just how he should be.

I was also impressed with how Harrison dealt with Alyosha's illness, hemophilia.  Although I logically knew that hemophilia means the inability of the blood to clot, I never realised how horrific this illness was until I read Enchantments.  Harrison gives a detailed account of how the illness has effected Alyosha's life and that of his family and you can't help but feel sorry for him.  The interactions between Masha and Alyosha are quite touching.

So there was lots to like about Enchantments but unfortunately the book was let down by a pacing issue.  It's made clear very early in the book what is going to happen at the end (although to be fair, anyone at all familiar with the history would know the ending already) so there was no tension throughout.  Masha's storytelling is whimsical and out of chronological order, meaning that the different chapters jump back and forward in time pretty randomly.  This meant that for me, the book felt a bit meandering and long-winded without tension and pace to drive it forwards.

Verdict: A good read if you are interested in Russian history or the Romanovs, but not the first Russian historical fiction book I would recommend.
Source: From the publisher, via Netgalley
Score: 3 out of 5

Read Alongside:
1. The Winter Palace by Eva Stachnaik - Another historical fiction novel set in Russia, this time about Catherine the Great.  Beautiful descriptions of Russia itself in this one.
2. A Mountain of Crumbs by Elena Gorokhova - Another account of growing up after the Revolution, this time a memoir from an ordinary girl.
3. Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore - I read this pre-blogging and it's an excellent history of the man who would grow up to be the dictator.  I would also recommend the sequel Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar.

Wednesday 11 April 2012

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

Tom Sawyer and I have history.  Way back when I was eleven, we read parts of this book as a class during our English lessons.  The problem with this was that my English teacher at the time was the most uncharismatic person you can imagine and had a gift for making things boring.  He also loved accents and when I say loved, I mean loved.  He would randomly pick people from the class to read aloud and then force them to put on a Southern accent (I am British).  At the age of eleven I was very shy and consequently spent every lesson anxious that I would have to do the accent in front of everyone else and they would all laugh at me.  Unsurprisingly, I learned nothing about the book and came to dislike it strongly!

A few weeks ago, I decided the time had come to see whether this horrible teaching led to me missing out on a great book or whether the book really was just boring after all.  Telling episodes in the childhood of Tom Sawyer, a cheeky rapscallion living in Illinois in the 1800s, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is a chronicle of the kind of childhood not many people experience anymore, one filled with outdoor adventure, exploration, brushes with danger, tricks and imagination.  It also offers a vivid portrait of the South at that time, especially the Mississippi river.

Thankfully, it was only poor teaching putting me off a great book as I thoroughly enjoyed Tom Sawyer.  It grabbed my attention from the moment I picked it up and transported me to the rural South.  Each time I had to put the book down, I had to remind myself that I was in England in 2012 and not on the banks of the Mississippi.  Tom endeared himself to me immediately; he's a lovable rogue who gets into lots of scrapes and does lots of bad things, but you never doubt that his heart is in the right place.  Twain does a remarkable job at capturing the wonder of childhood with all its imagination and emotion.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is a romantic book, not because it contains romance, but because it presents an idyllic picture of rural childhood where children are free to roam and play until their hearts' content.  Although there is danger (Injun Joe!), it never feels real or as if it will threaten the bubble of childhood.  As a teacher it made me reflect on how different childhood is now and how sad it is that many children now don't play Robin Hood or cowboys and Indians, don't use their imaginations in the way Tom and his friends did.  They don't explore their surroundings and aren't given the freedom they once were.  I remember trekking along a muddy river bank and climbing trees when I was younger, but how many children do that now?

Although Tom was an engaging character, the character that really interested me was Huckleberry Finn.  Tom is a 'safe' character to write about as he has family that loves him and a decent education, however much he gets into scrapes he will grow out of it and turn out OK.  Huck on the other hand has none of the opportunities Tom has, deserted by an alcoholic father and living on the fringes of society.  Tom thinks this is all very glamorous and exciting, but Huck himself is aware of how lucky Tom is.  It made me want to read Huckleberry Finn soon, I have a feeling it might be better than Tom Sawyer.

I enjoyed the initial sections of the book the most (loved the chapter where Toms tricks his friends into doing painting the fence for him) but thought that parts of the story surrounding Injun Joe and the treasure were a bit silly.  Injun Joe was a good 'bad guy' but Twain was treading a fine line between the believable and the unbelievable.  For this reason, it wasn't a 5 star read for me, but one that I enjoyed very much.  I can't believe what I was missing out on for all these years!

Source: Library
First Published: 1876
Score: 4 out of 5

Monday 9 April 2012

The Song Of Achilles by Madeline Miller

I am not a big mythology fan so it was with some trepidation that I picked up The Song Of Achilles, a retelling of the Trojan War from the point of view of Achilles' companion Patroclus.  Patroclus is a prince exiled from his kingdom for accidentally killing another boy who comes to live in Phthia with King Peleus and his beautiful son, Achilles. Achilles is of course destined to be the greatest warrior the world has ever seen.  Growing up together, Achilles and Patroclus become close despite the disapproval of Achilles' mother, the sea goddess, Thetis.  When Helen is kidnapped and the Trojan War begins, Patroclus must face the certainty of everything he has ever loved being taken away.

I couldn't have been more wrong about The Song Of Achilles.  I thought it was going to be a stuffy read bogged down in mythological details but it was the opposite - it was a beautiful love story and a tale of how events can change and overcome people.  Patroclus is a very self-critical narrator which endears him to the reader immediately and Miller does a fantastic job of showing the emotion and fear of falling in love for the first time.  Her writing is just stunning, packed with description and emotional resonance;

"Had she really thought I would not know him?  I could recognise him by touch alone, by smell, I would know him blind, by the way his breaths came and his feet struck the earth.  I would know him in death, at the end of the world."

I don't read much romance but I was utterly caught up in the love story of The Song Of Achilles.  Rather than just showing the two characters falling in love, she also showed how that love changed as they grew up and as Achilles' desire for recognition overtook his other characteristics.  I was so engrossed in the characters and the world of the book that several of the pages near the end  moved me to tears.  Even now, two days later, I'm still thinking about this book.  Surely that's the sign of an outstanding book, one that doesn't fade from memory?

Although the love story is at the heart of The Song Of Achilles, the book is much more than that.  For someone who only knew the basics of the Trojan war, I felt that Miller did a great job at making the mythology accessible.  I particularly loved her characterisation of Odysseus as a smart, quick-witted trickster who is decent underneath.  The horror of war is not shied away from and nor is the nastier side of human motivation.  The Song Of Achilles is Miller's debut novel and I can say with certainty that I will read anything she writes next with high expectations.

I would recommend this book to anyone - it may be about Ancient Greece and the Trojan war but it's really about the human condition.  Half Blood Blues is no longer my tip for the Orange Prize 2012.

Source: Library (reserved)
First Published: 2011
Score: 5 out of 5

Read Alongside:
The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood - Retelling of the Odysseus myth from the point of view of long suffering wife Penelope.  I read this one pre-blogging and recommended it to everyone I know.

Sunday 8 April 2012

The Weight Of Water by Sarah Crossan

The Weight of Water is my first experience of a novel written entirely in verse.  It's about a twelve year old Polish girl called Kasienka who migrates to the UK with her Mum when her Father runs away with an English woman.  Life isn't as rosy as Kasienka imagined it would be; stuck in a one-room studio flat in Coventry and subject to prejudice and bullying at school, Kasienka has to grow up fast.

Reading a novel in verse was a strange experience at first, but after a while I forgot that I was reading poetry and just became wrapped up in the story.  Writing it in verse allowed Crossan to really get inside Kasienka's head, meaning that parts of the story had a lot of emotional resonance.  The topic of bullying was dealt with very well, reading them I was reminded of what it is like to be a teenager;

"It doesn't matter what I wear.
I always look different:
My clothes are too heavy -
That much I can tell.
And I have no real vision,
I just don't see what's wrong."

The Weight Of Water is a quick read that I breezed through in an afternoon.  Whilst I was reading it, I felt connected to Kasienka and engaged to her story.  But looking back now, a few days later, the story has had no real impact on me.  Although Crossan is strong in dealing with growing up, first love and bullying, lots of the issues around immigration are skimmed over leaving a shallow impression.  It's a book that I think could have had a lot more depth than it did.

Verdict: Worth reading if you have never read a novel written in verse before.
Source: Kindle
First Published: Jan 2012
Score: 3 out of 5

Friday 6 April 2012

Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

On with the 2012 Orange Prize long-list!  Half Blood Blues had been on my radar for a while as it was also short-listed for the 2011 Booker prize and won the 2011 Giller prize, so I was glad to have the push to finally read it.  It's about the disappearance of talented jazz musician Hieronymus Falk during the fall of Paris in 1940. Fifty years later his bandmate and friend Sid Griffiths is watching a documentary about the legendary record they made together and becomes determined to find out what really happened to Falk.

Half Blood Blues was a surprising book.  There are countless books out there about World War II, but I've never read one quite like this, from the perspective of a black American jazz player.  Edugyan's writing completely blew me away as everything in the novel was so vibrant and had an incredible sense of time and place.  She could go from the grimy glamour of the German pre-war jazz clubs to the tension of being hunted by Nazi soldiers within a few pages and make all of it believable.  The writing felt fresh and alive;

"Jazz. Here in Germany it became something worse than a virus.  We was all of us damn fleas, us Negroes and Jews and low-life hoodlums, set on playing that vulgar racket, seducing sweet blonde kids into corruption and sex.  Us Negroes, see, we was only half to blame - we just can't help it.  Savages just got a natural feel for filthy rhythms, no self-control to speak of." p85

I was also impressed with how well Edugyan wrote from the male perspective of Sid.  She used the vernacular of 1930s Baltimore and made Sid believable as a kid from the wrong side of the tracks.  I liked the language quirks and deliberate misuse of grammar.  From a structural point of view, it also worked that the story wasn't told chronologically, rather jumping back and forth from the war to the 1990s - it kept the tension going.

If I had to criticise this book, I would say that whilst the three main characters, Sid, Chip and Hiero, were very well drawn and distinct, the secondary characters were less so.  When one of the other band members is captured by the Nazis, it didn't have the impact it could have because I didn't feel connected to him.  Similarly, I never quite understood why everyone loved Delilah so much because Edugyan didn't show me enough of her character.

But this is a minor complaint as the main characters were so dynamic.  Out of all the long-listed books I've read so far, this is my favourite.  I would be very surprised indeed if it didn't get short-listed.

Source: Library (reserved)
First Published: 2011
Score: 4.5 out of 5

Wednesday 4 April 2012

Non-Book: Doing Something For Myself

Ever since Christmas, I've been feeling a bit restless.  Last year I was planning a wedding, the year before that was my first year teaching and the year before that I was training to be a teacher - I've not had any mental space to be restless for a long time!  Whilst we are saving for a deposit on a house, that's quite a slow process and it'll be Christmas at least before it'll be time to start looking at houses.  So I've decided to do something I've been thinking about doing for a while - return to studying.

I'm the kind of person that always needs something to keep their brain busy in order to be happy.  I don't deal well with long periods with nothing to do, and I love a challenge.  My three years of undergraduate study (in psychology) are amongst the happiest of my life so far because I've always enjoyed studying and learning.  So I'm taking the plunge back into it and have signed up with the Open University.  For those not in the UK, it's a distance-learning university that offers a range of courses and options.

The first module I am taking is called Galaxies, Stars and Planets and it's quite a short module only worth 10 credits.  I start at the beginning of May.  I'm not aiming to work towards another degree or indeed have a career change as a scientist, I'm just taking the course because it's something I'm interested in and have always wanted to find out more about.  My next module after that might be in something completely different (I might even choose a literature module or two?).

Here's what I am going to learn about: the sun, planets, stars and their life cycle, galaxies, the origins and future of the universe, exoplanets, the expanding universe, dark matter, dark energy, black holes and astronomy skills.  I'm excited!  I never really appreciated science whilst I was at school but since leaving it I've become a lot more interested in it, physics especially.  It'll be strange completing assignments again but I'm going to give it a good go and hopefully fit it in around my work responsibilities.

I'm excited too because it feels like a positive step for myself and my happiness.  It's nice to do something where the only reason for doing it is because I want to!

If you went back to studying, what would you study?  Is it something you can see yourself doing in the future?

Tuesday 3 April 2012

The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman

My hold for this one finally came in!  The Dovekeepers is the story of the fortress of Masada, Israel in 70AD.  Nine hundred Jewish rebels and their families are sheltering from the Roman army, Jersualem and their way of life already destroyed.  Amongst these nine hundred Jews are four women, who together tell the story of life before and during the siege.  Yael's mother died in childbirth and she has been blamed for it ever since.  Revka is a baker's wife who witnessed horrific things when her village was destroyed.  Aziza wants to be a warrior, but is trapped by her gender.  And Shirah has followed the man she loves to the fortress, putting her children in danger.

The Dovekeepers was one of those books that made me love reading again.  I wouldn't say I had been in a reading slump, but I hadn't read a book that blew me away in a good long while.  When I opened The Dovekeepers and started reading, I had one of those "THIS is why I like reading" moments.  Don't you just love those moments?

I think what made The Dovekeepers so compelling was the amount of research that had gone in to it, and how completely the author immerses the reader in life in Ancient Israel.  I didn't feel like Hoffman was telling me what it was like then, I felt as though I was living it.  Too often in historical fiction I come across jarring modern dialogue or worse, modern ideas and morals, but this book felt very authentic.  The characters all felt rooted in their times and this bought the past to life.  I was also impressed with how much grit the story had; Hoffman didn't shy away from the darker sides of the siege and the last section was harrowing to read.

Each of the four women tells a quarter of the story and it was Yael's story that I enjoyed the most.  Whilst all the narratives were believable and enjoyable, Yael's personality and spirit lept off the page and I found myself rooting for her.   In the synopsis provided on the inside cover, Hoffman tells you that only two women and five children survived the siege and this creates a tension throughout the whole story.  As a reader you come to like all four of the main characters and this gives the ending a powerful impact.  I finished this book a few days ago and I'm still thinking of the ending now, of how brutal humans can be to each other.

The Dovekeepers is the best piece of historical fiction I've read in years and I will definitely be looking out for more of Hoffman's books.  Highly recommended.

Source: Library
First Published: 2011
Score: 5 out of 5

Read Alongside:
1. Jerusalem Maiden by Talia Carner - Story of an Orthodox Jewish girl in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire who wants to break free of the restrictions and expectations of her religion.
2. The Cellist of Sarajevo by Stephen Galloway - Another haunting story of life under siege, this time in Sarajevo in the 1990s.
3. The Gilded Chamber by Rebecca Kohn - Historical fiction retelling of the Jewish story of Purim, where Queen Esther saves the Jews.