Friday 31 August 2012

Winner of the Historical Fiction Giveaway Hop

I used to select the winner of the Partial to the Past Historical Fiction Giveaway Hop out of the 122 entries.

The winner is....Missy from Honeybee's Attic.

 Congratulations Missy!  She chose to receive a copy of Alice Hoffman's The Dovekeepers.  I've sent you an email asking for your address.

I loved this book, hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Wednesday 29 August 2012

The eNotated Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll and Pam Sowers

I'm very familiar with the story of Alice in Wonderland.  I read it several times as a child and for the last two years, I've also taught it to my classes as part as a cross-curricular unit on the Victorians.  But here's the thing - whilst I know the story very well, I'm not familiar with critical interpretations of it.  My focus on teaching it to young children has always been to inspire creativity, to imagine wonderlands of our own, not to analyse it for meaning.  So I was pleased to be approached by eNotated Classics and offered a copy of The eNotated Alice in Wonderland to review.  It's an electronic version of the story with parts highlighted.  These direct you to notes that explain the text, offer context or give a theoretical viewpoint.  As well as this, there are two short essays after the story that give more interpretation.

This review isn't going to be about the story of Alice in Wonderland, but rather my experience with the notes themselves and how this added to my reading.  Believe it or not, this is the first time I've read an annotated version of a classic and on the whole I enjoyed it.  The notes that I appreciated the most where the ones that gave background context about Carroll himself and the inspiration for the story.  I knew Alice was a real girl, but I didn't know she kept rabbits as pets, actually had a cat called Dinah or that the Queen of Hearts was based on her rather overbearing mother (I hope the mother herself didn't find this out!).

I knew a fair bit about the Victorians before reading this, but added bits of context are always welcome.  For example, I wasn't aware that families often renamed their servants, even going so far as to give a string of servants the same name so that they would only have to learn one name.  Apparently, 'Mary Ann' was a popular name for a servant.  Alongside these context notes, I liked the ones about Carroll's construction of the story and how this changed over time; the tea party wasn't in the original draft, meaning the Mad Hatter and March Hare were initially absent.

My feelings about the notes offering critical interpretation were more mixed.  I was interested to see the theories but had I been reading the story for the first time, they would have stopped me coming up with my own ideas about what the story means.  For that reason, I think versions like this are best suited to those already familiar with the story.  Sometimes there were a lot of notes on each page and I didn't know which ones to select.  I read this on an old kindle so I don't know if this would work on colour devices, but it might be nice to somehow differentiate the context notes from the theory ones, so the reader can select just the notes they are interested in.   I also think the notes best suited to an American audience as there were a few explanations of British phrases that I personally didn't need the notes for; 'leave off' and 'box her own ears' were a few examples.

I do feel that I got more out of the text reading the notes alongside it.  The two essays at the end were very interesting (I wish there had been more) and I feel I have more of an understanding of Carroll and why he wrote the story he did.  The inclusion of many illustrations from early editions was a nice touch that made reading more pleasurable.  On the whole, I'd recommend this to others, especially those already familiar with the story.

Source: From the publisher for review
First Published: 2012
Score: 4 out of 5

Monday 27 August 2012

The Vampire Lestat by Anne Rice

Last summer, I read and reviewed Interview with the Vampire.  I was a big fan of the film but unfortunately found the book disappointing.  Whilst I enjoyed the actual story, I thought the writing was long winded and Louie irritating.  Nevertheless, I decided to try the second volume of the series because Lestat is more appealing as a character to read about and several people mentioned that The Vampire Lestat is more action packed than Interview with the Vampire.

 The Vampire Lestat opens in San Francisco in 1984 with Lestat realising that the journalist from the first book has published Interview with the Vampire. It's riding high in the fiction charts and humans have no idea that the 'story' inside the pages is actually true.  Despite it being taboo, Lestat decides to respond by writing his own account of his life and this is what he bulk of The Vampire Lestat covers.  We follow him from his aristocratic beginnings in Revolution-era France through his travels around the world as he attempts to find out why vampires exist before finally settling in New Orleans.  Along the way we meet many more vampires and hear their stories as Lestat traces the source of vampirism back to Ancient Egypt.  But will the vampire population allow Lestat to publish his book?

The Vampire Lestat is a chunky book at 500+ pages but it reads quickly and fluently.  I enjoyed it much more than I enjoyed Interview with the Vampire.  One of the reasons for that is simply that Lestat is an easier character to read than Louie, he doesn't indulge in self-pity and is very impulsive, which leads to a lot more 'action'.  Lestat is also curious about the world around him and other vampires, which opens the door for Rice to bring in some more stories alongside his.  Although Lestat is the centerpiece of the novel he finds older vampires and they tell their story to him, meaning the book covers a wide time period and many perspectives.  I appreciated this variety.

There's also a lot more information about vampires in this book.  We find out why vampires exist, more about the rules that govern their existence and how vampires can differ from each other.  I don't know if world-building is the right world for a novel such as this, but the 'vampire theory' feels more thought-out than it did in Interview with the Vampire and it makes sense as a whole.  I especially appreciated that the vampires themselves couldn't agree about how best to be a vampire and what they should/shouldn't do.  This made for some interesting conflicts as the book progressed.

The Vampire Lestat is pure escapism.  I breezed through it and thoroughly enjoyed it.  However, some parts crossed the line into silly/tacky, especially the Lestat as a twentieth century rock-star sub-plot at the very beginning and end.  Having said that, I enjoyed it much more than Interview with the Vampire and would definitely read the third in the series, Queen of the Damned.

Source: Library
First Published: 1985
My Edition: Source Books, 2008
Score: 4 out of 5

Saturday 25 August 2012

Colour: Travels Through the Paintbox by Victoria Finlay

When I saw this book reviewed at A Striped Armchair, I knew it was one I would have to hunt down and read immediately.  You see, I have a thing for colour.  I am not an artist but colour lights up something in my brain; when I lived with my parents and felt sad, I would go and lie in the bright yellow hallway and feel instantly better.  Colours can change my emotions and make me feel different things, calm me down, cheer me up or soothe me.  A whole book about the history of colours and how they are made sounded perfect.

Colour is part travel, part history.  Finlay has divided the book according to the rainbow and investigates how each colour was made in the time before synthetic colours.  Where possible, she visits countries of traditional production and learns how to make these colours herself and also about how colour production changed societies and cultures.  Finlay writes about why certain colours are given a high status (e.g. purple as the colour of royalty), compares how the same colours were made in different countries and why some became prized over others.

I really enjoyed Colour.  Finlay is an engaging writer who is fascinated by her subject matter and this comes across on the page.  Finding out how colours were made was truly compelling as I had no idea that humans were so inventive.  From sea snails to animal bones to bug blood to precious stones, there seems to be nothing colourful in nature that was not exploited for paint or dye at some time in history.  I was fascinated with the complicated process of making colour, of how you go from a rock of lapis lazuli to a blue oil paint and how artists used to make their own colours and tones according to what they wanted to paint.  Colour had power in history and there are plenty of accounts of countries and places become rich by making a fade-resistant paint that could be exported.  Finlay does a good job of explaining how these colours then became exulted and held up by society, part of the fabric of life.

Although I enjoyed the travel sections, where Finlay meets people living where colours were made in the past and discusses the legacy of colour with them, these sections took a backseat for me to the sections about actually making the paint or dye itself.  I would also have liked to learn more about modern paint making, about how many of the traditional colour sources are still used, and how the transition was made from natural to artificial colours.  Finlay clearly feels like something has been lost as we're forgetting the secrets of natural colours and I couldn't help but agree with her.  I'd be interested to see a modern paint-making factory to investigate how different things really are (I know you can still buy some traditional colours).

All in all, an absorbing and well written non-fiction book that I'm happy I picked up.  I'd recommend it to anyone who enjoys travel or history, or anyone who has ever mixed their own colours using a watercolour set. 

Source: Library
First Published: 2002
Score: 4 out of 5

Friday 24 August 2012

Historical Fiction Giveaway Hop

One of my favourite genres is historical fiction, so I'm delighted to be taking part in the Partial to the Past Historical Fiction Giveaway Hop, hosted by Bippity Boppity Book.  Since starting this blog, I have read and reviewed 56 historical fiction books so I thought I would give the winner of my giveaway an opportunity to choose any book they like from the historical fiction books I have reviewed.  With 56 to choose from, there should be something to suit most historical fiction fans.

You can find my reviews by genre here, or by clicking on the 'reviews by genre' tab.  Scroll through the first few categories and you will come to the historical fiction section.

* This is an international giveaway.  Anyone can enter as long as the book depository ships to your current address.
* One entry per person, enter by completing the form below
* If you win the giveaway, I will contact you by email and give you 48 hours to respond with your shipping address before another person is selected.
* You are free to change your choice of book if you win the giveaway so don't worry too much about it, I'm just interested in which books will be the most popular.
* You don't have to follow my blog although new followers are of course very welcome.  If you want me to visit your blog in return, make sure to leave your blog address :)
* Giveaway ends midnight, August 30th.


Don't forget to visit the rest of the blogs hosting giveaways:

Thursday 23 August 2012

A Suitable Boy: Part One

It's been exactly a month since the start of the Suitable Boy group read and I'm happy to say I have completed the 538 pages in the first section of our reading.  I was excited to start this book as I'm a fan of Indian literature and many times in the past I had picked it up off my shelf only to be daunted by the size - it's 1474 pages and the font is tiny.  But now I've started it, I'm so glad I did as it's well on the way to becoming a favourite.

The anchoring story is about Lata and her mother's search to find her a suitable husband but it's really a panoramic novel with four main families and many more secondary characters.  There are lots of  stories happening at once and Seth jumps between them (the family trees at the front are very helpful and mine are now covered in annotations!).  I'm enjoying the Chatterji family the most so far, they are more liberal than the other families and have some memorable characters, such as Meenakshi, who would have a lot in common with Scarlett O'Hara, Kakoli who has a German boyfriend, and writer Amit.   Their little quirk of speaking in rhyming couplets is cute.

I've been surprised at how much religious tension is right up there in the novel.  It's set straight after partition (Bangladesh doesn't exist at the moment) and there's some Hindi characters, like Kedarnath, who have had to flee from Pakistan to India and who have lost everything.  The theme is really hammered home when Lata falls in love with Kabir, a fellow student.  They have been dating for a while before she finds out he is a Muslim and when her family finds out too, there are serious repurcussions.   Her mother even thinks "it was one thing to mix socially with Muslims, entirely another to dream of polluting one's blood and sacrificing one's daughter."  Not quite a 'suitable boy' then!

I could go on for ages about this book and all the different characters in it as I'm completely loving it.  After a month, they feel like old friends and I have a feeling this book is going to be truly epic before we reach the finishing line.  My absolute favourite character is Lata's Mum, Mrs Rupa Mehra, who is the very definition of interfering busybody and martyr.  She would be so irritating to have as a mother but she's certainly funny to read about.  My favourite quote of hers:

"I have to do everything in this house, and no one cares for me.  Everything goes wrong and I have to make peace.  I have slaved for you all my life, and you don't care if I live or die.  Only when I'm burned on the pyre will you realise my worth!" This is basically said every time someone disagrees with her.  I think we are in for a long search for a suitable husband for Lata!

Coincidentally, this is the first time I have ever read two books at once as I was a strictly monogamous reader before this.  At first I found it difficult to read two things at once, and felt guilty for picking up another book, but now I have 'seen the light', so to speak.  Reading this alongside other books means the length and my progress do not bother me as I'm still completing other titles.  I'm free to sink into the story and read at a leisurely pace, which has been lovely.

If you're doing the group read, please leave me a link to any posts you've done - I'd love to see what you all think.  Which storyline and characters are you most closely following?

Tuesday 21 August 2012

Top Ten Books I've Read Since Starting Blogging

What a great topic this week over at The Broke and the Bookish.  We're supposed to think back over all the books we've read since starting our blogs and select the best ten.  I enjoyed looking back over my review collection but found it very hard to narrow it down to only ten.  I've read over 200 books since starting blogging and many of them have been excellent.  My top ten isn't ranked or in any order, and clicking the title of the book will take you to my review.

Without further ado:

1. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - This is a fiction book about the Nigerian civil war told through several different narrators.  Although this novel is brutal in parts, it's beautifully written and was my first introduction to Adichie, now one of my favourite authors.  I've since read and loved Purple Hibiscus and The Thing Around Your Neck.

2. The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber - This gothic story is set in Victorian London and recounts the rise of Sugar, a prostitue who is determined to make something of herself.  A chunkster at 600+ pages it's a real epic full of memorable characters from all classes in London.  I loved the grotty realism of it and how panoramic it was.

3. The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski - Kapuscinski is a Polish journalist and this book is a collection of dispatches written from Africa from the 1950s through to the 1990s.  He has a knack of being in historically important places at the right times and the book is full of coups, key players like Mugabe and also adventure and danger.  There's a good balance of fact and personal impressions and the whole book is full of Kapuscinski's admiration of Africa.

4. Shanghai Girls by Lisa See - I am a big historical fiction fan so was happy to discover Lisa See through recommendations on blogs.  Although most people seem to prefer Snow Flower and the Secret Fan I like Shanghai Girls, the story of two Chinese sisters fleeing to America during the war with Japan.  It's got more grit that you would expect and the two main characters, May and Pearl, are full of flaws and so feel very real.  The sequel, Dreams of Joy, is worth a read too.

5. The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller - I picked this one up somewhat reluctantly as I was working my way through the Orange longlist earlier in the year; I didn't think of myself as a fan of classics (Greek and Roman).  A retelling of the Trojan war had limited appeal.  But, as regular readers will now, I fell in love with the love story in the book and the beautiful writing and spent months pushing it on my real life and blogging friends.  I was so pleased to see this win the Orange Prize this year.

6. Carmilla by Jospeh Sheridan Le Fanu - I love gothic classics and I love old-style vampire books so I was always going to enjoy Carmilla.  Set in a deserted castle in dark woods in Austria, Carmilla is a short book packed full of atmosphere. One for fans of Dracula.

 7. Small Island by Andrea Levy - I read this very early on in blogging and loved it.  Set in post WW2 London, it's the story of Jamaican immigrants Gilbert and Hortense and British residents Queenie and her soldier husband Bernard.  It's a fantastic examination of the immigrant experience and subtle prejudice.

8. In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner - I read this one only last week but it's destined to be a favourite.  It's about the Cambodian genocide through the eyes of a child and it's heart-breaking and beautiful all at the same time.

9. Lords of the Horizon by Jason Goodwin - I love history and have always been fascinated by Asian/Middle Eastern history.  This history of the Ottoman Empire is simply the most well written history book I have ever read.  Full of interesting little facts (I loved the Sultan who named his children after major religions), it's both excellent history and excellent writing - a rare combination.

10. Annabel by Kathleen Winter - In my opinion, this is a seriously underrated book.  It's about a hermaphrodite baby raised as a boy in rural Canada in the 1960s and it's stunning.  It's about rural communities and self-identity and what it means to be a girl or boy.

So there you go, the top ten books I've read since starting blogging.
What's your top ten?

Sunday 19 August 2012

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Pip is a young orphan being bought up by his sister and her husband when he encounters an escaped convict in a dark, foggy churchyard.  Motivated by fear, Pip agrees to bring the convict food and help him escape, an act which weighs heavily on his conscience.  Whilst still a child, Pip is sent to Satis House, the home of spinster Miss Havisham, who has remained in her wedding dress ever since being deserted by her fiance.  There, Pip meets the beautiful but icy Estella and falls instantly in love, determining that the life of a blacksmith is no longer enough and that he will rise in the world to be worthy of Estella.  When Pip becomes the recipient of money to 'become a gentleman' from a mysterious benefactor, he feels certain that Miss Havisham has him in mind for Estella.  But is this really the case, or will Pip's past halt his great expectations?

I posted earlier in the week about my fear of Dickens so I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked this book.  On the whole, it was a pleasant reading experience with the first and last thirds being the most enjoyable.  The first third had the delightful gothic settings of the graveyard and Satis House and of course the first meeting with Miss Havisham, clearly the most memorable character in the book.  In the last third, Pip finds out that he may have been wrong about his benefactor (I had guessed this from the start but there were some surprises in store) and the pace quickens dramatically with some great cliffhanger endings between chapters.  I literally could not put the book down during the last third.  Unfortunately the middle section lagged in comparison with the other two and reading about Pip's being a snobby gentleman in London became very tedious.  I struggled to reach part three but was glad to have persevered once I got there.

I liked that the message of the book was to be grateful for what you have, rather than always striving for more.  Pip as a blacksmith's apprentice had Joe, who was nothing but kind to him, and a potential wife in the intelligent and resourceful Biddy.  He should have been happy with what he had but wanted to become 'better', which caused him a lot of hardship.  He became embarrassed with the unrefined manners of Joe and put himself above everyone else.  Throughout the book, Dickens shows us how false the class system can be by spreading the good/moral characters across the classes and by making many of the upper class characters miserable - money doesn't buy happiness and all that. Whilst I agreed with the message, I did feel Dickens was heavy handed in moralising in some places.

One thing that bothered me was how all the characters ended up being related or connected in some way by the end of the book, even the most unlikely ones.  Dickens had a gift for creating memorable characters but his London really was a small world.  I liked that the ending was full of twists and turns and links between the characters I hadn't guessed, but I was raising my eyebrows at the likelihood of some of them.  I guess things were a bit too 'tidy' amongst the characters for my liking.

On the whole, whilst Dickens hasn't become my new favourite author, I wouldn't be opposed to reading more books by him (and a good thing too, because I have another four on my classics club list!).  The wordiness of the middle section got to me but this was balanced by the memorable characters and how the pace was ramped up by the end of the novel.  I'm glad I gave Dickens a try.

Source: Personal copy
First Published: 1860-1861 in serial format
My Edition: Vintage UK, 2008
Score: 3.5 out of 5

Thursday 16 August 2012

Giving Dickens a Chance

I like reading classics but have always avoided Dickens.  I read A Christmas Carol as a child and thoroughly enjoyed it but have stayed away from what I perceive as his more 'adult' books; Bleak House, Little Dorrit and all the rest.  I've had this perception that Dickens is a stuffy writer and his books full of dull stuff about social morality rather than, you know, plot and story.  I pictured endless scenes about Victorian workhouses and the treatment of the poor and could not imagine myself enjoying it, so I simply stayed away.   

I tend not to like classic authors that focus too much on their surroundings.  I've read a few Thomas Hardy novels and the portrayal of rural communities is simply not for me; I imagined that Dickens would be like that, but grimier, as he was dealing with London.  I like my classics sweeping and epic, like Anna Karenina and Gone with the Wind, not necessarily dealing with the grubby reality of everyday life.  I had also picked up the notion that Dickens had awful female characters, which was another reason to ignore his books. 

Anyway, it got to the point where I felt I had to try a 'proper' Dickens book and actually judge the books themselves, rather than just my preconceptions of them.  I found a great deal for a set of books and put five of them on my classics club list to force myself to at least try them.  After much deliberation I decided early in the week to start Great Expectations first; it's not the longest of his books and I have vague recollections of my sister enjoying it in secondary school.

I've now read 186 pages and whilst Dickens is not going to suddenly become my favourite author, I'm pleased to say that so far, I was wrong about him.  There is a story, lots of it, and whilst the sentences can be meandering, they aren't difficult or stuffy to read.  There is much about social morality but it's not as heavy handed as I feared.  And sometimes, just sometimes, Dickens is actually funny.  He doesn't take himself too seriously and has a little joke with the reader.  I'm up to Pip finally moving to London at the behest of the mysterious benefactor and I'm enjoying the ride with a feeling Dickens has some surprises in store for me.

Lesson learned: always try something before judging!  I think most of us have a classic author we are 'scared' of, whether we need to be or not.  I'm still scared of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, but that's a story for another day!  What classic author are you unreasonably prejudiced against/scared of?

Tuesday 14 August 2012

In The Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner

Raami is a seven year old girl living happily with her extended family in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, when a revolutionary group called the Khmer Rouge uproot them from everything.  Forced out of the capital, Raami and her family are moved from village to village, place to place, brutalised everywhere they go.  They are separated from loved ones and forced to work all hours on massive construction projects doomed to failure.  Private cooking is banned and farmers made to plant rice out of season, leading to mass starvation and disease.  Fear is everywhere as the Khmer Rouge are on the hunt for enemies and Raami must hide her connections to the disposed royal family. One by one, Raami's family members succumb to death and Raami has to fight for even the smallest chance of survival in an increasingly violent world.

In the Shadow of the Banyan makes grim reading at times.  The author grew up in the killing fields and explains in the afterword that Raami doesn't go through anything that she herself didn't experience as a child.  And there's so much suffering in this book - murder, starvation, exhaustion, disease, horror, fear, all of it is there.  Ratner doesn't shy away from the darker side of Cambodian history, but puts it all there on the page and it's impossible as a reader to not feel completely horrified at the atrocities.  I've read about genocides and the Chinese 'Great Leap Forward' (which the history in this book reminded me of), but it's rare to come across such a hard-hitting account of tragedy as this.  Raami is so relatable that you almost feel as though you are suffering alongside her.

But despite all of this, Ratner somehow manages to balance suffering with enough hope and beauty to make the story bearable.  There are glimpses of people still caring for each other, of a young boy collecting snails to feed to his starving sister, of Raami's mother giving up her portion of food so Raami can stay alive, of the kindness of strangers.  Cambodia itself is described in lush, colourful terms that also help to give the book some balance; the green rice paddies, bright flowers and in the beginning, the jewel coloured saris of the women and saffron robes of the monks.  Even though the events of the book are horrific, you can sense the love Ratner has for Cambodia.

Choosing to narrate the book through the eyes of a seven year old child was always going to be a risk and at times Raami does seem too knowing, especially concerning the relationships between adult family members and their thought processes.  But on the other hand it mirrors the naivety of the reader and allows Ratner to tell the story without getting bogged down in politics, it's just a human story.  Raami is forced to grow up quickly through the book and the contrast between her character in the beginning and at the end is realistic.  From the beginning, I was completely invested in Raami as a character and desperate for her to find some happiness.

I loved In the Shadow of the Banyan.  It may cover a difficult topic but it's an important one for us as human beings and Ratner's writing is simply beautiful.  Highly recommended.

"I had learned not to be afraid of owls or other night creatures.  Animals are not like people.  If you leave them alone, they won't hurt you.  But people will, even if you've done no wrong.  They hurt you with their guns, their words, their lies and broken promises, their sorrow."

Source: From the publisher via NetGalley.
First Published: 2012
Score: 5 out of 5

Read Alongside:
1. Dreams of Joy by Lisa See - Dreams of Joy is set in China during the Great Leap Forward but there are many links with the Cambodian history in In the Shadow of the Banyan; Communist leaders, forced collectivisation, inefficient commands leading to mass starvation.  This is hard hitting too.
2. Shake Hands with the Devil by Romeo Dallaire - This is an account of the Rwandan genocide by the UN Commander, General Romeo Dallaire.  Although he does everything he can to stop the killing, he is not enabled to act.  Read pre-blogging.
3. The Cellist of Sarajevo by Stephen Galloway - There are no historical links here (Cellist is set in Europe whilst Sarajevo is under seige), but it's another account of the human condition under terrible situations which is beautifully written.

Saturday 11 August 2012

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Code Name Verity opens with a young girl in a Nazi holding camp in Occupied France.  She's a captured British spy who has been tortured mercilessly for information and become a collaborator. She agrees to write down everything she knows about the British war effort in exchange for not being tortured any more.  And so begins the story of Verity/Julie and her friend Maddie, a pilot, narrated by both before the end of the book.  It's hard to write about the plot of Code Name Verity without spoiling it, but the narrator is unreliable and there are many twists and turns.  Is Julie really a collaborator?  Is she telling them everything she knows?

I liked Code Name Verity.  It's a solidly written book with many well-plotted twists.  I spent the first part of the book perplexed as there seemed to be a big difference between what Verity was saying (I'm petrified and will do anything to stop the torture) and her character, which was still lively and unbroken.  As the book went on, the reasons for this became clearer and I understood Verity/Julie a lot better.  Wein just about manages to pull off the deceit in the characters that makes the twists believable. 

There is a lot of suffering and torture in Code Name Verity, but it wasn't hard hitting.  Bad things happen to the characters and Wein tried to show the impact of that, but I never really felt it.  I wanted to feel Verity's fear and pain but the way she wrote about it prevented that.  Had I felt more connected to Verity, more "in her shoes", I would have enjoyed the book more than I did. I liked the plotting and trying to figure out who was telling the truth but there was always a distance in my reading experience.  Essentially, the characters didn't feel 'real' for their situation; at times Verity felt like a modern teenager, not a teenager of war forced to grow up too quickly.

I did enjoy the character of Maddie though.  She is more straightforward and written in a relatable way.  When Maddie writes of her love of flying, I wanted to be right there in the plane with her, soaring over the white cliffs of Dover.  As a whole, the book was a page turner and it was one I ripped through very quickly.  It was just lacking that 'oomph' and depth to turn it from a book I liked to a book I loved.

Source: Library
First Published: 2012
Score: 3.5 out of 5

Read Alongside:
1. Jasmine Nights by Julia Gregson - Another story about a female spy during World War Two, this one about a singer in Egypt.  The spy plot is written alongside a romance.
2. How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff - Excellent rendering of teenagers during an unnamed war.  This book contains the emotion I felt was lacking in Code Name Verity.

Thursday 9 August 2012

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkein

I posted earlier in the week about my initial experience with Lord of the Rings, how I found it slow paced and too broad after falling in love with the films.  With this reread, I approached the book differently and stopped expecting it to have the same qualities as the film.  I was expecting a slower pace and actually, I was looking forward to finding out all the little facts about Middle Earth and it's history that Tolkien likes to sprinkle through his books.

Most people are familiar with the story, so there will be spoilers in this post.  In The Fellowship of the Ring, the first volume of Lord of the Rings, Frodo the Hobbit is left a powerful ring by Bilbo.  Gandalf the wizard thinks he has an idea of what the ring is but is captured by the person he seeks advice from.  This leaves Frodo and his friends with the responsibility of getting away from Sauron's servants, who want to claim the ring for their master.  On their way, they are helped by a "fellowship" of creatures, most notably Aragon, a man descended from Kings.  But the ring begins to cause tension in the group and ultimately it is Frodo alone who must decide what to do with his burden.

My first reaction on finishing the book was "I missed so much last time!".  I honestly think I spent too long hoping for action that I missed much about the characters and messages of the book; I rushed it when really this is a book to read slowly.  Although there is a story and the characters are engaging, this novel is all about the world that Tolkien has created.  Reading slowly, I could picture all of the wonderful settings (Lothlorien especially) and in that sense, it was a magical experience.

There's a lot of wisdom in this book, and a lot of messages that are great to learn.  Fellowship is about trying your best even when the chance of success is slim and doing the right thing in difficult circumstances.  It's about accepting that life isn't fair and that even though many things are beyond your control, you can choose the right course and make the most of what you have.  It's about adventure and openness and above all, being a decent human being.  Some of my favourite parts:

"The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater." (Haldir).

" 'I wish this need not have happened in my time,' said Frodo.
'So do I,' said Gandalf, 'and so do all who live to see such times.  But that is not for them to decide.  All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.' "

I wasn't expecting this fantasy book to make me think so much about life, but it did.  It made me think about doing the right thing, about being able to look myself in the mirror at the end of the day and be proud of the choices and decisions I have made.  The easy way isn't always the right way.  So although I had some criticisms of the book (not enough focus on characters, it took too long for the hobbits to reach Rivendell), I loved the essence of it, if that makes sense?  I'm very glad I picked it up again and took the time to read it properly.

But the songs - still not for me!  I tried, I really did, but in the end I had to skip a few.  Sorry Tolkein fans!

Source: Personal copy
First Published: 1954
Score: 4.5 out of 5

Monday 6 August 2012

Empires of the Indus by Alice Albinia

Summary (from back cover):
The Indus rises in Tibet, flows west across India, and south through Pakistan.  For millennia it has been worshipped as a god; for centuries used as a tool of imperial expansion.  Following the river upstream and back in time, Empires of the Indus takes the reader on a voyage through two thousand miles of geography and more than five thousand years of history.

It's not often I copy a summary into my reviews but in this case the back cover sums up the book perfectly.  Albinia starts in Pakistan and works her way up the course of the river, meeting the people that currently live around it and also informing us of the history of the river, from the partitioning of India right back to prehistoric times. I was very excited to start this one as travel and history are two of the non-fiction genres I enjoy and I was interested to see whether Albinia could pull off a fusion of the two.

For the most part, Empires of the Indus is a very successful book.  Albinia clearly loves her subject matter and is very well read in terms of the history of the different peoples and nations.  I must admit to enjoying the travel parts of the book more than the history parts, mainly because Albinia could speak several of the languages of the area, meaning that she could talk directly to people and present their stories.  As a woman travelling through strict Muslim and Hindu areas, she also got access to women's stories that were often just as fascinating as the men's.  Albinia writes about what it is like to wear a burqa, to travel through the lawless regions of Pakistan, to arrive at a place without knowing anyone at all and having nowhere to stay.  She is an adventurous traveller and one of the themes of the book was how hospitable all of her hosts were, no matter where she went.  Even in the "terrorist breeding grounds" of Pakistan and Afghanistan, Albinia was greeted warmly and people were always keen to welcome her to stay in their homes and share their food with her.  Would that happen in the West?

As I read this book, I realised how little I knew about some of the countries featured in it, especially Pakistan.  I had always imagined Pakistan as a solely Muslim country.  But Albinia uncovers other sides of Pakistan, for example the Sheedi, descendants of a freed African slave, that blend Islam with their own cultural traditions.  I learned that perhaps I had been stereotyping some countries in the area, and that the real situation is far more complex than I had realised.  I enjoyed the chapter that included a history of Sikhism as this is something I knew relatively little about.

Some of the history was a little dense.  I knew a bit about the general history of the area before starting this but did find it hard to keep some of the rulers and invaders straight.  Although the book is roughly 300 pages long, it felt a lot longer at times as some chapters were heavy on the history and required a mental slog to get through.  I became used to this as I read through the book and consequently found the later chapters 'easier' than the first.

I'm going to end with my favourite passage from the book;
"I press my nose against the burqa and stare out into the world.  I see a young man with a pink rose tucked behind his ear sitting on a boulder, his AK47 lovingly upholstered in blue and pink stickers.  I see sand-coloured fortresses, the sky cloudless blue behind them.  I see graveyard after graveyard fluttering with flags of jihadi martyrs.  I see a gun on every male shoulder.  And I see no women at all - not grannies in burqas, not even a little girl."

Source: Library
First Published: 2008
Score: 4 out of 5

Saturday 4 August 2012

On Rereading Lord of the Rings

The first book I am going to read for the Classics Club is J.R.R. Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring, first part of Lord of the Rings (I know technically it's all one book but I am counting them as three because I can!).  This will be a reread for me, the second time I've read it and I'm hoping to enjoy it a lot more than I did the first time.

My history with Lord of the Rings started when I was about 10 or so.  My Mum is a reader too and she recommended that I try The Hobbit, as she enjoyed it as a child.  Her previous recommendations of classics had led me to some of my favourites, A Little Princess and The Secret Garden, so I was excited to try it.  But I just couldn't get into it.  Over the next few years I kept checking it out of the library every now and again, hoping to finally get what all the fuss was about, but I would always get about fifty or so pages in and then be defeated.

I think part of the problem was that The Hobbit was my first try at fantasy.  I never was into big, world-building epics as a child so the book was completely out of my comfort zone.  I also was conscious that it was an 'important' book and felt a bit guilty for not immediately liking it or being able to read it, which didn't help.  Eventually I stopped trying with The Hobbit and thought that was the end of my experience with Tolkien.

When the films came out, I didn't go to see them or get caught up in the hype, I just assumed they weren't for me.  But then when I met my boyfriend (now husband) at 17, I soon found out he was a big fan of the films.  After much nagging and stalling, I finally watched all three in the extended version and was completely swept away by them.  It took me some time to get used to the world building and different creatures (I still didn't read fantasy then) but I just loved the story behind them.  I've seen the films countless times now and think of them as perfect comfort watching.

So it was with high expectations that I started Fellowship of the Ring the first time I picked it up.  And coming from the films, I was honestly a bit disappointed (don't shoot me, Tolkein fans!).  I found the book frustratingly slow moving and didn't appreciate the passages about nature or the history of the different creatures - I just wanted action!  I finished Fellowship, and indeed the whole trilogy but my overall impression was underwhelming, I think I have them all as a 3 out of 5 on goodreads.  If you asked me what was better, books or films, I would have said films.

So the time is ripe for a reread.  I'm changing my expectations as I go into this book, I know it will be more slow moving than the films, and having read a lot more fantasy since my first try, I'm looking forward to reading more about Middle Earth in general rather than just the central characters.  I don't mind a bit of meandering.  Unfortunately I will never be able to picture the characters as anything other than their film versions but I'm hoping to experience the wider scope of the books properly.  Wish me luck!

I know these books are special to a lot of people, what's your experience with Lord of the Rings?

Friday 3 August 2012

A Brighter Fear by Kerry Drewery

Don't judge this one by the cover.  It may look bright and cheerful but A Brighter Fear is a hard-hitting account of the Iraq war through the eyes of seventeen year old Lina.  We first meet Lina in Baghdad in 2003, where she is living with her father in the prelude to the American-led invasion.  Lina describes a culture of repression, where people are scared to even think negative thoughts about the regime, let alone express them ("a lifetime of being allowed no opinion but the right one").  Lina has experience of this threat as her lawyer mother was taken away by the secret service years ago and no one has heard anything about her since.  As the bombs start to fall, Lina shelters in the basement with her Papa during the night but attempts to live a normal life throughout the day.

But normal has ceased to exist.  As a Christian, Lina is shunned by her former friends as it would be dangerous for them to be seen with her.  Her father takes on a job interpreting for the US army, making him a target.  When she continues to walk around with her hair uncovered, Lina is the victim of an acid attack.  Through Lina we hear of rape, torture and see dismembered bodies abandoned by the roadside.  Interspersed with all this is the story of what happened to Lina's mother, Sacha, when she was taken by the secret police, starting with horrific torture scenes.

So A Brighter Fear isn't your average young adult novel.  I really appreciated it's boldness at setting down what the Iraqi war must have been like to actually live through.  If I had read this as a teenager, I would have found it even more shocking than I did as an adult.   I also appreciated how Drewery refrained from making this a black and white novel, she showed the shades of grey involved in the conflict.  Lina and her family hate Saddam due to what happened to her mother so initially they welcome the invasion.  But the trigger-happy soldiers and the fact that "we all look the same to them" makes Lina reconsider.  There's never any 'good guys' or 'bad guys' in the sense of the conflict and that struck me as realistic - who can be a good guy in a war situation?  Drewery writes about fear very well and we see Lina's attempts to overcome her fear, something that made her relatable;

"I was living a horror film with no end credits in sight.  But this wasn't a film, or a dream, or a story.  This was life.  And I couldn't just press the off button, or wake up, or slam the pages shut.  I had to live it."

Despite all these positive elements, I think the 'love story' between Lina and an American soldier was a mistake.  It came across as an add-on to the real story, an attempt to make the book more appealing to it's intended audience (it's even the tag-line of the novel despite it playing a minor role in the story).  I get that Lina didn't have any friends, that she would cling to any escape clause from her life, but it could have been written as a friendship rather than an impossible love story.  There are a few times where Lina and Steve manage to meet despite impossible circumstances, and these situations felt contrived.

But overall, I was pleasantly surprised by A Brighter Fear.  It was bold and direct and had a lot to say about the Iraq war without shying away from the unpleasant aspects or simplifying it.  A job well done.

Source: From Harper Collins UK, via Netgalley
First Published: 2012
Score: 3.5 out of 5

Thursday 2 August 2012

My Favourite Classic - Dracula

The question for August over at The Classics Club is 'What is your favourite classic book?'  Like everyone else, I'm sure, I had a hard time thinking of the one classic that I like better than all the others I've read.  I loved Anna Karenina for the scope of the book and how epic it was, Emma will always be a favourite because of Emma herself, Villette by Charlotte Bronte spoke to me about the kind of person I am and I adored A Little Princess as a child.  But in the end I decided to think about which classic I revisit the most often and which gives me the most pleasure as I read it - not which classic is the most important, but which one I enjoy the most.

And my answer is Bram Stoker's Dracula. I have so many happy memories associated with reading this book; I remember being thirteen and curled up in the dark, frightened for Jonathan Harker trapped in Dracula's castle.  I remember using this book as a distraction during the stress of finishing my university exams.  I remember testing out my kindle with an e-copy of one of my favourite books.  I remember my husband (then boyfriend) buying me the lovely Penguin edition you see to the right and above all, I remember getting utterly caught up in the story each time I pick it up.

So what is it about Dracula that makes me love it so much?  I love the format of the book, with the different journals, letters, newspaper clippings and even a ship's log.  I find they break up the text and make it easier to relate to the different characters (I also love this about Wilkie Collins' novels).  I love that it's a bit of a sensation novel, not written to make a point about the world but simply to entertain and scare.    I enjoy the adventurous aspect of a 'band of heroes' getting together to rid the world of a horrible monster by piecing together all of the different clues.

I'm a big fan of gothic fiction anyway, but Dracula, with it's Transylvanian forests, crumbling castles and swooping bats, is the best of the genre.  It appeals to that part of us that likes to be scared.  Although Dracula isn't scary for us now as it would have been for the original readers, it's deliciously creepy and the part where Dracula crawls down the castle walls as a horrified Jonathan Harker looks on still gives me the chills.

Of course, I know that Bram Stoker never actually visited Eastern Europe and to be honest, the rest of his books are probably best avoided (and I've tried a few).  The treatment of women also leaves a lot to be desired, as 'precious' Mina finds herself overcome with men who only desire to protect her from the big bad monster even though she has lots of good ideas to contribute.  I know these things logically, but that never stops me from getting swept along with events and enjoying the story.

Dracula is my favourite classic due to the combination of horror and a classic rip-roaring adventure.  What's your favourite classic?

Wednesday 1 August 2012

The Classics Club - My List

I've been debating joining the Classics Club for a while.  I love the idea of it and definitely want to add more classics to my reading, but I tend to react negatively to pressure and having to read certain books in a specific time frame.  With that in mind, I've chosen the most generous time frame (5 years) and restricted myself to 72 books.  I wanted to make it 70, as I like a nice round number, but I couldn't think of two to drop!  I'm not going to beat myself up about this or think of the time frame, I'm just going to use it as a spur to read (or reread) these classics as soon as possible.

Without further ado, my list:
(Titles in bold will be rereads)

1. Little Women - Louisa May Alcott
2. A Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood
3. Emma - Jane Austen
4. Mansfield Park - Jane Austen
5. Northanger Abbey - Jane Austen
6. Persuasion - Jane Austen
7. Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen
8. Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen  
9. Peter Pan - J.M. Barrie
10. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall - Anne Bronte
11. Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte
12. Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte
13. Villette - Charlotte Bronte
14. The Good Earth - Pearl Buck
15. A Little Princess - Frances Hodgson Burnett
16. O Pioneers! - Willa Cather
17. The Awakening - Kate Chopin
18. The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins
19. A Tale of Two Cities - Charles Dickens
20. Great Expectations - Charles Dickens
21. Hard Times - Charles Dickens
22. Little Dorrit - Charles Dickens
23. Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens
24. Out of Africa - Isak Dinesen
25. Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoevsky
26. The Lost World - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
27. Rebecca - Daphe Du Maurier
28. The Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas
29. Cranford - Elizabeth Gaskell
30. Tender is the Night - F. Scott Fitzgerald
31. The Beautiful and the Damned - F. Scott Fitzgerald
32. Madame Bovary - Gustav Flaubert
33. Lord of the Flies - William Golding
34. King Solomon's Mines - H. Rider Haggard
35. Tess of D'Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy
36. The Scarlet Letter - Nathaniel Hawthorne
37. Les Miserables - Victor Hugo
38. Their Eyes Were Watching God - Zora Neale Hurston
39. Brave New World - Aldous Huxley
40. Goodbye to Berlin - Christopher Isherwood
41. Turn of the Screw - Henry James
42. The Portrait of A Lady - Henry James
43. Daisy Miller - Henry James
44. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest - Ken Kesey
45. Kim - Rudyard Kipling
46. The Painted Veil - W. Somerset Maugham
47. Moby Dick - Herman Melville
48. The Bluest Eye - Toni Morrison
49. The Bell - Iris Murdoch
50. 1984 - George Orwell
51. Burmese Days - George Orwell
52. Titus Groan - Mervyn Peake
53. Gormenghast - Mervyn Peake
54. Titus Alone - Mervyn Peake
55. The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath
56. Bonjour Tristesse - Francoise Sagan
57. Anthony and Cleopatra - William Shakespeare
58. Othello - William Shakespeare
59. The Tempest - William Shakespeare
60. East of Eden - John Steinbeck
61. Cannery Row - John Steinbeck
62. Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck
63. Dracula - Bram Stoker
64. The Hobbit - J.R.R. Tolkein
65. The Fellowship of the Ring - J.R.R. Tolkein
66. The Two Towers - J.R.R. Tolkein
67. The Return of the King - J.R.R. Tolkein
68. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn - Mark Twain
69. Around the World in Eighty Days - Jules Verne
70. The Color Purple - Alice Walker
71. The Picture of Dorian Gray - Oscar Wilde
72. Orlando - Virgina Woolf

My list isn't attempting to be representative of different time frames, styles or countries, it's just a list of books that appeal to me.  There is a notable absence of George Eliot books and only one Thomas Hardy, because I haven't enjoyed these authors in the past.  Hemingway and I don't get along.

When putting this list together, I suprised myself with how many rereads I included.  I tend not to reread, but as I looked at my classics shelf I starting thinking "ooh, I want to read that one again" or "I wonder if that improves on a rereading".  I shall be rereading both old favourites (Dracula, 1984) and books that I read as a teenager that didn't set my world on fire (Crime and Punishment). I want to find out if experience and a bit more maturity will help.  Some classics I've read recently I won't be rereading, especially Anna Karenina.  I loved that book, but will probably wait more than five years before picking it up again.

I'm anticipating that Moby Dick and Les Miserables will take quite some time and effort to read, so I've tried to balance classics like these with shorter and more modern ones so the project doesn't feel like a slog.

Have you read any of the books on my list I've not read before?  Am I in for a treat?

The new classics club website can be found here