Monday 30 December 2013

Best Books of 2013: Volume Two

As a way of reflecting on my reading year, I've been picking out my favourite reads from each month. In Volume One, I highlighted my picks for the months January through July, which included a lot of classics.  On with the latter half of the year:

The Percy Jackson and the Olympians Series by Rick Riordan

I just love a good children's series, so it's always exciting for me when I discover a new one.  Beside the obvious pick of Harry Potter, other existing favourites of mine include the Inkheart series and His Dark Materials.  I ordered myself a Percy Jackson box-set in August, and simply devoured all five books during my summer holidays.  Percy is a demi-God, the son of a Greek God, and he gets into all sorts of adventures inspired by Greek mythology.  This series is simply loads of fun, and if you like children's literature, you'll probably love it just as much as I did.

Z by Therese Anne Fowler

Tender is the Night was my January pick, so it shouldn't surprise anyone to see that I read more about the Fitzgeralds. I thought Z was a sympathetic, balanced portrait of Zelda Fitzgerald and her struggle to be seen as something more than F. Scott Fitzgerald's wife.  Fowler writes Zelda as full of life and vitality, and she jumps right off the page.  This portrayal of the Fitzgerald marriage was masterfully done and the book was very touching in places.

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

I've been meaning to read Oryx and Crake for years, and this year I finally did it.  And it was even better than I hoped it would be.  Atwood's dystopian vision of the future is scarily believable and the story is gripping from the initial chapters.  I rushed through this in two days flat and can not wait to read the remaining two books in the trilogy.  

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

Another book that I've been meaning to get to for years, and another instant favourite.  Carter retells some of the most famous fairytales in a dark and more adult way, adding in-depth characterisation and suspense.  The title story is genuinely creepy and all of the stories are written in beautiful prose.  Even better, Carter manages to create the fairytale enchanted yet dark forest atmosphere perfectly.  I don't know why I waited so long to read this one.

My Promised Land by Ari Shavit

December was a hard month to pick a book for, as I spent the vast majority of it reading Les Miserables, which sadly will not become a favourite.  But I did manage to squeeze in this fabulous non-fiction book about the creation of and history of Israel, told mixed with the author's personal experiences and those of his family.  It's a great example of high quality writing in a non-fiction book and does a good job at remaining balanced, something that's rare indeed in books about Israel.  The complicated issues aren't over-simplified and it left me with lots to think about.

All in all, 2013 was a good reading year.  Now that I've been blogging for a few years, I was able to take a step back from review copies and new releases and simply read what I wanted to read, when I wanted to read it.  My reading did take a nose-dive during the second half of the year, but I'm well back on reading form now and looking forward to 2014.  How was your reading year?

Sunday 29 December 2013

Sam Sunday #38: Christmas 2013

I had a very low-key and relaxing Christmas this year, which is just the way I wanted it.  We spent most of Christmas Day with my husband's family, and then on Boxing Day we were at my Mum and Dad's for Christmas Day round #2!  Of course, my nephew stole the show, and was completely spoiled all day long.  I could have done without the return of my morning sickness on Christmas morning, but apart from that I had a lovely few days.

Since Boxing Day, I've mainly been relaxing at home and trying to make the most of the last of my holiday.  I have a short Christmas break this year (for a teacher), which means I'll be back to work next Thursday.  I've been having lots of lie ins and we've been sale shopping a few times.  I've taken advantage of the sales to stock up on some maternity clothes, ready for the next few months.  

As far as presents go, I didn't actually receive many books this year, more pampering gifts, which has gone down well.   I've felt so rough over the past few months that it's nice to spend some time feeling nice again.   However, I did receive some Waterstones and High Street vouchers from my husband's family, so I've had fun hitting the shops and deciding how to spend them.  Here is my combined pile of Christmas gifts and voucher buys:

From top to bottom (links go to goodreads:)

1. Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre - I've read Goldacre's Bad Science, so I'm keen to read about him taking on the pharmaceutical industry.  I know a bit about the way the industry works in the US, but next to nothing about how it works in the UK, so I'm sure it will be eye-opening.
2. The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond - I've had my eye on this for a while.  It's in the Penguin orange spine non-fiction collection (as is book 3 below), which pretty much guarantees it will be good.  It's about traditional societies and what we could learn from them in the modern world.
3. The Quantum Universe by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw - I took an Open University module on astrophysics a while back, and I've been meaning to read more books on the topic ever since, now that I have a basic understanding of it.  This seems like a good introduction to quantum physics, plus I love Brian Cox.  And the cover sparkles!

All three of the above were bought with gift vouchers.

4. The Victorian City by Judith Flanders - This was a present from my husband's aunt (my aunt-in-law?).  It's a beautiful hardback history book about everyday life during the time of Dickens, which looks perfect for dipping in and out of.
5. Night Film by Marisha Pessl - I never buy new hardback books, as they are just too expensive, so I decided to treat myself to some hardbacks with my Waterstones voucher.  I've wanted Night Film, about a journalist obsessed with the mystery around a cult horror director, ever since it first came out, mainly because the story is partially told in screenshots, messages, forum activity etc.
6. Maddaddam by Margaret Atwood - I read Oryx and Crake earlier in the year and loved it.  I have Year of the Flood checked out of the library, so I snapped up this copy of Maddaddam when I saw it.

7. The Master and the Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov - This was my absolute favourite Christmas present, from my husband.  I've been coveting the Folio Society books for ages, but they are too expensive for me to justify buying for myself.  But I was thrilled to receive one as a gift; they come in slipcases and are beautifully bound with illustrations throughout.  I've wanted to read The Master and the Margarita for a long time, now I have an added incentive to do so.

I'm extremely pleased with my Christmas books, I can't wait to dive into them and see what I make of them.  I'm also over the moon to have finally finished Les Miserables, which has taken me just under a month to complete.  Sadly, I was a bit underwhelmed by it in the end, and I don't think it lives up to the Russian epics, which I adore.  I am glad I read it, but the reading experience wasn't as enjoyable as I had hoped.  On the plus side, the rest of my books now seem ridiculously short and easy to get through!

Hope everyone had a great Christmas, let me know if you received any books under the tree.

Friday 27 December 2013

Best Books of 2013: Volume One

It's that time of the year again, when we all start reflecting on the books that we've read over the year. This year for the first time in ages, I have read under 100 books, with my final total probably being 92, depending on whether or not I actually finish Les Miserables before the 31st.  However, I'm not someone who is particularly bothered by the amount of books I have read, as the important thing is that I've read some awesome books this year.  As per my tradition, I'm going to be highlighting my favourite book read in each month.

My best of 2011 and best of 2012 books can be found here.

A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin
Tender is the Night by F.Scott Fitzgerald


I'm technically cheating by picking two books for one month, but there is no way I could separate these two.  A Storm of Swords is my favourite volume from the Song of Ice and Fire series, which I devoured from late 2012 to early 2013.  It's action packed, utterly gripping and got me into fantasy in a big way, which significantly altered my reading habits for the rest of 2013.  On a more personal level, it was a great reading experience as my husband also loves the books, so it led to lots of great discussion.

I read Tender is the Night for the Classics Club readathon after being a bit underwhelmed by The Great Gatsby (sorry,Gatsby fans!).  But this tale of a marriage in decline had all the emotional punch I felt Gatsby lacked, and I found it beautiful yet utterly heart-breaking.  It's my favourite read from my classics club list so far, and now one of my all-time favourite books.

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

I have a feeling my list is going to be classics heavy this year!  This classic was an unexpected delight as Dickens isn't exactly my best friend.  But I found this story set in the French Revolution to be tightly plotted, fast paced and full of surprising little twists.   Dickens writes about the revolution very well and makes you feel part of the anger of the citizens at one moment, and then disgusted with them the next.  And Sydney's storyline was just captivating.  I'm glad I picked this one up, it feels great to have found a Dickens book I truly love.

Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth

I read a lot of historical fiction in 2012, but hardly any in 2013.  But the ones I did read were largely excellent; particularly this blend of historical fiction and fairytale.  Forsyth places her Rapunzel in Venice, the daughter of a maker of carnival masks.   The story is told by three women (including the witch herself) and the fairytale is broadened to a living, breathing story.  This is a chunky book, but I just raced through it, and would recommend it to anyone who loves fairytale retellings or historical fiction.  Forsyth's The Wild Girl is excellent too.

The People of Forever are not Afraid by Shani Boianjiu

April is the month when I read lots of books from the long-list of the Orange Prize/Women's Prize for Fiction.  The People of Forever are Not Afraid is a debut novel about three young girls conscripted into the Israeli army, and at first I was a bit ambivalent about it.  But it's one of those books that has stuck with me throughout the year, as the writing was just so distinctive and blunt.  The book felt a bit disjointed in places but the writing is so brutal and honest, that it more than makes up for it.  I'll definitely be reading anything else that Boianjiu writes.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Another book that took me by surprise.  I didn't really like Wuthering Heights as a teenager, but I loved it this time around.  I loved the examination of the darker, twisted side of love and the raw emotion that just comes spilling out of the pages.   This book is no fairytale, and the unreliable narrators keep you guessing.  I just love the Brontes.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

I was pushed into reading this book by the Classics Club spin, and I'm so glad that I was! The unnamed narrator is the new wife of Max de Winter, but she feels haunted by the legacy of her predecessor, Rebecca.  This book has a lot of twists and turns, and certainly kept me guessing, glued to every page.  I liked how the low self-esteem of the narrator was used as a device to keep the reader guessing, and I loved how you're never really sure how to feel about Rebecca herself.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Adichie is one of my favourite authors, and she never disappoints.  Americanah is a love story about Ifemulu and Obinze, who meet at secondary school in Nigeria, but are then separated as Ifemulu manages to get a visa to study in America.  But it's more than that - it's a beautifully observed story about race and subtle prejudice and the experience of being a new migrant.  Ifemulu is a wonderful main character and I already can't wait for whatever Adichie publishes next.

Volume Two will contain my favourites from the months August-December.
Have you read any of these titles?  I'd love to know what you thought of them.

Sunday 22 December 2013

Sam Sunday #37: It's Christmas!

It's the last weekend before Christmas, and I've been busy with the final preparations.  Thankfully I've finished my Christmas shopping, although I still have quite a few presents to wrap and put under the tree.  As always, I'm giving people baked treats alongside their regular presents, so over the next few days I will be making lots of mince pies, shortbread biscuits and lebkuchen (delicious spiced Christmas biscuits).  I love baking, so it's not going to be a hardship!

On Christmas Day itself, my husband and I usually split our time between our respective families.  We're planning to spend the morning at home, just the two of us, the afternoon with my parents, and then the evening with his family.  This is only possible as all of our family members live very locally!  This year will be the first year I won't be seeing my sister on Christmas Day, as she's spending it with her in-laws, so we're also having a Boxing Day celebration at my parents' this year, where I will get to see her and my nephew.  Even though we're both adults, it will feel strange not opening our presents together on Christmas morning.

Apart from Christmas Day and Boxing Day, I'm planning a relaxed and low-key Christmas break this year.  I'm feeling tired all the time and honestly, a few days tucked up at home reading in front of the Christmas tree sounds just perfect.  I'm still plugging away with Les Miserables; I'm well past the half way mark now and have set myself the somewhat ambitious target of finishing it by Christmas Day.  It's certainly possible, but it remains to be seen whether I will actually reach that goal or not.  Either way, I will definitely be done by December 31st, ready to start the new year with a new book.

This week, I've been reading:

Reviews posted:

Saturday 21 December 2013

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

A Christmas Carol is a book I've read many times, and until I tried A Tale of Two Cities earlier this year, it remained the only book by Dickens I have actually enjoyed.  As I haven't picked it up for a few years, I was excited to read it again this year with Riv, in the run up to Christmas.

I'm sure most people are familiar with the story through the many adaptations (Muppet Christmas Carol being my favourite, and surprisingly faithful to the original).  Grumpy, miserly Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his former business partner, Jacob Marley, and warned that he is in for a grim fate unless he changes his ways.  Through a series of visits by the Spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Future, Scrooge learns that there is more to life than money and the pursuit of making more money.

Like most classics, A Christmas Carol stands up well to repeated re-readings.  Even though I have read it many times before, each time I try it, I get something new from it.  On past readings, I have been focused on Scrooge's journey to change and how the visions the Spirits show him have such an effect on him.  The Spirit of Christmas Past is the one that I find the most powerful, as we see Scrooge before he became so bitter and emotionally closed off, and we see the missed opportunities in his life.  I'm sure we all have experiences and missed opportunities in our own lives that it would be painful to revisit.

But on this read, I was more struck by what happens after Scrooge wakes up on Christmas morning and decides to make amends.  He realises that he must change, but the thought of apologising and actually facing the people he has made miserable is daunting to say the least;

"It sent a pang across his heart to think how this old gentleman would look upon him when they met; but he knew what path lay straight before him, and he took it."

"He passed the door a dozen times, before he had the courage to go up and knock.  But he made a dash, and did it."

All through the night, Scrooge has been exposed to what these people really think of him and he wakes up with a lot of shame about his own actions, and also embarrassment at the thought of facing people who think so badly of him.  But he does it anyway, and on this read I found this particularly striking.  I am a person who can't stand to think that other people might not like me, so I know how hard it must have been for Scrooge to put things right, and how it shows a lot of courage in it's own way.  Shame and pride are powerful emotions to overcome.  It's not always easy to do the right thing, and I was encouraged by the way that Scrooge set about making things right.

As you can tell, I really enjoyed this reread.  I do think A Christmas Carol is very sentimental, and Dickens wouldn't get away with it at any time other than Christmas, and I also think it's implausible how long Scrooge takes to realise whose death it is when the Spirit of Christmas Future visits, but it's still the perfect book for Christmas.  Reading it makes it revisit all the previous times I have read it, which is guaranteed to put a smile on my face.  Highly recommended, even if you think you know the story to death already.

Source: Personal copy
First Published: 1843
My Edition: Vintage UK, 2009
Score: 5 out of 5

Tuesday 17 December 2013

My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel by Ari Shavit

I love a bit of non-fiction, and I've always found books about other cultures and religions particularly fascinating.  When you combine that with history, politics and biography, you're pretty much on to a winner, and that's what Shavit does here.  Through the sharing of his family history and that of important Israeli figures, Ari Shavit tells the story of Israel from the initial campaign to set up a Jewish state to the present day.  It's all there, from Zionism to the communal camps or kibbutzim, to the twentieth century wars, the building of the settlements and the Palestinian intifadas.  Shavit also considers the future of Israel and the issues it faces as it moves forward into the twenty-first century.

My Promised Land is truly an excellent piece of non-fiction.  It contains a lot of history and politics, but it's all blended together with reflections and interviews and thoughts, and this makes it wonderfully easy to read and absorb.  Picking up this book never felt like a chore, and the easy going writing style made it perfect for someone like me, who has a little bit of knowledge of Israel but who would like to know more.  Although it contains a lot of information, it never feels overly stuffy or academic, and it remains completely engaging throughout.

Israel is a topic that tends to elicit strong opinions and this means it can be quite hard for someone who is completely uninvolved to find something factual and balanced.  I'm not Jewish or Muslim, and I'm not invested strongly in either side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Although Shavit's book is inherently biased from his point of view of a proud left-leaning Israeli, this bias is acknowledged and addressed through his interviews with others.  We hear directly from a displaced Palestinian, a nuclear scientist, a founder of the settlements and a Jewish terrorist.  Shavit reflects on the views of all the participants, but he isn't overly judgemental and the commentary is thoughtful.

In fact, that's what I liked most about this book; it made me think.  It doesn't attempt to reduce a complex political situation to a black and white interpretation, rather it exposes how complicated it is and highlights all of the shades of grey.  I knew the basics of Israeli history before reading My Promised Land, but I have a much better understanding of the nuances and the motivations of different groups now.  It's a thoughtful book for readers who like to be challenged to think and decide for themselves, and I highly recommend it.

Source: From the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Published: November 2013
Score: 5 out of 5

Sunday 15 December 2013

Sam Sunday #36: Almost Christmas....

One and a half weeks to go!  This week, I've managed to get myself a lot more organised and have largely finished my Christmas shopping.  All I need to do is pick up a few bottles of wine for the people I work with, and I'll be done.  Family presents are all bought and some of them are even wrapped, which is a relief.  Thankfully the hardest person of all to buy for, my sister, gave me specific instructions on what she wanted this year, which made the whole process much less stressful.  Last night, my husband and I wrapped up a few presents whilst watching Muppet Christmas Carol, which was fun.

Speaking of A Christmas Carol, this week Riv and I are going to be reading it together, to celebrate the run up to the holidays.  It's a book I've read many times before, as my parents gave me a copy as a child, which is rather battered now.  As I am now the owner of the collected works of Dickens in the vintage paperback editions, I'll be reading the version you can see above. A Christmas Carol itself is only 100-ish pages, but the book also includes some other Christmas stories, which I might try if the mood strikes me.

I'm extremely pleased that this upcoming week is the last week of the autumn term.  This term has honestly been the hardest since I started teaching five years ago, for a variety of reasons, and what with that and pregnancy related exhaustion, I have struggled to make it through.  I can not wait to wake up next Saturday morning knowing that it is the holidays.  The holidays themselves are pretty bad this year, as I only get one week and three days, rather than the standard two weeks.  But I'll just have to make the most of the time and try to relax as much as possible.  Thankfully my appetite is returning now, my morning sickness is continuing to wear off, and at 15 weeks pregnant, I'm starting to get a little tiny bump.

This week, I've been reading:

Bookish post:

Tuesday 10 December 2013

Reading Journal: Les Miserables

I'm currently just under half-way through the beast that is Les Miserables, so I thought it would be a good time to check-in with my initial impressions.  On the whole, I am enjoying it and it's definitely an immersive experience.  The novel is sprawling and massively detailed, which means it's a panoramic view of French society at the time.  

Sometimes I get bogged down in all the detail and it makes it hard for me to push through and keep on reading.  Every now and again, Hugo inserts these random sections that have nothing whatsoever to do with the main plot - Napoleon at Waterloo, or the history of a convent in Paris.  I've found these have jarred my reading momentum and they make the book feel over-long.  Even in the main story there is such a thing as too much detail, and Hugo is dangerously close to crossing that line at the moment!

What I like so far is that the story is so much grittier than the stage and film versions.  For example, Cosette really is mistreated by the people who are looking after her and Fantine's decline is a lot more grim.  Valjean isn't as perfect as he is in the film.  All this is very good, even if I'm not sure about the many not so subtle religious messages in the book.

Les Miserables has been perfect for the winter so far.  There's something so lovely about snuggling up with a big hefty book under a blanket and revisiting familiar characters night after night.  I'm going to be taking a short break from it to read A Christmas Carol with Riv, and to read Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson for some lighter relief.  I also have a wonderful non-fiction book on the go, My Promised Land, which is a history of Israel written with biographical elements.  It's really very good, and I can't wait to finish it.  At the moment, finishing any book will feel like an achievement!

Will I finish Les Miserables by the December 31st deadline?  I'm going to try, but I'm promising nothing!

Sunday 8 December 2013

Sam Sunday #35: My News...

I've been a bit of a bad blogger these past few months and finally I can reveal why - I'm three and a bit months pregnant!  I had my first scan earlier in the week and it was amazing to see the baby wriggling around on the screen, as well as a massive relief to find out that everything is going well so far.

This is very much a planned and hoped for pregnancy.  It took almost a year for me to fall pregnant, but in the end it worked out that I conceived the month of our ten year anniversary of becoming a couple, which is actually quite fitting.

The reason being pregnant has impacted on my blogging is that I've had a pretty rough first couple of months so far.  I've had quite bad morning sickness; I felt nauseous from week five and then I've actually been sick practically every day from week six up until now.  One memorable Saturday I was actually sick six times, which was just horrible.  I've learned that it is extremely hard teaching and managing a class of thirty seven year olds whilst being so sick!  I've also been feeling pretty tired / drained, but that's much easier to cope with.

But the good news is that in the last week, I've started to feel like myself again.  I'm still being sick but I don't feel ill in quite the same way I did before.  Food is starting to actually appeal and I no longer look so much like a zombie.  I'm hoping this means that my second trimester will be a bit easier than the first, and that the constant sickness is on it's way out.

And of course, it's wonderful to be able to tell people that I'm pregnant.  Both of our families are really excited and happy, and everyone I have told has been so genuinely pleased for us.  I'm due on June 11th and I honestly can't wait.  Now that I've had my scan we're allowing ourselves to think about things like what we will need to buy, how we want to do the nursery, what names we like etc, because it feels much more real and exciting now.  I can't wait!

Reading-wise, I'm still plodding through Les Mis, and still enjoying it.  I'm about 450 pages in at the moment, which I'm relatively pleased with.  Riv from Bookish Realm and I are going to be reding A Christmas Carol together the week after next, and my hold on Brandon Sanderson's Steelheart finally came in at the library, so I'll be reading other books alongside Les Mis in the run up to Christmas, as well as trying to finish up my shopping and get ready for the holidays.

Hope everyone had a good week.

Tuesday 3 December 2013

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins (Hunger Games #3)

After watching the Catching Fire film, I was extremely keen to pick up Mockingjay and find out what happens to all of the characters in the final volume of the trilogy.  My expectations were high, as I enjoyed The Hunger Games and simply loved Catching Fire, which I thought was the better book of the two.  Be warned: there are spoilers in this review.

Mockingjay starts almost right where Catching Fire left off, with Katniss settling into District 13 and coming to terms with the destruction of her home district, 12.  Peeta has been captured by the Capitol, although Gale has managed to rescue Katniss' mother and Prim and bring them to 13.  Katniss is supposed to be playing the role of the figurehead of the revolution, but she is uneasy with the implications of this and struggles with what she should do.  Meanwhile, the war rages on and it becomes apparent that Peeta is being tortured under the authority of President Snow, maybe even beyond recognition.

I had mixed feelings about Mockingjay.  I so wanted to like it, and it did have many positive elements, but ultimately I closed the book feeling a bit let down.  To start with the positives;  I enjoyed seeing what District 13 was like and the military fashion in which the people there had prepared themselves for war with Snow.  I like that Collins didn't shy away from the brutality of war, and that there were quite a few darker scenes included, especially later in the book.  War is merciless, and Collins most certainly gets that message across.  Katniss' confusion at what role she should play came across as genuine, and it felt realistic for someone who may have had a big role to play symbolically, but who hadn't been involved in any strategic planning etc.  I'm glad Collins didn't go down the route of having a super-Katniss save the world.  And the twist where Katniss shoots someone different at the end was clever indeed, I did not see that coming!

Unfortunately, there were negatives to go alongside these positives.  Plot-wise, I liked that Peeta had been tortured in such a way to corrupt his memories and turn him against the rebels.  However, after all these detailed passages about how new and permanent this hijacking torture method was, he seemed to recover at crucial points pretty conveniently and quickly.  Also, Katniss had a tendency to get herself injured at key moments, which means that too often Collins told us what happened rather than showed us.  Katniss is acquitted at the end and all that gets is a paragraph from Haymitch - I wanted to actually see it happen and I was frustrated with the action scenes being cut off so abruptly.  The pods in the city were just silly and felt like an unnecessary nod to the earlier Hunger Games plots.  But most of all, although I liked that war was shown as being brutal, Collins did too much without enough impact.  I wanted to feel the deaths and I just didn't, and I never felt the emotion of being in a war properly.

On the whole, Mockingjay is still a good book.  It was certainly a page-turner and I did enjoy it, it was just a bit of a let down after how strong the previous two volumes in the trilogy were.  It's worth picking up to find out what happens in the end, but be prepared that it may not be as amazing as you are hoping.

Source: Personal copy
First Published: 2011
Score: 3.5 out of 5

Sunday 1 December 2013

Sam Sunday #34: Christmas/Starting Les Miserables

The first weekend in December is officially tree weekend in my family, so my husband and I spent this morning shopping for a new decoration and then this afternoon putting up our Christmas tree.  Every year, we buy one new decoration to add to our collection; this year it's the gingerbread star you can see in the picture above.  One of my favourite parts of Christmas time is decorating, and it'll be even better this year as now we own our own house, we can buy additional decorations to put up all around around the house, not just the living room.

I've also managed to finally get started on my Christmas shopping, although I have a long way to go until I am done!  Now that December is here, I'm much more in the mood for all things festive.  It's also the best time of year to be working in a primary school, and I'm looking forward to all the Christmas crafts and cooking I'll be doing with my class over the next few weeks.

Reading wise, my time has mostly been dominated by my Classics Club spin book, Les Miserables.  I did squeeze in Mockingjay, as we saw the Catching Fire film last weekend, and I was desperate to know how the trilogy ended.  But apart from that, it's been all Les Mis, all the time.  And I'm actually loving it.  I found the first 50 pages hard to get through, and was starting to worry about the rest of the book, but once Valjean actually appeared and the book moved on from an extremely detailed profile of the Bishop, things looked up.  I'm 300 pages in now and I'm finding it easy to read and extremely absorbing.  Hugo is a master of detail, and you feel completely immersed in the book.  My goodreads goal for the year has officially gone out of the window and I won't be finishing it any time soon, but winter is the perfect time for such an immersive, epic read.  I'm glad the spin finally gave me the push to start it.  

This week, I've been reading:

Review posted:

Monday 25 November 2013

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

The Bloody Chamber is a collection of fairy tales.  But not fairy tales as you would remember them from your childhood; grown-up fairytales full of violence, horror and sexuality.  From Bluebeard to Beauty and the Beast to Puss in Boots, Carter reinvents the traditional tales in haunting ways.  

I'm never quite sure how to review short story collections.  Novels are easier as they tend to have one over-arching plot to comment on, where as short story collections have so many.  I think I will mention some of the stories that made the most impact on me, before offering general thoughts on Carter's writing.

Without a doubt, the most powerful story was the titular one, The Bloody Chamber.  In this retelling of the Bluebeard legend, a young woman journeys by train to the castle owned by her wealthy new husband, a Marquis.  The Marquis has been widowed three times and his castle is truly a gothic masterpiece set against a roaring and angry sea.  When he has to leave on a business trip, he hands his new wife the keys to all of the rooms in the castle, including one that he forbids her to enter.  Of course, her curiosity gets the better of her, and what she sees in the forbidden room hints at a terrible fate waiting for her.  I loved this stoy the most as it was so genuinely thrilling; I had guessed what would be in the room, but Carter still weaves this wonderful web of suspense, that made me feel genuinely scared for the woman, yet unable to stop turning the pages.  The writing is so rich and full of sensuality as the sexual awakening of the main character mingles and becomes confused with the danger she is in.

I also loved The Erl-King, which was just so atmospheric.  A young woman is drawn into the dark heart of a sinister forest by the mysterious sprite-like Erl King, who seems to be made from the forest itself.  He has total power over all living creatures and she is completely under his spell.  But as her visits continue, the young woman realises that she is trapped, and that the Erl-King only means her harm.  I enjoyed this story in particular as it was just so haunting, Carter conjures up what it is about deep, dark forests that speaks to us somewhere buried inside, and puts all of the that into the character of the Erl-King.  As with The Bloody Chamber, sex and danger are two elements of the tale, and the main character also takes steps to get herself out of a threatening situation.

To be honest, there wasn't a single tale in The Bloody Chamber that I didn't enjoy and savour.  In fact, I had to force myself to slow down whilst reading it and appreciate each individual story, as my initial impulse was to devour the book in one sitting.  Carter's writing is just so rich and descriptive, so full of atmosphere that it simply sweeps you away.  I fell in love with it within a few days and didn't stop admiring it all the way through.  She completely reinvents familiar tales in ways I would never have thought of and personalises them, so the characters actually feel emotion and respond appropriately (something that you don't get to see in the original stories).  Carter's characters think and feel in this wonderfully lush setting and the result is simply wonderful.  I can't think of enough glowing sentences to describe just how fantastic this book is, you're just going to have to trust me when I say it's simply brilliant.

If you haven't read it, you need to go and get yourself a copy.  It's the best thing I've read all year.

Source: Personal copy
First Published: 1979
Edition Read: Penguin, 1986
Score: 5 out of 5

Monday 18 November 2013

Classics Club Spin Number Revealed

Last week, I posted my selection of books for the 4th classics club spin.  Today the lucky number was announced to be number 10, which means I will be reading.....

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo.

I have mixed feelings about this!  On the one hand it's a book I'm genuinely excited to read but on the other hand, it's just so long!  At least it will give me a push to pick up one of the longest books on my list. I have a feeling I will be reading it alongside other titles and hoping to get through this mammoth book by Jan 1st.

If you're taking part, which book did you spin?  Are you happy with your pick?

Sunday 17 November 2013

Sam Sunday #33: My Nephew is One

The big event of last week was my nephew turning one on Wednesday.  He's the first baby in our family for a long time, so I hadn't been round babies much before he was born.  It's amazing how much has has grown and changed in just the space of a year.  On Saturday he had a party and was of course spoiled rotten by everyone for the whole day!  My husband and I bought him the wooden rocking horse he is sitting on in the picture above, which he liked, to our relief.  At the moment, he's very into clapping, high fives and waving.

Everyone around me seems to be getting into the mood for Christmas, and the weather is even starting to get colder to match, but I'm just not feeling it yet.  I know I need to start thinking about shopping and gifts, but I will probably end up leaving it for another few weeks. At the moment, all the cold weather makes me want to do is curl up with a book under a blanket. Which is no bad thing!

Next week,  I'm looking foward to the announcement of the Classics Club spin number.  I finished Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber this morning (awesome book) and I'm debating whether it's worth starting another one tonight or whether I should wait and just dive into the spin book tomorrow.  I'm also looking forward to the release of Catching Fire, which my husband and I are hoping to go and see next weekend.

In other reading news, if you haven't done so yet, you should check out the posts for A More Diverse Universe over at Book Lust.  All the reviews are for sci-fi/fantasy books written by people of colour and I've added so many of them to my wishlist already.  It's my first time participating in the event but I will definitely be doing so again in the future.

This week, I've been reading:

Reviews posted:

Saturday 16 November 2013

Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

Adoulla is a ghul-hunter.  For years he has battled ghuls and demons, protecting the citizens of Dhamsawaat and the Crescent Moon Kingdoms.  Just when he is thinking of retiring, he hears news of a strange and gruesome murder in the family of the woman he loves.  As he and his assistant, the dervish Raseed, investigate, it becomes clear that they are up against an opponent stronger than any that came before.  The murder is only the most recent in a series, including the whole tribe of Zamia Badawi, who has the power of the Lion-Shape.  As the three attempt to track and destroy the man controlling the ghuls, Dhamsawaat itself is caught in a battle of wills between the despotic Khalif and the 'Falcon Prince', a man who claims to fight on behalf of the poor.  As the final battle draws closer, the city is immersed in civil war.

I read Throne of the Crescent Moon for Aarti's A More Diverse Universe event, in which readers try speculative fiction written by people of colour.  I love fantasy but the settings can get a bit repetitive after a while, so it was refreshing to pick up a book like this, that takes more from A Thousand and One Nights than it does Medieval Europe.   In fact, the setting was my absolute favourite part of the book; Ahmed has taken all of the mystic elements from stories like Aladdin and created a world that is full of ghuls, burning sand, teashops, white robed holy men, curved swords, overly zealous religious police and silks.  I honestly wanted to dive right into the book and explore Ahmed's world, I've never read a fantasy book quite like this.

The overall plot was a traditional fantasy one of overcoming evil with magic and fighting.  I enjoyed the main characters of Adoulla and Raseed, although Zamia felt a bit like a stereotype of a fierce, strong woman rather than a complex character in her own right.  I would liked to have seen a different side to her, more vulnerability or uncertainty.  On the other hand, the Falcon Prince had a lot of moral ambiguity that was exploited particularly at the end of the novel, and this made it much stronger.

I'm sitting here trying to work out why I didn't love everything about this book and I think it's because the world was so magical and wonderful that the plot was always going to fall slightly short.  At times the pacing of the story seemed a bit off and there wasn't any real urgency until the final battle scenes.  But it's still a book that I thoroughly enjoyed, one that I escaped in and one that completely captured my imagination.

Check out other books reviewed for the event here. 

Source: Library
First Published: 2012
Edition Read: Gollancz, 2013
Score: 4 out of 5

Tuesday 12 November 2013

Classics Club Spin #4

It's time for another Classics Club Spin!  Readers select and number twenty books from their lists, and then a number is posted on the website, on Monday 18th November.  You have to read the book that corresponds to that number over the next couple of months.  Usually I pick categories such as 'books I'm excited about' and 'books I'm dreading', but this time I have chosen pure randomness.  I used to select twenty unread books on my list, not including rereads.

Here's what came out:

1. The Painted Veil - W. Somerset Maugham
2. The Awakening - Kate Chopin
3. Persuasion - Jane Austen
4. Cannery Row - John Steinbeck
5. Their Eyes Were Watching God - Zora Neale Hurston
6. The Hobbit - J.R.R. Tolkein
7. Goodbye to Berlin - Christopher Isherwood
8. Bonjour Tristesse - Francoise Sagan
9. Peter Pan - J.M. Barrie
10. Les Miserables - Victor Hugo
11. The Good Earth - Pearl Buck
12. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall - Anne Bronte
13. Orlando - Virginia Woolf
14. Anthony and Cleopatra - William Shakespeare
15. Hard Times - Charles Dickens
16. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest - Ken Kesey
17. Kim - Rudyard Kipling
18. Cranford - Elizabeth Gaskell
19. Moby Dick - Herman Melville
20. Othello - William Shakespeare

Overall, I'm happy with how that turned out.  My list is awesome up until book 13, as all of the books before then are ones that I am so keen to read, including Les Mis.  After that it gets a little bit intimidating with Virginia Woolf, whose books scare me.  I have to admit that I'm not really in a Dickens mood at the moment, and I won't be happy if Moby Dick is selected, although I will have to read it at some point. really wanted me to read Their Eyes Were Watching God as it's number came up about four times during the selection process.  I'm secretly hoping for The Awakening or the Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

Are you taking part in the spin?  I'd love to see your list if you are.

Sunday 10 November 2013

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

I write this review as someone who is not a Neil Gaiman fan.  I loved Stardust (although that is probably more to do with the brilliant film version) and The Graveyard Book, thought that Coraline and Neverwhere were just OK and to be honest, didn't like Anansi Boys at all.  I think Neil Gaiman has wonderful ideas but his writing has always been hit and miss for me.  I wasn't going to try Ocean at the End of the Lane, but it's been getting so much hype that I decided to give Gaiman one more chance.  This was going to be a make or break book; if I didn't like it, I was prepared to give up and admit that Gaiman just isn't for me.

But I did like in; it fact I more than liked it, I loved it. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is the first Neil Gaiman book I have sped through, completely enchanted and desperate to find out what would happen next.  It's the story of a man who has returned to his home town for a funeral, and who ends up visiting the farm where he met Lettie Hempstead, her mother and her grandmother.  As soon as he reaches the property, the memories start flooding back, starting with the suicide of a lodger staying at his house.  This suicide allows dark creatures to enter the world, who want to destroy him and his family.  The only people who can help are the Hempsteads, who claim that the pond in their garden is really an ocean, and that they are as old as the Big Bang itself.

What I loved most about The Ocean at the End of the Lane was the atmosphere and nostalgia of the book.  I am just about old enough to look back on my childhood fondly and miss some of the simple pleasures and imaginations of being young.  Gaiman captures this feeling perfectly; even when something bad is happening in the book, there's this sense of childhood and time, and having the freedom to check out stacks of books from the library and devour them in your bedroom.  It's a bittersweet portrayal of childhood memories and it's one that certainly worked for me.

I also enjoyed the magical elements of the story.  They are kept mysterious and the line between what actually happened and what was distorted by memory or imagined is deliberately kept blurred.  The ending fit in with this theme and was perfectly bittersweet.  As with all Gaiman books, the rather ordinary main character is allowed his moment to shine and there's the theme of doing the right thing, even if it isn't the easy thing, and of ordinary people finding courage within themselves.

To be honest, it's hard to put into words exactly what I loved so much about this book, as it was more of a feeling than anything logical.  The book just enchanted me, swept me away and left me with a big smile on my face and a contented feeling inside.  It's short and bittersweet and I would highly recommend it, even if you think Gaiman isn't for you.

Source: Library (although I will be buying my own copy).
First Published: 2013
Score: 5 out of 5

Wednesday 6 November 2013

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

In the sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (my review), Huckleberry Finn is centre stage.  This made me excited to pick up the book as Huck was by far the most interesting character in Tom Sawyer.  Tom is a lot of fun and his imagination is amazing but he comes from a sheltered, loving family, whereas Huck is that child from the wrong part of town.  If Huck existed nowdays, he'd be the child who always turns up late to school without any equipment and in the wrong uniform, who hasn't been washed in a few days and who has been forced to grow up too quickly by being exposed to things he shouldn't have been.  In the story, Huck's main problem is his abusive, alcoholic father, who he eventually decides to escape from.  On the way, he meets runaway slave Jim, and the pair travel down the Mississippi together.

Huck Finn is a better book than Tom Sawyer, and it's all because of Huck himself.  Huck could have been a stereotypical character but Twain writes him in a wonderfully complex way.  Despite all that has happened to him, Huck has retained his essential goodness and also the bravery to go against society if he needs to.  We get to see him really grow up throughout the novel, as he goes from someone who is lacking in self-confidence and looking to those around him to decide what to do, to someone who makes their own decisions, even if society tells him he is wrong.  All through the book, he wrestles with the fact that he should hand Jim in, as this is the way he has been taught to think about slaves.  But Jim is actually one of the only people looking out for Huck, and the development of their friendship and Huck's decision to stick by Jim, even though he thinks that makes him a bad person, are handled masterfully by Twain.

I also liked that Huck Finn is a darker book than Tom Sawyer.  There's no sense that everything has to work out well in the end, and Huck and Jim have some horrible as well as fun adventures.  This was summed up perfectly when Tom himself makes an appearance, when Jim has been recaptured.  Tom agrees to help free Jim but wants to turn it into some prison release fantasy, complete with letters written in blood and tame rats, but Huck knows the seriousness of the situation and just wants to help Jim. Tom's protected from the real world, Huck has to live in it.

A lot has been made about the use of word nigger in this book, especially recently.  For me this was a non-issue as Huckleberry Finn is far from a racist book.  Huck would have thought and used that word all of the time, as he was a product of the society he lived in.  It doesn't make the book racist and I certainly don't think it needs to be taken out, that would be like rewriting history to remove the nasty bits.  There are far more racist books out there that don't have the word nigger in them.

As you can tell, I very much enjoyed The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  My only real complaints would be that sometimes the stories felt a bit disjointed, almost as though I was reading a short story collection rather than a novel, and that the ending was way too happy/convenient compared to the rest of the book.  It was as though Twain suddenly remembered that this was supposed to be a children's book and decided to make everyone happy by the last page.  Even so, it's still a wonderful book and I'd definitely recommend it.

Source: Personal copy
First Published: 1884
Edition Read: Penguin English Library, 2012
Score: 4 out of 5

The Classics Club:  Book 19/72
My full list can be found here.

Sunday 3 November 2013

Sam Sunday #32: RIP Wrap-Up

The end of October means the end of the RIP VIII reading event, where participants read spooky and/or dark books throughout September and October.  I was aiming to complete Peril the First, meaning I was hoping to read four books for this challenge.  I did post a rather ambitious book pile at the start of the event:

Of course I didn't get through all these titles but I did read:
  1. Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion - This was OK, it had a very sweet romance but it didn't set my world alight.
  2. Fevre Dream by George R.R. Martin - This atmospheric vampire novel set on a steamboat on the Mississippi river was probably my favourite RIP read.
  3. Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman - This wasn't on my original list, but I wanted to read it.  I loved the concept, but something about Gaiman's writing didn't work for me.
  4. The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon - Another unplanned read, this is a darker fantasy story about clairvoyants in a brutal society.  It was very good, but could never live up to the hype surrounding it.
  5. The Turn of the Screw by Henry James - I was really looking forward to this classic, but the ambiguity in the story stopped me from enjoying it.
Although I didn't read all of the titles I wanted to, I'm happy to have read five.  This was my first year participating in RIP, and I'll definitely be signing up again next year.  I loved snuggling up on the colder evenings with creepy or darker books.

In other news, I'm back to work tomorrow after the half term break.  It's been a very relaxing break which was just what I needed, as boy was I run down before the holiday started.  I'm hoping to improve my work-life balance once I'm back at work and not let it completely take over my life.  I will make time for reading and blogging!

This week, I've been reading:

Reviews posted: