Sunday 30 June 2013

Sam Sunday #20: Bookish Buys

We've had the plasterer round all weekend and today, it was my turn to get out of the house for a bit.  My Mum took me to a home ware discount shop we have here in the UK called Homesense.  I wasn't expecting to find bookish things there at all, so it was an even better surprise when I managed to grab myself one of the best book related bargains I've found all year - a set of 10 Penguin Red Adventure Classics, brand new, for £13 reduced from £79.

I love the Penguin Red editions, I already own the Around the World in 80 Days version, so I knew that the quality is great and the covers have a lovely vintage adventure feel.  Included in the collection are the following books:

1. Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs
2. The Riddle of the Sands by Erksine Childers
3. Greenmantle by John Buchan
4. The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan
5. The Man Who Was Thursday by G K Chesterton
6. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
7. The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope
8. Rupert of Hentzau by Anthony Hope
9. The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
10. Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne.

How cool is that?  I love a good swash-buckling epic, so I can't wait to start The Prisoner of Zenda in particular.

While I was out, I also persuaded my Mum to stop in Waterstones, where I bought this journal to keep a track of my wishlist.  I had my wishlist saved on my laptop that broke, so I've decided that a paper copy is the best way to go this time.  Each page is divided into two columns, for author and title, so it should be practical as well as attractive.

Have you had any good bookish buys lately?

Friday 28 June 2013

Blood of the Lamb by Sam Cabot

Father Thomas Kelly, a Jesuit priest, is happily based at a university when he is called to Rome by his former mentor.  A mysterious yet important document, the Concordant, has gone missing from the Vatican Library and must be recovered at all costs.  Kelly sets to work alongside an art historian, Livia, who claims to be representing a group who are just as interested in recovering the Concordant as the Vatican are.  But Livia has her own secrets, and the contents of the document are powerful enough to shake Kelly's faith to it's foundations.

Blood of the Lamb is marketed as The Historian meets The Da Vinci Code, so I was keen to get my hands on it as soon as possible!  There are certainly massive similarities with The Da Vinci Code; in both a male lead uncovers a deeply buried religious secret with the help of a female sidekick, but happily I found Cabot's writing much better than Brown's.  Despite there being a supernatural element to the story (the comparison to The Historian is a big clue), the mythology of the supernatural community felt authentic enough for the book to somehow pull off being realistic.

In addition to this, Cabot weaves in enough twists and turns to keep the reader on their toes.  I don't read many thrillers but I love intelligent, well written ones like this.  In fact, until about 97% of the way through the book, I was convinced that I had found a new favourite.  I loved everything about it, from the plot to the characters and the writing.  But then something happens in the end that stretches the credulity of the reader to breaking point and consequently, the whole story feels false.  The ending just went too far and unfortunately it ruined the book for me.  Honestly, it felt a bit silly.

The ending makes Blood of the Lamb hard to review and rate.  I do think the book had many, many positive features but they were ultimately over-shadowed by a bad ending.

Source: From the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.
Publication Date: 6th August 2013
Score: 3 out of 5

Tuesday 25 June 2013

Daisy Miller by Henry James

Daisy Miller is the first book by Henry James I've read.  I have three books of his on my classics club list, as I love the sound of his themes, particularly the culture clash between the Old World (Europe) and the New World (America).  Daisy Miller seemed like the perfect introduction to his work as it's a short tale about a rich American girl who is criticised by the society in Italy for being too free and uninhibited.  The narrator, a young American ex-pat called Winterbourne, meets Daisy whilst she is travelling around Europe with her family.  He is quickly bewitched by her, mainly because she isn't bound by rigid social etiquette; she talks to him without being formally introduced and even agrees to an excursion to the nearby Chillon Castle un-chaperoned.  But Daisy's disregard of social conventions soon makes her the centre of gossip when she is seen out with a local Italian and refuses to take note of Winterbourne's 'well intentioned' warnings.

Daisy Miller was the perfect introduction to Henry James and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Although the theme of 'free American girl comes up against European society living in the past' was fairly obvious, there was a good deal of subtlety in the way James wrote and I didn't feel as though I was being smacked over the head with the message.  This was mainly due to the ambiguity in the main characters; Daisy herself was forward yet innocent at the same time and Winterbourne, for all his high talk, only seemed to like Daisy as he suspected that she was a flirt and would therefore go rather further than other girls.  He may have gone on about upholding social standard, but his motivations were definitely less well intentioned than Daisy's;

"If therefore, Miss Daisy Miller exceeded the liberal margin allowed to these young ladies, it was probable that anything might be expected of her.  Winterbourne was impatient to see her again."

It was this hint of Winterbourne's creepy motives and his jealousy when his affections for Daisy aren't returned with the appreciation he thinks they deserve later in the book that make Daisy Miller such a good read.  There's enough irony and ambiguity in the book to make it thought provoking.  Of course some characters, like Winterbourne's disapproving Aunt, are more straight-forward, but I appreciated the complexity in the leads.

The only disappointment for me was the ending.  It seemed somewhat abrupt and the dramatic event that happened didn't fit with the rest of the story.  It was almost as if James didn't quite know how to resolve things for his characters, so he dealt with it in a rather sledge-hammer like way.  However, the themes and the beautiful writing more than make up for that.  I'm excited to read more novels by James now.

Source: Personal copy (kindle)
First Published: 1878
Score: 4 out of 5

Classics Club: book 11 of 72.
My full list can be found here.

Sunday 23 June 2013

Sam Sunday #19: Joe's Christening

My nephew with his parents

It's been a busy week.  Today was the Christening of my nephew, Joseph, and Tom and I were chosen to be two of his godparents.  It was kind of a strange experience as I wasn't raised as religious myself and because of this, I'm not at all familiar with Church services.  I was worried that I wouldn't know what to do or say!  After the service, we had a bit of a gathering around someone's house and it was nice to spend time with my family.

A bit of a blurry photo; I am in the white dress & my husband in the grey suit.

Apart from that, my weekend has been spent clearing out our main bedroom as we're getting it plastered next weekend and the plasterer is coming super early!  We have moved all of the furniture and our possessions, ripped up the carpet, dismantled the fitted wardrobes and the fitted blinds, removed the coving and skirting board and taken down the wallpaper.  It is literally now a blank shell; I can't wait for it to be plastered so we can decorate it the way we would like it.

I mentioned in my last Sam Sunday post that I've been having a tough time recently and to cheer me up, my husband bought me an iPad Mini in the week.  I've been eyeing the iPads ever since the original version first came out but as I had a laptop and a kindle already, I just couldn't justify it to myself.  But last week my laptop broke (the dreaded blue screen attacked!) and as my kindle is now almost three years old, I decided that it would finally be OK to have an iPad.  I love it already, the goodreads app is awesome and I can still blog on it as the bloglovin app makes commenting on other blogs very easy.  I have the kindle app of course but I think in the long run I'm still going to prefer my read kindle.  As I'm a total iPad newbie, I would appreciate any app recommendations and/ or tips for getting the most out of it.

This week, I've been reading:

Reviews posted:

Saturday 22 June 2013

Maus by Art Spiegelman

Prior to picking up Maus, the only graphic novel I have ever read was the excellent Persepolis. I've never been into superheroes or comics, so I just never tried anything from the graphic novel sections of the library or bookshop.  But I had heard enough about them to know that Maus, about Spiegelman's father's experiences of the Holocaust, is considered a classic of the genre.  It even won the Pulitzer Prize.  So when I found myself in a reading slump and in need of something new, Maus seemed like a good option.

Maus opens with Spiegelman visiting his elderly father and asking him to recount his experiences.  It soon becomes clear that the father-son relationship isn't perfect, and the wartime sections are interspersed with modern day encounters.  Spiegelman senior was a bit of a wheeler-dealer and he was able to survive the Holocaust by a combination of luck and always staying one step ahead of the game, looking out for new ways to make himself useful, to do whatever was necessary to survive.  These same skills (keeping everything because you never know when it might come in handy, wasting nothing, learning to deal with extreme situations) later form a wall between father and son and make functioning in the real world and dealing with real relationships almost impossible.  The version of Maus I read contains both book one and two.

I just loved this book, and devoured it in less than a day.  I was worried that I would find the experience of reading a graphic novel difficult, but I soon got used to the format and in fact, started to appreciate how the pictures allow a different kind of story-telling.  When Spiegelman Sr is talking about his time in Czechoslovakia before the war, the arm band that Jewish citizens had to wear enters the pictures without any mention a couple of pages in, a subtlety that wouldn't be possible in an ordinary novel.  The technique of drawing the Jews as rats and the Nazis as cats also adds impact that is only possible in a graphic novel.  Furthermore, it helps that the pictures were simple but beautifully drawn:

But above all, Maus is an excellent book because it's a powerful account of a horrible period of history and hearing about it from one person's experience humanises it for the reader.  That we get to see that survival doesn't guarantee a happy ending makes it all the more powerful. I'm so glad that I was in a restless reading mood, otherwise I might never have got to read this book.

Source: Library
First Published: 1986 (vol 1) & 1992 (vol 2)
My Edition: Penguin Books, 2003
Score: 5 out of 5

Thursday 20 June 2013

The Gods of Heavenly Punishment by Jennifer Cody Epstein

The firebombing of Tokyo during World War Two forms the centerpiece of The Gods of Heavenly Punishment, a novel that follows the lives of several people before and after the war.  Cameron is an American pilot, newly married, who takes part in the firebombing mission only for things to go wrong afterwards.  Yoshi is the daughter of a Japanese father intent on capturing Manchuria and a Westernised mother.  She gets caught up in the bombing and must deal with the consequences.  Anton is an architect who lived in Japan but who is now involved in designing Japanese buildings in America, so the military can practise destroying them.  The lives of all the characters intertwine as they are changed by one dramatic event, the firebombing.

From the cover of The Gods of Heavenly Punishment, I was expecting quite a gentle read, but it was anything but!  The actual firebombing itself is graphically described and the novel doesn't shy away from the grittier side of life.  There are no guaranteed happy endings for any of the characters and Epstein does a great job at showing how brutal war is, as the killing is indiscriminate.  In addition to this, the novel also deals with homophobia and how cities are permanently changed after war.  Yoshi was living comfortably before the attack but after the destruction, she is forced down paths she never expected she would have to go.

I was extremely impressed by the writing in The Gods of Heavenly Punishment.  Epstein has a lot of characters to deal with but she manages to keep them all distinct in the reader's mind and manages to give a sense of their personalities in a very short time.  This meant that the book quickly sucked me in and I rushed through it in only two days, as I couldn't put it down.  I'll definitely be getting hold of her other book, The Painter from Shanghai.

The only complaint I have with the book is that sometimes the links between characters felt contrived.  A bit like how everyone knows each other in Dickens' London, all of the characters in this story were linked in ways that just wouldn't happen in real life.  I don't mind a few coincidences, but there seemed to be a few too many of them.  Despite this, I really enjoyed reading The Gods of Heavenly Punishment and think it's a great example of a historical fiction book that can pack a punch.

Source: Review copy via Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours
Published: 2013
Score: 4.5 out of 5

Read Alongside:
  1. Shanghai Girls by Lisa See - Another novel that examines the destruction of a city in Asia, as Japanese forces occupy Shanghai.  This one also doesn't shy away from portraying the gritty effects.
  2. Next to Love by Ellen Feldman - This one links in with the Cameron storyline.  What was it like for the families of American soldiers during World War Two and afterwards, when they returned home?

Monday 17 June 2013

King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild

"What I do there is done as a Christian duty to the poor African; and I do not wish to have one franc back of all the money I have expended."

European colonisation of Africa during the nineteenth century is a common story but the Congo was somewhat of a unique case as it's owner was just one man, King Leopold of Belgium, as opposed to an entire country.  After convincing his fellow European heads of state that he was on a humanising mission to preserve the Congo and bring Christianity to it's inhabitants, Leopold was allowed to run it privately.  What he did was effectively create a whole system designed to exploit the resources of the Congo for his own personal wealth, including the Congolese themselves, some ten million of whom were murdered and countless others were maimed in the pursuit of rubber.  Cutting off hands became an acceptable punishment for not meeting your rubber quota. King Leopold's Ghost is a history of Leopold's rule and the campaign that eventually rose up against the cruelty and injustice.

I was somewhat familiar with the history of the Congo before starting this book, but it was still shocking to read.  I was expecting to read details about the exploitation of Africans, as unpleasant as that is, but what I wasn't expecting was how calculating and pre-meditated the whole thing was.  Leopold told bare-faced lies about developing the Congo and not wanting any money in order to obtain it, fully intending already to run it as a personal fiefdom.  Once he had it, he instigated an extremely barbaric and planned system that he went to great lengths to hide from the rest of the world, including bribing members of the press and hassling people that tried to tell the truth, to the extent that some of them committed suicide.  This was no accidental, time and place evil, this was the premeditated destruction of an entire country and a good chunk of it's population.  Ten million people deliberately murdered.  Many of the problems the Congo faces today can be traced back to Leopold's rule.  

Half of King Leopold's Ghost is dedicated to Leopold's rule and the other half to the campaign against it.  It was interesting how some witnesses were able to turn away from what was going on, justifying the cruelty with racism, and how others felt compelled to speak up, even when it had consequences for them personally.  The campaign against Leopold was one of the first international movements for what we would now call 'human rights' and was a fore-runner for organisations like Amnesty International. Of course, they were only campaigning for the Congo to be put under a 'better' colonial rule, but it was nevertheless a step in the right direction.

I did feel like Hochschild got a bit bogged down in the anti-Leopold campaign and there was a lot of keeping up with various campaigners that dragged a bit in the latter section of the book.  As Hochschild himself identifies, the book also suffers from a lack of Congolese voices, as people of the time either didn't think their voices worth recording or evidence was destroyed on Leopold's orders.  Despite this, King Leopold's Ghost is an excellent history book, well researched, readable and eye-opening.  I'm really glad that I read it.

Source: Library
First Published: 1999
My Edition: Pan Books, 2012
Score: 4.5 out of 5

Read Alongside:
1. The State of Africa by Martin Meredith - a general overview of Africa during and after European colonialism.  Great if you're new to African politics.
2. The Fear by Peter Godwin - Another example of one man terrorising and exploiting an African state, but in modern times.  Godwin travels in Zimbabwe during the elections that resulted in Mugabe returning to power, and witnesses torture and repression.

Sunday 16 June 2013

Sam Sunday 18: In which life is mean to me in 2013

I am feeling sorry for myself today.  I am supposed to be in London on a mini-break with my husband for his birthday this weekend but the online we company we booked it through took my money but then didn't actually inform the hotel we were going or you know, make a booking.  Luckily we phoned to confirm our reservation before leaving yesterday, or we would have turned up to the news that the hotel had no record of us and that they had no vacancies.  Of course, the online company doesn't have a telephone number so I will have to wait days for my complaining email to be answered and my money to be returned (which it will be!).

I know it's not the biggest deal, because I will get my money back, but it's something we've been looking forward to for a long time.  Life hasn't been kind to us so far in 2013 and lets just say we really needed the break.  It feels like everything I do at the moment just isn't working out.  Since the beginning of the year, the following has happened:

  • We lost the house we wanted to buy only three days before we were supposed to exchange contracts.  This was after spending six months going through all of the paperwork and lots of money on searches and solicitors fees.
  • Luckily we did manage to find another house pretty quickly but this time things went wrong on the solicitors side.  They made so many mistakes that we almost lost this house too.  If things had gone on for even one day longer, we would have been homeless.  The home buying process wasn't a joy, to say the least.
  • There are things going on at work that I am not allowed to write about but which have increased my work-load and stress-load dramatically.  
  • My Dad had a health scare.  Thankfully, he is OK now.
There are other issues too, things that I wouldn't mind my blogging buddies knowing about but don't want to put on the internet in case random people that know me come across this blog!  I know that I am lucky because I have a great relationship with my husband and a supportive family, but life feels like one thing after another going wrong at the moment.

The combination of all of these things caused a flare up of my health problem this week and I ended up having to take some time off work.  I am feeling better this weekend but a bit down in the dumps.  I'm hoping that the second half of 2013 will be better than the first, and that we can get some good news soon and that the little things can start going right, instead of wrong.

The plus side of our weekend away falling through was that I was able to get a lot of reading done.  This week, I have finished three books, all of which were excellent:


Review posted:

Friday 14 June 2013

Library Haul 5

I've got quite a few books out from the library at the moment, so I thought it would be a good time to make a library haul post.  I always love hearing the opinions people have about my selections and whether they think I am going to enjoy them.  Links go to goodreads.


1. King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild - This is a non-fiction book about the time when King Leopold of Belgium owned the Congo and basically ran it as his own personal fiefdom.  I've already read this one and it was absolutely amazing, one of the best history books I've read in a long time.  There'll be a glowing review up shortly.
2. A Thousand Sisters by Lisa Shannon - Another book about the Congo.  The subtitle of this one is 'The Worst Place on Earth to be a Woman' and it's about a Western woman who journeyed to the Congo and became involved in charity work there.
3. Winter Rose by Patricia McKillip - I've heard great things about McKillip and this was the only title of hers I could get hold of through my library system.  It's a fairy-tale retelling and I'm looking forward to it.


4. Witness the Night by Kishwar Desai - A young girl is found tied up in a townhouse in India where thirteen are dead.  It's up to a social worker to solve the case.
5. The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman - I felt like a change this week, so I wandered into the graphic novel section of the library, somewhere I've never been before!  I know this is a classic of the genre, so it seemed like a good place to start.
6. Watchmen by Alan Moore - Whilst I was in the graphic novel section, my husband practically forced this one on me.  I've heard of it but haven't seen the film.  I'll give it a go.


7. A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness - I also explored the YA section today!  I've seen so many positive reviews of this, I can't wait to start it.
8. Tiger's Curse by Colleen Houck - I've actually checked this title out before, but didn't get the chance to read it.  It's a fantasy adventure about breaking a three hundred year old curse, which fits my reading mood quite well at the moment.  Hopefully I will read it this time around!

Have you read any of these titles?
I'd love to know what you think of them.

Wednesday 12 June 2013

The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin

Ehiru is a gatherer in the ancient city of Gujaareh, a man trained to enter the dreams of others and harvest dreamblood, which is then used to maintain peace in the city and cure the infirm.  When someone is identified as being corrupt, a gatherer collects their dreamblood before slowly releasing their soul, ending their life.  Sometimes this gift is welcomed and sometimes it is resisted, so gatherers are highly respected individuals, trained to deal with a variety of circumstances.  Ehiru is proud of his position and the power of the Hetawa, the temple devoted to the goddess Hananja, until he makes a mistake when gathering and meets an ambassador from a rival city, Kisua, who claims that corruption might exist even at the highest levels of his society.  Ehiru has always been unquestionably devoted to the Priests and the ruling Prince, but something dark is starting to make itself apparent in Gujaareh and Ehiru must realise that the boundary between innocence and corruption isn't as clear cut as he would like it to be.

I'm quite new to the fantasy genre, so I found this book incredibly frightening to begin with!  It's epic fantasy with a capital 'E', with plenty of world-building and new words to keep track of.  The belief system of Gujaareh took some acclimatizing to, which is more of a reflection of my newness to the genre than Jemisin's skill as a writer. I loved that she threw the reader into the story and allowed the world to exist completely around it, rather than painstakingly describing everything.  It gave the story a sense of realism, it felt like the world didn't need to be explained, as it was just already there.  Jemisin's world building skills can't be faulted, and I loved that this epic fantasy story was set somewhere inspired by Ancient Egypt, rather than in medieval Europe.

A lot of the world building and plot centered around the role of a priestly sect that have been given a lot of power by the population of Gujaareh.  I enjoy reading about religion, so it was interesting how Jemisin was able to say a lot about religion and the role of corruption in institutions that are meant to be selflessly serving a god or a goddess.  Humans are corruptible, wherever they are.  I liked this message, liked that nothing was black and white in this book.  Similarly, the main character, Ehiru, has a lot of ambiguity about him; his intentions are certainly good but he has to do some awful things to achieve them.  Books that show the moral ambiguity of real life always get a thumbs up from me.

As I mentioned, any issues I had with this book were mainly due to me not knowing much about fantasy and being new to the genre.  I did struggle keeping up with the story initially, while I got used to the new world.  I would have liked to have a map included, as in later sections of the story the characters travel away from the city and exactly where they were going was hard to visualise.

The Killing Moon is a fantasy book I would definitely recommend, especially to readers looking for epic fantasy that's a bit different from the run of the mill medieval stories.

Source: Personal copy.
First Published: 2012
Score: 4 out of 5

Sunday 9 June 2013

Sam Sunday #17

This edition is bought to you by lemon layer cake :)

It's been a while since I wrote a personal update, what with the madness of Armchair BEA and then the stress of the first week back at work after the half term holiday.  I wasn't around much on the blog this week as things are hectic at work, to say the least.  I'm counting down the weeks until the summer hols (six and a half weeks to go!).

The half term break was lovely, though.  We managed to completely decorate the living room, which has gone from peach walls and mahogany woodwork to pale yellow walls with white woodwork and beech furniture.  It looks so much brighter!  It feels great to have at least one room in the house that is decorated to our taste.  The next room on our hit-list is the main bedroom, which is a bigger job as it needs re-plastering and a new carpet.  The plasterer is booked for the 28th June, I can't wait to get another room done.

Next Wednesday is my husband's 28th birthday.  He's out all day and all evening on a school trip to France, so we'll be celebrating next weekend.  I've booked us a hotel in London so we can go up there during the day on Saturday and spend the whole weekend away.  The hotel is in Russell Square, which is our favourite place to stay in London, due to it's close proximity to the British Museum and the bookshops on Charing Cross Road.  We're planning to have his birthday meal at Wahaca, a Mexican restaurant we've both wanted to go to for ages.

And then the weekend after that is our nephew's christening, so it's all busy busy busy!  The good news is that my reading slump is finally starting to go away and I'm getting excited about books again.

This week, I've been reading:

Reviews posted:

Saturday 8 June 2013

Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

"He belonged to a walled city of the fifteenth century, a city of narrow, cobbled streets, and thin spires, where the inhabitants wore pointed shoes and worsted hose.  His face was arresting, sensitive, medieval in some strange inexplicable way, and I was reminded of a portrait seen in a gallery."

The unnamed narrator of Rebecca is working as a lady's companion in Monte Carlo when she meets the brooding, recently widowed Maxim de Winter.  Swept off her feet by his quick proposal, she returns with him to Manderly, an impressive estate on the Cornish coast.  But at Manderly, traces of the former Mrs de Winter, Rebecca, seems to be everywhere and she struggles to make an impression of her own.  When she goes for a walk in the rain, it's Rebecca's coat that is given to her and she has to live to Rebecca's schedule but above all, the forbidding housekeeper Mrs Danvers seems unwilling to let the ghost of Rebecca lie.  

I just loved everything about Rebecca.  It was the book chosen for me by the Classics Club spin, and it came from my 'books I am neutral about' list.  Having read the book, I'm now definitely no longer neutral towards it!  I loved the gothic atmosphere, the mystery elements that kept me guessing, the ambiguity of the character of Rebecca and the way things were left sufficiently open at the end that I'm still not sure whether to love or hate Rebecca, myself.

But what I loved most of all was the characterisation of the narrator.  Part of the effectiveness of the mystery is that she suffers with chronic low self-esteem that forces her to put a reading on events that may or may not be the truth.  She's utterly unreliable as a narrator but her journey towards becoming more confident and towards throwing off the shackles of distorted thinking / anxiety, was written wonderfully by du Maurier.  As someone who tends towards the anxious side of things myself, I could complete relate to the narrator and the obstacles she kept putting in her own path.  I was expecting the gothic elements and the mystery, but I wasn't expecting how much insight into human character there was in the story;

"I wondered how many people there were in the world who suffered, and continued to suffer, because they could not break out from their own web of shyness and reserve, and in their blindness and folly built up a great distorted wall in front of them that hid the truth.  That is what I had done. I had never had the courage to demand the truth."

Rebecca kept me guessing right until the end.  I thought I had the book all figured out by the middle, but Mr de Winter's confession came as an utter shock to me, so really I didn't have a clue!  I closed the book with more questions than I opened it with, which is always a good sign.  The genius of the mystery lies in that none of the characters are reliable and the morality of them plays with our values.  Is Rebecca before her time, straining against the rules put on women, or is she an evil harpy without human feeling?

I read this book in just two days as I simply couldn't put it down.  It's become a new favourite and one I'm sure I will revisit in the future, to see if I can get any deeper into the mystery.

Source: Personal copy
First Published: 1938
My Edition: Virago Press, 2003
Score: 5 out of 5

Classics Club: Book 10 / 72
My full list is here.

Monday 3 June 2013

Sipping from the Nile by Jean Naggar

Sipping from the Nile was my first pick from my book jar, which is basically a jar that contains folded up bits of paper with books from your TBR pile written on.  When you feel overwhelmed with choice, you select randomly from the book jar, to take the decision out of your hands (you can see the original idea at Alex in Leeds' blog). All over my half term break, I was extremely indecisive when it came to reading; I kept picking things up, reading a few pages then putting them down again and it was getting annoying! So I decided to take charge of the situation by reading one book from my book jar then moving on to my Classics Club spin pick.

Jean Naggar comes from a wealthy Jewish family who had lived in Cairo for centuries.  The early parts of Sipping from the Nile deal with an extravagant, sheltered childhood, as Jean and her family live comfortably in a large house overlooking the Nile.  Servants take care of her every material need, she is sent to a prestigious English boarding school and the family summer in Europe, away from the stifling Egyptian heat.  The initial chapters are full of Sephardic Jewish rituals and there's an overwhelming sense of a large and close-knit family.  But after the Suez crisis in 1956, when Britain, France and Israel tried to stop the nationalisation of the vital Suez Canal, the atmosphere in Egypt changes for Jean's family.  After surviving the horrors of World War Two, the Jewish Egyptian population comes under threat due to anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish sentiment.  Eventually, Jean's family is forced to leave Egypt after some danger and the world of her childhood vanishes forever.

Sipping from the Nile is a very well written memoir.  Naggar conjures up the atmosphere of upper class childhood perfectly and the love she clearly has for Egypt comes off of every page.  Although the chapters dealing with boarding school and time abroad are also well written, the memoir truly comes to life when Naggar is writing about Egypt and the traditions of her family.  I learned a lot about Sephardic Jews and felt like I was completely immersed in Naggar's world, a feeling that was helped by the photographs scattered through each chapter.  

I must admit that whilst I was reading, I spent a lot of time waiting for the Suez crisis to turn up.  For a book whose by-line is 'my exodus from Egypt', this event doesn't actually occur until quite late in the game, at least two thirds of the way through.  Whilst the initial section dealing with her childhood felt leisurely and a bit over-long, the sections dealing with how it felt to leave Egypt behind could have been explored further.  I appreciated the final chapters where Jean and her own family return to Egypt, but I wanted to know more about the intervening years, more about what it felt like to be unwelcome in your home land.

Sipping from the Nile is a decent, well written memoir about an interesting community.  I enjoyed it, but it didn't set my world on fire.

Source: Personal copy (kindle)
First Published: 2012
Score: 3.5 out of 5

Saturday 1 June 2013

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova (reread)

"But history, it seemed, could be something entirely different, a splash of blood whose agony didn't fade overnight, or over centuries."

When faced with a reading slump, my usual strategy is to revisit an old favourite.  And so last week, I found myself pulling The Historian off my shelf and settling in for a gothic treat. The unnamed narrator of The Historian discovers a strange book in her father's library, containing a sinister and old-fashioned woodcut of a dragon. Unable to get this image out of her mind and frustrated by her father's avoidance of the topic, her own research leads her to find out about Vlad Tepes, the historical Dracula.  As she delves deeper into his history, the story of her father and of the professor who disappeared in mysterious circumstances slowly reveal themselves.  It's the start of a journey punctuated by strange occurrences that will lead her across Europe to the tomb of the impaler himself.

I just love this book! It contains so many of the things I love in fiction; a gothic atmosphere, an intellectual mystery, a nested/embedded narrative structure, the inclusion of letters from the characters and travel to wonderful places.  Reading The Historian makes me want to walk along the bridges of Budapest, visit the archives of Istanbul and see the beautiful countryside of Eastern Europe.  I love it when a book transports you to another place so clearly as The Historian does, it completely took me away from real life and carried me along with the story.

I also love how carefully information is revealed by Kostova.  The novel has an unusual narrative structure where the girl's story is told alongside her father's and that of Professor Rossi.  Information is slowly doled out across the chapters, allowing all three stories to build up at the right moment.  The links between the three stories are clever and I love how Kostova used existing information about Vlad Tepes and twisted it subtly, just enough, to make it fit with her plot.  As someone interested in history, I enjoyed that so many of the 'original documents' in the story were reproduced and as readers, how we get to follow the thought processes of the characters.

Although this is a vampire story, readers expecting a fast pace or full-out horror will be disappointed.  The Historian is a meandering book full of twists and turns and the horror elements are more subtle than you might expect.  As I love gothic classics, this works perfectly for me.  I love this book and don't hesitate to recommend it!

You will enjoy The Historian if:
  • You liked Dracula by Bram Stoker.
  • You love reading gothic fiction curled up in front of a fire.
  • You like an intellectual mystery.
  • You're an armchair traveller
Source: Personal copy
Score: 5 out of 5