Wednesday 31 July 2013

The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien

I'm rereading The Lord of the Rings as part of my Classics Club project and last summer I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed The Fellowship of the Ring (my review).  I've only read the books once before, and that was after seeing the films. I definitely expected the books to be similar, when in reality they are very different, slower paced and more about immersing the reader in Middle Earth than anything else.  With my expectations suitably adjusted, I really liked The Fellowship of the Ring on the second attempt.  I was hoping the same would be true for The Two Towers.

Warning: this review contains spoilers.

The Two Towers picks up where The Fellowship of the Ring left off, with the breaking of the fellowship after the death of Boromir.  The first half of the book deals with Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli's quest to find Merry and Pippin after they have been captured by Orcs.  Their path takes them through Rohan, home of the horse-lords where the King is under the influence of Saruman.  In the dreaded Fangorn forest they meet an old friend.  The latter half of the novel follows Frodo and Sam as they attempt to take the ring to Mordor to be destroyed.  They are being tracked by Gollum and Frodo must decide how to deal with him.

The Two Towers is a book of two halves and my enjoyment of the two sections of the book was radically different.  I loved the first half and just sped through it.  Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli are definitely the more interesting members of the trilogy and I love Rohan as a setting.  With Gandalf gone, we get to see some character development as Aragorn steps up as leader of the fellowship and starts to grow into his future role as King.  We also get to meet Eowyn, who is the best female character in the novel (not that there are many to choose from).  I liked reading about the destruction of Eisengard and felt like the book was well paced in general throughout the first half.

However, part two was another matter.  I'm not the biggest Frodo and Sam fan anyway (they do too much aimless wandering for that) and there were endless scenes of them getting lost near Mordor and not knowing what to do.  Once Gollum turns up, there are more endless scenes of Sam worrying that he is a threat and Gollum showing his split-personality.  It's not that I think this part of the story is bad (I don't), but Tolkein simply spends too much time with them in this novel when not a lot really happens.  I found this part of the book difficult to get through and breathed a sigh of relief when Faramir turned up to break the monotony of the same three characters.

It's fair to say I had mixed feelings about this book overall.  I think I would have enjoyed it more if the Frodo chapters were interspersed with the Aragorn chapters, rather than being split into two separate 'books'.  I'm looking forward to getting to the third volume of the story, but hoping for more consistent pacing throughout it.

Source: Personal copy
First Published: 1954
My Edition: Harper Collins, 1994
Score: 3 out of 5

The Classics Club: Book 13/72
My list of classics is here.

Monday 29 July 2013

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson

Journalist Mikael Blomqvist is licking his wounds after being found guilty in a libel cause bought by business owner Wennerstrom when he is approached by Henrik Vanger, head of the Vanger Corporation.  Vanger's niece Harriet disappeared in the sixties and was never found, leaving Henrik to suspect she has been murdered.  In need of a new job, Blomqvist agrees to investigate the case and the complex Vanger family, who hide many secrets.  Along the way he is helped by Lisbeth Salander, a private investigator and hacker with a troubled past.

I'm not a big reader of crime or thriller books, but my husband bought me the Millennium trilogy when they became massive a few years ago and finally I decided to pick the first one up off the shelf and give it a try.  I wasn't expecting to like it, but I really did and I'm now looking forward to the second in the trilogy.

The original Swedish title of the novel was Men who Hate Women, and this is by far a more accurate description of the book.  It's really a furiously angry assault on society and in particular, the amount of rape and sexual assault that occurs in Sweden, but also across the world.  Each part of the novel starts with a statistic that makes for grim reading.  I am fortunate enough to have never experienced sexual assault myself but it's scarily common; statistics vary but between one in five and one in three women in the UK will experience sexual violence in their life.  It's something I feel strongly about and it's a crime that I think isn't taken nearly seriously enough.  To see a book like this, that became as popular as it did, tackle an issue like that can only be a good thing;

"'Because it's so easy' he said.  'Women disappear all the time.  Nobody misses them.  Immigrants.  Whores from Russia.  Thousands of people pass through Sweden every year."

Whilst the writing in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo isn't the best I've experienced, the story is well plotted with enough twists and turns to keep you guessing.  The pacing at the beginning was quite slow, whilst Larsson got across the necessary background information, but the pace soon picked up and I couldn't put the book down by the end.  Once Mikael and Lisbeth met, the book became a whole lot better.  There is a graphic rape scene in the book but it's not gratuitous as it fits the themes of the novel.

Most readers who have read this book loved Lisbeth and I was expecting to as well, but in the end I just liked her.  I felt like Larsson was trying too hard to tell the reader how alternative she was, how outside of the mainstream of society.  I liked her and thought she was a great main character, but I didn't love her.

I would recommend A Girl with a Dragon Tattoo, as the plot is good enough to overcome any issues with the writing.  I'm looking forward to getting to the remaining two books in the trilogy.

Source: Personal copy
First Published: 2005 (Sweden)
My Edition: Quercus, 2008
Score: 3.5 out of 5

Sunday 28 July 2013

Sam Sunday #24: Anniversary Edition

My summer holiday is finally here!  I finished up work on Wednesday and then Saturday was our second wedding anniversary.  Time passes strangely because it feels like it was only yesterday that we got married but also like we've been married forever.  Although we exchanged cards and went out for a meal, we haven't made a big thing out of it this year because in autumn we have a bigger 'anniversary' coming up; at the end of September we will have been together for ten years.

Saturday was a busy day anyway; my sister turns 30 on Tuesday so she had her party yesterday, at a lovely country pub.  There were lots of friends and family there so I'm sure that she had a great time.  Tomorrow is my Mum's birthday (the end of July is a busy time for my family!), so we're taking her out for a meal at one of her favourite restaurants.

Today I've been having a bit of a tidy up.  I spent Thursday and Friday relaxing (and reading a lot) so today I was ready to make the house look somewhat presentable again.  We were both so busy at the end of term that standards definitely started to slip! Now I'm going to be spending more time at home over the next six weeks, I want it to be cosy rather than messy!  I can not wait for the main bedroom to be finished so we can finally move back in there and not have random bedroom stuff everywhere.

Now that I am on holiday, I'm looking forward to spending more time reading and blogging.  I've got a backlog of three reviews to clear next week and then I'll be caught up again.  

This week, I've been reading:

Reviews posted:

Friday 26 July 2013

Fables Volume 1: Legends in Exile by Bill Willingham

I've been trying out graphic novels lately and one series that I keep seeing everywhere is Fables, about fairy tale legends living undercover in New York after being forced to leave their home lands by the mysterious Adversary.  It's a mammoth series with nineteen books and several spin-offs.  I love the sound of fairy tale characters living in disguise in a modern city, so when I saw volume one at the library, I decided to give it a try.  Legends in Exile is a mystery story about the supposed murder of Rose Red, the sister of Snow White.  She goes missing and the discovery of her blood soaked apartments leads Snow White, the deputy of Fabletown and Sheriff Bigby Wolf, to investigate what has happened to her.

I enjoyed Legends in Exile more than I thought I would, which must mean I am turning into a graphic novel fan!  Although the plot of the story was OK, what I really enjoyed was the world-building and the back story of how the fairytale creatures were managing to stay hidden in New York.  I wasn't really that fussed about how killed Rose Red, but I was fascinated by Fabletown, how it is run and especially the amnesty, in which all of the fairytale characters had their past crimes wiped out upon arriving in our world.  This amnesty causes tension throughout the story as of course the violent characters, such as Blackbeard the pirate, come under more suspicion from Snow and Bigby.  I thought the concept of Fabletown was clever and the Fables world definitely interesting enough to warrant a whole series.  The story itself I could take or leave.

The drawing style is very much that of a traditional comic, which isn't my favourite style but it's done well and fits with the story.  I liked the artwork that was included before each chapter, it was quite surreal and made a good break from the comic format.  On the whole, I enjoyed Legends in Exile enough to read the next volume of the series, Animal Farm.  I doubt I will complete the series but I'm enjoying it so far.

Source: Library
First Published: 2002
Score: 3 out of 5

Tuesday 23 July 2013

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

As a non-American, I've managed to get to the grand old age of twenty-seven without being made to read The Scarlet Letter, so I approached it with fresh eyes.  I knew the basic storyline, having read Hillary Jordan's When She Woke last year but my only other experience with Puritan America is watching a performance of The Crucible once.  The central motif, of being made to wear a badge of shame, definitely intrigued me.

The story opens with Hester Prynne standing in the middle of the town, wearing a scarlet letter 'A' and holding her illegitimate daughter, Pearl.  Despite the disapproval and judgement of the whole town, Hester refuses to name the father of her child and she is shunned by everyone around her.  The Scarlet Letter is about her life after being ordered to wear the letter, in particular her interactions with Pearl's father and with her husband, who has arrived at the town after being held by the Native Americans and who is living under an assumed name.   The tension between private and public lives and the effect of secrets are the main themes of the novel.

I didn't really know what to expect from The Scarlet Letter in terms of style, so I was pleasantly surprised by how satirical the whole thing was.  I love a bit of satire if it's done right and Hawthorne was downright scathing at times, particularly when relating the 'suffering' of Pearl's father, who has the cheek to imagine he has been affected more than Hester, despite being able to carry on his life as normal.  The religion of the Puritans is held in particular contempt by Hawthorne, who adds a sexual undertone to the way the women of the town relate to Mr Dimmesdale ("the virgins of his church grew pale around him.")  In fact, the whole character of Dimmesdale was a study in hypocrisy and weakness, contrasted with Hester's quiet determination.  The satire made the book for me, I don't think I would have enjoyed it without it.

The Scarlet Letter is a very good book, so it's a shame that it is burdened with one of the most awful introductions I have ever read, The Custom House.  My edition explained in a preface that Hawthorne felt like his story was too short for publication, so he added a lengthy and tedious introduction in which he relates in detail the personality and appearance of every single person working in a custom house in Salem, and I mean every single detail.  To be fair, it does give some useful information about the time period and there is an interesting moment when Hawthorne 'discovers' the scarlet letter, but on the whole the book would be so much better without it.  I'd honestly advise new readers to the book to simply skip it, in case you get put off what is a very good story.

I'm glad that I picked up A Scarlet Letter.  It's one of those stories that has made it's way into public consciousness, so it was interesting to finally read it for myself.  It's not going to be my favourite classic, but it was well written with interesting themes and it's definitely worth a go.

Source: Personal copy
First Published: 1850
My Edition: Penguin English Library, 2012
Score: 3.5 out of 5

The Classics Club:  Book 12/72
My list of classics to read is here.

Sunday 21 July 2013

Sam Sunday #23: Almost the Holidays

I've had a great weekend!  I can't remember the last time I felt this relaxed, what with all the stress I've had this year so far for one reason or another.  Yesterday I went shopping with my parents and then today my husband and I took a walk to the farm shop and laid around watching episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  I have also taken two naps this weekend, which is very unusual for me but has helped to finally beat that end-of-term exhaustion I've been fighting for the last few weeks.

Another reason I'm happy is that I only have three working days to go before my six week summer holiday.  This academic year has felt like a long one and I'm excited to have time off to relax and be something other than a teacher.  I do have mixed feelings this year as my class are leaving primary school for good on Tuesday.  I'm especially attached to this bunch of kids because they were my very first class after qualifying four years ago and I taught them last year too.  That means I've spent three years in total with them and I've seen them grow up and change in lots of different ways and I will miss seeing them next year.  Teaching is such an all involving job anyway and to get to spend three years with a great set of children, day in day out, is something special.  I'm sure I will cry on Tuesday!

Looking ahead to the holidays, I have a lot of great things planned.  It's my sister's 30th birthday, our second wedding anniversary and I'm also planning to meet up with a friend who I haven't seen in person since university.  I have grand plans for the amount of books I will read and the amount of reviews I will write but I'm sure the second half of this week at least will be spent sleeping in and doing not much at all.

This week, I've been reading:

Review posted:

Thursday 18 July 2013

The Fairest of Them All by Carolyn Turgeon

Last November, I reviewed a retelling of The Little Mermaid story, Mermaid by Carolyn Turgeon.  I enjoyed the atmospheric writing, so I was pleased to be approached by the publisher to review Turgeon's newest book, The Fairest of Them All.  A blending of the Rapunzel and Snow White fairy tales, The Fairest of Them All imagines that Rapunzel was Snow White's step-mother.  Bought up by Mathena, who she believes to have her best interests at heart, Rapunzel falls for Prince Josef after a chance meeting in the forest.  Too naive to know the difference between love and lust, she uses an enchantment to create a bond between them that eventually leads to their marriage after the death of his wife in suspicious circumstances.  Her new step-daughter Snow White brings only joy into her life.  Rapunzel has everything she thought she ever dreamed of, but did Mathena really have her best interests at heart?  

One of the things I really enjoyed about The Fairest of Them All was Rapunzel's character development.  She starts out the novel as an extremely innocent and gullible young girl and learns the hard way that life isn't a bed of roses, and that what we want may not always be the best thing for us.  In the beginning chapters, I was wondering how Turgeon was going to pull off making Rapunzel the evil step-mother later in the novel, as she is so sympathetic initially.  But the change was gradual and well planned and more importantly, fit with the events in the book.  Rapunzel had a depth of character that she doesn't have in the original fairy tale, Turgeon shows her as both good and evil.  This makes it easy to relate to her, even when you don't agree with her.

In fact, all of the characters were more developed than they were in the originals.  Life for them was more realistic, with difficult decisions and set-backs.  Rapunzel's struggle to have a child and all the emotions that went with it felt believable.  Some gritty, real-life things happen (especially to Snow White at the end of the novel) and you got the sense that the characters could have had different endings, if only they had made different decisions.  I loved that Turgeon added this depth to the fairy tales, whilst still keeping the fairy-tale atmosphere through the descriptions of the forest and the way the seasons were used as a back drop to the plot.

Whilst reading The Fairest of Them All, I couldn't help but compare it to Kate Forsyth's Bitter Greens, which blends the Rapunzel fairy tale with elements of historical fiction.  I thoroughly enjoyed The Fairest of Them All, even more so than Mermaid, as it was well written, engaging and contained interesting moral ambiguity, but I do think that Bitter Greens was a more innovative way of retelling the Rapunzel story.

You will enjoy The Fairest of Them All if:
  • You enjoyed fairy tales as a child.
  • You enjoy complex characters who change due to the events they experience.
  • You like the darker side of fairy stories.
  • You don't mind a bit of moral ambiguity.
Source: From the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.
Publication Date: 6th August 2013
Score: 4 out of 5

Sunday 14 July 2013

Sam Sunday #22

Just a quick update this weekend.  I'm feeling really run down as the end of term approaches and to be honest, I could curl up in a ball and hibernate for the next week or so!  I have a super busy week coming up too, with two late evenings at work for parents' evenings, a school production and a sports day. But on the positive side of things, it is my last full working week before the summer holidays finally arrive.

As you can tell from the photo, we braved decorating during the hot weather and now have a base coat on all the walls and ceiling of the main bedroom.  It's just white at the moment, but it looks so much better from having the plaster covered.  In the background, you can also see the shower that I've painted white from a tacky gold.  My husband finishes teaching for the summer earlier than me (he finishes on Thurs, me Weds week), so he's going to continue decorating whilst I'm still working.

I've had a fairly decent reading week, most of it has been taken up by Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter.  Once I got past the awful introduction, I really enjoyed it!
How did last week treat you?

Thursday 11 July 2013

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is one of my favourite authors.  In fact, I love her so much that I bought the hardback edition of Americanah, despite already having an electronic review copy.  That's love people; I never normally do that.  I was almost scared to start reading this book as I like her other titles so much I was worried this one wouldn't live up to my expectations.  I shouldn't have worried; whilst it wasn't quite up there with Half of a Yellow Sun, it was still an exceptionally good book.

Ifemelu and Obinze met at secondary school in Lagos, Nigeria, and fell in love.  But the political situation in Nigeria under a military dictatorship meant that the only viable option for young people was to get out if you could.  Ifemelu manages to get a visa to study in America and despite her best intentions, the experience changes her and pushes her away from Obinze.  America is far from a land paved with gold and Ifemelu's experience as a new migrant is a tough one, full of struggle.  Meanwhile, Obinze eventually makes it to the UK but faces a battle to stay there.  When they are finally reunited in Nigeria years later, their experiences have changed them forever.

Americanah is one of the best books I have ever read on the migrant experience.  Ifemelu is a remarkably perceptive character and through her, Adichie is able to articulate the subtle prejudices faced by immigrants in Western society.  Ifemelu comments that she never felt black until she reached America, that she was surprised at the approach to education, that relaxing her hair could have an impact on whether or not she was given a job.  I loved that Adichie included Ifemelu's blog posts on the subject of race, they were fascinating to read.  The culture clash issue that most interested me was around mental health; Ifemelu becomes very depressed at one stage in the novel and she refuses to accept it because the Nigerian attitude is very different to the American one.  Of course, she can't tell any of her relatives back home as they would just tell her that she is lucky to be in the US at all.

Compared to Ifemelu, Obinze gets very little page time.  This was a bit of a shame, as I enjoyed reading about his experiences in the UK and his attempts to arrange a sham marriage in order to stay. However, Ifemelu's voice was the more authentic one, it almost seemed as though it drew on the author's own experiences.  Ifemelu comes across as both intelligent and sympathetic, and is a very relatable main character.

If you can't tell yet, I adored this book despite it being a 450+ page beast of a thing.  However, I did feel that it lacked the raw emotion of Purple Hibiscus or Half of a Yellow Sun.  It felt like Adichie's best written and most perceptive book, but I didn't connect with the central love story in the way I connected with Kambili's coming of age in Purple Hibiscus.  It still comes highly recommended - get yourself to a bookshop and grab a copy!

Source: Personal copy & review copy from Netgalley
First Published: 2013
Score: 4.5 out of 5 

Monday 8 July 2013

Watchmen by Alan Moore

What if superheroes weren't perfect?  First published in 1986, Alan Moore's The Watchmen is a graphic novel classic as it took the superhero convention and turned it on it's head.  The Watchmen are a group of self-appointed superheroes, only one of whom has any special powers, and that was by accident.  All of them have their own issues; Rorschach is deeply conservative and hates society, the Comedian has committed some outright atrocities and Dr Manhattan is incapable of empathy.  The story opens with the murder of the Comedian and the suspicion that there might be a mask-killer, someone out to get the superheroes/vigilantes.  Whilst Rorschach investigates, the West teeters closer to a nuclear showdown with the Soviet Union.  But is a morally ambiguous world worth saving?  And does the end always justify the means?

I picked up The Watchmen from the library because my husband practically forced it on me!  In many ways, I wasn't the right reader for this book as I didn't grow up with comics.  I like graphic novels but I'm not especially drawn to superhero ones and I'm not particularly familiar with the conventions of comics.  So I'm sure a lot of the genre changing/ challenging elements went right over my head!  That said, I still enjoyed The Watchmen as it is at heart a good story that makes the reader think.  I was surprised at how my opinion of certain characters changed over the course of the story (I didn't expect to ever like Rorschach but I did by the end) and at how much I found myself questioning the actions and motivations of the key players.  I do like a book that makes me think, a book that shows the world as something apart from black and white.

However, I did have a few issues with The Watchmen.  Like I mentioned earlier, the impact of the plot on the comic genre was completely lost on me and making superheroes flawed is hardly a new idea now.  I had to keep reminding myself that this was the original and that the newer stories are the copies.  I thought the ending was silly (apparently the film ending is different?).  The main female character, Laurie, was criminally under-used and just seemed to be there to get in a bit of romantic motivation.  All of the male watchmen had interesting back stories; she was boring and under-developed by comparison.  I also didn't love the old-fashioned style of drawing:

Fans of The Watchmen should take my criticism with a pinch of salt because I wasn't the ideal reader for this book.  What I will say is that the plot and characters have somehow managed to worm their way into my brain without me realising it, because I'm still thinking about them almost a week later.  Overall, The Watchmen wasn't a perfect read for me but it was definitely thought provoking and I'm glad I picked it up.

Source: Library
First Published: 1986
Edition Read: Titan Books, 2007
Score: 3.5 out of 5.

Sunday 7 July 2013

Sam Sunday #21: Summer is Here

Summer has finally arrived and I've been enjoying it this week.  On Wednesday, I took my class of Year  6's on their final primary school trip to an adventure sports venue.  We did high ropes (petrifying), kayaking and lots of other such activities. It was an amazing day, my class only have two and a bit weeks now until they leave the school for good and I will really miss them.  I could have done without the major hay fever attack the day spent outdoors bought on though -on Thursday I looked as though I had been punched in the eye!

Then on Saturday my parents hosted a barbecue and today we've been doing yet more decorating.  In fact, we've done so much decorating recently that I should consider making it a regular feature of my Sunday posts!  I've been painting window frames and shower frames this weekend, boring stuff that has to get done so we can paint the bedroom walls and then get the new carpet laid.  Hopefully the bedroom will be done before the month is over.  Whilst my paint is drying, I'm enjoying the Wimbledon final.

I've been a picky reader this week, starting lots of books but then putting them down again.  I solved my pickiness by finally reading Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, one of my favourite authors.  Expect a glowing review next week :)

This week, I've been reading:

Review posted:

Wednesday 3 July 2013

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

I needed a lighter read last week, and Eleanor & Park has been taking the blogosphere by storm lately.  Set in the 80s, it's about teenager Eleanor, who has moved back in with her mother a year after being kicked out by her stepfather.  On her first day at school, Park offers her a seat next to him on the bus to save her from the ridicule of the other kids.  An unlikely friendship forms as the pair bond over mix tapes and comic books.  Their friendship soon grows into something more, and this becomes the one bright spot in Eleanor's life.

Mostly, I loved Eleanor & Park.  Mu husband and I got together as teenagers (I was 17, he was 18) and even though it's now almost ten years later, reading this book took me back to the early days, to what falling in love for the first time feels like.  How you can agonise for ages over whether to hold someone's hand, how swapping music recommendations and developing a shared taste can be really exciting.  Rowell perfectly captures the innocence and fear of first love.

I also loved how the characters felt very real and their relationship developed slowly over time.  It wasn't just   *bang* they meet and fall in love, there was a nice progression.  Adding in the unhappiness of Eleanor's home life could have turned her into a cliche, but thankfully she was too three dimensional for that.   Park was very real too, battling between his feelings for Eleanor and his desire to fit in with other kids.

The only issue I have with this book is that the second half of the book didn't live up to the first.  The experience of actually falling in love was written so well that what came after it was bound to be a bit of a let down by comparison, and it was.  But on the whole, Eleanor & Park was a lovely, easy to read book that perfectly captured first love.  It definitely lived up to the hype.

Source: Personal copy (kindle)
First Published: 2013
Score: 4 out of 5