Saturday 31 August 2013


I can't believe I've been blogging for three years and have yet to take part in R.I.P (Readers Imbibing Peril), an annual autumnal event in which bloggers read creepy books appropriate for the colder weather.  It runs throughout September and October and is hosted by Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings.  I'll be taking part in the Peril the First challenge, which means I'll be reading at least four books from the following genres:
  • mystery
  • suspense
  • thriller
  • dark fantasy
  • gothic
  • horror 
  • supernatural
I had a look at my shelves this morning and I was surprised to see just how many books I own that fit the above.  I discounted old favourites like Dracula, my Stephen King books and The Historian, as I'm more in the mood for new reads.  After much pruning, my pool of possible reads looks like this.  I'm not planning to read every one of them, they are just options:

From top to bottom (links as always to goodreads):
  1. The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson - I understand this to be a dark, gothic style romance?  It has black edged pages, so it must be!  I've owned this for years and I know that lots of people love it.
  2. The Turn of the Screw by Henry James - I will definitely read this.  I like to read one spooky classic each Halloween and this is also on my classics club list.
  3. Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch - I might be pushing the boundaries of the challenge a bit with this one.  It's urban fantasy with both crime elements and grisly murders, so I guess it's dark fantasy?  Plus, I really want to start this series.
  4. Let the Right One In by John Aajvide Lindqvist - This is one of my husband's favourite books.  I like vampire stories, so I'm interested in trying it.  I haven't seen the film(s).
  5. Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion - This was on my Bout of Books short-list too, but I just didn't get to it.  Maybe this time...
  6. Witch Light by Susan Fletcher - I enjoyed Fletcher's Eve Green, so I might pick up this one about a Scottish woman in the seventeenth century accused of witchcraft.
  7. Fevre Dream by George R.R. Martin - I adore Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire Series, so a friend got me this one for my birthday.  Vampires on a Mississippi steamboat, it sounds perfect for the challenge.  I will probably read this one.
  8. Sundays with Vlad by Paul Bibeau - I read half of this a few years ago, and would like to finish it.  It's my only non-fiction pick, where Bibeau writes about his quest to find Vlad Dracula.
  9. Reckless by Cornelia Funke - I love the Inkheart series, so I'm keen to try this series.  As far as I know, it's set in a darker fairy tale type world.
  10. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern - I've had this since it came out but still haven't read it.  One day!
Have you read any of these?  If you have, I'd love to hear what you thought of them, so I can narrow down my list a bit more.  If you're taking part in RIP, what are you planning to read?

Friday 30 August 2013

Dare Me by Megan Abbott

Beth Cassidy is the best friend of Addy Hanlon, undisputed Queen of the cheer-leading team.  When a new coach arrives, one who is determined to push the team to their limits, tough, power-hungry Addy feels like her superiority is being challenged.  But Coach isn't one to back down and Beth soon finds herself caught in the middle of a power-play between Addy and Coach, in which Addy will stop at nothing to be the victor.  As the girls on the team push themselves to be faster, harder and thinner, Beth has to decide what the right thing to do is, and whether she herself wants to play Addy's games.

I picked up Dare Me because I remember seeing positive reviews of it on other blogs, and knew that it would be much darker than a book about a group of teenage cheerleaders might appear to be.  And indeed it was.  Everything about it, from the writing style to the plot and characters was the very opposite of a cheesy teenage novel.  The girls in Dare Me are tough and determined, uncaring about who they hurt and unthinking of the consequences of their actions.  Addy was once their Queen Bee but then Coach takes that role and the girls starve themselves, binge drink, force themselves to be sick and even make out with boys based on the Coach's wishes.  Dare Me is all about the power dynamics in groups of teenage girls and it is truly unflinching in the way that it portrays them.  

Dare Me is full of twists and turns and most of them were genuinely surprising.  I had guessed the ending of the novel, the reason Addy had such power over Beth, but I was in the dark about the central mystery of the novel involving a police investigation (I won't say any more as I don't want to spoil anyone).  Beth's characterisation was very subtle, she came across as a victim of Addy and then the Coach's manipulations initially, but as the novel progressed we got to see another side of her.

Megan Abbott's writing in Dare Me is very distinctive.  Like her characters, it pulls no punches with it's long sentences full of vivid description;

"I'd forgotten what throwing up could be like, the kind where you're not, Emily-style, nuzzling your finger down your fish-tailing throat, begging for release from the dreaded sluice of cupcakes or from the acidic sludge of too many Stoli Citronas - cheer beer, they call it, we call it.No, this is throwing up like coming off the tilt-a-whirl at age seven, like discovering that dead rat under the porch, like finding out someone you loved never loved you at all."

You see what I mean?  I was very impressed with the writing, which seemed to sum up the mindset of the characters so perfectly.  It's a while since I've read a book with such blunt writing and I'm definitely going to be looking out for more books by Abbott.  The only criticisms I would make of this book is that the final resolution seemed a bit contrived (to me), but apart from that I loved it and read it in pretty much one sitting.  Recommended for anyone who likes darker novels full of twists and turns.

Source: Library
First Published: 2012
Edition Read: Pan Macmillan, 2012
Score: 4 out of 5

Read Alongside:
  1. The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides - I read this pre-blogging and it's one of my favourites.  Eugenides also examines the darker side of adolescence and although his writing is more dreamy, Abbott's descriptions reminded me of Eugenides in some places.
  2. The People of Forever are not Afraid by Shani Boianjiu - This book was long-listed for the Women's Prize for Fiction 2013 and follows three female conscripts to the Israeli army.  The blunt writing style and unflinching look at relationships make this a good companion read to Dare Me.

Thursday 29 August 2013

A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick

In 1907, rural businessman Ralph Truitt places the following advert in the newspaper; "Country businessman seeks reliable wife.  Compelled by practical reasons.  Reply by letter."  He is answered by Catherine, who claims to be a 'simple, honest woman', the daughter of missionaries.  She arrives by train in the middle of winter, but isn't who she claims to be.  Catherine thinks she is leading Ralph through her own devious scheme, but little does she know that he also has plans and secrets of his own.

I really wanted to like A Reliable Wife, which I read with Elena from Books and Reviews.  I love gothic fiction, so the setting and plot of this book appealed. Unfortunately, I disliked the book almost from the first chapter and although it improved towards the middle, it never became a good read.  The plot itself was fine; it required a little stretching of the imagination in terms of how the main characters all ended up linked, but I could have done that.  Instead, the main issues were with the writing and the characterisation.

Taking the writing first, it just felt so amateurish.  Goolrick tried to make every sentence into a heartfelt statement, with the effect that some of the chapters ended up feeing a bit silly and over the top.  He was a fan of long, overly descriptive sentences followed by very short ones, which again I suppose was for effect, but it didn't really work.  Even worse than this, Goolrick couldn't keep the perspectives straight in the different chapters.  Each chapter was from the point of view of one of three characters, but every now and again someone else's thoughts would find their way in, which was jarring.  For example, when Catherine is returning to Ralph after some time away, we get a lot of description of how she is feeling and then a random sentence about how Ralph 'was struck by her calm'.  How would Catherine know this?  It's a bit of a pet peeve when writers do this, write from one perspective but then can't stick to it.  It ruins the flow of the reading experience.

The other issue I had was the characterisation.  Goolrick's characters simply don't act how people would act in the real world.  Catherine was the most fully formed, she had motivations for her behaviour and seemed to act in a realistic way.  But Ralph and his son simply didn't feel like real people.  Ralph especially, no one would be that calm and forgiving throughout the novel, given the situations Goolrick put him in.  It's almost as though Goolrick wanted the plot to go a certain way, so he invented characters to fit with that, not stopping to consider whether they were realistic.  

So on the whole, I wasn't a fan of A Reliable Wife! As I said, the middle section was better than the beginning and the end and the plot had potential.  It was just a shame about the writing.

Source: Personal copy
First Published: 2009
My Edition: Abacus, 2010
Score: 2 out of 5

Tuesday 27 August 2013

New Books!

I've not been buying books at all the last couple of months but I sure am making up for it now.  In the past week, I have acquired ten new books, and I regret nothing!  Lots of them come from charity shops and the ones that didn't were bought for me by my husband.  In addition to these, I also still need to buy Les Miserables, which I'll be reading at the same time as Jennifer from The Relentless Reader.  From top to bottom (links go to goodreads):

  • 10 Billion by Stephen Emmott - I knew I wanted a copy of this one as soon as I saw it.  It's a short book full of graphs, photos and pieces of text about what will happen once the human population reaches the size of ten billion.  I wanted this one so much I actually paid full price for it, new, and that hardly ever happens!  If you're in a bookshop and you see this one, it is well worth at least flicking through.
  • Out of Africa by Karen Blixen/Isak Dinesen - This is my classics club spin book, so I had to buy a copy.  I'm excited about reading this, I got lucky and spun a book from my 'books I can't wait to read' section.  I got a second-hand old style penguin from Abe Books.
  • Shirley by Charlotte Bronte - Charlotte Bronte is my favourite author, ever, but I still haven't read all of her books and that needs to change.  This is from a charity shop, another old Penguin edition.
  • The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter - I've been taking a Canvas Network course on fairy tales over the summer (which has been awesome) and it's got me interested in fairy tale retellings.  I've not read any Angela Carter before, but I know they are darker than the originals.  This one is also from the charity shop.

I am in love with the Penguin orange spine range of non-fiction books, I could read all of them.  They were three for two in the book shop, so my husband treated me to three of my choice.  It was extremely difficult to pick.
  • The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett - This one looks thought provoking. It's subtitled 'why equality is better for everyone' and looks at the difference between equal and unequal societies in things like mental health, teenage pregnancy, violence and illiteracy.  
  • Connectome by Sebastian Seung - I am so excited for this one.  I studied neuroscience at university so this title about how the wiring of the brain could be a factor in our emotions, memories and mental health definitely appeals.  My neuroscience knowledge is out of date now, so hopefully this will be a good refresher.
  • Justice by Michael J. Sandel - I got this one because my husband was super keen to read it, although I am interested too.  It's about moral and ethical issues like gay marriage, euthanasia and abortion.
And finally, I have also acquired:
  • The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller -  I read a lot of books from the library and keep a list of the library books I've read that I would like to own.  Every month, I let myself buy one of those books.  The Song of Achilles was probably my favourite book of 2012 (my review), so I needed to get my own copy.  This copy is second hand, also from Abe Books
  • Villette by Charlotte Bronte (the slim red hardback).  The reason Charlotte Bronte is my favourite author is because Villette is the best book I have ever, ever read.  I read it on my kindle, and I haven't been able to find a copy I liked enough to buy.  So I was lucky to stumble upon this old copy in a charity shop.
  • The Book of the Thousand and One Nights by Sir Richard Burton - Another old book.  I am well on my way to starting a collection of Arabian Nights books, I already have a 19th century version and a fancy Penguin one.  But the Richard Burton one is by far the best (in my opinion), and I don't own that version yet.  This copy was from a charity shop and is full of wonderful illustrations:

I don't know which book to start with!  I also have about ten books checked out from the library, so I can spend the last week and a bit of my holiday swimming in books.

Have you read any of these titles?  If so, what did you think?

Sunday 25 August 2013

French Milk by Lucy Knisley

French Milk is a non-fiction graphic novel that focuses on six weeks the author, Lucy Knisley, spent in Paris with her mother one summer.  Lucy is in her early twenties and her Mum is about to turn fifty.  The book itself is a diary of all their experiences in Paris, from visiting the sights to eating lots of delicious French food.  But as it is a diary, it also contains Lucy's own reflections about her life and the future.

I was expecting to enjoy French Milk as I love graphic novels, travel and food, but I wasn't expecting to relate to Lucy as much as I did and enjoy it on a deeper level, too.  In between the entries about visiting Oscar Wilde's grave, admiring the artwork at the Lourve and shopping at vintage markets, Lucy writes with honesty about the experience of travelling and how she feels about her life.  On one early page, she sends a homesick email to her boyfriend, only to get a "you're having the experience of a life-time, you should be enjoying it!" sort of reply.  This so corresponds with my own experience of travel; every-time I have gone abroad for a longer period of time I have had travellers guilt about missing home and finding some things hard, even though I knew that I was having the most wonderful experience that I would look back on for years to come.  I liked that Lucy was honest about this part of travel and also about the little things, like thinking of Walt Disney when visiting Notre Dame.

But what I related to most was Lucy's relationship with her mother and how she felt about her future.  She's at that stage you get to in your early-twenties if you have been to university, where you are starting to really grow up and be more independent, but you're still attached to your parents and you still regress to being a teenager whenever you see them.  Lucy writes about being childish when she visits her parents home at the beginning of the book and sometimes needs her Mum to comfort her when she's feeling overwhelmed by the future.  When I was 23, I was living with my boyfriend and was deemed responsible enough to be in charge of 30 children on my own all day, but I would still phone my Mum for washing machine instructions and after cooking disasters.  Knisley perfectly captures that phase of your life, when your relationship with your parents starts to change.

The parts about Paris itself were lovely, too.  I've only been to Paris once and definitely need to go back one day.  This book had me thinking about all of the things I would want to do once I got there.  The drawing style was more Persepolis than super-hero, which fits my personal preferences:

On the whole, French Milk was enjoyable and successful both as a travelogue and as a memoir about a stage in the authors life.  I just whizzed through it and am excited to pick up Knisley's other graphic novel, Relish.

Source:  Personal copy
First Published: 2007
My Edition: Touchstone, 2008
Score: 4.5 out of 5

Saturday 24 August 2013

Bout of Books 8.0 Update #2

I've been having fun with Bout of Books all week.  Normally I am a strictly monogamous sort of reader but when I am off work, I find that I'm much more able to read multiple things at once and still keep up with the plots of all of them.  I've not read constantly, but I have been enjoying the reading I have managed to fit in.  At the moment, I've finished two books and am mid-way through two more.

After my last update on Wednesday, I continued with The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan and A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick.  I've been reading A Reliable Wife with Elena this week and she has already finished it.  I'm a bit behind as I've been reading maybe 20-50 pages or so a day rather than focusing all my attention on it.  I wasn't a fan of the opening sections as the writing is pretty weak at times, but it has improved as I have gone on.  I'm currently 166 pages in and have just over a hundred left.  I will probably finish this one today.

I'm still loving my reread of The Eye of the World, the first book in the Wheel of Time series.  Before starting it I could remember literally nothing (I first read it about seven years ago) but it's surprising how quickly it has all come back.  There's nothing like epic fantasy to escape to in the holidays.  I'm currently 327 pages in, which is not even half way yet.

And then this morning I visited the library to pick up some holds, one of which was Storybook Love, the third volume in the Fables series, about fairytale characters living in secret in New York.  Graphic novels are perfect for readathons so I picked it up straight away and literally flew through it.  I found it to be a mixed bag, I loved two of the four stories, but the other two felt like filler.  It was 190 pages.

I'm hoping for some quality reading time this weekend as my husband is at the Frightfest film festival, which is basically a five day long festival of horror films.  Horror films are really not my thing, so I've opted to stay at home.  It is pouring with rain outside and the temperature has dropped, so it's the perfect day to ignore the housework/ prep for September I should be doing and curl up with a book.

If you're doing Bout of Books, how are you getting on?


Books Started: 4
Books Completed: 2 (Dare Me and Storybook Love)
Pages Read: 326 + 190 + 166 + 327 = 1009 (awesome!)

Friday 23 August 2013

The Sea of Monsters by Rick Riordan (Percy Jackson #2)

As soon as I finished reading The Lightning Thief (my review), I went straight on and read The Sea of Monsters.  This review will contain spoilers for both volumes in the series.

At the end of The Lightning Thief, Percy had rescued Zeus' lightning bolt with the help of his friends Annabeth and Grover.  He has learned that it was Luke who betrayed him and attempted to warn the Gods about the threat of Kronos, with no luck.  At the beginning of The Sea of Monsters, Percy begins to get strange dreams about Grover and eventually discovers that Grover is being held captive by a cyclops in the Sea of Monsters.  Also, the tree that protects camp half-blood has been posioned and the suspicion has fallen on Chiron. The only thing that could save it is the Golden Fleece, hidden deep in the Sea of Monsters.  Annabeth and Percy rush to save their friend and their camp, without realising that they might be playing into Luke's hands after all.

The Sea of Monsters is a good sequel to The Lightning Thief, but I didn't enjoy it as much as the first volume.  Having since read all five books in the series, it remains my least favourite.  It is still very good and still full of Riordan's neat little touches, like locating the Sea of Monsters in the Bermuda Triangle, but it's just not as magical.  Although there is a complete adventure in the book, a lot of the plot points are setting up for later events, for example when we find out more about Annabeth, Thalia and Luke, and when we get to see on board Luke's ship.  Percy's world is being expanded by Riordan, but we don't get to see the pay-off of this until later in the series.

Having said that, I loved the characters and character development in this novel.  Having spent the whole of The Lightning Thief thinking that he was the most important demi-god around and that being a child of the Big Three is extremely rare and special, Percy has to deal with the double whammy of both having a half-brother and the return of Thalia, the daughter of Zeus.  His half-brother is a cyclops, which I found interesting, especially as Percy is initially repulsed by this himself.  We get to see him mature a bit as he comes to realise that life is much more complicated than a prophecy.

My favourite scene in the novel was when Annabeth and Percy are sailing past the Sirens, and Annabeth wants to hear the Siren song.  It's just perfect as it reveals so much about her character, her excessive pride and the way she thinks she can do things better even than the Gods. It's good to see that Riordan is creating flawed characters, even though they are demi-gods. The interaction between Percy and Annabeth in the scene makes their friendship stronger and sets up what will happen later on. 

On the whole, The Sea of Monsters is a fun, action packed novel that is still wonderful escapism.  I finished the book eager to move on to the next volume in the series.

Source: Personal copy
First Published: 2006
My Edition: Disney Hyperion, 2008
Score: 4.5 out of 5

Wednesday 21 August 2013

Bout of Books Update: First Two and a Half Days

Already my Bout of Books TBR has gone out of the window!  I started in a good position on Monday as I had just finished a book on Sunday night for the Dog Days of Summer readathon, so I was able to choose whatever book I felt like to read.  I was all set to pick one from the TBR pile when my husband suggested we visit a larger town near us that has the best library ever.  It's in the same county, so my card still works, and they had so many good books that I couldn't resist checking out a few.  When I got home, I started reading Dare Me by Megan Abbott, which I've been meaning to read for ages now.

Dare Me turned out to be a good readathon pick as it's completely addictive.  It's superficially about a group of high school cheerleaders but it's really about obsession and the darker side of adolescence.  I couldn't put it down and finished it up Tuesday lunchtime.

Next, I picked up The Reliable Wife, which I am reading with the lovely Elena from Books and Reviews.  It's about a man who orders a bride but it doesn't go quite as he planned.  It promises to be a gothic type of story and although I like where the plot seems to be going, I'm not a big fan of the writing style so far, especially the point of view shifts mid chapter.  I like it enough to continue it, but it's not turning out to be as good as I had hoped.  I've read 50 pages so far.

And then on a whim, I picked up The Eye of the World last night, book one in the massively epic Wheel of Time series.  I have read this book before, I think I got up to book eight when I was at university and then I abandoned the series when Robert Jordan passed away and what was going to happen with the series seemed uncertain.  However, the series is completed now (fourteen books!) and I really did enjoy them, so for a few months I've been thinking about rereading and then finishing the series.  I picked up The Eye of the World only intending to read a few pages but I was soon sucked in and it's now too late - I'm going to have to read them all!  I'm currently up to page 118.

For the rest of today, I'll be continuing with A Reliable Wife and Eye of the World.

Stats so far:

Books Started: 3
Books Completed: 1 (Dare Me by Megan Abbott)
Pages Read: 326 + 50 + 118 = 494

Tuesday 20 August 2013

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

Northanger Abbey is the story of Catherine Morland, a seventeen year old girl visiting the town of Bath with some family friends.  Having been bought up in a solid, happy family and yet possessed of an imaginative nature, Catherine is completely unprepared for life in town and the reality that people are sometimes not all that they seem.  She quickly enters into a friendship with Isabella Thorpe, who showers plain Catherine with praise and affection and she also fancies herself in love with Henry Tilney from the moment of meeting him.  When she receives an invitation to the Tilney's home, Northanger Abbey, her imagination goes into overdrive as she imagines all sorts of gothic horrors and mysteries awaiting her.  But the real dangers for Catherine lie in the lessons that she must learn about human nature.

My original goal for the Austen in August event was to reread one Austen (I chose Emma) and read one new-to-me Austen, Northanger Abbey.  I'm always a bit hesitant with the Austens I've neither read before nor seen a TV adaptation of; I find Austen fairly challenging as I'm not always good with subtext (much like Catherine!).  But I shouldn't have worried - Northanger Abbey was by far the 'easiest' experience I have had with Austen and I just flew through the book in two days as I couldn't put it down.  It has become my favourite Austen novel, an opinion I know most readers don't share!

I loved Northanger Abbey so much because I loved Catherine.  This probably doesn't reflect too well on me, but Catherine at seventeen could have been me at seventeen.  Like Catherine, I had come from a loving family in which everyone got on and said what they meant, without playing any games.  I was always ready to believe the best of people, give second chances and accept apologies.  I hated being thought badly of myself, so never would have done it to others.  I looked for the positives in my friends, ignoring or not seeing the negatives.  I believed what people told me to the extent that I was officially what you would call gullible.  I lived in a fantasy world of my imagination based on the books I had read and was often not with reality at all.  To tell you the truth, I haven't changed that much since then!  I'm aware that I believe and trust too easily and do attempt to think things through more logically, but it's always a massive shock to me when people betray trust or deliberately deceive or hurt others.  So it was most definitely easy for me to relate to Catherine and put myself in her shoes, even if Austen is poking gentle fun at her for most of the novel.

I also really enjoyed the romance between Catherine and Henry Tilney.  Obviously Catherine thinks of herself as in love with him immediately (I may have been guilty of this in the past, too!) but throughout the novel we get to see the relationship develop slowly as they spend time together, first at Bath then at the Abbey.  They spend a lot of time in each other's company as Catherine becomes friends with him and his sister, and this is when she genuinely does fall in love.  This is how normal relationships work.  Although Henry does sometimes lecture Catherine about the real world, it didn't annoy me as it did when Mr Knightley lectures Emma in Emma.  Henry never aims to embarrass or hurt Catherine, only to gently prod her in the right direction.  When he really could embarrass her (after her imagination runs away with her about his father), he never holds it over her head or uses it against her, showing quite a lot of sensitivity.

When I finished this book, I read Andi's review, in which she points out the difference in intelligence between Catherine and Henry.  Whilst it is true that Catherine isn't Henry's intellectual equal, I think that she offers him something beside that.  As the son of a scheming, manipulative father, Henry is sick and tired of playing games and the acting that being part of society requires.  Catherine is incapable of deception or game playing, and I think this is something to admire.  I particularly liked the scene where she runs across town to Miss Tilney's house as she can't bear that she will think badly of her.

Although we do get to poke fun at Catherine throughout the novel, especially when her over-active imagination gets her into trouble, I was pleased to see her get a happy ending and for things to work out.  Sometimes being quick to trust and think the best of others isn't always a bad thing.

Source: Personal copy
First Published: 1818
My Edition: Modern Library, 2002
Score: 5 out of 5


The Classics Club: Book 15/72

Monday 19 August 2013

Dog Days of Summer Readathon Wrap-Up

Over the weekend, I took part in the Dog Days of Summer Readathon, hosted by the fabulous Estella Society.  It was a forty-eight hour readathon and whilst I did read more than usual, I didn't read solidly through the daylight hours.  However, I'm pleased that I managed to start and finish two books, both of which were from the stack of books I had wanted to read at the beginning of the challenge.  Both were also books I already owned, which is awesome as that's another two off the TBR!

I read The Last Olympian by Rick Riordan first, the final book in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series.  It's 381 action-packed pages and took all of Saturday and half of Sunday to read, off and on.  It was a great pick for a readathon as it's pacy and a very quick read for the page count, meaning I felt like I was making excellent progress.  I've loved the whole Percy Jackson series, and The Last Olympian was a fitting ending.

I finished The Last Olympian early on Sunday afternoon and decided to try to read another whole book by the end of the day.  French Milk was a good choice, as it's a graphic novel/travelogue recounting the author's experiences living in France for six weeks with her mother.  I was expecting to like this book but actually I connected with it in a much deeper way than I thought I would.  I can't wait to pick up Relish, as soon as possible.

In total, I finished two books with a total of 574 pages.  More importantly, I enjoyed both books and had a blast reading much more than I usually would.  
Thanks to all at The Estella Society for hosting the readathon, it was a great way to spend a weekend.

Sunday 18 August 2013

The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan (Percy Jackson #1)

Percy Jackson is a twelve year old boy with a bit of a troubled past. Wherever he goes, strange things keep on happening to him, resulting in him being kicked out of every school he has ever attended. When the story starts, Percy is attending Yancy Academy, a private school for troubled children.  When the class go on a field trip with their Latin teacher, he is attacked by a strange mythological creature in a museum and things begin to turn very strange indeed.  Percy's best friend reveals he is a satyr, his Latin teacher is actually a centaur and Percy has to seek protection at Camp Half-Blood as he is a demi-god, the son of a Greek god.  And things aren't going well with the gods....someone has stolen Zeus' lightning bolt and Percy becomes involved with the attempt to rescue it before the summer solstice.

I really enjoyed The Lightning Thief.  It's a fun, action-packed book that doesn't take itself too seriously.  The action starts within a few pages and there's never a dull moment as the story progresses. I like the idea of using Greek mythology to inspire the story and this is cleverly done by Riordan with a few neat touches, such as having Mount Olympus move to whichever country is currently the heart of Western civilisation (thus explaining why it is in America at the moment).  The book is at it's best when the mythology is at the forefront, like when the heroes visit the Underworld.  I liked how Riordan stays true to the original mythology whilst updating it for a modern audience, for example Hades' palace in the Underworld is guarded by Greek and Marine skeleton soldiers.

The Percy Jackson and the Olympians series is billed as the 'American Harry Potter' and there certainly are similarities between the two stories.  There's a mysterious prophecy about Percy he isn't allowed to hear yet, one of his best friends is an extremely smart girl, he has black hair and green eyes, strange things happened to him as a child etc etc.  Even though the similarities are there, it really didn't read like a Harry Potter rip off to me and the world created by Riordan based on Greek mythology is sufficiently different from the magical world of J.K. Rowling for it not to matter.  

In fact, I just loved The Lightning Thief.  If you don't take it too seriously and just strap yourself in for the ride, it's a fun, engrossing book that will leave you wanting to reach for the next one in the series immediately. Yes, the book is a bit heavy handed with the clues (especially about which of the Gods is Percy's father) and the monsters are a bit easy to defeat, but it's total comfort reading and perfect escapism.  I loved losing myself for a few days in this book.

Source: Personal copy
First Published: 2005
My Edition: Disney Hyperion, 2006
Score: 5 out of 5 (for pure fun)

Saturday 17 August 2013

Readathon Sign-Ups and Goals


I'm going to be participating in two readathons this week; the Dog Days of Summer Readathon hosted by The Estella Society and Bout of Books 8.0.  I'm still on summer holiday and was planning to read a lot anyway, so taking part in the readathons was an easy decision.

I am a fickle reader and I don't really like the pressure of setting goals for myself.  In fact, my only goal is going to be to read as much as I feel like it, when I feel like it.  I'm not going to aim for a page count or number of books, I'm just going to allow myself to read whenever I feel like it without feeling guilty about it.  When it comes to books I want to read, I've decided to focus on unread books off my shelf rather than kindle books, library books or review copies.  I've picked out some books that I think I might feel like reading but it's not set in stone; I'll read what I feel like and so may end up reading something completely different.

Here are the books that are taking my fancy at the moment:

From top to bottom (links to goodreads):
  1. Across the Empty Quarter by Wilfred Thesiger - I've had the complete set of the Penguin Great Journeys books for years without reading any of them.  This one is about survival in the desert in 1947 and is the perfect length for a readathon.
  2. The Last Olympian by Rick Riordan - This is the only book I am certain to read as I just finished book four last night and need to know what happens next.  I'm starting this today and will finish it either today or tomorrow.
  3. Chinese Cinderella by Adeline Yen Mah - I've read a few books by this author so am interested in this autobiography.  Adeline's mother died giving birth to her and so she was made to feel unwelcome and unwanted.
  4. A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick - I've had this book for a loooong time.  It's a gothic story about a mail order bride and I know I will love it, I just need to actually read it.
  5. A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki - This is one of the only books on the Booker prizer long list that interests me.  It's about sixteen year old Nao, who keeps a diary whilst she is bullying, which is later washed up by the 2011 Tsunami.
  6. A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo - This is about Zhuang, a recent arrival in London who falls in love with an older Englishman.  The book is actually structured as a dictionary, which I think is rather cool.
  7. Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion - This was a birthday present back in March.  It's not my usual type of read, but I have been assured I will like it.
  8. French Milk by Lucy Knisley - Graphic novels are perfect for readathons.  This is about Lucy's travels in France with her mother.
Have you read any of these?
Which ones should I definitely make time for next week?

Friday 16 August 2013

Classics Club Spin #3

I've decided to take part in the third Classics Club Spin.  Basically, you list twenty books from your classics club list and then on Monday, a random number will be posted on the Classics Club website.  The challenge is then to read the book that number corresponds to by October 1st.  I'm excited to take part again as last time, I spun Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier, which I absolutely loved.  I hope the spin is as kind to me this time...

There are no rereads in my list.

Five Books I Can't Wait to Read:
1. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall - Anne Bronte
2. The Good Earth - Pearl Buck
3. Their Eyes Were Watching God - Zora Neale Hurston
4. Out of Africa - Isak Dinesen
5. The Painted Veil - W. Somerset Maugham

Five Books I Am Neutral About:
6. Les Miserables - Victor Hugo
7. Peter Pan - J.M. Barrie
8. The Awakening - Kate Chopin
9. Goodbye to Berlin - Christopher Isherwood
10. Brave New World - Aldous Huxley

Five Books I Am Dreading/ Need a Push to Start:
11. Moby Dick - Herman Melville
12. The Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas
13. Hard Times - Charles Dickens
14. Orlando - Virginia Woolf
15. Tess of D'Ubervilles - Thomas Hardy

Five Random Selections Using a Random Number Generator:
16. Turn of the Screw - Henry James
17. Kim - Rudyard Kipling
18. Persuasion - Jane Austen
19. Little Dorrit - Charles Dickens (not another Dickens!)
20. Bonjour Tristesse - Francoise Sagan

Are you taking part in the classics club spin?
Leave a link to your list if you are, I love looking at other people's lists.

Tuesday 13 August 2013

Emma by Jane Austen

I wanted to kick off my participation in Adam's Austen in August event with a reread of one of the three Austen books I have already read (Pride & Prejudice, Emma and Sense & Sensibility).   In the end I went for Emma; I had read it only once before and think I was so caught up in the life of Emma herself that I missed a lot of the secondary plot on the first try.  Emma may give her name to the title of the book but it is really a novel about the society of Highbury and all of the people in it.  Following the marriage of her governess to Mr Weston, Emma considers herself something of a matchmaker and delights in matching her new friend Harriet Smith with various men.  Despite the warnings of her good friend Mr Knightley, Emma meddles in the business of all her neighbours, with some unforeseen consequences for her own personal happiness.

Warning - there are spoilers in this review.

Emma is definitely a novel that benefits from a re-read.  The first time I read it, the announcement that Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax were engaged took me completely by shock, as I had spent the story believing everything Emma herself believed.  This gave the ending of the novel, and Emma's realisation that she might have ruined her own happiness, power that it didn't have on this second read, as I knew it was coming.  But instead, this time, I was able to fully appreciate the skill with which Austen puts in all the little clues, that tell the reader one thing, whilst allowing Emma to believe another.  She slowly doles out these clues bit by bit, never drawing too much attention to them and they gradually build up.  It's very clever writing.

One thing that often comes up in reviews of Emma is that Emma herself isn't the most likeable of characters.  She is certainly flawed; over-confident, not very perceptive and too lazy to become accomplished at anything (a crime in Austen's day!).  She appears at her worst when she is persuading Harriet to turn down an offer of marriage from a man she loves mainly so that Harriet can still be around Emma every-day.  But despite all of this, I really liked Emma on the first read and I liked her more so on the second.  She isn't perfect and that's what I like about her, and it's what makes her so easy to relate to.   Austen takes pains to show us that Emma's heart is in the right place (most of the time) and the fact that she has flaws allows some great character development;

"With insufferable vanity had she believed herself in the secret of everyone's feelings; with unpardonable arrogance proposed to arrange everybody's destiny.  She was proved to have been universally mistaken; and she had not quite done nothing - for she had done mischief."

I feel like I am finally getting to the point now where I am starting to fully understand just why everyone loves Austen so much.  I have always liked the novels of hers I have read, but I never really got the wit in the stories before, or the subtle commentary on society of the time.  As Emma is about such a broad range of people and we get to see them both as they really are, and through Emma's flawed perception, I'm finally realising how clever and brilliant Austen's writing is.  I enjoyed every single page of Emma and didn't want it to end.  On this read, it's jumped straight to the top of my 'favourite books by Jane Austen' mental list.

Next up for Austen in August: Northanger Abbey.

Source: Personal copy
First Published: 1816
My Edition: Penguin Threads, 2011
Score: 5 out of 5

The Classics Club: Book 14 out of 72
My list of 72 classics is here.
This book was read as part of the Austen in August event.

Monday 12 August 2013

Library Visit

What are summer holidays without a trip to the library or two?  I've been trying to buy less books recently as my bookshelves are officially full and I need to operate a one-in one-out policy, which is hard for me as I'm a total book hoarder.  So when the urge to acquire books strikes, I visit the library instead.  

My library actually has a very good classics section.  On the whole I like to own the classics I read as I like to highlight as I go, but I couldn't resist these two from the Penguin Victorian Bestsellers series.  To be honest, I will probably end up buying all ten of the books in this series as I just love Victorian sensation novels.  For now, I have the following two to read (links go to goodreads):

1. The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole - Man sends his wife to a convent in order to marry the intended bride of his recently deceased sons.  The story promises to include bleeding statues and skeletal ghouls.  It sounds perfect!
2. The String of Pearls by Thomas Preskett Prest - The original Sweeney Todd, including a woman who dresses as a man in order to gain access to Sweeney Todd's premises.

The library also had The Mysteries of Udolpho from the same series, I'm starting to wish I had bought that one home too!

The rest of my picks are from the historical fiction section.   It used to be my favourite section (as you can tell from my review archives) but recently I've not been in the mood for it.  However, my urge for historical fiction is returning and I had no trouble choosing three to take home:

3. Island Beneath the Sea by Isabelle Allende - I've been meaning to read an Allende for ages and this one about a slave on Saint-Domingue caught my eye. I'm interested in the Haitian Revolution, so I have high hopes for this book.
4. Champollion the Egyptian by Christian Jacq - I used to devour Christian Jacq books as a teenager.  I know he isn't the best writer but I love Champollion (the man who first deciphered hieroglyphs) and so couldn't resist this book.
5. The Death of King Arthur by Peter Ackroyd - This is a modern retelling of Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur.  I know bits and pieces of Arthurian legend, but not as much as I would like.  Ackroyd is also an author I've been meaning to get to for ages now, and I'm looking forward to starting this one.

Good job I am on holiday, and will have plenty of time to read!
The blog should be busy this week as I've got a bit of a back-log of reviews to catch up on, Emma for the Austen in August Event and then the first three Percy Jackson books.  I'm also part of the way through Northanger Abbey, so I have plenty of reviews to write.

Sunday 11 August 2013

Sam Sunday #26: The Bedroom is Done!

Yes, that's right.  After almost three months, the main bedroom in our house is finally completed to the point where we can move back in!  We have stripped out fitted wardrobes, had the walls and ceilings re-plastered (there was some dodgy artex going on), added new coving and skirting boards, had new carpet fitted, painted the windows from mahogany to white, bought and assembled a complete new set of bedroom furniture, put up new curtains and even installed a new radiator and plug sockets.  It has been a mammoth job, and aside from the plastering and carpet fitting, we have done everything ourselves.  The only thing in the bedroom that we had before was the bed, everything else is new or different. Of course, the room still needs finishing touches and a bit of personality, but I am just majorly relieved to have all of the big stuff done.  And my book room can now be a book room, rather than a home for all our clothes etc.

New wardrobes :)

My favourite piece of furniture, the new chest of drawers.

Slightly random photo, but this picture best shows the colour of the walls.

And the best part - a whole wardrobe full of dresses.  I live in dresses, saves the trouble of matching tops and bottoms.

The cat is loving finding all of the new places he can explore.

I'm looking forward to adding all of the finishing touches, that's the nice part about decorating.  I have a Song of Ice and Fire print that will be going on the wall, as well as some pictures.  I need to get some new photo frames for the bed-side tables, a mirror for on top of the chest of drawers and possibly some flowers too.

It feels extremely satisfying to have one room in the house done the way we like it.  The rest of the house needs similar treatment, but not for the next few months or so!

Saturday 10 August 2013

Tampa by Alissa Nutting

Tampa is certainly a controversial book.  New English teacher Celeste Price is young, attractive and married to a rich and handsome man.  But her life is consumed by her desire to have sex with fourteen year old boys.  Every single decision she makes is designed to bring this closer to reality; she accepts a run-down classroom because it has a lockable door, she drugs her husband because the idea of sex with him repulses her and she spends a small fortune on anti-ageing treatments that she doesn't need in order to look as young as possible.  When the first term of the academic year begins, Celeste begins to search for a teenage boy that fits her criteria, so that her years of preparation will not have been in vain.

I wasn't expecting to, but I found Tampa to be a disturbing book.  It's narrated in the first person and takes you right inside the head of Celeste, which isn't a happy place to be.  Her whole life is based on sex and the possibility of sex with teenage boys, literally every single decision she makes comes down to this.  Her sexual fantasies and later experiences are related in detail in a graphic way.  It wasn't this detail about sex that bothered me, more how all-encompassing, intense and yet clinical it was, and how disturbing some of her fantasies were (and not just because they were about teenage boys, even if it was about men this book would be disturbing).  Nutting isn't pulling any punches in Tampa and you can tell that from the cover alone.  She picks you up, drops you in Celeste's head and although it's a fascinating, authentic and excellent character study, it leaves you feeling grimy afterwards, like you need to wash out your brain.  There is a lot of sex in this book, but there is absolutely nothing sexy about it. I admire what Nutting has done in creating the character of Celeste and shining a spotlight on female sex offenders, but Tampa isn't a book that you can enjoy reading.

What I most appreciated about Tampa was the way it highlights the sexual double standard in society when it comes to cases of this kind.  When Celeste is eventually caught and taken to trial, her crime isn't taken seriously by some of the commentators, because doesn't every 'hot blooded' teenage male want to bed an attractive teacher?  This double standard is everywhere and it really bothers me.  Her defence lawyer even argues that Celeste is too beautiful to go to prison, as she would be in danger of being raped by other inmates.  No one would ever make this argument to defend a male sex offender! So although Tampa is difficult to read and extremely graphic, it definitely shines a light on the way we think of male and female sex offenders as a society, and that alone makes it worth reading.

As Tampa is basically an in-depth character study of a female psychopath, the secondary characters aren't developed properly and there's no real character development for Celeste herself.  This began to bother me in the latter half of the novel, as I would loved to have found out what Celeste's husband and victims were really feeling, but we only get to see them through Celeste's distorted eyes.  Celeste really has no empathy for the boys she abuses and even when some disturbing things (aside from her abuse) happen in the later stages of the book, she's unable to show any remorse or think about anything apart from her sex drive.  This gets wearying for the reader by the end of the novel.

This is one of the longest reviews I've written in a while because if nothing else, Tampa is a book that you will have opinions about.  I am of the opinion that the graphic nature of the novel is needed in order to really shine a light on female sexual predators and the double standard our society has towards them.  I didn't enjoy reading it, but I thought it was an excellent character study and Nutting certainly is capable of putting you in Celeste's head.

Source: From the publisher, via Netgalley
Published: July 2013
Score: 4 out of 5

Friday 9 August 2013

Fables Volume 2: Animal Farm by Bill Willingham

Fables is a graphic novel series in which a host of fairy-tale characters and mythological creatures have been forced to flee their home lands because of the mysterious Adversary.  They have settled in New York, where they live parallel lives to our own, hiding their powers and gifts.  In the first volume, we met Snow White and followed her journey to find out what had happened to her sister, Rose Red.  In this second volume, Snow and Rose have journeyed to the Farm, home to all of the creatures that can not be hidden in every-day life (think giants and talking animals).  Snow is there on routine business but it soon becomes apparent that not everything is as it should be on the Farm and a violent revolution is brewing, led by the pigs.

I liked Volume One of the Fables series, it didn't set my world alight but I liked it enough to pick up this second volume whilst I was in the library.  I'm a big fan of Orwell's Animal Farm, so I was interested to see how Willingham would pay homage to the novel in his story.   Of course, there's no Russian Revolution in the Fables version, but there are striking parallel's to Orwell's original, including the leadership/ double dealing of the pigs.  I actually felt a bit sorry for the creatures forced to live on the Farm; their every wish was catered for by the human fairytale characters but they could never leave, even though their lives are practically immortal.

On the whole, I felt that Animal Farm was stronger than the previous installment, Legends in Exile.  There wasn't as much need for world-building, leaving more room for plot and adventure.  I like how we're starting to see some moral ambiguity in the series, and how there are splits in the Fabletown community.  I'm looking forward to picking up the next volume soon.

Source: Library
First Published: 2003
Score: 3.5 out of 5

Tuesday 6 August 2013

Ink by Amanda Sun

After the death of her mother, Katie moves half way across the world to live with her aunt in Shizuoka, Japan.  With only three weeks' worth of Japanese lessons and reeling from the tragedy, Katie struggles to fit in at school and in the new culture.  One day, she overhears an older student called Tomohiro breaking up with his girlfriend, who responds by ripping pages from his sketchbook.  As the papers fall to the floor, Katie sees something shocking - the ink drawings are moving.  Obsessed by this, Katie becomes determined to find out what secret Tomohiro is hiding, whatever the cost.  Soon she becomes caught up in a power struggle among the Kami, Japanese Gods, that could have deadly consequences.

I was drawn to Ink because I'm always on the look out for fantasy novels that use other cultures and their mythologies to underpin the plot.  Ultimately, I found Ink to be underwhelming, but it wasn't without positive features.  Sun studied Asian History at university and has spent time travelling through Japan, and her love of Japan came across on every page.  Lots of little details were added to the plot, with the result that the reader gets a really good 'feel' for Japanese culture.  Katie changes into school slippers in the morning, watches cherry blossom trees flower and eats authentic Japenese food.  Japan was almost a character in the novel and I loved that.  The mythology of the Kami also made a refreshing change as I have never come across them in a novel before.  

Whilst Ink had positive elements, I felt like it was let down by the romance between Katie and Tomohiro, who was a stereotypical bad-boy with a hidden secret.  Despite only just meeting him, Katie fell in love almost instantly and made a series of bad decisions all because she loved him.  Even when he was horrible to her, when she found out what his friends were mixed up in and even when her being around him could actually hurt her, she couldn't leave him alone.  I found it so frustrating because all the elements of a fantastic novel were here at the beginning of the book, only for the romance to take centre stage.  I don't mind a bit of romance, but it needs to be a better one than this for me to enjoy it.  I wanted more adventure, more mythology, more insight into the Kami, more ink drawings coming alive and less of Katie angst-ing over Tomohiro and how dangerous yet needy he was.

All in all, Ink had promising moments but was a bit of a let down overall.

Source: From the publisher via Netgalley.
Published: June 2013
Score: 2 out of 5

Monday 5 August 2013

The Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth

It's a little known fact that Wilhelm Grimm married one of the women who told him many of the fairy stories the Grimm brothers were famous for.  Her name was Dortchen Wild and in The Wild Girl, Kate Forsyth imagines Dortchen's story.  Dortchen and the Grimm family were neighbours growing up in the small German Kingdom of Hessen-Cassel during the Napoleonic Wars.  Although Dortchen was attracted to Wilhelm from the start, their relationship was complicated by the poverty of the Grimms, the unstable situation they lived in and Dortchen's overbearing father.   Subject to constant criticism and verbal abuse, Dortchen is accused of being the 'wild one' by her father and forced to live according to his every wish.  As her home life grows ever more abusive, Dortchen takes refuge in the traditional stories told to her by Old Marie and helps Wilhelm to build his collection.

My synopsis honestly doesn't do this book justice.  I was lucky enough to review the excellent Bitter Greens earlier in the year and was thrilled to be offered the chance to review this one.  I was expecting it to be very good but it exceeded my expectations.  The Wild Girl is a chunky book at almost five hundred pages but I just flew through it as the story, and Dortchen in particular, captivated me. Forsyth manages to make her a quite fiery female character but at the same time keep her appropriate for the time period.  Dortchen may complain about boys getting to fight ogres and join the army, but she still feels like an authentic nineteenth century woman who helps to run her family home.

As the reader gets to see Dortchen's 'wild' personality at the beginning of the book, it makes it all the more powerful as her character gradually begins to shrink at her father's influence.  I think this was very well done and the issue of abuse was dealt with sensitively.  I'm not normally a big fan of romance but the romance between Dortchen and Wilhelm was extremely realistic and well written.  Forsyth was so good at putting you in Dortchen's shoes that her pain almost became my own pain by the end of the novel and I was certainly rooting for a happy ending.

The Wild Girl is more straight historical fiction than Bitter Greens.  I didn't know much about the Napoleonic Wars or the history of Germany at this time so it was interesting to find out a bit more in the context of the story.  Despite being historical fiction, the fairy stories are still at the heart of the book.  As Dortchen tells each tale to Wilhelm, they seem to relate to her personal life and a major theme of the novel is the redemptive power of fiction;

"Stories help make sense of things.  They make you believe you can do things.  They help you imagine that things may be different, that if you just have enough courage...or enough faith.... or can change things for the better."

The Wild Girl is a fantastic book and I'm so glad that I read it.  It's one of those books that makes you fall in love with reading all over again.  Definitely recommended for everyone.

First Published in the UK: 29th July 2013
Score: 5 out of 5