Thursday, 30 December 2010

Skippy Dies by Paul Murray

Being over 650 pages long and set in an Irish boarding school I read this book purely because so many other bloggers loved this one. Since I enjoyed it so much, I'm going to conclude that these bloggers have great taste (I knew this anyway really)

Daniel ‘Skippy’ Juster dies in the first chapter (although you might have gathered that from the title) the book then travels back in time and shows the reader the events leading up to Skippy's death. Most of the plot takes place in Seabrook College; the boys boarding school that Skippy attended where a whole host of characters from Skippy's friends, teachers and the girls in the neighbouring school are introduced.

The teenagers in the book spend large parts of it being quite nasty to each other in an environment where bullying seems to be rife among the more unpopular students. Copious amounts of drugs, eating disorders and sex seem to be on the cards for many of the more popular teens. Added to the mix are the teachers exploits making this a sometimes sad and depressing book but also thought provoking and laced throughout with humour.

'When he came back from summer holidays this year the boys had changed. Suddenly everyone was tall and gangling and talking about drinking and sperm. Walking among them is like being in a BO-smelling forest.'

The boys themselves and their environment are drawn well and are typical of the age they live in where all the teenagers have the latest gadgets and the use of mobile phones and the internet mean nothing is secret for long.

There is a lot in this book and one which I found highly enjoyable, if heartbreaking to read.

If you find the kind of rude things 14 year old boys say to each other quite funny then you will find many funny moments in this book. I do and so I laughed out loud even if the characters did ruin the poem The Road Less Travelled for me.

Verdict 4/5

Posted by Jess

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

A Reading Year in Review by Jess

I hope everyone had a marvellous Christmas/holidays, I feel as though I need another week off work to recover from all the festivities and all the eating that went on. As I slowly come around to the idea that I’m now back at work I thought I would share some of my thoughts on my reading over the past year.

This year I read just over 105 books. Out of those 100 I would have given 51 four stars or more and I estimate that I only gave up reading about 8 books making this a very successful year (or maybe I'm just easy to please). 20 of those books contained over 550 pages so I have certainly not shied away from your big chucksters but at the same time I have given more time (although not much) to reading novellas and short stories.

Because of the blog I have read a lot more classics this year and I read a Russian novelist for the first time. But I have also read more brand new releases than I normally would have because of the recommendations flying around the blogosphere when a book is first released. Some of these new releases such as Skippy Dies and Room were highly enjoyable and I’m glad I read them while they were still in hardback, but others such as The Passage taught me to not necessarily fall for the hype in future.

One of the biggest changes in my reading habits this year has been the type of books that I feel I am able to tackle. I am now willing to ‘work’ on a book and to challenge myself. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not about to go out and attack Ulysses, but I am less intimidated and more willing to give something a go at least.

A special mention has to go to some fantastic authors I discovered this year which include F.Scott.Fitzgerald, Kazuo Ishiguro, Daphne Du Maurier, Helen Dunmore and Toni Morrison. Three of those authors I discovered when taking part in challenges so I would like to thank the people that take the time to organise these.

What are my plans for this year?

I would like to get a lot further in my American Classics project, take part in a few read-alongs and maybe the odd challenge. Roll on 2011.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

While I was compiling my list of American classics to read I thought that I should have at least one Western in there. Not being at all familiar with this genre I chose Lonesome Dove as its Pulitzer Prize winning credentials gave me some reassurance.

I have to admit that I almost rethought this when the novel arrived from Amazon and I then realised that Lonesome Dove is over 950 pages. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very happy to tackle a massive epic book over 950 pages under normal circumstances, but this was a genre I wasn’t familiar with or even overly interested in. But heck I will give almost anything a whirl and I did as part of a read-along hosted by My Friend Amy, reading a manageable ten chapters a week.

Having never read this genre before I was not sure what to expect. What I did get were good guys, bad guys, gun fights, harsh landscapes and the odd damsel in distress and I loved every bit of it.

The plot in essence are the adventures of the Hat Creek Cattle Company as they make their way from Texas to Montana driving their cattle. Of course the author has to keep the readers attention for 950+ pages so there are a huge array of characters all with interesting back-stories, an epic plot in which you find plenty of sub-plots and some twists and turns to keep the reader on their toes. I was certainly never bored.

The characters are likeable because they are depicted honestly rather than the clichés they could have been but what surprised me most about this novel was the humour. There are a lot of laugh out loud funny moments in this book and I found myself chuckling in quite a few places.

The ending did feel a little rushed, almost as if the author was in a hurry to finish the job and quickly round everything up but I can forgive him for the 40 or so pages at the end when the other 900+ ones were so brilliant.

I never thought I would enjoy this book as much as I did but I really loved it. As a result I be participating in the Western Read-a-long hosted by C.B.James in May. The read-along is easy, all you have to do is read one western book during the month of May and the details can be found here.

It just goes to show that its sometimes a very good idea to venture into a genre you are not at all familiar with and I'd urge anyone who hasn't to give the Western a whirl.

Posted by Jess

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

Bibliojunkie hosted a read-along of Midnight's Children which I was very eager to join even though this isn't a book which was on my TBR list. The reason why I joined this particular read-along, aside from the fact that I seem to be addicted to read-alongs, is because I just wanted to say 'oh yeah I've read Rushdie' Totally the wrong reason for wanted to read a book I'm sure but what the hell, I'm just being honest.

Once I downloaded the book and I started to read it my heart sank when I realised the novel was an example of 'Magic Realism'. The only other book I've read which contained Magic Realism elements is One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez which I gave up on as my brain seemed to do a mental block when anything which I deemed 'weird' happened, which was a lot.

For some reason though I was perfectly fine with the Magic Realism elements in Midnight's Children and in fact I rather enjoyed them. I have no idea why I couldn't get to grips with the Magic Realism in García Márquez's writing as I haven't read enough of it to tell the difference, but for whatever reason, with Rushdie I was completely on board.

The novel follows the life of the narrator Saleem Sinai who was born at midnight at the exact time that India gained independence. The story has a political thread as India's history and emotional stances speed by (and clashing) with Saleem's own life. The history in the book is not entirely accurate as the book has not been researched. It is instead written from Saleem's own memories, so parts are in the wrong order or plot elements are given away far to early or late. This may give you the impression that there is no structure to the novel but there is, an almost rigid one.

Most chapters (if not all?) start with Saleem in the present who gives an introduction/update on his present life to the reader. His lover Padma will often intervene here asking questions and instructing Saleem to stick to the point. I can't say I particularly connected with any of the characters unfortunately but I was willing to stick with the novel and the overall story, it didn't at any point occur to me to stop reading.

The biggest thought that sprang to my mind while reading Midnight's Children was 'where the heck is this all going'. Most of the novel just seemed to meander through different places, plot lines and themes. I had no idea if there was a point to it all as I just could not see where it was all leading to. Normally this wouldn't bother me but at over 650 pages I wanted something other than a fizzled out ending to all this.

I should have had more faith in Rushdie as 96% of the way through (I made a note of the % on my kindle) suddenly everything slotted into place and as everything came round full circle I realised that Rushdie had had a plan all along so I was left feeling a happy reader.

Reading Midnight's Children has certainly been an experience and while large parts of it went right over my head or I lost it completely this didn't seem to matter as I always managed to keep up with the story and the unbelievably layered writing. This novel would certainly benefit from a couple of re-reads and I can see myself doing this in a couple of years time.

While I would describe the novel as a challenging read I never found it a chore but it is unlikely I would read another book by this author..

Posted by Jess

Dream a little dream...

I really enjoy fiction and now read much more of it than non-fiction. Made up stories never appealed to me before but nowadays I read little else. For all my enthusiasm there is one aspect to fiction that irritates me a great deal. When a chapter ends with a character falling asleep I know that at the beginning of the next chapter I will be unwillingly whisked away into a surreal world of bizarre imagery and nonsensical rubbish. I'm talking of the dream segment.

My main question is: Why?

I have been giving it some thought lately and I cannot fathom what possible benefit a dream gives to my reading experience. Exactly what relevance to a story is a dream? When I encounter a written dream I invariably skip over it and try to forget it was there. I just cannot see the point of them.

I understand that some people believe dreams can have some sort of meaning either subconsciously or perhaps some form of clairvoyance. Perhaps other readers feel a dream gives a book the impression of mysticism and intrigue. My cynicism tells me it is nothing more than a poor attempt by the author at padding; throw in a few pointless dreams here and there and you can waste up to ten pages saying nothing of benefit to the storyline

Does anyone enjoy reading about dreams in a book?


Friday, 17 December 2010

The Old Man and the Sea

I am relatively new to Ernest Hemingway's work. This was the third of his books I have read and I must say it was my least favourite of the three.

The Old Man and the Sea, arguably, has only one character; Santiago. A down-on-his-luck fisherman who rows out one day and hooks an enormous Marlin on his line. What follows is a desperate battle, fought over several days, during which the Marlin drags Santiago and his little boat further out to sea whilst Santiago stubbornly holds onto the line and refuses to let the fish go.

There were several positive aspects to the book; I felt Hemingway portrayed the self doubt and struggle of Santiago well throughout the book, the pace was good and the actions and thoughts of Santiago were shown well albeit in Hemingway's usually sparse and direct style and initially I found the simpleness of the story very appealing.

Ultimately I didn't like this book which saddened me as it is generally considered one of his best works. Although I initially liked the sparse nature of the story and the fast pace, by the end of the book I felt very strongly that the story needed more meat on its bones. I never felt as if I got to know much about Santiago, the story became very repetitive after a while and frankly too much time was spent in the boat with Santiago when other characters could have been introduced and developed. I found the wholesale, haphazard slaughter of sea creatures uncomfortable reading however I did expect it knowing what a fan of big game hunting Hemingway was. As for Santiago repeatedly eating sea creatures raw (including a dolphin and several flying fish from inside the dolphin's stomach) I felt Hemingway had gone a little too far with his obsession with macho behaviour. For most of the book I was actually rooting for the Marlin rather than Santiago which I'm not sure I was supposed to do.

According to critics and literary experts the novella is full of hidden meaning and some religious significance. Personally I did not see any of this but rather the idea of Man against Beast which has been done to death.

Perhaps I am missing the point of it, who knows? All I can say for certain is that I didn't really enjoy it.

Overall rating 2/5


Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Persephone Secret Santa

It's the Persephone Secret Santa reveal day today and its time for me to reveal my secret Santa.

I was very lucky that mine arrived all the way from across the Atlantic from Minnesota and I received a wonderful package from Amy at newcenturyreading. Bizarrely enough I visited Minneapolis/St Pauls many years ago during the summer where I took a trip on the lakes, drank loads of long Island Iced teas and merriment was had until the early hours LOL

I apologise now for the very naff photo taken with my phone (I've lost my camera) but as you can see I have not one but two books to get very excited about. The Persephone title is 'Someone at a Distance' by Dorothy Whipple. I'm really pleased with this choice because I've heard quite a bit about Dorothy Whipple and her book about a deceived wife and foolish husband looks like it goes beneath the surface which always appeals to me.

I thought the second book at first glance was some kind of travel book as it doesn't look at all like the kind of paperbacks we get over here in England and plus the title is 'Main Street'. However once I looked closer I realised that in fact it was a novel by Sinclair Lewis, the only Minnesotan Nobel Prize winning author and is a scathing look at the authors home town.

I would like to thank my secret Santa sending very much for this, I thought the second book was such a thoughtful gesture and a wonderful surprise and I am looking forward to reading it shortly and adding it to my American Project list.

Last but not least there were also some chocolates in the package (I was a bit overwhelmed with the generosity at this point) I am sure you can't tell from the photo but on the day I received them I was er 'resting my eyes' on the couch when my two year old son very stealthy and without actually taking the lid off them ate nearly all of them. Thankfully he saved me one which was very nice! Since all traces of the stolen ones have gone my son also gave them the thumbs up.

Lastly I'd like to say that organising something like this takes time and then the person organising it all has to worry about whether the packages have all arrived etc. So I'd also like to say a huge thank-you to Claire for organising and coordinating us all so well.

Posted by Jess

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

The Natural by Bernard Malamud

Bernard Malamud was (according to Wikipedia) one of the great American Jewish authors of the 20th century. The Natural was his first novel which was written in 1952 and follows the story of Roy Hobbs, a baseball player who's career was cut short in his youth. When Roy reaches middle age, he gets the chance to use his natural talent to achieve status in the world of baseball once again.

I really really didn't like this book, at all.

My husband has an unusual interest in baseball. Obviously in America/Cuba/Japan etc. this is not an unusual interest, but in the UK where the sport is not televised on terrestrial television (I don't think it's even on the satellite channels) it is an unusual interest. As a result I have seen my fair share of cheesy baseball films which all seem to be made by Disney. Well this book was like reading the script of one of these films and seemed to contain every cliché going.

Now of course this book was written in 1952 and the ideas within the novel would not have been cliché at time of publication, I know this. But having seen my fair share of baseball films I am afraid that I inwardly groaned when the next plot development crept in.

The main character Roy is a self destructive man with a major chip on his shoulder. He is hired by the 'New York Knights' a team which is on a losing streak. Once Roy joins, the main star of the team, a man called 'bump' takes an instant dislike to Roy for no reason whatsoever and they become enemies. Roy then falls for the coaches daughter who happens to be the sweetheart of.......his enemy bump (surprised? I wasn't) I'm going to stop with the plot outline now before I cry.

I feel bad about this, the writing itself wasn't bad despite the lack of character development and to be fair Malamud did avoid the very last cliché which is used at the end of the film (you know where its all down to the player who is the last to bat and the team need a home run, then its strike one, strike two etc etc)

Malamud went onto win the Pulitzer prize with his novel The Fixer so perhaps I just read the wrong book? Perhaps the plot chiques are part of the point and not being a baseball fan I simply don't get it?

All I know is that the film version staring Robert Redford is apparently far far better.

Verdict 1/5

Posted by Jess

Sunday, 12 December 2010

A Farewell To Arms

Ernest Hemingway joined the ambulance service in 1918 and saw action in Italy where he was wounded twice. Out of his experiences came ‘A Farewell To Arms’ a semi-biographical novel quite unlike anything I have read before.

This was my first Hemingway book and I must say I was very impressed. I had heard tell of Hemingway’s trademark ‘no frills’ style of writing, what you see is what you get and it is certainly true that Hemingway doesn’t waste pages and pages talking about a sunset or what a character is wearing. I found that once the story gets going you soon realise that underneath the deceptively straightforward surface of the story there is an incredible depth Hemingway leaves up to the reader to discover. I have never seen character development like it.

The story itself is bleak, which is to be expected from a story which takes part during the First World War however there is lots of humour too. The main character, Frederic Henry, is a dark horse. Not much of his personality is obvious at first glance but it's there if you look closely enough. Most of how he feels or what he is thinking is shown via his dialogue as his inner thoughts are rarely delved into.

One of Frederic’s most obvious characteristics is that he is an alcoholic. There is barely a page in the book when he is not drinking and he thinks nothing of drinking at the most inappropriate times such as early in the morning, when he is on duty and even when he is in hospital suffering with grievous wounds. In fact his drinking is so out of control he is almost reported for court martial when he suffers from jaundice as a direct result of his drinking. I am certain this obsession with alcohol is not a coincidence considering Hemingway’s own struggle with alcohol abuse. From reading other works of Hemingway heavy drinking is often a feature.

The characters in the book are first rate and easy to care about. Many of them are Italian and numerous glimpses are given into their personality, how they cope with war and what they think of it. This is particularly interesting to me as the Italian view of the First World War is not often portrayed.

The only character I did not appreciate was that of Frederic’s love interest, the English nurse Catherine Barkley. She played the role of a submissive, doting sexually driven young woman willing to do almost anything for Frederic. She whines a lot and demands constant reassurance from him. Initially she is not in the book too much but towards the end I found her presence a real drain.

The ending to the story is devastating but then this seemed appropriate considering the wartime setting, I am certain that re-reading this book (as I most certainly will) will reveal all sorts of hidden meanings I missed the first time around as Hemingway’s style is so deceptively simple.

A thoroughly enjoyable, meaningful book and an excellent introduction to Hemingway’s troubled genius.

Final verdict 4/5


Thursday, 9 December 2010

Brighton Rock by Graham Greene

"Hale knew they meant to murder him before he had been in Brighton three hours."

Bright Rock begins with one of the best opening lines (and has one of the best finishing lines) which perfectly sets the scene for an edge of your seat thrilling first chapter where the two main protagonists are introduced, Ida and Pinkie.

Pinkie is an interesting character. A murderer, mob member and all round nasty boy (he is only 17) he finds himself in a predicament when he is forced to marry the character Rose because he is a witness to the crime committed in the first chapter. Pinkie was also brought up a strict Catholic and as a result he spends large parts of the book pondering over mortal sin. He is also disgusted by the idea of intimacy and sex and believes that hell is all around him, he believes he is living in it.

Ida Arnold on the other hand lives life to the full and is the sort of character that will embrace life and everything it has to offer. Ida knows Pinkie is a murderer and she sets out to follow and torment him and Rose until he confesses. Ida is a huge contrast to Rose, the other main female character. Whereas Ida is feisty and street smart, Rose is submissive and infuriatingly naïve.

The action calms down after chapter one to accommodate the themes above and to allow for character development. The novel does have suspense and has a gritty realism feel to it, but I did feel as though it went on slightly too long and I found parts of the ending a little far fetched. There were also a few plot holes in the main story (why not just kill Rose) but overall I enjoyed very much my first Graham Greene novel.

Verdict 4/5

They have made a new film version which is due for release in the UK in February and here is the trailer.

Dame Helen Mirren is playing Ida and as she is much older than the Ida in the book I think they have changed the story slightly to accommodate the actresses age. I am assuming this is because British films get a special grant if they cast either Dame Helen Mirren or Dame Judy Dench?

The other thing that me and Chris noticed from watching the trailer was that despite the story being set in Brighton, and the main characters being born in Brighton, all of the actors speak with a cockney London accent. Not just any London accent but a breathy 'I'm a gangster and I'll give you the concrete boots' cockney accent. Its the south coast of England FFS. However I'm sure most of the audience won't care about that and I'm sure it won't spoil the film, but nobody from Brighton talks like that.

Posted by Jess

Ida Arnold: "I'm like those sticks of rock. Bite all the way down, and it'll still read 'Brighton.'"

Monday, 6 December 2010

Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

Gregor Samsa awoke in his bed one morning from uneasy dreams to find himself transformed into a gigantic insect (or ‘monstrous vermin’ depending on which translation you read)

Poor Gregor! As if life isn’t bad enough being worked half to death as a lowly travelling salesman desperately trying to pay his family’s debts without waking up as a giant bug.

But God bless him, Gregor doesn’t give up. If only he could learn to control all his legs which all seem to be moving on their own accord while he is trapped on his back. If he could only manage to get onto his front he is sure he would only miss a couple of days work.

Of course a man turning into an insect is ridiculous, surreal and absurd, the whole situation is funny. Gregor is bizarrely accepting of his condition and it is his family and other people he encounters that has issues with his appearance. When it dawns on Gregor that he will never lead a normal life again, instead staying confined to his room and becoming a burden on his already stressful family, the story takes a sadder turn.

The family’s reactions to Gregors situation as first seem understandable. But as they start to blame Gregor for their financial predicament they now find themselves in and the fact that they are now unable to move to a smaller house because of the logistics of moving Gregor, their attitude towards Gregor become one of disgust and cruelty. It’s a hopeless situation and can only end one way...

Due to the simple narrative and the nature of the Metamorphosis it is not surprising that the meaning behind the story has been debated ever since its publication and I am sure that any literature student will have a field day with it.

While I read it for the pure enjoyment of it rather than looking into anything too deeply, it did leave me with one question. Why did the family seem better off upon Gregors death than they were when Gregor was alive? This of course leads me to other questions such as was Gregors martyr-like existence in supporting his entire family before his predicament actually detrimental to his family in some way? I am sure questions like this will spin around in my head for evermore.

Would I recommend this? If you’re only going to read one thing by Kafka, why not make it The metamorphosis his most famous work? It’s also worth mentioning that I downloaded this free on the kindle so if anyone has an electronic reader it’s certainly worth getting.

Posted by Jess

Final verdict 4/5

Friday, 3 December 2010

The Woman in Black

At the time I began to read this book I was sitting in a small holiday cottage in the middle of nowhere, the hour was late, the Mrs had gone to bed. Outside the wind was howling, driving the pouring rain against the walls and windows of the cottage. Conditions could scarcely be more appropriate for reading a good ghostly yarn.

Perhaps the spooky atmosphere of the cottage contributed something to the feelings of fear I encountered whilst reading this book but I can say for certain that The Woman in Black is the most terrifying book I have ever picked up.

The story is straightforward enough; a young solicitor named Arthur Kipps is sent by his firm to a small community living in the English countryside. Here he attends the funeral of a reclusive client named Mrs Drablow. Kipps is also tasked with searching her home for any important documents that need to be retrieved. Upon his arrival Kipps quickly discovers that whenever the name Drablow or her former home is mentioned the townsfolk clam up and won’t discuss it with him. After he sees a mysterious woman at the funeral Kipps begins to suspect there is something odd going on. Mrs Drablow’s home is located deep in the marshes at the end of a causeway which is impassable most of the time because of the tide. Once Kipps arrives at the house he is forced to remain alone until the tide is low enough for him to leave. It is then that the ghostly happenings begin...

The book is very well written in general, the characters are few but well developed and the story moves at a brilliant pace, slowly building up the tension but not falling into the trap of spending too long setting the scene. The horror is mostly suggested and the ghost only makes a handful of appearances but that is more than enough. A combination of the terrible fog, the unseen force, the feeling of being trapped and bumps in the night all combine to move to reader to the edge of their seat. I can honestly say I was scared by what I read and I finished the book in one sitting.

I highly recommend reading it late at night, preferably by yourself during a rainstorm, it won't be an experience you'll soon forget!

Final verdict 5/5


Now book related but Snow related - a tale of saga and woe

Oh I wasn't going to do a 'snow post' but as I have exhausted all my families ears with my snow saga I feel I must go one step further and get it off my chest on the blog.

The whole county of Surrey got caught out on Tuesday and I don't think anyone was able to foresee the events that took place that afternoon/evening. OK so it had snowed the night before, but not much. You could still see the ground and most of the roads where clear. I was able to drop my little boy off at my parents-in-law that morning with no bother before driving 7 miles onto work.

During the day it began snowing heavily so I arranged with my boss to work through my lunch hour so I could leave at 3.30pm to get a head start on the traffic. Now was that not sensible of me?

Unfortunately when I left at 3:30pm and get onto the main road I hit traffic, but I expected this. The traffic is slow moving but it is moving. But this goes on for much longer than I expected and by the time I turn off the main road to get to my In-laws house its 6pm, I've been in the car for 2 ½ hours when normally this journey would take 20 minutes. According to my mum there are two lorry's overturned in the nearest town, and one has overturned and ended up in some ponds which is blocking all the traffic.

Its around this time that I realise how hazardous the side roads really are. As I turn corners my car starts to slip and I see other cars having to be pushed by kindly passers by. I find myself by now queuing in a road and the traffic is now not moving at all and we get the news that the road I am on is completely blocked. I ring my In-laws and let them know that I cannot get to them, my son will be spending his first night away from home (which upsets me) and I then turn around and start to drive home. Its now 7:15pm.

The road is clear for around 2 miles with me driving very slowly on a 40 mph road at under 20mph. But then 5 miles from home I hit a wall of traffic which is not moving at all and this is where I will stay for the next few hours.

While the snow is still falling heavily and while the snow under the cars are turning to solid ice as the temperature drops, this is how I am spending my time. I'm turning my engine off (to conserve petrol) and sitting there for at least ten minutes. Suddenly everyone starts to switch their engines on, everyone's lights pop back on and my heater kicks into gear, we all eagerly move 4 or 5 car spaces (some wheels slipping more than others) before stopping and switching our engines off again for the next ten minutes. The monotony of this is broken at times while I call my mum and moan or I call Chris before he sets off to work and almost cry.

Even though I haven't eaten since one that afternoon I am not hungry but I am bursting for the loo. The men in this jam have the advantage in bodily logistics in situations like these and often stand at the side of the road while I try not to think of waterfalls.

Eventually at MIDNIGHT I make it to the top of Reigate hill, a steep-ish hill about a mile long and there is a sudden abundance of abandoned cars. I almost contemplate taking the motorway but one look at that makes me realise that that would be even more dangerous than the situation I am already in. I later found out that there were 400 abandoned lorries on the motorway in Surrey that night. There are now many pedestrians having to walk home and I almost feel envious of them; at least they are moving.

Funnily enough I also bump into Chris here who is working as part of the emergency services. The last I see him he is talking to a girl who is crying hysterically because she has been in her car since 2pm.

As I start to slowly make my way down the hill I see more and more pedestrians and more abandoned cars (including an abandoned bus) but I am OK. As I come to a particular steep part of the hill however my brakes stop working and I shit myself (not really.) It was one of the most scariest things that has ever happened to me and I honestly believe I am going to hit the car in front. But all these hours of driving on ice has made me an almost expert in these conditions so I take my foot off the brake and then spin the car towards the curb while braking in a jabbing motion and I manage to stop. Some guys who have already abandoned their cars help me 'slide' the car into a parking space and I then pull the handbrake as far as it will possibly go and contemplate the mile walk home.

Thankfully a guy in a flashy looking sports car offered me a life to the bottom of the hill which while under normal circumstances I would not accept, I did this time. The guys name was Lee and he lived in Kent; I doubt he found his way home that night.

After being dropped off I finally walked into my house at just after 1am – 9 ½ hours after leaving work and travelling a total of 14 miles.

Aside from dreading driving down that hill again (to the point where its keeping me up at night) we have all recovered. Chris got the car back the next day after the road had been gritted and our son acted like nothing had happened (as long as someone's feeding and dressing him, it seems he's happy) and I thank God that my son was snowed in as at least he was safe and warm. Plus I at least made it home whereas many people didn't.

Well done if you managed to read all of that! I HATE snow. Normal service will shortly be resumed. Here's a satellite picture of the UK I found amusing.

Posted by Jess

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Doctor Zhivargo - Part Two

After struggling with most of part one before eventually losing myself towards the end of part one I ventured into Part 2 with slightly higher hopes. Unfortunately I immediately started to struggle again.

What I mainly had trouble with was the lack of dialogue and general dry prose which left me disengaged. However like part one I did find myself eventually becoming submerged in the story and the novel has got some great elements to it.

I truly loved the character of Lara and I think its because she is a more rounded character than in the film, in the book she is much more of a mother figure and is also a more resourceful and practical character as well as being the ‘love interest’. The hardships she suffers, the agony she experiences as she tries to keep her daughter safe and her sad fate I found quite heartbreaking.

I thought the novel demonstrated quite well how family and friends can suddenly become spilt and lost to each-other during wartime and how an individual can suddenly find themselves on the wrong side. Doctor Zhivargo quite often found himself talking to various characters he meets along the way, all of whom have their own tragic story to tell. These minor characters within the prose shone out for me and some of the more memorable tales and images came from these characters.

There were scenes in the novel which I truly enjoyed reading like the train scenes mentioned in Part One and the forest scenes in Part Two. I also enjoyed the scenes between Dr Zhivargo and Lara while they were at Varykino both for the atmosphere and the sudden abundance of dialogue between the pair of them. Unfortunately these wonderful scenes were inter-spaced with the rather laboured prose which at points became a chore to read and left me swinging from hating the novel to then loving it.

Reading Doctor Zhivargo has been a mixed bag for me but overall I am very glad I read it as it was worth it for the parts I loved, the character of Lara and the very moving ending. Even though the host of the read-along at Nonsuch Books did not enjoy it as much as I did, I am very glad that she hosted this and that I participated.

Posted by Jess

Sunday, 28 November 2010

The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston

The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston, was published in 1975 and is a memoir of Kingston's experiences growing up in the United States as a Chinese-American. Because Kingston's experiences are also infused with Chinese folklore and elements of non-fiction, The Woman Warrior is not your typically standard memoir.

The book is divided into five parts which mostly contain stories about the narrators family life and the cultural differences between her parents (who were born in China) and their children (first generation Americans.)

I did struggle with the first couple of stories in this book and in particular the second chapter which was titled 'The White Tiger'. It took me a while to get used to the narration which seemed to change quite suddenly from the past to the present and I had trouble getting a sense of the characters that were introduced. The White Tiger told the story of a Chinese legend (from reading it I would say this sounded like Mulan but I could be wrong) of a female warrior who takes her fathers place during battle. I struggled with this section of the book and it just seemed out of place within the family stories, I'm afraid I couldn't really see why this chapter was in there but this could be because of ignorance on my part.

The last three stories I loved. Perhaps I had gotten used to the writing style or perhaps its because the stories started to focus on her families experiences as emigrants, but I found the last three chapters flowed and I found them interesting and highly enjoyable. It interested me that the narrator is torn between Chinese culture and the culture that she was born into. Although she is torn between the two cultures, she tries to embrace both which sometimes bring her into conflict with her parents.

While there are some funny moments in the book there are also shocking moments as the narrator relays stories about the treatment of girls in China as told to her by her mother. Her mother is quite a prominent character in most of the stories and her story of how she came to America from China and what life was like back in China is often referred back to throughout.

Would I recommend this? Overall yes. I did not read this book as a overall emigrant experience or as a blueprint for every Chinese-American experience, it also has to be taken into account that this was written more than 30 years ago, but reading it as the authors own personal experiences I found it thought provoking, funny and an enjoyable read.

Verdict 4/5

Posted by Jess

Friday, 26 November 2010

The Martian Chronicles

The Martian Chronicles is a collection of brilliantly imagined short stories all of which interlink with each other to create a fantastic science fiction novel.

The stories in the book were written during the 1940s at a time when scientists were seriously discussing the possibility of intelligent life on Mars. The book works on the premise that there is not only intelligent life on Mars but they are technologically and socially more advanced than humankind.

At the beginning of the book humanity sends a series of expeditions to Mars in an attempt to make contact with the Martians and establish if they are peaceful. These fail disastrously as the expedition members (in typically human style) blunder in without any caution or understanding and are, without exception, slaughtered by the Martians.

As the story progresses humanity successfully colonises Mars, replacing the indigenous Martians with vast human cities. There are numerous moral and psychological issues raised within the book making it not just entertaining but thought provoking. The question of outsiders occupying a new place and destroying or enslaving the indigenous population is a real problem we as humans have witnessed time and time again throughout our history. What Bradbury has done is taken this ancient desire for conquest and control and shifted it so humanity is not just dominating and taking control of another continent but another planet and an intelligent alien species.

Bradbury gave his indigenous Martians a tremendous amount of thought not just creating the oft seen, stereotypical little green men with large eyes, bulbous heads and three fingers on each hand but creating several different species of Martians all of which are unique and react differently to the encroachment of the earthlings. The indigenous Martians are wonderful creations and one of the strongest aspects of the story, Bradbury’s originality knows no bounds and he really outdid himself this time.

The frightening thing is humanity is still not learning its lessons and the early pioneers live in denial truly believing they will make peace and live in harmony with the Martians. The Martians know differently which is why they react so strongly to human expeditions.

There is a strong sense of irony within the novel too, as the human invaders take control of the planet and the indigenous Martians die out the human colonists begin to refer to themselves as ‘Martians’.

By the end the story comes about full circle when, in another wonderful twist of irony, a catastrophic war breaks out on Earth destroying most of the major cities. A plea for help is sent to Mars prompting the colonists to abandon Mars and go to the aid of Earth. One or two stragglers remain and the book focuses on how each of these characters cope with their loneliness (some loving it, others hating it) and leaves us wondering if humanity will ever return.

I really enjoyed this book and strongly recommend it.

Final verdict 4/5

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Mr Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt

When I read the back of this book I thought I was in for quite a light hearted and witty read but instead I discovered something much darker than the synopsis suggested.

Winston Churchill (yes, THAT Churchill) is approaching his retirement and is stalked by a big black talking dog calling himself Mr Chartwell. At the same time Esther Hammerhans, a young widowed and vulnerable women allows Mr Chartwell to move in as her lodger.

You can see why I thought at first this was going to be a surreal but funny read. I didn't know this but 'the black dog' is a metaphor for clinical depression and this is exactly what Mr Chartwell represents in the book. Mr Chartwell is sometimes funny and charismatic he is compelled to torment both Churchill and Esther until they both give up and succumb to the depression he represents.

'A vase was on the table, the flowers emptied into the sink. Mr Chartwell took a finishing swig from the vase and poured in more beer from the bottle next to him. He started to sing with a crooning tilt to his forehead. 'A bone in the fridge may be quite continental, but diamonds are a girl's best friend.'

There is a lot to like about this début novel and the quote above is an example. Mr Chartwell is a charismatic, likeable character which I believe is the author's intention. The plot devise of Mr Chartwell works quite well as it really shows how depression encroaches on the characters lives. It becomes exhausting for the characters as they are forced to put up a front to their friends and the outside world while at the same time fighting Mr Chartwell. At times you really do feel for the main characters and what they are forced to endure.

'I understand that we share a wicked union, and I know the goblin bell which summons you comes from a tomb in my heart. And I will honour my principles, labouring against the shadows you herald. I don't blench from my burden, but -' here he let out a deep breath, laying the glasses down gently - 'it's so demanding; it leaves me so very tired. It would be some small comfort to me if I could ask how long I must endure this visit. Please, when do you leave?'

Unfortunately I do think that Mr Chartwell is a bit too likeable and not sinister enough (especially towards the end) and considering the seriousness of the subject, the overall feel of the novel felt a little light. But these are minor quibbles because overall I enjoyed this highly original novel.

This is my favourite quote from Mr Chartwell which I feel demonstrates his more malevolent side;

'It's either my way or the hard way. But in truth, in time, my way is the hardest way imaginable.'

Verdict 4/5

Posted by Jess

Monday, 22 November 2010

Here There Be Tygers by Ray Bradbury

“The rocket ship sank down towards planet seven of star system eighty-four. They had travelled millions upon millions of miles. Earth was far away; her system and her sun forgotten and now the rockets of these tiny men could travel anywhere, for the speed of their rockets was the speed of a god...”

I downloaded this dramatisation of Ray Bradbury's original short story from his book 'R is for Rocket' from itunes and I was not disappointed. The title was inspired by the ancient practice of marking unexplored regions of the world with the words 'Here There Be Dragons'

The story is quite typical of Bradbury's science fiction; a team of astronauts land on a strange, previously unexplored planet. From the outset there is something very different about the place. There are no people there aside from the men themselves but the planet seems to be alive. Before long it becomes apparent to the men that whatever they day dream or fantasise about the planet makes a reality for them. By way of example one of the men muses that when he was a kid he always wanted to fly like a bird. The next thing you know he's up in the sky flying around. Another man thinks about how hungry he is and some pre-cooked fish appears in a stream for him to eat. One of the group has very negative feelings about the planet, he believes it has a sinister motive for its behaviour and he attempts to destroy it. In retaliation the planet kills him prompting the other astronauts to try to escape (albeit reluctantly) but the planet doesn't want them to leave...

Although it is only thirty minutes long the dramatisation is very entertaining and only cost a few quid. I thought it was excellent value for money and I have re-listened to it several times since.

The story is very tense and exciting not to mention original. It is very easy to get caught up in it. The voice acting is very good if a little hammy at times. Also the music and sound effects are convincing and really give the whole thing atmosphere.

I have bought a copy of 'R is for Rocket' and am expecting it any day now, I am looking forward to comparing the short story to the dramatisation.

Final verdict 4/5


Sunday, 21 November 2010

A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore

Well I have to hand it to Dunmore; she is not an author who will shy away from difficult or disturbing subjects. One of the main themes in this novel is incest between a brother and sister who grow up in a crumbling mansion with their Grandfather in the years preceding the First World War.

As if this wasn't disturbing enough the novel also explores illegal abortion, murder and mental illness. This isn't going to be a book for everyone.

The main strength of this novel however is not the subject matter but the writing. The prose is fluid and easy to read and I found myself clearly seeing the mansion in desperate need of repair and the surrounding countryside. The whole setting had a Gothic and claustrophobic feel about it and in terms of the setting, the book reminded me a little of Sarah Waters The Little Stranger. The characters were all well developed and I was glad that the main characters featured in the novel were not just limited to the brother and sister.

Unfortunately sometimes the plot moved into melodrama territory and even given the unusual circumstances I cannot believe that the siblings relationship would have entered into the territory that it did. I also feel its a shame that the incest plot line seems to overshadow all the other themes in the novel as without it more pages might have been given to the mystery of why the siblings were abandoned by their mother.

Would I recommend this? Despite this being Dunmore's award winning book, I actually preferred The Siege and Talking to the Dead to this one, but this one provides a interesting enough story if you're not put off by the subject matter.

Verdict 3 1/2/5

Posted by Jess

Friday, 19 November 2010

My favourite non-fiction books

The literary blog hop hosted at The Blue Book case asks the question;

Is there such a thing as literary non-fiction? If so, how do you define it?
I have never thought about categorizing non-fiction in this way so have instead given my opinion on what I consider a good non-fiction book and what makes a bad one.

When I was younger the only kind of books I would read were non-fiction. This was probably a habit I picked up from my father, who still only reads non-fiction. I think he considers fiction silly (bah humbug!)

Over the years I've read a lot of non-fiction covering a vast variety of subjects from the Second World War to the Persian Empire from sharks to the American boyscout who built a nuclear reactor in his back yard.

What I like the most about non-fiction is that it can often be as varied, exciting and bizarre as any work of fiction with the added bonus that it actually happened. I have always had a healthy interest in subjects such as history and the natural world and books have always been the best way to learn about the world. I also believe reading non-fiction ensures that things that have happened in the past are not forgotten, we are doomed to repeat our mistakes if we don't learn from them and non-fiction books are the best way of doing this.

Of course non-fiction has its flaws. I have read several works of non-fiction that are as dry as a teetotaller, some writers believe that just because they have all the facts in front of them ready to present that they don't need to work on the presentation. This is quite incorrect as I can read two different books on the same subject but enjoy one more than the other because of the way they are written. Also sometimes a work of non fiction can appear interesting from the subject matter or product description but when you start reading you realise it was anything but.

Some of my favourite non fiction books are;

Notes From a Big Country by Bill Bryson
This book is hilarious and never fails to cheer me up when I'm down. Bill Bryson has a wickedly dry sense of humour which I really appreciate and here he applies it to America in describing his experiences after returning to the US after a long absence. Genuinely funny stuff.

Stalingrad by Anthony Beevor
When Adolf Hitler's troops arrived outside the Soviet city in July 1942 it marked the beginning of one of the most brutal and bloody battles of the entire conflict, it was also the beginning of the end for Hitler.

The book does a fantastic job of describing everything that happened during the battle. It doesn't just focus on the fighting but also describes the struggle to survive the extreme temperatures of a Russian winter with hardly any food, basic supplies or appropriate clothing and how Soviet troops felt about being shot by their own officers if they tried to retreat. It also highlights the plight of the civilians trying to survive. The book also covers the battle from the German point of view so you get a well rounded view of the whole period. The anecdotes are fascinating, as an example; the Soviet forces trained dogs to run underneath German tanks. These specially trained dogs would have high explosive mines strapped to them which would detonate, disabling the tank. This was the theory anyway, in reality if a tank was moving or firing its weapons (which they almost always were) it would scare the dogs who would run back to their handlers. This would result in the mine exploding and killing soviet troops by accident. This forced the handlers to start shooting their own dogs if they attempted to return to the Soviet lines. Do you see what I mean about the brutality of the battle? (and that's just against dogs!)

Very informative, exciting and horrifying to read. A true depiction of the senselessness of war.

Berlin by Anthony Beevor
This book covers the final battle which took place in the German capital city shortly before the suicide of Hitler and the downfall of Nazi Germany. In January 1945 Berlin was surrounded by Allied troops and the Germans were fighting a desperate last stand to prevent Soviet forces from capturing the city before the Americans. During the battle of Stalingrad German troops committed terrible atrocities against Soviet soldiers and civilians alike. As a result the Russian troops had a seething hatred of the Germans and when they finally took Berlin they only had one thing in mind; revenge.

I won't list the unspeakable acts the Soviets carried out in Berlin but needless to say Hitler's stubborn refusal to allow the large scale evacuation of German civilians from Berlin meant that when the Soviet army finally broke through and took control of Berlin they found the city full of defenceless women...

I wouldn't say I enjoyed this book in any sort of entertaining sense. In fact a good deal of what I read horrified, angered and disgusted me however I think it was worthwhile and important to read as, once again, Beevor effectively demonstrates how utterly brutal, senseless and bloody war is, not just on the soldiers fighting in it but the helpless civilians caught up in the midst of it.

A poignant and crushing read which had a profound effect on me.

Duel by James Landale
This book is not widely known about or read which I think is a terrible shame because it was so good.

The book essentially gives a history of pistol duelling at a time when it was illegal, but still widely carried out by men when they felt their honour needed defending

Overall a very interesting, fun and entertaining book. Made all the more interesting by the lack of waffle and the anecdotes and first person accounts contained within. One of the most interesting aspects is that a relative of the author himself fought in a duel with a local merchant and survived.

Posted by Chris

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Literary Tattoo # 2

Those of you who have been visiting this blog for a while will know I am a fan of tattoos, particuarly typographic and literary tattoos. I have added another to my modest, but growing, collection of ink.

The quote is from William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, my favourite of his plays. Shortly after Mercutio's famous Queen Mab speech in Act I scene IV Romeo tells Mercutio "Thou talk'st of nothing" to which Mercutio replies;

"True, I talk of dreams,
Which are the children of an idle brain,
Begot of nothing but vain fantasy,
Which is as thin of substance as the air
And more inconstant than the wind, who woos
Even now the frozen bosom of the North
And, being angered, puffs away from thence,
Turning his side to the dew dropping South"

Mercutio is my favourite of Shakespeare's many characters. I love his wicked humour and sharp tongue, I also admire his courage and loyalty. The quote is very apt for me as I am a day dreamer who sometimes needs a reminder to keep his feet on the ground.


Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Doctor Zhivago Part One

I am reading this book as part of a read-along hosted over at Nonsuch Books.

I'm not sure that I have ever read a book before where the film experience has influenced my reading enjoyment so much. I am a big fan of both the David Lean version of this book as well as the TV mini series staring Kera Knightly so I was fully expecting to get swept away with the romance and imagery that I found on the screen.

Overall I have found the prose slightly devoid of conversations between characters and surprisingly not that detailed. Zhivagos and Laras early life fly by in the book whereas more time was devoted to these years in the screen versions. During most of this first part I was constantly comparing the book and the film and I worried that the film had ruined my reading experience completely.

Thankfully towards the end of part one I did manage to break free from this thinking and I began to enjoy the novel just as it is. There is a wonderful chapter which details Zhivago's train journey across Russia with his family and it is here where I finally became completely immersed in the novel and is how I hope to continue into part two.

So far I love the characters and I can believe in Zhivago and Laras love, but I am unable to say if this is because my brain is filling in gaps from the film and am therefore giving the characters more feeling and background than the actual words are showing me.

Posted by Jess

Monday, 15 November 2010

The Legacy by Katherine Webb

I first found out about this book when it was featured on the TV Book Club where all the reviewers raved about the page turning plot.

The premise is a good one, two sisters in Wiltshire, England discovers a long forgotten family mystery involving a missing baby and they investigate this while at the same time they remember a day during their childhood when their cousin Henry went missing. Alternating with these chapters is the story of the sisters great grand-mother, an American who attempted to make a life in Oklahoma before marring into an English family.

Overall I found this novel very disappointing which did not live up to its premise. Many of the plot elements were far fetched or did not add up and I solved the 'mystery' of what happened to Henry very early on.

Perhaps its because I am currently reading the excellent Lonesome Dove which is set during a similar period in the west, but I did not find the speech that the characters used during the American chapters very realistic. I felt that the author was going for a 'PC Award' at times when a character spoke about the Native Americans in the area and I didn't find the descriptions of this time period or landscape sufficient enough to give me a sense of place.

It wasn't all bad as I did find myself finishing it and this was purely because I liked the characters of the two sisters and because I wanted to see if I had solved the mystery and guessed right.

Would I recommend this? I would recommend this if your after an easy read with a mystery. I read this on holiday and although large parts of it annoyed me it was what I would describe as a good holiday read.

Verdict 2/5

Posted by Jess

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises

Fiesta is divided into two books with the same characters featuring in each. Book one is set in Paris where we meet our characters who are all, without exception, wealthy ex-patriots living on money sent from home who do little but socialise in Parisian cafes and bars drinking copious amounts of alcohol. At the beginning of book two the characters head to a small Spanish community to take part in the upcoming fiesta. In the second book we get to see a little more of their personalities and the nature of their relationships which change drastically from amiable drunkenness and slurred promises to jealousy and violence.

Fiesta is somewhat of an enigma to me. On the surface it seems straightforward enough but I can’t help feeling it has a depth of meaning which is certainly beyond me on a first reading. At the beginning I found the main characters to be largely unlikable. None of them seem to contribute anything useful to society; they drift from one party to another getting drunk and generally wasting their lives. Despite first appearances there are complex relationships within the group which become more obvious and in-depth as the story progresses. As is typical of Hemingway’s unique style he gives you the bare minimum to go on and allows you to build a lot of the detail up for yourself once you get to know the characters which happens surprisingly quickly.

By the second half of the book the characters arrive in Spain to enjoy the bullfighting and non-stop partying which form part of the fiesta celebrations. The main female protagonist, Lady Brett Ashley, has slept with most of the group and would certainly have slept with the main character, Jake Barnes, if he didn’t suffer with impotency issues. They tell each other numerous times they are in love yet Brett is not interested in a relationship with Jake because he cannot satisfy her sexually. Brett appears to have no emotional attachment to the men she beds and views the sex as merely casual, this has far reaching affects when one of the group sleeps with Brett and believes it to be more than a fling which results in him being ostracised by the rest and treated as an outcast.

There was a rather unpleasant thread of racism within the story which cropped up from time to time mainly, but not exclusively, anti-Semitic in nature and after carrying out some research I was interested to note that critics at the time of the book’s release even accused Hemingway openly of being anti-Semitic himself. Make of that what you will.

Ultimately I was left satisfied with how the book ended. There were very few surprises and once you got to know the characters their actions were quite predictable and I saw the ending coming a mile away. Despite my largely negative feelings towards the characters I found them fascinating and towards the end the book was quite difficult to put down. I was surprised to find my attitude towards the characters changing. At first I was quite appalled by their lifestyle but then by the end of the second book I found myself pitying them. Their empty lives made me grateful to have a family. I suppose if a book makes you grateful to live the life you do it can’t be a bad book.

Since finishing the book I find I think of the characters and their fate quite often. Overall a very interesting, intriguing book I would definitely recommend and will read again someday.

Final verdict 4/5


Saturday, 6 November 2010

Off we go...

Well it's that time of year again when we say goodbye to the 21st century for a week and rough it in a cottage somewhere. We're going on a trip to the west of England for a brief holiday and to celebrate our son's second birthday. Unfortunately there is no internet access whatsoever so we won't be posting anything on the blog during our absence.

The good news is we are taking plenty of books with us so there will be lots of activity here when we return (try not to miss us too much!)

Chris & Jess

Friday, 5 November 2010

Literary Blog Hop

We haven't participated in a blog-hop for months now but we couldn't resist taking part in The Blue Bookcases literary hop. Even if you have no interest in participating its worth checking out the other links just to look at other blogs which come under this category.

The question for the blog hop is;

Please highlight one of your favourite books and why you would consider it "literary."

Of course this question only brings up the further question of what is literary. My source of all knowledge Wikipedia classifies literary as 'focusing more on style, psychological depth, and character, the plot may or may not be important. Mainstream commercial fiction focuses more on narrative and plot'.

That sounds about right although I did like someone's answer on yahoo answers who said 'a book is classed as literary when its on the spark-notes website'. Chris even joked that he classifies something as literary when he finds it hard to read.

On that note we have both listed our most hardest book that we liked. A book that despite being sometimes difficult was in fact worth it in the end.

Jess's choice

The Turn of the Screw

The hardest book I have read is actually Moby Dick but I couldn't finish it (and not did I like it) so this is my choice. Ok so this one is a stupidly short one but believe me it felt as times like I was taking on a 500 page epic. The writing I found flowery and heavy and was not what I would consider an easy read. After saying that, I found parts of it quite creepy and I enjoyed the overall story of the governess as she looks after two slightly odd and possibly demonic children.

Chris's Choice

Lord of the Rings

Technically this is cheating since the book is, in fact, a trilogy; The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King all written by J.R Tolkien. To be fair my copy is all together in one book so I guess it's not cheating too badly.

I found the book challenging for numerous reasons but the most obvious would be its sheer size. At 1216 pages it isn't exactly short and took me some months to drag myself through. The depth of the story and the characters in it are breathtaking. I'm sure there is no book like it in the world. Unfortunately there are a lot of characters and it became quite difficult to remember them all, particularly as none of them are found in the English language. At points it felt like entire chapters were dedicated to describing a landscape or a castle which isn't the kind of writing I appreciate. I stuck with it because it is such a wonderful and exciting book and Tolkien really did have the ability to transport the reader to another place. I loved 'The Hobbit' (a much shorter book) and had to know how the adventure would end. Hopefully some day my son will allow me to read it to him at bedtime but until then I doubt I'll have the courage to attempt it again.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

After reading and very much enjoying Beloved I decided to read Toni Morrison's first novel The Bluest Eye.

The Bluest Eye is a heartbreaking read about an eleven year old black girl Pecola who believes that if she was beautiful then all her other problems will go away. This belief is quite common amongst little girls but the problem is that in Pecola's world (1960's America) the 'standard' beauty that Pecola aspires to is to have the blue eyes and beauty of Shirley Temple.

Surprisingly the novel does not focus on Pecola (who turns out to be the least developed character in the book) but instead gives a voice to some of the characters who live the community in which Pecola lives and it follows their lives up to and after the shocking events that happens to Pecola.

The characters were all troubling and thought provoking (especially Pecola's mother) and at times the narrative changes from the third person to the first in order to give a certain character a chance to speak for themselves. For such a short novel there are a lot of different events and themes but I didn't feel as though anything was irrelevant and some of the various back-stories proved to give insight to later events.

I thought the image of beauty that Pecola has in the novel an interesting one. If Pecola did have blue eyes then she would look more freaky than beautiful which just goes to illustrate how she has not found her own idea of beauty because she is unable to see it in her own world.

When I first finished this book, I did have one or two small criticisms but now I'm writing this review I honestly can't remember what they were, the overall theme and the heartbreak has stayed with me rather than the negative.

Would I recommend this? Well I think you can guess that this isn't exactly a book filled with poops and giggles and is not considered Morrison's best but overall I found it very thought provoking and I can recommend it.

For those who are interested in reading Toni Morrison's 'Beloved' I will compare the two in quick summary;

I didn't find The Bluest Eye as rewarding or as thought provoking as Morrison's Beloved (which won her the 'Pulitzer Prize') but it is a much easier read than Beloved in terms of the prose style.

Verdict 4/5

Posted by Jess

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

When your opinion goes against the masses....

When I reviewed The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon in my previous post I was certain of one thing; that the comments would be filled with people declaring their love for the book in response to my rather less than glowing review.

Sometimes it's like that with this blog lark; Chris and I have always been willing to post negative reviews here, if we feel they are deserved, but sometimes we read a book which has had rave reviews everywhere else but for one reason or another it comes up short for us. We are sometimes left wondering if perhaps we missed something.

This is meant to be quite a light hearted post BTW, a mere musing. People who disagree with our posts are always very polite when they say so and there are no issues with that whatsoever. I say that in-case your wondering if something sparked this post!

So just for fun we have listed here some other books which we have really not liked but everyone else seems to have loved;

From Jess

The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson

I could just about put up with the needlessly gory details of what happens to a human being when they burn alive and I could put up with the ENDLESS descriptions of food which went on in this book but what I could not put up with was the ending which explained bugger all.

The World According to Garp by John Irving

I hated Garp and this was my main problem with this book. I hated him so much that when his wife had an affair I thought 'good on you girl, that'll show him'.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

I didn't hate this one, in fact I liked it but for the life of me I can't understand why people love it, for me it was just alright.

From Chris

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

My God but didn't everyone make a fuss over this book. Even Jessica succumbed to the hype. When I declared to her that I didn't like the book she looked at me as if I had told her I was pregnant then said indignantly “Well, you're the only person in the world who doesn't like it”(A statement which I have since discovered is untrue)

I found 'The Road' to be largely boring, bleak, depressing, almost utterly without hope and suffering from a severe case of poor character development. Overall I found the story to be a meandering mess which was always going to end badly.

Don't lend this to someone with depression, you'll drive them over the edge.

I'm Not Scared by Niccolo Ammaniti

I reviewed this book recently and found the comments I received were mainly from fans or people that had heard positive things about it. I couldn't (and still can't) see what the fuss was about with that book. The characters, without exception, were unlikeable. The plot was nonsensical and the overall ending deeply unsatisfying.

Slaughterhouse 5

Ah, one of my most hated books. I could easily write a ten page review on how naff this book is but I will just highlight a few of my biggest bugbears. The main character was infuriating and completely mad, the story was ridiculous, the phrase 'So it goes' is repeated over and over and over until you want to burn the book (it appears 116 times in 150 pages) the story is disjointed and difficult to follow. Then the author beings to bash the allies for bombing Dresden during the Second World War before falsifying the numbers of casualties the Germans suffered during the raid and calling the bombing “the greatest massacre in European history” Vonnegut was a fool. Even the man himself branded Slaughterhouse 5 a “Failure” he was right about that at least.

For every one hundred people that loved The Time Travelors Wife, there is always someone else (my mum being one of them) who couldn't finish it. A book on Amazon could have three hundred five star ratings and yet still have thirty one star ratings. We hope that anyone reading our reviews will always check out other opinions (unless the reader knows our tastes quite well) because when it all boils down to it, this blog is just our opinion, plain and simple.

Monday, 1 November 2010

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

I read this as part of a read-along organised by English Major's Junk Food and was a great excuse for me to read this one which was on my TBR list.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay won the Pulitzer prize in 2001 and at over 600 pages (with quite small writing) in which themes of sexuality, death and the holocaust feature this is a book I was looking forward to reading and getting stuck into.

There are two main protagonists, Jewish cousins, Sam Clayman and Joe Kavalier. The novel starts when Sam is woken in the middle of the night by his mother who introduces Joe who has escaped from Prague just before the start WWII. Together they end up taking the comic book world in New York by storm with their character the escapist used to wage their own personal war on the Nazis.

There characterisation of the two protagonists is wonderful who throughout the novel become rounded figures complete with their own likeable and more dislikeable traits. The pain that Kavaliers feel as his family including his young brother are left back in Prague is heartbreaking and Claymans confusion over his sexuality is nicely played out.

While the novel started off promising and which included a daring escape from Prague, from about page 100 it became (and I hate to say this) a bit of a chore to read. There was nothing wrong with the writing or plot exactly but for a few hundred pages the novel just seemed to ‘plod’, it was laboured and it felt too long. It did pick up again about 150 pages from the end and I did find the ending quite touching but by that point I think the author lost me abit.

Would I recommend this? This is certainly a highly original book and aside from the middle section I quite enjoyed it. I think its best to check out other reviews like this one as perhaps this is one which just didn't fully work for me.

Verdict 3/5

Posted by Jess

Saturday, 30 October 2010

When a voice makes all the difference...

I was never much of a reader as a boy but I found listening to audiobooks an invaluable way to enjoy the excitement of stories without the chore of actually reading words on a page. I also listened to them as a sleeping aid.

These days I listen to audiobooks to keep me entertained on my long walks to work each day. In the past I have really enjoyed listening to such classics as Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde read by Christopher Lee and I Am Legend read by Robertson Dean these artists actually work hard to bring the story to life and create characters using only their voices, acting abilities and enthusiasm to create a tense and enjoyable atmosphere...then you get people like Edward Asner who narrated an audiobook version of 'Sphere' by Michael Crichton.

Asner is, without a doubt, the most infuriating narrator I have ever experienced. I understand that he may be popular in the US for his work as Lou Grant on the 'Mary Tyler Moore Show' but his audiobook work is so atrocious I found myself convinced that throwing myself off a bridge was preferable to listening to another second of his wheezing, mumbling intonations.

When Asner is trying to sound sincere he sounds bored to the verge of passing out and speaks so softly you can hardly hear him, at points his voice is barely more than a whisper. When the tempo increases and the excitement builds Asner compensates for this by attempting to speed up his dialogue, as one does when something exciting happens, however due to his lack of skill (and possibly due to being a thousand years old) he cannot keep up with his own words and ends up muttering and slurring. In fact Asner was 72 years old in 2001 when he made this recording and it really shows, in consequence all of the characters in the story sound ancient. There is no variation in his voice for different characters which makes it hard to tell who is saying what. The only exception to this are his pathetic attempts at imitating a female which he does by softening his voice even more (which hardly seems possible) and raising the pitch slightly. As a result when two female characters have a conversation it sounds like a geriatric drag queen talking to himself.

Asner effectively ruined the story for me as I found myself physically unable to listen to his voice for more than five minutes without wanting to break things. If I was ever a spy and captured by the enemy there would be no need to electrocute, starve or beat me. Just tie me to a chair and force me to listen to Asner going on for ten minutes and I'd be willing to tell you anything you wanted to know.

Have you ever had a bad audiobook experience?

Friday, 29 October 2010

Edgar Allan Poe

My wife bought me this book a few months back for me to try since I've been enjoying horror stories of late. Before I picked up this book I had never read Poe before and was wholly ignorant of the bizarre circumstances of his life and death.

The book is a collection of twenty five short stories, one complete novel and one poem (The book's full title is 'Edgar Allan Poe, The best of his macabre tales complete and unabridged' which doesn't exactly fall off the tongue) Most of the stories featured are horror however a few of his detective stories were thrown in for good measure. I am reviewing the short stories here and plan to review the full novel at a later date.

I enjoyed reading the short stories and found Poe's writing style easier to get on with than I anticipated. Poe did have an unfortunate habit of putting Latin, French and German sayings into his stories. This wouldn't be so much of an issue if the publishers had included a translation for those of us who only speak English but unfortunately they did not so I was often forced to put the book down mid-sentence and turn on the computer to look up the saying in case it was critical to the story (which it never was)

The horror stories were truly frightening, the accounts of premature burials made my skin crawl as did the cold and calculated murders often carried out by Poe's creations. The horror rarely involves any kind of 'beast' or 'monster' but rather the horrors of violence carried out by men either insane or just plain nasty.

Of the horror stories my favourite would have to be 'The Black Cat' the main character, possibly suffering from alcoholism and depression, takes his frustrations out on the family cat. One day in a fit of temper he attempts to kill the cat and, in the process, brutally murders his poor wife. He bricks her up inside a wall in the cellar...I won't say what happens next but needless to say the cat gets the last laugh!

Poe has a beautiful sense not only of fear and terror but also of irony and there is humour to be found within the pages which helps break up the melancholy. There is a good deal of insanity which features in many of the stories and I believe Poe understood about human psychology and how fear can paralyse a person or cause irrational behaviour. Sadly not all of his horrors were entirely original and after a while I noticed common themes which were often repeated from story to story; Poe seemed to have a pre-occupation with bricking people up behind walls!

Sadly I did not enjoy Poe's mystery stories as much as his horror stories (with the exception of the first story; The Gold-Bug) and found them far too tedious to bother with but this did not deter me too much as I was mainly interested in the horror stories anyway.

Oddly enough my overall favourite story in the collection doesn't fit into the category of horror or mystery. It is called 'The Angel of the Odd' and I have rarely come across a more fascinating, diverting and original story. The main character reads a typically apocryphal tabloid newspaper story and declares his disbelief to himself. No sooner has he done so than a bizarre creature who declares itself as the Angel of all the odd, bizarre and unusual things that happen in the world makes its appearance in his rooms. Ever the skeptic the protagonist patronises the angel resulting in it leaving his rooms in a rage. Soon after a series of odd events begin to plague the man who, by the end of the story, is forced to beg for mercy from the Angel.

I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to glimpse the darker side of human nature or just anyone who loves horror. A very good collection.

Final verdict 4/5

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Madame Bovary

I read Madame Bovary as part of a read-along hosted by Nonsuch books. Please do check out the other reviews and thoughts on this novel.

Madame Bovary is a complex character and my attitudes and thoughts towards her changed in various ways throughout the novel. Emma is someone who is unsatisfied with what life has to offer a women in her position at that time which is something that a modern reader could surely understand. But instead of being an intelligent women who tries to forge her own happiness in her own way, she is instead quite often very silly, vain and selfish. Her interests in affairs, material goods and religion prove ultimately without substance and happiness remains ever elusive. While I could understand her, her behaviour and the fact that she was not in a bad position compared with other women at that time meant that I could never feel sorry for her.

The other characters in the small town of Yonville-l'Abbaye are all unlikeable in their own way from Emma’s husband who is pretty hopeless overall, to the shopkeeper who ruins Emma into debt deliberately for his own profits and Emma’s lover Rodolphe who simply plays Emma like a fiddle for his own amusement. I am assuming that Flaubert was holding the mirror up to a certain part of French society here and unfortunately I am not knowledgeable enough to comment on how effective Flaubert was in this regard but I did wonder if Flaubert liked any of his characters at all. I'm guessing not.

Quite a lot of people have complained that this novel bored them. I think, the self-destructive behaviour of Emma does run in a loop which is repeated a few times until her untimely demise. This repeated unrepentant behaviour and the slow pace of novel in general meant that I find it understandable if people do complain that they found it boring although I personally didn't.

This novel certainly raised questions for me and made me ponder about the Madame Bovarys of today but the unlikeable characters and the overall slow pace makes it unlikely that I will pick this one up again. After saying that, I have found that the people reading this for the second time for the read-along seem to have got more out of the experience and this book was not what I was expecting at all (in a good way).

Verdict 3/5

Posted by Jess