Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Cranford Read-along part 2

This is the second and final part for the Cranford read-along hosted over at A literary odyssey.

The second part took a slightly more dramatic turn and saw Miss Matty lose her entire income after the collapse of her bank. The chapters were also more linked in the second part of the book and this saw Miss Matty's friends try to help where they could before Miss Matty was forced to make some radical changes to her lifestyle.

There was certainly more in the way of events and plot during the last eight chapters, but the book still didn't lose any of its charm or nostalgia for the ladies of Cranford. I found however the ending rather abrupt, it was like the author had to suddenly wrap everything up quickly in the last paragraph and didn't really fit in keeping with the rest of the book.

This has been a wonderful book to dip in and out of over the last few weeks and for a more gentle and charming read I recommend it.

Elizabeth Gaskell herself said of Cranford “It is the only one I can read again. Whenever I am ailing or ill, I take it down and laugh over it afresh.”

Next month I am participating in the One Hundred Years of Solitude also hosted on A Literary Odyssey and the full details of that one can be found here. I have only read a couple of chapters so far but its certainly quite far removed from the experience of Cranford!

Posted by Jess

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier

Set in the early 1800s, Jamaica Inn is the story of Mary Yellan. She arrives to Jamaica Inn after promising her dying mother that she would sell the family's farm and go live with her aunt Patience. When she arrives at Jamaica Inn she realises very quickly that things are not as they should be, her aunt who was once pretty and lively has now withdrawn into herself and seems very frightened of her husband Joss. Joss is a big brute of a man who is secretive and keeps some very dubious company, what Joss’s dealings are and what Jamaica Inn is used for is slowly revealed.

I had little expectations for this book. I loved Rebecca and was expecting this to not match up it. I’m glad to say that I relished Jamaica Inn and thoroughly enjoyed reading it. From the first chapter when Mary is travelling along Cornwall's desolate moors in the night towards Jamaica Inn Du Maurier had me hooked. Du Maurier takes the reader very much into Gothic territory here (is there any alternative when moors are involved) but also throws in some adventure and a love interest which slots perfectly into an already atmospheric and gripping read.

Although Rebecca might be a better book I much preferred the Heroine Mary in Jamaica Inn. This is a girl is determined, strong and (for want of a better word) sassy. Instead of cowering in the corner with her aunt she stands up to her uncle, her uncle in turn respects her and a battle of words ensures between them. I just love this speech she presents to her uncle when he first tries to intimidate her upon arrival at Jamaica Inn..

'I understand you,' she said. 'I'm not curious by nature, and I've never gossiped in my life. It doesn't matter to me what you do in the inn, or what company you keep. I'll do my work about the house and you'll have no cause to grumble. But if you hurt my Aunt Patience in any way, I tell you this – I'll leave Jamaica Inn straight away, and I'll find the magistrate, and bring him here, and have the law on you; and then try and break me if you like.'

Mary is also attracted to her uncle’s brother Jem. Jem is a charmer and a horse thief, he is quite upfront about his dodgy dealings with Mary and plays a good ‘bad boy’, but can she trust him?

Mary also has quite a cynical (or perhaps realistic) view on love and marriage for a young girl. She sees young couples all the time in love but then sees them get married and have children and she sees their lives change as the husband comes home demanding his dinner and the wife who is tired from looking after a home and a baby that never stops crying. Mary just seems to accept that the world is simply made like this and she herself can either choose to be part of that or choose to go her own way.

This is quite a refreshing attitude for a book written in the 1930s, but what’s even more refreshing is that she never needs ‘rescuing’. Yes she is beaten and dragged about but she uses her own resources to get herself out of the situation, Jem never shows up to ‘save’ her. In this respect she would make a far better role model than a lot of modern heroines.

This is good book which contains atmosphere, deception and adventure and I found it pure escapism and a real treat to read.

Verdict 5/5

Surprisingly the Inn was based on a real Jamaica Inn which still stands in the exact location as described in the book. I have no idea how the owners reacted at the time the book was published but they certainly take advantage of their small claim to fame today. I did not see this picture of the Inn until after I had read the book but it almost matches perfectly what I imagined the Inn to look like. For more information on the Inn today can be found on their website here.

Posted by Jess

Monday, 28 June 2010

Tales by Japanese Soldiers by Kazuo Tamayama

The thoughts, feelings and experiences of Allied and German soldiers during the Second World War are well documented. Numerous films, books and documentaries have been produced. However the same cannot be said of the Japanese. The thoughts and feelings of their soldiers have been largely overlooked.

Two members of my family encountered the Japanese during the Second World War. Unfortunately I never got the chance to ask either of them what Japanese soldiers were like. Perhaps they could not have given me an answer if I did.

I imagine most people have seen the haunting footage of Japanese kamikaze aircraft crashing into battleships, heard accounts of the unspeakable atrocities committed against prisoners of war and the Japanese propensity to commit suicide rather than face the perceived humiliation of capture. History is full of these bleak images. I had hoped, by reading accounts from the soldiers themselves, I would learn more than just these often repeated and well documented facts.

The book is a collection of diary entries made by Japanese soldiers. It is often very detailed in its description of Japanese fighting tactics, troop movements and use of aircraft and mountain guns as support and of the high regard the Japanese had of bayonet charges. The book also covers the fear and shame some soldiers felt at being wounded or pinned down by enemy fire and therefore unable to continue fighting.

Curiously enough although it is clear Japanese soldiers were afraid of being wounded they seemed much less afraid of dying, whether this was bravado, genuine courage or recklessness is sometimes hard to tell but I think on the whole the soldiers seemed to feel that if it was necessary for them to die for the betterment of Japan then they were OK with it when compared to the apparent shame they would feel if they were sent home with a leg missing. It was also interesting to read that the average Japanese soldier seemed far more concerned about contracting cholera than catching an enemy bullet!

Despite the insights this book provides ultimately I was left somewhat disappointed. Throughout the book there does seem a lack of real human feeling or expression from the Japanese. Occasionally a Japanese soldier would write that he felt sad about something but that was it, a brief mention of emotional pain but nothing else. The whole thing seems so clinical, so devoid of emotion. Perhaps a lot was lost in translation or heavily censored but most of the writing is surprisingly functional, non-emotional and to the point. Sometimes it almost felt like reading an official report rather than a diary entry.

Ultimately I feel this book was a real missed opportunity.

Final verdict 2/5


Saturday, 26 June 2010

Reading plans for July

Thank you again for everyone's suggestions on my post here recommending books I should read during July. I have picked out the books suggested most often along with some of the earlier suggestions and have come up with this list.

The Great Gatsby by F.Scott Fitzgerald
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
Perfume by Patrick Suskind
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
The House of the Mosque by Kader Abdolah
The World according to Garp by John Irving
Beloved by Toni Morrison

I have made a list of eight because a few of those books are not very long and after that lot during August I will read this.

This book is the oldest on my list and is one that I keep passing over purely because its 600 pages long and has small writing. But since so many people have recommended it I will read it in August and take my time with it.

On another note I also brought this today.

I figured if I'm going to jump on a literary bandwagon I may as well do it sooner rather than later ;)

Posted by Jess

Let The Right One In

A read the book, watch the movie Challenge
The story follows the life of Oskar; a skinny, 12 year old boy who lives at home with his overbearing mother. Oskar is horrendously bullied at school. He wets himself almost daily and cannot defend himself against the humiliation and physical attacks of the cruel children who make his life a misery. He fantasises about killing his tormentors. One day, by chance, he meets Eli; a mysterious girl who lives in the apartment next to his. All is not as it seems with Eli and pretty soon they begin a friendship which has far reaching consequences for both of them.

The movie is a masterpiece in my opinion, a truly original vampire story which keeps you guessing throughout. The actors are well cast and the setting is perfect. Some very impressive visuals are on show here and the acting is first rate. The two main actors are only 11 years old and considering that they are very fine actors, they had me totally convinced.

The dialogue is in Swedish with English subtitles which I felt was not just appropriate but also right since the story was written by a Swedish author with Swedish characters set in Sweden using Swedish actors...I have heard Hollywood is planning on making their own version which I don't wholly approve of since it would be almost impossible to improve on this one.

The film is gruesome, there is no escaping that, but not as gruesome as some vampire movies I've seen. Despite being a killer the vampire quickly got under my skin (no pun intended!) I felt sorry for her when it becomes clear she only kills to survive and no other reason.

The main difference between the book and movie (and the most noticeable) is that roughly half the characters are missing from the movie or not developed anywhere near the degree they are in the book. I have read that this was done deliberately to bring the focus of the audience onto the two main characters. I'm not sure how I feel about it as the book itself was very rich and varied however one of my only complaints about the book was that it was a little too long so perhaps removing characters was for the best.

If you have ever wondered what happens to a vampire if they enter a house when they haven't been invited its worth watching this movie just for that scene alone! Powerful stuff.

The book is also brilliant but sadly fell short of the five star mark purely due to its length. It is more than 500 pages and full of many minor characters whose stories we also follow, of course they all interlink by the end of the story but there are definite moments in the book when you think to yourself 'Oh, get on with it'

As you would expect much more detail goes into each character which works well. Its very easy to develop favourites although I had several. Were there too many characters in the book? Perhaps one or two but it still doesn't change the fact that it is a brilliant story.

Lindqvist has (to a modest degree) re-invented the vampire for this movie but not in a bad way. The vampire in this story more resembles what a real vampire would be like in my opinion. Not a dashing, charming Christopher Lee type character with a duff accent and a long flowing cape but a scruffy, smelly outcast who hides away from people and only appears when she needs to feed. When she does feed its not a pretty thing to witness. She doesn't seduce her victim calmly so they comply without a fuss nor does she gently prick their neck with two nice little neat holes. She jumps on her screaming victim before literally tearing their throats open with her mouthful of razor sharp teeth. Not a pretty thing to read I can tell you and the feeding scenes make your skin crawl but that is such a fascinating contrast; the vampire is capable of immense kindness and empathy towards Oskar and yet, at a moments notice, can turn into a terrible monster and murder indiscriminately. Because her feeding habits are so brutally messy Eli is often forced to move home to avoid detection and to have a human companion to help her kill.

All in all a brilliant movie and book well worth seeing even if typically you don't like vampires.

I would give the book 4/5 and the movie 5/5

By Chris

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

After being suitably impressed with Sarah Waters writing in The Little Stranger and after reading a lot of cries of ‘read Fingersmith, read Fingersmith’ in the comments section on that post I was looking forward to sitting down with this Victorian yarn.

Sue is an orphan; her mother was hanged for murder, so Sue has been brought up by Mrs Sucksby and her little gang of thieves in the underbelly of London when a seemingly good opportunity arrives. If she helps her friend ‘Gentleman’ woo a rich girl named Maud into marrying him she will earn herself £3,000 of this girls fortune when Gentleman completes his plan to commit his new wife to an asylum. Well aside from the moral implication of committing a perfectly sane girl to an asylum for the rest of her days this is a good opportunity for Sue, so she agrees to work as Maud’s personal maid in the country all the while pushing her towards Gentleman.

This is a very plot driven book with lots of cliff-hangers, parts are sometimes told by different points of view and nothing is quite what it seems.

Most of the book is narrated by Sue and I enjoyed reading her voice the most. She had quite a straight-forward and sarcastic voice which sometimes made me chuckle and I enjoyed her observations about her new role and the servants who work there.

“It was all the most trifling sort of nonsense, and enough to make a cat laugh; but it was life and death to them – I suppose, it would be life and death to you, if all you had to look forward to for the next forty years was carrying trays and baking pastry. Anyway, I saw that, if I was to get anywhere with them, I must watch my steps”

Unfortunately I did not enjoy Maud’s narration as much as it didn’t have as much spark as Sues, although given her circumstances this is more realistic.

While I preferred the character development and overall message in The Little Stranger there is something to be said for a good plot which manages to keep you engrossed and on your toes. Sarah Waters has also impressed me once again with her writing and the images she creates, she manages to twist the genre by having Maud not fall in love with her hansom suitor but with her maid, further complicating the plan. Waters manages to capture whatever atmosphere she is writing about whether it is the back streets of London or the inside of an asylum and while some of the twists were a little unbelievable, as a reader I was still swept along with it.

A gripping and tantalising read, you could do a lot worse than pick this one up.

Verdict 4/5

Posted by Jess

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Sylvia Plath Selected Poems

Before I begin this review in earnest I suppose I had best explain that I am not what I would call a fan of poetry. I am the sort of person who calls a spade a spade and doesn't usually appreciate flowery language.

However I do accept that there is a time and place for that sort of thing and so, when the mood takes me, I sometimes read poetry and I sometimes love it. I am also a huge fan of 'The Bell Jar' which is why I decided to give Sylvia Plath's poetry a try. In some ways I almost wish I hadn't.

Sylvia Plath's poems are dark. Very dark. Dark to the point where you might consider harming yourself before reading another line. If I was to sum up a fairly typical poem in this collection it would run something like this;


Reading the above you might be tempted to believe I am making fun of Sylvia Plath's tragic and premature demise but this could not be further from the truth. What I mean to say is her poetry is not life affirming, it is full of bleak, unhappy imagery which, most of the time, doesn't make a great deal of sense and doesn't relate to how I feel or have ever felt in any way.

Sadly this means I do not like her poetry at all, I have read much better. This pains me as I really did love her novel. Having said all this it was useful in some sense to read her poetry as it really does show very clearly how ill and unhappy she was.

If you like bleak poetry then by all means give this a try. I am certainly not an expert on the technical aspects of poetry all I know is what I like and dislike and sadly this falls into the latter category.

Final verdict 2/5


Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Black Water Rising by Attica Locke

This book is set in Houston Texas during the 1980s. While on a boat ride with his wife, the main character Jay hears gun shots and a scream and then sees a woman fall into the water. Jay rescues her, but in doing so becomes entangled in a murder investigation.

This book for me can be summed up in one infuriating sentence; ‘If he’d only gone to the police in the first place the whole thing could have been cleared up a lot quicker.’ This is literary what I kept repeating to myself every time Jay got himself in yet more trouble as his situation become more and more convoluted in a plot that seemed to involve everyone all the way up to the Mayor of Houston itself. No really, it goes up as far as the Mayor.

It would not be fair to just dismiss this book as a standard crime novel as there are other elements packed in there such as the civil rights movement, corruption in the oil industry and union strikes and despite all these plot elements the story is quite easy to follow. Unfortunately this also involved many secondary characters who were not fleshed out sufficiently; the motivation for the ‘bad guy’ for example is never fully explained and even Jay himself at times just seems to be there as a plot device.

While Jay runs around trying to get himself out of the mess he put himself in (if only he’d gone to the police) there are flashbacks to his life as a student when he was involved in the civil rights movement which included some jail time and the town Mayor. Yes that’s right, that pesky Mayor again who features quite a lot yet we learn little about her, except that everything seems to involve her at some point whether its some plot involving oil or Jays personal life.

I’m not entirely sure what the point of Jay’s flashbacks were aside from giving background on his relationship with the Mayor as they didn’t really connect with the main story. Yes, we got to see what Jay had achieved since his time as a student but we didn’t really need chapters and chapters of flashback to let the reader know that.
The author gives a great sense of the heavy and claustrophobic atmosphere of Houston and maybe fans of crime fiction looking for something slightly different may find this appealing. This was shortlisted for the Orange prize and does have its fans but unfortunately as you may have guessed, I didn’t like it.

Verdict: 2/5

Posted by Jess

Reading list update

Thank you to everyone for my reading suggestions for the month of July. As quite a few books were obviously firm favourites with a few of you (I see the Great Gatsby HAS to feature) I don't think it will take me long to come up with a list. I'll update with the list in a few days.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

What to read next?

I have added a new page to the blog titled 'TBR Pile'. After counting and listing all the books which I physically own but have not yet read I was astounded to realise the number came to 52. I am sure this will seem like a stupidly small number to some of you book addicts out there but that's quite a lot for me.

So just for fun, during the month of July I thought I would read books from the list suggested by you guys. All I ask is that you look down my TBR list and see if there are any books which you would like me to read during July. I will read them in order of the suggestions as they come in. I normally read on average of seven books a month depending on thickness of course.

I look forward to seeing what people suggest!

Posted by Jess

Saturday, 19 June 2010

My latest book purchases

I am quite lucky I live near a couple of 2nd hand books shops and charity shops. The quality of books found in these places are quite good and often I find books which are on my wish list. I can only assume that the people have Surrey have great reading tastes ;) Of course this also means that I have to buy them when I see them as they might not stay there for long. A couple of weeks ago I saw Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell which I didn't buy at the time, when I went back in there today it had been sold.

Here are the books I was lucky enough to pick up over the last couple of days.

Perfume by Patrick Suskind – The idea of this book sounds very intriguing to me.
The Reader by Bernhard Schlink – I have the film recorded but want to read the book first. For some reason the previous owner has underlined certain passages in pen.
The night Watch by Sarah Waters – I was very pleased with this find after just finishing Fingersmith.
The shadow of the wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon – For some reason this edition has the American cover which I quite like.
Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann – The best bargain of the lot, £2 for a hard back edition. I had to throw out the cover sleeve as it looks like the previous owner spilt abit of coffee or something on it, but I'm not complaining as the book itself remained unscathed.

So there you have it, five more books added to my shelf all for under £10 (just)

Posted by Jess

Friday, 18 June 2010

Hearts and Minds by Amanda Craig

This book opens with the murder of an au pair found dumped in a park lake, the au pair was a illegal immigrant from Russia and is therefore 'nameless'. Following five characters mostly made up of immigrants (legal and illegal) this book travels through the underbelly and privileged lifestyle of London while simultaneously tying all the characters lives together.

The characters range from a forced sex worker from the Ukraine to an American office worker but the book is never confusing. Each chapter follows a different person and each story is equally harrowing and gripping. One chapter you will read about a wealthy white South African family living in London or professionals at a dinner party moaning about the numbers of immigrants, and in the next chapter read about one such immigrant cleaning their cars for £2 an hour. Mixed in amongst these different connecting story-lines there is the body of the Russian au pair and the investigation into her murder.

In a few parts I did find the style of this novel slightly preachy but it also highlighted issues which are relevant and has tackled dark themes such as forced prostitution and human trafficking. I cared about all the characters and found it exciting seeing how all their seemingly separate story lines were actually all intertwined. This book is one which perhaps some people would rather not read as it looks at the ways in which London has not embraced multiculturalism and instead highlighted the enormous gulf between rich and poor, this is a very 'Dickens' London set in modern times.

I found this a real page-turner and I would highly recommend it.

Verdict 4/5

Posted by Jess

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

To Kill a Mockingbird article

Here is an article from the BBC website about the universal appeal of Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird. It's an article taken very much from the British point of view with regards to the book and they interview various people including school teachers on why this book is so popular.

Posted by Jess

Book Blogger Appreciation Week

Book Blogger Appreciation Week sounds like something which would be fun to be involved in. We have only been running this blog since March so we thought that we would register for fun. Quite a few of the bloggers on my blog list have also entered and I look forward to seeing all those entry's plus checking out any new blogs I haven't come across yet.

My chosen niche:Best Eclectic Book Blog

For Review: Tender is the night by F.Scott Fitzgerald
For Review: Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain 1942
For Review: The Time Machine by H.G.Wells
For Review: Wedlock by Wendy Moore
Article: Giving up the Ghost

My chosen category: Best New Book Blog

For Review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
For Review: The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
For Review: A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka
Article: A visit to Darwin's house
Article: Fly me to the moon

Its worth checking out as you can also sign up to be a judge if you dont want to nominate yourself.

Posted by Jess

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Cranford Read-Along Post 1: Chapters 1-8.

I have been participating in the Cranford read-along hosted over at A Literary Odyssey. This is the first of two posts and covers chapters 1-8.

Written during the Victorian era, Cranford was based on the town of Knutsford in Cheshire where Gaskell spent a great deal of her childhood and adult life. Elizabeth was encouraged to write a novel by her husband after the death of one of their children. Gaskell was often in the company of other great writers of her time including Charles Dickins and Charlotte Bronte. Indeed when Charlotte Bronte died, Charlotte's father Patrick Bronte asked Gaskell to write her biography.

Cranford started life as six episodes published in Household Words, a literary magazine edited by Charles Dickins. After the publication of six parts the stories were published as a novel.

Cranford is a place where most of the propriators are women and whoms lives represent a dying way of life in England at that time. It was written around the time of the Industrial revolution when country ways in England was changing forever. The book focuses on a small community made up of mostly widows and spinsters who go about their non-eventful lifes gossiping, going to tea, and trying to live in a more gential life.

There is no actual plot in the first eight chapters and perhaps I am not selling this very well, I have been reading a chapter a day as each chapter is only about 10 pages each but are still miniture stories in themselves. So far I have been finding the chapters a delight to read each day (especially nice considering some of the depressing stuff I read) and I find them both funny and charming. There has been tragdy and death in the parts I have read yet this book is never depressing and I am looking forward to reading the next eight chapters.

Posted by Jess

Monday, 14 June 2010


Solaris has been hailed as a classic of science fiction by numerous critics. Although it is not difficult to see its appeal it is far from perfect and I personally struggle to see its ‘classic’ status. I have recently developed the belief that the very best science fiction is simple but exciting. Solaris barely scrapes into that category.

The basic story is simple enough; set in the future ‘Solaris’ is a large planet whose surface is dominated by an enormous ocean. There is no indigenous plant or animal life on the planet except for the ocean itself which seems to be one gigantic life form which exhibits signs of intelligence. Despite years of study no human scientist has come up with any solid theory or proof as to exactly what it is.

The main character is a scientist who visits the research team on Solaris only to discover complete mayhem. One of the researchers is dead, another seems to have gone mad and a third has barricaded himself in his laboratory and won’t come out. It is not long before the scientist begins to have strange experiences of his own and comes to the conclusion that the ocean is somehow trying to communicate with them.

As I said before the basic premise is straightforward enough but Lem did his best in the following chapters to muddy the waters and create frustration. The reader is subjected to pages of scientific waffle, jargon (which, of course, is all entirely fictional) and numerous unanswered questions which always irritates me a great deal. If Lem was trying to confuse and confound the reader he certainly succeeded however I also found the book full of suspense and very hard to put down I read it in less than 48 hours. I felt the story was interesting and very different.

The general writing style was flowing and convincing and at times the book almost felt like a science fiction ghost story. There are some very creepy moments which had me biting my nails but sadly any suspense was quickly dispelled with more waffle about neutrinos and atoms.

Sadly this book had all the right ingredients but let itself down with too much scientific input. If Lem had concentrated on the more unsettling, frightening aspects of the story it would have been a fantastic book instead of just an OK one.

Final verdict 3/5

By Chris

Sunday, 13 June 2010

One Day by David Nicholls

The premise of this book is a very simple one, its takes Dexter and Emma (Dex and Em, Em and Dex) just after their graduation and looks at a particular day for them every year for the next 20 years. A lot can happen in twenty years and indeed it does happen to Dexter and Emma as we see marriages, divorces, heartbreak, career changes etc etc.

I loved this book and as a result I'm sure I read it far far too quickly but I was desperate to know what was going to happen the following year to these people. The two main characters are not perfect in fact sometimes I just wanted slap them but ultimately I really wanted them to find happiness with each other.

The advantage with knowing you're going to be following these characters for a long time is that you know they can change. If one of the characters is arrogant in their early twenties for example you know that by the time they are in their mid thirties a great deal would have changed and that character would have learnt some harsh lessons by then. You become more forgiving of them.

The author was intelligent enough to choose a day in July in which to follow the characters, intelligent because anything can happen in July and well the weathers nice. I'm glad the author didn't choose some of the alternatives, for example can you imagine having to read 20 new year eves in a row?

This book would be classed as a love story but it is also very funny in parts and quite life affirming. But don't be fooled into thinking this will be a completely light hearted read, there are also some wonderful touching and tragic moments and you may be affected.

Verdict 5/5

Posted by Jess

Saturday, 12 June 2010

New purchases and a new challenge

Me and Chris finally entered the Waterstones in Piccadilly the biggest book shop in Europe. We didn't even know this shop existed until I starting reading some of the British blogs thus proving once again what a bad influence you all are ;). Our primary goal going into central London was to visit the British Museum but Waterstones happened to be near Green Park station. We were however quite restrained but I did pick up a couple of books for this challenge.

The fourth Japanese Literature Challenge. All I have to do for this challenge is read one or more works of Japanese literature between June 1, 2010 and January 30, 2011.

I already own Haruki Murakami's Norwegian Wood and today I picked up In the Miso Soup by Ryu Murakami (which has been on my wish list forever) and Never let me go by Kazuo Ishiguro.

I also brought a signed copy of The Help by Kathryn Stockett. Again this is one that has been on my wish list for ever and is one that I keep reading great reviews for so I am going to finally read this one.

I hope everyone is having a great weekend and good luck to everyone taking part in Bloggiesta and tweaking with their blogs.

Posted by Jess

Friday, 11 June 2010

Romeo & Juliet

“For never was a story of more woe. Than this of Juliet and her Romeo”

Arguably the greatest love story ever told; the tragic lives of Romeo and Juliet are famous across the world. I don’t need to explain the story as everybody knows it.
The movie version I will discuss in this review is the 1996 Romeo + Juliet directed by Baz Luhrmann which starred Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes in the title roles.
Romeo + Juliet was originally written sometime in the mid 16th century by William Shakespeare however this version is set in modern times in the fictional town of Verona Beach, Florida. Despite the new setting the story is not interfered with too much which greatly surprised me.
Luhrmann and his screenplay writers must have gone to great trouble to ensure Shakespeare’s original play was recreated as faithfully as possible. Obviously some changes had to be made but I feel they added a modern appeal to the movie that others lack. Some of the changes are obvious; Instead of swords and bucklers the characters carry guns. Instead of riding horses they drive cars. The film is heavily stylised and visually very impressive. The music is stunning and really helps bring the story to life.

One of the most surprising aspects of the movie for me is the dialogue. To my mind it would be common sense that since the entire setting of the story was moved forward a few hundred years surely the dialogue would be modern too? Not a bit of it. Shakespeare’s words remain in the movie and although they are alerted at times they have largely remained faithful. It takes a bit of getting used to but it really does work very well and is worth persevering with.
The acting is fantastic, DiCaprio and Danes are very convincing as the star crossed lovers and really seemed to put everything into their performances. The supporting roles are just as good with convincing and emotive performances from John Leguizamo as the hot blooded Tybalt, Harold Perrineau as the facetious, fun loving Mercutio, British legend Pete Postlethwaite as Father Lawrence and Paul Sorvino as Fulgencio Capulet.

It is also rare for a romance story as it has elements for both a male and female audience. Not only is it a story of love and passion but it also covers the darker side of love; hate, jealousy and deceit. The confrontations between the Montagues and Capulets are truly electrifying. There is also a good amount of humour, one of my favourite scenes being the opening confrontation between the Montague and Capulet families at a gas station.

Some aspects from the play are left out of the film such as the death of Paris and Lady Montague and Juliet not trusting Father Lawrence not to poison her but I do not feel these were central points in the story as a whole anyway.

I bought a copy of Romeo and Juliet from a bookshop in Verona itself as I felt that would be special. I am a romantic sort really although I am aware the story is a work of fiction and didn’t truly happen (at least not the way Shakespeare wrote about)
I had never actually sat down and read the book before; I never studied it in school although I knew what the story was about.

The story is a masterpiece and should be taught in every school. Because it was written by Shakespeare to be performed on stage by actors it would not necessarily be easy for someone who hadn’t seen it in play form or on television to visualise the story. Because it was written as a play there are no descriptions of background, clothing or general appearance, just words spoken by each character, basic actions (such as ‘they fight’ or ‘Romeo exits’) the rest is left to the imagination.

If I had just picked up the book without having seen the film I would probably not have enjoyed it so much. The words are beautiful and meaningful even now although they do require some translation nowadays.

The version I bought had notes inside which explained certain words and sayings which I never would have guessed (I never knew ‘French slop’ meant ‘baggy trousers’!) without the notes the full meaning of entire pages would have been lost to me.
This story is timeless and both the book and movie are well worth seeing even for grumpy blokes like me!

Final verdict 5/5 for both movie and book

By Chris

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant

'By the second half of the sixteenth century, the price of wedding dowries had risen so sharply within Catholic Europe that most noble families could not afford to marry off more than one daughter. The remaining young women were dispatched – for a much lesser price – into convents. Historians estimate that in the great towns and city states of Italy, up to half of all noble women became nuns.
Not all of them went willingly.......'

The main character in Sacred Hearts is Serafina who is forced into the Italian convent of Santa Caterina at aged 16 to live a life of prayer and solitude. Meanwhile her sister marries into a good family who will also receive a sizeable dowry. Serafina is angry to the point of hysteria and refuses to sing in the choir for which the convent is famed for. As she becomes more determined to refuse her fate so a battle of wills sets in between her and the Mother superior.

This book is set just before huge changes were made to convents. When Serafina joins, the convent runs very much like a small business. The nuns frequently organize concerts and sell produce in order to cover their costs and squirrel away profit. The nuns themselves in the book are like any small community, a mixed bunch. Some have chosen the life of a nun while others like Serafina have not. There are a lot of power struggles within the convent (not surprising perhaps in a community made up of only women) and Serafine herself becomes a pawn in these struggles.

I found reading about life in a convent fascinating. The book did a good job of describing the disadvantages these women had such as a lack of passion, solitude and no children but also highlighted the advantages and freedom compared to other women during that time.

Although convent life was depicted as happy for the most part, there were dark aspects running throughout. The self harm and the fasting which some of the nuns indulged in would be diagnosed as anorexia today. The mother superior places the good of the convent above the welfare of individuals and even when talking about Serafina she declares; ‘She is only a young woman who did not want to become a nun. The world is full of them.' The mother superior is only however trying to preserve the convents way of life and trying to protect the nuns from the changes taking place.

The plot itself although slow in places kept my interest and is cleverly set in amongst the backdrop of the monotonous routine of prayer and work. I kept reading on to see if Serafina will escape or if she, like so many others before her, will finally accept her fate and try to carve out some kind of life for herself within the convent walls.

An interesting story with an even more interesting subject matter.

Verdict 4/5

Posted by Jess

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Literary Tattoo

Three days ago I got my first ever literary tattoo.

'Byzantium I come not from' is the first line of the Ray Bradbury poem of the same name. I am not usually a fan of poetry but I really like this particular one. I've even memorised it. To me the poem evokes the feeling of a happy childhood and a good home both of which I was lucky enough to get. To me the tattoo also serves as a tribute to Ray Bradbury, a man whose books I really enjoy reading.

The tattoo is still healing which is why it looks a little red around the edges but I wanted to post a pic ASAP as I have no patience :o)

Here is the poem in full;

I come not from
But from another time and place
Whose race was simple, tried and true;
As boy
I dropped me forth in Illinois,
A name with neither love nor grace
Was Waukegan. There I came from
And not, good friends, Byzantium.
And yet in looking back I see
From topmost part of farthest tree
A land as bright, beloved and blue
As any Yeats found to be true.

The house I lived in, hewn of gold
And on the highest market sold
Was dandelion-minted made
By spendthrift bees in bee-loud glade.
And then of course our finest wine
Came forth from that same dandelion,
While dandelion was my hair
As bright as all the summer air;
I dipped in rainbarrels for my eyes
and cherries stained my lips, my cries,
My shouts of purest exaltation;
Byzantium? No. That Indian nation
Which made of Indian girls and boys
Spelled forth itself as Illinois.
Yet all the Indian bees did hum:
So we grew up with mythic dead
To spoon upon midwestern bread
And spread old gods' bright marmalade
To slake in peanut-butter shade,
Pretending there beneath our sky
That it was Aphrodite's thigh;
Pretending too, that Zeus was ours
And Thor fell down in thundershowers.

While by the porch-rail calm and bold
His words pure wisdom, stare pure gold
My grandfather, a myth indeed,
Did all of Plato supersede
While Grandmama in rockingchair
Sewed up the raveled sleeve of care
Crocheted cool snowflakes rare and bright
To winter us on summer night.
And uncles, gathered with their smokes
Emitted wisdoms masked as jokes,
And aunts as wise as Delphic maids
Dispensed prophetic lemonades
To boys knelt there as acolytes
To Grecian porch on summer nights;
Then wen to bed, there to repent
The evils of the innocent;
The gnat-sins sizzling in their ears
Said, through the nights and through the years
Not Illinois nor Waukegan
But blither sky and blither sun.
Though mediocre all our Fates
And Mayor not as bright as Yeats
Yet still we knew ourselves. The sum?

Post by Chris

Monday, 7 June 2010

Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler

The last book in the NTTBG was Fledgling by the late Octavia Butler. I was looking forward to this one firstly because it was a vampire book (I cannot resist these) and secondly because it was written by a female science fiction writer. Unfortunately I was very disappointed by this book.

It seems a writer cannot write a vampire book these days without twisting the genre in someway in order to make it their own. What did Butler do? Well the Vampires in her book do not live forever, just a very long time. They do need human blood to survive but only a small amount at a time meaning that they don’t kill their victims and taking blood is extremely pleasurable for the human. In order to survive a vampire will have around 6-8 humans who live with them and act as personal blood banks each taking it in turns to give them blood/sex whatever. The bond between the vampire and these humans is apparently so strong that if one of the humans dies the vampire is practically crippled by the pain this brings.

The book follows ‘Shori’ a female vampire who has been genetically modified to make her black and therefore more comfortable in sunlight. She wakes in a forest suffering from amnesia and has to firstly find out who and what she is, how to survive, where to find others like her and who wants to kill her.

I had quite a few problems with this book. Firstly although Shori is technically 53 years old, she only looks about 12 so when she has sex with her human companion it’s a bit disturbing to read. It’s never made clear if the human in question wants to have sex with her because they share some kind of blood bond or if he finds young girls sexually attractive as they go at it quite soon after meeting.

Most of the book is spent wittering on needlessly about the complicated lifestyle of Butler’s vampires while ‘Shori’ finds out about her vampire nature and the ways of her human companions. It got boring and very very silly. Also the fact that Shori is black and is genetically engineered are themes that in my opinion were not fully explored, I feel that Butler really missed a good opportunity here. I did however finish this book because the writing itself was not bad and I think I will try this author again as she seems to be a very popular writer.

I just think I miss the good old days of Anne Rice, when Vampires were non sexual creatures, could not go out in daylight, slept in coffins and who saw most humans as food. Authors seem to want to humanise vampires but in order to do so they have to either skirt around the issue of their diet or change it completely. I realise this could become a whole other post but I miss the old ‘monsters’ which is really what they are.

Verdict 2/5

Posted by Jess

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Something Wicked This Way Comes

"By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes"

Macbeth, William Shakespeare

Yet another shining triumph for Ray Bradbury. If the vaunted American wordsmith keeps up at this pace he’ll soon be my favourite writer.

Something Wicked This Way Comes was hailed as a coming of age story, myself I’m not so sure. The two main characters are teenage friends from small town Illinois who fall foul of Mr Dark, the mysterious proprietor of the carnival that arrives in town in the middle of the night. It soon becomes apparent that this is no ordinary carnival and Mr Dark and his sinister freaks are no normal circus performers. Although growing up is a theme that is explored I feel survival against evil is a stronger theme here.

The story sounds simple enough but it is anything but. Bradbury writes with such masterful elegance I found myself transported beyond a simple horror story. The story cannot be simply defined in familiar terms such as ‘thriller’ ‘fantasy’ or ‘horror’ the truth is it is a wonderful mixture of all three. Although horror is at the heart of the story Bradbury infuses it with a poetic charm that is unexpected but effective. It added a further dimension to the story and only increased my interest. It is arguable how much this style leant to the story but in my view it improved it greatly (once I got over my initial surprise)

The friendship between the two boys is heart warming and Mr Dark is a chilling villain. He can truly make your skin crawl. The part of the book involving the hot air balloon is very frightening (I won’t say more than that!) although the two stories are quite different the story did bring to mind Stephen King's 'IT' but I imagine thats because they are both tales of adolesants in small town America trying to defeat a malevolent evil.

I thoroughly recommend this book

Final score 5/5

By Chris

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Juliet's balcony

After a very relaxing and hot week we are back in the UK. We stayed in the lakes region of Italy which is incredibility beautiful but also expensive (even by Italian standards) While we were there we took a trip into Verona and visited the only literary connection of our holiday; Juliet's balcony.

Juliet's balcony is located in a small courtyard just off one of the main shopping streets in the city of Verona. To get to the balcony visitors must walk through a stone tunnel leading to the courtyard. The tunnel is covered with graffiti and post-it notes all covered with beautiful declarations of love such as 'Sharon & Ross 4 ever'

The courtyard is quite small and located there in the far corner is the famous balcony where Juliet called “Romeo Romeo where for art thou Romeo?” and a statue of Juliet herself beneath it. The courtyard was very crowded and busy which isn't really clear from the photo taken. I also noticed that people who were posing for photographs next to the statue of Juliet were fondling her breasts (it certainly looked like it anyway) I later found out that local tradition dictates if you rub Juliet's right breast then you will find a new lover within the year, I'm glad I found this out as it really did look very odd otherwise.

So what connects this balcony to the fictional character of Juliet? Not a lot. There were two families who lived in Verona named the Cappellettis and the Montecchis (later changed by Shakespeare to Capulet and Montague) but there is little evidence to suggest that that the Cappellettis ever set foot here. The house was brought by the Veronese authoriries in 1936 after George Cukor's oscar winning production of Romeo & Juliet. They then “restored” the balcony. There are various other tourist destinations scattered around the city all allegedly linked to Romeo and Juliet and all equally bogus. The original story was fictional so why not the props as well?

The balcony does however look the part and while there are far bigger and better things to see in Verona, its a nice little spot to take a photo and if you are the romantic sort (as Chris is) i'm sure you'd enjoy the experience.

Posted by Jess