Friday, 30 December 2011

Washington Square by Henry James

I was pre-warned that Henry James is not an easy writer to get on with and his style is not to everyone’s taste. To illustrate this point, here is the first line in the book; “During a portion of the first half of the present century, and more particularly during the latter part of it...” Oh dear I thought, but I carried on undaunted and I really enjoyed the book.

Set in 19th century New York Catherine Sloper lives with her wealthy father and aunt. Their lives are not remarkable, indeed Catherine is considered dull and plain by her well meaning but sometimes callous father that is until she is courted by a young man named Morris Townsend. Townsend doesn’t have a penny to his name and is suspected, by Catherine’s father, of being after Catherine’s inheritance money. To balance out the cold, cynical suspicions of the father Catherine’s aunt (a stupid, meddlesome woman) sides with the young couple and views Morris through romanticised rose-tinted glasses; fantasising that he is the son she never had.

The story is entertaining, gripping and easy to get swept up in. The characters are brilliant and I found it impossible not to feel personally involved with them. I often found myself giving little cries of surprise or elation whilst reading it (resulting in strange looks from passers by) but it is a story that really sucks the reader in and fires up the imagination. The drama of it all kept me on the edge of my seat.

Highly recommended and not at all difficult to get on with.

Final verdict 4/5


Chris

Thursday, 29 December 2011

The year in (a short) review 2011

Over 2011 I finished more or less 73 books, I also read a lot of various short stories and a couple of novellas I didn’t bother to count.

I did make a note of the nationality of the author of every book I read just for a bit of fun. Going by my reading habits I knew it was always going to be close between the Americans and English for the top spot and the English just about got there. I’m surprised at the amount of books by German authors I managed to read and am even more surprised that the French did not make an appearance or that the Irish did not feature more. I think I’ll do this again next year.




Looking over my favourite books this year and the classics like Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and Gone with the Wind have been the most memorable ones for me but then I guess books like these are classics for a good reason. Next year I’m probably going to read a lot more classics and possibly some quite old books like Gulliver’s Travels or Robinson Crusoe. Chris is also trying his best to get me to read Ulysses or some such nonsense.

I have some lovely collections of books sitting on my shelf, quite a few of the penguin clothbound classics and the Penguin decade’s books. They look very pretty sitting there but I have read very few of them so this year I would like to prioritise those more, but who knows what comes my way in the meantime.

Thankyou to everyone who have organised very nicely any read-alongs that I have participated in over the year, you guys get me through books I would have never have picked up otherwise on account that I am lazy.
Happy new year everyone and here’s to a good one.

Posted by Jess

Sunday, 18 December 2011

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

It’s an odd book this one. If I had reviewed it and rated it the moment I finished reading it I would have given 5/5 easily. But it has been a number of weeks since I did read it and I’m now not so sure. One thing is certain however, I would recommend this wholeheartedly.

The novel is made up of a series of characters, each with their own chapter. These characters are all connected in some way and as the lives of the characters proceed so does time and times a goon and will get you eventually, which isn’t the most original idea really. But the execution is brilliant; I found it to be touching, inventive and rather entertaining. The chapter laid out in the style of a PowerPoint presentation was the one I found the most moving and also made this novel a joy to read on the kindle.

Despite the abundance of characters and the locations ranging from San Francisco to Naples, the story and threads all come together at the end making for a satisfying conclusion.

However while I loved it at the time I read it, a few weeks on I am struggling to remember much about it which isn’t a good sign. It’s not one of those novels that has lingered on the mind, I think I pretty much stopped thinking about it the moment I put it down. Why this is I’m not sure but something here was missing. I would still recommend this as it is very well done. However I would be interested if anyone else has had this experience with another book.

Rating 4/5

Posted by Jess

Friday, 16 December 2011

Quaker Writings An Anthology, 1650-1920

The Religious Society of Friends (more commonly known as Quakers) is a very unique religious group with a long history. Originally formed in England during the 1650s Quakers immediately faced censure, accusations of blasphemy, imprisonment and, in extreme cases, execution by the intolerant religious establishments of the time. The reasons for this treatment ranged from the questioning of scripture to the refusal to swear oaths, address magistrates by titles or fight in wars.
 
As the title suggests the book is a collection of essays and letters written by such famous Friends as George Fox, William Penn and Margaret Fell (to name a few) over a period of almost three hundred years. Despite the introduction to this review the book is not all about persecution, far from it. Although some of the letters were written by Friends from inside prison cells the majority of the book celebrate the religious convictions of Friends and speak about their faith, beliefs and practices.

One thing that is very obvious from reading the book is that Quakerism has changed since its original creation over three hundred years ago and I’m not going to go into whether or not I think that’s a good thing. The book paints a wonderful mental picture of early Quakerism with much talk of Christ which is sometimes missing from more contemporary Quaker writings.

The book isn’t without its downsides; I had particular trouble appreciating the writing style of William Penn, however considering the age of some of the writings by and large it is easy to get on with. Also I am unsure as to why the author only included letters written up to 1920 and not any more recent offerings.

This is an excellent book for someone who is interested in Quakers and wants to learn more about their roots particularly the beliefs and practices of early Friends. Personally I found it deeply inspirational and will definitely be re-reading it.

Final verdict 5/5

By Chris

Saturday, 10 December 2011

We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver


If someone was going to compile a top ten list of perfect book club books (which I’m sure people have) this would surely have to be in the top three.  It’s the kind of novel that you want to immediately discuss with other people. So it’s a great thing that Tea Time with Marce is hosting a discussion on We Need to Talk about Kevin.  Even if you reviewed this ages ago it worth popping your link over on the discussion post.
The novel is made up of the letters sent from Kevin's mother (Eva) to her estranged husband Franklin; they document her memories of Kevin throughout his life, and also her visits to him in prison where he is sent after shooting a number of his classmates. The novel attempts to tackle many issues on parenthood and ends up asking far more questions than it manages to answer. The main question has to surely be, was Kevin born evil or was he a product of his upbringing and his mother’s feelings towards him? Was he a product of nurture vs. nature?
I’m surprised at how much of a page turner this novel proved to be. It was not always the difficult, deep psychological read I expected, sometimes it did not quite read as a thriller but certainly it was plot driven at times and I could certainly see why it has proved such a bestselling if uncomfortable book.
Eva proved a fabulously unreliable narrator; was Kevin really like that as a baby or just Eva’s perception? At first Kevin is described very much like Damien from the omen which I simply could not believe so I found myself questioning Eva’s version of events constantly throughout the novel. I didn’t find myself questioning at the end why Kevin did it but more about the belief in redemption.  I do believe there are crimes that cannot be atoned for but when the end of Kevin’s punishment for his crimes relies heavily on his redemption, Eva is in a position where she is forced to somewhat forgive.
I would recommend this, it might not always be what you expect but it’s worth reading with an open mind and who knows, you might love it or you might hate it but it’s unlikely you will remain indifferent.
Posted by Jess

Monday, 28 November 2011

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

I put off reading Wolf Hall for a long time. Partly because of its size and partly because there have been so many dramas and documentaries on Henry VIII lately that I felt a little bored with everything Tudor.
But because I do love that period of history it was only going to be a matter of time before I finally picked it up.
Wolf Hall follows the life of Thomas Cromwell who, despite a humble background, was able to rise through the ranks in the court of Henry VIII eventually becoming the king’s right hand man. The novel doesn’t cover Cromwell’s whole life but instead covers his early life before jumping to the latter days of Henry's first marriage. As events unfold we see the split from Rome, the fall of Wolsey and Thomas More to the marriage of Anne Boleyn.
These events are told in what I can only describe as ‘layers’ which convey very well the feel and atmosphere of Tudor times. Henry VIII is in it surprisingly little but when he is, he comes across as a more thoughtful, magnetic and religious man than in other fictional portrayals while Anne Boleyn is still very much portrayed as a bitch. A lot of the events take place not in the court but in Cromwell’s house where a whole host of different characters are portrayed. Some scenes in the book are genuinely touching (such as Cromwell’s wife and daughters dying from the sweating sickness) and it’s nice to see Cromwell also worrying about his ward’s choice of wife as well as more pressing matters of state.
However I do have to mention about the style of writing and in particular the use of the word ‘he’. Mantel uses ‘he’ when referring to Cromwell which is fine if you're going to stick to that, but when the word ‘he’ is also used for other people during the same conversation it makes for some very confusing and sometimes annoying reading. This along with the novels overall size and style means that some people will not get along with Wolf Hall. Sometimes in situations like these it’s worth persevering but I feel in this case that the novels style of writing is either going to sweep you in completely (as it did me) or is going to leave you out.
A lot of the events in the novel like the break from Rome and Henry’s spilt from Catherine of Aragon took place over a period of several years and was played out in court in a long series of smaller political manoeuvres. One of the novel’s main strengths is how this is portrayed; the smaller characters all together interacting in a genuine world and having an impact on the whole country. This does mean however that it is not an action packed novel. If you prefer your historical novels to be a bit more exciting then this might not be for you.
I won’t go on about the historical accuracies but I was glad to see that Mantel did not invent a life for Cromwell during the years where historians draw a blank. A lot of significant events are mentioned in conversations or thoughts in passing so a general overview of the time might be helpful in order to get the most out of this novel.
If you’re interested in this period of history and you want something to really get your teeth into then I would give it a go. Personally I loved it and I will be buying the next instalment in hardback.
Verdict 4/5

Posted by Jess

Friday, 25 November 2011

You know how I rarely do challenges?

Challenges are not something I tend to rarely participate in which is strange really as the few I have done have introduced me to some wonderful books and authors.
The League of ExtraordinaryGentlemen Book Challenge 2012 hosted over at Booking in Heels is one kinnda cool challenge and since it contains quite a few ‘books I’ve been meaning to read one day’ I am signing up.

For those of you who don’t know the film, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was a film based on a graphic novel. The League is made up of classic book characters that spend their time trying to stopping various classic villains from taking over the world. I wouldn’t personally recommend the film, from what I do remember it was pretty god awful but each to their own.

So the characters and books are

Allan Quatermain from King Solomon's Mines by H. Rider Haggard
King Solomon's Mines tells the story of a search in an unexplored region of Africa by a group of adventurers led by Allan Quatermain for the missing brother of one of the party.


Mina Harker from Dracula by Bram Stoker
Dracula will be a re-read for me. I last read it as a teenager and while I enjoyed it I don’t think I really properly appreciated it.


Captain Nemo from 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea by Jules Verne
This will be my first Jules Verne novel


Tom Sawyer from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
This can also count towards my American project.

Dorian Gray from The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
I can’t quite believe I haven’t read this yet.


Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde from The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
I only read this a couple of years ago so I doubt I’ll be re-reading it
Rodney Skinner from The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells (kind of)
Due to copyright issues the characters from that book couldn't be used directly. Instead, Skinner claims to have stolen the Invisibility Formula from the character in the book or something.


The Phantom from The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux
Looking forward to reading this one!



James Moriarty from The Final Problem by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
I know nothing of this one.


So there we have it, a great mix I think and most are free on the kindle making it even more of a bonus.

Posted by Jess

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada


Alone in Berlin was written in 1947 and is loosely based on the true story of a married couple who placed postcards containing anti-Nazi messages all around the city of Berlin during the war. Unfortunately the main reason we now know the identity of this couple is because they were caught by the Nazis and hanged.

This book was not translated into English until 2009 which is surprising given the anti-Nazi message and the fact that books on this topic tend to do very well.

The novel contains a wide range of characters from the low-life criminal Emil, the Pro-Nazi Persicke family, the brave Trudel Baumann to the fiancée of the Quangel's dead son. The author here gives a wide-range of responses to the regime, from total loyalty through to heroic resistance and to the people that will do anything to look the other way and survive it. The paranoia hanging over Berlin and its residents is well portrayed and as a reader I did feel nervous for the characters when they dared, in their own way, to defy the authorities. I’ve read many books set during this period but this one did offer a different perspective.

However it did go very much into thriller territory towards the end. The police investigation and how they eventually caught the couple was very interesting but the thriller genre isn’t something I particularly enjoy. I wouldn’t let this put you off, it’s only my personal preference but I would have preferred it if the novel stuck to the more physiological and historical aspects.

The notes contained in the back of the book gives information on the real life couple the novel was based on. This section includes photographs, police reports and photos of the postcards that were dropped around Berlin.

Verdict 3/5

Posted by Jess


Tuesday, 15 November 2011

How my American Literature project is going...

I have been doing a little housekeeping on the blog over the last couple of days, sorting out bits and messing around with the design. One of my jobs has been updating my ‘American Project’ page which is now just about finished (the page not the project).

So just for fun (and because I love lists) I have jotted down a few observations about this project so far.

Authors like Flannery O’Connor, Stephen Crane and Richard Wright are not nearly as well known in the UK. When I started to compile my list I asked my family and friends for ideas and the usual Hemingway, Melville and Hawthorne were suggested. Of course they were suggested with good reason but I am sure without the suggestions of many blog readers’ people like Willa Cather might not have made it.

American school children have it so much worse than British children when it comes to what books are read in school. Seriously we read books like A Kestrel for a Knave, Of Mice and Men and Animal Farm. Americans get The Scarlet Letter and The Red Badge of Courage, both of which are far more difficult to read than the English selection. If I’d been handed The Scarlet Letter at 15 I may have been put off by the classics for good.

Books like The Grapes of Wrath and Gone with The Wind have educated me on aspects of American history I knew very little about. Of course I do always do my own research rather than believe everything I read but like all books set in an historical setting, you end up learning about different time periods.

It’s not a must but it helps to have a vague idea of dates involving slavery and the civil war. Even if the novel isn’t set during the civil war or a time when slavery was practiced its surprising how often it crops up. If a character mentions that his grandmother was a slave or that his father fought in the civil war then it helps if you know roughly the time period the character is referring to.

I have only given up on two novels so far Moby Dick and Catch 22. 13 of the novels were by female writers and 21 by male.

Of course I still have a long way to go as this is very much an ongoing project and the list is always added to (feel free to suggest more!) My enthusiasm for this is still very strong as there is something about American Literature that excites me.

Posted by Jess


Friday, 11 November 2011

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino


Without a doubt Invisible Cities is the most intriguing, unusual book I have read. It is so much so a bookseller made a point of telling me it was odd when I bought it off him. He didn’t sound altogether convinced I would enjoy it.
The book is at worst surreal and confusing, at best beautiful, poetic and meaningful. To describe it best I would say it is, pure and simple, an ode to the city; any city you care to think of. Calvino is clearly a man who appreciated everything about cities from their basic design, location and purpose to the people who live in them.

The basic premise of the book is that Kublai Khan, a Chinese Emperor of immense power has vast territories he can never hope to visit in his lifetime so he employs envoys to travel the globe and report back to him on what they have seen. One of these envoys is the Italian adventurer Marco Polo who weaves wonderful descriptions of the many cities he has seen. The descriptions are often brief and rarely take up more than a page (often significantly less)and interspersed every ten pages or so are discussions between Kublai and Marco which are often very philosophical in nature.

I feel that occasionally Calvino was guilty of being too mysterious and cryptic. Sometimes I just didn’t understand what he was trying to say;

“It is a city made only of exceptions, exclusions, incongruities, contradictions. If such a city is the most improbable, by reducing the number of abnormal elements, we increase the probability that the city really exists. So I have only to subtract exceptions from my model, and in whatever direction I proceed, I will arrive at one of the cities which, always as an exception, exist…”  

By and large I found the book fun, entertaining and meaningful but I would say it is certainly not a book for everyone and it takes a lot of hard work and imagination to appreciate it

Overall rating 4/5

Posted by Chris

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Ah this is why we never do giveaways, because I'm completely rubbish at sticking to my own rules!!

A bit late (sorry) but the winner is......

Danielle   - so please e-mail me with your address.
 
I did use that random number generator thing but I couldn't work out how to paste the result in this post. Or maybe I couldn't see how to do it because its late and I had a long day. But trust me Danielle is ze winner.
 
Posted by Jess

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay (and giveaway)

Red Dust Road is about the author Jackie Kay’s search for her birth parents. We read about her childhood and the discoveries she makes along the way such as when she realises for the first time that she and her brother have a different skin colour to their parents. She also tells us the reasons behind wanting to know more about her birth parents right through to when she meets them in person. It’s a journey that takes her to various parts of Scotland, England and Nigeria and is a fast, touching and funny read.

I’ve always been a little fascinated with adoptions; Part of my job involves looking at people’s birth certificates and quite often an adoption certificate passes my way. I always have a look at it (as I’m supposed to do) and wonder a little about the story behind it. So when I spied Red Dust Road I was glad of the opportunity to read one such story. What I found was that sometimes people just have their own reasons for giving their child up for adoption, there doesn’t have to be a great romantic or dramatic story behind it.

The book is not sad or sentimental but is told with great humour (some points had me and my husband laughing out loud) openness and honesty. This isn’t going as compelling or as tragic as other memoirs out there as Jackie was adopted by some wonderful people and had a great childhood, that’s why I liked it. The memoir is able to focus more on the nature/nurture split, 60's/70s Scotland and questions like ‘what if your birth parent doesn’t want contact, is it ok to contact your siblings anyway?’

The book doesn't follow a linear narrative. It moves back and forth which sometimes didn’t quite work for me but overall I enjoyed the descriptions of the places, the people she encountered, the snippets of her childhood and the way the book very much comes across as a tribute to her adoptive parents. Recommended.

I am seven years old. My mum, my brother and I have just watched a cowboy and Indian film. It suddenly occurs to me that the Indians are the same colour as me and my mum is not the same colour as me. I say to my mum, Mummy why aren’t you the same colour as me? My mum says, Because you are adopted. I say, What does adopted mean? My brother scoffs; Don’t you know what adoption means. He’s eating a giant-size bowl of cornflakes. He eats cornflakes for nearly every meal.

Verdict 4/5

Posted by Jess

I have a hardback of this book which has only been read once so if anyone would like it then please leave a comment and I’ll pick someone at random in a week and announce the winner here. I will post anywhere.

Good to be back

Well we are back at last with a brand new computer. We can’t complain really because our old computer was purchased on e-bay about five years ago, it had very little memory and was very slow, it was bound to give out eventually. After nosing about already on other blogs it seems that we weren’t the only ones to take it slow these past couple of months as quite a few blogging breaks are going on. Some of you however have been really busy going by my googlereader and others have completely changed their blog by either moving or changing your look. Business will be back to normal here ASAP and thanks to our followers for sticking around, I expected A LOT more to leave LOL.

Monday, 26 September 2011

We'll Be Back

Ladies and Gentlemen

We apologise for a lack of reviews on this site lately, about three weeks ago our beloved computer finally gave up the ghost meaning we had no practical way of updating this blog. Due to financial issues we haven't replaced it yet but a new one is on the cards for late October when we hope to fully resume our reviewing activities.

Thanks for your patience

Chris & Jess

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

The 13 ½ Lives of Captain Bluebear A Novel by Walter Moers


This story is like a crazy cross between The Hobbit and The Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy. One of the most epic , wacky books I have ever had the pleasure to read. As the title suggests the book chronicles the adventures of a blue coloured bear named (very imaginatively) Bluebear who lives on the ancient continent of Zamonia. He begins the first of his lives floating on the ocean in an empty nutshell which is being sucked into a whirlpool before he is rescued at the last moment by some minipirates...and it just gets stranger from then on!

At over 700 pages long it is not for the faint hearted reader, having said that there are plenty of black and white drawings throughout the book to help keep the reader focused and interested.

The story itself is something of a rollarcoaster whizing about all over the place at breakneck speed. This ensures the reader doesn’t get bored and keeps the story flowing nicely. The story itself is very entertaining full of excellently rendered characters and some brilliant monsters and villains. The main character is very likeable which makes it easy for the reader to will him onwards.

The book isn’t perfect and there was a definate lul in the action about halfway through. The low points in the book for me included the time Bluebear spends in the desert and the congladiator battles in the city of Atlantis (where gladiators compete with each other to thrill the audience with the most intricate and entertaining lies) both of which dragged on and bored me quite a bit but this was unusual as the rest of the book is very action-packed.

There is a good amount of subtle humour contained in the pages; this is certainly not a book that takes itself too seriously. It is jam packed with Deus Ex Machina leaving you confidence Bluebear will always escape from a fix no matter how unlikely.
At the end there were some questions left unanswered but this wasn’t too much of an issue as the story is so bizarre if the author tired to tie up every loose end he’d need an additional hundred pages.

Overall a great adventure/fantasy/science fiction story read suitable for young adults and adults alike.

Rating 4/5

By Chris

Saturday, 20 August 2011

God's Own Country by Ross Raisin



The protagonist in God’s Own Country, Sam Marsdyke, is what I would describe as a ‘wrong ‘un’. Sam lives with his parents on a Yorkshire farm where he is quite the expert in most aspects of farm life, a life which he seems to genuinely enjoy. It very quickly becomes apparent however that his relations with other human beings give major cause for concern as they all seem doomed and often leave Sam ostracised.

At times the reader may feel for Sam despite him being so unlikeable, you might understand his frustration at his awful neighbours and the Londoners buying up rural houses in the community as second homes. His observations about these matters along with his narrations about farming life in general are interesting, engaging, at times gritty and often quite funny. But then Sam exposes himself and ruins it all by doing things you really would rather he didn’t.

Gods Own Country is a very polished novel and overall it’s a very entertaining read with a wonderful sense of place. The narration and the overall atmosphere loses some of its appeal when the action moves from the farm to nearby Whitby towards the end of the novel but this is more of a quibble than anything. A lot of comparisons have been made to The Wasp Factory and others of that ilk and I would say that this was a fair comparison and it was what certainly came to my mind when reading it.

The novel says far more for the promise of its author though as Raisin has not hit his mark here, you end up with the overall impression he is capable of so much more. Given that this is his first novel that might be an unfair thing for me to say, but I am sure when Raisin eventually does get there we will all be in for something special.

Just for the hell of it here is a picture of the very same Yorkshire Moors somewhere near Whitby we took last year.



Posted by Jess

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Saving the Best Until Last

Jessica and I were having a discussion the other day about dead authors. I was telling Jessica how I am, with the utmost care and attention, pacing myself with regards to reading books written by deceased writers such as John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway. I am painfully aware that once I turn the last page I will never read a newly written Steinbeck or Hemingway book again. This is both desperately sad but also inevitable, we all die eventually.

Although we can’t claim we thought it up we discussed the idea of choosing one book from a dead author we love and saving it until we reach old age before reading it. That way we can savour that writer’s work and have something to look forward to. There are, of course, setbacks to this plan. For example there is the risk of unexpected, untimely death meaning the saved book goes forever unread (disaster!) I suppose you’d have to weigh the pros and cons and maybe be willing to take a risk.

Ultimately Jessica decided against the idea, she thinks it’s a better idea to re-read old books you read when you were younger. I will definately be doing this but I still like the idea of saving one. Eventually I decided to save ‘Travels with Charley’ by John Steinbeck. I have a lovely folio edition of it so hopefully I will be able to resist temptation!


What book would you save?


Chris

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse


Billy is a big liar whose pants are on fire. Sometimes he lies to get himself out of trouble but most of the time he does it for no reason at all. He tells his best friends mother that he has a sister called Sheila(he doesn't) he embellishes it by giving Sheila a husband Eric. Sheila and Eric have two children, one of whom was born with a twisted foot which was thankfully operated on by a Dr Ubu in Leeds. Billy's friends mother is now giving Billy toys to give to these fictitious children.

Billy is a teenager stuck in a fictional northern English town, he hates his life and when he isn't dreaming of going to London he spends his time escaping into a fantasy world in his head called Ambrosia where he is Prime Minister.

At first Billy's antics are amusing but as the book goes on it is apparent that although Billy believes he is smarter than everyone else, the fact is that everyone sees right through him, he is not always a nice person either. The whole tale climaxes at the end when he is standing on a platform deciding whether to leave for the ever elusive London or stay and confront his problems. That's not a spoiler, the spoiler would be telling you his final decision.

This book is often funny and its the comic elements that will likely stay with me, its an original book and Billy is a great, complicated character. Worth reading.

On a final note, considering it was published in the 1950s its amazing to see how little teenagers have changed,

'You decided to get up, then,' my Mother said, slipping easily into he second series of conversations of the day. My stock replies were 'Yes', 'No, I'm still in bed', and a snarled 'What does it look like?' according to my mood. Today I chose 'Yes' and sat down to my boiled egg, stone cold as threatened.

Posted by Jess

Monday, 8 August 2011

Breakfast at Tiffany's


I had never intended to read this book. I don’t read many romance stories particularly not popular ones made into movies starring Audrey Hepburn, however I saw my wife had put it on the pile of books to go to the charity shop and I rescued it. I agree with donating books to charity but at the same time I resent giving away books when they could belong in a beloved collection. I decided to give Breakfast at Tiffany’s a go to see what the fuss was about. I’m very glad I did.
The story isn’t a typical girl meets boy, boy messes it up, girl leaves town, boy catches up to her and patches things up before it’s too late. I think this is original for a romance story (even though it was written in the 50s) and not conventional at all. At the same time it is very accessible and not elitest. The narrator is a frustrated writer living in New York who meets a young girl named Holly who moves into the appartment below his. They form an unlikely friendship and soon the reader is caught up in the dizzying social complexities of Holly’s life with the narrator caught up in the middle of it.
Most people know someone a little like Holly, attention seeking, a little fake, desperate to be liked and at the same time manipulative. Despite her faults she is a very likeable character and although not above spreading lies about someone to outshine them a pretty decent person and as the story progresses we learn more and more about her but not enough that her character becomes boring
Funny in places, sad in others it is a wonderful literary journey and a nice length too.
We don’t learn much about the narrator which is ironic as Holly describes him as being on the outside looking in on others lives but I still liked him as a character and the narration style of the book really works well.
The version of the book I own also includes three short stories House of Flowers, A Diamond Guitar and A Christmas Memory which were all very good.

Overall rating 5/5

Chris

Friday, 5 August 2011

The Chrysalids by John Wyndham


If you're not a fan of dystopian fiction look away now!

The Chrysalids takes place in the post-apocalyptic town of Labrador, Canada. Labrador is a small isolated community living in a world that has been devastated by some kind of catastrophic event (I'm assuming a nuclear holocaust of some kind) Since all modern technology was destroyed in the “event” the community have been set back a few hundred years or so and live in a fairly primitive manner.

The people have a fear of anything born with an abnormality no matter how minor. Whole fields are burnt if any crops are found growing wrong, animals are swiftly slaughtered and humans are banished to 'the fridges', an inhospitable place where it is unlikely anyone will survive. Added to the plot mix are the communities fundamental Christian beliefs, these are extreme God fearing folk indeed as the Bible happens to be the only book to have survived the event. The story centres around a young man called David who finds that he himself is a deviant along with several other people in the village when he begin to develop telepathic powers.......

The above synopsis has similar plot lines of so so many other post-apocalyptic books. Constantly while reading The Chrysalis I was reminded of other books, films and TV shows that had very similar plot elements that I lost count of them all. The Chrysalids was first published in 1955 and it is not difficult to see how much of an influence this novel has had. You may feel that its not worth reading because it has been done so many times since but The Chrysalis is still a great dystopian novel of its type.

This was a very easy read which moved quickly and yet which also threw up some interesting questions. The storyline was a very good one which has not aged at all, in fact I was surprised at how modern the book seemed. If you like your dystopian fiction then even if you took out the influence this book has had out of the equation, it is still a very fine read. Recommended

Posted by Jess
The US title for this book is Re-Birth

Sunday, 31 July 2011

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque


World War I in this novel is seen through the eyes of a young German solider called Paul Baumer. Paul naively joins up along with a band of school friends with the encouragement of their teacher. He is sent to the front where he is quickly confronted with the realities of warfare in the trenches. His hardships are all detailed and include the lack of food, the filth and his friends joining the casualties as the war goes on. Paul hates and resents his situation but he copes, he copes with having to kill people, he copes seeing his friends die and in doing so he begins to change in himself. He eventually comes to the conclusion that he has essentially died inside.

This novel is devoid of politics and the bigger picture is never revealed, even the enemy themselves are often referred to as 'the ones over there' . The novel instead focuses solely on the humanity and the solider giving a honest vivid account on the torrents of war.

Don't run away with the idea that his book is depressing. Certainty its moving and dark in places, but the overall writing is very matter of fact and to the point leaving you with images or scenes that you are unlikely to ever forget.

Highly recommended.

Posted by Jess

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Shakespeare by Bill Bryson


As a fan of both William Shakespeare and Bill Bryson I was really looking forward to reading this book which I found to be informative, interesting and well written.

Bryson sets a scene well and spends a fair amount of the book discussing what it was like living, working and dying in Shakespeare's day all of which helped build up a picture of the great playwright's life, even if the picture was blurry around the edges. I say this because we know shockingly little about Shakespeare's life for certain. In fact we can't even be sure what he looked like or even how best to spell his name! Bryson is perfectly honest and open about this from right at the beginning of the book. In fact many stories stated as fact in other books are often only legends with no evidence whatsoever to back them up. I think Bryson sucessfully debunked some absolute nonsense that has been written about the Bard for the last few hundred years especially the ridiculous theories that Shakespeare didn't write his own plays.

I didn't find the lack of evidence surrounding Shakespeare frustrating, quite the opposite. I don't think a bit of mystery does Shakespeare any harm, in fact if anything it enhances his appeal. Too often when you find out a little too much about a great man or woman you realise they were only human like everyone else and end up resenting them.

If you are interested in Shakespeare's life I cannot recommend reading this book highly enough. A brilliant effort from a man who is very talented in his own right.

Final verdict 4/5

Chris

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Mourning Ruby by Helen Dunmore


Dunmore certainly adds dark or disturbing elements to her novels and perhaps this why I enjoy her novels so much. Her writing always flows easily and are generally page-turners yet the subjects I've read so far have included incest, child murder and starvation. I find that quite often her novels are heartbreaking without being depressing and Mourning Ruby is no exception.

The titles Ruby died aged five leaving both her parents Rebecca and Adam completely heartbroken and bereft. The book takes place a couple of years after Ruby's death where Rebecca in particular is struggling and is estranged from Adam. It is not just about Rebecca's grief however, it is also about her own hopes for the future and at times is surprisingly uplifting.

The writing is as always poetic yet very accessible. The subject matter will always be heartbreaking but this is especially so given the huge presence that Ruby has in the book both through flashbacks and through Rebecca. Other characters like Mr Damiano, Rebecca's boss enrich the novel in other ways and it is through their stories that the more minor characters take centre stage at various parts.

Unfortunately towards the end there is a story within a story thing going on which appears to lead nowhere and left me perplexed. This involves the beginnings of a novel which Rebecca's friend has written. Perhaps I just didn't get it but unfortunately this did spoil it somewhat.

Not Dunmore's best but worth a read.

Verdict 3/5

Posted by Jess

Monday, 18 July 2011

Circles around the Sun: In Search of a Lost Brother by Molly McCloskey



'If you saw a letter on the ground with an address and a stamp on it, what would you do?'
'I'd put it on the windowsill so it wouldn't blow away,' Mike says.
'If you were standing with a group of people at a bus stop, what would they be talking about?'
'Me,' Mike says.


When Molly McCloskey was a young girl her older brother Mike (by 14 years) started showing symptoms of schizophrenia. Using her mothers old letters and through interviews with her family and Mike's friends, Molly tries to piece together Mike's story.

Mike was born in 1950 in Philadelphia and was the eldest of six siblings. Growing up he was a quiet, sensitive, introverted child and a high achiever in both sports and in his academic studies. As a tall blonde teenager who happened to be on the school basketball team he never had any lack of either friends or girlfriends and when he achieved a scholarship to a good college it must have seemed like he had his future set. But within a couple of years Mike began to exhibit some strange behaviour and he was to spend most of his adult life heavily medicated and living in hospitals or care homes.

Schizophrenia is a subject matter that I know very little about. Occasionally someone with schizophrenia will show up in the news (often for the wrong reasons) but its not a illness I know anything about. My only exposure to the illness really are the odd portrayals on TV (normally soap characters).

The book is a relatively quick read for non-fiction because the author has largely written about the subjects and events that a reader would be interested in e.g. were there any signs when Mike was a child and what event did eventually lead to a diagnosis. The author interweaves her family story throughout which is relevant and helps to give a perspective from their point of view and how the illness affected them.

What I didn't find so relevant were the authors own personal problems with anxiety and depression in which large parts of the book are devoted to. My husband also read these sections and declared the descriptions of anxiety as 'spot on' and well written but I failed to see how this really related to Mike and I wondered if they were just filler. Thankfully the main subject matter was interesting enough for me to keep turning the pages.

But did I learn anything about schizophrenia? Well the subject is too complicated to list everything here but yes. The early symptoms which tend to show up in males in their late teens are not immediately obvious. When Mike started to become depressed in collage you cannot blame people for not suspecting schizophrenia (it would surely be the last thing people would think). The author did a very good job of describing the less known symptoms such as formal thought disorder, social withdrawal, sloppiness of dress/hygiene and lack of responsiveness all of which I knew nothing about.

But the most enlightening thing I learnt was that it is a very very complicated illness, there are many different forms and its mysterious even to the experts. Mike's symptoms and behaviour could very easily manifest very differently in someone else with the same illness and therefore the medication can also vary between patients.

With all this talk of syptoms and medication it is easy to forget about Mike himself. The book does very a good job of showing who mike was/is rather than treating him as a patient and it is evident here that that it is personal for the author.

The book is written in a not a too dissimilar way to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and I would recommend this to anyone who is interested in the subject yet wants to read about it from a more straightforward and human perceptive.

Posted by Jess

Thursday, 14 July 2011

The Rules of Engagement br Anita Brookner


July 16, will be Anita Brookner’s 83rd birthday, has been renamed International Anita Brookner Day by Thomas at My Porch and Simon at Savidge Reads.  To celebrate they have set up the IABD Website with a competition to win AB books for those submitting reviews by July 16.  I was kindly sent an Anita Brookner novel from Thomas which I promised to read by the 16th July. So I'm just in the nick of time then.

The Rules of Engagement is my first Brookner read and I purposely did not read any other reviews or anything about the author so I could read with a completely open mind.
The book is narrated by Elizabeth, a woman born into privilege but that little too late to be part of the woman’s new sexual and liberal freedoms during the decades following the sixties (a fact the reader is constantly reminded of) Elizabeth instead goes down a very traditional 1950s path. She marries a man much older than her self and settles into a moderately happy but passionless marriage, passion is supplied to her from her married lover. When her husband dies she lives a solitude life, never working, never doing anything really aside from going for long walks around London and keeping an eye on her oldest friend Betsy.

Betsy in contrast first lives in Paris involving herself in a passionate affair for many years but when she eventually returns to London her decisions shake up and impact Elizabeth’s life.

Not a huge amount actually happens in this book, all the exciting stuff is going on in Betsy’s life of which we only hear a small portion of from Elizabeth. The writing has a melancholic feel to it as Elizabeth ponders over her situation and the awful people in her life. At first I liked the book as I’m quite happy to read books with little plot. The beginnings of Elizabeth’s marriage along with her bore of a husband lead me to think it was all going to be a bit Madame Bovary and the sad demise of Betsy going from sparkly, innocent, young women in Paris to being sucked into the dreary life of Elizabeth’s London was well done.

But by the end I got very frustrated with Elizabeth. Elizabeth is an observer who does not get involved with anything. Elizabeth ponders over going aboard, taking an evening class, getting a job but never actually even coming close to doing these things. Her excuse is always the ‘well I was born too late as a women to do anything with my life’ this might work over a period of small time but not over several decades. Just like Elizabeth's life, it all became very dull.

In conclusion I can only think that this novel would have worked much better as a novella which the novel would be if Elizabeth’s repetitive ramblings were removed.
Annabel from Gaskella has also recently posted a review of this book in which she says "The Rules of Engagement is one for Brookner completists, first time readers should probably start elsewhere" I think I’ll take her advice and read another Brookner novel before making my mind up completely.

Posted by Jess

Sunday, 10 July 2011

The Word Made Flesh Literary Tattoos by Eva Talmadge & Justin Taylor


I was very keen to own a copy of this book as I love literary tattoos (I have four of my own) the creators of this book also have their own webpage which they regularly update with new tattoo submissions.

The book contains many photos of literary tattoos accompanied by a note from the person who owns the ink explaining what it is, why they got it and what it means to them personally. The explanations vary from interesting and sincere to silly and pretentious

There are some excellent tattoos on display not just of words but also images either taken directly from books or inspired by them. Some of them are arguably not literary tattoos but rather typographic ones but there are very few of these.

The book is not perfect as some of the tattoos featured are, frankly, poor tattoos. Also some of the tattoos featured in the book I recognised from other books such as Ina Saltz’s ‘Body Type’

Other than that it is a fun little book to have in your collection and if you are considering getting a literary tattoo of some kind it is a great place for inspiration, if you don't mind the egos!

Final verdict 3/5

By Chris

Monday, 4 July 2011

Catherine of Aragon: Henry's Spanish Queen by Giles Tremlett


Catherine of Aragon isn't at first glance the most glamorous of Henry VIII wives, that title would surely go to Anne Boleyn? But Catherine was his first wife and was married to Henry for over 20 years, longer that all his other five wives put together. There must be more to her story than just being known as the 'one who refused to give Henry a divorce in order to let Anne get a look-in'.

Born in Spain in 1485 to parents Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand (Isabella was the one that funded Christopher Columbus expedition to reach the Indies) at a very early age Catherine was betrothed to Prince Arthur (Henry's older brother) who was heir to the English throne. So throughout most of her young life Catherine was aware that one day she would leave Spain forever in order to travel to England and become Queen. Catherine did eventually make it to England and marry Arthur only for Arthur to then die shortly into their marriage.

Arthur's father Henry VII was then faced with having to pay Catherine's dowry back which he refused to do leaving Catherine in limbo (and according to the sometimes melodramatic Catherine, poverty) in a strange country. Her fate changed suddenly on the death of Henry VII when the new king Henry VIII decided to marry her fulfilling her fate as Queen of England after all....

Well I knew my Tudor history well enough to know that the marriage does not end well after Anne Boleyn makes an appearance but everything before that I was a little hazy on. Catherine's Spanish life and that of her parents contained some of the most interesting parts of the book as the Spanish royal family at that time certainly had their fair share of dramas and Queen Isabella was certainly an interesting character.

Catherine's early marriage to Henry appears to have been a very happy one. Catherine rather than being a submissive Queen was more Henry's equal than his other wives. She was the Spanish ambassador in court and she was appointed Regent when Henry went to war in France. During this time she ordered the armies resulting in Scotland's catastrophic defeat at the Battle of Flodden. But all these achievements began to pale when faced with the fact that she would never provide a male heir. Unfortunately the seemingly endless infant deaths and miscarriages took its toll on the pair of them which is where it began to fall apart.

Catherine is not portrayed as a helpless victim however, she certainly knew how to use her spies and appeal to the right people when her marriage was in danger. Stubbon and resorceful the end she stood her ground refusing Henry a divorce despite the considerable pressure she was under.

Giles Tremlett brings the characters to life and for a non-fiction book it read very quickly. It filled a few history holes for me and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the Spanish sections of the book. Tremlett does not come to any conclusion about whether Catherine's marriage to Arthur was consummated but he does present the evidence taken at the time which tented to be bias. Alas there are some things we will never know.

Unfortunately there is a lack of footnotes at the back of the book so I am unable to judge how well researched it was but it made for an entertaining read, which is quite hard to come by in the world of non-fiction.

Posted by Jess

Saturday, 2 July 2011

The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky


The Idiot was my first experience with Dostoevsky. The 650 odd pages were not so intimidating after the epic that was War & Peace and I felt I was on a roll with this Russian literature lark.

The Idiot is not really an Idiot at all (I've met my fair share of real idiots). The man in question is Prince Myshkin who because of his epilepsy has spent time in a Swiss clinic and the start of the novel sees Myshkin return to Russia after many years. His sheltered upbringing abroad means that he doesn’t understand how to truly behave in the society he finds himself in and he has a naivety and willingness to do the right thing for which he is ridiculed and labelled an Idiot.

The main story is the competition between various suitors vying for the attentions of one Nastasya Fillipovna, a troubled beauty who has been cast off as a fallen women through no fault of her own. But that's summarising the plot in very simple terms as there are an abundance of characters, themes and general philosophising throughout.

Its a packed book and I didn't always remember which character was which (thank goodness for the character list at the front of my edition!) Sometimes while reading it I got a bit lost and became confused by some of the characters behaviour. This wasn't because it was a dense or difficult read, there was just a lot going on and lots of different characters that would suddenly appear. Sometimes a character would suddenly declare they hated another character before suddenly changing their mind again, they all seemed to be very fiery, there was a lot of people throwing their arms up in the air and I just couldn't keep up.

But I kept on with it and it all made sense in the end plot wise but really its not the story arch here that's so important but the conclusions brought up throughout during the dialogue and how characters react to the Prince's behaviour or philosophising. Pure Goodness does not always prevail it seems and the world cannot always accommodate the virtuous and what does that say?

I would recommend The Idiot but its one to take your time over due to the large amount of dialogue which tends to take centre stage over the plot elements (not a criticism)

I read this as part of a read-along hosted by the lovely Allie and A literacy Odyssey.
Posted by Jess

Friday, 1 July 2011

Do you review every book you read?

OK well first the 'G' key on the computer went and then so did all the others......meaning that we need to seriously stop eating crumbly food at the computer.

So yes its been quiet but that'll be because of a lack of keyboard. We could still visit sites we just couldn't type anything which is very annoying when you want to sign into anything like e-mail.

Anyway we now have once again this essential piece of kit and will be back to our normal blogging selves. Reviews now need to be typed up (lots of them) and comments replied to (sorry that's been slack)

Over and out

On another note I have just been browsing down through the books I've read this year and looking at the ones I didn't bother writing reviews for. I noticed that I don't bother writing some reviews for two reasons;

1.Because I would absolutely nothing new to say e.g. Jane Eyre. If you haven't read it then you must, its brilliant. But nothing I could say about it would be anything particularly new. If I had hated it then I would have reviewed it for sure!

2.The other reason I don't bother is because I sometimes just don't care. You know those books that are alright or that nothing is exactly wrong with them but I need more of a response or reaction from a book (good or bad) to sometimes bother.

Does everyone else write about EVERY book they read?

Posted by Jess

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes by Robert Louis Stevenson


I really enjoy travel books and this is the oldest I've read so far. First published in 1879 Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes chronicles a twelve day hiking journey taken by Robert Louis Stevenson when he was in his twenties. The book is brilliant and very easy to read despite its age.

Stevenson had been sickly for much of his early life and craved adventure now he was well enough to travel. He took the trip on his own with nothing for company but a stubborn donkey he purchased to carry his equipment. The Cevennes region was very poor at that time and had seen a lot of religious upheaval in the past often resulting in violence. Because of his he went armed with a revolver, though thankfully he never had cause to use it.

He writes with old world charm and honesty which I found refreshing. The simplicity of the book and the journey added to the appeal. The colourful characters he met were great to read about and there were some very funny moments. He paints a vivid picture of the rugged landscape and the conditions he lived in.

Stevenson was obviously a fluent French speaker and conversed with the locals in their own language. As a result he would sometimes write segments of conversation in French which, unfortunately, were not translated for the benefit of those who don't understand French. This is more a criticism of the publishers rather than Stevenson himself. This is a very minor criticism and it certainly doesn't reduce enjoyment of the book especially as it doesn't happen all that often.

For those readers who are very fond of animals I feel it is fair to mention that Stevenson sometimes resorted to beating the donkey to get it to do his bidding. Whereas I agree that beating an animal is wrong, if you bare in mind the period this was written in then you will understand his actions were not at all unusual for that period.

Final verdict 5/5

Chris

Monday, 20 June 2011

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson


Normally I quite like my literature to be full of doom and gloom. Give me a novel filled with hardships, tragedy and war and I’m as happy as a clam. Does this make me weird? I promise I don’t have any “issues” and I don’t like misery memoirs at least.
This book is filled with none of those things. This book would instead be described as delightful, charming and feel good. There are even lovely picture drawings throughout the Persephone edition making it even more lovely.

But heck I loved it. I got caught up as Miss Pettigrew got swept away into the life for one day and night of the beautiful Miss La Fosse. It was lovely for once to read something that was pure escapism with a happy ending, but more than that it was actually a great page turner.

The below is a trailer for the film (useful if you want more of synopsis) and I wondered if anyone had seen it? It looks perfect for a cosy night in on my own with a box of chocolates.



Posted by Jess

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

The names Bond.....James Bond


OK first off spy thrillers are not my usual genre. I tend to find them far fetched and not all that thrilling, the only reason I read this is because I am making my way through the Penguin decades classics.

After saying that it is Bond, James Bond. I was curious to read a novel to see if the films are any different and to see how well James Bond has translated to the screen.

From Russia with Love has quite a simple straight-forward plot. The Russian secret service department S.M.E.R.S.H devise a scheme to increase their reputation and decide to assassinate Bond. The first third of the book is set in the USSR and follows the development of the plot and the various villains involved. All the characters introduced are given huge back stories which include their early life, motivations and how they came to be part of the service. This makes for some quite interesting reading and for me was the best part of the book.

Unfortunately (and I can’t believe I’m able to say this) the book takes a slight downturn when Bond is finally introduced in chapter 11. Yep Bond almost ruins his own story ;)

Let me elaborate. In the first few chapters the reader is introduced to 'Red' Grant, an Irish born psychopath and murderer who started out killing animals as a child before moving onto local girls then somehow winding up as the top executioner for S.M.E.R.S.H. Then there is the beautiful but naive MGB Corporal Tatiana Romanova (note the surname), who one day is hauled into the leader of S.M.E.R.S.H's office, questioned on her previous sexual experiences before being told that she is leaving Russia to seduce a man she has never met (although she did hit the jackpot seeing as that man is Bond)

These are interesting stories and characters so imagine what its like to then move from the USSR to London to find Bond living a somewhat boring life being looked after his elderly housekeeper while he broods about his latest lost love. I’m sorry but I would much rather read about the villains than how reliable Bond’s housekeeper is or how long he likes his eggs boiled for! (Three and a three quarter minutes in case you are interested) Bond’s contact in Istanbul has more of a sex life FGS.

Obviously From Russia with Love is part of a long series of books so perhaps something happened to Bond previously which made him into abit of a bore here but boring he was.

Despite that it was still a very entertaining book with the usual fights, far-fetched plot lines and the villain spending a good half an hour telling the entire plan to Bond before getting around to trying kill him. It was fun and at one point even a copy of War & Peace saved Bond's life (I did mention far-fetched already)

Verdict – fun but I prefer the films. Unsure if that's because of the Daniel Craig factor though.

Posted by Jess

Sunday, 12 June 2011

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway



I visited Paris about four years ago, at the time I was not a fan of Hemingway so I missed all of the parts of the city which he was known to have visited and wrote about. This is something I regret and will most certainly remedy one day.

Hemingway clearly loved Paris, this is evident on almost every page. For the benefit of those who don't know anything about his life he spent years living in Paris in the early 1920s with other famous American ex-pats of the 'Lost Generation' such as F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein and others. A Moveable Feast was the last book he wrote before he died making it an emotional read for fans of his work.

Hemingway writes in his trademark style which is always stark and honest whilst injecting infectious passion and enthusiasm which can be easy to miss if you don't look for it. His escapades whilst in Paris make interesting, entertaining and funny reading but also sad and tragic. A Moveable Feast gives a better insight into who he was more than any of his other books which I found fascinating. He honestly reflects on his own faults which is very unusual for him and admits he sometimes had trouble controlling his temper.

The book is advertised as fiction which mystifies me as it is clearly autobiographical. Hemingway uses everyone's real names, including his own. When relating stories he will occasionally state he can't remember exactly which café something happened in or which person he was with at the time. And he is known to have frequented the places he talks about and socialised with the people he writes about. How can this be fiction? Who knows.

This is truly a book worth reading and is my favourite Hemingway work to date, I thoroughly recommend it

Final verdict 5/5


By Chris

Monday, 6 June 2011

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides


I think most people know the plot for this by now, the narrator Cal is a hermaphrodite. Cal is genetically a male hermaphrodite who is raised a girl and doesn't realise his gender until he hits puberty.

However the first half of the book is basically your standard family saga novel which covers three generations of the Stephanides family. All kinds of historical events are thrown in along the journey of Cal's grandparents incestuous love, the emigration from their homeland in Greece to America, to the family making their home in Detroit.

There is nothing wrong with the first half of the book but I have in my time read my fair share of family saga novels and unfortunately this one didn't stand out to me. The scenes and the situations throughout were vivid and although the writing demands your full attention the events which unfurl hold your interest. There was nothing wrong with it but I wanted to start reading about Cal's present not all the family stuff that read like a lot of other family saga book.

Once the story shifts to Cal and it suddenly becomes quite gripping and I began to care much more about the characters. Cal struggles to come to terms with her identity at times of radical changes. It's not only about being genetically different, but also about Cal's journey to fit in while carving his own individual path and finding Cal's true-self.

While in many way this is an entertaining read and there were large parts I enjoyed, I was left wanting to read more of Cal's life than the novel ultimately gave me. Overall I ended up feeling slightly disappointed.

Verdict 3/5

Posted by Jess

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Deadwood by Pete Dexter


I know there has been a hugely successful TV programme based on this book but it was one that passed me by, so I read Deadwood with no pre-conceptions and without any TV screen characters to compare I with.

Set in Deadwood, the novel reads more like a collection of interlinking short stories rather than a novel with a fast paced over-arching plot. Each chapter focuses on a particular character and contains its own mini story which often jumps rapidly forward in time. The dialogue and the study of the different characters personalities are given centre stage here rather than any huge gun battles or romances.

One of the main draws of Deadwood is the use of real life characters and events such as Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hicks which adds an historical feel and lifts it from being a solely 'western' novel. The town and the landscapes are well drawn as is the dialogue and the rapidly ageing characters. The friendships between the male characters are particularly touching and believable and the novel (as seems to be common in the Western genre) contains some good humour.

However overall this is a novel which I feel very indifferent to. It was worth reading and there were parts I enjoyed very much but the lack of plot direction and some of the relationships between the male and female characters stopped me ever really fully immersing myself into the whole atmosphere of the book. For quite a short book it contained quite a lot of sex which doesn't bother me but why put loads of it in when other plot elements seemed to go nowhere?

One for people who are interested in this period of history and want to read it for the historical details or are looking for a more literary western.

Posted by Jess

Monday, 30 May 2011

Gone to Texas by Forrest Carter


I went looking for this book after seeing the Clint Eastwood movie version named 'The Outlaw Josey Wales'

Josey Wales is an ex-Confederate guerilla turned fugitive. He joined the Confederacy after his family were murdered in cold blood by Union troops. When the war ended Josey refused to surrender and goes on the run in an attempt to escape to Texas, a haven for outlaws. A trail of carnage follows in his wake as desperate men confront him to gain reward money.

The book doesn't seek to challenge stereotypes or change the genre, it's just a good old fashioned western story with plenty of duels, wonderfully detailed landscapes and cutting remarks made around a mouth full of chewing tobacco. When Josey isn't plugging holes in bad guys or spitting tobacco juice he forms bonds of friendship with a group of fellow wanderers he unwillingly picks up along the way. The book is entertaining and satisfying in an honest way, it doesn't pretend to be something it's not.

I don't often read Western novels but after finishing this and having recently read the excellent 'True Grit' by Charles Portis I will definitely be reading more.

This copy includes 'The Vengeance Trail of Josey Wales' the sequel to 'Gone to Texas'

Final verdict 4/5

By Chris

Friday, 20 May 2011

Ah life has been busy lately. Things at work and home has made me suddenly realise that this blogging business is the one thing that can get neglected.

On a REALLY annoying note, the 'g' key on my computer will only work if I jab the key very hard about six times, I'm trying therefore to avoid words with 'that letter' in it. New keyboard is now on the ever ongoing list of things to do and might get done before the year is out. Did get a new kindle from Amazon though after my old one broke (customer service is fantastic)

If it sounds like I need a holiday then you'd be right. Thankfully tomorrow that is exactly where we will be going. We are going to stay in a very rural cottage somewhere in Normandy where I'll have to drive on the wrong side of the road for a week. Last time I visited Normandy I was on the French exchange when I was about 14, a trip I remember very little of apart from playing copulas amounts of Mario Brothers and some cracking food.

So before we go and because I haven't updated for a while I thought I'd do Simon's from Stuck in a Books meme thingy.

1.)The book I'm currently reading: The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.



I'm halfway through part two and so far its very good, lots of in-depth conversation on how great it is to be Russian. Not a holiday read though so I'll be leaving it behind.

2.)The last book I finished:



Deadwood by Pete Dexter – well the Calamity Jane depicted in this was very different to the Jane I encounted at EuroDisney a few years back.
Catherine of Aragon by Giles Tremlett- enjoyed very much this non-fiction account of Henry VIII first wife
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides – liked it but it not love it

3.)The next book I want to read:



These are the five I have picked to go on holiday with,

All quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque – one I have always wanted to read
Miss Pettirew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson – sounds like good holiday reading
The Camomile Lawn by Mary Wesley – family sagas are always good for trips
Mourning Ruby by Helen Dunmore – I like Dunmore, she always takes me to a dark place
Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada – might be a bit much, two war books so this is at the bottom

4.)The last book I bought: all brought yesterday taking advantage of a certain bookshop's 3 for 2 offer



When God was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman – I hate the title, I hate twee titles like this but pretty cover no?
The History of Love by Nicole Krauss – this was brought as a result of all you bloggers who reviewed Great House in which you declared The History of Love as much better.
Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada – if it fiction and set during the war, I'm sold.

5.)The last book I was given:



If your reading this Thomas from My porch, it arrived safely the other day. I will be reading The Rules of Engagement by Anita Brookner in time for International Anita Brookner Day on the 16th July. I know nothing about this book and I'll not be reading the back or anything.

So we will be back at the end of the month where there will be a serious backlog of reviews. Now I must go back over this article and fill in all the 'g's
Posted by Jess

Monday, 16 May 2011

Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell



First published in 1938 'Who Goes There?' has become a classic of science fiction literature and deservedly so.

The book has been adapted for film twice; in 1951 as 'The Thing from Another World' and again (more famously) in 1982 as 'The Thing' directed by John Carpenter. It was the latter version that sparked my interest in finding the original book.

An American research team in Antarctica discover a spacecraft buried beneath the ice. Inside are the frozen remains of one of the 'passengers'. The team decide to bring the remains back to base and try to thaw them out. Somewhat predictably the remains aren't quite as dead as the team believed and before long it escapes, but it doesn't go far. The creature attacks, absorbs and mimics any life form it encounters. Once it has absorbed a life form it imitates them perfectly down to the last detail making it practically impossible to tell who has been got to and who has not. Before long a desperate struggle for survival begins as the men are torn between the desire to preserve their own lives by escaping and the duty to prevent the creature from reaching any human civilisation.

The book is barely more than 100 pages long but despite its short length it is very frightening and suspenseful. The feelings of dread and paranoia are brilliantly done and the creature is well thought out and put together. I loved the fact that two people would be having a conversation and you have no idea if one of them is a monster or not. Some of the characters are driven completely insane by the situation adding further to the danger of their predicament. Unlike Carpenter's 1982 version the book is not particularly gruesome or violent and most of the horror is suggested rather than spelled out on the page. Considering it was printed in 1938 it has aged remarkably well.

I loved the way the author allows the reader to get right into the story as if the reader themselves are one of the team. You are just as much in the dark as the characters are enabling the reader to really get caught up in the feelings of helplessness, frustration and apprehension. A brilliant work of suspenseful science fiction highly recommended.

Final verdict 5/5

Chris

Monday, 9 May 2011

D-Day by Anthony Beevor



Anthony Beevor is one of a kind. He has the knack for writing historical books without bogging down the reader in needless detail or boring, inconsequential anecdotes. Beevor's writing is entertaining and factual, his subject matter is brutal, tragic and terrible.

As the title suggests the book is all about that pivotal moment in history when the largest invasion fleet in the history of mankind arrived on the shores of Nazi occupied France to fight one of the most brutal and merciless battles of the entire war. The fighting on Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword beaches was just the beginning of the battle for Normandy which is clear when you see the book is over 500 pages long. Photographs are included which always helps the reader to visualise what was going on however I feel it is impossible to do so without having been there in person, which I am quite thankful for. One thing that Beevor's books are certainly first class at is showing the world how unspeakably bloody and terrible war is.

Beevor never loses sight of the fact that it is soldiers who win battles, not generals. As a result he always puts the reader down in the front line with the troops. He writes alot of the mutal sufferings of soldiers and civilians alike. He tries to remain impartial; He writes about the massacres and murders carried out by the Nazi SS but also includes accounts of Allied soliders killing unarmed German soliders trying to surrender and even those already taken as prisoners.

The book was fasinating and I'm really glad I read it. I was expecting to read about Nazi atrocities so for me one of the most shocking parts of the book is how many French civilians died at the hands of the Allies as a result of indiscriminate artilliery shelling and bombing. Caen in particular was controversial for being so heavily hit with high explosives for arguably no good reason. Many French people died unnecessarily.

Altogether it was a brilliant read and certainly worth picking up if you have an interest in the Second World War. You won't find better than Anthony Beevor.

Final verdict 4/5

By Chris