Tuesday, 29 March 2011

The Heretic's Daughter by Kathleen Kent

The Heretics Daughter is told from the point of view of Sarah Carrier, a young girl who's mother was accused and tried for witchcraft during the Salem witch trials. Sarah was arrested along with her brothers and imprisoned in an attempt to force her mother to confess to her crimes.

I have to admit that I wasn't expecting much from this novel, I thought it would just read like a standard best-seller and I only brought it because the subject matter interested me but I ended up really enjoying it. The book is well researched and the beliefs of the Puritan community are presented in a way that makes it believable to a modern reader, I would recommend this to any fan of historical fiction.

The first half of the book follows Sarah and her family as they struggle as best they can on their farm in Massachusetts. The life portrayed is a hard one as the threats of small pox and Native American attack are a real day to day fear and when mixed with the isolation and religious belief of these communities it is not hard to see how quickly suspicion and paranoia can spread. Although the witch trials do not start until halfway through the book, the first half covers the characters relationships, how the community works and creates a good atmosphere of foreboding and dread. making a good base for when the trials finally start.

The prison scenes were particularly well done as other characters who were also arrested are introduced here and are either eventually released or condemned to hang. There is lot of hardship throughout with virtually no humour but the characters are very well drawn and I got a strong sense of the time period.

A good story and one I enjoyed reading.

Verdict 4/5

Posted by Jess

Saturday, 26 March 2011

The Confessions of Edward Day by Valerie Martin

Valerie Martin is probably best known for her novel Mary Reilly that was made into a film which showcased Julia Roberts appalling Irish accent (honestly at times she lapses from Irish, into American and then back into Irish all within one word), which is a shame as aside from that I quite enjoyed the film. Martin isn't an author I had read before but I'll certainly be checking out her Orange prize winning novel Property next I think.

Edward Day is a stage actor living in 70s New York. One day Edward is rescued from drowning from a guy called Guy (most annoying character name ever) who looks uncannily like Edward. Guy is also an actor, is also in love with Edwards on/off girlfriend Madeline and just always seems to pop up in Edwards life at inopportune moments making things very difficult. The events which unfold are told from Edwards point of view and throwing a spanner into the works is the fact that Edward is a complete narcissist making the reader unsure what to believe.

Martin's writing flows very easily making this quite a quick read and I enjoyed reading the events unfolding, before then having to completely rethink the whole thing at the end. The triangle between Edward, Guy and Madeline is unusual as some events don't quite add up and its up to the reader to decide if this is because Edward is leaving stuff out of his narration or if this is how he genuinely sees it (given the narcissistic aspect I believe the events are how Edward sees it).

The novel also goes into detail of the stage lives of Edward and his fellow actor friends and the highs and lows that entails. These aspects coupled with the sinister undertones throughout makes for some entertaining reading and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed these parts of the book. Unfortunately the ending was a little bit of a let down for me but only because I don't think I really 'got it' and I'm not sure why the character Guy had to look like Edward, it didn't really seem to add anything, but these are very minor criticisms.

Overall I wouldn't say you must rush out and buy this novel but it is quite good so if you see it on your travels its worth picking up.

Posted by Jess

Friday, 25 March 2011

Starter for Ten by David Nicholls

Starter for Ten is by David Nichols, the same author who wrote the excellent One Day. Lately I have been in the mood for more lighter reads which is why I picked this one up. Starter for Ten certainly hit the spot in terms of being a light and easy read but I did much prefer One Day.

The book is about Brian who is about to embark on his first year of university. Brian is your typical awkward teenager, he lacks many social skills and he spends most of his time trying to find his place in the world. Eventually he becomes torn over his new university friends and his old friends he left behind and in the mist of this he ends up competing on university challenge in the hopes of impressing a girl and at the same time honouring his dead dad.

I'm not sure what sort of university Brian was attending but all the other students seemed to be either very posh or a total outcast. Very quickly two female characters are introduced who (very obviously) Brian will spend the entire book bouncing too and fro from before finally picking one of the girls at the end. Since one girl is posh and the other is an outcast its very apparent that Brian must pick the outcast girl because he also fits in the outcast category and therefore they belong together (plus all posh people in the book are horrible) Both girls for very different reasons are way WAY out of his league and given Brian's social inaptness I'm surprised either of them were interested and its not like Brian grows or develops in any way either.

Overall though the book did make me chuckle a few times (for the right reasons) there are some good one liners and I was thoroughly entertained. Ending was a bit wank but hey I enjoyed getting there.

Verdict 3/5

Posted by Jess

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Its not hard to see why Gone with the Wind is loved by a lot of readers. Its a cracking read which has 'best seller' practically stamped all over it. The four main characters are incredibly flawed to the point where I didn't even like one or two of them yet I still cared about them and the historical detail is packed in there helping to propel the story rather than bog it down.

Due to the novels size there is time for development of the four main characters. Scarlett and Rhett are quite often horrible to others as well as each-other but they are highly entertaining to read about and I found them believable, I also found Melanie very interesting with her extreme naivete mixed occasionally with some very strong actions. The only character I had a bit of a problem with was Ashley really, as the novel progressed I could not understand why Scarlett was so in love with the guy and some of his actions seemed really out of character, he just ended up really annoying me.

I do also have to mention the racism in Gone with the Wind, especially towards the later part of the book. Obviously you have to take into account when the novel was set so I'm not so much talking about the characters actions as I am about the reality of slavery being largely absent from the novel, the stereotypes, the depictions of the Ku Klux Klan and a few of the authors descriptions. This wasn't something I was expecting and it truly shocked me.

However this is a novel worth reading. Some scenes (like the final one) will stick in my head for a long time to come and I enjoyed not only the characters journeys but the historical details too. The story doesn't drag and overall it is a great read.

Verdict 4/5

Posted by Jess

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Revenge of the Whale by Nathaniel Philbrick

In November 1820 an American whaling ship in the Pacific Ocean was rammed and sunk by a vengeful sperm whale. All twenty members of the crew escaped alive in three small boats with limited supplies of food and water. What follows has to be one of the most terrifying and horrific ordeals a human being has endured as the survivors end up lost at sea with little hope of getting home. As the crew slowly starve to death in agony they are forced to think the unthinkable; Should their dead crewmates be buried at sea or eaten to sustain the remaining sailors?

I can't recall how I stumbled upon this book but i'm delighted I did as it turned out to be one of those little gems in the world of non-fiction: an account of true events that is easy to read and consistently gripping throughout.

What the whalers went through is quite amazing and disturbing at the same time. The author has a way of making the reader very uncomfortable indeed with vivid descriptions of the living conditions these men were forced to tolerate bobbing around in a small boat contending with storms, the burning sun, sleep deprivation and sharks not to mention the lack of food and water. The description of what happens to the human body when it is dying of dehydration alone made me reach for a glass of water before continuing!

The book poses all sorts of questions and really provides food for thought. I suppose some people would have little sympathy for the men considering the cruel and violent way they earned a living and would think it poetic justice that the whale had its revenge on them. I tried to view their plight objectively and put aside what the men did and focused on how they behaved after their shipwreck. Eventually the crew had to resort to eating their shipmates to stay alive. Keeping in mind that the majority of the twenty survivors were white I noticed that when a black sailor died he was quickly devoured with seemingly little or no concern however when a white sailor died there was uncertainly, hesitation and even outright rejection of the idea of eating them. Make of that what you will.

I find it remarkable that so few people in the UK have heard of the whaling ship Essex and the plight of her crew, to me it is a tale that epitomises the sheer lengths a human being will go to in order to survive not to mention the punishment a human body and mind can tolerate.

It is worth mentioning that this book has been adapted from a longer, more detailed account of the same event written by the same author called 'In The Heart of the Sea'

Final verdict 4/5


Wednesday, 16 March 2011

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

I’m not a big reader of non-fiction books but the story of Henrietta Lacks and the immortal cell line that came from her cervical cancer cells in 1951 appealed because of the human interest story and the ethical issues surrounding the case.

Product description, pitched from Amazon - Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. Born a poor black tobacco farmer, her cancer cells -- taken without her knowledge -- became a multimillion-dollar industry and one of the most important tools in medicine. Yet Henrietta's family did not learn of her 'immortality' until more than twenty years after her death...

The book is well written and is mostly well told, the story of Henrietta, what happened to her cells once they were removed and the impact on her family is interesting and makes for a gripping read. The science is not overdone and is dumbed down enough to appeal to a large audience. That’s not a criticism, the author decided to focus on the human element side so has not gone into too much technical detail on the science thus giving the book more appeal.

The book contains details of Henrietta's life and death, the medical advances made possible as a result of Henrietta's cells and information on the ethics surrounding the issues raised. Unfortunately though the author only half succeeds on human story side as the book started to go downhill during the second part of the book.

Skloot relied very heavily on the co-corporation of the Lacks family to gain information that she needed for her book. The Lacks family could have at any point cut Skloot off and as a result a troubled relationship between Skloot and Henrietta’s daughter Deborah springs up which the Skloot chooses to focus on during much of the second part of the book which gets in the way of the more interesting story. I would have liked to have learnt more about why Henretta's cells were so important rather than endless details about how Deborah refuses to take her calls.

At 300 pages this book is too long but this is a book still well worth reading as it is interesting and very accessible.

Posted by Jess

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

Cannery Row is a short book written by Steinbeck as a tribute to his upbringing in California. It is an excellent read full of humour and drama.

The characters in Cannery Row are, without exception, societies outcasts: Drunkards, thieves, prostitutes, gamblers and down-on-their-luck businessmen. From reading this you would be forgiven for thinking this story would be bleak or perhaps unpleasant. Nothing could be further from the truth.

It's refreshing to read about characters who genuinely love life. There isn't a whole lot of brooding or introverted thoughts just a small group with tenuous links in common getting on with their lives and co-existing. There is a subtle thread of mutal love and friendship amidst the grime of their existence.

I found the book uplifting and fun to read. There is tragedy and sadness but also great and simple joys and an honest way of living which has perhaps been lost these days. I don't envy any of their hard lives but in the midst of their poverty, crime and immoral behaviour alot of joy and decency can be found.

On top of all this I love the front cover of this addition. A very powerful book but also great fun.

I am currently reading 'Sweet Thursday', the sequel to Cannery Row which I intend to review here when I finish it.

Final verdict 5/5


Friday, 11 March 2011

To Have and Have Not by Ernest Hemingway

This short novel was written in 1937 while Hemingway was living in Key West and features another classic 'Code Hero' in Harry Morgan; A grizzled, no-nonsense charter fisherman turned smuggler. Morgan struggles throughout the book to make a living during the great depression running people and contraband from the Florida Keys to Cuba and vice versa.

Morgan is really an anti-hero; a hard drinking, dishonest and desperate man guilty of murder and not kind to his wife and children. He struggles to make ends meet in a dangerous job where he faces the constant risk of death or imprisonment. By the end of the book (which is very short) he's been involved in three separate gun fights.

The story is bleak, very bleak which I guess is appropriate due to the time in history these events are set in however it is also gripping, exciting and certainly action packed. There is dry humour too but not enough of this for my liking. Unfortunately because the book was published in the 1930s black characters are often referred to as 'niggers' which I found unpleasant but tried to ignore because of the time it was written.

All in all this is certainly not the best Hemingway has to offer but neither is it the worst. It is worth a read if you want something gritty and entertaining.

Final verdict 3/5


Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

Housekeeping is the story of two sisters, Ruth and Lucille. The death (or perhaps suicide) of their mother has forced them to live with a series of relatives who each move into the family home to look after the girls. The final relative to arrive is their Aunt Sylvie, a drifter whose eccentricities make her a questionable mother figure. Aunt Sylvie collects rubbish in the living room and kitchen, rarely cooks or cleans and doesn't care whether the girl's attend school. While one sister rebels against this kind of life and searches for normality, the other, Ruth, seems to embrace it and is drawn to Sylvie terrified she may also leave like their other relatives.

The above makes Housekeeping sound like some kind of misery memoir but it really isn’t, its certainly not a tearjerker anyway. While there is an overwhelming sense of sadness throughout it is a haunting, lyrical and a beautifully written book. For such a short novel this seemed to take me an age to read as the writing demands that you read it slowly and indeed I also had to reread many passages when my concentration had lapsed. But the imagery that the writing invokes makes the alienation the small family experience all the more real and profound.

If you are looking for a novel with a gripping plot (or any king of strong plot) or for the ending to be tied up neatly at the end then I wouldn’t recommend this one. This is one where the writing and the story needs to envelop you, it was slow in places but overall this turned into a thought-provoking book.

Posted by Jess

Sunday, 6 March 2011

World Night and catching up

I was not a book giver for World Book Day but I was a book receiver. The lecturer from my book reading course was giving away Seamus Heaney's Selected Poetry which was a welcome surprise. I had a great time in front of the TV last night enjoying all the programmes dedicated to it. I fell like the BBC has really spoiled us with all the bookish programmes on lately, some of which I still need to catch up on.

This year so far has been a funny one with regards to my reading habits. I seem to be reading really really slowly and I haven't really brought any books since around January which was not intentional. The books I am selecting to read so far this year have tended to be either classics or if they are contemporary, quite hard going which require a slower reading pace. Am also getting into cooking and baking again so I have been checking out a lot of cookery books out of the library, I can do reviews on these?

These are the books I am currently reading and my progress with them. When I have finished these I think I am going to read a few light a fluffy reads to give my brain a rest.

War & Peace – according to my kindle I am exactly 50% of the way through. I no longer need to refer to my printed family tree as all the characters are firmly rooted in my brain. Its a novel that seems to get better as it goes on and is one I am really enjoying.

Gone with the Wind – I only have around 250 pages to go and boy is it enjoyable. I have to admit that I wasn't sure on this one to begin with but for me the novel turned a corner when the War started and now I can't put it down.

Jane Eyre – I started this yesterday and am reading this as part of a readalong hosted by sheistoofondofbooks and finished off chapter nine today. When I was younger I began to watch the film but I turned it off when she reached adulthood as I found it boring after that, I 'm hoping the book doesn't have the same fate!

I hope everyone else's year is going OK so far. I have some serious catch-up to do with regards to reviews so I best get my head down.

Posted by Jess

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

The Age of Innocence read-along is hosted by Beth at Bookworm Meets Bookworm. Today we are posting our thoughts on Book Two and the entire novel overall.

Archer Newland has a happy life. He is a member of New York's most prominent society and is newly engaged to May, a women who on the surface is everything he wants in a wife, beautiful, pure, innocent, and sweet. This is all upset when his fianc├ęs cousin Ellen shows up fleeing her abusive husband.
Newland is drawn to Ellen because she is from Europe (gasp) and as you know, in Europe they do things differently and are therefore exciting. OK so he isn't drawn to her just because she has come over from Europe, but the fact that Europeans do things differently is mentioned about ten times in the novel. While Ellen desires to divorce her husband, her family try to convince her otherwise which exposes Newland to the Hypocrisies and inequities of the society he belongs to.

One of the strengths of this novel is the great detail given of the customs that the characters society demands. I personally found these endless details quite tedious after a while but they did help to establish a claustrophobic atmosphere and created a sense of place very well. As a reader I was surprised the characters have any time to breathe within all their constrictions. The treatment of Ellen by her own family while started promising soon became apparent that they did not care about Ellen as a person and were quite happy to see Ellen either cut off completely or to see her return to an unhappy marriage. I enjoyed that it all became a little sinister (in a subtle way) towards the end and I thought the way the family banded together very clever.

Overall though I much preferred Wharton's The Custom of the Country, I just preferred the humour and the easy flowing writing in that one. The Age of Innocence is worth a read but parts of it were dull and I certainly wasn't gripped. I don't think this is her best but I look very much forward to The House of Mirth.

Posted by Jess