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


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