Friday, 27 July 2012

Olympic torch and the next couple of weeks

In a few hours 70 sheep, 12 horses, 10 chickens and nine geese will participate in the London 2012 opening ceremony  and two weeks of madness will begin. My husband’s day job is in the emergency services so whether we like it or not, plus given our close proximity to the action means we are affected by the Olympics. Chris has been given something ridiculous like three days off over the period which is why this blog has been rather neglected of late. But it’s not all bad; his job means that for a few of the events he gets the best views of some of the events.

For those of you who don’t know, over the past year the Olympic venues have been put through their paces by holding a large number of ‘test events’ in order to test the venues themselves and to spot any potential problems that can be fixed in time for the Olympics. My area Surrey is hosting the men and female road cycling events and during the test event a number of small problems arose including a lack of friendly face for the many visitors. The policeman and the Stewarts on the day were bombarded with questions ranging from ‘where’s the best place to stand’ to ‘what time are they coming through this area’ and while the policeman and stewards were very good, the policeman do have a job to do and the stewards were not from the local area and could therefore their help was limited. Given that way more people will be descending on the area during the Olympics the role of the ‘Surrey Ambassadors’ was created.

So I’ll be there I a few days, giving out information leaflets, answering questions (there are a large number of Ambassadors that speak a foreign language) and basically giving visitors the impression that we are all very nice really. Unfortunately although the uniform is certainly distinctive, it does resemble a jockey’s jumper somewhat but hey at least we get to keep it.
The torch was a practice event for the ambassador system which it was a success and great fun. It’s amazing how many people turned up and how busy it was. Even Chris who was working is beginning to get into the spirit slowly but surely.
Normal service will be resolved in a couple of weeks but in the meantime I may blather more about the Olympics as I do have tickets.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Reading update

Ok so in many ways this blog is a little neglected at the moment! I am still of course reading and below are a round-up of my current books on the go……..

Clarissa by Samuel Richardson (not the above Clarissa exactly but I couldn't resist)
Oh man this is a long one. I’m about half way through now and sometimes it’s easy to read, sometimes it a struggle, it goes from being a page turner with lots of things happening to suddenly nothing happening while being very repetitive. I will finish it however but I’ll be glad when it’s done.
Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
All you none kindle owners can now feel a little smug now if you like as I lost my kindle charger and had to order a new one. In the meantime of course I couldn’t carry on with this novel until I received said charger and I admit I did often say to myself ‘this would never with to a real book’. But anyway this is a fine book and one I’m very much enjoying.
Dracula by Bram Stoker
I needed to start one while I was waiting for my kindle charge to come through and since I recently rewatched the film I picked this up. I last read it when I was 18 and I appreciate it so much more now.
Bringing up the bodies by Hilary Mantel
This is now just embarrassing but I needed a ‘bath book’ and Clarissa is too big, kindles and water do not mix and my copy of Dracula is too nice. I loved Wolf Hall and I love this one also.
The Diary of a nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith
This was my recent holiday read which I read very quickly. A real gem of a book.
Ok so that’s my reading at the moment. It’s all far too heavy going but there you go, I might be done by January!
Posted by Jess

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Back from holiday and Triple Tuesday

Today I am featured on Kim’s blog Reading Matters as part of her Triple Tuesday feature! So pop over there if you would like to see what I have choosen.
We have just got back from Edinburgh where we supported my brother who completed his first ever Marathon in extreme heat. More to follow and we hope everyone is having a great day.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation by George Washington

A Charming little book reportedly written by George Washington, (yes, that George Washington) when he was just 14 years old.

The book is laid out as a list of 110 rules for decent behaviour in polite society. This may sound a bit dull but each rule is very short and easy to digest and most of them are perfectly relevant, even today. For example; 56: "Associate yourself with men of good quality, if you esteem your own reputation; for it is better to be alone than in bad company" and 89; "Speak not evil of the absent, for it is unjust"
Of course some of the rules aren't useful anymore, and some are just beyond my understanding, such as 55: "Eat not in the streets nor in the house out of season". Some of them are quite funny such as Rule 7 "Put not off your clothes in the presence of others, nor go out your chamber half dressed"

My personal favourite is 44: "When a man does all he can though it succeeds not well blame not him that did it"

It's a shame that we don't all carry around a little copy and adopt its ideas, i'm certain modern society would benefit from a few old fashioned rules of behaviour.

Well worth a read

Overall rating 4/5


Tuesday, 15 May 2012

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

I cannot think of this book without thinking of Dame Maggie Smith’s Oscar winning performance of the main character Miss Brodie. Throughout the book I had her voice exclaiming ‘I am in my prime’ ringing in my head in that accent of hers.
But back to the book. On the face of it this book has quite a funny plotline. Miss Jean Brodie is a teacher in a posh school in Edinburgh who is in ‘her prime’, she decides to use her prime and influence on a group of girls she takes under her wing to make them into the ‘crème de la crème’. Her rather bonkers teaching methods are detailed in the book and most of her lessons seem to involve her holiday snaps and detailing her past and present love life while someone looks out for the headmistress.
It’s all quite amusing up to a point and throughout the book there are some really funny lines.
But everything is not quite right with Miss Brodie and it soon transpires that having influence over young girls is one thing but what if the person with that influence was a fascist who also had some rather strange ideas when it came to the paths she has chosen for her girls?
Spark herself is the all knowing narrator throughout and the narrative will quite often jump forwards in time (sometimes mid-sentence) by about twenty years so that even when the narrative is in the present the reader knows what exactly what will happen to Miss Brodie and what became of the girls.
I can see why this is Muriel Spark’s most famous novel and while the story-line is a cracking one, it’s the humour and Spark’s use of narration that ensures I’ll read more from this author.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

The Pearl by John Steinbeck

The Pearl is a retelling of an old folktale which has a strong message about the corruption and evil that springs from wealth and power.
Kino is a poor fisherman with a young family who finds an enormous pearl. He dreams of the many ways he can spend his newfound wealth. Soon his community’s curiosity and good will turn to envy and spite. They try to cheat Kino and when that doesn’t work they resort to violence in an attempt to take the pearl for themselves. Kino is forced to flee the town with trackers hot on his trail.

There is a strong morality theme throughout the entire book, Steinbeck never lets the reader forget that despite the outward promise of riches and happiness the pearl only brings misery and pain. The futility of chasing money is spelled out clearly here. The metaphors are as subtle as a slap in the face with a brick but the message is poignant and ageless. It isn’t telling us anything new but at the same time a reminder doesn’t hurt.

It is a far cry from some of Steinbeck’s more popular works and certainly not one of his best but it was an entertaining novella and worth a read as a Steinbeck fan.

Overall rating 3.5/5

Saturday, 28 April 2012

The Girls of Slender Means by Murial Spark

Towards the end of Murial Spark week which has been organised by bloggers Stuckinabook, My Porch and Harriet. All three have been busy bees as my googlereader has been littered with various Murial spark images for a week now which have been constantly reminding me to get a review up here.
The girls of Slender Means is my second Spark novel and I randomly choose based on its cover mainly while browsing Amazon a couple of weeks ago. The novel is set in a female hostel in London during WWII and describes several young girls war time experience in typical Spark fashion. 
The narrative will at times suddenly jump forward in time for a paragraph or two before returning to the present, there is a great deal of wit throughout along with a sense of amusement. The girls seem more interested in their boyfriends and having fun than the War around them but this isn’t the first novel I’ve read which has described a London wartime experience in this fashion and it's an interesting viewpoint to read about.
The actual hostel itself was better described in its routine and appearance than the characters themselves but given the novels length and the sheer number of girls this is perhaps deliberate.
I gave a quick perusal at other reviews and many seem to agree that this isn’t Sparks best, a fact that I cannot comment on as I simply haven’t read enough of her work. However I like her quirky narrative, randomness and humour and its these elements which I have enjoyed in the two novels I have read.
Posted by Jess

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

In where I attempt to catch up on everything

I am way way behind on reviews at the moment, life seems to be ticking along quite nicely so perhaps I’m just being lazy but I have also been up to all sorts.

Instead of writing any sort of review I thought I would inject some personality into this blog and talk about what we’ve been up to over the past couple of months. Believe it or not we do have other interests and we don’t just spend all our time just sitting around reading (although that does sound like bliss)

Alas however I have just realised how bad I am at taking pictures, I mean I take my camera everywhere but I don’t seem to take pictures of anything. We went into London a couple of weeks ago and visited the British Library and the Charles Dickens House before it closed for refurbishment. I took one photo the entire day and it was a picture of this Umbrella and walking stick shop.

Admittedly it does look like somewhere a Charles Dickens character would shop but still.

Then my sister came down  from Bristol to visit the family and we took her to Hampton Court. Hampton Court is somewhere we go quite often as our son loves it, the staff are friendly and they have really good facilities for children. Cue lots of photos of my son dressed in a tunic and jester hat but none of the building or beautiful grounds itself.

But we did before all that go to Wales which was a holiday funded entirely by our sold ebay items. We decided we wanted a small holiday in the UK but we had but money due to various expenses so we decluttered and sold everything on ebay to see how much we could get. Over fifty posted items later (which included empty perfume bottles and an empty phone box (!) we were off to Wales. I hadn’t been to Wales since I was a kid and Chris has never been unless you count a brief visit to Hay-on-Wye. I did take a fair number of pictures and we loved the place. It was less rural that the parts of Wales I visited as a kid but we were really impressed with how they developed Cardiff. There was loads of stuff to do for both adults and children so we will most definitely be going back.

                         Thats a statue of Dylan Thomas in case you were wondering

In other news I will be a ‘Surrey ambassador’ for the Olympics. We are not in London but the road cycling will be taking place just down the road from us and the torch will also be passing through our town. I’m not 100% sure what a Surrey ambassador actually has to do but I do have to attend a training day in a couple of months so I guess everything will become clear then. Whatever I have to do though I am sure it involves wearing a bright yellow jacket.
Next month we will be heading up to Edinburgh for the running festival they are organising. We will be mostly supporting my brother who will be completing his first Marathon but I am also taking part in the 10k. I have done zero training for this so I really REALLY need to kick myself in the butt so training will take up a fair amount of my time before then.

So there we go, tomorrow I’ll pop up a quick post on my reading at the moment and reply to comments (sorry I have been really bad there)
Posted by Jess

Monday, 2 April 2012

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

In an unnamed South American country, a world-renowned soprano sings at a birthday party in honour of a visiting Japanese businessman. In the opening sequence a group of 18 terrorists enters the vice-presidential mansion, they are after the president who has stayed home to watch a favourite soap opera and thus things go awry.

The hostages are made up of an assortment of Russian, Italian and French diplomats as well as the Opera singer and the Japanese business man and as the days stretch into months a couple of surprising love stories blossom within the house.
Bel Canto has quite an unrealistic, far-fetched plot but Pratchet does somehow make it work, the unnatural and pressured situation the characters find themselves in does make their decisions and their love stories believable. The story shifts constantly from the hostages to the terrorists and after a while the line between them becomes more and more blurred. What is happening outside the house is not mentioned and their only contact with the outside world is a great character in the more and more wary and exhausted red cross man.
The novel is very well written and is told in an elegant, unhurried and easy manor. Reviewers do quibble about the ending but I was ready to accept whatever ending the author was prepared to give me.
Overall I didn’t love Bel Canto but I did enjoy reading it and I cared what happened to the main characters (on both sides)
Posted by Jess

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

In New York August 1974, a man is tightrope walking between the newly built Twin Towers. At the same time the lives of strangers are going on below and include a radical Irish monk working in the Bronx, a Upper East Side housewife reeling from the death of her son, a drug-addled young artist and a prostitute who is trapped in her situation. The novel uses the chapters to focus on each character as each of their lives ‘spin’ towards each other.
Let the Great World Spin is a great read, the author manages to tie up all the various threads in each of the storylines without making the novel seem forced or contrived. The characters all carried their own burdens and the life’s of the rich, poor and tragic are well drawn without being sentimental. The author does not try to deliberately pull on the readers heart-strings or push some kind of agenda (which given the characters and setting would be very easy to do) but instead lets the lives’ and the stories play out and the characters fall where they fall.

Overall while it’s not a novel that I would read again, it was very enjoyable and I would read more of this authors work.
Verdict 4/5
Posted by Jess

Thursday, 22 March 2012

The Kreutzer Sonata by Leo Tolstoy

Not all of Tolstoy's works were the size of War & Peace as this rather short novella demonstrates. The Kreutzer Sonata begins with a man on a train (because most Russian novels have to involve a train ride at some point) telling the story of his marriage to a rather shocked passenger. The whole affair turns out to be a melodramatic, dark little tale about a couple that can't live with each other but then can’t seem to live without each other either.
Jealousy and lust dominate the bitter marriage of the protagonist and of course it’s not going to end well at all. The story takes the couple down a more and more tragic route before leading to the eventual violence which is described in quite a vivid way.

Tolstoy manages to stick in his views on marriage in general (bitter much!) which now seem outdated from a modern perspective (only men have sex drives apparently) Unfortunately I fear that Tolstoy wanted the reader to come away from this having learned some kind of lesson and if this is the case then the reader should promptly ignore it, but if you like your fiction tragic and dark there is still a lot to be gained by reading this.
Posted by Jess

Sunday, 18 March 2012

My Antonia by Willa Cather

I’d seen My Antonia featured on several lists of ‘best American fiction’ so decided to give it a read. It was my first Willa Cather book and I picked it up knowing little about it.

My Antonia is difficult to define. Some might say it’s a book about growing up, about love, romance or maybe relationships. Personally I see it as all four tied together in the barren setting of 19th century provincial Nebraska. The story focusses on the lives of the people who live in or near the small prairie town of Black Hawk, in particular the narrator, Jim Burden. The Antonia of the title is Antonia Shimerda, a Bohemian immigrant who settles at a farm in Black Hawk with her family.
There are many characters, all interesting and compelling in their own way. Some are written about in more detail than others but there are no weak spots in this respect, some characters come and go but all of them have a story to tell.

The book is bursting with nostalgia not just for a childhood spent but about the older, simpler days on the frontier. I was utterly taken in by the story which is in turns sad and uplifting (just like life which it reflects so well) there is plenty of excitement intermingled with moments of prose and reflection which I thoroughly enjoyed reading.

The book is short but I found it felt like it was much longer, this isn’t a criticism but rather saying that Cather created such a rich, detailed and enthralling book that you feel it lasts longer than it does. I still don’t know how she managed to squeeze in so much content in such an unhurried way.

I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say it is a masterpiece and now a firm favourite.


PS Jess has asked me to put in a line letting you know that we have finally worked out how to remove the new word verification used by blogger

Friday, 9 March 2012

We'll be back...

Hi folks,

We're off on holiday to Wales for a week so we won't be blogging until our return. We will have limited internet access so we'll keep up to date with other literary blogs.

Chris and Jess

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Green Hills of Africa by Ernest Hemingway

When Hemingway wrote Green Hills of Africa he was already an established writer with seven books under his belt. This work is said to be autobiographical with Hemingway himself asserting at the beginning of the book ‘Unlike many novels, none of the characters or incidents in this book is imaginary’. However Hemingway was notorious for exaggerating or encouraging exaggeration of his own achievements in order to build up the masculine imagery surrounding his persona. He mentions this himself during the book when his fellow huntsmen tease him about his bragging.

Arguably the main subject of this short read is hunting, with Hemingway chronicling the events of an African hunting trip he took with his then wife in 1933, which some modern readers will find unpalatable. I didn’t think the hunting would bother me but at times I was aware of the sheer senselessness of the activity particularly when Hemingway was butchering rhinos and lions for no other reason that the thrill of the chase and the trophy at the end of it. Hemingway himself said that he never felt bad about killing the animals but he didn’t like making them suffer.
The book is slow to get started and I didn’t find what I considered to be a classic Hemingway line until about halfway through the book but it does pick up the pace towards the end. The story moves at a reasonable speed but I felt at times it could have been more interesting. Ultimately I found Hemingway’s prose and observations about his own state of mind more enthralling than the slaughter of (largely) defenceless animals.

There are sadder, seedier sides to the book and fans of Hemingway will not be surprised to read that alcohol is an ever present apparition and it isn’t long before Hemingway the hunter is knocking back the beers whilst at camp, on his way back to camp and even while still on the trail of his quarry. I’m not surprised when he states at times he needs four or five attempts to kill his prey, it can’t be easy shooting when drunk. I think it was very telling, and tragic, that Hemingway wrote about beer with more love, affection and attention to detail than his own wife.

There is some racism and Hemingway does take a sexist attitude towards his then wife Pauline Pfeiffer who, for some obscure reason, he refers to throughout the book as P.O.M (Poor Old Mama) and behaves in a patronising, dismissive manner towards her calling her ‘little woman’ but it is important to keep it in perspective and remember the book was written in 1935, not exactly the most enlightened period in history.  

Overall I enjoyed it but I wouldn’t recommend it as a first Hemingway book.
Final verdict 3/5

By Chris

Monday, 5 March 2012

Evelina by Frances Burney

Frances Burney was an English novelist and playwright and is well known for inspiring Jane Austen. Evelina was first published in 1778 and while her novels were very popular during her lifetime, her diaries which detailed eighteenth-century life were more favored by critics and are still used by scholars.  William Makepeace Thackeray is reported to have drawn on her diaries, while writing the Waterloo sections of Vanity Fair.
Evelina is a young girl who has been brought up in the country away from society, at 17 she is suddenly introduced into London and the novel follows her naïve misunderstandings and adventures. I can certainly see similarities with Austen’s work and indeed I would say that anyone who enjoys one would enjoy the other, but if I were to compare I would say that Austen is much tamer.

Large parts of Evelina read almost like a tourist guide to eighteenth-century London or Bath. How society works, who you should reject or accept a dance from, the places to go and what to do once you get there are all detailed as Evelina describes her first experiences of this world. This works wonderfully for a modern reader as we are not left to assume anything or need any knowledge of that time period or society.
However while Austen’s high society may act (with mostly) perfect decorum and manners, Burney’s world portrays one where some men will act like complete predators with only one thing on their mind fully taking advantage of woman and their positions. While Burney is very careful to control her characters and to not let things go too far, it says a lot for the women in the novel who has to hang onto their self-respect and reputations in the face of shocking sexism, unwanted sexual advances and in one case blatant cruelty.

There are some very funny moments and the romantic arc all comes right in the end as expected but it’s the comments on the treatment of women and the insight into that society that will ensure I read more of Francis Burney.

Posted by Jess

Saturday, 3 March 2012

The Double by Jose Saramago

While watching a rented video, Tertuliano Maximo Afonso is shocked to notice that one of the extras in the film is identical to him in every physical detail. Unable to forget this actor he embarks on a secret quest to find his double which takes both Afonso and his doppelganger down some dark paths, leading each one to question ‘who is real and who is the copy’.

After reading Blindness I was fully prepared for Saramago’s style of writing which is dense, large parts are written as a stream of consciousness and there are few paragraphs breaks and no quotation marks. The result is conversational and witty although I did find that because The Double is not nearly as plot driven as Blindness it did drag in some parts.

The appeal of Saramago for me are his ideas and the concepts he attempts to convey. The double is a great concept and the mystery and the more philosophical aspects of the novel as well as the writing kept me engaged until the end. This may not be the easiest read but there are twists right up to the end and it played on my mind for weeks afterwards.


Posted by Jess

Saturday, 25 February 2012

The Europeans by Henry James

The Europeans was James’s fourth novel which I enjoyed reading a good deal. It is easy going, short and fun to read without being over simplistic.

Felix and Eugenia are siblings from Europe who arrive in America to visit their relatives in the form of the New Englander Wentworth family. The Wentworth’s behave very graciously and welcome their foreign kin to live with them in one of the cottages on their property. What ensues is part romance, part comedy as the differences between the two cultures come to the fore.

The story is mostly set on the Wentworth estate which we rarely leave meaning the story is character driven with a lot of spoken dialogue which I always enjoy providing it’s done well (and Henry James does it well) the characters are developed thoroughly and drive the story along. There is also a good amount of humour.       

It certainly couldn’t be described as an exciting book but it isn’t boring either as the characters are interesting with a fair amount of tension in parts. My main criticism, which is small, is the occasional use of French without any provided translation (which is becoming a literary bugbear of mine) but other than that it was an enjoyable read.

I recommend it as a good introduction to Henry James novels

Final verdict 3/5


Monday, 20 February 2012

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

"Mrs. Allen was one of that numerous class of females, whose society can raise no other emotion than surprise at their being any men in the world who could like them well enough to marry them."

Catherine is 17 when she is taken by childless neighbours to spend time with them in Bath. She quickly makes friends with other people her own age, finds herself a love interest and begins to forge her way in this new society she finds herself in. As she is younger than other Austen heroines she is also more naïve, not very experienced at reading people and is sometimes rather silly.

The plot is a rather a simple one in terms of its themes and contains less minor characters than say Mansfield Park, instead it just gets on with the business of dealing with the usual ‘girl will eventually marry the right man after various conversations and misunderstandings’ overall plot arc.

Northanger Abbey is different to the other Austen novels I have read (although I have STILL yet to read P&P) it’s different for various reasons but mostly it’s because it is a lighter and less layered read. Northanger Abbey is known for its parody of other Gothic novels which were popular during Austin’s time, although anyone who is familiar with works such as Dracula or Jane Eyre and has an understanding of the usual gothic elements could probably appreciate these parts of the novel.

"I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible."

While it might lack depth it does have two very likeable characters in both Catherine and Henry Tilney, a couple of unlikeable characters and some very funny lines and observations. The first half of the novel is set in Bath before switching the action to Northanger Abbey, this change of scenery keeps the story fresh and drives the eventual coupling of Catherine and Henry. The humor and wit in Northanger Abbey is not as subtle as other Austen’s novels making the novel overall a quick, easy, sparkly read and is a great introduction to Jane Austen.
Verdict 4/5

Posted by Jess

Monday, 13 February 2012

The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart by Jesse Bullington

This is unquestionably the most disgusting, violent and profane book I have ever read but that is counterbalanced by its ridiculous nature. It is difficult to be offended in any meaningful way by something so fundamentally silly.
Manfried and Hegel Grossbart are two peasant brothers journeying through the landscapes of medieval Europe seeking their fortune in the treasure filled tombs of Egypt. On their travels they encounter witches, demons, monsters, bandits and mercenaries all of which are intent on killing them but none of whom are as evil or disgusting as the brothers themselves.

Jesse Bullington got straight down to business having the Grossbarts murder an entire family (including four children) in cold blood within the first few pages and from then on it is a novel of extreme violence and gore. The Grossbarts spend the rest of the book threatening, assaulting, robbing, mutilating, murdering and generally ruining the lives of anyone unfortunate enough to cross their paths. They utter the foulest profanities and blasphemies I have ever read on paper and cause mayhem wherever they go. Barely a page goes by when a character wasn’t cursing or leaking vomit, blood or excrement. In general the story is poorly put together with ridiculous, unconvincing dialogue and two dimensional cardboard characters I cared little or nothing about.

Because the brothers are so monumentally evil and stupid I found it impossible to feel any pity or kind feelings towards them, I couldn’t wait for them to get their just deserts which never seemed to come. I feel Bullington was trying too hard to shock and offend rather than focusing on developing the characters or story in any significant way.

It’s not all bad; because the book doesn’t take itself too seriously it is easy to read and I found myself making a significant dent in it quite early on. Their first encounter with a monster in the forest was quite impressive. Some of the fights are pretty exciting and dramatic but sadly all of this is overshadowed by the book’s faults, of which there are many. One thing Bullington has definitely achieved is to have created two of the most despicable figures to come out of recent fiction. Oh yes and the front cover is pretty cool.

Towards the end the book completely lost its thread and became quite difficult to follow with too many new (and arguably quite pointless) characters introduced near the end of the book when it would have been best left as it was before.

Not a book I would re-read
Final verdict 2/5

By Chris

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Great Expectations BBC trailer

Since quite a few people were curious about the new BBC version of Great Expectations staring Gillian Anderson which was shown in the UK over Christmas I’ve posted the trailer below.

I’ve heard rumour that its showing in the US in April but it is possible I’m thinking of something else (I do that a lot) As explained in my previous post I only watched the first episode as I didn’t think it was any good but that was more to do with the general atmosphere of the thing and not the actors, although it is strange to that Pip is more beautiful than Estella.
They are also filming a new film version starring Helena Bonham Carter so perhaps we will all be sick of Pip and his adventures, it seems overkill.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

London and in fact the whole country it seems has gone slightly Dickens mad with the TV specials, constant promotions and the media hype. It’s great really, we have Dickens’s birthday, the Queens Jubilee, a huge Shakespeare festival and the Olympics all in the same year. 2013 may feel like a total come-down after all this year’s excitement.
I did not read Great Expectations because of all the hype although perhaps it has somehow filtered down to me. The BBC recently aired a new version of Great Expectations over Christmas which was pretty bad (and I feel bad for saying that because I love Gillian Anderson). While watching episode one I found myself getting quite defensive over a book and author I had never read so I decided that rather than put myself through two more episodes I would just read the dam thing.
Great Expectations needs little in the way of plot synopsis as like many of Dickens’s novels the general gist of the plot is known by many. After saying that the novel did throw up a few surprises by giving me some rather beautiful sentences scattered throughout and a couple of delicious plot twists at the end. 
There are many many strengths to this novel. The plot is a great one, the characters are brilliant, the places are vividly described, the gothic elements are a nice touch and there also social and moral issues which thread through and combine the whole thing. It’s a rich novel and one which you can really curl up with and get into. I also loved the general view that money doesn’t always equal happiness, the very flawed man in the main character Pip and the general darkness of it all.
 Yes the writing isn’t the most easy to get on with (but not Henry James hard) and it did also lull in a couple of places in the middle where I just wanted Dickens to ‘get on with it’ but if you are prepared to give this novel your full attention and accept that you are probably not going to rush through it (although why would you want to) then you will be rewarded.
I’m not quite ready to pick up Bleak House yet but Oliver I think is next on my list.
Posted by Jess

Friday, 3 February 2012

All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

All the Pretty Horses is essentially a coming of age story. After his mother sells the Texan ranch he has grown up on, sixteen year old John Grady Cole loses everything and sets out for Mexico with his friend Lacey Rawlins. They are both searching for work as a ranch hand and abit of adventure. On the Mexican border they both meet Jimmy Blevins a young boy whose hot-headedness leads them into big trouble.
Much of the story is set on the Mexican boarder where the landscapes are vividly described. Readers of McCarthy will know already how well landscapes and the country are so well drawn that you cannot think of the characters without also thinking of the landscapes they inhabit.
The novel is set in 1949 but you wouldn’t know it as it has the feel of a western, so much so that I was surprised when planes and other more modern mod-cons were mentioned. Most of the travel is done in rugged landscapes on horseback and the place and characters in All the Pretty Horses seem cut off from the rest of the world. The plot does kind of plod along which I think is deliberate and while I appreciated this style in context with the novel this style certainly didn’t make it a page turner.  However I did keep reading because of the descriptions, the dialogue, the plot and of course the writing.
Like The Road and Blood Meridian, All the Pretty Horses will be a book that stays with me although out of those three I would recommend The Road and Blood Meridian more as it took me a little longer (around 30 pages) to get into this one compared with the other McCormacs I have read.
Posted by Jess

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ and others

I can remember when I first picked up The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾. I guess I was around 14 or 15 years old and in the stage of my reading life where I was helping myself to books from my parent’s bookshelf. I didn’t find Adrian Mole in my parent’s bookcase however I found it in the bathroom, by the toilet, where it had been for some weeks. I figured no-one would miss it as surely no one would keep a current book in the bathroom next to the toilet (yes I was that unfamiliar with some peoples reading and toilet habits)

Anyway all of the Adrian Mole books are written in the form of a diary beginning at the rather precocious age of 13 ¾ and finishing (I presume so far) into Adrian’s middle(ish)  age. The books take the reader not only through Adrian’s life but also cover various political and social events in Britain. But I would say that the main reason for the book’s popularity is that they are really very funny. It takes A LOT to make me laugh out loud while reading a book (most you will normally get out of me is an inward chuckle) but this particular series of book does. Adrian has a rather ‘woe is me’ attitude to life which is used to great comic effect. I personally think that Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ is not one of the best books in the overall series and that it really gets going more as he comes into adult life.

Not entirely sure I like the pastel looking nature of the new editions but neither the less I will thoroughly enjoy re-reading them all again.

I’m also not entirely sure that Adrian Mole would have huge appeal outside of the UK given that the books are so packed full of British cultural references, the last book for example contains references to MP expenses, the explosion of misery memoirs and the Jeremy Kyle show. Would anyone not living in the UK really ‘get these’?  Shout me down if you think I’m wrong but these really are very British books.

Posted by Jess

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

The Grapes of Wrath follows a migrant family from the 1930's that are forced to leave the farm they work on in Oklahoma and head for California because of the great depression. On their journey the family realise that tens of thousands of people from all over the southern great plains have also been forced from their homes and the sheer numbers of people are saturating any available jobs in California. Once they do eventually reach California the family finds hostile locals, exploitation, prejudice and starvation.  
I have read a few reviews and many people either mention or complain that The Grapes of Wrath will grind you down. I would agree to an extent, the hopelessness of the family’s situation and the endless relentlessness of trying to find work and their next meal after 500 pages can wear a reader down. But this is no bad thing, this really happened to people and it would have left perhaps a bad taste in my mouth if Steinbeck had tried to make this terrible situation somehow more uplifting just to make it more palatable for a lot more readers. While the Grapes of Wrath is very much in parts a social commentary I feel it is a commentary which is relevant today.
Most of the novel is written from the family’s point of view but then Steinbeck will stick in a chapter telling a more overall picture and putting the events into context so in a way the reader becomes more informed than the family on their own hardships and situation.
This is the kind of novel that is worth the read in the end as it is the overall fight for survival rather than the individual characters and events that will stay with you. Brilliantly written and recommended.
Verdict 5/5

Posted by Jess

Friday, 20 January 2012

Benjamin Franklin: His Life as He Wrote It (Folio Society)

Benjamin Franklin requires no introduction to American readers of this blog, his part in helping to establish the United States of America as an independent nation is very well documented. Here in England Franklin is, sadly, not a historical figure we learn about in school which is why I have decided to read about him as an adult.

To say Franklin was extraordinary is something of an understatement. I don’t have room to list all the things he achieved in his lifetime but he was a noted polymath who was a printer, author, Politician, scientist, ambassador, postmaster, musician, inventor and statesmen. He founded the first lending library in America, created the first Fire Department in the state of Pennsylvania and helped found the first university there too. He was at the centre of talks and negotiations between Britain and America regarding the future of the colonies. Franklin was present at the most pivotal moments in early American history signing both the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution
For the most part the book was very interesting. As an autobiography it gives the reader a unique opportunity to get into the mind-set of one of the greatest figures in history and read about his thoughts and feelings however the book is not written or laid out as memoirs per se. For the most part they are a collection of letters written by Franklin to numerous different correspondents, some family others politicians, friends or businessmen. As I didn’t know much about Franklin to begin with the meaning of some of the letters was lost to me. The only thing to assist in putting the letters in context was a short paragraph from the editor explaining the background, sometimes this wasn’t sufficient. I feel reading a biography about Franklin first then moving onto his autobiography would have been more sensible but hindsight is a wonderful thing.

Some of the most interesting aspects of the book were reading about America (these days a political, military and economic powerhouse) as little more than a British colony beset with problems varying from citizen riots to the French threatening to invade. It was surreal reading Benjamin Franklin describing himself as British and the complex, headache-inducing political background for the eventual split from Britain.

If you know your American history well and have learnt about Benjamin Franklin before this would be a very good book to read however if you know little or nothing about him I suggest reading a Biography first then moving onto this.

Final verdict 3/5

By Chris

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

The Gaol: The Story of Newgate - London's Most Notorious Prison by Kelly Grovier

The Gaol is a history of London’s infamous Newgate Prison which operated for over 800 years before finally closing in 1902. Being one of London’s main prisons for so long meant that the place has been long associated with various famous characters, literature and historical events. In this rather short book (its less than 300 pages) the author attempts to tell Newgates story through the stories of some of its more famous and not so famous inmates.
Rather than give a history of Newgate using a chronological time-line, the author instead largely bases each chapter on the various crimes and lives of its inmates. For example one chapter is based on highway robbery and another on those inmates that managed to escape. Writing the book in this way means it can be difficult to get a sense of the period of history the author is referring too as the time frame jumps about but it also means that the individual stories are told giving more of a close-up to the life in Newgate Prison.
Famous inmates include (and believe me there is a big list)  Casanova, Daniel Defoe and William Penn. What I have found already though is how many times Newgate is mentioned in literature. I am currently reading Great Expectations and not only is Newgate mentioned but Pip has a tour of the place (as did Dickens himself). I have also recently finished Star of the Sea by Joseph O’Connell and again Newgate was featured.

The full history and the changing conditions of Newgate are far too large to mention here but many aspects of the prisoner’s lives, crimes and executions are covered. Given that the government’s policy during the 18th century was to use execution as a means of crime prevention meant that a stay in Newgate was often short and the public executions outside the gates would draw large crowds. Prisoners had to pay for everything making the position of the gaoler a rather lucrative one which was hard to get.

If you want a more detailed history of Newgate then I wouldn’t recommend this book unless you are using it as a starting block but I would recommend it for anyone interested in the subject and is more interested in the prisoner’s lives rather than important dates.
Posted by Jess

Monday, 9 January 2012

Possession: A Romance by A S Byatt

Possession to put it simply is about two modern day academics who investigate a possible previously unknown love story between two well known Victorian poets. The story constantly jumps from between the modern setting to a Victorian love story and is told in the various forms of letters, poems, essays, and straightforward narrative.
Possession is certainly not what you would describe as a light read but the combination of the weaving story-lines and the detective part of the plot kept my interest and I ended up finishing this rather weighty book quicker than anticipated. The poetry I didn’t really give my full attention, in fact I skimmed read them. I just didn’t enjoy the poems very much, perhaps I would have gotten more out of the novel by fully reading the poems but I don’t feel as though my overall enjoyment was too much affected. The love story set in the Victorian era was more convincing than the modern day one but both time-lines in their own way kept me turning the pages.

I do have one minor quibble with the novel which I feel I have to mention. Firstly the ‘villain’ was (I felt) badly drawn. The character was an American collector who had to possess any of the Victorian poet’s memorabilia and he was throughout the novel painted as a two dimensional ‘evil rich American’.  Why not just make this character an avid rich collector? Why make him an evil, prostitute visiting, grave robbing almost cartoonist villain? I half expected him to have an evil chuckle to boot. But this is a very minor quibble; it just bothered me a little.

Overall though this is a novel I thoroughly enjoyed and in which I could immerse myself in. The settings are great as are in particular the Victorian characters and I would recommend this. Being quite a multi-layered novel this would benefit from a second read.

Verdict 4/5

Posted by Jess

Thursday, 5 January 2012

The Filter Bubble: What The Internet Is Hiding From You by Eli Pariser

The Filter Bubble: What The Internet Is Hiding From You is an interesting book. It basically goes into detail on how information is collected via the web from sites such as Google, Amazon and Facebook and what those companies do or intend to do with the collected information. A basic history of various companies like Amazon is given along with details on how they use your search history or purchase history to recommend products/provide search results/advertise etc. etc.
The author states the advantages of this, e.g. when I type in ‘Cubs’ into Google I am very likely to get very different search results to someone living in Chicago typing in ‘Cubs’. But it can also have its disadvantages, e.g. if I click on loads of celebrity related news stories while browsing Google news, it doesn’t mean that I am not interested in serious stuff even if I was to only read the headlines.

As I said it’s interesting stuff, especially for people like me who know very little about how the internet works. Unfortunately the author gives very little information on what an individual can actually do about it. I’m still going to use Facebook and I’m still going to order stuff from Amazon, aside from the usual precautions that I assume most people take anyway (like not giving your address on Facebook) there’s not really any further precautions someone can take (aside from not using the internet at all)

Of course like most books written on something as fast moving as the internet this book will be outdated soon so if you are interested in it then it’s best to pick it up within the next year or so.

Alot of the legislation regarding privacy stated in the book refers only to American law and this coupled with the fact that companies such as netflick (is that it?) are mentioned I’m not sure if a non-American would get the most out of this one.

Posted by Jess