Monday, 21 December 2009

Nine Nights by Bernardo Carvalho

Nine Nights was a random library pick, and as much as I can't think why I picked it up in the first place, I'm also finding it very difficult to write about! I finished it a few weeks ago, and although I've been thinking about it since then, I still can't produce many coherent thoughts about it. I'm only writing this now because it has to go back to the library tomorrow so it won't be sat staring at me reminding me I need to write about it!

The book centres around a young ethnologist, Buell Quain, who went off on an expedition to Brazil to learn about the Kraho tribe of Indians. But during his time out there, something affected him so deeply, he committed suicide, leaving a series of suicide notes for his friends and family, all contradicting each other, so it is never clear why he did what he did. One said he was ill, one said he had been betrayed and other similar life changing events. However, although this event is central to the story, it's not really what the book is about. The book is narrated by a man who is trying to discover the truth about this suicide, and it has become an obsession to him. He believes there was an eighth letter which will give the truth of the events, and it is this he is determined to find.

Our narrator is clearly obsessed with this man, although it is not until the end of the book that we discover why, and this itself throws light on the sanity of the narrator and how much of what he believes is fiction. In fact, the line between fact and fiction makes up a large part of the theme of this book. The narrator himself does everything you would expect of someone trying to discover the truth, and more, but it is clear he is never going to discover the truth, if it is even there to be found. In fact the only first hand account the narrator has, which is interspersed in segments throughout the novel, finishes by saying

"What I'm telling you is a combination of what he told me and what I have imagined, and so in the same way, I'll let you imagine everything I can't bring myself to tell you."

From the information our narrator managed to piece together, it is clear that Quain immersed himself totally in the lives of the tribe he was studying, and it is implied that it was something he did, or that happened to him that affected his mental state but just as the narrator thinks he may be coming close, it all slips away from him again. We never really find out what happened to Buell Quain, and the book feels just as foggy at the start as it did at the beginning. The first page does sort of leave a clue for this though, when it says

"You are entering a place where truth and lies no longer have the meanings they had outside, just ask the Indians. Anything. Whatever crosses your mind. And tomorrow, when you wake up, ask them again. And then the day after tomorrow. Each time the same question. And every day you'll get a different answer. the truth is lost among all the contradictions and absurdities."

Foggy is a good word for how I felt on finishing this book. And it still feels like I'm writing this through a fog. I don't know if that's how it was supposed to feel, or if I just didn't get it, but I suspect it's the latter. Having said that, I enjoyed reading it, I just think there was so much about it I didn't pick up on!

Saturday, 19 December 2009

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

The Little Stranger is only the second Sarah Waters book I've read, the first being Fingersmith, which I thought was fantastic. I enjoyed this too, I just don't think it quite lived up to Fingersmith. This book is set in England just after WWII, and focuses very much on the changing attitudes of the English people towards class and society, with the advent of the new Labour government.

The Ayres family, consisting of Mrs Ayres and Roderick and Caroline, her two unmarried adult children live at Hundreds Hall, a crumbling, dilapidated country house that has definitely seen better days. In fact those better days are described in the first chapter by a small boy attending a function at the house with his nursemaid mother. When the book moves to the post-war period, this same boy is a doctor (Dr Faraday), and is called out to the house in an official capacity. Although he is originally called out to treat the parlourmaid, he soon ingratiates himself with the family, particularly Caroline although it is Roderick he ends up treating, for war injuries. However, during a party, the family dog attacks a small child, and from that point on, the family all report strange goings on at the house, that at first glance appear supernatural although this is never confirmed. At first these events are put down to mental issues, easy because the first person they manifest themselves on is Roderick, who already has a 'nervous problem' from the war, but each as each family member in turn becomes unable to explain what is happening to them, they become more and more convinced it is supernatural.

Dr Faraday acts as the voice of reason throughout this book, and each time a new occurrence is described to him, he manages to provide a reasonable, rational argument for it. At first he is sympathetic, but as the novel progresses he becomes more and more didactic and inconsiderate. Dr Faraday actually becomes quite an unlikeable character. He starts as a man who seems to have worked hard to get where he is, under difficult circumstances, and seems to be helpful towards a family fallen on hard times, but he morphs into a single-minded, selfish and close minded man. He embarks on a relationship with Caroline, which at first seems genuine, but again as the novel progresses, seems to be for ulterior motives and actually shows a pretty grim side of his character.

I read a library copy of this, and the book is classified as a ghost story, although there is never definitively a ghost in the story. There is definitely a suggestion of supernatural activity and the occupants of Hundreds Hall all, in their turn, come to believe in the presence of a ghostly presence in their house. In fact, the latter part of the novel seems to talk of the house itself as a character, its the house itself producing the delusions (if that's what they are). That 'If', is the crux of this story. Even after 500 pages, it is left very ambiguous at the end as to what actually happened at Hundreds Hall. Dr Faraday's conversations and musings seem to imply that it is family delusions, from a family who are struggling to come to terms with the changing class structures of England. But there are elements that even a rational mind would find difficult to explain, apart from Dr Faraday, but his actions in the latter stages of the book make him a very unreliable narrator anyway. And this is all narrated by him so what exactly are we supposed to believe? I could go on and on with the questions I was left with, but I'll leave it that.

As to whether I liked this book, the answer would be yes. I was gripped and wanted to know what would happen. As I said at the start, it's not as good as Fingersmith, but as I haven't read any others, I don't know how it compares to Sarah Water's other books. I'd have liked this to be slightly less ambiguous at the end. I usually like ambiguity, but I think there was just a little too much here.

Friday, 18 December 2009

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

I picked up People of the Book mainly because I thought Year of Wonders was fantastic and I wanted to read something else by Brooks. I enjoyed this too, possibly not quite as much as Year of Wonders, but not far off. It is almost two different stories, although the book of the title connects everything.

The book itself is the Sarajevo Haggadah, which resurfaces in Bosnia after years of being thought missing/lost, and Australian book conservationist Hanna is called in to assess the condition and make any necessary restoration to the book before it is put on display. Approximately half the novel is narrated by Hanna, as she attempts to discover the book's history from the tiny fragments of debris left in the book, such as a butterfly wing, a hair, salt stains and a wine stain. Although these discoveries lead Hanna to some knowledge of the book's whereabouts, a lot of what she concludes is just supposition based on the area she can place the book to, and what she knows or discovers about life at that times, particularly for Jews, since it is a Jewish book. There is also Hanna's personal story that develops over the course of her work with the book, including a turbulent relationship with her mother, but I actually found this the least interesting part of the book.

However, that is only half the story. As readers, we are treated to a lot more information than Hanna is party to and these were the most interesting parts of the book for me. We read detailed accounts of Jewish persecution throughout the ages, and in each account we learn how and why the book disappeared, so that it would be saved for future generations. We move from fifteenth century Spain to seventeenth century Venice, nineteenth century Vienna and finally onto twentieth century Bosnia. Each time, the book is under threat, rescued and then disappears whilst mass persecution of Jews goes on in all its horrific details.

The historical chapters are written beautifully and really evoke the sights and sounds of the day, and the fear that the Jewish population in each place lived under. Most of them are totally fictionalised, but it is easy to imagine them being true and I feel fairly certain that lives were as described for a lot of persecuted Jews, and that people took extreme risks to save precious books and such like. And the book demonstrates with absolute clarity that although methods may change, persecution of minority races, particularly Jewish pogroms are not a new thing and the same situation repeats itself throughout history. The justifications used are different, but it all had the same end. Death and destruction, right up until 1990's Yugoslavia.

It was an interesting read, although I did find myself wishing that Hanna could have known the detailed historical stories that we were told, but I also thought it pushed the boundaries of possibility that she knew as much as she did! I also found it really interesting to read the notes that explained which stories were based on fact and which were totally fictional. The Haggadah does exist, and knowledge about it's creation and whereabouts for large chunks of time are sketchy, to say the least!

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Spuds, Spam and Eating for Victory by Katherine Knight

Obviously, Spuds, Spam and Eating for Victory is a book about rationing during WWII. I probably didn't really need to say that! It gives a fantastic overview of rationing, including the details of setting it up, running what was necessarily a quite complex system, and the effect it had on the population as well as the basic details of what each person was entitled to. I learnt all sorts about rationing, from what was rationed and what wasn't to other methods set up to feed people and how much food was produced at home. For example I never realised that bread and potatoes were not rationed until after the war, and that children had an extra sweet ration at Christmas!

Rationing is something I knew very little about (until I read this book), apart from the fact that it existed and that it was what it said. It rationed the amount of food available to each person. Oh and I knew it worked through a system of coupons. But that was it. This book starts by listing the actual quantities of each restricted food allowed, and I was finding myself trying to work out how that fits with the amount of food I would use. The only one that surprised me was the sugar ration because, at 12oz per person per week, I thought that was quite a lot! But I am assuming there was a lot more home baking then (at least more than I do). The only thing that it was impossible to do this for was the meat ration, because this was sold by price, and with inflation and decimalisation it's virtually impossible to know what this would equate to today. That fact though did bring it home to me how fair rationing was. Sold by price, it was a choice with the meat whether it was a small amount of good quality meat, or a larger amount of a cheaper cut. And I never realised that the ration was different, so that some specified workers got extra cheese, mainly manual trades.

This book is really just full of really interesting information, not just about quantities, but how people actually made their food stretch, how the government spread the word (through radio broadcasts and leaflets mainly), what people were encouraged to do and similar. I also thought it was really enlightening that the author used a lot of personal accounts and reminiscences to tell the story of rationing, and it seems as if everyone really got into the swing of things and did what they could for the war effort and the good of the country. I've tried really hard to imagine it, and I just find it difficult to imagine that a whole nation would accept something so life changing now!

I think that was the most striking element of this book for me. I loved all the facts and details about rationing, but it was the community spirit and willingness of everybody to be involved and do their best. And all the voluntary organisations that either developed or expanded because of rationing, the Women's Institute being the most high profile of these. And there was some stuff that just made me chuckle, almost at the absurdity, but more the ingenuity of it all! For example

"In towns there was a pig bin in almost every street, where you were expected to put food waste-though a keen-eyed inspector checked that there was nothing that could have been consumed by humans. One hopes his sense of smell was less acute than his eyesight."

I finished this book with a sense of amazement that we pulled together so much, with, according to this author at least, very little complaint, and a feeling that the less waste ethic is something we could use today, although perhaps not to the extreme of pig bins! And that possibly a little more self sufficiency and thought about our food wouldn't do us any harm.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Black Juice by Margo Lanagan

Earlier in the week I wrote about Singing my Sister Down, the first story from Black Juice, this collection. Although it is undoubtedly the best story in the collection, I enjoyed all eleven stories a lot and I am glad I read this book.

All the stories are set in a world that we think we recognise, but doesn't seem quite familiar. It's either supernatural elements, merging of cultures or bizarre events that don't happen in the 'real' world yet we are compelled to accept as reality for that particular story. For example, one is told by a group of elephants who break free and go searching for their old master because they believe something terrible must have happened to him for him to leave them. The strangeness of this story comes not only from the fact that the story is narrated by an elephant, but also the unfamiliarity of the world they describe where they attempt to rescue the man.

Also contained in the book is a story about a serial killer who is killing the upper classes (I think), who seem to make a habit of dressing up as clowns and performing. The killer is in league with another person, but there is a surprising and disturbing twist to this story. It also is the only story I think I've ever read where the sympathy lies with the killer! Another one is concerned with a funeral in a futuristic and toxic world where every journey is a major undertaking, and yet another deals with angels helping a boy see what he must do after the death of his grandmother. But the angels are not like any usually represented in literature. He's frightened of them for a start!

There were two main things that struck me about these stories. The first was that the majority of them seemed to be concerned with death, or change and if there is a thread running through the stories, it would be that the world is a huge force and impacts upon the lives of people who live on it. I think these stories try to get across the viewpoint that nature and the world will impact upon individual lives. There really is no getting away from this. The other thing I keep thinking is that it is what is not said, or explained, in these stories that is more important than what is. It is the very strangeness and unfamiliarity of these stories that makes us think about the world as a whole and how people treat each other and the world, and how the smallest of decisions can have an impact on lives.

These stories make you think. I found myself constantly trying to imagine the wider world in which the events in each story take place, and what sort of world that could be. As in Singing my Sister Down, each story has just enough about it that it is familiar to us, but then goes on to describe a world that we can't understand, although we may understand the human emotions brought about by the events.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Booking Through Thursday-Mark The Spot

What items have you ever used as a bookmark? What is the most unusual item you’ve ever used or seen used?

I'd love to have a large collection (or any collection really) of bookmarks to pick and choose from whenever I start a new book, but unfortunately, I don't. I do possess a couple but the only one I use regularly is one my daughter made me. It's just so much easier to grab the first bit of paper available, usually receipts, and use that! Laziness and disorganisation really, maybe that's something I ought to remedy and fulfill my desire to have lots of pretty bookmarks and actually use them! I'll keep you posted on that one!

And I've never used anything unusual, or even seen anyone else using anything unusual. I think I might keep a look out now though to see what I can spot. What other people use as bookmarks is not something I'm nosy about. Much more interested in what they're actually reading. And for completely useless information, my current books are marked with a train ticket, my daughters homemade bookmark, and the information leaflet from a packet of painkillers. It's almost a bit of an insight into what I was doing when I started each book!

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Short Story:Singing my Sister Down by Margo Lanagan

Singing my Sister Down is the first story in the collection entitled Black juice (full review to come soon). It's undoubtedly the best story, and also the one that's haunted me for weeks since I read it. The basic premise is that a young girl has been sentenced to die for the murder of her husband, and that execution takes the form of a slow swallowing by a tar pit, surrounded by her family, whilst the victim's family look on. It takes her all day to be fully swallowed by the tar, and her family accompany her and, very strangely, almost have a party, with food, chat and singing!

Now whilst this could be seen as too unrealistic to be disturbing, the way it is written makes it seem all too real. It doesn't have a definitive setting, although there seems to be a chief, which would suggest some kind of African culture, but also flutes and guns and crabs which would suggest a more western setting. This mix of cultures, and also mixing the familiar with the unknown is what makes this story disturbing. Any concept of; this couldn't happen here or this wouldn't happen now is not present. It is just an event, with no definitive time or place so we are left totally to focus on the feelings of the family.

The story is seen through the eyes of the younger brother of the condemned girl, and it is clear that we are supposed to feel the confusion, bafflement and horror that he feels. But although the story is narrated by him, we do get to see the event through the eyes of various family members. We feel the panic and fright that Ik feels, as well as the pain her mother feels.

But although the story itself disturbed me greatly, it is the attitudes of the spectators that give this story it's power. Although narrated by the young boy, the joy and party atmosphere of the spectators to this bizarre execution is terrifying.

"Everything went slippery in my mind after that. We were being watched so hard! Even though it was quiet out here, the pothering wind brought crowd-mumble and scraps of music and smoke our way, so often that we couldn't be private and be ourselves."

"and they tell me I made an awful noise that frightened everybody right up to the chief and that the husbands parents thought I was a very ill-brought up boy for upsetting them instead of allowing them to serenely and superiorly watch justice be done for their lost son."

I could say lots more about this, but it is only a short story, and I should leave some of it for you to read for yourselves! And it is worth reading, but very disturbing!

Friday, 4 December 2009

Cold Earth by Sarah Moss

Cold Earth was a random library pick, it was just there on the library bookshelves and the cover looked attractive. Shouldn't judge a book by its cover, I know, but I did read the blurb too, before I took it home! It's the story of six people who go on an archaeological dig in Iceland to try and discover the fate of the ancient Icelanders who lived there. Five of them are archaeologists, but one, Nina, is a literary student, and friend of the expedition leader, who is just kind of along for the ride!

The story is told through the characters own narratives, the first of these, and by far the largest portion of the book being Nina's narrative. Nina is a strange character, present on the dig for her own personal reasons, to get some time away, although totally prepared to work (although refuses to touch any human remains,which I would have thought was pretty central to discovering the fate of a race of people)! We are told early on that she has previously suffered from some mental health issues, and it is not long before she is seeing and hearing things in the night, which she is convinced are the ghosts of the Icelanders objecting to their graves being desecrated. This, and her obsession with the poor quality of the food provided by Yianni (the group organiser), soon puts her at odds with all the other team members.

As we hear from the other members of the group in turn, it becomes clear that although the rest of them share an interest in archeology, they are conflicting characters in other ways, and that they are all present in Iceland for very different reasons. Personal conflicts arise, but these are overshadowed by a much bigger issue, that of isolation and issues in the outside world. Fairly early on in Nina's narrative, we are made aware that there appears to be a mystery virus sweeping the world, which the group are keen to keep updated on, via the laptop and satellite connection available to them. The news gets constantly worse as the time progresses, and then as the connection is lost, the group start to panic more and more that the world is devastated and they will never get home.

The feeling of desperation comes across in the narratives of the other members of the group. As each person has their say, the narratives get shorter and shorter and more urgent. All the narratives are written as letters home, but as their situation worsens, the letters become more like last letters, and less hopeful and more desperate. How and if the situation is eventually resolved is something you'll have to read the book to find out, but I'll just say that I thought it was a bit of a quick finish.

I really enjoyed this book. I thought the format of individual letters was a brilliant way to tell a story, and seeing the relationships between characters through their own perspectives and each other's was really interesting. It was also interesting to see the attitudes towards Nina's conviction that there are supernatural elements at present on the island from the other group members develop and how the different characters justified it to themselves. And just generally seeing the relationships between them deteriorate as their situation worsens, and their very different attitudes to the situation they find themselves in. Some were immediately negative, some more positive, but they definitely come across as a cross section of society in their reactions, which I'm sure was intentional.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Me Cheeta by James Lever

Me Cheeta is the sort of book I would normally avoid. Books 'written' by animals don't usually appeal to me. And I did avoid this one for a while, but finally gave into pressure from various people telling me I should read this. And I am still trying to decide what i actually thought about it, because although I enjoyed it whilst I was reading it, and at no point considered not finishing it, I didn't feel much of an urge to keep picking it up, and was quite happy to read other things whilst reading this.

As most people probably know, this was supposedly written by the chimp who starred in the Tarzan films in the 30's and 40's, and is his autobiography. Written as a 'tell all' memoir, starting with his childhood Cheeta talks about his 'rehabilitation' from the jungle, his career in films and what happened to him after his fairly brief stardom ended. Peopled with the movie stars of the day, Cheeta talks very frankly about what goes on during the glittering social scene of the film stars. Sex and drugs feature highly, obviously, although in a much more matter of fact and almost bored way than if this was told from a human perspective. From Cheeta's perspective, the debauchery present is seen purely as animal behaviour, and therefore the author can get away with saying a lot more than would be said in a normal autobiography, as the chimp sees no taboo. A lot of the humour in this book comes from the way Cheeta describes human behaviour, the one that sticks most in my mind being his description of marriage;

"He had one of those lifelong monogamous arrangements (his third) going on at this time. These arrangements were sort of ritual periods of reduced sexual promiscuity, which the dreamers indulged in, often for years at a stretch, as a kind of relief from their natural state of undiscriminating sexual appetite"

The book is littered with comments like this that simultaneously illuminate the supposed differences between us and animals, yet show that we are not that much different, even if we profess to be! Cheeta's voice is genius at showing the horrible way we treat each other, and other animals. Another example is his insistence that in being taken from the jungle, brought to America and moved from cage to cage he is being rehabilitated and humanity is doing a good thing!

But as well as satirising the stars themselves, it is poking fun at the trend for writing celebrity biographies. A long paragraph at the start, where Cheeta is discussing what he wanted to call his autobiography made me chuckle, with him running through all the classic titles, such as My Life, My story, my loves or any combination of these., finishing with the following statement

"Who could possibly want another memoir by anyone? Let alone another ex-movie star's reminiscences? How presumptuous to assume that a celebrity's hoary old Hollywood war-stories could be of interest to anyone but himself!"

I think that sums up this book perfectly! A satire on Hollywood, both as an entity in itself and the individuals concerned. But also, a very touching story of friendship between human and animal even with the cruelty inflicted on them in the name of entertainment.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Bleak House (in bits)!

I've said before that over the years I've started to like Dickens less and less. As a teenager, I loved any that I read but I started to enjoy him less with each one I read, and the older I got! I really don't know why and I'd like to find out. So when I found THIS site that will send classic novels in the parts they would originally have been published in in serial form, I thought 'd give it a go! I've always wanted to try reading something the way it would originally have been published 'soap opera style', but its always been difficult to find out exactly where the cut off points were, and of course, if I do happen to get into this, there's less of a temptation to read ahead!

I'm hoping I might get a new found appreciation for Dickens this way, or at least decide once and for all that he's just not for me! One way or the other, it should prove an interesting experiment! So it's Bleak House, in bits, for the next forty weeks for me! Oh, wish me luck!

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Hotel World by Ali Smith

Hotel World is less of a novel, and more of a collection of interlinked short stories but that doesn't make it any less brilliant. As you can probably tell, I really, really liked this! I wasn't sure I would, it was supposed to be the book I dipped in and out of at spare moments but it was impossible to put down once I'd started!

It is the stories of five different people who have a connection with the Global Hotel in one particular town. We have a Polly, a self absorbed hotel guest, Lise, the receptionist, a homeless girl who begs outside the hotel but does spend the night in a hotel room, a girl who died in an accident in the hotel and the dead girl's sister. Throughout the novel the slight connections between the five people are gradually revealed through the narratives of each person. All the narratives are told in the first person, and simply through the language used to characterise them we get a really in-depth character study, in what are actually quite short narratives.

It is the dead girl we hear from first, and it was her narrative that I found most interesting. She's obviously been dead for a while, and is aware she is fading from the world.

"Hurry up. Sleep is coming. The colours are going. I saw that the traffic was colourless today......I saw the places where green used to be. I saw almost no reds, and no blues at all. I will miss red. I will miss red and green."

So we learn about her death from her own perspective, although at one point she goes down into her body underground, and that's when she has most clarity. As her disembodied self, she is forgetting words and events. She is most concerned that she cannot remember the word for heated bread! I loved the idea of body and soul being separate, and the clarity only coming when they are re-united.

Words and language are used to define each of the characters in this book. The dead girl is losing her language as she loses herself. it is almost as if identity is created by language, and language created by identity. A homeless girl doesn't use language and herself says she has no need for vowels. She talks in a very shortened form, the most common being 'sp sm ch' for spare some change.

"She imagines the pavement littered with all the letters that fall out of the half words she uses (she doesn't need the whole words)"

This girl is almost as much as out of society as the dead girl, although very much alive. Her position as homeless and jobless means she doesn't need to use language, as she has no real identity. This theme continues with the receptionist who falls sick and cannot find the language to fill in the forms she needs, and the self obsessed journalist, but she uses words to create her identity. She is nothing without her job, and if she can't think of the words to write she has no identity either!

The different characters in the story are all expressed and described through the language they use, and none more so than the dead girl's sister, whose whole chapter is written without punctuation. This makes it tough to read, but does give an insight into her state of mind following her sisters death, more than any descriptive prose could.

I also loved the idea of everything in this book being interconnected. As I said earlier, these connections are introduced gradually, with each character coming into contact with the other characters, and eventually we know how they all impact on each other. It is only small, fleeting events, but they have a huge effect on lives. It was a brilliant book, and all these complex inter-personal relationships are set against the backdrop of a global hotel chain, where the main boast is that it doesn't matter where you are in the world, a Global hotel would be the same. It's definitely a not so subtle way of commenting that commercialism and familiarity doesn't and can't replace individuality and small acts of kindness between strangers.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Emotionally Weird by Kate Atkinson

Emotionally weird=One Strange Book! And I had to start like that because I don't really know what else to say about it. I usually start with a brief plot summary, but there isn't really one in this book. Its a literature student recounting the events of a few weeks of her life at university to her mother, and at the same time trying to convince her mother to tell her the story of her life. and details of her parentage, which has always been a mystery to her.

The confusion Effie feels is quite understandable when her mother tells her she is a virgin, therefore not really her mother! And her father is unknown, or so she has always been led to believe. And to top it all off, her mother also reveals that her grandmother is not who she thought she was either. So whilst family details are the story that Effie is trying to extract from her mother, Effie is telling the story of her life at Dundee university. This is in fact the main portion of the book. During the short time she recounts she seems to lead quite an eventful life, peopled by lots of eccentric and odd characters. There are the odd group of friends, all writing novels, her layabout boyfriend, who is supposedly studying with her, but never attends lectures and spends his life quoting Star Trek, various quirky lecturers, and a private detective who seems to appear randomly and take Effie off on some odd adventures.

Just to add to the confusion, the story is interspersed with extracts from at least three different stories, these being the novels written for the creative writing class, including Effie's own attempt at a detective story. All these stories interlinked make for a confusing read, but the strands do come together in the end, and it becomes easier to follow which particular story we are reading at the moment.

But even Effie's narration of her life at Dundee is called into question as truth or fiction (probably somewhere inbetween). On various occasions her mother interrupts her to question her narrative, and Effie responds by saying its her story so she can do what she likes. She even writes two possible outcomes for a couple of occasions in the book. So although everything is tied together in the end, I was left questioning how much of the story is true, how much was elaborated and how much just made up. In fact this seems to be the second book like this I've reviewed this week. Start of a theme perhaps? Possibly, because I think I've got another one on the Library pile with that running through it too!

In essence it is a book full of stories, stories we tell ourselves, stories we tell each other, stories for both a public and private audience. It was really thought provoking and made me think but I'm struggling to do it justice here, possibly because everything was so interlaced it is difficult to write about. It was good though!

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Library Books!!!!

Just a quick one today! Just thought I'd post a picture of my latest lot of library books. These were all picked off the shelves, some I wanted to read and some just total random picks. I probably shouldn't have got quite as many because I still have a huge list of requests to come in and it would be just my luck that they will all come in together! Hmmm.
Twisted Heart by Rebecca Gower- Random pick and the more I look at, the less sure I am I will read this!
People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks-I've wanted to read more Brooks ever since I read and loved Year of Wonders
The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters-I wanted Affinity, but this was the only one on the shelves.
Inkdeath by Cornelia Funke- This one is actually from Dylan's school library as the waiting list at my library is huge. Very kind of him to get it for me don't you think?
Spuds, Spam and Eating for Victory-Totally random, about rationing. Just looked interesting.
Not the end of the World by Kate Atkinson-Saw this on the shelves and it's one of only two of hers I haven't read yet.
Roads Ahead edited by Catherine O Flynn- Totally random. I'm always drawn to short stories!
Nine Nights by Bernard Carvalho-Again, totally random.
More random stuff in there than there usually is, but that's mainly because requests hadn't come in so there's lots of space on my library ticket!

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

The Testament of Gideon Mack

Gideon mack is a church minister in Scotland who disappeared into the mountains one day and never returned, presumed dead, and this was confirmed when his body was found months later. However, this was not his first brush with death. Shortly before his disappearance, he fell into a gorge trying to rescue his fellow ministers dog, and showed up three days later, utterly convinced he spent the time in a cave with the devil, who rescued him, healed him and sent him back out into the world.

Written almost entirely by Gideon Mack as his testament to what happened before he disappeared for good, this does come across as if he is writing what actually happened. The only sections not penned by Gideon are the prologue and the epilogue. The prologue is written by a publisher who wants to publish the manuscript, and the epilogue is a series of interviews with the other characters in the novel to try and establish his state of mind. As he was obviously considered to be insane, or at least going through some kind of mental breakdown.

This is not spoiling any plot or suspense as we are told all this fairly early on in the novel. Gideon's manuscript itself does not just deal with these events though, it covers his whole life, from his childhood through his adolescent and university years and on to more recent events. He has a quite austere, religious upbringing with a devout, minister father and rebels against this, but ends up following in his father's footsteps, even though for the majority of the novel he professes not to believe in God, but in community. Not a bad ethos for a small town minister I thought. He has some tragedies along the way, one in particular which may have shaped the way his life panned out.

The strange events that happen in the latter part of his life begin when he sees a standing stone in the woods he runs through that no-one else can see. Although, he does doubt himself so he never actually gets around to taking anyone to see it! But he does try and take a picture which doesn't develop, although this was on a very old film, so it is not clear whether it is stone eluding visual capture or a faulty film. This is in fact the essence of this story. Was he mad, imagining things, or having a breakdown which would be the more rational, normal explanation, or did he in fact meet the devil? It's left ambiguous, there are aspects of his disappearance that can't be explained, but also things stated in the epilogue about other events in his life that don't tie in with what he writes about. In the end he is an unreliable narrator, narrating an unbelievable tale, but that doesn't make it wrong. That's what I was left thinking anyway. The ambiguity is actually what I really liked about this book. It would have been disappointing if it had all been tied up with it either being a supernatural explanation, or a question of mental illness. I thought it did sway slightly more in one direction than the other, but it was left open.

However, if this book was just about Gideon Mack it wouldn't be as good. What adds to the readability and interest of this is the other characters. His best friends, John and Elsie, who grow ever more exasperated with him, although try to be understanding. The Dogmatic Church council who didn't like his methods before his experience, and took legal action against him once he went public. But most interesting for me was his relationship with the elderly Catherine Craigie, an atheist and local scholar who request some very specific and controversial funeral arrangements, carried out by Mack himself after his meeting with the devil.

All in all, I liked this book. But then I do like things with a religious slant, particularly if its questioning religion.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Incendiary by Chris Cleave

Incendiary is based around a fictional terrorist attack in London, although the narrative is written entirely as a letter to Osama Bin laden by a mother who lost her husband and son in the bomb. Not really a promising start for a novel, but it was fantastic. I was looking forward to reading this as soon as I read The Other Hand, and I'd have to say I thought this was slightly better. It has the same ability to delve deep into characters personal emotions as well as making social comments on today's society. It takes a fictional situation but shows what could quite realistically happen.

The terrorist attack in question is a bomb in a football stadium, obviously on match day. The horror and realism that this is described is a horrific thing to read, and even more horrific because it is told in the first person, as she manages to sneak into the stadium and sees the dead and dying, and ripped and shredded flesh. From this point on, she degenerates rapidly, never getting the help she needs to deal with her grief, both from the people who are supposed to help her and from the people she attaches herself too. In fact when she is recovering from her injuries in hospital, they seem more concerned about making the place look good for a royal visit than than patient welfare.

The whole tone of the novel is set up from the first paragraph, which i think is probably the best first paragraph I've ever read. Well perhaps that's a bit sweeping, but I definitely can't think of a better one right now!

"Dear Osama, they want you dead or alive so the terror will stop. Well I wouldn't know about that I mean rock n roll didn't stop when Elvis died on the khazi it just got worse. next thing you know there was Sonny and Cher and Dexy's Midnight Runners. I'll come to them later. My point is it's easier to start these things than to finish them. I suppose you thought of that did you?"

That got me gripped, and then my second favourite paragraph comes on the second page and shows raw emotion on a personal level.

"I'm going to write so you can look into my empty life and see what a human boy really is from the shape he leaves behind. I want you to feel that hole in your heart and stroke it with your hands and cut your fingers on its sharp edges. I am a mother Osama I just want you to love my son."

The bereaved mother is nowhere near perfect and she admits this herself. She's unfaithful, and occasionally leaves her son alone to go to the pub. But somehow she's likable, and her pain and torment is totally believable and seems to come out through her words. As her mental state degenerates throughout the book, she never loses our sympathy, although some of the people she associates with, who even claim to be trying to help her could be seen as reprehensible. The book does push the boundaries of what could happen, and in my opinion gets slightly unrealistic at the end, with the last few scenes seeming totally unreal, but I don't think that really matters. By this point, revelations about the attack have tipped her over the edge, and it is possible to believe she would think anything was a good idea!

But as well as a brilliant character study of a grief stricken mother, this book makes a not so subtle statement about what could happen when a country tries to stamp out terrorism and goes to extreme measures to achieve this. We get institutionalised racism, curfews, bridge closures, barrage balloons and other protective measures to try and make a nation feel safe. And the futility of all this is seen through the eyes of this bereaved mother, in a mental fragile state, yet we still see a more rational point of view from her. With relation to the bridge closures, she says

“I never did work out how that was meant to help. Maybe they thought it would demoralise your Clapham cell Osama if they had to go via the M25 to bomb Chelsea."

Which brings me on to the my last point about this story. It, like The Other hand, manages to bring humour into what is quite a horrific scenario. It's another one where I thought i shouldn't be laughing, but some of the comments she makes are quite humorous, as well as insightful. Brilliant book, and I would recommend it to anyone.

Friday, 25 September 2009

Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold

I wanted to read Carter Beats the Devil mainly because somebody bought me his new book, Sunnyside, and I thought I'd read his only other novel first. Its a long novel, my hardback copy being 560 pages long, but a relatively quick and easy read. Charles Carter was a magician, contemporary with Houdini, who incidentally has a key role in the plot of this book. The story starts with President Harding making a visit to see Carter's show, coming on stage to take part in an illusion, and subsequently dying under mysterious circumstances that same evening, leading to Carter becoming chief suspect for his murder.

After watching Carter interviewed by secret Service agents, in the presence of his pet lion, obviously, we rewind to Carter's childhood and start a detailed study into his childhood, adolescence and the events that led him to become a magician in the first place. We learn about his skills with cards, his struggle to make a name for himself on the Vaudeville touring circuit, and his bitter rivalry with another magician, Mysterioso, who although brought down by Harry Houdini, re-appears at the climax of the novel to exact revenge. Even though this is a fictionalised account, I did feel as if I knew so much about Carter, his life, his loves, his losses and how he overcame hurdles in his life.

But although this is is a totally fictionalised account of Charles Carter, the man himself did exist, and this book reads as a biography in places. In examining Carters childhood and rise to fame, no detail is left out, and it does feel as if all these events could have happened. Many of the illusions are described in great detail, although not usually how they are achieved (there still has to be some secrets in magic)! It also reads as a chronicle of the period, with the advent of movie theatres and the invention of television impacting on the popularity and success of magic shows. In fact, Philo Farnsworth, the inventor of television is another real life historical character that plays a crucial role in the story, although his role is fictionalised.

But as well as reading as a biography, it is also a mystery/adventure story. Once we are back in the present, the aftermath of president Harding's death, carter is setting up his latest show, but also being trailed by Secret Service Agents convinced that he was responsible for the Presidents death. The President was under surveillance anyway because he was asking all and sundry what they would do if they knew a terrible secret, so not only do the service want to know if carter killed him, but also if he revealed what this secret might be! But these are not the only people Carter is being trailed by. At the end, in his final show, no less than three different people are trailing carter, for different reasons, which leads to a thrilling climax, and lots of threads tied up. It is all a bit neat at the end, which is satisfying, but perhaps a bit of ambiguity would have been nice.

This book strikes a good balance between character development and interaction, action, factual information about the time period and magical illusions. The most entertaining aspects for me were Carter using his skills as a magician/illusionist to extract himself from the various sticky situations he gets himself into, as competition for new and better illusions leads to him making some enemies along the way. It's worth anyone's time and definitely worth reading.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Booking Through Thursday-Sad Reads

What’s the saddest book you’ve read recently?

Saddest book? My first response is the The Book Thief (it made me cry), but since I used that last week I really should think of another one! But just before I do, it strikes me as odd that I used it last week as my most entertaining book, but this week it springs to mind as the saddest. Not sure what that says about my reading preferences. Perhaps I should think about that, but that will have to be another time.

The Time Travellers Wife is the only other book I can think of that I've read recently that made me cry, but I really did cry about that one, and it left me with a sad feeling following me around for days after finishing it. And one that I mention all the time, Tess of The D'urbervilles always makes me cry even though I know what's going to happen, it still makes me cry, and I still will it not to happen. This might not count because I haven't read it recently, but that means it is due a re-read, so I'm going to have it!

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

I went home......and bought books!

Well, it's not really home since I haven't lived there for twenty years and I haven't been back for ten, but somehow I always feel a homely feeling towards Derbyshire. I grew up here and wish I went back more. I actually went for a family party, but that was pretty odd since the only people I knew were my parents, who travelled up there for the same party, and the distant relative whose party it was! But at least my children got to meet the mysterious Steve and Jacqui who send them presents every Christmas and Birthday!

But more importantly, they got to see this crooked spire, which they've heard so much about! I don't think they got what I meant when I'd told them about it, but they couldn't take their eyes off it when we were there. We had to walk round to see it from every possible angle! If I'm honest, I found it a bit strange to see again, especially since it used to be so normal!

And I bought books too! Probably way too many, but they were cheap! Charity shop books are cheap anyway, but they seemed to be even cheaper up there! But maybe I'm just kidding myself there, it's amazing what I'll convince myself of to justify buying books!

Monday, 21 September 2009

War Crimes for the Home by Liz Jensen

This is a book that defies classification. Its set in WWII, but its not your typical war story. Gloria is in her seventies, living in a nursing home because her son thinks she is losing the plot a bit, and recounting her life as a young woman working in a munitions factory during the war effort. Her son Hank is frustrated with her because what she says about his father, an American GI, and evidence he has discovered do not tally. As well as this there is a mysterious woman visiting Gloria in the home who claims to be her daughter, a fact which Gloria denies vehemently.

Gloria and her sister live alone, although they work long, twelve hour shifts at the factory, they by no means live a fun free life. They go out, party, and have sexual relationships, mainly with GI's. Gloria has what she considers to be a long term, stable relationship with an American, but predictably he doesn't view it this way and scarpers off to America after the war. In her conversations with her son, Gloria maintains that she went with him, married him then returned to the UK with the child.

This is where the discrepancies set in. This fairly obviously doesn't match up with what Hank has discovered and is what leads him to believe she is losing her marbles. For us as readers, we also see Gloria conversing with her dead friend, and a young, wet girl who periodically appears in Gloria's life. And there's also a stage hypnotist and his wife who seem to make occasional appearances in Gloria's life, most tellingly, as she is giving birth.

All these threads run throughout the book, leading to a confusing, but very compelling mystery story. It's a really short book, but manages to address, a lot of issues. I enjoyed reading about the life of young women during the war, but I think the most interesting was the nature of memory. When all the threads are tied up, and we do finally know what happened to Gloria, and who the mysterious woman is, we start to question whether she is truly suffering from dementia, or just suppressing memories and creating a different truth to hide the one she couldn't deal with. And the motives of the people who assisted her with this are questionable. There's a real twist to the end but I can't say much more without giving the story away, but suffice it to say, Gloria is betrayed by the people she trusted the most, however misplaced that trust may be. It's a brilliant book, and one that will stay with me for a long time.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Booking Through Thursday-Entertaining Reading

What’s the most enjoyable, most fun, most just-darn-entertaining book you’ve read recently?
(Mind you, this doesn’t necessarily mean funny, since we covered that already. Just … GOOD.)

Well my first response was to say that all reading is entertaining, isn't that the point? I wouldn't do it otherwise. So picking just one to be the most entertaining is hard. So, I think I'll go with the two that I just couldn't put down. Both of these actually have been read in the last few weeks, and I still have to write reviews, so I can't link to them.

The first is The Book Thief. I think I'm probably the last person in the world to read this, but I loved it. As well as being a brilliant story, I was amused by the fact it is narrated by death, and I liked the stories written by Max for Liesel, especially the fact that these were included in full, with pictures. I liked the pictures, the really seemed to add to the book. I will review this soon, but Dylan is reading it at the moment, and he's asked me to wait until he's finished so he can add his opinion.

The other, completely different book, is After Dark by Haruki Murakami. I really enjoyed this, even though it was a bit surreal and took at least half the book to figure out what was going on. I love the fact that the author managed to get so much out of a few chance meetings on one night. I'm waiting for this one to settle in my mind before I review it here, because each time I think about it, something else strikes me about it.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Blonde Roots by Bernadine Evaristo

I picked up Blonde Roots because I couldn't resist the idea of reading a story where the roles of slave and master were reversed, with the African nations being dominant over the white Europeans. It just sounded so intriguing. And it is obvious before a single word has been written that almost everything in this world has been reversed, or changed, as there is a map of the world in the front of the book with the continents of Europe and Africa switched, and even the Equator moved, so that the weather conditions switch too. Evaristo also switched some of the names of places in the UK (although this now stands for The United Kingdom of Great Ambossa) to African sounding names such as Londolo, Mayfah, Edgewa and paddinto. Oh, and The Africans are called blaks and the Europeans Whytes.

So bearing all these changes in mind, onto the story. It's the story of Doris, a Whyte slave girl who at the start of the story is being helped to escape to try and return to her homeland to find her family. Predictably this doesn't go to plan and she is re-captured, punished and returned to her master, although she lives a much harsher life after her capture. Through her narrative we learn a lot about her previous life with her family as cabbage farmers in Europe, her fairly cushy slave role as a personal assistant (if any slave role can be called cushy), and the horrors of the passage on the ship to The UK, once she has been kidnapped. When she is sent to the plantations after her capture, she at first feels isolated, but is eventually accepted into the slave culture, and the details of this culture are minutely written about, although obviously with the usual reversals due to the nature of the story.

It wasn't just the lives of the slaves that were described in great detail, also the way the slave owning race, in this case the Blaks, justified their inhumane treatment of human beings was noted in great detail, and although reversed, I'm sure similar justifications were prevalent in the not too distant past, and do bring home how once power and superiority is achieved, it's perpetuated through totally made up 'facts' and 'science' :

"Needless to say, Craniofaecia Anthropometry proves that the negro is biologically superior to the other two types. Indeed, while the negro belongs to the genus known as 'mankind', the mongolo and caucosi belong to a broader definition of 'humankind', which ranges from the fully evolved species 'mankind' to the lesser evolved species classified as 'neo-primate'."

Using this as a basis, the passage goes on to expound the horribly familiar ideas that skull shape and formation shows a lack of mental development, pain is not felt in the same way, and compares them to animals rather than humans, finishing with the idea that by enslaving the Europeans they are in fact being saved and given a better life.

Unfortunately, although the detail and horror in this book are all too real, I did have a slight problem with it. There wasn't really much of an original story involved. I was gripped by it, and I enjoyed it. The author evokes the atmosphere and brutality of life as both a slave and a slave owner brilliantly, but this is nothing that hasn't been done before. The reversal from Europeans to Africans as slaves is a really clever idea, and it could so easily have been that way round, but I just wasn't sure what I felt about it. On one hand, I thought it could be a fantastic way of showing how power corrupts humanity, whatever colour or creed you are. I like to think this is what was being aimed at, but at times the role reversal and all the name changes and switches just felt too gimmicky, and seemed to overtake the story. And, at least for me, this is borne out by the fact that I finished this about a month ago, and I've had to rack my brains to remember the story, but I can remember all the details about the reversing of circumstances easily.

All in all, not as good as it could have been in my opinion, but still a good insight into slavery and the effect it had on both the slaves and slave owners, so still worth a read. And the idea itself was an intriguing one, even if it overtook the story a bit.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Mudbound by Hilary Jordan

Mudbound is a small story set in Mississippi in the 1940's, but with large themes and a far reaching impact. As it's set in Mississippi, it's fairly easy to predict it deals with social injustice and racism but it does it so very well, it's easy to forget that all these stories have been told before in one form or another. But that really doesn't matter, as for what is quite a short book, it manages to deal with racism, sibling tension, marital stress and the effects of WWII on the men that returned, all within one story, and a few characters.

The first part of the book deals with the blossoming relationship between Henry and Laura, their lives and their families, and eventually their marriage and relatively happy life in Memphis. Although the ominous tone of the book is present in this section, it is less apparent here. It is when Henry decides to give up his job and move his family out to a ramshackle farm on the delta that the story takes the downward turn that is prevalent at the very start of the story. The culture shock of moving from civilised Memphis to a farm with no comforts at all is hard on Laura, and a lot of the story is concerned with her unhappiness at this, but also her obedience to her husband (mostly), although she does have moments of defiance, and the insights she gains, and therefore that we gain also, into the different ways the couple see their lives.

The story is told through alternating narratives, from Henry and Jamie, the two brothers, Laura, Henry's wife, and Hap and Florence a coloured couple who are tenants on Henry's farm, and Ronsel, their eldest son. The first few pages set the tone for the rest of the book. The Mcallan brothers are burying their father, who we are told has been murdered, and that he is despised by all his family. During Laura's first chapter she says

"My father in law was murdered because I was born plain rather than pretty.That's one possible beginning. There are others: because Henry saved Jamie from drowning in the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. Because Pappy sold the land that should have been Henry's. Because Jamie flew one too many bombing missions during the war. Because a negro name Ronsel Jackson shone too brightly. Because a man neglected his wife, and a father betrayed his son, and a mother exacted vengeance. I suppose the beginning depends on who is telling the story. No doubt others would start somewhere different, but they'd still wind up at the same place in the end."

This short passage says so much about the story I had to include it, as well as the fact that it's just lovely writing, and a good example of the tone of the book. The inevitability of what will happen is made clear from the start of the book and the ominous tone continues and the tension builds as the story continues. The different characters mentioned all get their turn to speak, and between them they all manage to tell the complete story. Henry and Jamie speak about what is happening to them, as do the Jackson family, although these points of view are very opposed to each other and it is Laura's chapters that tie the whole thing together and Laura who fills in the blanks that the other characters don't say.

The opposition of viewpoint between the Mcallans and Jacksons is what makes this story. We see the same events from the racist, superior viewpoint of mainly Henry Mcallan, but also Jamie to a lesser extent, and the accepting, reluctantly subservient view from the Jacksons, mainly Florence. Her chapters are enlightening, showing how they just get on with their lives and keep their heads down, despite the injustice of the way they are treated. This all changes with the return of Ronsel from the war however, where he has been treated equally, and struggles to settle to life as a coloured person in Mississippi. Jamie, also just returned from Europe, becomes friendly with Ronsel and this friendship angers his extremely bigoted and racist father, leading to the horrific but inevitable conclusion.

Surprisingly, for the subject matter, I did feel sympathy for all the characters in the story, probably because because they all had a distinct voice, I could see why they acted the way they did, and what led them to have their faults and viewpoints. The exception to this would be pappy, the murdered father, but he never got to speak, his actions were only told through other people, but still I don't think I could have felt any sympathy or empathy with him under any circumstances. The Mcallans did move on from the horrific events on the farm quickly, and this jolted me, but that this sort of social injustice was rife is the whole point of the story.

I could waffle on for ages about this book, but I think I'll stop now because if I say any more I might give something away, and then there would be no need to read it, and I really think you should read this book. It's brilliant. And anyone that doesn't put their hand to their mouth at the conclusion is just heartless and has no soul!

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Booking Through Thursday-Informative Reading

What’s the most informative book you’ve read recently?

My immediate answer to this is that all reading is informative, whether it's fiction or non-fiction. I suppose non-fiction would be classed as more straightforwardly informative since that is really its purpose, but since I don't read a lot of non-fiction, I thought I'd go with some fiction choices, since I think what you learn from that is more interesting anyway, and often surprising!

Firstly I'll go with The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society because as well as being an entertaining read, and a fantastic way of telling a story through letters, I realised whilst reading this that I knew very little about the occupation of The Channel Islands, other than that they were occupied. I'd never really thought about the devastating effect this had on the people living on the islands and I was quite shocked,particularly considering it was so close to home.

And my most recently reviewed book, The Behaviour of Moths, was packed full of factual information about moths! I was actually slightly worried when I started this book that this would get tedious, but it was actually really informative and interesting to read about different types of moths. It was really a secondary thread in the story.

And then I suppose going slightly off on a tangent, but I could name others that although they haven't contained very much in the way of factual information themselves, have contained enough to get me interested in the subject and go off and research the subject for myself. The one that comes to mind most would be the civil war on the Island of Bougainville in Lloyd Jones Mr Pip. Yet another event in recent history that I knew woefully little about!

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

The Behaviour of Moths by Poppy Adams

I actually finished The Behaviour of Moths just before my computer broke six weeks ago, but I really enjoyed this book so I still want to write about it. Unfortunately, the book itself has had to go back to the library, so this is all being done from memory!

It's a family saga, told solely through the narration of Ginny Stone, a seventy year old woman, who has lived her life alone and reclusive in her old family home, although she only uses a very small portion of the large, crumbling house, closing the rest of it down. At the start of the book, she is awaiting the arrival of her elder sister, Vivi, who escaped country living and made a new life for herself in London, rarely returning to the family home. Told over the course of five days, the story focuses more on the events in the past that led to the estrangement of the two sisters and the different lives they have led during their time apart.

When Vivi left for London, married and lived a busy, socialite life, Ginny remained with her family, taking care of and suffering abuse from her alcoholic mother and assisting and then continuing her father's work with the advancement of the understanding of moths. We actually learn very little about Vivi's life though, because all the narration is from Ginny, and the sisters don't talk much about their lives apart. We know she married and had a baby, but we only know this because Ginny was involved and so it forms part of her memories. However as the book progresses, the fact that we only ever get to hear events from Ginny's perspective becomes a real issue, and the crux of the story. Throughout the novel, it is clear that Ginny is slightly off balance, although it is ever made clear exactly how much. There are constant references to visits from a 'Dr Moyse' when she as a child, a social worker trying to contact her as an adult, her obsessive compulsive behaviour, particularly towards time and tea, and just a general feeling that she does not see the world in the same way as other people, or process information in the same way. It is made clear that Ginny likes order and routine in her life, and this is stressed both through her behaviour in her day to day life, and her descriptions of moths, and how they will do what they are expected to do. They are predictable and will never go off on a tangent and do something unexpected to throw the routine.

It is what is not said in this book that has more impact than what is. Towards the end, when it becomes clear that Ginny and Vivi have a very different perspective on what happened to their mother, at first I thought that that was simply Ginny having a false memory because of her seeming mental disorder (whatever this is). But as I think about it, I started to realise that we are not hearing Vivi's actual opinion at all, just Vivi's opinion filtered through Ginny's perception of truth, which in this book is a very different thing. And then it all ends, rather abruptly and ambiguously, but that just fits the whole tone of the book. Knowledge that is questionable, because it all comes from an extremely unreliable narrator, so in effect, we are left to make our own minds up what happened, both at the end, and throughout the women's lives.

As I said at the start, I really loved his book. But then I do like ambiguity. It's a bit like a jigsaw puzzle, the pieces are all there throughout the story, they just need putting together. I think there are many different ways they could be put together to make a whole though! I don't very often feel the need to re-read a book so soon after reading it, but I think this is one that could benefit from a re-read in the near future, to see if my thoughts are any different when armed with all the information.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Blackmoor by Edward Hogan

When I came to review this I tried to remember what was the main factor that made me want to read this book. I know I've read numerous good reviews, and I'm always drawn to books set in Derbyshire (born there and will always have an affection for the place), but I think I actually picked it up because it was just sat on the library shelves when I was there. Just before I actually talk about the book, I did have a touch of nostalgia with some of the language. Some of it is written phonetically, and I can so imagine the way it would be spoken, and it used the word 'nesh'. I don't know how widespread this word is but it's one that I use and nobody ever knows what I mean. That may just be the people I talk to though!

Blackmoor itself as a fictional mining village that we know from the start of the novel no longer exists. It was a victim of the 1980's mine closures and eventually destroyed as the mine caused safety problems for the village. The book itself is narrated from both the present time, after the destruction of Blackmoor, and from 1970's onwards throughout the history of Blackmoor. George Cartwright is the central character of both narratives, both in Blackmoor and in Church Eaton, where he moves after the demolition of Blackmoor. But it is not just Blackmoor that we know is destroyed from the start of the book. We also know that George's wife, Beth, dies from the start of the book, although she is very much alive throughout most of the narrative.

Beth is a slightly oddball character, with her own idiosyncrasies, that don't do very much to endear her to her neighbours. Apart from the obvious difference of being albino, she makes her own clothes, has strange cravings during pregnancy, and suffers from severe postnatal depression which leads to her being hospitalised for a while. She is ostracised within the neighbourhood, and her destruction is parallelled in the destruction of Blackmoor itself. I would almost say you could count Blackmoor as a character in itself, as all the other characters who reside within the village are so integral, and in a way seemed to make it whole.

However, aside from Blackmoor, I think by far the most important character in the story is Vincent, Beth and George's son, who appears both as a small child in Blackmoor, and a reserved teenager in the sections set in the present. He took a fall out of a window as a small child and is left with a unresponsive arm from this fall, although he is not aware this is the reason. But that is not the only scars he is left with from the destruction of Blackmoor and Beth. Due to his father's reticence to talk to him about his mother, he has no knowledge of what happened to his mother and I found it fascinating to see the effect this has on him, both his sullenness because he doesn't know, and his reactions when he eventually discovers the truth.

It is probably obvious from this that I thought the characters and their reactions were the most important part of this novel. The importance of community is an important aspect too, and how a community can destroy a person with ignorance. In fact, the events of this book destroy every body's lives. Secrets, lies and hidden truths feature heavily in this book, and no in a good way. I loved it though!

I'm back!!!!!!!!!!

That's it really! I've been away for a while due to computer issues, which happened to coincide with school holidays, so I wasn't even at work to access the internet there. It's typical that my home computer finally gets sorted just as I go back to work, but there we go! I'm writing this at work, but I've got a huge backlog of books to review (obviously still been reading)! They probably won't all make it on to here, I don't think I'd ever catch up otherwise! So that's it, and I'll be back with more book stuff soon!

Friday, 24 July 2009

A Very Persistent Illusion by L.C.Tyler

A Very Persistent Illusion is a hard book to define. It's a mystery story, but it was the philosophical aspects that led to me picking it up. I'm immediately drawn to anything with a slight philosophical slant so when I read that the central character in this book doubts reality, whether he really exists and if the people around him exist, it was almost guaranteed to appeal!

Chris Sorenson seems to have a good life. Good job, nice girlfriend (Virginia) and sexy sports car to travel about in. His only problem is that he doubts that any of this is real. At one point he compares himself to living in a virtual reality world where everyone and everything in the world is only there because he can see them. In fact, the nature of reality is explored in some detail with some chapters concerning the lives of the very philosophers who propounded ideas of the nature of reality, and whether anything actually exists if it is not perceived by anyone else.

But aside from the philosophical aspects, there is a plot running throughout this novel. Chris is unsure where his relationship with Virginia is going, and thinks it is a one sided relationship (more her side than his). But he still gets on well with her parents, an when her father dies suddenly, and her mother reveals a secret. Chris gets drawn into a mystery that forces him to confront his own past, as well as his present and his future.

Reality plays a large part in this book, in various guises. There is the previously mentioned philosophical ideas that are central to Chris' understanding (or lack of understanding) of himself. But Chis is also forced to confront the reality of his relationship with Virginia, which ends up being totally different to his assumptions, as well as the realities of his past which have so obviously shaped his outlook on life, and Virginia herself has her own realities to deal with which alter her perceptions of herself.

Now, having just read back what I've written, this sounds like a really heavy book, but it isn't at all. The mystery is appealing, and it's full of dark humour and even some laugh out loud moments. The Sorenson-Birtwhistle scale of girl rage for example, which is Chris and his mate's numerical scale to grade the intensity of rage in a woman, in minute increments. I haven't done this book justice, but I really enjoyed it.

Monday, 20 July 2009

Sweet Land Stories by E.L. Doctorow

First off, I'll just apologise for not being here very much over the last couple of weeks. I haven't been reading or blogging much because life got in the way. But, all being well, I'm back now. What I have read has had to be in short bursts, so it's been short stories and books with short chapters!

Sweet Land Stories is a collection of five short stories, all with very different themes, but all with a focus on character development, which is not something that can be easy to do in short stories, but is done very well here. They all deal with some fairly heavy issues and centre on completely different characters, some likeable, some dislikeable, but none of them seem to be in between. Definitely different ends of the spectrum.

I struggle to review short stories, so I'll just give a quick overview of each story and see where I go from there! The first story, was actually my least favourite and concerned a woman with numerous dead husbands (suspicious), moving her son around the country to escape suspicion, and find a new husband. She was a thoroughly unpleasant person and the story illustrates the lengths some people will go to to secure their financial security. There is then a story about a insane woman who steals a baby from a hospital and the journey her and her boyfriend go on to escape the police. I liked this one because it was both a physical journey and a personal one as the both come to realise the reality of their situation and their feelings for each other. Then we have two stories that seem to be commenting on the ways and reasons that people abuse power a influence, one telling the story of the disintegration of a religious commune/cult and one dealing with the aftermath of a child's body found at a presidential gathering and how political influence and impact comes above truth and integrity, whatever the cost to ordinary civilians. And my favourite was Jolene;A life, the story of a serially abused, thrice married young woman who has been through an awful life but still manages to have hope for the future.

In fact, I think it's that note of hope and redemption that is present in all the stories that is what I liked so much about them. I've only realised as I'm writing this that that was so central to the stories.They all placed their characters in some horrible situations but ended with a note of hope for the future, or with the characters coming to realise their actions are wrong, and at least making a start to putting it right. I also liked the fact that the stories were just snapshots of part of a life. They ended with hope, and also were not tied up. With each story I was left with an impression that life goes on, and the story continues.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Bookin Through Thursday-TBR

Do you keep all your unread books together, like books in a waiting room? Or are they scattered throughout your shelves, mingling like party-goers waiting for the host to come along?

This should be a short one. Generally my unread books are kept separate from the one's I've read. I have two bookcases in my living room and it used to be that one was for read books, and one for unread. But that changed as I got more and more books and now they are reserved purely for books I've read (and want to display)! My unread books are now kept in boxes in the bedroom, very roughly organised into the order I think I might like to read them, although this is obviously subject to change! And I have a pile of unread books by my bed, which are the ones I intend to read in the near future, but again, this doesn't always work out that way! And finally, there is always a large pile of library books waiting to be read, but they reside on a shelf in the hall, kept separate so they don't get lost in the endless boxes, and so that my memory will be jogged that they may need to be returned or renewed.

As usual, there is always an exception to the (very loose) rule, and that would be books in series, which would probably go on the shelves next to the ones from that series that I've already read.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

All Names Have Been Changed by Claire Kilroy

All Names Have Been Changed was recommended by my boss. I usually jump at the chance to read something recommended by a 'real life' person as I know so few readers that it's nice to read something I could then talk about with someone. And he's usually quite good with his recommendations but I think when I get to work tomorrow, we're going to be disagreeing on this one. It's not that I disliked it, but he raves about it, and I thought it was passable, an interesting read, but not brilliant.

Set in Ireland in the 1980's it's a pretty bleak setting with mass unemployment and drug addiction a theme, although not a central one. The book is based around a group of five creative writing students, supposedly under the tutelage of the famous novelist P.J. Glynn, who it is fairly obvious they idolise. Narrated by Declan, the only male in the group, it moves through a year in their lives, showing how their relationship with the writer affects each person's life and the lives of others around them. Glynn himself is an alcoholic (now if that counts as drug addiction then I suppose it is a central theme), and the group spend a lot of time drinking with him.

Declan is always slightly outside the group, and never seems to quite fit in, but this doesn't stop him being affected by Glynn, and the relationships that develop and then dissolve during the course of the year. I think one of my key problems with this book is that Declan is the only distinctive character. The four girls in the group all seem to merge into one. One was divorced,one was a goth who didn't really want her real self to be revealed, one was a sweet nice girl, and one was a battered wife but I constantly had problems remembering which was which. For a novel that was supposed to be all about interactions between characters, this as quite a problem!

I did however like the way that the characters lives seem to be mirroring the plots in Glynn's novels, even Glynn himself. As said at the start they all idolised him, and could quote story lines, publication dates an numerous other facts about his work. It is Declan that first realises this and Declan that finally changes the pattern when they go their separate ways at the end of the book.

All in all,their were some parts I liked and some parts I didn't, and I didn't think it was fantastic but it was interesting. And I think all the chapters were titles after Irish literature or music, but most of these passed me by. I didn't actually realise this might be the case until the chapter titled 'I don't like Mondays'. Obvious I know!

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Booking Through Thursday-

So here today I present to you an Unread Books Challenge. Give me the list or take a picture of all the books you have stacked on your bedside table, hidden under the bed or standing in your shelf – the books you have not read, but keep meaning to. The books that begin to weigh on your mind. The books that make you cover your ears in conversation and say, ‘No! Don’t give me another book to read! I can’t finish the ones I have!’ “

Honestly, I don't ever feel that about books! I don't think I'll ever have too many, read or unread. The only thing I wish is that I had more space to shelve them all nicely rather than have them piled up in various places or put in boxes under the bed or in cupboards (I am guilty of that).

There is no possible way I can list all my unread books here because (a) I'm at work and trying to do this in spare moments and that would just take too long, and (b), this post would go on forever and you'd all get very bored! But I'll just go with the ones that have been waiting a long while and for some reason I've just been putting off.

  • The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck (frightens me, but I WILL read this year)

  • Midnights Children, Salman Rushdie (same as above)

  • The Book Thief, Markus Zuzak (Too much hype, worried it won't live up to it)

  • Atonement, Ian McEwan (no discernible reason)

  • Sea of Poppies, Amitav Ghosh (just not sure about this)

  • Chocolat, Joanne Harris (no idea why I keep putting this off)

  • Brideshead Revisited ( I know nothing about it, but my mum says I should read it, even though she hates it)
For now that's all what I would consider to be my most pressing reads, and the ones that weigh on my mind that I haven't read. But that really is just the ones I can think of now. If I was to writ this tomorrow, or even in a few hours time it would probably be very different!

Until the last few days this post would also have included To Kill a Mockingbird, but I did eventually pick that up and am three quarters through it and loving it. I really do want to read all these books but for whatever reason I keep putting them off. Maybe I should just move them to the top of the pile and read them before I read anything else. But that's never going to happen, if only because I keep buying more books and my Library Pile is quite substantial at the moment and they need to be read too!

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Books, Books, Books!!!!!!!!!!!!

Too many books have come into my house this week. Especially since I haven't actually had time to read very much at all. With parents evenings, sports days, end of term plays and new school induction evenings (both children start new schools in September), I've been a bit busy. And that's all capped off by having to find time to make up all the hours at work I've had to miss to attend all this stuff! So my reading pace has slowed down, but that doesn't seem to have stopped the rate at which books are entering my house.............

From the library

And what I've bought

I really need to make a start on some of those library books otherwise they are going to end up going back unread, and I hate doing that! But some of the above are really tempting too! I have actually already opened the Roald Dahl short stories, and read a couple, but I think I'll just be dipping in and out of that anyway. They are very strange!