Saturday, 30 May 2009

One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson

The first thing I want to say is that the title of this book is very apt. Throughout this story, it seems to follow that one good turn does not deserve another. In fact, it is more likely that doing a good turn leads to consequences totally out of the realms of possibility, and not good at all! Throwing a laptop bag leads to murder, trying to rescue a dead body leads to being a murder suspect and so on.

One Good Turn is the follow up novel to Case Histories, which I read earlier this year. Still featuring ex army, ex police detective Jackson Brodie, although he is no longer a Private Detective, he just happens to be in Edinburgh when the first of a series of interconnected events occurs. He is in Edinburgh with his girlfriend, Julia, one of the Land sisters from the previous novel. She is performing in a play at the festival, and whilst Jackson is entertaining himself he witnesses a road rage attack in which a pretty despicable character is prevented from causing grievous injury by the usually meek author, Martin Canning, who throws his laptop bag at the man and knocks him out.

Jackson himself helps out Martin, but then slopes away from the scene, determined not to get involved if he can help it. this is destined not to happen though, as he gets set upon by the road rage man, finds a dead body in the water which then subsequently disappears, and becomes linked to the murder of another festival performer, Richard Moat, who is staying in Martin Canning's house, and is murdered there whilst Martin is being drugged by the man from the road rage attack, who he stays the night with to ensure he is ok.

Also running concurrent to this storyline is an investigation into Favours, a cleaning agency with added 'extras', who seem to employ mainly Russian immigrants, and the downfall of a man named Graham Hatter who has made a fortune illegally, seems to have built shoddy housing estates all over Edinburgh, but who now has the Fraud Squad on his back.

All these seemingly different story lines run throughout the story, and it is only at the end that they all come together and we see how they are all related. You really do have to read this carefully to make all the connections and follow all the threads, even when they are ties up at the end! I think this one was probably even more tightly plotted than the first novel, and I wasn't sure that was possible.

There were lots of things I liked about this book. Obviously the construction, but also the development of a huge cast of characters. They are all totally believable, and even though the ending is dramatic, that's believable too. I also liked the thread of Jackson and Julia's relationship and how that disintegrated throughout the story. I said when I finished the last book that I would read this one because I wanted to read more about Brodie, and this didn't disappoint in that respect. In fact it didn't disappoint at all. It was brilliant, and I'm glad I've got another one left to read.

Thursday, 28 May 2009

Booking Through Thursday-unread

Is there a book that you wish you could “unread”? One that you disliked so thoroughly you wish you could just forget that you ever read it?

This is really hard to answer. If a book is that bad then it's very unlikely I will get to the end of it anyway, so it's actually quite hard to say that I wish I'd never read it! I could list numerous so-so books, but none of these I would want to unread because if I actually got to the end then I could obviously see some worth in the book even if I didn't love it!

If I had to pick something then it would have to be White Teeth and On Beauty both by Zadie Smith. These were both incessantly boring and books that I did wonder when I'd finished them why I even bothered. So don't even ask me why I read them both. You'd have thought once would be enough! And I recently read Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris which I really didn't like. I don't think I'd say I wish I hadn't read it though because at least now I know not to try anything else! Learnt my lesson from Zadie Smith! Lol.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Here at the end of the world we learn to dance by Lloyd Jones

I read this purely because it's written by Lloyd Jones and since Mr Pip was fantastic, I thought I'd try something else written by him. I think I'll get the only negative comment about this out of the way first and say that I don't think this is as good as Mr Pip. But that said, the subject matter is so different it is difficult to make a comparison, and this was written before Mr Pip.

The story is told in two distinct narratives, that of Rosa talking about her family history and Lionel, talking about his relationship with Rosa in the present day. Rosa is a restaurant owner and Lionel is a kitchen hand in the same restaurant. However, when we first meet Rosa she is a small child visiting the grave of a woman named Louise with her grandfather, Paul Schmidt. At this point we don't know anything about who this woman is, or why she is so important to Schmidt's life until much later in the story, when the history of these two people is narrated by Rosa to Lionel.

In the present, a now adult Rosa runs a restaurant named La Chacra, and has a passion for Tango dancing. One evening she invites Lionel to dance with her, which he fails at disastrously, so she arranges dance lessons for him, and gradually he develops a passion for dance. Of course, this goes hand in hand with his developing passion for Rosa. During their developing relationship, she tells him about the relationship between Louise and Paul Schmidt.

Schmidt and Louise met during the First World War, when Louise was hiding two boys who did not want to fight in a cave by the sea. Whilst walking through the town, she witnesses a crowd turning on Schmidt simply because he has a German name, and rescues him and runs him off to the same cave. Realising she now can't leave the cave without giving away the whereabouts of all three men, she stays in the cave, reluctantly. For entertainment, Schmidt starts to teach them the Tango, and during the time spent in the cave, Louise and Schmidt fall in love, again with the passion for dance mirroring their passion for each other.

When they all eventually leave the cave, they go their separate ways and both marry and get on with their lives. however, they never forget each other, and eventually, Louise travels across continents to be with Schmidt.

All this is told to Lionel as their relationship is developing along similar lines. Both Louise and Lionel fall in love with someone through dance, both give up their families to be with their lovers, and both end up living life on the outside as the realisation hits them that they are the third person in the relationships. Lionel himself narrates the action in the present day, as he deals with his feelings for Rosa, and his refusal to leave her to go and assist his parents when they really need him. The relationships between the two couples parallel each other across the generations and this is what makes the story interesting. As readers we get an insight into each of the relationships from the perspective of the other one.

I enjoyed this story. It was a bit slow to start, but once I got into it, it was worth reading. It did help that it was told from different perspectives though because I really like books that do that, and being told from different time periods just added to that. The characters were really well portrayed, and truly believable. Not a brilliant book, but definitely worth reading.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Booking Through Thursday-A Second First Time

What book would you love to be able to read again for the first time?

When I first saw this question I thought it would be really easy to answer, there are so many books I'd like to re-read, but then when it came to actually writing it, I drew a bit of a blank. Of course, there are lots of books I would like to re-read, so I thought it would be easy to just mention some of these. But then I realised that when I think of re-reading, it's a very different process to reading a book for the first time and having the suspense and excitement of not knowing what's going to happen next.

I think the first that springs to mind would be Tess of the D'urbervilles. I think I've mentioned a few times that I love this book, and even after many re-reads, I still read this and will Tess to make different choices, even though I know she doesn't, so I'd love to go back and read this fresh, and feel the sadness, despair and frustration I felt the first time.

Another one that I'd like to be coming to with a fresh mind is English Passengers by Matthew Kneale. This is another of my favourite books, and although I've re-read it and get pleasure from it, I'd like to feel the sense of not being able to put it down that I felt the first time I read it.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Short Reading

I resolved when I started this blog that I would try and review every book I read, which I've done, apart from the ones I don't finish, and I can't review an unfinished book. There aren't many of those anyway. But what I've never written about is the other bits of reading that I squeeze into spare minutes, at work, whilst tea's cooking etc, etc. These are usually short stories and the occasional essay. So I thought I might start to post brief reviews of some of these things, just as a bit of a a change. Oh and newspaper or magazine articles, but I'll only post about those if they're really interesting!

Death by Scrabble by Charlie Fish
This is a really short story about a man playing scrabble with is wife who starts to realise that the words he spells out on the board seem to be manifesting themselves in the real world. He tries to test this theory with devastating consequences, especially as it appears he is not the only person to have recognised this phenomenon. I can't say much more without re-telling the whole story, but it's a really interesting idea, and I think it might come into my head the next time I play scrabble (not that I do very often).

The Necklace by Guy De Maupassant
This one is definitely a more classical short story, with a twist at the end. A woman of little social standing marries and becomes discontented with her life because she does not have all the nice things and finery's of life that she feels she deserves. She is not in poverty by any means, but she just wants a better, richer life. Her husband secures a ticket for a well to do social occasion, but instead of being pleased, she is disgusted as she will have nothing to wear. After wheedling money out of her husband, she procures a dress, and borrows jewellery from a friend. But the jewellery goes missing, and her life takes a turn for the worst, as the couple put themselves into debt and poverty to replace the necklace, all revealed to be totally unnecessary at the climax of the story.

For a short story, there's a lot going on here.It's full of social criticism, and moral outrage almost! Criticism of the constant need to be bettering yourself, even if it means stretching yourself too far, is inherent through this story. The woman can not be happy with the simple pleasures of life and always wants more. Stretching yourself can lead to disastrous consequences and leave you in a worse situation than you were in in the first place. Although written in the 1800's, that message could still be taken heed of today! It could also be read as a criticism of a materialistic society, as the woman is noticed by everyone in her new dress and borrowed jewellery in a way she is not, or feels she is not, in her everyday clothes. Whether this is a criticism of society itself, or individual perceptions of what makes a person worthwhile, I'm not sure. I suppose it could be read either way. And the twist at the end, which I haven't actually revealed, would imply that things should never be taken at face value, beauty is not always about expensive, material things. On a simplistic level, it could also be read as honesty being the best policy.

Books v. Cigarettes by George Orwell
I'm only going to mention this briefly because I'm working on a full post based on this. It's an essay written by George Orwell in response to the idea that the ordinary man doesn't buy books because they are too expensive. He basically refutes this idea, but does it in a very detailed way by adding up the total cost of all the books he owns, whether new or second hand, and comparing them to the cost of his tobacco, beer or cinema trips. Comparing prices, an average quantities, he concludes that buying books is no more expensive than keeping up a smoking habit.Taking into account the time spent reading a book, and the time spent at a cinema he comes to the conclusion that he spends no more on books than on other forms of entertainment.

I was really interested in this, and it was really well written. The point he made was clear and concise. The only difficulty I had was that I struggled to understand the values he assigned to things, being written in the 1940's and therefore in imperial money. So I thought I'd use his essay and formula as a base and do it for my expenditure and see how it all adds up. I'm working on that, so I'll post it when it's done.

Monday, 18 May 2009

Atomised by Michel Houellbecq

I have to start by saying that this is probably one of the oddest and strangest books I have ever read. And that there is no way this can be termed a review, because I don't think I understood it enough to review it! Not a good start really!

Atomised is written in a very detached style, and as the prologue makes clear, written in the future, after the events in the novel have happened. It's very strange to read, and there seems to be no emotional attachment to the characters, perhaps quite fittingly, as they have no emotional attachment to anyone throughout the story.

Essentially, it's the story of two half brothers who grew up in France, but didn't know each other until they met at secondary school. Both brought up by their grandmothers, neither of them knew their mother as she abandoned them fairly early on in their lives. Michel, the older brother, is a scientist, concerned with genetics and molecular biology, an Bruno is a more artsy man who studies Literature at university and goes on to become a a teacher. They are similar in that neither of them are capable of love, although Bruno is obsessed by sex, whereas Michel has no interest whatsoever. Bruno spends his life looking for as many opportunities as possible to have sex, and Michel is studying scientific methods of human reproduction without sex.

This would be as good a time as any to say there was a lot of sex in this story. The novel is narrated from the future, describing the last half of the twentieth century, specifically the advent of sexual freedom and liberation and the way this affects humanity. Janine, the two brothers mother, spends her life in various sexual communes. Both brothers visit one together, although for Michel, this is the last time he considers anything like this. Bruno, on the other hand, spends his life trying to create better sexual experiences, generally unsuccessfully. Neither of them ever find love and this, I think, is the entire point of the novel.

Sexual liberation is not the freedom for humanity it has been purported to be in some circles. In fact it leads to the destruction of humanity. It is in fact Michel who is responsible for the destruction of humanity as we know it, although he is dead by the time this occurs. Destruction is actually not the right word, since it is written as quite a positive event. And it's very Brave New World in style!

I don't think I can say I enjoyed this book. It was interesting, but a lot of it just went over my head. There was never any hope of me being able to understand the science aspects, however fictional they may be, an even the philosophical ideas I didn't really engage with. The story of the brothers themselves made it readable, but not enough to really recommend it!

Sunday, 17 May 2009

The Secret River by Kate Grenville

The Secret River is a story about the life of William Thornhill, chronicled from his childhood in poverty to his eventual transportation to the Australian penal colonies for theft of some wood. His life in Australia is the main focus of the book, but it is impossible to talk about without the context of his life in London. William learns very early on that life is hard and that stealing is very often the only way he will eat. His family is below the breadline and William is usually hungry and always cold. He grows up and does begin to make a decent life for himself as a lighterman on the Thames, and is able to provide a reasonable life for his wife and infant son.
Due to circumstances beyond his control, his life spirals downhill fast, which is when he reverts to the life that has always been there, although buried for a while, and eventually gets caught and sentenced to hang. Thanks to the efforts of Sal, his wife, this is commuted to transportation to the Penal colonies in Australia.

In Australia, once over the initial shock of the circumstances they find themselves in, they make a good life for themselves in fledgling Sydney, steadily increase their family, and eventually William gains his freedom. This is the point at which he decides he is going to claim land for himself on the Hawkesbury river, and try and become something he could never become in London. Settling on a piece of land, he moves his family up there but soon comes into contact with the native Australians, and start the battle over land with them that we ultimately know the outcome of.
When settled on The Hawkesbury, the family are surrounded not only by the natives, but also a selection of other white settlers, all who seem to have different attitudes to dealing with what they term Blacks, or Savages. Some are excessively violent towards them, some are almost accepting of their presence, and some even accept them enough to make families with them. But these characters are on the periphery of the story. The main focus is on the way William deals with the decisions and choices he has to make and how this reflects on his future life.
I thought the novel showed how the white settlers and the natives clashed, mainly through ignorance and racism on the settlers part, and by a total inability to communicate on all parts. William is portrayed as a sympathetic character, although he is fully complicit in the events at the climax of the story. It's through William that we see the moral dilemma of attempting to exterminate these people, and also how although he gets what he wants, it's bittersweet and tinged with sadness.
I actually thought the most shocking part of this book wasn't the attitude and brutality of the ex-convicts towards the native Australians, but the government sanctioned violence. It's essentially a story about property and territory, and from the top down, the white settlers believed they had a right to this land, whatever the cost. Even more shocking, because although this is a story, we all know similar events to those portrayed here did occur!

Friday, 15 May 2009

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

I’d like to say that The Kite Runner far exceeded my expectations, but I can’t because I didn’t have any. I tried really hard not to have any because I always find that if books have been over-hyped, then they’re never as good as I expect. So I suppose my expectations were pretty low because of this. But despite the hype, this was brilliant.

This is essentially the story of Amir, an Afghan, and his attempt to create a life for himself in the shadow of a betrayal he committed against his friend when they were children. Played out against the background of the unrest in Afghanistan, first with the Soviet invasion and then the Taliban rule, Amir leaves Afghanistan with his father during the unrest, but returns later at the request of a family friend in an attempt to redeem himself. The melancholic tone of the book is set up from the very first chapter, when an adult Amir says

“I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid, overcast day in the winter of 1975. I remember the precise moment, crouching behind a crumbling mud wall, peeking into the alley near the frozen creek. That was a long time ago, but it’s wrong what they say about the past, I’ve learned, about how you can bury it. Because the past claws it’s way out. Looking back now, I realise I’ve been peeking into that deserted alley for the past 26 years.”

The story starts with Amir as a child, living in Afghanistan, happy, contented and living a comfortable life. He is great friends with his servant, Hassan, who is a similar age to him. But he is distant from his father, who seems to struggle with the sensitive nature of the child he has brought into the world, and Amir struggles to develop a true bond with his father, and would do anything to make him proud. Throughout the early part of the novel, Amir struggles with how he is supposed to behave towards Hassan and does set him tests to see how subservient he really is. The hierarchy is always there in Amir’s mind and he does question to himself how he actually views Hassan, although he tries to push these thoughts from his mind.

“But he’s not my friend! I almost blurted. He’s my servant! Had I really thought that? Of course I hadn’t. I hadn’t.”

But despite this undercurrent of hierarchy and resentment, Amir and Hassan remain close, take part in the Kite fighting tournament together. But when Hassan runs the kite for Amir, his lower status in society comes into play once again and sets in motion Amir’s betrayal that eventually lead to Hassan leaving Amir’s family. Soon after Amir and his father leave Afghanistan for America and develop a new life and relationship there. Until Amir is forced to return and confront his childhood wrongs, as well as the current state of Afghanistan under Taliban rule.

Amir is caught between two opposing attitudes. He believes Hassan to be his friend, but his peers and his education instill him with very different, divisive attitudes. His father is distant, and although he obviously cares for Hassan, he doesn’t have the closeness with his father that could explain how he’s feeling. So although it is very difficult to feel that Amir’s eventual betrayal of his friend is anything but horrific, it is possible to sympathise with his feelings of indecision.

I have to say that this is not a cheerful book. Some parts of it are sad, some are downright depressing, and some of the parts set in Afghanistan under Taliban rule are just horrific and really difficult to read. It is a fantastic cultural eye opener though. Afghanistan is not a country I know very much about, and what I do know is all fairly recent stuff from the overthrow of the Taliban rule. It was interesting to see the juxtaposition of what seemed to be a fairly sumptuous, fruitful country before the Soviet invasion, to the wrecked, ruined country under Taliban regime, when Amir returns. Not only has the landscape changed, but the nature of the Afghan people themselves. The spirit of friendship and mutual co-operation vanished with the religious doctrine.

I think the religious upheaval in Afghanistan was one of the most interesting parts of the novel for me. Amir and Hassan are part of different branches of Islam, and as a Hazara, Hassan is destined to always be subservient. He is not taught to read, and doesn’t attend school. And this subservience is inbred into him. Even Amir’s father, who is seen as a relatively liberal muslim, sees him as his servant, although always treats him kindly. But Amir’s school friends do not have this same liberal attitude. Amir suffers for being friends with Hassan, and ultimately Hassan suffers for being born what he is. Even in their reltively idyllic childhood, the seeds of unrest and division are present, just waiting for the right climate to come to the surface. Assef, one of Amir’s contemporaries says to Amir and Hassan

“You’re part of the problem Amir. If idiots like you and your father didn’t take these people in, we’d be rid of them by now, they’d all just go and rot in Hazarajat where they belong.”

The horror and melancholy are pretty relentless throughout the novel. But it does end on a hopeful note. Ultimately, it’s a novel of friendship and betrayal and as to which wins out in the end, the novel does at least give us hope that friendship and redemption are powerful enough to come through.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Booking Through Thursday-Book Gluttony

Book Gluttony! Are your eyes bigger than your book belly? Do you have a habit of buying up books far quicker than you could possibly read them? Have you had to curb your book buying habits until you can catch up with yourself? Or are you a controlled buyer, only purchasing books when you have run out of things to read?

My immediate reaction to this is that it's no fun buying books just when I need to read them! I buy far more books than I could ever possibly read! But in a vain attempt to justify myself, I buy most of my books in charity shops or second hand bookshops so if I see them, then I feel I need to buy them right away. hey might not be there next time I go into that particular shop. I know this is a pretty weak argument because it would be just as easy not to go into the shop, so then feel no need to buy any books in the first place!

This argument collapses even further when I consider my library habits. I get far more books out of the library than I could possibly read in the time allowed before they have to be returned. I just can't resist books. I find it difficult to leave them on the shelves.

I have had to curb what I spend on new books, but this is purely for financial reasons than any desire to limit the amount of unread books lying around. In fact this decision to look for second hand books rather than new has actually led to more books finding their way into my house because I can spend a lot less money and get lots more books. So yes, I'm a book glutton!

However, I don't think it's a problem at all! I like having lots of books to choose from. I'd rather have a few minutes indecision about what book I'm going to read next than only have a small selection, or possibly even have to go out and buy something to read! I think that would be more stressful than anything else!

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

The Bloodstone Papers by Glen Duncan

The Bloodstone papers is a difficult book to review. Not because I didn't enjoy it, but because I'm not sure what I want to say about it. However, having said that, it wasn't one of my favourite reads, although it was enjoyable enough.

Set in both India and the UK it is a story of an Anglo-Indian family and their experiences. Owen is a British born Anglo-Indian living in London, scraping a living teaching English three days a week, whilst trying to write a novel based on the history of his family in India. And as a sideline he also writes erotic novels under the pen-name Millicent Nash. The narrative is told in alternating chapters, some being told as a history of his father, Ross's early life in India, which Owen intends to use for his book, and others set in Owen's present, concerning his life and his search for Skinner, a man who threads his way through Ross's life in India, and who Owen is trying to locate for his father.

Although we learn about Ross's life from early childhood, the main aspects of his life focused on are his relationship with Kate, Owen's mother, and his prowess as a boxer. He is spotted as having a talent for boxing from at school, and this continues throughout his early career in the Indian Air Force, and then on the railways. When everything goes wrong in India for Anglo-Indians, he sees qualifying for the Olympics as his way out of India. However, during the 1947 riots in India, he gets injured and then his attempts to get away from India with his family are thwarted for numerous reasons, with the mysterious Skinner finally being unmasked for what he is.

Owen's chapters are narrated in the first person and tell the story of his life, and the attempts he makes to locate this Skinner man that his father has been desperate to find since he finally made it out of England. Owen himself though I didn't find a particularly likable or convincing character. His story is concerned with love too, although unrequited. He spends most of the novel pining for his ex-girlfriend, who he hasn't seen for years. At the start of the novel, all we know is that they are now apart and that they knew each other as children, and then started a relationship whilst at university. As the story progresses we learn about the relationship, and who she actually is, but it doesn't, to my mind, explain why someone would pine about one person for so long! And when the climax to this particular thread occurs, it is so unrealistic it almost made me laugh. and I don't think it was supposed to!

The Indian parts of the story are very realistic though. I found myself getting lost in that world. I wasn't aware that Anglo-Indians were actually considered to be a separate group of people, and there is a lot of focus on them not really fitting in anywhere. They enjoy a privileged status in India, but when the British start to make mumblings of leaving, they realise they will be neither here nor their in India, so many leave for England, but find that nothing is much better there. This is played out in Owen's narrative where he discusses his and Scarlet's treatment at school.

There is a lot running through this story. Love, loss, family loyalty, feelings of alienation, and mystery. Relationships and events are revealed in a chronological fashion through Ross's Narrative of events in India, but in Owen's chapters, he sometimes refers to events that we yet don't know about, so the mystery of how it is all going to come together kept me reading. And of course, the mystery of Skinner, who he is, and what part he actually played in Ross's eventual fate.

Monday, 11 May 2009

Monday Musing-Re-reading

Have you ever finished a book, then turned around and immediately re-read it? Why?

What book(s)? (question courtesy of MizB)

I haven't done this for a long time! I used to do this a child quite frequently, but I've got too many other things that I want to read to re-read something immediately! The only one that I can actually remember doing this with was Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild, and I'd read this twice every time I picked it up. I do re-read things though, although I sometimes forget what they are! Maybe I should start making a list, but I've got enough book lists floating around as it is, and to be honest I'm not that organised. Lol. But this had made me think about books I'd like to re-read.

  • English Passengers b Matthew Kneale
  • The Time Machine by H.G.Wells
  • Oranges are not the only fruit by Jeanette Winterson
  • Surfacing by Margaret Atwood (I'd like to ty and 'get' it a bit more)
  • The Museum Guard by Howard Norman

And I'm sure there are a lot more, I just can't think of them right now! I also have a small selection of books that I love that I never get bored of reading again. These get read every few years and no doubt will have many future re-reads.

  • Tess of The D'urbervilles by Thomas hardy
  • The Hndmaid's tale by Margaret Atwood
  • The Vampire Chronicles by Anne Rice
  • Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild

Friday, 8 May 2009

The Time Machine by H.G.Wells

The Time Machine is an extremely short (only 81 pages) novella about a man known only as the time traveller recounting his story of his creation of a time machine and his subsequent visit to the year 802,701, where he encounters a society so completely changed by time that they are hardly recognisable as humanity.

The Time Traveller arrives in the year 802,701, in exactly the same position in time as he left in 1895, but finds the world covered in vegetation, dilapidated buildings and populated by a species he assumes to be the descendants of the human race, who he names the Eloi. Although they remain humanoid in appearance, their is very little human characteristic left. They eat only fruit, sleep communally, and seem to have lost all intellectual prowess, and the Time traveller compares them to children. His first assumption is that as all the world's problems have been solved, there has become no need for thought and intellect, thus leading to the devolution of the human race into this happy, carefree, childlike existence. And although at first glance this may seem like a good thing, the Time traveller himself does say;

"It seemed to me that I had happened upon humanity on the wane. The ruddy sunset set me thinking of the sunset of mankind. For the firs time I began to realise an odd consequence of the social effort at which we are at present engaged. And yet, come to think, it is a logical consequence enough. Strength is the outcome of need. The work of ameliorating the conditions of life-the true civilising process which makes life more and more secure-had gone steadily on to a climax. One triumph of a united humanity over nature had followed another. Things that are now mere dreams had become projects deliberately put in hand and carried forward. And the harvest was what I saw!"

It must be said though, that this first judgement about the fate of humanity has to be re-interpreted a number of times throughout the Time Traveller's stay, as he learns more about the society he has come to land in. All is not as idyllic as it seems. He soon discovers another species that live below the ground, who he names the Morlocks, and who they are is crucial to his understanding of how humanity has developed.

Wells was writing this story at a time when industrialisation, evolution and the class struggle were all prevalent discussion topics in London society, and it is clear that his feelings on these matters is expressed through this story. It is difficult to explain exactly how without giving the plot away totally, but through the two different societies, one living overground, and one living underground, the time traveller originally assigns 19th century capitalist values of the above ground being superior and of having forced the lower classes underground. However, as events proceed he is forced to reverse these values almost in a futuristic version of a socialist revolution.

It is however all speculation on the time travellers part. Although the roles in society of the Eloi and the Morlocks are clear at the conclusion of the story, it is all speculation as to how it became like this. He is only proposing theories, and it must be remembered that both the time traveller's and Wells' theories are heavily influenced by events current in 19th century England. In the end, I suppose it is social commentary and the authors fears over what might happen from the way the world is going.

All in all, this was a fascinating book. As an early example of time travel fiction, as an example of Victorian science and as an insight into Wells's somewhat negative view on the nature of humanity. Although he doesn't actually do much moralising, he seems to just present scenarios and leave the reader to decide on the rights and wrongs of it. And it does make you question which species is more human?

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

The Room of Lost Things by Stella Duffy

After having read a few good reviews of The Room of Lost Things, I saw it on the library shelves when I was looking for something else. I didn't get what I actually went in for, but I am so glad i came away with this because it was brilliant.

But where to start? The basic premise? Robert Sutton owns a dry cleaner's shop in London. This shop was previously his mother's, then they worked it together, then finally Robert ended up running the business alone. Nearing retirement age, Robert is tired and realises he needs to sell the business, and grudgingly takes on Akeel, an ambitious young graduate with grand plans, to work with him, and eventually buy the business from him, but only when Robert feels he is ready to move on. The differences between these two men, the old and the new are apparent fro the start, but the unlikely friendship that develops between them brings them closer together and changes them both, and brings them bot to a closer understanding of themselves and where they fit in the world.

Ok, next is the title. The Room of Lost Things refers to the room above the shop where Alice, then Robert have meticulously stored, boxed and catalogued everything that has been removed from the pockets of items brought in for cleaning over the years they have been running the shop. And everything means everything from shopping lists to wedding speeches! All neatly filed in boxes organised by the years they were left. A life in other peoples forgotten history!

History and other people also play an important part in this novel. Although centred on dry cleaners in Loughborough junction, London, the story is scattered with the lives of other people who pass through the dry cleaners and its surroundings during their daily lives. Robert knows all about these people, from watching them, brief conversations, and from the items they've left in their pockets over the years. There's Helen, the Australian nanny, who longs to go home, but can't break free from her London lover, Stephan, a homosexual dance teacher, Marilyn, the health visitor, the poet who sings on the bus, and Dan and Charlie, the homeless guys who spend their lives on the disused sofa behind the shop (doesn't everyone know a place were there's an old discarded sofa)! That is one of the beauties of this book, everyone can recognise the people and places from this story from their lives, even if you don't live in London, which I don't.

History, specifically, Robert's history runs throughout this book. Through his own memories of his years in the shop, and his conversations with Akeel about the shop and the customers, we learn about his life. There is a melancholic feeling running throughout the book, Robert's life is burdened with some great secret, which is what has tied him to the shop all these years, and what makes him reluctant to leave. It becomes apparent early on, that he no longer has contact with his wife and daughter, but the reason for this is not revealed until the end, and is so heartbreaking, I had to stop thinking about it. For anyone who's read this, I had no sympathy with the daughter, I don't know if I was supposed to!

I think everything in this novel was done brilliantly. The descriptions build up a real concrete picture of life in this small area of London, the individual characters that thread throughout the story are so real and they cross each others paths frequently, but this never seems contrived, always natural and realistic. And the idea of a dry cleaners being the quiet, unseen hub of a community, without that community even knowing it is fantastic. I can't really praise this enough, and it is my best book of the year so far, easily!

Just as an afterthought, for anyone who has read this, I really wanted to say something about the keys, but I didn't really know what I thought about that bit!

Monday, 4 May 2009

Musing Monday-TBR

How many books (roughly) are in your tbr pile? Is this in increasing number or does it stay stable? Do you ever experience tbr anxiety in the face of this pile? (question courtesy of Wendy)

Hmmm, I don't usually like to think too much about the TBR pile! At the moment it seems to be permanently expanding, I buy so many more books than I read. I decided at the beginning of the year to spend less money on books which I thought would mean I might start to make inroads into some of the books I already own. Unfortunately, this didn't take into account the fact that I would rediscover the joys of buying books in charity shops, or that somebody would see fit to open TWO new second hand bookshops in my local town!

So although my objective to spend less money on books is going well, I actually think I'm buying more books now than I did before. But at least it means I always have something to read. Library books don't help either because I keep checking them out and then they need to be read before they are due back!

As for how many books are actually on the pile, I don't want to count. And they are all in various places around the house(it doesn't seem so many if they are not all in the same place!), so it it is way too much effort on a bank holiday to go and count them all! And this doesn't include my list of books I'd like to read but haven't got round to buying or borrowing yet. That just seems to get bigger all the time!

Sunday, 3 May 2009

The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susannah Clarke

This is a collection of short stories written by the author of Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell. I really enjoyed that when I read it, so when I saw this on the library shelves I thought I'd give this one a go. It's written in the same style as that book and I think should be read as a companion piece to that.

The stories are all set in our world, but in the past, at a time when fairies were prevalent. I think that the style is what I liked about it the most. It's written as historical fiction even including an introduction by the (obviously fictional) professor of Sidhe (fairy) studies at Aberdeen University. He also preface one of the stories with an introduction explaining what it shows us about fairies and their lifestyles. Some of the stories actually have historical people as their central characters.

Viewed in this way, the stories do give a good insight into what our world would be like if fairies and magic existed. The situations seem entirely plausible, even with the focus being on fairies and magic. As with all short story collections, some are better than others, but they are all good and all different. I can't think of any other way to review this than give a brief overview of all eight stories, hopefully without giving anything away!

The Ladies of Grace Adieu
This is the title story, and mainly concerns a group of ladies struggling to get their ability to perform magic as well as their male counterparts accepted. Jonathon Strange himself makes an appearance in this story, and in terms of his attitude to women, doesn't actually come across that well.

On Lickerish Hill
Written in a non-conformist, old fashioned style, this is a version of Rumpelstiltskin, involving a young woman summoning fairies in an attempt to save her life. Again, this is one testifying to the magical intuition of women, as she succeeds where a group of learned men fail. The spelling would usually irritated me, but in this story it seemed to work.

Mrs Mabb
This one was one of my favourites, and also one of the longest. It concerns a woman trying to release her fiance from fairy captivity, whilst no-one else in the village believes her. They believe she's gone mad, and try to prevent her leaving the house because she always comes back wounded and with strange tales.

The Duke of Wellington Misplaces his horse
This was another of my favourites. Set in the village of Wall (from Neil Gaiman's Stardust), The Duke of Wellington stumble into Fairie, and discovers his life their is controlled by a woman embroidering. Embroidering himself, he changes the outcome, but is it for the better?

Mr Simonelli or The fairy Widower
A man arrives at a small village to take up his post as rector, assists in a birth, but son discovers there is more to the family that meets the eye. In discovering the truth and rescuing a girl, he discovers more about himself than he thought possible.

Tom Brightwind or how the Fairy Bridge was built at Thoresby
What it says really. How Tom Brightwind, an ancient fairy, built a bridge at a small village, and the strange repercussions this has on the town. This story is also quite long and gives a lot of historical detail about fairies, and how they live. Oh, and of course the bridge is not all it seems!

Antickes and Frets
A short story, but an interesting take on Mary Queen of Scots and how she may have caused her own death to escape her imprisonment, through magic of course.

John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner
John Uskglass is another character who is mentioned in the previous novel. He's the king of Cumbria and the greatest magician ever. When he upsets a simple charcoal burner, the charcoal burner invokes the saints to help him get revenge. I loved this one. The idea of conversing with the saints to get revenge amused me!

Overall, I enjoyed this book. I liked the individual stories and I really liked the fact that the stories were building on the world already established in Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell. I think anyone would enjoy them, but you would possibly get more out of them if you had already read the novel. I think setting them in a historical context really works, it all seems so real, whilst fantastical at the same time.

Friday, 1 May 2009

Oryx and Crake by Margeret Atwood

Oryx and Crake is a dystopian, end of the world type novel kind of in the same vein as The Handmaid's Tale but with a political and economic slant rather than a new world created by a theocracy. Surprisingly, for an Atwood novel, this took me a while to get into, but it was worth it in the end. And since for some reason I found this really hard to write a review of this is just my thoughts, and in a somewhat convoluted fashion at that!

Set in the early twenty-first century (I think), it is the story of a catastrophe that wiped out almost all of humanity and left our narrator virtually alone in the world. Although the story is narrated by one person throughout, the narrator has two incarnations, Jimmy before the catastrophe, and snowman after, and the story is told in a non linear fashion from both viewpoints, although there is some chronological progression in Jimmy and Snowman’s individual narration. We don’t actually discover what actually happened until very near the end of the novel, but there are hints and suggestions right from the start.

The world Jimmy lives in is similar to modern western society, but more advanced. I assume it is meant to be viewed as an exaggerated version of the world we live in now. It is a very divided society, with the educated and skilled elite living and working in compounds, with their every need taken care of on site. Everybody else lives in what are termed the Pleeblands, which we don’t learn too much about, but are viewed with derision from inside the compounds, where Jimmy lives.

The various compounds all seem to be highly scientific, involved in Genetic modification for food production, healthcare, cosmetic surgery and similar activities that are all present in our world today, although in a less exaggerated form. Nothing eaten seems to be real, although meant to taste as much like the real thing as possible. Everything is created artificially, with any possible dangers removed, and to maximise financial viability. Among other things, the compound Jimmy’s father works on is working on creating new breeds of animals from splicing two species together. Hence Racunks, snats, and wolvogs (work it out for yourselves). They also breed Pigoons, large vicious pig type creatures who have the capability to grow human organs for use in research or transplantation.

However, at the same time as we learn about this technologically advanced, self obsessed society, we also learn about Jimmy’s current predicament, as Snowman, from where he is narrating this story. He lives in a tree, dresses in a sheet, scavenges for food, and appears to be the only human left alive, apart from a strange group of primitive humans known to Snowman as The Crakers, who seem perfectly content with their lives and almost revere Jimmy as a God. How Jimmy/Snowman got from his sterile, protected life to this tough, lonely one is the focus of the story.

Through Snowman’s narration we learn of Jimmy’s childhood, adolescence and college years and his friendship with a boy named Glenn, although always referred to in the novel as Crake. Although they seem to have the normal teenage relationship, Crake’s brilliance shines through, as does his obsession with human faults, and his understanding of why the world is as it is, although his eventual solution is pretty drastic. He has an obsession with changing humanity, using genetics to iron out all the flaws, therefore creating the perfect human race and obliterating the need for wars, violence and even love. Jimmy serves as the foil, proposing counter arguments, although he can’t argue with the science. In their teenage years, Jimmy and Crake play Internet games, watch Internet porn and discuss the state of the world. The porn leads both of them to an obsession with a young child they see in a video, and the games lead Crake to an obsession with extinct animals. Much later in their adult lives, Jimmy and Crake end up working together, with a woman named Oryx, who both would like to believe is the girl from the Internet, but probably isn’t, although she’s had a similar background.

And without totally giving the plot away, which I’ve tried really hard not to do, that's about as far as I can go. Both Crake and Oryx take their names from extinct birds, although Oryx’s was chosen for her by Crake. Oryx is a strange character. Jimmy and Glen are both fairly well developed, but Oryx always seems a bit on the outside. As well as appearing in the chronological story, she also appears in Jimmy’s head. He fantasises about her, and it does appear that what he tells us about her is not altogether true. He seems to have created a persona for her with the absolute belief that she is the girl from the video.

One of the things I found most interesting was Snowman's obsession with words. As Jimmy, he studied language and as Snowman, he is constantly thinking of different words that could be applied to his situation. It is almost as if language is creating a structure for his life where nothing else can. It also provides a contrast with the Crakers I mentioned earlier, who have very little language.

I could go on for pages and pages about this. It serves as a warning, and just as The Handmaid’s Tale, I think it will be relevant for many years to come. I think there will always be something in it that will be relevant. However, I don’t think it’s one of Atwood’s best and I do think it strayed slightly too much into the realms of science fiction, although it is feasible that most of the science in the story will be possible at some point in the near future.