Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror by Chris Priestley

I don't read a lot of young adult literature. In fact the only ones I tend to read are the odd one that Dylan brings home that look interesting. In fact, I read this one because he had a very strong reaction to it, and he kept badgering me to read it. I did ask him to write this review like he did for The Graveyard Book, but he didn't want to. He did however say that I should say that it was a disturbing book but that he really enjoyed it. In fact, in slightly different words that was what he said when he finished the book.

"That was creepy, can you get me the next one?"

So if you're eleven, it's disturbing. And I can see why. Edgar is a quiet child who visits his uncle Montague in his big, scary house because he enjoys the stories that his uncle tells him. Edgar only sees one room in this house (apart from the toilet), and this room is full of artifacts that all seem to have a story attached to them. They are all typical , ominous short stories with a surprising twist at the end. The stories themselves are all about children, and they never end well for the protagonist. We have children trapped in dolls houses, killed by a Jinn in Turkey, possessed by a murderous demon, granted three wishes by a picture, and chased off a cliff by a demonic version of himself.

Scary enough stuff in itself, but the collection is framed by the larger story of uncle Montague himself and how he came by these artifacts, and who is making the noises in the house when he is so adamant he lives alone. Edgar assumes these are all just stories and is disturbed by the fact that his uncle seems to believe they are real.

"But I did wonder if he had spent too many hours in his own company. His curious insistence that he was not the author of these tales struck me as most peculiar. It was obvious to one even as young as I was then that-as I had begun to explain to my uncle-in most cases the principal characters in the story were dead by the end, or in such a tormented state that it would be hard to imagine how they would have the wit or the inclination to write or even dictate their tale."

I think this is a very clever book, creepy on a number levels. The stories themselves are strange, the thread that runs through that perhaps these are not stories after all is ominous, and the final story, that ties it all together, although in parts predictable, is just as creepy as the stories themselves. But I think the aspect that gave it the chill factor for me was Edgar's descriptions of how he felt in his uncle's house. Edgar's fear of his surroundings, and his belief that this is irrational comes across perfectly.

"Of course, in no time at all, I managed to pull back the creaking gate and squeeze through, and each time would urn with relief to see the wood unchanged beyond the small stone wall I had just passed through. Even so, in my childish way, I would turn again as I set out across the paddock, hoping(or rather perhaps dreading) to catch sight of someone or something."

"The enormous shadow I seemed to cast seemed to be racing me, trying to overtake me as I sped along, and a scuttling sound-which may have been Franz although I never did look round to see-echoed around the corridor, as if something were running up and down the walls. I burst rather dramatically back in to my uncle's study, panting with relief."

For me at least, this is so frightening because I can remember feeling it. I can distinctly remember not liking being upstairs at my grandparents house and rushing to be back where everybody else was. So yes, disturbing for me too. But the sense of atmosphere was probably heightened y the fact that I read this between 2am and 4am this morning when I couldn't sleep! Everywhere was dark, and there were slight noises from outside. I think it probably was a good time to read it though! Definitely a book for the dark!

Monday, 29 June 2009

Moral Disorder by Margaret Atwood

Moral Disorder is sort of halfway between a short story collection and a novel. It is eleven different stories about Nell, the central character, at various key points throughout her life. Starting with the first story set in the present day, we move through her childhood, adolescence, her struggles with relationships in adulthood and finally on to the death of her parents in the final two stories.

Each story deals with a specific event, or period of time in Nell's life. Some are narrated by herself, and some in the third person. So in that sense they are definitely short stories. However, each story does illuminate her family life and with each story, we as readers do feel we know a little bit more about her background, and her life. By the end, the stories do all add up to a coherent whole. I suppose the best way of phrasing it would be as a character study of an ordinary woman, and how the choices she makes affect her life.

The stories themselves make up a kind of montage of a woman describing and looking back on her life and working out what events led her to the place she is at now, but also emphasising that the past is gone and the present is all that matters. Nell herself says;

"We can’t really travel to the past, no matter how we try. If we do it’s as tourists.”

Tourists visit places to learn about events that happened in the past, and that is what Nell does in these stories. You can't change the past and you can't make it have a different outcome just by visiting. But you can learn about yourself. Again, a quote from Nell tells all about the effect the past can have on our future, or at least how she feels about the past, and the present.

"What if I missed a turn somewhere—missed my own future?"

We learn about Nell through her descriptions of her interactions with her family, her memory of a particular poem she studied, and other such ordinary events. I think that is what is so brilliant about these stories. They describe ordinary events in a woman's life, but manage to impart so much significance to them, and do it in an entertaining way.

Just as a side note, found it interesting that the last story involves Nell going through photographs of events a people in the past to try and jog her ailing mother's memory about these things. And this is essentially what this book is, random memories from a woman's life. An album!

This book is more than just a collection of snapshots though. The first story situates Nell as elderly, but still in full possession of her faculties. She does however spend a lot of time in this first story not thinking about the passing of time and eventually takes herself out of her life and imagines herself somewhere else where she is not getting old. By the last story, we realise that she has witnessed at close hand the decline and death of her elderly parents so in terms of the past affecting the present, the book has come full circle.

Friday, 26 June 2009

Underground England by Stephen Smith

Underground England, subtitled Travels beneath our Cities and Countryside, is exactly what it says. Stephen Smith is a journalist and has written a book about his visits to various underground parts of the Great Britain, both natural and man-made. This was actually passed on to me by Dylan's dad and he was adamant I would like it. Honestly, I was dubious. I could see how he would like it, having an archaeology degree, but I wasn't sure. But I was pleasantly surprised.

So having agreed to read it, I still expected not to like this, and I expected it to be all about caves. I went caving once on an outward bound week with school and I hated it! But there was actually only one chapter about caving, and even that was made humorous with a description of sliding through an access known as The Letterbox, obviously because of its size. The author goes on to talk about all sorts of underground structures, such as tunnels, Sutton Hoo, villages flooded for reservoirs, caves incorporated into family homes, secret underground bunkers, caves used for strange esoteric rituals and Frankie Howerd and his wig even make an appearance (actually n the same chapter as the esoteric rituals in the hell fire caves).

I think what made it so readable and enjoyable is the authors chatty writing style, and the fact that he is by no mean an expert on these things. He is just interested and visiting places that appeal to him. And he could be quite funny at times. For example, talking about a decommissioned nuclear bunker deep below the Dover cliffs, he says,

"Who was the genius, after all, who decided it would be a good idea to situate a nuclear bunker in porous, breathable chalk-the real reason, surely, why the top brass and the permanent secretaries turned off the lights and tiptoed away?"

This book is not so much about the underground structures themselves, but about the people who used, inhabited and built them and the stories that have grown up around them. For example, in the chapter on priest holes, not only do we learn where they were built, we learn why, and by who, and the lengths people would go to to hide priests. And when he visits the drowned town at Mardale, now Haweswater reservoir, he walks the corpse road, the road that the dead of Mardale had to be transported along to reach the nearest consecrated ground.

This was a fascinating book, not only to learn about some of the underground world that exists in this country, but also as a book about the past and how it leaves it's mark on the present if only you know where and how to look.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Booking Through Thursday-Summer Reading

Now that summer is here (in the northern hemisphere, anyway), what is the most “Summery” book you can think of? The one that captures the essence of summer for you?
(I’m not asking for you to list your ideal “beach reading,” you understand, but the book that you can read at any time of year but that evokes “summer.”)

As usual with these questions I thought this would be easy, but when I actually came to write it, I couldn't think of anything! And I still can't. Maybe I just read miserable books! Not for books that actually evoke summer through their content anyway. I can think of books that I loved that I read in summertime, that, because they had such an effect on me, I will always associate with summer but that's not really the point of the question. I read The Moonstone on the beach, and when I think of that book, I always think of that particular holiday so in a way it does always evoke summer to me, but not through it's content. Another one like this is The Secret History by Donna Tartt. I read that in Italy.

The only other one I can think of is one I read very recently, The Earth Hums in B Flat. For some reason I kept imagining it being sunny and summery throughout this book, even though the characters talk about it being cold and wet, and wearing coats. I have no idea what gave me a summery feel about it, perhaps it was just the rural welsh setting, or the fact that it was a fairly light read.

Oh, i've just thought of one! Again it's a relatively recent read though. The Hidden by Tobias Hill evokes summer quite well. The main character is running away from his life, and he takes this to the extreme and runs off to Greece to join an archaeological dig. It's only really the weather and the descriptions of Greece that gave me this feeling, but there it is! He actually ends up in a pretty desperate, almost cultish situation but its all in the sunshine! I thought of one!

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

Fingersmith is the first Sarah Waters book I've read, and I don't think it will be the last. I'm not sure why it's taken me so long to read it, it's been sat on my bookcase for years. I think what finally motivated me to pick it up was all the good reviews about The Little Stranger I've read, but feeling that perhaps I should read some of her earlier books first.

We start the story with Susan Trinder, a seventeen year old girl who was orphaned at birth and grew up under the care of Mrs Sucksby, in a den of thieves in 1860's London. Den of thieves is not really the right word but I can't think of another one. It makes it sound more sinister than it appears, at last in the first part of the story. It is portrayed as a loving, if unconventional family atmosphere, and Susan as a happy member of the family, although a thief. Mrs Sucksby also has a sideline in so called baby farming, where she takes children from unmarried or destitute mothers and passes them on to families who want them. When man known to the 'family' only as gentleman comes calling with a plan to make their fortune, it is Susan that is needed to make this plan work. What she must do is adopt a role as lady's maid ton a wealthy woman who 'gentleman' intends to marry and the commit to a madhouse to steal her fortune. Sue's role is to convince the slightly simple girl that marrying is the best thing for her.

This is the first part of the novel, encompassing Sue's reluctant agreement to do this, her account of her time with Maud and the eventual marriage and trip to the madhouse. And as far as plot summary, this about as far as I can go, because the twists from here on in are essential to the story and need to be a surprise. The next part of the story is told from the point of view of Maud, and is her take on the same events, then we are back to Sue, and then we finish with multiple viewpoints from both girls and Mrs Sucksby.

The two first parts of the story with the same events described from both Susan and Maud's viewpoint really make it clear that nothing is as it seems. Little things that seem obvious in Susan's narrative are then retold from Maud's viewpoint and put a totally different complexion on things. It was that that kept me reading(quite often late into the night. I couldn't put it down)

Suffice to say, nothing is as it seems, and that is probably the main thing I liked about this book. Everything is revealed in small doses, and you really have to pay close attention in the earlier parts of the book to get the twists at the end. But the twists are fantastic. I also liked the brooding Victorian atmosphere. Both the descriptions of lowlife London ad the more affluent, gothic mansion in the countryside. And the madhouse scenes were brilliantly evoked, the sense of despair was described perfectly.

I thought this was brilliant, and it's a shame I left it so long to read it. I'm looking forward to reading more Sarah Waters though, although I haven't decided which one yet. I do think I'd like to read some more of her earlier books before The Little Stranger though so I'll see which one presents itself first!

Saturday, 20 June 2009

The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

The Secret Scripture will stay with me for a long time. And I know I need to say more about it than that, but that just seemed the most important thing to say. It's the story of Roseanne Mcnulty (nee Clear), who has spent the last sixty years residing in a psychiatric institute in Ireland. She is writing her memories of her life before her committal and hiding them under her floorboards (calling it her Testimony of Herself). At the same time, Dr Grene is trying to ascertain whether she is actually insane as the hospital is being demolished and he is tasked with deciding which patients should be moved to the new facility and which could be released into the community. But throughout the novel it is made clear that whether Roseanne was committed for the right reasons, or just to get her out of the way, at nearly 100 years old, and having lived two thirds of her life in an institution she is not fit to be released to community living.

Roseanne's testimony starts with her life in 1920's Ireland, a time of great social upheaval, and religious conflict. She talks about her mother (also committed to an asylum), but with more love and feeling about her father. She recounts the whole of her life, including her father's death, her marriage and the eventual birth of her child and committal to Sligo mental asylum. In parallel with this Dr Grene relives certain aspects of his life through his commonplace book, notably the disintegration of his marriage and the reasons why. He is unable to convince Roseanne talk to him though so his account also documents his attempts to discover Roseanne's history for himself. fairly early on it becomes clear that these accounts do not always match up, which leads nicely on to the crux of the novel, the idea that memory is unreliable.

Throughout the story it is never clear exactly whose account is true, if anybody's is. Roseanne's memory is called into question with particular reference to events concerning her father. But this subject is broached fairly early n in the novel, when Roseanne herself says

"Memory, I suppose, if it is neglected becomes like a box room, or a lumber room in an old house, the contents jumbled about, maybe not only from neglect but also from too much haphazard searching in them, and things to boot thrown in that don’t belong there"

Memory and the perception of time, and how it affects life runs throughout this book. Ideas of memory, time and history an be summed up quite succinctly in the following quote

"For history as far as I can see is not the arrangement of what happens, in sequence and in truth, but a fabulous arrangement of surmises and guesses held up as a banner against the assault of withering truth. "

With the novel set against the backdrop of civil war and religious upheaval in Ireland, it is also focuses on how religious doctrine and dogma, as well as the authority of religious ministers can affect a person's life, and totally control how people view them, treat them and even influence the outcome of their lives. Testimony from a priest was nearly always believed, and in fact led to Roseanne's downfall. Even today, Dr Grene reluctantly says that based on Father Gaunt's testimony, he would have had no choice but to commit Roseanne. Just as a further note on Dr Grene, his and Roseanne's life intertwines to the end of the novel, and I did find the end slightly dissatisfying, although every detail was threaded through the story to ensure it didn't seem too convenient and implausible.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Booking Through Thursday-Fantasy and Sci-Fi

One of my favorite sci-fi authors (Sharon Lee) has declared June 23rd Fantasy and Science Fiction Writers Day.

As she puts it:
So! In my Official Capacity as a writer of science fiction and fantasy, I hereby proclaim June 23 Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Day! A day of celebration and wonder! A day for all of us readers of science fiction and fantasy to reach out and say thank you to our favorite writers. A day, perhaps, to blog about our favorite sf/f writers. A day to reflect upon how written science fiction and fantasy has changed your life.

So … what might you do on the 23rd to celebrate? Do you even read fantasy/sci-fi? Why? Why not?

When I first saw this question, my immediate response was that I couldn't answer because I don't read any. But the more I think about it, I realise I have read some, just not very much. I am nervous of both those labels though. If you gave me a book and told me it was fantasy or science fiction I'd run a mile. But I think this just goes to show that labelling books as particular types is a bad idea, and ma possibly narrow it's audience. This is borne out when you consider what I've actually read that might fit these categories, because I don't think many of them would have been marketed as fantasy or science fiction

Starting with my childhood reading, there's Lord of The Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia. Fantasy I suppose. But I did try numerous times at high school to read Terry Pratchett because everybody raved about it, but just couldn't get into it. I think that might have been what originally put me off anything specifically labelled as fantasy.

From my recent reading would have to say that The Time Machine and The Time Travelers Wife class as science fiction and possibly Tanglewreck by Jeanette Winterson, and now I mention her, Stone Gods as well. For fantasy, both of Susanna Clarke's books are set in alternate realities where fairy's exist in a world with humans, and I really enjoyed Wicked, and since that's about witches and magic and the central character is green, I don't think you could get more fantastical than that! And where does The End of Mr Y fit? Science fiction, fantasy, neither or both?

I would have to say that the things I've read that are most obviously fantasy are things Dylan has pushed at me. The first that springs to mind is The Graveyard Book. I read this with trepidation, but really enjoyed it. In fact I think Dylan could write this post so much better than me since 80% of what he reads involves dragons, demons, vampires and magic! But then he is eleven.

I've waffled for way too long now, but I think the upshot of what I'm trying to say is that I can fit some of the things i've read into science fiction and fantasy, but that for one reason another I'm scared of those terms. Those labels put me off and I should work on judging a book based on what it's about rather than what it's categorised as.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Do (short story).... and a guessing game!

Do by ............?
I can't tell you who wrote this because we are supposed to guess. It's part of a project by Fourth Estate to "assess the importance placed on name and reputation over quality of writing." Called ANONthology, it's a collection of nine stories written by nine different authors, including Joyce Carol Oates, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Philip Hensher. A full list of authors and all the stories can be found here. The idea intrigues me, but I've got no hope of guessing who wrote what because I've not read anything by any of these authors so I've got nothing to go on.

Do is the first story, and is a really short story about a man whose daughter has died and the psychological affect this has on him. He spends all his time at the park watching a small child who laughs like his daughter, at the expense of all the other people he loves and who need him. dealing with themes such as obsession, mental breakdown and with an ambiguous, but possibly disturbing ending.

I enjoyed this one and I will go and read the rest when I get chance. And I will be interested in finding out who wrote what when it's revealed in October, even though I'm not qualified to guess myself.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

The Earth Hums in B Flat by Mari Strachan

When I picked this up I thought it was going to be an easy, gentle read. Which it was. But as it went on it started to get a bit more meat to it, and finally ended up packing quite a punch. I still think I'd classify it as a quiet, gentle read though, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. And in this case it wasn't because I loved this book.

Set in rural wales in the late fifties/early sixties, the central character is twelve and a half year old Gwenni who lives with her parents and her older sister, Bethan. Gwenni is a shy, introverted child whose two main passions in life are reading detective stories and watching the lives of people in her village. Ordinary enough so far, except that some of this people watching is done in a kind of mystical flying form, usually at night. On one of these strange episodes she sees a dead body floating in the baptism pool, although on that occasion, no body is found. A body is subsequently found in a different pool though, which becomes the crux of the story.

Gwenni starts the novel by spending a morning babysitting a neighbour's, Mrs Evans, children whilst she visits the dentist. Gwenni is attached to these children and becomes a real help to Mrs Evans when her husband disappears. Her kind nature, and her passion for detective novels makes her want to investigate the disappearance of Mr Evans, much to her mother's distress. But this is nothing new. Gwenni's mother is overly concerned about Gwenni, and that people might think she is odd because of the notions she gets, and the things she talks about. For example, flying, hearing the earth hum, rescuing the spirit of a dead fox worn as a stole to name just a few.

As Gwenni perseveres with her quest to discover what happened to Mr Evans, mainly by just piecing together fragments of conversations, family secrets and past history are revealed, involving madness, suicide, adultery, illegitimate children and murder. All fairly shocking stuff, especially in 1960's Wales! The truth of all matters is finally revealed, and I was left with a sense that secrets are never a good thing, revealing them is not always for the best either.

The two aspects that make this novel so good are the gradual revelations of family secrets, and the brilliant characterisation of the lives of people in a small village community. It really does give the reader a feel of what it may have been like to live in a place where everybody knew everybody else, and gossip was rife. Everybody knew every one's secrets even if they didn't know it themselves. Everybody gets along by not talking about things.

Gwenni's childhood attitude is central to this book. Without her, it would be a very simplistic story. The interest for the reader is not really in what happened to Mr Evans, as this is fairly obvious to the readers from early on in the story, but in how Gwenni observations lead her to come to her own conclusions. She grows up throughout the novel, both physically and mentally. She starts to move from just observing life, to actually wanting to know how those observations affect her life.

I think all that's left to say is that I loved this book. It was fantastic and considering I only picked it up as a bit of light relief between two fairly emotional books that can't be a bad thing!

Sunday, 14 June 2009

The Other Hand by Chris Cleave

I'm struggling to review this book. But only because I'm not sure exactly how much of the story I should reveal. The publishers don't want to tell us very much, the blurb only saying:

We don't want to tell you what happens in this book. It is a very special story and we don't want to spoil it. Nevertheless, you will need to know enough to buy it so we will just say this:

This is the story of two women. Their lives collide one fateful day, and one of them has to make a terrible choice. Two years later they meet again-the story starts there....

Hmmm, I'm not sure that would have been enough for me to buy it. And that's a shame because It's a fantastic book. I read it because of a personal recommendation from a close friend, but I just think I may have missed this if I'd seen it in a shop. So I'm going to tell you a bit, but I'll try not to reveal too much, because I do agree with the publisher when they say

Once you have read it you will want to tell your friends about it. When you do, please don't tell them what happens either. The magic is in how it unfolds.

The two women concerned meet on a beach in Nigeria. One is Nigerian and one is English. When they meet again they are in England, and their lives are seriously affected by events on that beach. The Nigerian girl comes to England as a refugee, and during the time they spend together they both learn a lot about themselves and their lives. Although want to say so much more I won't because I do feel I would be giving too much away if I did.

This book addresses some pretty heavyweight issues, both political with the situations refugees find themselves in, and personal with the reactions of the women to the events. Its tough to read in places, and the scene on the beach is horrific. The tension in this scene is built up throughout the first half of the story, so when we do actually get to read about it, its almost unbearable. I wanted to put it down, but couldn't.

However despite the mostly harrowing subject matter, there are some moments of lightness thrown in. Little Bee (the Nigerian girl) spends a lot of time talking about how she would explain Britain and its customs to the girls back home. Some of her narrations made me smile, although I did almost feel guilty for smiling, given the subject matter of the following quote;

One day the detention officers gave us all a copy of a book called Life in The United Kingdom. It explains the history of your country and how to fit in. I planned how I would kill myself in the time of Churchill (stand under bombs), Victoria (throw myself under a horse), and Henry the Eighth (marry Henry the Eighth). I worked out how to kill myself under Labour and Conservative governments, and why it was not important to have a plan for suicide under the Liberal Democrats.

I do hope this makes sense. It's more a collection of thoughts than a proper review, but however much I think the publishers could have said a bit more on the cover, I don't want to give the story away. It's a fantastic book, but it did leave me feeling angry, guilty and more than a little uncomfortable. And the scene on the beach, which I won't spoil, left me asking myself what would I do. Could I do it?

Thursday, 11 June 2009

The Zookeepers Wife by Diane Ackerman

The Zookeepers Wife is a book about the occupation of Poland during WWII, focusing mainly on the systematic subjugation and subsequent extermination of the Jews. Based in Warsaw, on the surface it is the story of Antonina and Jan Zablinski, the zookeepers of the title. They run a humane and popular zoo in Warsaw, focusing on many rare or endangered animals. Antonina feels at one with animals and has a gift to be able to calm them down. However, the fate of the Zoo is doomed with the invasion of the Nazi army in 1939. Many animals are taken to Germany, and those not required are either killed by the bombing campaigns, or shot by Germans for sport.

This however is far from the end of the usefulness of the Zoo. Jan and Atonina use the surviving zoo buildings to hide and protect many Jews, some whom come themselves, and many others who are rescued from the Ghetto by Jan himself. He uses his job and underground connections to gain a pass into the Ghetto, and rescues many Jews from an almost certain death. The book recounts the activities of the Zoo over the six years of the war and details the way the couple hid people, rescued people, fed people and the difficulties they faced in trying to hide quite large numbers of people from the occupying forces.

The author uses this story of individual human compassion as a way of telling the larger story of the fate of Poland under Nazi occupation. The events at the Zoo, and that happen to Antonina's family are drawn from Antonina's personal diary, but these events are put into wider context by the author, using various sources to give a historical context to the continued subjugation of Poland, and an insight into Nazi ideology. We are told that Hitler wanted Poland for himself, so even Poles were to be eliminated. There was also a section about Hitler's desire and respect for animals, especially pure breeds, and a Nazi program to and back breed certain animals to their original form. I knew nothing about this, although it fits with his pureblood ideology. I learnt a lot about the Polish underground which Jan was part of, and how it was so central to the survival of so many people. Everybody pulled together to make the system work, even boy scouts risking their lives carrying messages. The sense of a nation under threat, but determined not to be ground down permeates throughout this book, seen mainly through the constant traffic of both Jews and Underground members seeking refuge at the Zoo.

This book shows the true nature of human compassion in the face of what often seem to be insurmountable difficulties and horrors. It also shows a sense of community spirit and everyone doing what they could in an impossible and unimaginable situation. Everybody should read this.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

Rebecca! I was going write that I can't believe I haven't read this but that's not exactly accurate. In fact I've purposely avoided this because I wasn't sure I was going to like it. I'm not sure where I got that idea from because I discovered as I was reading it that I actually knew very little about it! And it was a totally misguided opinion because once I'd started this I couldn't put it down.

The first chapters of the novel describe Manderly in all its glory, but then flick to as it is now, which is when we first realise we are starting at the end of the story. We then move on to learn that Mr and Mrs De Winters are living a completely dull, boring and mundane life in exile, and that that seems to suit them. It's a strange start for a book, but pervades the whole story, as we always know how it ends.

Narrated by the second Mrs De Winters, Rebecca is the first, and although never alive during the novel, she does play a crucial part. We are never told our narrator's name, although we are told it is an unusual name and its chosen by her father. When we first meet our heroine, she is working as a companion to a rather snobby old lady, staying at a hotel in Monte Carlo, where she meets Maximillian De Winters. As she has to be obedient to Mrs Van Hopper's desire, she doesn't really get to speak to him, until Mrs Van Hopper goes down with flu, so are narrator is left to our own devices. After a rushed marriage, the couple return to Manderly, Maxim's ancestral home which is when it all starts to go wrong.

Mrs De Winter immediately starts to feel that Rebecca is still present in the house, both through Max's attitude towards her, and the attitude of the staff, particularly Mrs Danvers. She starts off trying to keep everything the same in an attempt to appease the staff and not cause friction, but this policy of appeasement soon starts to grind her down, and it seems that everyone she meets is comparing her negatively to Rebecca, and Mrs Danvers meddling convinces her that Maxim feels this too.

Even with this as the basic storyline this would be an interesting story, but obviously there is more to it than that. Unfortunately, I can't say much more without giving the plot away. There may be someone who hasn't read this yet! Suffice to say, Rebecca's death not as simple as it seems, and neither was her relationship with Maxim.

There is another important character in this story, and that is Manderly itself. The house plays a central role in the story. It's role in the community, and Max's desire to perpetuate this leads to his marriage to Rebecca, so therefore ultimately to his fate at the end of the story. It's also a gothic mansion, and the wonderful descriptions only add to the ominous tone throughout the book.

I think the most interesting comment I can make about this book is that the title refers to a woman who is dead by the time the story starts. Far from being the deceased wife of Maxim, gradually, receding into history, she seems to become more and more central to the life of the present Mrs De Winters as the story progresses. From what we learn about her from the various characters, the two Mrs Winters are set up as complete opposites, and it certainly wasn't clear to me where my sympathies lay. Rebecca is feisty, and obviously used to getting her own way and from what Maxim says about her to his second wife, not especially pleasant. But since the second Mrs Winters doesn't question him about this at all, and just meekly accepts his version, we never really get both sides of this. Which brings me nicely to my major issue with his current wife. After hearing a full confession from her husband, her only concern is that he does love her after all. She has no moral or ethical concerns at all.

Two very different women, and I think they are both opposite extremes. And neither of them reach a happy end from this. Rebecca obviously dies, and Mrs De Winters stays married to Max, but as the first chapters show they end up in a kind of living death, away from Manderly, which is Maxim's first love.
Quite simply, I loved this. My reaction when I'd finished it was that I wanted to go and read it again, especially in the light of the revelations in the second half of the novel. I did resist, but I will read it again fairly soon. I'd also like to read more by Du Maurier, so if anyone can recommend what to read next, that would be good! If not, I'll just pick one at random!

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Hearts and Minds by Amanda Craig

Hearts and Minds was a random pick from the library, and I have to be honest and say its immediate appeal was the cover. But the blurb made it sound interesting too, so that was that, it was coming home with me!

This is one of those stories that has multiple characters all introduced within the first few chapters. In that way it reminds me a bit of Stella Duffy's Room of Lost Things, but the story is totally different. Set in London, there is Job, an illegal immigrant from Zimbabwe working as a taxi driver, Ian, a South African teacher working in a bottom of the league school to complete his qualifications, Katie, an American immigrant running away from a failed relationship, Anna, an underage Ukrainian working in forced prostitution and Polly, British, divorced and forced to rely on cheap illegal au pairs to enable her to keep up her career as a lawyer, incidentally working for a law firm that defends asylum seekers appealing their deportation.

From this eclectic range of characters it should be clear that immigration and asylum seekers are a major theme of this story. And it's not altogether complimentary about British attitudes towards immigration, encompassing the general public, the press and government policy.
Its difficult to say what the story is actually about, as its about all these characters and their lives. At the start of the novel they all witness (separately) a body of a young girl being pulled out of a pond, and although this only directly concerns one of the characters, for the readers it is a central thread running throughout the book, who was she, who killed her, and why. Although who she is is obvious to the reader early on, but not the characters. As the story progresses, the characters start to intermingle in each others lives a little, and at the end, they are all interconnected and it is this interconnectedness that makes the story come together.

Back to the immigration theme, this being a major aspect of the story. We see the way immigration and asylum seeking status is viewed through the eyes of these characters and they all have a very different take on the subject. Polly, the immigration lawyer, gives us the government viewpoint, although she is highly critical of what she deems the highly random policy of who gets to stay and go. We also see the humanitarian side of it from her, as she struggles with her often pointless defence of people who will undoubtedly sent back to a country they will be killed or persecuted in. From Anna, the teenage prostitute, we see the horrors of people trafficking, and the way young girls are conned into coming here, purely for others financial gain. Job, here to earn money to send home, shows us how much some of these people just want to work to look after their families. Ian is different, as he is legal as he has a British father, but he works in a school mostly populated by immigrant children, and we see the hatred they have for their adopted country through his interactions with his students. He is concerned about the separatism and believes if they were made to feel more integrated things might be better for them.

As well as from the central characters, we also see how these people are exploited when they do get here. If they come and work illegally, they can work, because they are willing to work for much less than the minimum wage, just to be working. The people that employ them for money they can't live on come in for criticism too. This is where Polly's dilemma lies. She is guilty of this, but can see no other way of continuing her career, and providing a decent life for her children.
It's obviously social commentary, and it's obvious where Amanda Craig's heart lies on this issue.

I'm going to avoid getting political and stating my opinions because I could be here all day, but I do think this story makes us realise we need to have compassion, and perhaps use our hearts and minds more when thinking about these things. It's a good story too though. I'd hesitate to call it a mystery, but that theme is definitely there throughout, and the mystery of the girl in the pond is not resolved until the end of the book. Its definitely worth reading, and could go down as one of my best books of the year so far!

Friday, 5 June 2009

The End of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas

The End of Mr Y is best described as an intelligent adventure story. And it's described in the blurb as a love story, which I was slightly concerned about, as I don't usually enjoy reading about romance, but this was not really romance, it was more about connections. In fact connections between people is one of the major themes of this novel.

The story starts with the collapse and evacuation of the college building that Ariel Manto is a PHD student in. On her way home she calls into a secondhand bookshop and discovers a copy of a very rare book, The End of Mr Y, which supposedly has a curse on it that everybody who reads it will die. Well she buys the book, takes it home and obviously reads it. Incidentally, I did spend some time wondering whether I would read it, and I'm still undecided on this. I think curiosity would get the better of me! The story is of a man who is persuaded to take a strange potion at a travelling fair and disappears into a world of other peoples minds, named the Troposphere. Discovering the last page is missing, she believes she will never get to read the complete text. Until that is, it drops out of one of her professor's books. This professor was studying Lumas, the man who wrote the book, until he disappeared, and has not been seen her heard from since.

So the last page contains the recipe for the potion itself, which Ariel determines to create and try for herself. Again this got me wondering whether I would do this, and I think this is where I draw the line. I just don't think I'd have the guts to do this. But Ariel does, and ends up in the Troposphere, in the mind of a mouse! She spends the rest of the story in and out of the troposphere, first just to see, and then in an attempt to save her life, as some nasty American men want the recipe from her, and will stop at nothing to get it both in the real world, and in the troposphere.

That's the adventure part covered I think. The intelligent part is harder to write about, but no less crucial to the story. Obviously the book is set on a university campus, so Scarlett Thomas uses her characters to expound some very complex philosophical and scientific ideas. We have long conversations about quantum physics, the nature of faith, creation, the big bang and whether things actually exist independently, or only once they have been observed. And lots of other things besides. I can't pretend to understand all this, especially the highly scientific parts, but it does all make sense in the nature of the story at least. We also have Adam, a lapsed priest thrown in for good measure, to offer his opinion on all of this. The crux though has to be what the troposphere actually is and the nature of consciousness itself. At least in this story, this is all interconnected with the quantum physics of creation and existence. Ideas of time and space are discussed as in the troposphere time and place are inextricably linked, and the troposphere is linked to what we would call the real world. I did say that this was a story about connections.

I really enjoyed this, and it didn't really matter that I only had a flimsy grasp of the science because Scarlett Thomas makes the bits that are vital to the story clear enough. The idea of human consciousness all being interconnected is an interesting one, and to put it all into such a gripping adventure tale is a brilliant idea. The only negative issue for me would be that I found the ending slightly weak, although it was possibly the only way it could have ended. And I didn't feel any need for the religious imagery, that spoiled it for me just slightly. But not enough to not recommend this book. It was fantastic.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Booking Through Thursday-Sticky Books

“This can be a quick one. Don’t take too long to think about it. Fifteen books you’ve read that will always stick with you. First fifteen you can recall in no more than 15 minutes.”

This was really hard to do quickly. It's not in my nature to just write down the first things that come into my head, I'd much rather think and analyse what I'm writing! But here goes, 15 in 15 minutes!
  1. The Time Travellers Wife by Audrey Nifenegger
  2. English Passengers by Matthew Kneale
  3. Tess of The D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
  4. Dracula by Bram Stoker
  5. Mr Pip by Lloyd Jones
  6. The Beach by Alex Garland
  7. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
  8. The Vampire Lestat by Anne Rice
  9. Memnoch the Devil by Anne Rice
  10. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
  11. The Passion of New Eve by Angela Carter
  12. The Witches by Roald Dahl
  13. The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole by Sue Townsend
  14. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
  15. The Octopus Nest by Sophie Hannah

Ok, that was really hard! And I cheated slightly because the last one is a short story. but a fantastic one that I don't think I'll ever forget. And although I wrote this in 15 minutes I know won't be able to stop myself thinking about it so no doubt I'll think of others that should be in there!

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

I've seen these questions on a few blogs and being as I haven't got time today to write anything else I thought I'd give these a go. I think the last place I saw it was Farm Lane Books so she gets the credit!

1.What author do you own the most books by?
Margaret Atwood or Anne Rice. Unless you want to count all the Enid Blytons from my childhood, but I'm not sure where some of those are! Probably in my parents loft/garage!

2. What book do you own the most copies of?
Tess of The D'Urbervilles (I have two because one has so many notes in it it became impossible to read just for pleasure!) And I also have two copies of The very Hungry Caterpillar because I refused to let my children have mine!

3. Did it bother you that both those questions ended with prepositions?
Erm, No. I didn't even notice!

4. What fictional character are you secretly in love with?
I think have would have to be Lestat. Not sure I want to think about what that says about me!

5. What book have you read the most times in your life (excluding picture books read to children)?
Tess of The D'Urbervilles, The vampire Lestat. can anyone spot a running theme here! Lol

6. What was your favourite book when you were ten years old?
Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild.

7. What is the worst book you’ve read in the past year?
I don't know. Probably Gut Symmetries by Jeanette Winterson. but I didn't finish it so I don't know if that counts. It's the only one I could think of though.

8. What is the best book you’ve read in the past year?
Mr Pip by Lloyd Jones

9. If you could force everyone you tagged to read one book, what would it be?
I wouldn't want to force anyone to read anything! I think that defeats the point of reading!

10. Who deserves to win the next Nobel Prize for Literature?
Don't know. Couldn't even start to answer that one!

11. What book would you most like to see made into a movie?
I find this difficult to answer. I can't think of anything I would particularly like to see made into a film. I just don't think I see books that way. I spent ages trying to think of one but now I've given up!

12. What book would you least like to see made into a movie?
The Time Travellers Wife. And I know it's already being done, I just can't see how it can be made, or be as good as the book!

13. What is the most difficult book you’ve ever read?
Atomised by Michel Houllebeq. Easy to read but impossible to understand!

14. Roth or Updike?
Never read either. There are some shocking gaps in my reading. I would like to read both though!

15. David Sedaris or Dave Eggers?
Difficult to make a judgement. I don't like Sedaris, but I've only ever read one short story by Eggers, which I enjoyed but isn't really enough to judge him on. So a qualified Eggers I suppose.

16. Shakespeare, Milton, or Chaucer?
From an English graduates viewpoint, Shakespeare has the edge over Chaucer very slightly. Don't especially like Milton. But I wouldn't read any of it for pleasure!

17. Austen or Eliot?
Austen easily. Eliot is too wordy. Presuming of course this means George. I really like T.S Eliot.

Monday, 1 June 2009

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society

I think I must be the last person on earth to read this. It's another one I was worried about being over-hyped, but I'm glad I eventually read it. It was a very light, short read,and perfect for where I read it which was on a train. I actually managed to finish it on the return journey. Considering the subject matter, I was actually surprised how easy to read this was.

Written totally in letter form, the main character is Juliet Ashton, and all the letters are written either to or from her. She is a author who wrote humorous columns on the war for a London newspaper and is looking for something new and more challenging to write about. Set in 1946, she starts a totally random communication with a man in Guernsey, who by chance has come across a book previously owned by Juliet, and writes requesting information and more books. Through communication with this man, and eventually other people on the island, Juliet develops a friendship with these people, and eventually visits and stays for a considerable amount of time.

The letters are initially about books, and the Literary and Potato Peel Society, but as she learns more information, Juliet becomes engrossed in the sufferings and life of the islanders during the Nazi occupation. This actually stems from the setting up of the Literary and Potato Peel society, which Juliet learns was originally set up as an alibi for why some of the islanders were outside after curfew, but soon became a crucial part of life for Juliet's new friends. I loved this book just for this, that a sense of community and belonging can develop from sharing literature, but I also loved it for so much more.

Some of the events described in the islanders letters are pretty grim. The starvation, the oppression and almost total abandonment by England are tough to read, but the sense of community that the islanders developed is inspiring, and although this is fiction, the events are not, and it is easy to imagine a small island pulling together like this. All the islanders supported each other, and were almost like a family, to the point of looking after each others children when necessary. It was also interesting to get the perspective of the Germans from people who were actually under their occupation. It is all too easy to classify all Nazi German soldiers as bad, but this book makes it clear that this was possibly not the case. They were human too, and some of them although doing a job, were as horrified at the conditions as the islanders themselves.

I'm not going to say too much more about this because it would be all too easy to give the plot away totally. essentially it's a story about humanity and compassion, friendship and love and most of all, survival. If by any chance anyone hasn't read this yet, then all I can say is that you should, but I think most people already have!