Friday, 29 January 2010

Firmin by Sam Savage

Firmin was yet another book picked up to try and avoid reading Sunnyside. I really think that book is going back to the library unread. I don't usually remember where I've read about particular books, but this one was fairly recent so I can say this one comes from a review at Savidgereads. Narrated by Firmin, a rat, it's not something I would have ordinarily picked up, but it was a glowing review and it's about books!

Firmin is the runt of the litter, who spends his infancy struggling to find space on the teat, so resorts to eating books in the basement of the bookshop his mother has made his nest in. Doesn't sound like a particularly tasty diet, but it has an unusual effect on Firmin. It, by some unknown process, enables him to be able to read. As soon as he discovers this, he becomes a voracious reader, working his way through all the books found in the basement where his family's nest was located. As his family desert the nest, he is the only one who remains in the bookshop, and as he discovers the rest of the bookshop, he makes what is probably my favourite quote in the book.

"Sometimes the books were arranged under signs, but sometimes they were just anywhere and everywhere. After I understood people better, I realised that this incredible disorder was one of the things they loved about Pembroke books. They did not come there just to buy a book, plunk down some cash and scram. they hung around. They called it browsing, but it was more like excavation or mining. I was surprised they didn't come with shovels. They dug for treasures with bare hands, up to their armpits sometimes, and when they hauled some literary nugget from a mound of dross they were much happier than if they had just walked in and bought it."

Firmin, therefore is a story narrated by a book-loving, cinema visiting, thinking rat. He is not a cartoon character though. He is still a rat, with all the tendencies usually attributed to a rat, except he can read, and formulate ideas. Unusually for stories narrated by animals, this was actually quite a melancholic tale. We are told at the start that it is a sad story, and Firmin is never quite at ease with himself. He can read the books, but as he is a rat, he cannot speak, or articulate any thoughts. He spends a lot of time watching the owner of the bookshop and imagines that they are similar, and even that they are friends, but when he believes him to have let him down he is devastated, although he never quite lets go of the bookshop.

Firmin is a fully realised character. As readers we get to learn all about his wishes and desires, the main one being his desire to love and be loved. He never quite achieves this, mainly due to the fact that he is a rat, but with human thoughts, and his anibility to communicate these thoughts. Although his attempts to learn sign language are amusing, but his attempt to try it out on the public has mixed results.

All this is set against the background of the destruction of the area that the bookshop is situated in, it being demolished for modernisation. This progresses throughout the novel, obviously climaxing at the end of the story. Firmin is the eyes of us all, although he seems to see what is going on and how it affects all the residents and businesses of Scollay square with innocent eyes, seeing only the destruction and desolation in a microcosm as it affects his own world, for example, food becoming scarce as the population decreases, and his favourite haunts shutting down.

I find it difficult to say quite why I liked this book so much. I was gripped by Firmin's story, and his adventures both in the bookshop and out of it. I loved the way his worldview was totally informed by literature and the shock when he realised it was not like this. And his totally unique worldview, and optimistic view of the way humanity would treat a cultured rat! Peppered with literary references, he compares virtually everything he experiences to literature, and even each chapter is prefaced with a picture of a book mentioned during the story. It was just a really entertaining, thought provoking story, and I was engrossed from beginning to end. And I'll just finish on my second favourite passage because I couldn't leave it out.

"I had discovered a remarkable relation, a kind of preestablished harmony, between the taste and the literary quality of a book. To know if something was worth reading I only had to nibble a portion of the printed area. I learned to use the title page for this, leaving the title page intact. Good to eat is good to read became my motto"

I just love this idea!

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

The Herring-Sellers Apprentice by L.C. Tyler

I just want to start by saying I loved this book! I picked this up from the library pile for two reasons. I thought it might make me smile and I am having major difficulties getting into Sunnyside, or even caring anything about the characters at all. The Herring Seller's Apprentice is a detective story, with a difference. It is obvious that it is different when we get the postscript at the start of the book and the beginning at the end!

Ethelred Tressider is an author who writes three different types of novel under three different pen names. Cozy detective mysteries, historical mysteries and fluffy romances. He lives alone, and at least during this book, the only other person he is close to is his literary agent, Elsie Thirkettle. When Elsie is paying a visit to him, he receives a visit from the police informing him that his ex-wife has disappeared and her car has been found on the beach complete with apparent suicide note. Ethelred is understandably surprised about this, especially since she lives nowhere near him anymore. This would obviously leave him the prime suspect but he has an alibi as he was in France at the time. Elsie thinks it doesn't quite sound right, and wants to investigate themselves. Ethelred is reluctant to do this, at least that's what he says to Elsie anyway. But it appears that he is investigating, although certain things he will only do once he has 'lost' Elsie.

Elsie herself however does not give up that easily, and she starts investigating Ethelred herself, as she does not quite believe that everything he is telling her is true. In fact it is, although in a very literal way, which is not revealed until the end of the book. The relationship between Ethelred and Elsie was one of the best parts of this book. Although they are essentially only business associates they do seem to know each other quite well, even down to what they will each do. They seem to be double bluffing each other all the time. For example, when he gives her a letter to be opened if he disappears, when Elsie opens it at the first opportunity it starts 

"Dear Elsie (it read) I assume that you will read this in the first lay-by on the way home. And that's fine by me"

It then goes on to talk to her about where he might be going, not just where he's gone.  Going back to Elsie, she also narrates sections of the book,and this brings me nicely round to the other aspect of this book that I liked. It was self-referential. It was written as a detective story, using all the conventions of detective fiction, including red herrings, multiple suspects, and an ending that could be worked out (I did, just about) but at times refers to itself as a story. When Elsie first starts her narrative parts of the story she says

"If there's one thing that gets up my sodding nose, its starting a new chapter and finding that the poxy narrator has changed. Changing the typeface just adds insult to injury, as if the author (silly tosser) reckons the reader won't recognise it's somebody else without putting it in twenty-four point sodding haettenschweiler. Or whatever"

And just to add to it, the typeface changes dramatically at this point! It changes again when we start to get extracts from Ethelred's detective stories inserted into the story. This was probably the only point I didn't quite see the need for. I think his struggles with writing his generic fiction was supposed to be some kind of pointer, but I didn't quite get that bit. But it wasn't a huge part of the book, almost incidental, so it didn't detract from my enjoyment at all.

I really enjoyed this, and there is more in this series so I am looking forward to reading those too!

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Jamaica Inn by Daphne Du Maurier

Jamaica Inn would be my second Du Maurier book, the first being her most well known, Rebecca. I loved that, and immediately decided I needed to read more. This also fulfils my aim to read more books published before I was born (by miles) as it was first published in 1933. There was no real reason for it being this one I chose to read next, it was just the first one I came across! It's very different in storyline to Rebecca, but similarly moody and atmospheric.

Mary Yellan travels to Jamaica Inn in the wilds of Cornwall to live with her Aunt Patience and her husband, Joss, after her mother's death. She doesn't want to go, and would rather stay in her home village, but she is fulfilling a promise she made to her mother before she died, and she refuses to break her word. From the first coach journey to the Inn, an ominous mood is created as the driver does not even want to leave her there, telling her tales of an evil landlord, and implying that no-one visits anymore, and everyone drives past without a second glance. Once at the Inn, Mary discovers the brutal attitude of her uncle for herself, and sees the downtrodden, shell of a woman her mother's sister has become, totally different from the last time she saw her.

There is obviously something illegal taking place at the inn on a regular basis, which Mary assumes is smuggling, with carriages arriving, and things being unloaded and stored in a barred room in the inn. She suspects it may be something more, especially on hearing (but not seeing) the presence of an unknown man in the Inn on the first occasion she is witness to these nocturnal activities. Believing it to be just smuggling, she initially covers for the landlord to the local magistrate,mainly to protect her aunt, who she has already decided she will extricate from her situation somehow. With her assumptions about smuggling, Mary has really only scratched the surface of her uncle's illegal activities, but she doesn't discover the true extent of his law breaking until he spills the beans when drunk.

Mary lives a lonely existence at Jamaica. She really only has two friends, aside from her aunt Patience, and she is so downtrodden, she cannot support Mary at all, apart from to tell her to humour her uncle, and not challenge him. She has a strong confidant in a local vicar, who she trusts implicitly and she is reluctantly drawn towards Joss' younger brother, Jem, although she never entirely trusts him. You can't really blame her for that, he does freely admit to being a horse stealer, amongst other things. Both of these men play a crucial role in the eventual outcome of the story, but not until there has been a few twists and turns along the way.

To all intents and purposes this is a fairly simple, gothic (almost mystery) story. What makes it special is the beautiful descriptions of the rugged Cornish landscape, which I can only assume is accurate, at least for the time. And it is not just portrayed beautifully, it is used to mirror the moods and emotions of the characters, particularly Mary. Obviously this tale takes place in winter, so it is cold and bare, and often raining. But this only adds to the ominous, almost fatalistic feel of this novel. Something bad is always around the corner.

The characters were also very well written. Aunt Patience (appropriate name I thought), comes across very well as a woman who has been so completely worn down by her husband, and is juxtaposed very well with Mary, who is determined not to let this happen to her. Mary as headstrong and independent, but not unrealistically so, as she realises as an unmarried woman, she really needs somewhere to live, as living on her own is not really an option. I short, I really enjoyed this, possibly not quite as much as Rebecca, but still definitely worth reading.

Monday, 25 January 2010

Ghosts by Edwidge Danticat

With Edwidge Danticat being Haitian, she's been quite prominent over recent days, but I have to confess I'd never heard of her. Haitian literature was something I'd never even considered, and in fact, I don't know very much about the country itself (something I think I may have to remedy judging from this story). I just thought it was timely to read this story now, and hopefully might serve as an introduction to a Danticat novel at some point.

The scene is set with Pascal and his family living in the area called Bel-Air, which he describes himself as 'a mid-level slum'. It is not over-run with gangs, but it does have one major gang active in the area. His family run a restaurant in the area, but that has also become central to the gangs activities. Working for the radio station Pascal decides he would like to pitch an idea for a radio show based on Gang members sharing their exploits (for want of a better word). Understandably, this is turned down, but then when a similar show is broadcast anyway it sets in place a series of events that lead to the radio station being burnt down and Pascal being arrested for the crime.

As to where it goes from there, that would probably be giving too much away. Suffice to say, it's a pretty no holds barred expose of corruption and gang predominance in almost all aspects of Haitian life, and culture. The whole story is a fairly grim description of life in Haiti. From what I've read, the gang warfare, bribery and corruption are a pretty normal part of life and if so, some of the comments in this story are pretty chilling.

"The officers were laughing even as he hiccupped and sobbed. To his ear, there was no difference between their laughter, their taunting, and that of Tiye and his crew. They could all have switched places, and no one would notice."

"One day, it might occur to someone, someone angry and powerful, someone obsessive and maniacal—a police chief or a gang leader, a leader of the opposition or a leader of the nation—that they, and all those who lived like them or near them, would be better off dead."

I think this is what I found most interesting about this story. The unfairness, violence and brutality is talked about through the whole story with a sense of acceptance, not outrage. No-one is surprised, and everyone just seems to get on with life, working around the issues of gangs and brutality. The setting and political climate is described perfectly, and the lack of horror in the characters reactions to events seems only to highlight the horror I felt.

Friday, 22 January 2010

The Seance by John Harwood

I've been waiting for the Seance a long time. I'd requested it from the library in time to read over Halloween! According to the library catalogue, it was on the shelves, but no-one could seem to be able to find it! But it did eventually turn up, or the library gave up looking and bought a new copy? It is a brand new book, so could be either!

It is really a story within a story, as it starts in one place and then veers off in a different direction altogether. We start (and finish) the story with Constance Langton, a priviledged child in Victorian England and a brief overview of her life in her childhood home. However, although she was financially privileged, emotionally both her parents were distant. Her mother is in permanent mourning for her younger sister, who died in infancy, and her father has very little emotional attachment to her at all. Constance is brought up in the care of her nurse, and is then sent to school. When her father eventually leaves, a chance encounter leads Constance into the world of seances, and what she sees as an opportunity to make her mother happy again. Constance convinces her mother to attend a number of seances with her, and in consultation with the 'medium', Constance pretends that Alma is speaking through her and for a time, her mother seems to improve. But when the 'contact' with Alma leads to disastrous consequences, Constance is left to face life with her increasingly distant father.

Constance is saved from this fate in the nick of time by the appearance of a distant uncle, who offers her the chance to live with him, which she gladly accepts. She then discovers she is the sole inheritor of a run down estate, Wraxford Hall, with a dubious history, and at first the only advice the solicitor will give her is to sell it, sight unseen and to never ever live there. And just to add to the intrigue, he is shocked by her appearance as she seems to bear a striking resemblance to someone he once knew. He does eventually reconsider though, ands sends Constance a packet of journals explaining the history of the decrepit house and what happened there.

This is where we veer off into a totally different story, and move into a story of the spooky and disturbing events that happened at Wraxford Hall, which include eccentric old men, mysterious accidents, mesmerism, villainous men and suspicious deaths. The story itself is full of intrigue, mystery and murder. Nell Wraxford, a woman who possibly has real clairvoyant powers flees her stifling, distant family to her friends in the countryside, falls in love with a man her family would consider unsuitable, is blissfully happy for a short while until tragedy strikes, and all the supernatural connections with the Hall are threaded into the story. The story within the story ends with murder, in a most bizarre fashion, and the disappearance of numerous central characters.

The book itself doesn't end here though. We return to Constance, determined to prove that that Nell was innocent, possibly that she's still alive and even that she may be her daughter. The idea of fake Seances returns to the plot here, as Constance takes a trip to the hall and eventually unwinds all the twisted threads and discovers the truth, with the usual twists that accompany Victorian fiction.

I really enjoyed this book. All the twists, turns, red herrings and vague suggestions kept me guessing right until the end. The plot hinges on various aspects that are mentioned throughout the story, and everything that Constance works out is laid out throughout the story, when you go back and look for it. The portrayal of women in Victorian society was covered very well, especially the idea of them being possessions of their husbands, and at their beck and call. Both the central female characters in the story suffer for being women in Victorian England. It was typical of this type of fiction that the plot was turned on it's head at least twice, and just as we think we've figured it all out, something else comes along and changes it all. Brilliant!

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

The Bad Girl by Mario Vargo Llosa

The Bad Girl wasn't what I was expecting. I don't know what I was expecting it to be like, but it wasn't this. I want to say it's a love story, but there's not a lot of love in it, just sexual obsession, selfishness and cruelty. Then I thought I would say it was story of a couple's progression through life from early teens to late middle age, but that's not really right either, because I don't think they could ever be classed as a couple, and we only get to see certain parts of their life, when they do actually come together, although the book spans half a century.

So starting at the beginning, I'll try and say what this book actually is. Ricardo is Peruvian, and as a teenager he falls totally in love with Lily, a Chilean girl living in Peru, and although she seems to feel the same, she will never commit to him, and following an embarrassing incident, disappears totally from his life. Following this, Ricardo works hard to achieve his only real ambition in life, which is to live in Paris. He lives frugally, and works sporadically as a translator, and later an interpreter, but the only real friendship he develops is with Paul, a man who runs a restaurant, but whose main interest is the political rebellion taking place in Peru. This is the turning point, for this is when he meets a woman calling herself Comrade Arlette, immediately realises she is his teenage sweetheart, falls in love all over again and throws his heart and soul into getting her out of the revolutionary movement she has got herself involved in. She promises to return to Paris as soon as she is able, and he waits. But when she does return, she is married to a relatively well off Frenchman, and he is devastated.

This pattern repeats itself throughout the book, with each long chapter focusing on a different period in Ricardo's life, with Lily, who Ricardo terms 'the bad girl' showing up, each time with a different name and a different identity. She lets him keep falling in love with her, help her escape whatever crisis she has got herself into, and then leaves to find a different life. The bad girl is characterised as a shallow, materialistic woman, who is really only out to make a nice, easy life for herself, and will trample over anyone to get what she wants. Although, it is difficult to say she is the same person each time Ricardo meets her. She re-invents herself so much that she is almost a different person each time. As readers, we don't feel we know her as we see her life through Ricardo's eyes, and he only ever knows her as her current alias, never as what she really is. The end does clear some of this up, and the explanation of who she is and why she behaves the way she does helps understand her, and softens the fairly harsh image of her portrayed throughout the book.

I liked this book. As well as the relationship between 'Lily' and Ricardo, the descriptions of the places they find themselves in, particularly the cultural and political situations are interesting and informative. The only thing I'm struggling with is coming to a decision about what I think about Ricardo. On one hand I want to say he's a fool for keep taking her back, and letting her manipulate him, but on the other hand, his loyalty is admirable and it is interesting to see how he does harden against her, and how gradually the story moves from him chasing her, to her searching him out. Again the end does shed some light on his character, but I still remain ambiguous about his credibility.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Is it me....or my books?

I've felt recently that I'm becoming slightly over critical with the books I read. I enjoy them all, it's very rare I actually pick up a book I don't like at all. At first I thought it was just me, either trying to find something to criticise, or just picking the wrong books to read in the first place. The only way to find out was to go back and read my reviews, and try and figure it out. Which is when I think I came upon a surprising conclusion............

I think I read too much fiction published in the last few years!

My reading habits have always tended towards recent fiction, and I've always been happy with it. However, over the last few months the best books I've read have been the older ones, such as The Heart of the Matter, The Woman in Black and The Bookshop. Now there is always the possibility that this could be co-incidence, and I'm perfectly prepared to believe that. But I am going to make a concerted effort to change the ratio of new books to slightly older ones.
The only thing left now is to define (mainly to myself) what I'm classing as recent! I was going to pick a definitive date, but that seems a bit harsh. But the date I'd got in mind was 1976 (year I was born), so I'll go with that as a rough guide. So in brief, hopefully more, but by no means all, of the books I read (for now at least) will have been published before I was born, there or thereabouts.

Monday, 18 January 2010

After the Fire, A Still, Small Voice by Evie Wyld

After The Fire, A Still, Small Voice is a quiet, subdued novel but it's not the worse for it! Told in alternate narratives, it deals with various themes, the main one being the relationships formed, destroyed and ignored,mainly parental, but also between husbands and wives (or boyfriend and girlfriend). A big theme is also the horrors of war, specifically the Korean, then the Vietnam war, and the effect fighting can have on a person and their families.

Leon is a child when we are first introduced to him, the child of immigrant parents in Australia. His family owns a bakery, which his father is passionate about, and passes this passion on to Leon. All is good until his father goes off to fight in the Korean war, leaving Leon and his mother at home to run the business alone. Leon starts to take this on all alone, as his mother becomes more and more withdrawn with her worry for her husband.

Running alongside this is the story of Frank, a man fleeing from a relationship which has caused him to be violent, to his parents run down shack in the Australian countryside. He is a broken man, and obviously has issues with his parents as well as himself, as the first thing he does when he arrives is rid the place of anything that may remind him of them. He starts finds himself in a very close knit community, but also one that is wary of strangers, understandably since he arrives just at the time when a young girl has disappeared, leaving no trace.

It doesn't take long to work out exactly how the three men in this story are related. Leon's father soon passes out of the story, as he returns from the war mentally exhausted, a state from which he never really recovers and moves off to a rundown shack in the countryside, and Leon's mother soon follows. This leaves Leon alone to run the bakery, until the day comes when he is called up to join the Vietnam war. In his father's story, we are left to imagine the horrors he witnessed/experienced, but with Leon we are thrown right into the action and follow the horrors in person, from when he joins, to when he leaves.

The dual narrative works really well in this story as by juxtaposing the men's lives it is easy to see how the events that happened to Leon have impacted on his relationship with his son, Frank. It is apparent early on that Frank does not have a strong relationship with his father, although the real reasons why are not revealed until the end. I think though by seeing how Leon's fathers unknown experiences affected him, and therefore Leon, it is easy to imagine how the horrors described in Leon's time in Vietnam could have impacted on Frank.

The main thing that struck me was that nobody ever talked about these things. Leon's father just withdrew into himself, and it is to be assumed that Leon did exactly the same thing, although in a different way. Things are left unsaid and unspoken. Just as Leon never talked to his father, Frank never spoke to his and both never really did. Frank's loner attitude to life is really well described, and seems to be accentuated by the rough, wild landscape that he finds himself in. In fact all the landscape in this book is describes impeccably, and really jumps out off the page. From urban Sydney, war torn Vietnam and the wilds of the Australian countryside, complete with slightly threatening wildlife and something un-named watching from the shadows.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

The Year of Living Biblically by A.J Jacobs

The Year of Living Biblically was better than I thought it would be. But having said that, I think this will only be a short review because I don't really know how much I can actually write about it. The title is pretty self explanatory, the author decides to try and follow every biblical rule he can find to the letter for a year. Not always an easy task in twenty-first century America.

A.J Jacobs is a secular Jew who claims he would like to try and find out more about his spiritual side, and that of his ancestors by doing as above, and living as close to biblical ritual as possible, along the way trying to find out why these laws exist, if they were ever meant to be taken literally, and if they are even relevant today. As well as the more well known commandments such as the female impurity laws, stoning of adulterers (how he achieved this was funny), and the restrictive food laws, he focuses on such things as not wearing mixed fibres, blowing a horn at the start of every month and building a hut and living in it for a period of time (he does this in his living room. At the start he says there are over 700 commandments in the Old Testament alone, so obviously this is only a very small sample. And he grows a beard, takes copious amounts of photographs of said beard and talked about it a lot! That annoyed me slightly. I couldn't see how that was the biggest thing he was dealing with!

The female impurity laws meant he wasn't really allowed to touch women at all, since it was difficult to know whether they were unclean or not, which as you can imagine led to some offended remarks. Also, these particularly irritated his wife, who went round and sat on every chair in the house when she was menstruating, presumably to make her point.

It was written in a day by day diary form, with the majority of the entries focusing on a different aspect, rule or bizarre ritual, but with some elements being returned to on various occasions (not just the beard). But for me, by far the most interesting aspects were his trips to various evangelist church's or groups to see how they take the biblical commandments. This led to a tour of a creationist museum, a conversation with an Amish man, a couple of Evangelical churches and a trip to Israel to meet his Uncle and spend time with a shepherd!

I did think when I was reading this book that I might learn something about the more obscure biblical rules, and whilst I was reading it I probably did, but it's all gone now! It was entertaining and funny in places, but I think it covered so much in a relatively short book that entertainment was all it could be. Not a bad thing though. I enjoyed it whilst I was reading it, but I don't think I'll remember very much about it all in a few months!

Saturday, 16 January 2010

The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene

The Heart of the Matter is the first Graham Greene novel I've read since I was seventeen, and that would be about half way through my A-level course, so I reckon that makes it about seventeen years! The reason being that after reading The Power and The Glory I despised it, and it's taken me that long to pick up another one. I did enjoy this one though, although I can't say I loved it.

I can't really describe the plot because there isn't much of one. It is more a series of mundane and normal events in the life of Scobie, a brutally honest policeman in West Africa during the war years, and how he copes with the trials, temptations and corruption that faces him there. Unlike most of the police, he is immune to bribery, which paradoxically, makes a lot of the people, both native and British distrust him. He is also trapped in a loveless marriage, but he will not leave as he feels a sense of duty towards his wife, Louise, as well as a sense that as he promised to make her happy, he should do his best to fulfill that vow, whether he loves her or not. Scobie and Louise perform a sort of charade of a marriage, both in public and in private, He is also filled with a sense of regret that it is him that has made her unhappy, and it torments him.

"Fifteen years form a face, gentleness ebbs with experience, and he was always aware of his own responsibility. He had led the way: the experience that had come to her was the experience selected by himself. He had formed her face."

Throughout the novel, Scobie is constantly in conflict, either with Louise, his contemporaries, and most importantly, himself. He seems constantly in a battle with himself over what is right,or what he should do. This comes into force early in the book, when he has a debate with himself over what to do with some perfectly innocent, although contraband letters found on a ship he is searching. The captain, whose letters they are, tries to bribe him not to report them, but as previously stated, he is probably the only police officer on whom this wouldn't work. He enters a moral dilemma over whether he should follow his heart or his head (I won't spoil it by revealing which he does choose).

But this just prefigures the major dilemma he faces, which is at the heart of this novel (the heart of the matter)? I don't think it's spoiling anything to say that whilst Louise is away, he falls in love, and then when she returns he feels a moral duty and obligation towards both women. This also conflicts with his catholic beliefs, because although these are not strong, they are present, and they cause him conflict, but more because he cannot reconcile his own feelings of duty and respect to both women with the duty and respect that his catholic beliefs say he should be feeling towards God.

In fact this internal struggle with the tenets of his faith and his own personal standards towards his fellow human beings is the essential struggle of this book. His decision at the end, and the calculated way he goes about it, shows where his feelings actually lie when it really comes down to it. I actually found the last section of the book the toughest to read, because it becomes very weighed down with theological ideas, mainly in monologue form. And I was unsure what I felt about Scobie in the end. Although I certainly felt some sympathy for him, I also felt that the situation he ended up in was of his own making, and perhaps he could have had a bit more backbone about him!

I did enjoy this book, and it was beautifully written, very wordy and descriptive, but I never felt a description was too long or unnecessary. And I have just realised I haven't really talked about the setting at all and that's really odd because although Greene describes the West African setting in great detail, I felt this book was all about character and ideas so although the setting is relevant to the story, the story could have been told in any setting.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

The Outcast by Sadie Jones

I've had The Outcast sat on the shelves for quite a long time, and for some reason, something had stopped me picking it up. I'm not sure if I could say I enjoyed this book, as it was pretty depressing all the way through, but I was certainly gripped and I loved the story.

We start the story when the main character, Lewis, is returning from a spell in prison, to a family that do not seem to want him home. After this first chapter, we backtrack to his childhood, and the majority of the book is concerned with Lewis's life until he was sent to prison and the events that got him there. When we first meet Lewis he is a small child, living alone with his mother, and awaiting the imminent return of his father from the war. It at first seems as though they are part of an idyllic, fairly comfortable family, but it soon transpires that Lewis's relationship with his father is not all it could be, and although his mother obviously idolises him, she drinks a lot. When Lewis's mother dies in an accident witnessed only by Lewis, his life is understandably turned upside down. From this point on, Lewis withdraws into his shell, and eventually ends up as something of an outcast in his community. I got the feeling that he was torn between his needs and desires to be part of the community, but his hatred and desperation at being excluded, even by his own family.

Lewis is seen as odd, by virtually everyone in the community, including both his distant father and his bewildered stepmother, who his father married remarkably quickly after his first wife's death. In fact the only person who doesn't view him as odd and deranged is Kit, the youngest child of The Carmichael family, who are good friends of Lewis's family. But this information is kept to herself for most of the novel, and she has problems of her own with her father.

In fact, the novel is populated by unpleasant adult characters, imposing their will on the children, with disastrous results. Lewis's father is distant and harsh on Lewis, with a total failure to understand how his mother's death has affected him. Kit's father punishes her violently for the slightest misdemeanor whilst her mother turns a blind eye to this, her only reaction being to leave the room. Mr Carmichael is also instrumental in Lewis's final departure and separation from his family, and horrifically, uses him as a scapegoat for his own actions.

Lewis himself is portrayed as a confused child and adolescent throughout the whole novel. He is by no means an angel, and does some dubious things, but in modern society a lot of what he does, both to others and himself would be spotted quicker and picked upon as a reaction to his mother's death. We are definitely left with the impression that a bit more understanding and perhaps some medical or even psychological care would have nipped his issues in the bud quickly. He really does seem to be left to find his own way in the world. with horrible results. The climax sees Lewis realising he has to do something to help someone else, even if it alienates him.

In the end, Lewis does seem to come to some kind of resolution, and although it's not a happy ending, it does seem positive and as if the climax at the conclusion of the book has helped Lewis realise his potential, or at least make a start on this.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

1st library Books of 2010

Well my first library visit of 2010 was successful, depending on your point of view! I had sort of decided to try and read more of the books I already own this year rather than library books, so from that point of view this trip may not have been such a good move, but I am looking forward to reading all these books.

The Bad Girl by Mario Vargas Llosa
Millennium by Tom Holland
The Herring Seller's Apprentice by Glen David Gold
Sunnyside by Glen David Gold
Esther's Inheritance by Sandor Marai
The Gates by John Connolly
East Lynne by Ellen Wood
Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux
The Time Travellers Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer

Monday, 11 January 2010

The Republic of Trees by Sam Taylor

This was a strange book, both similar to things I've read before, but also very different. I read The Republic of Trees because I read The Island at the End of the World last year and really enjoyed it. Although this is a very different, and altogether more disturbing story, it has the same elements of playing with language that the author's later book did, which I found just as interesting here as I did in the later novel.

The book starts with a small child, Michael, describing his father's death by electrocution by a lawnmower when he was a small child. His mother then moves him and his brother to France to live with their Aunt Celine, and then promptly dies herself, leaving Michael and his brother in the care of their Aunt Celine. They are lonely, but this loneliness is appeased when another English family move in close by and they become close to the two children in this family, Alex and Isobel. During one summer the four children set out to spend the summer in a local forest, taking with them only bare minimum supplies, intending to hunt and forage for food. It starts out as an idyllic, blissful society but this is where the story, to me, becomes slightly familiar. The children become less concerned about living a subsistence life, and more concerned with society, rules and revolution, even acting out history plays based on events during the french revolution. As a fifth person joins the group, the society becomes more rigid, and develops rules and punishments. They have raids on local villages for food, leaving their calling card wherever they go, and even have a minister of propaganda. The society takes its inspiration from Rousseau's Social Contract (the ideas that inspired The French Revolution), and Rousseau himself actually makes an appearance, at least to those who believe.

Well so far I'm thinking Lord of the Flies, 1984, and Animal farm. It gets even more similar to all of these books as the story progresses but was done well. The ending was possibly the most shocking I've ever read, and will stay with me for a very long time. Its a horrific portrayal of how people can be corrupted in trying to create ideals, then trying to enforce them on others, with disastrous consequences. Towards the end, the children are even starting to make up their own language as they say they need a new language for a new republic.

I think the difference between this book and those mentioned above is some of the ideas expressed by the children, that then come back into force at the end of the book, and have a dramatic effect on the conclusion of the story. The following passage, spoken by Michael, struck me, both for it's beauty and the ideas expressed in it

"I had always found it odd how people took this moment for granted-the moment of waking when your mind quickly reassembles all the feelings, ideas, memories, hopes and fears of the day before, pulling them from an alien world of dreams that you can never quite remember. Sleepily I wondered: What if there are two souls in each of us, leading parallel lives, working shifts inside the same head and body? The dayself and the nightself. The sleepself and the wakeself. The dreamself and the realself. And what if each of these souls did not believe in the existence of the other, but regarded the life that happened when it was off duty as a kind of imaginary netherworld? What if I were to my dreamself, only a series of fragmentary images, dismissed on waking as the mind's waste matter?"

In fact this theme, expressed throughout the novel becomes vitally important at the end, When he is unable to remember a lot of what he has done, said and written and relies heavily on other people to tell him what happened. As he says

"It was odd: when I read it, it had been as though I were experiencing it for the first time. Yet know, having been through it, I felt like it was part of me. It was a memory-as real, as substantial as any of my other memories"

This aspect to me is where the book differs from others that have a similar story, addressing issues of consciousness, memory and truth. It makes the reader question who exactly is driving the events, at least until Michael's last words, which could be seen to turn the whole thing on it's head, depending on how you read them.

I did have some slight plausibility issues with this book though. I know the situation is very extreme and is not something you would expect to happen, but I would question whether five children could run off to a forest, leave notices of their presence at each robbery they enact but still not be found by their parents or authorities. We are not told how old the children are, but they are all still at school, and Michael is substantially younger than the others. But other than this, I enjoyed this. Not quite as good as The Island at the End of the World, but good all the same.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

The Woman In Black by Susan Hill

I intended to read this over Christmas, but since reading didn't happen much at all over Christmas, I settled down and read The Woman in Black on New Year's day instead. This is a story narrated by Arthur Kipps, about an event that happened to him at some point in his past. Although actually he is not narrating, he is writing it down, as he cannot bring himself to speak of the events. He is writing at a time in his life when he is happy with his wife and step children all gathered together for Christmas. As his family are amusing themselves telling fanciful ghost stories around the fire, he slopes off to remember his own, very real ghost story, which is the story told in this book.

Working in a solicitors firm, Arthur Kipps is sent north to deal with the affairs of a long standing client of the firm and attend the funeral. When he arrives in the town, he discovers that no-one else will be attending the funeral and no-one is willing to speak to him about the lady, or the property he has to visit to recover papers. As this is a ghost story, it is obvious that all is not going to go well, and the chain of events are kicked off with Arthur's sighting of a mysterious, sick looking woman in black at the funeral.

Arthur soon learns that the people in the town are frightened of this woman, and are not willing to talk to him about the family, so it is left to him to piece together the facts from his sojourn out at the dead woman's house. It is a creepy atmospheric tale, complete with swirling fog, ghostly noises and a gothic house that can only be reached at certain times of day due to the tide covering the route in and out. The atmosphere is built up slowly and expertly, with Arthur starting out quite blase about the whole affair, but gradually becoming convinced of the malevolent nature of the place. It is not just the actual presence that is responsible for the haunting, it seems as if the house and the land it stands on is malevolent as the actual ghost.

Arthur becomes more and more convinced of the supernatural elements of the place as he experiences more, and his investigations into the paperwork reveal more and more about the family history of the family that lived in the house. I think I liked the mystery element of this book as much as I liked the Ghost story element. Obviously, the two are intertwined, as the mystery itself is the mystery of who the house is haunted by, and why. And the ending comes very suddenly and shocked me, even though I have spoken to a few people who said they saw it coming.

I really enjoyed this. It was short and quick to read, but good spooky fare for new years day.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Reading Challenges

I'm a bit late posting these, they were supposed to go up over Christmas but I took a couple of weeks off so they have had to wait until now. This is just the list of challenges, the actual lists of books as I read them will be posted here.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

An Honest Scrap Meme

I was tagged for this by Anothercookiecrumbles. I've been thinking about this for days, trying to think of things that nobody else knows was hard, especially when they really should be book related. But here goes!

a. ‘The Honest Scrap Blogger Award’ must be shared.

b. The recipient has to tell 10 (true) things about themselves that no one else knows

c. The recipient has to pass on the award to 10 more bloggers.

d. Those 10 bloggers should link back to the blog that awarded

  1. When I was a child, and reading in bed, I would only stop reading on a page number divisible by 10.
  2. Aswell as the above, I would only stop reading on the hour, or half past. And it had to be dead on! If I missed it, I would continue for another half hour.
  3. The above two rules only applied in bed, and don't apply anymore!
  4. I frequently read online summaries of books my sister pushes me to read because she's very easily offended if I say it's not my thing! (she doesn't read this)
  5. I categorise my TBR into daytime and evening books. Daytimes ones tend to have shorter chapters, and therefore are easier to read in short spurts. Some people do know this, but they all think I'm strange. Seems normal to me though!
  6. I went through a four(ish) year period in my twenties where I hardly read anything! Shocks me now when I think about it! I don't know how I coped. People don't know because anyone who knows me now wouldn't believe it!
  7. I own three copies of The Very Hungry Caterpillar because I didn't want to share mine with Dylan when he was born, and then he refused to let me pass his copy on to his sister (how could I force him to when I wouldn't do it)!
  9. I have bought four copies of English Passengers by Matthew Kneale because I keep lending it out and not getting it back. I should stop doing it, but I love it so much I want other people to read it!
  10. The first 'grown up' authors I can remember reading are embarrassing now. Jilly Cooper and Jeffrey Archer. I really think that should have stayed a secret, but I needed a number 10!
Well, thats it! That really was harder than I thought it would be! And I'm not going to tag anyone, just do it if you feel like it!

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

Who could not read a book titled The Bookshop? And more importantly, who could imagine the people of a town not actually wanting a bookshop in their town? But that is what happens in this short novel. Florence Green buys up property in a small East Anglian town with the intention of turning it into a bookshop, which she does succeed in achieving. But she is challenged at every step by the inhabitants of the town, the main mover of which suddenly decides she would like the building to be an arts centre for the town, even though the building has been empty for a long time.

And that really is as much as I think I can say about the story. Any more would ruin the story, and leave nothing for anyone to find out for themselves. But it wouldn't really matter because the book is more about the atmosphere and mood created by the author, and the characters in the story. The closed minded population of Hardborough are brilliantly evoked, even though they are only really sketched out. The novel is not long enough for them to be fully fleshed out characters, but by the descriptions of their actions, and the words they use their characteristics become obvious.

All throughout the novel, Florence's attempts to make the bookshop successful are thwarted by these people, who all in their very different ways, conspire against her to ensure her venture is doomed to failure. This failure is an ominous presence throughout the story, and the ultimate betrayal inflicted upon her is connected to her biggest success with her bookshop (a highly controversial novel).

I really enjoyed this book. It was a interesting portrayal of the damage a closed community can do to an outsider, or someone who wants to change things in their staid little town. And the tragic ending was poingnant and sad, but it really couldn't have ended any other way. I will be reading more by this author in the near future.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

I wasn't quite sure what to expect when I picked this up. The Red Tent was recommended to me by my mother, which doesn't usually happen because we don't read the same things, but more concerning than that, she recommended it because one of the inmates at the prison library she works in thought I would like it! He was right, I did enjoy it, but I didn't realise she talked about me enough for the inmates to be able to recommend books for me!

The story in The Red Tent is narrated by Dinah, the unheard of sister of Joseph (of dreamcoat fame), and his brothers, and daughter of Leah, Jacob's first wife. In the biblical story, Dinah only gets a brief mention when she is raped and her brothers exact a bloodthirsty revenge. What the author does in this story is flesh out her story from her birth to her death, totally fictionalised of course, but interesting all the same. As well as putting the so called rape in context, which in itself casts a very dubious shadow over Jacob and his sons, Dinah tells the story of her upbringing with four mothers and the very different lives men and women led in biblical times.

The cover of this book quotes this as 'The oldest love story never told', and this is true of this book in two very different ways. It is a love story between men and women, most notably Leah and Jacob and Rachel and Jacob, as well as the love affairs that Dinah herself is involved in, although these do not occur until fairly late in the book. However it is also a story of the love,protection and solidarity of women and the lengths they will go to to protect and look out for each other, in a society when men an women essentially lead separate lives.

It was the solidarity and community spirit of the women in this story that I found most interesting. The Red tent of the title actually refers to the tent (coloured red) where the women of the clan retired to for three days during their menstruation. But far from being seen as a stigma, they use this time to celebrate their womanhood and impart knowledge and comfort to each other. In most biblical stories, women are in the background, if they are present at all, but in this story, it is the women who keep the family/society running and they see themselves in this role.

Still running with the theme of bonding and solidarity between women, it was also interesting for me to read the author's viewpoint on how they felt about and dealt with sharing husbands, and in some cases, losing responsibility for their own children. The rivalry between Leah and Rachel is shown in a different light in this story, and the lesser known wives/handmaids who also bore children to Jacob felt very differently about childbirth, although Dinah has equal praise for all four of her mothers. Dinah herself has a child she is not mother too as a result of her husband being murdered, and her pain is heartfelt and desperate at times.

In brief, this book manages to detail both the pain and unfairness that women suffered, but also the solidarity and bonding that got them through life and also shows their absolute necessity in supporting each other through the hardships they suffer, both mental and physical.