Friday 28 February 2014

Viper Wine - Hermione Eyre

This is rather a confusing book to read and I am deeply torn about how I feel about it. It works really well as a historical novel looking at the lives of a pair of uniquely fascinating 17th century characters. Alongside this it makes clever use of extracts from 17th century writings alongside contemporary interviews from 'celebrities' to provide a comparative look at medical practice and the 'treatment' of ageing. This not only delves into the bizarre ways in which some people are willing to treat signs of ageing, but also shows that many of the weird and wonderful methods used historically actually have enough basis in reality to continue to be used to this day. So as a look into historic medical practice this works, and as a look into the corrupt and slightly manic world of high society just prior to the revolution and upheaval of civil war it also works, and works very well. Where I got a little confused, and if I'm honest annoyed, was with the sections where the modern world quite literally bleeds into the period narrative. You will be happily reading about Sir Kenelm Digby's studies into alchemy and suddenly he will start receiving messages from the future, in the form of mental text messages or spam email. This makes the story seem a little disjointed and slightly insane. I appreciate that the intention is to make Kenelm seem like a man ahead of his time, but it just comes across as bizarre and jarring. I found myself reading these sections rather more quickly than normal in order to continue with the actual story. I think that this might genuinely cause this book to do more poorly than it would otherwise; it comes across as essentially a literary Knight's Tale (film not Chaucer extract). While there is a market for properly quirky historic fiction, it is a lot more difficult to find, and although I really hope that this will do as well as it deserves, I can see it being a difficult one to pitch to prospective readers.

February 2014.....

 It's nearly the end of the week, and of the busy month of February, so I feel it is time I stop neglecting my duties here and say hello. There has been quite a bit going on this month; two birthdays (mine and my other half's) a bit of skiing, a fair old bit of work and seeing my brother off on his travels to China, all of this has had an impact on my reading success for the month. After getting off to an impressive start, in both quantity and quality imho, in January I have slowed down a tad, and not quite managed a book a day.... I know it's sad  only 18 books read this month, but some absolute corkers in there.

It seems as though February has been the month for bookshop based books, there have been three of these this month. Of these Mr Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore stands out as my absolute favourite. The blend of Dan Brownesque secret societies with the high v low tech argument won my heart, and I loved every moment I spent reading this wonderful little novel. The Collected Works of AJ Fikry takes a more emotional and, sadly, realistic look at life in a bookshop, and I defy anyone to read through to the end without feeling at least a little choked up. Next to these two Mrs Sinclair's Suitcase couldn't really complete, it had a lovely premise but the combo of hidden letters and forbidden wartime love affair came across as just a little too twee for my tastes. I am sure that it will prove to be very popular with many readers but it failed to strike the right note for me.
My two favourites from translated works this month have to be the adorable story of Sprout The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly, and the frankly disgusting, but brilliant, Eat Him if You Like. Two totally different books but both simply marvellous. Both have been sympathetically translated and the resulting books are perfect each in their own way. Sprout in particular is a delightful character, reminiscent of the best of Beatrix Potter, but a little more feisty.
The other standout books for the month have ranged from the darkly comic crime heist Three Graves Full, through to the entertaining and informative The Almost Nearly Perfect People. Each of these five books come highly recommended. Strangely each seems to deal with some aspect of a creepy or downright alien culture or mode of behaviour, so maybe the fact that these are some of the books I have enjoyed most of all this month says something about me. I choose to assume that the bleak, twisted and darkly comic nature of several of these books simply fits my mood throughout the month of February rather than in general. Maybe I really do need to consider a move to one of the fascinating Nordic countries explored by Michael Booth. It's an interesting thought.
One book which I haven't quite managed to complete just yet is Viper Wine by Hermione Eyre, if I had then I think this would probably been listed amongst my favourite books for the month. It took me a while to get to grips with a historical novel that kept inserting quotes from contemporary individuals such as Naomi Campbell, but once I got further into the story I began to see this clash of periods as the stroke of genius it is. In any case, I've not quite completed the novel as yet so fear it must wait to see how it compares with other things I read in March. Sorry Venetia!
As always I have been sent a large number of wonderful looking titles by the lovely publishing people I am in contact with, and I will get round to reading them as soon as I possibly can. I should have a good amount of reading time available over the next month so watch this space for a good number of reviews and whatnot coming up on this page. A handful of the ones I have pulled out of my heap for immediate reading include books like The Echo by James Smythe and The Abduction by Jonathan Holt. These along with a good number of others will be being read over the next few days. As I've also had my birthday this month I have been lucky enough to have been given a good stack of lovely things to read by my friends and family so I'm sure that some of these will be being read over the next couple of weeks. All rather exciting if like me you are rarely seen without a book in your hand.
Anyway it's probably time that I wrapped this post up and knuckled down to some reading proper.... back to the coal face and all that. I know, I know it is a hard old life hehe....

Throughout the month I have purchased, been given or been sent an impressive 91 books, of the books I read during February 10 were acquired during the month, with 5 coming from my January stash. Roll on a busy month of reading for March.

Books acquired throughout February.....
The Slaves of Solitude Patrick Hamilton The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August Claire North
A Spy in the House of Love Anais Nin Mr Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookshop Robin Sloan
Henry and June Anais Nin Brewster Mark Slouka
Sexus Henry Miller Gypsy Goddess Meena Kandasamy
A Talent to Annoy Nancy Mitford Viper Wine Hermione Eyre
Banished Liz de Jager The May Bride Suzannah Dunn
Mother Mother Koren Zailckas The Madness of July James Naughtie
Sally Heathcote Suffragette Mary Talbot Quiet Dell Jayne Anne Phillips
The Hanged Man of Saint Pholien Georges Simenon The Queen of the Tearling Erika Johansen
The Echo James Smythe Bittersweet Colleen McCullough
Americanah Chimamanda Adichie Cat Out of Hell Lynne Truss
A Natural History of Dragons Marie Brennan A Wolf in Hindelheim Jenny Mayhew
The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly Sun-Mi Hwang Three Graves Full Jamie Mason
We are our Brains Dick Swaab The Letter Bearer Robert Allison
Trouble in Mind Jeffery Deaver Spirit House Mark Dapin
Authority Jeff VanderMeer Eat Him If You Like Jean Teule
Annihilation Jeff VanderMeer The Front Seat Passenger Pascal Garnier
Miss Buncle's Book D E Stevenson Fifty Years in Time and Space Frank Danes
Memory of Water Emmi Itaranta The Land Where Lemons Grow Helena Attlee
Orphan Train Christina Baker Kline The First Book of Calamity Leek Paula Lichtarowicz
This is The Life Alex Shearer The Shadow of the Crescent Moon Fatima Bhutto
Ghostwritten Isabel Wolff Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths Harry Bingham
The Girl Who Came Home Hazel Gaynor The Ruby Slippers Keir Alexander
The Investigation Jung-Myung Lee Paris Requiem Lisa Appignanesi
Chop Chop Simon Wroe Lettice and Victoria Susanna Johnston
The Last Boat Home Dea Brovig Under the Sun Justin Kerr-Smiley
Cruel Crossing Edward Stourton The Breath of Night Michael Arditti
The Bees Laline Paull They Were Counted Miklos Banffy
Bird Box Josh Malerman They Were Found Wanting Miklos Banffy
The Heroes' Welcome Louisa Young The Celibate Michael Arditti
Paris Edward Rutherford Yours Until Death Gunnar Staalesen
The Boy With The Porcelain Blade Den Patrick A Pleasure and a Calling Hogan
Northanger Abbey Val McDermid Treachery  Parris
The Ocean at the End of the Lane Neil Gaiman The Lemon Grove Helen Walsh
& Sons David Gilbert Unravelling Oliver Liz Nugent
The Serpent of Venice Christopher Moore
The House Girl Tara Conklin Good Soldier Svejk Jaroslav Hasek
Someone to Watch Over Me Yrsa Siguardardottir The Son Philipp Meyer
Blackout Connie Willis We Are Completely Beside Ourselves Karen Joy Fowler
The Museum of Extraordinary Things Alice Hoffman Be Safe I Love You Cara Hoffman
A Burnable Book Bruce Holsinger The Almost Nearly Perfect People Michael Booth
The Abduction Jonathan Holt Irene Pierre Lemaitre
Freaky Deaky Elmore Leonard Dancing Bear James Crumley
Dune Frank Herbert Dune Messiah Frank Herbert
The Collection James Crumley The Cardiff Trilogy John Williams
Healing Relaxation Edie Irwin

The Almost Nearly Perfect People - Michael Booth
 I should probably come clean and admit that I have a deep fondness for this part of the world, a fondness that in the case of Finland probably extends into pure adulation. I love so many things about the area, most of which are incidental to the presumed worthiness of their socio-politic structure. I find the history of the region fascinating from the Viking expansion across so much of the world, through the Swedish power of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, and right up to the varied experiences of WWII found amongst the assorted countries. The region has had such an deep impact and involvement in European history as a whole, and yet in the 20th Century seemed to deviate so massively from the experiences and actions of most other European areas that I am properly familiar with. The fact that I spent time as part of a Viking reenactment group only fuelled my interest in the area more (I took the unusual step of choosing Gotland as my personal area of study here, basing my 'Viking persona' here, so this area of Sweden is of especial interest to me.) Coming into the present day like so many others I have loved the output of Scandi films and TV shows. Borgen was never missed in this household, and alongside my Bergman collection I have a collection of films that includes wonderful little gems like Adam's Apples, Open Hearts, Dead Snow, The Green Butchers, A Royal Affair and Brothers. Having watched a Swedish copy of the two Arn films, I was rather annoyed that the only version available in the UK cut the two down to a single film, missing most of the action and story out. At the same time my music collection leans heavily to the Nordic, with lots of Finnish groups, the odd Dane or Norwegian and even a few CD's from the tiny Faroe Islands. I must admit that I found the lack of Finnish music actually on sale in music shops in Helsinki to be slightly confusing, as I had assumed I would be able to restock heavily. I'd have probably have had to remortgage my soul to do so, the down side to the north is how insanely expensive everything seems, but still.
 Moving onto the obvious literary side of Scandi culture, like lots of us I have a pretty good collection of Scandi crime novels ranging from the obvious Steig Larsson, through the more hygge Mari Jungstedt, all the way to the deeply dark and twisted Icelandic authors like Arnaldur Indridason and the wonderfully named Yrsa Sigurdardottir. I also have copies of the Sagas, and various other classic Scandi authors such as Par Lagerkvist etc. My list of funniest books ever includes Scandi titles such as Doppler by Erlend Loe and The Hundred Year Old Man by Jonas Jonasson.
 I cheer on Norwegian and Finnish skiers, even having to invent a Finnish heritage so that a particularly officious Austrian flag salesman at the Kitzbuhel Men's Super G would let me buy a Finnish flag to wave; and there are several Nordic men who I wouldn't kick out of bed for eating biscuits. (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau or Aksel Lund Svindal you are welcome to come eat biscuits in bed anytime you like, just in case this gets a wide audience ;) )
When a recent Internet quiz decided that my natural European home was Finland, I was pretty damn chuffed. Who cares about the insane over use of vowels in the language, the lack of daylight for a good proportion of the year, or the high suicide rate? This is the land of the Moomins for goodness sake, a place where Soviet era submarines sit on beaches alongside Swedish military forts, a country that seems to have virtually no TV in it's own language (when I was there TV shows seemed to be mainly in Swedish or English... all without subtitles.) a country that produced Lordi, that has some of the most interesting tattoos and facial hair I've ever seen; and even if they do seem to enjoy Hale and Pace reruns, did produce the funniest TV advert that has ever been made, (it seemed to involve a llama knocking on people's doors trying to sell them mobile phones). What's not to love? 
If this book is anything to go by there are a few things. Michael Booth is married to a Danish woman and has spent many years living in Denmark so he is starting from the position of mildly frustrated, but fond outsider. He happily admits that this book can never be a totally accurate look at how the various people of the Nordic states view each other, but is simply a record of how they are willing to discuss their neighbours with a nosey Englishman. Despite, or possibly because of this, the book is a fascinating look at the various social norms and hang ups found in the region. The insistence on community in Sweden for example, this coupled with the state control of so much of Swedish life, the slightly dodgy fascist past (anyone who has read book one of the millennium trilogy knows about this) and the surprisingly (or not considering the fascist leanings) poor record when it comes to things such as state enforced sterilisation makes Sweden look like very much the most unlovely of the Nordic countries, at least from a British point of view. These 'failings' alongside the outright tedium of Swedish society are given as explanations for the high levels of criticism made against Sweden by their neighbours. It seems that no other Nordic country has much good to say about the place, or at least when they do it is heavily qualified by just how awful other aspects of life are. Denmark is shown to have some disturbingly right wing leanings as well as high taxes, poor public services and a potentially annoying tendency to keep things hyggelig and folkelig. This hyggelig thing is probably wonderful, right up until you simply don't want to sing a folk song any more and have to pretend to be Finnish (even better Swedish) just to get some time away from it.
Norway stands out as the unexpectedly wealthy hillbilly, and is evidently viewed as such by the countries around it. The lack of community spirit on the fjords is seen as suspicious, but appears natural given the lack of historic communities in the area. While the recent economic insanity of Icelandic banking can be seen to have origins in the Icelanders view of themselves as Viking rebels. At least they are not concentrating on keeping things 100% hyggelig at all times. Finland is shown to be brooding, violent and silent. Something that doesn't totally match up with my experience of the place, but then I have only visited the bright lights of the southern cities. The reputation of Finns as heavy drinkers seems to be based more on the Finnish self critical nature than on any fact although it does appear that when they do get drinking, they consume pretty much their yearly quota in one sitting, and if the research quoted here is to be believed this does impact on the 'warrior gene' which is commonly found among ethnic Finns.
For anyone who is planning on visiting the area, or of interacting with the region in any meaningful way I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is a fascinating, funny and at times critical look at how the Nordic people view themselves and each other. As well as how they choose to present themselves to outsiders. The writing style is lighthearted but informative and intelligent in the same way as Bill Bryson or Simon Winder, and the book is a delight to read. Before I read this I was a fan of the region and reading the book has not changed that, it has simply given me a greater understanding of some of the idiosyncrasies that I had found maybe a little irksome. I think that with this additional understanding I may well come to love the region all the more, despite the odd failing here and there.

Thursday 20 February 2014
This is a quite adorable story. Anyone who has ever kept chickens really needs to read it. It works just as well as an adult novel as it would as one for children, and this edition has both a really sympathetic translation and some lovely illustrations to accompany the story. We meet Sprout, a bedraggled coup bound chicken who has big dreams. Like Jemima Puddleduck, Sprout would very much like to have an egg to hatch; unlike Jemima, Sprout is rather a wily bird. She is also a friendly creature, who happily makes friends with a lone duck, a choice which leads to her forming a life changing bond with a certain abandoned egg..... I really want people to experience this story for themselves, as it is very very sweet. With this in mind I don't want to say anything else about the story really, except that it is rare to find so much compassion and such expressive writing in a short story about chickens. It's a lovely little addition to the Waterstones Bookclub in my opinion.

The Quick - Lauren Owen Spoilers included
It's strange just how much your expectations can impact on the enjoyment of a book. When you start a book thinking it is one thing and it suddenly becomes something totally different it can be a pleasant surprise, or it can just make your heart sink. I must admit that while reading The Quick I got a sinking feeling at least to start with. I was really looking forward to a bit of Victorian melodrama, was expecting it to be nicely Gothic, and OTT. That is what I wanted to be reading. The first third or so satisfied me totally, we had family misfortune, with siblings locking each other in fake priest holes, while their father's died of unspecified diseases upstairs. We had houses that couldn't keep hold of staff domestic or educational and we had languid young men roaming London, writing awful poetry and falling in love with each other and with the plays of Wilde. So far so good is what I thought. Just what I had hoped for. A slightly different take on Clare Clark's Beautiful Lies, Victorian, overblown and perfect for curling up with in bad weather. Suddenly however my languid young men were busy having their throats ripped out while en route to Wilde's Salon. This was not what I was expecting, or what I was wanting; too much gore and all too suddenly.

My first thought was 'murder?', followed almost instantly by 'Oh no, it's Vampires.... tell me it's not Vampires...' I really wasn't in the mood for Vampires. Often I rather enjoy a Vampire novel; however I really do prefer that the little buggers don't creep up on me both in real life and in fiction. I have enjoyed Anne Rice's Vampire world, and much more recently loved reading George RR Martin's Fevre Dream, but I knew what to expect there and had time to prepare. That was not the case here and I'm afraid that my view of this novel has suffered because of it. In all fairness there is very little wrong with The Quick, it has some entertaining characters, some interesting situations, and some very well imagined set ups. There are some unusual aspects which do add to the charm of the whole thing. It's just I really didn't want to be reading about Vampires, not right now.... sorry but there it is. I guess that it would have been possible that the novel would have been so amazing as to overcome my initial reluctance to the genre, but sadly it didn't. I finished it, and found it to be a mildly entertaining read, just not the read for me. Maybe at another time I would have been drawn in, maybe I would have enjoyed it more. Right now, in the mood I'm in at the moment it wasn't really for me, so proved to be a slight disappointment.

Monday 17 February 2014

Happy Monday!
Happy Monday everyone, I hope everyone has had a lovely weekend and managed to get some reading done. Personally I'm afraid I've not managed a huge amount. On Friday, Valentine's Day my lovely fiance gave me the perfect romantic gift, a parcel of books. How well he knows me, and what a lovely choice he made, A Spy in the House of Love and Henry and June by Anais Nin and Sexus by Henry Miller. Obviously I had to start on these right away so Saturday morning saw me reading A Spy in the House of Love. I must say that I found it an uncomfortable read in many ways. It follows Sabina as she flits between her husband and her lovers. She is constantly searching for some elusive quality that will satisfy her need for love. She knows that her lifestyle forces her to lie to her husband, and she feels guilt over this. The strain of having to be an 'actress' is constant, but she is incapable of staying constant. Her husband provides kindness, but the other roles she expects from a relationship are left unsatisfied and she feels the need to seek them in the arms of other men. I think most of us could relate to the way that she tries to convince herself of the worthiness of each of the men she has relationships with, and although it is difficult to approve of her behaviour the feelings that motivate her are easy to understand. Even though Sabrina is hardly an admirable character she is an understandably human one.

So now it'd a new week and I have to decide which sections of my heap should be attacked next; I have a fair few wonderful looking new books that I am very keen to be getting on with, as well as a rather attractive looking pile of older books that I would love to be reading right now. It seems, in fact, that I may be a little spoilt for choice. For now I will be continuing with Lauren Owen's The Quick, which so far seems to be a rather intriguing Gothic novel. As well as this I have a collection of essays by Nancy Mitford called 'A Talent to Annoy' to delve into. Can't complain about too much to read :)

Thursday 13 February 2014

A Wolf in Hindelheim
This is a deeply claustrophobic novel, set wonderfully in a bleak and backward 1920s rural Germany that feels far more as though it belongs to a medieval rather than twentieth century world. Hindelheim is a typical remote village, where outsiders are viewed with suspicion and where unhappy marriages and petty squabbles abound. Set against this backdrop of small minded rivalries a baby disappears. Suspicions rest upon the Jewish shopkeeper, a young man who moves through life with easy grace, and who has never made any real attempts to fit into his community. Constable Theodore Hildebrandt, as usual refuses to accept the pervading view of the situation, at least not without any evidence. His suspicions about what actually happened at the house of Dr Koenig are clouded by his feelings towards the Dr's young wife. This is a taut and well written novel that pulls together threads related to the dangers of rural small-mindedness, an underlying anti-Semitism, the rise of the 'science' of eugenics, and the growth of proto-Nazi groups within Weimar Germany. The concluding chapter leaves us in little doubt about the potential fate that awaits one central character while leaving the fate of the other characters to the reader's imaginations. The author conjures up the village and it's villagers with some finely drawn portraits of characters who breathe life into the story, all while they are spreading their poison. I would recommend this to anyone who enjoyed Hannah Kent's Burial Rites, or Robert Dinsdale's Gingerbread they all contain the same wonderful thread of threat and barely contained violence bubbling away just under the veneer of petty respectability found in small, backward looking communities.

Wednesday 12 February 2014

Speed Test

I've just done the Speed Reading test as features on Twitter and in The Guardian, really quite interesting. I did all three of the tests and for each managed to get a 3 out of 3 on the questions. I went from a slightly ridiculous 1,408 words per minute, down to a mere 813 wpm. My average was a respectable 1,069 words per minute. Putting me something like 330% faster than most people. I'm not sure how accurate this is but I'm still rather chuffed with myself.

A Pleasure and a Calling
Don't you just love it when you read a book and can see just how well it would work as a film, as TV as some kind of visual adaptation? It's even better if you have this thought and then discover that other people have evidently had the exact same thought and film rights have been bought up. Now sadly I can't say that I've come across any rumours that A Pleasure and a Calling is to be made into a film, but if not it probably should. Creepy seems to be the word that comes up most often in discussions of this book, and to be fair it is the word that best sums up the wonderful central character of Mr Heming. Mr Heming is the embodiment of creepy; he is a simply brilliant character. I kept getting a 'One Hour Photo' vibe from this whole novel, certainly Sy the photo guy and Mr Heming would find that they have a lot in common.
To the outside world Mr Heming seems to be an upstanding member of the community, he donates, he has excellent relations with his employees and he is always willing to help his clients. Even if they don't always realise that he is helping them. All he wants is to be able to act the voyeur, to share the intimate details of people's lives and he will go to great lengths to make sure that he gets what he wants. This story is deeply, deeply creepy from the start, although things become especially dark once Abigail comes on the scene, who knows what lengths Mr Heming will go to, to experience her life..... his intrusion quickly becomes anything but benign.
Reading this book will make you wonder just how many people could have access to your home, and if it doesn't tempt you to get the locks changed then you simply aren't reading it right! lol.

Tuesday 11 February 2014

I had such high hopes for this book, the premise seemed so interesting. A girl, who has been raised away from the world. A girl who can only understand the outside world via the texts she has been given while secluded away in 'The Garden'. A girl who has her life turned upside down and who is confronted by the real world and has to learn to live in it. I thought that sounded right up my street. Not to mention that it really is a lovely looking book, and it is SO much easier to feel fondly disposed towards a beautiful book.
Sadly this didn't really manage to distract from my disappointment when reading this novel. I don't know if it was due to me having other things to be getting on with over the weekend, but this simply failed to grab me at all. I had none of my usual desire to come back to this. In fact I had to force myself to return. This wasn't due to a poor story; the story was genuinely pretty damn good. A highly original and interesting story about an all female community St. Emily's where the 'orphans' are raised totally apart from the outside world. In fact they are told very little about the outside world, apart from how dangerous it is with 'demonmales' and 'injuns' waiting to attack and burn them up. The reasons behind some of the philosophy were shared gradually over the course of the novel, with the death of 'Emily' leading to 'Mother' founding the order with a group of kidnapped 'daughters; each one named after the location of her capture. These children are treated very harshly, with beatings and confinement being regular punishments for curiosity about the outside world. However what is never made clear is what the nature of the 'war' is to be. Each girl is being raised as a weapon, (all very Great Expectations you might think), and each girl is prepared to leave 'The Garden' wearing a Burka. In fact each girl is trained to make their way through airports, as well as being trained to kill 'demonmales' and to take 'medicine' (presumably suicide pills?) However some sections where the girls' futures are discussed seem to suggest more that they are to be sold off as sex slaves rather than as some kind of feminist army for the Goddess. It all gets rather confusing, and I would have loved it if there had been a bit more clarity here. The main reason for the vague plot here is due to Calamity Leek's role as narrator. Obviously as a brainwashed 'sister' she is unreliable, but her views of everything cloud everything so badly that what could be a fascinating fantasy/crime/drama just starts to become a confusing chore.
I may not have been in the right frame of mind to appreciate this novel, and if I do get a chance to then I may well come back to it in the future; but for now this one really wasn't for me.

Thursday 6 February 2014

Signing off for the weekend.

It's my birthday tomorrow; I shall be more elderly than I'd like to admit... however I am still looking forward to my day, especially as it seems I shall have my lovely man at home for a whole long weekend. Due to this wonderful rarity, it is likely that not a huge amount of reading will actually get done over the next few days..... now probably my idea of 'not a huge amount' is a little different to lots of people, but there you are. In any case, I am signing off for a few days as of now, I'll be back on Monday to catch up on the lovely book that I finished earlier today, (it's another bookshop related title...) and to make a record of anything else bookish that I get up to... until then have lovely weekends. Laters!

Wednesday 5 February 2014

Is Mr Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore the best bookshop ever?
I'm sure that if you read this post then you will get some idea of my feelings on that question? But first I need to ask another....How cool is this book? That is the question that I want answered right now..... my answer; totally, absolutely and completely awesome. It is a must read for every book worm out there. I'm SO glad that it is one of the new Waterstones Book Club titles; this should give so many extra chances to push this amazing book into people's hands. The story has a little bit of everything; a secret society, the clash between new and old technology, a hint of romance, quests, impossible codes, maybe even a wizard.... OK so maybe not an actual wizard but still.....  In answer to my initial question I's say probably yes; It probably is one of the best bookshops to ever appear in print, it's up there with anything Zafron has come up with; and on top of this it has what sounds like an incredible fantasy series as a central plot feature. I am just gutted that I can't actually read The Dragon Song Chronicles now..... please, please can someone actually write that series so that I can?? Just in case there is any doubt, I loved every moment of this book, and I urge EVERYONE to get hold of a copy and to read it. Just read it in one sitting, which for me isn't saying all that much admittedly, but still I defy anyone to want to walk away from the crazy brilliance that is this book. So finally my overriding message when it comes to this particular book is.....  READ THIS BOOK RIGHT NOW!! :)

Big Brother - Lionel Shriver

This book and I were getting on so well; I had worked through the first section, which was harsh and uncomfortable with just a little bit of cruelty and revulsion thrown into the mix, and was enjoying the story of redemption and normality that made up the central section. The characters were generally coming together nicely, sure there were still toxic moments and certain relationships were causing me concern, but still I was hopeful..... Section three came along and dashed all my hopes. Like JR discovering it was all a dream, the third section turned everything on it's head, and made this really a deeply depressing (if realistic) read. Basically the whole story forms a giant cautionary tale about the dangers of food obsession. It nicely, and firmly, makes the link between control issues and 'issues' with food; and there are no bones made with criticising both eating to excess and with taking dieting to the extreme. The message seems simple; the only way to stay happy and healthy is to take everything in moderation. Carrying a few extra pounds isn't the end of the world, but becoming a 'lard-arse' as one of the characters puts it, is only going to lead to ill health and further misery. The story also casts a pretty stern eye over the culture of fame; making the point that fame for fame's sake rarely brings happiness, and that it is better to seek fulfilment through actual relationships with people.
 The family dynamic in this novel feels so totally real, that it is easy to see that Shriver was drawing from personal experience. The unbreakable bond between first and middle siblings, a bond that is capable of pushing everyone else, including younger siblings, away. The sharing of in jokes about childhood and the family.  The fear that once these stories are done there will be nothing else to talk about. The writing of these aspects of a sibling’s relationship is heartfelt, raw and rather painful to read. Even more uncomfortable is the reversal of the 'natural order', when the oldest child comes to rely upon their younger sibling instead of providing for them. The sense of shame at this reversal is heartbreaking at times. There are some absolutely brutal scenes; scenes where every dark, secret prejudice you may have about those around you are expressed. There are scenes where you will feel totally disgusted.  Personally I cannot decide if the toilet scene or the incident with the chocolate cake revolts me more. To balance these there are some incredibly touching moments, when Pandora suddenly realises that she can actually recognise her big brother again is deeply moving.
This is a book that is painfully honest, and one to read.

Eat Him if You Like and Under the Sun

Two quite different books here, and yet both equally wonderful in their own way. Jean Teule's 'Eat Him if You Like' is a short little novel that gives a frank view of a truly disgusting incident from, relatively recent, French history. The story follows Alain de Moneys, a deputy mayor and upstanding young man, as he visits a local fair in August 1870. Once there he has friendly conversations with several of the local peasants, he has been a personal benefactor to many of them, and is happily going about his business. After a while he comes to the defence of his cousin, who has been accused of having pro-Prussian sympathies. This causes the crowd to turn upon de Moneys; the crowd swiftly become a mob who precede to beat him, brutally torture him and, after dragging him around the village light a bonfire over his body burning him to death. As you can imagine this is not exactly light reading. The story is mainly told from the point of view of de Moneys, so in that sense is a fiction. However it remains faithful to the events of the case. There is the gore, and brutal violence that you would expect from a story of this nature. Violence that is all the more horrific due to the way in which 'mob mentality' so quickly takes hold, and due to the close proximity to our own age. It seems ridiculous that events like this could take place as late as the 1870's, but then it also seems slightly insane that Western Europeans could accurately be described as peasants at this point in time too. No matter how much Zola you may read this still seems as though it should be set in a far more distant time or place. reading this has reaffirmed my desire to dig out some Zola, or maybe Huxley's 'Devil's of Loudon' and read some more about the brutality of the French Peasantry.
Moving on the 'Under the Sun' bu Justin Kerr-Smiley; unlike 19th century France which seems as though it should be modern and similar to Britain, Japan and Japanese culture is always presented with a frisson of difference. The Japanese are so often presented as incredibly alien and quite literally inscrutable, so it was refreshing to read a Pacific war story that had a focus on mutual respect and understanding. The novel is the story of the friendship that blossoms between Strickland, a downed RAF pilot, Captain  Hayama, the Japanese officer who captures him, and Ito, the Christian orderly who cares for them both. The start of the novel is packed full of cliches; every Battle of Britain cliche available is used and the story feels weaker for it, however once you get past this section the story evolves and blossoms into something quite beautiful. Hayama embodies the code of the Samurai in everything that he does, from acceptance of brutality when he feels it is part of his duty to his Emperor, to the joy he expresses in simple pleasures like sharing a dish of sake. By showing Hayama in this way Kerr-Smiley manages to subtly draw comparisons with European chivalry, showing the Code as something with true honour. It does not seem that this is something that is often present in Western views of the code, probably because it was so misused and misinterpreted during the atrocities of the Pacific war. Here it seems to be a natural and beautiful thing. I couldn't help thinking of films like, the incredible Twilight Samurai, as I read this. Although I must admit that John Man's 'Samurai: The Last Warrior' (the inspiration for the film 'The Last Samurai'), also came to mind. By the end of the novel I found myself in the interesting position of really hoping that one character would kill the other, this was the only honourable and satisfactory outcome I could see. A wonderful book.