Friday 29 May 2015

The House at the Edge of the World - Julia Rochester

A surprisingly dark look at the emotional damage that can be caused by family life. This book has some incredibly vivid depictions of teenage life in the West Country, which really draw you into this story. I have to admit that I became so lost in these gorgeous images that I almost didn't see the darker aspects creeping into the story. This story has wonderful characters Matthew is particularly lovely. Growing up in Cornwall I'm pretty sure that I met a fair few of these wonderfully drawn individuals around the village, it is clear from the brilliant detail that the author grew up in the rural west country.
 The most wonderful concept of all is Matthew's map, a painting that charts the local and personal history of Thornton with all it's myths, legends and histories. The idea of this is something like a modern day Mappa Mundi, showing time and place, fact and fiction all layered onto each other. This is an integral part of the plot, providing hidden meanings to events that the twins have lived through. This is an exceptional debut and is a book well worth losing yourself in.

Wednesday 13 May 2015

Catherine, Called Birdy - Karen Cushman

When this was first released, back in 1994, I was the same age as the protagonist Catherine. It could have been expected that this would have been the kind of book I'd have jumped at, medieval setting, disgruntled young teen at the heart of it, a little bit of love, a lot of comedy; what wouldn't I have liked. Unfortunately, I missed this one, probably in part due to the fact that at thirteen I considered myself far too much of a grown up to be reading 'kids books', unless I already loved them in any case. I was reading proper adult books by then and would never have given this a chance even if I had been aware of it. Now as a more mature reader (ahem, yeah so that might mean 'damn sight older'), I am loving getting stuck in to some of the great books that are out there for kids of all ages. This really should be considered as one of the great books. I get the impression that in the States this is pretty much a classic, but here in the UK, it really is very little known, and deserves to be more widely read.
OK, so as a criticism historical accuracy is not what this book is about. To a certain extent it is there, people dress in pretty much the correct way (the odd flouting of Sumptuary laws aside), the world revolves around the cycle of church and seasonal tasks etc, however at the same time Catherine is way too kick ass and ready to stand up for herself than you would expect a thirteenth century thirteen year old to be. The fact that her father has every intention and right to marry her off to any man of HIS choosing seems to come as a massive surprise to her. Even Shakespeare had his Juliet acting all shocked when confronted with this age old truth, so we can excuse Cushman for giving her character a bit of a surprise if only to allow the idea to shock modern readers. However, Catherine is not just shocked she is also determined to do something about it. Her attempts at getting out of marriage lead to more physical violence from her father than a lot of contemporary readers would appear to be happy with, but to be honest the level of free will she is willing to show could expect a beating or two at the very least back in 1290.
Catherine really is a great character, despite the anachronistic level of talking back to her father, she really doesn't read as though a modern teen has somehow been dropped in the high middle ages. She knows the stuff she should do (marriage prospects aside that it), she gets bored sitting around doing her sewing and spinning, but wants to alleviate that boredom by working out in the fields like the village children not by doing anything that would seem out of it's time.
I've read a few criticisms that have mentioned the mere fact that this takes the form of a diary as written by a thirteenth century girl as being a reason to dismiss the book. I think these are unfair, for two reasons. Firstly it is a misconception that EVERYONE in the Middle Ages was 100% illiterate, people didn't just wake up some time around the 1700s and all suddenly know how to read and write. In fact some level of literacy was common among a large swathe of the population, from being able to read and write as we would understand it down to having the ability to read and or write individual words or phrases usually from the Bible. So the idea of a girl having the ability to read and to record her thoughts is not that ridiculous. Secondly, she goes to great lengths to explain how her favourite brother, Edward, made a point of teaching her, giving an entirely plausible reason for her to have this ability. Not only this but the story makes it entirely clear that most people won't be able to read her book, giving the ability to her brothers, the Steward and a handful of others only. So I do not think this criticism holds up to much at all.
The style here has been compared to Adrian Mole, and there certainly are some levels where this is fair, overall though it reminded me more of Georgia Nicholson from  Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging the attitude and even the preoccupations seemed similar despite the difference in time period.
This is one of those books that I am really glad to have finally read, I half wish that the thirteen year old me had discovered it twenty one years ago, but at least I've had the pleasure now and can recommend it to as many young teens as possible in the future.

Colditz, The German Viewpoint - Reinhold Eggers

Immortalised in the TV series Colditz by the character of Hauptman Ullmann Reinhold Eggers was one of the Security Officers at Kriegsgefangenenoffizierssonderlager 4C (sorry just love that word) from 1940 until it's capture by American Forces in April 1945. As an internationalist and teacher he spent the years between his release from the army in 1918 and 1933 forging links with schools and groups in the UK and France, and it was only being denounced to the new Nazi authorities that stopped these trips. On his recall to the army in 1939 his language skills made him a useful translator and led to him being posted to a POW camp at Hohnstein. The first section of this book discusses how this 'training' at Hohnstein could never have prepared him for the inveterate escape artists he would encounter in Coldirz. The rest oof the book is a reasonably chronological breakdown of the various escape attempts, as seen from the German forces attempting to stop them. It would seem that Eggers respected a good number of the would-be escapees and treated them with dignity, admittedly this is a book written by the man himself and could be seen as apologist in it's reading of events however it was edited by one of the former prisoners, and given the foreword that 'This man was our opponent, but nevertheless he earned our respect by his correct attitude, self-control and total lack of rancour despite all the harassment we gave him.' A number of former prisoners spoke for the man during his post-war trial and subsequent imprisonment by Soviet authorities, and it seems to be agreed that he really was a pretty decent individual trying to do the best he could in difficult times.
The book is well written with a huge range of material being covered, however I would recommend that some prior knowledge of events at the camp could be useful before reading this mainly because several are referred to throughout the text. It is amusing that Eggers often remained baffled by how escapes were carried out right up until he read the story from the view point of the prisoners. If you have any familiarity with the TV show, that was heavily based on Pat Reid's Colditz Story, then you will recognise a number of the escapes mentioned here. The nationalities may have been altered a little (the TV show SERIOUSLY simplified things, leaving out the Dutch and Belgian prisoners entirely for example and having the UK contingent a pretty homogeneous group instead of the mishmash of commonwealth nations from Canadians to Maoris that actually resided in the Castle.) but the facts remain the same. Either way it is fascinating for a Brit to have the story from such a unique German point of view.

Tuesday 12 May 2015

What She Left - T. R. Richmond

Alice Salmon is a young journalist who is found drowned after a University reunion in Southampton. There is some debate as to what caused her to drown; was it a drunken accident, suicide or was one of the men in her life responsible? Professor Cooke, a man who has crossed paths with Alice at various points decides to reconstruct her life and death by unearthing the footprint left by Alice both online and in the real world, and this book is put together out of those findings. Essentially the book is an attempt to take the epistolary or diary genre into the social media age. This is something that has been done before, Night Film by Marisha Pessl managed to tell it's story almost entirely through it's odd collection of web screen shots, newspaper clippings and social media interactions (and both Danielewski's House of Leaves and S by Dorst and Abrams use a variety of media 'artifacts' to tell their stories); What She Left does not. 95% of the story advances and is revealed through the letters written by Professor Cooke to his Canadian pen-pal, in these letters Cooke not only describes and explains his actions he also discusses details about Alice that he has apparently gleaned from social media (much of which source material never actually appears in the book.) The exerts from twitter, text messages and various blogs are stuck into this story, somewhat haphazardly, and often don't appear to add anything of any particular worth to the story. If feels that the author wanted to do something really groundbreaking, but got cold feet and fell back on more conventional storytelling methods.
Having said all of this I did enjoy the book, in a social media age it was an interesting look at the impact constant communication could have of the posthumous reputation of an individual. It also did have a genuine twist in the tail which I thought was ingenious. In a Girl on the Train age the effect of alcohol on the reliability and relationships of Alice would seem to be all the range, although I do sometimes wonder at the number of 'alcohol makes women bad/mad/victims/sluts/disgusting etc etc messages that we need it does start to feel like a bit of a general backlash. I can't say that I found myself 'liking' any of the characters (except maybe the minor character of Fliss). For a start. I found it hard to see how so many people could have been just so enamoured of Alice, with her histrionics, self absorbed whining and apparent self entitlement. She came over as someone to be avoided at all costs. Few of the other characters came over as too much better. One character who seemed to have been stuck into the book for no obvious reason was Ben, the ex boyfriend of Alice. At no point was he deemed to have been involved in her death, and his sole purpose seemed to have been to illustrate that Alice was totally happy trying illicit substances if ever offered. Maybe to show that she was the kind of girl who 'took no shit' from boyfriends, or rather who 'took shit for quite a while, then decided not to and dumped them' so much like the majority of people really.
As I have said I didn't dislike this book; the story was entertaining enough, in a summer thriller kind of way and despite my issues with it's format I was kept interested enough to read it all. I think that a few years ago this would have seemed like a better read, but there have been so many female orientated murder/thrillers recently and they have been so well handled as to make this one feel a little weak. So while it's not the best, it would certainly make an entertaining enough beach read.

Friday 8 May 2015

Penguin Visit. 7th May 2015

So yesterday was fun. My train into London was a little late thanks to the usual issues of someone being hit by a train at Stratford (why is it always Stratford where this happens?), and signalling problems, So I had a bit of a mad dash across the city to make it to 80 Strand.... I have to say I was expecting a bit more of a big deal at street level.... some tap dancing penguins or something... you know just to let you know that you'd got to the right place. As it was I made my way into the somewhat anonymous building and, once I'd collected my magic visitor's pass, made my way up to the tenth floor. Up here there were a load of Penguins and Waterstoners having a cuppa and taking in the gorgeous views of the river.
 It was really lovely meeting a selection of booksellers from up and down the country, and grand to get my certificate from University of Derby too. I do wish I'd used my married name however, as I would have got all of the handshaking stuff out of the way right at the start rather than sitting about waiting for the Vs to come along. Oh well.... After a little more mingling we got to the really exciting bit of the day the bit where we get to meet some authors. There was a wee bit of fear going around our Waterstones group that it would be DEEPLY awful if we didn't recognise the authors..... Luckily we had a few treats in store.

First up.... Julian Clary... ok so a video message from the man... but still pretty damn cool. He gave us a wee reading from his upcoming book The Bolds.

This is a book aimed at the 5-8 market, and from the section we had read to us is going to be hilarious. It's about a family of Hyenas who have gone undercover as a human family living in deepest darkest Teddington. From what we heard this is a genuinely funny kids story with enough adult humour to keep the parents happy too.
Our second guest was the very funny Dave Gorman, reading us a chapter from his book Too Much Information.
He gave us chapter twelve, which discusses how buying a Rage Against the Machine single, does not count as an act of protest. So funny.... the whole book, (which I read on my train journey home), is a look at the impact modern technology, the internet and social media especially, has impacted on our lives. All of this seemed particularly relevant late last night and early this morning as I was embroiled in online twitter and facebook discussions about the General Election. Dave Gorman gave a lively and very entertaining reading, managing to work his footnotes into the text in an ingenious manner. So we'd had two very funny authors.... evidently the time had come for something a little heavier, more poetic even. Our third guest was Anne Enright, she was with us to talk about what had inspired her to write her new novel, The Green Road.
Enright is a tiny little woman, but honestly sitting listening to her lilt as she discussed the beauty that had inspired her writing, was gorgeous. As she spoke the sun came through the clouds and sent a shaft of sunlight right into the room adding a magical touch to the experience.
Once we'd had a delve into our bags of goodies it was time to hit the bar and have a big more mingling, this time with the authors we'd already heard from as well as with a selection of popular and upcoming authors from the good old Penguin/Random House stable. Some of these guys were really intense, while others seemed to be simply loving talking to people about their work. We had kids authors with books just out, adult authors and a few non fictioners thrown into the mix too. Had some really interesting conversations about the books, the authors themselves and about what it takes to be a bookseller.
It certainly added a few slightly unusual titles to my tbr pile...... Coming away from the event seemed like a real shame, but at least I had made a few good contacts and had my book haul to bring home and get on with reading. Now all I need to do is make a start. ;)

Real thanks to everyone at Penguin and Random House, the publicity people and the authors who time out of their day to come along and have a chat with us. It made for a great day.

Wednesday 6 May 2015

The Classics Book Tag.... part one....

So I've been seeing these go around the internet for a wee while and figured that it was something I could think about doing. I read a fair few of what I consider to be 'classics' so I thought this would be a relatively simple list to complete, although as with everything it gets trickier when you actually think about it.

1: An Overhyped Classic You really didn't like...
 Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse.
I came across the Penguin decades series at my (then) local library. I read a few of them and was really enjoying the selection of decade defining classics. Then along came Billy Liar.... well I hated it. Just couldn't get on with it at all. The characters were annoying at best, not in a 'well this is an annoying character, I can see why the author has made him like that..' way but more in a 'hate that I am wasting a portion of my life reading about this little twerp' way. On top of this I found the conversations and situations depicted to be ridiculous and about as funny as having teeth pulled. There are so many genuinely funny or important books from the 1950s that genuinely capture the spirit of the age, sadly this just isn't one of them. An awful, awful read!

2: Favourite Time Period to read...
 This is actually quite a difficult question to answer, part of me wanted to say the 19th Century covering the diverse range of authors that it does, and part of me thought I might actually plump for even earlier than that; however in the end I decided that the books that I go back to time after time are quite often written during and set in the interwar period of the twentieth century. This period seems to have seen a flourishing of writing especially of women's writing, often with a light and humourous touch, but usually with some form of message or universal truth behind it. I appreciate that Mary McCarthy's The Group was actually written in the 1960's but it is firmly set in the interwar period and is very much a classic as far as I am concerned. I would also throw books like Diary of a Provincial Lady and Our Spoons Came from Woolworths into this grouping, and can come back to these titles and be guaranteed to enjoy myself. Stella Gibbons is a writer who managed to mock the popular writing of the day and yet also to produce some little gems for anyone one who has never gone beyond Cold Comfort Farm I urge you to look at some of her other works. Winifred Holtby's books are fairly new to me, I think they only came onto my radar after the TV adaptation of South Riding, they seem to capture the spirit of the age and place quite perfectly. Then we come to Nancy. Nancy Mitford, one of the fascinating Mitford sisters and one of my favourite authors. Again there is a wonderful TV adaptation of her work which manages to bring out all of the Wodehouse elements without losing the lighter touch that comes through in her writing. For me her writing is simply marvellous. She mocks the society that she grew up in, pulling in all the characters that she had encountered and yet is able to make us feel for them at the same time. As something of a romantic, and, in my younger years possibly a bit of a Bolter too, the section where Fanny discusses Linda's recent death with her mother always resonates with me; Fabrice, Fanny explains, was “the great love of her life, you know”.  The Bolter: “Oh, dulling,” said my mother sadly. “One always thinks that. Every, every time.” Absolutely true, heartbreaking, and simply perfect.

3: Favourite Fairy Tale....
I owe much of my love of fairy tales to the wonderful Marshall Cavendish StoryTeller series from my childhood. At one point I had every single one of these and deeply deeply regret that over time my collection has dwindled so that now all I own are a handful of the cassettes and the book that grouped together some of the better known stories. I have so many stories from this selection that I love. Wiser than the Czar, which is a Serbian folk tale I believe, is a particular favourite.
However I have a special fondness for the Grimm's fairy tales, and for Rapunzel especially. I listened to the Story Teller version so many times that this is still the way that I tell the story. I love that the storyteller version included the blinding of the Prince, and can forgive them for having Rapunzel betray her relationship by complaining about the Witch's weight rather than by her impending pregnancy causing her clothes to get too tight. I really love the story, in it's original form it is a candid look at the dangers of pregnancy and contains so many of the fundamental elements of fairy tales. On top of this it is really a rather romantic story of love, loss and sacrifice and I'm always a sucker for those. ;). Having recently watched the film Into the Woods, I can say that I really loved the version of Rapunzel that featured in the film.

4: Most embarrassing classic to have never read.....

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.
O.K. so I'm blushing.... I've never actually read this book. I've seen the film.... I've read all about it... I know what happens but I've never actually opened this one. It's simply never appealed to me, like so many of the 'great American classics' really. To be honest my list of books that I think I should have read but that I haven't, reads like a list of American Classics.... I should get get on this one I think. My problem is largely that, thanks to other media, I am so familiar with the characters and stories of these books that it seems almost like a waste of my reading time to actually read them. A bad attitude and one I will work on. I really feel I should make a start with Mockingbird, and maybe 2015 is the year to do it, especially as Go Set a Watchman is due out later in the year. We shall see.

5: Top Five to Read Soon....
Like a few other people I've split this into my top five to read soon and my top five to reread soon..... Read soons first....
 Five of the books that are on my tbr soon pile right now... Both Slaves of Solitude and The Pendragon Legand have been on my book self for a while, Hamilton is not an author that I have read before but he is someone who I have heard really good things about so I'm keen to get stuck in to Slaves. I have read a fair few of Antal Szerb's books and have loved all of them so far, Oliver VII was an especially good one with a few elements of the Zenda books. Szerb seems to have been an especially versatile author and it is tragic that he was unable to get the recognition he deserved in his lifetime. I am thinking that I shall combine my reading of A Legacy with reading Iron Gustav... I have a short list of WWI classics that I need to read actually, (shocking I know, me having a list of books to read!) but I think this is likely to be the first from the list to get ticked off. Over the summer my husband and I are planning a couple of nice little trips to Italy, so I have been gathering together a few suitable Italian classics to read while we are away. I always find that reading a book while you are actually visiting it's setting is an especially pleasant way to enjoy it. Our first trip is to Sicily in June, so for this I plan on taking The Art of Joy by Sapienza and Scent of a Woman by Arpino. The Art of Joy is billed as THE Sicilian classic so I'm looking forward to that one, while Scent of a Woman is set in war torn Italy following two men making their way back south. Both should be ideal for the beaches and cafes of Sicily.
     5a: Five Classics to reread soon....

  So these are my five that I plan to reread in the next couple of months.... I'm ignoring my habitual rereads like Cold Comfort and Diary of a Provincial Lady... I've already talked about those. These five are books that I can read again and again. With both Vanity Fair and Les Liasions Dangereuses I tend to dip in and out of the book, reading selected passages rather than the whole thing. There are moments in each that are quite perfect as far as I am concerned. The passage describing the battle of Waterloo and the pathos of George's death in Vanity fair is wonderful, as is Becky's first taste of a curry. in LLD it is the section where Madame de Rosemond tries to counsel the Presidente saying that 'a man enjoys the happiness he feels, a woman the happiness she gives.' her warning that the Presidente can only expect grief if she gives in to love is ignored and it is knowing this that gives such poignancy to the passage. Both Silas Marner and Ethan Frome are short and tragic stories that I indulge in on a regular basis, they both are rather dark at times but I delight in the darkness, also it helps that they are both quite short so I can squeeze them into the busiest of days. As for Zenda and it's sequel Rupert of Hentzau, I'm a sucker for central Europe, for a swashbuckling romance and for the high melodrama of these two adventures. The film version is wonderful despite it's ridiculous casting of Rupert of Hentzau, but I encourage everyone to try these two great Edwardian romps.

I think that is probably enough for one afternoon here so shall love you and leave you now....


Day Four - Sarah Lotz

When this arrived in the post this morning I'm afraid I got a little excited, I loved The Three, and was keen to know how this book could follow on from there. I have to admit that Day Four jumped the reading queue rather badly.... as I had started it within a couple of hours of it arriving. It did not disappoint, as can be demonstrated by my staying up to complete the book in pretty much one sitting. As with The Three, this is a story that unfolds through various POV characters, one point of difference was that here the action was entirely contained on a single cruise ship that mysteriously loses power and seems to become lost on it's final day of the cruise. The majority of the action concerns the total collapse of any semblance of civilised behaviour as the passengers and many of the crew descend into a 'Lord of the Flies' mentality. As the situation worsens the true nature of each individual is revealed with the majority not coming off looking all that great. Weaving through all of this is the medium Celine del Ray, who starts to act out of character and seems keen on genuinely helping the stricken passengers and crew. A series of hauntings only make the situation worse, although the nature of these hauntings seems to vary greatly depending on the nature of the individual involved. The ending of the book tries to tie the whole thing together and to explain just why the ship is eventually found essentially devoid of life.
I enjoyed this a lot more than I did The Three, I found the ending here to be less random, and certainly didn't feel that it had been shoehorned in to the story in the same was as with the earlier book. The moments of spookiness worked better in this second book for me too. I also liked that this book was more explicit about what could be causing all of the events described. I'll happily admit that this book is highly derivative; it owes a HUGE debt to films like Devil and Ghost Ship, not to mention Lost etc etc.... However this does still manage to put a fresh spin on events and situations, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.