Thursday, 3 August 2017

9 Re-readable books

For the writing
Her, Harriet Lane
One of my favourite books that I've read in the past few years. The story completely blew me away and the writing was very clever. Similarly to her first book the flawed protagonist is weirdly likeable and terrible at the same time and I loved reading it.

Blackberry Wine - Joanne Harris
One of her less famous books, I don't know why blackberry wine captivates me. But this is a book that I've read several times and travels with me to every home I move to. If this one isn't on my shelf I feel like it's not my bedroom. I think it's earned a re-read for its loyalty.

Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austin
Obviously. A childhood favourite for the story and a new favourite as I only read it for the first time in the last few years. I will never be able to read it as many times as I've seen the BBC TV series or the film adaptations... but I can give it a damn good try.

For the memories
Outlander - Diana Gabledon 
The book I took on my gap year and which consequently has completely come away from it's bindings and is impossible to read comfortably at the moment. I would love a new copy of the full set of Outlander books, once Diana finishes the series. Then I intend to read them all again.

Max's Millions
Amazingly, I actually couldn't even find the author of this book and it maybe that I have not remembered the title correctly. I've read this book about 9 times at least. It's a short book for young teens about a boy who builds a video game while he's off school and on bed rest. He makes a million and it's all about what he does with it. Brilliant and cosy.

The Little White Horse - Elizabeth Goudge
One of the best proposals in the history of literature. A bit weird as it happens between characters that I perceive as children, but it is gloriously sweet and genuine. This book captures the imagination with love and myth and magic and is beautiful to read and read again.

Eat Pray Love - Elizabeth Gilbert
Although one of the more recent books I've read, I read EPL at a very difficult time in my life and it was incredibly inspiring. Yup, I am one of those people! But it is true and it is definitely a book I would pick up again. I love the film and I loved reading it and I can see it helping me in the future.

For the social commentary
The Handmaids Tale - Margaret Atwood
The more this book is in people's consciousness the better to be honest. It is harrowing and well written and well thought out. I think it's important to read books like this one and see how these things start out and gradually devolve. It's a very human book and that is what is so terrifying, I can see it happening because the drives are based so clearly in the characters.

The Help - Kathryn Stockett
I would love to take another look at this. It's incredibly funny and holds a mirror up to the life styles of rich Americans and the black labouring classes. It highlighted the ingrained racism that most people don't even realise goes on and even with the best of intentions.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

June 2017 Reviews

The Monk
Matthew Gregory Lewis
1796 Paperback
Borrowed from K

Oh, the rage this book brings me. First thing: check the date, 1796! Early early early. VERY old fashioned. Second: Matty was just 19 when he wrote the manuscript. I know that is patronising beyond belief, but it does have a flavour of the juvenile in the writing. Third: It's meant to be a Gothic novel but I was fairly bored throughout the whole thing almost especially the "scary bits" the "dread" that is meant to be built up in this kind of book was dry.

It gained huge success at the time because the author was young and rich. But also at a time when women were reading novels and the biggest nightmare for a woman would be to lose her honor; especially a beautiful one. Another point where both the first and second points come into things. I know it's of it's time, but the women are totally two dimentional. There is one moment where I thought it might get interesting, but Matty failed me. Perhaps he had not had much experience with women at the time... they serve as a plot point and only virtues are being weak, rich, virtuous and beautiful. It's quite painful to read. But to be fair, the characters in general were fairly two dimensional and do not matter that much to the story at all.

Of it's time... but honestly, still not that good. Bram Stoker is chilling and incredible AND old. Wilkie Collins too. Sorry Matty, no excuses The Monk just isn't worth reading.

Erin Lange
Faber & Faber 2013 Kindle
Amazon giftcard

In total contrast, Butter was bliss. Teen fiction, with a really interesting concept that an overweight boy decides to eat himself to death. It's about friendships and teen mentality around depression. Its quite compelling and really interesting how the plot unfolds.

Worth a read, but I am aware that I may be being clouded by how bad I found the Monk to slip into Butter was a much nicer place to be. It's well written and I would definitely recommend it to younger readers between 13 and 16.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

May 2017 Reviews

The English Patient
Michael Ondaatje
Bloomsbury 1992 Paperback
Mummy's Library

An improvement on the first book of his, I think it helped that I knew the story from the film. I enjoyed the beauty of the writing and the intricacies of the narrative. Like Anil's Ghost the story leaped around in time, which could be confusing at times. But It was better handled with more in depth characters. 

I loved the sections with moose, which was explored more thoroughly in the book than in the film. The relationship between Kip and the Patient and Hannah is also more detailed and interesting. In fact I'd say Kip was the most interesting character in the book. What was a nice detail that the film captured in a more nuanced way was the musical aspect of the Patient's personality and the use of music in the film is expertly applied. That's more difficult to get across in the book and actually there was far more of a focus on the books and reading that he had done than the music. I'm into that...

Very enjoyable read. I'd say the style is still a little flowery for me, but it calmed down to carry a great story. 

Dirty Great Love Story
Richard Marsh and Katie Bonna
Bloomsbury 30/4/2013 Paperback
Birthday gift from Z

Fabulous. I read it in about 2 hours and absolutely loved it. In fact I wanted to read it DURING my own birthday party and got told off. It's a transcript of a play that we went to see, a two man show that tells the story of Katie and Richard and how they met.

The experience of reading it was very different from the performance, but I think it helped that I was able to imprint the voices of the actors as I was reading. Similarly the pauses and visual gags which I remembered as I read it again. Not only is this is brilliant play as itself, its such a good gift because I have the memory of the night out with the girls as well.

The play is written in rhyme and is modern and funny, with clever ways of invoking scene and atmosphere. It's a two person production which is dealt with brilliantly live. The actors each play at least two other characters in the story which is done physically and vocally on stage. In print this is easier to get across as the character name changes. I loved rereading this and as the play is no longer touring I recommend reading the play version.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Joining the Mainstream

The key danger of jumping head first into the rushing torrent of mainstream reading is accidentally smashing your brains against the spiky rocks of spoilers. Standard procedures apply, if you're looking to avoid spoilers of your new favourite obsession avoid Twitter and Instagram and pretty much unfollow your friends and favourite authors on every platform. However, some of the responsibility lies with the Spoilererer - the one carelessly throwing out spoilers at the water fountain and live tweeting the latest episode. We expect that these people should at least warn us slow pokes by placing in giant capital letters that there is a SPOILER ahead.

The only way to truely avoid the disappointment and pain of reading or seeing a spoiler is to opt out of mainstream culture entirely. Unfortunately, that does mean that you are left on the riverbank quietly reading a book that no one else has ever heard of and watching true crime documentaries on YouTube. While this has a hipsterish appeal of liking what you like and not following the bend of any trend, there is a loneliness to not reading the one book everyone is talking about.

Furthermore, if you resist the pull of the latest big book/book everyone read in school, then before you know it a studio will pick up the TV or Film rights and you end up having to avoid watching it until you've read the book! It's the ultimate spoiler and those pesky Hollywood studios just keep doing it! A classic case of this for me is The Handmaid's Tale.

I never read it at school and all of a sudden everyone was talking about it because of the new MGM series. The title had appealed to me for a number years because so many authors have Atwood as a key influencer, particularly for dystopian or feminist books. It had mildly been on my TBR and suddenly it rocketed to the top of my list, as well as the best seller lists in America in the lead up to Trump's inauguration.

All of a sudden I was faced with the dilema read the book before I start watching the series? Dip a toe into the first episode and see if I'm hooked enough to read the book? Binge the whole series and then read the book after? Or just binge the series and forget about reading the book entirely. In the end I went with option 3. I devoured the whole of The Handmaid's Tale series and then ordered the book once I'd finished. Personally, this did not affect the reading of the book at all, but if you're fussy about adaptations I wouldn't recommend this method. However, it meant that I am now able to stand at tea stations and recommend both to everyone.

My advice is to avoid this whole mess by reading the popular book alongside everyone, because you'll only be behind when the inevitable series or movie comes out (if it is really good). I had mere weeks to read Gone Girl before the film came out. For years I'd turned my nose up at the popular fiction everyone seemed to love but I'd decided I wasn't interested enough in it. Meanwhile, agents were furiously penning contracts behind the scenes.

The thing is, when it comes to big best sellers and pop culture of any kind... most people are right when it's good. That's why recommendations are so important to readers. Trust the hive mind and get behind the latest sensation and get on the good side of the spoilers. Plus the good bit of all of this is talking about books without worrying about spoiling it for others. I think everyone just needs to jump on the band wagon and avoid the danger completely by gently floating along with the mainstream peeps and enjoy the gems. :)

Thursday, 22 June 2017

April 2017 Reviews

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender
Leslye Walton
Candlewick 25/3/14 Hardback
Internship Haul

Since I tried to read one hundred years of solitude I tend to stay away from magical realism. But unlike the unreadable mess that is OHYS the Ava Lavender story is the stuff of true imagination. It's a beautiful story of love, or acceptance and of strange brutality. I was captivated by this book. The madness of the events is smooth and although the characters talk to ghosts or turn into canaries or don't talk at all, I believe that all of the characters have so much human depth.

It's aimed at teenagers and was a fairly quick and easy read. I read it at the start of my holidays and it was perfect for that half asleep reading that might happen on a plane.  It's beautiful for younger readers and capturing imagination, just the sort of thing I would have read at 15 or 16 and loved. I think I could find my self rolling my eyes at the ridiculousness of some of the story which is why it only got 3 out of 5.

A Little Life
Hanya Yanagihara
Picador 21/5/15 Kindle

I can sum up this book in one word. Powerful. I finished the last 400 pages at once and spent the whole day in bed to finish it. If you don't cry while reading this book, that would be surprising because it is overwhelming. The Man Booker podcast said that people might find A little life to be a difficult read. I interpreted that as very highfalutin writing, but actually they meant in terms of harrowing story line. It follows the friendship of four friends throughout their lives. But largely focusing on the character of Jude. If you've read Jude the Obscure, or any Hardy novel you'll know its one awful thing after another and I'd say apply the same expectation to this.

It should come with a trigger warning on it for sensitive issues and I did find it quite upsetting. Its a very raw story. Overall, I think it is worth reading the Man booker prize winner. It's long and moving and well written. I'd probably want it to be a couple of chapters shorter, but then you don't get the level of set up that I think was wanted. I found my self skim reading some of it to get to the juicy emotional stuff, which was plentiful. It that way it was a little bit like live plastic surgery, you can't really look away, but the gruesome bits are the best.

The Colour Purple
Alice Walker
1982 Paperback
Mummy's Library

Great book. From the start Walker will have you hooked. There are subtleties in the writing which are genius. at the start the language is halting and colloquial, but but the end there is a confidence in the voice.

I had seen the film before I read the book but I was absolutely carried away with the narrative the loops of which I think are simplified and left unexplored in the film. Plus of course the book goes further into their lives after the climax.

It got my tear of approval, I don't think it is possible to read this book and not cry at some of the most harrowing or uplifting moments. The relationships between Celie and everyone she interacts with are nuanced and detailed and give a real insight into the character's thoughts and opinions. I actually think it is the kind of book I would pick up again.

The Sultan's Organ
John Mole
Fortune 26/4/12 Paperback
Mummy's library

What a fun and interesting little book. An edited almost original manuscript of someone who thought to document their voyage to Istanbul. Complete with misadventures and too much wine eventually the delivery of the organ is made. Actually there wasn't nearly enough focus on the organ itself or people's reactions except that the sultan was pleased. Unfortunately the organ itself was destroyed by the sultan's brother who took an axe to it. Which is a real shame.

The history of this gift is very interesting, but the book doesn't quite do it justice. It is also a shame that none of the original organs by the same maker have been preserved and so there is no comparison to visit in the UK. Luckily I had an interest in the subject having listened to a podcast about the relationship between England and Istanbul in the 18th century. It's a quick easy read (1.5 hrs) but a little too much focus on the voyage rather than the events in Istanbul.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

March 2017 Reviews

The Essex Serpent
Sarah Perry
Serpent's Tail 27/5/16 Hardback

The Christmas book of the year I think, this gem was in all of the bookshop windows and I was lucky enough to be given a copy. It is a beautiful gift edition with gold embossing everywhere. But as beautiful as the book was the writing inside it. Historical fiction, which perfectly captured the climate of medical and anthropological history at the time. Women's emancipation is also in sight, in the age of  Mary Anning and George Elliot and Cora Seagrave, the fictional widow in the story. On a hunt for the mythical Essex serpent she makes friends with the people of Aldwinter.

I was swept away in the tide of descriptive language particularly descriptions of the illness of consumption. This is her second novel, the first being After Me Comes The Flood, an infinitely more difficult read, I found that her writing had come on leaps and bounds but the same skill of weaving an intricate story full of mysterious and eccentric characters remains. But beyond the characters and their lives, there is the wider narrative of the serpent itself. I found my self googling the myths and legends that must have inspired Perry. Her research is evident in the pages and I find myself talking about various little facts I've picked up, only to discover that I read it in The Essex Serpent. A great gift and a good second novel. It can be slightly rambling, as her first book was, and I expect that the writing will be even tighter for her next. I look forward to reading it!

The Vegetarian
Han Kang
Portobello Books 1/1/15 Kindle

Winner of the Man Booker International Prize, and on a personal recommendation, I had to pick this one up. There were so many things I liked about this book. The perceived lack of mental health for the protagonist, guided by culture, and then the very real deterioration. The translation is immaculate and one of the best I've seen in terms of readability. Its hard to describe the book because the plot is an unusual blend of realism and fantasy, but more like talking through someone's imagination.

My absolute favourite section was the middle where the formation of an art work is talked out in the writing. It was sensual and beautiful and so evocative. In fact the whole book is very visual and I had the experience of being able to see everything I was reading. The only reason it's not a five star review is because it devolved into madness. Which I think was the right call for the plot, but it put a distance between me and the protagonist that I was less keen on.

Anil's Ghost
Michael Ondaatje
Vintage 24/4/01 Paperback

Much harder to read then the previous two books, where beauty of language becomes unfollowable. I felt like I was reading a number of disjointed sentences that were beautiful but meant nothing. Eventually things came together in the last 10 pages or so, but I felt no empathy with the characters, and very little interest in the political point that I think was trying to be made.

Perhaps nothing appealed to my interests and that's why I couldn't connect. But the main character was so unlikeable and had so few redeeming qualities. Often in these books you're not meant to like the protagonist. But I think I was meant to. Not a fan of this book at all. But it did not stop me from reading The English Patient. Put it this way, no one has made a film about Anil.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Books in Flight

I have been directly affected by the UK ban on electronics arriving on flights from selected airports. I was ready for my holiday to Istanbul, having only recently been more open to reading on a Kindle, A Little Life loaded smugly onto my light weight e-reader complete with portable power pack and cable.

Leaving the UK is no problem, laptops, tablets, all manner of decadent electronics are allowed to fly through the air without alarm. My flight back to the UK was delayed for an hour as the land crew painstakingly searched and assessed every single bag. Mine was scanned twice for an electric toothbrush. Infuriatingly the delay was not the caused by the passengers, I arrived an hour before boarding and got through to the plane at 8:55. The scheduled take off time was 9am but looking at the queue there was no way we were leaving soon. 

Although news articles and websites were clear about tablets and laptops it was not until the morning of my flight that I received notification that portable battery packs (and hard drives by the way) above a certain size were not allowed in hand luggage OR in checked luggage. I put mine in the hold and didn't mention it. But several passengers had their batteries taken away. Where? Into a red cooler bag that the steward carried to the back of the plane cabin. So it's still in the cabin, not in the hold, and sitting next to a bunch of other electronics and batteries likely to blow. 

Aside from the general frustration at this inane attempt by the government to look like it is making an effort to stop terrorist attacks, which makes no technological sense at all, the difference on the flight was noticeable. I clearly think it is a pointless and unhelpful security measure, but I loved the reappearance of books, newspapers and magazines on the flight. More people slept on the flight than working, which probably made them happier on the other end. Although many people turned to their phones to play games, or detonate a device hidden in hold luggage (which is only scanned once and with no question about your destination), several people pulled out books. 

I'm not suggesting that some people don't always carry a book on a plane anyway, but without kindles I could see what everyone was reading, what language they were reading in, and how far they have got left to read. I loved it and used half an hour of the trip just snooping into other peoples book habits. The rest was powering through my current book while half listening to the family of five behind me reading a children's book together. 

I still sneer at the restrictions, but welcome back books!