Wednesday, 31 December 2008

The Bookling Books of 2008

With 133 books under my belt this year, here's my "cream of the crop" listed in no particular order.

Inkheart – Cornelia Funke. With the film version out now, I could be accused of leaping onto a bandwagon but back in January I genuinely enjoyed this book. Quite possibly because at its heart it was so clearly a book about books and that's always a winner with Booklings!
The Book Thief - Markus Zusak. A potentially controversial entry into this list as it's clear that this is a book that elicits very divided opinions from readers. For me, this is a refreshingly different take on life in Germany during WW2 and it's still very clear in my mind nine months later.
Cryptonomicon - Neal Stephenson. My edition is a whopping 1.3kg but well worth the effort. Alternating between WW2 and the present this book is a fantastic read that I really enjoyed. I'm hoarding his Baroque Cycle for another long holiday abroad which is taking quite a lot of willpower...
Plainsong - Kent Haruf. An absolutely beautiful and deceptively simple book that I suspect will become one of those classic reads that I can enjoy over and over again. If I don't get Eventide for Christmas I shall break the rules and buy a copy myself as reading the pair together would be wonderful.
What Was Lost - Catherine O'Flynn. This impressive debut novel is a wonderful, funny, sad and engaging story about a young girl who goes missing. Read it!
Ghost Brigades - John Scalzi. Discovering a "new" Sci-Fi author who writes cracking plots in a well imagined, convincing future is always a joy. Scalzi's books are great fun and I would thoroughly recommend them to anyone with the slightest interest in Sci-Fi.
The Graveyard Book - Neil Gaiman. A charming (really!) story mostly set in a Graveyard and starting with the murder of the lead character's whole family. Gaiman really nailed this book and I'm glad that I've seen it featuring on lots of Top Ten lists for 2008. He's one of my favourite authors and I can't wait for Coraline next year!
Nation - Terry Pratchett. Set in an alternate 19th century this is a subtle and extremely well written work that, whilst featuring Pratchett's usual gentle humour, is a thought-provoking story of ordinary people dealing with getting back to normal following a huge and devastating tidal wave.
A Mercy - Toni Morrison. I was honoured to see Toni Morrison read from, and talk about, this book before I read it and that experience really opened my eyes to the lyricism in the text. An intelligent and moving book dealing with the themes of religion race, gender, poverty and (or course) slavery in the context of the early years of America.
Little Brother - Cory Doctorow. This is a book that opened my eyes and has turned me into an individual who can't stop pointing out the erosion of our civil liberties in the name of public safety to anyone who will listen. This has led to a couple heated pub debates and I believe that can only be a good thing! On top of that, an engrossing and fast paced adventure story too. A must read.
Black Boxes - Caroline Smailes. A compelling pair of voices narrate this book about a woman's descent into depression and the impact it has on her children. A beautiful and convincingly written work that deserves far more exposure than it seems to be getting.
Speaking of Love - Angela Young. A novel about what happens when people who love each other don’t say so, this is a beautifully written book that is brimming with empathy for its three main characters.

It's been a fabulous year of reading and I look forward to next year when I will have More Book Shelves. Wow...

Friday, 26 December 2008

Lovely Things.

Hurrah for Mr B and his Christmas Cleverness. He really is a rather super chap and just check out the box that one of my presents came in! He can't take credit for it, as it was dispatched like this, but this rainbow of colours was an amazing introduction to one of the best gifts that I have ever received....

I had no idea just how emotionally engaging having a poppet or two around could be and I suspect that this is the start of a dangerous obsession. Speaking of which, here are the newest members of the family checking out my signed first edition of The Graveyard Book. I did say he was a clever chap, didn't I?

I'm absolutely thrilled with these little chaps we're having great fun moving my poppets around the house. This is partly so that they can learn more about us but also provides a lovely surprise when encountering them "in the wild". They're very much looking forward to visiting Newcastle next week and to the potential arrival of some more friends.

Thursday, 25 December 2008

Happy Christmas!

Wishing all my visitors a very Merry Christmas. Enjoy.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Letters from Father Christmas - J.R.R. Tolkien

Every December, from 1920 to 1939, an envelope bearing a stamp from the North Pole would arrive for J.R.R.Tolkien's four children. Inside it would be a letter in strange spidery handwriting and a beautiful coloured drawing or some sketches. The letters, which were initially left in the fireplace as if they had been brought down the chimney, were from Father Christmas and described life in the North Pole.

The letters also include notes from some of the other inhabitants of the North Pole as, when Father Christmas is too busy to write, his helper Ilbereth the Elf fills in for him. The clumsy North Polar Bear in particular is a delightful character and I just adore the humour in some some of the comments he scrawls on the letters that Father Christmas writes to the children.

To coincide with the 25th anniversary of its first publication, Letters from Father Christmas was re-issued and now includes every one of the letters and pictures that Tolkien sent to his children. Online examples of the illustrations in this book are hard to find but I did find a slide show of images in the New York Times and I've "borrowed" the envelope from there to use in this post. These illustrations, and the accompanying text, should give the prospective reader a good flavour of what to expect and certainly reflect the sadness Tolkien must have felt when there was only one child left at home to receive the letters in the later years.

Letters from Father Christmas is an absolutely charming and inventive collection whose appeal goes beyond the Tolkien fan base. I wish that I had owned a copy of this book as a child as I can easily imagine reading it becoming an annual tradition and I shall do my best to inflict it on children of my aquaintance this year in the hope of kick-starting one.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Mordechai's Moustache and his Wife's Cats - Mahmoud Shukair

Mordechai's Moustache and His Wife's Cats by Mahmoud Shukair is a collection of short stories and vignettes that formed part of last week's free book bonanza.

Published by Banpil Books this short collection was translated by Issa J Boullata, Elizabeth Whitehouse, Elizabeth Winslow and Christina Phillips and is, according to their website, Shukair's first major publication in English. The book comprises of four short stories and then three collections of short vignettes (divided by translator) which I actually enjoyed more than the stories.

The book finishes with two essays that talk about how Shukair started to write and put some of his stories into context. He was born, and brought up, in Jerusalem and was jailed twice by the Israeli authorities before being deported to Lebanon. He returned to live in the city in 1993 and there are clear political overtones to several of his stories which often feature Palestinian protagonists.

If you fancy trying out a free sample, the titular story is available to read online from Words Without Borders.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Speaking of Love - Angela Young

Angela Young's Speaking of Love is a first novel about what happens when people who love each other don’t say so. It was shortlisted this year as one of the "books to talk about" for World Book Day but I first heard about it in a post called "Eeeeeee!". After reading that this was a book I really wanted to read at the start of this year however when Angela was kind enough to offer me a copy for review I declined it. Very politely and for the best of reasons as it was high on my birthday wish list and I felt it was cheating to "rob" her of a sale.

Aaanyway. I received a copy for my birthday and placed it in my TBR pile and then. Umm. I forgot about it a bit. This is not unusual and I promise that Angela is in good company! I should probably also mention that my TBR pile is less of a TBR pile and more of a TBR series of piles, some of which are stacked in front of the others... Speaking of Love finally rose to the top of the pile(s) a couple of days ago

This is a novel about what happens when people who love each other don’t say so. The narrative in Speaking of Love alternates between three different stories - Iris, who is a storyteller with a history of mental illness, her daughter Vivie and their neighbour Matthew who was Vivie's childhood friend. At the centre of their stories is a gradual realisation of the impact that Iris's schizophrenic episodes have on not only her life but on her daughter's too.

This is a beautifully written book that is brimming with empathy for its characters. Young takes a very compassionate view of the difficulties that her characters face and it's hard not to sympathise with the positions that they find them in.

Angela has a blog although it has gone quiet recently as she is working on her second novel. I really hope that is going well as I'd love to read more of her work.

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Christmas "Angels"

This week I have discovered that threading dried oranges and hanging them on the Christmas Tree is only a success whilst the dogs don't realise that they are there. Don't let the angelic pose fool you - seconds later it was all barking and backflips.

All the oranges, plus the carefully hand-tied bundles of cinnamon sticks, have now been removed...

Lovely Parcels

I think that Christmas might just have come early in this household as I won TWO competitions this week.

The first was a parcel full of books from the lovely people over at Transmission Magazine. Transmission publish collections of short fiction and literary articles twice a year and I bought three issues in their three for a tenner deal. Just look at this fabulous lot! My TBR pile is in danger of expanding past the bedroom door but that's not something I mind ;)

My second parcel of the week arrived this morning and was from Salt Publishing via dovegreyreader's Christmas give-away extravaganza. The book is Elizabeth Baines's collection of short stories, Balancing on the Edge of the World, and it comes with high praise indeed.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

The Elfish Gene - Mark Borrowcliffe

The subtitle for Mark Barrowcliffe's autobiographical book The Elfish Gene is "Dungeons, Dragons and Growing Up Strange" and I suspect that should have given me just the tiniest of hints that he played a lot of Dungeons and Dragons whilst growing up!

"Mark - like twenty million other boys in the '70s and '80s - chose to spend his entire adolescence in fart-filled bedrooms pretending to be a wizard or a warrior, an evil priest or a dwarf. Armed only with pen, paper and some funny-shaped dice, this lost generation gave themselves up to the craze of fantasy role-playing games, stopped chatting up girls and started killing dragons."

I've never actually played D&D, although I am familiar with the clich├ęd view of friendless spotty youths sitting around a table for hours rolling dice, but how you actually play the game was all a bit of a mystery to me. After reading this book, which is pretty much all about playing D&D, I am none the wiser and, if anything, I am even more confused than I was about how you actually play the game. I don't think that the appeal of the game is successfully explained either but perhaps that was because the story is being told from the point of view of an obsessive adolescent boy. I finished the book still wondering what the phenomenon is all about and, a little sadly, whether if I'd joined that D&D game in my first term at University my life would be any different... I strongly suspect it's something I would have become quite addicted to so perhaps it's just as well that I went to the pub instead.

Mark Borrowcliffe
is excruciatingly honest about his utter lack of social skills whilst growing up in Coventry and his self-deprecating humour definitely helps sweeten the subject matter for those, like myself, who were not gamers. I couldn't help but feel a huge amount of sympathy for his family as he earnestly keeps them up to date on the progress of Alf the Elf or Effilc Worrab and the appeal of the book is possibly that he understands the child that he was and does not attempt to paint him in a different light. A book that UK gamers are likely to appreciate more than lay readers but an enjoyable read for a novice like me too.

Booking Through Thursday

This week's BTT:

Do you give books as gifts? To everyone? Or only to select people? How do you feel about receiving books as gifts?

I do sometimes give books as gifts - usually it'll be one (or more!) that the receiver has specifically requested or another work by an author that I know they have enjoyed. Mr B often gets random books I think he will like as does my ten year old neice! Sometimes I will look for a bookish gift form someone that I think that they'll like but only as long as it's newly out or something I am pretty confident that they won't have. That's not because I am worried I will pick a totally unsuitable book but because I hate getting duplicate books as gifts...

Which brings me to Part Two of the question! I love getting books as presents. Just love it. See my post about feeling a bit Smaugish! But. And a big but. I have a wishlist that extends to 100s of books. Literally 100s. So. Why would anyone go and buy me (The Bookling!) an off-list book that has been out for a while? The chances are pretty high that I either have it or that I am not interested. There is also an outside chance that I might not have it and it's a treasure-in-waiting which might be why people occasionally adopt this approach.

Either likely option leads to a bit of a social crisis -just what is the right way to respond? "Lovely book and I really enjoyed it when I bought it three years ago - got the receipt?" or "Erm - thanks..." and list it on greenmetropolis asap?

I probably sound really ungrateful but if someone wants to buy me a book as a surprise then why not get in touch with Mr B and ask him to hack into my wishlist? There's plenty to choose from. I would suggest that they could ask him to check my shelves but I know that would be a hopeless quest!

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Booking Through Thursday

This week's (late!) BTT:

1. Do you get to read as much as you WANT to read?

Nope! I’m still adjusting to working on a full-time basis and what I really miss about being part-time (or indeed working from home) is the opportunity to spend a luxurious afternoon snuggled up and making serious inroads into my TBR pile. The weekend really is not long enough and I now feel guilty about spending time reading rather than doing something more “productive” such as chores...

My main reading times are now during my lunch break and then when I’m in bed and I’ve noticed that this has had an impact on what I choose to read.I will consciously avoid heavy books (as they weigh down my handbag too much for the walk to work!) I’ll also choose books that I know can be put down and picked up later or where I don’t have to think too much as I don’t like to be disrupted mid-flow.

2. If you had (magically) more time to read–what would you read? Something educational? Classic? Comfort Reading? Escapism? Magazines?

Gosh – I’d use the time to reduce my TBR pile! There are so many books on it that I really want to read but I’ve simply not had the time to get through them all. Hopefully (!) the situation will get worse over Christmas as I did issue my husband with a rather lengthy wishlist…

I have at least five very fat books that would definitely make the cut if not hampered by the weight of book issue mentioned above! This includes Neal Stephenson’s Baroque trilogy, Darkmans by Nicola Barker and The Quincunx by Charles Palliser. Each one has more than 1000 pages and I'm looking forward to taking some of them on holiday with me when we go up to Newcastle for New Year. This is on the theory that the weather is going to be too miserable to go for long walks on the beach with the dogs.

I’ve also got some non-fiction books I’d love to get around to. I’ve read such good things about the collection of letters between the six Mitford sisters and they've been on my shelf for a few momths now. I also have a small (growing) pile of war diaries that I would like to get around to and I've been dipping in and out of Jane Austen’s collected letters as well.

Actually, looking at my TBR piles, I've clearly got reading material for at least another year stashed there so if I had the luxury of time, I'd try to catch up. Then buy all the books on my wishlist and start again! If only...

The Rest - Stephenie Meyer

Having enjoyed Stephenie Meyer's Twilight so much, once my eyesight improved I leaped on New Moon, Eclipse, and Breaking Dawn so that I could finish the rest of the series and continue to receive my Edward Cullen fix.

I can report that, sadly, my Edward related experiences in the last three books were a pale imitation of the vampire I fell in love with a couple of weeks ago and that my crush is now officially over. Burgeoning teen romance is so much more interesting than reading about the practical challenges that a Vampire/Human romance causes!

The characters in these books in the series face more peril than in Twilight and this makes for a more serious tone. Thrown into the mix are the global politics of a community that lives for hundreds, if not thousands of years and a local clan of Werewolf types and with this, things were always going to get tricky. Edward and Bella's romantic antics take a back-burner too as they focus on facing these challenges and also in line the author's religious beliefs about "naughties before marriage" and that effectively holds their relationship in stasis for a while. Which is not what you want when you are only reading a book because you have a sad crush on the lead male!

I'd say easy reading but only worth tackling if you have a burning desire to know What Happens Next, or if you are a "finisher/completer" character type like myself, but if not then read Twilight and keep your love for Edward intact.

Monday, 8 December 2008

Blimey - I can see!

This is just a quick note to explain why I've not been very prolific with my posts recently!

Last week I had laser eye surgery life as I rather fancy life without specs and I can no longer wear contact lenses. I didn't want to jinx it by mentioning it before it happened and then, once it had happened, I didn't use the computer for a few days to avoid putting strain on my eyes as they heal. I'm delighted to report that it's all gone well and that my sight is already better than 20/20 with hopefully more improvement as they settle into their new abilities!
Although they're not yet fully recovered, it's honestly been a delight seeing the world "properly" and I've been annoying Mr B by testing his eyesight against my own with questions like "Can you see that twig?"

The operation also meant that I couldn't read any books for a few days but luckily I'd saved up some audiobooks to get me through and I can thoroughly recommend the audio version of Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book along with Paul Merton reading extracts from Spike Milligan's memoir Adolf Hitler - My Part in His Downfall and the delightful Bill Bryson's reading his A Walk in the Woods.

Plenty of book reviews to catch up on and I'll do my best to post these later this week once normal computing service has been resumed.

Friday, 5 December 2008

Twilight - Stephanie Meyer

Oh dear. This is just too tragic. It's time for a Bookling confession....

I am in love with a vampire and his name is Edward Cullen. *swoon*

There. I said it out loud. And in public. Gulp.

All a little sad, I know, as I am far too old for this sort of thing and poor Mr B has had to put up with me cackling in glee and swooning over a vampire in a book written for teenage girls rather than sensible wives who are definitely Old Enough To Know Better. However be that as it may, it's real true love foever and ever and, as there is a whiff of the Darcy about this chap, I hope I am forgiven.

For those of you not in the know, Edward *swoon* Cullen is the romantic lead Stephenie Meyer's Twilight (Twilight Saga) books. The first three (of four) are currently on sale at Red House books for a mere £7.99 so (of course) I could not resist adding them to my basket so I could finally find out what all the fuss is about.

For those who have been living under a rock (as I was!!) here's what it's about:

"When 17 year old Isabella Swan moves to Forks, Washington to live with her father she expects that her new life will be as dull as the town. But in spite of her awkward manner and low expectations, she finds that her new classmates are drawn to this pale, dark-haired new girl in town. But not, it seems, the Cullen family. These five adopted brothers and sisters obviously prefer their own company and will make no exception for Bella.

Bella is convinced that Edward Cullen in particular hates her, but she feels a strange attraction to him, although his hostility makes her feel almost physically ill. He seems determined to push her away ? until, that is, he saves her life from an out of control car. Bella will soon discover that there is a very good reason for Edward's coldness. He, and his family, are vampires and he knows how dangerous it is for others to get too close."

No wonder this book has been such a hit! Definitely a guilty pleasure for an adult, but it's such an enormous amount of fun that I honestly could not keep the grin off my face as I read it. Yes - it's pretty obvious what's going to happen but there's something about an incredibly intense teenage romance that is just so addictive. Oh - and did I mention that Edward Cullen is a major part of the appeal of this book? I'm delighted that I have the next three books to read (did I mention that the last book in the series was on sale as well and might have slipped into my basket?) and I look forward to more of the same!

Oh. And there is a film version coming out on the 19th December. Where the chap who was Cedric Diggory in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is playing Edward. Which is something I am going to have to take some deep breaths and get used to! I've not used the official trailer here as watching it could remove some of the pleasure of reading the book but here's a teaser to end on. Enjoy!

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Nineteen Minutes - Jodi Picoult

Nineteen Minutes is the story of Peter Houghton who is 17 and has been the victim of bullying since his first day of school. He is now in high school with the same children who've tormented him all his life and he retreats into a world of video games and computer programming in an effort to become invisible. Then one day he walks into Sterling High with a knapsack full of guns, kills ten students and wounds many others. His childhood friend, Josie Cormier, is the daughter of the judge sitting on the case and is also the state’s best witness – except she can’t remember what happened in front of her own eyes. We also follow the story of Peter’s parents, Lacy and Lewis, as they examine their past to see what they might have said or done to compel their son to such extremes.

I enjoyed, if that is the right word, this book and found it very hard not to empathise with the character of Peter and the position of blame that his parents find themselves in. Which I suspect is the point. Incidents such as these do not happen in isolation and, although there was not one event that triggers this reaction from Peter, it's easy to see how a marginalised teenage boy could see this as a solution to his problem.

It's hard to believe how prolific Jodi Picoult is and that this is her twelfth book - although perhaps this is because she's only risen to huge popularity in the UK over the last few years so piles of her books seems to have appeared out of nowhere! They do tend to be formulaic in that she takes a controversial subject then takes you through the morally grey legal process of a trial but that is not necessarily a Bad Thing.

I've seen her mentioned on a few blogs as being an author to avoid at all costs which I think is more than a little unfair. You know what you are getting when you buy one of her books and she consistently delivers to that expectation. I've found some of her work, like this book, genuinely thought provoking and I can imagine that they can spark some pretty healthy debates if handled properly. I notice that over on her website there is a wealth of support material for schools using Nineteen Minutes as part of an anti-bullying carriculum and I'd imagine that there are not many mainstream books that you could find that tackle this difficult subject in such a head-on manner.

In summary... If you've read and enjoyed Jodi Picoult in the past then you will enjoy this one too. If you've not read her work before then this book, or My Sister's Keeper, would be a good place to start!

Monday, 1 December 2008

November Reading List

Another very varied month and, after collating this lot, I really must work on some kind of alphabetised ongoing system for 2009! As usual it's really hard to pick out my Read of the Month so I shall cheat and pick three - A Mercy, Black Boxes and Little Brother. Read them!

Saturday, 29 November 2008

Where Underpants Come From - Joe Bennett

Joe Bennett is an English-born travel writer and columnist who lives in New Zealand with his dogs. I particularly enjoyed his collected columns, which are published in Fun Run and Other Oxymorons and Bedside Lovers (and other goats), and he's also written a couple of enjoyable travel books covering New Zealand and the UK.

Where Underpants Come from: From Checkout to Cotton Field - Travels Through the New China starts with the author buying a five-pack of 'Made in China' underpants, along with a sixth pair for "special occasions", in his local New Zealand branch of The Warehouse for just $8.59. This prompts him to wonder how anyone could be making a profit on a product that has had to travel half way around the world to get to him. To learn more, he decides to track back his new pants to their source and embarks on trips to China and Thailand to try to trace the manufacturing process of these pants.

As well as visiting, and describing, several factories in China, he also covers some of the history that has helped the country become a world economic superpower. This did help to place the journey Joe was taking into economic context however also made this book feel a bit different to his usual work. Whilst interesting there was not as much gentle observational skill and humour in this book as I have found in his previous ones.

This book was at its best when he is describing the people he meets, the views he is seeing and his (very amusing) experiences of ordering food and attempting to master chopsticks. Joe Bennett comes across in his columns as having a very keen eye for human foibles and is able to handle writing about genuine emotion with great skill. Where this comes through in this book (if you've read it, I am thinking about his trip to Thailand here) it's an absolute delight to share his journey with him however when he switched to "teacher mode" his personality got lost and that's a shame.

I was delighted to track down the photos featuring Joe in his pants in a Chinese cotton field, as demanded by his publishers and humorously described in his book and, if you are feeling up to it, you can see them here and here!

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Revelation Space - Alastair Reynolds

After reading lots of "proper" grown-up books so far this month, I felt in need of some space fiction and luckily my October charity bookshop haul was able to supply me with a book, by an author I'd never read before, that fitted the bill.

Alastair Reynolds is one of the Sci-Fi authors that I suspect I should have read by now. Revelation Space (Gollancz S.F.) is his first novel and was published in 2000.

"Dr Dan Sylveste, an archaeologist who has for years been fascinated with the long-dead alien race the Amarantin, is about to discover something that could change the course of mankind. But before he can act on anything his wife is killed and he is captured when a coup sweeps across the planet Resurgam.

Meanwhile, an astonishing ship bearing a crew of militaristic cyborgs and a kidnapped Gunnery Officer is bearing down on Resurgam, crossing light years of space to enlist Sylvestes help to save their metamorphosing Captain. Only Sylveste, or, more accurately, the software programme containing his fathers knowledge that he carries in his mind, can save the Captain. None of them can anticipate the cataclysm that will result when they meet, a cataclysm that will sweep through space and could determine the ultimate fate of humanity.

Although I found the book hard work at the outset as there are some initially confusing names (see above!), lots of science, different planets, a large cast of characters and a rotating character point of view once I had settled in, I found it enthralling. Reynolds is (or was) an astrophysicist for the European Space Agency and he has clearly expended a lot of effort in infusing his Universe with a huge amount of detail. It's set in the not-too-distant future and it all feels very plausible, if sometimes in a little too much detail, and I quite fancy taking a lighthugger ship to explore!

Given this was his debut book, I can forgive the sometimes clunky dialogue as the quality of the world building is so high and I enjoyed the plot - especially when the strands started to come together. I look forward to reading the next instalment (hurrah - four more to go!) and I'm glad that I eventually got around to reading a Reynolds book.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Black Boxes - Caroline Smailes

Scott Pack recently offered to send out five copies of the new book from Caroline Smailes, Black Boxes, and I was lucky enough to get my name to him nice and early. I received the book a couple of weeks ago and, I'll be honest, my first impression was to look at the layout of the first chapter and think "crumbs - this looks like hard work" and I moved it into the "must read but not just yet" pile. Before I go any further I shall explain that I was entirely wrong and that the layout, although very different from a standard novel, is so incredibly effective that the reader is utterly immersed in the heartbreaking life of Ana and her teenage daughter Pip.

"Ana Lewis is trapped by her own expectations. Her intense relationship with fellow student Alex begins to crack beyond repair when she falls pregnant, and his subsequent withdrawal, emotionally and sexually are hard for Ana to bear. Eventually, following the birth of Pip and then Davie, Alex leaves Ana to a life of question and blame. Locked in her room for much of the time she woefully neglects her children, preferring instead to replay scenes from her life over and over, fighting the urge to blink for fear it should dissipate the memories."

The book is laid out in the form of two "black boxes". The bulk of the text is in the form of a transcript from an audio recording made by Ana after she has taken tablets in an attempt to end her life. The middle of book is a handwritten extract from Pip's diary that describes events in the weeks before Ana takes the tablets and subsequently we return to Ana's recording.

Whilst there is no doubt that Ana's descent into mental fragility is an incredibly sad story, it is the extract from Pip's diary that brought tears to my eyes. If I could have jumped into this book and protected Pip and her younger brother, Davie, from their mother I absolutely would have done. The diary is so convincingly written in Pip's voice that I really felt as if I was prying into her thoughts - especially as it's peppered with comments to her brother to stop reading it!

The technical execution of this story from Caroline Smailes is faultless. The different slant she takes in her way of telling the story of these who women is so effective that it's hard to believe that it's only her second book. Although a "difficult read" in terms of subject matter this is such a well written book that I would recommend it without hesitation.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

UEA Literary Festival - Richard Holmes

I should probably put my interest in history into some kind of context so that I can explain why I was so delighted to be going to see Richard Holmes speak at the UEA last night. I love history. There. It's out. I studied British and European medieval history for my degree so many years ago and the one thing that I really regret is that I just did not realise how lucky I was to have access to such incredible learning resources. What it did leave me with was a lasting regard for those who can spend years researching people and events and then presenting their work in an engaging manner.

The introduction that Richard Holmes was given last night could not have been more glowing with Prof. Chris Bigsby describing his latest book, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, which took nine years to research and write, as "spectacularly brilliant" and "demonstrating such skill and artistry" that it deserved to win every award going or there was no point in having them. High praise indeed!

In an engaging and entertaining presentation, Holmes described his book as weighing 0.958kg, 5 cm thick, having 483 pages including 69 "glorious" colour illustrations, featuring 64 writers and scientists and containing over 300 lines of romantic poetry". He was keen to emphasise that the "cast" of 64 includes several women as he wanted to bring them back to their "proper place" in history.

The lecture focused on three of the main characters that hold the thread of this book together - Joseph Banks, botanist on Captain Cook's first Endeavour voyage and later President of the Royal Society in London, the astronomer William Herschel and the chemist Humphry Davy who is probably best known for the Davy safety lamp.

He explained that his aims when writing the book were firstly to de-bunk the myth of Arts v. Science and to demonstrate that in this period they worked closely together and inspired each other. He also wanted to explore the concept of a group biography which he described as a "relay race of scientific stories" and finally (the clue is in the title for this one) to explore the romantic generations discovery of both the beauty and terror of science and to try to understand the roots of why most people now have an ambiguous feeling towards science.

This book sounds absolutely fascinating and really I'm looking forward to getting my hands on a copy. Richard Holmes ended the event by stressing his belief that, as citizens of the world, we all have a duty to make and effort to understand the science of our day and help to shape the decisions being made that will impact our socio-political lives (such as GM food, Climate Change, etc). A call to arms indeed so I'll be looking out for local lectures so that I can brush up as I left feeling slightly guilty that I make no real effort to understand the science behind the stories.

Links to reviews of Age of Wonder in the Literary Review, the Independent and the Times.

Booking Through Thursday

This week's BTT:

I’ve asked, in the past, about whether you more often buy your books, or get them from libraries. What I want to know today, is, WHY BUY? Why buy instead of borrow? Why shell out your hard-earned dollars for something you could get for free?

I don't know why actually owning a book is so important to me but it is - I like to think of myself as Smaug (the dragon from The Hobbit) curled up on top on my lair filled with books instead of gold...

I do use my local library, as it's fabulous, but if I borrow a book that I really enjoy then it ends up on my wishlist pretty sharpish! This is even though I know that my house contains so many books that I could genuinely open up a shop...

When buying books I do try to get good value for money so I will look around for the best price if it's hardback or expensive and I am always a fan of stumbling across a great second-hand haul. I say this to make my mountain of books sound somehow better! I do occasionally "prune" my collection of books and send some to live in a charity shop but it never seems to make a difference - there are still hundreds (erm - thousands) left.

So. Why do I buy rather than borrow? Not sure but there's definitely a pleasure to be had in book ownership and I do like gazing at my meters of books with Smaugish satisfaction!

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Little Brother - Cory Doctorow

I've been dying to get my hands on Little Brother for months - in fact, ever since Neil Gaiman mentioned it on his blog in such glowing terms. For some reason I got it into my head that it was only being released in the UK this month so didn't realise that I could have read the hardback edition months ago which is a little frustrating. There is a silver lining to this sad tale though as I managed to get my paws on a signed paperback edition instead.

Before I move on to talking about the book itself, I'd like to point out to anyone thinking about giving this book a try that the book is available from Cory Doctorow's site as a free download and feel free to discover for yourself why an author would choose to give away his books! He's recently written an interesting, and more in depth, article about his views on copyright for Lotus Magazine.

The title of this book is an obvious play on George Orwell's Big Brother which is pretty apt given that this is a novel about living under state control and constant surveillance.

"Marcus is only seventeen years old, but he figures he already knows how the system works - and how to work the system. Smart, fast and wise to the ways of the networked world, he has no trouble outwitting his high school's intrusive but clumsy surveillance systems. But his whole world changes when he and his friends find themselves caught in the aftermath of a major terrorist attack on San Francisco.

In the wrong place at the wrong time, Marcus and his crew are apprehended by the Department of Homeland Security and whisked away to a secret prison, where they're mercilessly interrogated for days. When the DHS finally releases them, Marcus discovers that his city has become a police state, where every citizen is treated like a potential terrorist. He knows no one will believe his story, which leaves him only one option: to take down the DHS himself."

This book has a much wider appeal than the teen market it was written for (even for the untrustworthy over-25s such as myself!) and it is an enjoyable, well written and fast paced adventure with plenty to keep the reader hooked. But it is so much more than that. It is also an extremely thought provoking illustration of just how easy it is for us to voluntarily relinquish civil liberties in the name of the common good and also how utterly ill-equipped the majority of people out of their teens are to recognise that it's even happening. I appreciate that some of the geek/tech content of the book could leave the uninitiated a little confused but I think that's the point. People are voluntarily allowing themselves to be out of the loop in terms of how technology is advancing and how it's being applied and I feel that, if nothing else, this book has re-opened my eyes to just how vital it is to be aware of developments in the world around us.

At the back of the book are two short essays and incredibly informative, slightly chilling, bibliography that gives a comprehensive view of books and places to visit online that will tell you more about why this topic really matters. It's well worth following those links and a good site to start is the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

An extract from an essay by Cory Doctorow about why he feels this is so important: "The difference between freedom and totalitarianism comes down to this: do our machines serve us, or control us? We live in the technological age that puts all other technological ages to shame. We are literally covered in technology, it rides in our pockets, pressed to our skin, in our ears, sometimes even implanted in our bodies. If these devices treat us as masters, then there is no limit to what we can achieve. But if they treat us as suspects, then we are doomed, for the jailers have us in a grip that is tighter than any authoritarian fantasy of the Inquisition. It’s my sincere hope that this book will spark vigorous discussions kid/adult about security, liberty, privacy, and free speech — about the values that ennoble us as human beings and give us the dignity to do honor to our species. Thank you for sharing it with the young people in your life — and for being a guide at a time when we need guides more than ever."

He also covers this in a Q&A with Publishers Weekly. IMHO, this is a book that richly deserves to be shared with the young, and old, people in my life as it is most certainly a worthy catalyst for an overdue debate on the steady erosion of our civil liberties in the name of protecting them.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

The Land of Green Ginger

Seeing Oxford Reader's recent post about books you loved in your childhood, I dug out my copy of Noel Langley's The Land of Green Ginger.

I remember this book with enormous fondness and I am glad that on re-reading, it retains the magic it held for me as a child. I first read it whilst staying with my Grandparents and I just loved it. When I started reading this again last night the details came flooding back (I even recognised dialogue from really minor characters) so I suspect that I might well have read this several more times than the couple I thought I had...

"When Prince Abu Ali, son of Aladdin, is born his destiny has already been foretold: he is the one that has been chosen to break the spell of the mysterious Land of Green Ginger. His quest brings him into contact with flying carpets, button-nosed tortoises, magic phoenix birds - and two very villainous princes."

When I was a child I thought this book was absolutely hilarious and even as a proper adult I still found it an amusing take on a children's fairytale. Apparently the re-printed edition I read is 70 pages light of the "proper" version and this could explain why the story moved along at a much faster pace than I remembered so I shall have to keep my eye out for the 1966 older edition with the original text as I think that must have been the version I found in my Grandparent's bookshelves.

All in all a charming story that I am delighted retained its magic for me. It was also just what I needed after a week of reading that included The Almost Moon and A Mercy.

Friday, 7 November 2008

A Mercy - Toni Morrison

As I mentioned last week, I had the honour of hearing Toni Morrison reading from this book at the UEA LitFest and I am so glad that I did. She mentioned that she writes for the ears as well as the eyes and I found myself reading sections aloud to myself to fully appreciate the lyricism of this beautifully crafted book. Try it yourself - it really helps!

A Mercy is a slim book that I find really hard to explain so I will steal the blurb from the back:

"In the 1680s the slave trade was still in its infancy. In the Americas, virulent religious and class divisions, prejudice and oppression were rife, providing the fertile soil in which slavery and race hatred were planted and took root.

Jacob is an Anglo-Dutch trader and adventurer, with a small holding in the harsh north. Despite his distaste for dealing in “flesh,” he takes a small slave girl in part payment for a bad debt from a plantation owner in Catholic Maryland. This is Florens, “with the hands of a slave and the feet of a Portuguese lady.” Florens looks for love, first from Lina, an older servant woman at her new master’s house, but later from a handsome blacksmith, an African, never enslaved.

There are other voices: Lina, whose tribe was decimated by smallpox; their mistress, Rebekka, herself a victim of religious intolerance back in England; Sorrow, a strange girl who’s spent her early years at sea; and finally the devastating voice of Florens’ mother. These are all men and women inventing themselves in the wilderness."

Each chapter in turn focuses on each of the four women living on the farm and, as time moves back and forward, we see how they ended up at this place in this time. The themes of religion race, gender, poverty and (or course) slavery in the context of the early years of America are dealt with intelligently and movingly. This is a beautiful, and deceptively simple, book that is absolutely going to merit a re-read so that I can appreciate the layers of the story.

Reviews from the Guardian, the Independent, the Sunday Times and the Telegraph.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Booking Through Thursday

This week's BTT:

What, if any, memorable or special book have you ever gotten as a present? Birthday or otherwise. What made it so notable? The person who gave it? The book itself? The “gift aura?”

Gosh. There are a few instances that spring to my mind.

When I was somewhere in my teens, I got the centenary edition of Lord of the Rings for Christmas from my parents. It's a huge combined volume with illustrations that I just neeeeeeded and had drooled over in bookshops for months. I was pretty sure that there was no chance my parents were going to buy me a book that I already owned so it was a lovely surprise and, I think, also the first book I owned that was an object of beauty too.

Last Christmas Mr B managed to buy me two amazing books. One was a signed edition of Dirk Gently by Douglas Adams. We'd actually seen this in a holiday cottage we stayed in Northumbria during November and he knew I was 1) shocked it was in a holiday cottage bookshelf and 2) that I neeeeeeeeded this one too so he contacted the owners and bought it from them. What a hero. He also bought me a copy of the Subterranean edition of Coraline which is gorgeous and I just love it! A man who definitely knows his target audience when present buying!

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Whatever Makes You Happy - William Sutcliffe

According to amazon's book categorisation system, this is officially Lad Lit. A sub-genre I had no idea existed but you live and learn! Whatever Makes You Happy is by William Sutcliffe who's written several other very enjoyable novels (New Boy, Love Hexagon & Bad Influence).

This book features "three men in their early thirties who are not (in the eyes of their alienated mothers) properly settled. Matt works for lads mag BALLS! and is a serial dater of girls half his age. Paul is an experienced hand at lying and evasion to keep his life choices a secret from his mother. Daniel spends his Saturday nights alone in his flat reading novels, pining for ex-girlfriend and love of his life Erin. The mothers decide to launch a co-ordinated attack: they will arrive, without warning, to stay with their sons for one week with the intention of man-handling them back onto the right path."

This book did not feel as satisfying as some of his earlier work and actually did feel like it belonged in a Lad Lit category. Some of the character stories were stronger than others (I wanted to know so much more about Matt's mother!) and I felt that these could have been plot lines for three novels rather than one linked by the tenuous thread of three simultaneous mother visits.

Nevertheless, it was an easy, enjoyable read with some food for thougt that made me really glad that my Mother lives around the corner and there's no chance she'll come and stay with me for a week to "sort me out"! I think...

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

The Almost Moon - Alice Sebold

Alice Sebold is the author of the excellent ( and hugely successful) Lovely Bones who, I discovered in the acknowledgements, is married to author Glen David Gold who wrote Carter Beats the Devil which is a book I really enjoyed a few years ago.

I had no idea what The Almost Moon was about before picking it up to read however with the first line of the book being "When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily" I realised that this was not going to be an easy read.

The Almost Moon is the story of Helen and her complex, painful relationship with her mother, ex-lingerie model Clair Knightly, and with her also deceased father. We see the steps that led her to take her mother's life and follow her over the next twenty-four hours as she comes to terms with the consequences of her actions and understand the events in her life that led her to take this action.

Helen's murder of her mother in the first few pages puts the reader into a deliberately awkward relationship with the main character which perhaps reflects the difficult relationships Helen herself has experienced during her lifetime. Although I can imagine how easy it would be to take the life of someone you loved (and Helen does love her mother) and justify it to yourself as being in their own interests as their quality of life is so awful there is no attempt to justify the killing on these grounds and I respect Sebold's decision to take that line. Using flashbacks, she guides the reader to an understanding of the various pressures that Helen was put under throughout her life and the damage that her mother's mental illness has caused to her other family relationships.

This is a challenging, and sometimes uncomfortable, book to read that handles the subject in a thought provoking way. Alice Sebold did an excellent job of challenging standard ethical views on matricide and it was impossible not to empathise with Helen's plight as you understand how difficult her life has been.

There's an interview with Alice Sebold on the publisher's site and a thought provoking article on the book from vulpes libris.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Ferney - James Long

I feel a little guilty as I write up this not-a-review-at-all of Ferney by James Long as it is now over a month since I read the book and I am quite confident that the detail of my experience has escaped me. Perhaps I should start scribbling notes in books as I read them? I am going to cheat though and set the time-stamp for this post back to the start of November so that we can all pretend that I am organised and up to date with my posts...

I think I first heard about Ferney a while ago over at dovegreyreader's blog and was really pleased when I managed to pick up a copy of the book in a charity shop. It was out of print for a few years but seems to be making a well-deserved resurgence. Although the blurb is not very good at explaining what this book is actually about (and I don't envy whoever had the task of trying to do that!) I'll use it here to try to describe the book's plot.

"When Mike and Gally move to a new cottage in Somerset, it's to make a new start. But the relationship comes under strain when Gally forms an increasingly close attachment to an old countryman, Ferney, who seems to know everything about her. What is it that draws them together? Reluctantly at first, then with more urgency as he feels time slipping away, Ferney compels Gally to understand their connection - and to face an inexplicable truth about their shared past."

Seriously. I can't actually explain what this book is about without either ruining the plot or writing 1,000 words which will also end up ruining the plot! This very original novel is set in the real Somerset village of Penselwood, which I am desperate to visit now, and there is a charming love story at the centre of the book. The historical detail, centred around the village, felt very well researched and gave the book some real authenticity. I really must read up and see how accurate it was!

Apparently James Long is writing a sequel. I am not entirely sure how he is going to tackle that given the way the book ends but I look forward to finding out as this book is such a gem.

Saturday, 1 November 2008

October Reading List

Another month, another reading list. I love keeping track of all the books I read and seeing emerging reading trends. This month has been quite R.I.P. read heavy but I've really enjoyed participating and I've slipped in some nice contrasting reads too.
I've not had a "pick of the month" book for a couple of months and I think that's because I find it too hard to pit different types of books against each other. David Lodge's trilogy were an unexpected pleasure, I'd been looking forward to The Graveyard Book for what feels like months and I am delighted that Terry Pratchett's Nation was so good. Add into that mix a couple of really atmospheric R.I.P reads in the form of We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Woman in Black and I really don't see how I could choose just one. So I shan't. :)

Thursday, 30 October 2008

UEA Literary Festival - Toni Morrison

Last night I had the absolute privilege of watching Toni Morrison read from her latest book, A Mercy, and the answer questions from the audience as well as those posed by Prof. Chris Bigsby.Perhaps most famous for Beloved, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988, Morrison is also the holder of a Nobel Prize for literature and this was her third visit to the UEA.

The introduction centred on the theme of slavery and oppression and this seemed very appropriate as the excerpt that she read out was set in 1690, two years before the Salem witch trials, and featured a young black slave Forens, who (as far as I know) is one of the book's central characters. A book from this era struck me as a particularly apt choice given this event was part of the Arthur Miller centre's lecture series and his The Crucible is such an incredibly powerful piece of work. I digress...

In the conversation that followed the reading, she was very softly spoken, was possessed with enormous dignity but also seemed a little weary - she'd appeared at the Cheltenham Festival earlier in the week. One thing that really struck me was how important the choice of precise language seemed to be to her and she described "writing for the ears as well as the eyes" which really encapsulates what I am trying to explain when I say that.

I also could not resist buying a copy of the book for her to sign and I am delighted that I did as somehow I feel like it's a permanent momento of this evening. At some stage I really must post about why a signed book is more important to me than a not-signed one but I am not sure I can crystalise those thoughts just yet. In the meantime, here's an interview with Toni Morrison, talking about A Mercy, with a slightly unfortunate YouTube freeze-frame. Enjoy.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

R.N.L.I.P. Post (Reader No Longer In Peril)

Well - that's the end of the R.I.P challenge and I had a great time. I read some books that I would not have heard of, let alone thought of reading, otherwise and found some great new blogs to add to my reader list.

All in all, I read seven books but I do still have a few of my original wishlist on my bookshelf so you might see a few more belated reads popping up!
Carl from Stainless Steel Droppings, who hosts the challenge, clearly put a lot of thought and effort into making this a success and I'd like to thank him. It was great fun and I am really glad that I signed up.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Nation - Terry Pratchett

Nation is Terry Pratchett's latest book and, not to leave you in any suspense, it's an absolute corker. It is a book written for children but I am sure that most adults will also enjoy this one and the themes that it tackles are by no means childish.

"Finding himself alone on a desert island when everything and everyone he knows and loved has been washed away in a huge storm, Mau is the last surviving member of his nation. He's also completely alone - or so he thinks until he finds the ghost girl. She has no toes, wears strange lacy trousers like the grandfather bird and gives him a stick which can make fire. Daphne, sole survivor of the wreck of the Sweet Judy, almost immediately regrets trying to shoot the native boy..."

Mau and Daphne don't remain alone on the island for long as soon other survivors soon start to arrive to take refuge on the island. At this point, Mau is struggling with his own reaction to the tidal wave as he is still traumatised after facing the horrific task of clearing away the bodies of every single other person who lives on his island. He is also struggling to understand how the island's Gods could have caused such an event to happen and the concept of "blind belief" is one of the book's central themes. Like Mau, the people who wash up on the island have lost everything and they seem to be unable to take decisions themselves and look to the teenager Mau for leadership. At first suspicious of each other, the two young people grow to become friends as they start to build, and organise, the community that forms as the number of survivors reaching the island increases.

This book is set in a slightly alternate 19th century and this gives plenty of fodder for poking fun at British blinkered expansionism and the traditional view of the "savage" lives led by people on isolated islands. Much of the comic relief comes from the situation that Daphne finds herself in. She is a correctly brought up girl from privileged background who has been indoctrinated with plenty of firm beliefs on what is right and wrong from her Grandmother. Practical and useful things like issuing Mau a written invitation to tea using her own headed notepaper...

In spite of, or perhaps because of, what he's referred to as his 'embuggerance' TP has produced a subtle and extremely well written work. This book does feature his usual gentle humour but it is a large step up from his recent work and could well be the best book he's written.

Other reviews from the Guardian, the Times and the Independent.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

R.I.P Read Seven - The Woman In Black

I think I might have been a little carried away with the R.I.P. reading challenge as this is the seventh book I have read for it and I have a couple more still on my bookshelf. Whoops.

The Woman in Black is one of those books that has lurked at the back of my conciousness as a modern classic that I should read at some stage. I knew that it had been adapted into a play that's been running for 20 years (which oxfordreader recently found chilling and I'm very tempted to go now!) and that there was a TV adaptation years ago but I had no idea what it was actually about other than it was "a ghost story". Never one to investigate too thoroughly I ordered it anyway as it sounded like it would fit into the R.I.P. theme nicely.

The synopsis:

"Proud and solitary, Eel Marsh House surveys the windswept reaches of the salt marshes beyond Nine Lives Causeway. Arthur Kipps, a junior solicitor, is summoned to attend the funeral Mrs Alice Drablow, the house's sole inhabitant, unaware of the tragic secrets which lie hidden behind the shuttered windows. It is not until he glimpses a wasted young woman, dressed all in black, at the funeral, that a creeping sense of unease begins to take hold, a feeling deepened by the reluctance of the locals to talk of the woman in black - and her terrible purpose."

Susan Hill says on her website that when she was thinking about writing this book, she pulled together a list of ingredients which included:

1. A ghost… not a monster or a thing from outer space but the ghost of a human who was once alive and is known to have died but whose recognisable form re-appears – or occasionally is not seen but heard, or possibly even smelled.

2. The haunted house… usually isolated.

3. Weather… atmospheric weather conditions – fog, mist, snow, and of course moonlit darkness on clear nights.

4. A sceptic. A narrator or central character who begins as a sceptic or plain disbeliever and scoffer but who is gradually converted by what he or she sees and experiences of ghostly presences.

Susan Hill absolutely hits the nail on the head with the application of these ingredients and in The Woman in Black she has written a true "classic" ghost story that really felt as if it was written decades ago rather than in the 1980s. The language she uses feels so authentic and the style is so very convincing. She also really knows how to build tension! Using the device of the narrator looking back on events that occurred when he was a young man, she is able to drop tantalising hints throughout the book that mean that this is a real page turner. Although short, this is a very satisfying book and one that's absolutely perfect for the week before Halloween!