Friday, 29 August 2008

Engleby - Sebastian Faulks

Cor Blimey. This one was not quite what I was expecting from the man who wrote The Girl at the Lion D'Or and Birdsong. Although perhaps Human Traces, which I read last year, should have given me a hint that he's moved away from a wartime setting and towards the workings of the human mind.

The titular character of Mike Engleby is a complex and unhappy young man who self-medicates on a cocktail of drink and drugs. This book is told entirely from his point of view which enables us, as readers, to decide if we entirely believe him or not. He's clearly not a man who is comfortable in his own skin and he's also not skilled at even basic interaction with others. Despite these character flaws, it is hard not to empathise with him as he recounts his awful experiences as a scholarship student at bording school and his continued social isolation as an adult.

Whilst he is at University a female undergraduate whom he is in (unrequited) love with disappears and we follow Engleby's thoughts as he tries to get to grips with the situation as well as dealing with the, perhaps inevitable, investigative spotlight turning on him.

I would have loved to read this as part of a group challenge where you all get to the same point of the book. Stop. Discuss what you think is going on, and how truthful you feel that Engleby is being, then move on to the next section. I'd love to revisit those impressions at the end to see how accurate I was in my interpretation! For me, that was a large part of the pleasure of reading this book - you couldn't be quite sure just how accurate Engleby's recollections were. At times he was very specific however at others vague and I enjoyed pausing to reflect on why that might be during the book.

I'd certainly recommend this not entirely comfortable read but don't expect it to be in Faulks' usual style. Want more? Pop in and visit Sebastian Faulks and admire his new not-finished-yet website.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Booking Through Thursday

This week's BTT:

"If you’re anything like me, one of your favourite reasons to read is for the story. Not for the character development and interaction. Not because of the descriptive, emotive powers of the writer. Not because of deep, literary meaning hidden beneath layers of metaphor. (Even though those are all good things.) No … it’s because you want to know what happens next? Or, um, is it just me?"

This is a tricky one to answer.

It possibly depends what mood I am in. If I'm feeling a bit off colour or lying in the sunshine then I am quite capable of reading books that require absolutely no effort and therefore no storyline to speak of. I could confess to the holiday in Portugal a few years ago where I read around ten Mills and Boon books back-to-back over the course of a couple of days*. But no. I don't think I will. I am also capable of reading books that require lots of effort - such as reading War and Peace whilst enjoying Thailand's beaches!

I will forgive a book a lot if it's got a fast-paced story (The DaVinci Code, anyone?) and I have that "I really want to know what happens next" feeling, however I've also found myself utterly unable to continue to read a book if the prose is too clunky or the dialogue stilted. I just can't stand sloppy writing even if the story is good. For example, I love the Bourne films but just can't read the books.

In spite of the best efforts of Mrs Brown and Mrs Collier (my A Level English Lit teachers), I don't think that I really look for "literary meaning beneath layers of metaphor", at least not consciously. I notice sentence structure though and pay attention to the author's choice of words. This habit developed after spending lessons examining the words of Shakespeare and Austen in very close detail and it's not left me yet!

For me, character development and authenticity is really important - more so than the descriptive elements of a book. Is it realistic that this person will react in the way that they do? Does the way they speak and feel feel convincing? Of course, it always helps if I like them or empathise with their situation!

I'm not snobbish about what I read - I enjoy quite a wide range of genres - and to enjoy a book it's all about pulling together the elements of an interesting story, convincing characters, good dialogue and descriptive text. Perhaps the answer is that I'll read a story because it has a "want to know what happens next" plot in spite of it lacking these features and not because of it!

* I will, however, point out that they were in the house we stayed in and not brought with me as my special holiday reading material!

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

RIP III Challenge

Thanks to Chris over at book-a-rama, I've joined the fun looking RIP III Challenge which runs from September 1st to October 31st, 2008.

RIP stands for R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril and I'm looking forward to this one as it covers the genres of "Mystery. Suspense. Thriller. Dark Fantasy. Gothic. Horror. & Supernatural". I'm aiming to complete Peril the First - which is to read Four books of any length, from any subgenre of scary stories that you choose by the end of October.

So - on to my list! Neil Gaiman's forthcoming The Graveyard Book is an absolute must although it's released on the 31st October so I'll have to be quick on that one - could this be the excuse I needed to go to London to get a signed copy and hear him talk? Also on my possible reading list are:

The End Of Mr. Y - Scarlett Thomas
Northanger Abbey - Jane Austen
The Quincunx - Charles Palliser
The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins
The Woman in Black - Susan Hill
We Have Always Lived in the Castle - Shirley Jackson
Little, Big - John Crowley
The Mysteries of Udolpho - Ann Radcliffe
Ghost Stories - MR James

Later Additions to the list:
The Thirteenth Tale - Diane Setterfield (thanks to deslily)
The Ghost-Feeler - Edith Wharton (thanks to katrina)

I will read at least four from this list but it could end up being more as there's lots there to tempt me.

Looking at my shortlist, I feel as if I need to add something from horror/dark fantasy or supernatural as I don't read in that genre and it would be nice to do so. I also seem to be the only person in the world who is not or has not read something by Stephanie Meyers... Perhaps this is my time. Any additional reading suggestions would be gratefully received!

Sunday, 24 August 2008

Gorging on Georgette Heyer

Following my recent BTT post about libraries, I took the chance to pop into my local library clutching my incredibly extensive "books to buy" list. This is not meant to be a criticism of my local library service however I was only able to locate TWO books that were on my list... I understand that it's a heavily used branch and that popular or recent books are bound to be borrowed frequently but that probably goes some way to explain why I tend to buy books rather than borrow them.

Aaaaanyway. Back in March I read a couple of Georgette Heyer books following an article I read on Vulpes Libris. Dear me. I think that's the third time I've linked to them this week - I do read other blogs, I promise! So, and back to my original point, whilst in the library I happened to pass a long shelf of Georgette Heyer novels and grabbed these three at random. I'd forgotten just how much fun her books are and how delightfully easy they are to read.

I enjoyed the Devil's Cub the most as our hero, Dominic the Marquis of Vidal, was an awfully amusing and very debauched fellow who contrasts nicely with the sensible, delightful and clever Mary Challoner. It was also very pleasant to realise that he is the son of Leonie and Justin from These Old Shades which is a book I read several times as a teenager! For me, this is Heyer at her best - romance, drama, misunderstandings and characters whose dialogue actually made me cackle out loud with glee.

Second up was Regency Buck. On the death of their father, the rich, and of course beautiful, heiress Judith Taverner and her brother are placed into the legal care of John Audley, the fifth Earl of Worth. Naturally, he's arrogant and insufferable and sparks fly. What I enjoyed about this book was that there's a lot of Regency period detail alongside the plot, as the forthright Judith learns her way around polite society in London and Brighton ably guided by a cameo appearance from Beau Brummell. I am positive I recognised some of the characters from this book as appearing in other Heyer books I read when younger so I will have to dig around in the attic to see if I can find some of my old copies.

Possibly as it was my third back-to-back Heyer in two days, I found The Black Moth least entertaining. I think it could also be because I enjoy the roguish hero aspect of the other two books too much and found Jack Carstares (an Earl in hiding) a bit too straight laced after Dominic and John! I think I'd have preferred to follow the story of the evil Duke of Andover rather than the hero! An entertaining quick read but not one of my favourites.

I think I might be reading a few more of these before the year is out. Escaping into a good Georgette Heyer book is just so much fun - I can't recommend the experience enough.

Friday, 22 August 2008

Mathematics of Love - Emma Darwin

Emma Darwin's debut novel, The Mathematics of Love, was written whilst she was working towards her MPhil in writing at the University of Glamorgan and she's now doing a PhD in Creative Writing at Goldsmiths' College. Knowing that information coming into this book made me wonder if this was going to be a very dry read however that was definately not the case.

The Mathematics of Love flips between two narrators and their time frame. Teenager Anna has been dumped on an uncle she barely knows, who lives in the dilapidated Kersey Hall in the Suffolk countryside, by her irresponsible mother whose gone to Spain with the latest in a long line of boyfriends. She meets, and grows close, to neighbours Theo and Eva who teach her about photography. This in particular was described in a very enticing way that made me want to pick up my camera and flip it to manual again.

In 1819 we meet Stephen Fairhouse, who has recently inherited Kersey Hall as he witnesses the Peterloo Massacre. Having recently returned to England, after serving in the army during the Napoleonic Wars and then the Spanish Civil War, he is appalled by the charge and, in the aftermath, develops a friendship with Lucy Durward with whom he starts to regularly correspond. Gradually, a close friendship blossoms and he starts to tell her about his life on the continent and about the woman he fell in love with there.

These two stories are never really entwined - years later, Anna reads these letters and that's the only significant link between Stephen and her. Which is a pity, as I had imagined several marvellous plot twists for myself that did not materialise!

The attention to period detail was impressive throughout and the thoughts and feelings of both main characters felt very authentic. I felt that Stephen's story was neatly dealt with and that the loose ends were neatly tied up but that the relationship issues Anna has with members of her family were unresolved. Perhaps this could have worked better for me if it had been two books so that we got plenty of time to concentrate on each character as they had such distinct voices. At times, the choice of descriptive language in this book was really quite beautiful and I look forward to seeing Emma Darwin's future works.

Emma blogs here and recently contributed an interesting article about her next book, A Secret Alchemy, over here on Vulpes Libres as part of their Richard III week. I'm really looking forward to that one as it not only looks very interesting but it's a historical period that I'm really interested in.

Thursday, 21 August 2008

Booking Through Thursday

This week's BTT:

"What is your earliest memory of a library? Who took you? Do you have you any funny/odd memories of the library?"

I lived in Tanzania until I was eleven so didn't really have access to a municipal library as such during that stage of my life. The only library I can remember visiting was when I stayed with my Grandparents, who also lived in Tanzania at that point, and Granny would take us to the library at the school she taught in. The choice of books was pretty limited but it was very, very much appreciated and a welcome break from reading the dated books my aunts and uncles had left behind as they moved out! The Bobbsey Twins, anyone?

Granny would also arrange for us to visit her friends houses and use their bookshelves as informal libraries - and I still remember my horror when I accidentally ripped a page in one. To make up for the lack of book access, my mother used to buy books from the only second-hand bookshop in Dar Es Salaam and ration them out to me to make them last. She used to hide them around the house, generally too high up to reach, so that if I rooted them out I couldn't actually get to them. I'm pretty sure I've still got some of those books boxed up in my attic and it'd be fun to dig them out again.

I was also generally allowed to choose a handful of my own books when we returned to the UK on leave and would always ensure that they were either very fat or omnibus editions to make the most of the opportunity! I wonder if this experience of not being able to get my hands on books has contributed to my "need" to own far too many books as an adult... Quite possibly.

As a teenager the library was more of a place to pretend to revise in whilst really peeking at BOYS from behind my under-used text books. I should explain that I attended an all-girl school so this was quite exciting. My University Library was situated all too near a nice pub so it was more of a meeting point for like-minded people who were full of good intentions but with no real application.

In 1994 Norwich library caught on fire and was gutted so I never learned to rely on it as a source of reading material post-Uni when I was skint enough to have done so. It's since been rebuilt and now forms part of The Forum building and I do use it occasionally however not as much as I should! Perhaps I'll pop in today and borrow some books from my "to buy" list in honour of this post.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

The Point of Rescue - Sophie Hannah

After reading a review of Sophie Hannah's The Point of Rescue over on vulpes libres, I forwarded the article to my sister suggesting she might enjoy it. She replied to say that she'd already boughtit, read it and kindly offered to lend it to me. As if I could resist such temptation...

And on to the plot:

Sally Thorning is watching the news with her husband when she hears a name she never thought she'd hear again: Mark Bretherick.

It's a name she ought not to recognise. Last year, a work trip Sally had planned was cancelled at the last minute. Desperate for a break from her busy life juggling her job and a young family, Sally didn't tell her husband that the trip had fallen through. Instead, she treated herself to a secret holiday in a remote hotel. All she wanted was a bit of peace - some time to herself - but it didn't work out that way. Because Sally met a man - Mark Bretherick.

All the details are the same: where he lives, his job, his wife Geraldine and daughter Lucy. Except that the photograph on the news is of a man Sally has never seen before. And Geraldine and Lucy Bretherick are both dead...

...and if that's not a synopsis that makes you want to read on I don't know what will! The Point of Rescue is Sophie Hannah's third psychological thriller and it certainly makes for an original and entertaining read. The plot bowls on at a great pace with plenty of dramatic twists and turns but for me the most interesting sections were those giving differing viewpoints on motherhood. Some of it makes for fairly uncomfortable reading and I am sure it's quite close to the bone for some women.

Hopefully my sister has now bought Sophie Hannah's other two novels, Little Face and Hurting Distance, as I think I would rather enjoy reading more. It also might help to contextualise some of the, frankly confusing, sub-plot centred around two of the police characters, Simon and Charlie, which felt very out of place amidst the more interesting crime story line!

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

I want...

Just in case my husband has not received my subtle hints, I thought I would post about this gorgeous limited edition of George Mann's The Affinity Bridge from Snowbooks.

When I saw the artwork for the cover months ago on their blog I was very, very impressed but now I've seen the slipcase, coin and little velvet pouch... I know that it is way to early to be thinking about Christmas but I would be very happy to receive a copy of this in my stocking!

Paypal link here...

Monday, 18 August 2008

The Book of Lost Things - John Connolly

The Book of Lost Things was a slightly whimsical purchase that I bought solely because the title intrigued me. Of course, I didn't actually buy it myself as I am not allowed to buy more books at the moment, but I ensured that it was bought for me which is totally different.

The first chapter of the book observes the reaction of twelve year old David as he watches his mother slowly die and his attempts to delay the inevitable. This is possibly the most moving depiction of the loss of a mother that I have ever read and it had me in floods of tears. I've found an extract here if you are feeling brave.

David retreats into his own world in an attempt to cope with both his mother's death and the impact of his father starting a new relationship that results in the birth of a baby brother. Gradually the fantasy and real world start to merge and David enters a twisted land that's based on twisted versions of fairy tales...

For me, this book started out really promisingly and, until about half way through, I was really enjoying reading it. When trying to understand why I sort-of-lost-interest I decided this... I think it's because the device of taking fairy tales or characters that David would have known and placing them into the other world was more intriguing than our young hero's quest... For example, I was waaaaay more interested in following the lives of the communist version of the seven dwarves pandering to a hideously self-centred Snow White that David encounters than following him on his journey and I doubt that's a good thing. Having said that, the story did move along at a good pace and I was never in danger of abandoning it. Perhaps I've just read too much fiction where traditional folk tales are skewed and someone who has not would find the overall experience more satisfying.

This is not a bad book as such and, to its credit, it started and ended beautifully. I do feel that it could have gone so much further in the central part and it's a shame that it didn't. The edition I read had an extremely extensive appendix (about a third of the book!) that contained all of the source fairy tales that occur throughout the book as well as an author commentary which was interesting. The book has its own website (I suspect not suitable for those with light sensitive epilepsy) where much of this additional material, and more, also resides. The author's website is also very informative although, based on what I've read about his other books, it looks as if this book is a change of direction for him.

Friday, 15 August 2008

A poem for Granny

For my lovely Granny, whose funeral is today. My Grandfather chose this poem and dedicated to their children. I don't know who wrote it but I think it's just right for this very sad occasion.

You can shed tears that she has gone, or you can smile because she has lived.

You can close your eyes and pray that she'll come back, or you can close your eyes and see all that she's left.

Your heart can be empty because you can't see her, or you can be full of the love you have shared.

You can turn your back on tomorrow because of yesterday, or you can be happy for tomorrow because of yesterday.

You can remember her and only that she is gone, or you can cherish her memory and let it live on.

You can cry and close your mind, be empty and turn your back, or you can do what she'd want: smile, open your eyes, love and go on.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Shadow of the Minotaur - Alan Gibbons

Shadow of the Minotaur is book one of The Legendeer Trilogy by children's author Alan Gibbons and it won the Blue Peter Book 'book I couldn't put down' award in 2000. Which shows just how bang up to date I am with the world of youth fiction...

The title of each book in this trilogy refers to a different computer game that opens the gateway between our own world and the realm of myth and legend. Phoenix's father is a game designer working for a mysterious corporation whose new virtual reality game is becoming a little too realistic for his liking.

Following the mysterious disappearance of his father Phoenix, along with his best friend Laura, enters the game and have to complete a quest before advancing to the next level and being challenged to defeat the Minotaur in combat. Drawing heavily on Greek mythology, the story does move at a decent pace without the sections where Phoenix is playing either Perseus or Theseus feeling too educational. Although, I doubt that sentence makes sense to anyone else! The depiction of the Minotaur's lair was particularly effective - you could almost feel the beast snorting behind you!

However, and perhaps unfairly, I couldn't stop myself from comparing this to The Roar which was my just-before read and if I had to recommend one adventure to a young acquaintance it would be that one. I've not finished the trilogy as I felt that the first book was enough of a stand alone story to leave it there but I will probably return at some point to see how Phoenix managed against the Vampyrs!

Alan Gibbons is astoundingly prolific and he also has a blog! He's clearly a passionate advocate of reading for pleasure and the importance of providing young people with the opportunity to access a range of material and it's worth checking him out if you are interested in that.

Sunday, 10 August 2008

The Roar - Emma Clayton

As this is not really a book for grown ups, I will put this read into some sort of context... The Roar is aimed at ages 9+ (phew - so that technically does include me) and was one of my niece's tenth birthday presents that she received last week. She very kindly lent it to me as she knows I like SFF books and I promised to read it quickly and let her know what I think.

Surely it can only be a good thing that I picked up Emma Clayton's debut novel The Roar yesterday afternoon and read it straight through until it was finished? So... What's it about? Well.... Ummm.... *takes deep breath*

It's the nearish future and all the animals developed some kind of plague, went mental and started to kill humans so a huge protective concrete wall was erected in the northern hemisphere, the rest of the world was poisoned to kill all the animals and what was left of humanity now huddles together in a grim world of concrete and processed food. The rich live in the upper cities and the poor are crammed together in very basic accommodation amidst rising water levels. Cheery stuff! In this world live twins Ellie and Mika who are part of the first generation of children that have been born in 30 years. Ellie was kidnapped a year ago, but it's not clear why other than that she seems to have a special talent, and her parents believe that she is dead. Mika is sure that he can feel a link to Ellie and is convinced she is not...

Then the government introduces an arcade game called Pod fighter and all the children compete for fabulous prizes with the very best in the running for housing in the golden towers district. Mika and his friends join in the competition and realise that all is not as it seems and that there could be a more sinister motive behind this initiative...

This is a fast-paced thriller featuring very likable young people in an interesting world with an exciting plot. It certainly exceeded all my expectations and I thoroughly enjoyed myself yesterday afternoon! Whilst I freely admit that I am rather partial to Sci-Fi, this is a book that should appeal to absolutely anyone after an intriguing adventure and I hope my niece enjoys it as much as I did.

I tried to find out more about Emma Clayton and discovered that, slightly confusingly, there appears to be a hardback version of this book scheduled for publication next year and she is not listed on the publisher's website. This is a blow for me as I was hoping to find out that a sequel was due out very shortly!

Friday, 8 August 2008

Jane Austen: A Life - Claire Tomalin

It's been a very busy start to August for me as we've been celebrating both Mr B's 30th birthday and my niece's tenth so I've taken longer to read Claire Tomalin's excellent biography of Jane Austen than I would have liked.

Until recently, all I knew about Claire Tomalin was that in 2002 both her and her husband, Michael Frayn, were competing for the Whitbread award and that her biography of Samuel Pepys won. Since getting her biography of Jane Austen earlier this year I've seen her name popping up everywhere and have realised that she's published some very well respected biographies including ones on Thomas Hardy and Katherine Mansfield. Both of which I'll have to add to the ever-increasing Books-to-Buy list!

This biography is everything I could have hoped for. It's divided into themed chapters that exhaustively cover Jane's extended family, the Austen home, the Hampshire neighbours and the impact that her own social and financial circumstances had on her work.

Claire Tomalin makes excellent use of what survives of Jane's letters (her sister, Cassandra, destroyed most of their correspondence along with the diaries before her death and Fanny, her niece, also disposed of source material) and the surviving witness accounts of friends and family, along with very thorough historical research, to paint a portrait of Jane Austen that feels very authentic. I'd had an image of a genteel lady leisurely writing novels at a desk that is very much at odds with the facts of Jane's life - click through to a picture of her actual writing table at the house in Chawton.

Jane Austen's life was much more difficult, and more eventful, than I'd realised and she was clearly a woman living in a time where she must have felt very restricted in terms of what options were available to her. Through this biography comes a portrait of a very clever woman who, from the sidelines, used her wicked sense of humour to observe people and behaviour. I finished the book feeling that it's a real shame that neither she or her direct family can have had any idea just how popular her work would become and that the financial rewards during her lifetime were, although very welcome, a fraction of what must have come to her estate.

In summary, a great biography that has set me up nicely for my next Jane read! The only thing I would wish to improve about my reading experience is the cover on my copy. I just love the Penguin Celebrations issue and neeeeeeeeed it so badly...

Thursday, 7 August 2008

Booking Through Thursday

This weeks BTT is:

"Are there any particular worlds in books where you’d like to live? Or where you certainly would NOT want to live? What about authors? If you were a character, who would you trust to write your life?"

An interesting one although I am pretty happy with where and how I live now!

The first thought that popped into my mind when thinking of where I'd like to live was that of The Culture in the Iain M Banks books where humans and AIs live together. I think it would be really interesting to live in a society where you don't actually have to do anything yet you can choose to if you want to. Where you can change your body into fantastical shapes, change your abilities, where information is so easily available, leisure opportunities are almost infinite and money is no longer required.

I'd also love to live in a close-knit community like the ones in the Miss Read books - small village life at its best where everyone knows everyone and support is there if needed.

I would not want to live in medieval times unless I was super-rich and influential. Which is statistically very unlikely. It must have been very difficult for those on the lower rungs of society with life expectancy and quality of life both very low. The inequality of the sexes would also be very frustrating and I'd no doubt end up being tried as a witch!

In terms of recentish books I've read, I don't think that the island of Bouganville as presented in Mister Pip would be in my list of places to live - even if the idea of a lush tropical island does appeal. Looking at the post I linked there I do quite fancy taking my canoe out on the north-western coast of the USA as featured in The Highest Tide though!

I've just realised that this week's BTT also asks what author I'd trust to write my life story. I'm currently reading Claire Tomalin's biography of Jane Austen and you really could not ask for a better author than her. Great attention to detail presented in a very engaging manner.

Friday, 1 August 2008

July Reading List

So - here's July's reading list in full. I didn't write about all the books I read as I just didn't have anything to say about a couple including the very odd Southland Tales that are a sort of prequel to the film that I've not seen.

My Pick of the Month is Catherine O'Flynn's wonderful book What Was Lost and it was good to see that I'm not the only person who thought it was great this month! It looks like there's a new cover in the works which is good as the one I've used for this post is a bit off-putting. Sadly, I did not get to see Catherine speak at the Latitude Festival a couple of weeks ago as she was on another day but I really look forward to her next book.