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!