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!

Friday, 24 October 2008

R.I.P. Book Six - The Book With No Name

This is a R.I.P. challenge read.

"Detective Miles Jensen is called to the lawless town of Santa Mondega to investigate a spate of murders. This would all be quite ordinary in those rough streets, except that Jensen is the Chief Detective of Supernatural Investigations. The breakneck plot centres around a mysterious blue stone - 'The Eye of the Moon' - and the men (and women) who all want to get their hands on it: a mass murderer with a drink problem, a hit man who thinks he's Elvis, and a pair of monks among them. Add in the local crime baron, an amnesiac woman who's just emerged from a five-year coma, a gypsy fortune teller and a hapless hotel porter, and the plot thickens fast. Most importantly, how do all these people come to be linked to the strange book with no name?

The Book With No Name was originally a series of regular instalments online (which may explain why the chapters are so short and why the character pov changes so often) before becoming a Lulu self-published book and finally getting a "real" publishing deal and going mass-market. Despite my best efforts, I've no idea who the actual author is, as the copyright says it's by The Bourbon Kid which is the name of one of the characters.

I digress. Again.

This book is not my usual sort of reading choice but then I suppose that that's what a book challenge is for - to push out the boundaries of your normal comfort zone. It's set in a forgotten town in South America (well that's what the internet tells me - whilst reading it, I thought it was somewhere in the USA!) that's filled with what I can only describe as outlaws.

The book is a fast-paced action with a casual approach to death, plenty of violence, buckets of blood, vampires, weird goings on and a cast of what feels like hundreds but is probably only in the tens. It feels a bit like it's paving the way for a TV series and it's peppered with in-jokes that tie into horror/thriller films. At times the style (especially the dialogue) is a bit clunky but the pace of the story allows you to brush over that and I remained interested to the end. Mainly because I was intrigued by the mass-murdering Bourbon Kid who has a very hard to pin down motive. I'd say that this is a fun read as long as you are willing to suspend belief and value plot over style.

I noticed that there is a recently published sequel although as there were not many characters from this book left alive to star in it though...

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Small World & Nice Work - David Lodge

I decided to do a two-in-one post on these two as they are the last two books in David Lodge's "campus trilogy" the first of which, Changing Places, I read earlier this month. I've been reading these books alongside what is turning into a R.I.P. themed month and they have certainly provided me with light relief.

First up, we have Small World which is set ten years after the events of Changing Places and it touches on the lives of several of the characters featured in that earlier book. They are now living a high old life indeed:

"Philip Swallow, Morris Zapp, Persse McGarrigle and the lovely Angelica are the jet-propelled academics who are on the move, in the air, and on the make, in David Lodge's satirical 'Small World'. It is a world of glamorous travel and high excitement, where stuffy lecture rooms are swapped for lush corners of the globe, and romance is in the air."

This book is more obviously poking fun at the characters, and the availability of funding, than I noticed in Changing Places and it reads almost like a farce. This is not to imply that the books is in any way juvenile in content as at times it's really quite clear how clever Lodge is as he swaps from character to character and highlights both their character flaws and their range of intellect. At the centre of the book is Persse McGarrigle's devoted pursuit of the elusive Angelica Pabst whom he tracks around the world from conference to conference at enormous cost to his financial and emotional well being which allows us to attend most of the conferences on offer as well as to bump into a range of new and old characters. Good fun if not as politically biting as the first one I read.

Nice Work is the last in the trilogy (although it would also work well as a stand-alone novel) and in it we start to see the impact of the huge funding cuts that hit British Universities in the 80s. Long gone are the world-wide conference jaunts from Small World! The story focuses on Rummidge University, where Professor Swallow is now a faculty Dean. We follow Dr Robyn Penrose, who has secured a temporary lectureship in the English department, as she participates in a work shadow exchange project following around Vic Wilcox who is the MD of a local engineering firm. A clash of ideology naturally occurs as Robyn empathises with the "plight of the worker" and Vic questions the business practices that underpin University life.

As I have now come to expect, this novel was both amusing and thought provoking and I am sure that I'll be reading more of David Lodge's books in the future. Such a shame I missed him speak recently. :(

I'm now going to share a random Internet discovery since my last post that involved David Lodge. The Guardian featured him in their Writers Rooms series and I want his study. Look at those lovely shelves full of books with a comfy chair in the perfect spot. So jealous.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

R.I.P. Book Five - The Graveyard Book

This is a R.I.P. challenge read.

Sooo. Amazon sent me The Graveyard Book a couple of weeks early and that made me a very happy Bookling indeed. I've been looking forward to reading this for months and, as soon as I got it, I have devoured it - and put the Quiet Room at work to good use. I ended up plumping for the version that Chris Riddell illustrated as I just could not resist the blue cover and I am glad I did as the interior black and white pictures were incredible and really captured the tone of the book. For some reason it's also a bit cheaper than the Dave McKean edition too although I have no idea why that would be. Honourable mention definately goes to the Subterranean Press version that Dave McKean has also worked as it looks amazing - that full cover wrap... *drools* I can't afford the $250 price tag though so I will have to put it out of my mind!

About time I talked about the content of the book rather than its design? OK.

The synopsis: "When a baby escapes a murderer intent on killing the entire family, who would have thought it would find safety and security in the local graveyard? Brought up by the resident ghosts, ghouls and spectres, Bod has an eccentric childhood learning about life from the dead. But for Bod there is also the danger of the murderer still looking for him - after all, he is the last remaining member of the family. A stunningly original novel deftly constructed over eight chapters, featuring every second year of Bod's life, from babyhood to adolescence. Will Bod survive to be a man?"

Well. Not to keep anyone in any suspense, I loved it. It is such a charming story that is inspired by Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book. I've not read that in many years but I will definitely dig out my copy to see the links for myself. It feels a bit odd to describe a book as charming that starts with the murder of a baby's whole family and in which no character is ever entirely safe from danger (well, with the exception of the already dead ones!) but that is really the right word for it. Bod's situation is so very unique and the Graveyard is populated with some really interesting characters and that makes this book an absolute joy to read. Looks like the papers like it too.

Neil Gaiman has such a great reading voice (is it weird that I can instantly recognise the voice of someone I have never met?) and I would love to hear him read this book out loud. Now that I've read the story, so am not at risk of seeing any spoilers, I'm going to pop over to Mouse Circus and watch the videos of him reading the book chapter-by-chapter on his USA book tour. In the meantime here's a Wired interview with Neil talking about the book and why he's made those videos:

Wednesday, 15 October 2008


.Sorry for the lack of posts. I started a Real Grown-Up and Proper job last Monday and I don't know where time goes. I know it's a 20-30 min walk each way (depending on shop windows and what's on my iPod) and that I am only in the office from 9-5 but when you compare that to being either self-employed or working three days a week, as I was in the past, it's quite a change. Thankfully, I have now located the building's "Quiet Room" where you can grab a spot on a sofa and read in peace throughout lunch. A bit anti-social I know but before I was shown where this mythical room was (it's a bit of a labyrinth down there) I was forced to wander around shops and buy things. Which reminds me. I really must pop into John Lewis...

Back to the topic in hand. I'm now around five book reviews behind, which is soon to become six, and I'm going to try to catch up this evening whilst Mr B alternates between England v. Belarus and Wales v. Germany on the TV. Do I start with the last book I read or the first book I missed posting about...?

Monday, 13 October 2008

R.I.P. Book Four - We Have Always Lived in the Castle

This is my third R.I.P. read and at last I've read one that I feel properly qualifies! I could not resist buying the Penguin Deluxe edition of this book, as illustrated below, but the price on Amazon seems to have dramatically risen since I bought the book a couple of weeks ago so try the Book Depositary instead!

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson is a short, very unsettling novel that centres on a pair of sisters living in isolation in a large house on the outskirts of a village with their infirm uncle. The book is told from the perspective of the younger of the two sisters, Mary Katherine (Merricat) Blackwood and the opening lines set the tone for the rest of the story:

"My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I Live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita halloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead."

Just reading those opening lines sent shivers down my spine. We know from an early stage that Constance, the elder sister, does not leave the house and that the local villagers bear hatred towards the family. Gradually the sense of foreboding increases as Merricat's (sometimes unreliable) observations are interspersed with those of Uncle Julian as he collates his autobiography and we start to build up a picture of what might have happened in the Blackwood property a few years before.

I really can't say much more without ruining the plot development but this is a really good, if sinister, book and one I would heartily recommend. I am going to have to keep my eye out for The Haunting of Hill House and The Lottery as it seems that they are other "essential" Jackson reads and I really want to read more of her work.

I see that a few other R.I.P. readers also read this book as part of the challenge so why not head over to see what Nymeth, Eva, Lethe and Debi had to say about it.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Booking Through Thursday

This week's BTT is a meme. Feel free to join in.

What was the last book you bought?

There were four in my last Amazon/Book Depositary order so I suppose they all count. The two that arrived today are Susan Hill's The Woman in Black and Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle and both of those are for the R.I.P. challenge I am taking part in. Dispatched this morning was Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book which is fabulous news as it's not supposed to be released until the end of the month. Inexplicably not posted yet is Terry Pratchett's Nation which I bought because I've read some interesting reviews.

Name a book you have read MORE than once

Just one? I often read books more than once although this tends to happen more with Classics, also known as comfort reads, and that would include Trollope, Austen, etc.

Has a book ever fundamentally changed the way you see life? If yes, what was it?

Quite possibly not a fundamental change but I do like to have "themes" such as WW1 or a specific country as I think that you can learn a lot by reading.

How do you choose a book? eg. by cover design and summary, recommendations or reviews

Depends! These days it tends to be reviews or recommendations but if I want through a bookshop for "research purposes" then a good cover is what will make me stop and look at a book. I don't think that I would ever buy a book based on the summary alone as, although it's important, I prefer to flick through and read a few random sentences to get a feel for if I'm likely to enjoy it. Years ago I used to buy books by cover theme so I would walk into Waterstones and challenge myself to find five interesting books in brown or with flowers on the cover. Some great books were found using that method so I would recommend it to anyone with nothing particular in mind!

Do you prefer Fiction or Non-Fiction?


What’s more important in a novel - beautiful writing or a gripping plot?

They are both very important! I am sure I've written about this

Most loved/memorable character (character/book)

Most loved? Ummm. Piglet from Winnie the Pooh, Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing and Elizabeth Bennet. I am also fairly fond of Koala Lou even through the book makes me cry every time I read it...

Which book or books can be found on your nightstand at the moment?

The ones mentioned in the first question, the ones mentioned here and about 20 other "want to reads" that are patiently waiting their turn. It's all a bit out of control...

What was the last book you’ve read, and when was it?

Hexwood by Diana Wynne Jones. I am two book reviews behind and blame my new job! This 9-5 lark does not fit in well with blogging regularly!

Have you ever given up on a book half way in?

Yes. Life is far too short.

Monday, 6 October 2008

Hexwood - Dianna Wynne Jones

I think this is the fourth Diana Wynne Jones book that I have read this year - which is not bad for a grown up. After borrowing the enjoyable Howl's Moving Castle from me, my niece recognised the author's name whilst in her school library and kindly borrowed a copy of Hexwood for me to read. Which was a very sweet gesture but it did mean that I had to read the book very quickly indeed so that it could be returned to the school asap! She is due to stay over next Friday (my niece not Diana Wynne Jones!) so we will no doubt discuss this book then and I have arranged to lend her the excellent film of Howl's Moving Castle in return.

I have to say that I am delighted that she did borrow this book for me as it's the best book by Diana Wynne Jones that I have read so far. It's actually pretty complex and I had to return to pages I'd already read to remind myself just who is who. I suspect that this is a book that will definitely improve with a re-read as I am sure that I missed some, retrospectively obvious, clues along the way.

I'm not sure that I can adequately describe what this book is actually about, and the blurb is not much help but we'll give it a go:

"Strange things happen at Hexwood Farm.

From her window, Ann Stavely watches person after person disappear through the farm's gate - and never come out again. Later, in the woods nearby, she meets a tormented sorcerer, who seems to have arisen from a centuries-long sleep. But Ann knows she saw him enter the farm just that morning. Meanwhile, time keeps shifting in the woods, where a small boy - or perhaps a teenager - has encountered a robot and a dragon. Long before the end of their adventure, the strangeness of Hexwood has spread from Earth right out to the center of the galaxy."

Make any sense? Understand what you can expect from this book yet? Nope? OK. Take it from me that this is a Sci-Fi book for young (and not so young) adult where you can't assume what you have just read is true or that the characters are who they think they are but with a good heart at its centre.

Friday, 3 October 2008

Changing Places - David Lodge

This was one of my charity shop bargains from last week and at 50p it was a snip. I got hold of four of David Lodge's books and am trying to read as many as possible before I see him in action, as it were, at the UEA LitFest next week.*

Changing Places is the first in a trilogy of campus novels (the other two being Small World and Nice Work which were both shortlisted for the Booker Prize) and from the blurb:

"When Phillip Swallow and Professor Morris Zapp participate in their universities' Anglo-American exchange scheme, the Fates play a hand, and each academic finds himself enmeshed in the life of his counterpart on the opposite side of the Atlantic. Nobody is immune to the exchange: students, colleagues, even wives are swapped as events spiral out of control. And soon both sun-drenched Euphoric State University and rain-kissed University of Rummidge are a hotbed of intrigue, lawlessness and broken vows..."

David Lodge is Emeritus Professor of English Literature at the University of Birmingham, where he taught from 1960 until 1987, when he retired to write full-time. He was Harkness Fellow in the United States (1964-5), Visiting Professor at the University of California, Berkeley (1969) and Henfield Creative Writing Fellow at the University of East Anglia (1977). All of this, one suspects, makes him superbly qualified to write in a very knowledgeable and, one suspects, horribly accurate manner about University politics. The introduction to the second book in this series, Small World, explains that Rummidge University is Birmingham and that Euphoric is Berkley.

This book is set in 1969 and whilst the political landscape we live in has changed since then, Lodge uses observational comedy to expertly explore more serious subjects, such as feminism and consumerism, and to demonstrate how society at that time was undergoing a change as the students at both Universities become more politically aware.

I really should mention the narrative devices David Lodge used to tell the story - he takes us from traditional novel format to extracts from newspapers to an exchange of letters between several parties then returned us to a novel and finished with a screenplay. All of which were expertly executed. I'm already looking forward to reading the other books in the trilogy!

*By the time I finished this post, it was after he'd participated in the UEA LitFest and I didn't get around to seeing David Lodge speak last week. I blame work and will try harder!

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Booking Through Thursday

This week's BTT is:

What, in your opinion, is the best book that you haven’t liked? I don’t mean your most-hated book.. I mean the most accomplished, skilled, well-written, impressive book that you just simply didn’t like.

Oh dear. This really is confession time...

The only Charles Dickens book I have managed to read all the way through is A Tale of Two Cities. I have, however, enjoyed some of the film adaptions but I don't think that counts.

George Eliot makes me feel a bit queasy and I don't understand how anyone can empathise with the ghastly Maggie Tulliver from Mill on the Floss. I did study Silas Marner at either GSCE or A-Level but couldn't stand Eppie... I've also tried to read Middlemarch several times and each effort has ended in abandonment. Life is too short and I have decided not to worry about this.

I dislike Thomas Hardy, based on a full read of Far from the Madding Crowd. I know that I started both Tess of the D'Urbervilles and The Mayor of Casterbridge and didn't finish either but to be fair I've not tried him since I was 15 or 16 so I'll hold proper judgement on him.

It's not that I don't enjoy books of that era as, off the top of my head, the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen, Henry Fielding, William Thackeray, Elizabeth Gaskell and Anthony Trollope would all be authors I'd recommend so I'm not really sure what it is about Dickens, Elliot and Hardy that I dislike so much.

Moving to modern books, I have to say that I am at an utter loss to see why so many people find Paul Coelho so incredible. I've read The Alchemist and, more recently, The Witch of Portabello and I just don't understand why he is such a global phenomenon.

I loved Joseph Heller's Catch 22 but, despite at least two attempts, have not managed to get into Closing Time which is the sequel. Which is a bit odd given how much I enjoy the other one. Hem - it's "looking at me" balefully from my bookshelf. Is it time to try again?

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

September Reading List

The end of another month (where does time go?) and another list of books. This month I hit the 100 mark in terms of books read so far this year but my reading rate is likely to decline from next month as I'm starting a full time "proper job" with Norwich Union. The things a girl has to do to afford her book habit...

This month's book list feels really heavily weighted towards SFF and I will be working to correct that balance next month as it's definitely time for a change of direction. Although I can't claim that any of my R.I.P. books so far have left me trembling, so I'll be trying harder next month!