Thursday, 31 December 2009

2009 Review

As it’s the last day of December, the time seems right for a look back at what I read in 2009.

I’ll start this post with a quick look at my December reading list. I started the month by racing through the rest of the Sookie Stackhouse box-set then read William Boyd’s The New Confessions (large) and then The Quincunx (even larger) and then I zoomed through 13 Treasures and 13 Curses in the last couple of days. At £1 per book, that makes a £10 donation to Book Aid this month.

Whilst on the subject of Book Aid, I just want to mention again how pleased I am that Jodie from book gazing set up The Year of Readers. The self-imposed “fine” of £1 a book this year has meant that I have given £125 to Book Aid International in 2009. Or, looking at it another way, this year I effectively bought 62.5 books to send overseas which gives me a warm and fuzzy feeling. I will definitely continue to support them next year but have not quite decided if it’ll be in the same structured way. I’ll post more about that in the new year.

And on to the almost obligatory (in blogging terms) 2009 review! Of the 121 books I read this year, the genre breakdown* was:

General Fiction: 57
Fantasy/Science-Fiction: 55
Graphic Novels: 5 (of which 2 were fiction and 3 non-fiction)
Non-fiction: 4

Blimey – that’s a lot of SF&F! In a nicely even split, 61 of those books were written by female authors and 59 by males. I also read books by 48 authors who were new (to me) in 2009.

Out of those 121 books, 51 were bought as new by me this year with an additional 16 new books coming in as gifts or prizes. 18 were purchased second hand (from either green metropolis or local book stalls) and 28 were borrowed from the library and two more from a friend.

That means that just a handful of the books I read this year came from the 2008 brought forward TBR pile… Gulp! I am also pretty confident that the actual number of books I personally bought this year was far higher than the 69 I read which is shocking! Perhaps I need to impose a stuck-in-a-book style “Project 24” buying cap in 2010…

It’s time for my worst stat of all… I only read one book that I have previously read. Yes. One. This utterly flies in the face of my constant assurances that I need to keep so many books in our home because I will re-read them. It strikes me that perhaps I should not have been quite so honest in this post in case my husband reads about it so let’s leave it as our dirty little secret for now!

All in all, 2009 was a pretty good reading year for me - although I did read a lower number of books than I expected to. I’ve just checked my 2008 total and that was a final count of 133 books so perhaps it was just in line with the norm!

Next year I would like to read more non-fiction (perhaps one a month?), catch up on un-read classics, delve into some poetry and try to push the boundaries of my reading comfort zone a bit further. Taking into account my Christmas book loot, and the additional 15 books I “accidentally” bought on Boxing Day, I’m definitely set up for an enjoyable first few months.

* Slightly arbitrary but it works for me!

13 Treasures & 13 Curses - Michelle Harrison

As part of their annual Smugglivus celebrations, Ana and Thea at The Book Smugglers ran a YA giveaway sponsored by Simon & Schuster which I was lucky enough to win. Michelle Harrison won the Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize last year for 13 Treasures which was her first book. I remember seeing it on display at the time and being tempted to buy it as it looked as if it had an interesting take on fairies and could be something my niece might enjoy too. My first prize book, The 13 Curses, arrived the week before Christmas and, as it was a sequel, I just had to buy The 13 Treasures to get into the story properly! Any excuse…

I am leaping ahead of myself and should probably say what the books are about! The heroine of The Thirteen Treasures, Tanya, is a young girl who can (unusually for a human) see fairies. It’s clear from the outset that they are not always pleasant to her and their antics land her in trouble with her mother. Eventually reaching the end of her tether, her mother sends her to stay with her grandmother, Florence, at her old manor house in the country.

There she re-connects with Fabian, the groundskeeper’s son, and in the library they uncover an old photograph of Florence with a girl who vanished in the nearby woods fifty years ago. Fabian’s Grandfather, Amos, was the last person to see her alive and has been viewed suspiciously by the townspeople ever since. Fabian wants to prove his innocence and after a chance encounter with a very similar girl in the woods, the two children investigate further.

Into this mix, we add in secret tunnels, a homeless girl called Red, several fairies (and other magical creatures) , a mysterious local witch and the fact that more local children have been mysteriously disappearing…

What I love about books written for children/young adults is that they are all about the plot! The 13 Treasures is a great little story – lots of action and a vivid portrayal of the fairies living among us (I loved the grumpy brownie in the teabag jar!) and it serves as a great introduction to what I hope will be a series as well as telling an interesting story in its own right.

Although now centring on Red, events in The Thirteen Curses follow on from those in the first book and it’s definitely worth reading them in order. Broadly speaking the major characters are the same but this book feels like Harrison’s more comfortable writing and happy to tackle more perilous themes. It’s a longer book than the 13 Treasures and that allows for a more involved plot (including Red’s back story) where we learn more about the fairies and encounter their dangerous side. I enjoyed it even more than the first book and loved Red who is strong, courageous, loyal and independent. A great role model for young female readers.

I’d also like to mention the illustrated lettering at the start of each chapter which Michelle Harrison drew. They added a lovely dimension to the story and it’s nice to know that she wrote the words as well as drew these fabulous sketches. Both books race along and, as they are quite short, I was able to race through them in a couple of days and finish them off in time for a clean slate to start 2010. I hope that 13 Curses proves as successful for Harrison as 13 Treasures did and that this launches a loose franchise as I’d be very tempted to check out what happens next to the girls even though I am far too old to be part of these books target audience!

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

2009 in one liners meme

Jodie at book gazing has posted about her 1 year blogiversary today (congratulations, Jodie!) and included a meme which I thought fitted in rather nicely as it is a look back at 2009 in one liners.

January: Seeing the year in from Tynemouth where I indulge in comfort reading and kick off the Sci-Fi Experience.

February: Really enjoying reading Sci-Fi but break it up with a Georgette Heyer blow out!

March: Have had enough of winter and being cold so convince Mr B we need to take a trip to somewhere warm.

April: We enjoy two fantastic weeks in Kenya and I succeed in reading all 2250+ pages of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle.

May: The Alphabet Weekends (inspired by a book read on holiday) schedule kicks off and Mr B and I cover off Art, Broads, Cycling and Dragon Hall!

June: Have post-birthday book splurge and realise I could have an out of control addiction.

July: Read far too much escapist historical romance but really enjoy myself in a slightly guilty way.

August: Wonder what on earth happened to our promised summer and sign up for three book challenges.

September: Reading rate drops to an all-time low and I only read five books this month.

October: I give up and accept that I am going to “fail” nearly all my 2009 book challenges.

November: We return from a trip to Toronto to visit some friends where we manage to cover a lot of Canadian ground but I only read one book!

December: I realise that I have raised £125 for Book Aid International by taking part in the Year of Readers!

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

The Quincunx: The Inheritance of John Huffam - Charles Palliser

I received this book as a gift last Christmas and, at a whopping 1200 pages long, it nearly came with me to Kenya earlier this year before being put to one side when I realised that Neal Stephenson’s enormous Baroque Cycle was likely to comfortably occupy me for a fortnight. Which it most certainly did!

It then languished on the shelf until I read this post by Sam Ruddock from Vulpes Libris. After that, how could I resist selecting it as my reading material for the Christmas break? Motivated by the thought of carrying such an enormous book in my handbag on the walk to, and from, work for reading this week at lunchtime I stayed up last night until I finished it. Wow. That was a book worth reading although I really should mention that it’s not often that you get to the end of a book and feel as though what you really need to do next is to go back to the beginning and start it again!

Although The Quincunx was published in 1989 it is actually an incredibly authentic pastiche of the mid-nineteenth century novel. It is set in a very plausible mid-nineteenth century England with the action split between provincial village life and the grimy city of London. The book charts the fortunes, over the course of about fifteen years, of a single mother and her young son, John Huffam, as told through the eyes of the latter.

We follow John’s narration as the world collapses around him and his mother when, following an ill-advised investment on her part, they have to leave behind their relatively comfortable, and safe, life in the country to face increasingly grinding poverty in the slums of London. I think it’s worth an aside at this stage to mention that the depiction in this book of life for both rural and urban poor is absolutely excellent and so vividly portrayed. It’s clear from the early stages that this transition is not entirely his mother’s fault (although the young John may not agree with that) and that there is a mysterious plot against the pair of them centred on a codicil to a will written half a century before…

We unravel the mystery surrounding John’s birth, and who his family is, as he does and, like him, the reader struggles to sometimes understand the motives and connections between the individuals who are interested in him.

There is a really complex web of intrigue at play in this book and, to add to the challenge of following the twists and turns of the plot, we have a sometimes unreliable narrator. For a good part of the book this is because we are seeing events through the eyes of a young child. What I did enjoy was that evidence is presented to us (although sometimes we receive conflicting reports from protagonists) and the reader is allowed to draw their own conclusions about events which I found occasionally differed from those made by John. I also found that a couple of times he allowed a investigative thread to drift that I would have wanted to follow – which throws his position of trusted narrator into an interesting light.

The edition I read has an afterward by Palliser in which he explains more about the careful way in which the book has been structured and hints at more layers to explore than I found. For example the novel itself is divided into five parts, and each part is divided into five books and then five chapters… One device I did really like was that at the start of each part was a family tree that grew as John (and our) understanding of how his relatives fitted together and what their motives towards him might be.

I’m sure I’m not doing the book any justice at all but if you like the BIG Victorian novels (think Wilkie Collins) then you’ll probably really enjoy this one. As mentioned earlier, it is rare that you finish a book and feel the need to start again at the beginning so this is definitely a book I will re-read in a couple of years time. But next time I will be keeping a closer eye on the evidence as it unfolds…

Saturday, 26 December 2009

Sci-Fi Experience 2010

I really enjoyed taking part in the 2009 Sci-Fi experience at the start of this year and was delighted to see this post from Carl of Stainless Steel Droppings announcing the 2010 launch.

In his own, rather lovely, words: “More than any other genre of fiction, science fiction reading is to me an experience– not only does it transport me to another time and place in the future but it also transports me to my past and as such creates an aura of reading that is wonderful to experience but difficult to describe. I can only hope that you fellow readers are nodding your heads in agreement right now, recalling similar experiences that you have with various novels and/or genres of fiction.”

For those who have not heard of it, it’s taking place from January 1st, 2010 through February 28th, 2010. What I rather like about it is that there is no official sign up or requirement to read a certain number of books. Particularly useful for me as I have failed miserably at half the challenges I signed up for this year! Also included is film, TV and gaming so it should be fun to see what I can see or play in the genre too.

When I participated in the Sci Fi experience in January and February this year, I read some great books by new (to me) authors. I’ve definitely read more Sci-Fi this year than ever before and it really helped to expand my reading “comfort” zone. Looking ahead to the books I might read this time around *fanfares* I present to you…

My qualifying (book) shortlist:
The following books are already on the TBR pile and some of them have been there for a while so it’ll be good to finally check them out.

Ursula le Gruin - Left Hand of Darkness
Alistair Reynolds – Chasm City
Stephen Donaldson - The Gap series (five books)
John Brunner - Stand on Zanzibar
Mark Helprin – Winter’s Tale
Larry Niven - Neutron Star
Philip K Dick - Beyond Lies the Hub
Charles Stross - Singularity Sky

Perhaps I should have looked at my bookshelves before ordering the following from amazon and Green Metropolis!

Joe Haldeman - The Forever War
Neal Stephenson - Anathem
Toby Frost - Space Captain Smith
Frederik Pohl - Gateway
Orson Scott Card – Wyrms

I clearly have more than enough books to read for the experience but never mind – at least it was a good excuse to pick up some books from my wish list that fit into the Sci-Fi theme! I’m really looking forward to getting stuck in with this not-really-a-challenge and also to seeing what everyone else is reading and (hopefully) discovering some new great authors.

Monday, 14 December 2009

The New Confessions - William Boyd

Last year Mr B and I both really enjoyed William Boyd's excellent novel Restless so I thought it was worth digging out more of his work as otherwise I've only read his African novels.

The New Confessions is the story of John James Todd who, now aged seventy, is looking back on his life and reflecting on his achievements. After a lifetime of obsession with Rousseau’s Confessions, his own version of a confessional memoir recounts his life as lived through the course of two World Wars and includes his memories of friends, relationships family, romance and recounts his career as an early film director.

Before I start, it’s definitely worth mentioning the book’s fantastic opening: “'My first act entering this world was to kill my mother. I was heaved - a healthy eight pounds - lacquered and ruddy from her womb one cold March day in Edinburgh, 1899.”

After this inauspicious entry to the world, Todd begins by recounting his lonely, and largely loveless, childhood in Edinburgh he is dominated by his stern father, bullied by his older brother and is effectively brought up by their housekeeper, Oonagh. We follow the young Todd to an austere boarding school where he meets the wonderfully named Hamish Malahide – his only childhood friend.

Following adolescent heart-break, Todd enlists in the army and the story moves to the battlefronts of WW1. Following the war, he embarks upon a career as a film director and the action moves from London to pre-war Berlin and then on to Los Angeles.

Because the book is written in the style of an autobiography, events are depicted through the eyes of Todd and I felt that he was not always a reliable narrator. As a character, he is selfish, self centred, not very pleasant to those closest to him although endeavours to paint himself in the best possible light wherever possible. This makes for an interesting reading experience as the reader needs to form their own opinions about his honesty and try seeing events through the eyes of the other participants to try to dig out the truth of the situation.

For me, the early years of Todd’s life are what made this book. Perhaps this is because he was a more forgivable person in those years but also because Boyd really brought the WW1 and Berlin sections of the book to life for me as events were so vividly portrayed. The last third of the book didn’t really do it for me in the same way and, although it was interesting to read about Todd’s brush with McCarthyism the Los Angeles / present day section didn’t live up to the earlier part for me.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

The True Blood Series - Charlaine Harris

When I posted my November reading list at the start of this month, I mentioned that I’d bought the first eight of Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse books from the book people for a bargain £8. I also said that I’d read the first two but was not sure that the series was going to be my cup of tea.
Erm – well… Since that post on the 1st December I have read all eight books back to back. Yes. All eight books. Back to back. In nine days. Gulp! …and I’d be reading the ninth if it was not already out on loan at my local library!!

Set in the contemporary world, soon after the world’s previously secret Vampire community have “outed” themselves, this series of books focuses on the experiences of Sookie Stackhouse, a cocktail waitress in Bon Temps,
Louisiana who has an
unusual talent – the ability to read minds. The first book covers her developing relationship with Bill
Compton who is a vampire who’s moved in next door. Her unusual ability means that she’s not really had a chance to form close relationships before as she’s found it hard to block out the constant chatter that she picks up from those around her and part of Bill’s appeal is that she can’t read the minds of vampires.

Her relationship with Bill brings her into contact with other members of the vampire community and life becomes significantly more complicated, and dangerous, for her. She becomes useful to several powerful vampires and, as she becomes more a part of their society, she learns more than most humans about the other “Supes” that live amongst humans – like shape shifters and werewolves.

I’m not entirely sure what I found so addictive about the series. I think it might be just the sheer escapism of a series that features (amongst others) vampires, were-creatures, shape shifters, witches and fairies… The storylines are not complex, the characters are easy to follow and there is plenty of blood and guts action to keep you interested even when her tangled love life isn’t centre stage.

I read Bitten and Stolen by Kelley Armstrong earlier this
year and, although slightly steamier, I would imagine that these would appeal to the same audience.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Worldbuilders 2009

I think that author Pat Rothfuss is one hell of a guy. Last year he ran a rundraiser for Heifer International that raised over $100,000. His efforts attracted donations of over $53,000 and he matched the total raised. Personally.

This year, under the banner of Worldbuilders, he is running:
  • a lottery, at $10 a ticket, with over a thousand (!) prizes that he's posting about over the next month. One of which is a "Golden Ticket" where he will owe the winner one (1) favour. Brave!
  • a "sure thing" where you can buy personalised items directly from him. If only I could justify a dedicated first edition for $145 but maybe I'll win a signed one with my lottery tickets!
  • an auction featuring some of the rarer items, specialised donations and "miscellaneous cool". The rare books and manuscripts auction is coming on the 6th December and I'm a bit excited...
The fundraiser ends on the 16th Jan so there is plenty of time left to get involved. In his own words "So you'd like to make the world a better place while simultaneously winning fabulous prizes?" Hell yes!

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Reading List

I am beginning to feel as if this blog has turned into a “reading list” repository rather than a regularly updated, and even vaguely interesting, bookish blog but I shall charge ahead with my monthly post without too much remorse as there is clearly no point in promising to change my ways yet again!!

So it’s that time of the month once more and, luckily for Book Aid, this month’s donation was boosted by the recent arrival of Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse series of books from the Book People which they have for sale at a mere £8.99. I’ve read a few blog posts recently about the series, and they’re the books that the recent True Blood series is based on, and at that price I could not resist… I’ve only read the first two so far and I hope Sookie grows on me or this could be a series that finds a new home as I'm not sure I can read all eight. Although I am such a finisher-completer personality that no doubt my December reading list will contain the next six!

Aaanway. Here’s the bit where I list What I Read in November and avoid guiltily promising to catch up on my reviews as that never seems to happen…

The Summer Tree & The Wandering Fire & The Darkest Road
(Fionavar Tapestry) - Guy Gavriel Kay
Dry Store Room No. 1 - Richard Fortey
Pandaemonium - Christopher Brookmyre
Holidays on Ice - David Sedaris
Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town - Cory Doctorow
Dead Until Dark & Living Dead in Dallas - Charlaine Harris

Sunday, 15 November 2009

T is for Tegan & Sara (and N is for Natural History Museum)

We took a hiatus from alphabet weekending as we were going through a very busy patch at work, and knew we were going to Canada, so agreed that taking 6 weeks off was better than arranging half-hearted alphabet activities.

Tegan & Sara were playing this weekend at the Shepherd's Bush Empire and, in a stoke of genius, I nabbed this as my "T" activity for the re-launch of our weekend alphabeting shedule. They are actually Canadian and we'd checked out their tour list in the hope that they were playing in Toronto/Montreal whilst we were out there only to find that the week after we got back they were in London. It was a really good gig (although I thought that the crowd was a bit on the quiet side) and I absolutely loved hearing them sing "Where Does The Good Go" live as well as listening to some of their new material.

I'm reading the fascinating Dry Store Room No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum by Richard Fortey at the moment and, as we were in London, it seemed like a good opportunity to fit in a visit to the newly opened Darwin Cocoon at the Natural History Museum. this area of the museum was built to house the museum's enormous collection of plant and animal specimens.

After an initial wobble when I realised that to enter the cocoon itself I'd have to cross a glass lined walkway on the 7th floor (I don't handle heights well!) I enjoyed the experience. Although visitor numbers are limited by the booking of timed slots, it was quite busy and as a high percentage of the displays are interactive it was sometimes hard to get a "go". You're issued with your own NaturePlus Card which you can scan at interesting points as you go around and then visit content online when you get home. The picture below (not by me) is of a section of a gorgeous display that gives a flavour of the variety of the plant and insect collections the museum holds and, as I read Dry Store Room No 1, my respect for the knowledge, dedication and passion that the scientists working here must have increases.

The Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition is also on at the NHM at the moment and, despite the museum being insanely busy, we managed to get tickets. It was a shame that there were so many people allowed into the room at once as it was hard to absorb the images properly whilst shuffling past people and whispering "excuse me" repeatedly but I would imagine that this is a huge earning opportunity for the otherwise free museum and they need to maximise their income from it. There are some stunning images in that exhibition and I would love to be talented (or patient) enough to take photos of that quality myself. I muttered something about my "need" for a good camera with zoom to Mr B and hope that he's bracing himself for the inevitable purchase next year when I have recovered from the cost of Canada/Christmas!

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

The Fionavar Tapestry Trilogy - Guy Gavriel Kay

Guy Gavriel Kay's Fionavar Tapestry trilogy comprises of The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire and The Darkest Road. These books are set partly in contemporary Toronto (which is where our five lead characters are plucked from) but events are set mostly in the fantasy world of Fionavar. Fionavar is the first of all the worlds and Kay uses this concept to thread myths and sagas from our own world into the story as reflections of events in this, and other, versions.

This trilogy is an "epic fantasy" in the Tolkein tradition. This is probably an analogy used too frequently for this author as I learn today that Kay helped Christopher Tolkein edit The Silmarillion but it is one that feels apt especially as it has elves, dwarves, noble kings, powerful magicians and "ordinary" people thrust into the middle of a grand conflict between Good and Evil.

The edition I read was an omnibus and I rather liked reading the trilogy in this way as it didn't feel as if I was reading a trilogy of books but one large novel with sections. At one point, I admit, I was beginning to wonder just how many themes and characters one trilogy could sustain but Kay brought the story back together towards the end and re-connected (nearly all of) the strands in an ultimately satisfying way and without losing the impact of some of the sub-plots.

It's also worth mentioning that Kay does not shy away from killing, or hurting, major characters and this meant that I didn't feel as if anyone was "safe" which can be a plot issue when reading fantasy fiction. This is a, sometimes tear jerking, story of free will, forgiveness and ultimately the nobility of sacrifice for the common good and I would recommend it to fantasy fans looking for an epic read.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

World's Biggest Bookstore - Toronto

Whilst in Toronto I "accidentally" discovered that the World's Biggest Bookstore* was very close to our friend's apartment so I gave my husband the choice of spending some time there or visiting the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum...

He chose a trip to the bookshop (on condition he could buy books too!) and when I realised just how many books this place stocked, I genuinely felt a bit overwhelmed... and a bit over-excited too. Aside from a library, I honestly don't believe that I have ever seen this many books in one room! It was such a delight as well to see so many Sci-Fi/Fantasy genre books on display and I spent aaages browsing through them - oh the novelty of visiting a book shop that actually stocks an entire series! They also have a great graphic novel and manga section and it was fabulous to be able to look at books that I've only read about online and get a real feel for the artwork.

I only allowed myself to buy three books there and they HAD to already be on my wish list although I concede that given the length of my wish list that's not exactly difficult to do. I bought an anthology of Guy Gavriel Kay's Fionavar Tapestry, Cory Doctorow's Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town and Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves. The first two have a Toronto connection so it seemed appropriate to buy them there and the third I have had my eye on for a while and just looked too interesting to pass up. A seriously crazy looking book that would have been perfect for R.I.P. IV! I am a bit cross with myself that I ended up not buying any of Alice Munro's work whilst there, given she's a prominent Canadian author whose work I have not read, but I honestly felt a bit overwhelmed by the sheer choice.

If I could have worked out how to get them home, I could so easily have bought many, many, many more books as just by browsing I found so many tempting reads that I'd not previously heard of. There really is something about being in a book shop and having such a huge choice about what to buy there and then that is so alluring. Just as well that shop is in another continent really or my bank balance would be (more of) a disgrace. I wish that there was somewhere near me where I could go and look at books I have read about online but I doubt Norwich is really large enough to support this scale of shop. :(

* actually no longer the case but it was certainly a big one and given that's the name of the shop, I am not sure how else to refer to it!

Sunday, 1 November 2009

October reading list and an apology

I feel as if I should hang a large "I Aten't Dead" note around my blog's virtual neck and my humble apologies for my utter lack of posting. I've been visiting friends who live in Toronto for the last couple of weeks and I write this post from Montréal, Quebec as Mr B and I come towards the end of our trip to Canada. We've been really lucky that the leaves are still on the trees so the countryside is a delight to drive through as the remnants of the Fall colours are incredible.

As well as doing some Toronto downtown exploring and obvious tourist things like dinner in the CN Tower, we were lucky enough to get tickets to see the Toronto Raptors win their first game of the season (Go Raptors!), visited Gananoque, Sandbanks National Park, Niagara Falls/Niagara-on-the-Lake and we've just spent a couple of nights in Québec City. Phew.

In contrast to the last couple of months, I've read a grand total of 13 books this month - although weirdly only one whilst I have actually been on holiday - s0 that's another £13 to my Book Aid fund which is now over the £100 mark! I've had a great time reading recently and nearly every book I read in October was the result of an amazon splurge where I bought books I knew I'd enjoy and race through. Rather shamefully I only blogged about the first book that I read this month and I really don't think I am going to get around to catching those posts up...

Reading List:
Past Imperfect - Julian Fellowes
Fables: Legends in Exile - Bill Willingham
Teremaire & Throne of Jade & Black Powder War & Empire of Ivory & Victory of Eagles - Naomi Novik
Unseen Academicals - Terry Pratchett
Grimspace - Ann Aguirre
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen - Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill
The Good Thief - Hannah Tinti
Ariel - Steven P Boyett
Singularity Sky - Charles Stross

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Past Imperfect - Julian Fellowes

Last week I saw a review of this book by Anne Brooke over on Vulpes Libris and could not resist buying it immediately - which meant I had an excuse to buy other books and therefore bought far too many but that's another story...

Damian Baxter is very, very rich. But he has one concern, which is becoming more urgent as the weeks go by: who should inherit his fortune. A letter from an ex-girlfriend suggests that, as a young man, Damian may have fathered a child, but the letter is anonymous. Finding the truth will not be easy – and the only man who knows where to look is Damian’s sworn enemy.

I shall begin by mentioning the black and white image that graces the cover of Past Imperfect. I think that it's an absolutely stunning choice - just look at the intensity - for a book that describes the collapse of the old British aristocratic way of life. The book is narrated by an man who was part of the London scene 1960s and chronicles the end of The Season as a crop of débutantes (often heavily guided by their parents) scramble for suitable husbands as the social upheaval of the Sixties takes its toll and their way of life changes forever.

Whilst the light Fellowes shines on most of the characters is an unflattering one it was almost impossible not to feel compassion as the social order utterly changed almost overnight and left a generation floundering and struggling to adapt. For an excellent and thorough review do go and read Anne's one and I absolutely agree with her observations about what lets down an otherwise excellent book.

Clearly this is a book that divides opinions though and I trot out Exhibit A from Kate Kellaway writing for the Observer in October last year "Reading Past Imperfect is like being stuck at a party with a bore and being forced to do that unpardonably rude thing - look over his shoulder in the hope of spotting someone, anyone - more interesting on the horizon." Ouch.

The author, Julian Fellowes, is the same Julian Fellowes who wrote Gosforth Park (I suspect that the clue was in the name but I really didn't connect it) and by complete coincidence on the day I started reading this book I listened to a recent Simon Mayo/Mark Kermode film podcast where he was a guest and they mentioned this book. Apparently it's been optioned and, if made well, this could be a really interesting film and I would love to see who they cast!

Thursday, 1 October 2009

September Reading List

I am really not sure what is going on with my reading/blogging this month. In September I read just five books and wrote only ONE post. This must be a record low for me and I honestly feel guilty that Book Aid International will only get £5 from me this time around. I have however just had a slightly naughty splurge at Amazon so I now have a toppling stack of books waiting to be read and hopefully that will mean that I have a slightly faster turnaround in November. I say "slightly naughty" as I have enough books to read on my shelves for the next year and a half and really didn't "need" any more...

Challenges Update:
Twelve Step Poetry - This month I re-visited a favourite poet from my teens, Wendy Cope, but I've not written about that experience yet. Ignoring the huge selection available on my shelf for reading, and telling myself I needed extra poetry books in preparation for future months, I've bought Christina Rossetti's The Goblin Market and Carole Anne Duffy's The World's Wife and I'm really looking forward to reading those.

Graphic Novel Challenge - a pathetic zero books read this month to contribute to this challenge but part of the above mentioned Amazon order was Fables and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen which both count. Although it doesn't count as a book read, I should mention that Mr B and I watched Waltz with Bashir this month. It's a film based on the autobiographical graphic novel of the same title by Ari Folman and it was absolutely wonderful.

R.I.P. IV - The wonderful The Thirteenth Tale was the only book that I read this month that "counted" towards this challenge. Again, I've not managed to write a review of it but it was such a good book that I really should and hopefully I'll get time to do so this weekend.

September Reading List:

Un Lun Dun - China Miéville
Court of the Air - Stephen Hunt
The Thirteenth Tale - Diane Setterfield
When We Were Orphans - Kazuo Ishiguro
One Day - David Nicholls

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Un Lun Dun - China Miéville

This is China Miéville's first book for children and he both wrote and illustrated it. I should also mention that it won the 2008 Locus Award for Young Adult Book. I've read, and enjoyed, all of his books written for adults and could not resist giving in to temptation when I saw this on offer. Perhaps that's why my TBR pile is so large...

The blurb from amazon: "UnLondon is at war. We're under attack. And it's been written, for centuries, that you you will come and save us.' Stumbling through a secret entrance, Zanna and Deeba emerge in the strange wonderland of UnLondon. Here all the lost and broken things of London end up, and some of its people, too including Brokkenbroll, boss of the broken umbrellas and Hemi the half-ghost boy.

UnLondon is a place where Routemaster buses have legs, where Librarians are 'bookaneers', intrepid adventurers dedicated to hunting down lost books, and postmen spend years tracking the mobile addresses of the ever changing Puzzleborough. But the girls have arrived at a dangerous time UnLondon is under siege by the sinister Smog; it's a city awaiting its hero."

Un Lun Dun is set in a parallel London, his surreal version called UnLondon contains components that would be familiar to Londoners but with a twist. For starters, the double-decker buses float in the sky or walk around on feet...
Looking at the cover, you can also get an idea for the slightly different housing standards in the alternative version of the city! I really thought that the illustrations were great - some of them in particular have a very disturbing quality that should appeal to gruesome youngsters and I really enjoyed the part they played in building up an image of UnLondon.

Miéville excels at taking the ordinary and subverting it into something new. Characters introduced included the awesome "Binja"'s (as featured leaping on the cover) which are guard dustbins with arms and legs and kick-ass martial arts skills. Other notable mentions for me include the roaming packs of feral flesh-eating giraffes who feed on the unwary and the Black Windows who live in Webminster Abbey.

Amongst others, Deeba's sidekicks include a bus conductor, a book of prophecy that is trying to come to terms with the discover that it's inaccurate, and a small, empty milk carton called Curdle. Together they adventure around the districts that make up UnLondon and battle against the mysterious cloud of smoke, the Smog, which it turns out has been banished from London by the Klinneract (the Clean Air Act).

He has a fantastic imagination and is not afraid to kill off characters which means that this story was enormous fun to read even as an adult. You could see where it was going but you were never quite sure how it would get there. Perhaps my only criticism would be that there were so many inventive characters and concepts that they sometimes distracted me from the main story. It's an odd thing to say but I found at times that there were too many really interesting ideas in the book and I wanted to explore tangents rather than follow the fight for freedom.

Thankfully, the book is left with plenty scope for a sequel and I'd love to see what he could do with some of the other cities alluded to like No York, Lost Angeles, Hong Gone, Sans Francisco, Helsunki or Romeless. Or just to go back to UnLondon and explore more of it!

For the interested, Del Ray have made a great Un Lun Dun sub-site for the book with an excerpt, teachers notes, more illustrations and an interesting China Miéville interview.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

August Reading List

I have been a VBB (Very Bad Blogger) recently and am waaaaay behind on book (and alphabet weekend) posts which makes it rather difficult to link my reading list this month to them! I'm not quite sure how this happened but I think it might have a lot to do with having an iPod Touch. I used to log in to my PC when I got in from work to check emails and have a general pootle but now I use my iPod to check mail when at home I don't bother. This means that I only log in before I go to work to read feeds and update my blog which has had a serious impact on my posting rate.

I'm currently taking part in four challenges, which I think has to be a record for me, and here's a very general update on my progress:

Non-Fiction Five - Technically complete as I've read six non-fiction books, but there's always scope for another cheeky addition before the end of September as I used it as an excuse to buy a couple of books so I feel as if I should justify that indiscretion! I've enjoyed taking part in this challenge more than I thought I would and might make a "rule" for myself that I should try to include at least one non-fiction book in my reading pile each month.

Graphic Novel Challenge - I've got a few more books to read before I hit even the 6 target but I have a Plan. My local library has had a big increase of it's Teen section (which is, of course, where they house graphic novels) and I plan to raid it in a couple of weeks. There are a few novels that I want to buy as well (I should never have bought the 500 Essential Graphic Novels book!) but I might have to leave those for the Christmas list as can't really justify it to myself. If only I could afford the Absolute Sandman collections... *drool*

12 Step Poetry Programme - This one kicks off this month and I'm looking forward to reading my first book of poetry this weekend. I have not decided who to choose just yet but luckily I have plenty to select from on my shelf and I'm really looking forward to seeing what other participants read too.

R.I.P. IV - Another one that started this week and I've yet to even choose my short-list of books to read over the next two months to take me up to Halloween! I've been saving up some Poe and James audiobooks for months in preparation and I am tempted to re-read The Woman in White too. I'm planning to have a look through other blogger's short-lists this weekend so should have plenty of options to choose from when I've done that!

Whilst I'm talking about challenges, I'll wrap up my Year of Readers progress too... In September I read only 8 books, which was less than I thought I'd manage a week or so ago when I finished Tigana in just a few days, so that's a donation of £8 to Book Aid International taking my total to £87 but £111 when you include the tax rebate. Which I will because it looks better! When I get around to writing more reviews I will update my September reading list links below. Promise...

Darkest Hour & Always Forever - Mark Chadbourne
The Sugar Queen - Sarah Addison Allen
Persepolis - Marjane Satrapi
The White Tiger - Aravind Adiga
Best Served Cold - Joe Abercrombie
A Touch of Love - Jonathan Coe
Tigana - Guy Gavriel Kay

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

RIP IV Challenge

Yay! It's R.eaders I.bibing P.eril time again. Hosted by the lovely Carl from Stainless Steel Droppings, R.I.P IV officially runs from September 1st through October 31st. Covering 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 by the end of October.

It honestly does not feel like a year since I took part in R.I.P. III and I see, slightly to my horror,
that I managed seven books last year! I'm not committing to read that many this time around but I am definitely aiming to read four and I have a few things in mind. Some of which I planned to read in R.I.P. III but didn't quite get around to. Those were:

The Quincunx - Charles Palliser
The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins
Ghost Stories - MR James
The Thirteenth Tale - Diane Setterfield
The Ghost-Feeler - Edith Wharton

I've also saved listening to some audiobooks of the short stories of MR James, Edgar Allan Poe & HP Lovecraft for this challenge and last year, when I read We Have Always Lived in the Castle, I said I would read more of Shirley Jackson's work so I will be hunting out a copy of The Haunting of Hill House too. I'd also really like to get hold of a copy of The House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski but at £20 it's probably going to stay on my wishlist instead :(

Most of all though, I'm looking forward to seeing what other participants read and getting inspiration from them!

Thursday, 20 August 2009

The Twelve Step Poetry Program

Jodie from Book Gazing (who is also the instigator of the Year of Readers) has launched a new challenge called The Twelve Step Poetry Program.

The Rules:
Challenge runs: 1st Sept 2009 – 30th Aug 2010
Option 1: 12 books of poetry, each by a different author
Option 2: 12 books of poetry, each by a different author, with two books chosen from female poets, translated poets, dead white male poets, poets who have held an official poetry post, black/ hispanic/ asian poets, GLBT poets or Great War poets.
Option 3: Option 2 + a poem a day from Poetry Daily until the end of the challenge

I think this challenge ticks so many boxes for me and I am really looking forward to starting. I used to read a lot of poetry and although I do still dip in, and out, of the genre I really don't read as much as I used to and I am not really sure why. In the last few months, I have (finally!) been able to get all my books from the attic and arrange them around the house so for me this is a great excuse to visit, and expand, my poetry shelf.

I'm going to go for Option 1 and read at least one book of poetry each month by a different author. I will do my best to try to make this a diverse selection so that I can tick off some of the categories in Option 2 as well. Now - who to select as my September poet. Decisions, decisions!

Saturday, 15 August 2009

The White Tiger - Aravind Adiga

Winner of the 2008 Man Booker prize, The White Tiger was Aravind Adiga's debut novel. I meant to read it months ago, after hearing the very eloquent author talk on a BBC radio show however somehow it ended up in the toppling TBR pile for several months instead...

The blurb (from amazon): "Meet Balram Halwai, the 'White Tiger': servant, philosopher, entrepreneur and murderer. Balram, the White Tiger, was born in a backwater village on the River Ganges, the son of a rickshaw-puller. He works in a teashop, crushing coal and wiping tables, but nurses a dream of escape. When he learns that a rich village landlord needs a chauffeur, he takes his opportunity, and is soon on his way to Delhi behind the wheel of a Honda. Amid the cockroaches and call-centres, the 36,000,004 gods, the slums, the shopping malls, and the crippling traffic jams, Balram learns of a new morality at the heart of a new India. Driven by desire to better himself, he comes to see how the Tiger might escape his cage..."

The novel takes the form of a series of letters written late at night by Balram to Wen Jiabao, the Chinese Premier, who is about to visit Bangalore to learn more about the city's embracement of the entrepreneurial spirit and experience as a centre for outsourcing industry. Balram explains in these letters how he's managed to crawl his way up from crushing village poverty to becoming a successful entrepreneur and, in doing so, share some of his insights into the challenges that he's experienced getting there that he feels the Chinese could learn from.

Apparently, sir, you Chinese are far ahead of us (Indians) in every respect, except that you don't have entrepreneurs. And our nation (India), though it has no drinking water, electricity, sewage system, public transportation, sense of hygiene, discipline, courtesy, or punctuality, does have entrepreneurs."

Balram is a very interesting central character. He's amoral, selfish, greedy, opportunistic, lacking in family loyalty (although to be fair I don't entirely blame him!) and acts without compunction if he can see the chance to better himself. In many of the stories he is telling Wen Jiaboa, he's bitter about his place in life, he demonstrates that he bears grudges and he's angry at the world for not being able to recognise his intellect and allow him to succeed as he should. This book gives, to my eyes, an unflattering view of modern India and clearly demonstrates the deep divides in Indian society drawn along lines of wealth and caste as well as giving an insight into human nature at its worst.

To sum up-in the old days there were one thousand castes and destinies in India. These days, there are just two castes: Men with big bellies, and men with small bellies. And only two destinies: eat or get eaten up."

I should mention that I was not entirely convinced by the device of using letters to Wen Jiabao to tell Balram's story - it felt as if slightly too convenient confessions were being made that would probably be very unwise to commit to paper if you were someone who had an interest in staying off the radar. I do concede though that the format does allow the reader in to experience Balram's reactions to events in his life that may not have been possible in other ways.

This book is well paced, easy to read (the very large font in my edition helped with that!) and Balram makes several very well written observations about those with money's attitudes to the poor and disenfranchised. In itself it's an interesting read that serves as a good introduction to "seedier" Indian literature if you've not really read much before.

Overall though, this was not quite as "good" as I was expecting. If it hadn't won the Booker last year I would, no doubt, be far less critical as I'd be viewing it on its own merits as a debut novel and perhaps that's what I should do rather than inspect it closely for some kind of stamp of literary quality! If I'd just picked it up and read it then I would probably say that it makes some interesting, and pretty damning, observations about India in the 21st century and that the central character is a repulsive but ultimately fascinating one whose circumstances certainly made me think about how I'd react to being in his situation.

Friday, 14 August 2009

Persepolis - Marjane Satrapi

This book counts towards both the Non-Fiction Five and the Graphic Novel Challenges. I think that this might actually make it a Non-Fiction Six but I'm sure that can't hurt!

With my recent (rather tardy) joining in with the Graphic Novel challenge, and in a bid to get enough books read to earn my "Minor" badge, it seemed a good time to read Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. My paperback edition contains both The Story of a Childhood and The Story of a Return.

Persepolis is an autobiographical graphic novel set in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. At this time, Satrapi is the six-year-old daughter of two Marxists. As she grows up in Tehran she witnesses first-hand the effects that the revolution, and the war with Iraq, have on her home, family, friends and school. The second book in this omnibus covers her adolescence years spent in Vienna as, at the age of 14, her parents sent her out of the country to keep her safe and then finally her return to attend college in Iran which takes us up to her mid-twenties.

Like Maus, which I read earlier this year, the story is told using deceptively simplistic black and white images however this does not mean that the story is a simple one. It's a very personal, and honest, account of a girl growing up in very difficult circumstances. Satrapi uses a very dark sense of humour to skirt a fine line between comedy and tragedy which works effectively in allowing her to tell her personal story as well as recount some pretty horrific events happening around her. The contradiction between public and private life in Tehran lent itself well to depiction by illustration and the nuances of rebellion, whilst her and her friends were ostensibly conforming in dress and behaviour, were fascinating.

I think that condensing the book to standard paperback size, as in my edition, was a shame as sometimes the text was a bit hard to read and the layout felt compromised. Having said that, I still enjoyed it and I think I have been incredibly lucky to have read three such good examples of non-fiction graphic novels this year. I've also tracked down an excerpt which gives a good sense of what to expect from this book.

Monday, 10 August 2009

The Graphic Novels Challenge

Fashionably late to the party, I've just seen, and joined in with, the Graphic Novels Challenge!

Hosted by Laza of Gimme More Books, the challenge has four grades to mark achievement and I am aiming for at least a Major by the end of the year but I might even get my Masters!

Minor: Read 6
Major: Read 12
Masters: Read 18
Doctorate: Read 24

So far this year, I've already read two non-fiction graphic novels which are Maus by Art Spiegelman and Burma Chronicles by Guy Delisle. I know I have at least four more books lurking in the TBR pile that would qualify for this challenge and my local library has recently expanded it's "Teen" section which, for some reason, is where the Graphic Novels are all kept. Hopefully I'll be able to earn my Minor grade without succumbing to the temptation that my recent purchase of the book 500 Essential Graphic Novels: The Ultimate Guide has made me very vulnerable to as well...

I'm really looking forward to this one!

Sunday, 2 August 2009

M is for Market!

According to its very own official website, "Norwich Market is unique in Britain. It boasts over 190 stalls and is the largest Monday-to-Saturday open market in the country. There’s been a market in Norwich since Saxon times and it’s been on its current site longer than any of the buildings that surround it."

Cor.I walk past this market on my way to and from work but, for some reason, have not really used it since I was a teenager in search of second hand romantic novels and Mr B hadn't visited it for years so it seemed like a good alphabet activity. We spent absolutely ages exploring every stall and it was fabulous. I honestly had no idea just what an enormous range of products were available in this relatively small space.

Look at all the pretty/tasty things we bought:

These burgers from Pickerings were absolutely delicious and I can safely say that I know where we'll be going to buy any future ones!

I have to say that we were really impressed with our trip and would recommend it as a great place to shop in the centre of Norwich.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

July Reading List

Blimey - another great month's reading and I have to give credit to our new "reading chairs" for this. I just love snuggling up in them with a book and I wish we'd bought them ages ago!

When I was looking through the books I've read this month I was surprised to realise that seven of them were from the library - no wonder my TBR pile never seems to get any smaller! In total I read 14 books this so that means a donation of £14 to Book Aid International. My total so far this year is now £79 which I am really pleased with although other donations are, of course, very welcome ;)

July's reading list:
King of Foxes & Exile's Return - Raymond E. Feist
The Hazards of Hunting a Duke - Julia London
Splendid & How to Marry a Marquis - Julia Quinn
Arabella - Georgette Heyer
The Streets of Babylon - Carina Burman
Burma Chronicles - Guy Delisle
Dreams From My Father - Barack Obama
The American Future - Simon Schama
Sprig Muslin - Georgette Heyer
Lord of Scoundrels & Not Quite a Lady - Loretta Chase
World's End - Mark Chadbourne (first in a trilogy so I will review next month)

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Lord of Scoundrels - Loretta Chase

Lord of Scoundrels is described on The Book Smugglers site as "the One Romance to Rule Them All". High praise indeed and when Ana posted a comment on my blog saying "...I urge you , no I BEG of you to search for Lord of Scoundrels - that is not only the best Loretta Chase novel but also , quite possibly,the best romance I have ever read. period." I felt that it was time to take up the challenge. I won't even go into the painful details of my experience attempting to locate it at my library (one hour, three staff and an increasingly frustrated Peta) but they kindly ordered in another copy for me to replace the mysteriously lost one and as soon as I received it I plunged in.

The blurb: "They call him many names, but Angelic isn’t one of them . . . Sebastian Ballister, the notorious Marquess of Dain, is big, bad, and dangerous to know. No respectable woman would have anything to do with the “Bane and Blight of the Ballisters”—and he wants nothing to do with respectable women. He’s determined to continue doing what he does best—sin and sin again—and all that’s going swimmingly, thank you, until the day a shop door opens and she walks in.

She’s too intelligent to fall for the worst man in the world . . .

Jessica Trent is a determined young woman, and she’s going to drag her imbecile brother off the road to ruin, no matter what it takes. If saving him—and with him, her family and future—means taking on the devil himself, she won’t back down. The trouble is, the devil in question is so shockingly irresistible, and the person who needs the most saving is—herself!"

That synopsis had me cackling with glee - a rake, a determined heroine = sparks flying. Joy! Like her other books, there is more depth to this romance that their might appear and the character of Jessica Trent is a delight. She is fearless, intelligent, brave, clever, beautiful (of course) and more than a match for the angry, painfully insecure, vulnerable and filled with self-loathing, Dain.

Without going into the details of Dain's childhood, I should mention that it struck me whilst reading this book how unusual it is to have a properly thought out back story to explain why our hero became a selfish, dissolute rake in the first place. This also allows us to be convinced that he's got genuine motivation and desire to turn a new leaf and be reformed by his heroine! And that's what makes Chase special - she's not turning out a story without thought for her characters but thinks about why they act as they do.

I followed reading Lord of Scoundrels with the final book in her Carsington series - Not Quite a Lady. I'm not going to do a "proper" review, as I have not got time, but like Miss Wonderful, MrImpossible and Lord Perfect it was a delight to read and, yet again, a fabulous example of how to write romance novels that feature interesting characters that you genuinely care about and with a story line that didn't feel generic. This one actually made me cry!

In summary, Loretta Chase is surely the Queen of Romantic Fiction!

Sunday, 26 July 2009

L is for Latin Dance!

Just a quick post to say that this week's alphabet activity was Latin Dance. I had tried to get in touch with a local dance instructor who teaches the Lindy Hop but sadly they didn't respond to emails. Or perhaps just as well as it does look pretty energetic!

Armed with only a jug of mojito and a "Discover Latin Dance" DVD, we spent quite some time learning the Cha Cha along with some associated set moves - to the bemusement of our dogs. Once we'd mastered the dance (!) we were exhausted, and a bit sore from treading on each other, we decided to skip the rumba and samba sections of the DVD for now. Perhaps a teacher would have been more effective for beginner dancers but I am sure they would have frowned on the frequency of our mojito breaks!

Saturday, 25 July 2009

The American Future - Simon Schama

This is my fifth Non-Fiction Five read.

Simon Schama is University Professor of Art History and History at Columbia University in New York. I had the pleasure of attending a conversation/reading in May featuring Simon Schama as part of the Spring UEA literary festival and really enjoyed his lecture based on the contents of his newest book, The American Future. Being too tight to buy it in hardback, I waited until the paperback edition was published this month before splashing out!

Subtitled "A History from the Founding Fathers to Barack Obama", this book was written to accompany his four part BBC2 documentary series of the same name, aired last October, which I must admit I didn't watch. The book is split into four thematic sections (presumably to tie in with the four episodes) and I found each one fascinating.

Schama examines conflicts from America's past in order to understand their legacy in influencing the country's contemporary political situation and he splits this examination into "American Plenty", "American War", "American Fervour" and lastly "What is an American?". This allows him to hop around time, people and events to suit the point he is making rather than be tied by the demands of a conventional chronological history book.

He clearly illustrates just how deep the roots of racial segregation grow in this country - and tragically how the impact of this legacy could have been so easily reduced if different political decisions had been made at pivotal points in history; for example the withdrawal of federal troops from the south in the 1870s allowed white extremism in the form of the KKK to take hold. Within this topic, he covers not just the impact of slavery on modern America but also its fraught relationship with Mexico, the plight of immigrant workers and even the ethnic cleansing of native Americans. Big themes for such a slim book and I'm very impressed how clearly he links events of the past to the current political arena.

I must admit that my knowledge of American history is limited however I didn't feel that I was ever out of my depth in understanding the backdrop to events he covered. If anything, this book has made me want to seek out more books on America to learn a bit more about the country's history and that of some of the people who were so influential in shaping it. I'm really glad that I read this book after Barack Obama's Dreams From My Father as it helped me to understand the history behind some of the deep rooted racial divides that he examines in a modern context.

Monday, 20 July 2009

K is for Kayaking!

Well. Actually we slightly cheated and hired a canoe rather than a kayak in the end as that was more practical option for two novice paddlers, their two dogs and a picnic!

We paddled along the River Waveney, on the Bungay Loop, and look how beautifully tranquil it was!
I should probably put the following trauma into some kind of context.

1) We are not experienced canoeists and had only paddled together once before in Florida when we were in search of manatees. That was over a year ago!
2) Keep in mind that we had two small dogs in the canoe with us and that this was their first trip on the river.
3) I was a little fragile having attended a hen do the night before where I imbibed far too many cocktails.

Now imagine several swans floating serenely on that river...

It took the dogs a couple of encounters to work out what these big white things were but once Safi twigged it, things became a bit tricky. We managed to get past the first group of five swans without too much incident (other than me ending up in a patch of nettles) and then past a young, very inquisitive, male whilst managing to hold both collars, the paddle and keep moving upstream before we decided to pause and enjoy the riverbank with our picnic for a while!

At this point, of course, it started to rain but we had waterproofs and were happy to get a bit damp. Then a swan came to check out our canoe and decided to start fishing near it. The swan doesn't want to leave. Eventually we decide to launch the canoe anyway and hope he stays downstream. He does not. We ended up stuck in the reeds, me twisted around holding Oscar's collar (keen to jump in) with Safi firmly clamped between legs (keen to bark) and pinned in by the swan who was alternating between curiously attempting to locate the source of the restrained and increasingly frantic whines and then hissing at us.

Remember that hangover. I am ashamed to admit that I did shed a couple of pathetic tears before Mr B heroically extracted us. After spotting a pair of swans further down the river with their cygnets we decided that it was probably best if we returned upstream.

The dogs must have sensed that they were skating on pretty thin ice as they behaved beautifully for the rest of the trip and the experience of allowing the current to take us through the group of the five swans we'd encountered earlier was absolutely magical. It quite made up for the earlier trauma. I'd love to go out on the river like this again - but next time I think we might leave the dogs at home!

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Dreams From My Father - Barack Obama

This is my fourth Non-Fiction Five read.

I was lucky enough to see Simon Scharma speak about his newest book The American Future at the UEA as part of their last literary festival and he urged the audience to read this book by Barack Obama saying that it was beautifully written. Being an obedient little soul I ordered myself a copy straight away!

Dreams from My Father, sub-titled "A Story of Race and Inheritance", was commissioned following Barack Obama's election as the first African-American president of the "Harvard Law Review" and I would strongly suspect that this book was not at all what the publisher expected to receive. It is, in essence, a very honest personal memoir of his life up to his entry to Harvard to study law. Perhaps surprisingly given why it was commissioned, it doesn't actually cover his time at Harvard and that's only briefly touched upon in the epilogue.

The book is divided into three sections. "Origins" covers his childhood, adolescence and college years. In "Chicago" he reflects on his experience after accepting a challenging position as a community organiser in Chicago. The last section, "Kenya", (which is the one I found most interesting) is about a month long trip that he took to Kenya to visit his, now deceased, Father's extended family before starting to study law at Harvard. Each section covers his increasing awareness of his own confused identity as a child of mixed race in modern America and gives an absolutely fascinating insight into the journey he takes to try to understand himself and his place in the world.

I knew that Obama's background was unusual but had no idea how much so until reading this book. His maternal Grandparents lived in Kansas before eventually moving to Hawaii, along with their daughter. It was there that she met his Father, a Kenyan studying locally, and you have to wonder just how willing two white Kansas ex- farming stock were to accept their daughter's marriage to a black Kenyan student. Following the collapse of his parent's marriage, she re-married and moved her family out to the Philippines and it's clear that this was quite a culture shock for them both although the young Barack seems to have adapted more successfully than his mother. It was really during the last section of the book where he meets his extended paternal family that I realised just how different the two worlds that his parents inhabited actually were and that whole experience must have been quite something for a young guy in search of his heritage.

The young Obama is eloquent and perceptive - I wish my younger self had displayed even half of the empathy and thoughtfulness that this young man does. Barack Obama is very honest about his thoughts and experiences in this book and I wonder if he'd write the same story if documenting his early years now. It's this very openness, and willing to share, that makes the book special and, completely setting aside who he became, it remains a very well written, thought provoking and moving account of a young man coming to terms with his heritage and finding his place in the world.

My next non-fiction read is Simon Scharma's The American Future which will hopefully be an excellent choice of book to read straight after this one.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Burma Chronicles - Guy Delisle

This is the third book I have read for the Non-Fiction Five challenge and, like Maus, it's a graphic novel. I'm really enjoying reading non-fiction graphic books - I think it allows a much lighter touch with more freedom than a prose book on the same topic would.

Guy Delisle is a very talented illustrator/author originally from Quebec, Canada and his wife works for Médecins Sans Frontières. The Burma Chronicles as written as a result of her being posted to Burma in 2005 and Guy accompanies her with their infant son, Louis, in tow. The challenges he faces as a stay at home father are probably the most delightful snippets within the book and the opening sequence of the book where he covers the journey to get there is genuinely funny. He certainly manages to sum up the horror of long-haul travel with an infant very effectively...

The book is made up from a series of snapshots covering his attempt to adjust to ex patriot life in Rangoon and his experiences include the challenges of shopping, meeting local people, getting to know the other stay at home parents (who all seem to be female) and his efforts to join the nirvana that is the Australia club.

Alongside this, there are sections covering the political situation in Burma and his observations as he accompanies his wife on trips into the field a couple of times. The statistics on heroine addiction and related AIDS infection rates are absolutely horrifying and one imagines that the situation can only have worsened in the years since 2005. In sprite of the sometimes difficult subject matter, Delisle's ability to tamper even the bleakest of observations with understated humour make this book very easy to read whilst remaining thought provoking.

NYMag have a "sneak peek" from the book covering the pages where Delisle first attempts to visit imprisoned Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. This gives a great over-view of his gentle style and I hope that it tempts readers to read this book! Guy Delisle has also written earlier books covering his solo travels in Pyongyang and Shenzhen and I look forward to experiencing his observations on life in North Korea and China.

Friday, 10 July 2009

J is for Jokes!

Thinking of a J alphabet weekend activity was surprisingly hard especially as I was slightly hampered by our pre-existing weekend commitments. Jazz - no events this weekend. Jousting - unable to work out how to arrange this in Norfolk. Jelly - a bit lame. Learning the Jitterbug - no teacher with availability in the tight time slot I had. Eventually inspiration hit and I decided to try for Jokes and victory was mine!

Having "accidentally" slipped up and revealing, via email, that we were off to a Jam Making course being run by the local branch of the Women's Institute last night, Mr B was extremely relieved to discover, when he met me in Norwich after work, that I had in fact bought tickets to the Comedy Store's mini-festival being held at the Unthank Arms instead. Good of him to turn up to be honest as he was reasonably confident that his wife was random enough to have actually booked a jam making session.

We had dinner before heading up to the pub and I succeeded in getting the start time completely wrong so as we sneaked into the marquee that the pub had erected in the garden, the MC took the opportunity to make several jokes about women making men late. Aided by Mr B's supportive palming all blame off on me... The overall line up was very strong and the second comedian, Mike Gunn, was very funny indeed although I suspect you really had to be there!

(PS - inexplicably I failed to post this last week having written the whole thing! Weird)