Sunday, 28 December 2014

Christmas presents

This week's Booking Through Thursday is:

Did you get any great books for holiday gifts this year? Have you read them yet?
If not, were there any you hoped you would get?

Well, I'm glad you asked, Booking Through Thursday, because I got some lovely books this Christmas.

I've already mentioned the French novels my brother got me as combination birthday and Christmas present, but for Christmas I also got Cats' Miscellany by Lesley O'Hara, C J Sansom's latest Shardlake novel, Lamentation (in a beautiful embossed-effect hardback), and a 1913 edition of Stories from Shakespeare, retold for children by Thomas Carter. It's still in great condition and has some lovely illustrations inside.

How about yourselves? Any good books (or good other things, for that matter) this Christmas?

Friday, 19 December 2014

YA fiction

This week's Booking Through Thursday is:

Do you read books written for children or teens? Or do you stick to books for adults?

While I do mostly ready adult fiction (and I don't mean the 50 Shades of Grey kind), I am partial to a good teen fiction novel now and again - mostly dystopias like The Hunger Games or Divergent, as I feel they still have some really interesting points to make, they're just not as dressed up in philosophy and subtlety as adult ones often are.

I'm not sure the age distinction is particularly valid, it's more about reading level and patience. Sometimes you want something a bit more direct and to the point, and a 'teen' book can be great for that. Of course there is the fact that novels with sex or a with a main romantic interest as the central theme are less suitable for pre-teens because it's not really a part of life that they understand at the time - I was reading many 'adult' standard novels by age 12 or so, and there were parts where I just didn't understand the motivation of the characters because I wasn't emotionally mature enough to do so.

So yes, if it's well written I'm perfectly happy with teen fiction, although tearing through it in a couple of days is a little less satisfying than a book that lasts a week or more.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Bitterblue - Kristin Cashore

I loved the previous two novels in this trilogy, Fire and Graceling, and Bitterblue was very different but just as good. The story picks up 10 years after the end of Graceling, with the young queen Bitterblue beginning to pick up the pieces of her shattered kingdom.

Even the premise, I think, is quite original – while coming-of-age novels involving young rulers are very common, the idea of seeing what happens after the villain is defeated, what happens to all the ordinary people trying to rebuild their lives, is very unusual. This novel is about what happens after the happy ending.

Bitterblue's despotic father, King Leck, used his mind-manipulating powers to confuse and control his subjects, forcing them to forget about the atrocities he did in the deluded name of progress. While those who served under him are desperate to forget those times, the young queen wants to dig up the past in order to provide reparations for those who suffered. Her castle is full of secrets, locked doors, and coded messages, and many people wish for them to remain hidden.

While there is a love interest involved, it's more of a side issue than the main point of the story, which is something Cashore does very well, and like in Fire we get the feeling that Bitterblue's own narrative is far from being all-important. There are tantalising glimpses into the lives of other kingdoms and other people, which add depth and realism to her fantasy universe. Instead of being simply narrative devices, other characters, however briefly mentioned, feel as though they have a full story to tell themselves, if they were only given the chance.

Another wonderful (and unusual) thing about this trilogy is the way the three books fit together. Aside from being written out of chronological order, each is set in a different kingdom, and features different main characters. Places and people from each novel have an impact on each of the other stories, and having read all three I feel as though each one adds significance to both of the others. Definitely worth a read, and I recommend getting your hands on the whole trilogy if you can.
The cover art is, again, very much underselling itself, but there are much nicer editions out there, like this one from Barnes and Noble.

Next up: Bel-Ami by Guy de Maupassant

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Christmas shopping

Did a spot of Christmas shopping today, which accidentally also involved a trip to the charity shop. 4 new books, which I'm going to argue are a Christmas present to myself:

Clouds of Witness - Dorothy L Sayers - I watched some of the Lord Peter Wimsey TV series as a child and enjoyed it, so reading some of the novels would be great.
A Deadly Brew - Susanna Gregory - I'm not much of a fan of her usual period dramas, too sentimental for my taste, but her murder mystery series looks more appealing.
The Adventures of Sally - P G Wodehouse - I love the Jeeves and Wooster TV series, but haven't really read much of his work yet.
Mystic River - Denis Lehane - We read Shutter Island during my undergrad, and it was amazing - one of those books I still clearly remember years later, and not just because I had to study it.

To be fair, I did also buy some useful Christmas-related things, so it wasn't entirely a derailed effort. Books are always worth it, anyway.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Les Fleurs de Mal - Charles Baudelaire [image technically NSFW, but it's art, so that's ok?]

I finally finished reading Les Fleurs du Mal yesterday – it's taken two months exactly, which feels like quite a long time for such a small book. It's the first foreign language poetry I've read, and some of it really is beautifully written. I've always thought French is such a poetic-sounding language, and some of Baudelaire's lines are lovely when read aloud.

The subject matter is pretty gloomy, though, and having read the whole thing I got an overriding sense of depression, and even hatred – hatred of women, beauty, happiness and of himself as well. He seems to feel that none of those things are what they seem on the surface, and that below they surface all is evil, and death. (I guess I should have gathered that from the title...) That said, he uses some beautiful language to describe horrible things, and has definitely expanded my vocabulary. Here's part of the list of new words I've learned:

So at least that'll come in handy when speaking to real live French people.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Half Moon Street - Anne Perry

As a murder mystery, this is an odd one. While there is a murder to be solved, and the themes of the novel add to our understanding of the case, this is really more of a period drama with added murder-mystery.

A body is found shackled to a dingy on the Thames, a man dressed in a woman's gown and strewn with flowers in the style of Ophelia. Superintendent Thomas Pitt tries to discover the dead man's identity, and finds himself thrust into the theatrical world of actors and photographers.

What feels like the main focus of the novel, however, is the marital relationships of three couples: first, Pitt and his wife Charlotte, currently on holiday in Paris, who he misses greatly and thinks of with tenderness. Charlotte's mother, Caroline, who remarried after the death of her first husband to an actor 17 years her junior, feels insecure about the age difference and worries she may be too old-fashioned for him. Her widowed mother-in-law, Mariah Ellison, who is staying with them, is still haunted by memories of her abusive husband.

The lives of these three very different couples, linked into one extended family, intertwine and affect each other in subtle and moving ways. There is a lot of consideration given to concealment and censorship, both with regards to artistic creation and to personal relationships.

It really is the social dramas within this novel that stayed with me, rather than the murder, which is thrust onto the sidelines a bit. I feel as though the blurb would be better off mentioning this rather than presenting it as a traditional detective novel, but all the same I enjoyed it – it gives a very compassionate view of the challenges of living honestly in a society bound by strict social convention.

Next up: Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore

Thursday, 27 November 2014


This week's Booking Through Thursday is:

How much do you actually read? Few of us get as much time as we’d really LIKE for reading, but do as much as we can, so … how many books do you read? How many hours a day?

I'd say I get through 4-5 books a month, on average - obviously that depends on how long or tedious those books are. In terms of time spent, on workdays I read through my lunch break, so that's 30 mins, and at weekends I try to spend an hour or so reading in a café. If I have to do any travelling on the train I always read through those journeys, which gets me through books a lot faster. I'd like to read more, but having to go to work (and my video game habit) gets in the way a bit.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

The Face of a Stranger - Anne Perry

This novel really stood out for me among other detective fiction. For one thing, it begins very unexpectedly – with the detective having entirely lost his memory following a carriage accident in which he suffered head injuries. William Monk’s sense of loss and his discomfort with feeling at odds with his former self are portrayed well throughout the novel. The other thing that sets it apart is the fact that, as well as the central mystery, this story is very much about people. They aren’t merely pieces in a puzzle, but feel like well-rounded characters with a past and a future. You really come to care about their fates in a way that I don’t often find in detective series.

The only negative thing I have to say about The Face of a Stranger is that it does tend towards being anachronistic in its values. Monk feels contempt towards his former self’s apparent social mobility, now thinking of the upper classes as no better than the lower, and the female protagonist, Miss Hester Latterly, is predictably independent with no patience for convention. Both characters are well-drawn and compelling, but neither really seem to suit the environment in which they’re placed. That said, it’s very hard to find historical novels that don’t modernise the views of the central characters to some extent.

The central mystery itself is cleverly done, and very human rather than being a contorted logical puzzle, which fits the tone of the novel very well. Definitely worth reading!

Next up: Half Moon Street by Anne Perry

Friday, 21 November 2014

Better endings

This week's Booking Through Thursday is:

If you could change the ending of any book you’ve read, which would it be and how would you change it?

The one that stands out most for me is Charles Pallister's The Quincunx. I read it some years ago, and it's a wonderfully thick novel in the style of Charles Dickens. All the way through it was detailed, atmospheric, and featured strong and interesting characters. It felt as though it was leading to a strong, revealing conclusion, but instead ended in an ambiguous, and for me very unsatisfying, way. I'm sure it was done deliberately, but one of the things I really like about nineteenth-century realism is the reassuring fact that you know things will be resolved at the end. Having invested so much time and become so attached to the characters, I felt almost cheated not finding out their endings, and the rest of the novel was so well written that I'm sure it could have been a fantastic ending, if he'd chosen to include it. I feel like it should have ended in a bittersweet manner, or maybe even tragically, but I really wanted closure one way or another.

How about you, what would you choose to change if you could?

Monday, 17 November 2014

Brave New World - Aldous Huxley

I’ve been meaning to read Brave New World for years, and I wish I’d done so sooner – this novel is intriguing, disturbing and surprisingly engaging as well. The reader is shown round a world in which technological progression has reached the point at which babies are replicated in bottles, growth stunted or assisted according to their destined caste, and then conditioned as children to believe as their caste should. Everybody is happy because they have no wish to be anything other than they are – and when they are unhappy, there is the intoxicating drug soma to distract them for a while.

Bernard Marx, however, is a misfit, trying to reject the ideals of instant gratification and mindless enjoyment and to think, and feel, for himself. When he brings a ‘savage’ back from a reservation outside their utopia, questions start to be asked and human passions begin to cause turmoil in the stagnant, content society.

The main characters are well-developed and interesting, as well as the overarching ideas, and the way Huxley’s society in this novel views the human past with revulsion forms a challenging reversal of viewpoint. Brave New World strikes a disturbingly relevant note in our own increasingly materialistic, instant-gratification-demanding world, and really makes you rethink your values.

Overall, very thought-provoking and well worth a read, if you haven’t already. Also, I have no idea what's meant to be on the cover of my edition. I think I can see a face, but maybe I'm just imagining it? Guesses welcome below!

Next up: The Face of a Stranger by Anne Perry

Friday, 14 November 2014

Early birthday present!

I got home from work to find a big Amazon parcel waiting for me - an early birthday present from my brother! I've been trying to improve my French by reading (currently trawling my rather depressing way through Les Fleurs du Mal), so I wanted something a bit lighter and more approachable to be going on with.

Contents consist of:

La Princess de Clèves by Madame de Lafayette
Germinal by Émile Zola
Bel-Ami by Guy de Maupassant (I loved the film adaptation and have been really wanting to read this one)
Le Chef-d'oeuvre Inconnu by Honoré de Balzac
Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
Le Comte de Monte-Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (which I have read in English but loved so much that I'll happily sit through the whole lot in French as well)

All shiny, new, sharp-edged and exciting!

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Absolution by Murder - Peter Tremayne

664AD has to be the earliest-set detective story I’ve read so far. Absolution by Murder is set during the Synod of Whitby, where religious delegates from the rival Christian factions of Rome and Iona met to decide the future of the kingdom of Northumbria. When a visiting Irish abbess is discovered in her room with her throat cut, Sister Fidelma, an Irish religieuse qualified to investigate legal matters in her own country, is asked to find the killer. Alongside a Saxon Brother, Eadulf, she races to uncover the murderer before rumours between the two factions spark a civil war.

Initially I found this novel difficult to get into, as the beginning is extremely heavy on early medieval religious history and politics, and the unfamiliar Saxon names also made it easy for me to mix up some of the characters. Once the action had really started, however, it became much more enjoyable.

Sister Fidelma is a refreshingly strong, forthright female detective, not taking sidekick position to her male counterpart, and refusing to defer to the expectations of the men she interacts with. Apparently this sexual equality is historically accurate, which makes a pleasant change to modern values being copied and pasted onto historical situations.

Overall, rather a slow start, but bear with it and it’s definitely worth it – enjoyable and intriguing reading, with plenty of historical ambiance.

Next up: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Monday, 3 November 2014

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest - Ken Kesey

I saw the film adaptation almost 10 years ago (wow, now I feel old), so while I had a general idea of what to expect from this novel, my expectations were pretty vague.

Randle McMurphy is a new patient in a somewhat old-fashioned psychiatric ward, taking what he thinks will be the easy way out of a prison sentence. His bravado and stubbornness bring a sense of optimism to the inmates, and, not used to having his freedom restricted, McMurphy engages in an unwise power struggle with the glacial head nurse.

For me the book was more effective than the film, partly because so much takes place within the minds of the characters, and that’s very difficult to portray when all you can see is external action. Also, the film focuses almost exclusively on Jack Nicholson’s character, McMurphy, while the novel is seen through the eyes of the ‘deaf and dumb’ Chief Bromden. As well as McMurphy’s central plotline, we come to understand Bromden’s own past and psychoses, and having the world filtered through his eyes adds another dimension to the story. That said, what I remember of the film was very good indeed, it’s just that I feel this is one of those novels where so much is internal rather than external that much is lost in a film adaptation.

I get the feeling with this one that, if I was studying the novel rather than reading it recreationally, there’s a lot of symbolism and subtext going on – if they’d let us study this during American Literature at university rather than forcing us to read the entire speech made on the Mayflower crossing, I’d have enjoyed the module much more. Even on a surface reading, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a powerful, frustrating and touching story that keeps you thinking long after it’s finished.

Next up: Absolution by Murder by Peter Tremayne