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