Sunday, 30 August 2015

Travel books

This week's Booking Through Thursday is:

Do you like to read books about far-away places? Travel guides, memoirs, whatever? Places you’ve been? Or places you’ve never been?

That's a good question, but... no. I don't, I don't tend to read books based on real life in general, and I never read straight-up travelogues. I'll only read biographies if it's someone I'm really interested it.

I guess the easiest answer as to why is that I read for escapism, and that reading about real life doesn't feel like I'm escaping, even real life lived in a country I've never visited.

I do however, love to read books about places far off in history, whether long ago or potentially in the future, or about fantasy or science-fiction universes that will never exist. I know that reading for escapism should allow for reading non-fiction about places that exist right now, but somehow that just doesn't interest me as much as reading about places that I'll never see.

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Death of an Avid Reader - Frances Brody

This looked as though it would be a fairly gentle Christie-imitation murder-mystery – a widowed lady-detective searching for the long-lost illegitimate daughter of a titled lady on her deathbed, while investigating the murder of a university professor found dead in her local library. This seems to be the second novel in a series, but enough was explained that I didn't feel left behind.

To begin with, the setting and characterisation ambled along, and it took me a while to warm up to Kate Shackleton, the central detective. However, around the halfway mark, the plot picked up the pace and the story became more intriguing, and I found myself really wanting to find out the answers.

Once I gave them time the characters rounded out more and the story began to feel more compelling, including some surprisingly gritty aspects for what seemed on the surface an essentially respectable detective story, and some genuinely surprising twists.

Overall, a slow start, but a detective novel which comes into its own and turns into a mostly pleasant, easy-to-read but still attention-grabbing story.

Next up: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest by Stieg Larsson

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Film adaptation - Cruel Intentions

I decided to begin my trio of Les Liasons Dangereuses adaptations with the most approachable and probably best-known adaptation, Cruel Intentions. I did watch it once before, many years ago, but had almost entirely forgotten it since.

Obviously Cruel Intentions is very a modern retelling of the novel rather than a straight-up adaptation, so I wasn't sure how faithful it would be. I was surprised how well the general atmosphere and the concept of the story translated from idle French aristocracy to overprivileged American teenagers, and while several of the characters' relations to each other had to be altered to fit with the new social structure, the characters themselves were mostly very accurately transferred.

I did wonder how well the necessary flattening of the age differences would work (most notably the difference between Cécile and Danceny compared to Valmont and the Marquise), but actually the difference in their characters' relative life experiences in the film made it very successful. The setting of the overdecorated, faux-historical houses really captured the sense of corrupt decadence of the original novel.

One thing that I felt was a shame was that the Marquise (or Kathryn) was turned into such a clear-cut villain. I loved the fact that in the original novel there was such moral ambiguity, and to me the Marquise de Merteuil felt like an intelligent, independent (but admittedly very selfish) woman bored out of her mind by the constricted, idle role forced on her by society. Kathryn actually explicitly makes this point in the film (“God forbid, I exude confidence and enjoy sex! Do you think I relish the fact that I have to act like Mary Sunshine 24/7 so I can be considered a lady?”), and this very effectively sums up the double standards between genders present in both the original novel and the modern adaptation. Cruel Intentions, however, by making Kathryn such an obvious villain, manages to undermine this protest against ingrained gender roles and makes it part of being a bad female role model. (That's my opinion anyway, but I did have a real soft spot for the Marquise in the novel so perhaps I'm reading too much into it!)

The ending of the film was much lighter than the ending of the novel, although I was impressed by the fact that they did commit to keeping one death in, which gave the ending much more impact and poignancy than the majority of American teen dramas.

Overall, I really enjoyed it, and was pleasantly surprised how faithfully the novel was adapted. A great film even if you haven't read the book.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Les Liaisons Dangereuses - Pierre Choderlos de Laclos

I really enjoyed this novel from the very beginning. The moral ambiguity of each character and the focus on concealment and manipulation make each individual into a fascinating character study, and the fact that the story is told through letters allows each person's differing viewpoints on the same events to shine through. The correspondence between various members of a connected group gradually builds up into a complex web of interdependent relationships, binding the characters' futures together.

In spite of what feels like an obligatory moral message at the close of the novel, there is a joy and humour in the machinations of the central characters, the Vicomte de Valmont and his ex-lover the Marquise de Merteuil. Their charisma and the genuine affection in their letters to each other, if to none of the other characters, makes it impossible to dislike them however badly they act, and although they are the two pivotal characters, the more minor characters are also given enough space to feel real in their own right.

This is a surprisingly unpredictable novel, full of human complexity and lightened with flashes of humour and irony. Very much worth reading, and I have a few film adaptations ready to watch now I've finished it.

Next up: Death of an Avid Reader by Frances Brody

Saturday, 15 August 2015


This week's Booking Through Thursday is:

What’s the most intriguing book you ever read? Something that made you think, explore new ideas, or just be really impressed and awed and amazed at the sheer wonder of the creativity of the thing?

Philip Pulman's His Dark Materials trilogy has always filled me with a sense of wonder and vast potential. The beautiful, vivid descriptions of such a wide range of worlds and the promise of even more unexplored over the horizon gave me a wonderful feeling.

In a completely different sense, Jeff Noon's debut novel Vurt and its sequel Pollen conjured up a much darker cyberpunk dystopia, in which humans, dogs, robots, aliens and spirits interbred to create marvellous and sinister cross-species beings with varied abilities and their own subcultures. The fast-moving plot leaves little time for explanation, so you have to pick up bits and pieces as you go along. That's another world I'd really like to explore at my leisure, look into the history of and figure out how things got the way they did.

I'm always on the lookout for new intriguing novels to explore - are there any that any of you would strongly recommend?

Saturday, 8 August 2015

Stephen Fry in America - Stephen Fry

Even though I didn't catch the BBC TV series this book is supposed to accompany, I didn't find it lacking because of this. The general tone is anecdotal and amusing, like an old friend telling stories of his holiday, and Stephen Fry manages to be honest even about the negatives while remaining warm and generally complimentary.

The book is divided into a chapter for each state, and the photos and short sections make it more approachable and fun than a weighty encyclopaedia of travel knowledge. Of course with such a vast and diverse area to cover, some states aren't as in-depth as they might be, but a general overview is always given, alongside more personal experiences in each state.

I've always found it difficult to imagine such a large country as the USA functioning as one entity, and this book really made me appreciate how different each state is in its interests, attitudes and physical landscapes. This is a proper coffee-table book, entertaining and easy to dip into.

Next up: Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Book storage

This week's Booking Through Thursday is:

How do you store your books? On bookcases? In piles? In piles on bookcases? Are they sorted? Do you know where everything is? What’s the most creative storage you’ve seen or used for your books?

 My books are most definitely sorted, or at least loosely. Read and unread books are kept separate by putting read books to the left of a shelf and unread ones on the right, except of course if it's a series - you can't separate a series, that's just wrong. I have an area on one bookshelf for foreign language books, another for poetry, another for non-fiction, and then the main bulk is made up of English language fiction.

For the most part my books live in (and on top of) traditional bookshelves (which I won't show you pictures of, you people know what bookshelves are) but I do have an overflow shelf made of a wire bathroom shelf I found in the street plus hardback books. Rest assured that no books were harmed in the making of that shelf.

How about yourselves, what's the most creative improvised bookshelf you've made or seen?