“Let us read, and let us dance;
these two amusements will never do any harm to the world.”

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Danielle Steelathon- Introduction

I made this: BookElf at 12:48 pm 1 comments Links to this post

My Grandma is amazing. Not only does she ply me with tea, biscuits and family gossip on a monthly basis, she also passes along shed loads of books for the Travelling Suitcase Library.

Recently she donated 14 Danielle Steels, with publishing dates ranging from the 1980s onwards, for me to 'lend' out to people. Now I know that many many people are absolute book snobs who wouldn't touch a Steel if it was the last book in the world, and on fire, and being stamped on my a massive Kindle-shaped devil with flames coming out of it's ears, but I've read a couple in the past,and actually enjoyed them. I am willing to concede that my current market for the TLS may not so much, so was resigning them to 'top shelf hidden behind the classics that make me look good, along with the secret stash of Freya North's' collection.

Then I heard Quintinn Letts' Radio 4 piece on 'what's the point of public libraries?'. In it, Letts spoke about how the early public libraries were supposed to promote literature, rather than the 'penny dreadful the middle class hate so much'. Letts was deploring the fact that now, public libraries do not discriminate in buying popular authors that their readers love, and read. Why aren't we all reading DH Lawrence, if we must read dusky romance?

To that I say, because sometimes, when you've read The Road, Lord of the Flies and The Handmaid's Tale in a week *you need a break*! There is nothing wrong with reading smutty, cheap romance novels for pleasure because at least you are reading for pleasure. And with the ability to read comes the ability to discern ideas, and practicing your reading makes you a better reader, if children see adults enjoying reading, and looking forward to reading, then they will enjoy and look forward to it. If you spend four months plowing your way through War and Peace, hating every second of it, how does that make you a better person that those who have read twelve James Patterson's in that time, love them all and had great conversations with their mates about them?

I cannot abide book snobbery, and will counteract it at every turn. With this in mind this week I start a new challenge...The Danielle Steelathon. Fourteen Danielle Steels in fourteen days, book a day, reading on the train, in the pub, at home, in the bath, in the park, anywhere. Anywhere where I can get out my trash and display it proudly to the world and say; 'there is nothing wrong with reading this'. Plus its a great way for me to practise my speed reading, which is getting lapse these days.

So it begins. I shall attempt to update this every day. I may fail. But if I do, it was not for want of trying. Anyone else wishing to join me in my crazy quest more than welcome to do so. First book, 'Daddy', published 1989.

Happy Reading!

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Book Club the Seventh

I made this: Unknown at 6:22 pm 0 comments Links to this post
Book Club the Seventh  - BOOKN00B - 18-08-10
Agreed on: We by Yevgany Zenyatin (AvidReader)
- The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
- The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry
- The Twins by Tesse De Loo
- House at River ton by Kate Morton
- Millennium Trilogy by Steig Larsson (this time with Phee (-:)

We had all approached the following book with some trepidation - after all, it's the first of our proper grown up award winning books (Man Booker winner) but found this month's choice easier to sink into than expected. 

  • loved reading about India, and found this unfamiliar aspect fascinating. 
  • was less enamoured with the characters, unable to warm to any of them.
  • found the single person letter writing format to be a device, that became increasingly meaningless and annoying over time, interrupting the flow of the story. 
  • felt that the plot, while perfectly suited to this setting, would have seemed feeble in another setting. 
  • agreed that the plot would not translate into another setting without major revisions.
  • was also very impressed that it was a debut novel, finding the voice to be strong, and consistent. 
  • loved the setting and the 'un-Danny Boyle's vision of Slumdog Millionaire' India presented was far more real to me; more intricate and influenced by the lingering economic and political effects of colonialism.
  • would definitely read another of his books, but only of surrounded by fluffy books for afterwards!
  • didn't really enjoy the process of reading the book, but found that it really made her think. 
  • didn't feel like she knew enough of the history to know how accurate the set up was.
  • also found the protagonist to be difficult to like, but the world very well created, and easy to visualise in the minds eye.
  • the master-servant interrelationships were soooo interesting
  • would definitely recommend to some
  • felt that it was definitely a 'book club' read rather than a pleasure one. 
  • a woman at her workplace had read this book over her maternity leave, and found it to be amazing - a high commendation as she had a shared heritage and culture. 
  • would not be keen to re-read though.
BOOKN00B               BOOKELF             AVIDREADER
6.5/7/10                         6.5/10                    8/10

We also discussed Kate Morton's House at Riverton - agreeing that it was a beautiful book, with a fantastic depiction of the Upstairs/Downstairs tensions, considered typical of that time period. 

We all of us loathed the sister in the book, though very much enjoyed the relationships between most of the primary and secondary characters. 

I was personally very disappointed at the author's follow up novel The Forgotten Garden, a blatant rip off of this books structure, style and plot.
 While on holiday, BOOKN00B had the chance to read all of The Millennium Trilogy books. 
  • found the first book to primarily serve to set the scene
  • while the following two provided a more satisfying series feel
  • felt that the first book relied too much on Dan Brown for inspiration
  • was a slow burner to the point of taking too long to get started.

She agreed with points that both of us had made during our earlier, occasionally heated discussion, and rated the books as follows:

                  BOOKN00B      BOOKELF           AVIDREADER
Book 1 -         6/10                                                  7/10
Book 2 -        8/10                 10/10                      9/10
Book 3 -        10/10               10/10                      10/10

We also discussed the following books - all of which we would recommend. We didn't go into as much details for these as at least one bookie wanted to read it - without knowing the whole storyline!

Friday, 20 August 2010

Horrible Histories

I made this: BookElf at 12:46 pm 0 comments Links to this post
I love history. I was my third favourite subject at school (after English and Drama), I did it for my A Level (along with, you guessed it, English and Drama) and am a massive massive fan of historical fiction (especially when it is on the telly, thus combining English, History and Drama, at which point I promptly pass out in glee).

I was also very fortunate to be born in just the right generation to appreciate possibly my favourite series of non-fiction books of all time; Horrible Histories by Terry Deary. Starting with Terrible Tudors, these fun and easy to digest reads navigated the events of the period using cartoons, short snappy poems and jokes, including 'horrible' facts such as how people died, diseases and cures that were used to treat them, and what people ate and use to wash and cloth themselves with. I was recently introduced to the TV series currently showing on CBBC, which is a sketch show covering all the books and if you haven't seen it, do because it is the best children's show since Maid Marion and deserves the multiple accolades it is receiving.

As an adult, I love how I have discovered historical fiction, from being wussy and romantic Georgette Heyer style nonsense to literary classics. This week I've been reading Wolf Hall by Hilary mantel and I would recommend it highly. I know the Tudor period has been done to death, but it really is an excellent book about one of the founders of capitalism, Thomas Cromwell, who was Henry VIII's advisor,who came from 'nothing' at a time when aristocratic blood meant everything. The book covers the first 45 years of his life, and I eagerly await the next installment. Meticulously researched it was a pleasure to read from a semi-Tudor-buff's perspective. The best thing about reading historical novels for me is going 'ooo that's so and so from that other book I read', or when an event that you have studied occurs you get a little warm feeling from already knowing all about it.

Other historical novels I would recommend include, obviously, the Shardlake series, which is just so good I can hardly speak, and the historical novels of Rosemary Hawley Jarman, especially Crown in Candlelight. Of course, one can't mention historical fiction with out saying 'Philippa Gregory' in the same breath, but I'd read Alison Weir above her (sorry, sorry!) as I find Weir's characterisations of royals a lot more interesting. Though I have to say Gregory's The Queen's Fool is one of my fav beach books. Whatever you do, though, do not read The Wise Woman as
I did nearly fall asleep about a third of the way through (and the first few chapters are so good as well!).

Through book club I've discovered Karan Maitland, Company of Lies and The Owl Killers are both great (though the ending of COL disappointed me, and the rest of Book Club massively so be warned) and Carola Dunn, who write the Daisy Dalrymple books you may have noticed we all have a slight obsession with at the moment, but are so good, witty and entertaining, as well as thought provoking and full of historical (1920s still counts) nuances that really make you think ab out the past being a another country and how differently they do things there.

And last but not least, Forever Amber. Oh God Forever Amber. The story of a illegitimate, beautiful women growing up in the time of the Restoration, who starts out the adopted daughter of a poor country farmer and ends up the mistress of Charles II, I was given my mother's copy of the book when it was re-printed sometimes in the early naughties and she treated herself to it and I just love it. It is approximately four inches thick, but you are so incredibly engrossed for the entire thing that you whizz through it. I've lent it to about four other people, all alas women, and each one has come back with the same tired expression of 'Oh God Forever Amber'. No One Can Put This Book Down. Read It. Read It Now.....

This month I've also been reading America Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld, which has made me angry, engrossed and, like We Need To Talk About Kevin, absolutely terrified. Good stuff.

Happy Reading!
BookElf xx

Friday, 13 August 2010

Middle Class blah blah blah

I made this: BookElf at 12:27 pm 0 comments Links to this post
When I was a teenager, one of my favorite authors was Deborah Moggach, author of many books including Tulip Fever, Seesaw and, my favorite, Close Relations. Close Relations is a 'family drama' following the lives of the fair to affluent Hammond family, builder-dad Gordon, his wife (very much in that order I'm afraid) and their three grown up daughters Louise, Prudence and Maddy. The daughters all have their own agendas and hidden problems, and yet still manage throughout the book to apparently have to people in their lives outside of those they are either sleeping with, or related to. However, the book is warm, funny, rude as anything (there's a threesome that came as quite a surprise to my 14 year old self, and was also the first threesome shown on UK telly when it was adapted). It s a really really great read if you like your family sagas, and well written enough for a decent beach book with substance.

The reason I was reminded of this book was because of my choice of 'holiday' reading this week, when I planned to do little more than sit in my father's amazingly beautiful garden, let it all hang out and read about four books a day. I was donated about 50 more books to the Traveling Suitcase Library on Saturday (thank you Laura!) and obviously went through them all first, to see if there was any I could plow my way through before Sunday, in order to have more books to recommend. I won't be.

I came accross Mark Haddon's A Spot of Bother. I read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time when it came out and thought it sensationally good. It made me weep a little bit, and gain more understanding, or at least want to gain more understanding, about autism, asperger's and the issues surrounding these conditions. I thought the writing was so good, he captured the voice so perfectly and it was justifiably a best best best seller, really popular in my work library.

A Spot of Bother's blurb sounded promising- Katie's wedding is causing problems within the family, she doesn't know if she wants to marry him because he has 'stranglers hands', the mother is having an affair, the brother hasn't come out as gay to his family, the father has found a cancerous lesion. I thought, great, easy, yet poignant. I can have a good cry and feel warmth and family joy at the end when it all works out, and these books always do.

How wrong I was. I spent the whole seven hours it took me to read the 475 pages of the novel (as opposed to the month it took me to read the 600 pages of Nelson Mandela's biography) feeling exasperated, bored, and full of bile. The reason? Its just so snobbish!. Whether Haddon was trying to show how ridiculous being "middle class" is I don't know, but thats basically all I got from this book. The husband-to-be isn't a serial killer, he's common. And from the North. This makes him some how unsuitable for a woman who speaks French and whose family own a piece of land big enough to have a marquee in it. Territorial racism aside, I wouldn't have minded if Ray, the strangler, had been portrayed as common by the author, but he wasn't, or at least not any kind of common I know. He was just, well, blah. Like every single other character in the book. Even the father who is slowly loosing his mind (in such an unrealistic and unsympathetic way I couldn't believe I was reading the same writer who made me sob so much at the boy and his dad touching finger tips because the boy is afraid of hugging in The Curious Incident) was just plain boring. The affair, and the gay son, because you can't have a book about being middle class without covering the basics of adulatory and homosexuality, were silly and unconvincing, and could have been cut altogether with no detriment to the frankly woolly plot.

The whole book was a complete waste of my time, and would have been better if he had cut out 300 pages, focused on the father's fear of dying, and done a theme based, rather than saga-plot-driven piece on being middle class and middle aged, which would at least have been interesting.

What annoyed me the most was the amount of reviews being so complimentary, and they amount this book sold. If you want to read some middle class blah about how dreadful it is to have loads of money and be really close to your family, read Close Relations, because its just so much better.

This month I have also read The Witches of Eastwick, which is just so good my head nearly exploded with joy, and loads of Daisy Dalrymples', because I could.

Happy Reading!

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Psycho Killer, qu'est-ce que c'est

I made this: BookElf at 10:04 am 1 comments Links to this post
Strangely, for a summer that should surely be made of entirely superfluous 'beach reads', where drippy Modern Women find there feet and stand up to their philandering husbands/ bosses/ bank managers etc etc ad naseum, the last few books I've read have been very intense.

I am blaming this entirely on my friend B. B knows about the Book Lust (poor chap had to live with it for a couple of years so knows more that most!) and that I cannot say no, unfortunately, neither can they. So when eight Mills and Boons turned up in a a skip outside B's house, and I get a text saying 'I've got a present for you'...well you can see where this is going.

'The Highland Barbarian' by Ruth Langan was great fun for a couple of days train read. Predictably inflammatory heroine Meredith's father and betrothed are killed by the evil Barbarian Brice, who of course kidnaps her, storms of to his castle and reveals that he is actually not evil, and was set up, they fall in love and have lots of tender yet solid hanky panky on some furs. What really stood out for me in this incredibly researched and historically accurate tome was the guest appearance of non other than Mary Queen of Scots- for what historical romance is complete without a guest appearance from our favourite French hussy?

After this diversion I had to read something "serious", and what more so than Orange Prize winner and massively best selling 'We Need To Talk About Kevin' by Lionel Shriver.

Now I have to say, *This Review Contains Spoilers*, because its absolutely impossible to talk about WNTTAK without mentioning somewhere the main plot of the book, a mother's worries and concerns over her teenage son, Kevin, who has killed 9 people in a high school massacre in 2000. The mother, Eva, is writing to her estranged husband, Franklin, about her life from before Kevin's birth, when she was a jet setting business woman with a very successful publishing firm, to the present day, living in a small house near the prison her son is incarcerated in and working part time in a travel agency with a mixture of boring office types who flit from one piece of semi-topical water cooler banter to the next, their normality in stark contrast to Eva's infamous son's.

This book is absolutely fantastic. Although the writing style of the letters is rather "done", Shriver puts a fresh twist on it by making her narrator both competent, eloquent and thorough, but at the same time admittedly incredibly unreliable. Unlike The Long Song by Andrea Levy, which I have also just finished, this device does not appear 'tacked on' but an intrinsic part of the content, and vital to the success of the book in that it really makes you think.

This book made me reconsider my wish to bear children. I am currently not a mother, but as a fertile hormonal twenty something it would be wrong of me to deny the thought of tiny feet had not crossed my mind with some seriousness on the odd occasion. This book genuinely terrified me. Shriver's depiction of a clever, successful woman with whom I could in some way identify (she too over thinks everything, loves Victoriana and world travel, considers herself fairly liberal-at least more so than her quite frankly boorish and boring conservative Death-Of-A-Salesman husband (hate Franklin, hate him)), and how her world collapses with her inability to bond with her child, her child's strange tendencies towards to psychotic, and her frustrations about the lack of support available from others, especially her useless husband, who does not believe her when she complains about her son's behaviour, made for many sleepless nights considering the reasons I want to have children, and whether they are good enough. Eva has her son because she has reached a stage in her life when she feels she should have one. I do not want to get to that stage, I want to have a child out of love for it, because it would make me 'complete', thought whether that is morally right is looking increasingly ambiguous. I also do not want a child with a man I 'love' who then turns up to be as useless and pathetic as Franklin, which could quite easily happen. This genuinely terrifies me, and Shriver has brought all these semi-repressed feelings to the top of my head, using as simple a form as fiction. What an achievement.

Eva is complex and fascinating, she explores very deep emotions openly as possible. Although the book has received some criticism from some mothers that, as a woman who does not have children, Shriver has no 'right' to write about parenting so disparagingly, I believe that she is quite insightful. This is the sort of book I wish my mother was alive for, because you really want to ask 'did you feel that with me? Was I that awful?'. I will definitely be recommending this book sparingly, as if you are pregnant, planning on being so, or easily swayed into reconsidering life choices by fiction then this book is not the one for you. It is a very worthy prize winner, because its so well written, although it did take me about 100 pages to really get gripped by (a lot of other reviews say the same thing, its definitely worth bending the 50 page rule for). This book has really got people talking, and if you are wanting a book to liven up your office then I'd say lend it round your colleagues because it definitely will. I wish almost it wasn't so literaray, as the eloquent style may put off people for whom discussing the themes and events of this book might be really important and empathetic.

Ten out of Ten. Full Marks. Just be warned- it will change you.

Happy Reading!

BookElf xx

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