Sunday, 31 May 2009

May Retrospective

May was such a wonderful month for reading that it bears blogging about. I read sixteen books (well, I finished two in June, but April's reading filtered into the first days of May so it all evens out); sixteen is a huge record for me - last year I averaged six a month and earlier this year it was nine, but I do have more time on my hands just now. Here are the sixteen books read:

1. Loitering with Intent, Muriel Spark
2. The Blue Fox, Sjon
3. Equal Rites, Terry Pratchett
4. Mort, Terry Pratchett
5. The Uncommon Reader, Alan Bennett
6. Some Prefer Nettles, Jun'ichiro Tanizaki
7. If I Stay, Gayle Forman
8. The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Muriel Barbery
9. The Woman in Black, Susan Hill
10. Cheerful Weather for the Wedding, Julia Strachey
11. Miss Chopsticks, Xinran
12, Sheconomics, Karen Pine & Simone Gressen
13. The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets, Eva Rice
14. Little red Riding Hood, Cinderella, and Other Classic Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault, Angela Carter
15. The Snow Goose, Paul Gallico
16. The Little Stranger, Sarah Waters

Of the sixteen, a number were stand-outs. The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, and The Uncommon Reader were all library books but they were so thoroughly enchanting that I have to add them to my collection now at some point so that I can re-read them ALL. Mort is now one of my favourite Discworld novels and that is quite the endorsement as I am passionately attached to the Watch novels. If I Stay was such an unexpected enjoyment and a book that I would not have discovered if it wasn't for blogging (the same applies to The Lost Art and Elegance). A battered Penguin copy of The Snow Goose was picked up for 90p and was a heartbreaking read; it is also one of the 1000 Guardian books. There's a sprinkling of disappointments amongst the sixteen but overall May was such a joyful month for reading that those can be overlooked.

Saturday, 30 May 2009

The Snow Goose

One of the Guardian's 1000 Novels You Must Read The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico is whimsical and poignant. Before reading about it on the list I had never heard about of this novella but then I noticed that it appeared on my Amazon recommendations (by chance or by design?) and that I had heard of other Paul Gallico titles without realising that he was the one and same author. Over the last few months I have picked up a few Gallico orange Penguins, all very slim volumes, and all very cheaply. The Snow Goose (and "The Small Miracle", which is also included) I picked up for an irresistable 90 pence; I had to laugh though at the rate of inflation when I noticed on the back cover that in 1975 the RRP was only 30p!

This is the description given by The Guardian, which first attracted me to the title: Set on the desolate Essex marshes, this haunting novella of the friendship between the "mis-shapen and grotesque" reclusive artist, Philip Rhayader, and the "young, primitive inarticulate" yet beautiful Fritha, after she brings him a wounded snow goose to heal, made Gallico's name and became a world wide bestseller. Accompanied only by the snow goose, Philip rescues countless men from the shores of Dunkirk in his little boat, but when the bird returns alone, the now grown-up Fritha knows she will never see the hunchback again. Sentimental? Undoubtedly. Heartbreaking? Absolutely.

It is only 48 pages long but its spareness is not a deficit. It is indeed heartbreaking in its simplicity. I was most struck by the stark and powerful contrast of the beauty and innocence of the birds, the way of life, and the burgeoning love between Frith and Philip Rhayader, to the violent ravages of War. I also admired how the migration of the snow goose documented the passing of time and the growing love between the two characters.

One of my favourite passages: "She came running to the sea wall and turned her eyes, not towards the distant Channel whence a sail might come, but in the sky from whose flaming arches plummeted the snow goose. Then the sight, the sound, and the solitude surrounding broke the dam within her and released the surging, overwhelming truth of her love, let it well forth in tears."

Upon reading the following quote about birds from Tove Jansson's The Summer Book, it recalled The Snow Goose to me and what I have acknowledged above: "It seemed to her no other creature had the same dramatic capacity to underline and perfect events - the shifts in the seasons and the weather, the changes that run through people themselves."

Thursday, 28 May 2009

This and That...

This is a blog post about this and that, bits and bobs; more of an update really.

Firstly, The Little Stranger is on its way in the post to me and I am unbelievably excited (I don't think I've anticipated a book this much since the last three Harry Potter books). I pre-ordered it over a month ago online but had to cancel that order since it hadn't been dispatched yet and order through Waterstone's instead, who were offering it at a far cheaper price anyway and where I could also redeem my loyalty points. I am hoping it will arrive my Saturday's post...

Secondly, I managed to finish my book for book group before tonight's meeting. I'll review that over the next few days. I'm looking forward to finding out what we're reading next (we take it in turns to decide).

Thirdly, my library pile is decreasing although I have five books waiting collection (and four to return). One of the books I'll collect over the next few days is The Wilderness by Samantha Harvey, which I am hoping to read before the Orange Prize is announced on June 3rd. The other books I'm picking up are The Group by Mary McCarthy (this one has been on my radar for a while but I watched a Hay Festival interview with Sarah Waters and she said that she's currently re-reading it so I took the recommendation and requested it); The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa; People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks; and The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver (this one I am most excited about). I also renewed The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb so that I have more time to tackle it as its sheer size is somewhat daunting.

Also, my friend and I are tackling some classics that we have always meant to read but never have and next up is Brideshead Revisted by Evelyn Waugh for July 1st (even though, ahem, my friend still hasn't finished the previous book, Brighton Rock).

I still have three books (and another still to review) to read for Carl's Once Upon a Time Challenge : one fairy tale book, which is currently in progress, and two non-fiction books before Midsummer's Night (June 23rd).

I have also began to participate in the Shelfari discussion group Booktivity's monthly challenge to read a book with a specific category -and its derivatives- in the title. This coming month's category is "weather" and I was thinking of reading Nancy Mitford's Love in a Cold Climate or Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Leaf Storm.

So that will be one new book, ten library books, one book group book (decided tonight); one unread classic; three challenge books; one weather book ... to be read within the next 4-6 weeks, not to mention the books I already have waiting (and wanting) to be read. Seventeen books is manageable in that time limit, isn't it? Deviating from the list and not adding new books, however, is less achievable...

(Image courtesy of

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Miss Chopsticks

The premise of Miss Chopsticks by Xinran excited me:

From the author of the bestselling "The Good Women of China" comes the uplifting story of three sisters who, like so many migrant workers in today's China, leave their peasant community to seek their fortune in the big city. The Li sisters don't have much education, but one thing has been drummed into them: their mother is a failure because she hasn't managed to produce a son, and they themselves only merit a number as a name.Women, their father tells them, are like chopsticks: utilitarian and easily broken. Men, on the other hand, are the strong rafters that hold up the roof of a house. Yet when circumstances lead the sisters to seek work in distant Nanjing, the shocking new urban environment opens their eyes. While Three contributes to the success of a small fast-food restaurant, Five and Six learn new talents at a health spa and a bookshop/tearoom. And when the money they earn starts arriving back at the village, their father is forced to recognise that daughters are not so dispensable after all. Xinran has become known for her wonderful ability to take readers to the heart of Chinese society. In this new book she tells not only a human story, but the story of a city. As the Li sisters discover Nanjing, so do we: its past, its customs and culture, and its future as a place where people can change their lives. (synopsis courtesy of

The book itself disappointed me.
The characters of Three, Five, and Six irritated me.
The situation of the majority of women in Chinese villages angered me.

Certainly Xinran achieves something in eliciting the last response from me; the evocation of the gender bias and hopeless situation of most women is well done, albeit dry. In many ways Miss Chopsticks is a feminist text but it could have been a famous feminist text if only Xinran had created fully-fledged characters. Instead, Three, Five, and Six were, as I have said above, irritating. I sympathised with them but their naivete wore on my patience; I suppose the point of the novel was to demonstrate how behind the times village women could be and how as migrant workers their eyes were opened in startling ways but it backfired with me. This could indeed be a failure in me as a reader, that the culture shock and alien way of thinking (in contrast to mine) was too much to bear but I have read a lot and I have, in the past, read a number of books set in China, many with female protagonists, and none has annoyed me in this way. To be honest I thought that Xinran was condescending of her own characters and failed to depict them as more than stick figures/chopsticks unable to hold up a book.

Image courtesy of

Monday, 25 May 2009

Thou Shalt Covet Books

My first commandment: thou shalt read books
My second commandment: thou shalt covet books
My third commandment: thou shalt have books

What better way to blog on a dreary Bank Holiday Monday than to blog about the books I covet. I have read a number of book coveting posts this month that contribute to Debi's mini-challenge in honour of Dewey and I thought I would contribute.

My book eyes being bigger than my book stomach I am continually coveting new books to read and my wants and desires are eclectic and wide-ranging. For the purpose of the post I took the books most recently added to my Amazon wishlist, along with the first three books that I am desperate to own.

1. The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters: I am literally counting down the days (THREE) until this is released in the UK. I am jumping up and down with anticipation. Thanks to Littlebrown's Sarah Waters website I have had a sneak read of the first two chapters and I am impatient to read the remainder. I have splurged and pre-ordered a copy and I only hope that it arrives on time.

2. The Thing Around Your Neck, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: I have mentioned in a previous post how much I am looking forward to reading this title; I have requested it from the library but am fifth in line so should expect it some time close to Christmas. I really should own it in hardback as I own Adichie's previous titles in that format.

3. Journal by Katherine Mansfield: I am itching to puchase the title. I have been obsessed with Katherine Mansfield recently (which reminds me I have an unfinished blog post concerning her) after re-reading some of her short stories and remembering how much I loved her writing. This is the title from Persephone Books that I most covet.

4. The Gourmet by Muriel Barbery: the follow-up (not a prequel per se, more a side-by-side?) to The Elegance of the Hedgehog this book isn't released until Autumn but my book taste-buds are salivating in anticipation - an appropriate yet unintentional desciption as it concerns a food critic.

5. The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White: the advantage of taking these directly from my wishlist is that it demonstrates my book likes in all their versatility. This timeless manual for writing is the one I am most wanting to invest in.

6. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson: Another one that isn't being released until later in the year (by Penguin Modern Classics,) I have been coveting this book for a while but it has been out of print. I don't know much about it and would like it to stay that way until read.

7. Mixed Media: Feminist Presses and Publishing Politics by Simone Murray: Simon reviewed this title recently and I was immediately interested. The Virago section alone is enough to peak my interest although I was disappointed to discover that Persephone isn't included.

8. Moomin: the Complete Tove Jansson Comic Strip: I loved the Moomins as a child and I would love to own the four-piece hardback collection. How lovely would they look on the shelf with the other comics and graphic novels?

9. The Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook: Cupcakes, enough said. I covet a visit to this bakery on Portobello Road.

10. Buffy the Vampire Slayer Volume 3: Wolves at the Gate: Volumes 4 and 5 are also on the wishlist so I can read Season 8 of the cult TV show (and personal favourite) in graphic novel form.

11. Miss Buncle's Book by D.E. Stevenson: Another Persephone and another I covet. The synopsis amuses me.

12. Captivated: J.M. Barrie, the Du Mauriers and the Dark Side of Neverland by Piers Dudgeon: I cannot articulate how much I covet this book. J.M. Barrie? Daphne Du Maurier? I've been wanting this book for six months, since reading Daphne by Justine Picardie.

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding

I read Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey yesterday and it was a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours on a Saturday afternoon (it is a novella of 119 pages).

Persephone number 38 and one of this Spring's Persephone Classics, Cheerful Wedding for the Wedding, seems to divide bloggers and Persephone lovers. Simon at Stuck in a Book "loved every second" but Nicola of Vintage Reads said that it was "not my cup of tea" and that she wished she had ordered something else from the Persephone catalogue (funnily enough a title that I myself am coveting); I fall somewhere in the middle, siding more with Simon. I enjoyed its dark humour and the underlying despair of the bride, Dolly, and one of the central characters, Joseph, but I found it to be lacking in ... substance? It is a deliciously witty novel and one that I would be happy to reread (which is testimony to my enjoyment) but I must confess to my relief that I caved and borrowed the title from the library rather than splurging on a £12 copy, although I will add it to the collection once I am more flush (the same goes for the Virginia Woolf title of the same name - Flush). Of course, it is the underlying problem with most novellas (or short stories) that we are left wanting more, or it could be simply a result of the bittersweet nature of this one: cheerful it is not, albeit witty in tone.

Speaking of Virginia Woolf, both the reviews linked to above, draw comparison with her work and I heartily agree; the dry yet humorous depictions of people is reminiscent of Woolf and the novella's events occur over one afternoon, reminding me of Woolf's Between the Acts and Mrs Dalloway. Leonard and Virginia Woolf's Hogarth Press published the title in 1932 and Virginia wrote that it was, "a very cute, clever, indeed rather remarkable acidulated story ... I think it astonishingly good ... it is extraordinarily complete and sharp and individual."

I like the absurd touches in Cheerful Weather for the Wedding, the acute yet flyingly sardonic observations of people and the innocuous pet tortoise. It is a brief example of black humour and although hyperbolic in parts it never steps outwith the realms of realism. A bride with cold feet on her wedding day drinking herself to ink stains and flushed cheeks? Sounds prefectly reasonable to me (apparently F. Scott Fitzgerald bettered this motif in The Great Gatsby, but despite reading and studying the book more than once, I don't recall, but that may have something to do for my dislike for the text).

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding is not my favourite Persephone but I did like and enjoy it.

Images courtesy of Persephone Books and Amazon

Saturday, 23 May 2009

The Woman in Black

I was incorrectly under the impression that The Woman in Black by Susan Hill was a re-telling/re-interpretation/reincarnation of The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins but it's not; the title is merely misleading. I read the former last October and it's a classic crime story with supernatural elements, albeit not as compelling as Collins's The Moonstone, which is a personal favourite of mine. As for being influenced by The Woman in White, nobody could possibly do it better than Sarah Waters did in Fingersmith; she took the basic premise of the great Victorian novel by one of the masters and amazingly improved upon it (if you haven't read Fingersmith then please do; it is exceptional).

As for the confusingly entitled The Woman in Black it is an atmospheric ghost story that is spine-tingling. I can say in all honesty that I am relieved that I read this during the onset of summer because it is scary enough without reading it in the thick of a dark Winter, complete with elements that lend themselves to dark imaginings. Suspenseful and chilling the events of The Woman in Black surround junior lawyer, Arthur Kipps, who is young and carefree and sent to Eel Marsh House, which sits beyond the causeway and alone upon treacherous sea marshes and whose mistress, Alice Drablow, a client of the law firm for whom Kipps works, has recently died. The malevolence surrounding Eel Marsh House is something Kipps disregards as superstitious gossip on the behalf of the town occupants, even when he catches sight of the emaciated and anomalous woman all dressed in black, but gradually a creeping sense of unease takes hold. Kipps begins to witness, hear, and experience strange occurrences at Eel Marsh House and the tale becomes a meditation upon the effect of fear upon the body and mind. Kipps uncovers the tragic secret of the house from sixty years before and its consequent haunting but not without personal cost.

The unsettling nature of the plot is effectively realised; I found my heart palpitating and the hairs on the back of my neck raised as Kipps and his companion Spider the dog faced off the ghostly occurrences. There is one event in particular, where their lives are at risk, which had my heart thudding in my ears. This is a very well told ghost story, which is extremely discomfiting; I still feel a little shaken, which is a sign of a great read.

The repetition of the rocking chair in the nursery, normally a comforting motion, is as frightening as the tap tap tap of a tree branch against the window on an eerie, dark night when you are home alone.

The story is framed by a much older Arthur Kipps who has tried to forget the terrifying experience from his past but on Christmas Eve when his family are trying to outdo one another with ghoulish stories by the fire, events come back to the forefront of his mind and he resigns himself to documenting it all. I am a huge fan of this structure and it works seamlessly well; unlike The Turn of the Screw by Henry James though, which uses the same form, The Woman in White does not oppose supernatural and rational but emphasises throughout that this is a ghost story intended to scare the wits out of you. It succeeded with me.

Friday, 22 May 2009

Some Prefer Nettles

I have been intrigued by Japan of late; some friends have or are planning to go travelling there and it has heightened my desire to one day visit. I love the food, the culture, the cinema. A few books I have read recently have had Japanese elements to them as well as reading some Haruki Murakami (Sputnik Sweetheart), although his books are so surreal and the setting can be so non-descript that they could almost be set anywhere... is that just me? To me Murakami is almost quintessentially un-Japanese.

It was for this reason that I thought I would read Some Prefer Nettles by Jun'ichiro Tanizaki, which is considered one of Japanese literature's great novels, without being a typical example. I am curious to know what then constitutes as a classic Japanese novel, classic in the sense of standard; I have I am a Cat by Soseki Natsume and Out by Natsuo Kirino on my bookshelves so perhaps one of those fit this elusive sense of Japanese.

The synopsis of Some Prefer Nettles intrigued me:

The marriage of Kaname and Misako is disintegrating: whilst seeking passion and fulfilment in the arms of others, they contemplate the humiliation of divorce. Misako's father believes their relationship has been damaged by the influence of a new and alien culture, and so attempts to heal the breach by educating his son-in-law in the time-honoured Japanese traditions of aesthetic and sensual pleasure. The result is an absorbing, chilling conflict between ancient and modern, young and old.

The prose is elegant and to begin with I was caught up in the emotional turmoil of the marriage break-up and the rendering of Japanese culture but, in the end, I was disappointed. The ending was abrupt and inconclusive and the passivity of Kaname and Misako irritated me. The descriptions of Japanese drama (puppet theatre with traditional dolls) were lengthy and over-bearing; I was interested in the outset but the frequent and dry history lessons bored me.

What I have taken from the text though is an ongoing interest in Japanese culture and a desire to read more Japanese literature. Coincidentally, the lovely Nymeth has just informed me that I have won her prize draw for a copy of The Fox Woman by Kij Johnson, which she kindly had dispatched to me today. I am very excited as I have been wanting to read this since reading her review of the text; it could not have come at a better time as I find that after a reading disappointment it is best to jump right back on the horse, in this case the horse is Japanese literature.

Don't get me wrong: Some Prefer Nettles wasn't awful, by any means, but it did not live up to my expectations. As mentioned above I took other things from it, including the fact that I love reading literature in translation and yet can be unconcious of doing so (it surprises me how many different books in translation I have read this month -Icelandic, French, Japanese- almost unintentionally) and I am going to endeavour to read more.

The meditation upon Japanese culture also provided me with a new-found understanding of Angela Carter's short story collection, Fireworks, which I re-read earlier this year. The stories collected in Fireworks are mostly set in Japan, written -and influenced by- Carter's time living there; insight into Japanese tradition and aesthetic from reading Some Prefer Nettles allowed me further appreciation of these stories and the vivid rendering of the culture that Carter achieves. I may even go back sooner than planned and re-read some again, especially "The Loves of Lady Purple" about a life-size Japanese puppet manipulated to life at the necromantical hands of the puppet-master.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Yesterday I watched the film Roman Holiday for the first time. Yesterday I updated my facebook status to "Claire fell in love with Roman Holiday and had her heart broken in the end". Yesterday (well, last night) I finished reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery and had my heart torn out in the end. Yesterday was not a good day for my heart; today it feels battered and bruised.

This is the synopsis of the book: Renee is the concierge of a grand Parisian apartment building, home to members of the great and the good. Over the years she has maintained her carefully constructed persona as someone reliable but totally uncultivated, in keeping, she feels, with society's expectations of what a concierge should be. But beneath this façade lies the real Renée: passionate about culture and the arts, and more knowledgeable in many ways than her employers with their outwardly successful but emotionally void lives. Down in her lodge, apart from weekly visits by her one friend Manuela, Renée lives resigned to her lonely lot with only her cat for company. Meanwhile, several floors up, twelve-year-old Paloma Josse is determined to avoid the pampered and vacuous future laid out for her, and decides to end her life on her thirteenth birthday. But unknown to them both, the sudden death of one of their privileged neighbours will dramatically alter their lives forever.

This is a key quote (and one of my favourites): "Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside, she's covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary - and terribly elegant."

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is not quite what I was expecting: it is deeply philisophical; it has its literary prentensions (its style one I liked); it is charming; it is surprising; it is joyful; it was one of those things of beauty you find in a bleak world; it is a book that will remain on my wishlist as I desire my own copy, instead of a library one; it is a book I highly recommend as it is original and a welcome read.

I would like to point something out about the synopsis (from the book dustjacket): it is not the unexpected death of one of the neighbours that changes the lives of Renée and Paloma irrevocably but the introduction of Kakuro Ozu (who moves into the apartment of the dead neighbour) into their world. Inadvertently, the death of the neighbour affects the lives of the concierge and the suicidal girl. Anyway, I wanted to make the distinction as Kakuro and the joy he brings with him are crucial to the plot.

Read this book. Fleurfisher wrote a review that prompted me to read it here.

There are many disparate things that made me like this book that defy description; suffice to say that it was one of those books read at the right time. I like when there is a place I know in the book, rendering it more realistic to me (specifics mentioned below). I enjoy reading books in translation, without being fully conscious that I am. I was conveniently reading a Japanese book in translation at the same time, convenient because of the influence of Japanese culture on this book. I love when my reading at a particular times comes together ... almost as if it was divined.

"After the rigmarole with the umbrella stand, we went to eat some cakes and drink hot chocolate at Angelina's, a tea room on the Rue de Rivoli ... It's symbolic. When you go to have tea chez Angelina, you are in France, in a world that is wealthy, hierarchical, rational, Cartesian, policed,"

I finish with reference to the above quote because it made me happy to read it as I have sat in Angelina's in Paris drinking hot chocolate; reading the pages set there made me nostalgic for my romantic visit to Paris a few years ago and I want to revisit. I live much closer to Paris now so perhaps I will soon.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

More Library Loot

My name is Paperback_Reader and I have eyes bigger than my book stomach. In all honesty this is a serious situation. I have another pile of books from the library, even though I've yet to finish my last loot and also have a book group book to read for next week and other books piling up around me eyes as well as tons of reviewing to catch up on. Oh well, at least it's not a stress in my life that makes me hyperventilate but something entertaining and joyful.

The latest haul:

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey: A Persephone that I will add to my collection (probably in the Classic format as the cover is exquisite), I've been wanting to read this one for some time and Simon's review (of which there is an image of the lovely endpaper included) intensified that wish so I requested it from library inter-loan. It is a short read so I am hoping to fit it in over the weekend before I plough through the book for book group and the remainder of my previous library loot.

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson: I mentioned this in my last library loot post as I had requested it at that point. Anyway it arrived, I finally wandered around to collect it (I was waiting for the others), and I am looking forward to reading it. Moreover, the back blurb is a quote from Esther Freud (from her foreword), "Eccentric, funny, wise, full of joys, and small adventures. This is a book for life." This quote excites me because I trust Esther Freud and I believe what she writes.

The Call of the Weird: Travels in American Subcultures by Louis Theroux: As probably previously mentioned, I don't read a lot of non-fiction but this is something I am attempting to remedy. I saw this book on a shelf on my fly-by visit to collect books and borrowed it; the boy and I really enjoy watching Louis Theroux's Weird Weekends on BBC iplayer and this is a follow-up book he wrote after the series. I find Louis highly amusing and I am hoping this translates to his writing.

Some Prefer Nettles by Jun'ichiro Tanizaki: I also mentioned this book in the last loot post as it was one I requested. It arrived exceptionally quickly, I collected it promptly, and am currently 2/3 of the way through but thought I would include it in the photograph.

Julie and Julia: 365 Recipes, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen by Julie Powell: The link takes you to the paperback version with a different subtitle but it is the same book, just reformated, and this link gives you a synopsis. This book has been on my wishlist for perhaps the last six months or so and I desperately want to read it before the film (with Meryl Streep and Amy Adams) is released later this year.

The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb: Oh my Goodness, my eyes are definitely bigger than my book stomach because this is a TOME! Now there would be a very good chance that I could finish this between now and its due date in three weeks IF I didn't have the other books to read also; here's hoping I can renew it.

Okay, now back to the reading.

Monday, 18 May 2009

If I Stay

I read If I Stay by Gayle Forman over two sittings on Saturday; I love devouring a book in that way and it is always testimony to the compelling nature of the story. I read this rather enigmatic review of the book by dovegreyreader last Monday, my curiousity was piqued, and I HAD to read the book.

Like dovegreyreader I am loath to divulge anything about it. It is a YA book that is gripping and poignant and highly identifiable: even grey and banal people with no imagination can stretch theirs to imagine how one's life can suddenly -in an instant- change and the grief and loss that comes with that. For the most part this is an uplifting book that wonderfully weaves the present (the crux of the novel's plot occuring over one day) with flashbacks of Mia's -the seventeen year old protagonist- life in admirable seamless stream-of-conscious like connections. It is certainly a thought-provoking read and most definitely a compelling one. I love a good yarn and this is without a doubt one of them.

Read it.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

An Uncommon Read

This is a delightful book but that's not what makes it uncommon; what makes it uncommon AND delightful is its originality and fabulous premise, fabulous in both senses of the word.

Synopsis (courtesy of Waterstones):

"The Uncommon Reader" is none other than HM the Queen who drifts accidentally into reading when her corgis stray into a mobile library parked at Buckingham Palace. She reads widely ( JR Ackerley, Jean Genet, Ivy Compton Burnett and the classics) and intelligently. Her reading naturally changes her world view and her relationship with people like the oleaginous prime minister and his repellent advisers. She comes to question the prescribed order of the world and loses patience with much that she has to do. In short, her reading is subversive. The consequence is, of course, surprising, mildly shocking and very funny.

I read this yesterday in one sitting. Its brevity is not lacking in wit and in amusing reflections upon reading. I wish there had been more about the books HM was reading, as I enjoyed what there was, but that is my only criticism. I admired how Bennett captured the love for reading and the addiction to books (and hilarity) that ensues. I also enjoyed the meditations on the act of reading, on why we do it, and whether it is a common (class-wise) or uncommon act, the double word-play of the title meaning this as well as unique/unusual/unorthodox.

I'll share a few of my favourite lines.

"She'd never taken much interest in reading. She read, of course, one did, but liking books was something she left to other people. It was a hobby and it was in the nature of her job that she didn't have hobbies... No. Hobbies involved preferences and preferences had to be avoided; preferences excluded people."

"Indulged and bad-tempered though they were, the dogs were not unintelligent, so it was not surprising that in a short space of time they came to hate books as the spoil-sports they were (and always had been).

Buy, beg, or borrow this book (I borrowed it from the library but intend to buy it at some point as I would happily re-read). It also makes me want to start reading Proust, I won't tell you why.

One wonders what the Queen would think if she did borrow this book from her mobile library and read it, especially the last shocking line.

Monday, 11 May 2009

Library Loot

Today I decided to combine my favourite activity (reading and all things book-related) with my least favourite (exercise) by walking to my local library. Now, I'm not usually a library goer as I much prefer owning books and having lovely new copies in my hands but economy as it is and my own personal circumstances I'm all for supporting the community (and small booksellers). I only joined last week, in the hope of borrowing this month's book group book, but my hopes were dashed. However, I decided to waste not want not (besides it makes a lovely walk) and as it was I picked up a few books I've been wanting to read, pictured above (very beige, aren't they?!)

The Uncommon Reader
by Alan Bennett: this one has been on my wish-list for some time. I can't wait to read about the Queen's discovery of the mobile library!

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill: I've heard much about this and fancy reading something Gothic and suspenseful before getting my impatient mitts on Sarah Water's The Little Stranger later this month.

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice: seemingly very popular across the blogosphere this book was first brought to my attention by Danielle at A Work in Progress. The beauty of digital word of mouth is that this is a book I would probably have otherwise overlooked in a bookstore as I would be put off by the chick-lit like cover! I am hoping to be pleasantly surprised.

Miss Chopsticks by Xinran: I was researching some potential Eastern literature reads last night and this one caught my eye (as it has in the past); the premise interests me and the library happened to have it on the shelf. I also happen to have another Xinran book, The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices, unread on the shelf.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery: apparently another popular book amongst bloggers (I've seen it reviewed a few times) this was brought to my attention by Fleur Fisher; the title intrigued me and her review prompted me to add it to the wish-list.

I have also began to make good use of the inter-library loan service by requesting a few other titles that were on my wish-list, that I hope will arrive soon.

The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb: I have heard so many good things about this title. A group of friends in the States all received it for Christmas and were reading it at once and commenting on it.

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa: mention of this has frequently been popping up online and the pretty cover definitely caught my attention.

Scottsboro by Ellen Feldman: one of the six shortlisted titles for the Orange Prize for Fiction this year (of which I have so far read 1/6) the synopsis below definitely peaked my interest, especially as it's a true story:

Alabama, 1931. A posse stops a freight train and arrests nine black youths. Their crime: fighting with white boys. Then two white girls emerge from another freight car, and fast as anyone can say Jim Crow, the cry of rape goes up. One of the girls sticks to her story. The other changes her tune, time and time again. A young journalist, whose only connection to the incident is her overheated social conscience, fights to save the nine youths from the electric chair, redeem the girl who repents her lie, and make amends for her own past.

The Wilderness by Samantha Harris: another Orange contender and also appealing.

It’s Jake’s birthday. He is sitting in a small plane, being flown over the landscape that has been the backdrop to his life – his childhood, his marriage, his work, his passions. Now in his early sixties, he isn’t quite the man he used to be. He has lost his wife, his son is in prison and he is about to lose his past. Jake has Alzheimer’s.

As the disease takes hold, Jake struggles to hold on to his personal story, to his memories and identity, but they become increasingly elusive and unreliable. What happened to his daughter? Is she alive or long dead? And why exactly is his son in prison? What went so wrong in his life? There was a cherry tree once and a yellow dress, but what exactly do they mean? As Jake, assisted by ‘poor Eleanor’, a childhood friend with whom, for some unfathomable reason, he seems to be sleeping, fights the inevitable dying of the light, the key events of his life keep changing as he tried to grasp them, and what until recently seemed solid fact is melting into surreal dreams or nightmarish imaginings. Is there anything he’ll be able to salvage from the wreckage? Beauty, perhaps, the memory of love, or nothing at all?

Some Prefer Nettles by Jun'ichiro Tanizaki: of all the Eastern titles I looked at last night, this is the one that was immediately added to be wish-list and is at the top of my to read list when it arrives.

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson: taking pride of place as number one of the 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About (not in order and ongoing), Simon at Stuck in a Book's review of this book made me anxious to read it this summer.

The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: the book I most want to buy but am awaiting the day I have money to do so and the book I am too impatient to wait to read until then. Enough said.

Even though I have a huge pile of books awaiting me (and all of the ones on the shelf), I'm off to read my copy of Marie Claire before I make dinner! I also woefully behind reviewing but please check in over the next few days when I hope to add a few.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

The Blue Fox

I read about The Blue Fox by Sjon last week here and as it is based on Icelandic folklore I thought it would make an interesting read for the folklore section of Carl's Once Upon a Time Challenge so I hunted down a copy.

A surreal novella set in Iceland in the late 19th Century (translated from Icelandic) following two apparently separate stories that intersect in an unexpected way. There is Reverend Baldur who is hunting the elusive blue fox, a rich symbol in Icelandic folklore myth, and the herbalist, Fridrik, and his charge Abba, who has Down's Syndrome, and their fates are bound together. This is an unusual and thought-provoking read, especially upon the subject of Down's Syndrome and technology (how does destroying Down's Syndrome babies at birth in 19th Century Iceland differ from aborting them now?)

The sparseness of the first section, sometimes a page with no more than one line, is symbolic of the Icelandic landscape and the snow upon which the blue fox is hunted (the hunted and the hunter both camouflaged at times). An effective technique, this economy of words upon the page underscores the brevity yet poignancy of the tale. I was also interested in the effect editorially; Kamila Shamsie (or likely her Bloomsbury editors) does something similar in the Hiroshima section of Burnt Shadows, representing the flashing white light, and it is highly effective.

Without a prior knowledge of Icelandic/Norse folklore it was difficult to determine how this tale used it, embodied it, and adapted it, and the little research I attempted didn't get me very far; it is certainly a subject that I would like to read about more, given the chance. From what I did find out, the title holds a double-meaning: on one hand the blue fox is the subject of folk-tales, the offspring of a cat and a fox, but it also means an evil spirit or a sinister person, and both are represented within the novella. The Blue Fox is on the surface a simple, magical, tale but it is curious and has hidden depths, that with further knowledge would be further of re-examination. Furthermore, it is a favourite of Bjork's, which to me is an amusing blurb.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Love Falls

I want to go to Tuscany and swim, eat, bask in the sun with a good book ... if you are going (but read it, if you are not) then I would recommend packing for the journey Love Falls by Esther Freud (great-granddaughter of Sigmund, daughter of Lucian, niece of Sir Clement). The lushness of the landscape is vividly rendered; the oppressive heat is captured and the relief and freedom provided by the cool pool when Lara -the main, and teenage, protagonist- swims, and of the Love falls (a waterfall).

Reading this book, set in Italy's summer (July of 1981, preceding, during and following the wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana) in the same month as reading The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim, evoked the beauty of the setting - of Tuscany, of Florence (where Lara visits for a couple of days) and the Palio di Siena - more thoroughly for me. Von Arnim depicted Springtime Italy wonderfully, so much so that I could imagine the scent of wisteria in the air and sense the onset of Spring here, and Freud manages to render heat, oppression and even the violence of both, of the horse race and of the sexual elements of the novel. My mouth also salivated at the description of the food Ginny, for the most part, makes; the depth and colour of Freud's description is intense.

A bildungsroman, Love Falls, is in essence an exploration of first love and/or holiday romance, but that is simplifying the plot. To tell you more would be to spoil the book but it delves into the themes of maturity, relationships, and loss, as well as love and sexual experience. The romantic setting lends itself to the rendering of these themes and raw emotion. The novel is exceedingly atmospheric and the sub-plot of the passionate and dangerous Palio di Siena intelligently contrasts with Lara's dealings with the fiery and incestuous Willoughby family. I devoured this drama over one day and bask it the shadow it casts.

Now I want to read Hideous Kinky (which came as a free copy with Marie Claire many years ago, but has collected dust, unread), has anybody read it? As further incentive it is also one of the Guardian's 1000 books.

Friday, 1 May 2009

Some House-Keeping

It's time for some house-keeping seeing it's the first of the month and we are now a whole third of the way through 2009.

Number of books read so far in 2009: 37
Number of Guardian 1000 books: 12
Number of Persephones: 5
Number of Virago Modern Classics: 4
Number of short story volumes: 4
Number of Penguin Great Loves: 3
Number of Terry Pratchett books: 3
Number of children's books: 3
Number of re-reads: 3
Number of audio/digital/online books: 3
Number of non-fiction: 3
Number of plays: 1

Above are challenges I am setting myself but as for blogging challenges:

Number of challenges undertaken: 1 (currently enjoying Carl's Once Upon a Time III challenge)
Books read for this challenge: 2 (1 for Quest the Second and 1 for Short Story Weekends - ongoing).

Blogging Awards received: 2
Fleur Fisher kindly presented me with TWO awards last month! These are my first blogging awards so I am very excited. I am beyond thrilled that she thinks my blog is lovely and that I offer something unique to the blogging world.

Here are the rules:

1.Accept the award, post it on your blog together with the name of the person who has granted the award and his or her blog link.
2. Pass the award to 15 other blogs that you’ve newly discovered. Remember to contact the bloggers to let them know they have been chosen for this award.

Now since I am quite new to this I haven't yet discovered 25 bloggers but here are some that I have recently discovered and who I would like to present with awards as I think their blogs are quite lovely and I regularly read what they have to say:

Stuck in a Book

Things Mean a Lot

Kiss a Cloud

In Training for a Heroine

I Luv Words

Each of these blogs offers something special and interest me in different ways. I think I will also present them with the Zombie Chicken Award, which Fleur Fisher gave me.

The blogger who receives this award believes in the Tao of the zombie chicken - excellence, grace and persistence in all situations, even in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. These amazing bloggers regularly produce content so remarkable that their readers would brave a raving pack of zombie chickens just to be able to read their inspiring words. As a recipient of this world-renowned award, you now have the task of passing it on to at least 5 other worthy bloggers. Do not risk the wrath of the zombie chickens by choosing unwisely or not choosing at all…”

Congratulations to them and to me! Also a huge thank you to Fleur Fisher for her generosity and to all blog readers.

Happy reading.