Sunday, 29 September 2013

Literary London

One of my favourite things about living in London is the wealth of opportunities to be a literary nerd. This week I have been able to fully make the most of what London has to offer in the shape of two literary festivals: Archway with Words and the Soho Literary Festival. It has been a mightily good week.

On Tuesday after I finished work, I jumped on the tube to Archway to see Tracy Chevalier in conversation with Booker Prize nominee Charlotte Mendelson. I've previously seen Tracey Chevalier at World Book Night earlier this year and she was wonderful then, even just doing a reading. This time, I feel like I got the full Tracy Chevalier experience. The evening started with a reading from Charlotte's new novel, Almost English. I already had this one on my radar because I remember being impressed by one of her previous novels and this one seems just as good. Well, I suppose it must be if it's on the Booker Prize Longlist. Tracy was reading from her latest, The Last Runaway. I loved the extracts from both novels (totally bought one of them. Cheeky). What I really enjoyed, though, about the entire evening was the conversation between the two writers. It was really interesting hearing their thoughts on their own work, each others work and on writing in general. 

After the discussion had finished their was the chance to get books signed by the authors. Unfortunately, I repeated the 'Sooke Incident' of earlier this year. There I was clutching my (new) book, smiling like a loon, waiting patiently for my turn with Tracy. The whole time I was trying to think of what to say that would sound intelligent but not too pretentious, and show how much I enjoyed her books without literally saying 'I LOVE YOU TRACY'. Did I succeed? Nah, this is me. There I was red-faced, spluttering and shaking slightly and what comes out of my mouth? 'I love it when you talk about Lyme, I grew up near there'. Awkward. Fail. Loser. Etc etc. Perhaps I just shouldn't meet people I admire. Still, she signed my book and now I will treasure it forever.

This afternoon I popped on over to the Soho Theatre to see the wonderfully named 'WAGs of the Third Reich'. Can't get much cooler than that. This was a discussion panel made up of Meike Ziervogal (who has just published Magda - totally bought that), Anne Sebba, Jane Thynne and Rachel Johnson (not going to lie, I was totally unimpressed by Rachel). The panel was chaired by Anne Sebba and focused on a discussion of the women of the Third Reich though it did keep coming back to Magda Goebbels (woman had issues). I was completely blown away by some of the facts that were shared but also by each author's reasoning behind writing a work of fiction about such an intense and controversial subject. Meike's German heritage made her a particularly interesting participant in the discussion and I definitely found what she had to say the most interesting. 

To be completely honest, whilst the subject of this panel was immensely interesting, I was frequently distracted by the group dynamics on stage. At times there was a overwhelming sense of competition between a couple of the speakers which surprised me no end. Anyway, that just added an interesting extra layer to the event.

Did I say I love London already? To be able to attend these two literary events in one week has been a wonderful experience (and means my hours of scouring Time Out London can pay off). However, there is a slight downside to literary London...I buy ALL THE BOOKS. This week I have bought myself 7 books. And I'm meant to be cutting down! Oh heck. 

Down the Rabbit Hold by Juan Pablo Villalobos
The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft
An Answer to the Questions 'What is Enlightenment?' by Emmanuel Kant
Magda by Mieke Ziervogal
War Reporter by Dan O'Brien (poetry)
The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier

I also somehow managed to get two Books Are My Bag bags...well, books definitely are my bag.


Thursday, 26 September 2013

Blog Tour: To the Fair Land

To the Fair Land
Lucienne Boyce

'The ocean hides many things.'

When I was asked to participate in this blog tour I had to take a minute before saying yes whilst I recovered from a moment of sheer, unadulterated enthusiasm. Know why? Lucienne Boyce is a bit of an expert on the Suffrage Movement and, more specifically the Suffrage Movement in Bristol. So, seeing that I wrote a 20,000 word dissertation on those lovely ladies I had already come across Lucienne before hearing about this novel. It was a case of 'she's written a novel too? Damn, this lady is cool'. Obviously I then managed to recover myself, agree to join the tour and start reading the book all the while holding in this excitable being in side of me. I like to think I succeeded. Until I started reading, of course.

To the Fair Land is set in the late 18th century and follows the protagonist, Ben Dearlove (THAT NAME), as he tries to discover the truth about a voyage taken by a ship called Miranda. The whole search is sparked by the publication of an anonymous work of fiction about a newly discovered, apparently make-believe, land across the ocean. So follows some excellent literary intrigue, a jail term, a murder, a secret, a mystery and a gigantic (and surprising) revelation. That enough to whet your appetite? It certainly should be.

I thoroughly enjoyed To the Fair Land. Whilst quite long, it was suspenseful enough to keep me turning the pages and well written enough to make me savour each page. The descriptions of the fair land and the ocean voyage, written as part of the mysterious book, were completely wonderful and reminded me of various other works of fiction from the 19th/early 20th century like Sylvia Townsend Warner's Mr Fortune's Maggot. 

'With the stars twinkling through the masts, and the moonlight turning the dark wood to silver, the ship would sail and sail and sail into the night, under the stars and black sky, until the black turns to grey and the sky is pearl white and soft pink and pale yellow, and rainbows dance in the white foam around her prow.'

I think one of the main strengths of the novel is its use of multiple perspectives. Although Ben is kind of the glue that keeps it all together, we go back and forth through time and hear parts of the story from other mouths. I do love a book with layers and this book has many interweaving, overlapping and intriguing layers to work through until the climactic scene/revelation is reached.  I must say, without giving away any spoilers, Boyce completely had me with the twist. I did not see that coming. Not only am I impressed by the way the mystery is hidden and then revealed, but I am also impressed by the nature of the mystery. It's a brave one but one that works very well. 

Ben, though a bit of a wet weekend at times, is a thoroughly likeable character of the sort that you just have to root for until the end. The book has romance, adventure, mystery and, at it's centre, an exciting voyage across the world, through history and through the human mind. 

Visit Lucienne's website to explore the rest of the tour.


Sunday, 22 September 2013

Banned books week

This morning I was merrily browsing various lists of banned and challenged books as Banned Books Week starts today. I was scrolling through and shaking my head at the stupidity of folk when I came across Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms. Some of you may remember that this is my latest read for the Classics Spin and I actually just finished it a couple of days ago. So imagine my shock and general consternation when I come across it on The Stylist's list of 50 books that were banned. And why was it banned? Sexual frankness. I mean, COME ON. So what Hem writes about a soldier that knocks up a Scottish VAD. They love each other, they live for each other, who the hell cares that they had sneaky relations in a hospital bed and then had a baby out of wedlock. That's life, chaps, best get used to it.

ANYWAY. Once I'd recovered from that discovery I continued to look into book banning. I got a little angry, a little shocked but wound up just having a good old laugh at the wannabe censors in the world. Personally, I don't see the point. There are a lot of things that I don't like. Death and sickness being perfect examples. But if we were to censor shit like that, how on earth would we learn about anything? How would we even function in the world if we hid from facts of life? There are plenty of books that I don't want to read either because of what they represent or just the content but I would never try and control another individual's reading. Can you tell I'm a big believer in choice?!

If you fancy a chuckle, check out this list from the ALA of frequently banned books. Also, Banned Books Week has come at a particularly topical time as people in the US are trying to ban Eleanor and Park for typically stupid reasons. This article over at Book Riot is brilliant on the E&P controversy.

If you don't like the book, don't read it. Simple, yes? Live your life in blissful ignorance but don't ruin it for everyone else.

To put my two fingers up to the book banners I am going to read Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse- Five this week. This 1969 war novel was banned due to the overuse of profanities, scenes of a sexual nature (seriously, you'd think these people forget that sex is universal. In fact, I bet they're all darn filthy and trying to hide it), anti-Christian themes and homosexuality. So it goes...


Tuesday, 17 September 2013

The Moonstone Read-a-Long #readWILKIE

I've been chatting away for a while about doing a Wilkie-based read-a-long so now I am actually going to do it. I am a big (massive) fan of Wilkie Collins. The Woman in White? One of the best books ever. But I have yet to read The Moonstone which has been called the first detective novel in the English Language. What better time to read a Wilkie than November? It's dark and chilly and the nights are long - perfect for snuggling up with a Wilkie mystery.

About The Moonstone (From Penguin):
"The Moonstone, a yellow diamond looted from an Indian temple and believed to bring bad luck to its owner, is bequeathed to Rachel Verinder on her eighteenth birthday. That very night the priceless stone is stolen again and when Sergeant Cuff is brought in to investigate the crime, he soon realizes that no one in Rachel’s household is above suspicion. Hailed by T. S. Eliot as ‘the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels’, The Moonstone is a marvellously taut and intricate tale of mystery, in which facts and memory can prove treacherous and not everyone is as they first appear."

The Read-a-Long:

The event will last for the month of November. It's very low pressure, I'm only planning on doing a mid-way checkpoint style post at some point during the weekend of the 16th and then a review at the end of the month. But I will be chatting away on twitter throughout!

The Schedule:

Start reading (!): 1st November
Mid-way point check-in: 16th/17th November
Wrap Up/Review: 30th November

Keep up with the Wilkie love on twitter (we all know it's my second home) using the hashtag #readWilkie

If you fancy joining in there is a linky below. Feel free to use the picture on your blog - spread the word!


Monday, 16 September 2013

Review: The Crane Wife

The Crane Wife
Patrick Ness

'I do not like talking about myself so much. Let it be enough that I have lived and changed and been changed. Just like everyone else.'

Patrick Ness has this really impressive skill for blending fantasy and reality and making us feel like it is all reality. The elements of fantasy in both of his novels that I've read have been so deeply entrenched in an exploration of humanity it becomes hard to separate the two. That is no bad thing. I fell in love with A Monster Calls (at least, I did when I'd stopped sobbing uncontrollably) and now I have fallen in love with The Crane Wife. I can't deny there are a few faults but it is such a kind, hopeful and forgiving book that I can let them slide quite easily.

One night George Duncan is woken by a keening. A white crane has fallen into his garden with an arrow through it's wing. George, a decent, kind and good man, helps the crane by removing the arrow. The next day the enigmatic Kumiko walks into his shop and so starts a 'magical' relationship and the story...

This a novel made up of multiple layers. George's story is one, his daughter Amanda's is another and the story of the crane wife makes up a third. Ness has a talent for blending these stories whilst still keeping them separate until they must inevitably collide. Which they do. And it is wonderful and sad and restorative. Very early in the novel the concept of telling stories is introduced as an incident from George's childhood is narrated. Ness creates an image of a story as a living thing, something that is moulded by each person's place within or without the story. I loved how he integrated the idea that a story is different depending on who tells it, everyone has their own version of the same event. This is how the novel works. Kumiko is the centre (I think), she is the story that everyone has a different version of.

'There were as many truths - overlapping, stewed together - as there were tellers. The truth mattered less than the story's life. A story forgotten died. A story remembered not only lived, but grew.'

George was one of those characters I could see myself falling for in real life. He is a good man but, like all good men, makes mistakes. He learns from these mistakes though and becomes a better man. That's where the whole element of forgiveness comes into the novel. After the climactic event there is a sense of everything having been forgiven. It feels like being patted on the back by a novel and being told 'its all OK now'. Odd, but powerful.

I would recommend this novel for its quiet power and the subtle high-five it gives for all the good that does reside in humanity. I can't resist now moving onto the Chaos Walking trilogy and his newest More Than This (if it's out?). Sign me up for another Patrick Ness sob-fest.


Friday, 13 September 2013

Review: May We Be Forgiven

May We Be Forgiven
A M Homes

Women's Prize for Fiction winner

'As much as you think you know somebody, there are some things that one never knows.'

Somehow I managed to go from one story of forgiveness (The Crane Wife) to another. Forgiveness seems to be the order of the day. But it would be impossible to compare the treatment of the topic in these two startlingly different novels. May We Be Forgiven is dark, it's humorous, it verges on being bleak but ultimately I want to call it a feel-good book. Controversial? Perhaps, but I'm sticking with it.

When Harold and his brother's wife share an adulterous kiss at thanksgiving they prompt a chain of unexpected events. Harold and his brother, George, are both forced into new lives, new roles and new situations through which they must seek absolution.

I was sceptical about this novel. Don't ask why, sometimes I just take a dislike to a book without having any valid reason. Nevertheless, I had fully retracted my scepticism by the time I was about 50 pages in. This book is good. Scary good. Homes gave me some Deep Thoughts and wrote characters that I have very strong feelings for (both positive and negative) and the combination of these with the story gave me one of those wow/gobsmacked moments as I finished the last page. 

George and Harold are both horrible people. George particularly, but Harold is so subtly horrible that you almost miss it in the shadow of George's outright murderous attitude. I did not like Harold, I thought he was manipulative, angry, obsessive and destructive. Even as the novel progresses and he seemed to grow as a person I still disliked him and found it increasingly amusing how many unfortunate events seemed to befall him. Does that make me as bad as him? Arguably. Whether I like him or not, he has this wonderful knack of bringing people together. By the time Cy and Madeline come into the story and after the quietly cataclysmic trip to South Africa I was convinced that forgiveness is possible, even for people I doubted could deserve it. Forgiveness is acceptance in this novel. It is being able to look beyond all the crap that happens in the past and know that people, your family, your friends still accept who you are. I even forgave Harold in the end.

I loved the deadpan narration and the fact that they're all a little mad. I loved the absurdity of Harold's life. I loved the depth of emotion underneath the black comedy. I loved the ultimate message about family and forgiveness. I loved Nate and Ashley. I loved Harold's mother. I loved the writing that was occasionally so poetic it jumped off the page and gave me a shock. I loved the way the ending mirrors the beginning but with such different results. I loved Tessie. I loved the cat. I loved the historical tidbits about Nixon. Basically, I loved this book.

Fancy a black comedy about the American Dream and all-American family? Go for this. It does what it says on the tin but surprises you with some feel-good chills that remind you that absolution is possible.


Thursday, 12 September 2013

Hi there, (mid) September!

It's mid September already? Seriously, I blink and time has moved on a few days. SLOW DOWN, TIME! I know I say this every month but, again, another month has been and gone without so much as a warning. August was busy, as usual. I'm feeling completely settled in London now which is awesome and completely settled in my job which is even more awesome. August had some serious ups and downs (too many downs for my taste) but London is a wonderful distraction. I've been to new restaurants, the theatre, and museums. I have made some new traditions (involving the library and falafel. Yeh, you heard me.), and made some new friends. I miss Somerset pooch, my parents and the open spaces, at least, but I'm in no rush to go back. Sounds a bit mean actually but I've got everything I need right here.

August was another good month for reading, mostly because of Bout of Books 8.0 and Austen in August. Both events were amazingly literary and came at the perfect time. I read 7 books in August taking my year to date total up to 55. Not bad, not bad at all. Here is what I read:

49. Lamb by Bonnie Nadzam
50. Ransom by David Malouf
51. The Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth
52. The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence
53. Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
54. Emma by Jane Austen
55. Fifty Shades of Feminism (anthology)

Not a single one was a let down. In fact, each one was completely wonderful and I know that if I re-read my reviews they'd all be gushing.

Obviously I bought some books. Here is a bit of a selection from the South Bank Book Market and a discount bookstore near Waterloo station. Two non-fiction and three very exciting novels. The Lighthouse Stevensons was a bought on a bit of a whim but I think it could be one of the most interesting reads. It's a non-fiction book about Robert Louis Stevenson's family and their construction of lighthouses. I read Jeanette Winterson's Lighthousekeeping this year and there is a lot in there about Stevenson and lighthouses so I just couldn't resist finding out more. And you know how much I love lighthouses!

I have no reading plans for September apart from to read lots and enjoy reading. Doing pretty well on that so far...

I hope everyone had a great August and is having a great September so far!

Another amazing sunset from my balcony.

I went here for a press night (awesome).

There was lots of this in August.


Saturday, 7 September 2013

Non-Fiction Review: Fifty Shades of Feminism

Fifty Shades of Feminism
eds. Lisa Appignanesi, Rachel Holmes and Susie Orbach

'The greatest prize I got in the lottery of life was freedom to make my own errors and my own sadnesses instead of the ones enforced upon me.'

It's really hard to know where to even start with this. Really hard. I first came across Fifty Shades of Feminism when Virago were running a competition to find out what feminism meant to under twenty-fives and I was immediately interested. Feminism? A title that rips off a horrendously popular and potentially anti-feminist book? I was all over it. I ordered it when it was first released, devoured about half and then decided to take my time with the rest. You know, stew over the ideas, consider my own position and all that. Well, I've finished taking my time and I am in awe.

The first half of the anthology I read in the company of my (female) pooch. Unfortunately (for her) she was the only female in the vicinity so we spent many a minute sharing deep looks and she had to listen to many an hour filled with my giggles, fist-pumps, shouts in agreement and, occasionally, my tears. I am convinced she was looking at me with nothing but a proud sense of female solidarity in her eyes. 

Fifty Shades of Feminism is an anthology of new writing from women who 'think, who act, who inspire - in technicolour'. It is a book full of reflections about what being a woman means to each writer and what feminism means (it varies quite considerably). 

Each essay is interesting, powerful, persuasive and wildly different. Some changed my opinions, for example the distinctions Naomi Alderman makes between sexism in the gaming world and the publishing world were very surprising and really made me consider the difference between obvious in-your-face sexism and the sexism that goes on behind the scenes in the most underhand fashions. I thought I knew which one was more destructive but have since changed my mind. 

Some pieces are angry, some comical, some emotive and some intellectual. I loved every one. I also loved the quotes interspersed throughout from biggie feminists/amazing women like Virginia Woolf, Kate Millet, Simone de Beauvoir, Angela Carter and bell hooks. 

My favourite out of the entire collection is, in fact, Alice Stride's 'Saving the Bush'. Alice was the winner of Virago's competition and her essay is the most down-to-earth, relatable (and funny for it), and eye-opening of the lot. Stride writes from her position as Big Sister and remarks on the changes between her generation and her sister's. I think why I found it so powerful is that I have noticed the same changes in the way society moulds teenage girls. When I was 15 I wore my brother's tatty and ripped Blink 182 hoodie non-stop, I didn't know how to apply make-up and had a mass of unbrushed, frizzy, brown hair atop my head. I didn't care. And neither did my friends. I think things are very different now, as Stride argues. 

'That's what feminism means to me...It means, put simply, saving the bush.'

Fifty Shades of Feminism is readable and re-readable. I have no doubt that my interpretation and reaction to each essay will change with every reading and I hope it does. For now, I'll go back to my pooch, embrace her, perhaps shed a tear or two, and consider what feminism means to me.

'This [multi-tasking] is a biological cop-out; I doubt that any man would have trouble multi-tasking at, say, an orgy.'


Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Review: Ransom by David Malouf

David Malouf

Way-back-when, I read The Lost Books of the Odyssey which managed to re-ignite by obsession with the Trojan War/The Iliad/The Odyssey. When I was doing some google-ing around the book I stumbled across this, Ransom by David Malouf. I studied one of Malouf's novels at uni and actually had fond memories of it (unusually) so I thought, awesome, a book by a decent author all about Troy, WIN. Plus there is a donkey on the cover (sorry it's hidden, it is a cutie). I did think Ransom might languish lost and forgotten on my wishlist until I found myself a copy in The Strand bookshop in NYC (serendipity, much?). Clearly I very quickly snapped it up, did a slight jig around the store and sashayed to the till to pay for my brilliant find. And then, after all that excitement, I read it. WOW, just WOW. Dave, you've done it again. The characters! The writing (it's a novel that truly deserves the oft-overused description 'lyrical')! The Trojan nerdiness! This book just has it all.

Malouf focuses on the story of Priam going into the Greek camp to ransom his son Hector's body from Achilles. It is a short, meandering novel that depicts Priam's decision making process, the journey to the camp with Somax the driver, and Achilles's unexpected reaction. The familiar Troy stuff is all there but Malouf goes deeper into Priam's head and explores the relationship between father and (dead) son.

The relationship between Priam and Somax, the carter employed to drive him into the Greek camp, is poignant to the point of sadness. The whole novel is formed around father/son relationships and Somax without doubt becomes a father figure for Priam. Even though Priam is king and Somax is a poor man who goes into the market looking for work everyday, Priam slips very quickly into a childlike role with Somax guiding him through the world outside of the monarchy. There is a moment where they stop for a rest and Somax persuades Priam to dip his feet in the stream that is just so touching. I think their relationship is definitely the focus of the novel, above even the relationship between Priam and his dead son, Hector. It's one of those 'light at the end of the tunnel' type friendships in that, through each other, Priam and Somax experience different worlds that give them a glimpse of hope and happiness for the future (although we obviously know that a happy future is not on the cards).

If you're any Odyssey geek then all I can say is you will regret not reading this. It is wonderful. In fact, even if you're not a Troy nerd, read it because I'm pretty certain you'll love it too.


Monday, 2 September 2013

Classics Club List Update

I just couldn't resist...I've extended my CC List. I've been powering through the classics since I first joined the club at the beginning of the year so I thought, well, why not add more?! In eight months I have read 10 of my classics (wowzer) so I've added another 10 or so and my list now stands at 66 books. I wonder how long it will take for me to add more... 

My next two reads are already planned: A Farewell to Arms for the CC Spin and a Wilkie for an event I am planning. SO EXCITING. Hemo and Wilkie = my boys.

I'm also working on another list, still classics orientated but not really part of the Classics Club, which will include all the war writing I still want to read or feel the need to re-read. I'm busy compiling but, as usual, I just keep stumbling across more and more. If anyone has a recommendations for war writing, please share! 

So here is The List if you fancy checking out my additions.

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