Wednesday, 30 October 2013

On DNF-ing

Books are pretty impressive things. They have the power to considerably influence my emotional state, they have the power to make me forget reality (even if momentarily), and they have the power to dispel loneliness. I never can feel lonely when I have a book in my hands. It is safe to say that I rely on books quite heavily for comfort as well as entertainment which only serves to intensify the feeling of disappointment when a book does not live up to expectations. 

I rarely set aside books without finishing them - I do not DNF lightly. So when I do, I usually have rather strong feelings about it. This year, as far as I can recall, I have only set aside two novels. The first was Nicola Barker's The Burley Cross Postbox Theft. I had such high hopes for this - it is epistolary and about countryside village life, what's not to love? Apparently not much. I found the writing cliched and unfunny so I made the executive decision to return it to the library unread, comforting myself with the idea that there are plenty more fish in the sea.

Several weeks ago now, during one of my lunchtime expeditions to the Waterstones on Gower Street (heaven, I tell you), I treated myself to John Boyne's The Absolutist. Pegged as the new Birdsong, the cover is emblazoned with trench imagery with a very prominent sticker just emphasising again that it is the new Birdsong (damn you, clever marketing strategies). I am a sucker for Birdsong comparisons and trench imagery (I must be the marketer's idea of a dream audience). Obviously the visuals were not the only element that made me march up to the till and part so willingly with my money. Oh no, an intriguing blurb and opening page had something to do with it too. And, of course, Boyne's reputation. Whilst I have not read The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas I have heard its praises sung enough to warrant Boyne's place in the 'reputed writer' category in my head. Clearly fate was against me on that dingy (no doubt) day and all these factors converged to point me towards the till with The Absolutist in hand. Ah life, you cruel mistress.

Unusually, I began to read The Absolutist quite soon after purchasing it. I guess I was that excited. And  what was I to discover? Oh look - battlefield secrets! Shell shock! Homoeroticism! Conscientious Objectors! A relationship between two soldiers that was bound to turn into more than what it seemed! I'm sorry, John, but there is recycling tropes and then there is RECYCLING TROPES. The Absolutist was definitely heading towards the latter. I have no doubt that I was probably harsh in my judgements, as I am generally inclined to be when it comes to contemporary war stories. I'm not going to go into it because I've not finished it therefore I couldn't possibly review it. However, I will say that I have a suspicion that I could predict what comes next in the book. I like to think I'd be surprised but, for now at least, I'm not willing to find out.

Perhaps there is a time and a place in your life for reading certain books, no matter how excited you are to read them then and there. And perhaps (I hope) this is the case with these two novels I set aside. Considering how strongly I feel about books, feeling like I have been let down by a less than great book can effect my mood way more than it probably should. It's almost on par to being stood up  by a friend or, heaven forbid, by a date. This is in deep, emotional territory. Rather than writing these two novels off entirely, then, I am going to put them aside until such a time as I may be ready to read them. And if that time comes and I still can't get through them then I think it's fair to move on to the next one.

What are your thoughts on not finishing books? Are there too many books out there to struggle along with the disappointing ones? Have you read either of these - if so, am I being too judgemental? I'd love to hear your thoughts.


Monday, 28 October 2013

At the moment I am...

Reading... The War with the Newts by Karel Capek. This is an unusual choice for me but I am really, oddly, enjoying it. I am reading it for a book club I have recently joined that reads only post-apocalyptic fiction (how could I not join?!) and I will be attending the meeting and discussing this one tomorrow evening. I'll share my thoughts (and Bookclub experiences) with you all at some point, no doubt. This one is actually perfect for the Translation Challenge too!

Writing... CV and application forms...oh joy.

Listening to... My iPod on shuffle. I adore doing this, I always end up rediscovering some serious gems. Tonight Macklemore's Thrift Shop came on at just the perfect moment to put a giant smile on my face. That song always gives me the half-marathon warm fuzzies.
Looking forward to... New challenges. Recently I've had a number if people tell me (in not quite such clear terms) that I am in a rut. After some thought I am inclined to agree so I have been actively looking for ways to make small changes to my life. Step one is getting back into a theatre and I actually have a trial volunteer shift this week (fingers crossed) so maybe, just maybe, I can start climbing my way out of this rut.

I am also looking forward to #readWilkie which starts on Friday. And by looking forward I obviously mean obsessively checking the date, moving the book closer to my bed inch by inch, and flipping through the pages on a daily basis as I get ready to get my fill of Wilkie. Me, excited? What on earth gave you that idea?! 
Hankering for... Some serious book browsing (shopping). I feel that several members of the fam will be getting books for Christmas this year.


Saturday, 26 October 2013

A couple of cheeky purchases

Just a quickie today to share a couple of new buys I made this week. I went over to Spitalfields market on Wednesday and they had two of THE most amazing book stalls selling cheap, beautiful, nerd-enticing books. I was restrained, as you can see from the photo.

The Diary of Samuel Pepys - I remember reading bits of this during history lessons at school and ever since I have wanted to read it in its entirety. Now I can! I love that it is small, fabric bound and red. Beautiful.

The Moon and Sixpence by W Somerset Maugham - this is on my Classics Club list and I just couldn't not buy this penguin edition.

From the final three you can clearly see that I harbour a secret love of the green Virago Modern Classics. I love Virago - for it's name and for the books it publishes.

The Sleeping Beauty by Elizabeth Taylor - I've never read anything by ET but I have heard she is wonderful so I think it's time to give her a go.

Mary Olivier: A Life by May Sinclair - I adore May Sinclair and I have read or own a fair number of her works. I'm looking forward to seeing how this one compares.

The Ante-Room by Kate O'Brien - I may be making a huge faux pas here but I have never heard of Kate O'Brien. I didn't think I could walk away without buying this though as she clearly is a figure of some importance - this one stall had about three of her novels. It has an interesting premise so I am interested to see what O'Brien has to offer.

Let me know if you've read any of these - I'd love to know what I'm getting myself in to.


Thursday, 24 October 2013

Mini Classics Club Reviews

Around the end of September/beginning of October I was reading. Lots. But I was having a bit of a dry spell when it came to writing about what I was reading. As a result of that I've got a bit of a backlog and with that backlog comes a bit of memory loss hence the mini reviews.

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

After my brief affair with Anna Karenina in the summer I had a sudden urge to delve into the lives of other suicidal, over-sexed and under-appreciated women. Enter, Madame Bovary. The feminist in me had a whale of a time reading this novel. As with AK I loved and hated Emma in equal measure although her selfishness far outweighs any element of selfishness in AK's characters. I whizzed through the book just to find out what happens but I am already planning a re-read just to appreciate the language. Flaubert's vocabulary is amazing (I wonder how it is in French?!). On every other page I came across a new word (thank goodness for the dictionary app on my phone) which made it an enjoyable experience on many levels. 

Madame Bovary has been yet another win for the Classics Club as it has been yet another from my list that I have adored. It is melancholy and generally without any hope (particularly at the end) but there is something about the quiet beauty of the language that really captivated me. 

'Oh yes, I can imagine.'
'I doubt if you can. You're not a woman.'

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

I decided to read this because of banned books week. I have a couple of banned books on my CC list and it was a toss up between this and Lolita but I went for this because, even though it is one of the recent additions to my list, I have wanted to read it for (like) EVER. It was a quick and entertaining read and I often shook my head at the sheer stupidity of anyone who would want to censor it. Seriously, I've never read a book that has a more brilliant and hopeful concept of death (that though we may die, somewhere in time we are still living). 

It is a very darkly funny book but also a sad one. Although the war is slightly disguised by the science fiction it is a revealing and distressing representation of the destruction of Dresden. I really would highly recommend this book both for it's sci-fi humour and the picture of war. I can also see now why so many people have 'so it goes' tattooed on their bodies. 

'Well, here we are, Mr Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.'

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Wednesday, 23 October 2013

A new challenge (that isn't really a challenge)...

You may notice I have a new tab at the top of the page called 'War Novels'. This page does exactly what it says on the tin -  it lists all the war novels I either want to read or re-read. I think everyone knows by now that I have a tendency to get a little too excited when it comes to war writing. Yet having said that my knowledge is very one sided having focused so much on the female side of things. So I decided it was about time I actually conquered the books/plays/poetry I have not yet read. 

But I need your help! This list is a work in progress and mostly focuses on WW1 and, even though it is my jam, I definitely need to broaden my horizons. That means I need recommendations to add to the list and I would be very grateful for any you could throw my way.

Have you read any good war books recently? Discovered any poets? Read or seen any plays? Seriously guys, shower me with your recommendations!


Monday, 21 October 2013

At the moment I am...

Reading...Havisham by Ronald Frame. I was happily and somewhat guiltily perusing the kindle store on friday night when I came across Havisham at a bargain price. I've talked about this before and I know I've left excitable comments on several other blogs whenever this book is mentioned so I couldn't really resist. Plus it seems to have been exactly what I needed to get through a mini slump. Always a winner.

Writing...lots of reviews! I've gotten so behind recently and I'm trying to get back on track.

Listening to...Panic at the Disco's new album. Repeatedly. It's different but I love it.

Looking forward to...this week. My sister and I have both got the week off work so we have planned a brilliant itinery of london things to do. And we're heading back to Somerset at the weekend. It's going to be a goodun.

Hankering for...a really good run. No doubt this will happen at the weekend when I'm reunited with my running partner (my mother)! 

What are your plans for this week? Reading anything good at the moment?


Sunday, 20 October 2013

A Tale of Two Cities Readalong

What better way to follow a month of Wilkie than with a month of Dickens? Wilkie and Charles were ever such good chums and even collaborated on several amazing projects so to me it makes perfect sense to follow The Moonstone with A Tale of Two Cities. I would like to therefore thank Bex at An Armchair by the Sea for facilitating this with her December readalong of A Tale of Two Cities

Before reading Great Expectations at uni I was a Dickens hater. For no apparent reason I took it upon myself to never read anything by him because (I quote my own opinion here) 'he uses far too many words when one will do the trick just as well'. Suffice to say, I'm over that now. Joe Gargery forced me out of my grumpy ways and into the intricate and mind blowing world of Dickens's prose. Thanks, Joe. Anyway, since being shown the error of my ways I have barely dipped my toe into the waters of Dickens's work. I've read David Copperfield (loved) and Edwin Drood (loved) and attempted to read Oliver Twist (got bored half way through) but I'm determined to tackle more. I'm thoroughly looking forward to getting stuck into A Tale of Two Cities with Bex and everyone else joining in with the readalong.

Who else is going to read some Dickens in December?


Friday, 18 October 2013

Review: Bellman and Black

Bellman and Black
Diane Setterfield

'Rooks are made of thought and memory. They know everything and they do not forget.'

Ok, so I think everyone and their dog has read or at least heard good things about Diane Setterfield's debut, The Thirteenth Tale. It was a twisty and chilling book about books that I completely adored (and I'm more than a little excited for the adaptation). Because of that earlier experience I was ridonkulously excited to receive a copy of this to review from NetGalley. Seriously, a squeal escaped these lips. But oh Diane, really Diane, this is your follow up? It actually pains me to say it but I did not enjoy this book *shakes head despondently*.  

As a child William Bellman takes a pop at a rook and catches it right on target, killing it instantly. Being young, naive and innocent, William does not even consider how his actions could have repercussions for the rest of his life. As a young man he lives a charmed life until a series of tragedies and the appearance of a mysterious man in black. It is in the wake of this appearance that the business 'Bellman and Black' is created. 

This book is pegged as a ghost story. This is my first problem with it - though there are a ton of deaths (seriously, not sure many people survive this novel), the tension needed to make it truly a ghost story is never quite there. And if someone could point out the climax for me, that would be wonderful because I think I completely missed it. The prologue sets the story up so well, particularly the omnipresence of the rooks, but unfortunately what came after just missed the mark.

Having said that, the writing in this novel is completely mind-blowingly awesome at points. This alone makes up for the lack of tension and uninteresting plot. I loved how there seemed to be two voices - the narrator of Bellman's story and this other separate and objective voice commenting on the history and language of the rooks. Whether intended or not, I thought this was successful. Plus, I found all the little knowledge tidbits about rooks really interesting. I can't say I knew that much about the birds (not much of a surprise) but I did enjoy learning about the various collective nouns and superstitions. Thanks for the lesson, Diane.

Basically, Bellman and Black was a let down. But I will not be put off because the writing alone made it an enjoyable reading experience. I look forward to whatever Diane Setterfield comes up with next. I just hope it's a little more exciting. 

'There are numerous collective nouns for rooks. In some parts people say a storytelling of rooks.'

I received my copy of Bellman and Black from the publisher via NetGalley.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Review: The Drake Equation

The Drake Equation
Heather Walsh

'She's a Democrat, he's a Republican...'

You know when you start reading a book and you're not convinced it's going to turn into anything special and then BAM it gets good? Yes, that was this book. I wondered if the American setting might confuse me (seriously, those politics go way over my head) but I'm pleased I judged this book by it's cover (have you seen how gorgeous it is?!).

Emily is a Democrat working for an environmental non-profit and Robert is a Republican working PR for an SUV motor company. Match made in heaven? I think not. Nonetheless, they fall hopelessly for each other but face challenges that threaten to ruin their made-for-each-other status. 

The first thing I loved about this book was the fact that the majority was dialogue-centric. All this dialogue has the intriguing effect of making you feel like you're there on that date with Emily and Robert. I found myself thinking of things I would ask Robert because, let's face it, he seems delightful. It's not all that often that I adore a dialogue heavy book so much but here it works so well. We experience the process of falling in love and getting to know the characters. I liked it. It made for some excellent character development too.

As the description suggests it is an American politics heavy book which, as a Brit, I often struggled to comprehend but the basics surrounding the environment were interesting and it was wonderfully used to create tension (of the normal kind and the sexual kind) between the two main characters.

'It was more like standing on a platform and watching a train slowly pull away.'

I have noticed that many contemporary novels use references to Jane Eyre to develop their characters and to create links between characters. Whilst this is verging on cliche nowadays I cannot deny that it does give me the warm fuzzies. As a lover of Jane Eyre it does make me happy to see the universal nature of the book's themes demonstrated to be universal. If that makes sense. The book also includes references to art, astronomy, psychology and poetry (Dover Beach is quoted which also made me go all fuzzy).

This book is a quiet sort of romance. It is adult and realistic and Emily and Robert are real people. They're plagued by normal troubles and worries and I think it has a quiet power because of that. The Drake Equation is thankfully not a explosive romance fantasy but a subtle and heartfelt love story. And for that reason, I loved it.

Also, this little Star Wars reference (intended or not) I loved:

'I love you, Emily.' She smiled. 'I know.'

Thank you to the author for providing with a copy to review. The novel was launched today, October 10th.


Friday, 4 October 2013

Classics Spin #3: The Hemingway Spin

I have so far participated in every Classics Club Spin and it is fair to say that I have not been let down yet (not that I am expecting to be let down by a classic but, you know, it happens). For each spin I have had a classic that has surprised me and won me over with its writing, themes and general awesomeness. First off was a Dickens which was, well, was grand. Then I had the chunky Anna Karenina that had me laughing, sobbing and falling in love with the Russians. And then came Hem. What can I say? He knocked my socks off.

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway was my challenge for spin number 3. It came in on my 'please, please' list so I was already completely stoked to read it. I didn't think I could get any more excited until I opened the first page and was hit by the Hem. HIS WRITING! Seriously, I am in love with it. It is so sparse, so unforgiving, so blunt and so revealing. I just gobbled it all up. Oddly, I disliked The Sun Also Rises when it read it at uni but I am really considering a re-read because I wonder if my own likes and dislikes when it comes to writing have changed or evolved or matured (whatever you want to call it). Perhaps I've hit that point in my reading that all the things I used to find irritating, I am now able to well and truly admire. Perhaps. I'm still not going to give Pamela another go.

A Farewell to Arms is split into five parts and follows the war story of an American ambulance officer through his service for the Italian army, injury, romance with a Scottish VAD and life through the war. As a lover of war writing I found these aspects particularly interesting. The relationships between the men, the attitude towards sex and women, the attitude towards fighting were all themes I've come across before and there was nothing really new there (not a criticism, by the way). It is a realistic war novel and I think this is one of the reasons it was banned because of the way it represents the Italian retreat. I love a bit of realism. War as a philosophy is discussed frequently (in between drinks) and I found these dialogues most enlightening. It is a thoroughly anti-war novel but it does not just fall into 'war is bad, peace is good' territory. It actually argues the case and demonstrates through the arguments and through the actions that 'there is nothing worse than war'.

The relationship between Catherine and Frederic is, ummm, a tad irritating. Or rather, she is irritating. I think Hemingway has this 'standard' female character that he rolls out for his work and I find her weak, overly whiny and slightly pathetic. Catherine does have a few layers though at least, with intimations of madness and alcoholism. The relationship is such a good contrast to the war and to his bitterness towards the war even if it is still so bleak.

It's a short book but one that is really quite powerful. It has an ending that caught me off guard and left me reeling. I think the word that sprung to mind when I finished it was 'hollow'. I'm not sure why, perhaps it is the anticlimactic climax that should be really climatic but somehow isn't. Not that it's a negative, I think it shouldn't be overly climactic even though the events are...I'm not sure I'm even following myself but I hope you kind of get what I mean. It's shocking and wholly ambiguous  - typical Hemingway!

I'd be really interested to know what you all think of Hemingway's writing style. I know he is kinda like marmite so, do you love him or do you hate him? And how was your spin this time if you participated?

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