Friday, 28 February 2014

February in Books

Considering February is the shortest month of the year, it has sure dragged on. I started the month in a flurry of reading which very quickly waned as the days ticked by. I've still been doing my usual amount of reading but I've been ploughing through the tome that is Wilkie's No Name and, oddly, it's taking some time. Not that I'm not loving it. It's Wilkie, 'nuff said. 

Books Read in February:

9. Books by Charlie Hill
10. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
11. Magda by Meike Ziervogel
12. The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
13. Last Friends by Jane Gardam

At least two of these books were ridiculously emotionally demanding. Magda by Meike Ziervogel was demanding in a right vs wrong (morally speaking) way. I originally thought I would be able to review it with relative ease but on further consideration I can't even get my thoughts straight, let alone put them into words. Then we have The Knife of Never Letting Go which was an emotional roller coaster from start to finish (though not as much as I anticipated). I still can't get over Manshee *bawls*. 

Other books I've been reading from but not yet finished:

1. No Name by Wilkie Collins
2. Careless People by Sarah Churchwell
3. No Man's Land ed. Pete Ayrton

I'm pretty happy with my reading this month. I knocked off a TBR Pile Challenge pick and a Classics Club pick (half way through a second) and read two books I had put down on my Winter Reads list. And, apart from one slightly frivolous read (Books), I have really enjoyed everything I've picked up. 

One thing that seems to have seriously fallen by the wayside this month is blogging and reviewing. Basically, she be slumpin'. I've been struggling with reviewing books (hence the significant lack) and I'm planning on doing a February Mini Reviews post soon instead. Who knows why, but the words just don't want to come. I'm going to blame it on the old winter blues which, with any luck, should be coming to an end. The sun has been showing his face more frequently recently and I'm actually waking up and getting home in the light which does wonders.

Other posts this month included a Classics Spin and an exploration into my unrealistic attitude towards men:

Classics Club Spin

Review: Tender is the Night
WW1 Books That Deserve Some Attention
On Growing Up With Unrealistic Expectations of the Opposite Sex

Something really exciting happened this month actually, to do with my job. I'm getting a new role in my current organisation which will take me away from the phones (woo!) and give me a new challenge. It also comes with a lovely pay rise so I'm all smiles. I haven't changed yet as they're hiring someone new to replace me in my current role and no doubt there will be a transition period but it's given me something to look forward to. So, yay, excitement!

How was February for you? 


Saturday, 22 February 2014

Review: Last Friends by Jane Gardam

Last Friends
Jane Gardam

'Sometimes, he thought, one should take a long hard look at old friends. Like old clothes in a cupboard, there comes the moment to examine for a moth. Perhaps throw them out and forget them. Yes.'

I've been a fan of Jane Gardam since my Mum first pushed The Queen of the Tambourine into my hand several years ago. Since then, I've delved into her oeuvre (though barely scratched the surface) on many occasions and fallen more in love with her writing at every encounter. 

Last Friends is the final instalment in the Old Filth trilogy which documents the life of Edward Feathers (Old Filth). This is the perfect kind of trilogy in my opinion - each book can be read as a standalone novel and still be brilliant or read as a trilogy which just enhances the experience tenfold. Each instalment tells a different side of the story which, again, is a great way to structure a trilogy. The overarching story follows the tangled lives of Edward Feathers (QC), Feathers' wife Betty and Terry Veneering (Feathers' mortal enemy and also a QC). This final part wraps up the story with a focus on Veneering.

The perspective of Last Friends is considerably later than it's predecessors. As the title suggests, the frame of the story focuses on the last friends literally left alive after the death of Feathers, Betty and Veneering. Inside of this frame narrative we are introduced slowly to the making (quite literally) of Veneering via the circumstances of his birth to his renaming from Varenski (Venitski? Vanestski?) to Veneering by a school headmaster and ending up with his life as a lawyer. 

''But remember - I am only a walk-on part in your life. This is merely a guest appearance. You will have to get down to your own future now.''

Gardam's writing is rich, human and full of delightfully black humour. The writing in Last Friends shifts between past and present seamlessly without ever causing confusion and her characters (oh, the characters), are so meticulously devised and presented that I actually feel like I know them. 

The novel seems to say a lot about old age and growing old and loss. Having read the entire trilogy it feels like we're ticking off a list of the dead but even though there is grief, there is not a painfully palpable feeling of sadness in the novel. The characters are kept alive in memory and through the shifting perspectives. That, and the humour is a pretty welcome juxtaposition. Even with all the dying, it feels like a celebration of life and of growing old and of making it so far.

This is a trilogy I will re-read (as I know my Mum has re-read the first two) again and again. It is funny, British, poignant, and full of some amazingly real characters (I feel we'd be friends in real life should I be of a certain age). If you've not read anything by Jane Gardam, I would highly recommend starting with Old Filth and falling for her writing and her characters.

Next up on my Jane Gardam journey will be her collection of short stories (yes, she's a short story genius too), The People on Privilege Hill. This has been on my shelf for a while and features the lovely Edward Feathers in part so I'm looking forward to getting friendly with Old Filth once again.

''I don't know what you mean, Sir. Mine was run by a man called Fondle.'
'That,' said Sir, 'is always a bad start.''

Have you read anything by Jane Gardam?

Copy received for review from the publisher via NetGalley (thanks!).


Friday, 14 February 2014

On Growing Up With Unrealistic Expectations About the Opposite Sex

I cannot be the only reader out there who has grown up with this (serious) problem. Ever since I became a 'reader' I have had little crushes on characters, held flirtatious imaginary conversations with those characters and dreamt about those characters more than is probably healthy (oo-er). I love it when a book pulls me in so completely that I fall for the characters but, as we well know, it's not all gravy.

The worst part of crushing on fictional characters is the realisation that THEY'RE NOT REAL and never will be (if I'm wrong and there's a John Thornton somewhere out there then watch out, I'm coming for you). The other pretty rubbish part of all this is, as the title suggests, the unrealistic expectations these fictional cheeky chappies give you. The proposals for one, are always so emotionally wrought and heartfelt, full of sexual tension and unguarded looks. If someone doesn't propose to me like that then I'm going to feel like life has failed me. 

Then there is the dark side to our fictional encounters. It almost makes you think it's ok to be insulted by someone who isn't man enough to admit to his feelings (*cough* Darcy *cough*), or thought of as a bit of a loose woman because your fella doesn't care to ask whether you might have a secret brother on the run from the police (*cough* John *cough*). I mean, COME ON. 

I may never get my Henry or John or Frederick but for me, falling for fictional characters is part of the joy of reading. These men may not exist in any form, their passions and attributes are completely imagined, but the ride is definitely worth it. Yes, my romantic notions may be a little far-fetched (don't worry, I won't go jumping in front of rioting crowds and get knocked down by a rock for my man) but they are my notions and they remind me of the books I've read and the reading journey I've been on. Figuratively speaking, all those characters have become notches on my bedpost reminding me of where I've been, what I've read and who I've loved (albeit unrequitedly).

I have unrealistic expectations and I blame:

1. North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell (and the BBC mini series with Richard Armitage)

Oh, John! You were such a meany and a bit of a douche at times but so in love with Margaret (who I secretly wished was me), and so emotionally stunted that you didn't know how to deal with that love (I blame the mother). Foolish Margaret for turning down the first proposal, I'd marry you in an instant.

2. Persuasion by Jane Austen (and the BBC series with Ciaran Hinds)

Oh, Captain Wentworth! You with your stiff upper lip, your pride and your delightful naval uniform - oh, how I wish you'd pine for me like you did for Anne. I'd never let any silly girls jumping of the Cobb in Lyme get in my way, or ridiculously snobby relatives, or slightly dodgy cousins. And yes, you could write me love letters any day.

3. The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

Oh, Henry! A librarian who is so often naked - what's a girl to do?! It's probably masochistic to love you but screw it, I like peace and quiet every so often anyway.

In a very roundabout way, this is me sharing my top 3 'romantic' reads. My choices are not earth-shattering, far from it, but all the women in the world who adore these books can't be wrong. 

Are you similarly afflicted? Which books do you blame?


Thursday, 13 February 2014

WW1: Books That Deserve Some Attention

If you didn't already know that I'm a World War One nut then don't worry, because you do now. I've always had a particular interest in war (goodness knows why) but it wasn't until my final year at uni that it really became a big deal. I spent weeks trying to think of a topic for my dissertation, freaking out that I'd never find something I could write 11,000 words about (silly me), until I suddenly hit upon the idea of war writing and then, women's war writing and then, women's writing from the First World War. I was sold and since then I have never looked back. 

I read so many books in my research for the dissertation - some good, some downright awful, some that made me cry and others that made me just fume with the injustice of it all. Since I have started focusing on war writing again with my new project, I have had a look back and a flick through the books that really stood out for me (I wrote about most of these). Anyway, the long and the short of it is that I'm going to share with you the books written by women during/about WW1 that I think deserve some attention (or more attention, at least).

1. Not So Quiet...Stepdaughters of War by Helen Zenna Smith

This is an interesting one - the author, Evadne Price (Smith was a pseudonym), was asked by her publisher to write a spoof of All Quiet on the Western Front but instead chose to write a serious work based on the diaries of a WW1 nurse. Not So Quiet... explores a range of themes through a group of female ambulance drivers at the front. On a couple of slight occasions it is a bit heavy-handed but in general this is an insightful and gripping novel with characters who are hard to forget.

2. The Forbidden Zone by Mary Borden

This is (I think) one of the most powerful books written about the First World War. Mary Borden was an American nurse who set up a field hospital near the front. She writes about her experiences in this collection of short stories. It's been a couple of years since I read it but I can still remember certain extracts clearly, particularly a piece called 'Conspiracy'. It's harrowing and uncomfortable at times, but in a no holds barred way that I find very refreshing. 

3. The Backwash of War by Ellen La Motte

La Motte was a nurse who wrote short sketches about her experiences. These sketches are often anthologised alongside Borden's The Forbidden Zone. Like Borden's collection this is difficult to read at times but it gives such a raw and true account of nursing on the front lines. 

4. Diary Without Dates by Enid Bagnold

Diary Without Dates is based on Bagnold's experiences as a VAD (she also wrote about her experiences as a driver in The Happy Foreigner). It is short, detailed and varied - she gives us an impression of the whole experience of nursing. Interestingly she was dismissed from the service for criticising the hospital administration (this was published in 1917), and went on to become an ambulance driver. 

5. We That Were Young by Irene Rathbone

This 1932 anti-war novel is based on the experiences of Rathbone and her friends. It has one of the most memorable depictions of a munitions factory, including an incident that I have never quite been able to forget.

6. Return of the Solider by Rebecca West

This is one of my favourite novels and probably the most well-known in this list. West explores shell-shock through the eyes of the women at home and the final lines sum up the feeling of the time so perfectly it almost breaks my heart.

Have you read any of these? If not, would you?


Monday, 10 February 2014

Review: Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Tender is the Night
F. Scott Fitzgerald

This edition published by Alma Classics.

Read for Jazz Age January and the Classics Club.

'Oh, we're such actors - you and I.'

I'm usually the first person to put my hand up and say 'I don't get it' (I'm looking at you, Joyce), and there were several points during my reading of Tender is the Night when I almost did find myself about to stick my hand in the air and say exactly that. Having said that, I can't deny that I enjoyed the experience. It was a tough slog occasionally, but overall not a slog I resented.

Tender is the Night is the story of Dick and Nicole Diver and their passionate but tumultuous relationship. One day Rosemary Hoyt, a young actress, arrives in their lives and sparks a series of events that reveal the cracks in their relationship and change their lives forever.

I found I was drawn to Nicole as I read Tender is the Night. The more I read, the more I wanted to know about her. Through the first part we see her from the perspective of various characters and I initially felt a bit puzzled by her (as, I think, many of the characters do). She seems quite enigmatic but at the same time very personable - an odd combination really. It was when I got to the second part of the novel that I really connected with her (and him) and started to feel like the novel was going somewhere. This second part goes back to the start of their relationship and how they met (in slightly dodgy and definitely frowned upon these days circumstances). Nicole is getting treatment for schizophrenia when she strikes up her friendship with Dr Dick Diver (who else adores that alliteration?!). This relationship structure (patient and doctor) is something that never goes away even after their marriage which leads to a restlessness and unhappiness felt by both. I couldn't help but think they were doomed from the start.

Fitzgerald's writing is, as ever, vivid and beautiful, but also incredibly sad. Particularly the ending. It is so quiet and understated - more like a winding down than an ending - and so suffused with melancholy that I actually felt a bit emotionally effected (I think empty describes the feeling well). I had another read of the final chapter before writing this and I'm still surprised by how powerful it is given that it isn't a shocking or dramatic ending. The final image of Dick living 'somewhere' in America, seemed such an apt way to end a novel that essentially follows the downfall of a man through his marriage.

The more I think about this book, the less I am able to form actual coherent thoughts about it. I think my whole not getting it is part of that but I also feel like I just don't know how to think of it. I couldn't even tell you whether I liked it or not. How's that for a book review?! I think, in a nutshell, I am happy to have read it. It was a interesting experience and I think it is fascinating as a 'his' version alongside Zelda's 'her' version, Save Me the Waltz. 

'I didn't mean that. But you used to want to create things - now you seem to want to smash them up.'

Have you had a more coherent response to Tender is the Night? If you have written a review leave the link below, I'd love to make more sense of it!


CC Spin #5: The Results Are In...

EDIT: So the Spin Number is 20 which means I'll be spending some more time with Wilkie! I can't imagine anything worse (lies). I'm really looking forward to tucking into No Name which was published between Armadale and The Woman in White. I've heard it has some interesting explorations into the place of women in society so I'm excited to get my teeth into those. Yes, I am overly enthused and no, I'm not particularly abashed by that. 

What was your number 20? Was the spin good to you?

I failed at the last spin. I was slightly optimistic about my chances of completion when Catch-22 came up. I went out and bought the book, flicked through it briefly and then retired it to my shelf where it still stands. This time I'm ready for a challenge! 

My twenty books are listed according to how enthusiastic I am about reading them:

Unabashedly Over Enthused

20. No Name by Wilkie Collins
19. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
18. The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak
17. The Common Reader by Virginia Woolf
16. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

Controllably Enthused

15. Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte
14. The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury
13. The Diary of Anne Frank
12. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
11. The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner


10. Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon
9. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
8. The Stranger by Albert Camus
7. The Crowded Streeet by Winifred Holtby
6. The Rector's Daughter by FM Mayor

Significantly Unenthused

5. What Maisie Knew by Henry James
4. Parade's End by Ford Madox Ford
3. The Women's Room by Marylin French
2. The Monk by Matthew Lewis
1. Death in Venice by Thomas Mann

I definitely know which number I hope will be picked (any between 16 and 20) but, as ever, I'm just looking forward to the surprise. Be gentle with me, Classics Spin!

Have you read any of these? Are you partaking in the spin this time around?


Sunday, 2 February 2014

Ta Ra, January

January has been a pretty jammy month - both in terms of books and general life. I somehow managed to read eight books! Which, in the grand scheme of things for me, is very impressive. I definitely feel like I'm well and truly in love with reading again. Not that I ever wasn't but, you know. So here's what I read this month:

1. The Gods of Heavenly Punishment by Jennifer Cody Epstein
2. The Lie by Helen Dunmore
3. It's In the Box by Jack D'Aragon
4. The Assassin's Mark by David Ebsworth
5. Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler
6. How to be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis
7. Wake by Anna Hope
8. Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

That's 7 fiction and 1 non-fiction (starting as I mean to go on), including 2 reads for Leah's Jazz Age in January and 1 Classics Club read. Pretty stunning numbers I'm thinking. 

January saw two brilliant blog tours, Bout of Books, a bumper crop of WW1 fiction, and a Jazz Age obsession rekindled. January also saw rather too much alcohol, even more food, lots of writing, a couple of theatre trips, and hours spent in museums. It was a brilliant (and cultured) month.

Bookaholics anonymous

The one thing that made me a seriously proud mamma in January was the launch of my books page over at Centenary News. I mentioned a while ago that I'd taken on a new voluntary project with a World War One focus. Well, after a few months of planning, developing, writing and re-writing, the page launched in the last week of the month. You can find my reviews of The Lie and Wake over here: Centenary News Books Zone. I'm so happy with how it turned out and happier still that the team let me poke my overly enthusiastic nose in. I'd love to know what you think!

As far as February goes, I'm looking forward to maintaining this level of reading. I'm hoping to crack on with my TBR challenge list (now they've all been transported to London by my parents), and tick another book off my Classics Club list. I'd like to get started with the Russian Literature challenge but I think that may wait until March. For now, I'm finishing off Careless People and Books by Charlie Hill (completely odd but definitely enjoyable). 

Rainbow on a Friday morning

How was your January? Is there anything you're particularly excited about for February?

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