Friday 31 December 2010

REVIEW: Notes on a Scandal, by Zoë Heller (4*)

(Viking, 2003)

Hmmmm. This is one of those books that would be wonderful for a book group - so much to discuss, so much to say! - but when it comes to writing a review, it's hard to know where to start. This extraordinarily accomplished novel focusses on two teachers, Barbara and Sheba, and their unlikely friendship. While Barbara is a retirement-age spinster, traditional and set in her ways, Sheba is a younger, free-spirited pottery teacher, new to the school and to the profession. The book is entirely told through Barbara, in the form of a kind of journal of her relationship with Sheba and the fall-out from her new friend's passionate affair with a student at the school.

Despite the scandal of the title relating to Sheba, her illicit relationship is almost a secondary concern, forming the centrepiece for the whole book yet never really feeling like its true heart. It's not glossed over exactly, but it's not as important as I'd expected. Instead, the novel is very much about Barbara. She is one of the most complex, unpleasant yet strangely sympathetic characters I have ever had the privilege to encounter. I think everyone knows someone like her. Her 'notes' on Sheba are almost sinister in their obsessive detail. Every conversation, every circumstance, is painstakingly transcribed, mulled over, analysed and ultimately reflected back onto herself in a sickening display of self-importance. She is the prying curtain-twitcher, the pompous grandmother, the unreasonable old lady that everybody loves to hate. Yet underneath all this, the reader gets a glimpse of a lonely and slightly bitter woman who is, at some level, very much aware of her own faults, even as she tries to deflect them away in blind denial. There is a self-pity and naïvety underlying everything she 'writes' that makes it hard to truly dislike her as a character, even as the reader instinctively shies away from her. She is what makes the novel so compelling yet so strangely painful to read.

I can't believe it's taken me so long to finally read this book. It's not as easy a read as it seems on the surface, with its compulsive attention to detail and thought-provoking themes, and it's definitely not a book that leaves you with a smile on your face and a sense of having really enjoyed it - yet it is absolutely superb in its execution and deserves every ounce of praise that has been flung its way. And on a personal note, reading it at last means I can finally watch the movie adaptation, which has been sitting in its cellophane for months! Highly recommended.

  • "I have never been a big fan of firework displays.  All that brightness falling, the sad, smoke smell, the finale that is never quite as magnificent as it should be...  Yet appreciating fireworks is one of those things by which one is judged on one's child-like delight in life.  It is perfectly acceptable to hate the circus.  But to admit that one finds fireworks tiresome is to render oneself a pariah."
  • "People like Sheba think that they know what it's like to be lonely.  They cast their minds back to the time they broke up with a boyfriend in 1975 and endured a whole month before meeting someone new...  But about the drip drip of long-haul, no-end-in-sight solitude, they know nothing.  They don't know what it is to construct an entire weekend around a visit to the launderette.  Or to sit in a darkened flat on Halloween night, because you can't bear to expose your bleak evening to a crowd of jeering trick-or-treaters.  Or to have the librarian smile pityingly and say, 'Goodness, you're a quick reader!' when you bring back seven books, read from cover to cover, a week after taking them out.  They don't know what it is to be so chronically untouched that the accidental brush of a bus conductor's hand on your shoulder sends a jolt of longing straight to your groin.  I have sat on park benches and tubes and schoolroom chairs, feeling the great store of unused, objectless love sitting in my belly like a stone until I was sure I would cry out and fall, flailing, to the ground.  About all of this, Sheba and her like have no clue."
  • "There are certainly people in whom you can detect the seeds of madness - seeds that have remained dormant only because the people in question have lived relatively comfortable, middle-class lives.  They function perfectly well in the world, but you can imagine, given a nasty parent, or a prolonged bout of unemployment, how their potential for craziness might have been realized - how their seeds might have sprouted little green shoots of weirdness."
Source: I THINK I bought this book in a charity shop.  I don't remember, it was so long ago!

Saturday 16 October 2010

These are a Few of my Favourite Things: The scent of tomato vines

Mmmm, there is just something about that scent!  Look at those fuzzy vines and that light powdering over each tomato - can't you just smell it?  We don't have a greenhouse any more so now I buy Sainsbury's Taste the Difference Vittoria tomatoes on the vine, just because when I open the carton they smell like tomatoes should, fresh and green and delicious.  They taste pretty darn good too!  I've even discovered a 'tomato vine and bergamot' shower gel for sale somewhere - the RSPB charity Christmas range I think - and Mum's bought me one for Christmas so I can see how it measures up.  Maybe the bergamot will overpower the vines, I don't know, but it sounds yummy anyway.  Now, excuse me, I think I need to go eat a tomato or two and hang my nose over the carton for a minute!

Wednesday 13 October 2010

REVIEW: Wesley - The Story of a Remarkable Owl, by Stacey O'Brien (4.5*)

(Constable, 2009)

I am a huge barn owl fan, so I knew I had to buy this book as soon as I saw it! I've already adopted a barn owl called Gilbert from the National Falconry School, and see him most weekends at their display outside our bookshop (and yes, I do talk to him!), so a whole book about someone who raised a barn owl from a baby sounded wonderful!

Stacey O'Brien's life changed forever the day she was given the opportunity to adopt a baby barn owl from Caltech's owl research department, where she had been working for about a year. The owl was only four days old, looked a bit like a baby dinosaur and hadn't even opened its eyes yet, but she fell head over heels in love and agreed to take it home. Although Wesley had an injured wing and could never be released into the wild, he settled right into life with his new mum. This is their story...

Wesley is a wonderful character, and the intense bond between human and owl shines out from every page. I giggled at so many of O'Brien's stories - of Wesley's first attempts to fly and his outrage when she dares to laugh at his tangled crash-landings, of his unprecedented love for water (which gets particularly interesting when he decides he wants to share her bath), of his attempts to woo her by building her nests and trying to feed her mice - and teared up a few times too. O'Brien really knows her stuff, so on top of the Wesley's story there is a whole lot of interesting information about owls, as well as a few wider titbits from the natural sciences as a whole and a tantalising insight into what it's like to work for a big research institute like Caltech.

Wesley and Stacey learned a lot from each other over the nineteen years they spent together, and their close partnership helped bring about a new understanding of elements of barn owl life that had never been accessible before. It is a charming, heartwarming and amusing story, as well as an informative look at the world of the barn owl, and it might just be one of my favourite books this year!

  • "Like all barn owls, the baby smelled like maple syrup but not as sweet, something closer to butterscotch and comfy pillow all in one.  Many biologists at Caltech, where I both worked and took classes, would bury their faces in their owls' necks to breathe in their delicate, sweet scent.  It was intoxicating."
  • "... owls mate for life, and when an owl's mate dies, he doesn't necessarily go out and find another partner.  Instead, he might turn his head to face the tree on which he's sitting and stare fixedly in a deep depression until he dies.  Such profound grief is indicative of how passionately owls can feel and how devoted they are to their mates."
  • "His 'tribe' had been here, probably living very close to where we were at that moment, for some 1.6 million years.  What really blew my mind was that, in all that time, every single one of his ancestors had successfully bred and had a baby survive to breed.  For 1.6 million years.  There wasn't a single break in the chain, or he wouldn't have been here.  Of course, this is true for every one of us who is on the planet - which seems like an incredible miracle."

Source: I bought this book from Amazon UK.

Saturday 9 October 2010

These are a Few of my Favourite Things: Gerbera Daisies

Well, look at them...  They're sunshine in a vase!  A friend gave me a beautiful bunch for my birthday a few years ago and I've never looked back.  They can lift my spirits and put a smile on my face even on the worst of days!

Thursday 7 October 2010

BTT: Books and travelling

A bookworm went a-travelling...

When you travel, how many books do you bring with you?
Has this changed since the arrival of ebooks?

Ah, that age-old question.  How many books do I take?  Well, let's take a week's holiday as an example.  Now, I am extremely lazy when I'm on holiday.  My ideal vacation means seven days of lying in the sun or curling up on a sofa, a stack of books by my side and a large amount of delicious food and plentiful beverages of my choice on hand.  As a general rule, for a seven day holiday I'd probably take eight books.  That way I've got the best-case 'book a day' scenario covered, as well as having a spare or two should one of the titles fail to take my fancy when the time comes.  

Which leads me to the real problem when it comes to books and travelling: Which books do I take?  I don't have this problem with clothes, because I have a limited number of favourite T-shirt/jeans/jumpers/shoes combinations to choose from - mainly because I spend all my money on books instead.  In go the clothes, in go chargers and pens and toiletries and sweets to nibble on the way there.  When it comes to books, however, I enter into a military-precision process we shall call Operation Holiday Reading.

A couple of weeks before The Day, I'll sit down and methodically comb through my LibraryThing catalogue, listing any likely candidates.  Things I've been wanting to read for ages, things that will be suitably light and fluffy, books I've been warned to read when I have time to get stuck right in because I won't be able to put them down...  This usually leaves me with a ridiculous number of possibilities - perhaps 200 or more.  Over the next week or so, I will return to this list a few times, each time crossing off a few more books.  When this stage is complete, it's time to roll out the big guns.  I hunt down every book left on the list and start the business of sorting through them in earnest, weeding out more books in the process.  Eventually, a couple of days before I go away, I should be left with perhaps 30 to choose from, and will usually have picked out perhaps five 'definite' titles by the night before.  The last few will be picked depending on my mood on the morning we leave.  Usually causing more stress and consternation than the rest of the holiday preparations put together...  WHAT IF I CHOSE THE WRONG BOOKS?

Happily, this has never been a problem, and since books so often take longer than you think to read them, especially when you factor in that burning-eye thing that makes you fall asleep when you've been reading for too long in one go, I never get through every book anyway!  Oh, and to answer the second question (bit of an afterthought, this) - I don't have a Kindle or anything like that, so it's not an issue for me!  Besides, it would completely ruin my oddly satisfying, geeky, obsessive list-making pre-travel book frenzy if I could just load the whole lot onto a gadget - and I'd still have the problem of deciding which books I actually wanted to read while I was away!

Do you have a similar dilemma?  Does anyone else have any slightly insane methods or habits when it comes to choosing their bookish travel companions?  

Saturday 2 October 2010

REVIEW: Eating for England - The Delights and Eccentricities of the British at Table, by Nigel Slater (4.5*)

(Harper Perennial, 2008)

I loved this book! It's everything I wanted, but sadly didn't get, from Toast, Slater's much-lauded autobiography. Although the format is similar, Toast veered into pretension towards the end and left a sour taste in my mouth, bringing together otherwise pleasant food memories with an altogether more unsavoury sort of anecdote. Eating for England, on the other hand, is just plain delicious!
It is split into tiny mini-essays, ranging from a few lines to a couple of pages, each celebrating an aspect of British cuisine. Whether he's commenting on modern cookery habits or extolling the virtues of some traditional teatime treat, Slater's love of food floods every page with warmth, and his humour and pitch-perfect observations made me smile in recognition. From the first crack of an After Eight to the colourful splendour of a farmer's market, chips and seaside rock on the pier to a strawberry picnic, the modern Jamie Oliver-inspired Man in the Kitchen to that annoying woman at the supermarket who insists on using every voucher she's collected that week, there's something for everyone here! And of course, toast once again features several times, in all its many guises and delights...

Highly recommended for food lovers and nostalgic souls, not to mention non-Brits who are downright confused by all the strange names, regional variations, and clashes of terminology between Britain and Everywhere Else! My advice? Make yourself a large mug of tea and a slice of cake, curl up in a cozy armchair, and enjoy...

  • On summer cooking - "While the rest of Europe breathes hot summer colours of ripe red peppers, garlic and thyme, deep purple aubergines and grilled lamb over each other, we paint an altogether more delicate picture.  One of gentle flavours and pale hues, of poached salmon and watercress, cucumber and mint, strawberries and cherries, gooseberries and broad beans."
  • On white food - "Blancmange, flummery, syllabub - why is it that so many English puddings sound like someone talking under water?"
  • On acid drops - "You can't be ambivalent about food that is so sour it makes you shut one eye when you eat it."
  • On the seaside - "Spend a day by the British seaside and you will see how very different it is from anywhere else in the world.  We have coloured buckets and spades, a refreshing breeze, and probably because of that, bright-coloured windmills on sticks.  There are long promenades full of skateboarders dodging the elderly and wobbly toddlers negotiating a walk with their first oversized cornet, and everywhere the smell of seafood.  Extraordinary seafood it is too, presented without pretension, or indeed any attempt at style, but instantly recognisable as part of the great British seaside."

Source: I bought this book from a remainder store in an outlet village.

REVIEW: Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley (4*)

(Wordsworth Classics, 1999)

"It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs."

I've had this book sitting on my shelf for years, meaning to start it every October as a Halloween read and somehow never quite getting round to it. As it happens, I'm glad I didn't, because I don't think I'd have appreciated it nearly as much a few years back.

Let me start by saying that it was nothing like I expected. Having never seen a movie version of Frankenstein, my only exposure to the story has been through the general references that have been adopted into our culture. The crazed scientist, the twisted assistant, the sweet little girl, the lightning bolts and electricity. None of which actually appear in the book! Not that it really matters, because this is a beautiful story.

Victor Frankenstein is an ambitious young man obsessed with 'natural philosophy' - the natural sciences. When his interest turns to theories on reanimation and 'the spark of life', his devotion pays off and he builds a being, a giant of sorts, and succeeds in giving him life. But as this huge creature stirs for the first time, Victor awakens from his single-minded working frenzy, and flees in horror from this primitive monster he's created. What follows is a battle for freedom, happiness - and vengeance. The Creature, left to develop alone, outcast despite his capacity for love, becomes bitter in the face of his loneliness and the hostility of society. He blames Victor for his woes, for deserting him so cruelly - but Victor, in turn, is terrified of the 'demon' he fears he has unleashed. It becomes an all-out war which can only lead to tragedy...

For the reader, there can be no winner in this battle for dominance. Frankenstein, chasing his monster through the bleak landscape of the North, tells his story to the captain of a ship that has rescued him from the ice. The Creature, in turn, tells his own sorry tale to Victor within this narrative. Frankenstein is self-obsessed and blind to his responsibilities, yet perhaps he is right to condemn a being who has caused so much destruction. At the same time, the 'monster' has acted in vengeance against what he perceives to be great injustice, but underneath he is just a man, albeit an outwardly frightening one, looking for companionship and happiness.

The themes are deeply complex and very much of their time. There is the question of scientific ethics, of balancing progress against negative consequences, of setting morality against ambition. This is, of course, still relevant today in the ongoing debates on topics like cloning, GM foods and artificial intelligence. The book also explores the futility of revenge, as each man's growing obsession with destroying the other ultimately becomes their undoing. It discusses what it means to be human, and the effects of rejection on a fragile mind. It combines ideas on the responsibility of parenting and the development and wellbeing of an infant - essentially, Victor is the Creature's father - bringing together the theories of popular thinkers such as Locke (a personality is born of experience, not innate qualities) and Rousseau (a child is innocent until corrupted by society).

The Romantic origin of Shelley's novel is apparent in the beautifully descriptive prose, particularly regarding the natural world. The mountains of Geneva come alive under Shelley's pen, the glaciers and pools and rock faces taking on a life of their own. There are numerous references to the work of other Romantic poets - the reader can almost feel the influence of Mary's husband and friends shining through - and the whole novel is filled with life-threatening fevers, dramatic encounters and passionate madness. Sometimes there was a little too much melodrama for my taste - hence the dropping of one star - but all in all I found this to be a moving and thoughtful story that will definitely be a keeper for me. Highly recommended!

  • "I feel my heart glow with an enthusiasm which elevates me to heaven; for nothing contributes so much to tranquillise the mind as a steady purpose - a point on which the soul may fix its intellectual eye." - Walton
  • "Of my creation and creator I was absolutely ignorant; but I knew that I possessed no money, no friends, no kind of property.  I was, besides, endued with a figure hideously deformed and loathsome...  When I looked around, I saw and heard of none like me.  Was I then a monster, a blot upon the earth, from which all man fled, and whom all men disowned?" - The Creature
  • "The agonies of remorse poison the luxury there is otherwise sometimes found in indulging the excess of grief." - Frankenstein
  • "Once my fancy was soothed with dreams of virtue, of fame, and of enjoyment.  Once I falsely hoped to meet with beings who, pardoning my outward form, would love me for the excellent qualities which I was capable of unfolding.  I was nourished with high thoughts of honour and devotion.  But now crime has degraded me beneath the meanest animal.  No guilt, no mischief, no malignity, no misery, can be found comparable to mine. When I run over the frightful catalogue of my sins, I cannot believe that I am the same creature whose thoughts were once filled with sublime and transcendent visions of the beauty and the majesty of goodness.  But it is even so; the fallen angel becomes a malignant devil.  Yet even that enemy of God and man had friends and associates in his desolation; I am alone." - The Creature

Source: I bought this book from... somewhere.  I don't even remember, I've had it so long!

Saturday 25 September 2010

These are a Few of my Favourite Things: Trees

What?!  The sun's shining, the autumn breeze is wafting through the gold and red leaves... and I LOVE TREES.  What's not to love?  They are beautiful and ageless, strong and vibrant.  And those brilliant greens and soft olives melting into the horizon are surely a sight to life the soul and brighten the spirits.  Whether it's a wistful weeping willow or an ancient oak, a giant fir or a cherry in full blossom, there is something special about a tree.

I live on a hillside just below a beautiful wood.  When I first came home from university with agoraphobia, when I could hardly leave my own front door for fear of something dreadful happening, trees played a huge part in starting me on the path to recovery.  On the first day, I went out into our garden.  I took photographs of the eucalyptus tree and the flowers, and stood at the gate staring out over the valley, at the great trees reaching towards the sky and the woods sweeping away over the far hillsides.  On the second day, I went down through the gate into our field, down to the orchard, where the fruit trees were in blossom and the grass grew thickly around their roots.  The next logical step was the woods.

Over the next few weeks I started walking up into the woods, starting with my favourite five-minute 'taking a breather' route and gradually exploring further afield.  I discovered the quarry face with its giant tumbled boulders, and peered down through the trees into the valley below.  I wandered up past the fir plantation and into the darker, damper woods on the other side of the hillside, listening to the stream splashing unseen far down the steep slopes.  I walked up the steep hill past the fruit farm and gazed out across the open fields.

And whenever I started to feel panicky or afraid, it was the trees that brought me back.  Walking through the woods, gazing up through the branches, I could feel history whispering all around me.  The trees are tall and strong.  They have seen countless people wandering beneath their boughs, just as I did; houses being built across the valley; generations of people coming and going.  They've seen it all, and they've never wavered, never fallen.  Those people are gone and forgotten now.  And this thought made me feel so small, and somehow safe and protected, that my fears were soothed and my heart felt lighter.  I stopped to photograph the avenues and the leaves, and I felt calm again.

I don't think I'll ever lose that sense of magic and hope, or that feeling of timeless safety.  And THAT'S why I love trees.

Note: All photos except the top one - the tree on the strip of grass - are mine.

Tuesday 21 September 2010

REVIEW: Forbidden, by Tabitha Suzuma (4*)

(Definitions, 2010)

Wow. It's hard to know where to begin with this review - or even whether to review it at all. It's always hard when it comes to books like this because the hardest to review are so often the ones that deserve it most, so bear with me and I'll do my best!

To begin with, let me say that although this is published by Definitions as a young adult novel, I wouldn't recommend it for teenagers younger than 15 or 16 due to the extreme nature of the themes. Because yes, this is a story about the romance between a brother and sister. Don't stop reading! Because it's also so much more than that...

Lochan is seventeen. He suffers from crippling social anxiety at school, and comes home every afternoon ready to take care of his three youngest siblings: wild rebel Kit, 13, mischievous young Tiffin, and sweet Willa, 5. His mother is a neglectful, alcoholic mess who barely bothers to come home any more, and his father moved to Australia with his new wife years ago. His only ray of sunshine in this darkness is his sixteen year-old sister Maya. The two have never really been like brother and sister; they are best friends and, to all extents and purposes, parents to the three children. So when they share an unexpected kiss one night, it's like the final piece of their existence has fallen into place.

The first third of the book is mostly about the family, and the way Lochan and Maya are hanging on by a thread. They have to keep up with their school work as well as cooking, cleaning, shopping, playing, supervising homework and bedtimes, and covering for their absent mother so that Social Services won't split them up and place them in care. With Kit now old enough to rebel against his brother's authority, the situation is reaching breaking point and the tension is tangible.

Once the kiss happens and changes their lives forever, this tension is only compounded by the added nightmare of falling in love with the wrong person. As their love grows deeper, the sense of dread grows ever more pervasive as they try to balance their feelings against the needs of their family and their gradual realisation of how much trouble they would face if they were ever caught. With this comes an even greater despair as they wonder how they will ever be together. Seriously, Romeo and Juliet had nothing on these two.

By alternating between Lochan and Maya's first-person, present-tense narrative, Suzuma gives a real sense of immediacy and urgency, deftly exploring the thought processes and passionate feelings that each is struggling to bear, and placing the reader squarely in the middle of this whirling dervish of emotion. You know that something has to give, that this can never end well, and yet you ache with every fibre of your being for life to finally cut these two young people a break and allow them to live happily ever after. Of course, the sick feeling in the pit of your stomach tells you that it just can't happen that way.
I closed the book with tears rolling down my face, feeling like I needed a nap - or at least, a stiff drink. This is a real rollercoaster of a read, and so skilfully written that I felt every bump along the way. Every blissful moment, every small triumph, every second of panic, every long hour of frustration and despair and exhaustion, is so beautifully evoked that I found I couldn't read the book for too long at a time without stopping and removing myself from it for a while, giving myself a break from all that turmoil!

I could go on - about the internal morality battle for both the characters and the reader, about the questions it raises about the legal implications of consensual incest (though it never feels like what happens in the novel should be labelled so harshly), about the harrowing depiction of teenagers having to step up and take responsibility for a whole family - but I won't. I'll just say that this is a complex novel about two deeply sympathetic characters in a difficult situation, which will provoke a lot of thought and reflection, skew your world perception a little, and stir up every emotion you can imagine until you tumble out the other end, exhausted. Open your mind, take a deep breath - and read it.

  • "You can close your eyes to the things you do not want to see, but you cannot close your heart to the things you do not want to feel." - Anon. (opening quote)
Source: I bought this book from Amazon UK.

Sunday 5 September 2010

REVIEW: Pet Sematary, by Stephen King (4.5*)

(Hodder, 2007)

Firstly, I'll hold my hands up and admit that this was my first Stephen King novel. I'll also admit that I'd worked myself into such a nervous frenzy about the whole thing, given King's reputation for delivering serious frights, that I actually put the book down after 100 pages and decided I wasn't reading any more. Well, I changed my mind in the sunny light of the next morning, and I'm so glad I did. It was excellent!

It opens with Louis Creed, a doctor, and his young family moving to a new house and meeting their neighbours, Jud and Norma Crandall. The Crandalls help them settle in, showing them the children's 'Pet Sematary' on the hillside behind their home, providing evenings of beer and conversation, and warning them about the dangers of the main road, where the huge Orinco trucks have claimed many pets over the years.

Things start to go awry when a young man is hit by a car and horrendously maimed, dying in Louis's arms in his university surgery. He begins to dream about the boy and the Pet Sematary, though he dismisses them as mere nightmares. A few months later his daughter's cat is hit by a truck and killed - and Jud finally shows him the town's dark secret: the Native American burial ground beyond the Pet Sematary where a terrible power lurks, watching, waiting, enticing...

Now, to me this all sounded terrifying. And at certain points it is, but not really in the gruesomely horrific way I had expected and feared. Of course it has its moments, but King is a master of weaving mind games, playing reality against hallucination and the world of dreams, using our deepest fears and the terror of what is NOT seen to elicit the chills and thrills for which he is famous. The same principle which makes the old psychological thrillers more haunting then their modern gore-splattered counterparts.

In fact, though it has occasional moments of genuine horror, I actually found this book deeply sad and very insightful. Its overarching theme is death - the fear of death, the acceptance of death, the nature and experience of grief, and the futility of humanity's attempt to cling to life even when nature is screaming for us to let go. The writing was beautiful - much more lyrical and evocative than I had expected - and I turned the last page with a deep chill of delicious dread and a profound sense of having read something far more worthwhile than I could have hoped. Looks like I'll be reading more Stephen King after all!

  • "But time passes, and time welds one state of human feeling into another until they become something like a rainbow.  Strong grief becomes a softer, more mellow grief; mellow grief becomes mourning; mourning at last becomes remembrance..."
  • "He could smell the clear tang of pine-resin, and he could hear that strange crump-crump of the needles underfoot - a sound that is really more feeling than sound."
Source: I borrowed this book from an incoming bag of books at the bookshop.

Friday 6 August 2010

REVIEW: I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson (4*)

(Gollancz, 2006)

It's hard to know what to say about this book without spoiling the unfolding narrative for future readers, so I'll keep it fairly brief! Robert Neville is the lone survivor of a mysterious plague that has killed everyone he loves and turned his friends and neighbours into vampires. He spends his days repairing his home, making garlic strings to protect his property, and staking vampires where they sleep. When darkness falls he must barricade his door and steel himself to a night of his neighbours calling to him from the garden, the men heaving rocks at his house as the women expose themselves in an attempt to lure him outside.

This book is many things. It is an accomplished, atmospheric and well-paced dystopian novel, in which Matheson excels at ripping the rug out from under the reader every time they become too complacent. It is a reminder of the ease in which a simple biological mutation could begin a pandemic with the ability wipe out a species and destroy humanity as we know it. It is a sly jab at the changing nature of society, in which one day's normality may become the next day's abomination. It is an exploration of loneliness, of the human need for companionship and the way the mind copes with enforced solitude. And it is a homage to courage, to the will to survive, and to the struggle for knowledge and understanding.

I'm not sure yet that this will be keeper for me - would it, I wonder, yield more on a second reading, or would it lose its sparkle with foreknowledge of the way the narrative unfolds? I'd definitely recommend it anyway, for anyone who enjoys a pacy dystopian thriller with some deeper questions thrown in for good measure...

Source: I bought this book from Amazon UK.

Saturday 31 July 2010

These are a Few of my Favourite Things: Potato Salad

God, I love potato salad.  I mean, I REALLY love it.  I could sit and eat this whole bowl, steadily, picking away at it, until every last bite was gone.  Not that this is actually my potato salad - I just spent about ten minutes drooling over all the pics on Google!  Me and my stepdad make our potato salad the same way - he showed me his secret a few years ago - and it's absolutely delicious.  Though I must confess, nowadays I just tend to wait for him to make a big batch and then pop round and steal it all!  Less washing up...  Anyway, we (the royal We) boil a whole pan of baby new potatoes until they're nice and tender, then drain them and leave them to cool.  Then we cut them into bitesize pieces, add a load of mayonnaise and chopped chives and a sprinkling of cayenne pepper... et voila!  Heaven in a bowl!

Thursday 8 July 2010

BTT: My Life in Libraries

This is my first ever BTT, and when I was browsing through old questions, waiting for today's post to go up (the original "Booking Through Thursday" meme can be found here here), I came across this one from August 2008... well, since I've just finished Library Confidential it seemed like a perfect topic!

Whether you read off your own book pile or from the library shelves NOW, chances are you started off with trips to the library. So...

What is your earliest memory of a library? Who took you? Do you have any funny/odd memories of the library?

My very earliest memory of a library is the one at the parish hall in the village we lived in until I was 11. I learned to read very early on - I was enjoying Enid Blyton by the time I went to primary school - and I think my earliest memory is actually of my very first trip to the library. I have vague recollections of flipping through the big four-compartmented stand filled with storybooks - like a cube divided into four on the top, with books slotted down into them like a storage box, each load of books facing a different direction so everyone could have a look. I don't remember what my first 'borrowings' were, but I remember my mum taking me to the desk, buried under a heap of books, and helping me put them all on the counter where I handed over my little brown cards and watched enviously as the librarian stamped each one... That library was where I would discover my first teenage books, aged around 9 or 10, and I THINK I read my first Anne McCaffrey book from there. The Dolphins of Pern, if I'm not much mistaken. I immediately wanted to start a collection and read them all, but I didn't have enough money to buy them very often and only ended up with about three!

My primary school library wasn't up to much really - just a few shelves scattered through the corridors: a section for the smallest kids (with one of those cubey storybook boxes again!), a twisty corridor of non-fiction for the older ones, and a couple of shelves near the offices for fiction. I don't remember using them much really - I think I was starting to amass my own collection by then, as well as going to the village library on a regular basis. I was quite chuffed to be allowed to go, with a couple of the other top students in the class, to the 'oldest' shelves when I was still a bit younger, bringing books by authors like Michelle Magorian back to the classroom for our post-lunch reading hour. Jeez, those were the days!

Our move to a new house about half an hour away, when my mum remarried, brought with it a whole new library to explore. There was a single tall bookshelf of teen fiction that I attacked with delight, and in the corridors I picked out random things like anorexia autobiographies (before the rise of the misery memoir - I was so ahead of my time!) and books on music and the Red Arrows, quickly becoming known by the librarians for staggering to the counter under the weight of 16 books on a near-weekly basis. I could see them laughing as I peered over the top, trying to wedge my chin above them to hold them all in place, hastily shovelling them into a carrier bag as each one was stamped. I never really went into the 'adult fiction' room - in the old library there had been a natural progression because it was all one big room - but one day my mum appeared with a couple of books she thought I'd like. And so I read my first Jeeves and Wooster book, and a lesser-known Alcott novel, The Chase, which I would find myself searching for more and more hungrily a few years later, not entirely sure whether I had imagined the book in the first place!

My secondary school libraries (one at one site, one at another) were definitely promising. There I read my first Douglas Adams novel and delved into the non-fiction areas every time I hit a particularly interesting topic in my lessons. The librarian, Mrs Parker, a sweet but firm little woman on the verge of retirement, became a friendly face on the most rubbish of days. A good librarian is definitely vital, especially in a library for children, where kids might otherwise be too shy to explore and ask questions. I will forever be grateful to her for taking me across to the history section one day and pulling out The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. She pressed it into my hands and told me I MUST read it, and that she just knew I'd love it. Over ten years later, it remains one of my favourite books of all time, one that never fails to move and inspire me.

As the years went by I tried my hand at working in the library. My volunteer lessons in the school library didn't last long. By this time Mrs Parker had retired and another librarian had taken her place. I didn't get to use those endearing library cards or feel the satisfaction of the date stamp under my hands. I had to sit sticking columned stamp sheets into books, or taping up broken pages. Towards the end of school, I approached the town library to do a week's work experience - and it was wonderful! I talked books with patrons and librarians alike, sipped coffee in their little upstairs sitting room, tidied the children's books, photocopied activity sheets, and spent a whole memorable day out with one of the women taking books to housebound people and local nursing homes. I got to scan piles of books, and I finally got my hands on that date stamp!

And so it was time for university. The J.B. Morrell Library at the University of York was one of my favourite places on campus. Rather tragically, one of my favourite uni memories is from the beginning of my second year. I had moved into our new student house, and was staying there alone at the end of the summer while I researched a big essay. Every day I would walk to campus and install myself in the near-empty library, wandering the stacks, carrying books back and forth to my little table, basking in the circle of bright light from the lamp. In the afternoon I'd sit out in the fresh air with a sandwich then head back in with some sweets and a bottle of coffee milkshake hidden under my coat, and carry on until teatime. It sounds so dull but it just felt right. Like this was what university was all about, and this was absolutely where I should be. Another day I was caught in a massive thunderstorm on my way onto campus and arrived at the library dripping wet and utterly bedraggled. It was marvellous, sitting up on the top floor looking out over the black sky and flashing lightning, safe in my little pool of lamplight amidst the gentle studious hum. I only went to the city library once or twice - it was quite grand but it didn't capture my imagination in the same way. Besides, with so little time for recreational reading, an addiction to buying books online just so I'd get post, and such a lovely library right there on campus, there just wasn't any need...

When I left university and came home with agoraphobia, one of my bravest early endeavours to get out and about was a trip to the nearest large town and their main-branch library. It's much bigger than our little local ones, several floors packed with all the things I couldn't find elsewhere. I made a list of books I wanted to read, trawled the online catalogue to find out if that library had copies on the shelves, and bustled happily up and downstairs for quite some time seeking out all these promising titles. It felt warm and safe, and I was so proud of myself for having made it there and actually enjoyed myself instead of panicking and ruining it!

Now I run a bookshop I don't have as much need for a library - but I still head over there every now and again. The library here, a different local branch again, is unfortunately always sweltering hot, which definitely discourages browsing and lingering. Up the stairs I go and within minutes I'm gasping for air and feeling like I'm going to keel over. I make things easier for myself now by following my old university technique, looking up the books in advance so I can go straight to the shelf and pluck them out, and get back out of the heat again, as quickly as possible. Which isn't a good thing in a library, not very in keeping with the library ethos - but then again, I can browse all I want in the shop so I win all round, really!

Nowadays I'm concentrating on building my OWN library, by buying books I've already read and loved, buying yet more books to try, and slowly, through adding and removing titles, developing it into a collection that reflects me beautifully. I love drooling over the libraries in stately homes, looking through coffee table books like The Most Beautiful Libraries in the World, and stumbling across libraries in novels, like the Cemetery of Forgotten Books in Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind. And I still covet the Beast's Library in Beauty and the Beast - well, who wouldn't?!

Saturday 3 July 2010

REVIEW: The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas (5*)

(Penguin Classics, 2003), translated by Robin Buss

Firstly, a quick note on this edition: having started an old, archaic and atrocious translation to begin with, I can heartily recommend the crystal prose of Robin Buss's translation for Penguin Classics... The difference was startling, and it made it an absolute joy to read where it could so easily have become a chore!

Now, this is going to be a tricky one to review. What to say about a book so well loved, so widely read, so generally revered? Well, let's start with the basics, the bits most people already know. The novel opens with young Edmond Dantes, on the verge of becoming captain of his merchant ship and husband of the beautiful Mercedes, being betrayed by his jealous friends and thrown into jail for his alleged support of Napoleon. During his fourteen years in the terrifying Chateau d'If, he meets a 'mad' old abbe, who introduces him to the world of learning and tells him about a secret treasure that he wishes Edmond to have should he ever escape. Well, escape he does, and is reborn as the Count of Monte Cristo, using his incredible wealth, power and intelligence to bring justice down on the heads of the three men who condemned him to the dungeons.

This book is so many things: it is epic, complex and exciting; it is heartbreaking, sorrowful and romantic. It touches on the heights of emotion, society and the human condition, as well as the depths of despair, corruption and depravity. I found myself speeding along in breathless excitement as Edmond's true identity was revealed to each of
his tormentors, and felt the full horror of the tangled webs he wove to destroy them one by one. It made me ponder the relationship between wealth and power, between knowledge and power, and the way that faith can save someone's life but also, if they don't take care, lead them down a path swathed in darkness. The Count's lesson for jealous Danglars, for example, was deeply satisfying - whereas his quiet destruction of Villefort's entire family was devastating to read. Of course, all this is terribly unlikely and deeply dramatic, but that is part of its charm - this is escapism at its finest!

Quite simply, this is a masterful novel that drew me in gently then refused to let me go. The characters are wonderfully drawn - I even got a bit of a crush on Dantes, fallen angel that he is - and the story seeps forward deliciously, bringing everything slowly into focus as the scattered elements of the Count's plans draw together. This is definitely going to be one of my top reads of the year and one of my favourite books ever! Read it!

  • "... preferring death a thousand times to arrest, I accomplished astonishing feats which, more than once, proved to me that our excessive concern with the welfare of our bodies is almost the only obstacle to the success of any of our plans... In reality, once you have made the sacrifice of your life, you are no longer the equal of other men; or, rather, they are no longer your equal, because whoever has taken such a resolution instantly feels his strength increase ten times and his outlook vastly extended."
  • "Truly generous men are always ready to feel compassion when their enemy's misfortune exceeds the bounds of their hatred."
  • "All human wisdom is contained in these two words: 'wait' and 'hope'!"

Source: I bought this book from an Amazon Marketplace seller.