Friday 9 December 2011

REVIEW: Atonement, by Ian McEwan (4.5*)

(Vintage, 2007)

Wow, what a book!  Yet another novel that has stayed on my shelves for far too long, partially because I was so intimidated by it and partially because of all the hype surrounding it a few years ago.  As it turns out, I needn't have worried on either of those counts.  It wasn't a difficult read at all, and the hype was entirely justified!

At its barest of bones, this is a book about two lovers and the girl who tears them apart.  Cecilia Tallis, a rich young woman, and Robbie Turner, her charlady's son, have both recently returned to the Tallis estate from Cambridge University, where they have been studiously avoiding one another.  It is only during the hot summer following their return that they realise how deep their feelings really are.

Waiting for them back home is Cecilia's younger sister.  I have to admit, I hated Briony in the first half of the book.  She reminded me of a young version of Barbara in Notes on a Scandal.  Manipulative, naive, attention-seeking, self-obsessed and utterly destructive in her unswerving self-righteousness.  Briony wants to be a writer and a grown-up, not necessarily in that order, and her imagination tends to run away with her.  When a collection of bizarre encounters and Briony's overactive mind are thrown together during one frightening night, Robbie is arrested for a crime he didn't commit, and the Tallis family falls apart.

Moving on a few years, Robbie is fighting his way across France in a desperate attempt to get back to Cecilia; the love of his life is pouring out her devotion in her letters, waiting for him to return, and Briony is seeking to redeem herself by following in Cecilia's footsteps and training as a nurse.  From the innocence and family atmosphere of the first half of the book, suddenly the reader is plunged into Robbie's terrifying trek towards the beaches of Dunkirk, and from there into Briony's horrific experiences in the hospital as the first soldiers are brought back from the retreat.  Will Cecilia and Robbie be reunited?  And will Briony ever manage to atone for what she did and finally set things to rights?

I cannot believe how much I underestimated this book.  McEwan's writing is simply sublime.  He keeps the pace steady, picking out tiny details and observations, exploring personal motives and flights of fancy, revisiting memories, and immersing the reader completely inside his characters' heads - yet I never felt impatient for things to speed up.  It would have been so easy for chaotic moments in France and in the hospital to be flitted over and churned together into a frenzy, but their impact would have been halved.  There is no escape from the thoughts, the joys, the horrors, the beautiful and haunting things that McEwan wants us to see.  With a single sentence he can rip the rug out from under the complacent reader, then with a beautiful description encourage us to regroup and reflect once more.  As with so many books in which I become deeply attached to and emotionally invested in each and every character, I had a feeling I was going to be a bit tearful by the end, and I was right - I spent fifteen minutes sobbing into my pillow!

I could go on and on, but instead I'll stop here and just say... please read it.  You will recognise yourself in parts, and recoil from others; you will be educated and shocked; you will feel elation and joy but also be plunged into sadness and anger.  It is an epic and exquisite rollercoaster, and I am so glad I finally chose to stop procrastinating and experience it for myself!

Source: I bought this book from a charity shop.

Monday 14 November 2011

REVIEW: Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, by Rick Riordan (4*)

(Puffin, 2008)

Life is about to get very interesting for Percy Jackson.  Slightly unusual things have been happening to him his whole life, but when he accidentally vaporises his maths teacher during a school trip, it becomes apparent that something much bigger is afoot.  Within a matter of days he has arrived at Camp Half-Blood, met a god, discovered that his best friend is a satyr and his father is Poseidon, and been accused of stealing Zeus's master lightning bolt.  Can he find the bolt and return it to Olympus before the gods turn on each other and ignite a cataclysmic world war?

It's really a very clever premise, and one that would have completely swept me away as a younger teenager.  I'd have been in the library poring over books on the Ancient Greek gods before you could say Apollo.  Now, in my mid-twenties, it was a really fun way to brush up on some of the myths and legends I used to know - and I'm probably more likely to remember who's who on Olympus after reading Percy Jackson than if I'd read a textbook instead!

The story roars along at a cracking pace, with lots of exciting action and adventure and some hilarious little touches - like Cerberus, the three-headed canine guardian of Hell, playing catch with a red rubber ball, which made me smile.  Riordan mixes the modern world with the mythology of the Greek gods beautifully, bringing them right up to date while maintaining their dignity and all-powerful other-worldliness.  I loved it - and needless to say, I'll be reading on with this series very soon!

Source: I think I bought this book from Amazon UK?

Saturday 5 November 2011

REVIEW: Faceless Killers, by Henning Mankell (4.5*)

(Vintage, 2002)

I'd already come across Kurt Wallander thanks to the excellent Kenneth Branagh series, but this is the first time I've picked up one of the original novels.  Happily, I liked it so much that I'm all ready to go on a rampage and buy the rest of the books AND the two television series.  I love it when that happens!

The novel opens with the discovery of a horrific murder in the isolated farming community of Lunnarp.  Called in by a terrified neighbour, Inspector Wallander arrives to find a mutilated and bloodied old man dead in his farmhouse bedroom.  His wife is alive, but only barely, with a noose cruelly knotted around her neck.  Armed with a host of confusing clues, uneasy hunches and the word 'foreign', repeated by the old woman on her deathbed, Wallander and his team must pull out all the stops to find the killers before the media storm around the case sparks a national wave of racial hate crime.

I found the whole novel absolutely fascinating, and it was a great brain work-out.  I couldn't stop mulling over everything that had happened so far, and every time I put the book down I was itching to get back to it again!  I think it helps that the reader is basically inside Kurt Wallander's mind from start to finish, even though it's written in the third person.  He's a thoughtful, clever, kind and immensely human character, with a fierce sense of justice and a touch of quiet vulnerability - the kind of cop every reader will be rooting for!  I also liked that this was very much a procedural novel, rather than a forensic gorefest, and the way the Swedish setting really came to life on the page.  Mr Mankell - you have another new convert!  Highly recommended.

Source: I think I found this book in a charity shop?  Maybe?  

Sunday 11 September 2011

REVIEW: The Princess Bride, by William Goldman (4.5*)

(Bloomsbury, 1999)

Like many people I expect, I came to this book having already seen and loved the 1987 movie – a fact that is beautifully exploited by Goldman in this up-to-date edition of his cult classic. From the first page of his tongue-in-cheek introduction I found myself stifling giggles, reading about the process of casting and shooting the film. It was once the novel itself began, however, that I really fell in love.

As most people will know, The Princess Bride is a satirical take on fairytale tradition, ‘abridged’ from a larger fictional work by ‘S. Morgenstern’. One of the real delights in the book is how convincing Goldman is about the existence of the fictional country of Florin and about Morgenstern’s style as a writer. There are brilliantly executed editorial sections scattered throughout the novel detailing his decisions to cut various parts of the ‘original’. It really is no wonder that so many readers hit the bookshops looking for Morgenstern’s version!

The story itself is famous for its brilliant wit and its cast of wonderful characters. At its heart is the story of the Princess Buttercup and her true love, the farm boy Westley. Around that heart is built a complex web involving pirates, sword-fights, an evil prince, a benevolent king, revenge, monsters and betrayal. There is a Zoo of Death and a terrifying Dread Pirate Roberts, an albino and a miracle man, giant rats and Cliffs of Insanity. Of course, I couldn’t forget the wonderful trio, Vizzini the Sicilian (the criminal mastermind), Inigo the Spaniard (the master fencer) and Fezzik the Giant (the rhyming fighter), each with their own journeys to make.

I could go on forever but the truth is, it’s really one of those books that works better if you just pick it up, settle in for the ride and find out for yourself. If you’ve seen the movie, now read the book; if you’ve not heard of either, what are you waiting for?! You’re in for a real treat – and it’s definitely a keeper for me.

Source: I bought this book from Scarthin Books in Cromford.

Monday 1 August 2011

REVIEW: So Many Books, So Little Time - A Year of Passionate Reading, by Sara Nelson (4*)

(Berkley, 2004)

Sara Nelson sets out with noble intentions. A devout reader during both her working and personal life, she decides to set herself the goal of reading a book a week for a year, writing a journal of her bookish habits, reading choices and general reflections as she goes.  From idle moments and snatched pages to family vacations and whole insomnia-ridden nights, this book is the resulting chronicle of her project.

This is definitely a book lover's book - which may explain why I found this second reading so much more enjoyable than the first, a few years ago.  I have more bookish knowledge and hundreds more books' worth of reading experience behind me these days, so I appreciated more of Nelson's choices and reading reactions this time around.  I've heard of more of the books, read some of the same titles, and am more immersed in the literary world online, and thus I found I had significantly more to relate to. 

In a way, reading Nelson's book is a little like being part of a book blog, a book club or an online reading community - it's made all the more enjoyable by the fact that in the back of your mind there's a quiet chant of "One of us, one of us" making you feel like a part of the action.  I recognised many of the author's bookish habits as my own – the myriad ways of choosing books, the building of book piles and compiling of lists, and the art of reading ‘just one more chapter’ at night until your eyes start to close of their own accord - and I recognised too the reluctance to loan out books, the way book hype can be more offputting than appealing, and the discomfort that stems from a friend enthusiastically lending you an 'amazing' book that you really don't want to read.

Obviously, as will always happen when two readers clash, there are areas on which Nelson liked to dwell that didn't interest me.  That is an inescapable part of interacting with other book lovers, whether you are in a book club or reading a blog.  There were certain books that I would never pick up, and certain themes that related to her life that wouldn't relate to mine.  Sometimes she might read an autobiography that was evidently written by an American personality I'd never heard of, and I'd move on fairly quickly to the next chapter.  Roll on the British version, I say, to iron out some of these differences!

At the end of the day, this is one of those books that basically does what it says on the tin.  It is an amble through a year of reading, with detours into Nelson's life as it relates to the books she is reading.  Why does she choose one book over another when she is fighting with her husband?  Why does this particular title make her feel a certain way, and how do her mood and her circumstances affect what she chooses to read - or to put down - in any given week?  These are questions we all ask ourselves every time we stop to consider why we choose the books we do, and why we react to books in such different ways, and Nelson reflects them back at us with a tongue-in-cheek nod to our shared bookish whims and peculiarities.  One to dip into, to savour - and be sure to read it with a pen and paper standing by to note down all the books you fancy reading for yourself!

Notable quotables:
  • "Explaining the moment of connection between a reader and a book to someone who's never experienced it is like trying to describe sex to a virgin.  A friend of mine says that when he meets a book he loves, he starts to shake involuntarily.  For me, the feeling comes in a rush: I'm reading along and suddenly a word or phrase or scene enlarges before my eyes and soon everything around me is just so much different fuzzy background." (p33)
  • "That's the good news about a good first line: Like the romantic insanity of the first weeks of a love affair, it can ground you, and keep you from bolting later on when things calm down.  But there's a risk in opening big, too: A powerful beginning raises a reader's hopes.  Should the rest of the book not measure up - and let's face it, so few do - I feel ripped off.  Hell hath no fury like an expectant reader scorned." (p209)
  • "I've lived the past year exactly how I've wanted to - between the covers of books and in the places in my head that those books have taken me.  I've been agitated, excited, enthralled, annoyed, frustrated, and sometimes a little bored.  But I've never been lonely." (p229-230)

Source: I received this book as a gift from my mum a few years ago.

Saturday 30 July 2011

DOUBLE REVIEW: The Jane Austen Book Club, by Karen Joy Fowler (3.5*)


The Jane Austen Book Club is one of those novels that might be dismissed as 'chick lit' but actually turns out to be a sharp, witty, intelligent and well-written book that, whilst certainly a light read, is also one to be deliciously savoured.

The premise is simple but original. A group of friends start a book club. Not just any book club, but, in light of their collective issues with modern life, an 'All-Jane-Austen-All-The-Time' book club. Six people, six books, with each of the group hosting the meeting for their chosen novel. The chapters are structured around these meetings, so the first chapter is 'MARCH, CHAPTER 1... in which we gather at Jocelyn's to discuss Emma', and so on. In each chapter the host's history and personality is more fully explored, the month's novel is discussed (but never so much that it bores or alienates the reader), and at the same time the other characters are lightly threaded through the background to keep the overall plot evolving.

As well as showcasing Austen's novels, this is very much a character piece. Each of the six book club members are entirely individual and it makes for much more interesting and amusing reading. Bernadette is a serial wife, rather eccentric and flamboyant, with a liking for yoga and Pride and Prejudice. Loyal Sylvia works at the library and has just had her life shattered by her husband Daniel's confession that he is leaving her for another woman. Her beautiful daughter Allegra is constantly doing daring things - not always without paying the price - and is getting over a devastating betrayal by her ex-girlfriend Corinne. Jocelyn is a dominant terminal singleton, afraid of being hurt and making up for it by matchmaking everyone else. Prudie is a rather artificial, self-conscious young French teacher who doesn't quite know how to interact with other people without coming across all wrong. And Grigg, poor Grigg, a sci-fi fan and Austen virgin brought into the group by Jocelyn as a distraction for Sylvia, is entirely out of his depth and trying not to make an idiot of himself. The novel is narrated by a kind of all-seeing other, one who describes each character in the third person but frequently mentions 'us' and 'we'; part of the fun of the reading is trying to work out which of the six, if any, might be telling the story.

Thus characters are strengthened, love blossoms and dies and blooms again, and the story goes on. Of course it ends with optimism, hope and a well-timed bit of Austen wisdom. To my surprise, at the end of the book Fowler has also added some little extras which add to the reading experience - some contemporary and modern literary criticism of Austen and her novels, a brief summary of each of the books (handy for those not familiar with all of the works, or those who might want a quick refresher on characters and plots), and at the VERY end, a funny set of 'Questions for Discussion' on Austen AND Fowler presented by each of the six book club members.

Clearly a liking for Jane Austen helps when reading this novel, but ultimately there is nothing in here that should put off a less knowledgeable reader, particularly given the handy summaries at the back (which I wish I'd noticed earlier, I must admit). It is a scrumptious book - funny, romantic, inspiring and positive - and definitely one I'd like to read again sometime.


This is a great ensemble piece with a fantastic cast and a good sense of humour!  I can never not be in the mood for such an all-round charming movie - it offers up romance, books, heartbreak, humour, and oh yeah, more books... 

Like the book, the movie is divided into sections by month and Austen novel, with each new section heralded by a yummy montage of the characters reading that month's book.  These mini montages are one of my favourite things about the film!  Whether it's Bernadette reading in the local coffee shop, Jocelyn relaxing on the porch or poor old Grigg poring over his huge all-in-one collection while tucking into an enormous sandwich, they make me want to run and pick up a book, right now!

I think one of the reasons I like the movie better than the book is the fact that it doesn't dwell too much on the characters' back stories.  Essential details are explained, of course, like the fact that Jocelyn and Sylvia have been friends since childhood and that Jocelyn used to date Sylvia's husband as a girl, but the fun of the book club never gets weighed down by their history.  In the book, for example, there is a long description of Grigg's experiences at a party as a boy, which really doesn't add anything to the story or to his character.  Here the characters and their links to the novels they're discussing are more clearly defined, and the focus remains mostly on the present and, naturally, on the books.

Ultimately, I just think the film takes everything the book did and does it better.  It aligns the characters' experiences with the six Austen novels, it offers humour and romance, it knocks ten years off Allegra's age (thus broadening its appeal down an extra generation, I think), it has plenty of bookish chatter, and most importantly of all, I never ever get to the end without having a big smile plastered across my face.  That's movie love, folks! 

Kathy Baker (Bernadette), Emily Blunt (Prudie), Amy Brenneman (Sylvia), Maggie Grace (Allegra), Maria Bello (Jocelyn) and Hugh Dancy (Grigg) 

Thursday 21 July 2011

BTT: On re-reading

What’s the first book that you ever read more than once? (I’m assuming there’s at least one.)

What book have you read the most times? And–how many?

I'm not sure really!  I used to re-read books constantly as a child.  Some of the books I remember reading and re-reading over and over again include various Enid Blyton series (The Magic Faraway Tree, The Wishing Chair, Noddy, Malory Towers, St. Clare's, The Children of Cherry Tree Farm, The Famous Five...), Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons, Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden and A Little Princess, L.M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables and Susan Coolidge's What Katy Did.  Stories about good kids with rampant imaginations who went on adventures and did all kinds of wonderful things!  I took a subset of these books everywhere - in the car to the shops, on holiday, anywhere that involved travelling really - and read and reread them voraciously in between trips to the library.  Lordy, those were the days...

These days I still re-read my favourite books, but at a rather slower and less frantic pace!  Aside from the Harry Potter books, which for the most part I used to reread every time a book came out (I've only read #7 once - I think it might be time for a renewed sweep through the whole series...), I'm not really sure what I've reread most.  There are definitely certain books that seem to keep swinging around on a regular basis.  I know it's 'time' because it becomes like an itch that needs to be scratched, or a craving that won't go away - I get preoccupied by that book and within a couple of months will have picked it up to enjoy again. 

Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are fairly regular re-reads, the latter more so than the former I think.  I first read Jane Eyre at a much younger age, and the shadow of my earlier fear of Lowood school and the terrifying presence of Bertha Mason at Thornfield still hangs over me when I think about it! 

I reread The Picture of Dorian Gray very regularly - that might be my most-reread title, in fact.  I bought it when I was about eleven, a Penguin Popular Classics edition from Waterstones in Llandudno (how's that for buyer memory?), fell totally in love with Dorian and the witty pleasure-seeking Henry, and have never looked back!  It's just an amazing book.  It's decadent and sensual and witty and gothic and scary - and I always well up a little bit at the end.  In fact, I'd even say that when that idle question 'Hmmm, what would I call my future kids?' comes up, Dorian's right up there for a boy.  Fabulous.

In terms of non-classics, there are a few more books I regularly re-read.  Bill Bryson is definitely up there, particularly Notes from a Big Country.  Being a collection of short articles, rather than one long narrative, it's that much easier to dip in and out of when I'm bored or need an easy read or a light pick-me-up.  Plus it's very funny, which definitely helps!

I also re-read two books I found around the same time and which are now firm favourites of mine: Donna Tartt's The Secret History and Jeremy Mercer's Books, Baguettes and Bedbugs: The Left Bank World of Shakespeare and Co.  Both are fantastic and come highly recommended!  And both are fairly bookish, of course.  The Secret History is about a group of elite scholars at a small American college whose preoccupation with the classics leads them to murder the most annoying of their number.  Books, Baguettes and Bedbugs is Mercer's account of his time living and working at Shakespeare and Co. under the watchful eye of wonderfully eccentric owner George.  I know both of these are due a re-read because I'm getting all twitchy just writing this!  It's been too long since I read either of them...

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to carry on with my all-new exploration of The Princess Bride, and rather appropriately, to continue my re-read of So Many Books, So Little Time, which is proving much more enjoyable the second time around! 

Friday 13 May 2011

REVIEW: Long Lankin, by Lindsey Barraclough (4.5*)

(The Bodley Head, 2011)

This amazing debut novel opens with the ballad of Long Lankin - a tale of murder, witchcraft and supernatural menace that immediately sets the tone of the story to come. Cora and her little sister Mimi aren't exactly thrilled when they're sent to live with their great-Auntie Ida at the creepy old Guerdon Hall, but with their mother falling apart and their father unable to cope they have little choice in the matter. Things get even worse when they arrive on her doorstep and are met with a barrage of threats, warnings, rules and the bitter knowledge that she wants them gone as soon as humanly possible.

But what Cora doesn't know is that there is a dark evil lurking in Bryers Guerdon - an evil that has been haunting the village for hundreds of years and has ripped her family apart down the generations. Why are the children forbidden from visiting the old church, and who is the man in black in the graveyard? Why do all the doors and windows have to be kept permanently locked, and what are the long scratches marking more than one local door? Together with her new friends Roger and Pete, Cora must uncover the mystery of Bryers Guerdon before it's too late for her little sister - maybe even for them all...

Although this is a young adult book, for me it bordered on Stephen King-esque in the way it preyed on my mind and used psychological thrills to build tension.  Barraclough excels at creating unbearable fear in the reader using tantalising clues, a slow reveal of the truth, and terrifying glimpses of the menace on the marshes, skilfully bringing the whole story to a macabre and gritty climax in the inevitable final encounter between Lankin and the last of the long-suffering Guerdons.

I can't recommend this highly enough. It is an outstanding first novel that had me absolutely gripped, weaving a complex tale that spanned centuries yet never felt dull or over-written. It captures post-war rural England beautifully, and has a refreshing thread of humour through it that owes much to Barraclough's wonderful eye for the little things children say and do that always make adults smile! The Long Lankin ballad is a haunting theme that preys on our deepest fears, and I raced to the end of the book, heart pounding in my chest, winding up absolutely exhausted, weeping, as I finished the final chapter. Read it!

Said my lord to my lady, as he mounted his horse:
'Beware of Long Lankin that lives in the moss.'

Said my lord to my lady, as he rode away:
'Beware of Long Lankin that lives in the hay.

'Let the doors be all bolted and the windows all pinned,
And leave not a hole for a mouse to creep in.'

The doors were all bolted and the windows all pinned,
Except one little window where Long Lankin crept in...

Source: Many thanks to Random House Children's Books, who sent a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Wednesday 4 May 2011

REVIEW: How Reading Changed My Life, by Anna Quindlen (4*)

(The Library of Contemporary Thought, 1998)

When I picked this book up, I wasn't quite sure what to expect. Was it going to be a serious discourse on certain key books, like Francis Spufford's The Child that Books Built? Perhaps a few bookish essays in the vein of Anne Fadiman's Ex Libris, or a sentimental autobiography about hardship and bookish redemption? Actually, it is none of those things.

Instead, what Quindlen offers us is an extended essay on books and reading, split into sections and garnished with bookish quotes from the likes of Thoreau and Whitman. In delicious prose that exudes enthusiasm, Quindlen meanders skilfully across a range of topics including the feeling of a being a book-lover in the midst of others who just don't 'get it', book snobbishness, academic elitism, book clubs, libraries, how men and women read differently, banned books and coming-of-age reading. Perhaps the most telling part is that on the future of the book and the rise of modern technology. This book was published in 1998, and Quindlen seems to find the idea of e-readers and online reading a bit of a curiosity, comparing it to the old fantasy films in which we were all eating capsule meals by the year 2000. I guess it just goes to show how quickly technology is leaping forward these days...

Though the final result bears little resemblance to what I'd expected from the rather self-centred title, this was even better than I'd hoped - a marvellous, well-reasoned look at the world of books, with enough of an 'every woman' feel to the anecdotes and examples to make it more inclusive and therefore more enjoyable to read. There is also a section at the back of the book with 'top ten' reading lists like '10 Books That Will Help a Teenager Feel More Human' and '10 Mystery Novels I'd Most Like to Find in a Summer Rental', which is a nice touch and added a few more titles to my wishlist... Highly recommended!

Source: I bought this book from a seller on Amazon Marketplace.

Tuesday 19 April 2011

Chekhov for Infants

Yesterday a tiny girl, perhaps five or six, came into the shop with her mum and dad.  When they first arrived I was in the office making a cuppa, but Mum said the man turned to the little girl and said, "Right, now, you're not allowed to talk in this shop, or they'll pick you off with an air rifle."  "We're not that bad!" Mum replied.  "Well, I told her it was electric shocks in the last shop!" he laughed, before escorting the poor kid off down to the children's corner.

Back out on the counter, I was ready and waiting when they returned with two children's books.  The dad sighed and shook his head."I don't know why I bother," he said sadly as his wife handed over a note.  "Last week I bought her the complete works of Anton Chekhov and what did she do?  Scribbled all over The Cherry Orchard, made crayon marks right through A Marriage Proposal...  Evidently she's destined to grow up illiterate and never go to a good school."

"That's a bit harsh," I said.  "Perhaps she just doesn't like the Russians - have you tried her on Dickens?"

As they left the shop, I heard a dull thwack as he swiped her over the head with his tourist map, and his voice drifting back from outside, "I'm going to beat literature into you!  Just see if I don't!"

Tuesday 5 April 2011

REVIEW: Perfume, by Patrick Süskind (4*)

(Penguin, 2006)

This book had what I call the 'Madame Bovary effect' on me. That is, while I appreciated the plot, the prose and the social history, I wasn't that bothered about the characters and got to the end of the novel thinking, 'Actually, I didn't really like it that much...' I found myself comparing it to Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, with its slightly blunt, spare translation, its intense sensory descriptions and its surreal exaggeration of reality - except that I was blown away by Like Water for Chocolate and wasn't by Perfume.

That said, I can't deny that this is a very accomplished novel. It tells the story of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a young man with an incredible nose who can tease apart the threads of scent in even the most hectic of city streets, differentiate between tiny gradients of fragrance, and discern odours that other people can't sense at all. The most elusive and desirable fragrance he encounters is the scent of a young virgin, and his obsessive pursuit of this ideal, his single-minded determination to create the ultimate perfume distilled from unblemished young women at the height of their perfection, leads him on an sinister quest to find the means to that exquisite end. He’s a hideous character, twisted and frightening in his genuine belief in his own crusade, but at the same time you can’t help admiring his genius and feeling some empathy for him despite his own complete lack of it.

The overwhelming level of olfactory description is definitely the main thing that stays with you as you close the book. Every scent, from flowers to humans to mountain air, is described in a flamboyant and exuberant swell of language. Unlike similar descriptions of taste, for example, or sound, I found it harder to ‘experience’ them as I read, and found that those passages veered from being sublime to, well... a bit much. In fact, that pretty much sums up my feelings about the book as a whole. Sometimes the description was divine, sometimes it was too much. Sometimes the process of perfume distillation and creation was fascinating, sometimes it was too much. Sometimes the more far-fetched or surreal aspects of the plot were deliciously compelling, sometimes they were... yep, you guessed it, too much. This is a novel of excess, of ambition, of genius, with threads of theatricality and black humour running through its pages – and I think every reader will respond differently to the sensory tidal wave. There’s only one way to find out for yourself – strap on your armbands and get swimming!

Source: I bought this book from a local charity shop.

Sunday 3 April 2011

REVIEW: Beach Babylon, by Imogen Edwards-Jones and Anonymous (4*)

(Bantam Press, 2007)

This book was such great fun! I read Hotel Babylon on holiday years ago, but I think this one was even better. In this exposé the anonymous whistle-blower is once again a manager in the hotel industry, but this time of a luxury island resort rather than a London establishment - and it takes things to a whole new level! As in the other Babylon books, all the people, places and madcap events that appear in the book are real, but names and locations have been changed (obviously!) and the bizarre situations the manager finds himself having to cope with have been condensed into one crazy 'week in the life'.

The reader is swept into a world of incredible luxury and privilege. This is a resort where the villas can cost up to $6000 a night, and the guests are so wealthy that they can afford to blow $20,000 on a afternoon's entertainment or $1,500 on a bottle of champagne without batting an eyelid. Not only does our intrepid manager have to cosy up to each and every one of his guests and bend over backwards to keep them happy, but he must also deal with their more outrageous requests, make sure the isolated island has everything it needs on a daily basis, and try to keep his staff functioning and content in the face of daily difficulties.

This is a wonderful piece of escapism, managing to capture both the little bubble of island life, with its daily champagne parties and beach barbeques and celebrity guests, and the all-consuming nightmare of trying to keep such a large resort in the impossibly perfect condition expected by the demanding clientele. Despite the 'world apart' nature of the island, the characters will be painfully familiar to anyone who's ever been on holiday! It's funny, it's dry, it's cringeworthy - and it's brilliant!

Source: I borrowed this book from our shop shelves.

Monday 28 March 2011

REVIEW: Tipping the Velvet, by Sarah Waters (4.5*)

(Virago, 1999)

The quote from The Independent on Sunday that graces the back of my edition, which describes the novel as 'a sexy and picaresque romp through the lesbian and queer demi-monde of the roaring Nineties', pretty much sums it up! It follows the fortunes of Nancy Astley, a Whitstable oyster girl whose life is turned upside down when she sees 'masher', or male impersonator, Kitty Butler performing at her local music hall and falls head-over-heels in love. Before she knows it she is employed as Kitty's dresser, and when an opportunity arises to go to London with her, she seizes it with both hands.

And so Nancy's new life begins. As she and Kitty become closer and closer, living together in a theatrical boarding house, she finds herself performing alongside her new sweetheart as a masher in a top-billing act, under the stage name Nan King. But betrayal is just around the corner, and from there Nancy's story is a whirlwind that takes her through the depths of despair into a career masquerading as a Soho renter, a spell as a spoilt and much-lauded 'kept boy' to a wealthy mistress, and finally on to contentment and happiness amongst the 'toms', or 'women-lovers', of the East End.

This was one of those books that I made a conscious effort to read carefully, slowing down and savouring the historical detail, the complex relationships between the wonderful characters, and the slow unfolding of Nancy's tale. The writing is superb, moving effortlessly between delicious description, earthy conversation and risque sexiness. Waters has obviously done a massive amount of research but wears her knowledge lightly - reading the book is like reading a classic novel, thoroughly comfortable in its period style and voice. It may have been my first Sarah Waters, but it definitely won't be my last!

Source: An old friend bought me this book as a birthday present.

Thursday 10 March 2011

REVIEW: Bloodstream, by Tess Gerritsen (4.5*)

(HarperCollinsPublishers, 2004)

This was my first Tess Gerritsen and one of my first forays into crime writing – and wow, I was impressed! Gerritsen delivers a taut medical thriller that had me glued to the pages from the start. When the teenagers of the ironically-named lakeside town of Tranquility, Maine, are gripped by a wave of murderous violence, new town GP Claire is determined to find out what’s behind the almost superhuman levels of aggression in the seemingly possessed adolescents. Casting aside the arguments of the locals, who seem to be more intent on holding onto their town’s image as a haven for tourists than saving their children, Claire must do everything in her power to find a medical cause for the crazed killing and mindless fighting - particularly since her fourteen year-old son Noah is at risk too. Is it drugs? Some local pathogen? A chemical spillage of some kind? And could it be linked to the spate of similar violence that the town has been trying to forget for nearly fifty years? Whatever it is, the race is on to put a stop to it before it’s too late…

I found the novel haunting, chilling and utterly compelling from start to finish. Every time I had to set it down to do something else, I found myself thinking about the terrible events that had happened so far, and trying to piece together all the clues to work out what was happening. It is a testament to the book’s strength that it pervaded every waking moment so thoroughly, and I found myself completely caught up in the excitement as the pages flew by, gasping with shock one moment and welling up with tears the next. At the same time, Gerritsen balances the horror of the town’s predicament with a dry humour, which was very refreshing and helped keep the story feeling grounded and human; it stopped it – and the reader – from getting too swept up in its own darkness. Highly recommended!

Source: I borrowed this book from our bookshop shelves.

Friday 11 February 2011

REVIEW: The Shallows - How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember, by Nicholas Carr (5*)

(Atlantic Books, 2010)

Every once in a while a book comes along that changes your life. You suspect it by the end of the first chapter, and by the time you close the book it’s assured. First came Naomi Klein’s No Logo, urging us to look beyond the gleaming images of big-name brands. Then there was Joanna Blythman’s Shopped, pulling us behind the benign faces of Britain’s most successful supermarkets. And now I can add Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows to the list, this dazzling polemic exposing the uncomfortable truths behind the all-powerful reign of the Internet over our modern lives.

Like No Logo and Shopped, The Shallows is hard to summarise in any meaningful way because its argument is so complex and sweeping. This is not a book to devour whole – it is a book to be carefully read, considered and absorbed. Carr isn’t a nostalgic professor yearning for the old days of leather-bound tomes and quill pens. But while he readily admits that the Internet has become a vital, entertaining and useful tool in his everyday life, he was also beginning to worry about the unseen effects of his online life. This book is the eloquent sum of his extensive and thorough research.

It’s quite a ride. In exploring his subject, Carr reaches way back into the history of intellectual technology, considering the impact of early innovations such as maps, clocks and the book on human life. From there he moves into the age of the computer, from the earliest machines through to the all-pervasive use of the Internet we see around us today. The last few decades, he explains, have raced by in a blur, and suddenly the World Wide Web is our medium of choice for almost everything we do.

But what about the biological impact of the Internet? Here is where things get really interesting. Modern neurobiological studies have shown that the brain’s neuroplasticity allows it to change with each experience, each path to learning we take. And thanks to the Internet, our brains really are shifting, away from paths that allow deep reading and reflective thought, and towards a chemistry geared to process the distraction and rapid-fire information that the Internet represents. Carr shows how even reading a simple page containing links and hypertext is a far cry from reading a page in a book, requiring us to stop, however fleetingly, to process the meaning of the link (What does it link to? Does it sound interesting? Will it be relevant to me?) and demonstrably disrupting our absorption in and thus our understanding of the text. In fact, it uses a different area of the brain entirely, one geared towards problem solving rather than comprehension. A little scary given the way schools and other institutions are already throwing out their books and replacing them with PCs and e-readers, isn’t it?

I could keep going forever, but the point of the matter is this: the Internet can be damaging. And as the future entwines itself more and more tightly with the virtual world, it makes sense to be savvy enough about its effects to be able to use and enjoy it without allowing it to destroy the things we value: our attention, our concentration and our ability to understand and process information that requires a little more involvement to fully grasp. Go, buy the book. It may just turn out to be one of the most timely and vital books of the decade. Open your eyes, open your mind – and maybe it’ll change your life too.

  • "My mind isn't going - so far as I can tell - but it's changing.  I'm not thinking the way I used to think.  I feel it most strongly when I'm reading.  I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or a lengthy article.  My mind would get caught up in the twists of the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I'd spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose.  That's rarely the case any more.  Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two.  I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do.  I feel like I'm always dragging my wayward brain back to the text.  The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle."
  • "Between the intellectual and behavioral guardrails set by our genetic code, the road is wide, and we hold the steering wheel.  Through what we do and how we do it - moment by moment, day by day, consciously or unconsciously - we alter the chemical flows in our synapses and change our brains.  And when we hand down our habits of thought to our children, through the examples we set, the schooling we provide, and the media we use, we hand down as well the modifications in the structure of our brains."

Source: I borrowed this book from my local library.

Wednesday 2 February 2011

REVIEW: To Touch a Wild Dolphin, by Rachel Smolker (4.5*)

(Souvenir Press, 2002)

Sometimes a book comes along that manages to balance a range of genres with such perfection that you close it having smiled and cried, experienced new places and lifestyles, and learned more than you realise, all without ever having left the comfort of your sofa. To Touch a Wild Dolphin definitely fulfills that description.

Monkey Mia, in Shark Bay, on the West Australia coast, is known for its friendly wild dolphins, who come right into the shallow waters and interact readily with humans. These days they are a huge tourist draw, but when Rachel Smolker first discovered them in the early eighties, hardly anyone knew about them. For Smolker, a marine biologist, they provided the perfect opportunity to study dolphins in the wild, learning to identify individuals, recording dolphin communication, and observing all the different elements of dolphin life, from courtship to hunting. For fifteen years she and her fluid team of colleagues and assistants spent huge swathes of time at Monkey Mia getting to know the dolphins, sharing their joys and sorrows, and reaching ground-breaking conclusions about their previously mysterious existence.

Reading this book and sharing the dolphins' lives felt like a real privilege, and it was utterly absorbing from start to finish. Smolker is a wonderful writer, moving effortlessly from lyrical descriptions of the beautiful Shark Bay area, through profound thoughts on the links between humans and dolphins, to accessible and concise information on all areas of dolphin society, without ever losing the thread of her narrative. She superbly captures the nuances of each of the key dolphins' personalities so that the reader grows as close to them as they would to any character in a novel, and experiences their happiness and their losses all the more deeply. She describes life in the rough camp by the beach, and offers anecdotes about interaction with the dolphins that range from the sublime to the horrific. And alongside all of this, Smolker distils everything she and her team learned from their time with the dolphins of Monkey Mia, from foraging techniques and courtship rituals to communication and male bonding, offering a complete and reverential picture of the wonder and complexity of the dolphins' lives.

This is a tour de force of nature writing, bringing together elements of science, natural history, ecology, autobiography and travel writing. It will make you laugh and cringe and cry, and leave you with a new respect both for dolphins and for the people who have dedicated their lives to studying them and working to develop our understanding of these amazing creatures. Read it!

  • "My mind still in that floating, receptive state of the recently asleep, I settle down on the deck to admire the spectacle: the phosphorescent comets below and the Milky Way above.  The magnificence of the scenery pulls me far above and beyond myself.  Shark Bay is a tremendous, wide-open expanse, jutting out into the Indian Ocean.  Distant from any city lights, it is a place where the night skies offer up a slowly rotating banquet of constellations, pulsating multicolor planets, bright clouds of star clusters, and dark, eerie nebulae."
  • "I reached out slowly and tentatively and touched her side.  She watched me intently but did not flinch or move away.  I was stroking the side of a wild dolphin.  Her skin was silky smooth, slightly rubbery, and surprisingly warm for a creature living in the ocean and resembling a fish.  I felt suddenly aware of how odd my long, gangly arms, with all those independently moving digits, must seem to her.  She was sleek, a torpedo."

Source: I borrowed this book from my local library.

Saturday 15 January 2011

REVIEW: Seasons of Life - The Biological Rhythms that Living Things Need to Thrive and Survive, by Russell Foster and Leon Kreitzman (4*)

(Profile Books, 2009)

Foster and Kreitzman's first book, Rhythms of Life, explained the importance of the circadian, or daily, rhythms that animals and plants live by. This second venture shifts the time span outwards and delves into the complexities of circannual, or seasonal, rhythms.

The first chapter is devoted to plants, and the way in which they use circannual rhythms to initiate flowering and other vital events in their yearly cycle. There are chapters on circannual rhythms in animals and birds, including the timing of conception and reproduction, hibernation and migration. These chapters clearly set out the latest research on why and how these rhythms operate, how they contribute to species survival, and demonstrate the way all of nature is connected in a giant web of interdependent species and individuals.

Finally there are chapters on the effects of circannual rhythms on humans. This includes such fascinating topics as the prevalence of certain illnesses at different times of year, birth and death patterns in different seasons, and a chapter on SAD, including research and ideas on its prevention and treatment.

This was definitely not what you would call an easy read. The chapters on animals and plants are very detailed and there is a fair amount of biological terminology to get your head around, as well as diagrams that take a little time to study and understand. That said, Foster and Kreitzman have done a great job at explaining things for the lay reader and making the book as accessible as possible without losing its scientific rigour. The chapters on human circannual rhythms are much easier to understand anyway, approaching the subject on a more sociological basis to reflect both the effects of complex social issues on our lives and the relative lack of knowledge about our human internal clocks. A very worthwhile and interesting read!

Source: I borrowed this book from my local library.

Sunday 9 January 2011

REVIEW: The Chrysalids, by John Wyndham (4*)

(Penguin, 2008)

This was my first John Wyndham novel and I had no idea what to expect. I wasn't even sure what it was about! I needn't have worried, because it entirely lived up to Wyndham's reputation as a classic science fiction writer.

The plot revolves around a group of children living in a dystopian society obsessed with 'God's True Image'. Anyone and anything that is seen to be 'wrong' is immediately stamped out as an agent of the devil. If a field of crops is less than perfect, it is burned. If a cow is malformed in some way, it is killed. And any human found to be different is stripped, sterilized and sent out into the 'Fringes', an area filled with exiled deviants, to live or die as they will. By taking these measures, the people of Labrador hope to appease God and rebuild the incredible society that existed before the Tribulation that turned the Badlands to deadly black lakes of burnt land and wiped out the 'Old People'. These children, who can communicate with a kind of advanced form of telepathy, know it's only a matter of time before their secret deviation is discovered and they'll have to fight for their lives...

I found this novel to be beautifully written and deeply thought-provoking. The obsession with the 'right' attributes that make someone human reminded me of the Nazi Aryan race, and was quite disturbing to read. There were elements of religion and philosophy, with characters musing on life and spirituality, and the real meaning of humanity. There were messages of tolerance, friendship and love. And behind all this there was a cracking good post-nuclear-apocalypse science-fiction story. With writing this good and plots this fascinating, this certainly won't be my last Wyndham - I think I might have to loan my houseplants out to someone and read 'The Day of the Triffids' next!

  • "The essential quality of life is living; the essential quality of living is change; change is evolution: and we are part of it.  The static, the enemy of change, is the enemy of life..."

Source: I borrowed this book from my local library.