Thursday, July 31, 2008

Crocodile Soup

If I could sum this book up in two words it would be ‘wonderfully bizarre’. Julia Darling’s novel ‘Crocodile Soup’ is a very clever piece that leaves you wondering if the storyteller Gert is mad or if in fact real life is mad. This has taken me a little longer than I thought, but this was good in two ways, firstly I wanted to savour the writing and secondly the surreal qualities of the novel do mean you need to read this carefully to piece it all together, it’s worth it.

Gert the unlikely likeable heroine of the novel is unfulfilled; she works behind the scenes of a museum (I think this is where the Kate Atkinson similarities have started) in the Egyptian Department. The museum has just been funded by the lottery meaning jobs are unstable and in the midst of this an infatuation starts with her over Eva the girl in the canteen. In her modern life she starts to unravel, partly after receiving letters from her estranged mother. She starts going back over her turbulent childhood as well as her adult years and it appears she is having some kind of breakdown.

The surreal is not in the modern part of the book, more in her childhood. Her twin brother Frank makes it clear she hasn’t always been the best truth teller. You hear wonderful stories of her childhood, the ghost in the house, the flasher by the pond, her fathers and the nannies separate disappearances and your left wondering if this brilliant surreal stories are true or not. All in all it doesn’t matter because they are fantastic stories which more seem to explain the mental and emotional journey of a young girl becoming a woman and a gay woman whilst being totally alienated by her mother. This is a coming of age tale unlike I have read in a long while.

This could have been a harrowing tale of the breakdown between a mother and daughter and I must admit the ending was more positive than I expected, that doesn’t give anything away. I think the thing I loved most about this book though was the humour, Darling’s voice as an author is wonderful. There are lines such as ‘Barbara’s face was smeared with gin. She looked liked the type who cried if you showed her affection… I did and she cried for weeks.’ This is a moving, sometimes slightly disturbing, surreal funny novel that has made reading a pleasure. Sadly Julia Darling died in 2005 aged 48 of breast cancer and only wrote two novels, a voice truly lost, I will be getting the man booker long-listed ‘The Taxi Drivers Daughter’ as soon as I can and I am sure devouring that too.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Whoops More Book Ban Breakage

I don't normally count readitswapit books as part of the book ban as to me its simply an exchanging of the number of books I already own, in fact on occasion I have swapped on behalf of others decreasing my numbers, I'll admit this is rare! I have however included one on here as two arrive in the post today along with some that arrived via me and the shops, oops, the latter were meant to be 5 for a pound... I got 7 for a pound. Charity shops are making life hard for book lovers of late.

West of the Wall - Marcia Preston
I didnt buy this or readitswapit, this is a book for review for New Books Magazine and I will be cracking on with this on the weekend. The guys there have sent me some good (The Palace of Strange Girls) bokos to review and some not so (Tales of Kipling Audiobook) so will be interesting to see how this fares.

Beneath The Blonde - Stella Duffy
The third Saz Martin novel in the series of lesbian crime or if we arent going to pigeon hole it, bloody good fiction with a criminal hint! Have started the series this month and now have this so am very excited.

The Untouchable - John Banville
I already have this biy bought it for Dom. Gay spies who work for the Queen in a novel based on true events, sometimes you couldnt make it up, eager to try a Banville this year.

Calendar Girl - Stella Duffy
This is another book for Polly, she really is a lucky madam, read it this month and its grand.

Breathing Lessons - Anne Tyler
I have mentioned the love of Digging To America and how I am determined to read more and more, this one won the Pulitzer Prize winner so thought it would be worth ago frankly. My mum really loves Anne Tyler.

Never Let Me Go - Kazuo Ishiguro
I have been recommended this book so many times that I think I need to knuckle down and read it. I have to say Artist of the Floating World was one of my lesser favourite book group books, but the man wrote Remains of the Day (also on my TBR pile) so am hoping this lives up to the hype.

Out - Natsuo Kirino
You are so right, I wasnt the biggest fan of her second book 'Grotesque' this month however this has won so many crime awards I thought would give her a go. This was my readitswapit book, am actually looking forward to this one a lot.

Book Of Evidence - John Banville
Loved the blurb, the idea of someone being a 'murderer second' I think sounds very clever, plus would like to try a shorter Banville first I think as though he is highly recommended have heard that he can be quite difficult. We'll see if its true.

Feather Man - Rhyll McMaster
So many people were saying that this should have been on the Booker Longlist, plus it has an amazing cover. This will be read very soon I think, I dont want to be the last to be raving about a book, that happens far too often on this blog. They had another copy maybe should run and get Polly one?

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Man Booker Longlist Announced...

So the results are in, the Man Booker Longlist has been announced and it is…

Aravind Adiga - The White Tiger
Gaynor Arnold - Girl in a Blue Dress
Sebastian Barry - The Secret Scripture
John Berger - From A to X
Michelle de Kretser - The Lost Dog
Amitav Ghosh - Sea of Poppies
Linda Grant - The Clothes on Their Backs
Mohammed Hanif - A Case of Exploding Mangoes
Philip Hensher - The Northern Clemency
Joseph O'Neill - Netherland
Salman Rushdie - The Enchantress of Florence
Tom Rob Smith - Child 44
Steve Toltz - A Fraction of the Whole

So here come the questions I am asking myself today.

Am I surprised by any of the entrants?
Yes and no, I have hardly heard of any of them, looking into it however I like the fact that there are so many new writers in this. Shock horror Salman Rushdie has been nominated again. Thrilled ‘Child 44’ is in the mix though as it stands out due to genre I guess but have heard some great things about that book. I can imagine there will be fury over this from certain quaters/snobs. I havent heard a bad review of that book.

Did you guess this would be the longlist?
I actually guessed that 3 of these would be in the longlist so am feeling slightly pleased, yet also totally inept.

Have you read any of them?
No. Which makes me feel like a complete fraud of a book lover I should be ashamed shouldn’t I?
Which is your favourite to win?
No idea. I’d have to read them to answer that one, it might help.
Will you be taking part in a reading Booker-a-thon?
I would absolutely love to, sadly I don’t think the bank balance would allow it, however if there is anyone who wants to sponsor me to do this or just wants to send me the longlist do get in touch. I would be totally up for it.
Oh is that my first meme? I dont really know what one of those is lol. Right am off to read books that I can afford lol!

Monday, July 28, 2008

Gold

I love a freebie and the latest Dan Rhodes novel ‘Gold’ was one I picked up for free in a coffee shop, which must do some promotions with publishers, in Angel after a book group meeting a while back. Randomly they were shutting so we got the books and left, the waiters didn’t mind apparently they were disappearing like ‘God Dust’ we got the joke but didn’t really laugh. This had been recently put into my TBR boxes only to be dug out again after it was chosen as the next Book Rabbit (www.bookrabbit.com) book group, I have never done one of these online but have decided to give it a go as I quite fancied this book… today, right now. I am so glad I read it.

‘Gold’ starts when Miyuki Woodward arrives in the same seaside village in Wales that she comes to every year. She has made a pact with her girlfriend that they sped a month a part each year and her two weeks is always spent by the sea in Wales, she likes the routine. During the day she walks and reads, reading a book a day over two weeks so she has read the equivalent of over one book a month every year. In the evening she can be found mainly at The Anchor (but occasionally at The Boat Inn which has a hilarious tale of a landlord, brilliance) sitting reading and watching a whole host of characters. The most prominent of these are Septic Barry, Mr Puw, short Mr Hughes and tall Mr Hughes; the latter provided me with several hysterical outbursts as tales of his past and present unfolded during the book. One scene involving him in the pub steals the entire show from everyone and instantly you know it won’t ever be a film sadly as its brilliant.

Here’s a small part of a conversation between himself and Miyuki early one morning on a beach.

Tall Mr Hughes didn’t seem to react to this. ‘Sometimes I lie on the grass and fall asleep, and hope by the time I wake up I’ll have been torn to pieces by vultures.’
Miyuki swallowed hard as this image appeared before her. This wasn’t the type of talk she expected from tall Mr Hughes.
‘You don’t get many of them round here,’ she said.
‘Puffins, then
.’

The dialect is always quite witty and punchy but there are some wonderfully tender moments amongst the humour. Also the characters are so real. Every single one you know you could easily meet in a seaside town in its quite winter periods, with their in jokes, obsessions about alligators and routines. Nothing much happens in the book, but it doesn’t need to and one thing it definitely isn’t is dull. This was the most fun I have had reading for two hours in a long time, with tears of laughter streaming several times. I recommend this book to EVERYONE as a MUST READ; the title is perfect as this book for any reader is pure gold.

My Man Booker Longlist Guess

I am always a bit fuzzy on the rules with the Man Booker Award and which writers are and arent allowed, I know I should hang my head in shame as an avid reader. Its not like I am ever going to judge them though is it? Mind you wouldn't that be brilliant? The Longlist is revealed tomorrow and I thought I would have a very uneducated guess at what might be in the final thirteen.

So here are my Man Booker Dozen for you (based on what everyone else is raving about I havent read and some rogue contenders I doubt will be in the longlist but should be)...

1. The Behaviour of Moths - Poppy Adams
2. Enchantress of Florence - Salman Rushdie
3. The Room of Lost Things - Stella Duffy
4. The Story Of Forgetting - Stefan Merrill Block
5. The Outcast - Sadie Jones
6. Alfred & Emily - Doris Lessing
7. The Spare Room - Helen Garner
8. Broken - Daniel Clay
9. A Case of Exploding Mango's - Mohammed Hanif
10. Sea of Poppies - Amitav Ghosh
11. The Butt - Will Self
12. Girl Meets Boy - Ali Smith
13. Remember Me - Melvyn Bragg

We will see tomorrow... I will be discussing I am sure.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Little Face

Sophie Hannah is an author that I was introduced to this year whilst competing with Polly in our favourite game in Borders/Waterstones/Foyles (delete as appropriate) where we compete with who has read the most on each table of books. I am sure I have blogged about this somewhere at some point. So anyway we found her collection of short stories called ‘The Fantastic Book of Everybody’s Secrets’ which was right up our alley as we are both complete nosey parkers. Once I had devoured that I looked into what else Hannah had written and saw that she had written crime (as well as poetry) and as soon as I knew there was a crime series well I was on readitswapit before you can say readitswapit.

Little Face is the first of a series of three (so far) crime novels. Now I have to say I wouldn’t totally put this book in the crime section, I love the fact that crime and fiction are in some ways merging in some ways I would compare Hannah to Kate Atkinson with her crime; however this is more of a psychological thriller more than anything and not your stereotypical detective crime story. It’s a refreshing modern thriller that creeps (and in some places becomes extremely creepy) up on you and has a slight gothic feel to it.

Alice Fancourt comes home from a day checking out a spa as a treat from her mother-in-law Vivienne not long after giving birth. When she comes home she finds the door open and her husband asleep, she runs upstairs and screams, not because the baby is gone but because the baby in the crib is not the baby Florence that she gave birth to.

The story is told in two parts. There is the story of Alice and the disappearance (or swapping) of her daughter, is she mad, will anyone believe her? Why has her husband David suddenly become cruel and possessive and why cant his mother Vivienne (a fantastic character who reminded of me oddly enough of Mrs Danvers from ‘Rebecca’) decide who she should believe. The other side is told from the Detectives on the case Simon and Charlie who get the case, they have personal issues to contend with as Charlie is in love with her number two Simon, they also wonder if there is more than meets the eye with the Fancourt’s as David’s wife was murdered outside their picturesque house ‘The Elms’ did they get the right killer?

Hannah makes quite a complex clever story a breeze to read. It’s really original, I didn’t guess the ending at all, bar one bit, and you find you’re trying to solve more than the one mystery you thought that you were originally getting. This is a brilliant book for crime fans, people who like a page turner, people who like good writing and those who gently want to ease into crime. Really it’s a book for anyone and everyone.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Die A Little

Have you ever heard someone say “they don’t make noir crime novels like they used to anymore”? No I dont often either, but actually they do and I have to say the first Megan Abbott to get released in the UK is some of the best ‘noir’ I have read. I was sent this by the lovely people at Simon & Schuster to review as its not out right now but it will be soon and I think that everyone should pop this on their to read pile. Can I also at this point add… how fabulous is the cover, very glam.

In case you are wondering what noir crime fiction is here’s a lovely definition from Wikipedia “In this sub-genre, the protagonist is usually not a detective, but instead a victim, a suspect, or a perpetrator. He is someone tied directly to the crime, not an outsider called to solve or fix the situation.” Noir was also big from the 1930’s until the 1960’s and this book is set in the fantastic era of the 1950’s Hollywood glamour era, with some scenes featuring Doris Day in the background.

In this story the protagonist is Lora King, a school teacher who is quietly happily sailing through life with her brother until he meets and marries Alice Steele. Alice is a beautiful Hollywood wardrobe assistant, but for some reason Lora doesn’t trust her and even thought her brother (a junior investigator for the District Attorney) trusts her and misses Alice’s inconsistent tales of her past, Lora believes there is more to meet the eye. Lora decides to investigate her sister-in-law herself taking her into Hollywood’s underbelly a world of sex, murder, drugs and prostitution.

I absolutely loved this book and happily devoured it in two small sittings. I like a good crime and this had lashings of murder, mayhem and mystery. The other major thing, bar the era in which it’s set, that I loved was the characters. Lora starts of as a sweet teacher who is drifting merrily like a Doris Day character through life but as she uncovers more and more of Alice’s past an inner femme fetale is released inside herself which is an interesting tale along side the mystery. Alice is amazing, I loved the fact that she had this dark past that you felt she was still visiting every now and then but the rest of the time she was getting involved in charity gala’s and cake baking alluding to the perfect wife. A character that I particularly loved was Lois, a friend from Alice’s past, who is hapless and always almost lets something slip, and I loved her story. The men in the book take a slight back seat Bill is a besotted man who cannot see anything wrong with his wife, however Lora’s lover becomes quite a rogue love interest that you don’t quite trust with his hidden depths.

I would recommend this to anyone who loves great writing, noir fiction, crime or just a really good story. Yes this ticks all the boxes and hopefully Simon & Schuster will bring the rest of Megan Abbott’s novels over to the UK as soon as possible.

Friday, July 25, 2008

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee

Rebecca Miller came up with a brilliant premise for a story with ‘The Private Lives of Pippa Lee’, that idea was a story of a married woman in her early fifties with a dark past moving into a retirement village with her 80 year old husband. What could be a better idea? I had visions of a woman causing a stir amongst all the others and creating havoc whilst we learnt the secrets of her past. This isn’t what you get despite the blurb, reviews and hype (as its part of Richard and Judy and everyone is talking about her famous husband and father). What you do get is a very interesting story of a woman at a strange point in her life that is reflecting on her past.

The book starts just after she has moved with her husband Herb as he wants the quieter life and wants to maximise the money he can leave Pippa when he dies. In offering her some stability he also makes her feel old before her time and causes her to have a sort of breakdown through the form of sleep walking, cooking and driving. We then find out all about the life she lived before.

I felt a little let down with her back story, at points it became unbelievable and the fact that her husband knew of her past as he met her during her rebellious phase (there’s major complications in their meeting) so to me her past was only secret to her children. That was a running theme within the story though mother-daughter relationships, Pippa has an awkward relationship with her mother, and while she has a great relationship with her son, she has an awful one with her daughter.

I enjoyed her more when coming back to her current life and she started to rebel in her pottery class. There was also some possible interest in her book group which she went to once where she met various characters who were then never mentioned again. I think the book could have done with being a bit longer so you really got a feel of her personality now and the relationship with her husband, neighbours and if she actually had any friends.

All in all it’s a good book, a slight opportunity missed, but enjoyable and you can read it in one sitting. I would call this ‘The Secret Past of Pippa Lee’ as to be honest she hasn’t had that many dark previous private lives, just a bit of a rebellious phase.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Grotesque

Hmmm, a puzzling novel this one. I don’t think I would ever have picked up Natsuo Kirino’s book ‘Grotesque’ if it hadn’t been the latest Book Group novel, though it does have quite a good cover and I do really enjoy Japanese and Chinese fiction so maybe somewhere along the line I would have. From what we had been told by the blurb was that this was a dark gritty crime novel about the murder of two prostitutes in Tokyo, there would be sex, murder and mystery all told by the bitter sister of one of the prostitutes, and it sounded really interesting. In reality, well…

I would not put this in the crime section of a book store, but then I am not a fan of putting everything in to pigeon-holes, pretty much from the start you are told who the murdered of one of the girls and probably the other, so there is really no mystery to that part. The mystery is finding out the truth in the differing stories as the book goes along.

I would say this is a fiction novel that happens to have murder in it. So, what about the story? Yuriko and Kazue, two prostitutes, have been murdered in Tokyo; they are linked, not just by the murderer but also by a school and by Yuriko’s nameless older sister. The novel tells of the sister’s childhoods then their time at Q School and eventually moves to the order. I have to be honest the school part bored the hell out or me, it just went on and on and was then told by both sisters which I understood was to show their truer characters but even the author writes as one of the characters ‘these words may drag’ and at another point with some letters says the same, is this a clever way of disguising the fact that the author knows that some of the book is aware that the story is going on and on?

Other than in these occasional parts the writing style is fantastic which made me persevere with the book as I did enjoy Natsuo’s novel. The book is told in several parts, first two parts by the vile bitter sister cover their childhood and the present time not long after the murders, from childhood Yuriko is a stunning girl, something that makes her sister bitter, distant and hateful towards her. We then have Yuriko’s diaries a tale of incest (which seems to be a common theme in the book and if you took it as a true reflection of Japan could appear a high concern) and how she uses her looks to get ahead in life, and what happens once they fade. Then follows the trial and statements of the accused murderer, his story of how he ended up in Japan illegally after fleeing China. Then the other prostitute Kazue’s diaries, her tale I actually found the saddest and most desperate, how she want from a high flying student, to high flying business woman who has to resort to selling her body for money on the side, before the conclusion. Bizarrely what I liked with this book is that all the characters are awful and yet its still makes you read and you find your enjoying how awful they are to one another. Maybe thats just me?

So I think this is much less a crime novel and much more a novel about Japanese culture and also the state of the society as a whole today, the selection process of schools, and their hierarchy that continues into adult life. It is also a deep look into the female psyche and how what happens in your youth and how you are raised and treated can lead you become the person you are, and in the case of some how it has nothing to do with it at all. I found that side of the book fascinating. It really is a rollercoaster book of highs and lows. It also looks at how women are treated in Japan.

This made the book more interesting and made you read on so I guess there was a sense of mystery, sadly the ending with its ‘ghosts’ and ‘visions’ – I wont give the ending away – is slightly, no is, a let down. However that bizarrely hasn’t put me off the author, I want to give her first novel (which has won awards galore) ‘Out’ a read at some point. See like I said a puzzling novel this one.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Breaking The Book Ban Again

This is not my fault, I blame Oxfam for having a day where all books were 49p, I mean really its most selfish. I am naturally just going to buy more books that way and really thats not fair on me. I must write about some very interesting thoughts have been hearing around second hand books at some point, for now will just enlighten you to my purchases.

Two Adolescents - Alberto Moravia
One of Italy's best writers. I have the Woman of Rome in one of my TBR boxes and they are quite difficult to get hold of in general so had to snap this up, must read one as my friend Giorgia recommended him to me over a year ago.

Northanger Abbey - Jane Austen
I am so cross with myself admitting this... never read it, and I think out of them all bar of course P&P this will be my favourite because of the Gothic undertones, should this be read before or after Udolpho? I have had that ages. and know it needs to be read, there really are too many books in the world.

The Visible World - Mark Slouka
Have seen this somany times in second hand bookshops and always been tempted so today recklessly just added to my selection.

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox - Maggie O'Farrell
One of my favourite books of last year as another Polly must read gift. Wonderful tale of a lost relative who turns out to be living in a mental institution, absolutely brilliant, very understated and just superb. Must read.

What Was Lost - Catherine O'Flynn
For my Gran as its her book group book a favourite of mine this year, review somewhere below.

The Keep - Jennifer Egan
I bought this for the blurb, I couldnt decide whether the line "then in steps Danny a damaged, cynical, 36-year old New Yorkerwho rarely goes anywhere that isn't wi-fi compatable" made me think this would be one of the most dire (its the word wi-fi) or brilliant modern ghost story, time will tell this has gone quite high on the TBR pile.

Lucia Rising - E. F. Benson
Sometimes you are just meant to walk into somewhere and see something. I have been trying to get this on readitswapit but its like gold dust, I almost settled on one with a really horridly creased cover and then I see this. Will be doing this with Dom at some point, all the first three in the series for 49p, no it doesn't constitute me buying nine books today, and two arent for me anyway.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Sinner

Yes, back to Gerritsen so soon. I was umming and ahhhing what was quick to read before I start on a Nancy Mitford’s ‘The Pursuit of Love’ and also the next Book Group book as I have just over a week and it’s quite a large book. So I went with Gerritsen. ‘The Sinner’ is the third in the Jane Rizzoli series, and the second with Maura Isles as the medical examiner. Would this be as good as the first two? Would I be hooked and unable to put the book down?

The answer to the above is pretty much. In some ways this is better than the previous two in others its not, overall it’s very, very good. Isles and Rizzoli are called to a cloistered convent where one nun has been murdered and another has been left fatally injured. There are no motives and no clues as to why a pair of nuns would be attacked in such a way it’s for Rizzoli and Isles to work out together. Then when another faceless, handless and footless body turns up secrets are revealed and our two leading ladies have to work out the link between her (the Rat Lady) and the two nuns, with many a twist along the way.

I actually like these two leading women. Rizzoli has grown in every novel so far, and though she has quite a secret in store she sadly doesn’t seem to be in the novel so much as before which makes you feel slightly like your not part of the investigation from a coppers side. You are much more involved in the process of autopsy’s as Isles has now gone from being a supporting role to very much a main character role which is great as she is another strong woman with flaws (named Queen of the Dead) in a different way from Rizzoli, also without her the story wouldn’t make sense. Two things I wasn’t sure about with her was that a) she drank sherry when she got home from a long day (sometimes one thing can just make you think ‘she wouldn’t do that though’) b) someone turns up in her life which creates a great back story for her but also is very clich├ęd in a ‘oh now I think I know what’s coming’ way both disappointed me slightly.

Other than that this is a great crime novel/murder mystery with gore galore. Gerritsen knows her terminology (and I figure once I have caught up with the series so will I) of medicine, autopsy’s and operations. There is a lot less murder and a lot more mystery in this novel which is both good and bad. If you are expecting a book that fits the last twos plot lines and formula, you won’t get quite what you are expecting. But then that’s also a good thing right? I picked up the next one this afternoon, but I am being very good and having a Gerritsen break for a while… well as long as I can manage.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Spies

I have just put this down. I wasn’t sure to start with that I was going to like this, however its one of Mum’s favourites and its also been on my TBR pile for far too long and I planned to read it a few weeks ago and read ‘Underground’ by Tobias Hill instead… big mistake, well sort of. ‘Spies’ from the title I thought was going to be Michael Frayn’s massive Second World War espionage tale, what I found was indeed intriguing and wonderful but I need to learn not just to judge a book by its cover but also by its title.

‘Spies’ starts with an old man heading back to his youth where he tells the tale of Keith and Stephen, two friends who live on ‘the close’ during the Second World War. It took me a while to realise that he is Stephen as he speaks about himself as another person in some parts and as ‘I’ in others, I found this slightly off putting and confusing at first but once you get that in your head the book is much easier to follow and you can get into and concentrate on the story, and what a story it is.

The Second World War seems to have not affected the boys, bar one of the neighbours houses being wiped off the street by a wayward bomb, that is until one day Keith announces that his mother ‘is a German spy’ and things change, at first Stephen isn’t sure as Keith has already announced that one of the neighbours is a murderer (though they do find bones in his garden) however they decide to watch her and see what happens. What starts as a child’s game becomes anything but, and as these young boys become young men things start to change all around them, and hard lessons must be learnt.

Frayn writes this novel brilliantly, you’re hooked by the story and Frayn weaves in more clues and red herrings as you go. He also writes brilliant characters, Keith’s parents are done wonderfully, she the nice seeming woman and he the frightening dictator which of course affects Keith’s character. Stephen who the story bases around is real, he makes huge mistakes, can be a coward but can also be very brave. There is also the brilliant character of Barbara the annoying girl next door who is interfering but also used wonderfully to describe how boys and girls feel about each other at awkward ages.

This is a brilliant book that yes does have a mystery ‘spy’ story to it but also is a story that is told brilliantly from a child’s perspective, and deals with becoming an adult, adult’s secrets, the War and things that go one behind closed doors and all in less than 250 pages, a real accomplished book. I would recommend this to everyone; mind you everyone has probably already read it.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Mitfords - Letters Between Six Sisters

Now if you are sat there thinking ‘he can’t have read that mammoth book in only a few days’… I haven’t. This has actually been a book I have been devouring in fits and starts for almost a month, well three weeks or so. It’s so big I couldn’t carry it everywhere with me on the tube, so have been reading other books along side. ‘The Mitford’s – Letters Between Six Sisters’ is an amazing book, a collection of the famous sisters letters to each other over 80 years, edited by Diana Mitford’s daughter in law Charlotte Mosley. Edited I think is an unfair word in this case; she hasn’t merely compiled them and then cut out bits and bobs. She has thoroughly researched the sisters so that as you read each different era you get a good introduction by Mosley as to what was going on in each of the sister’s lives and the life of the family of Mitford’s as a whole.

Not that I have read anything about the Mitford sisters before, though bizarrely I have heard of them often, but I can understand J. K. Rowling’s quote on the front that ‘the story of the extraordinary Mitford’s has never been told as well as they tell it themselves’ and she is write, there is no hole barred here. The sisters are constantly frank with each other through times of loving each other and times where they hated each other as some of them did. But its not just the times when they think each other is ‘wondair’ or each other are ‘hateful’ and all the turmoil they go through as a family, its an amazing look through history as the Mitford girls seemed to know everyone separately.

Nancy writes in fascinating detail of the family and how she found the constraints of her parents and the family too much. She also writes of how she writes, why and a fascinating insight into some of the other great writers of the last hundred years such as her close friend Evelyn Waugh. Pamela wants a simple quite life and can discuss any meal she has eaten in the last thirty years, has a love of farming and also became a lesbian although only once or twice do the sisters discuss this. Diana, the family beauty, becomes a fascist, after marrying the heir to Guinness she has an affair with a politician and is jailed during the Second World War. Then there is Unity who became a close friend (and has a slight obsession with) Hitler causing a conflict between her love for him and the love for her country which led to her shooting herself. There is Jessica who became a fighter for social change and ended up living in America writing about funerals and prisons. Finally we have Deborah who became Duchess of Devonshire, owner and restorer of Chatsworth, and who mingles with royalty (describing Diana as ‘clever with the public but truly she was mad’) and the Kennedy’s. This is truly simply outstanding, both for the historical and for the tales of six women who became celebrities without trying to and couldn’t see quite what all the fuss was about. What is also interesting is as they get older they too look back on their older letters and indeed themselves.

This is possibly my favourite book of the year so far. I am now officially a Mitford-holic and will be reading much more by them and about them. Where else would you get such insight in 900 pages of Britain from both the poor and the rich (the sisters weren’t all loaded as some people believe) told by some of the most fascinating, mischievous, voices that you could ever wish to hear.

Another thing that’s been special about this book bar all the above is it has been the first non-fiction book that I have enjoyed, recommended to everyone and has just made me read and read. It’s also a book that has given me lots and lots to read in the future. I now want to read books that they recommend each other; some of these included Daphne Du Maurier’s ‘Mary Anne’, everything by E.M. Forster, Truman Capote’s ‘In Cold Blood’. As well as everything that they wrote themselves, particularly Nancy, as well as everything by Evelyn Waugh, so that’s made the book even more of a treasure. I will leave you saying this book is truly ‘wondair’ and a final quote from Jessica on reading. Buy this book everyone should read it!

“1) Get a supply of books you have always meant to read, but never had time, such as Plutarch’s Lives, War & Peace, Bacon’s Essays etc. You’ll find your attention unaccountably wandering – you seem to have read the same paragraph several times and still can’t quite get its import. Put the books on a chair to be read some time later. 2) Next, fetch up some novels that you know one ought to have read in childhood but never did – Hardy, Conrad, the lesser-known works of Dickens. Same, alas, as in 1) above. 3) Find some books that you know you like, as you have read them before – Catch 22? Catcher In The Rye? Pride & Prejudice? (You’ll have to fill in the titles of your own favourites). This is far more easy going, far more pleasurable. 4) Try some collections of short stories, the shorter the better. Also, Grimm’s Fairy Tales – that sort of thing. That way the constant interruptions – meals, pills, baths etc – don’t specifically matter. 5) Above all – lay in a huge supply of mags, the more trivial the better, and leaf through them languidly while waiting for your cup of tea. That, anyway, is what I usually do.”

I was really sad to put this book down, in fact slightly bereft, but on with more!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Calendar Girl

Having read ‘The Room of Lost Things’ earlier in the year I had wanted to read some of the other novels that Stella Duffy had done, and as I was seeing her at the London Literary Festival two nights on the trot I thought it might be the perfect time. After umming and ahhhing which one I went with (naturally the first) one of her crime novels. I like a bit of crime.

‘Calendar Girls’ is told in alternating (bar in the middle) characters stories. In one we are reading about Saz Martin and her life as a Private Detective, well that’s what she is trying to be although she’s avoiding the Enterprise Allowance people like the plague. However a new case has come up that looks to turn her business around, if only things were that easy. John Clark is looking for a woman, a woman he has had dinner with on Fridays on and off for a while, a woman he has lent money to, a woman who has disappeared and a woman who he knows nothing about, he called her ‘September’. How will she find this woman, where will it take her (New York actually), what was she up to and why has she disappeared?

The other part of the story is told by stand up comedienne Maggie, who meets ‘the girl with the Kelly McGillis body’ a mysterious secretive woman she moves in with and falls in love with, what secrets does she hide? How are Maggie and Saz’s stories connected? You’ll have to read the book to find out.

This is a great crime novel… hang on this is a great novel. It’s intelligent (some mentions of Daphne’s Rebecca), in some places witty (Nancy Drew mentions), well paced and most importantly has characters you care about. Some crimes novels just have dead nobody’s on a slab in the morgue that you know nothing about and don’t really care about, you just want to know who the killer is. I really enjoyed this and have read it quickly as I like the two women so much both of them slightly messed up and flawed and both human stories that made them more real. Now I have found Saz Martin I am looking forward to the next five mysteries she gets involved with and plan on joining her for the thrill.

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Innocent

After finishing another Ian McEwan I am left officially in awe of his writing, its amazing. Having loved ‘The Cement Garden’, ‘Atonement’ and ‘On Chesil Beach’ I have been waiting for a McEwan novel to let me down and was worried that as I had heard so little about ‘The Innocent’ it might sadly disappoint. It didn’t, it was brilliant.

The setting is Berlin in the mid 1950’s, Leonard Marnham arrives ‘an innocent abroad’ working for the British-American Surveillance Team, though he feels he is part of something bigger he never knows quite what and becomes a pawn in a international game. However the spy story is only really part of the whole book, ‘The Innocent’ is also a tale of love. Marnham meets Maria in a bar after she sends him a drink, what follows is his first love affair, and a slight obsession, that leaves them bedridden only getting out to eat and occasionally wash and obviously to work. Maria is a dark character and has a history that she likes to keep secret. Two things change their relationship forever and as they do the book gets darker and darker.

From what appears to be a story of ‘Operation Gold’ or ‘The Berlin Tunnel’ (a true story of a CIA-MI6 collaboration that went wrong) McEwan creates a claustrophobic love story that becomes an obsession that then becomes possible one of McEwan’s darkest tales (I didn’t almost throw up as some people have according to their reviews, but it is quite grisly) taking you to a very desolate and desperate place.

It’s a mammoth dark disturbing story, which is not what you would expect from the title or possible in so few pages and that to me is a sign of the mastery of McEwan. Now which one should I read next

Monday, July 07, 2008

Underground

I think any book after ‘Everything Is Sinister’ was going to be something hard to follow. While I am still reading (slowly to totally enjoy the book) ‘The Mitford’s Letters Between Six Sisters’ I wanted another dark book, and Tobias Hill’s debut ‘Underground’ seemed the perfect choice a tale of the London Underground, the disused stations and a murderer who is pushing women under trains. It sounded grim, dark and a real page turner. Not quite so.

Tobias Hill has a great writing style and had I been in the mood for a tale that did indeed have a sort of mystery in the tunnels of the London Underground but was much more about a young mans childhood in Poland then this would have been a great read, I wanted a thriller, I wanted crime and sadly I didn’t really get it. In Hill’s favour I have to say that the suspense of the climax of the whole book was brilliant, sadly it just came 200 pages late. This is not a bad book, but thanks to its publishers it’s a misleading book.

There is not a string of murders, there are two pushes and that’s that. Casimir is a worker on the underground who randomly falls for a girl who he sees on the tube and then finds lives in a disused station and just happens to like him back and want top have sex with him after meeting him for 50 minutes or so. Riiiiiiiiiggggghhhtttt. How is she connected to the killings is she the killer? I think these were the questions I was meant to ask however I just thought ‘what?’ and then got very bored with her and him. The alternating chapters were the tale of Casimir’s childhood in Poland, this was more interesting but not what I wanted from a book, if I had this would have been the redeeming factor of the book.

This book is the perfect book to point out the issue I have with some books blurbs, especially when they lie. This is another case of the blurb mot telling the truth, its not the books fault, its not the authors fault and yet it makes me annoyed and puts me off both, why don’t publishers tell the truth? For example this blurb was “On the London Underground, someone is pushing women under trains. In his search for the killer, Casimir, a Tube worker, is led even deeper into a labyrinth of long-forgotten passages and deep shelters – and into the terrible secrets of his own childhood.”

I will highlight in italics what they should have added “On the London Underground, someone is pushing women under trains (well someone seems to have been pushed and then someone else does it’s a bit vague). In his search for the killer (well in accidentally hearing and seeing things he shouldn’t and then becoming slightly obsessed), Casimir, a Tube worker, is led (well once or twice) even deeper into a labyrinth of long-forgotten passages and deep shelters (and also becomes obsessed with a girl he randomly sees on a tube and then finds coincidentally lives in a disused station where she is only too happy to sleep with him after very few introductions)– and into the terrible secrets of his own childhood (which dominates the book and should actually be the main theme of the blurb.”

A shame, the right blurb which would have lead to the right timing and right mid set I think I could have really liked this book.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Everything Is Sinister

'Violence is the new language. Celebrity is the new currency.' Its 2010 and Ed Raynes is the chief showbiz correspondent for The Voice of the People the UK’s biggest selling tabloid magazine where tales of MP’s and their affairs make headline news daily. Ed Raynes is covering Lockdown the nations favourite reality TV show where the contestants are locked in a disused prison the winner achieving vast amounts of money and fame. Ed Raynes knows a shocking secret about the favourite to win and is beginning to think that there is something wrong with the industry.

After an incident involving a skinhead Ed quits his job and becomes a recluse. His only escape from the flat is the TV, internet and the food delivery man. The longer he stays inside and more TV he watched he realises that it’s not the industry, there is in fact ‘something wrong with people’. Ed’s life soon becomes a mission, a mission that nightmares are made of.

David Llewellyn has done a fantastic job with what a subject that many people are making a farce of. This is a dark brooding novel that looks at humans as a whole and what could happen to society. I got a feeling of slight Irvine Welsh and Haruki Murakami as there is a very surreal feel to what is a gripping modern storyline. There is also a slight feeling of Orwell too, its a disturbing look into the very near future. There is also an edge to this novel that comes from Llewellyn's writing and that was also in ‘Eleven’ Llewellyn’s debut novel about 9/11. David Llewellyn is a name to watch out for, a serious talent I look forward to the next book.