Monday 30 May 2011

Review: - Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency

The past week, I’ve been enviously reading about people’s BEA adventures, and wishing (as I don’t often wish) that I didn’t live in England, so I could have gone. All the jealousy has had a positive effect, though, as reading about people’s experiences and all the books they’ve got, made me focus on all the books that I’ve got lying around my house, unread. I love that I’m getting back into writing posts again lately. The past month or so I’ve read loads, but not wanted to write much at all. The last couple of weeks, I’ve been back with having to write just to get my thoughts out of my head. It’s so freeing to see all my thoughts and ideas neatly expurged and sorted onto paper, and working out not just what I really think about books, but also about authors, genres, and literary issues in general is one of the many things I really love about blogging. 

My dad read me The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy  as a bedtime story when I was nine or ten. He hardly reads fiction at all, with the exception of Douglas Adams, Tolkein, and Terry Pratchett, but he used to tell us the most amazing made up stories, and so it was a really big deal when he read to us from books! Hitchhiker made us laugh so loudly my mum would come upstairs to find out what was going on, and we’d all be so engrossed that we’d still be reading hours past our bedtime, Dad’s dinner getting cold, without any of us noticing. I read the rest of the series to myself, and pretty much didn’t stop laughing until I finished the last page of Mostly Harmless. For years, one of my first questions to potential friends was to ask them what the meaning of life was. If their answer was 42, they were ok, anything else, and they were out the door. Yes,  I know – totally weird question to ask, and yes it did make a lot of people run away from the crazy girl, and no, I don’t do it anymore, because I now recognise that there’s more to friendship than knowledge of Douglas Adams books, but anyway, suffice to say that I’m a big fan.

I was having one of my semi-regular sort outs of my bookshelves a while back, and was shocked to realised that I had managed to possess both Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency and The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul for about a year without reading either of them. Needless to say, they both moved way up the TBR pile!

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is a difficult book to write a synopsis for, as it’s about many very odd things. It seems it’s pretty much impossible for me to capture the essence of a Douglas Adams book in a mere few paragraphs. Here’s what Goodreads has to say about it:

Detective Gently whizzes about the world, the universe, and time itself as a group of eccentric characters help him find an eccentric cat, solve a murder, and save the human race.
Basically, Richard is dating Susan. Susan’s brother Gordon (Richard’s boss) is murdered, and Dirk, Richard’s old college friend, gets involved in finding out who really did it. Cue adventures involving Dirk and Richard’s old college professor, time travel, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and (of course) aliens. As usual, the entire plot line is set in motion by a seemingly ‘trivial’ alien event; there really isn’t much of a reason for anything that happens. The characters throughout, are mostly just trying to work out which series of random events have led to the random event they’re currently trying to deal with. The first random event is the arrival on Earth of an electric monk, which “believed things for you, thus saving you what was becoming an increasingly onerous task, that of believing all the things the world expected you to believe”. Like Marvin the paranoid android in Hitchhikers, I just really loved the descriptive passages about the Electric Monk, such as this one:
“The Monk currently believed that the valley and everything in the valley and around it, including the Monk itself and the Monk’s horse, was a uniform shade of pale pink. This made for a certain difficulty in distinguishing any one thing from any other thing, and therefore made doing anything or going anywhere impossible” p4
Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency was really quirky and slightly insane. The thing I love most about Adams is his ability to state the completely impossible in an absolutely matter of fact way. His style is so compact, and he puts the reader inside the heads of his characters so well that you get swept away and believe things can happen because the characters believe that they are. And the beautiful thing about it is that the characters often don’t believe things are happening, and spend entire novels in a state of bewildered disbelief. I often wonder if this was how Adams felt about things, as it seems to come out very clearly in his work. I know I should be talking about him in the past tense, as this month marked the tenth anniversary of his death, but somehow he still feels very alive to me. His writing is so vivid, and his characters so animated, in some cases, even when they’re dead, that it really does feel, to quote a total cliché, as if he lives on in his books.
I really don’t know how Douglas Adams managed to come up with ideas which sound so perfectly rational and plausible, while at the same time being completely ridiculous and impossible. I wish I could do it, and I really hope that one day, whenever I do start to write again, I’ll be able to channel some of his totally crazy humorous joy into my own work.

I loved this book, as I’ve loved all of his books. After loving Hitchhikers for so long, I was worried that nothing else would live up to it, but this did. It’s definitely going on my ‘keeper’ shelf!

Rating: *****

Friday 27 May 2011

Death of the ban! (or, how I came to buy a lot of books...)

Back in February, after some epic failures to fit all, or even any, of my books into the available space, and realising that it's not o.k to come home with a sackful of books every single time I go past a bookshop, I decided to put myself on a Year Long Book Buying Ban. All capitals, all seriousness, and I was determined. I made it to exactly three months and fifteen days... I know that many of you will appreciate how long this is! And why is it that it feels so much longer? I actually feel like I didn't buy any books for an entire year, and when I was counting back, I couldn't believe that I hadn't (at the very least) reached the six month mark!

So anyway, three months and fifteen days... and then, this happened:

It really isn't as bad (good??) as it looks, and here's why. The reason that I absolutely had to break my ban, was that we went to Whitstable at the weekend, which has two of the most awesomely awesome bookshops that I have ever come across in my life, and I've been in a lot! The first is Harbour Books, and oh my goodness this place is AMAZING. They stock all new books, and it's in a gorgeous little shop with lots of narrow awkward stairways and twisting turns and secret corners, but here's the great bit; a huge majority of their brand new books are only £2.99! And as if that wasn't enough, piled around the top of the staircase, and on all the shelves lining the walls, are all their sale books, most of which are only 50p each! Seriously, how on earth could anybody expect a person such as myself to be in a place such as this and not buy anything?! No I haven't been paid to plug them, but seriously, if you are (or ever find yourself) in my sunny little corner of Britain, go to Whiststable, go visit Harbour Books, and then make me a cake to say thanks :-)

Ok so, on to the second bookshop. I had to google the name of it, as I was too in awe at the time to notice, but it's called Oxford Street Books, and their website is almost as gorgeous and well laid out as their shop. It's a second hand and antiquarian bookshop, and I was totally thrilled to find it, as lately the fiance and I have been lamenting the horribly disorganised state of both of our local second hand bookshops. You know when bookshops have that slightly damp, musty smell? Our locals are like that, and as far as anyone can tell, the books aren't organised into any kind of system or categories either. Totally overwhelming. Anyway, this place was the exact opposite of that. It is beautiful. Outside, on tables, they have a load of 95p paperbacks, organised in genres by table, and then inside it's literally floor to ceiling books, organised by subject, and then by format. The guy that was in there when we were was amazingly knowledgeable. As we went around a corner we caught a glimpse of his basement storage area, which was literally just piles and piles of books as far as the eye could see, and we had a bit of a joke with him about it. As we were going to leave, my fiance asked him, just on the off chance, if he knew if he had any Noel Streatfeild books in. He told us he thought he had a couple in the basement. I feared for his life (I think he did, too!), but he returned literally minutes later, and apparently unharmed by the gathering hordes of the storage room, with a gorgeous Persephone copy of Saplings, which I'd been after for ages! I was so happy I was pretty much jumping for joy - I spontaneously smiled at two random strangers in the street and asked them how their day was, I think I totally petrified them!

There's my story, and although I'm annoyed with myself for not making it all the way, I'm still very proud of my three months and fifteen days - it's approximately three months and ten days longer than I've ever gone before without buying books! 
Now the story's out of the way, here's a list of the books in the above (not so great) photo:

* The Brer Rabbit Book by Enid Blyton - big childhood favourite of mine, and now we've moved away from my mum, I really felt I needed my own copy to indulge in nostalgic moments. My sister's favourite was always Brer Rabbit and the Butter. We still tease her about it :-)
* Blink by Malcolm Gladwell - after my recent cry for creative nonfiction, Sonia  recommended this, and I'm excited to start it! Doesn't really count as a buy, as I swapped for it, but I included it because during the ban I'd limited myself to one swap a month; a number I've currently gone over by about five...
* Peter Pan & Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens by J.M Barrie - bought because I've never read Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, and because the copy is beautiful!
* Confessions of an Eco - Shopper by Kate Lock was in the 50p sale section at Harbour Books, and as I love books about thrift, shopping, and the environment, I just had to. 
* Gossip Girl: Love the One You're With by Cecily von Ziegesar - fiance actually bought this for me, again for 50p, as both my sister (not the Brer Rabbit lover, different sister) and I are big Gossip Girl fans. It has to be my biggest guilty pleasure.
* Exit Music by Ian Rankin - got for me by my future parents - in -law but included in the pile as I wanted to showcase what I've got recently, and because I've not read a lot of detective fiction for a long time, but lots of people have recommended Rankin to me.
* Resurrection Man by Ian Rankin - see above :-)
* Saplings by Noel Streatfeild - because it's Streatfeild, I was running out of her books for my challenge, it was only £4, and seriously, have you seen how gorgeous it is??
* The Complete Lewis Carroll - beautiful beautiful collected set of his work, including both Alice books, plus a load of other stuff I'd never read. £3, and I'm excited to read it!
aaaaaand finally!
* The Charming Quirks of Others by Alexander McCall Smith - hardback, brand new, £2.99. I love McCall Smith, so does my mum, and she doesn't get bought a lot of books, so I thought I'd read it (very carefully), and then give it to her as a gift next time I see her! 

So that's it, I'm a total failure, and I totally don't care! I got paid today, and the book acquisition fever is baaaaaaaaaack! :-)

Wednesday 25 May 2011

Review - The Art of Forgetting by Camille Noe Pagan

I know they say don’t judge a book by its’ cover, but the first thing I thought about The Art of Forgetting is that it would probably be beautiful. Why so? Because of the cover (isn't is gorgeous?)

When I was younger, I studied ballet. Unfortunately, I was mostly terrible. I am uncoordinated to the point of endangering lives, and thankfully, around the age of seven, I grew too tall to be seriously considered as having any kind of a future in ballet. I heaved a sigh of relief, although I threw a fond backward glance at my tap shoes. The fact is, though, that I would have loved to be coordinated. I envy ballerina's their grace, and I absolutely love watching ballet. The fact that The Art of Forgetting’s front cover professed it to be about dance, meant I looked forward to reading it with gleeful anticipation. The ballerina is a good image for The Art of Forgetting: poised, graceful, and completely together, the novel moved in a very fluid manner, almost like a stream of consciousness.

In actuality, it wasn’t really that much about ballet, but it didn’t matter.

Synopsis from Goodreads:
Marissa Rogers never wanted to be an alpha; beta suited her just fine. Taking charge without taking credit had always paid off: vaulting her to senior editor at a glossy magazine; keeping the peace with her critical, weight-obsessed mother; and enjoying the benefits of being best friends with gorgeous, charismatic, absolutely alpha Julia Ferrar.

And then Julia gets hit by a cab. She survives with minor obvious injuries, but brain damage steals her memory and alters her personality, possibly forever. Suddenly, Marissa is thrown into the role of alpha friend. As Julia struggles to regain her memory- dredging up issues Marissa would rather forget, including the fact that Julia asked her to abandon the love of her life ten years ago- Marissa's own equilibrium is shaken.

With the help of a dozen girls, she reluctantly agrees to coach in an after-school running program. There, Marissa uncovers her inner confidence and finds the courage to reexamine her past and take control of her future.

The Art of Forgetting is a story about the power of friendship, the memories and myths that hold us back, and the delicate balance between forgiving and forgetting

The novel reminded me strongly of another book I’d read recently: Dorothy Koomson’s Goodnight, Beautiful, in both content, and style, which was a great thing, as Koomson is one of my favourite writers. The focus of The Art of Forgetting is around Julia’s accident, but the centre of the story is Marissa’s struggle towards the independence she doesn’t initially realise she is lacking. The novel tells, through a combination of flashbacks, and present narrative, the story of Marissa and Julia’s friendship, centring on Marissa’s brief relationship with her first love, Nathan.
Since they were young children together, Julia has always been the domineering, possessive one in the relationship. She periodically forces Marissa to stop seeing other friends, if she feels that Marissa is paying them more attention than she is paying her, but this comes to a head when she makes Marissa give up her first love, Nathan. After the accident, Julia starts bringing up Nathan again, forcing Marissa to face up to how she feels about both him, and what Julia did all those years ago.

The novel was an easy read for me. The characters were well rounded and felt very real. The only gripe that I have is that the characters are all very successful, and have managed to fulfil all of their childhood dreams. Julia wanted to be a ballet dancer, and although she has failed at this ambition, she is a publicist for the New York City Ballet, a job which, until her accident, she loves and is very successful at. Marissa wanted to work in magazines, and has a high powered job as an editor at Svelte, and Nathan, whom Marissa first met while waitressing at a coffee shop, now has his own successful restaurant. This was part inspiring, and part annoying. As a reader, I often feel like many characters are either completely perfect: perfect jobs, perfect partner etc, or absolutely the underdog, surviving against all the odds. Sometimes, I want there to be a middle ground! This could just be me having sour grapes, though, as this blog is the closest I’ve yet got to my ambition of working with books...

Learning about TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) was interesting. Although I’ve read novels which address the subject before, I didn’t realise the scope of it, nor how many people it affects on a yearly basis. My perception of it before reading The Art of Forgetting, was that it was something that occurred rarely, but according to the novel, TBI kills more young women in the U.S than Heart Disease, and most forms of Cancer. The Art of Forgetting managed to be both realistic about the condition, while remaining hopeful.  One of the features of TBI is that sufferers tend to lose their filtering system, and so will pretty much say anything, without worrying about hurting people’s feelings. The novel showed Marissa’s problems in dealing with this. If someone is your best friend, and you’re used to saying what you think to them, how do you adjust to having to censor your reactions? It was interesting to see this from Marissa’s point of view, and to wonder how much was Julia’s lack of filter, and how much was her saying things that she knew she could now get away with saying.

The coaching aspect of the novel was probably the most fun part of it, for me. I loved the inspiration, self confidence, and independence that coaching gave to Marissa. It was through doing this that she really started to become a person in her own right, rather than just Julia’s best friend. I also adored the concept of an activity based around giving young girls confidence and exercise, while also teaching them valuable life skills. I don’t know if we have anything like this in the U.K, but I’ll definitely be looking into it! I know from personal experience that exercise is great for clearing the mind, and that finishing a 5k when you never thought of yourself as a runner gives you such a rush and sense of empowerment that’s just unbelievable, so although the beginning of the novel was great – really strongly structured and very well written – it was when Marissa started coaching for Take the Lead that the story really took off.

The Art of Forgetting was a very easy read. Although it deals with a lot of complex issues, the style was very light, and at no point did it get bogged down by its’ issues. The author kept it interesting by incorporating friendship, family issues, and relationship problems, with the concerns (mostly to do with her relationship with her mother) raised by Marissa’s coaching, and Julia’s injury. It was inspiring from the point of view that I started to think that I should be volunteering more, as it’s the activities that you never expect to do which often offer the most reward.

The Art of Forgetting is available on June 9th 2011 from Dutton, and an ARC was provided to me by the publishers. Although not in the way I expected, it was as beautiful as the front cover promised, which proves that, just occasionally, judging a book by its’ cover can help!

Some links for the curious among you:

Rating: ****

    Sunday 22 May 2011

    Review - Even the Dogs by Jon McGregor

    There are two reasons why it’s taken a while to write a review of Even the Dogs. The first is that when I finished it, I needed to step away from it and work out exactly what I thought about it. It’s very intense and reading it took a lot out of me! The other is that recently, I’m feeling slightly self-conscious about my blogging, due, in part, to the discussion going on at The Reading Ape and ARoom of One’s Own. If you’ve not been reading either of their posts, go take a look, they’re interesting. Basically, they’re discussing whether bloggers should analyse books and review them from a literary and analysis point of view, or write about their personal response to the book. This has been great from the point of view of making me think about how I read and review books, and think about my blog, but it’s also made me a lot more self – conscious about what I’m writing. I think I’m just going to try to evolve my writing at my own pace, and talk about books the way I want to. After all, this is my space, and all that I’m really after is a place to keep track of what I read and put my thoughts down in writing. If anybody reads a book because of my review of it, or if my thoughts on a certain book provoke anyone to think about it in a different way, then that’s a bonus! While I don’t agree that literary analysis is necessary when discussing a book, I do think that debate is a great thing, and literary techniques are hugely valuable and interesting, when thinking about new ways to read and understand books. I love the book blogging community, and I love the discussion that centres it. If there were no discussion about books, blogging would lose its’ sense of community, and while that’s not what I started blogging for, it’s definitely a great side effect, and one that I would miss. I think I just have to try to develop my writing my own way, without being too influenced by anyone else.

    On that note, I’d like to talk about an author who (to my mind, at least) does just that. I first discovered Jon McGregor in college (U.K college, so I was sixteen). A girl in my creative writing class came in raving about his first novel, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things. She read bits to us, and my friend and I actually went out and bought copies (a totally unheard of event in my pre-18, pre-job, living in the library existence!), and I completely fell in love with his writing. If Nobody Speaks is very poetic; at times the writing almost seems like a song. It’s about nothing at all, while at the same time being about everything that takes place in people’s lives. So Many Ways to Begin, his second novel, was good, but lacked the poetic writing I loved in If Nobody Speaks. Even the Dogs, is his third novel, and for me felt like a return. This time I opened the book, read the first paragraph, and smiled. It felt familiar, in the best of ways.

    Here is a synopsis from Goodreads:

    On a cold, quiet day between Christmas and the New Year, a man's body is found in an abandoned apartment. His friends look on, but they're dead, too. Their bodies found in squats and sheds and alleyways across the city. Victims of a bad batch of heroin, they're in the shadows, a chorus keeping vigil as the hours pass, paying their own particular homage as their friend's body is taken away, examined, investigated, and cremated.
    All of their stories are laid out piece by broken piece through a series of fractured narratives. We meet Robert, the deceased, the only alcoholic in a sprawling group of junkies; Danny, just back from uncomfortable holidays with family, who discovers the body and futilely searches for his other friends to share the news of Robert's death; Laura, Robert's daughter, who stumbles into the junky's life when she moves in with her father after years apart; Heather, who has her own place for the first time since she was a teenager; Mike, the Falklands War vet; and all the others.
    Theirs are stories of lives fallen through the cracks, hopes flaring and dying, love overwhelmed by a stronger need, and the havoc wrought by drugs, distress, and the disregard of the wider world. These invisible people live in a parallel reality, out of reach of basic creature comforts, like food and shelter. In their sudden deaths, it becomes clear, they are treated with more respect than they ever were in their short lives.
    Intense, exhilarating, and shot through with hope and fury, Even the Dogs is an intimate exploration of life at the edges of society—littered with love, loss, despair, and a half-glimpse of redemption.

    Even the Dogs asks the reader to be alert from the get-go. It is completely cyclical, in that it begins and ends with Robert’s death. It is a very short book, and in a very short amount of time, the life stories of Robert’s friends are told. McGregor doesn’t shy away from the graphic or starkness of reality. His short sentences and interrupted paragraphs, as well as the jumps between past flashbacks, and the present of Robert’s death, autopsy, and inquest, make the book very intense, and also very bleak. There wasn’t much hope offered from Even the Dogs, but it absorbed me, and so I didn’t really mind. Lately I’ve been feeling that there’s an importance to reading about reality that shouldn’t be undervalued, and Even the Dogs painted a very complete and real feeling picture of what it must be like to be homeless, let alone being an addict on top of that. Sentences are interrupted by the need to get a fix, important thoughts disrupted: even finding Laura, for Danny, isn’t as important as where his next fix is coming from. Throughout the novel, he is constantly on the move, both physically and psychologically. The novel has a jittery feeling about it, created by the undercurrent of need, dependence, and addiction reflected through McGregor’s brilliant, short, sharp style, where every word really does seem to have been carefully chosen to convey a point.

    I often find myself skim –reading books, skipping over bits that seem non-essential, if an author’s been going on for a while, and I want to get to the next interesting bit. All of Jon McGregor’s books have been short, and this is definitely a strength. It means that every word is essential, making a fast paced and seamless narrative. As when I was reading If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, I wanted to savour every word; to completely absorb it and turn the meaning over in my head several times, and just revel in the beauty of it. And I love it because it’s beautiful without being happy or hopeful at all. If I’m sounding like I love Jon McGregor’s books, it’s because I really, really do. A new Jon McGregor novel  is something to be celebrated – an event which brightens up my day. That said, I do tend to not realise until they’ve been out a long while. I’m not the best on keeping up with when things are out; hopefully the blogging will improve that!

    I’m sure there’s a lot more to say stylistically about Even the Dogs, and McGregor’s writing opens itself up for examination on many levels. The writing was by far the strongest thing for me (as it should be!), but coming in second was the believability of the characters. With every single character, it was easy to see how their lives had led them to the situation they end up in, which was really strong for me. With subjects like drugs, it’s really important to realise how easy it is to fall into the lifestyle. When reading the book, it was very potent to realise that many of the characters had been in situations similar to people that I know. I really enjoyed Even the Dogs, and would like to thank Jon McGregor for writing so beautifully about things which aren’t at all beautiful.

    Monday 16 May 2011

    Creative Nonfiction Recommendations Please?

    Wikipedia defines it like this:
    Creative nonfiction (also known as literary or narrative nonfiction) is a genre of writing that uses literary styles and techniques to create factually accurate narratives. Creative nonfiction contrasts with other nonfiction, such as technical writing or journalism, which is also rooted in accurate fact, but is not primarily written in service to its craft. As a genre, creative nonfiction is still relatively young, and is only beginning to be scrutinized with the same critical analysis given to fiction and poetry.
    This (I've no idea why) is what comes up on google images when you google Creative Nonfiction...

    My little braincells are crying out for expansion and distraction, people! Lately I've been reading lots of reviews of non-fiction, and had made a big list of things to read.... and then lost the list, so now can't remember a single thing! Basically, I'm interested in reading anything that's non-fiction, on most subjects, really. I like to learn things, and I like anything that's interestingly written (i.e. not one of those books that has pages of black and white photos with 'figure 1' attached to every drawing...) I need some recommendations, and so I'm reaching out to all you people who read lots!

    So, anybody got any recommendations of great stuff you've read? Please help my braincells out, they'll be eternally grateful! :-)

    Sunday 15 May 2011

    The Sunday Salon - A Quarter through the Ban!

    It's May! That means I've made it an entire three months without buying any books! That's about two months and three weeks longer than anybody, including myself, thought I'd manage, so I'm thoroughly proud of myself :-) Due to RAK, my fiance buying me books, and my awesome best mate's new job, where she basically gets free books and passes them on to me, there's still been a lot of books coming into my house. Also, I've been borrowing a lot from the library, so not making too much of a dent in my TBR shelves, but ah well.

    Reading wise, I've done pretty well this week I reckon. I managed to post two reviews (three if you count the one that's coming on the end of this post), which is a vast improvement on the past few weeks, and I finished four books! I read Emma for the ongoing Classics Circuit  Dueling Authors tour, and really loved it. It was a lot different from the other Austen I've read in a lot of ways, and now I'm all motivated to read Persuasion, the final Austen left on my TBR! My other review was of a novelette which the author had sent to me. Despite some stumbling blocks at the beginning, and its' serious subject matter, I'm glad I got to read Of No Consequence by Sonia Rumzi. I also finished Laura's Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate, which I just adored, and which I will definitely attempt to review this week!

    I started reading Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams. The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and all of its' sequels, are massive favourites of mine, and literally the only books absolutely guaranteed to make me laugh out loud, wherever I am, and I was totally shocked to find that I had both Dirk Gently and The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul on my shelves, and have yet to read them. So far, I am really enjoying it - I've not laughed as much as I did at Hitchhikers, but I still had a bit of a giggle in the train station! I'm also battling with the idea of starting a reading project of The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer. I'm very scared of the language, though, so it remains to be seen if I go with the original, or get hold of a retelling from somewhere... I'm trying not to wuss out, and just go for it with the middle English... wish me luck!

    Anyway, the final book I finished this week, was (finally) Delirium by Lauren Oliver. I sort of feel like I'm the last person in the world to read this book. A while back, everyone was reading it, and totally hyping it up, and then Lauren Oliver came to my local library, and I totally forgot to go! (how annoyed am I with myself??!). Anyway, then I was sent a copy last month, as an RAK, and its' been staring at me, in all its' pretty pale blue glory, ever since. So this week, I finally got around to it, and I liked it. In case there's a person left in the world who hasn't heard about Delirium already, here's the basic outline.

    Set in a dystopian world, where a 'cure' for love has been discovered. The borders of the U.S have been sealed for the past 50 years, and when children reach the age of 18, they are evaluated, and then 'cured' of the ability to love. After their evaluation, they are sent a list of 'matches', one of whom they must accept for marriage. They are assigned everything from whether or not they go to college, to how many children they have, by the government. Lena Haloway is preparing for her eighteenth birthday, and the 'safety' of the cure, when she accidentally meets Alex...

    I'm not sure what I was expecting from Delirium, and to be honest, I'm still not sure exactly how I felt about it. The ending, like Oliver's first novel, Before I Fall, isn't happy, and it definitely wasn't what I was expecting, but the more I think about it, the more comfortable I am with it. Throughout the novel, I felt that most of the time, the story was going mroe or less where I expected it to, and so I liked the fact that the ending veered away from what I was expecting. In my eyes, at least, the ending helped to validate Lena as a character, and moved her away from the Bella Swan type of girl, who can only function if there's a guy around to motivate her!

    To be honest, Delirium did have a little bit of a Twilight-esque vibe through it; mostly just the whole forbidden love angle, but the further through it I got, the more I appreciated the other threads of the story, such as her family situation and issues with her mother, as well as her relationship with her best friend, Hana.

    I didn't love it as much as I'd hoped, but it was still an enjoyable (and very quick!) read, and I really like the fact that Lauren Oliver dares to be different with her endings!

    Thanks to An Avid Reader's Musings for sending me the book!

    Happy Sunday, everyone! :-)

    Wednesday 11 May 2011

    The Classics Circuit: Emma by Jane Austen

    This is the second Classics Circuit tour I've participated in.  The first was the Lost Generation Tour, and I really enjoyed reading Tender is the Night, so when I heard about this one, it seemed like a great chance to finally read Emma!

    My first thoughts on hearing about this tour, were that pitting Dickens and Austen against each other is impossible. They write in such different styles, on such different subjects. And of course, as with all reading, it's 90% a matter of personal preference anyway! Aside from the fact that they're both English, and were writing in a similar period, there's not very much to compare about the two, really. 
    I discovered both Austen and Dickens in college, and my first reading of Pride and Prejudice was, in many ways, the antidote to my struggle with Hard Times. It was required reading for my English Literature course, and the first half of it was so immensely dull that there were moments when I actually felt like sawing my fingers off so as to have an excuse not to read it (dramatic, me? Never!). Then it suddenly got a lot better, very quickly, and I was forced to revise my opinion. If I'm honest though, I'm really not the sort of person who likes to go through that much effort, and frankly pain, to enjoy a book. I do recognise the genius and intricacy of his description, though, and love the vividness of his characters, among many other things, and hope I'll read and love more Dickens in the future. However, at the end of the day, and no matter how much I love singing along to Oliver!, Dickens depresses me. Austen, on the other hand has a far more positive effect. 

    Emma was Jane Austen's fourth novel, published in 1815. It is a comedy of manners, and shows the dangers involved in matchmaking. For those who haven't read it (and I really do feel you should), basically, Emma Woodhouse is a rich young lady, living in a very big house with her neurotic father. When the novel begins, Emma's governess, Miss Taylor, has just got married to Mr. Weston. Mr Knightley is a close neighbour and old family friend of the Woodhouses', and Emma's sister, Isabella, is married to Mr Knightley's brother, Mr. John Knightley. As usual with Austen's novels, Emma focuses on a particular 'set' of society, and the ins and outs of their daily lives. Near the beginning of the novel, Emma befriends Harriet Smith, a young woman of unknown parentage, and begins to try to make her an 'eligible' match. At first, she attempts to set her up with the vicar, Mr. Elton, to no avail, as Mr. Elton is actually in love with Emma, and thinks that marrying Harriet would be totally beneath him. She also convinces Harriet to turn down an offer of marriage from Robert Martin, a farmer, with whose family Harriet had spent the summer. Emma thinks a lot of herself, and her level of perception, but she often misses things which are entirely obvious, and causes lot of unnecessarily painful situations, either by causing others to fall in love, or by believing herself to be in love, without really knowing what love is.

    As with all of Austen's novels, Emma took me a little while to get into, mostly because I've read the first half before, and so wasn't giving it my full attention. After a while, though, I began to really enjoy it. Emma Woodhouse, to me, was a much more rounded and believable character than Austen's heroines often are: I really liked her. She's a total snob, with very firm (and very often misguided) opinions, and can often be a little bit of a bitch. For those who feel that this is too strong a word, I mean it in the most positive way. Emma is flawed, which is the thing that makes me like her more than any other Austen character. She often says things without properly thinking them through, or because she wants to be the centre of attention. Her redeeming feature, though, is Mr. Knightley, who isn't afriad to tell her when is in the wrong. I liked that she reacted to his criticism with thought, and the desire to change.  And yes, throughout the novel, my brain was playing Clueless in the background. I think it helped that I'm a big fan of it! 

    I love Austen's novels for the fact that nobody is ever bored for more than about a second: they are always using their time in productive ways, going out and taking walks, talking to each other about deep and meaningful things, drawing each other, playing music, playing cards, dancing. They didn't have TV or internet, and yet they still survived!! I often think modern society could do with taking a few leaves from the pages of Austen's world (not literally, obviously). 

    I also enjoy the secrets and intrigue Austen creates. During the course of Emma, there are two rejections, one secret engagement, many flirtations, and a declaration of love. Mr. Knightley's declaration of love to Emma was admittedly nowhere near as awesome as Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, but I liked Mr. Knightley a hell of a lot more. I really appreciated how he was just totally straight about everything, and wouldn't hesitate to tell Emma when she was doing something stupid or beneath her. I feel that he helped make her a better person, and if I'm honest, that, to me, seems much more like true love than 'I just saw you and think you're pretty and now I must have you'. Having known someone all their life, and knowing all of their faults and the things you dislike about them, and still loving them anyway? That's romance.

    If we're going to put them up against each other, Austen gets my vote, primarily because she was less appreciated in her own time. Henry James has ranked her as one of 'the fine painters of life', along with Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Henry Fielding (my reliance on Wikipedia for obscure facts is terrible. I really must stop). That's some tough competition, and Austen is the only girl! Undoubtedly, Dickens is great - a great social commentator and reformer as well as a great writer, and I do feel a little bit hypocritical defending Austen over him, as I live literally just around the corner from the actual Bleak House, and the house in which Dickens used to spend his summers, but really, Austen makes me happy. She writes about the kind of England I'd love to have lived in, from the perspective of the class of person I would want to be, had I been alive at that time. Let's face it, nobody would want to be in the class of person Dickens writes about - workhouses? Disease? Dying young? Yes please!... :-/ Dickens is great, but he's such a struggle to read, and I don't always want that, whereas I can always be in the mood for some Austen. She goes hand in hand with sunny summer days and picnics, and equally with rainy, cold winter nights curled up in a blanket with some hot chocolate. Sorry, Mr. Dickens, but the ladies win for me!

    In order to placate his ghost, which Broadstairs would undoubtedly love to claim for itself, here are some pictures of both Bleak House, and the Dickens House Museum, where he spent summers with his aunt. This is my little town in England's claim to fame!

     Bleak House, Broadstairs, Kent, UK
    The Dickens House Museum, Broadstairs, Kent, UK

    Sunday 8 May 2011

    The Sunday Salon - Where is the Year Going??

    It's already May. I'm getting married in four months - how is time going so fast?! April has been absolutely mental from all angles. I've just started a new job, working for a different company than the one I've been working for since I graudated, nearly three years ago. If I'm honest, I'd got to the stage where I sort of thought I'd never leave, even though I really wanted to. I deal really, really badly with change, and I'd got so settled where I was - I started out part time, and kept getting promoted till I was Assistant Manager, then moved house, moved branches, and went back to being part time for a while - that it seemed easier to stay put. This new job is still retail but full time, and moving towards what I want to do, which is selling books. We do at least have books; yes, they're mostly religious (it's a Cathedral Gift Shop after all!), but still! Baby steps... My first week was this week, and it's really been taking a lot out of me. I get home, and all I want to do is sleep!

    We're also having problems with our internet connection (sigh). It's wireless, and only works when it feels like it, which really puts me off blogging. The other day it took me two hours to literally paste a post from Word onto Blogger, as the connection kept dying!

    I've been blogging four months now, and I'm starting to realise that I really need to find my own voice. When I started out, I had literally no idea what I was doing, and so I sort of used some of my favourite blogs as templates. Now, I'm realising that I spend a lot of time trying to make my posts sound as 'good' as the blogs I love, and less time letting them sound like me. The posts that I end up really liking, are the ones where I let my geeky love of background research and obscure comparisons come out, without worrying about sounding stupid. My blog is my blog, and if I'm trying to write and sound like other people, I'm doing it (and myself) a disservice. Also, I'd like to assume that if I say something really stupid, somebody would pull me up on it, and give me the opportunity to explain how it's not as stupid as it sounds! One of the things I love most about blogging is the amount of debate which goes on. If I had my way, I would've been a student forever, and blogging is a fairly good (and much cheaper!) substitute for that! I love that blogging gets me motivated to read all kinds of genres, and to really think about what I'm reading, and engage with it. I'd just like to say thanks to everyone whose blogs get me excited about books! I'd list you, but there are faaaaar too many of you for that! :-)

    Speaking of which, brings me to my current read. Emma is one of the only two Jane Austen I haven't read (Persuasion is the other, and I will attempt it at some point this year!), and I'm currently half way through it as part of the Classics Circuit's Duelling Authors Tour. Who's better, Austen or Dickens? Let the bloodbath begin.... After finishing Emma (the post will be up on Wednesday.. whether I will have finished it or not is another matter!) I've got a fair few bits and bobs to finish up - two reviews requested by the authors, Christine Nolfi's Treasure Me, and Of No Consequence by Sonia Rumzi. Next after that is Like Water for Chocolate, which I've been wanting to read for ages, and Ghost World, as it fits into both my Graphic Novels Challenge, and the Page to Screen Challenge.

    This week, due to working all the time, and the added bonus of travelling to and from work, as well as being able to spend most lunchtime with my boyfriend, I've not read too much. I did finish Even the Dogs, by Jon McGregor, which was very different from what I expected it to be. I really love his style, though - he's such a poetic writer, he even manages to make it beautiful when he's writing about drug addicts...

    What are other people reading? Has anybody had the problem I'm having with making my blog sound like me? Any advice?

    Friday 6 May 2011

    April Fairytale Feature (in May..): Mermaids!

    From The Mermaid Sets the Story Straight

    By Debra Cash

    Hans lied. He simply couldn't imagine

    I would want to shed the blubbery tail

    dragging behind me like a torn bridal gown

    that I would prefer to stand on my own two feet

    and walk on my own, love or no love.

    Hans lied. He didn't know the prince was just an excuse

    for me to change my life, to stop being a sister, a daughter.

    He was right about the knives; even masochistic Hans

    knew it hurts to walk alone even when the walk is downhill,

    even when you know where you are going.

    But it would have hurt my pride even more to stay,

    modeling for those wooden women who face into the gale

    steered by princes and merchants and pirates.

    Of course I have a soul.

    The foam of heaven, you know, is not that different

    from the foam seething at the water's edge.

    The full poem can be found here.

    This month, I’ve taken on a lot. I found Mermaid by Carolyn Turgeon in the library, back in March, and took it as a sign that my next feature should be The Little Mermaid, or to give it Hans Christian Andersen’s original title, The Little Sea Maid. Obviously, that meant I needed to read Mermaid, The Little Sea Maid, and re-watch Disney’s The Little Mermaid, and all this in a month where I’ve not felt overly inclined towards writing at all! Despite literally having to force myself to sit down and begin writing this, I’m glad that Mermaid found me. It’s been interesting.
    I’ve always adored the story of the Little Mermaid. I have a strange addiction to the sea, which is what led to us moving to live near it at the end of last year. When I’m standing looking at the sea, I find it really hard to tear my eyes away, or to concentrate on anything else but the water: the way that it looks and sounds and feels. It always seems to blur everything else out, and so reading and watching all the different versions of the story this month has been really calming for me, making me feel kind of like I’ve been submerged under the sea, floating around in the clear water, the sandy sea bed dappled with patches of sunlight, befriending cute little fish... obviously the sea in my head is Disney sea, not actual sea! My apologies if this gets a little long and/or feminist ranty. It wasn’t intended that way, but in my submersion, lots of issues have come up.

    Hans Christian Andersen first published The Little Mermaid in 1837, and, unlike Rapunzel, my March feature, it doesn’t have too much of a history in the folklore or oral tradition. Andersen was its’ original creator. Undine, by Friedrich de la Motte Fouque is thought to have had an influence on the tale, and The Little Mermaid has been seen as a reaction to it. I’m still in the process of reading it - if anyone’s interested, it can be found here

    I’d had Andersen’s story read to me as a child, and remember being really sad about the ending, where the little mermaid’s heart breaks because the prince doesn’t love her, and she turns into foam, but the version that I’m most familiar with, and I think this probably holds true for most people, is the animated Disney film. Honestly, having now read a lot about the little mermaid, I think I prefer the original.
    Of the three, my favourite was actually Mermaid. I don’t know if it’s a little bit blasphemous to prefer a rewrite to the original – I feel like it might be, but at the same time, rewrites have more to build on, and Carolyn Turgeon’s version was, surprisingly, very close to the original story. In both Mermaid, and Andersen’s original, the mermaid saves the prince from a storm and drags him to shore, where another young girl from a convent discovers him. This is the girl whom he believes has saved him. In both stories, the girl in the convent is actually a princess, destined to marry the prince, and in both stories, the mermaid is given the false hope that the prince can love her, and eventually cast aside. In both stories, the mermaid refuses to kill the prince. However, while both mermaids are naive and tragic figures, Mermaid balanced the character of the mermaid, Lenia – similar to Disney’s Ariel, but with a lot more backbone and strength – not one to just hope things go her way -  who would do anything for love of the prince, with the tough determination and independence of Princess Margrethe, the girl in the convent. Turgeon has given her story a context; Margrethe is the daughter of the King of the North, Christopher (the prince), the son of the King of the South. When she helps Lenia rescue Christopher, Margrethe is in hiding in a convent. For many years there has been war between North and South, and although it is ostensibly a time of peace, the King still fears for her safety. However, when she finds out who the beautiful young man that she rescued is, she hatches a plan of her own. By offering to marry the son of the King of the South, she hopes to bring peace between the two kingdoms, with the added bonus that she gets to be with the guy she’s in love with, but I’m sure that hadn’t occurred to her at all, and it was all in the name of politics...
    The rest of the story occurs in similar (although definitely much more adult) fashion to the Disney film. The mermaid trades her beautiful voice for legs with the sea witch (who, interestingly, isn’t the horrible monster she is in the Disney version, but rather just someone with a lot of wisdom, who knows that sometimes you have to let people make their own mistakes..), the prince finds her on the shore, and is convinced she is the girl he dreams about, until he discovers that she cannot speak. Nevertheless, he takes her back to his castle, and proceeds to fall in love with her. They have a very touching relationship, which is interrupted by the arrival of Margrethe, and the insistence of Christopher’s parents that they marry.
    *****SPOILER ALERT******
    In the original, the prince falls at the feet of princess, once he realises that she is the girl he thinks saved him, but not so here. After he realises Margrethe is the girl from the convent, , there are multiple times when he wants nothing to do with Margrethe, and many times he takes the (now pregnant with his child) Lenia’s side. Eventually, however, Margrethe and his parents wear him down, and he agrees to marry her, and it was the ending I thought, which was the most interesting of all. In Andersen’s version, the prince marries the princess, and the next morning, knowing that the mermaid will turn to foam, her sisters come to her, having traded their hair with the sea witch, for a knife, which, if used to spill the prince’s blood, will save the mermaid from death. The mermaid goes to the prince, and seeing him asleep with his new wife, and so happy, is unable to use the knife. She dives into the water and turns to foam.
    In Turgeon’s book, the same thing happens. Lenia refuses to kill the prince, but Margrethe, seeing that Lenia is about to die, spills her own blood, saying that it is equal to Christopher’s now that they are married. She saves Lenia, who returns to the sea with her family, and raises Lenia’s child as her own. It was the bond between the two women which really made the book for me, and I loved the fact that the story was determined, even in the original, by the actions of the women.

    The Disney film, I love for its’ sense of yearning. The entire film is about wanting, striving, being able to overcome everything, and I really do love that. I know it’s very simplistic, but if I’m honest, I quite often wander round my house, belting out ‘I wanna be where the people are’ at the top of my voice. Doesn’t everyone, particularly during adolescence (and basically the little mermaid is just a teenager, being a teenager..) wish they were somewhere else from time to time? Doesn’t everybody dream of a different world they’d like to belong to? Even if you don’t do it now, I bet you did as a kid. I wanted to live in Never Never Land with Peter Pan. I even used to sit out on the low roof outside my bedroom window, waiting for him, until my dad would come in and make me go to bed. As an adult, I still dream about ‘belonging’ to the ‘world of writers’. I have a vision of exactly what this would entail (for some reason it involves a heavy amount of gorgeous big oak desks, rooms lined floor to ceilng with books, and many many gorgeous notebooks...). My point is, that the longing of the little mermaid to be ‘part of that world’, is something that a lot of people can relate to. It resonates, or at least it does with me. The original version, and Turgeon’s reimagining both allow the mermaid some degree of inclusion, before finally excluding her, proving that people belong where they are, and there is very little room for movement, but the Disney version (because it’s Disney) allows Ariel complete acceptance into the human world, ending with her marrying the prince and living happily ever after.
    Anderson does allow his mermaid redemption at the end of the story, when she is basically taken to purgatory, with the Daughters of the Air, and given the chance to gain an immortal soul and get into heaven, after three hundred years. It ends with a nice little moral for kids:
    “’Invisibly we float into the houses of men where children are, and for every day on which we find a good child that brings joy to its parents and deserves their love, our time of probation is shortened. The child does not know when we fly through the room; and when we smile with joy at the child’s conduct, a year is counted off from the three hundred; but when we see a naughty or wicked child, we shed tears of grief, and for every tear a day is added to our time of trial’”
     (p89, Hans Christian Anderson: The Complete Tales)
    I love this! It’s like telling your kids that if they’re bad, they’re denying the little mermaid her chance to get a soul. After all she’s been through. Tut tut, disappointed head shake, sigh. This is how I will be reading this story to my kids/nieces and nephews one day! Yes, I may very well be a tiny bit evil round the edges..
    The poem I’ve extracted at the beginning of this article, I really like, as I’m very into feminist reworkings of fairytales in any form. I love the mermaid claiming her own voice, and speaking for herself over the (male) voice of her author. She totally asserts herself: why should she have to have a man as an excuse to want to stand on her own two feet? In the end, I find this the most hopeful of all. By its’ essence, The Little Mermaid, in any of the versions I’ve been discussing, can’t really help but be tragic and hopeless, when seen from a feminist point of view (and I can’t seem to help reading fairytales with at least a tiny bit of a feminist slant, I blame the dissertation obsession!), as happy ending or unhappy ending, either way she is subsumed by a man. Although I do love that the final image I had of Mermaid was of the strength of Margrethe, eventually, although she is the strongest character, she is just an aide to Christopher, who has wreaked havoc on Lenia, without even realising it. Margrethe is the saviour, but he is the King.
    Now my brain hurts from thinking about the ‘oppression of women in fairytales’, and although I will doubtless in future months write much more eloquently on the subject, this month doesn’t seem to be the time for it, so I will direct any and all who may be interested here, to someone who puts it much better (although in relation to Russian fairytales specifically) than my tired brain can at the moment! I’ll just finish by saying that regardless of all I’ve said, I still love love love The Little Mermaid, in all of its’ formats, and I really do think that the story of wanting to belong is as important for adults as it is for children. 

    I also read this book for the Once Upon a Time Challenge!