Wednesday 29 June 2011

Review: When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

When I was picking out my reading list for the Award Winning Reads challenge hosted by Books from Bleh to Basically Amazing, I pretty much just went for a random list of six: one Newbery Award winner, two Honors, and the same for the Printz Award, based on what I had or could get hold of from the library. One such book was When You Reach Me, which won the Newbery Award in 2010.The award is given for ‘the most distinguished contribution to American literature’ in any one year, and was the first children’s book award in the world.
When You Reach Me tells the story of Miranda, a young girl around whom a series of weird events start to happen. First, her friend Sal is inexplicably punched by an older boy while they are walking home from school one day,  then he cuts Miranda out of his life completely, despite the fact that they live in the same building, have known each other from birth, and do everything together. Then, the spare key to her house that they keep for emergencies is stolen, and on the same day, Miranda receives the first in a series of strange notes, telling her that someone is coming to ‘save her friend’s life’ and his own, asking her to write down exactly what has happened, to tell the writer exactly where the key that has been stolen was located, and assuming that she knows who is writing to her. As the novel progresses, Miranda receives more notes, finds out that the boy who punched Sal is actually a nice kid who also goes to her school, makes some new friends, and has some odd experiences involving the ‘laughing guy’ – an old homeless man she has to pass on her way to and from school. These all tie together to form that lightbulb moment where she goes (metaphorically, not literally) ‘OH! I know who’s been writing me those letters!’.
I really enjoyed When You Reach Me, which was nice, considering that going in, I had no expectations of it at all. Miranda and her mother were both great characters, and their relationship was really well drawn. The book begins with Miranda telling about how her Mom (I feel bad spelling it the English way when the author has spelt it the American way...) is going on the TV show The $20,000 Pyramid, which incidentally is also mentioned in an episode of Friends, for those of us who are not American and may have no idea what the show is. Anyway, to this end, Miranda and Richard, her mother’s boyfriend, are helping her to practice via a convoluted system where Sal’s mother, Louisa (also Miranda’s mother’s best friend) will make notes on each lunch time show, bring them to Miranda’s house, where Miranda will copy words and categories onto flashcards before her mother gets home, in order that they can practice with her when she does. I found it very sweet. It seemed to me that slightly less than half the time, Miranda was the grown up, taking care of her mother, but then her mother would always pull through for her, such as the time when her new friend Annmarie stays the night, and instead of Miranda making them breakfast in the morning, as she usually does for herself, her mother has got out of bed at 7.30 (unheard of) to make them a bacon omelette.
The novel was made up of little moments which pulled the story together, leading up to the big, dramatic event at its’ climax. The little events balanced out very well with the big, dramatic event at the end. While I was reading, I felt like the story was building up to something. Stead creates a feeling of expectation very well, and has you on the edge of your seat wondering how everything is going to come together, while at the same time still letting the novel be a comfortable read.
When You Reach Me is also what I would call a ‘coming of age’ novel, although I hate putting labels on things. The novel is a metaphor for growing up – throughout it, Miranda struggles to understand things, but then once the big dramatic event takes place there are many things she understands which she didn’t before. The breaking of her friendship with Sal also forces her to get out of her comfort zone, and make some new friends, with whom she has new experiences, and discovers things about the world that she wouldn’t have if she had continued on with Sal, doing what they always did, going where they always went.
I loved the novel because it was intelligent. I don’t read a lot of non- adult fiction, because I find that a lot of it tends to be very angsty, but this wasn’t at all. Rebecca Stead allows her characters to be confused and turbulent, while at the same time remaining clear and level headed. The book is based around science, which means that Stead has moved time–travel, which always seems to me (and I say this as a big fan of Donnie Darko) to be completely incomprehensible, out of the realm of the impossible, and into the possible, and indeed the real. Miranda herself is a very scientific character – she gets upset about things, yes, but instead of going off in a hormonal rage, she thinks them through, wonders about them, and tries to work them out, and it was the desire to work things out which made the book so enjoyable for me. Because Miranda was trying to work things out, so was I.
I would like to say thankyou to When You Reach Me, for making me look forward to reading more non- adult fiction, and hoping that I will find other books which are as much of a joy to read as this one was!

Rating: ****

Monday 27 June 2011

June Acquisitions and RAK!

Once again, this month has been one in which I have acquired FAR too many books! It has been my birthday, though, so I've been gifted a lot, and as usual, the vast majority of my books haven't cost a lot (like, between 20p and £1). Also, it's really fun to put up pretty pictures of books :-) This month, we ran out of bookshelf space, for about the billionth time, and instead of telling me to stop buying books, my wonderful fiance started looking for corner shelving! We found this, and the plan is that we will get a different bit of it every month, to replace the crappy looking thing we have at the moment - it has no sides or back and looks awful! But it does hold a hell of a lot of books.

So, here goes with the books (and lists, two of my favourite things in one post!)
First up, the books I bought myself this month:

Because the picutre is blurry, which is the fault of the phone (and the fact that I can't apparently stand without rocking after a long day of working in retail (standing) in the heat!), here are what the books are, from bottom to top:
  • A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel - After Reading Lolita in Tehran, I got all excited about the idea of books about books and reading, and this was being offered for the price of postage on ReaditSwapit. It sort of seemed like destiny. I'm not sure when I'll get to it, but currently it's looking very pretty on my windowsill, which is the space for the books which never quite make it to the shelves...
  • The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie - OK, so for years I've been dying to read this book. When I was a teenager, and I guess still now, but less so, I had this big attraction to banned books, or books that had got their authors into trouble, and as they go, this is kind of a major one. I've always wanted to read it to see what the fuss is about! Also, it's on my list for the Back to the Classics Challenge.
  • At Home by Bill Bryson - I love Bill Bryson. He is both hilarious, and interesting. I was actually initially planning to buy this because it was on a 2 for £7 offer with The Fry Chronicles (Stephen Fry also hilarious and interesting), but I committed the cardinal sin of not buying them when I saw them, and when I went back, The Fry Chronicles were nowhere to be found :-( So I bought it anyway, and it looks fascinating.
  • The Fry Chronicles by Stephen Fry - After the disappointment of not being able to buy it on above mentioned offer in Asda, I tried, without any success at all, to swap for it. After a while, I gave up, and went to a different Asda, and bought it for £4. I'm currently buried in the depths of it, and it's making me wish I'd gone to Cambridge, and also making me want to write, so so far it's a very successful read!
  • How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff - Charity shop find while I was back in London for my birthday weekend. No idea why I bought it, really, except that bloggy people have been talking about it in a positive way (sorry, I don't remember who, specifically!).
  • The Postmistress by Sarah Blake - At the moment, I'm really into watching and reading stuff related to the Second World War. I watched Atonement for the first time last night, and I have to say I didn't much care for it. The book I liked, although it is the only Ian McEwan I've been able to stomach, and believe me, I've tried and may well continue to try, but the film was veeeeerrrry pretentious. And I'd forgotten how much I hate Briony. Anyway! That aside, I'd looked at this in Waterstones, and then I was listening to an episode of Bookrageous where they were talking about it, and then it turned up in the charity shop, so it had to be had.
  • Meet Me at the Cupcake Cafe by Jenny Colgan - My yearly 'beach read', in the most girly sense. I basically bought it because it had cakes on the cover. Shallow? Me? :-p
  • Howards End is On the Landing by Susan Hill - I was ecstatic to find a like new, beautiful hardcover of this in another Charity shop. Somebody else (again, I can't remember who, the heat today has melted my brain!) reviewed this recently, and in keeping with the whole books about books thing, I had to get it!
  • Up the Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton - Cost me 10p, and I have the other two Faraway Tree books. They were some of my absolute favourites as a kid, and I've been searching out the old versions, before they changed the names of the kids. I just can't read them with their new names, they feel like different books!
Long list! Now onto the books I was given as gifts this month!

Again, from bottom to top:
  • The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman - Given to me by my awesome friend who works in a Charity bookshop, and picks out all the best stuff for me before it goes on sale (Judi I loooove you!!). I need to read this for my Canongate Myth Challenge, for which my total read is still one...
  • Going Out by Scarlett Thomas - I am the most excited a person has EVER been to get a book EVER about this one. One of the books she wrote pre The End of Mr Y, it's disgustingly difficult to get hold of, and you can imagine how much I screamed when the bf informed me that he'd got not only this, but also Bright Young Things for me.
  • The next four are birthday presents from my lovely parents :-) They knew I was running low on Streatfeild for my challenge (also her books are my comfort reading), and so they bought me:
    • The Painted Garden  - my favourite of all her books that I've read so far. I adore this book. It's a gorgeous story of childhood, exotic locations, and literature, interspersed with pianos and ice cream. What more could you want? Also, the link goes to Goodreads, where the title is the U.S title, which I hate, and an awful cover, which is just so unrepresentative of the book it makes me sad :-(
    • Tennis Shoes - One of her earlier books, which I've never read. Very much looking forward to it.
    • Curtain Up - I remember reading this from the school library when I was about seven. I don't remember much else, so looking forward to a re-read! Again, link goes to U.S title. I don't get this.
    • Ballet Shoes for Anna - Similar situation to Curtain Up.
  • In Your Face by Scarlett Thomas - Again pre Mr Y (and by the way, if you haven't read The End of Mr Y, you really, really should. Seriously), this is the middle of a trilogy of which I have read the first and last. Technically, it was my birthday gift to myself!
I have another two special gifts to mention. Firstly, I got a gorgeous illustrated hardback copy of Edward Lear's Complete Nonsense, from the same awesome Charity bookshop working friend. Here it is, spine up, because the spine is the most gorgeous part I could photograph:

And secondly, I'm fairly sure that you'll all be sick of me going on about how awesome Hanna is. I think I've mentioned her at least three times this month on the blog, but really, she is lovely! And to certify this, she sent me an RAK this month. If you don't know about RAK, firstly, where have you been? And secondly, go sign up for it, now! Basically, you sign up with your wishlist, and so do lots of other people, and the idea is that people will give you books, and you will give people books. It's so much fun and you get to meet lots of awesome bloggers through it! So here is what she sent me:

Excuse the terrible picture, and my swirly patterned table cloth behind. I've been excited to start this series for a while, and having a shiny new copy of the first book is a very big incentive! Thankyou!

Right. Last picture. I do understand that by this point, I'm pretty much doing this for myself, as you will have all gone off to stare at your own piles of books, or even actually read some of them! But anyway, this last pile is a few I've been sent this month for review:

Bottom to top:
  • Sew Retro - I requested this from Quayside Publishing Group, and they were kind enough to send me a copy of this gorgeous book. It's a history of sewing, interspersed with patterns for some awesome things. Grouped by decade, I think I'm really going to enjoy this, and my sister and I plan to try and make some of the stuff as we go!
  • Olga - A Daughter's Tale by Marie- Therese Browne - The author contacted me asking me to review this book, which is the true story of her mothers life, which she had no idea about until her mother became seriously ill.
  • Apology for the Woman Writing by Jenny Diski - requested from Virago UK, who are now my favourite publishers, because, unrequested, they also sent me
  • Touchy Subjects by Emma Donoghue - Being as how I'm the last person in the WORLD to read ROOM, I think I'll prolong it a bit, and read this collection of shorts first.
So that's my book fever done for the month! Blog-wise, I've sucked. I've posted lots of opinions, lists, and random rambling, and not very many of the many many reviews and features that I have either written but not posted, almost finished but not drafted, or that haven't quite made it out of my head and onto paper yet! I'm still sucking at not being exhausted when I get home from work, and the weird weather isn't helping!

Having said that, July and August are set to be eventful here at An Armchair by the Sea! I'll post more when it's finalised, but there's the UK and EU Summer Hop in August, where I'll be giving away some exciting stuff, and, also in August, I'll be writing a guest review as part of the Georgette Heyer month, over at Stiletto Storytime, plus a couple of other, unconfirmed things. I'm excited! :-) How are you? Read any of my books? Any you loved or hated or think I must read, right now?

Saturday 25 June 2011

Review: - A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

I thought it was about time that I a) read this book that people have been raving about for ages, and b) read another book for the Back to the Classics Challenge. As this won the Pullitzer Prize, it fulfills that criteria, and I got all excited when the local library got it in for me. It's taken me a while to review it, as it took me a while to work out what I actually thought about it. That, and I'm just lazy...

It's a very odd book, and I've been having trouble writing a summary for it. Ostensibly, it reads like a series of short stories, in which each chapter is about a character from the previous chapter, but not necessarily the character who appears to be the 'main' or 'focal' character from that chapter. Starting out, this made it very odd reading for me, as it really throws you into the mix, and doesn't allow you to focus. This meant that I didn't really realise that the story was still developing in the way that stories always do, until about halfway through the novel. It was great; like the sneak night attack of the storyline.

This is the synopsis, from Goodreads:
Bennie is an aging former punk rocker and record executive. Sasha is the passionate, troubled young woman he employs. Here Jennifer Egan brilliantly reveals their pasts, along with the inner lives of a host of other characters whose paths intersect with theirs. With music pulsing on every page, A Visit from the Goon Squad is a startling, exhilarating novel of self-destruction and redemption.
I've also been (vaguely) discussing this book as part of the Goodreads book club, which has been interesting. Egan's characters are very vivid, and her style is at times quite conversational. She takes strands which seem completely unrelated, and weaves them together, creating many somewhat explosive moments, where I'd find myself sitting back, staring at the page going 'hang on, what just happened?'. I love it when books do this to me!

Egan's characters range from the very young, to the very old; from those who are vividly alive, to those who are literally at death's door. Her settings range all over the world, and she depicts people from all kinds of lifestyles. Reading A Visit from the Goon Squad was in many ways, like getting a snapshot of the most vivid sections of society. Overall, it does really chart the lives of Bennie and Sasha, the characters it starts out with, from when they are very young, throughout their lives. It shows the rise and fall of Bennie, and the fall and rise of Sasha. The thing I enjoyed the most was that Egan gives each character a distinctive hook, from Sasha's kleptomania, and Bennie's inability to drink coffee without gold flakes in it (reflecting his obsession with his diminishing libido), to the voice she gives to younger characters, such as Rhea - currently there's an ongoing debate on Goodreads about whether using 'he goes/she goes' instead of 'he/she said' is annoying or authentic. Personally I'm in the authentic camp - I know I never used 'said' until very very recently, and in fact from time to time, I still slip back to 'goes' when telling stories. I also use 'like' far too much in sentences, but that's really a story for another day.

So, summary. I loved this book. It was so unique and well drawn, and stylistically different from pretty much everything I've ever read before. I would recommend that everybody give it a go, and stick with it when you think you'll hate it - especially the weird bit at the end when the entire book flips the other way around... it's worth it!

Rating: *****

Monday 20 June 2011

It's My Birthday!!

This is a little bit of a nothing-y post, because I've got a moment of internet connectivity out of my hitherto dead laptop, and it's my birthday. Unfortunately, I do not actually have a cupcake tower like this (sob), however I do have the remnants of a green sponge chocolate iced dinosaur cake, decorated with many different kinds of sweets... It is my 24th birthday, and yes, I am a little bit immature! Also the reason that it was a green cake is because my sister (who's 22) insisted that it couldn't be a dinosaur cake unless it was green, as dinosaurs are monsters, monsters are green, hence green cake. Of course....

I've just got back from a weekend of loveliness back in the London suburbs with my (enormous and mental) family, and a few of my close friends. There has been large amounts of giggling, eating, and of course, drinking. On Saturday night we watched the 25th Anniversary Concert of Les Miserables, which is my favourite musical of ALL TIME, and invented a drinking game to go with it. Some of the rules were truly ridiculous - i.e. Drink whenever somebody holds a note on for an abnormally long time. If any of you have seen the musical, you will know that this happens a lot. Needless to say, the night ended very very late, and I spent most of Sunday recovering (with the help of my mum's Roast dinner, and The King's Speech - great film!).

So now I'm back, straight back to work, and thinking about all the reviews and features I need to write. Our main PC has caught some kind of disgusting deadly virus, and so I'm not touching it with a bargepole, and am relegated to my teeny little netbook, but oh well. I acquired (of course) a lot of books over my birthday weekend. Gifts aside (and I got a fair few of those), there's a huge car boot sale on every Sunday not far from my Mum's, and so we went, and many many people were selling books 6 for £1. How could I turn them down??? I have some beautiful things, beautiful pictures of which will be posted at a later date, when I'm less lazy, and for now, I'm off to get birthday fish and chips with my man :-)

Just before I go, I want to give a shout out to the most recent of my sisters to get a blog! She's mental, mutli-coloured, very bouncy, and talks a LOT! Her name is Miriam, and you can find her here. She's not written much yet, but she will, and it will be entertaining! If you're so inclined, find her on Deviant Art too. She's lovely!

Anyway, off I go! What're you all reading on my lovely rainy birthday?

Wednesday 15 June 2011

A Bit of this and a Bit of That.. & why it occassionally sucks to be broke...

So, this is what I'm supposed to be posting about - William Thackeray's Vanity Fair, which I am reading for Allie's readalong. Unfortunately, due to I'm not quite sure what, possibly busyness, possibly just being in a weird, unsettled mood reading-wise, I've only got to chapter 3 of the 30+ I'm meant to have read by this point! I have read it before, and so far it is as easy to read and engrossing as I remembered, and Becky Sharpe is just as evil as I remember her being, although if I remember right, she gets quite a bit worse before the end! It's a mystery to me why some classics are so easy to read, and some are such a struggle. I guess it's the same as with any book, really - it all depends on what you like, and whether the storyline interests you. My first reading of Vanity Fair was when I was fourteen. I borrowed it from my mum, an avid reader of historical mysteries (Agatha Christie, Elizabeth & Ellis Peters, Susanna Gregory, Alexander McCall Smith are all loves I've inherited from her), because it looked to weird on the top of a pile of the aforementioned authors! I'm reliably informed that as a younger woman, my mum was quite the reader of Classics, and she does have quite a nice collection of Dickens, and I think that she'd been given Vanity Fair, as something she'd never read. Anyway, whatever the reason, it was there, and I grabbed it, and absolutely devoured it. It's weird that its so long, but at no point do I remember being bored by it. It'll be interesting to see if that's the case the second time around.

So far, that's pretty much all I've got to say about Vanity Fair. I'm hoping that the rest of the book proves as enjoyable as I remember!

In other news, my home internet is for some reason being totally crap lately. We have a really cheapy wireless pay monthly connection, which basically only works if you live close enough to a hotspot. Ours is really on and off, as the hotspot is quite close, but its' also down the bottom of a hill (we're at the top), on top of a cliff, overlooking the sea... It's usually temperamental whenever it's windy, rainy, snowing, hot, or too loud (we're a tourist destination, it's summer)... But in the last couple of days it seems to have given up completely. We're working on it, but until then, I'm not sure how regular my posts will be, which I hate! If I don't have home internet, I will literally only be able to post once a week, at the library on my day off :-(

Anyway! Moving on to more exciting things, before I become totally depressed! As I don't participate in In My Mailbox, but have got a few exciting things this week, I just thought I'd share my haul!

Johnny and the Dead & Johnny and the Bomb by Terry Pratchett (from Amazon) - I've recently managed to get my fiance (who used to read, in his vague distant childhood) back into reading again, via Terry Pratchett's children's books. Must also take this opportunity to give thanks to Neil Gaiman, as Odd and the Frost Giants was what got him excited in the first place, as I haven't read it, and he now has. He tells everybody...

I requested Apology for the Woman Writing by Jenny Diski from Virago UK, because I read her novel Stranger on a Train, and really enjoyed her slightly sarcastic style. I have to say, Virago were already favourites of mine for publishing many of my favourite authors (off the top of my head, Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood come to mind), but when they sent me this, they also sent me a copy of Emma Donoghue's Touchy Subjects, because they thought I might enjoy it, and now they've rocketed to number one position!

And finally, following my recent Reading Lolita in Tehran obsession, I've been looking to get hold of more books about books and the reading process, and managed to pick up The History of Reading by Alberto Manguel, for the price of postage on Readitswapit! Very excited to start reading this!

Finally, earlier in the week, Hanna of Booking in Heels (who, by the way, is currently one of my absolute favourite bloggy people - go read her reviews, they're really succinct and very well written and often have a heavy dose of sarcasm, which is a good thing!) were talking about how there are no UK book bloggers, and how we should create a UK Book Blogger Army, and then Lyndsey from Amused, Bemused and Confused told me about the UK Book Blogger Directory. If you're in the UK, go sign up! It's a really easy way for us all to find each other, and hopefully we can use it to do more stuff that doesn't have the dreaded 'US only' requirement! Also, stand by for a UK Book Blogger Army - Your Country Needs You! button, it may be forthcoming!

That's all I've got for now, sorry about the rambling nature of the post, and all the links. I had a lot to get out of my system, in case I NEVER GET TO BLOG AGAIN!! (I hate my internet)

Hope you're all having great weeks so far! If anything exciting happens, I'll be on Twitter :-)

Sunday 12 June 2011

Review - The Summer We Read Gatsby by Danielle Ganek

I just finished reading The Summer We Read Gatsby which I requested from the publisher, because I thought it looked interesting and fun, and I wasn’t wrong! It took me about a day to read, and was light-hearted, while managing to address many issues without getting bogged down by any of them. It got me wondering about books which reference other books or authors in their titles. By inserting something or someone well known into the immediacy of the title, surely the author must be aware that they are setting up some kind of expectation of similarity to or affiliation with, the author or book that they reference. It could be a risky move, potentially alienating some readers, in this case (and I can’t believe they exist, but am reliably informed that they do) Gatsby haters. Of course, the other side of the argument, as demonstrated by yours truly, is that people will see the word ‘Gatsby’ in the title, and think ‘oooohhh what’s that about?’ and go in for a closer look...  

*WARNING – This novel evoked lots of nostalgia and memories, many of which are included in this review*

Going into this, I was a little hesitant – I read ‘The Great Gatsby’ a lot of years ago, and if I’m honest it was the feelings conjured by the book, rather than specific characters and plotlines, which ingrained themselves into my memory. When I think about Gatsby, it’s summer and I am sitting in my college library: a huge room lined with shelves crammed full of books. Tucked away in the corner was this dusty little section marked ‘Classics’, and next to it was one solitary desk. Here I would sit, in the growing silence and the gathering gloom, until my workaholic best friend, returning from whatever study group she’d been at, would tap me on the shoulder, bringing me back to the world. I don’t think I even had to check out The Great Gatsby – the way I remember it, I read it in one sitting! My expectations of The Summer We Read Gatsby were that it would evoke similar feelings, and in this I was not disappointed.

It is a novel primarily about relationships, and has a very nostalgic feel to it; all long, sociable summer evenings, cocktails, mysteries, and flirtations, and was exactly the relief I was looking for after the unsettling and thought –provoking nature of Reading Lolita in Tehran.

The basic storyline is thus: Peck (Pecksland) and Cassie (mostly known as Stella) Moriarty are half sisters who have never really spent much time together, and seemingly don’t have much in common. Following the death of their eccentric Aunt Lydia, they are forced to live together for a month in Fools’ House, which has been left to them in her will, along with the cryptic request that they ‘seek the thing of utmost value’ from the house. Through parties and shopping trips, interventions and thievery, disagreements about clothes, men, the importance of books and whether or not to obey Lydia’s wishes and sell the house, Peck and Stella grow to know and love each other. The Summer We Read Gatsby is a story of sisterhood, and of the triumph of first love.

From what I’ve read of Fitzgerald, and admittedly my experience so far has been limited to Gatsby and Tender is the Night, a travesty which I plan to remedy this summer, his novels seem to be based around intense and passionate relationships, as was the case in this novel. Peck and Stella’s relationship is built on the interaction they had and the summers they spent with Aunt Lydia, and all the way through, the novel returns to the potential of past relationships, whether it is Peck’s first and only great love, Miles Noble, or Finn, the man that Stella is determined to hate.

I really enjoyed the book. It was light, fun, and had very likeable characters. I loved the way that Peck and Stella played off each other; Peck is hugely dramatic, confident, and glamorous (American), while Stella is much more reserved, withdrawn, and into her books (Foreign – read European). Being British, I enjoyed the feeling that being ‘foreign’ means being more introspective and obsessed with reading. I’m sure that this was unintentional on the part of the author, but it made me giggle. The mark of how much I enjoyed this book is in the fact that I keep wanting to go back to it to find passages, and quotes that I loved. I’m starting to think I should go back to reading with a pencil next to me...

My absolute favourite quote of the book is this one:

“every year she would send the summer reading list she always gave her class, and a box of books” p8

To me, the ultimate act of love that you can show a child is to try to develop their reading, and introduce them to new authors. Sending anybody an entire box of books every summer is just about the best thing I can imagine to do for a person.

One of the reasons I loved the novel so much is that for me, it was very evocative. The perfect reading experience of my life so far occurred in a similar way to the ‘box of books’ scenario. As a child, we used to go on holiday in the Devonshire countryside, to an old Victorian vicarage (read: mansion..) which my mum’s friend ran as a Bed and Breakfast after she and her husband retired from being schoolteachers. One summer, she turned her ‘spare’ living room (seriously, huge house!), into a reading room for me. It had a big sofa, and huge French windows that led out to the garden that seemed to go on forever, via a sloping hill. She had gathered up every book in her (and her friends’) houses suitable for my age (around eight or nine), and filled a huge bookcase with them, and best of all, none of my many siblings were allowed to read any of the books without asking me first! In my memory, that summer was blissful. I spent hours tucked in the corner of the sofa, bathed in sunlight, buried in a book. For some reason, reading The Summer We Read Gatsby, reminded me of that, and I’m immensely grateful.

Danielle Ganek’s style is beautiful, and the book is an absorbing and almost effortless immersion. It’s told primarily through Stella’s memories, and Peck’s stories, both of which are very vivid, and very biased. I liked the fact that the narrator doesn’t attempt to be subjective – throughout Stella talks about things very much from her point of view, and while the reader gets the impression that she is fairer than Peck would have been, she has obviously hazed over some details. The interesting thing about her as narrator is in the fact that she and Peck really don’t know each other that well. Because they had different mothers, both of whom split up from their father, the only time that they saw each other was at Fool’s House, and this is really the first time that they are doing any kind of bonding. It’s interesting because Stella is, in a sense, trying to tell Peck’s story without really knowing it.

The end of the book was really hopeful and quite funny. There’s a lot of drama throughout, which kept the story fresh and interesting. I also like the fact that Peck got to stick her oar in and give her version of events in the epilogue! I do take issue with her name – Pecksland doesn’t seem like the kind of name any mother would give their child, it took me a while to stop thinking of her as an obscure fruit tree, or an undiscovered island, if I’m honest – but it didn’t interrupt my enjoyment of the book especially.

The Summer We Read Gatsby is full of really quirky and likeable characters, who feel like people you could actually meet in reality and be friends with. It was a fun, nostalgic, dramatic, romantic, evocative, (there’s a big long list of adjectives for you!) and at times hilarious, tale of sisterhood, which I thoroughly enjoyed!

Rating: ****

The Summer We Read Gatsby was published in paperback May 2011. A review copy was provided to me by Plume.

Friday 10 June 2011

GIVEAWAY Winner - Reading Lolita in Tehran

The winner of a brand new copy of Reading Lolita in Tehran is .....


Congratulations! I've emailed her to let her know. Commiserations and thanks for entering to the rest of you, and watch this space, as I will definitely be hosting more giveaways in the near future! Also for anybody in the UK and Europe, go sign up for the UK and EU Summer Hop! It's going to be great!

Wednesday 8 June 2011

My Enduring and Growing Love for Graphic Novels

So before I started this blog, I was thinking about using it specifically for a monthly feature. My first ever review was Alan Moore's V For Vendetta, and my plan was that I was going to incorporate my obsession with film much more into the blog than eventually ended up being the case. I was initally planning to feature a different graphic novel, along with the film adaptation, every month. I really do love graphic novels - I love the fact that they're really quick to read, but can also contain as much depth, if not more, in some cases, than many novels. I really enjoy the amalgamation of so many different media in graphic novels - lots of my favourites include popular culture, social commentary, and mythological references, as well as music, films, and sometimes ever cookery. They're such a gorgeously well thought out medium, and I really think everybody should read them! For me, graphic novels are an outlet for people who want to be slightly more visual in their imaginings,and sometimes I just want to look at something beautiful.

So here's the thing. I've decided to start a new feature. I'm not sure yet whether it will be monthly, bi-monthly, or just when I feel inspired, but here goes! I want to write about graphic novels, along with their film counterparts, whether they be old favourites, or new loves. I'm trying to expand my graphic horizons this year, by participating in  The Graphic Novels Challenge, and I'm discovering so many new things!

As a starting point, here's a list of my old favourites:
1) Watchmen - Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons
2) The Sandman Series - Neil Gaiman
4) Scott Pilgrim vs the World - Bryan Lee O'Malley
5) Lost at Sea - Bryan Lee O'Malley
6) Persepolis - Marjane Satrapi

Currently I'm reading Daniel Clowes Ghost World. I love the film, so I think this may be the subject of the first feature! I'm also a very recent manga convert. My little sister started me off on the Deathnote series, and I'm really really enjoying it. I read a great article this week about Reading Outside Ourselves, and how we have to challenge ourselves to read outside of our comfort zones. This is how I originally got into Graphic Novels, and I'd just like to thank Neil Gaiman for writing books that I loved so immensely much that I was willing to brave the terrifying frontier of the Graphic Novel to be able to read more of his stuff! So yes, new feature :-) I'm excited. I love to try to develop both the blog and my reading in new ways, and give myself new outlets to think and talk about things, and I'm really just starting out in the genre.

Does anybody have any recommendations of graphic novels that you love and want me to read?

Monday 6 June 2011

GIVEAWAY and Review - Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

This year, I’ve been in pursuit of new horizons, reading wise. I’ve read new genres, challenged myself to broaden my knowledge of authors, and developed and deepened my existing love for fairytales, among other things. My blog has led me to some wonderful people, books and experiences so far, and my two greatest reading experiences of 2011 so far have been, weirdly, about Iran.

The first was Persepolis, which blew me away (read my review if you want to see somebody get very excited about a graphic novel. I’ve since bought and watched the film, and adored that, too), and Reading Lolita in Tehran had a similar vibe. Books are a big feature in Persepolis; they are Marjane Satrapi’s education and escape, as they are here. Reading Lolita in Tehran is a memoir. Written by a literature professor, and book devotee, it is the story of the struggle of women, and of culture – literature in particular – under the Islamic government after the Iranian Revolution. The novel is divided into four parts: Lolita, Gatsby, James, and Austen, and portrays the journey of Azar Nafisi and many of her various students, through works of literature. Nafisi is very clever in the way that she uses the literature to reflect what is happening in Iran, or with the women, her students. Starting with Lolita, she says;

“To reinvent her, Humbert must take Lolita from her own real history, and replace it with his own, turning Lolita into a reincarnation” p36

This reincarnation is a direct reference to the way that women were being ‘reinvented’ under the Islamic Regime – forced to wear the veil, arrested for the tiniest things, abused by men on the slightest provocation. Reading Lolita in Tehran is a novel about fear; and not fear as many of us know it, but real, proper terror that you could be executed for daring to protest. It is also a novel about hope.

For me, it was a feminist novel in the very best sense. Nafisi was expelled from the University of Tehran for refusing to wear the veil, and throughout the book, she simultaneously laments the loss of her students’ physical identities, while highlighting the things which make them so individual. With ‘her girls’, she talks about many books, but the ones she highlights in the novel (Lolita, The Great Gatsby, Daisy Miller, Pride & Prejudice), have an array of very strong female characters. The classes that Nafisi teaches throughout the novel are all joyously free in comparison to extreme repression going on around them, whether they are the earliest ones, at the University of Tehran, or the far later, secret meetings at her house, where students read from Xeroxed copies of books, because the bookshops had been raided and closed down. In every class, there is a student who feels the Western literature Nafisi is teaching is ‘immoral’ and should be banned, and in every class, Nafisi stands up for her books. There is not only a love of literature, but a total immersion of the self in literature throughout the novel, which amazed me. We all talk about literature and reading as a form of escapism, but for these women it literally was. For them, the books, the classes, the secret meetings, provided them with a way to relate, and a way to remove themselves from the lives the regime forces them to live, and place themselves in a world where they could have the lives that they wanted. Reading Lolita in Tehran was the extreme of the best the experience of reading can provide:

“This is how you read a novel: you inhale the experience. So start breathing”   p 111

Nafisi’s attitude towards books reminded me of myself. At one point, she walks past a bookstore and goes in, on a whim that it won’t be there much longer. She gathers up armfuls of books to buy, and there’s a feeling of urgency, like she wants to protect the books – take them home and keep them safe – which is exactly how I feel when I’m out on a book splurge, except that she had a reason to feel that way, and I don’t. For people who really, truly love books though, I think that the idea of them not being around or readily available, let alone being banned, is enough to induce serious panic. Nafisi vocalises the way that I’ve felt about books for a long while. When you read a novel, you bury yourself in it, get passionate about it, and discuss characters as if they were real. You live it along with the characters. Reading allows you to have many lives at the same time, to be many places at once, to literally be wherever, whoever, whatever you want to be.

I wonder if people who write memoirs based around books do so because their lives hinge around what they read. I could probably sum up most of my major life events by what I was reading at the time – my childhood is Enid Blyton, the Chalet School, E. Nesbitt, and my Dad’s made up stories, early adolescence was The Babysitters Club, a lot of Lois Lowry, Paula Danziger, and Judy Blume, later teenage years filled with Douglas Adams, Tolkien, The Catcher in the Rye, I Capture the Castle, and many many readings of Alex Garland’s The Beach. Every desperate situation that I’ve felt I couldn’t get through and turned to an old friend for comfort, comfort has been found in the arms of the series starting with Little Women.  I could go on, and I’m sure many of you could do the same.

For those of us who are readers, what is it that we hope to get from our study of books? Because whatever genre you read, in whatever way you read it, reading is study. Although there may be many people in the world who can read a book and simply enjoy it, without thinking about it much, I know that many of us bloggers out here, to name just one group, will read a book, and think about it, make notes on it, and often get out a pencil and underline things, put rings around them, emphasize in some way the points which stand out to us – the ones that are important, that we want to make sense of, or that are just so on the money that we can’t believe they were written by another person and haven’t come straight out of our own heads.

 “The best fiction always forced us to question what we took for granted. It questioned traditions and expectations when they seemed immutable. I told my students I wanted them in their readings to consider in what ways these works unsettled them, made them a little uneasy, made them look around and consider the world, like Alice in Wonderland, through different eyes” p94

Reading Lolita in Tehran made me think about many things, and it made me think about things which were uncomfortable for me, and I feel refreshed for it.


I loved this book. It was everything that I want a book to be – informative, riveting, about a place I’ve never been to and know nothing about, and packed full of amazingly strong women, and engrossing, immersive books. It made me want to read and think and discuss things. After I’d finished it, I wanted to write and be impassioned and to change the world. As reality will probably prevent me from doing that, I’m spreading the love and hoping someone else will get inspired too!

I don’t do giveaways very often, but I have some serious major love for this book, so if you’d like me to send you a brand new free copy, please leave your email address in a comment below, and either the title of a book that’s inspired you, or a link to something awesome that has! I’ll pick a winner at the end of the week! :-) 

Sunday 5 June 2011

The Sunday Salon - Why Are the Months Going so Fast????

Please can somebody explain to me how it is already June?? I just don't understand how the year is going so fast! I think the first few months went quite slowly, as I wasn't working much or really doing much at all, but since I've started working full time, weeks have been flying by. I've already been in my new job a month, and feel like I've been there a lot longer. Also, since the death of my book buying ban, I've been acquiring books like a fiend, making up for lost time! In the past two weeks, I've somehow managed to add an absolutely massive THIRTY FIVE books to my collection. I have a serious problem. And since I've started buying again, I guess I need to start monitoring how much I buy again. In the interest of stats, and keeping tabs on how long I've had things, here's my acquisition list for May:

******WARNING- It's VERY long******

Books I've Bought for Myself:
  • The Outsiders by S.E Hinton
  • Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner  (read about on Sophisticated Dorkiness)
  • The Merlin Conspiracy by Diana Wynne Jones (after reading Neil Gaiman's tribute to her )
  • Dear Fatty by Dawn French
  • The Little House by Philippa Gregory (recommended by my friend Judith)
  • Peter Pan & Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens by J.M Barrie
  • Confessions of an Eco- Shopper by Kate Lock
  • The Hand that First Held Mine by Maggie O'Farrell (because the lovely woman at the car boot sale threw it in for freeeeee!)
  • Essays in Love by Alain de Botton
  • A Drink Before the War by Dennis Lehane
  • The Best of Miss Marple by Agatha Christie
  • Yes Man by Danny Wallace (Who is totally hilarious)
  • Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris (recommended by my little sister, the Cheese Ninja)
  • The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon 
  • In Her Shoes by Jennifer Weiner
  • The Serpent on the Crown by Elizabeth Peters (bought for my mum, but she already has it!)
  • Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters (see above)
  • Vanity Fair by William Thackaray (I read it years ago, but wanted my own copy for the readalong)
  • An absolutely beautiful boxset of Faber Poetry comprising: The Waste Land and Other Poems (T.S Eliot), Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats (Eliot), Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis (Wendy Cope - a poet I've not read before), Ariel (Sylvia Plath), Death of a Naturalist (Heaney), Crow (Ted Hughes), High Windows (Larkin), Tell Me the Truth About Love (Auden), Kid (Armitage), and The War Poems (Sassoon)
Books I've Been Given or Swapped:
  • A LOT of Ian Rankin (A Good Hanging, Blood Hunt, The Naming of the Dead, Strip Jack, The Black Book, Mortal Causes, Let it Bleed, Black & Blue, The Hanging Garden, Dead Souls, Set in Darkness, and The Falls) - lots of these are in big books, so I'm counting them as one book, although they're actually three. 
  • Blink by Malcolm Gladwell (result of my appeal for Creative Nonfiction Recommendations)
  • The Ugly Duckling by Iris Johansen (for my July Fairytale Feature - June is Cinderella, and I'm working on it at the moment!)
  • Gossip Girl: Love the One You're With by Cecily von Zeigesar
  • Saplings by Noel Streatfeild
  • The Jacobite Trilogy by D.K Broster
  • Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
Three More to Mention:
  • Coming Up for Air by Patti Callahan Henry (Review copy from St Martin's Press)
  • The Summer We Read Gatsby by Danielle Ganek (Review copy from Plume)
  • Promises to Keep by Jane Green (Review copy from Plume - published in the U.K as The Love Verb)
Aaaand breathe! Hugely long list, I know, and it's led to my fiance putting his foot down. Although I'm not back on my ban (I seem to be unable to stop at the moment... ) he has said that from now on, I have to read two books that I already own for every one I buy. This includes reading two for every one that I've bought over the last two weeks... so I won't be buying again for a while! To be honest, though I've got some awesome stuff on my shelves, and it should be fun to rediscover the reasons why I absolutely had to have things!

The thing I'm most excited about, though, is that I've recently got all excited about reading and blogging again! I was going through a bit of a slump back there for a while, and I think it was a lot to do with the fact that I was feeling some pressure (I'm not sure why) to make my blog be a certain way - i.e. to be 'literary' or 'serious' or something, I'm not really sure - rather than just being what I want and need it to be, which is an outlet for all my book related madness! And so, in deference to said madness, here's the list of stuff I read in May :-)

Links go to my reviews, and that's pretty good for me in recent times! Favourite read for May was probably Godmother by Carolyn Turgeon. I loved Mermaid, which I read in April, and I'm thinking I might have found another author to add to my 'favourites' list!

If you've stuck with this post till this point, I am amazed! And if anybody has any tips for managing the book acquistion fever, they will be VERY gratefully recieved! I'm sure my fiance would be thrilled, too, he'll probably even send you a present! :-)

Happy June (my birthday month!) everybody!

Wednesday 1 June 2011

My Disgusting Inability to Stop Signing Up for Challenges...

I decided that since I've managed to sign myself up for two more challenges this week, it was probably time for an update/roundup of what's going on, challenge wise. More for myself than anything, as I've totally lost track of what I'm doing with challenge reading!

So first for the two new ones:

2011 Nonfiction Challenge

Hosted by the ever-awesome The Broke and the Bookish, I'm really excited I found this one. As you'll see by my recent posts, I've decided that I need to branch out a lot more into the non-fiction side of the book world. This challenge seems a great way to do it. I'm going to attempt to read 4-6 books from the different categories, which are:
* Culture
* Art
* Food
* Medical
* Travel
* Memoir/Biography
* Money
* Science/Nature
* History

I don't have a complete list of the books I'll be attempting yet, but my first book is Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, for the culture section, and so far I'm loving it!

Award Winning Reads Challenge

Hosted at Books from Bleh to Basically Amazing, this focuses on another one of my current loves, Newberry and Printz Award Winning Children's books. I really love love love this idea! The challenge runs until September 5th, so I have to constrian myself. I'm going to go for Level 2, which is 6 books, 3 Newberry Award Winners, and 3 Printz Award Winners. Here is my book list as it currently stands:
* How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff (Printz Award Winner)
* An Abundance of Katherines by John Green (Printz Award Honors)
* Going Bovine by Libba Bray (Printz Award Winner)
* When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead (Newberry Award Winner)
* The View from Saturday by E.L Konigsburg (Newberry Award Winner)
* The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly (Newberry Award Honors)

Ok, so that's the new ones... what's going on with the old ones? :-/

The Canongate Myth Challenge - I'm still doing terribly with this one... but my lovely best mate has a copy of The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ for me, so hopefully I'll pick that up when I'm back in London next month!


Back to the Classics 2011 - I've not read any more for this for a while. So far I've done two, one was a huge struggle and I kind of hated it, and the other was absolutely amazing and I loved it, so it's a tough one. There are some fantastic books on my list for this one so I really do want to get a move on with it! Now I'm off my ban, I can actually get hold of a copy of The Satanic Verses, as it's proved ridiculously difficult to get hold of through library and swap!


Graphic Novel Challenge - This may well be my favourite challenge of this year. It's the challenge I've read the most for so far, and I just love love love Graphic Novels in a way I didn't before.


Historical Fiction ChallengeReally enjoying this one so far. I have a lot of the books for it sat on my shelves, but I keep getting distracted by other things! I did read one more book for this this month, which was Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel, and I really enjoyed it!


The Global Reading Challenge - I'm probably learning the most from this. A lot of my reading generally is contained to Western novels, so it's been lovely to break away from that.


The Gilmore Girls Reading Challenge - I've collected a few more books from this list this month, namely The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, and Franny and Zooey by J.D Salinger.


So basically, I have a ton of reading to do, wish me luck!