Wednesday 30 November 2011

Les Miserables Readalong, Narnia Project and a slight pre-emptive 2011 round - up...

I remember when I was six and the year that I was six seemed to drag out forever. So much of the stuff that happened in my childhood took place in that year. I have absolutely no idea how it is that we're almost at the end of another year - I've been living in Kent for an entire year now, and I've survived! We've just moved house for the second time, to a much bigger, nicer place, and we are (hopefully) finally starting to feel really settled! The weeks seem to fly by now, and sometimes it seems like the only way to measure a month is by how many posts I've managed to write! 

All in all, I'm really pleased with how 2011 has gone... At the beginning of the year I was still fairly relaxed about the wedding planning, only working a few hours a week and living in a one bedroom flat navigating my life around my books. Now I'm living in a two bedroom flat with a reading room, working full time, and most excitingly of all, I'm married! I'm starting to feel like a proper grown up, and while that is scary it's also necessary I think. Although it's not quite the beginning of December and there is still another month of 2011 to go, as I plan to spend most of it re-reading old favourites and finishing off the few Noel Streatfeild books I have on my shelf before the year is up (all of which will be re-reads), I thought now would be as good a time as any to talk about some of my favourite books of the year, and some of the books that I wouldn't have read or bought if it weren't for blogging!

From January 9th 2012 until 14th I'm going to be hosting an awesome giveaway for my first blogoversary! For this giveaway, there will be a question you will need to answer in order to win one of the books from my list of favourites from 2011, my first year of blogging! There are a fair amount to choose from, and I'm thinking that I will pick a couple of winners - probably one from the UK and one international, just so everybody can share the excitement! I cannot stress enough how glad I am that I started keeping this blog back in January. It has had such an effect on my reading life, and has got me through some really lonely, homesick times. It has really helped to know that whatever happens there are always blogs to read, and always awesome people I can talk books (and randomness) with, and I so appreciate that :-)

These are a few of my favourites from this year that I've not had time, internet connectivity, or words to talk about before and I thought if I did it here then there would be a point of reference for people entering the giveaway. These will just be very condensed reviews, and the first up is my favourite of all,

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern - About a circus which mysteriously appears without warning, I was so blown away by this book that I still have no proper words to describe it. It's magical, awe-inspiringly written and much more complex and entangled than it appears. A tale of love, magic, adventure, brutality, and so, so much more. You must read this book.

Garden Spells & The Sugar Queen by Sarah Addison Allen - Apart from Morgenstern, Sarah Addison Allen is my favourite discovery of 2011. Her books are gorgeous - fairly lightweight, full of magic, food, and feisty women, they always have happy endings without every being completely predictable. Just beautiful.

Howards End is On the Landing by Susan Hill - A non - fiction book subtitled 'my year of reading from home', Susan Hill sets out to read only the books she already owns for a year, and it's basically my favourite kind of book. Full of literary discussion, exploration and lists upon lists, I came away from this book with a headful of questions and pages and pages of lists of books I now want to read. Very well written and enjoyable.

Going Out by Scarlett Thomas - As some of you may know, this lady is one of my all - time favourite authors. The author of eight novels, for some reason her first five are extremely difficult to get hold of, however my awesome husband managed to do just that for me this year, and I've now read all of them! Going Out is about Luke, a boy who is allergic to the sun, and his best friend Julie, and what happens to them when they decide to go out. Summed up like that, it seems kind of lame, but I promise it isn't. It's daring, funny, and as always with Scarlett Thomas, very human, intelligent, and candid.

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson - I read this after I watched the BBC adaptation with Jason Isaacs (which I completely loved), and I liked the book a lot. Basically a story about Jackson Brodie, an ex - police officer turned private detective who mostly investigates missing cats, and his foray into the world of real cases, I liked it because Atkinson really humanises her characters, and because the plot was very well thought out. I've recently got my hands on the second in the series, and I'm looking forward to it!

A River in the Sky by Elizabeth Peters- the latest in the Amelia Peabody series of historical crime fiction, based around Egyptology, this confused me intially because it is published out of sequence with the rest of the story. If you like this genre and want an easy read that is hilarious and engaging, Peters is your woman! Amelia Peabody is one of my favourite heroines, because she's such an unlikely one, and such an independent woman :-)

So, that's pretty much that. Now onto yet another thing I've signed up for in 2012....

Kate is hosting a year long readalong of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables in 2012. The idea is to read small chunks of the books to a schedule with the other participants and then talk about it. I've not had much luck with French literature this year - I've DNF'd both Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers, and Hugo's Hunchback of Notre Dame, but I'm hoping that my enduring love for Les Miserables the musical will help sustain me through this one, wish me luck!  

Rikki's Teleidoscope is hosting the Narnia Reading Project in 2012. I love this series and am way past due for a re-read so I'm going to join in! There is no schedule, so I will just post about the books as and when I read them! To sign up, use the link above :-)

Monday 28 November 2011

Food Glorious Food

I know I spend a lot of time here at An Armchair by the Sea talking about un-book-related things, but I've decided that I'd like to make the unrelated rambling slightly more specific, and talk about some of the other stuff that I love.

We've just moved and my new kitchen is beyond gorgeous. It's massive, and has so much worktop space that I really don't know what I'll do with it! I've always loved cooking, and collect cookery books as voraciously as I do all other genres, but sometimes in my previous tiny kitchen coming home after a long day of standing up at work, it was difficult to find inclination to cope with the confines of space and actually cook. Especially when nobody's done the washing up and there's stuff all over the place... It's things like this which finally convinced me I wasn't cut out to be a chef, but with this new sparkly spacious piece of awesome (it also has a brand new oven!), I'm hoping that I can get back to cooking often and manging to feed me and the husband better.

I was given a hand held blender as a wedding present, so I want to try mushroom soup from scratch for the first time this week, and I also want to try a tomato and sausage bake. I love food blogs and I love browsing recipe sites for inspiration. Anybody have any good ones for me?

Sunday 27 November 2011

Sunday Salon - The Armchair has moved!!

It has been a while since I've done a Sunday Salon - things have been a bit complicated and crazy since we got back from honeymoon in September, but hopefully that is almost all over now, and we will all start to feel a bit happier for the New Year. So, on to the big news! This weekend we've been moving. As a result of this the Armchair is no longer actually next to the sea. We are only around the corner, but I will miss being able to see the sea from my window. However, to make up for the lack of sea, I do now have my own personal READING ROOM!! Currently it's full of boxes, but hopefully soon it will have a little sofabed and desk and a big standing lamp, and the walls will be lined with bookcases. I am so excited about it! :-) It would be nice if people would stop making so many nursery and baby remarks in reference to the second bedroom, but being the eldest of seven it's kind of expected of me so I guess I'll just have to put up with it.

So, the most important query I have this week is one I know lots of people have asked in the past, and is in relation to organising books, as my day off this week will be spend with giant cups of tea, sorting out my reading room. I've organised my books most ways that are possible in the past - prior to moving I'd got them in a system I quite liked. As we only had the two rooms really, in the bedroom I had all my 'keeper' books. Then in the living room I had one shelf for non-fiction, biography, ARCs, classics, poetry and literary criticism, and one big shelf for all my unread books, categorised by shelf. My latest idea is to organise them by publisher and then alphabetically within publisher group. This is mostly because I've recently fallen in love with Persephone books and I think they'd look beautiful all together on the shelves, but I realise this probably isn't the most practical way to organise my collection... Does anybody have any suggestions?

Oh, and the other great thing about moving is that we now FINALLY have reliable home internet, so I should be able to post whenever I want to, rather than whenever I remember to plan ahead and bring my laptop to work with me! Very happy Sunday, everybody, and a late Happy Thanksgiving to the Americans!

Friday 25 November 2011

Review: - Still Alice by Lisa Genova

I’d read quite a bit about Still Alice on various people’s blogs a while back, and then I found it in the library and thought I’d give it a whirl. It was Biopsychologist and Neurologist (wow..) Lisa Genova’s debut novel, and although I was initially apprehensive about reading it because of its subject matter (Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease), I’m really glad that I did.
Alice Howland is a fifty year old Harvard psychology professor, married to another successful Harvard professor, and with three grown up children. She thinks everything is going brilliantly, when she suddenly starts to forget things. Initially small things like forgetting why something is on her to-do list, but progressing to missing a flight to Chicago, and not being able to remember what she is supposed to be lecturing about cause her to seek medical advice. When she is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease, Alice feels like her world is falling apart, and she and her family must learn to cope with her gradual decline.
This book was beautifully written. At the moment I tend to be looking for books to uplift me and make me happy and I didn’t think that a book about Alzheimer’s would do that, but Lisa Genova’s style was really engrossing and emotive. The structure of the book reflects Alice’s mental state; at the beginning it is very fluid and articulate, but as her disease progresses the gaps in the narrative become greater. Because it is all told from her point of view, when she cannot remember things, you hear that in the narrative. At one point, she sleeps for an entire two days, and when she reaches the point of no longer recognising her children, she assigns them titles; ‘the actress’ and ‘the mother’. I loved Alice’s strength and determination and I thought that her dignity in the face of such an undignified disease was inspirational. Because she is so intelligent and has always been so completely in control of her life, the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s when she is only fifty, although always shattering, is probably more so to her than it would be to other people. Genova has given herself an extreme end of the spectrum of humanity to work with, and she portrays Alice’s point of view beautifully.
For me, though, the most interesting part of the story was the effect of Alice’s disease on her relationships with her family. Because of the kind of Alzheimer’s that she has, there is a 50% chance that each of her children will have inherited it, and one of her daughters is trying to have a baby. If she gets pregnant, then any child she had would also have the 50% chance of inheriting the disease. Alice has to tell her children that not only does she have a progressive, degenerative disease which may make her forget them completely, and for which there is no cure, but also that there is a strong chance that any or all of them may also have the disease, which could lead to their children also inheriting it. What an awful thing to have to do and Genova portrays it so strongly. Throughout this and many other scenes in the book, Alice is the pillar of strength – her husband John goes into denial about everything that is happening pretty much straight away and never really comes out of it apart from to patronize her. I have to admit that I really didn’t care much for him at all, but I think that the purpose of the character was to really show the different ways of reacting to a disease.

Still Alice really showed the strains that Alzheimer’s can put on a long and happy marriage, especially at such an early age, where the partner is often still in employment – in the case of John an employment which Alice says is his passion in a way that she never was. I got angry about the fact that throughout the book he seemed to be picking his career over Alice, but of course it is a choice. No matter how much it seems like it should be an obvious one, everybody isn’t the same, and while it may seem a no –brainer to most people, other people have different sets of priorities. To me, it just really seemed like John was used to having this super intelligent, independent, driven woman for his wife and couldn’t really cope when she changed and became incredibly dependent on him.
Despite having thought that it wouldn’t be an uplifting read, I ended the book with a little smile on my face. Without being overly sentimental or predictable, it made me feel that little bit better about the world, which is really what I’m looking for at the moment. Although I didn’t have as dramatic a reaction to it as I’ve had to books like Reading Lolita in Tehran or The Night Circus, it has made its’ quiet way onto my Best of 2011 list, and so will be up for grabs in my Blogoversary giveaway in January. Watch this space...

Wednesday 23 November 2011

Review: - Saplings by Noel Streatfeild

Saplings was the last Noel Streatfeild novel I had on my shelves that I had never read before, and having finished it I wish that I'd been able to stray from re-reading more and delve deeper into her adult novels. Being brought up on her children's novels (Ballet Shoes and the rest..) I thought I knew what to expect from her, but Saplings proved me wrong. Yes, it was still told with a similar voice to favourites such as Apple Bough and White Boots; it still had that childish innocence and simplicity in the way that the story was told, but the subject matter, to put it plainly, shocked me. Anywhere but in a Streatfeild novel I would have barely blinked at the regular references to sex, the evidence of the psychological trauma created by death, and the dealings with alcoholism, depression, and attempted suicide, but in Streatfeild, it rocked my safe little world.

I came across the beautiful Persephone edition of the book while rumaging in one of the most awesome second hand bookshops ever, and then it sat on the shelf for ages, and only the impending end of the year finally coerced me into reading it, but I'm so glad that I did. I love it when an author (especially one as well - known and loved as Streatfeild) completely contradicts everything I expect of her, while still letting me know that this is still a Streatfeild book that I'm reading. Saplings is a book about the Second World War, but not at all in the same way that When the Siren Wailed was. The latter was a very simplistic childish account of wartime experiences, told through the eyes of the children only, whereas the former is this and much more - told through a variety of narrators, including the four Wiltshire children, both of their parents, their governess and various Aunts and Uncles, it builds up a hugely diverse, varied and intense account of the experiences of one family through one of the greatest struggles possible for an English familiy to live through in recent history.

Saplings starts off on a beach, with the children, Laurel, Tony, Kim and Tuesday, enthralled by the fact that their parents Lena and Alex have arrived to spend the rest of the holidays with them. The opening scene is an incredibly Streatfeild-esque one - the children are pretty much all showing off for 'Dad', who is the hero of the story, and are planning on swimming out to their raft - a difficult feat for Kim, the showoff of the family, who has never done so before. From this innocuous beginning, the story rapidly intensifies, shocking me by the combination of the words 'passion' and 'naked' in the same sentence by page sixteen! The parts of the story told from the point of view of Lena, the children's mother, are integral to the build up of events - Alex and Lena's relationship is an incredibly intense one, and Lena is not particularly fulfilled by motherhood. Alex is what she lives for, and her love of him is very focused and consuming. You could say that it's her feelings for him which dictate the course of the entire novel.

The major reason that I found the novel so engrossing was the fact that it strayed from the usual happy ever after ending. Although the way the story ends is far from hopeless, it comes very abruptly, and there doesn't seem to much cohesion. Whereas usually the happiness of children is paramount in Noel Streatfeild's novels, this is never the case in Saplings. About a third of the way through the novel and incredibly sad and traumatic event occurs, which I don't want to mention because I'd really love you all to read the book, and after that the children's feelings are only considered from the point of view of the multitudes of relatives who feel they know 'what's best' for them. It was incredibly sad. It was also very sad to read children growing up without the healthy, wholesome, loving environments which are what I loved about Streatfeild's books as a child, and for that reason I'm glad that I waited to be twenty four before reading this novel. I know it sounds a bit pathetic of me to say, but part of me feels like I've had an idol smashed by the experience of reading Saplings. Because I am the age I am, I can enjoy it and realise that the experience I've had with this book eventually makes her a stronger writer for me, and one that I can continue to get to know and love from an adult point of view, rather than always reading her work with an eye for nostalgia. If I'd read it when I was younger, I'm not sure that would have been the case.

The blurb for this book talks about Noel Streatfeild's ability to see the world from a child's perspective, and says that what makes the book special is the way that she uses that skill to explore very adult problems, and this is definintely the case. The novel is basically a coming of age of all of the Wiltshire children to some degree, but mainly of Laurel, and her becoming a woman is marked by the many awful situations she experiences.

Not a happy book, but a very honest one, and a portrayal of the awful rammifications of the Second World War, even for those not directly involved in it, that you don't see often. I highly recommend this book. It gave me a totally new experience with an author I expected nothing new from, and that's an achievement.

Tuesday 22 November 2011

Shakespeare Challenge & Support Your Local Library!

I just wanted to mention another couple of challenges. As these two are both currently quite small, and really will help me towards my book buying ban, I thought I'd just do a mini post about both of them! I really will start posting proper content again soon!
Reading Shakespeare: A Play a Month in 2012
I’ve not read any Shakespeare since graduating over three years ago, and I think it’s time to rectify that! Risa at Breadcrumb Reads is hosting a Shakespeare Reading challenge, which I have signed up for. There was a poll, and these are the results. We are going to read a play a month in 2012!

  • JanuaryA Midsummer Night’s Dream
  • FebruaryMacbeth
  • MarchHenry V
  • AprilMuch Ado About Nothing
  • MayAntony and Cleopatra
  • JuneRichard III
  • JulyAs You Like It
  • AugustKing Lear
  • SeptemberCymbeline
  • OctoberTwelfth Night
  • NovemberOthello
  • DecemberPericles
Yay for Shakespeare! 
Support Your Local Library Challenge 2012

In keeping with my attempt to sign up for challenges which will help me to keep to my 2012 book buying ban, I’m signing up for the Support Your Local Library challenge, which does exactly what it says it does. Hosted by The Eclectic Bookshelf, the challenge runs from 1st January 2012 to 31st December 2012. Re-read don’t count, and obviously the books must all be library books! You don’t have to have a blog to participate, so go sign up for it!
With libraries so much talked about lately, and with the threat of closures looming large in my local area, as well as in the rest of the UK, it’s more important than ever to support your local library if we want them to be there for future generations. Personally I can’t imagine what my childhood would have been like without the library, so I’m quite vocal in my support for the saving the libraries!
There are four levels for this challenge which are as follows:
Level 1: Read 12 library books
Level 2: Read 24 library books
Level 3: Read 36 library books
Level 4:  Read 37+ library books
Originally I thought I’d come in at about level 2, but I’ve decided to be brave and dive in at the deep end, so I’m signing up for Level 4! 

Here are the library books I have read:

  1. Yossarian Slept Here: When Joseph Heller was Dad and LIfe was a Catch 22 by Erica Heller
  2. Bleeding Kansas by Sara Paretsky
  3. A Wedding in December by Anita Shreve
  4. Percy Jackson and the Battle of the Labyrinth - Rick Riordan
  5. The Last Picture Show - Larry McMurtry
  6. The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection by Alexander McCall Smith 
  7. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother - Amy Chua
  8. The Lost Art of Gratitude - Alexander McCall Smith
  9. Percy Jackson and the Last Olympian - Rick Riordan
  10. The Cookbook Collector - Allegra Goodman
  11. Ready Player One - Ernest Cline
  12. Welcome to Rosie Hopkins' Sweet Shop of Dreams - Jenny Colgan
  13. Fairytale Ending - Gigi Levangie
  14. The Borrower - Rebecca Makkai
  15. The Resourceful Mum's Handbook  - Elen Lewis
  16. Secrets to Happiness - Sarah Dunn
  17. Aphrodite's Workshop for Reluctant Lovers - Marika Cobbold 
  18. Let's Pretend This Never Happened - Jenny Lawson
  19. The Meryl Streep Movie Club - Mia March
  20. I Feel Bad About My Neck and Other Reflections on Being a Woman - Nora Ephron
  21. Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading  - Nina Sankovitch
  22. Last Christmas - Julia Williams
  23. The Pi**ed Off Parents Club - Mink Elliot
  24. Peaches for Monsieur le Cure - Joanne Harris
  25. Moranthology - Caitlin Moran
  26. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian - Sherman Alexie
You can sign up here. Libraries are an awesome thing! 

Monday 21 November 2011

Mixing It Up Challenge 2012

I’m a challenge addict. I can’t help it. I am still desperately attempting to only sign up for challenges which help me read the gigantic pile of books I already own, or library books. I also want to apologise for the blog being pretty much nothing but sign up posts lately, I will post some reviews soon I promise! Anyway, here’s another. Ellie from Musings of a Bookshop Girl is hosting the Mixing it Up Challenge 2012, encouraging us to broaden the genres we read!
There are sixteen categories which are:
Classics - The Tenant of Wildfell Hall - Anne Bronte
Biography - Dear Fatty - Dawn French
Cookery, Food and Wine
History - Anything Goes - Lucy Moore
Modern Fiction - The Finkler Question - Howard Jacobson
Graphic Novels and Manga - Fun Home - Alison Bechdel
Crime and Mystery - One Good Turn  - Kate Atkinson
Romance - The Patchwork Marriage - Jane Green
Science Fiction and Fantasy - Ready Player One - Ernest Cline
Travel - Stephen Fry in America - Stephen Fry
Poetry and Drama
Journalism and Humour - I Feel Bad About My Neck and Other Thoughts on Being a Woman - Nora Ephron
Science and Natural History
Children’s and Young Adult - Percy Jackson and the Battle of the Labyrinth - Rick Riordan
Social Sciences and Philosophy - Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother - Amy Chua
There are five levels, named after baking type things, and the one I’m going to go for is the second highest: Two – Tier Cake, which means I need to read 13-15 books from the different categories. The books listed are the ones I intend to read, and as I finish them they will be linked to the reviews. Last year I decided I wanted to read more non-fiction, and managed to stockpile a fair amount of non-fiction books which I’m hoping to read for this challenge. There are no genres in this challenge that I’ve never read before, but there are a lot that I’ve not read much of.

Books in blue are the ones I've read - they will be linked to reviews when I get around to writing them!!
If you want to sign up for this challenge you can do so here.

Wednesday 16 November 2011

A Year of Reading... Louisa May Alcott

Some of you who read my blog may know about my Year of Reading Noel Streatfeild. Earlier this year I discovered that Streatfeild, one of my favourite childhood authors, had actually written a lot more books than I was aware of, which led to 2011 being the year in which I tried to read as many of her books as I possibly could, made problematic by being on a book buying ban for the first three months of the year. However, I think I’ve done pretty well, and I’ve had a great time doing it. My reading of Streatfeild has led to some more interesting discoveries about some other favourite authors (J.M Barrie, L.M Montgomery, and Louisa May Alcott among them) who were much more prolific than I’d previously thought.
I have an enduring love for Little Women and its’ sequels. It is the first book I remember reading by myself, for fun, outside of school, and to this day the books remain very close to my heart. As with Streatfeild, I was unaware of exactly how much Louisa Alcott had written, and I’m quite excited to discover some of her adult fiction. I’ve found an awesome website which has pretty much all of her novels, plays and short stories in full online. However, I’m going to be trying not to read too many of them like this, as I know from previous experience that online reading and I don’t really get along. I’m a diehard fan of ‘the book’ and I always will be. Also, my eyes dislike looking at screens for too long! I may, however, read the short stories online, and other things in desperation, and to facilitate the successful continuation of my 2012 book buying ban.
Little Women is pretty much my all – time favourite book, and as the March girls are based on Louisa Alcott and her three sisters, I’m also going to add biographies and non – fiction to the list of books. I’d like to finish the year knowing a lot more about the woman who wrote the book that has had undeniably the biggest impact on my life so far.
Weirdly, it’s very difficult to get a complete list of Alcott’s works. The most comprehensive list I’ve found (and also the place where they are online) is here and it’s this that I’ll be working from I think. Honestly, I didn’t do brilliantly with reviewing the Streatfeild books I read this year, so my resolution is to do better this year. I’m excited!

Tuesday 15 November 2011

Reviews: - Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall & Legends in Exile by Bill Willingham

The Fables series of graphic novels by Bill Willingham is one of my newest and most awesome discoveries in the graphic genre. I originally found out about it at Sophisticated Dorkiness, and after doing a bit of research I thought it sounded exactly like my kind of thing. This is really a double review of two Fables books: 1001 Nights of Snowfall, which is a kind of prequel, based around the Scheherezade/ Arabian Nights concept, and the first official book in the series, Legends in Exile.
The Fables (Snow White, the big bad wolf, Beauty and the Beast and the rest) have been forced to leave their magical homelands by an enemy known only as The Adversary, and have taken refuge in a suburb of New York which they have named Fabletown. Here they’ve lived among humans for centuries, and here is where Legends in Exile begins. Although it is the first book, I am glad that I read 1001 Nights of Snowfall first, as it explains a lot of the set-up of Legends in Exile, such as how Snow White and Rose Red came to be estranged, how Old King Cole became the mayor of Fabletown, and the beginnings of  Bigby the wolf. Fables runs the risk of being ridiculous – anything based around fairytales always has the potential for childishness – but it completely isn’t. Legends in Exile, more than 1001 Nights of Snowfall, is a very adult, raw and complex and I loved it. The fairytale characters are presented with all the uncomfortable edges of humanity – all their flaws are jarringly present and obvious.
Legends in Exile is pretty much a murder mystery. Rose Red’s apartment is found trashed and covered in blood and Bigby, the head of the Fabletown police force, is called in to investigate. Red’s sister, Snow White is the assistant to the mayor of Fabletown, and she becomes involved in the hunt for her estranged sister’s killer. The plot follows the development of the investigation, and the revelation of Rose Red’s entangled love life, starting with her boyfriend Jack (as in Jack the giant killer, of ‘and the beanstalk’ fame), and quickly warping to involve a complex relationship with Bluebeard, the guy who kills all his wives...
I thought that the way the story developed was very enjoyable. Although it wasn’t the most shocking ending ever, the story was still pacy enough to keep me engrossed and wanting to read the next one (which I now have). I always love new takes on fairytales – many of you will know that this is the subject I’m apt to geek out the most about – and I love that Willingham has stripped fairytales back to what they would be like if they were actually about real people in the real world. What I’ve read of the Fables series so far has a ring of authenticity that fairytales generally lack, and I think that’s probably what I found the most powerful about them. I also really liked the artwork, especially on 1001 Nights of Snowfall. It is often quite stark and fairly brazen (as are the stories), while retaining some of the traditional fairytale, ethereal feel.
The rest of the series has gone on my wishlist...

Monday 14 November 2011

Guest Review: - Wao or Wow? The Brief Wondrous LIfe of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

I’m really excited about the book I’m currently reading, my second Pulitzer winner of the year, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. My younger sister was reading it as part of her college course and recommended it, and I’m loving it so far. As I’m already so far behind with my reviews, though, she agreed to lend out her review of the book for all you lovely people, so here is my very first ever Guest Review! You can find her here, and encourage her to blog more!

Junot Diaz’s novel ‘The Brief wondrous life of Oscar Wao’ written in 2007 is famed for winning the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and many other awards afterwards. The novel tells the story of an entire family through four generations and explores the culture, customs and history of the Dominican Republic in great detail.
 Diaz especially focuses on the idea of Fuku which Dominicans say is a curse that causes disaster and can be passed down through families causing complete destruction of many lives. It is unclear to us whether Fuku actually exists of whether Diaz created it in order to incorporate the postmodernist literary technique of paranoia in to his work, however it acts as a very effective antagonist throughout the story, even gaining its own imagery of a man who “had no face”. This is used to great effect to strike a sense of anxiety and even fear in to the reader, as firstly the idea of a man with no face is not only strange but creepy although at first he seems unimportant, as we learn the family history and things start to get messy we see the return of this faceless man in Socorro’s dreams and through the eyes of various characters as crisis occurs. What makes this image ultimately terrifying is the fact that without a face this man has no identity, you cannot see him coming and that highlights one of the greatest fears that humans have; fear of the unknown.
‘The Brief wondrous life of Oscar Wao’ is a very intense, gripping story that is written in a very unusual way. Diaz uses a lot of intertextuality and pastiche to create the feel of nerdiness but also gives a greater sense of depth to the story. The texts mentioned are always of great significance to the situation and are often used to foreshadow later events. A key example of this is in chapter Two, the narrative voice is now Lola; “you were reading Watership Down and the rabbits and their does were making their dash for the boat” this introduces the idea of escape which from this point onward becomes an important theme in the novel. Another brilliant example of Diaz’s skilful merging of texts is before the novel has begun. We are presented with two epigraphs; a poem by Derek Walcott and an ingenious quote from the fantastic four, “Of what importance are brief, nameless lives Galactus??” this may well be one of the most important quotes in the whole book. Even though it is not part of the story it directly addresses the story. We as readers may ask what is so wondrous about the life of Oscar Wao, the answer to which is read the book and find out, but the point that is being made through this quote is that compared to the universe or to Galactus none of our lives no matter how wondrous they might seem are worth anything. Diaz constantly makes references to Tolkien and ‘The Lord Of The Rings’ which for those of us who have read them and understand the references provides us with some amazing imagery and comparisons for the events throughout the book. While reading ‘Oscar Wao’ I began to make my own comparisons to Tolkien and one quote really seems appropriate when talking about ‘Oscar Wao’; All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.” This seems to me to be a perfect explanation for the dramas we see in this book. It may be Fuku as Diaz thinks but then again it could just be the consequences of each characters actions. To me Fuku seems like a very interesting idea and it provides the story with a very strong cultural grounding but it also seems like a very good way to get out of having to take responsibility.
The title gives the reader several insights as to what is hidden between the covers of this book. The first clue is in the word ‘Brief’ which tells us that Oscar dies, it also suggests that there will be drama surrounding his death because from reading the blurb we know that he is not anything particularly special, but for his life and death to be of enough note to become an award winning story there must be some element of drama or the unnatural that makes it worth writing about. This idea is supported by the word ‘Wondrous’ which again suggests that there is something extraordinary about the life of Oscar Wao. Through the title Diaz has already managed to capture his audience and evoke a sense of curiosity in them to discover what it is that is so wondrous about Oscar. This in itself shows the mark of a great writer, but he doesn’t stop there he continues to present us with ideas for us to question, new characters to provide depth to the story and increase our understanding of what is happening and he continually provides us with historical information to enhance our contextual understanding. Diaz manages to combine his brilliant work of fiction with a very in depth and opinionated history lesson on the on goings in the Dominican Republic during and after the Trujillato. This is mainly done through the use of extensive footnotes which often just Diaz are taking the narrative in a different direction to give a broader view of a situation but without wanting to lose the flow of the actual story he puts it in to a footnote. Some of the footnotes are abnormally long and throughout the book it is almost as if there is another story running parallel to the main narrative through the footnotes.
 In a way ‘Oscar Wao’ could be seen as a continuation of ‘Drown’ a collection of short stories Diaz wrote before ‘Oscar Wao’. This is because the narrator, the character Yunior who we meet part way through the story is the protagonist of Drown. We can see that Diaz does not write a character for a specific part and then forget about them, he routinely brings in characters from earlier in the book towards the end and even as in this case from other books. This leads on the question ‘is Oscar Wao autobiographical or entirely fiction?’ From interviews with Diaz on this topic it can be established that ‘The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao’ is at least partly autobiographical. Diaz talks about the way he grew up and suggests that Oscar is who he could’ve become if he hadn’t gone to live with his father, but as a result of that he became a character more like Yunior instead. I think that in terms of the characters in Oscar Wao Diaz is Yunior and is narrating the life he could of had, using characters loosely based on real people to explore the possibilities of his alternate life. We know that at least some of the characters are based on real people as we know that Beli’s “scar on her back as vast an inconsolable as the sea” mimics the scars on Diaz’s mothers back. The knowledge that the book is at least partly autobiographical gives it a greater power over the reader as all the horrific things that happen become reality rather than fiction. This also adds to the shock factor that Diaz works hard to achieve, on top of the crude and often taboo language, dark humour and violent imagery.
One of the most obvious downsides to ‘Oscar Wao’ is that it is written partly in Spanish which is left entirely unexplained. This makes the book slightly more difficult to read for those of us who don’t speak Spanish, but also gives a sense of sincerity, authenticity and culture to the book. It presents every reader with a challenge and a possibility to learn some Spanish whilst reading a gripping and emotive story of the gradual destruction of a family subject to the consequences of their history and culture.
Diaz creates unquestionably believable characters that grab our attention and hold on to it throughout the story. He uses women effectively to portray both the sensitive, naive young girl and also the strong unyielding characters that form the back bone of the story. This is especially evident in the characters of Oscar’s mother Belicia and his sister Lola. We see that Lola has gained her mother’s strength but less of her impulsiveness or obsession with love. Lola is a far more refined, rational character who comes across as more a mother to Oscar than his actual mother.
Overall ‘The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao’ is a book unlike any other. It unashamedly borrows from many other books and comics showing the influences of the author and the characters. Diaz uses numerous literary techniques to enhance his writing, packing out his story with a combination of drama, humour and history making it interesting for many different kinds of people and making it impossible for it to conform to any existing genre. As Diaz himself said; “in the United States if you’re a writer of colour you’re considered a genre anyway.” And i think that Diaz uses that to his advantage creating a story that is a combination of so many genres and combines so many different interests that it is virtually impossible for it to be boring.

Sunday 13 November 2011

New Author Challenge 2012

When I said I was going to sign up for less reading challenges in 2012, I may have inadvertently been lying... However, what I am doing is signing up for more manageable challenges (I'm not sure what's up with the italics.. I'm an italic-ey mood today I guess). Instead of getting completely carried away in a sea of lists, recommendations, and books I absolutely must read now, I'm trying to be calmer and going for challenges that incorporate a lot of the books I already own, along with library books, and which can all be used to help each other. As I love to expand my list of authors I love, I am really excited by the idea of the New Author Challenge, hosted by Literary Escapism. The rules are fairly simple:

  • The challenge runs between January 1st, 2012, and December 31st 2012
  • You can use books from other challenges but the authors must be new to you, and only a third of your total reading for this challenge can come from anthologies. The rest must be from novels.
  • Either pick 15, 25, or 50 new authors to try during 2012
  • After reading a new author, add the review to the linky on the website
Because I don't want to be too mad, I'm going to go for 25 new authors to start off with. This hopefully shouldn't be too difficult as I know there are a fair few I've not yet read on my list for the Mount TBR Challenge to start off with, plus it gives me an excuse to browse the library even more than usual!

These are the new authors and books I have read in 2012:
  1. Yossarian Slept Here by Erica Heller
  2. Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
  3. The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson
  4. The Descendants by Kaui Hart Hemmings
  5. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
  6. Kick Ass by Mark Millar
  7. A Wedding in December by Anita Shreve
  8. Dear Fatty by Dawn French
  9. Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen 
  10. The Awakening by Kate Chopin 
  11. Ragnarok by A.S Byatt
  12. Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta
  13. The Last Picture Show by Larry McMurtry
  14. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua
  15. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte
  16. A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness
  17. French Lessons by Ellen Sussman
  18. We Bought a Zoo by Benjamin Mee
  19. The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman
  20. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
  21. Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan
  22. One Moment One Morning by Sarah Rayner
  23. The Taste of Sorrow by Jude Morgan
  24. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente
  25. Goodbye for Now by Laurie Frankel
  26. The Resourceful Mum's Handbook by Elen Lewis
  27. Fairytale Ending by Gigi Levangie
  28. The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai
  29. Secrets to Happiness by Sarah Dunn
  30. Aphrodite's Workshop for Reluctant Lovers by Marika Cobbold 
  31. Let's Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson
  32. The Meryl Streep Movie Club by Mia March
  33. I Feel Bad About My Neck and Other Thoughts on Being a Woman by Nora Ephron
  34. Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading by Nina Sankovitch
  35. The Politically Incorrect Parenting Book by Nigel Latta
  36. Last Christmas by Julia Williams
  37. The Pi**ed Off Parents Club by Mink Elliot

Saturday 12 November 2011

A Classics Challenge

Continuing with my plans for reading my own books and library books only for as long as possible in 2012, I’ve signed up for what seems like it will be an awesome challenge. Katherine at Novembers Autumn is hosting A Classics Challenge, for which all you have to do is make a list of 7 classics you plan to read in 2012. On the 4th of every month, she will post questions on her blog, and the idea is for participants to answer these questions which will be broad enough to apply to whatever book people happen to be reading. Also, you only have to commit to question answering during three months of the entire year, which is great for people who are a bit rubbish at consistently remembering about all the challenges they’ve signed up for, like me!
So here is my list of the seven classics I’m hoping to read in 2012:
1.       The Odyssey – Homer
2.       The Awakening – Kate Chopin
3.       Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoevsky
4.       Shirley – Charlotte Bronte
5.       The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – Anne Bronte
6.       North and South – Elizabeth Gaskell
7.       A Moveable Feast – Ernest Hemingway
All of these are currently on my 'Classics' shelf, and all of them are books I've been trying to get to for a while!
Sorry about all the challenge sign up posts going up at the moment, I’m getting them out of the way and will get back to the reviews soon I promise!

Friday 11 November 2011

Review: - Snuff by Terry Pratchett

Snuff is, unbelievably, the thirty ninth book in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. If you haven’t heard about Terry Pratchett, the Discworld, or at the very least seen one of the BBC adaptations of either The Colour of Magic, Hogfather, or Going Postal, then I really want to know how you’ve managed it. Sir Terry also manages to cunningly release a new book pretty much every October/November time, just in time for Christmas, and it has become a tradition for me to buy the hardback for my dad as his Christmas present, and surreptitiously read it before wrapping it and giving it to him, along with my opinion of it. It’s a win – win situation.
On best form, Pratchett is amazingly fluid, engrossing and laugh-out-loud hilarious. Snuff, in my opinion, wasn’t his best form. However, it was still incredibly good.
Blurb-y bit from Goodreads:
As with all of Terry Pratchett’s books, Snuff had a considerable amount of hype surrounding it, and I read somewhere during my pre-publication perusal of Snuff related stuff, that Terry Pratchett’s books are social satires (which I had, not being completely dense, managed to realise), but I never really thought about how they often relate to topical issues. Really, the book is about goblins and their second class status within Discworld society.
According to the writer of the best-selling crime novel ever to have been published in the city of Ankh-Morpork, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a policeman taking a holiday would barely have had time to open his suitcase before he finds his first corpse.
And Commander Sam Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch is on holiday in the pleasant and innocent countryside, but not for him a mere body in the wardrobe. There are many, many bodies and an ancient crime more terrible than murder.
He is out of his jurisdiction, out of his depth, out of bacon sandwiches, and occasionally snookered out of his mind, but never out of guile. Where there is a crime there must be a finding, there must be a chase and there must be a punishment.
They say that in the end all sins are forgiven.
But not quite all...
Readers of the Discworld series will know that within the series, there are several mini series focusing on different (and often overlapping) sets of characters, among which are the witches, the Watch, the Nac mac Feegle, and the wizards of the Unseen University. Sam Vimes has featured in several previous novels featuring the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, including Guards! Guards!, Men at Arms, Feet of Clay, Jingo, The Fifth Elephant, and Thud!, many of which are among my personal favourites. The storyline of Snuff was very well thought out and included the requisite amount of sneaking, fighting with improvised weapons, vaguely inappropriate, toilet-related jokes, making-it-up-as-you-go-along and accidental bravery, and it made me laugh out loud in public places on several occasions. It also dragged me away back into the world of the Disc and its inhabitants which I appreciated, as lately the whole separating myself from reality thing isn’t happening as much as it used to with reading. The Night Circus (no, I will never stop going on about it) was the last book to do that successfully and left me worried that nothing else ever would, so well done Mr. Pratchett!
Snuff is also slightly reminiscent of earlier books in as much as Commander Vimes manages to find himself a well meaning but undertrained, slightly bumbling country policeman to train up and mentor, thus turning his ‘holiday’ into work while still preserving the illusion that he has merely been dragged into someone else’s problem as is helping them out as nothing more than his duty as a landlord.
As ever, I loved the characters, from old favourite like Fred Colon and Captain Carrot to new ones such as a harp – playing Goblin called Tears of the Mushroom. Also hilarious was Commander Vimes’ son Sam’s obsession with and collection of different types of animal poo. I find Terry Pratchett very often gets the tone of small children exactly right, hence why many of his books are so popular with them. He also gets the tone of the long suffering parent, answering what feels like the hundredth question of the day about poo spot on.
What starts off as an investigation into a missing blacksmith and a dead Goblin turns into something much larger, and as the quest for answers progresses, Vimes and local policeman Feeney Upshot, assisted as ever by Willikins, Commander Vimes’ loyal gentlemen’s gentlemen, find themselves embroiled in something much larger than simple murder....
Also I’d just like to add that Sir Terry Pratchett has lately garnered a lot of attention here in the UK for his views on euthanasia. As people may know, Mr Pratchett was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimers in 2007, and may I just say that anybody worrying about his memory may stop doing so right now. The amount of details from previous books that raise their heads in Snuff is quite frankly incredible. To be honest, I don’t think I, an Alzheimer free person, would be able to keep anywhere near that level of detail straight, so I’m amazed and impressed that he can.
If you generally enjoy Mr. Pratchett, or if you just want something funny and engrossing to read, then I would suggest that Snuff is a good option. I thoroughly enjoyed myself from start to finish and I hope that there will be many more Discworld books to come.

Thursday 10 November 2011

2012 50 States Reading Challenge

Lots of people did this challenge this year, and basically this seems like a perfect opportunity for me to make another huge list, as well as read more books set in and about America so I thought I’d sign up for 2012!
Hosted at Book Obsessed, the object of the challenge is to read books set in each of the 50 states of the U.S.A. They can be any genre except for short stories, and I will be adding to this list as the year progresses. Here’s my starting plan:
2012 50 States Challenge Reading List
1.       Alabama – Gods in Alabama by Joshilyn Jackson
2.       Alaska
3.       Arizona – The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls
4.       Arkansas - True Grit by Charles Portis
5.       California – The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
6.       Colorado - The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather
7.       Connecticut - A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain
8.       Delaware
9.       Florida – Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
10.   Georgia – Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt
11.   Hawaii- The Descendants by Kaui Hart Hemmings
12.   Idaho - The Trouble with Valentine's Day by Rachel Gibson
13.   Illinois - The Bitch Goddess Notebook by Martha O'Connor
14.   Indiana
15.   Iowa - An Ocean in Iowa by Peter Hedges
16.   Kansas - Bleeding Kansas by Sara Paretsky
17.   Kentucky – The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards
18.   Louisiana – The Awakening by Kate Chopin
19.   Maine - Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan
20.   Maryland – Back When We Were Grownups by Anne Tyler
21.   Massachusetts - A Wedding in December by Anita Shreve
22.   Michigan – Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
23.   Minnesota
24.   Mississippi - The Little Friend by Donna Tartt
25.   Missouri – Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
26.   Montana
27.   Nebraska - My Antonia by Willa Cather
28.   Nevada – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson
29.   New Hampshire
30.   New Jersey – This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald
31.   New Mexico
32.   New York – The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster
33.   North Carolina – The Peach Keeper by Sarah Addison Allen
34.   North Dakota - Tracks by Louise Erdrich
35.   Ohio
36.   Oklahoma - The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
37.   Oregon - Sophie's Bakery for the Broken Hearted by Lolly Winston
38.   Pennsylvania - Pretty Little Liars by Sara Shepard
39.   Rhode Island
40.   South Carolina
41.   South Dakota - Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown
42.   Tennessee - Taft by Ann Patchett
43.   Texas – Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
44.   Utah
45.   Vermont
46.   Virginia - Home to Big Stone Gap by Adriana Trigiani
47.   Washington – Twilight by Stephenie Meyer (this will be a re-read, but I’ve not reviewed it before)
48.   West Virginia
49.   Wisconsin - Blankets by Craig Thompson
50.   Wyoming
I’ll keep adding to this list as I find books, and once I’ve reviewed them I’ll link the reviews here. If anybody has any suggestions for the many states I’m missing, please help me out!!