Thursday, December 30, 2010

book list 2010

As always, books I finished reading for the first time this year. This year with links to where I've talked about them before, for added convenience.


[edited to add link to Home review]


Wolf Hall- Hilary Mantel Don't know how Hilary Mantel managed to make the intricacies of Tudor politics so clear and readable, but she did. Reviewed here
Bella Tuscany- Frances Mayes Self-indulgent travelogue
Angel Puss- Colleen McCullough
AA Gill is Away- AA Gill 
The Graveyard Book- Neil Gaiman Perhaps my favourite Neil Gaiman to date.
A Madness of Angels- Kate Griffin Fast paced and lots of fun, urban fantasy. More here
Under a Glass Bell- Anais Nin Gorgeous little short stories that made me want to read more.
The Hunger Games- Suzanne Collins One of the most talked about books of the year, reviewed here
The Slap- Christos Tsiolkas One of the most talked about books of last year. I was in two minds about it though, see here and here. On the whole, not a fan.
Unseen Academicals- Terry Pratchett Always enjoy a new Discworld book, and this was no exception
Point Omega- Don DeLillo Started off loving it, ended up a bit bemused. I've quoted it here
Un Lun Dun- China Mieville Interesting, but a bit disappointing. The prophesy stuff was interesting but the city was a mess. Quoted here
Brooklyn- Colm Toibin 
The Mountain of Light- Claire Allen Another disappointing one with a promising start. It's about a bunch of friends and centered around an Indian restaurant, but the ending is not
Fire in the Blood- Irene Nemirovsky A great read if you love tragic and sardonic French novels about infidelity. No, seriously. Quoted here and talked about here
The Piper's Son- Melina Marchetta Love Melina Marchetta, and loved this sequel to Saving Francesca
The Midnight Mayor- Kate Griffin Sequel to 'A Madness of Angels' showed up some of the flaws of the books but was a good read overall
Madame Bovary- Gustave Flaubert Also talked about here
Invisible Cities- Italo Calvino Quoted here
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet- David Mitchell You never know what to expect from one chapter to the next with David Mitchell, and he blew my mind once again with this book
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie- Alan Bradley  Thought these captured a mid-Century murder mystery feel quite well. Recommended. Mentioned here
The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Noose- Alan Bradley
The Summer Book- Tove Jansson Only discovered that Tove Jansson wrote things other than the Moomintroll books this year, well worth it. Mentioned here and quoted here
The Changeover- Margeret Mahy Heard lots about this, turned out to be pretty good. Mentioned here
The Pinhoe Egg- Diana Wynne Jones Went through a bit of a Diana Wynne Jones reading marathon after I bought a copy of 'Castle in the Air'. 
Moominvalley in November- Tove Jansson (not sure if I've read this, or Exploits of Moominpappa)
The Demon's Lexicon- Sarah Rees Brennan Had some great characters and moments, plus awesome plot. Somehow felt a bit patchy though. Still would be interested in reading the sequel. Mentioned here
Conrad's Fate- Diana Wynne Jones
Elephants Can Remember- Agatha Christie
Die a Little- Megan Abbott Interesting noir-ish twisty and a little bit nasty book. Pretty sure I enjoyed it though.
The House of Mirth- Edith Wharton Edith Wharton can make me so angry and so sad, and this book was no exception. Think I liked this even more than 'The Age of Innocence'
Flambards- KM Peyton Change of tone to 1970s YA set pre-WWI
The Tricksters- Margaret Mahy Had a bit of a Mahy phase too, she is an old favourite with more books than I have read. The end of this book took me back to the end of high school.
The Chronicles of Clovis- Saki
The Knife of Never Letting Go- Patrick Ness Another much-hyped YA, this has a great concept and is unputdownable.
The Edge of the Cloud- KM Peyton
Flambards in Summer- KM Peyton
Astercote- Penelope Lively Read this looking for a forgotten childhood book. It wasn't it.
The Haunting- Margaret Mahy
Miss Hargreaves- Frank Baker A man invents a lady as part of a tall story, but she comes to life, a playful but sometimes painful book.
Diary of a Provincial Lady- EM Delafield Like a early-20th Century Bridget Jones in some ways (and I like Bridget Jones) funny and entertaining.
The Chesnut Soldier- Jenny Nimmo (?) I thought I'd read this before but had no memory of it when rereading. Part of the brilliant 'Snow Spider' trilogy invoking Welsh mythology.
Started Early, Took My Dog- Kate Atkinson Crime with brains and a light post-modern edge. Reviewed here
Love in a Cold Climate- Nancy Mitford No-one does disturbing-but-funny quite like the English aristocracy.
A Spy in the House of Love- Anais Nin Quoted here
The Ask and the Answer- Patrick Ness
Jude the Obscure- Thomas Hardy So depressing I don't quite know what to say about it. Argued with this book all the way through.
Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life- Bryan Lee O'Malley Graphic novels about a Canadian slacker, full of video game references and about growing up, dealing with the past,  getting to know yourself and forming adult relationships. Review here
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World- Bryan Lee O'Malley
Scott Pilgrim and the Infinite Sadness- Bryan Lee O'Malley
Scott Pilgrim Gets it Together- Bryan Lee O'Malley
Scott Pilgrim vs. the Universe- Bryan Lee O'Malley
Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour- Bryan Lee O'Malley
Housekeeping- Marilynne Robinson Love at first sight. Review here
Dead Man's Chest- Kerry Greenwood Fun murder mystery, where the mystery sometimes gets a bit overlooked in favour of the fun
Home- Marilynne Robinson Great novel about family and love and communication and, well, home. Review here.
Mrs Dalloway- Virginia Woolf Never really raved about Virginia Woolf but this was fantastic.
Personal Anthology- Jorge Luis Borges A little bit of everything.
10 Short Stories You Must Read in 2010- Various Authors
The City and the City- China Mieville Read this boxing day, and it more than lived up to my expectations.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

we wish you a merry christmas and a happy new year

Happy Christmas all! Hope you had a great day. I was away from my computer at the time (actually spent about half the day on the road), so sorry that the Christmas greetings are belated.


I am currently in the process of writing up my list of New Books Read This Year, but for now- what I got for Christmas (aka Christmas books):


               - Truth, Peter Temple (Australian Crime)
              - The Little Prince and Other Stories (Collected Children's stories, including The Little Prince and                The Railway Children)
              - The City and the City, China Mieville (Fantasy/Crime)
              - Freedom, Jonathan Franzen (American Literature)
              - The Grimm Reader, trans. Maria Tatar, foreword by AS Byatt. (Fairy/folk tales)
              - The Complete Poems of Walt Whitman
+ a book voucher


Some good books in there, and a fairly varied collection I think. Who else got books for Christmas?

Monday, December 13, 2010

fill in the books

In my wanderings around the blogosphere I have come across two(!) memes that involve filling in the blanks with books you've read this year. I couldn't decide which one to do, so naturally I have done both. The downside is that you start to run out of good titles, but it was fun nonetheless.


First, from Regular Ruminations (here):


In high school I was: Under a Glass Bell (Anais Nin)
People might be surprised I’m: The Fire in the Blood (Irene Nemirovsky)
I will never be: Jude the Obscure (Thomas Hardy)
My fantasy job is: Unseen Academicals (Terry Pratchett)
At the end of a long day I need: Love in a Cold Climate (Nancy Mitford)
I hate it when: Housekeeping (Marilynne Robinson) 
Wish I had: A Study in Scarlet (Arthur Conan Doyle)
My family reunions are: Exploits of Moominpappa (Tove Jansson)
At a party you’d find me: Looking for Alibrandi (Melina Marchetta)
I’ve never been to: Brooklyn (Colm Toibin)
A happy day includes: The Summer Book (Tove Jansson)
Motto I live by: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (Patrick Ness)
On my bucket list: Bella Tuscany (Frances Mayes)
In my next life I want to be: The Piper's Son (Melina Marchetta)

Second, from Stuck-in-a-Book (here):

Describe yourself: Personal Anthology (Jorge Luis Borges)

How do you feel: These Happy, Golden Years (Laura Ingalls Wilder)

Describe where you currently live: Home (Marilynne Robinson)

If you could go anywhere, where would you go: Invisible Cities (Italo Calvino)

Your favorite form of transportation: Castle in the Air (Diana Wynne Jones)

Your best friend is: The Ask and the Answer (Patrick Ness)

You and your friends are: A Madness of Angels (Kate Griffin)

What's the weather like: The Edge of the Cloud (KM Peyton)

You fear: The Knife of Never Letting Go (Patrick Ness)

What is the best advice you have to give: Started Early, Took My Dog (Kate Atkinson)

Thought for the day: Elephants Can Remember (Agatha Christie)

How I would like to die: Die a Little (Megan Abbott)

My soul's present condition: The House of Mirth (Edith Wharton)


Thursday, November 25, 2010

self-destruction's kinda dumb. but if you do it well...

Points for identifying the lyrics in the title!

This is a train of thought that has been brewing in my head for quite a long time, so I'm not sure if it's coherent anymore. It's also based heavily on my own personal experiences/feelings, so I'm sure not everyone will agree with me, and I would love to hear your thoughts! Basically I have been reading YA (young adult) fiction for many many years, and throughout my teenage years (and before and after) and for a while I stopped because some stuff about it annoyed me. Here is my rant:

I remember when I was around 15 a friend recommended Sonya Hartnett's 'All My Dangerous Friends', about a girl starting university who goes out with a bad boy, falls in with the wrong crowd, steals, takes drugs and then leaves because she sees the dark side of it (in the form of the 'crowd's' violent retribution against a man who abuses one of their own). The basic plotline there feels a little familiar. It did to me then, I was thoroughly annoyed. An annoyance that I directed toward YA fiction in general over the next few years. I think in fact my reaction was stronger than was warranted, there is some good stuff in there, but we will get to that later.

The main problem for me as a teenager was that I was a quiet bookworm, far from dabbling in drugs or theft, and I had long resented the portrayal of kids and teenagers in the media/society. Teenagers are trouble, self-absorbed, with no thought for consequences or the wider world. By contrast I saw around me friends who were thoughtful and intelligent and generally trying to do their best. To my mind fiction aimed at teenagers was interested more in how adults perceived teenagers, in portraying 'us' as difficult, even to ourselves.

Now I know I am not everyone. I have read authors talking about how they write for the kids or teenagers who feel different, who are seen as trouble, that they want to write about the problems people face in a real way and not shy away from difficult subjects. So exploring these topics can be a good thing. But word to the writers out there- please try not to be didactic about it.

Didactic books in and of themselves can be annoying. But writing a book where the lesson is learnt through tragedy can have the unfortunate side effect of making the behaviour they're talking about more appealing. To summarize: saying that risk-taking behaviour is bad because it might hurt you ignores the point of 'risk-taking'. As a fairly well behaved teenager drug taking never seemed more appealing than when it offered the prospect of going down in a blaze of glory/fast living. I think the best YA books understand their audience, are relatable to, and are not too preachy. In a way I think 'All My Dangerous Friends' does well here, it says 'drugs are appealing, but they are not as glamorous or dangerous or edgy as you might think' (this is mostly taken from one scene, I don't think drugs were the main theme of the book). But then again the 'bad crowd' are wild and cool and slightly tragic, so they retain some of that appeal.

There is also the danger of going the other way, of mocking things rather than taking them too seriously. So for instance emos are famous for bad self-esteem, misery, feeling isolated and self-harm. People's reaction is to laugh at them and say self-harm is funny. Personally I don't think it sounds like a good idea to take a group of people who feel sad and misunderstood and further alienate them by saying the things they care about are stupid and their emotions are dumb. I think it's an extension of the way people often talk about teenagers- oh, you have teenage angst, that's a silly thing we all got over. Because knowing that other people are going/have gone through the same things IS helpful, but only if it's personal and shows some understanding of the other person. Just being dismissive is surely only going to fuel feelings of being misunderstood? Just because in hindsight your teenage angst seems ridiculous doesn't mean someone going through it will have the same perspective.

Sometimes it can be so easy to mock, but I know when I was miserable as a teenager that attitude would just bewilder me, because it didn't take away my problems or help me deal with them, it belittle me and made me feel my problems were not worthy of sharing. Better to have people talk about their problems, however stupid they sound, and feel like they have supportive people around to help, than to push them into isolation.

To sum up! Self-destruction can be appealing, even if it's shown as a warning. The best books relate and provoke thought, they don't try to cram a viewpoint down your throat. Be nice to sad people.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

upcoming

Here's an update on a future thing appearing on this blog, I know you will all be on tenterhooks to hear what I will write next.

After reading Housekeeping I wanted to go out and read everything else Marilynne Robinson has ever written. But where to start? The obvious place is Gilead, perhaps her most famous book. But should I read that or Home, written later than Gilead but set parallel to it? Musing on Twitter my friend Sam commented that he was keen to read Gilead and, long story short, we decided to do a parallel read- he read Gilead and I read Home. Next step: we both review them, swap and repeat. So I'm sorry if this blog starts to give you Marilynne Robinson fatigue, but I have a lot more coming up!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

eventful

Last weekend two of my friends had babies! Two! One boy and one girl. I haven't met them yet but I have seen photos and I can report that they are both extremely cute. Also from all accounts both friends + their babies are healthy, which is even more important. So very exciting times. During this week another friend managed to get in a car accident- rolling her car right over on a wet road. But she emerged unscathed through the back window. And most importantly, her gelato was safe. Which is good to hear. This weekend another friend is moving house. So much news, and thankfully all good. What a week! My life seems unexciting by comparison. Though I did get a haircut (it's very short!), get my marks back from my last assignments (passed with pretty good marks) and manage to buy a bunch of new books. That is eventful enough for me!




Edited to add picture of new haircut (coincidentally I am also dressed as a flapper for Halloween in this photo)

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

housekeeping

Another rave from me here, I loved Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson, and have to read the rest of her books now. Marilynne Robinson is best known (I think) as the author of Gilead, as well as Home (winner of the 2009 Orange Prize). From what I have gleaned, her major themes are religion and domesticity. While I have heard about Gilead quite a bit I have not been tempted to read it, and only came to read Housekeeping after reading a review that described it as good-but-not-as-good-as-Gilead (as well as an encounter with it in a bookshop in a moment of weakness). 

But I am so glad that I did, because this was such a gorgeous novel, beautifully written. It's a novel of liminality, with recurring imagery of water and light and the sense of memory and dream. All these things seem to infuse the writing style itself, as well as informing the plot, characters and settings. And what are they? Two sisters are left by their mother on their Grandmother's doorstep, and cared for by a succession of relatives, their Grandmother, two Great Aunts and finally their Aunt Sylvie. Sylvie has been living as a drifter, and she and the house are something of an uneasy fit. The liminal is here in the families status as outsiders, the idea of the drifter, and the adolescence of the two girls. The whole thing is related as a memory and reads like a dream, the parts dealing with the family history reminded me a little of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, in the concern with telling family history and the almost unreal quality of them. I've included a picture of the cover (from Amazon, hence the 'click to look inside') because I think it is a pretty good representation of the book and its prose style.

I have to admit though, my enthusiasm cooled a little by the end. Whether it was a combination of boredom and a rainy afternoon I am not sure. It may be that the slow plot caused me to lose momentum, although it did start to pick up towards the end, it was in a somewhat disconcerting way. I don't think the pages of reference to Cain and Abel and Noah's ark around chapter 10 helped either. Biblical allusions are used throughout the book, but very lightly, and pages of discourse on God's character seemed slightly out of place and jarring. Plus the whole Noah/flood/water thing seemed a bit heavy-handed. But I don't know if this was merely because I had fallen out of a reading mood, maybe at other times I would have felt these passages were more resonant with the rest of the book. The main character, Ruth, narrates the book, and is somewhat distant from the story throughout, but becomes more involved near the end, and I found her a little difficult to relate to in parts.

Back to the positive side: I loved this book most of the way through, it almost made me cry so many times for reasons I could not pin down, it is beautiful and shifting and cries out for a reread. So notwithstanding my difficulties with it toward the end I have to say I loved it. So here's a snippet apropos of Teaser Tuesday (hosted by MizB at Should Be Reading):

"Downstairs the flood bumped and fumbled like a blind man in a strange house, but outside it hissed and trickled, like the pressure of water against your eardrums, and like the sounds you hear in the moment before you faint.
Sylvie lit a candle. "Let's play crazy eights."
pp65-66
Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson

Sunday, October 24, 2010

the two scott pilgrims

I want to write a review of 'Scott Pilgrim', having recently read the graphic novels after watching the movie, but it's hard to find something to say other than "I loved it!" But I will give it a go, because after all it is a rainy Sunday afternoon, Andrew is at work and if I finish reading my current book I will immediately want to write about it instead.

Scott Pilgrim is a 23 Canadian slacker, in a band but without a job, sharing a bed with his gay flatmate, Wallace (who has a job and therefore foots most of the bills) and dating a 17-year-old high-school girl named Knives Chau, when Ramona Flowers (an American delivery girl) enters his dreams and he becomes infatuated and falls in love with her. In order to date her, he must break up with Knives and defeat Ramona's seven evil exes (hard to say which task he finds more difficult, though defeating the exes is more time consuming). It's a story about love, emotional baggage and growing up. A couple of months ago I watched the movie, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (directed by Edgar Wright), and last week I read the graphic novels, Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Scott Pilgrim and the Infinite Sadness, Scott Pilgrim Gets it Together, Scott Pilgrim vs. the Universe and Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour (by Bryan Lee O'Malley).

Whether you read the book or watch the movie first, encountering adaptations is always strange. Everything is so familiar until something comes out of left field and subverts your expectations. In this case everything starts off very much the same, but the book and movie increasingly diverge, a fact partially explained by the fact that the movie was optioned after the release of the very first book, and largely completed before the last was released. Apparently the film ending was going to be different but they changed it at the last minute to match more closely to the book. But I did not feel that all this spoilt my enjoyment of the books at all- for the simple reason that I liked them better than the movie. 

Don't get me wrong, I did enjoy the movie. It was a lot of fun, they translated the comic-book/video-game sensibility really well to the screen and the story was told well. But the limitation of a movie is that it just doesn't have as much space and time in which to tell that story as, in this case, a 6 book series (even if they are very short). Things made more sense in the book, even though the movie has a neater narrative structure, and there was a lot more room to expand on the rest of the characters, as well as on Ramona and Scott's relationship. Plus I liked the Kim Pine character, and she seems to have more space in the books. I just found the books more satisfying than the movie. At the end of the movie I turned to Andrew and he was clearly blown away, he thought it was the best thing ever. I enjoyed it, but I didn't really get that (maybe because he is more of a gamer than me, so he really loved those references). But at the end of reading the books I just wanted to turn around and read them again. 

Things aren't easy for Scott and Ramona, and their relationship isn't perfect, but at the end of the last book I was left with a warm glow and a feeling that they had both grown as characters. I haven't had so much fun with a book in a long time, and I haven't read any graphic novels for ages, so I thoroughly enjoyed it. A worthy addition to the book-shelf!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

on art

There's an age-old debate about the importance or usefulness of art- why do we bother with it? This last week I happened across a couple of quotes that talk about that in different ways:


"One remark that I remember in particular had to do with his identity as a craftsman: he wanted to make solid objects that were concretely useful to the people who knew them. As a craftsperson myself, I love this outlook on art: it's not some enervated "extra" of no real value to life, but a solid, utilitarian object, like a chair or a toilet. It's not that people "can't live without" art; people can live without chairs and toilets, too. But the presence of art has a concrete benefit; I appreciated Bergman's reminder of that."
- Evening All Afternoon, on an interview with Ingmar Bergman


"These, with keen edges and smooth curves, were forms in modern prose which the lichened colleges presented in old poetry. Even some of those antiques might have been called prose when they were new. They had done nothing but wait, and had become poetical. How easy to the smallest building, how impossible to most men."
- Thomas Hardy, The Return of the Native

Friday, October 15, 2010

goldengrove unleaving

Childhood books part 3


When I was a kid, I tended to prefer happy endings, and as I said before I even liked books where nothing too bad happens to the main characters. In fact, I think I still do! But there are some exceptions to this rule. I think I have come to appreciate sad books, and there are a bunch of books I read as a child that helped me to do that. There are so many degrees of 'sad', so many different feeling books, but I think there is something of a theme: the books I found most sad and discomfitting as a child are about growing up and about death. Here are some that I loved even though they made me sad:


The Little PrinceAntoine de Saint-Exupéry
When going through the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die with some friends, we came across this book. Neither of them had read it. That made me realise that this is a book that I think everyone should have read. How can you not have read The Little Prince? As Vizzini would say: inconceivable! It confused me as a child, but it still managed to be enchanting, and of course very sad. It's not quite a children's book, it's about love and death and humanity and such. It is difficult to explain this book, let me quote it to you: "One sees clearly only with the heart. The essential is invisible to the eyes."


The Last Unicorn- Peter S. Beagle
I think I may have talked about this book before. But what can I say? It is a favourite of mine. The titular unicorn in the world realises she is alone and goes in search of other unicorns, only to find she is the last, as all other unicorns have been captured by King Haggard. I don't think this is a children's book as such, it's a fantasy book, and one I read as a child. Again, love and aging and contemplating mortality. But in the most beautiful way.


Peter Pan- J.M. Barrie
Famously sad, a children's book that doesn't talk down to children (that's how I felt about it at the time), which is actually very rare. I remember reading it vividly, walking up and down through the botanical gardens (I was on some family outing at the time, neglecting everyone shamefully because I couldn't put down the book). It was one of those books that has a hold on you for a long time after you finish it. I wasn't sure if I liked it but it was certainly powerful. The idea of growing up as a thing which you both desire and fear is pretty strong for a kid I guess. 


Uncle Tom's Cabin- Harriet Beecher Stowe
This sums up an entire group of books guaranteed to make me cry as a kid- books about injustice. Including not only books like Uncle Tom's Cabin but even the occasional Malory Towers book. But I don't know if this counts as a sad  book, maybe it is more an anger-inducing book. Also The Little Princess by Frances Hodges Burnett, which Angela reminded me about. These are nigh-on-unbearable, but also great. 


In terms of picture books: Lifetimes and John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat are the ones that stand out. Lifetimes is a book that is about explaining the concept of death, and the reality of living, to children. I remember it was so sad because it had a picture of a dying butterfly.


Facebook has reminded me also of The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Anderson (thanks Vicky!). I read it after seeing the movie, and was so angry about the sad ending. Unfairness! Mortality! Sadness! But somehow it grew on me, and I came to appreciate it.


A couple of others that people have mentioned and that made an impression on me include  the Narnia series and Charlotte's Web


And writing this makes me realise that a lot more of my favourite books had a tinge of sadness to them:  The Lord of the Rings for instance (which may have influenced my later love of Anglo-Saxon elegiac poetry, and was probably influenced by Tolkien's interest in the same).


Anyway, those are some books that I think do sadness well, and helped to introduce me to the fact that sadness (particularly in literature) is not all bad, and can be borne, and can make something work in a way it wouldn't with a happy ending. I think my favourite type of sadness in books is a kind of gentle melancholy, and elegiac mood perhaps, which a lot of these books share. And while I may have loved Uncle Tom's Cabin, I still find it hard to bear books that make me so passionately sad and angry. 


I think that maybe the best way of describing the sadness of these books is by continuing the title quote:



It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
'Spring and Fall' by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

'Started Early, Took My Dog'

I started writing this blog post back when I read the book, but life (read: assignments) got in the way. So it has been finished in a completely different style at the last minute. But look- a proper blog post!

***

Kate Atkinson's Jackson Brodie books all seem very multi-layered- weaving together different characters and different narratives leading to the eventual denouement. In 'Started Early, Took My Dog', I found it a bit too fragmented and disconnected at first, but by the end she had once again succeeded in pulling the threads together and creating an intriguing mystery and solution (with some red herrings thrown in for good measure). The slow beginnings give way to a sense of urgency by the end of the book in a satisfying way.

Jackson Brodie appears somewhat late in the book, trying to find out the background of a girl in New Zealand who wants to discover the identity of her birth mother. Meanwhile, as a kind of reaction against a horrific scene earlier in her life, finding the child of a murder victim, an ex-cop security guard buys a disadvantaged child as a way of fixing something in the world. The narrative alternates between the police force and murder in the '70s and Jackson's investigation in the present day, detouring through his current relationship woes.

It struck me that this book does in a way what 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' promises- confronts the problem of violence against women. But without the graphic torture and rape scenes, which in my book is a good thing. Violence happens a lot in this series (it's a crime series after all), in a lot of varying ways and degrees, with the impact felt over time. It's a more realistic world than the Stieg Larsson books- fewer serial killers for one thing. Although having said that, much of 'One Good Turn' felt somewhat farcical. But the effects of crime are never far away, indeed our hero is still haunted by the long-ago murder of his sister. I don't know if that description is very enticing, but can I just say these books are much better than Steig Larsson's, and very different!

One characteristic feature is the (quite dark) humour of these books. Perhaps very dry is a better word than dark, it's not exactly morbid but it does make humour out of some of the less cheerful aspects of life. The hero is far from infallible, and not exactly at the centre of the story all the time, but the characters in general are likeable-but-hopeless types. In fact one of my few criticisms of this series is that the characters have perhaps too much of a tendency towards the same voice. 
On the whole, while I enjoyed the book I found it to be a slow starter (after an attention-grabbing opening chapter), and certainly the character development is much more comprehensible if you have read the earlier books in the series. I think 'One Good Turn' is still my favourite, but if crime, English manners and humour are your thing, you should check this series out.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

apropos of famous first words

A while ago I wrote a blog post on memorable first lines in novels, today I found out that American Book Review has compiled a list of the top 100! From a quick glance at the beginning a couple of the ones we talked about are in there, but there are many, many more. 


I'll leave you with one that wasn't in that blog post, but is on the list, and well worthy of it too:


"Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. —Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967; trans. Gregory Rabassa)"


Check it out here.

Monday, October 11, 2010

spring is sprung

Assignments are finished, summer is icumen in, and I can almost believe I'm on holidays... Time for some more reading, blog-updating and miscellaneous adventures. Oh, and work of course. Difficult to forget that one.


So here's an October update, with links!
The Unbearable Lightness of Being Hungry- a food blog about Sydney restaurants, with a great name.
Something from xkcd to put this whole blogging thing in perspective...

Tuesday, September 28, 2010



As always- meme hosted by Should be Reading.

'A Spy in the House of Love', Anais Nin
"He smiled. 
When they reached her room, and she closed the door, he examined his surroundings as if to assure himself he had not fallen into an enemy trap."
p. 83

Thursday, September 16, 2010

fragments, playing with words

Pictures of light
The shadows form a lattice on the wall
The wall that glows in afternoon light
Light which picks out the many-coloured bricks
Bricks that stand so tall against a fearless sky
Sky of a bright and everlasting blue
Blue that will nonetheless fade...
Fade like the shadows on the wall.


Not quite a poem?


A girl and a boy walked over the bridge
hand-in-hand
and the air around them glowed
while the wind whipped past a lonely bus-stop.

a fraction of the whole:

fine filigree twigs against a liquid sky,
brittle being in the immutable immortal.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

link love

So often it is that it is when you have a million other things you should be doing that you find a bunch of good things on the internet. And so 'tis that amid assignments, busy work days etc. I have some links for you!

Firstly- Sarah Rees Brennan on murder mysteries. I found myself saying yes! That! And that! Her description of the type of novels that do not appeal, yes! Her impression of Dorothy Sayers talking to her editor about the character of Harriet Vane- yes again! All the way up to when she starts talking about the Ice House, and other books I haven't read. But maybe should, now.


And a great post on Evening All Afternoon (first I've ever read of this blog, but will read more now) about A.S. Byatt's Possession and the various voices therein. Yes I do think I am displaying my biases in my choice of links today, but any talk about why Possession is great is fine by me.

And lastly something very light-hearted: Smart Bitches, Trashy Books ran a competition to win a bed through getting readers to share wedding night stories. Many are hilarious, some sweet, some horrifying (but don't worry, none are particularly TMI) anyway an entertaining way to spend some time. EDIT to add one of the sweet examples: CarolPie "Finally, we got to our hotel at around 1 in the morning.  Waiting in the lobby, me in my homemade dress and flower crown, my husband in his two dollar suit, I felt like we were two kids running around holding hands and playing dress up."


Enjoy!

Thursday, September 09, 2010

forgot to remember what i wanted to do

I honestly think that I read much more prolifically when I was a kid than I do now. At least, that's my excuse for having forgotten so many books. But not all forgotten books are forgotten in the same way. To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld: there are books I remember, books I remember I have forgotten and books I forget I have forgotten altogether. For example...

Witch Week- Dianna Wynne Jones
I knew part of the plot of this story, but I'd forgotten the book. It drove me crazy, the story as I remembered did not match with 'Witch Week' so I knew it couldn't be it. Until I read it one day. 
Turns out it was...

Indian Captive: The Mary Jemison Story- Lois Lensk
I read this book back in year 5 or 6, but completely forgot its existence until the other day. Reading a website dedicated to finding forgotten books, I came across one that reminded me of the existence of this book, reading something like 'girl is kidnapped by Indians'. There are millions of books with this plotline, it turns out, but this is my one. It's based on a true story! A girl on the American frontier is kidnapped by Native Americans, at first bitterly resenting her captors but later choosing to stay with them as part of the tribe. Apparently the real Mary Jemison narrated her life story at age 80 (check out her story on Wikipedia, pretty interesting). Anyway *ahem* I had totally forgotten this book existed, so pleasant surprise to remember it again.

There are a number of books like 'Witch Week' still that I haven't found (if you think you can help, one of them is up here in hope of identification, although I am beginning to think I imagined it), but the ones that are really exciting are the ones you stumble across, having forgotten them, and are able to greet them like old friends.

Some books that I lost, and found again, and really count as childhood favourites include:
Patricia C. Wrede's Enchanted Forest Chronicles
A princess wants to avoid getting married, so sets off to be 'captured' by a dragon and away from princely suitors. Adventures follow. Read these books in the library, loved them, returned then lost them and found them after much searching. I've borrowed and read them many times, but only the other week found that there's one I haven't read! Need to hunt it down...

Jenny Nimmo Snow Spider series
Kind of cheating- I can't remember if I forgot it? I own 'The Snow Spider' but kept forgetting the sequels. As I recall these books were amazing (I'm actually planning to reread them soon). Based on the Mabinogion + Welshness. I could probably right a whole post on childhood favourites incorporating various aspects of British mythology.

As for the rest... I forget. Hopefully they will turn up again some day.

Monday, August 30, 2010

nothing but breakfast

A while ago I thought I would write a blog post about my favourite childhood books. But as I came to think about it, I remembered more and more, too many to fit into one blog post. So a whole series of blog posts seems more appropriate. Various happenings (mostly assignments) have conspired to keep me from writing any of them. But today, since fate seems to be conspiring to keep me from my uni work, it seems appropriate to talk about comfort books.

When I was in Year 12 at school we had to study speeches, and one of the speeches happened to be by Margaret Attwood talking about writing and feminism. In it she describes how her young daughter and friend put on a play, in which all they did was eat breakfast, which was pretty dull because narrative needs to be 'more than breakfast'. Well when I was younger I was quite happy to read about 'breakfast'. I remember once complaining to my mum about all the horrible things happening to characters in a book I was reading, to which my mum replied something along the lines of 'well, without that there wouldn't be a story'. I've thought about this, and true though it may be I'm pretty sure I enjoyed a lot of fairly tension-free books in my childhood. Here are a few:

Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder. There is tension in the 'Little House' series, difficult journeys, struggles with the land, illness, disappointment and so on. But not so much in this first book. Something about Little House in the Big Woods is just so cosy- the purpose of the book is to evoke a bygone time as much as to tell a story. Excitements and conflicts are generally small- Laura gets into trouble for being disobedient, or wants different coloured ribbons. Some of my favourite memories of this book include the dance, where the family get together in their best dresses, and the children make naple-syrup candy in the snow. I loved this book for its comfort, I liked to imagine living in a log house in the woods with a rag doll to play with.

Margaret Mahy's books of short stories, including The Door in the Air and Mahy Magic. They are not all tension free, but they are about evoking a different world. I think I read a lot for escapism, and these stories are fantastic for that. Some of my favourites include the story about the man who made fantastical bridges, the Green Fair and the story of the magical merry-go-round. I have never understood why 'escapism' is considered such a dirty word- why can't we take a holiday from reality once in a while?

The Fairy Caravan by Beatrix Potter. This book begins with a guinea-pig running away from home and joining a travelling caravan of animals. Full of fairy-tales, talking animals, cosiness and strangeness. There is a journey, and problems to overcome, but I enjoyed this book for the caravan and sense of magic. I've always been fond of caravans.

Maybe most shameful of these is the large book of Flower Fairies that I had, and loved, and read and memorised parts of. I also read a whole lot of Enid Blyton. Although I only read them when I was older, I think the Swallows and Amazons books fit nicely into this category of comforting childhood books where nothing much happens.

Descriptive books, comfort books, books about breakfast, they are still some of my childhood favourites and ever more will remain so. Next up- forgotten books.

Friday, July 30, 2010

famous first words

Skimming through the internet the other day I came across a reference to a line of startling familiarity, a line that made me realise some first lines stick in your head forever:

"Sing Goddess, the rage of Peleus' son Achilles" (funnily enough,  I can never remember the first line proper until I see it, as my friend and I spent much of year 12 Ancient History misquoting it as "rage Achilles, rage on Agamemnon". We were also amused by the fact that 'Xerxes' backwards spelt 'Sexrex'. Yeah, mature I know.) From Homer, The Illiad Ironically, a first line that I find impossible to remember is one of the most recognisable for me. I'm not usually very good at first lines, but there are a few I'd know anywhere...


"Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote" My English classes at university drummed this one into me- the first line of Chaucer's 'Canterbury Tales'. I think Chaucer is a genius, but this first line is not quite as engaging as some.

"It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." Famous from the BBC adaptation (oh yeah, and the original book) of Pride and Prejudice.

And I almost forgot (unbelievable!) one of the most famous first lines in history- "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" from 'A Tale of Two Cities'. It goes on of course... "it ws the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity; it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness; it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair; we had everything before us, we had nothing before us; we were all going directly to Heaven, we were all going the other way."

These are some famous (and familiar) first lines from books I have read (or, in the case of 'The Illiad', started to read) but they are not why I read those books. They are all great lines- lines that set the scene and the tone of the book, and that grab you from the first moment (with the possible exception of Chaucer). But I have also my personal canon of first lines, those that got a book past the first page test and onto my favourites list. Do you recognise them? First off-

"The book was thick and black and covered with dust"- designed, it seems, to appeal to a book lover, hinting at mystery and perfectly setting the scene for a novel about literature, this caught my interest from the beginning.

"A galaxy of cream unribbons in my coffee cup"- ok that's cheating, it's on the first page but it's not the first line, in any case it sold me on the book from that moment.

Any notable first lines that I've forgotten or should know about?

On another note- I've added a link to The Omnivore on the sidebar- a UK site that collects reviews on books, movies and theatre, and adds some commentary too.

Monday, July 19, 2010

what am i reading? of blogs and books

A while ago I wrote about looking for book review blogs- I love reading blogs, I love reading books, and a blog that helps me find new books has got to be a good thing. I've done a bit of wandering in the blogosphere, which has been good, and I has been reflected in my last trip to the library. Here's what I borrowed:

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson. I found this here, and was immediately intrigued. Tove Jansson! Writer of Moomintroll! Writing something completely different! It took me a couple of library visits to find it, but I was not disappointed. What a beautiful book. Set on a Finnish island it tells the story of Grandmother and Sophia with a style that is in fact similar to the Moomintroll books, but without the outlandish adventures and therefore allowing the characters more room to shine. 

Moominvalley in November by Tove Jansson. Having been reminded of Tove Jansson I couldn't resist borrowing a Moomin book, especially as I'm not sure I've read this one before. When you start dreaming about reading a book I feel that means you should read it!

The Changeover by Margeret Mahy. This one kept popping up all over the place. It's described as 'a supernatural romance', which I would usually find off-putting, but it's by Margeret Mahy, who I love (I read 'The Door in the Air' so many times as a kid, if you haven't read it I recommend it highly) and so many people loved it I had to give it a go. Again, I wasn't disappointed, very much enjoyed it.

Those are all books by authors I've previously loved. I did buy 'The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie' by Alan Bradley (which I thought I saw on this blog, but can't find now, but I swear it was on some blog somewhere). Really enjoyed that.

Next up: I've found that 'Demons' Lexicon' by Sarah Rees Brennan (written about here among other places, though I haven't read that link yet since I'm avoiding spoilers) is in the USYD library, so I'm going to see how that goes. Other books I'm thinking about reading include:

Something by Sarah Waters- maybe Fingersmith to start?
'The City and the City'- China Mieville
'The Knife of Never Letting Go'- Patrick Ness
'Howard's End is  on the Landing'- Susan Hill
'The Winter Book'- Tove Jansson
'At Home: A Short History of Private Life'- Bill Bryson

Unfortunately they're not all in the library catalogue, so I have to find some other way to read them...

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


As always- meme hosted by Should be Reading.

"Sophia was climbing very slowly now, with long pauses between steps, and Grandmother could see she was scared. The old woman stood up too quickly."
- p. 47, 'The Summer Book', Tove Jansson

i'm on the pursuit of happiness and i know... i'll be fine once i get it, i'll be good

A while ago I read 'Fire in the Blood' by Irene Nemirovsky, then more picked up 'Madame Bovary' by Gustave Flaubert, and thought "this sounds familiar". Not that I am accusing Flaubert of copying a work written about 90 years after his, or Nemirovsky of copying Flaubert. I just noticed that 'Madame Bovary' is subtitled 'Patterns of Provincial Life', and that's what these two books provide- patterns. It's hard to describe the patterns exactly- there's the obvious (watch out there may be spoilers) pattern of infidelity in young French provincial wives, but that sounds a bit broad. There are the large country weddings, the hope of happiness that turns to discontent- or merely marriage as a chance to get away from home.


While these patterns repeat themselves between books, and within books in the case of 'Fire in the Blood', I reacted very differently to the two. 'Fire in the Blood' seems all about patterns. The title refers to youthful passion which supposedly makes everyone act crazily and is contrasted to  the contentment and passivity of the aged narrator. As a bit of an aside- what I really liked about this book is that the apparent contrast and the detachment of the narrator is brought into question at the end, and you are left questioning his true feelings. There is also the pattern within families- the children repeat the sins of the parents. It's an interesting dynamic that's presented- the children believe their parents are above reproach and vice versa, but in reality they all make the same mistakes.


While 'Fire in the Blood' sees infidelity as one of the inevitable mistakes of youth, in 'Madame Bovary' it is perhaps a tragic side effect of being female. Or maybe an individual foible. Despite the fame of 'Madame Bovary' I didn't really know much about it, and had the impression that the main character was very unsympathetic. So I was surprised at how much sympathy I had for her, particularly to begin with. It really made me think how limited a woman's life was at that time, particularly in a small country town. Emma Bovary seemed fairly intelligent, but with no outlet for her energy she became extremely bored and dissatisfied, looking to wild schemes and affairs for love and happiness that continued to elude her. At the beginning I was sympathetic to her, she had very little choice in her marriage, in where she lived, and very few available occupations. But her dream of grand living and grand romance appears from the beginning to be flawed. When she becomes discontent I was reminded of the words of Merlin in Prince Valiant: 'Only a turtle on a sunny rock knows contentment' (ie no human is ever content). In this instance the search for contentment is indeed futile, and becomes more and more selfish seeming as it continues. I don't think Prince Valiant is alone in talking about the difficulties inherent in pursuing happiness, take the words of Kid Cudi for instance:


I'm on the pursuit of happiness and I know
Everything that's shining always gonna be golden.
I'll be fine once I get it,
I'll be good.