31 March 2009

I've read it, I swear...

Okay, so I've admitted a few times on this blog that I occasionally recommend books to customers in the shop without ever having read so much as the back cover. But generally, in conversation with people whose opinions I actually care about, I am truthful about things I've read. The same cannot be said of the general British populace apparently. A survey as part of World Book Day yielded the following list of the top ten books people lie about having read:

1. 1984 - George Orwell
2. War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy
3. Ulysses - James Joyce
4. The Bible
5. Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert
6. A Brief History of Time - Stephen Hawking
7. Midnight's Children - Salman Rushdie
8. In Remembrance of Things Past - Marcel Proust
9. Dreams of My Father - Barack Obama
10. The Selfish Gene - Richard Dawkins

Huh. Why the hell would anyone lie about having read Proust? Seriously. People are only going to believe you've read Proust if you're the kind of person who would actually read Proust and who wouldn't lie if they hadn't.

It's such a weird list - 1984, I can kind of understand (come on people, it's not that long...), Midnight's Children ditto. Ulysses? No one has read Ulysses. No one. I wouldn't believe someone if they said they had. Richard Dawkins? Really? I wonder if he should be honoured to have made the list? I think it's kind of funny that Dreams of My Father made the list...I am surprised it is not higher up - it seems every second book club is doing this at the moment because 'you've just got to have read it'. Whatever. I realise I'm just rambling on, feeling superior to people who lie while I've read a grand total of one of the books on the list. (1984. I read one sentence of Ulysses (all 30 pages of it) and threw in the towel). So instead of rambling on further about these and not really getting anywhere, let's have a look at what the people are really reading :

Harry Potter, Mills and Boons, Sophie Kinsella and Jeffrey Archer.
(Well one of our commenters will be happy to confirm that...)
(Not that I am saying ANYTHING disparaging about any of these books. (except Jeffrey Archer). I am a Harry Potter nerd. And have been known to dabble in a little light Mills and Boon reading (only when ill and fuzzy headed...))

I am rocking the brackets today. Your thoughts?

30 March 2009

Author Love: DBC Pierre

Picture this scene, if you will:
A dinner party.
Pork chops are being served by waiters dressed as Etonians.
We are in an old country house.
Elbow's Grounds for Divorce filters from the tasteful sound system.

Earhart and I sit, surrounded by the most distinctively voiced, disturbing and/or angry authors we could think of. Cormac sits at one end, silent and still apart from the occasional twitch of his nose. He leans back in his chair, arms crossed, surveying the crowd. J.D. sits to my left, complaining about the chops and shamelessly listening in on everyone else's conversations. Ian holds court, retelling the story of his long-lost half-brother, so enigmatic that no one notices as he palms his steak knife and requests another from the waiter. Martin is also unimpressed with the chops; he pushes his plate away and tops up his wine goblet from a leather hip flask, adding a pinch of seasoning from a twist of paper. Margaret, to Earhart's right, charms her whilst keeping an ear on the ticking in her handbag. Anthony is demonstrating the correct way to strangle a gerbil and Hunter listens intently, sure he can see an actual gerbil writhing in pain. Bret and Chuck play a lackadaisical game of Snap, ignoring everyone else and taking in turns to stab each other with compasses whenever a point is scored.

At this hypothetical dinner party which I SERIOUSLY hope to attend one day, DBC Pierre sits, almost unnoticed, in the midst of the madness. He doesn't have a notebook on his lap but he is recording it all, filing away the lunacy, the self-involvement, the genius, to use at a later date.

Make no doubt about it, he belongs at the party, can take his rightful place at the table and does so with no trace of hem or haw. But he remains distanced, able to catalogue his own caricatured behaviour alongside that of the others, so socially pulsed and sharp witted with a scary intelligence to rope it all together that the dinner party could soon turn into another socially-ravaging hilarious romp of a read.

You COULD say I think DBC Pierre is quite, quite good at what he does. This would probably be reasonably accurate.
Vernon God Little and Ludmila's Broken English are unwavering in their brilliance, scornful satire and heartbreaking moments of pain. If the latter is slightly lacking the power of the first I hold no grudges, reading it without the expectations of the first I would have still been blown-away. I realised merely referencing DBC Pierre in my earlier post wasn't enough, he needed a segment on his own (even if said segment is a bit too gonzo-esque to be classified as sensible reviewing).

I mean, when the voices of his characters resonate more soundly than Holden Caulfield's, you know he's a ten.

Rating: 10/10.

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (Max Brooks)

Ahaha, OH YES.

This was awesome. Brooks originally released a tongue-in-cheek manual called The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead, which outlined detailed strategies for civilians in the event of a zombie uprising. This is his follow-up novel, which uses the strategies outlined in The Survival Guide as a foundation for the ensuing action.

Confession: I haven't actually read The Survival Guide. But I have already ordered it from my bookshop now that I have finished WWZ. The novel is actually incredibly serious and references the current terrorism issues the world is facing, using these as basis for a zombie war. The book is divided into a series of interviews between the author and survivors of the conflict. Taking place a decade after the war, we are drawn into the horror of the political, social and economic outcomes of the uprising. I found myself clucking my tongue and murmuring of course throughout the tales of government ineptitude, feeling glad that were such a conflict to actually occur, at least now we have Obama rather than the ranch man. Obama would be ALL OVER a zombie war.

If you're a fan of zombies only for the blood and gore you'll be disappointed; Brooks is far more eager to highlight corporate corruption and social blindness than the way rotting flesh drips from zombie bones. Otherwise, go pick up a copy of this, taking care to capitalise on the moment of purchase by moaning slightly and fixing the sales assistant with an unfocused glare.

Rating: 8/10.

29 March 2009

Words of Love

And so it died an abrupt, premature, yet appropriate death

We're discontinuing the "Book You May Have Missed" segment. Earhart was the first to voice her woes on this front, with April fast approaching it was her turn to do the segment and she was stressing as to what title to choose. We had a confabulation and decided that it is a bit of a redundant segment, as we have trouble choosing a book we think you may have missed as we assume everyone reads as much as we do. Alternatively, a book you may have missed even if you are an avid reader is a problem as we probably missed it as well and thus wouldn't think to post on it.


OK, that worrisome topic dealt with I am now in search of something else to stress about.

28 March 2009

March Classic: Three Men in a Boat

Sorry sorry sorry - both on the lack of posts front (I now have Internet in my new place so am connected to world again!) and the fact that this March Classic post is practically an April classic. The reason for the delay is that about a month ago I had sudden inspiration as to what should be my March classic, and promptly forgot all about it. All month there has been this thought in the back of my mind that I couldn't choose anything else because I had the perfect classic all picked out, if only I could remember what it was. Finally, last night I looked on my own bookshelves (what an innovative idea!) and there it was: Three Men in a Boat.

Possibly the funniest book known to man, Three Men in a Boat was written in 1889 (so it's a REAL, more than 100 years old classic!) and details a boating trip up the Thames, undertaken by three men (to say nothing of the dog....) The narrator and his two friends have got to be three of the most ridiculous characters in fiction. We can tell this three sentences in, when J. is talking about the various maladies he is suffering...'It is a most extraordinary thing, but I never read a patent medicine advertisement without being impelled to the conclusion that I am suffering from the particular disease therein dealt with in its most virulent form'. J. says this without a trace of irony let me assure you.

The trip up the Thames is an educational one for the reader, as J. offers his observations on camping, cheese, women, sea trips, as well as a running commentary on the trip and experience thereof. I cannot think of any other book which is as funny today as it was over 100 years ago (although according to my friend Wiki, it was initially seen as a book for the 'Arrys and 'Arriets, evidently it was not something read by the upper classes...). I'm going to leave you with this musing over an Irish Stew:

"I forget the other ingredients, but I know nothing was wasted; and I remember that, towards the end, Montmorency, who had evinced great interest in the proceedings throughout, strolled away with an earnest and thoughtful air, reappearing, a few minutes afterwards, with a dead water-rat in his mouth, which he evidently wished to present as his contribution to the dinner; whether in a sarcastic spirit, or with a genuine desire to assist, I cannot say."

In case you are wondering, Montmorency is in fact, a dog.


27 March 2009

The Understudy (David Nicholls)

"Funniest book of the year" MY ASS Marie Claire.

I know, I know, I shouldn't take book recommendations from a women's magazine but honestly, I thought that comment at least indicated this would be a diverting, light-hearted read.

The Understudy was the singularly most depressing novel I have read in my entire life. Admittedly, this may be a slight exaggeration. But this was not good depressing. Good depressing is a novel you can seriously wallow in. It reduces you to frantic tears and staring at yourself in the mirror, tugging your hair and imagining yourself playing the part of the heroine in the film. This was cringy, pathetic, snivelling and pseudo-realistic depressing... not enjoyable AT ALL.

Stephen C. McQueen (no relation) is a struggling actor. His ex-wife and young daughter think he's a loser, his agent can't remember his name and he is currently playing the part of "Ghostly Figure" in a West End hit, which requires he be on stage for fifteen seconds of the entire production. David Nicholls is good with the one-liners, but they're relentless and a pathetic band aid for the failure that Stephen's life is.

The problem with the humour is that nothing funny actually happens in the novel, just amusing descriptions of seriously depressing events. Thus, although you want to throw yourself off a bridge after reading this, you will be compelled to do it in an ironic fashion, with a jaunty parting line to the mocking crowd. Unfortunately, there will be a protruding ledge which will hamper your death fall and instead leave you crippled for life. The wheelchair you will be compelled to use will be bought for you by your best friend with the inappropriate sense of humour and thus will be equipped with flashing multi-coloured lights, a siren and streamers on the handles. As a get-well present, someone will buy you this book to cheer you up and start the whole tragic cycle all over again.

Rating: 3/10.

24 March 2009

Shields of Pride (Elizabeth Chadwick)

Ahh... another great historical fiction novel with a picture of a woman with her face partially obscured on the front. What is it about this genre that makes the creative departments so wary about putting an ACTUAL FACE on the cover? Are they worried that people will take one look and dismiss the title instantly?

"Bess of Hardwick's nose was not NEARLY that aquiline. I can't POSSIBLY read this. Get me something faceless."


I am currently suffering from a massively painful neck injury. As I can't think of a single thing I have done recently to warrant any sort of physical strain I have come to the anxious conclusion that I probably have meningitis.

THUS I toddled off to the library to pick up some light reading. Don't worry, I won't inflict the Maeve Binchy I read on you, but this novel was fine actually. Chadwick's historical detail is always very well researched, her men are suitably courageous and tortured and the women are beautiful and normally quite erratic. This is a very early novel of Chadwick's and I think her writing style has improved over the years, (if memory serves some of them actually have a plot) but overall I didn't regret the few hours I spent reading this.

If I fail to post over the next few days it is because I no longer have the strength to lift my head from the pillow. I know this post is not up to my usual rambling length, so I leave you with some pictures...

Rating: 6/10.

22 March 2009

A Spot of Bother (Mark Haddon)

Mark Haddon's second novel (after the remarkably well-received The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time) is a bit of a disappointment. Not because it's different from his first, which it is. But because it is meant to be an overly amusing tale about a seriously dysfunctional family.

Instead, it is mildly amusing and the family seems relatively normal.

It's a real pity. Okay, maybe I wasn't expecting a family unit dysfunctioning as badly as the Flytes, but I was hoping for AT LEAST humour and mishap akin to a Gerald Durrell novel. Haddon is a seriously good writer and I was excited to see what he would bring to the table. Instead, this was too easy a read, with all the depressing parts offset by moments of slapstick that did little to elevate the novel on the humour scale (too predictable) but did much to dilute any serious or meaningful scenes.

The main character George has just discovered what he believes to be a cancerous patch on his hip, not believing his doctor when he is informed it is eczema. Whilst his daughter prepares for a wedding, his wife has an affair and his son struggles with his own relationship, George goes slowly mad. The whole time I was reading this I just kept thinking "Ye gods, give the poor man some Valium." When some kind soul finally does give him Valium I felt overly smug for the rest of the novel, thus paying little attention to how the rest of it panned out.

However, low-brow content aside I could have really enjoyed this, were it not for the way the story and the humour are delivered. Haddon's too good a writer to just deliver chick-lit. He unbalances you as you're reading, making it impossible to just mindlessly enjoy the story. In high school a drama teacher (who shall remain unnamed but who, rest assured, is DEAD to me) told me I acted like a flea on heat (that story is 100% true). That's how Haddon delivers his humour, which hardly makes for a reflective reading experience.

This is all very negative of me and it wasn't a bad read, but A Spot of Bother didn't live up to expectations and at the same time didn't sink far enough below my expectations to warrant an enthusiastic thumbs up.
Rating: 7/10.

20 March 2009

The Paris Enigma (Pablo de Santis)

Hmm hmm hmm. This is another one of those books I've been selling like crazy to customers and telling them I loved it, best book I've read all year etc. without actually having read it. However, unlike The Good Mayor, I ended up a) a bit disappointed and b) realising I've been lying to my customers. (I feel I should add in here that I do usually read books before recommending them, its just I haven't always read the book I want to recommend... I hope this doesn't call into question my reputation as a bookseller. I really do read things..I swear!)

The Paris Enigma is set during the World's Fair in Paris in 1889, (the fair which the Eiffel Tower was built for) and if you know me at all, the fact that it is Paris in the 19th Century should tip you off as to why I picked it up. For the World's Fair the twelve greatest detectives in the world are coming together to talk about their greatest cases. The group is known as...The Twelve Detectives. Right. Catchy!

A few nights before the grand opening of the fair, one of the detectives is killed leaving the remaining sleuths to solve the mystery of his death.

On first glances, this book could not be more perfect for me: Paris, mystery, historical fiction, cover that looks like a vintage poster... Being a bit of an Agatha Christie girl, I went into it thinking (hoping?) it would perhaps be a Parisian take on And Then There Were None. The problem was, when the mystery had been solved (with a few more bodies turning up along the way) I was seriously underwhelmed. I am used to the fantastic Poirot, where everyone is the killer/I am the killer/no-one is the killer and it all comes out in such a clever way that no-one else in the world aside from Poirot could have figured it out (except perhaps Marlowe....). At the end of The Paris Enigma, I was left thinking, well I could have figured that out. None of the ingenuity I was expecting.

So I guess the moral of this story seems to be if you want a good mystery* go for Christie.


*I say mystery because I do not read modern 'crime' novels which are way too slasher-y and thriller-y and violent for my poor, feeble sensibilities.

19 March 2009

The agony of shortlists...

I find the announcement of literary awards shortlists quite stressful. One could argue I am already a relatively anxious person and thus during this period I feel remarkably unhinged. This is basically what goes through my head when reading a shortlist:

Oh yeah, that was good... WHAT? That was TERRIBLE!... What the hell was that? Do I know that book?... Oh I never got around to reading that DAMMIT... Seriously, what is that title? Should I ask? Has everyone else read it? Will they judge me?... Oh, I LOVED that! I want that to win.... Unless I want that random title to win. It's probably going to win and everyone will know I am TOTALLY USELESS for not having even HEARD of it. I want to kill myself.

See? Stressful.

The Man Booker International shortlist has just been announced. It's different from the Man Booker in that it is only awarded every two years and is based on a body of work rather than a single title (like the Nobel Prize for Literature). Publishers cannot nominate books, the judges compile their own lists of contenders. Again, it was hardly a calm experience for me:

Peter Carey: Sigh, oh I suppose. Yes, ok. But he's not my favourite. Who else is on here?

Evan S Connell: I thought he was dead.

Mahasweta Devi: Ack. No idea who she is.

E.L. Doctorow: Man, that book about the American Civil War was BORING.

James Kelman: Hmmm ok.

Mario Vargas Llosa: He's from Peru. I need to get there. The Bad Girl was a good read.

Arnost Lustig: Ack. Second author I don't know. I am a MORON.

Alice Munro: No. I don't like you.

V.S. Naipaul: YAY! I approve.

Joyce Carol Oates: What the? NO. If she wins I will set fire to myself.

Antonio Tabucchi: Meh.

Ngugi Wa Thiong'o: Well, if I could read Gikuyu I would have read some of his stuff. I can only speak English, I'm pathetic. I bet I would be a better person if I could speak an African language. Hah, and I would have it ALL OVER Earhart, she only speaks French.

Dubravka Ugresic: Third author I do not know. I am a DISGRACE.

Ludmila Ulitskaya: Wait, did she write a book with her name as the title? CONCEITED! No, wait, that was DBC Pierre who wrote Ludmila's Broken English. HE should be on the list. Vernon God Little was GENIUS.

So, I think I want DBC Pierre to win. He's not nominated and he's only written two books, not really enough to be considered a 'body of work'. But that's who I'm cheering on.

18 March 2009

A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali (Gil Courtemanche)

Earhart is in the process of moving house so I'm sorry to say you'll have to endure my nonsensical ramblings with no breath of Sydney fresh air for awhile.

A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali tells the story of Valcourt, a French-Canadian filmmaker who falls in love with a young woman whilst living in Rwanda in 1994. Considering Courtemanche lived in Rwanda and is also a documentary filmmaker I would suggest this novel is at least partly autobiographical. The love story is told amongst the Rwandan genocide of the Tutsis by the Hutus, with ultimately both the romance and drama overshadowed by the widespread horror of the AIDS virus.

The novel was a little hard to get into at first... I'll admit to wishing Don Cheadle would pop up somewhere and relieve the tension. And perhaps I went into reading it with a lazy attitude after reading the endorsement from the Sunday Times: "...you must read it- or allow it to read you." Awesome, I thought. I'll go up a few IQ points AND I don't even have to try, I'll just sit back and allow the book to read me.

Yah, didn't happen.

However, I'm glad I persevered. It really is a stunning piece of writing and the love story is subtle, honest and realistic. The subject of AIDS is always sobering but it's not outright depressing in this novel, rather Courtemanche attempts to give us an accurate portrayal of a nation suffering, without the melodrama. Basically every thought in the novel is geared towards sex or death and there are some agonisingly affecting moments. This quote in particular stuck with me: "Here, Valcourt was beginning to understand, dying was simply one of the things you did one day."

I feel like someone should send a copy of this novel to good old Benedict XVI. Or any novel about AIDS in Africa. Or a few lines jotted down on the back of a used envelope detailing the function of condoms.
Rating: 8/10.

17 March 2009

March's Book You May Have Missed: The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver)

I'm not entirely sure The Poisonwood Bible hits the point of this feature bang-on considering it's an international bestseller. However, that label often works to the detriment of a novel; the number of social elitists who didn't read Harry Potter or The Da Vinci Code because "everybody else was" is ridiculous. Thus, I am going to assume many people missed this book and announce March's Book You May Have Missed!

Barbara Kingsolver now seems to be far more concerned with growing organic vegetables, but before this foray into green goodness she churned out a few quality novels, the best by far being The Poisonwood Bible. It tells the story of a Baptist Preacher who takes his wife and four daughters to the Congo as missionaries in 1959. Those of you with any knowledge of African history will know that this was NOT the best time to go act as missionaries; the country was on the brink of overthrowing the shackles of Belgian Colonisation and embracing independence and not really in the mood to hear about the fire and brimstone that awaited them.

Thus we have inevitable conflict as the mad-as-a-meataxe Nathan Price will not allow his family to return to America as he feels he has not fulfilled his duty in saving as many souls as possible in the small village whose inhabitants have little or no interest in him or his faith .

Narrated by his four daughters and wife Orleanna the novel took me a few chapters to get into because of the different voices of the girls. It annoys me NO END when a story is narrated by young children. Unless you are as brilliant as Scout Finch I do NOT want to read about your take on the world if you are under the age of ten. Fortunately, once I got into the story and started to really enjoy hating the father the narration ceased to grate on me.

The build-up of suspense and tension in this ridiculous situation the family finds themselves in is quite magnificent and Orleanna Price's descent into depression is tenderly wrought. The character studies are for the most part thoughtful and subtle, although the character of the daughter Adah was a little overdone. She is a cripple AND a genius AND intentionally mute AND prefers to write and read backwards AND morbid and dark AND a philosopher AND an atheist. Or maybe she's not overdone but her sisters are not formed as thoroughly and thus seem a little 2-D in comparison. Either way, Adah doesn't fit as well into the story.
But it's a good novel, easy to read yet still creatively and intelligently delivered. I want to go read more on the Congo now, which demonstrates how much the story piqued my interest in Congolese history. Either that or it awakened in me an irresistable urge to become a baptist missionary and I want to see what my chances are of getting a mass following once I'm over there.

Rating: 7/10.

16 March 2009

And now for something completely different...

There was an article in the Guardian this weekend on Ayn Rand and how sales of Atlas Shrugged have jumped since the economic downturn. Take a gander at the article:


This article got me thinking about how many dyslit novels I have read, which is a disturbing number. Earhart has read even more, so between the two of us we are rapidly approaching the lunatic fringe.

Dyslit? Qu'est-ce que c'est?

Dystopian Literature is a genre of books which are set in a future which is so dysfunctional as to be the antithesis of a utopian future. Also known as cacotopian literature, it is not to be confused with anti-utopian literature, which opposes a perfect society.

If this all seems a little too much like hard work, think of it this way. These would be the books Tyler Durden reads. And who doesn't want a little piece of that?

The genre covers such comforting gems as nineteen eighty-four, Fahrenheit 451 and Brave New World. Most of the time they are SUPER depressing, creepy and upsetting.

Earhart and I LOVE them.

Thus, I go on to announce a new regular post... monthly we will have a featured dystopian novel. We hope that this will not only generate a greater interest in the genre, but will also contribute a few more passionate (yet SEDENTARY) anarchists to society.

This month will be Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, which I will post shortly.

Stardust (Neil Gaiman)

For your reading pleasure: some more Neil Gaiman love. This time, a cute, old fashioned (old fashioned on purpose you understand...) love story that takes place in the world of faerie. If you've seen the movie (not bad), or read the title of this post...you'll know I'm talking about Stardust.
Tristran Thorn lives in the village of Wall, so named because of the Wall which lies to its east, separating our world from the world of Faerie. On his seventeenth birthday he learns that his father crossed over into faerie one night, met a girl and ... well, you know. Half-faerie, half-human, poor old Tristran has quite the identity crisis and he has promised his beloved, Victoria, he will retrieve a fallen star for her from faerie. Because NOTHING says true love like a fallen star. When Tristran gets to where the star fell, he discovers not a lump of grey rock, but a beautiful (and kind of grumpy) woman named Yvaine. Oh no... cue romantic dilemma... stars take the form of beautiful women!
Meanwhile, the Lord of Stormhold has died, and his three sons who are still alive are vying for the crown, which will be passed on once there is only one Stormhold heir left. Primus, Tertius and Septimus spend most of the story trying to kill one another, all the time followed by the ghosts of the brothers who have already been killed off. (SERIOUSLY lacking in brotherly love, but we can't expect anything more with names like that...)

Gaiman wrote Stardust in the style of a Victorian fantasy, with references to various Nursery Rhymes, local myths and legends. It is a self-consciously quaint, charming read, made about a million times more special by the amazing, AMAZING illustrations by Charles Vess. Though you can now buy Stardust as an ordinary novel, I strongly advise that you find an illustrated version somewhere (there is a regular paperback and a gorgeous, GORGEOUS hardback special edition) - you just won't get the total Victorian fantasy package unless you invest in the pictures.


13 March 2009


We are both overly busy and important at the moment; reviews and posts will return on Monday.

Coming up:

Stardust by Neil Gaiman
A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali by Gil Courtemanche
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Recovery by Stephen Benatar

NOT Coming up:

Paths of Glory by Jeffrey Archer.

11 March 2009

Galaxy British Book Awards

THESE are the book awards that count. Ignore the Booker... the PUHLEASEitzer... the Miles Franklin. With categories like the "Sainsbury's Popular Fiction Award" and the "Play.com Popular Non-Fiction Award" the Galaxy British Book Awards (the Oscars of the Book World!) should be the gong that every writer dreams of.

Richard and Judy have a category as well and I'm glad to see my old acquaintance The 19th Wife has picked up a nomination for their best read of the year... sigh.

I was most amused to read the nominations for the "Tesco Biography of the Year"; Dawn French, Barack Obama and Julie Walters all racing neck and neck towards the nail-biting conclusion that will make last November look like a walk in the park.

However, the best quote from the website is the description of the judging panel for the big prize, The Galaxy Book of the Year: "(It) will be determined by an elite and bi-partisan chapter of the Academy of the British Book Industry."


I was worried they hadn't quite realised the ENORMITY of these awards, but I'm glad to see they're taking them seriously.

10 March 2009

Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (John Cleland)

This is often hailed as the original erotic novel; it is 212 pages of the many and varied sexual romps of one young Fanny Hill. Written in 1748, it certainly caused a storm when it was published; it was banned and the author and publisher were apparently arrested for 'corrupting the king's subjects'. Hah.

I am a firm believer that a banned book should be read. I like to think there is a whole belt of kids reading Harry Potter under their covers at night, risking corruption and eternal damnation because they REALLY need to know if Hermione and Ron ever get it on. I love it that a few years ago Penguin released a box-set of previously banned books including One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and A Clockwork Orange. They sold like you wouldn't believe. I bet no customers actually read the books, they would have just placed the set on their rough-hewn oak bookshelves and looked coy when Bollinger-sipping guests pointed it out. A cultivated air of anarchy will ALWAYS be in vogue.

Fanny Hill starts off mildly: a little innocent girl on girl action in a brothel... and just escalates from there. To enjoy the hilarity of the story you have to ignore Cleland's very liberal interpretation of how the English language should be written. The random italicisation of words that need no emphasis is bad enough; but it really started to annoy me when he only wrote out the first few letters of long words, apparently finding it too tiresome to write them out in their entirety.

Taking my own advice and pushing this issue aside, I can really recommend this novel. Any accounts of lewd behaviour in the 18th century should be enjoyable, but throw in Cleland's sophisticated wit and perceptive parodies of English society and government and you've got yourself a damn fine read.

Rating: 7/10.

09 March 2009

Shakespeare and Co

So I think Earhart and I need another sojourn to Paris quite shortly. Darling, we shall dress in our best rags and carry around moleskins and hit up Shakespeare and Co for a bed... what do you think?

This is a bookshop that in particular should give Earhart a hernia (what with her undiagnosed yet obvious OCD); books are piled anywhere all over the floor and stacked up to the ceiling in no apparent order. It is dusty and damp. There are random beds in the corners, sometimes with people in them.

And it is the most wonderful, wonderful place in the world. I know there are those of you who are not exactly huge readers but who follow the blog and I say to you, go to Paris, go to Shakespeare and Co and just stay for a couple of hours. It's in the 5th, on the Left Bank. You will be converted, I promise you.

This all comes about because there was an article in The Guardian this weekend written by Jeanette Winterson about the bookshop and I now have an irrepressible yearning to go back. Have a read:

08 March 2009

On Chick-Lit

Chick-lit is a funny, funny thing. Like any other literary sub-genre it has it's hierarchy, yet people seem to forget this a lot of the time. It is unfortunate, because an author like Marian Keyes (the undisputed queen of the sub-sub-genre 'normal people chick-lit') consistently produces novels which are far better than many general fiction titles.

With this (not ICBM-proof but still relatively sound I feel) logic behind me, I never feel embarrassed to buy chick-lit. Most of the time I confess I am disappointed, but the occasional title like Bergdorf Blondes or Mad About the Boy reaffirms my conviction that chick-lit CAN be sophisticated.

Generally what we get is either 'normal people chick-lit' or 'fashionable chick-lit'. The former are generally comforting, with deep and meaningful thoughts about relationships punctuated with pale pink David Austin roses. The latter are FABULOUS DARLING, with rich, young, beautiful things gadding around in Chanel bathing suits and drinking Bellinis at 2 in the afternoon.

Bookends, by Jane Green, which I have just completed, falls into the former category. It is OK. My main problem is that it attempts to stray into the latter category and talks a bit about fashion.

When the author clearly has NO IDEA.

Thus we have Cath, our 30-something young woman who has just opened a bookstore, wearing an Armani black velvet pantsuit to the daytime opening.


We then have to suffer through several paragraphs of her joyous exclamations when she picks up a pale pink cashmere-blend jumper and I suppose we are to feel inspired when she pairs said jumper with pale grey slacks.

However, if you have a higher tolerance than myself and you can't quite face the Rwandan genocide on a sunny weekend (A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali is my other read at the moment) go pick this up and sink into mindless enjoyment. If you want more than mindless enjoyment but are still quite drawn by the pastel colours and sparkly, italicised writing, go for one of these authors:

- Marion Hume
- Marian Keyes
- Plum Sykes
- Maggie Alderson
- Helen Fielding
- Sophie Kinsella (ONLY for The Undomestic Goddess, the Shopaholic books are TRULY exasperating.)

Bookends rating: 5/10.

05 March 2009

The Good Mayor (Andrew Nicoll)

I am SO glad I liked The Good Mayor. Mainly because for the past month I've been selling it to customers like crazy, telling them it's cute/charming/magical/the kind of book you just hug to your chest and go 'awwww'. Then a co-worker pointed out that maybe, just maybe, I ought to read it. Crazy crazy idea, but I thought I'd give it a go.

And you know what? It IS cute. And charming. Lucky break there...

Tibo Krovic is the mayor of a small town in the Baltic called Dot, who is hopelessly, head over heels in love with his (unhappily) married secretary, Agathe. Everyday he listens for her high heels clicking across the office floor, and whenever it is raining he watches under the office door as Agathe taking off her galoshes and slips into her high heels. The problem is, Tibo just isn't able to work up the courage to confess his feelings...until one day Agathe drops her lunch in the fountain and Tibo takes a chance.

The relationship which develops between the two is lovely, starting with lunch everyday and gradually becoming more. What could have been just a normal love story is made really special by the way it is told. The story is narrated by Saint Walpurnia, the patron saint of Dot whose image is everywhere. (As the legend goes, Walpurnia thought it was so important that she remain chaste, she prayed to be deformed and was given a beard and warts all over her body.) There are a few magical elements to the story, which now I think of it, reminds me a tad of Joanne Harris. Cute is probably an apt word to describe parts of the story; Dot's neighboring towns are called 'Dash' and 'Umlaut' and the local river is called 'Ampersand'.
Punctuation as names?
Why not?
A car chase that takes place at walking pace?
But of course!
Each sentence is beautifully constructed (much more so than in this review which I realise rambles on a bit...), and you just fall in love with the book a bit (and like it says on the cover, it DOES make you want to go out and fall in love with someone).

Admittedly, the story gets a little too weird towards the end, and doesn't quite finish as strongly as it started, but it's well worth the read. And I swear I actually did read it this time.


*Interesting tidbit - apparently the author, Andrew Nicoll, didn't like the Australian cover (pictured above) as it made the book seem like it was only for the ladies, when he wrote it to be for both men and women. Do we think a book which is mostly about feelings (I'd say about 90%) is a man book? I don't want to make any stereotypical judgments here....

04 March 2009

The Host (Stephenie Meyer)

Wow Stephenie.
You're awesome at that.
But mind-snatchers who invade earth?
You SUCK at that.

Now, I'm not going to talk about Meyer's literary skills here. She can string a sentence together just fine and as for sexual tension, she's got that all tied up. (Tee hee.) But The Host was ABOMINABLE.

Basic premise: Wanderer is a sprite/soul/silvery ghost thing who is part of a species who go to lands that are screwed up in some way, take over their minds and make everyone happy and peaceful. Good in theory but kind of nixes freedom of thought etc. These sprites have come to Earth and before our planet they were on a planet covered in seaweed. (I'm guessing kelp has conflict issues that don't really come to light when we just see it floating past us in the water). However, the body that Wanderer is inserted into belongs to the strong-willed Melanie who refuses to give up her soul. Thus we have two minds in one body.

This is where it gets ridiculous.

Melanie is in love with a guy called Jared and she convinces Wanderer to go find him, hoping he is hiding in the desert and has not been brainwashed. Conveniently, he is and Wanderer plays along, as she is feeling slightly disillusioned with her parasitic race.

Cue unfortunate occurrence:

Wanderer falls in love with Jared.
Melanie is still in love with Jared.
Thus the origin of the marketing tag: "What may be the first love triangle involving only two bodies."


Apart from the ridiculously confusing plot (I over-simplified for you), my other beef is that this was Meyer's first adult book. The Twilight Series is kind of racy for teenagers and I was expecting Meyer to bump up the sex if she was intentionally writing for adults. What kept me going through this doorstop of a novel was the possibility of hot alien sex.
Didn't happen.
We don't even get resolution at the end; I closed the book feeling unsatisfied, unconvinced and depressed. NOT how I normally feel when I read Stephenie Meyer.

Rating: 4/10.

03 March 2009

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe (Fannie Flagg)

I was mildly concerned after reading Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe. I remembered my father saying (often) that this was his favourite film and I assumed this was the book said film was modelled on. It turns out his favourite film is Attack of the Killer Tomatoes and thus my mind is set at rest.

Actually, this could be cause for concern regardless.

Trying to pinpoint my exact problem with this book took me awhile and then I realised what it was: IT'S NOT VERY GOOD.

My expectations were raised with the endorsement from Harper freaking Lee on the front cover; I was anticipating more than a mildly trashy sob-fest set in the Deep South. However, the novel delivered no more than this, although I suppose the inclusion of the recipe for fried green tomatoes is a small consolation.

The novel is narrated by Mrs Cleo Threadgoode, who now resides in a nursing home in Alabama. The year is 1985 and she has met a younger woman at the home who evades her own mother-in-law in favour of visiting with Mrs Threadgoode. Evelyn is depressed, overweight and timid; feeling as though she has nothing to live for she chocolates her way through life. However, Mrs Threadgoode's retelling of her times at the Whistle Stop Cafe in the 20s and 30s invigorate Evelyn and force her to embrace her life once again.

And... that was basically it. Good storytelling, I'll admit, but none of the insights or sharp prose which turn a storyteller into an author. However, I'll admit to being slightly swept away with the tales of love, murder and friendship at Whistle Stop regardless of the sub par writing; and I DID make fried green tomatoes.

For future reference, they are disgusting.

Rating: 6/10.


We're not sure where all the content has gone on the front page, but we are working on fixing it.
By that I mean I am hoping it will right itself.
I will give it a few hours and if we are not up and running I shall do something...

EDIT: Clearly, it has righted itself. There is much to be said for doing nothing.

02 March 2009

My Booky Wook (Russell Brand)

Hello...am back from the wonderful world that is Atlas Shrugged and so reviews from this side of the globe will be more frequent/regular/on time (apologies to Alcott...) Just in case you are wondering why there is no review popping up here instead of an explanation: Atlas Shrugged is my favourite book in the world (look to the right and you will see it at the top of my Top Five list) - hence I am terrified I will not do it justice and instead offer up an awkwardly worded review that ends up just as gushing praise. I may work up the courage someday (you should read it now so when I eventually do review it you can comment!) but in the meantime... here's some Russell Brand...

My Booky Wook was lent to me by a friend after I watched St Trinian's (don't judge, its an established cult classic film series... or something) and thought he was kind of hot. Watched many, MANY YouTube videos and solidified this opinion. Told Alcott. She was horrified. I wasn't deterred. And reading My Booky Wook has tipped the scales in favour of full-blown obsession.

Brand's autobiography opens in a sex addiction treatment centre: obviously this is going to be a biography of the up close and personal persuasion. Russell details his childhood, various addictions (drink, heroin, sex), forays into various acting schools, sex trips with his father to Thailand - it's all in the book. The very well written, hilarious, witty book. You finish reading it and feel like you've gotten to know Russell (and you too will be on first name terms with him!). This is no Confessions of an Heiress. This is the real thing and it is fabulous.

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