24 June 2009

The Shadow of the Wind (Carlos Ruiz Zafon)

Coming to you live on Alcott and Earhart, the inaugural and probably the last 'Book-you-probably-didn't-miss-but-I-did-miss-until-just-now' post. I feel like I am just about the last person in the world (or at least in my bookshop) to read The Shadow of the Wind. After months of hearing from a colleague that it is one of her favourites/is so good/is a real cracker, after having droves of customers come in and ask for 'that book with the big book graveyard and it's Spanish I think' I finally read it. Never have I had more comments from customers when they saw what I was reading - every second person who came in expressed either joy that I was reading it or shock that I work in a book shop and was only just reading The Shadow of the Wind.

So I finally did it. The verdict? Very good.

1940s Barcelona, a boy is taken to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books where he must choose one book which he must treasure for life. He chooses The Shadow of the Wind by the mysterious Julian Carax, and becomes obsessed with unraveling the mystery of the author. In a nutshell.

Out of a nutshell - this book has got just about everything you could ask for - historical stuff, mystery, romance, musings on the wonder of literature, a psychopathic corrupt policeman, even comedy! I think that's the one that surprised me the most - there is a great character named Fermin, a once homeless man who befriends our protagonist Daniel, who doles out a few fabulous one-liners. And the thing is - this is a book that is not any one genre really, so if someone doesn't want romance, just don't tell them about it... it's not an overpowering plot element, so if they don't think it's a romance they probably won't care about the romance. (Going into bookseller mode a bit there).

So now you can either go read it, OR comment and tell me that you can't believe I've only just read it, being a bookseller and all...


23 June 2009

Fantasy with a Capital F

The David Gemmell Legend Prize has just been awarded to Andrzej Sapkowski for his fantasy novel Blood of the Elves. Apparently it's about a mutant assassin which sounds quite promising, but I haven't quite decided if I'll rush out and buy this yet. I tend to try and steer clear of fantasy for one very good reason. I read quite a lot of Tamora Pierce in my younger days. She wrote books about girls who became knights and went around defending their magical kingdom whilst falling in love with loads of guys. They were awesome, but I read them at a time in my teenage years when I was already feeling discontented with the lot I had been allocated. After reading these books I went into a depressed state where I was CERTAIN I was meant to have been born in middle ages. Preferably with magical powers.

And THIS is the problem with fantasy. These novels are so phantasmagorical that you shut the covers of the book feeling that life outside of the pages is quite grey and drab. Why get dressed up for an occasion if a prince in a leather jerkin and blousey shirt isn't going to burst into the room and sweep you up in his arms? Why worry about the terrible crime statistics in Nottingham when, in all likelihood, none of the gangs have ork members? Why go to the gym and train hard when you won't have to strip down to your loincloth and compete in a duel at any point?

I learnt a lot about Tolkien and C.S. Lewis when I did a subject for my English major called "The World of Fantasy". This was probably one of the most stressful classes I took at university. First of all, my wardrobe was ALL WRONG (I wasn't dressed in robes). Secondly, having read Lord of the Rings was NOT ENOUGH to hold your own in the tutorials. If you couldn't recite all of Legolas' songs by heart there was really no point in coming to class. The other students were HARD CORE man.

Again, all this is the fault of a genre which is constructed to put beautiful, heightened and unrealistic worlds JUST within our reach, IF we keep reading fantasy. People who read fantasy tend to stick with what they're comfortable with. You don't get many people coming into the bookshop saying they normally read fantasy, but today they'd quite like a copy of We Need to Talk About Kevin.

Have been thinking about it whilst writing this post and I think I do need to read Sapkowski's novel. I can't, in good faith, pass up a mutant assassin. If you want to read the whole article about the David Gemmell Legend Prize, click here to go to the Guardian article.

22 June 2009

When We Were Orphans (Kazuo Ishiguro)

Deepest and most profound apologies for the lack of posting last week. I had a ridiculous week that included attending a roller derby where I felt lucky to have left with all limbs accounted for and a concussion-free head, only to get a blinding headache when I lost my contacts in the ocean the next day and couldn't see for the rest of the afternoon. And I don't know what Earhart has been up to, apart from being deliriously excited that Michael Schumacher was announced as The Stig, only to have her buzz killed when I sent her this link.

THUS, I have had little time to read, let alone post about reading. I am making a triumphant return with this review of an earlier work of Ishiguro's- When We Were Orphans. I LOVE Ishiguro. His stories appear to exist separately from the physical book, Ishiguro merely acting as a narrator of sorts. You can imagine him seated around a campfire with a bunch of friends, marshmallows dripping heavenly globules of sweetness onto the coals as he relates these brilliant tales... tales that are patently honest and true, made more interesting with the poetic spin Ishiguro puts on them.

I think 'natural' is the best way to describe Ishiguro's writing. Considering his prose borders on magical realism a lot of the time 'real' doesn't seem to be the right term, although if anybody could make magic believable it's Ishiguro. He is able to find a place for everything he writes about in the reader's mind and heart, even if the concept is completely alien to them.

That being said, When We Were Orphans is a bit meh. It's crime fiction which is not really my cup of whiskey and the story is constructed in a way that leaves the reader a bit apathetic to the outcome of the story. The novel is about Christopher Banks, a young man who was born in Shanghai but brought up and educated in England after his parents go missing when he is very young. Christopher grows up to become a famous detective, Sherlock Holmesing it around England solving crimes, all the while planning to go to Shanghai and find out where his parents have got to. What he subsequently discovers in Shanghai is quite depressing and involves corruption, death and forced prostitution... not the happy ending we were all hoping for.

The novel is written wonderfully but the story left me a bit cold. For truly heart-wrenching stuff, I'd pick up The Remains of the Day, one of my favourite books EVER.

Rating: 7/10.

16 June 2009

Dyslit: We and 1984

So according to this article in the Guardian, George Orwell took his 1984 plot from an earlier Dyslit novel, We by Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin. The article compares the main characters, plot development and ending of the two novels, does some nifty detective work to prove that Orwell read We just before writing 1984 and comes to the conclusion that he got his plot from it. I could have saved them the trouble of going through that whole process by saying "Well yeah...Orwell did get his plot from We. In fact after reading it he said he was taking it as the model for his next novel." (I tried to be extra tricky and get the reference for Orwell's quote from another dyslit gem 1985 wherein Anthony Burgess discusses Orwell, Huxley and Zamyatin but I couldn't find it in my skim re-reading so you'll have to make do with wiki.)

I agree with the conclusion to which the article comes - that it doesn't matter if 1984 was inspired by an earlier book - as a work of literature it is amazing, and some might argue more accessible than We. The cultural impact of Orwell's works is undeniable, and perhaps without We we wouldn't have the most significant of those - 1984. There. Wasn't that a nice diplomatic way of sorting things out?

For a little added interest: Anthem by Ayn Rand and We are so similar in themes, descriptions, and dystopian societies of the future that my mind boggles that no comparison between the two was raised in the article. Both deal with societies where the collective is of the utmost importance. In both books there is no "I" only "we". In both books individuality is erased and people are numbered not named. A strikingly obvious difference is that Anthem is one of the only dyslit books I have ever read with a 'happy ending'.

Go read 1984, We, Anthem, and chuck in Brave New World for good measure (another book said to have borrowed from We) and see what you think.

15 June 2009

Lady Chatterley's Lover (D.H. Lawrence)

I challenge anyone to not pick up Lady Chatterley's Lover after learning that Penguin Books were prosecuted in 1960 under the Obscene Publications Act for releasing the book. I am glad to see that novels can no longer be banned under the Act (ridiculous) and am quite eager to read other titles that were previously hauled into court by the braying conservatives. Inside Linda Lovelace and Lord Horror have been added to my list!

I was going to start off this post with a brief rehash of Sons and Lovers and then swoop saucily into a review of Lady Chatterley's Lover. Sardonic eyebrow cocked, I would note wittily that Lawrence's earlier title had hinted at his grasp of the relationship between sexuality and creativity but further life experiences (and partners) must have educated him further, as the latter novel clearly demonstrates. Then, with a sigh, I realised I had not read Sons and Lovers (I saw the TV series) and could not say this with any authority. Perhaps more importantly, I also realised I cannot cock my eyebrow, sardonically or otherwise and thus I decided to angle the review in a different direction.

This book shocked me several times. I can understand why critics claimed it was just a series of lewd sexual encounters held together by a shaky plot line. I DO NOT HAVE A PROBLEM WITH THIS. If the plot line were any more complicated or emotionally involving the book wouldn't achieve one of its main purposes: to put promiscuity on a pedestal. The shocks came not from this but rather from the swearing and sexual descriptions which seemed far too graphic for lovers in the early 20th century. Surely they were only indulging in this sort of carry-on in uncomfortable silences with yards of starched muslin petticoats hampering their every move?

Lady Constance Chatterley needs a lover because her husband has come home from the war paralysed from the waist down. He doesn't much mind if she takes a lover, as he would quite like a son to look after the small copse on their property that has been there for hundreds of years. He worries what will happen to the trees if they do not have an heir. He is, to be honest, not the most exciting of characters. Connie takes a few lovers but the lover of the title is Mellors, the new gamekeeper on their property.

I had a bit of trouble feeling attracted to Mellors. He has a ginger moustache. He seems to have the same expression on his face for most of the book and that is an amalgam of terrified and watchful. He is not very strong and he wheezes when he pushes Connie's husband around in a bathchair.

Well, I can hear you saying, as long as Connie's happy, that's all that matters. That would be all well and good, apart from the fact that I shudder every time I remember the moustache.

What follows is a torrid love affair and some of the most insightful prose I have ever read. Lawrence is a master of dialogue... never straying into the trap of using it for plot momentum. His descriptive text is evocative but sparse, focusing on the thoughts the landscape generates rather than the landscape itself. The characters themselves are not overly glamorous or worldly which adds a charm to the novel it might otherwise have lacked.

In conclusion, a thoroughly satisfying read. Even if you don't want to read it, I recommend picking up a copy purely for the cover. Has there ever been a more hilarious Penguin Classics jacket?

Rating: 8/10.

11 June 2009

Jack London: Various Works

Perusing the lamentably slim pickings in the classics section of my local library the other day I came to several conclusions:

1. Library staff who classify Salman Rushdie as a classics author are morons.
2. Libraries who do not possess ONE SINGLE COPY of The Portrait of Dorian Gray are naught but an ode to the socially bureaucratic inefficiencies that this country is riddled with.
3. I ought to read some Jack London.

And thus to a triumphant fanfare I introduce my latest review... Batard and The Call of the Wild. The book had several more stories in it, including White Fang, but at the end of The Call of the Wild I felt that I had delved sufficiently into the mind of London and thus closed the book.

There is little doubt in my mind that London is a talented writer. Batard in particular is a masterpiece of literary wrangling... 18 pages have seldom yielded so potent or powerful a story. London's writing is akin to that of McCarthy and Steinbeck, whose stories of rough and terrible lives are spotlighted by brief moments of humane feeling that could come from any point on the infinite spectrum of human emotion.

NOTE: I said HUMAN emotion. HUMAN. This is where I think London falls down, attributing dogs with the ability to think as people. Batard, the angry and bitter dog of the first story, plots the death of his master for years before finally exacting revenge for the cruel and barbaric existence he has been subjected to. Buck in The Call of the Wild is similarly intuitive and emotional, his journey from privileged pet to wild wolf penned brilliantly by London, apart from the fact that Buck, AS A DOG, does not have the mental acumen that London bequeaths him with.

However, for all this I could suspend disbelief if I had found myself enjoying the stories anyway. But I did not. I reject violence on all levels and I don't even like reading about two fully grown men having a fight. But when said violence is turned against children (see here) or animals, my stomach turns. Page after page London describes dogs being beaten by humans, dogs tearing each other apart, dogs being shot/hung/starved/dragged in the snow. ARGH. Trying to flick ahead to skip the violence ultimately meant reaching the back cover and not having read a thing.

Thus, I could forgive London endowing canines with impressive minds but cannot get on board with the whole incessant physical abuse thing. Have moved onto Lady Chatterley's Lover and this is proving far more enjoyable.

Rating: 3/10.

10 June 2009

The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins)

It has happened again, only this time you get to catch me right in the midst of a midnight freak out. Remember about a month ago, I read that zombie book and couldn't sleep for fear there were zombies in my shoe closet? Well this time it's much more sane, not zombies but... crazed teenage reality TV contestants on a murderous rampage. And seeing as I am MUCH too wired to sleep, I thought I would kill time by letting you know what I thought of it:

Awesome. Awesome. AWESOME.

I was really ready to shun The Hunger Games as it was the first on the Stephenie Meyer endorsement train, but as far as adrenaline packed teen reads go - this is a winner. the novel is set in a *dystopian* future (you know how I love those!), in a country divided into 12 districts which is ruled by a powerful government called the Capitol. Just to remind everyone who is boss (and to quash any rebellious thoughts... there was a big problem with the no-longer-in-existence district 13) every year the Hunger Games are held. Each district must send a boy and a girl aged between 12 and 18 to the games which are held in a big open arena. They are given two days of training then they go in and fight to the death.

Oh god.

Narrator girl spends a lot of time hiding in trees and creeping around so I was convinced there would be a baddie around every corner. (Baddies were the contestants who wanted to be in the games because they have insane blood lust). There were many moments when I thought my heart was going to beat out of its chest, which would be an especially bad thing seeing as one contestants in last year's games had a fondness for eating the hearts of the other kids he'd killed. (Though cannibalism is generally frowned upon.)

Anyhoo... I realise this is a weird review - blame it on the fact that it's nearly three in the morning and I am only just calming down. Go read this book, if you scare easily, maybe read it during daylight hours. Also, it's the first in a trilogy and to anyone out there who HAS read it... how jealous of me are you right now if I say I have a a proof copy of the second book? Quite jealous I'd say.


08 June 2009

Reading List for Potential BNP Voters

For those of you who have already voted BNP or are a member of the party, I wash my hands of you. I feel the only course of action would be to kidnap you, strap you down in a chair, force your eyes open with needles (a la Anthony Burgess) and inflict anti-racist and anti-fascist propaganda on you. Considering this breaks several laws and might get me in a spot of hot water in my adopted country, I am going to ignore you instead.

This reading list that I am beginning to compile is for those of you who may be THINKING about voting for the British National Party. The party that you have to be white to join. The party who are against immigration. The party who hold birthday parties for Hitler (allegedly).

This is not a good party to vote for. I felt sickened today when I heard that the BNP had won two seats in the European parliament. This does send a message to Labour though: "Yo... BLP! You're doing such a terrible job people are voting for the fascists instead. THIS IS NOT A DRILL. Repeat. THIS IS NOT A DRILL. Fix it. Now."

Anyway, those of you thinking about voting BNP, I think you need to read some novels. Some good novels. I'm not talking about the bestsellers in Tesco. I am talking about thoughtful, intelligent and political novels that will get you thinking about humanity and life and how we should look out for ALL others who share our world. Novels that will encourage you to stand united against fascism, racism and the blinkers and muzzles that the corrupted in power attempt to subdue us with.

I'm going to start you off nice and easy. Two books which will tug a little at your heart strings and work a little on your brain. Nothing too taxing, I promise.

To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee).
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Mark Twain).

Read them and tune in next week for some more suggestions. In the meantime, don't be seduced by Nick Griffin.

Lord Lucan: My Story (William Coles)

This review is going to need a bit of a preface for those of you (Australians, Americans, under-40's etc.) who have no idea who Lord Lucan was/is:

He meant to kill his wife but whacked the nanny instead. He fled (probably the country) and is still one of Britain's most wanted men. This all took place one fateful night in 1974 and since that night no one really knows what happened to good ol' Lord Lucan, although he has been 'spotted' in many different countries over the years.

This book confused me at first, as it is presented as a diary of Lucan's that has only recently turned up. William Coles is the author of these diaries but acts as editor, the better, he informed me, to let the British public suspend disbelief and accept the novel as a reasonable course of events to have befallen Lucan.

One mistake Coles makes is in his introduction, where he states that Lucan was "by no means a writer." This of course meant that I entered the story with the immediate assumption that the writing was going to be terrible, somewhat clouding any objective stance I might have originally taken. Coles also states in the introduction that 'Lucan' "...frequently switches tenses, flip-flopping from present to past..." Considering Coles is WRITING FOR LUCAN I would have thought he could have emitted this part of the introduction and just... written the diaries in the correct tense.

As previously mentioned in this blog, I find the world of Eton, the English class system and the general 'what-ho' aspect of England fascinating yet simultaneously frightfully abhorrent. Thus, I find it hard to sympathise with Lucan when he begins to complain about how the whole world has turned against him... BECAUSE HE MURDERED SOMEONE. There he is, swigging Bolinger on his sinking private boat, bemoaning the sorry state of affairs he finds himself in. Here I think Coles does well in creating (or envisioning as it were) a man who could, quite conceivably, murder the nanny.

HOWEVER, truly the most awful thing about the story (which, in all likelihood is akin to what actually happened) is the way Lucan's old Eton pals all rally around him and help him to hide from the police and then smuggle him out of the country. They go on and on about loyalty and the binding ties of friendship, all perfectly summed up in this one quote when a friend is talking about the possibility of turning Lucan in: "It goes against every last instinct of human loyalties and to hell with the law or the common norms of civic behaviour."

COMMON NORMS OF CIVIC BEHAVIOUR, I am assuming, would be to, politely yet firmly, tell a friend he is not welcome to hide in your basement because he killed someone.

Yes indeed, to hell with these common norms.

Whilst I find the way the story has been presented needlessly confusing, I did quite enjoy this in a way. I think. Enjoyed is probably not the right word. ENGROSSED perhaps, marvelling at the pig-headed nature of the upper classes. And, it must be added... I do feel slightly anxious now, working in London as a nanny. I SERIOUSLY hope I'm not exterminated in some future domestic brawl. That would be truly horrific.

Although, considering the current apathy I am experiencing as the mindless nature of my job begins to grate in it's seventh month... there is the possibility that a death threat might liven things up a little bit.

Rating: 5/10.

If you want to find out more about Lord Lucan, go here. Some overly hilarious person with WAY too much time on their hands has compiled an entire website about him, complete with a live forum to post sightings of Lucan. Exciting.

03 June 2009

Orange Prize 2009

Marilynne Robinson has just been announced the winner of this year's Orange Prize for fiction, for her novel Home. We may get a review up of it shortly.

We may not.

Gilead, Robinson's Pulitzer winning novel, bored me to tears. Apparently, in Home, she is revisiting the same characters, thus effectively neutering any lingering desire I may have felt to read what sounds, essentially, like an Oprah novel.

According to the Guardian, in between these two novels she wrote a 'polemical book about the British nuclear industry." Now, THAT I want to read. 

The Slap (Christos Tsiolkas)

Absolutely wonderful news about good ol' Christos winning the Commonwealth Writer's Prize for The Slap. Even more exciting that it has now been optioned for television. I'm absolutely delirious for Tsiolkas, on an artistically-fulfilling front as well as a monetary one.

It's just seems such a damn shame the book was so reprehensibly awful.

The Slap is set in Melbourne and follows a group of middle class suburbanites as they deal with the fallout after one of them slaps a child who is not his own at a barbecue. What follows is a crude storyline (in content and style), where the generally sensationalised characters are cobbled together in all their selfish and seedy glory to form a stilted plot. I almost wrote a 'plot that limps along', but this indicates a certain underdog aspect of the characters or story, thus rendering this initial thought of mine incorrect. Rather than limping, the novel careers along hopelessly like a drunken, blind neanderthal on an obstacle course.

Other thoughts: I do not like book covers where there is a child crying on the cover (who has, I assume, just been physically hurt); I do not like sexual descriptions where I feel the need to wipe MY EYES out with disinfectant after having read them; and parvenus who adopt a manner of superiority through the employment of too much glitter and Lycra are probably the most annoying people on the planet.

This novel marks the expiration of my tolerance for these novels of modern fiction hailed as glorious when they are, at best, the least awful of a bad bunch and at worst, better never to have been written in the first place. This does not, of course, cover all modern fiction. That is a ridiculous notion. But I am feeling disillusioned and thus am exaggerating accordingly. It worries me sometimes, that humankind has penned every original thought and must now rehash other people's brilliance (and idiocy) for all eternity.

Honestly, it keeps me awake at night.

Thus I made a monumentous decision last night (I have not cleared this with Earhart but anticipate it will not cause her much grief. Also, I am aware monumentous is not actually a word, but I believe it should be). I want to scrap the Monthly Classic, as I would rather turn to these for my main reading material now. It DEPRESSES me, going into the library, standing in front of the classics section and allowing myself a single, miserable title. Think of the riches I shall feel endowed with, now being able to stand there and pile my arms high with Bulgakov, Camus and the like.

I shall, of course, then pop over to the romantic lit section and grab a couple of pastel coloured delicacies. I like to think of them as the literary equivalent of the macaroon.

Oh, and I am still to post on Lord Lucan (William Coles' latest) and must delve at some point into Kate Grenville's The Lieutenant.

Basically, I will still be posting on a wide range of genres, but will allow myself (ourselves) more than one measly classic a month.

Rating: 3/10.

01 June 2009

The Alchemy of Murder (Carol McCleary)

Just two months after The Paris Enigma was released (historical mystery, Paris, World's Fair, 1889) The Alchemy of Murder has arrived on shelves, giving readers more historical mystery, more Paris, more Worlds Fair, more 1889. Francophile and dedicated book reviewer that I am, obviously I had to read this second offering and see how the two compare.


The Paris Enigma - more 'literary' in a ladies book club sense of the word - you can read it and talk about the philosophy of crime according to De Santis, and pretend you actually read philosophy.
The Alchemy of Murder - more readable in the 'this is actually an enjoyable book to read sense of the word' - you can read it and you actually get a plot to follow along with.

Nellie Bly was a real person back in the 1880's - the first female reporter in America who famously went under cover in a mental asylum to expose the horrific treatment of the inmates. In The Alchemy of Murder, it is during Nellie's stay in Blackwell's Asylum that she discovers a madman who is killing the prostitutes of New York. He escapes the asylum during a fire, but Nellie follows him to London, and then onto Paris where he wreaks havoc during the worlds fair.
You get a real flavour for Paris in the 1880s here - we have anarchists, prostitutes, Louis Pasteur, Oscar Wilde, Jules Verne...the list goes on. Civil unrest! Murder Plots! Slashings! I'm getting hyped up just typing this!

My only problem with this book is the slight weirdness of using real historical characters and playing with them for the sake of your plot. I can't imagine Louis Pasteur ever imagined he would turn up in a historical murder mystery 100 years down the track. Plus, there is this whole weird romance which develops between Nellie and Jules Verne. Jules Verne as a romantic lead is a little much for me to swallow quite frankly.

However weird romance aside, this book is one to delve into if you are after a good historical mystery, with an interesting plot, interesting anarchists, and a 1880s feminist heroine with a vendetta against a murdering psychopathic maniac.


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