27 August 2010

Battle Royale (Koushun Takami)

And we're back!

Where have we been you might ask? Well I've been working, studying, and sometimes working and studying at the same time. Alcott has been flitting around Russia, Estonia, Latvia, Germany, Spain... basically she has had a much more exciting few months than me.

To ease myself back into this whole blogging thing (a post which
I may or may not have decided to write because there is laundry to be done) (and a room to be tidied). Anyway. I also thought I would share with you what I think is the most violent book I have ever read. What fun!

A little while ago I reviewed The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins - I'm sure you know it. Kids put in battle arena, given a few weapons, told to kill each other. Well I was raving about this book to a reader friend, who said "that sounds just like this Japanese novel I read, you should read Battle Royale". I promptly forgot this recommendation, read it a year later and proceeded to tell the same friend "You know, you'd really like this book Battle Royale".

Anyway, Battle Royale is indeed remarkably similar to The Hunger Games. Set in a dystopian future, where to keep the population in control, some kind of teenager-killing-teenager scenario is implemented. In Battle Royale it is called The Program, and each year a grade nine class is randomly selected to take part. Told they are going on an excursion, their bus is filled with sleeping gas and when the students awake, they have been fitted with metal collars. Metal collars that will explode for a variety of reasons. And then the men running the program pulls their teacher's head out of a sack he is carrying around. And a couple of students are shot before the game even starts. And then the students are each given a weapon (ranging from a machine gun to a banjo to a fork) and told to kill each other. And then they do.

And unlike in the Hunger Games, where teenagers kill teenagers in a very non-graphic way, Battle Royale doesn't hold back. I can't really bring myself to recount any of the violent scenes from the book, but to give you an idea of how affected I was, I couldn't read this book while I was eating as more often than not, something was going to make me feel ill.

My Battle Royale ramblings lead me to ask you this - what books have had induced a strong physical reaction in you? I'm not talking crying at the end of Goodnight Mister Tom (which I do), I am talking putting the book down before you're sick.

7/10

23 May 2010

YA Ramblings / Tamora Pierce Makes a Long Awaited Appearance on the Blog

In thinking about my reading of late, nothing REALLY stands out as being review worthy. I mean, I read the latest Jasper Fforde, Shades of Grey, which was amazing, brilliant, dyslit-y, witty, literary... but seriously, that is all I really need to say. Its Jasper Fforde. Go read it okay?
I have however, read a LOT of mediocre stuff. You want to know which YA sensation of the moment NOT to pick up, then I am your girl. For example, take Need by Carrie Jones. Touted as "better than Twilight" and the next big thing in paranormal teen romance. Aside from the fact that I've been told that about every single teen book published since Twilight began, it is just not true. Twilight is essentially a Mills and Boon for teenagers, but at least Meyer throws herself into the story completely. This latest one felt like it was just going through the motions. New girl in town, finds herself oddly drawn to the tall, dark, sexy guy who keeps showing up to save her in the nick of time, finds out she is being followed by a pixie, and that tall, dark, sexy man is actually (SPOILER) a werewolf. Token amount of surprise at revelation that supernatural stuff is all out there, scepticism quickly overcome for the sake of progressing the plot, some kind of supernatural (but also emotional!) conflict followed by triumph of good guys and movie perfect kiss. Yawn.

And you know what? I just know there are people out there who are saying "Well of course you yawn! Look at what you picked up! What were you expecting?!!!" I say the same thing to myself, but continue to wade through this rubbish for two reasons. Number one, it is my job. Making sure none of the YA readers out there get any books with "issues" their parents wouldn't want them reading about. (For those who don't speak book-seller, "issues" is code for sex, drinking, drugs, swearing, violence... in the rather conservative area in which my bookshop is situated, none of the parents want their innocent darlings reading anything controversial. Customer picks up a book "What content is in this book? My daughter is ten but has reading age of a sixteen year old, but I don't want anything inappropriate." You get the idea. It is farcical at times.) (That was the longest bracket ever). So that is one reason. (In case you are wondering, Need has a bit of kissing, but not much else).

Reason two is a bit closer to my heart. It involves an author who had a profound effect on me during my formative years. Tamora Pierce. Just thinking about her (millions) of books makes me smile. Between the ages of eleven and fourteen I pretty much read Tamora Pierce. Over and over. And over. You get the idea. I think I could probably recite my favourite passages. My constant re-reading of her books is due in quite a large part to her heroines. They were always described as head strong and stubborn, they were witty, smart, and you can bet they didn't let any man tell them what to do! Admittedly, they had it a bit tougher going against men since they were stuck back in the middle ages, and I was in the 21st Century. Whatever, I identified with these girls! These books made me (a bookish, indoorsy, nature disliking, pacifist with animal allergies) long to be a knight (wilderness survival and fighting skills a must). They were real, 3D characters who made you want to be their friend. Can you imagine anyone in their right mind wanting to be friends with Bella Swan? You would get to hear her complain a lot, and watch as she lives through what has got to be the most unhealthy relationship in the world. Sweetie, if he is pulling bits out of your car engine because he doesn't want you going to see a friend he doesn't like, maybe he is just a tad controlling.

I read mediocre YA book after mediocre YA book because of hope. (Hmm, that sounded less cheesy in my head). I am hoping that one day I will pick up a new book and I will have found a book that will become just as special to some twelve year old girl out there as Tamora Pierce was (IS, who am I kidding? I still get excited when a new one comes out. Write faster Tammy!) to me. And when I find it, I know the protagonist is not going to have the personality of a dish-cloth (I'm looking at you Bella!) and something tells me it probably won't involve vampires. Just a hunch.

24 April 2010

The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud (Ben Sherwood)

Ugh, this book was AMERICAN. Overly sentimental and unnecessarily violent. With the kind of detail which you know the author has included because they think it gives their work increased depth when really it only acts to make the book longer. Obviously, if you are Dickens, this is important, as you are being paid by the word. However, Dickens had something to say with every one of those words. The superfluous detail in this story was the only thing retaining the integrity of the physical concept of 'the book'. The plot and characters were rendered irrelevant through the extreme use of hyperbolic emotional prose which only ever serves to alienate rather than draw the reader in. Your response is to say "Oh for God's sake, pull yourself together" rather than feel any sort of empathy.

Oh! The family are home! I await their invitation to come down to eat with trepidatious excitement.

And... alas. No invitation has been shouted from below.

Well, I'm not going down to find something to eat. I'll be fine. I have a bottle of water.

If the above interlude confuses you, refer to the post below.

Sherwood's novel tells the story of Charlie St. Cloud, who, whilst driving his mother's car when he was just a kid, inadvertently crashes and his younger brother is killed. Fast forward a few years and now Charlie is a gravedigger. Who can talk to dead people. He meets a woman named Tess who is straight out of a Mills and Boon. A bad Mills and Boon. One of the ones where the woman is irascible and selfish. They... talk and grow fond of each other. From here the book continues to bore the reader until the final, glorious denouement where we get to hear what sort of dog he's going to have in his future life. (A beagle. Bad choice. They're hard to train Charlie.)

The dialogue is plodding at best and I skipped many of the conversations because it was either that or risk becoming so tense that my neck veins would have ruptured. Of course, this meant I was often slightly confused as to what was happening. No matter. Confusion is the lesser of two evils when the other is to be so consummately acquainted with every nuance of Sherwood's writing that there is no conceivable way to escape from the knowledge that you are reading something obscenely pedestrian.

Apparently they are making a film of this book with Zac Efron as Charlie. Which is just perfect. Blocks of concrete deserve wooden rods to realise their full potential.

Rating: 3/10.

Hello All

Well, this is a bit sad. Posting on a Saturday night.

In my defence, I had a BBQ to go to. Hosted by an Australian and three girls from Mali who are all mad as cut snakes. That promised to be QUITE the evening. However, I forfeited these plans in favour of staying at home for a 'family dinner', as suggested by the people I live with as this is my last weekend with them. Of course, they went out this afternoon and didn't return, so I don't really know what I'm supposed to do with myself. What if they return with food and I'm eating? They'll be mad. What if I don't eat, they return having already dined out and I die of starvation in my sleep?

Oh, the conundrum.

I like my own company quite a bit (read: people annoy me after awhile) but tonight I wish someone was home. And not only to feed me. Whilst waiting for my boxes to be picked up today by the shipping company I watched a thriller set in Acton. Where people are raped and murdered. IN ACTON. Why? Why is it always my borough?

Additionally, I have just finished tonight's episode of Doctor Who which was TERRIFYING. I am scared to blink in case a Weeping Angel creeps up on me. Literally- scared to blink. I am alternating eyes at the moment. I already feel a bit motion-sick but that is infinitely preferable to having my neck snapped.

Thus, before the method of my untimely demise is revealed, I think I shall post a book review.

19 April 2010

Wives and Daughters (Elizabeth Gaskell)

I do not enjoy Gaskell. I find her quite, quite dull. I was going to add the disclaimer that this opinion has been formed from having read only two of her novels, but upon discovering that she only ever wrote six I feel that a blanket statement is suitable considering I have in fact read a third of her oeuvre.

We had to study North and South at high school. I remember that English class well. We had an entirely useless substitute teacher for most of the year. She set us 50 questions to answer on North and South. My friend and I, deciding that the task cut into far too much lying in the sun time, decided to submit the project as a joint effort. And neither of us finished our halves. The teacher laughed softly when we wove a fictitious tale of forgetfulness and camaraderie and we thought no more of it. It was only on the last day of term that she announced in high dudgeon that anyone who had not completed the assignment would receive an 'E' for the semester. Unlike in Harry Potter, this is not indicative of 'Exceeds Expectations'. An 'E' meant 'you go to a school where we do not award fail grades, but, be not comforted, we are not amused'.

So, obviously, I feel great discontent whenever I think about North and South. It was not sufficiently gripping to hold my attention and I have long written it off as a plodding tome that extols the idiocies of the upper class and the inadequacies of the lower class with no hint of hope for either.

But this post is not about North and South. Nay! It is about Wives and Daughters.

I shall be brief in my criticism because the book itself was brief. I borrowed it from the library and did not realise I had taken the "In Half the Time" version. Supposedly, these editions cut out unnecessary minor characters and plot lines which have no influence over the ending. Considering Gaskell died before finishing the book I feel that this approach is slightly cavalier. John Smith who was cut out in chapter three could well have been meant to turn up in the final chapter and save the day!

Not that the day needed saving. That would suggest that the book was in any way interesting. And it was not. It was duller than David Cameron's dishwater. It was also silly and insipid. I don't understand why Gaskell is so often compared to Austen. Even the emptiest of Austen's novels (Emma... vomit) could steamroller over Gaskell's works. I shudder to think what the novel is like if this is the interesting, important cut of the work. Cynthia was the only sympathetic and mildly intelligent character and she promised to marry Mr Preston if he'd loan her twenty pounds.

A classic best left on the shelf I feel. Behind a locked glass cabinet. With a warning sign- "Open at risk of death from supreme boredom".

Rating: 4/10.

18 April 2010

Dance Dance Dance (Haruki Murakami)

I don't think I've ever actually reviewed a Murakami book here before, although I may have mentioned in passing that I love love love him. So great is this love that I may or may not be in a Facebook group called "Haruki Murakami is (almost) God". (I am). The thing about Dance Dance Dance is, even if I had never read a word of Murakami in my life the quote on the front would have made me pick it up immediately- "If Raymond Chandler had lived long enough to see Blade Runner, he might have written something like Dance Dance Dance." Could you imagine a better endorsement?

I think the reason I've never put a Murakami review to paper (or screen as it were) is that he is so incredibly hard to describe.

The Wind Up Bird Chronicle- There's this man, and he lost his cat, and kind of lives in a fantasy land, and follows a lady in a pink suit around and then sits at the bottom of a well.

Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World: There is a man who is on some kind of IT hit squad who goes underground to fight mysterious "things" and is given a unicorn skull. Half the story is set in a strange land where no-one can go outside the city walls and there are herds of unicorns running about.

Dance Dance Dance: Our hero feels he is being called to the Dolphin Hotel, a dodgy, run-down establishment he stayed at with a call-girl called Kiki some years previously. When he returns the dodgy hotel has been replaced by a high end luxury resort- L'Hotel Dauphin. He bonds with one of the girls on reception over a strange experience she had on one of the floors of the hotel. He meets a rather angry teenage girl whose mother has just abandoned her in the hotel. He goes back to Tokyo and reconnects with an old school mate who has become a super-star actor. You spend a large portion of the book vaguely confused about what is going on, which is actually a similar state of being to our narrator. He allows himself to be swept along by all the slightly mad people surrounding him - to interesting ends. A few dead bodies turn up along the way. There is a sheep-man who gives him strange messages. The whole book is an amazing experience.

I realise I've essentially not reviewed the book at all and really this should be an 'Author Love' segment because I love love love this author. He has got THE GOODS! (See tag below!)

Rating: 9/10

The Private Life of Books

Looking down the list of my draft blog-posts which never saw the light of day I can see that most of them start with "am feeling so guilty about not having posted in weeks/months/centuries" and then I start writing about a book and then my internet cuts out and I get fed up. Admittedly I have dodgy internet that does cut out a lot- normally when I am trying to balance laptop and dinner on my lap on the couch whilst watching Peep Show. I wonder if that has anything to do with it? Anyway, since I spend a lot of time writing about my guilt, I've decided to absolve myself of any guilty feelings and just get down to it.

This article in the Guardian about the private lives of books made me think of my favourite second-hand-book-buying story. I warn you now, it is a bit pretentious, but when you're talking obscure dyslit gems found in the south of France, how could you be anything but?

Picture this- my first year of university, I meet french learning, guitar playing, dyslit reading Russian. (Le sigh). Said Russian turns up to class to tell me he found copy of 1985 on the weekend. I gently correct him, saying "I think you'll find it's 1984". He looks at me like I am an idiot and says "Uh, no. 1985. Anthony Burgess' critique of 1984 which consists of a theoretical essay followed by his own fictional account of the future". I blush. Then spend years futile-ly trying to track down a copy of 1985- I love Orwell, I love Burgess... but I didn't love the Russian any more thus borrowing his copy was out of the question.

Three years later, I was backpacking in Avignon, have run out of books to read and facing a six hour train trip the next day. I spent a little while googling until I found evidence of an English bookshop. I made a trek across town. I found a bookshop in the middle of nowhere. There I found found a copy of 1985... cue delirious excitement. I started reading and things became even more exciting. The previous owner of the book had some pretty strong views on some of the stuff Burgess wrote. Lots of underlining. Lots of '?!' in the middle of paragraphs. A couple of instances of 'ugh!'. My personal favourite, which made me burst out laughing during Burgess' musing on the state of socialism: a whole paragraph underlined and a single word "BALLS!" written in the margin. Fantastic. I do not know who Mr Millwood is (and that is my assuming the previous owner was a man) but I owe him a most exciting book find, and an entertaining read.
If you do ever come across a copy of the (obviously) out of print 1985, I highly recommend picking it up.

16 April 2010

Sexing the Cherry (Jeanette Winterson)

Oh I really don't know Jeanette. This was just a tad too over the top for me.

Hark? What's this you say? You LOVE magical realism Alcott. You adore it. How will you NOT be citing this novel as a sublime source of inspiration when you finally have an oeuvre to call your own?

I didn't read it in one swift gulp. Perhaps that is why I wasn't completely enamoured with this trip of a novel. It's hard to read something called Sexing the Cherry when you work with children. I had to hide it between the covers of a Where's Waldo. The unanimous verdict is that I SUCK at Where's Waldo.

This is a highly theatrical novel. The characters of Jordan and The Dog Woman are not quite sculpted enough to be real, which adds to the ethereal nature of their journey. I say ethereal, but that doesn't sound quite right. That word is so beautiful, filled with light and music. These characters are dark and putrid and flea-ridden and grotesque. They are without softness, which makes their struggle towards gentleness that much stranger. Essentially, this is the story of a mother and son moving towards a discovery of themselves, with some hilariously bizarre humour, disgusting anecdotes and a fairytale thrown in for good measure.

Something about this novel made me think of Russell Brand. I can imagine him on stage, flinging out lines of prose from the story; scurrying to and fro imitating The Dog Woman's misconception of fellatio, Jordan's quest for Fortunata, the twelve dancing princesses slowly but surely annihilating their husbands. Brand, for all his curmudgeonly ways, has a likeability and empathy about him which would bring joy to the words. As they are now, Winterson's story reads as though it has no sympathy for human frailty. I feel like the book is waiting to swallow me whole if I am not strong enough to read it. To be scared of the book you are reading is entirely unsettling.

Alternatively, the other setting where I can see the prose from this novel fitting admirably is a group of players, waltzing down a street on market day in a parade, loudly declaiming the lines, entirely naked. The words they shout draw the crowds and then, one by one, the players pick off the weaklings and eat them. The bones they throw to a pack of salivating Shar-Peis.

Unsettling.

I THOUGHT I had a friend back in Australia who told me with glee she got most of her sex education from this book. I profess myself worried, although I suspect that maybe she said The Passion, also by Winterson.

I bloody hope so.

Rating: 7/10.

15 April 2010

Pulitzer 2010

This year's Pulitzer has been announced. Let's hope it's better than last year's Oprah novel.

According to this article in the Guardian, this is the first novel from an independent publisher to have won the Pulitzer since A Confederacy of Dunces. The novel, Tinkers, just looks to be available on Amazon at the moment, although I'm betting now that that small publisher has been completely overwhelmed with orders from bookshops who, a month ago, would have refused to put the book on their shelves.

14 April 2010

Cakes and Ale (W. Somerset Maugham)

Satire does not make you smile. Satire makes you sneer knowingly. Or shake your head helplessly. Or flap your hands about nervously. But it does not make you giggle gleefully or find you with a stupid smirk on your face, tongue stuck between your teeth, lost in thought. Satire, in short, does not make you silly.

So then why do I find myself acting so vapidly whenever I look at the cover of Cakes and Ale? Maugham's favourite of his own works, this novel takes a direct stab at the London literary scene, satirising the elevation of popular authors and the artistic appreciators who surround them. The narrator Willie Ashenden is Maugham's voice and conscience throughout, although how much their experiences overlap is anyone's guess. I suppose I could read the introduction and then hazard a more informed opinion in this area but I DON'T HAVE THE TIME! Also, introductions bore me. The unfortunate person who pens such a chapter is so often enamoured with their own brilliance and insight that they mistakenly assume they are the main event between the covers.

The novel is chock-a-block full of tasty literary mouthfuls I plan to immediately turn into sound-bites. Sigh. One of these days I really must stop being so referential and find out if I have an actual brain beneath all the stuff I have absorbed over the years. Probably not.

However, the real charm that I now associate with this novel is what happened to me whilst coming home on Sunday evening on the tube. I was reading Cakes and Ale, scribbling in the margins as I am wont to do. I could feel the person next to me staring. This often happens on the tube and most of the time it is someone creepy or it is some old professor who lectures me about writing on my books. So I steadfastly refused to look up. The next moment-
"Excuse me, do you have the time?"
I looked up and saw a guy whose smile was too big for his face, in a very charming kind of way. I was not in the mood, having spent several hours with a friend. I have a limit to how much time I can spend with people these days and my socialising quota for the day had been filled. Thus, I fixed him with a stern look.
"I don't wear a watch. I will get my phone out of my bag but please don't snatch it and run off because I'm too tired to chase you."
He assured me he would not and then seized the covers of my book.
"I love Maugham! Although, as a woman, don't you find him quite sexist?"
"I suppose. Can I have my book back?" See? I was still not in the mood.
"You're so friendly! You're definitely not from London."
At this point, with me glowering at him, I decided he was probably still wired from a big evening the night before. This was further affirmed with his next, loud declaration.
"You're not supposed to talk to strangers on the tube. Everyone in here is looking at us! Because we're enjoying each other's company but we're on the tube! We're breaking down social barriers here!"
I tried in vain to snatch my book back but he had opened it at a random page and began quoting out loud. The people opposite me looked horrified. Despite myself, I was beginning to enjoy the conversation. No sooner had I begun to talk about Faulkner then he started quoting Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls (he got a bit muddled, but full marks for effort I suppose). His next musing was how films and books would be different if all wartime stories were totally populated by female characters. Very seriously he said "Now, I'm not saying you'd be giving each other manicures, but I'm having trouble coming up with a female equivalent for the male camaraderie that prevails in all those stories... OH! This is my stop! What's your name fair lady? I must find you on facebook and we can continue!"

At this point I decided I had nothing to lose and gave him my name. He gave me a cheeky salute and vaulted off the tube, pausing to stick his head back inside. "It was a pleasure. An absolute pleasure Miss." I then had to sit through three more stops with everyone in the carriage staring at me. It was quite, quite mortifying yet an altogether satisfying way to end the weekend.

So despite Maugham's fantastic wit and the highly sympathetic character of Rosie, this book will always make me think of that idiot on the tube and thus will always make me smile.

Rating: 7/10.

Some New Fresh Hell Awaits

Well, I have two and a half weeks of work to go; a fact which I am having trouble processing. Was there a time in my life when I didn't feel homeless? (When I say 'homeless' I am obviously talking about a home for my heart and soul. I am certainly 'with house', so please don't worry. I don't need care packages delivered to a doorway on Oxford Circus).

Last night I wrote myself a list of things I need to get done before I leave Acton. The list was panic-inducing. I am not good with practical things like calling up the bank and asking to switch to electronic statements. But it is the forms that need to be filled that cause me real upset. I am dreadful with forms. I second-guess every question, trying to work out what they are REALLY asking me. I figure the person reading the form has a set list of 'correct answers' and if I don't put those down I will be rejected for international shipping/ waiver of quarantine fees/ entry visas. This kind of thinking propels you to a very unhealthy place very quickly. Is that REALLY my birthday? Is that how you spell my middle name? I KNOW I was born in Sydney... wasn't I? Yes, I definitely was. I'll just check in my passport.

On this hideous, torturous list is a line that should fill me with delight but it panics me almost as much as the line below it- 'sort through my paperwork'. The former says- 'finish all outstanding books and review them.'

ALL OUTSTANDING BOOKS.

I have two and a half weeks to go and about twelve books I haven't even cracked open. Let alone the ones I have read and not reviewed yet. Whilst school holidays are still on I have very limited time to read during the day, what with Monopoly, cricket and finger painting. But I am going for it anyway. Obama has faith in me. YES WE CAN.

So now I am winding up this redundant, time-wasting post to finish Maugham's Cakes and Ale. Then I will cook fajitas for lunch, finish writing a skit entitled "Spongebob and Patrick Kill Hannah Montana and Escape" (I chose neither the title nor the premise) and then hopefully bang out another review. During the reviewing process I will be wearing earplugs so that one of the kids can practice the recorder (I am forced to allow her to practice now that she is officially the worst in the class. But really, is there a more ungodly noise in the world?) Then I will make cupcakes and start on Sexing the Cherry.

SOB.

13 April 2010

Nocturnes (Kazuo Ishiguro)

No.

I reject this book.

I reject the short story form Ishiguro decided to use. I reject the admission of any of the characters to the Syd Barrett Memorial Room. And I most certainly reject the assumption Ishiguro made that just because he feels he is past his prime as a writer he can churn out any old thing and we won't profess ourselves disappointed.

I have waited a few days to post this, as I needed time for the book to simmer in my subconsciousness for awhile. I knew I was disappointed with the collection when I ventured to compare it to his other works. But, if I took this as a new author, someone I had no preconceived notions of, what would I think then?

I would think that it was as boring as watching a game of darts being played in a pub where the only thing on tap is lemonade. Slow-burning is one thing and then there's wrapping a potato in foil, sticking it on the ground in the English sun and waiting for it to cook. If this were the only book of Ishiguro's I had read I would never be tempted to pick up another of his books again.

The writing, inarguably, was beautiful. But there was no soul behind it. Ishiguro tried to tap into the depressing and selfish psyche of the struggling musical artist, but this exploration felt forced and insubstantial.

This is, I suppose, an obstacle that a writer must overcome when writing short stories. With a limited space to foster the reader's connection to both plot and characters every sentence needs to resonate with everything the author wants to say. The best short stories I have read seem to be bursting at their seams, DYING to say more and pummelling the bars of the cage that is the short story format. With these stories, Ishiguro almost seemed to have structured them in this way because he didn't have enough material to turn this into a novel.

I think Ishiguro is a highly intelligent, lyrical and lovely writer. Unfortunately, I kept getting distracted from reading Nocturnes because Tom and Jerry were gallivanting on the television. So I choose to just pretend I never read this book and wait with eager anticipation for his next.

Rating 6/10.

08 April 2010

White is For Witching (Helen Oyeyemi)

You know those people in life who are unlike everyone else? They make you catch your breathe and then keep catching it, drawing in short little breaths as you remember something they did or said. You can't breathe normally again until the memory has played out. Afterwards you are light-headed, which exacerbates the intense happiness or sadness that inevitably crashes over you. The sadness occurs far more often but it doesn't matter, because those brief waves of joy are far heavier on the scale than anything else.

We don't meet these people very often. There is not one for every person. In all likelihood, they have this effect on many people, so you are only one in a crowd, virtually indistinguishable from the rest of the swooning masses. On the occasions when you are alone you find it hard to speak, to create a fascination around yourself. You want to voice everything you've ever thought to them but are crippled with the suspicion that nothing you say could ever be interesting or unique enough.

This feeling of wonderment can also happen with books and music. For me it is the books. When I was younger and my mother asked me to do something she would always have to touch me when asking, or write it down for me to read. Sounds by themselves don't seem to stick properly in my brain. But I understand for other people that music is by far the greater emotional stimulant.

Today I held a book in my hands that made me hyperventilate. The story- a spooky concoction that includes a dash of The God of Small Things and a pinch of The Secret History, had ensnared me with the first line. I was shamefully derelict in my duties. Lunch was boiled milk and mushrooms which was received with much derision from a duo that had been promised 'Tagliatelle with a Delicate Creamy Mushroom Sauce'. I couldn't help it. Like the magical hold the house in Dover has over the Silver women, this book had the same numbing effect on me. Nothing else seemed as real in the room as the book I was holding in my hands. The book cast more shadows in the room than the sun and I felt the characters' hearts beating out from between the lines.

I fear this is all babbling pretension and not a proper review, but I have had a purely emotional response to this novel. Oyeyemi's style is unlike anything I have ever read. She plays with the words on the page to create illusions of safety before jolting the reader into uncertain and unearthly territory. Her complete control over the authenticity of the characters is so superb it is invisible. This is the first book I have read in awhile that effectively uses authorial interjection and even then Oyeyemi plays with this concept, taunting the reader with her omnipotence that she would have us believe is just hopeless devotion to a story that had already been told before she thought of it.

I feel as though I have met someone amazing, this book as a new character in my life. This is not a book to be forgotten. It is to be read again and again. Perhaps with sizeable gaps in between or I could end up fainting. Even now, sitting at my desk, I am being hit with images from the story that clamour to be relived, making me hold my breath as the scenes spell themselves out again and again. I feel extremely rattled sitting in my usual spot so I have rearranged the furniture to the position it is normally in for when I watch Lost. Back to the wall, eyes on the door, doona pulled up securely to cover everything except my face- waiting to be attacked.

Like those awe-inspiring people that one occasionally meets, I was overly reluctant to share White is for Witching with you. I feel like some of its power or magic may diminish the more popular it becomes. However, considering it is part of Waterstones's hideous 3 for 2 offer (which I regularly take advantage of, hating myself the entire time), I feel this is probably a redundant worry.

Rating: 10/10.

A Long, Long Time Ago & Essentially True (Brigid Pasulka)

I've never had a burning desire to go to Poland. The only person I can remember talking about Poland during my childhood is Basil Fawlty. We might have skated over it briefly during history classes but due to the soporific powers of my teachers I really have no idea what was going on during those times. Cue Alan Bennett and his play The History Boys, where one of the teachers talks to the boys about Auschwitz and how bizarre it is that it is now a tourist destination.
"What has always concerned me is where do they eat their sandwiches? Drink their coke? Do they take pictures of each other there? Are they smiling? Do they hold hands? Nothing is appropriate."
Thus, shrouded in swathes of depressing history and with Bennett's stamp of disapproval, Poland has not been high on my To-See list. After reading this book, it may not have creeped much higher up that list, but my entire perspective on the country has changed.

Pasulka's novel is divided into two time frames- the first is a small village in Poland during the German invasion of WW2. The second is set two generations later in Krakow. Before I delve further into the story I'd like to take umbrage with the Guardian's review. The 'miraculous links' which Catherine Taylor describes as the ties between the first period and the second are that it is the same family, two generations on. ASTOUNDING. I was positively BOWLED OVER by the literary capoeira Pasulka had to perform to provide us with such a plausible connection.

Tsk. Rusbridger- hire me. I will read the books.

We are first introduced to Half-Village, which is the scene for the extremely slow-burning love affair between the local beauty Anielica and a young man named The Pigeon. Their love is interrupted by a series of increasingly dire obstacles as Germany invades Poland and then Poland is forced to become part of the Eastern Bloc under the Soviet Union. The horror and gargantuan size of these events is offset by Pasulka's characters, who maintain their idiosyncrasies along with their strength throughout.

Fifty years on, their granddaughter Baba Yaga is living in Krakow with her cousins. This is the part of the story where stirrings of recognition began to occur in my brain. What made me feel twisted and guilty inside was that they were all insults and bigoted generalisations that I have heard made about the Polish since I moved to England. (We don't talk about the Poles much in Australia.) Issues with prostitution, drinking and drugs, roped together with a die-hard pessimism are all touched upon. Baba Yaga, as a relatively low-key character, acts mostly as an observer rather than an instigator. Yet her situation is no better than most and you would think that she would be dying to escape the country. Yet she has a moment of triumph towards the end of the book that perfectly summed up for me the steely strength the spirit of this novel is built upon.
"You think you can have any Polish girl you want? You think you can take advantage of us because you have pounds and we have zlote? Learn history. We Poles have fought against the oppressor again and again. For centuries. And now that we have our freedom, we are not going to be turned into prostitutes by a bunch of pickle-faced skurwysyns..."
The book is fanciful but ultimately overly depressing. I still don't want to go to Krakow or visit Auschwitz or go to a small Polish village where they may ask me to slaughter a pig. But A Long, Long Time Ago & Essentially True has made me think of Poland as a country of strength and passion, rather than a 'broken' country as we would call it in England. A country where people stay because it is their home and they cannot imagine living anywhere else. A country that may not have always been loyal to itself at the highest levels but has had persistent and enduring patriots propping it up from the bottom for centuries.

As a people they share a camaraderie that automatically excludes those who do not have the residue of hundreds of years of Polish history running through their veins. Ultimately, it is not the story which makes this book so remarkable, nor the characters. It is that I felt I was holding something that was actually a bit of Poland in my hands. Reading this novel, I was being allowed a glimpse into a country that I can never fully understand.

And BONUS- I now have a new curse- 'Cholera'. It is perfect for everything. I have already used it three times today.

Rating: 8/10.

07 April 2010

All the Nice Girls (Joan Bakewell)

This book should serve as a cautionary tale for those journalists who attempt to write novels. Say it with me people- journalism is different to novel-writing.

Joan Bakewell has written All the Nice Girls, which is her debut novel. I would mention her age, but a recent article in the Guardian on Bakewell stated that she hated people talking about her age. And calling her the 'Thinking Man's Crumpet'. Fortunately, I am a tactful and gracious reviewer and will raise neither issue.

But, CHOLERA, this book was bad. Confession- I did not finish it. I had to go to Madrid and I had a limited amount of time to pack. With five minutes to go before I had to rush out the door I tried to decide which book to take. All the Nice Girls was the obvious choice, as I was half-way through it. Instead, the white rabbit gesticulating wildly to the time, I speed-read through the first chapters of my three other options and chose from one of them. I almost missed my bus to the airport and then failed to open the covers of this new book for the entire trip.

Anyway, you've been warned, I did not finish the book, but I am going to critique it anyway. The fundamental flaw of this novel was the detail that Bakewell CRAMMED in. There are well-researched novels and then there are novels which would have nothing left if the detail were taken out. Nothing at all, not a single word would remain, were I to extract all the ridiculous details that were included.

That is a bit of a lie. I admit, there was a story. The narrative seemed (remember, I haven't finished it) to be constructed from an extremely rickety triumvirate of plot lines- a ship in WW2 that a girl's school adopts; a mother who is unsure if she should give her daughter a kidney; and an illegitimate love child. Unlike the milking stool, the tripod and the surety of the number of events that are going to occur, this triumvirate is more akin in stability to the three-wheeled car from Mr. Bean. Prop it up with characters who are mostly flat and occasionally horrid and voilà, Britain has yet another uninspired wartime romance novel to stuff onto its shelves.

Bakewell, I have no doubt, is an extremely intelligent woman. That is why she is the Thinking Man's Crumpet. I assume that is why she treats the reader like an idiot. Every thought is reasserted, every joke explained, every emotion analysed with historically accurate pop psychology. Competent writing? Absolutely. As scintillating as a documentary on the migratory habits of octogenarians in the South of England? Just about.

I would just like to take this opportunity to get on my virtual soapbox, now that I have your attention, and extrapolate further on one part of the story that particularly upset me. I have always been confused by people who wanted to sell their organs to pay for things like their children's ballet lessons. What if that child needs a kidney later on and you can't give her one because you gave it up for sodding ronds de jambe? Then we have this woman, Millie, who doesn't want to give her daughter on dialysis her kidney. She feels resentment towards the doctor who assumes she will. I did not finish the story and I'm assuming she has some sort of change of heart but really. REALLY. How could anyone have a child in need and not give up an organ they will not miss? WE HAVE TWO!

To be fair, I will not give this book a rating, as I did not finish it. But you would be correct if you had suspicions that I did not enjoy this book in the slightest.

01 April 2010

Easter Hiatus

Once again, I am forced into the embarrassing situation of having to confess that I know not where my sister is. She has not posted here in weeks, nay, MONTHS. More worryingly, I sent her an overly amusing text message three days ago to which she has not replied. Either her right frontal lobe needs examining or she is occupied with greater hilarity elsewhere.

Luckily, I can at least vouch for my own whereabouts. At this very moment I am in London, but am flying to Madrid tomorrow morning for an extremely brief Easter break. This may seem an overly redundant post considering I go for long stretches without posting here, so four days with no books reviews should raise few alarm bells. However, I began writing a review of Joan Bakewell's All the Nice Girls and realised I couldn't do the review justice in the ten minutes I have before my cough medicine kicks in and I fall into a blissful slumber. Whereupon a great feeling of guilt washed over me for not posting and I decided to hammer out this little gem for you instead.

You are so very welcome.

30 March 2010

The Echoing Grove (Rosamond Lehmann)

I am going home soon, to my family, my friends, my bedroom, my books. I brought one book away with me two years ago when I left Australia. Which book did I deem most fitting to accompany me on my backpacking endeavours?

Since you ask- I brought On The Road, by Jack Kerouac. Oh yes, I can hear the universal groans even from Acton, one of the most acoustically imbalanced areas in London. This is due to the most unfortunate combination of the A40, the Heathrow flight path, three intersecting train lines and the neighbour's illegal parrot aviary.

I can still remember the reasoning behind bringing the Kerouac. My appearance, my expectations, dreams and aspirations all played a part in choosing to bring On The Road. It was a terrible, terrible decision. Yes, the book is brilliant. Hilarious and epic, it makes you want to clench your fists and run. THE FIRST TIME YOU READ IT. At last count I owned three different editions of this book. None of the subsequent readings were comparable to my first foray into Kerouac's world (not even the original scroll) so what the hell I was thinking I really don't know.

When you're travelling you want something that speaks to your soul, is comforting but not gushing, a book you recognise yourself in. It needs characters who are sympathetic but flawed, a plot that has momentum but doesn't gallop, a denouement that satisfies but doesn't pacify.

The novel I SHOULD have brought with me is The Echoing Grove, by Rosamond Lehmann. The story is about Rickie Masters, his marriage to Madeleine and his affair with her sister Dinah. The sisters reach an impasse when Rickie is killed unexpectedly and both must deal with the fallout of a situation both had already found hopeless.

In the interest of full disclosure, I saw the film before I read the book. The cast includes Paul Bettany, which is how I came across the story in the first place. Bettany makes me sympathise completely with Rickie and hope for his happiness- if I had read the book first I may have found Rickie hard to like. The film changes little of the script and plot so it is Bettany's brilliance which makes me see the frailty and beauty in Rickie when I later read the novel.

Lehmann's prose is often described as gentle, although I wouldn't agree with that. I'd say it's more akin to the old velvet glove/iron fist style of doing things. Writing like this reminds you of why male authors really shouldn't write from the female perspective in stories of great love. Madeleine and Dinah are entirely unique yet nothing they think or do would feel aberrant to my character were I to emulate them. The sinking feeling both of them experience with the knowledge that they cannot help but move into something that will cause them only heartbreak is devastating yet, as the reader, you agree that they have no choice.

This may seem to you a rather odd book to classify as 'comforting'. Well, this is my brand of comforting. I have always found more solace in the depressingly meaningful than the vacuously upbeat. Of course, I probably would have been most comforted and sustained on my travels if I had ignored Earhart's insistence that everybody would laugh at me and purchased the blanket with sleeves in duck-egg blue that I really wanted. I bowed to convention and coolness, but I still think about that blanket. I haven't been able to find one since.

Rating: 9/10.

Guess what?

Stephenie Meyer is attempting to make even more money from the legions of twitarded fans who just can't get enough of her blood-sucking stories. A character she kills off in Eclipse is apparently getting her own novella. Completely justified, considering that Bree just leapt off the pages and into my heart with the three lines she was given in book three.

If you want to read exactly the same information I have just given you but on the more reliable Guardian website, click here. You'll also get some extraneous details you didn't need and a picture of Meyer's smiling, bigoted mug.

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (Rainer Maria Rilke)

I am a creature of extremes. Some days, I will achieve nothing. Yes, I will rise. Eat. Continue to exist. Ensure none of the children left in my care catch on fire. But those little yellow slips listing activities to achieve will remain depressingly devoid of bright red ticks. Years ago I worked out the trick. If I do just ONE THING on one of those lists I will inevitably do everything I wanted to achieve that month in a single day. ONE THING is all it takes to get the ball rolling.

This morning, my friends, that ONE THING was deep-fried Cadbury's Caramel Eggs. Frozen caramel eggs, wrapped in doughnut batter, deep-fried. I could attempt to justify these mini odes to heart failure, but I fear any defence I cobbled together would essentially be semantically null. I had promised the kiddywinks an Easter treat and, having delivered what can only be described as the Best Easter Treat That Ever There Was, I immediately rolled onto the next thing on my list- my next review!

I apologise so very much for the lack of posting this year. A friend who reads the blog regularly confessed that he now diligently reads every book we post about. Considering the speed of his reading and the turtle-slowness of our reviewing he is filling in the gaps with In Search of Lost Time. Kudos to N in that this is probably the best way to read Proust. I read all seven volumes one after the other and by the end of it my amazement with the prose was rather over-shadowed by my great desire for Proust to have run out of paper and ink about ten thousand words earlier.

Today, however, is not about good old Marcel. Nor is it about deep-fried Cadbury's Caramel Eggs (thank you Peabody), contrary to what the first part of this post may indicate. It is about Malte, the overly morbid and depressing young narrator of the German poet Rilke's only novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge.

I am in the very bad habit of scribbling on books that I read. It's because I am an English major. Mostly it is incoherent scribbling, but I do like to underline little bite-sized lettered gems that tickle my fancy. If I were to do this in Notebooks, entire pages would be underlined. For Rilke, plot seems to be largely irrelevant, especially the establishment of any discernible linear structure to said plot. Instead, each paragraph tackles a new idea afresh, with characters only occasionally overlapping. An unknown man in a hospital waiting room is given as much importance as Malte's father, demonstrating the author's erratic fixation of topics as well as Malte's emotionally absent state.

As a result of this format, this became a novel I was able to pick up and put down, which is helpful when taking into consideration my line of work, the London transport system and my woefully short attention span. One particular topic Malte expounds on is the 'woman who is left behind', when her lover betrays her or is brutally slain in battle (obviously there are quite a few other ways in which she can be left behind but those two in particular spring to mind.) There is a bemused worshipping of women that occurs throughout the novel, Malte seems to understand women all too well, he is startlingly sensitive when talking about them, but his tentativeness seems to suggest he suspects women (as a whole) could turn on him at any time. This timidity probably stems from the fact his mother used to dress him up as a girl and refer to him as Sophie.

You can see why Rilke is known as a poet rather than an author- this is really a collection of lengthy prose poetry, without any rhythm or structure. So, poetry written by someone who couldn't actually be bothered to write poetry. Notebooks is perhaps the actual notes of Rilke, who, jotting down ideas for his poetry and subsequently realising just how many genius thoughts he had, saw the task of turning them into poetry too gargantuan. Having already achieved some fame as a poet, he decided to take a punt and see if the publisher would take his word for it that this was a novel, rather than his riverside scribblings.

Rating: 7/10.

21 March 2010

The Song is You (Arthur Phillips)

Two posts in one evening... I must be feeling better. As you will all know, I am battling another case of bronchitis. You will all know because I whinge about it on a relatively regular basis. I haven't been feeling up to staying up past eight o'clock and reviewing. This is proving problematic considering I am leaving London in six weeks time. Attempting to cram in quality time with friends I may not see for years and years is hard when you are slumped over the table, weakly waving away offers of an ambulance (friend J is particularly twitchy when it comes to medical matters) and coughing so much you can hear your lungs bouncing off your ribcage (true story!). However, I am now feeling much better, although I am reluctant to give up the marvellous and miraculous cough medicine I have been taking at night. It puts me in an extremely deep sleep about twenty minutes after dosage and I have been waking up this past week feeling well-rested, which I don't think I've felt since Christmas. But it's the dreams that have me coming back for more. Never have I had such vivid, interesting dreams, with the perfect balance of the surreal and the familiar. Not too much menace- enough to keep things interesting, but ultimately not too unsettling. The sort of dreams where you're being chased by a shark but then you find chocolate cake.

I have taken this marvellous medicine (Alcott's not George's) and thus do not exactly have an elegant sufficiency of time to finish this review before I drop off. Probably then, we can all agree that the paragraph I just wrote above was an ill-advised way to spend my limited time.

The Song is You is the sort of novel you want to love but you suspect, before you have even opened the covers, that it is going to be a grave disappointment. A man who uses music to define all the most important moments in his life. A romance with an Irish singer. Reviewers gasping to make their accolades more adoring than everyone else's.

To my happy, happy surprise, the novel was beautiful. A deeply romantic love story told with impeccable modern prose. The musical references throughout felt organic rather than affected or, (as I suspected they might be), a pathetic attempt by the author to prove how hardcore and bohemian he is. Phillips manages to make Julian's attachment to his iPod merely a part of the character rather than a grating plot hook. This is harder than it looks. In many ways it is the easy way out to write historical fiction, where there are thousands of sources to draw from when looking for guidance on the forms of expression that work most eloquently. Internet technology, modern slang and pop culture are infinitely harder to include in effortless prose.

The love story itself has two main elements that prevent it from falling into twee territory. The first is the slight seediness and underground feel to the romance. Julian is much older than Cait, the young singer he has fallen for. He stalks her, lets himself into her apartment, cooks her dinner without having been introduced and leaves an indentation of his head in her pillow so she won't feel so alone. I had chills for a lot of these scenes, but I was always most panicked when I thought the police were going to catch him. "They're going to arrest him and they won't realise he's doing everything out of love!" I thought, distressed. (Although, it must be noted, this is probably the excuse of every stalker out there.)

The other aspect of the romance which made it all the more engaging was the refusal of Phillips to indulge the expectations I have as a Generation Y Instant Gratification Brat. Julian and Cait embody the typical Girl Meets Boy Plus Obstacles scenario, except that the girl doesn't actually physically meet the boy until the end of the novel. This restraint on the part of the characters (because it is a decision they both contribute to) is INFURIATING for the reader but also strangely exciting and compelling. After all, wanting something and being denied it only makes you want it more.

If there are some loose ends not tied up as neatly as I would have liked, if there are some characters that I felt needed further development, that all seems rather irrelevant when you can read a book that actually delivers what it promised to do- tell a love story that is determined to be of this time, a love story that nevertheless reaffirms that romances like these are as old as the songs that are sung about them.

Rating: 8/10.

Some Prefer Nettles (Junichirō Tanizaki)

There will be a shadow of discontent hovering over this review, I must warn you now. However, for the neat purposes of a chronological format I shall only be addressing the source of my discontent towards the end of the review. If you read Earhart and I mainly for our negativity rather than the disgustingly obsequious prose we regularly dedicate to those authors who are lucky enough to have nestled into our hearts, I would recommend skipping ahead a few paragraphs.

I am on a bit of a Japanese kick at the moment. A friend recently expressed interest in reading more about Japan, having discovered that I lived there for a short period. Being of a reasonably youthful age at the time (I probably couldn't say my r's properly at that point) I don't feel all that guilty about the fact I didn't spend my time reading everything I could lay my hands on from the Japanese Canon. Of course, now that I can, in fact, skip my way through Ring a Round a Rosy with only limited amounts of angst (any child's game referencing the Bubonic Plague will always leave me feeling slightly uneasy) I feel I am ready to take on Junichirō Tanizaki, considered by many to be Japan's greatest novelist of the 20th century.

Some Prefer Nettles was written in 1929, at a time in Tanizaki's life when he was experiencing deep disillusionment with the Western customs he had so eagerly embraced in his earlier career. The novel tells the story of a Tokyo gentleman (Kaname) who has long fallen out of love with his wife Misako. He feels no desire for her whatsoever and we are subjected to these rather depressing scenes where he lies awake at night listening to his wife sob herself to sleep. She has taken a lover and the two plan to divorce, but both are so unbelievably retarded by indecision and cowardice that neither will actually take the first step and initiate the proceedings.

The third player in this low-level melodrama is Misako's father, a traditionalist who holds great faith in the calming and restorative powers of returning to one's Japanese cultural roots. He himself has taken a very young lover (O-hisa) and spends his time lecturing her on how to play the samisen to greater effect, how to pour tea, how to massage his shoulders, how to BATHE PROPERLY (soap is a big no-no, for best results use a bran bag) etcetera. To her eternal credit, O-hisa does not end up murdering him in his sleep. I would have suffocated him with the bran bag.

What follows is not exactly what I was lead to expect, having read the blurb. Of course, one must be very careful when going by the blurb on a Japanese novel, especially one that has been translated by someone who is not the original author. Japanese novels are inherently very different to any Western novels I have read. Plot is a consequence of the natural momentum generated by well-written characters and trains of thought, rather than the driving motive of the author. Like writing a detailed blurb about a book of haiku, it is extremely hard to pinpoint exactly what this novel is about. Yes, a breakdown of a marriage. But also the beauty of a puppet theatre. The purity of white food set against polished lacquer. The poetry of cherry blossoms. The bitter poignancy of a child's premature wisdom.

Try getting any of those past a marketing department.

However, as beautiful and lilting as the prose was, I have not fallen in love with this novel. At 4 in the afternoon today I was at a swimming carnival, pretending to watch whilst actually finishing my novel. I arrived at the denouement and could not believe what I was seeing. The novel finishes mid-thought. Mid-paragraph. Admittedly, at least, it does not finish mid-sentence. I was enraged. So abrupt is the ending, not once did I think that it was actually meant to be like that. I decided I had purchased a faulty copy, missing at least two or three more pages. I came home and started trolling the internet.

I was wrong. The novel ends where it's supposed to end.

Now, there are ambiguous endings. There are sudden endings. But this is a whole different kettle of fish. Having no idea what I am supposed to take from the ending I have flicked through the book again, searching for clues. I have plotted out different ways it could have ended. I have reached a few conclusions, none of which can be substantiated because I have nothing in print to back me up! (And Tanizaki is long dead, so I can't plague him for answers. Typical).

Of course, this is perhaps how one is supposed to react upon reaching the conclusion of Some Prefer Nettles. It is possible that the novel sets the reader up for exactly this reason- to make them have a relatively subdued tantrum poolside and then to make up their own minds. A novel directly in opposition to the spoon-feeding genre.

I'm still nursing some residual anger over it, but I think I understand what Tanizaki was doing. Kazuo Ishiguro says that writing novels should be like writing songs, with no need to justify why something is written the way that it is. This is, of course, only a valid argument if the piece you are talking about is written well; if it is incredibly confusing and rubbish to boot then you can safely begrudge the author the hours you wasted on them. With Tanizaki, whether or not you feel the abrupt ending is justified, I can vouch for the fact that everything you read up until then is worth your time and effort.

I may actually post a link here to Ishiguro's interview during The Sydney Writer's Festival 2009- you can watch just highlights or the entire hour if you wish. (Or, if you're feeling rebellious, nothing at all). I found it extremely interesting and, as an aspiring writer, rather valuable in terms of insight. Ishiguro has often listed Tanizaki as one of his strongest Japanese influences, so this part of the review is not entirely out of left wing.

I have just realised this review is almost as long as the book itself. Clearly I am not Japanese and have much to learn in the art of minimalist prose.

Rating: 8/10.

16 March 2010

Twenties Girl (Sophie Kinsella)

Every so often you pick a book off a shelf, ignoring the glitz and sparkle of the front cover. You skate past the sad details of the effervescent heroine's life; you ignore the fact that the gushing review on the back comes from Cosmopolitan; you most certainly allow temporary insanity to take over as you grudgingly raise your eyebrows at the description of the love-interest and, miraculously, it is all worth it. The book turns out to be witty instead of that perfectly damning word 'funny', inspiring instead of merely big-hearted, diverting instead of ridiculous.

This happens very rarely with chick-lit. Normally this is a genre that is abominable at best. Sophie Kinsella has, in the past, proven herself a cut above the rest in the literary plains of pink mediocrity. Mainly because she is gorgeously funny, not because she talks about Things That Matter. There was a chickpea incident in The Undomestic Goddess... they were overcooked when she was trying to make hummus... ANYWAY. You probably had to be there.

So, battling yet ANOTHER chest infection (I don't want to leave London, yet I am so excited to be going back to Australia for at least a short while where my poor, weak, asthmatic lungs don't have to do battle with the elements every freaking minute of my existence) I decided the new Sophie Kinsella was perfect to get me through a day or two in bed.

It was not. It was SHITE. Ghosts. A mysterious necklace. A stupid heroine. A two-dimensional love-interest. Several cringe-worthy scenes involving said ghost, the Charleston and an eighty-five year old lipstick. Kinsella will be hearing from my lawyer soon because this novel pushed me over the brink from sick to manically depressed. (It's a fine line with me. I am not a good patient.)

In an embarrassing comparison, I also read Skulduggery Pleasant during my convalescence. I told Earhart I was most jealous about the fact she was able to meet Derek Landy last month, author of this overly excellent series for children. Of course, I realised I hadn't actually read any of this series and thus stole the first book off a nine year old I know.

I can now add 'skeleton detective' to my list of things that I Like Very Much. I am slightly concerned about Skulduggery's burgeoning friendship with a young teenage girl. Aside from the legal aspects, it is the possibility of future acts of necrophilia that REALLY worries me. However, Derek Landy is a professional. I am sure he will handle any such scenes with the appropriate tact and class.

Although a children's book, the dialogue, language and structure are streets ahead of Sophie Kinsella. The humour is sharper, the plot tighter and the characters more believable. Yes. Skulduggery Pleasant and Ghastly Bespoke are more realistic than Ed and Lara. POOR EFFORT Sophie.

Next up- Some Prefer Nettles by Junichiro Tanizaki.

Twenties Girl- 4/10.

Skulduggery Pleasant- 7/10.

10 March 2010

A Song in The Daylight (Paullina Simons)

This is what happens when you spend two years away from the book trade. Whilst in the past 16 months I have become an absolute virtuoso in the art of 'pretending to care during child-related activities', a masterchef from the school of 'Dinner in 10 Minutes or Less' and a champion in the competitive sport of 'Saving Your Tears for the Privacy of Your Loft', I have NO IDEA what books are out at the moment.

Thus, it was with a squeal of delight that I realised Paullina Simons had a new novel out. Generally speaking, Simons is a very misunderstood author. The publicity and marketing drongos who represent Paullina need to ACTUALLY READ one of her books. Look at these covers-



I would go straight for these books only if I had a 39 hour plane trip ahead of me and needed to mindlessly fill the hours. However, I would be disappointed. The reader who buys these covers is not prepared for what lies between them- emotionally destructive tragedies of the heart and mind. The epic struggle of the modern American writer who cannot help but mine her depressing Russian heritage. Extremely explicit sex scenes. (Not the sort of thing you want the person next to you catching a glimpse of. My ex-boyfriend once read one and expressed absolute horror and disgust at what he deemed to be highly inappropriate reading for me.)

I digress...

Marketing gripes aside, I was ridiculously excited to get A Song in the Daylight. Friday afternoon a few weeks ago I made a trip to Sainsbury's and bought the necessities: iced coffee, KitKats and apples. I cancelled my weekend plans. Friday evening, after my duties with the children were complete, I curled up in bed. I opened the covers, already shivering slightly. I took one last look through my skylight at the grey world, anticipating I would next view it from the highly charged emotional state of the post-Paullina meltdown I normally experience at the denouement of her novels.

48 hours later I scoffed one last scoff and slammed the covers shut.

It started off well enough. Larissa, the beautiful, discontent housewife, meets the young, dangerously sexy Kai. Should she leave with him, or stay behind to be with her husband and children? It could have been compelling, if Larissa was in any way likeable. However, instead of a heroine I could sympathise with, I got a heroine who disgusted me with every turn of the page. Selfish, weak, whiny, spiteful, vacuous and stupid. Who cares whether she goes or stays? I didn't become attached to her children or husband enough to worry about their fate. Kai, I felt, was too two-dimensional to warrant the drama he created. He ate sushi! He drove a motorcycle! SWOON. The only interesting characters in the novel were given extremely limited page space, making it hard to care about them either. Maggie and her kidney problem was a particularly unnecessary waste of ink.

Actually, that's not entirely fair. Che was a very interesting character, being a protester in the Philippines and all. Only problem is, that story line was completely incongruous to the rest of the plot.

Simons obviously realised the structure of the novel was a bit off, so she attempted to pull everything together in the last third. Then she realised that wasn't going to work, so she just decided to kill everyone. (Not everyone. That is hyperbolic.) Let's just say she decided to indulge in her tragic Russian side when all else failed.

Was it worth the weekend I set aside? Most definitely. Simons can still write melodrama better than anyone else out there, making it seem honest, necessary and even restrained. I get the feeling a lot of the time with Simons that her novels are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how much damage she could ACTUALLY do to my heart if she really tried.

If you're a Simons fan this is of course a must-read (although you probably knew about it last September). If you are new to the Simons wagon, I would suggest picking up The Girl in Times Square first. It is my favourite other than The Bronze Horseman, but I would not recommend starting with that. That is not for the faint-hearted. I lost days crying over that book.

I didn't lose any days crying over this book. But I lost a bit of my faith in Paullina. Which is very sad indeed.

Almost, but not quite, locked under the stairs...

I ventured downstairs this evening to get a cup of coffee and came upon the people I live with, who were most surprised to see me. Much like Harry Potter, I spend my evenings "in my room, making no noise and pretending I don't exist." Thus, my occasional descent from the loft is the cause of much consternation. I have returned, disgruntled to my bedroom, thanking every denominational being ever to be suspected of existing (have I used that line before? C'est possible...) that I have less than eight weeks of work to go.

After that I shall be as a house elf is with clothes- FREE. UNLEASHED. EMANCIPATED. LIBERATED. WITHOUT SADNESS AND PAIN.

The last is perhaps stretching it slightly. I cannot blame all the greyness and blackness on Acton Town. But I am anticipating greater splashes of white and colour in May (that most joyous of months) when my contract is over.

Starting in May I will be playing the part of European cultural whore for two months, wherein I shall be utterly negligent when it comes to updating the blog. Obviously, this is already the case for both of us; 2010 did not exactly start off on a punctual note. Never fear, dearly devoted readers, we ARE committed, we are merely lazy.

However, I have an enormous backlog which I shall begin tackling tonight. I can never sleep after an unpleasant evening, I tend to go over the events that transpired below, completely certain that I did something wrong. Only when I am satisfied that I am blameless can I cease to be upset. However, I generally progress (or regress really) to anger, which is even less conducive to a restful night.

In answer to Earhart's question below, I have been embarrassed several times in meetings with authors. My Paullina Simons moment can be found here. I accidentally sat on William McIness' knee during his promotional tour for his autobiography. I asked John Boyne if he wanted to buy a copy of his own book. Stuck in a corner with Thomas Keneally, I bypassed the obvious "Schindler's Ark was AMAZING" and instead went for "Well, I really like your beard." I wrote to Alan Bennett and asked him out to lunch. (Which he declined. INORIGHT? Unbelievable.)

I think however, if I were lucky enough to meet someone like Ishiguro or Annie Proulx I wouldn't have an embarrassing moment. I would be too overwhelmed. Speech would be struck from my brain, both as a desire and an ability. To meet the tangible behind the ethereal is a frightening thing. Some authors are too great to meet. Thus, it seems I am doomed to a lifetime of falling over authors and attempting to sell them their own books; these, the authors who are comfortingly normal.

09 March 2010

Patrick Ness

So remember that ridiculously gushy not-even-a-proper-review I wrote of The Knife of Never Letting Go? Remember how I promised to review Book Two and then never did. Sorry about that - it was actually as gut-wrenchingly good as Book One and I am sure that when I read Book Three (VERY SOON if my rep does as promised and gets me the manuscript!) it will also keep me up until three in the morning.

Anyway, I met the author of this most amazing of series tonight. A bunch of the book-shop groupies and myself went along to hear him speak - the author of a YA series and there were perhaps two teenagers in the crowd. Booksellers, librarians, teachers and people from OTHER publishing houses were, however, in abundance. He spoke about writing, about where his books came from, about knife crime, terrorism and war and finished up with a few musings on joy. He read from Book Three (Oh lord, it is definitely going to be an astounding read) and then signed some copies.

In true me-meeting-authors-I-love fashion, I was suitably star struck. I like to think I conducted myself better than when I met Joanne Harris (when I said something along the lines of "This is what normal people feel when they meet a rock star!" Her response was something like 'okayyyyy... name please?') I told him I'd reviewed him on the blog. He wrote down the address (in case you actually took the scrap of paper home with you, Hi Patrick!) I spoke like a grown-up (ha! Fooled you!).

Anyway... aside from feeling the need to tell everyone I met him and he was lovely, the point of this post was actually to see if I am the only one out there who gets this star-struck with authors. Surely I am not. Surely there is someone else out there who has stammered out "Oh my god I love everything you have ever written" to an idol. Someone else who has blushed when they met a philosopher? (Hmm, maybe not. I think Stephen Law thinks I am a lunatic, but that is another story). I am sure if I met, say, Neil Gaiman or Margaret Atwood I wouldn't even be able to get out the most perfunctory of compliments like "Love your books". More likely I will blush bright red, stammer out my name and grin like a loon at the object of my reading affection.

So, tell me, anyone out there as nerdy as me?

19 February 2010

Five Greatest Warriors (Matthew Reilly)

Having given him a relatively derogatory shout-out in my last review I decided Reilly deserved his own post for his latest literary offering.

Yes, I paid money for another Matthew Reilly book. This is the third in a series about Jack West, intrepid international hero and saviour of the world from the dark star, or whatever the hell he's doing in this latest instalment. I don't remember these books being that bad. A guilty pleasure of course, but a PLEASURE nonetheless. I'm an armchair action junkie- I don't ever want to find myself having to negotiate my way through a death-defying act (that one time on a trapeze in Club Med Bintan nailed that particular coffin shut) but I'm happy to eat a hobnob and read about other people doing it. Up until recently I would have put Matthew Reilly in that category. I was even a little bit excited to get Five Greatest Warriors.

Either my memory is dreadful and Reilly has always been this bad, or he has taken a significant down slide in the last couple of years. I hope it is the latter. I don't like to think there was ever a time when my reading was so lacking in taste.

This book wasn't just bad, it was horrible. It was the result of an author who isn't even attempting to cater to an audience whose demographic is anything but imbecilic. Perry Crandall would find it basic and he has an IQ of 76. (He is NOT retarded. One's IQ needs to be less than 75 to fall into that category).

It takes an especial talent to write dialogue that is so awkward I am forced several times a chapter to bury my head in my pillow and groan. Reilly is able to take seemingly innocuous words and render them ridiculous to the reader. Unfortunately, there is a restraint and sensibility to his writing as well. Reilly obviously knows his writing skills are nothing to boast about so he doesn't attempt anything fancy, thus never entering 'so bad it's good' territory.

I am not yet so old that I feel comfortable putting a book down without finishing it. As Her (Fictional) Majesty says in Alan Bennett's brilliant The Uncommon Reader- 'one was brought up to finish what one started.' Whilst I have not the blue blood of royalty running through my veins, I generally share this sentiment with Lizzie. I once worked with a gentleman who was in his 60's who said "When you get to my age you realise you don't have time to finish all the books you're not enjoying." Shudder. Depressing but true. At 24 I feel I have all the time in the world and, as is the plight of the young, I must therefore finish all the books I start.

But, dear readers, I could not finish this. Because, essentially, the distribution of this book has already squandered thousands of pages of paper and ink. Such waste. In the interest of moving towards a more prudent age, I cannot allow this book to also deplete my existing brain space.

Rating: 2/10.
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