Friday, 31 December 2010

2010 in Review

2010 was the year I started this blog, and I'm so glad I did as I never realised how enjoyable book blogging would be.  I only started seriously in August and it's swallowed up all my free time ever since (in a good way!).  I love discussing books, seeing what others have read and writing my reviews.  I've read and enjoyed some fantastic books that I would have never ever have heard of if it wasn't for the blogging community.

I've also just hit the landmark of 100 followers, which I'm really pleased about.  It felt daunting at first getting my blog out there, but the effort has definitely paid off. 

In 2011, I hope to become a bit more organised with my blog.  I won't be completing any reading challenges as I change my mind a lot about what I want to read, but I will be keeping better track of what I have read and hopefully adding some new features to my blog.  I also hope to read a good proportion of classics.

Aside from my blog, I hope to be a bit less consumerist in 2011.  I've been sale shopping over the past few days and seeing how people push and shove past others just to get at more stuff has left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth.  I have enough stuff.  I'm going to try out only buying what I need, and then treating myself on a fortnightly basis to something small I don't need.  I'll be using my library more and reading the books I already have.  I'll be cooking dinners from scratch most evenings (I do this anyway, I've just been a bit naughty with the takeouts).  My Lovefilm account is going to be used properly so I don't buy anymore DVDs.  Eating out and going out is fine, it's physical stuff that I'm hoping to tackle and the whole feeling of "I've had a bad day so I'm going to go and buy something to cheer myself up".

Unfortunately I didn't keep a track of all the books I read this year, though I'm guessing I'm somewhere in the region of 65.  Here are the top-rated books from my blog:

 The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber
Small Island by Andrea Levy
Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson

Thursday, 30 December 2010

The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber

I love long, rambling, Victorian style novels, and this one had been high up on my 'to-read' list ever since I first saw it mentioned on a friend's blog.  When my local library finally acquired a copy, I had to read it.

Synopsis: Sugar is a prostitiute in late 19th century London.  Forced into prostituition by her mother at a young age ('here's a gentleman to keep you warm'), she hates men and spends her time writing a revenge novel.  Soon to be afflent business-man William Rackham falls for her and first buys her a place to live, and then installs her as the governess to his daughter Sophie.  As Sugar rises up socially, she meets a large cast of characters from all walks of society.

Score: 4.5 out of 5

This was an unputdownable book.  I was worried about the length before starting (800+ pages, small font) but within the first chapter I was sucked into Victorian London and just wanted to read on and on.  Sugar's world jumps out at you from the page and it feels like a true representation.  There's no happy ever afters,  prostitution is not at all glamorised and bad things happen to good people all of the time.

By far the biggest strength of Faber's novel is the characters.  Even the minor characters were well developed and rounded (Caroline, the doctor) and the major characters started to feel like old friends by the end of the book.  Faber seemed to have an especial talent for female characterisation - the determination and drive of Sugar was contrasted wonderfully with Rackham's wife, Agnes, a woman who had managed to bear a child without knowing anything about how her body functions and thinks that a demon is causing her menstruation.  I also had a soft spot for Mrs Fox, a widow who didn't care about society's rules and was trying to help prostitutes in her own blundering way.  Compared to this, the male characters were equally complex, but weak.

This was also a book that had a lot to say on a number of issues: prostititution, the role of women, class, poverty, depression, religion, insanity, healthcare, attitudes to children, social climbing and marriage. But thankfully all this took a back seat to the story and Faber never came off as preachy.  All of the characters went through a decent amount of development and by the end of the book I didn't want it to be over.  I could happily have read about the next 30 or so year's of Sugar's life.

The only criticism I can make, that stopped it from receiving 5 stars, was the abrupt nature of the ending.  Even though I can appreciate the artistic merit in the ending, I wanted to know what happened next!

Recommended for historical and gothic fiction fans.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Hospital Books

I wasn't intending to neglect the blogging world so much over the Christmas holidays but unfortunately I was taken into hospital for three days before Christmas and I'm only slowly regaining my strength now.  I managed to pick up gastroenteritis from somewhere (probably a child in school), which in turn triggered a flare-up of a pre-existing bowel condition.  It was horrible.

Anyway, I'm feeling a lot better now, if a little weak.  I felt like I had been run over by a bus when I first came out but each day I am feeling a little better and a little stronger.

Whilst in hospital I read two quick, easy reads for distraction:

Club Dead by Charlaine Harris (Sookie Stackhouse 3)

Bill goes missing whilst on a secret assignment and Sookie must team up with a werewolf to help find him.  Like the other two, easy to read and fun.  Sookie gets more and more likeable with each book in the series.  As always, I wished there was more about the secondary characters.

The Secret Dreamworld of a Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella

I first read this back when I was 15 or 16, and my sister got me a 30p copy from the hospital gift shop.  I don't read much chick-lit, but I enjoyed this book just as much on the re-read as I did the first time around.  Financial journalist Becky Bloomwood is terrible at managing her own finances and just can't resist shopping.  It took me to another world, didn't tax my brain, and passed the time.  The ending was suspiciously tidy, though - I don't think getting out of debt is that easy.

Monday, 20 December 2010

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

Now that it's the holidays and I'm also stuck in bed with a horrible cold/virus, I have plenty of time to read.  I chose A Farewell to Arms because I've never read any Hemingway (or indeed much American literature at all) and because of all his books, the war-time setting of this one appealed to me.

Synopsis: An American in the ambulance service of the Italian army, Henry/Tenete starts to see the darker side of war and soon realises that he doesn't actually know what he is fighting for.  He falls in love with a British nurse, Catherine Barkley, and becomes an army deserter.

Score: 3.5 out of 5

I think my personal reading of this book suffered from the fact that All Quiet on the Western Front is one of my all-time favourite books, and A Farewell to Arms just didn't seem to have as much grit or reality.  It was still a good book, and the reality of war was still portrayed well, but it just lacked an emotional impact to me.

I wasn't familiar with Hemingway's bare and sparse style before reading this novel, and it took me a while to get used to it.  But once I had, I found it refreshing and I liked how some parts were left for the reader to fill in for his/herself.  Hemingway didn't write much about how the characters were feeling, but left that for the reader to work out through actions and dialogue.  Maybe that's why it lacked an emotional punch?

The structure of the book worked very well, with sections about the war broken up by the romance sections.  It was clear that Catherine and Henry were not very well suited, and that the constant threat of death had forced them into an early intimacy.  In fact, Catherine came over as very obsessive and a bit crazy.  She didn't want him to see anyone else (even his friends), she went to bed with him whenever he wanted 'to please him' and even spoke about cutting her hair off so they would look more alike!

Without giving away the ending, I'm sure lots of parallels could be made between what happened in their relationship and the war in general.  Overall the book was surprisingly easy to read (I always worry classics will be a struggle) and a good example of war literature.  But it wasn't as good as I was hoping it would be.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Living Dead in Dallas by Charlaine Harris

Sookie Stackhouse #2

I'm officially addicted to this series.  I'm slowing myself down by reading other books in between but could easily if I let myself read the whole series in one go over the Christmas break.

Synopsis: When the vampires save her life after an attack, Sookie is in their debt.  She gets sent to Dallas to investigate a missing vampire, whose disappearance may be linked with a fundamentalist anti-vampire church (think Westboro but for vampires).

Score: 3 out of 5

I enjoyed this book a bit more than the first one, probably because I haven't seen True Blood season 2 yet, making the whole plot new to me.  I approved of Eric having a more central role, and like the first, it was a quick, lively and engaging read.  Sookie as a narrator keeps the pace fast and light, and the more I read her narration the more she grows on me.

That said, there were downsides to moving all of the action to Dallas.  I missed some of the regular Bon  Temps characters, and the new Dallas ones didn't seem as well rounded or developed.  There were lots more supernatural creatures involved, and I do hope the series doesn't start to get a bit silly over the next few books.

A perfect relaxation read.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Ramesses by Joyce Tyldesley

I chose this book because I love Egypt.  I've loved it ever since I first learned about it back in my primary school days, and now, many trips to the British Museum later, I still love it.  I also get to teach it for an entire term every spring, and it's my favourite thing to teach.  I chose this particular author as I've read one of her books before (a tie-in to a BBC series about Egyptology pioneers) and found it to be both informative and well written.

Synopsis: Joyce Tyldesley presents what history knows about Ramesses, one of Egypt's most famous pharoahs.  Using a number of different sources, she separates myth from fact.

Score: 2 out of 5

You know how some non-fiction books are so well written and lively and engaging that you feel like you're reading a fantastic work of fiction and you just can't put them down?  This book wasn't like that.  In fact, this book was the opposite - it managed to make a fascinating topic that I already had some knowledge of seem dull and it was a battle to get to the end.

Part of the problem was that Tyldesley had organised the book thematically, with chapters such as 'Ramesses the Husband' and 'Ramesses the Warrior'.  This meant there was no overall arc to the book, making it hard to place the various events and leaving me with no clear impression of what Ramesses was actually like.  Whilst I appreciate that much about his life is not known, I would still rather have had what is known organised chronologically.

The book also couldn't decide whether it wanted to be academic or popular non-fiction.  The other book of hers I've read Egypt: How a Lost Civilisation was Rediscovered was clealy supposed to be a popular non-fiction book.  There was an attempt to make the writing lively.  Ramesses was different; there were notes at the end of each chapter, a further reading list, and way too much scholarly detail.  At one point she spent about 30 pages outlining the names and lives of all of Ramesses children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren.  And the history of all his scribes, advisers etc were also included, down to their position of birth and where they died.  That kind of stuff is too much for the interested but not that knowledgeable reader.

All this is not to say there was nothing I enjoyed about the book.  There was some interesting facts about his family life (it seems he married practically all of his female relations) and about the way society in Egypt was organised.  Ramesses was also a master of propaganda, and modern politicians could learn from him.  Even now he is remembered as a great warrior pharaoh, but his 'victories' seemed to have been largely made up.  And his famous statues either plagarised or stolen from previous pharoahs.

To sum up: only really for the serious Egyptologist or those that enjoy very winding family trees.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

A Bit of Poetry

I'm reading about Egypt at the moment and it's reminded me of one of my favourite poems.  I don't read much poetry in general, but when I find a poem I like it really stays with me.

Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert.  Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well these passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear: 'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:  Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains.  Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris

Confession: I can be a terrible book snob.  I worked in a bookshop at the time when the tragic lives genre was massive and I became judgemental against it.  I thought it was faddy, largely poorly written and I would sometimes totally judge people for buying it.  My feelings are the same for the paranormal romance genre (it never used to have a section in my book shop!) and any other faddish/trendy genres.

And then I watched True Blood with my fiance and loved it.  After making some noises about how much I enjoyed it, I came home one day to a complete boxed set of Sookie Stackhouse novels.  So I decided to get over myself and give it a go!

Synopsis: In this first book of the series, telepathic waitress Sookie meets the vampire community.  Whilst vampires have "come out" and are known of publicly, some vampires are more mainstream and conventional than others.  Sookie's romantic interest, Bill, drinks synthetic blood and only wants to be accepted, but others are more sinister.  And someone is going round brutally murdering all of the women that associate with vampires.

Score: 3 out of 5

I found the beginning of this book to be quite tacky.  At first Sookie came across as shallow and cliche, but as the book progressed I found myself enjoying her narrative more and more.  Her voice was very distinctive and as she developed throughout the book she became more mature and relatable.  In fact, all of the characters were very memorable and well rounded.

I could not help but compare it to the TV show.  True Blood was deeper, darker and more about other characters, therefore being more rounded.  The book was purely Sookie and seemed to be a bit lighter, although maybe because in general I'm much less likely to be creeped out by a book.

Overall, I'm all in favour of judging a book by what it actually is, not comparing them all against the same standard.  Dead Until Dark is an easy, light read that I just whizzed through and enjoyed immensely.  It may not be classical literature or even have the best writing style, but it took me into another world and I could not wait to pick it up again after putting it down.

I'll definitely be reading the rest of the series, just with breaks in between for other kinds of books as well.

Lesson learned: don't be such a snob!

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

This is my first Tracy Chevalier book, although I don't think it will be my last.  I bought it after reading positive things about it on other people's blogs, and because I spent nearly all of my childhood holidays on the Dorset coast where the story takes place.  I also find natural history interesting.

Synopsis: This book tells the tale of two historical fossil hunters in Lyme Regis; working class Mary Anning who hunts to make money, and higher class Elizabeth Philpot, who starts looking as a hobby but soon finds herself captivated.  This is a story of friendship and society at a time when women were seen but not heard.

Score: 4 out of 5

I could not put this book down.  At certain points not much appeared to actually be happening, but I was so engaged with the characters and with the bigger themes (friendship, the role of women, questioning the church) that it was hard to stop reading.  As I mentioned above, every summer when I was growing up, my family would rent a cottage somewhere in Dorset or Devon, and I've spent at least three holidays in Lyme Regis.  Thus I knew a bit about Mary Anning already and have walked many times along the beaches and cliffs where Anning found her specimens.  This added a lot to my personal reading experience, but I still believe it would be enjoyable without it.

The story is told between the alternating viewpoints of Mary and Elizabeth, which kept the pace brisk.   I enjoyed Mary's viewpoint and it felt authentic.  However, if all the book had been from Mary's point of view, Chevalier would not have been able to touch on the wider history, on how people were starting to question explanations offered by the church.  A lot of the stuff on the role of women also came from Elizabeth - it was clear to the reader that she was intelligent and talented, and it was therefore frustrating when she kept coming up against roadblocks because of her gender.  Although Mary was eventually acknowledged for her role in finding fossils, this was a result of a long battle.  This was also true for matters of class.

It was hard to distinguish between fact and fiction in the novel, which might be off-putting for some.  At times it felt like a lot was elaborated or filled in by Chevalier, especially the relationship between Mary and Colonel Birch.  For me, that's the only serious criticism that could be aimed at the book.

Which Chevalier should I read next?

Sunday, 5 December 2010

God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens

And now a return to regularly scheduled programming!
I chose to read this book because even though I'm not at all religious myself, I've always been fascinated by religion.  My fiance is a secondary school religious education teacher so he's always recommending books about religions from all perspectives. 

Synopsis: Hitchens aggressively takes on religion, attempting to demonstrate that it is "man-made, dangerously sexually repressive and distorts the very origins of the cosmos" (from back cover).  He puts forward the theory that religion has caused profound damage to society at all levels.

Score: 3 out of 5  for quality of writing but 2 out of 5 for quality of arguments.

Before I share my thoughts on this book, I should probably explain the viewpoint I read it from.  When I said in the introduction that I am non-religious, I meant that I have never been exposed to religion personally at all - I was not baptised/christened and can count the times I have been to a place of worship on one hand.  No one in my family is religious either and I didn't miss it growing up.  I was taught instead to treat others as I wished to be treated, to be respectful and to realise that life can be tough, and sometimes it's bad luck, and all you can do is be ready for it and make the most of the time you have.  I didn't even meet a strongly religious person until I went to university at 19 and became friends with an Orthodox Jew.

So I was kind of in the middle with this book.  I have no bone to pick with religion myself; I do find it hard to understand why people are religious but each to their own as long as they aren't bothering me.  Hitchens in his book had a completely different attitude - I've read Dawkin's "The God Delusion" as well and Hitchens makes Dawkins look like a moderate!  I can only describe Hitchens' views as militant/fundamentalist atheism, in that he sought to make everything the fault of religion without acknowledging any of the good religious people have done or even that religious people can't be lumped together as one homogenous entity.  And that seriously weakened his arguments for me.

Hitchens also approached the topic from a mainly literal/historical perspective, which would have been fine if he had stuck with it, but he also veered into the scientific arguments.  The problem with this was that he made some mistakes - I know enough biology to know that his conclusions about ears were wrong, and if you're going to write such a controversial book, you better make sure your facts are straight!

In places his conclusions were too simplistic.  Concerning American slavery, he basically argued that religion caused slavery - correct me Americans if I am wrong, but whilst religion may have defended slavery for a while, there was more to it that that.  Societies the world over have taken slave from conquered areas since the dawn of time.  Hitchens was bending over backward to show that "religion poisons everything" when he would have been much more convincing if he had argued "religion makes things bad, sometimes" or "religion can prolong bad things".

That's not to say that all of his arguments were weak.  It has been historically well documented that parts of all the major religions have been man-made (Council of Nicea etc), and when Hitchens stayed with history or culture, he was on strong ground.  His sections on the use of condoms in Africa and Muslim protest against vaccinations were also very effective.

So overall, a mixed bag.  There were some good points struggling to get out but Hitchens was just too angry and a bit fundamentalist.  I can definitely see why some atheists argue that he gives them a bad name.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

I'm Engaged!

I've been neglecting my blog this week but with good reason - on Thursday I got engaged!!  

We have been together for over seven years and we had been talking about marriage, but I didn't think it would be so soon.  So I was shocked, but in a good way :)

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Non-Book Related: My Kitten!

In two and a half weeks, I am getting a new kitten and I'm so excited about it already!  He's a boy kitten and we're going to call him Joseph.  As I know lots of bookish people also love cats (has anyone else noticed that?), I could not resist posting adorable pictures of him at three weeks.

I have owned cats before, but this will be my first one since moving out of my parents house.  I can't wait!

Isn't he cute?  We're bringing him home on the 17th December, just in time for Christmas.