Monday, 31 October 2011

84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

I've lost track just how many people and blogs had recommended this cosy volume of letters between an American book lover and a second hand book shop in London's Charing Cross Road to me.  Helene lives in New York but is a devoted Anglophile who makes a connection with England through the Marks & Co bookshop, who begin to send her books in the late 1940s.  Over time she develops a close friendship with the chief buyer of the shop, Frank Doel, and their letters become both more personal and an important part of both of their lives.  The volume I read also contained The Duchess of Bloomsbury, Helene's journal from when she finally got to visit London after 84 Charing Cross Road was published.

This book was just what I thought it would be - a cosy feel-good read.  It was a bit like watching a Richard Curtis film, Love Actually or something like that.   The London in the letters and diary entries felt like that fictionalised London that tourists want to see rather than the real thing.  Everyone was nice and went out of their way to be kind to Helene, a total stranger.  And that was the best part of the book; as it all actually happened it reminded me of the capacity for good and kindness that we all have inside of us.  And who doesn't need reminding of that now and again?

I much preferred 84 Charing Cross Road to The Duchess of Bloomsbury.  I just liked the letter format more than the diary one and the contrast between straight-forward and somewhat brash Helene and the typically-English, typically-reserved Frank.  Compared to the sparky letters the diary entries dragged and were overly detailed.  I was happy to learn that Helene finally got to make her trip, though, and it was nice to learn what had happened to Frank's family.  I just didn't want that much detail.

Verdict: A perfect Sunday afternoon read.
Source: Library
First Published: 1976
Score: For just 84 Charing Cross Road, 4 out of 5.  For both books combined, 3.5 out of 5

Sunday, 30 October 2011

A Mountain of Crumbs by Elena Gorokhova

A Mountain of Crumbs is a memoir about growing up in the Soviet Union in the period after Stalin but before its collapse.  Born to a physician mother and much older father, Elena grows up in a strictly controlled country where even wanting to learn the English language can be a dangerous act.  Perceptive early on to the concept of vranyo, the idea of pretending everything is wonderful even when it is not, she soon grows tired of the restrictions and contradictions - when she earns real money, there is nothing in the shops to spend it on - she manages to leave by marrying an American man she isn't sure she loves and starts a new life in the USA.

A Mountain of Crumbs was a very well written memoir.  Gorokhova's intelligence and perceptiveness come across in every single page and she manages to transport the reader both back in time and to a system that no longer exists.  The small details were the ones I really savoured - the school friend who was the only girl with a proper hair cut, the people lining up for toilet roll, the girl humiliated in assembly for writing a love letter.  Gorokhova's voice in this memoir reminded me a lot of Sylvia Plath's in The Bell Jar; obviously the two books are not similar in content but there was the same perceptiveness, self awareness and a sense of not fitting with the surroundings.

One thing I did like about this memoir was that it was neither a whitewashed, sentimental account of her childhood or a harsh condemnation of the Soviet Union.  Gorokhova managed to create a balance; some passages were recounted with nostalgia but in other parts you can tall that Gorokhova was very glad to have made it out to the US.  This balance existed with her personal life too - the mother-daughter relationship is written very realistically (especially when Elena is a teenager) and she is honest about the fact that she largely got married as a passport out of the country.

But despite all of this and the fact that I knew I was reading a good book, I just couldn't connect with it or get swept away by it.  Although I admired Gorokhova's writing, it had a detached quality that made it hard for me to connect with her personally, something that I think is crucial for a very good memoir.  I enjoyed A Mountain of Crumbs whilst I was reading it, but I was never really in a hurry to pick it back up.

Verdict: Well written but impersonal memoir about growing up in the Soviet Union.
Source: Library
First Published: 2010
Score: 3.5 out of 5

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Vlad: The Last Confession by C.C Humphreys

Everyone knows Dracula as a blood-sucking vampire, but in real life Vlad Dracula was the Prince of Wallachia, a lawless region bearing the brunt of Ottoman expansion into Eastern Europe.  In Vlad: The Last Confession, C.C. Humphreys uses three characters close to Dracula to tell his tale: his mistress, his priest and his closest friend.

And an interesting life it was too.  Taken into captivity in Edirne at a young age by the Ottomans to secure his father's loyalty, Vlad grew up amongst the Turks, fostering a life-long hatred.  This is also where he first witnessed impaling, his speciality method of punishment in later years.  Whilst Vlad's brother converted to Islam and chose to stay in the Ottoman Empire, Vlad himself returned to rule Wallachia sporadically before finally being captured by his Christian allies, the Hungarians.  When he was finally killed, his head was reportedly displayed at the entrance to Constantinople to show the strength of the Ottomans.

I was familiar with lots of this information before reading, being a big fan of Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian, but I do feel that Humphreys did a great job at making the novel both engagingly written and factually accurate.  Humphreys also succeeded in placing Vlad in context, and judging him against the period he was living in, rather than against modern standards.  Yes, Vlad killed tens of thousands of people, and lots of them were impaled, but he inherited a lawless place that was in many ways the buffer region between Christian Europe and the Muslim Ottoman Empire. He had to show massive strength to get his boyars (lords) to obey him. Vlad's brutal methods did work to a certain degree as reports of impalment and turbans nailed to heads apparently put the Ottoman leader, Mehmet, off attacking Wallachia directly.

The sections of the book dealing with impaling were quite graphic and not for readers with weak stomachs; I was glad to not be eating whilst reading them!  Aside from that, the only criticism I can make of this book is the device of some of the characters posthumously 'judging' Vlad.  This meant that the narrative was disrupted every now and again with asides from characters I didn't really care about, jarring the flow of the book.  Personally, I think it would have been better told as a straight fictional biography rather than with the 'confession' device.

This one comes highly recommended from me, especially for fans of The Historian or epic adventure/war novels.

Verdict: Thoroughly researched and engaging novel about the life of the real Dracula.
Source: Library
Score: 4.5 out of 5

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Wonderful Wednesdays #8 (Gothic Reads)

Wonderful Wednesdays is a meme about spotlighting and recommending some of our most loved books, even if we haven't read them recently.  Each week will have a different theme or genre.

In honour of halloween approaching, this week's theme is gothic reads.  

Gothic fiction is one of my favourite genres, so it's been a tough choice for me.  As much as I adore gothic classics such as Wuthering Heights, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dracula and anything by Edgar Allen Poe, I've decided to spotlight a more modern book with elements of gothic style, despite it not being a horror story.

My choice is Michel Faber's excellent The Crimson Petal and the White.  It's the story of Sugar, a prostitute in late 19th century London who rises up through society when she catches the attention of a wealthy business man.  Victorian London is bought to life in all it's filthiness and grime, opium dens and brothels and the reader is introduced to a wealth of characters from all walks of life.  From stark poverty to home brewed contraceptives to abandoned children to graphic but very unappealing sex scenes, Faber's novel is all about the grimier side of life.  It's a long read, at over eight hundred pages, but they just whizz by and the imagery is just so vivid.

 If you like gothic literature at all, you should read this book!  My full length review of it from last December can be found here.

How about you?
I want to hear all about your favourite gothic reads.  Grab the image above, make a blog post and then sign up to the linky below so we can all hop between blogs.  Thanks in advance to those that do take part.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Sunday Salon: Half Term At Last!

Here in the UK it's finally time for the half term break (we get a week off during the mid-point of the autumn term) and for me it's not a moment too soon.  It's been a hard half term for me in many ways and I'm currently nursing a bad cold that means I haven't been able to speak without croaking for about three days now.

But the good news is that tomorrow, we are heading off to the Peak District for three days of some much needed rest and relaxation.  We're staying in Derby, visiting Chatsworth House (Mr Darcy's house in the BBC version of Pride & Prejudice) and off course walking in the national park, which neither of us have been to before.  I hope to sleep in, eat lots of good food and relax in the countryside with some good books.

I'm not planning on using the internet at all during my mini-break as I want to get away from everything, but I have scheduled a Wonderful Wednesday post for next Wednesday.  As we are getting very near to Halloween, the theme is gothic reads, be they spooky or not.  I'll look forward to coming home Wednesday night and looking at the posts :)

Have you got some rest and relaxation planned soon?

Friday, 21 October 2011

The Little Women Letters by Gabrielle Donnelly

As a rule, I don't read much chick lit.  But when I heard about Gabrielle Donnelly's The Little Women Letters, based on the idea of descendants of the March sisters, I knew I would have to read it.  And as a fun, cosy, cold night read it didn't disappoint.

Emma, Lulu and Sophie Atwater are three sisters living in modern London.  Emma is getting married, Sophie is trying to become an actress and middle-sister Lulu is just trying to figure out what she wants to do with her life.  When Lulu finds a stash of letters written by her Great-Great-Great-Grandmother Jo in the loft, she finds that Jo's story and the story of all the March girls has surprising relevance to all of their lives.

Where I felt that this book excelled was the portrayal of the relationships between the female characters, and especially between the sisters. I have an older sister I am very close too and I thought that Donnelly did a great job of portraying how close that relationship can be and how your sister can annoy you more than anyone else!  The mother-daughter relationships were well written too.

Contrastingly, a lot of the male characters fell a bit flat.  The Dad was one-dimensional and reduced to a few jokes about secretly yearning for a more traditional woman.  Emma's fiance was too nice.  Sophie's best friend Jamie was the stereotype long suffering best friend.  Compared to the female characters, there was no real character development; I know this is chick lit, but I do like strong male characters too.

As with a lot of chick lit, everything was tied up neatly at the end, and to be honest it was a bit too neat for me.  Characters were introduced simply to make other characters happy, something that wouldn't happen in real life.  Everyone was happy.  Now that's nice to read about every now and again, but overall I prefer chick lit written by the likes of Marian Keyes, where there is just a touch more grit.

All of this is not to say that I didn't enjoy this book.  I did.  It was a cute, fun read that I enjoyed picking up after a long day.  And the idea of being descended from Jo March is undeniably cool.

Verdict: Chick lit that does what it says on the tin.
Source: Library
Score: 3 out of 5

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Wonderful Wednesdays #7 (Favourite Authors)

Wonderful Wednesdays is a meme about spotlighting and recommending some of our most loved books, even if we haven't read them recently.  Each week will have a different genre or theme.

This weeks theme is favourite authors.

Usually I choose books based on their individual themes and reviews, rather than based on who wrote them.  Even if I love a book written by a certain author, I don't usually seek out that author's other books.  But there are particular authors I make exceptions for, particular authors I will read anything by and get ridiculously excited if anything new comes out.

My first choice is Philip Pullman.  I became a fan as a teenager with the His Dark Materials trilogy, books that I have read many times and will read many more.  I love the world building, the characters, the quirky daemons and the fact that deeper topics are considered too.  I'm also a big fan of the Sally Lockhart Mysteries, set in Victorian England.

And then earlier this year, I finally got my hands on The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, which I found to be a thoughtful examination on the difference between Jesus and the Christian church.  These books are from different genres and age ranges, which is the main reason why I love Pullman - he is so versatile.

My second choice is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.  My first introduction to her work was Half of a Yellow Sun, a powerful and epic tale of Nigerian civil war.  This led me on to Purple Hibiscus, about a family living in the shadow of their abusive father, known as an upstanding Christian man in his own community.

And sitting on my shelf upstairs is a copy of her short story collection That Thing Around Your Neck, which I've been saving for my week off work next week.  I love Adichie for the simple but powerful writing, the way she writes about Nigeria and her characters.

How about you?
I want to hear all about your favourite authors, whatever genre they come from.  Grab the image above, make a blog post and then sign up to the linky below so we can all hop between blogs.  Thanks to those that do take part.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

The Bishop's Man by Linden MacIntyre

Father MacAskill is known as 'The Exorcist' as it's his job to deal with instances of child-abuse and priests that break their vows of celibacy.  Directed to keep such events hidden from the eyes of the media and the world, he becomes an expert in shunting priests sideways to other parishes and persuading victims to not seek retribution.  But when he is hidden in a rural Nova Scotia parish to avoid a public scandal, he is forced to reflect on his life, his career and whether his faith can sustain him.

The Bishop's Man started out as a quiet, leisurely read with a pace that switched up several gears as events swirled out of Father MacAskill's control.  I'm not a big fan of thrillers or mysteries, so wasn't interested in 'solving' the book, but I did think that MacIntyre cleverly weaved in deeper issues such as whether celibacy is a reasonable aim for priests and whether suicide is ever acceptable for Catholics.  It was a book to make you think.

The topic of child abuse in the Catholic church was always going to be a sensitive one but I think MacIntyre handled it sensitively; from the families who were angry but still do what MacAskill tells them to do, to the priests that offer their explanations, to MacAskill himself, who never gets the closure or reasons he is looking for.  The Bishop was an especially interesting character, only interested in preserving the church from scandal and not in helping the victims he refuses to acknowledge;

"They'll get over it.  They're young.  If it wasn't this, it would be something else.  The dope.  The cars.  The promiscuity.  Life is damaging, but never forget the healing power of the Sacraments.  The Sacraments mitigate the damage.  We can't let a bunch of misfits and complainers undermine the Sacraments." p128

This novel was really my first experience of Canadian literature.  It was recommended by a Canadian blogger friend (I wish I could remember who) and I was lucky enough to find a copy of it in my library.  And aside from the themes of the novel, the Nova Scotia landscape was almost a character in itself in the book.  I was swept away to the disintegrating fishing village full of men with nothing to do and the long, bleak winters where everyone knows each other.

Overall, I would recommend this book.  It was a well written, sensitive examination of the topic of child abuse by Catholic priests.  The mystery and thriller elements were perhaps not for me, but I could still appreciate the writing and the story.

Source: Library
Score: 3.5 out of 5

Friday, 14 October 2011

A Good Trip To The Library

I'm in for a busy time reading over the next few weeks as several items I had on reserve at the library all came in at once.   Today I took home with me (summaries from Goodreads):

A Mountain of Crumbs by Elena Gorokhova

Elena Gorokhova grows up in 1960's Leningrad where she discovers that beauty and passion can be found in unexpected places in Soviet Russia.
A Mountain of Crumbs is the moving story of a young Soviet girl's discovery of the hidden truths of adulthood and her country's profound political deception.

84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

It all began with a letter inquiring about second-hand books, written by Helene Hanff in New York, and posted to a bookshop at 84, Charing Cross Road in London. As Helene's sarcastic and witty letters are responded to by the stodgy and proper Frank Doel of 84, Charing Cross Road, a relationship blossoms into a warm and charming long-distance friendship lasting many years.

The Little Women Letters by Gabrielle Donnelly

Vibrant, fresh, and intelligent, The Little Women Letters explores the imagined lives of Jo March’s descendants—three sisters who are both thoroughly modern and thoroughly March.
Vlad: The Last Confession by C.C. Humphreys
(as recommended by Coffee and a Book Chick)

Dracula. A name of horror and  depravity.
His tale is told by those who knew him best. The only woman he ever loved...and whom he had to sacrifice. His closest comrade...and traitor. And his priest, betraying the secrets of the confessional to reveal the mind of the man history would forever remember as The Impaler. This is the story of the man behind the it has never been told before.

An eclectic mix of books - I can't wait to get started!  Have you read any of them? If so, what did you think?

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Wonderful Wednesdays #6 (Historical Fiction)

Wonderful Wednesdays is a meme about spotlighting and recommending some of our most loved books, even if we haven't read them recently.  Each week will have a different genre or theme.

This weeks theme is historical fiction.

Which stories set in the past do you really love?  This one was a tough one for me because lots of my favourite historical fiction I have reviewed recently (Shanghai Girls, Remarkable Creatures, The Mistress of Nothing, The Sandalwood Tree).  In the end I decided to go with a book I first read in my teens.  There have been controversies over whether or not it is a fiction book at all, being based on extensive research, but I decided in the end that if the Booker committee think it's fiction, then that's good enough for me.

My choice is Schindler's Ark by Thomas Keneally (published as Schindler's List in the US).  Oskar Schindler shelters many Jews during the Nazi Holocaust at considerable risk to himself and comes very close to being caught at times.  The reason I love this book, aside from the wonderful writing, is that Schindler is morally ambiguous.  This book shows that you don't have to be a wonderful person to do great things.  Schindler likes a drink and is an awful husband but when it comes down to it, he does something great.  Schindler's Ark also asks the question of whether good things can be done through evil methods, and whether you should 'shake hands with the devil' if it's going to save lives.

If you've not read it, I do recommend it.  The film is good, but nowhere near as good as the book.

How about you?
I want to hear all about your favourite pieces of historical fiction.  Grab the image above, make a blog post and then sign up to the linky below so we can all hop between blogs.  Thanks to those that do take part.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff

Most of us live out peaceful, boring, uneventful lives that start and end in obscurity and make no mark on history.  But even by the standards of historical figures, Cleopatra had an amazingly eventful and important life - she had children with two of the most powerful Romans, ruled Egypt single-handedly and with her suicide the ancient era was said to be over.  In Cleopatra: A Life, Stacy Schiff seeks to separate the fact from the myth and provide an unbiased account of what we actually know about Cleopatra and what we can reasonably deduce.

The basic premise of the book is that Cleopatra has had somewhat of a bad rep over the years.  Far from being a scheming, adulterous seductress who destroyed Mark Anthony, Schiff portrays her instead as a woman who was always ready to make the most of her situation, using her considerable ambition, intellect and wit.  Schiff argues that it was easier for history (and her Roman biographers) to dismiss her as lustful rather than acknowledge that she, a woman, was capable of using her intellect to persuade men and influence events.

Given the lack of primary sources and historical record about Cleopatra's life, Schiff's account is mainly in the business of providing context and details about Alexandria and Rome at the time.  The civil war between Octavian and Mark Anthony is also extensively explained.  As someone who loves all of the little details and quirky facts (did you know Cleopatra was the only Ptolemaic ruler to bother to learn Egyptian?  Or that Cleopatra had such a monopoly on Egypt's produce that she forced farmers to sell to her at 50% tax and then sold on for an astounding 300% profit, making her worth $98bn in today's money?), I appreciated all the context and back story.  If you want to read only about her life, the detail might be off-putting.

I did enjoy Schiff's writing.  It remained lively throughout, and I could tell the amount of research and passion that had gone into the book from the way it was written.  Schiff was telling a story rather than providing a dry account of facts, and sometime she had so much she wanted to tell us that she had to use footnotes.  I did find  that the account of the Roman civil war dragged  a bit when Cleopatra wasn't involved and no battles were taking place, but I could see the relevance to Cleopatra's story.

To be honest, there wasn't anything I didn't like about this book.  I thought it was a prime example of good, engaging non-fiction writing that will appeal to a wide audience while still satisying history buffs.

Verdict: Engaging biography of Cleopatra that attempts to separate myth from fact.
Source: Owned
Score: 5 out of 5

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Sunday Salon: Memes

Those of you that stopped by my blog in the week will know that I'm trying to revive the meme I started almost a year ago: Wonderful Wednesdays.  The reason for this is mainly that my reading pace has slowed dramatically compared to the summer holidays.  I know this is true for a lot of us too - we're all back at work or school, and in the run up to Christmas as well there just isn't as much time for reading.

Wonderful Wednesdays is supposed to be a way around that, as it lets us discuss books without reading any new books.  It highlights books that we've read in the past, possibly pre-blogging and each post should be a discussion of a book we have enjoyed (rather than just a list or a brief comment).  I also think that with all the new books that we read, ARC copies and ones with buzz, it's nice to step back and revisit some old faves.

Maria from Fly High visited my blog during the week and pointed out that it might be useful if people knew in advance what the topic for each Wonderful Wednesday is going to be, so they have a chance to think about it and decide what to write about, or maybe even schedule a post.  So I've added a picture on my right sidebar with next week's topic written underneath.  Next Wednesday, I (and anyone else who wants to join me!) will be writing about our favourite books in the historical fiction genre, literary or not.

I'm hoping that this meme will become a way to discuss great books and get new recommendations every week.  I hope it stays small scale but in-depth, with a group of people that ending reading and commenting on each others blogs.  Anyone who wants to take part is more than welcome (the more the merrier!), and I'm also open to topic ideas too.  If I use your topic idea one week, I will of course credit you and link to your blog.

So who's with me?

Friday, 7 October 2011

Balzac And The Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie

Imagine living in society where you can only read state-sanctioned literature.  Sijie takes us back to Communist-era China during the Cultural Revolution in Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress.  Two young men are sent to the countryside to be 're-educated' out of their urban, bourgeoisie ways by the local peasants.  Between horrible tasks such as transporting animal waste, they discover a hidden stash of Western literature and this experience changes them and those around them in a multitude of ways.

I was so excited to read this book.  I've been interested in Chinese Communism for years, so knew quite a lot of the background, and I always enjoy books that are about the power of reading.  But unfortunately this one just didn't click for me.

My first issue was the length.  Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is more of a novella than a novel, which I don't mind in general but it felt as though it was short due to Sijie's deliberately bare writing style.  I know this is a question of personal taste, but very minimalist writing like this doesn't do anything for me.  I didn't feel connected with the characters or with their experiences.  I also thought that anyone who approached this book without knowing anything about Chinese Communism wouldn't be able to appreciate the context of this novel, and thus the real power of its message.

I do think Sijie did a fantastic job of showing the harsh reality of life for the peasants and I appreciated how the Little Seamstress herself changed through second-hand exposure to the literature, as well as the two boys themselves changing.  For this reason I enjoyed the later sections of the book and the ending.

But ultimately I just didn't connect with this book in the way that I had hoped I would.  I felt as though the message and power of the book was hindered by the minimalistic/realistic style chosen by the author. I know others loved the book for the same reason that I didn't enjoy it.

Verdict: Interesting idea, disappointing execution.
Source: Won in a giveaway!
Score: 2.5 out of 5

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Wonderful Wednesdays #5 (Escapism)

Back in Jan and Feb, I had my own little meme going called Wonderful Wednesdays, in which we highlighted some of our favourite books each Wednesday.  It was doing well for a fledgling meme, but then life took over and I never really developed it.  I've decided it's time to give it another shot, so it's back with a revamped logo and new theme.

Wonderful Wednesdays #5

Wonderful Wednesdays is a meme about spotlighting and recommending some of our most loved books, even if we haven't read them recently.  Each week will have a different genre or theme.

This weeks theme is escapism.  

What books do you read when you are having a tough time of it in real life and need to forget all of your worries?  What books do you trust to take you far away from reality?

I've chosen two books for this theme, one fiction and one non-fiction, both of which I have read multiple times and make me forget everything else.  A few years ago, my answer would have definitely have been Harry Potter, without a shadow of a doubt, but times change:

Choice 1: The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

For those not familiar with this book, it's a retelling of Dracula based on the premise that Dracula survived and continued to create havoc up until the present day.  A young woman finds a cache of letters and an ancient book and this sets her on the trial of Dracula throughout history.

This one is pure escapism for me both for the plot and the setting.  As a Dracula fan, I like imagining his history through time and as an armchair traveller, I adore the descriptions of the places, cultures and food.  I defy anyone to read this and not want to immediately visit Eastern Europe and Istanbul!

Choice 2: In Arabian Nights by Tahir Shah

This choice is a non-fiction book, in which the author has moved to Morocco. In beautiful and poetic language, he describes his experiences in Marrakech, the Sahara desert and interactions with Moroccans.  It's all threaded through with his passion for storytelling, and the local stories passed down through the generations.

This book is a real gem that I don't think gets enough recognition.  It's the only account of Morocco or the Middle East that portrays how different it is without making it overly exotic and romantic.  You can tell that Shah truly loves Morocco, it's people and traditions.  Whenever I read it, I'm completely swept up in the sights, sounds and smells of Morocco and it's not a bad place to be.  England and real life certainly seem a long way away.

How about you?
I want to hear all about your favourite escapist reads, be they fiction or non-fiction, or whatever genre they come from.  If you want to take part, grab the button above and make a post in your blog.  Then link your post below, so I can read and comment on all your lovely entries!

Monday, 3 October 2011

Girl In Translation by Jean Kwok

Kimberly Chang and her mother move to New York from Hong Kong when Kim is only eleven.  Kept in debt by an aunt who can't forget the price she paid to get them there, Kim and her Mum live in a roach infested apartment with no windowpanes or heating.  Every free moment is taken up with illegal work in a sweatshop.  And even school, the one thing Kim has always been good at, offers no comfort as Kim understands little English.

This is definitely not a happy book.  Kim and her Mum go through many hardships, especially during the winter months when they must keep their oven on and the door constantly open to stop their floor from freezing over.  They have to raid rubbish bins to find fabric to keep them warm.  It's a lonely life as even when Kim becomes more fluent in English, she feels cut off from all of those around her.  But Kwok manages to keep the book from being a depressing read by inserting moments of humour, mainly through the phoneticised spellings of English words.  When she meets her new teacher for the first time, he says "Our new student, eye-pre-zoom."  This really takes the reader into Kim's head and provides much needed light heartedness.

The book is also kept from being too melancholy by Kim's ambition and determination.  You always feel that she will succeed and are not surprised when she does.  The contrast between the life she lives at home and at the factory compared the world of the elite prep school she gains a scholarship to makes for interesting reading.  Kim literally lives a double life, and has many secrets out of necessity, secrets that her friends from both parts of her life would never understand.  And because of this, she doesn't really fit anywhere.

I felt as though the real talent in Kwok's novel was how she took me right into the head of Kim, and in this way Girl In Translation reminded me of Pigeon English or The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. The writing was bare but somehow also descriptive and captured the immigrant experience wonderfully.  You end up admiring Kim for her bravery, or at least her sheer determination.

Up until the last chapter and the epilogue, this was hands down one of the best books I've read all year.  But unfortunately I felt like the epilogue was unnecessary and some of the plot developments introduced too quickly and without any real reason.  I understand that Kwok was trying to make the point that for Kim, happiness would always come with cost, whatever her choices, but I think the novel would have been better left at one of the turning points in her life.

Verdict: Fascinating insight into the mind of a young immigrant in America.
Source: Library
Published: 2010
Score: 4.5 out of 5

Sunday, 2 October 2011

From Demons To Dracula by Matthew Beresford

Anyone who has read this blog for a while will know that I have a weakness for  vampires.  And not the paranormal romance variety - the proper, old-fashioned, murderous, bloodsucking variety.  Two of my favourite books are Dracula and The Historian.  So I was excited to find this non-fiction history of the creation of the modern vampire myth at my library.

Happily, I wasn't disappointed with it.  From Demons to Dracula is a chronological history of the vampire through time, touching on ancient beliefs, middle age myths, Transylvania and peasant superstition, Vlad Tepes and the vampire in modern media.  As with any history like this, some chapters were more interesting than others.  I most enjoyed reading about the 'historical' Dracula (Vlad the Impaler) and the Romanian superstitions.  It was fascinating to see how the old myths had become twisted over time into the vampire that we all think of now - in Romanian folklore, vampires don't drink blood and they are born, not made.  Reading about classic vampire literature made me want to go out and immediately read Carmilla and The Vampyre.

Although the subject matter was excellent, the writing was a bit hit and miss throughout the course of the book.  In the beginning few chapters, I felt as though I was reading Beresford's PhD dissertation rather than a published book, but luckily the writing began to feel more natural towards the half way point of the book.  I found some of the conclusions Beresford was making a bit far-fetched; the vampire myth being related to suckling being a good example of this, but there is no denying that he had completed a great deal of research and presented lots of interesting information well.

In conclusion, I would recommend this book to anyone interested in vampires, myths or folklore, purely for the information inside of it.  There is also an excellent biography included, from which I have added quite a few books to my wishlist.

Verdict: Fascinating history of vampires.
Source: Library
Published: 2008
Score: 4 out of 5