Sunday, 30 September 2012

Meet Me at the Cupcake Cafe by Jenny Colgan

I'm not the biggest fan of chick-lit but every now and again, when life is stressful, I crave something light and fluffy to read and chick lit is usually what I turn to.  In this offering by Jenny Colgan, Issy is a thirty something working in admin for a real-estate agency who loves to bake the recipes passed on by her baker grandfather.  When she is made redundant from her job, Issy decides to take the plunge and use her redundancy pay-out to open up a cupcake cafe in Stoke Newington.  But running a business isn't easy and Issy has long working hours, a lack of customers and red tape to deal with, alongside working out what to do about her cut-throat property developer boyfriend Graeme.

I'm not an expert on chick lit by any means, but this book was far from the best in the genre.  The basic plot was an interesting one, and I loved how the recipes Issy used were included at the start of each chapter but overall, Meet Me at the Cupcake Cafe was missing a hefty dose of realism. I'm not saying I expect chick-lit to deal with heavy issues all the time, there's nothing wrong with a bit of escapism, but this was ridiculous.  Issy straight away finds a location for her shop, magically has just the right amount of money, is able to open in a matter of weeks despite everything needing a re-fit, gets the first bank loan she applies for, meets the perfect employee by chance and has no issues with health and safety regulations, licencing etc.  If opening a business was really that easy, everyone would do it.  It was also astounding how quickly Issy was able to go from struggling to make ends meet to turning a generous profit.  There was no real sense of the worry involved in starting up a business.

The characterisation was lazy too.  Issy was relatable but almost everyone else was a stereotype from the bad boy boyfriend to the responsible 'other man' looking after his baby brother, to the snobby yummy mummies with designer prams, to the resentful council estate Mum who over-feeds her baby boy with junk, to the builders only wanting bacon sandwiches and commenting on 'posh birds'.  Colgan was clearly trying to say something about class issues but it came across as very clumsy and simplistic.  Colgan does attempt to give these characters some depth by the end of the novel but doesn't quite succeed.  Even the romance part of the novel was lacking as it relied on Issy being completely ignorant about how uncaring Graeme was, which was so obvious in the text that it made Issy look a bit stupid.

My review so far of this book has been very harsh.  It wasn't all bad - Meet Me at the Cupcake Cafe was easy to read and certainly provided some escapism.  But I just don't see why books should be allowed to be so uninspiring just because they are chick lit.  Next time I crave something from this genre, I think I'll stick to Marian Keyes.

Source: Personal copy (kindle)
First Published: 2011
Score: 2 out of 5

Monday, 24 September 2012

Life is Crazy!

This is one of those 'sorry my blog is going to be quiet for a while' posts as my life is crazy at the moment.  My husband and I have been saving for a house deposit for years and started hunting a few weeks ago, thinking it would take months to find something as we are both fussy.  Instead, we have found everything we wanted in a house at the price we wanted and have fallen utterly in love (I'm talking mentally unpacking bookshelves here).  We're making an offer tomorrow morning, there is a lot of interest in the house so it's stressful and nothing is certain.  Even if our offer is accepted, there's always the fear of getting gazumped.  I'm thinking tomorrow will be an emotionally draining day as I try to teach and simultaneously negotiate a price for a house.  It'll be very disappointing to not get this house.

On top of this, I'm going away on Wednesday for three days with thirty eleven year old children on an outdoor sports holiday in the middle of nowhere.  Of course, this will not be a holiday for me but I am looking forward to it as I know how much the children will love it there.  There's no internet so I'll be away from the blog from Weds-Fri.

And I'm organising a baby shower for my eight months pregnant sister.  Everything that is happening is good, but it's all happening at once!

Sunday, 23 September 2012

A Suitable Boy Readalong: Part Two

A group of us have been reading Vikram Seth's monumental epic, A Suitable Boy, over three months.  Today is the end of month two so it's time to check in again (you can find my part one post here).  I have to start this post with a confession; we were supposed to read up to page 1032, finishing chapter 13.28, but I've only managed to get up to page 837, making me about two hundred pages short.  I blame work but fully intend to catch up so I finish the read-along on time.  There will be spoilers in this post.

As much as I loved the first third of the book, I've found this middle section a bit of a slog.  Lots of my favourite characters (the Chatterjis, Pran & Savita and even Lata to a certain extent) take a back seat to newer characters that I didn't find as engaging.  Maan Kapoor, the son of an eminent politician, is sent into the countryside with his Urdu teacher to get him away from a relationship with a known courtesan.  Although the setting is described in lush vocabulary by Seth the narrative gets caught up in village politics and land ownership and this made it hard for me to get through it.  I wanted to know more about Rasheed's wife, not what Rasheed was doing to transfer his father's land to the peasants that had worked on it for years.

Politics is very much a strong theme throughout this section.  The Zamindari Act, that would remove land from hereditary landowners, is being challenged in the High Court.  I do find this bit of politics interesting but every discussion and debate is reported on in the book and the resolution, when it finally comes, is a bit of an anti-climax.  Again, I think Seth misses a trick but not showing us human rather than political reactions to the bill.

The search for a husband for Lata does continue in this third of the book, with a new suitor, shoemaker Haresh.  I like Haresh despite his all-encompassing ambition, which Seth gently pokes fun at (he carries his certificates around at all times), but he's not as interesting as Kabir or Amit Chatterji.  Although Rupa Mehra is there and still continues to make outrageous remarks, the humour in this part of the book is a bit less.

Events turn more serious when administrative incompetence at a busy religious festival by the river Ganges leads to thousands being crushed to death.  These sections had me glued to the book as some of my favourite characters were involved.  Despite my complaints above, I'm still enjoying the book and still think Seth's writing is wonderful, deceptively simple.  I hope events pick up pace as we move into the last third of the book (600 pages to go!).

How is everyone else getting on?  Have you found this section of the book a slog too?

Friday, 21 September 2012

Little Women Read-along Chapters 1-8

 I'm participating in the Little Women readalong hosted by Risa at Breadcrumb Reads and this week, we read chapters 1-8.  There will be spoilers ahead!

In this part of the book, we meet the family for the first time.  As I mentioned in my introductory post, I read an abridged version of the book many times as a child so I thought the girls were familiar to me.  I remembered headstrong, passionate Jo and peaceful Beth right, but in my head Meg was more mature than she appears at the start of the book, always going on about dresses and looks.  Maybe it's the film-Meg I'm remembering rather than the book-Meg?

As for the plot, Little Women as a whole is divided into episodes that teach life lessons.  In chapters 1-8, the girls learn that poverty is relative, Beth overcomes her shyness to make a new friend, Jo's temper and refusal to forgive leads to Amy burning her manuscript and Amy learns that there are consequences to breaking the rules at school.  Much of these chapters were taken up with Jo becoming friends with Laurie and his introduction to the family as a whole.  I love Laurie as a character; he's quite loud and boisterous but capable of great sensitivity towards Beth too.  There is one section where Alcott writes that Laurie is always nice, but then he only ever shows his pleasant side to the Marches (or words to that effect!), that promise some interesting chapters later on.

One of the questions Risa posted was 'have you a favourite sister yet?' and I most definitely do.  Although I would like to think of myself as calm and peaceful like Beth or creative and passionate like Jo, I'm more of an Amy.  Before you all start writing me off as a spoiled brat, what I mean by that is I was the youngest sister too.  Much of Amy's 'bad' behaviour comes from her desire to catch up, to do what Jo and Meg are doing.  The scene where she throws a tantrum about not being allowed to go to the theatre reminded me of all the times my big sister got to do something first and I remember how jealous I was!  You never feel like you will catch up when you're Amy's age, although age becomes irrelevant later.  I think Amy gets a bad rep sometimes, burning Jo's manuscript was appalling but Amy is always ready to own up to her mistakes and ask for forgiveness and she can be very generous.  Beth is almost too perfect to relate to so I appreciate that Alcott created a human, flawed character in Amy.  I will be cheering for Amy all through this read-along!

I'm looking forward to reading the next third of the book next week.  We are reading the original Little Women only (half of the American version), so I'm going to go straight on and read Good Wives/ the second half afterwards.  Reading the book brings on a cosy feeling which is just lovely after a long day at work.

Risa's discussion post

Sunday, 16 September 2012

When She Woke by Hillary Jordan

Hannah Payne lives in a dystopian version of America where conservative Christians are in control and criminals serve their sentences out in public, melachromed for easy identification.  Hannah has commited the crime of having an abortion (classified as murder) and for that, every inch of her skin has been dyed bright red.  Having spend some time on the Chrome Ward as part of a sinister reality TV programme, Hannah must now try to adapt to life as an outcast, subject to prejudice and abuse.  Her every movement can be tracked and she soon becomes a target for the Fist, a radical group that hunts out and punishes chromes.  With her family turning away from her, can Hannah adjust to her new life?

When She Woke is a modern retelling of the classic The Scarlett Letter.  Unfortunately, I've not read the latter so I can't judge how faithful to the original it was.  Hannah does refuse to name the father of her unborn child but this isn't as integral to the plot as I had imagined it to be.  When She Woke is more about the dystopia of Jordan's imagined American society than anything else.

It's hard to make a judgement of this book as the first and second halves are remarkably different.  The first half is about the society Hannah lives in and the reactions of her friends and family to her having the abortion, whilst the second is more action packed as Hannah struggles to escape the Fist.  I liked the first half but found the second implausible and a bit silly.  I was most interested in the psychological impact on Hannah - what would it be like to be branded forever as a criminal?  The passages where Hannah is free and trying to interact with members of the public were fascinating.

I think some of the impact of this book was dulled by me not being American.  I'm British and whilst some people here may feel strongly about abortion, it's not a large issue and definitely not a political one.  No one finds out whether our politicians are 'pro-choice' or 'pro-life' and it's rare to see a discussion or debate around abortion.  Had I been in America, where I know abortion is more highly charged, abortion equaling murder would have been more powerful.  Consequently I wanted to know more about Chromes that were different to Hannah - the blues, yellows and greens.  Were they treated differently than she was?

As I mentioned above, the second half of the book was a bit of a let down.  Hannah is targeted by a radical group and starts on an action packed journey to escape. I think Jordan is trying to portray Hannah's character growth as she starts to care less what others think of her but this comes across as rushed and unbelievable.  There's even the inclusion of a lesbian scene that seems completely out of character for Hannah,given that only a few months earlier she was regurgitating all her evangelical parents' beliefs as facts.  I truly hope the author wasn't associating feminism with lesbianism i.e because Hannah becomes a feminist, she must find other women sexually attractive.  Hannah would have changed, but not as fast as Jordan made her.

On the whole, the premise of When She Woke was stronger than the execution.  I'm still thinking about Chromes almost a week after finishing the book but the plot didn't measure up.  A thought provoking read.

Source: Library (reserved)
First Published: 2011
My Edition: Harper Collins UK, 2012
Score: 3 out of 5

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Little Women Readalong

I'm joining in the Little Women read along at Breadcrumb Reads, running from 14th September to 5th October, with discussion posts every Friday.  Earlier in the year, I discovered that my battered, much-loved copy of the book was in fact an abridged version and ever since then I've been wondering what was omitted from the text.  This readalong is therefore the perfect time for me to experience the whole book for the first time.

I'll be reading the gorgeous Penguin Threads edition and it will count towards my Classics Club list as book four of seventy-two.  Although I read the abridged version many times as a child, I haven't read it recently and I wonder if my reaction will still be the same.  I always wanted to be like feisty, determined Jo or peaceful Beth but I have a feeling that I'm more of an Amy.  I hope it hasn't ruined me, but I was the youngest daughter growing up and consequently I was a bit spoiled.  I was permanently in a one-woman race to be grown up already, to do everything my older sister did.  I would never have done anything like throw her manuscript in the fire but I'm definitely more like Amy than any of the other sisters.

I'm hoping Little Women will still give me that cosy, safe feeling it did as a teenager.  I want the sisters to feel like old friends and the book like revisiting a favourite.

The readalong is very low-key and I'm sure Risa is still accepting sign-ups if anyone wants to join us in reading Little Women this month.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Sense and Sensibility is the first Austen I've ever read 'blind', that is with no prior knowledge of the story.  With Pride and Prejudice I had seen the BBC adaptation first and with Emma I was already a massive fan of Clueless so it wasn't hard to pick things up.  But Sense and Sensibility was a blank slate and honestly, it was kind of scary.  Give me a Russian epic any day of the week but Austen intimidates me with all her wit that I don't always notice.

Sense and Sensibility is at heart a story about two sisters, Elinor and Marianne.  Elinor is the sense, Marianne the sensibility (impulsive and emotional).  During the course of the story they are both jilted by men they love and the bulk of the novel deals with their differing reactions.  Marianne falls desperately in love with Willoughby from the moment she meets him and they court very publicly with everyone expecting an engagement, only for Willoughby to run off with a richer woman.  Marianne's grief and despair are not hidden.  Elinor's story is a quieter one as she has fallen in love with a family friend, Edward Ferrars.  Unfortunately, he is already engaged to Lucy Steele and feels honour bound to marry her.  Elinor's heartbreak is no less than Marianne's but her expression of it more subdued.  As they both find their way again, the differing reactions of the two sisters are contrasted.

I guess most women are an Elinor or Marianne and I'm definitely an Elinor.  I do feel things deeply but I'm an intensely private person to the extent that my husband would be the only one to know if I was suffering or upset.  I am an expert at covering up my feelings, getting on with things and not losing my head even if I might feel like it.  Self-control is practically my middle name!  So I really felt for Elinor in the story - even though she feels very deeply she hides it well, meaning that she is often overlooked as everyone rushes to take care of Marianne.  There's one passage that struck a particular chord with me; Elinor is berating Marianne for not confiding in her and Marianne replies;

"Nay, Elinor, this reproach from you - you who have confidence in no one!"

It struck a chord because this is me - I tend not to tell other people my problems as I don't want to be a burden to them.  This can lead to me being perceived as distant or aloof, when really I just hate to inconvenience others by going on about myself.  Of course, what I (and Elinor) forget is that sometimes, people want to show you they care by helping you, and they can't do that if you don't open up to them in the first place.  As I so closely identified with Elinor, I was cheering for her when she finally showed her emotions to her sister and was satisfied with the ending she received. 

That's not to say I didn't enjoy Marianne's story.  I've always been a bit jealous of the Mariannes of the world, people who are free and unselfconscious and open - I'll never be like that.  Marianne was full of spirit and very alive.  I liked that she didn't give a damn what people thought about her and that she did as she pleased.  Although Marianne did have some growing up to do in the story, I wasn't fully satisfied with her ending.   *SPOILER* It was almost as if she was brow-beaten into marrying Colonel Brandon because her family wanted her to, not because she loved him.  They both deserved better.

Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed Sense and Sensibility, I still prefer Pride and Prejudice and Emma.  However, I can still see myself reading this many times in the future and getting more out of it each time.  There are three more Austens for me to experience and I can't wait.

This is the third book I've read for the Classics Club.
Progress: 3/72

Source: Personal copy
First Published: 1811
My Edition: Penguin Classics, 2008
Score: 4.5 out of 5

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Sunday Salon: Start of the New Academic Year

Monday was start of the academic year for all of us teachers and students here in the UK.  As expected, work has been kicking my butt all week!  September is always a busy time for teachers but it's more so for me this year due to a combination of factors that collectively mean reading and blogging have fallen by the wayside.

I did manage to finish one book, Sense and Sensibility, which was a great escape from reality during the evenings.  I liked it a lot (review to follow) but not as much as the other two Austens I've read, Emma and Pride and Prejudice.  Even so, I can see myself rereading it many times in the future.

I'm pleased that I've managed to keep up my exercise routine in the back to work rush.  I don't discuss health matters on here much but I have inflammatory bowel disease and it can take a lot of managing.  I have the right medication and I'm good with diet and knowing what will cause a flare up but exercise has always been my weakest link.  In the summer hols I exercised properly for the first time and got in shape.  The test was always going to be whether my motivation would continue when I went back to work, but I did manage to fit in three running sessions of about half hour each, so I'm pleased with that.  I hope I can continue.

Yesterday, my husband and I went to see Anna Karenina.  I had high hopes for it, being a big fan of the book, but ultimately I was left disappointed.  I was expecting the Levin and Kitty storyline to be side-lined so I wasn't too upset with that, but stylistically it just didn't work for me.  The whole thing was filmed in a theatre (the trains were model trains) and between scenes you could see extras changing props/background sets and it was disconcerting.  The whole thing was choreographed to the extent it was almost a musical without any songs.  I was forcibly reminded of Moulin Rouge.  Honestly, the styling and theatre setting detracted from the story too much.

The acting was mixed.  Keira Knightley was OK as Anna but Count Vronksy was all wrong, too young and weak and passive.  Kitty and Levin were both acted well, as were Oblonsky and Dolly.  I guess it wasn't a bad film but if you just saw this, you would have no idea why Anna Karenina is one of the most loved books of all time.  For fans of the book, the film can only disappoint.

I've missed out on lots of blog posts and reviews this week so I plan to spend some of this afternoon relaxing and visiting blogs.  My lesson plans and resources are all up to date so I can take a bit of time for myself.  I'm hoping work will settle down over the coming weeks as I get adjusted into new routines.

How was your week?

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Into the Darkest Corner by Elizabeth Haynes

Cathy Bailey meets Lee one day at a nightclub and for a while, everything is perfect.  Their relationship is good and all her friends are jealous that Cathy has found someone to settle down with.  But then things start to change.  The signs are small at first - minor jealousy about Cathy going out on her own, a ridiculous suggestion that she give up her job so as to be always there when he has a day off, direct suggestions about what to wear.  But Lee becomes increasingly controlling, taking away Cathy's passport, following her around town and finally becoming violent.  Cathy's caught in a net with no one to turn to as all her friends think Lee is wonderful, that she's lucky to have such a man.  She starts to plan a desperate escape but the violence in the relationship is escalating - will Cathy ever be able to break away?

Psychological thrillers are not something I am generally familiar with, I chose to read this one as I wanted something fast, gripping and escapist to stop me thinking about going back to work!  And Into the Darkest Corner certainly did what I had hoped it would; it sucked me into the story and had me turning the pages as fast as I could to find out what would happen to Cathy.  I am very fortunate to have never experienced domestic violence but for the millions of people across the world who have, Into the Darkest Corner will definitely strike a chord.  Haynes does a good job of portraying how abuse and control slowly creep in, how Lee slowly isolates Cathy from everyone around her so she has no way of leaving him.  He charms her friends to the extent that no one will believe how horrific his behaviour really is.  At first Cathy doesn't even notice the small signs of abuse and the build up is realistic to the extent it's sometimes painful to read.  You want to jump into the book and shout at Cathy to run away without looking back.

Into the Darkest Corner has an unusual structure.  Short sections about Cathy's relationship with Lee are alternated with sections about Cathy's life much later on.  Although this removes some of the tension as we immediately know Cathy survives it also creates tension as the later version of Cathy is clearly physically and emotionally damaged.  She suffers with OCD, particularly relating to checking her flat is secure, is constantly looking over her shoulder for Lee to hunt her down and is unable to properly take care of herself or enjoy life.  She's covered in scars and for the reader the questions from the opening sections are 'what happened to Cathy to leave her like this?  How did the relationship finally end?'  Wanting to find out the answers to these questions kept me reading as quickly as possible, this book was never boring.

The writing in Into the Darkest Corner isn't fantastic or particularly beautiful, but that isn't what this book is about.  It's all about the story and suspense and fear and these parts are executed very well by Haynes.  Anyone who enjoys thrillers would appreciate this book, particularly those who liked S.J. Watson's Before I Go To Sleep as there are lots of similarities in style.

Source: Kindle (personal copy)
First Published: 2011
Score: 4 out of 5

Saturday, 1 September 2012

No God But God by Reza Aslan

No God But God is a non-fiction book about Islam.  It covers the life of the prophet Muhammad, the birth and development of the religion and also contemporary issues like the wearing of the veil, jihad and the evolution of what we in the West call fundamentalist Islam.  Aslan explains the roots of different Muslim groups and how the split between Sunni and Shi'a Muslims first occured.

Despite not being a believer, I've always been fascinated with religion.  I grew up in inner London so have been surrounded by people of different faiths from an early age and this has made me curious about them all.  No God But God is simply the best book on Islam that I've ever read.  It covers the development of the religion well and includes lots of discussion but more importantly, it's beautifully written in an almost narrative style that makes it easy to keep turning the pages.  Aslan shows a lot of respect for his faith but at the same time is keen to separate historical fact from myth.

I think most readers could learn a lot from this book.  Although I was already familiar with the history of Islam and the Sunni-Shi'a split (went to an amazing Karen Armstrong lecture at the British Museum once), there was much in this book I didn't know.  I found the chapter on Sufi Islam fascinating, they are an almost mystical group that believe in destroying your ego in order to achieve 'oneness' with Allah.  They practise many rituals to distract them from the sense of self, from breathing patterns through to dance, fasting and intense spiritual training.  Interestingly, they believe that there are many paths to God and the path you choose is irrelevant as long as you are making the journey.

Aslan's main argument in this book is about what some call the 'clash of civilisations' following 9/11. It's certainly true that Muslims have been tarred with a fundamentalist/terrorist brush and that some in the West think we are the prime target of groups such as Al-Qaeda.  However, Aslan argues that the West is simply caught up in what is an internal conflict between Muslims, a sort of Islamic Reformation where different groups are vying for the heart and soul of Muslims.  He traces the development of Al-Qaeda through Saudi Wahhabism (and it's funding from the West) and contrasts it with nations and schools of thought that want Islamic democracy - to live in a state where Islam is important but to still have civil rights.  If nothing else, Aslan's reminder that not all Muslims are the same is timely and one that certain groups in the West should learn.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and was struck by how religion as an institution is certainly different from faith. After Muhammad's death his followers couldn't agree on how best to interpret his message and how to pronounce on matters that were not covered in the Quran.  Although the arguments of the different theological schools were hard to follow at times it was fascinating to see how things changed over time (much like Christianity) and how different issues became relevant at different times through history.

My only complaints about the book are that I would have liked to read more about the Ottomans (but then I love anything to do with the Ottomans) and that I think Aslan missed a trick by not mentioning the scientific developments in Islamic countries whilst European countries were still in the Middle Ages.  If you're interested in religion, this is definitely a book to read and it's also one to recommend to anyone who needs their perceptions about Muslims challenged.

Source: Library
First Published: 2005
Score: 4.5 out of 5

 Read Alongside:
A History of God by Karen Armstrong - I read this one pre-blogging.  It's an excellent non-fiction account of the birth and development of the three major monotheistic faiths; Judaism, Christianity and Islam.