Sunday 30 January 2011

The Thirteenth Tale: Review

The Thirteenth Tale
by Diane Setterfield
Published in 2006
Published by Washington Square Press
ISBN: 978-0-7432-9803-2

I borrowed this book from a friend and I was not paid for this review.

When a well known figure refuses to tell us their life story, we tend to get a bit annoyed. They're famous! How can they possibly expect any privacy?! As ridiculous as I know that is, I am just as guilty as anyone else on this count. I want to know about the authors who write my favourite books, the actors in the movie I just watched or the latest television series I happen to be obsessing over (Dexter and Castle right now) and, I hate to admit, love to read the Entertainment section on the news website. Normally before I read the world news.

So imagine, then, the intrigue of being approached by a hugely successful and reclusive author to be the one person to whom she will tell her full story. It's enough to get Margaret Lea to leave the comfort zone of her father's bookstore and venture up to the Yorkshire Moors to meet Vida Winter. Ms. Winter is the grand mistress of fantastical fiction, especially fantastical are the tales she tells to nosey journalists who ask about her personal life. But this time she intends to tell the truth. She has a painful past to get out of her system and time is running out.

This novel spins together all of the threads I love the best: a bookworm heroine, the dark, blustery setting of the moors, an old house, a terrible family secret (or three) and beautiful writing. As Ms. Winter reveals more about her past, you can't help but be completely enveloped by her story and the fact that half the time she's withholding vitals bits of information that Margaret has to unearth herself only makes it all the more fascinating.

The best bit about this novel for me was that it felt a little bit like Wuthering Heights revisited. It has this wonderfully atmospheric feel to it which triggers a sort of primal urge to throw caution to the wind and sprint across the moors in the middle of a storm. Like Wuthering Heights it kept me riveted, unable to tear myself away from the story unless my husband staged a physical intervention and removed the book from my white-knuckled hands. Basically, this book is one that is at once literary, enjoyable and thoroughly engaging. It is one that I think would be safe to recommend without abandon and I do. If you haven't already read it and you're looking for a great read, this is one for you.

Have you read this book? If you have, what did you think?

Saturday 29 January 2011

What next? How I find my next read.

My current TBR pile!
I don't, and never have had, any trouble finding the book I want to read next. I seem to be surrounded by a perpetual and ever-increasing pile of books ll vying for my attention. As it is, I'm in a habit of reading about 3-4 different books at the same time, which some people find hard to fathom but I'm sure some of you will understand - I know Sheila from Book Journey will if this post is anything to go by!

In any case, I saw this Guardian article from a couple of years ago about a fun little website called The Book Seer. If you type in the last book you read and enjoyed, it will generate a list of recommendation through Amazon and LibraryThing for you to choose from. As Chris Powers notes, it's unclear on what factors (genre? author?) recommendations are generated but it is a bit of fun and hey - I'm all for reading things I wouldn't necessarily have done otherwise. It's a fact: there are far too many books and not enough time and one person could never know about all of the great books in the world.

Then I started wondering - how do I really find my next book? There's obviously the required reading schedule that comes along with writing a thesis, loads of theoretical articles, literary criticism and what not but a girl needs a bit of 'fun' reading, doesn't she! A bit of elicit "this isn't going to get me credit but I don't care" reading. I came to the conclusion that it was Bookcrossing, book club and blogging that were most responsible for my massive TBR pile. The fact that no one person can know even a fraction of all available good reads out there is one of the key reasons I spend so much time reading other people's blog and listening to podcasts about books. It seems to be my life's mission is to consume as much good literature as I possibly can without becoming a hermit or going blind which so far is going reasonably well (bad eyes notwithstanding!) but I know I could always read more and at the rate at which books are published I have to accept I will never keep up. But it's fun trying!

How do you find your next read? Do you even think about it, or do you (like me) have a constant pile of books waiting for you that just seemed to magically appear? I'd love to hear from you!

Wednesday 26 January 2011

Bloggiesta Wrap Up Post

This was my first time participating in Bloggiesta and MAN am I glad I joined in. I've been blogging for four years, now entering my fifth although this blog has only seriously been a book blog for about 2 years now. I thought that I knew a fair amount, certainly enough for now but when I checked into some of the mini-challenges I realised how much I had to learn. For example - what is a Gravatar? Favicon? Didn't know 7 days ago but now I have both. What happens if a virus attacks your blog? Had no idea but now I have a back up in case it does happen. And oh! The Tag Monster. I finally got the unruly mess of tags under control so they actually mean something.

Anyway - Bloggiesta was heaps of fun, super helpful and has made my blog a load better. I'll be back next June for sure and if you haven't joined in the fun, make sure you keep an eye out for it here!

War and Peace Wednesdays: January 26th

As at January 26th, 2011

Pages read so far - 35 (yup, nothing happening here this week!)

Excuse list - Bloggiesta took up all of my spare time this weekend so I didn't do any of my required reading.... *hangs head in shame* ... BUT!  I did get lots of good stuff done to my blog thanks to Bloggiesta so it's not all bad. 

Confidence level - 3.5 out of 5: Dropped a bit since I made zero reading progress this week but still not bad since it's only the beginning!

Comments - Onwards and upwards! I promise I will read 10 pages tonight.

Saturday 22 January 2011

Bloggiesta: Mini Challenges!

I didn't think I would have enough time this weekend for Bloggiesta but it turns out I have a couple of hours on my hands so I'm going to do a couple of Mini Challenges:
1) Backing up my blog
2) Sorting out my tags
3) Give my blog a favicon.

Alrighty... Let's go! OLE!

Friday 21 January 2011

Stuff that's tickled me recently...

I signed up to Twitter a couple of months ago, tweeted once and the abandoned ship for a while. I have revisited it in the last week and started my tweeting journey in earnest. Currently I have 12 followers and counting... I have found that it's something you have to keep on top of if you want to get value out of but so far I'm finding it a great way of keeping abreast of literary developments and other fun bookish things. It's also the main source of the rest of this post. Hoorah for Twitter!

The 2011 Tournament of Books is something I hadn't heard of previously. It takes a list of books that were big news in the previous calendar year and and panel of judges work to select the best one. There are 2 really cool things about this award that sets it apart for me. One, the judges have to explain their choice and lay bare their biases and leanings. Two, we, the common folk, get a say. You can vote for your favourite of the bunch and if it gets eliminated earlier on it can be revived in the Zombie Round! Nice. In the interests of full disclosure, I voted for Room by Emma Donoghue, but there's loads of great books on the list including my current read, The Finkler Question. 

Here Lionel Shriver, author of award winning We Need to Talk About Kevin (among others), talks about the hilarity and head-banging frustration of publishers cover choices for her books. Really, it's a critique of the Old Boy's Club within the literary world that still exists despite the vast majority of writers being women not to mention women making up 80% of the fiction buying market. Eighty percent!! Why then do fantastic writers like Shriver get the short shrift on cover choice, trying to make her hard hitting unisex fiction look soft and feminine just because a she is a female writer? I don't hav the answers to that one but I think anyone who can come up with this fab quote: "trussing up my novels as sweet, girly and soft is like stuffing a rottweiler in a dress" deserves MUCH respect.

Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. Oh. My. Goodness. WHY have I never read their blog before? I was laughing so hard at some of their posts in the greatest hits section that my doggy started barking at me! More maniacal giggling then ensued. The basic premise of this blog for those who don't know (and I really might be the last one to find this but hey, just in case) is that the two women are smart girls who love to read romance novels and review them. I'm not a fan of romance at all but you don't need to be. The fun is in reading what they write about these books and how they write it. Genius. Check it out if you didn't already. 

Also, I found this stroke of brilliance through SMTB. Enjoy.

Finally, I'm fairly sure I have made my feelings about the Twilight series clear (in short: terrible, terrible writing but if kids are reading it's not all bad). So then I found out that the favourite book of the 2 characters of Bella and Edward is in act my own favourite: Wuthering Heights. I was unsure of how I felt about having anything in common with these characters, least of all my all-time favourite book! However, according to the Guardian, the fact that Captain Shiny Skin and Little Miss Glum love this book (plus a clever rebrand to make it look Twilight-esque) has sent sales of Wuthering Heights through the roof and it is topping the classics bestsellers chart. Now if only the kids that are buying the book actually read it and realise what real literature is. Am I too idealistic? Perhaps. Well, at least they own it for future reference...

Photo credits: Lionel Shriver - BBC
                Wuthering Heights cover - Guardian

Wednesday 19 January 2011

War and Peace Wednesdays

I've been trying to read this darned book for ages now. I keep starting it and then getting busy or distracted by other things. But! I have not given up - I am going to read it one way or the other and to help myself stay a little more focussed, I'm going to set up this regular slot here on my blog to track my progress... or otherwise.

What else have I done to help myself? I happened across a War and Peace read-a-long on Facebook which has its own wikispace and reading schedule so I thought well if nothing else this will keep it front and center in my mind. The reading schedule is:
February 1-14: Volume One, Part One (1-124)
February 15-28: Volume One, Part Two (125-231)
March: Volume One, Part Three (232-342)
April: Volume Two, Parts One and Two (343-490)
May: Volume Two, Part Three (490-573)
June: Volume Two, Parts Four and Five (574-712)
July: Volume Three, Part One (713-809)
August: Volume Three, Part Two (810-973)
September: Volume Three, Part Three (974-1103)
October: Volume Four, Parts One and Two (1104-1219)
November: Volume Four, Parts Three and Four (1220-1335)
December: Epilogue (1339-1444)

As at January 19th, 2011
Pages read so far - 35
Confidence level - 4/5 - Peachy keen but I'm a little intimidated by the weight of this thing!
Words I have had to look up:
Postilion - man who rides the leading left hand horse of a team.
Adjutant - Military officer who acts as admin assistant to a senior officer.
Erudition - Possessing great knowledge
Comments - Holding this book up in a comfortable reading position is hard!!

Saturday 15 January 2011

Room by Emma Donoghue: Review

By Emma Donoghue
Published in 2010
Published by Picador
ISBN: 978-0-330-51992-2

I was given this book as a gift from my fantastic husband and I was not paid for this review.

The Josef Fritzl case shocked anyone who heard about it. A father who had locked away his teenaged daughter in a custom built apartment in the basement of the family home and used her as a sex slave. She fell pregnant 8 times, although she lost two: one to miscarriage and one to respiratory disease. Her twenty four year ordeal all came to light in 2008 and I guess it's fair to say that a lot of us had been watching and waiting for some kind of literary response to this, a way of making sense of the darkness and the horror.

Although Donoghue's books is inspired by the events of the Fritzl case, she wisely steers away from replicating the exact circumstances. The captor is not the father, they are not kept in a basement and there is only one child, Jack. And it's Jack who is the focus of this novel. He is five years old and has never been outside of Room, the modified garden shed in which they are held. In fact he has no concept of the outside world as his mother has chosen to not explain it. He thinks the entire world consists of this room, that the television channels are different planets orbiting the room and that his mother's captor, Old Nick, is the supplier of all things. However, as the novel progresses, it becomes increasingly apparent that they need to escape. Jack's mother (Ma) realises that Old Nick is capable of far worse than holding them here for the rest of their lives and hatches a plan with the help of Jack to get out.

This book captivated, repulsed and inspired me. All at the same time, all the way through. It's a car crash story - you can't stand it but you can't look away and all the time you have the knowledge that something like this really happened... it's creepy. The character of Jack is a completely believable portrayal, not only  of a five year old child but of a five year old who has no concept of the outside world. His language reflects his worldview as he doesn't use any articles, such as 'the'. Room isn't 'the room' because to his knowledge there are no other rooms and so since there is only one, then there is no grammatical need to use articles. So everything is just Bed, Wardrobe, Skylight - capitalised as if there were only one of them like there is only one of Jack.

The part of this story that intrigued me the most was the relationship between Ma and Jack. As I'm now in the age range where a good portion of my friends are now becoming parents, I regularly hear that all parents need 'time off' to get some space away from the kids and to just relax - something I completely agree with - but imagine being in one small room with your child, 24/7 for years. Under these circumstances. The way in which Ma interacts with Jack, teaching him stories, making sure he gets daily exercise and love is one of the most moving things about this book. I don't know if it's just because I'm around the same age as her character or if it's because I'm starting to think more seriously about becoming a mother myself but I just couldn't help but wonder what on earth I would have done in her position. I have no idea and thank God I won't have to find out.

I'd wanted to read this book ever since the 2010 Booker prize longlist came out and I heard about it on the Guardian Books Podcast. I was pretty disappointed when it didn't win but it's safe to say that this is a book that is hugely successful and deservedly so. It gives you so much to think about and genuinely changes your perspective on the world by giving you the opportunity to see life through the eyes of Jack. This was one of top three books I read in 2010 - I really can't recommend it any more highly.

Have you read Room? What did you think of it?

Related links:
Guardian Books Podcast about this book with interview with Emma Donoghue
Once upon a life: Emma Donoghue
The Official Emma Donoghue website
An extract from Room

Photo credit: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

Thursday 13 January 2011

Sarah's Key: Review

Sarah's Key
By Tatiana de Rosnay
Published in 2007
Published by St. Martin's Press (1st ed)
ISBN: 978-0312370831 

I read this book as part of my book club and I was not paid for this review. 

Dark days. Every country has at least one of these in its history, some have many more. This novel is about one of France's less shining moments, when French Police rounded up hundreds of Jewish men, women and children and kept them in inhumane conditions in the Velodrome d'Hiver before being shipped off to their deaths in Auschwitz. Some Parisians tried to help them, most turned a blind eye. 

The story has two intertwining narratives. Sarah, the girl of the title, locks her brother in a concealed closet when the police come knocking on her family's door, thinking that she will be able to return and rescue him. Julia, an American journalist who has lived in Paris for most of her life is asked to write a story about the Roundup for its sixtieth anniversary. She finds the story captivating and quickly becomes personally involved in her research, particularly when she discovers that her husband's family's and Sarah's histories overlap. 

It's a very interesting premise but I just couldn't lose myself in this book. I found that the characterisation of Sarah was a little heavy handed and felt that she had been created more for the purpose of being the vehicle or the author's musings on 'how could the French Police have done such a thing' rather than being a real imagining of a 10 year old girl being wrenched from all that she knew and losing everyone she loved. Additionally, the relationship between Julia and her over-sterotyped French husband (snide, xenophobic and philandering but makes it up to her with amazing sex - oh come on) didn't ring true for me either. 

Another issue I had was the ending. I don't want to give too much away or those who haven't read it yet but I just have to say that I didn't believe the ending. I don't think that Sarah would have done that and I certainly didn't believe the implied romance between the two characters at the end. It fell flat and let the last gasp of air out of a book that could have been really good. 

That said, my rating of this book was 2.5/5 at our book club but other people really loved it and gave it 4/5. To it's credit, it taught me something I didn't already know and I liked the descriptions of Paris. It's not a bad book, it just didn't move me the way I wish it had. 

Has anyone else read this book? If you have, were you surprised to find out about the round up?

Other reviews of this book: 
The Literary Amnesiac
The Avid Reader's Musings

Monday 10 January 2011

Books I read in 2010

Books I have read 2010

1. The Zero by Jess Walter
2. White Teeth by Zadie Smith
5. The Devil and Miss Prym by Paulo Coelho
9. The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver
12. The Unbearable Lightness of Scones by Alexander McCall Smith
15. Beneath a Marble Sky by John Shors
18. The Private Lives of Pippa Lee by Rebecca Miller
19. The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan
21. Falling Man by Don DeLillo
22. Five People You Meet In Heaven by Mitch Albom
23. Choke by Chuck Palahniuk
25. The Dream of the Red Chamber by Tsao Hsueh-Chin
26. The Rector's Wife by Joanna Trollope
27. Come Back by Claire and Mia Fontaine
28. Beauty Junkies by Alex Kuczynski
31. The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
32. The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
33. Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger
34. Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert
35. The Necklace by Cheryl Jarvis
36. Falling Man by Don DeLillo