Monday, July 25, 2011

9. Paper Towns - John Green (2008)

She was quiet for a moment, and then she walked right up to the glass and leaned her forehead against it. I hung back, but then she grabbed my T-shirt and pulled me forward. I didn't want our collective weight on a single pane of glass, but she kept pulling me forward, and I could feel her balled first in my side, and finally I put my head against the glass as gently as possible and looked around.

For me this excerpt perfectly encapsulates the personalities of Margo and Quentin, as well as their unusual relationship. Since childhood Quentin has loved his mysterious and forth-right next-door neighbour Margo, but she never seems to notice him. That is until one night of revenge and adventure lead to Margo's disappearance and a trail of clues seemingly meant for Quentin alone.

Starting out I wasn't sure if I liked this book. Margo was infuriatingly aloof (however I guess that's the point) and obviously troubled, and yet Quentin remained pathetically acquiescent to her wishes. It got better once Margo left (that sounds a bit harsh doesn't it) as the mystery surrounding her disappearance culminates in a well-narrated and tangible fear that she has come to harm, while highlighting the interesting emotional journey that Quentin and those others with ties to Margo go through, especially in how the former views the world, himself and his idolisation of Margo. In exploring the act of desertion, John Green similarly attempts to explore the internal motivations of the individual, successfully navigating the reader through various emotions and ideas that leave one examining themselves by the end.

Some of the characters were very odd and a bit two-dimensional but what held this book together for me was Quentin and his determination to find Margo. Oddly I found this book more satisfying before the very end because of the agreement that Quentin had come to within himself, and while I still find Margo annoying, I appreciate her humanness and how imperfect she is, juxtaposed with the miraculous vision that Quentin has in his head.

Final verdict - Not hugely realistic perhaps only because I know no one who talks quite like Ben, but thought-provoking with interesting themes and a strong main character.

3 stars

8. Austenland - Shannon Hale (2007)

"Girls! Look who is here at last. Miss Amelia Heartwright. Miss Heartwright, may I present Miss Elizabeth Charming and my niece, Miss Jane Erstwhile."
    The three ladies curtsied and bowed their heads, and Jane noticed how natural and elegant Miss Heartwright's curtsy seemed. She had clearly been here before and come back for more, one of Mrs. Wattlesbrook's ideal clients. She would know the system, the players, the language and the customs. She would be a formidable foe.

For many fans of Jane Austen and its various screen adaptations, Austenland is an enticing title. However, while I am a fan of the screen versions, adaptations of the novel kind invariably end up sounding more like fan-fiction, and can be a bit...well icky, especially if one of the aspects of Jane Austen you enjoy is its wholesomeness and, simply put, lack of touching. You could argue either way whether this puts a focus more on love or lust, personality or looks, but in Austen novels anyway it is definitely the heroine's character that wins the man over, and I like that. So understandably being a bit hesitant of a book called Austenland, not helped by the back cover blurb including 'For the woman with everything except a Mr. Darcy of her own, an invitation to Austenland,' I began this Shannon Hale novel hoping for the best. In fact I might not even have heard of it if not for JJ Field from the 2007 adaptation of Northanger Abbey being cast as the novel's hero in it's very own indie flick. But we'll get to that later.

So the basic plot of Austenland revolves around 30-something Jane (of course) who is bequeathed a holiday to the secretive Pembroke Park where guests can experience authentic regency England, complete with Austen-worthy romance. Despite being a fan of cheesey films and rom-coms, I am very suspect of chick-lit, usually because of how unrealistic, silly and unsatisfying I've found it to be so far. A bit ironically then I ended up loving Austenland, while the majority of the reviews I've read on have been completely opposite. In comparisons both to chick-lit and Shannon Hale's other hugely popular novels, many found Jane to be unrealistic, the premise contrived and the storyline cliched. Looking at Austenland as a whole I can understand these reviews as it is cliched in the way it assimilates certain stock scenarios and events, but despite this I thought Shannon Hale's narrative was original and incredibly funny. I laughed out loud very often and found Jane to be relatable in her worries, her determination, her self-assurance and humour. I will be the first to say that this book is utter fantasy and completely unbelievable, but isn't that the same with Jane Austen novels? It is despite social and financial status that Austen's heroines find their happy endings. Shannon Hale retains much of the same wholesomeness and fun found in the original novels, while giving it a modern twist that was both amusing and endearing. It is a world where you are as pretty, witty and composed as you'd like to be normally and yet still remaining, like Jane, slightly awkward, nervous and using odd words like "huzzah." My favourite line so far? '"Argh," Jane arghed,' page 18.

Perhaps you need a particular sense of humour to love this novel as much as I do, but on the off-chance that you are such a person, I recommend this book to you. And yes please try and force this onto all of your female acquaintance just as I did to my sister, who enjoyed it immensely and now quotes Miss Charming at every turn.

4 stars

Regarding the film adaptation - this is currently being filmed in England and the lovely Miss Hale is blogging from the set on a wonderfully regular basis. The cast includes Keri Russell, Bret McKenzie, JJ Field and Jennifer Coolidge. It is being directed by Jerusha Hess (Napoleon Dynamite) and produced by Twilight's Stephanie Meyers. An interesting mix if ever I saw one.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

7. The Fry Chronicles: an autobiography - Stephen Fry (2010)

Now there I sat, three years later, fiddling with my prize pipe and contemplating a betrayal of the smoking cause. 'Betrayal' and 'cause' are perhaps hysterical and self-important words to use, but smoking to me was a cause; it had always symbolized in my mind something enormous.
The word 'chronicles' in the title is very apt as it does indeed chronicle Stephen Fry's life from slightly lost teenager, through his university years and into his first bout of success (although with a surprising lack of "celebrity" despite this). I found this book to be an incredibly honest, albeit slightly plodding journey through a very interesting time in Stephen Fry's life, interesting because it always is to see where someone started off before they become that big name in shining lights. The narrative is doused quite liberally with self-effacement and self-deprecation, which became a bit tiresome around the half-way mark, although I couldn't help but feel at the end that it proved even more how we're all just human, and that no matter how successful one becomes it does not mean you somehow inherit self-assurance, confidence or even happiness. I see that sometimes "normal" people can become bitter if a celebrity doesn't seem content or is seen to be excessively humble and self-deprecating, like they're just being smug in an indirect way about their success. Hugely dissimilar to such a person, I liked the way that Stephen Fry appreciated, and was even surprised by every opportunity, how he always tried to do his best whether personally or professionally, as well as how he accepted his mistakes and took his fair share of the blame. Whether seemingly excessive or not, Stephen Fry is utterly personable in his writing, and although this book is a very personal account of a portion of his life, he remains relatable, funny and endearing throughout. If you're a fan, I highly recommend this autobiography, although I might not bother if you're not already interested in the man. But isn't that always the way with autobiographies. I look forward to the next installment. 
 3 stars

6. Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864) - Jules Verne

CHAPTER 10 - Interesting Conversations with Icelandic Savants

Dinner was ready. Professor Liedenbrock devoured his portion voraciously, for his compulsory fast on board had converted his stomach into a vast unfathomable gulf. There was nothing remarkable in the meal itself; but the hospitality of our host, more Danish than Icelandic, reminded me of the heroes of old. It was evident that we were more at home than he was himself.
    The conversation was carried on in the vernacular tongue, which my uncle mixed with German and M. Fridrikssen with Latin for my benefit. It turned upon scientific questions as befits philosophers; but Professor Liedenbrock was excessively reserved, and at every sentence spoke to me with his eyes, enjoining the most absolute silence upon our plans.

This book is special to me as I bought it on our last day in Pisa before we traveled to Paris via Milan. It then accompanied me on many walk-abouts around Paris, London and then finally on my train trip to Leeds. When I look at it I am reminded that I attempted to read it on the way back to London but was too sad and nostalgic after seeing my friends for the last time to pay much attention. Since my return home I haven't touched it at all until about last week where I made the effort to finish it. Personally I found the scientific jargon broke up the narrative flow despite the beautifully crafted structure of Verne's prose. But Verne meant to educate his readers, so I still find this aspect of his novels an interesting and integral part of the novel (This first part written about 2 months ago, the following completed today). It is not his fault that I am not familiar with science. In fact I am possibly his target audience. And yet, while I say that it interrupted Verne's otherwise beautiful lines, the latter is what remains with me after turning the final page, that and the great sense of adventure, of wonders found and lost, of secrets too incredible to fathom but ones you know to exist. Out of the characters I have a particular respect for the formidable guide Hans, that gentle, silent, uncomplaining and resourceful man. He's just cool and knows how to build a raft! We tried this once as kids - we even had the help of plastic barrels - but it's not as easy as you'd think.

Also something that I've come to realise recently is that I am a massive snob when it comes to classics, believing them to be always good because they have stood the test of time, and let no one ever think them otherwise. I kid (mostly), although I hope this never biases me towards newer books. Journey to the Centre of the Earth however, I think deserves to be up there, because it truly is a very fine book, both in content and narrative style.

3.5 stars.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

5. Alias Grace (1996) - Margaret Atwood

The mills were sold, and the imposing house of his childhood, with its large staff of domestics - the chambermaids, the kitchen maids, the parlour maids, that ever-changing chorus of smiling girls or women with names like Alice and Effie, who cosseted and also dominated his childhood and youth, and whom he thinks of as having somehow been sold along with the house. They smelled like strawberries and salt; they had long rippling hair, when it was down, or one of them did; it was Effie, perhaps.

This is the first book of Margaret Atwood's I've read and it didn't disappoint. It is a historical-fiction novel based on the real-life trial of Grace Marks who, along with James McDermott, was convicted of killing her employer Thomas Kinnear and his house-keeper (and supposed mistress), Nancy Montgomery. The book begins at the end essentially, with Grace already having been imprisoned for a number of years. A fictional doctor, Simon Jordan, investigates her case as he tries to research criminal behaviour, but he ends up becoming personally involved and almost obsessed with trying to determine Grace's true culpability. Barely sixteen at the time of her conviction, Atwood presents a woman who in her later years is just as gentle, hard-working and plain-speaking, if considerably wiser than her younger self. She now knows what needs to be said and has built a sufficient protective wall, but there is an innocence and frankness which intrigues both Doctor Jordan and the reader alike. Utterly engrossing all the way through, I found Atwood's narrative style engaging and nostalgic. Similar to Grace herself, it appears that all the facts have been laid bare in this book, brought out piece by piece, and yet the truth remains elusive. A beautiful and heart-rending story to be contemplated long after the final page is turned.

4 stars

4. A Woman of Two Wars: The Life of Mary Borden (2010) - Jane Conway

‘I look down at that dreadful place under the flickering light of our hurricane lanterns. It is one in the morning. The door at the far end is still opening and shutting, opening and shutting – for still they are coming from the battlefield – and my old ones are going quietly and steadily about their business. I can see them from behind the wooden screen where I have a dozen fine needles on the boil. I have been on duty 36 hours and am become a sleep-walker, an automaton, and then one of my old ones puts his head round the screen and holds out both his old hands, one with a tin cup of pinard, the other with a hunk of bread. He has brought me his casse-croûte and he says in his rough voice, ‘Faut manger, ma sœur.’
This was originally a book I just picked up because the title (and the portrait of Mary on the front cover) caught my attention. I'm glad I chanced upon it as it proved to be a surprisingly engaging read. Mary Borden was a highly ambitious and successful woman who ran hospital units for the French (although she was an American living in England) during the First and Second World War. Intelligent with a flair for story-telling, 'May' was a celebrated novelist and poet in her lifetime and published numerous books, some of which are extremely autobiographical in content. She was also married to Edward Louis Spears, a man truly in the centre of the Second World War and a personal friend of Winston Churchill.
Reading this biography was a joy as I explored another side of this period of history, while also being introduced to a truly remarkable lady. Through the help of May's relatives, her diaries, correspondences and books, Jane Conway has painted a delicate and seemingly very truthful portrait. Conway assumes much in her descriptions of May's feelings, but they lend an authenticity and genuineness to an account which may otherwise have been a bit dry due to the necessary inclusion of political maneuvers and general war history. 

For me personally I found much to be inspired by within May's life, especially through her prolific writing. Between her many obligations as a mother, author, advocate and wife to an aspiring politician, she still found time to write, and wonderfully a large portion of this biography draws upon her diaries and letters. At the time I finished this book I was particularly taken with the following quote for making me feel a bit more resilient against the dry-bone existence of simply waiting, as well as the fear of trying new things and failing.

'I didn't want to go', she later wrote, but 'perhaps that was the reason. An old lesson learned in childhood from some puritanical forebear or Spartan Nanny. If you hate the job, do it; if you are afraid, stand up to it.' (285-286)

3 stars

Saturday, May 14, 2011

3. Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit (1954) - P.G. Wodehouse

I had slept fitfully on the plank bed which was all that Vinton Street Gestapo had seen their way to provide for the use of clients, so after partaking of a hearty meal I turned in between the sheets. Like Rollo Beaminster, I wanted to forget. It must have been well after the luncheon hour when the sound of the telephone jerked me out of the dreamless. Feeling a good deal refreshed, I shoved on a dressing-gown and went to the instrument.

Wodehouse is perhaps best known for his Jeeves and Wooster series, of which this book is a part of. A hugely popular author, the series documents the life of Bertie Wooster, a wealthy English dandy, and his valet Jeeves. The plots largely revolve around romantic liaisons of the English upper class, often with hilarious (and ingenious) outcomes. However, as this blog post puts it, 'the genius of Wodehouse lies in the brilliance of his prose', one of my favourites being 'She looked as if she had been poured into her clothes and had forgotten to say "when".'

After being introduced to Wodehouse by my cousin I have fallen absolutely in love with this writer. Never have I come across an author who manages to be incredibly witty, charming, a bit silly but still compelling to read, all at the same time. I know Wodehouse won't be everyone's cup of tea, but I cannot recommend enough that people at least try reading one of his novels, and I only wish that this extract that ended up on page 56 better reflected all that I have said thus far

I have only read the first two novels in this series (although I believe they can be read in any order), and I found that this particular volume was not my favourite of the lot. It was a bit slow in the beginning, and I sometimes deplore the fickle and strange female characters that Wodehouse provides. The men are just as fickle, but they are also more often then not head over heels in love, which I feel explains their flightiness - the heart wants what it wants and what not. But the women tend to be the ones being pursued and likewise appear more firm in their opinions...generally...that is until they decide they'll marry this fella instead due to a hilarious misunderstanding. I definitely prefer less dreamy lovebirds and more Wooster trying to act like the genius he thinks he is and inevitably being saved by the indomitable Jeeves. A bit formulaic in structure, but that is part of the reason why I love Wodehouse (besides him being incredibly funny) because you always know how things will turn out, but can still be surprised by what happens in between. There is something about Wodehouse that calms the soul and brings sunshine into one's life, providing a healing quality that is hard to describe or convey until one has experienced it for ones self. A light and happy read in the best way possible, but if you don't believe me, then listen to Stephen Fry.

I [Fry] think I should end on a personal note. I have written it before and am not ashamed to write it again. Without Wodehouse I am not sure that I would be a tenth of what I am today - whatever that may be. In my teenage years, his writings awoke me to the possibilities of language. His rhythms, tropes, tricks and mannerisms are deep within me. But more than that, he taught me something about good nature. It is enough to be benign, to be gentle, to be funny, to be kind. 
He [Wodehouse] mocked himself sometimes because he knew that a great proportion of his readers came from prisons and hospitals. At the risk of being sententious, isn't it true that we are all of us, for a great part of our lives, sick or imprisoned, all of us in need of this remarkable healing spirit, this balm for hurt minds? 
4 Stars

2. Hotel Babylon (2004) - Imogen Edwards-Jones & Anonymous

His voice peters off into nothing. I don't bother to reply because we are both staring at the main door where Michelle's getting out of a cab, ten minutes late for her exit interview. She is wearing a pair of knee-length boots, flesh-coloured tights and a very short mini skirt. It's a combination not dissimilar to the recently departed Jaguar. She looks a lot more attractive out of the dark suit and light shirt she usually wears on reception. Steve the doorman's mouth hangs open as she swans through the revolving doors, her head held high. Even Dave stops polishing his brass.

The inspiration for the popular British television series of the same name, Hotel Babylon provides a glimpse into the largely unglamorous life of the hospitality industry. Based off the real life experiences of an anonymous hotel worker, the novel presents a series of events compressed into a 24 hour shift. This book provided me with some relatively "light" reading, although I wouldn't quite place it in the same category as chick lit because it is after all still an expose about the reality of working in a hotel. I found the latter quite compelling actually as knowing that these events and even people were factual made me applaud the staff for putting up with the crazy, let alone handling it with politeness and aplomb. Imogen Edwards-Jones is a good writer and the structure of the novel is interesting and easy to read. I'm not rushing off to read the other exposes in this Hotel Babylon series, but I'm not ruling them out of future reading lists either. 

2.5 Stars 

1. The Prestige (1995) - Christopher Priest

I imagine it was part of his design, and enabled him to take certain preparations in the room where the seance was to be conducted. He and his two young assistants, one male and one female, darkened the room with black blinds, moved unwanted furniture to the side while importing some of their own which they had brought with them, rolled back the carpet to bare the floorboards, and erected a certain wooden cabinet whose size and appearance was enough to convince me that conventional stage magic was about to be performed. I stayed discreetly but attentively in the background while these preparations were put in place. I did not wish to make myself at all interesting to the spiritist, because if he was alert he might have recognised me. The previous week my stage act had drawn a favourable press notice or two.

Set in the 19th Century, the book revolves around two stage illusionists, Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier, who, after a small confrontation, end up engaging in a bitter feud. As their animosity spirals out of control, it conceals a deeper, darker secret that will haunt the two performers for generations to come.

What I love about this book is that it has many layers to dissect, even after the last page is turned. To be honest when I first finished The Prestige I didn't think it was as great as people had made it out to be. Eerily haunting, yes. Great, no. But then the English Lit nerd in me kicked in and I started to really think about some of the plot lines, the narrative style and the way the story had been constructed as a whole. At times I found it a bit hard to engage in the rivalry between the two illusionists, largely because of the narrative style of the book which took the form of diaries, beginning with one man's life followed by the other. Because of this it was difficult to see the relationship between motivation and action, with only some clarity afforded in the latter half of the novel through Angier's diary where one could retrospectively compare the two men's version of events. I believe this is why I felt unfulfilled, because while by the end you know the secret, the novel still manages to strike you as simply being about the rivalry between two men. But, and this is why I think Priest really is a great storyteller, the secret only takes it's full form in thinking back upon the story, combining the two narratives and that of the illusionists' descendents. Throughout the text Priest drops hints, particularly in the form of key phrases and words, that like the illusionists themselves, are not all they appear to be. In hindsight, these hints absolutely tease you with their obviousness. 
I am particularly reminded of one story that Borden tells about a Chinese illusionist whose secret to his most popular trick is so obvious, that no one suspects it, and it means a lifetime of deception. I find that this is what The Prestige is about - a lifetime of illusions and deceit, with a secret as bright as day at its heart. This novel is well worth the read and I recommend paying attention to the tone and style of the narration, particularly any changes in mood, as well as repeated phrases. I firmly believe that good books are the ones that you can read over and over again, but that the best are the ones that compel you to look again.

Are you looking closely?

4 Stars

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

N E W Y E A R ~ N E W B L O G ~ N E W C H A L L E N G E

Last year I tried to read 100 books in a year and failed spectacularly at a mere 11 (I did read more than that but didn't record them and it was definitely no where near 100). This year, no challenge. Instead I'm merely attempting to read more widely, think a little and hopefully become more informed.

So the plan is to read from the categories of fiction, non-fiction, biography and graphic novels, where each time I finish a book, the next category will be randomly chosen and I will then pick a book from it. I think I'll also try and keep up the p.56 thing too. Anyway if you have any recommendations for books, feel free to comment.

To start it all off I just picked the categories myself and ended up borrowing three books from the library. They are: 1. The Prestige - Christopher Priest (fiction), 2. When God Goes to Starbucks - Paul Copan (non-fiction), 3. All My Road Before Me: The Diary of C.S. Lewis 1922-1927 - C.S. Lewis (biography).

Here goes.