Friday, October 31, 2014

Happy Halloween

The lovely Mrs F, from Fennell Books, who I’m lucky enough to call friend, posted a well timed blog entry this morning about a ghost story from Susan Hill, the writer of The Woman In Black.

The book, Printer’s Devil Court, sounds interesting, so I decided to order it on Kindle and read tonight, just because you should be a little bit scared on Halloween.  But when I went to Amazon to order it, I found a different one that I liked the sound of.

So tonight I will be scaring myself with The Man in the Picture by Susan Hill.  It’s set in Cambridge, and on the college walls of an old Professors' rooms hangs a picture.  On a cold winter’s night the Professor tells the tale of the picture, which you should never ever stare into.

I've got the chills already.

Challenge ahoy!

Last year I was going to set myself some reading challenges, but because of everything happening at the time, I pretty much abandoned the blog and the challenges.  Reading was pretty fundamental to my emotional recovery, but the burden of a commitment to a challenge felt like it was too much to bear.  As life has started to settle I've been more active with the blog again, and beginning to feel like I’m ready to challenge myself.

For a long time now I've wanted to start studying English again.  It’s been nearly 25 years since I sat my GCSE’s, which was the last time I studied English, but I have often wished that I’d had more confidence to pursue it further.  How I ended up studying Sociology is a lesson in how-not-to-follow-your-dreams. 

I had hoped that moving to a city focused almost singularly on education I would be able to finally get back to studying again.  Would you credit it – I have not found a single part time GCSE or A-Level English course anywhere in the area, and I think I've checked every 6th Form or college in a 30 mile radius.  I've obviously got to be a little creative, hence my new November challenge!

Oxford University (I’m such a traitor), have posted lots of podcast lectures on iTunes University, along with a whole host of other universities across the globe.  There are numerous courses on works by Shakespeare and so on, and I will get to those eventually, but I thought I’d start with one lecture series based on a favourite book – The Hobbit.  I downloaded it quite a long time ago and unfortunately can't find it online again, but as soon as I do I will edit and post the link.

My November Challenge is to read The Hobbit again while listening to the lecture series.  The way it seems to work is that I’d read a few chapters and then listen to the associated lecture.  I might want to then re-read those before reading the next chapters.

I think that is probably achievable in a month, providing I don’t get too distracted.

Bonus – The courses I've looked at are all free of charge!  Imagine that, university classes from the top universities across the world for free, and I don’t have to sit an exam or write a dissertation.  Magic.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Book Club - A Free Read month

My new book club was due to read The Book Thief this month for discussion in early November, but following the mishaps of the last meeting where the book was not distributed to group members from our local library it was decided that The Book Thief would be delayed til next month for discussion in December.  Instead this month would be a ‘Free Read’.  That is to say we read whatever we want and then talk about our chosen books with the group when we meet.

Unfortunately I can't make it to the next meeting and I'm quite disappointed.  I was looking forward to talking about the books I've been reading, Not to mention as well that although I have been a member of the book club for three months, I have yet to actually attend a club meeting!

The concept of a free reading month for a book club had never occurred to me, but on reflection seems quite obvious.  I think it’s going to be a really interesting month, and I'm quite upset to not be able to go.  Though it is the WI book group, I think based on their list of selections so far they’re not just reading Catherine Cookson and Maeve Binchy.

Here's what I was going to talk about as my October reading (and why)...

The Darling Buds of May by HE Bates
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
Down The Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos

The astute among you who have also read my recent posts, will realise that at least two of these were read a little while ago.  Sneaky I know, but what I hoped to understand by this little bit of canny maneuvering was how far I can push the boundaries when selecting books.  Would they be open to a little experimentation in reading?  The latter two are both quite controversial, and both absolutely excellent!

Maybe another time.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Is it too early to plan your Christmas book list?

I’m a sucker for books, everyone I know gets it.  If you're here reading, maybe you are too.  As a child I always got book tokens, and would happily receive them this year too, if anyone were so inclined.  Yet those who buy for me don’t often buy me book related items for birthdays and Christmas, even when I have a wish list full of books.  Last year I had to say 'Buy me books!'.

A friend of mine runs Christmas UK website and last night/this morning he posted lots of photos on facebook and his website of Selfridges Christmas displays, it's one of his that I've included above.  I love that they’re using books this year in so many of their displays, and that is really my inspiration for my dream Christmas present…

I should like to receive a hamper containing a good bottle of wine/champagne, some chocolates and whole hoard of good books.  I'm working on deciding what books to have on my list right now.

Have you got a Christmas book list yet?

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Author Event - Juan Pablo Villalobos

Recently I posted a review of Down The Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos (JP), and I promised an article about the Author Event that Mr B's hosted.  It's been more than a year, and I'm afraid I've been a terrible procrastinator what with all the upheaval in my life in the last year or so.  But at last here it is...

A little over a year ago I went to Mr B's for my second reading spa (if you ever go to Bath you should arrange one - They're FANTASTIC!! Or if you're short of cash as I usually am, you can pop in for a lovely chat). As it happened I had selected a day where they had scheduled an Author Event for Juan Pablo Villalobos who had released a new book.  So I thought 'why not?' and booked myself a place, and prepared to spend a day at the bookshop.

The event was split into two halves, the first half being a discussion around Down The Rabbit Hole, and the second about his new book 'Quesadillas'.  I should have written notes soon after, as I've now forgotten much of what was said, but I do remember my impression of JP was of a highly intelligent man who loves reading and writing.  He writes honestly about the violence and corruption in Mexico, and I am eagerly anticipating his third novel.

I'm afraid that I should have taken notes, but here are some of the Random Things I Remember:

He has themes for all the names of characters in his books.  The names of characters in Down The Rabbit Hole are all based on animals.  In Quesadillas the names are from Greek mythology, and if I remember rightly the next book the names have something to do with France (but don't rely on my memory).

He has degrees in literature, and though he is from Mexico he has lived in Spain and now lives in Brazil.

He rewrote/edited both Down The Rabbit Hole and Quesadillas seven times (I'm fairly sure).

He was very funny.  Quite charming too.

He said we could call him JP.  Maybe to save himself the torture of us trying to pronounce Villalobos :-)

I have yet to read Quesadillas, but will definitely be looking out for his books in the future.

Monday, October 20, 2014

When in the Literary World are you?

Today I am in Kent visiting with a larger than life family in an idyllic post-war 1950's summer.   We're eating ice-cream and crisps, strawberries and cream, and enjoying life immensely.  The oldest daughter of Ma and Pa is pregnant and has a bit of a thing for the Tax inspector, who is in need of a little distraction from his investigations...

The Darling Buds of May - H.E.Bates

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Pauses in reading

Moving to a new home, at least 90 miles in any direction from all friends and family has meant that I have had plenty of time for reading the last few months.  I am pretty busy at weekends, usually off visiting folks, but with my daily commute, evenings and lunchbreaks free I've managed to get through a fair bit.

This weekend my sister visited me, and brought my niece with her.  It was really very nice to be on the receiving end of a visit for a change, and I loved having them with me.  It was their first visit, both to my new home, and to Cambridge, and I miss them very much already.

Having said that, I never get any reading time with visitors around, we spend too much time chatting, exploring the area and cooking.  All lovely activities of course, but the one benefit of being alone again is I get back my precious reading time.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Review: Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos

Last summer I had booked a spa day at Mr B's, and it just so happened that on the same day they were hosting an Author Event, so I decided to book both, and read the author's first book Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos (JP) in preparation.  Mostly so I would have some clue as to what he's talking about... I figured if I didn't enjoy it I could always cancel going to the author event.  I thought it was great and got really excited about attending the session.  So anyway, here's a bit more about the book.  Article about the event to follow.

I thought it was a brilliant little book, a novella rather than a novel, but a great read.  I've borrowed the blurb from Goodreads, as I couldn't possibly have described it better:
Tochtli lives in a palace. He loves hats, samurai, guillotines and dictionaries, and what he wants more than anything right now is a new pet for his private zoo: a pygmy hippopotamus from Liberia. But Tochtli is a child whose father is a drug baron on the verge of taking over a powerful cartel, and Tochtli is growing up in a luxury hideout that he shares with hit men, prostitutes, dealers, servants and the odd corrupt politician or two.
I've never read anything that left me feeling so uncomfortable, but which I think is so completely excellent. It is a masterpiece of writing that can entertain (there's a lot of black humour) and deeply disturb you at the same time. I am not a writer, as you can plainly tell reading this, so I'm afraid I don't have the right words to express what this book made me feel.

The black humour serves as a device to drive home the point that Tochtli's world is vile and corrupt. His innocence, and acceptance of terrible violence as normal serves to highlight the horror of the world he lives in, and JP achieves this spectacularly well.
“It's like a competition: the one who wears the crown is the one who's made the most corpses.” 
Corpses are so commonplace and normal to Tochtli that you feel these words are delivered in the same way that people might say 'Dead bodies are just so last week'.  Corpses are just no big deal. Fodder for pet lions and nothing more.

Tochtli's exposure to the world is extremely limited.  He reads dictionaries and while he uses the terms literally his favourite words are awful.

The book is sensational in my opinion, and leaves a mark. I don't think I will ever forget reading it.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

What to do, what to do?

The Folio Society have just emailed details of their Christmas collection and in it is one of my favourite books from childhood - The Ghost of Thomas Kempe by Penelope Lively.  The artwork looks wonderful and a new introduction by it's author all makes for a tempting proposition.

It's been years since I last saw my own copy of this book, heaven only knows what has happened to it.  So, of course I am in dire need of a new copy...

Funds are limited, and it's not cheap, so...............

Oh heck, who am I kidding?  I don't need to go out next week... I could be sat inside reading a ghost story in the cold and dark.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Death and the Penguin - Andrey Kurkov

At my third book spa a few months ago I was presented with Death and the Penguin.  I had previously rejected it (wasn't in the mood for bleak Russian drama), but I figured if it had been selected in two out of my three book spa’s then I may as well have done with it and give it a try.  Despite what turned out to be a fairly accurate description I wasn't quite sure what to expect from this book.

It’s set in Kiev, Ukraine, and tells the story of how Viktor and his pet King Penguin Misha become caught up in the middle of a mafia war.  A frustrated writer Viktor finds a job at a newspaper writing obituary articles for the famous and infamous of Kiev who haven’t died yet.  At first able to pick and choose who he writes about nobody seems to be dying, after a while the first death happens, and the Editor starts sending lists and bio’s for people he wants articles for.  Viktor’s life becomes increasingly complicated and dangerous until the rather surprising (to me) ending.  Throughout there is a tone of melancholy.  Viktor is a man to whom life happens.  He doesn't ever seem to feel he has a choice, or control over events.  He also has a strong sense of not being able to form good relationships with people, or Misha, and he and the story are a little frustrating at times.  I just wanted to grab him and shake some life into him.  In actuality Viktor is the personification of the general feeling of decline of Kiev described in the book.  Powerless people just trying to earn what little money when and where they can and stay alive. 

It sounds bleak and terrible, and yet it’s not.  The book has comedic moments, and you do just have to keep reading.  I had to keep reading to see if Viktor realised what his articles were being used for, and why.  I had to see what happened to him, Misha the Penguin, and the few people that Viktor acquires along the way.  I will definitely be reading ‘Penguin Lost’, the sequel.

When I was reading up about the book I found this article onThe Guardian website, where it appears that the story was rather prophetic.  First published in Russian in 1996, it was around the time of it’s publication in English in 2001 that real life events appeared to be imitating the book.  For an audience like me, who is not all that aware of what life in the Ukraine is really like it set things in a whole new uncomfortable light.

Well worth a read in my opinion.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Review: The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss

The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss is book two in the Kingkiller Chronicle trilogy, and having thoroughly enjoyed book one I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this instalment. 

In summary, Excellent storytelling (Rothfuss could make the phonebook a pleasure to read), and so many good and wonderful things about it, and only one little annoyance.

I’ve mentioned in another review for a book in a totally different genre, that having a main protagonist who is miraculously good at everything is not a good thing.  Kvothe barely pauses before finding the right way of dealing with any given challenge.  Escape from Pirates?  Discover a murder plot?  Cure a fatal illness?  Create life-saving charms and gadgets?  Woo a lady for a pseudo-King?  Learn a few new languages? Dispatch multiple bandits, kidnappers and rapists?  No problem!  All in an afternoon’s work for our Kvothe!

That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy the book immensely!  As I alluded earlier Rothfuss knows how to write, he really does.  This is epic storytelling, but on an intimate scale, what I mean by that is that the scope is large, and the story roams all over, but it is recalled in minute detail.  For me this meant that I had the feeling of living the story myself.  No detail seems too small or too insignificant, and it makes Kvothe’s world so rich and real that you could be walking the Archives, playing the lute, or running across rooftops right along with him.  The other side of this is that the books have to be suitably large to be able to cram all this in!  Purportedly 390,000 words over 994 pages for just the second book in the series!  By the end of the trilogy I’ll have read over 1 million words (not including the two novellas).

Didn’t like:  Perfect Kvothe, all hail Kvothe!  There are a few plot threads that seem to go nowhere.  I’m prepared to forgive Rothfuss because his writing is so enthralling, and I just hope that those plot threads tie up in book three.

Did like:  Everything else!

PS:  Though Kvothe manages to get through an awful lot in this book, there are events that have to be sacrificed.  I think I would have loved to see what happened when Kvothe sailed to Severen.  If it had meant a Quadrilogy instead of a Trilogy I’d be happy with that.  Or maybe I sense another Novella to come…

PPS – In my review of The Name Of The Wind I said I would share my theories of Chronicler… so here they are.


May be more than who and what he claims to be.  Something in the back of mind is telling me this has to be the case, especiallly given Rothfuss’ inclination towards complicated plots.
May be one of the Amyr, recording the story only to alter/cover up their continued existence (by the end of this book their existence is theoretical, no spoilers here).
May be one of the Chandrian, reluctant to engage Kvothe in Battle but needing to assess his next move/intentions.  Doubtful as I think by the end of book three the Chandrian will probably be no more.  Also, I don't think they are inclined to hold off on an attack.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Where in the literary world are you today?

Actually, I am kind of in the literary underworld today.

I am thirteen years old, and have found myself on an adventure in Fairyland Below cleaning up the mess I made on my last visit.  I am trying to restore all the stolen shadows of the creatures of Fairyland Above.  Shadows have discovered freedom and voices and so far they don’t like the idea of going back.

The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There  by Catherynne M Valente

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Spiffing, What Ho!

To follow up on yesterday's post about the play I saw last night, Perfect Nonsense, I did in fact go.  Earlier in the day I had considered cancelling, but decided not to waste the ticket.

And am I glad I did?  I am indeed my fine friends.  It was very very good.  I have not laughed so much in ages, and I'm not even talking about when the backdrop was being lowered and caught on the stage furniture (twice!).   Even between laugh-out-loud funny moments I am sure I sat there with a grin on my face.  I'm grinning even now just typing this out.  It was the perfect tonic after a stressful day at work.  For once I don't even mind that I got home quite late and didn't get enough sleep.

I have even considered booking to go and see it again!  In a few weeks the show moves down to Reading, and I am highly tempted to see it then and drag along a friend or two.  Helen?

Essentially it's a three man play, with James Lance playing Bertie Wooster.  Wooster has decided to put on a play to retell recent events when his Aunt Dahlia sent him on a mission.  John Gordon Sinclair (primary role of Jeeves) and Robert Goodale (primary role of Seppings) in humouring Wooster take on the parts of the other characters as well.

The staging is simple but brilliant, the comedy is sublime.  A real treat!  Perfect Nonsense indeed!

Monday, October 6, 2014

Perfectly Perfect Nonsense!

A year or two (or three?) ago my Book Club read Very Good Jeeves by PG Wodehouse, and as a rule loved it.  I certainly did anyway.

As I read through it I heard Jeeves and Wooster's voices clearly as those of Fry and Laurie, as it was adapted for Television, even though I'd never really watched it for more than a few minutes here and there.

I haven't gotten around to reading any more, though really I should.  So when my local online social group in Cambridge posted an event to see Perfect Nonsense on it's UK Tour I jumped at the chance.  I did look for a PG Wodehouse novel called Perfect Nonsense, but there isn't one, but trusty Wikipedia advises that it is based on 'The Code of The Woosters' from 1938.

I'm a big fan of Matthew McFadyen, ever since Spooks, and I must admit to a little disappointment that he wasn't on the cast list for the tour, but nevertheless decided to see it anyway.


It's pouring down outside, work is stressful, and my workload seems impossible to complete in the short time allotted, so I can't imagine anything better timed or suited to lift my spirits than a bit of Jeeves and Wooster induced laughter.

Click the link above 'Perfect Nonsense on it's UK Tour' for alternative dates/locations.

Review: Dark Witch by Nora Roberts

When I heard that Nora Roberts was releasing a new Supernatural trilogy I couldn't wait.  But I did, I forced myself to wait for months.  I bought Dark Witch, and then Shadow Spell, and by the end of this month Blood Magick will be out.  Normally when a series is announced I pre-order each book as soon as I can, and start reading it the moment I unwrap the package.  Then I wait and wait and wait for the next one.

This time I decided that I would save them up, so I didn't have that torturous wait between instalments,  As the final book in the trilogy will be out shortly I decided that it was safe to start book one.

I try to only write reviews about books I really like... But this was on my mind, and I felt like I had to write this.  I'm sorry to say that this one left me a little cold.  I gave it three out of five stars on Goodreads.  It's OK, but it's not up to normal standard.

It started out well, and then disintegrated. Here's why:

  • I loved Sorcha, she had power, strength of character, deep feelings and was fairly rounded out character for all that she's only in it a short while.
  • I kind of like the characters, at least what you see of them, they're pretty one-dimensional.
  • Iona (the female romantic lead) has no internal thoughts. Every little thing gets blurted out, and every other sentence contains 'Sorry'.  Seriously, it was verging on the ridiculousness of Fifty Shades.
  • Boyle (the mail romantic lead) has no personality. Whatsoever. Iona's horse has more personality!

And finally... The turn of phrase used by ALL characters is EXACTLY the same. This REALLY got on my nerves.  It doesn't seem to matter if you're a 13th Century Irish witch, her young children, an early 21st Century American in Ireland, or her two Irish born and bred cousins or their friends. Even gender and age don't change the way they speak.  Everybody gets the same voice.  Even so far as I felt like I was reading one of the 'In Death' books.  It made me wonder if Ms Roberts jumped straight from writing for Eve Dallas,  mid-21st century New York City cop to writing for Sorcha, 13th century Irish witch, without as much as stopping for a cup of tea (or coffee).

It would have been nice if each character had more of a distinct voice, especially where geography and cultural upbringing vary so wildly.  My sister and I are reasonably close in age, grew up in the same house, with the same parents, went to the same schools, and yet we have totally different voices.  It would have been nice to see some variation in characterisation.

I am now part way through book two in the series (Shadow Spell) and it's the same, though on a positive note there is some better characterisation of the leads in this one.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Book Club Option 1: A retrospective

On Thursday I had my first taste of the new book club.  I raced around at home making dinner, and doing a little more to prepare for my imminent housewarming party.  Why is there just never enough time in the evenings?

The book club was due to start at 7:30, but at that time I was finishing a slightly undercooked dinner, and I got to the meeting at about 7:40.  There were only two others present (A and S).

My Kindle tells me that I had read about 85% of the book, but S had only got 50% of the way through, and didn't want to hear any spoilers.  Which neatly put paid to any discussion between the three of us.  Ranty-moment warning:  It may just be my opinion but if you turn up to a book club having not finished the book you should not prevent others from talking about it.  That is after all the point of a book club, isn't it?

As we'd basically been gagged about 'And the Mountains Echoed' by Khaled Hosseini, I asked about previous books they'd read and we chatted for a bit before giving up waiting for anyone else at about 8pm.  Neither A or S were responsible for bringing copies of the next book from the library, so we didn't even know which book was assigned.

So unfortunately book club was a bit of a bust, after all that anticipation.  Sad face.

Lurking in my inbox this morning was an email advising that the next book is The Book Thief.  One of my favourite books of all time.  So I might give it one more month.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Review: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

The Name of the Wind is a debut novel from Patrick Rothfuss, and is the first instalment of The Kingkiller Chronicle trilogy.  It begins in the Inn belonging to a man called Kote who by means of killing a spider with razor sharp feet establishes himself as a worthy fighter.  A Chronicler recognises Kote as Kvothe, a character of legendary proportions and proceeds to take down his story.  Each day that it takes to record Kvothe’s life story is to be one book in the trilogy.

Kvothe has a rough start in life.  He’s born into an apparently idyllic life as the son of a travelling troupe leader, and is remarkably clever and talented.  Early in life he meets an arcanist (like a magician) who inspires him to attend the University and learn the secrets of magic, such as the true names of all things, particularly the wind.  Then one night his family and fellow troupers are brutally slain and Kvothe is lucky to be alive.  He struggles to survive a callous world and eventually manages through perseverance and sheer luck to make his way to the University, this time to discover the identity of the men who killed his family so he can take his revenge.

For a genius Kvothe is also a bit of a bumbling idiot, stumbling his way through life, hanging on by the skin of his teeth.  Once he reaches the University he usually ends up making his own troubles, and has to struggle to keep going, and this forms the bulk of book one.  I couldn’t wait to turn the page to find out how Kvothe’s enemies might challenge him, or see him retaliate only to end up in a worse situation than ever.  Some of his exploits had me laughing out loud, and it was pretty compelling reading.  This was the books charm and Kvothe makes quite an endearing character in spite of his numerous serious flaws.  I ended up really liking him and rooting for him.

I seriously have a contender now to challenge Scott Lynch and Locke Lamora for the position of favourite fantasy novel.  I highly recommend The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss.  It’s a monster of a book, but the time flies by so fast.  The writing is engaging and I couldn’t bear to put it down.

I hope you try it, and I hope you love it as much as I did.

PS – I have a few theories about Chronicler… will share them in the upcoming review of Book 2: The Wise Man’s Fear.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Where in the literary world are you today?

Today I am Pari, a young Afghan woman living in Paris.  My mother died recently, my father some years ago.  I have always had a feeling that something is missing in my life, but have no idea what this is.

I have been several people in the past week or so while reading And The Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini.

The first book to be read for my new book club this Thursday.