October 31, 2009

Book Club For Two

I used to belong to a book club with a few of my closest friends and workmates. We would meet every two months to discuss a common book as well as other reading we had been doing. I really enjoyed the discussions and the fact that I discovered books I would not ordinarily have read. Unfortunately that book club came to an end - it died a natural death in a way, other commitments became more important and it became difficult to get everyone together.

I have been thinking about joining another book club/group lately but the reality is that my time is probably taken up even more now and I don't think I really have the time or energy to commit to a new group of people right now.

So, that is when I came up with the idea of starting a book club with my partner! We read VERY different books normally and while we do share with each other stories and quotes from what we are reading it is still a very singular activity for us. When I broached the idea to him this week he seemed to go for it - I was very generous and gave him the honour of selecting our very first joint read - and he has chosen Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby. The book is a sporting fan's memoir - Nick Hornby's relationship with his beloved football team, Arsenal (which also happens to be the team my partner supports which I believe may have had something to do with his book selection!).

We don't really have any guidelines for the "club" - we will both read the book at our own pace over the next couple of weeks and have a chat about it (probably during and when we finish). After that it's my turn to choose a book...

The Bradshaw Variations - Rachel Cusk

The Bradshaw Variations was a novel I saw while over in the UK and while it tempted me there and then I didn't buy it due to my bag already being overflowing (not to mention bloody heavy!) with books. It did stick with me however and when I got home and couldn't find it anywhere in bookshops here I ordered it from The Book Depository.

I have not read any of Rachel Cusk's books before so in terms of her writing style I had nothing to compare this book to and no real expectations. What tempted me into reading this book was it's description and also an interview I had read with Cusk where she came across as an honest, straightforward woman with clear thoughts and opinions around life, motherhood and the broader role of women within society.

The Bradshaw Variations focuses on the three adult Bradshaw children, their elderly parents and their respective families although the main characters of the novel are Thomas Bradshaw, his wife Tonie and their young daughter, Alexa. Tonie has recently been offered, and accepted, a promotion in her academic position at the University where she works. She is now the Head of the English Department and as such her hours and workload have increased dramatically. As a result of this promotion there has been a change in the family structure with Thomas resigning from his working life to take on the care of Alexa and to focus on developing his artistic life in the form of piano lessons. Thomas's brothers and their families as well as the Bradshaw parents are also included in the narrative of the book which often reads like a series of interconnected short stories rather than a comprehensive novel.

Having not read any of Cusk's work before I am not sure if this novel is indicative of her style but if it is I have to say, I don't think I will be picking up another one of her novels. The narrative was incredibly wordy, repetitive and complex. The characters would often engage in lengthy inner monologues with themselves which did not really add anything to character development or plot from what I could tell - it just made me dislike the characters and become inpatient with the story. I mean, I know we all have inner thought processes but these characters were so introspective I'm not sure how they got anything else done! For example;

But it is true that Thomas has never been quite that sure again, that he became more doubtful as Tonie's promotion became more of a certainty, that even now he appears to be going through a process, an adjustment, as though life has simply hardened around him again in its new forms and the revelation that set it in motion is nowhere to be found. It has no concrete existence, this revelation. It has no reality. It merely changed, for an instant, reality's properties, as the flame changed the candle and sent it running over the edge of itself, running and running into new paths as though it sought to be free of what it was, of what it became once more as soon as it reached the air and stiffened in its tracks (Page. 18)

Maybe I am being too harsh but I just found this book painful to read - I did not connect with the characters at all and the story lacked focus and direction for me.

I am also unsure of what message Cusk is trying to send about the role of mothers who work outside the home. The ending of the book really left me wondering about this so I would love to hear from any of you who have read this one and what your thoughts are.

Not the book for me unfortunately.

October 25, 2009

The Glass Room - Simon Mawer

Even though The Glass Room was shortlisted for the 2009 Booker Prize I had not heard a great deal about it. I did however see the great (and positive) reviews for it from Jackie and Samantha which meant I kept it on my radar. I am so glad I did because as Jackie says at the start of her review - even though this isn't a book I might have ordinarily picked up I really enjoyed it and will definitely be looking out for more of Mawer's work in the future.

In many ways the central character of The Glass Room is the room (or house) itself. Built in a Czech town in the 1930's by newly married and quite wealthy couple Viktor and Liesel Landauer the house is a new direction in architecture - moving away from the fussiness and intricateness of the designs of the late 1800's and into a cleaner, starker more modern future. For Viktor and Leisel the house is more than a place to eat and sleep - it represents who they are, who they want to be and the direction they see their life taking.

Unfortunately for the Landauer family World War 2 intervenes in their plans. Viktor, as a Jew, feels that the safest option is to leave their home and their country and travel to Switzerland. The house remains of course and we see it pass through the hands of the Nazi establishment and other organisations before returning, in a sense, to the way that it began.

The narrative of this novel flows beautifully and I felt that the way that the author captured, described and demonstrated the many different relationships (including different characters relationships with the house) within the novel showed an amazing capability for understanding people and their motives - and just how complex these are. The author obviously has a great passion for his subject in this novel and I feel that he passes this on to his reader.

Has anyone read any other books by Simon Mawer - I am wondering where I should go next??

October 24, 2009

The Little Stranger - Sarah Waters

I realise I am probably one of the few bloggers yet to read The Little Stranger. I'm not even sure why I have waited so long to pick it up - I am a huge fan of Sarah Waters and was really excited to know that she would have a new book coming out this year - and yet when it came out I didn't rush out to buy it or place it on hold at my library... I did buy it as an audio book to listen to on our recent trip but I realised after I was only part way through the first chapter that I would need to actually read this one - something about the style of the book and the writing meant I needed to "see" it.

The book is marketed as a "chilling ghost story" which could explain why I had stayed away from it for so long - ghost stories aren't usually my forte. But having recently finished Her Fearful Symmetry (which I WILL post about soon!) I must have been in the mood to continue along the haunted way.

The Little Stranger centres around the Ayres family - English, upper-class, estate owners - in the time following WW2. The patriarch of the family has died leaving his wife and two adult children, Caroline and Roderick, to run the family house and estate - Hundreds Hall (my favourite character in the book by far). Into the life of the family comes a local GP, Dr Faraday, a local boy "made good" through the sacrifices of his working class parents and who has a mental and emotional connection to Hundreds Hall through the memories of a visit he made there when he was a child.

At the beginning of the story things are not going well for the Ayres family. Money is tight and only getting tighter, Roderick has returned from WW2 with psychological and physical injuries and Hundreds Hall itself is barely a shadow of the magnificent mansion it once was. Things only get worse from here. A traumatic incident at a party held by the family seems to start a spiral of events leading to the dismantling of the family in every sense of the word - and Hundreds Hall itself seems to be out for some sort of revenge.

I didn't find myself so much being scared by this book but depressed! The pains and experiences of the Ayres family are brought to life in vivid detail - the characterisation by Waters was brilliant I thought - each character stood out clearly and I felt like I knew them and could in some ways predict how they would respond and act. To me this brought a sense of genuineness to the not only the characters but the story itself. The decline of Hundreds Hall was sad and pathetic - I wanted to be able to donate some money to the restoration cause in the hope that it could be saved. Unfortunately I think there was much than just physical decay occurring within the estate.

I have read with much interest the reviews by other bloggers on this one in past months and they all intrigued me - there seemed to be a lot of different opinions and reactions to the ending of the book. Although I don't think I can say I totally enjoyed this book - as I have said before I found it too depressing to call it an enjoyable experience - I do think it is a clever, extremely well written book. As to whether it is a ghost story - well, I think that all depends on what your definition of a ghost may be...

October 20, 2009

MIss Pettigrew Lives For A Day - Winifred Watson

When I wrote about buying this book so many of you told me that I would love it - and you were right! Admittedly I had already seen, and loved, the movie version of the book so I was pretty sure I would enjoy the book but as it turns out they are both quite different (as is often the way).

Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day is set in London at the beginning of WW2 and tells the story of a middle aged English Governess, Guinevere Pettigrew, who, after a long period of struggling to find a position she can stay in, is thrown into the path of an aspiring actress and starlet, Delysia LaFosse. Miss Pettigrew believes she is applying for yet another governess position - but Miss LaFosse has other plans for her:

Miss LaFosse's eyes swivelled round to Miss Pettigrew. Her expression became imploring, beseeching.

'Can you cook?'

Miss Pettigrew stood up.

'When I was a girl,' said Miss Pettigrew 'my father said that after my dear mother I was the best plain cook he knew'.

Miss LaFosse's face became illuminated with joy.

'I knew it. The minute I laid eyes on you I knew you were the kind of person to be relied on. I'm not. I'm no use at all. The kitchen's through that door. You'll find everything there. But hurry. Please hurry'.

Flattered, bewildered, excited, Miss Pettigrew made for the door. She knew she was not a person to be relied upon. But perhaps that was because hitherto every one had perpetually taken her inadequacy for granted. How do we know what latent possibilities for achievement we possess? Chin up, eyes shining, pulse beating, Miss Pettigrew went into the kitchen.

And so begins Miss Pettigrew's day with Miss Lafosse - a day where she is introduced to people and situations she never thought possible in any life - let alone her own - and as the day begins we see Miss Pettigrew's confidence and belief in herself grow as she deals with difficult and sensitive problem after another - with nothing but success. This book is light and yet serious at the same time, funny and yet quite grim in places - the content and narrative of the story is as opposed as the characters of Miss Pettigrew and Miss LaFosse - but it works oh so well!

Apparently the author of Miss Pettigrew had to fight for its publication - publishers were not sure it would be a hit with her readers who were used to her strong dramatic storylines - the publishers were wrong however.
The picture below is of the endpaper in the classic Persephone edition of the book and is described as 'elegant and light-hearted' - a little like the way I saw Miss Pettigrew at the end of the book...

October 17, 2009

The Lady Elizabeth - Alison Weir

While I was waiting at Sydney airport at the beginning of Sept to head off on our trip I was browsing the book selections at the airport newsagency and discovered The Lady Elizabeth. I had just finished The Virgin's Lover and was keen to keep reading about Elizabeth I - even in fiction form. I had read some of Alison Weir's non-fiction before - The Six Wives of Henry VIII - and I thought her research and attention to detail was brilliant. Unfortunately I didn't love her fiction as much as her non-fiction.

The Lady Elizabeth covers the period of Elizabeth's life from her birth until the time she becomes Queen after the death of her sister, Mary. I really enjoyed the start and the end of this novel but I felt the middle section played out, and read, like a very bad soap opera. This middle section of the book fictionalises and imagines an intimate relationship between the young Elizabeth and a man who may or may not have played this part in her life. In the Author's Note at the end of the book Alison Weir talks about this section and why she wrote it in the way she did;

I make no apology for the fact that, for dramatic purposes, I have woven into my story a tale that goes against all my instincts as a historian! Indeed, I have argued many times in the past, in print, in lectures and on radio and television, why I firmly believe that Elizabeth I was the Virgin Queen she claimed to be, since the historical evidence would appear to support that.

I really think this tale for "dramatic purpose" actually detracts from the novel and makes it weaker than it otherwise needed to be. The narrative of this section feels forced and faked and it was where I lost track of where the story was heading. Weir does bring the story back to focus on Elizabeth and her strengths at the end but for me it felt like it was a little too late.

I am still looking for more books about Elizabeth I (fiction or non-fiction) - does anyone have any to suggest that they have really enjoyed??

October 15, 2009

Love At First Sight...

Unlike many others Paris has never been my dream destination - Italy did have that place taken - but since laying eyes on Paris for the first time in our recent trip I might have to do some re-thinking. As soon as we entered the city I fell in love - the history, the architecture, the streets, the people, the clothes, the patisseries! I was totally enchanted by everything I saw and experienced - can't wait to go back.
I am now really keen to read more about the city - both fiction and non-fiction - so if people have any recommendations please, please let me know!

October 14, 2009

The Lost Symbol - Dan Brown

Yep - I got sucked in by all the hype and bought (and actually read) this book. To be fair (to myself!) I am one of those people who really enjoyed The Da Vinci Code - while I don't think it was great literature by any stretch of the imagination I thought it was a great entertaining read. As I've mentioned before I am one of those readers who is pretty dense when it comes to guessing endings so The Da Vinci Code was a real treat for me - I never saw what was coming! Unfortunately I can't say the same for The Lost Symbol - I saw everything coming - and none of it was good! If I hadn't been on holidays while I was reading this book and in need of something VERY light to read I would have thrown this book out the nearest window - it really was that bad.

I read one of the reviews on Amazon where someone had written that they feel Dan Brown had written this book only with the future screenplay in mind - and I completely agree. The book did not read like a well constructed novel at all - it was clunky and descriptive - two of my pet hates in books. The characterisation, if you could even call it that, was basic and formulaic - not one person in the book was well rounded - I felt like I was watching a computer game being played out before my eyes.

I'm normally quite reserved when talking to other people about books I have not liked or enjoyed. I usually tell them the reasons I did not like it but they might see it differently. The Lost Symbol is another case altogether - I am openly telling my friends and family to not even bother reading this book - it is woefully terrible!!! Even though I paid good money (pounds none the less!) for this book I left it sitting on the table in a hotel room - maybe the person who picks it up next will enjoy it more than I did.

October 13, 2009

A Visit To Persephone

One of the highlights of my recent trip to London was a trip to the Persephone Bookshop. So many of you have been telling me to make the trip - and I am so glad I did. I only wish I had more room to bring even more books home with me! Ahh - the joys of mail order!

I did manage to whittle my selection down to two books to bring home with me:
Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day by Winifred Watson and Good Evening, Mrs Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes.

I chose Miss Pettigrew because I have seen, and loved, the movie with Frances McDormand and Amy Adams and I have read some other bloggers talking positively about Mollie Panter-Downes. It was so hard to only walk out of that shop with two books though!! I'm going to be putting in a mail order very soon I think - can you let me know what Persephone books I should collect next? What is your favourite?

October 10, 2009

The Virgin's Lover - Philippa Gregory

This was actually a book I finished quite a while ago now - just before we left for our trip. I had read another Philippa Gregory book, The Other Boleyn Girl, earlier in the year and while I wasn't exactly in love with it I did enjoy the light style and the ease with which I was able to read it. In the days leading up to going away my brain was finding it very hard to concentrate on anything too in depth and I did want to read books set in the areas in which we were travelling to which is why I picked up The Virgin's Lover.

Queen Elizabeth I is one of my favourite historical figures - not really sure why, she just always comes across as such a strong, independent woman at a time when that must have been extremely difficult to uphold. The Virgin's Lover tells the story of Elizabeth shortly after she becomes Queen and her friendship/relationship with Sir Robert Dudley develops. Historical writing and research seems divided on whether or not there was actually a sexual relationship between the two but literature and films of the modern age seem to jump to the idea that they could have and taken it for a spin.

The Virgin's Lover is no exception and the author in this case really brings home her interpretation of the relationship, in my mind to the detriment of the development of Elizabeth's strong character. I did enjoy reading the book but it certainly isn't a feminist portrayal of Elizabeth's story - something that is important to me in my reading of this woman, fiction or not.

In fact, women as a gender don't really do too well in this book, Sir Robert's neglected and poorly treated wife, Amy, doesn't end up well either and although her behaviour was probably typical and appropriate for married women of that era it really bothered me to read her story in this way.

Having said that I am still quite keen to read Gregory's new novel, The White Queen which focuses on the War of the Roses period of English history. Has anyone read this one yet? If so, how does it compare to Gregory's earlier novels?

October 06, 2009

Home Again

Back at home following our amazing 4 weeks away. Sometimes it feels like we have been gone for ages and at other times (like returning to work!) it feels like we have never left.

I think my body and mind are still trying to work out which time zone they are in but I am really looking forward to catching up on reading all of your blogging from my time away - I feel so out of the blogging loop right now but hopefully I will catch up soon. Please let me know if you think there is something in particular I should track down to read - and any great reading recommendations from your own reading over the past month - I can never have too many recommendations!

I'll also get around to letting you know what I have been reading while I was away - and the books I picked up on my trip (all I can say is that I am glad that Emirates had a 30kg allowance for checked in luggage!!).

I'm also looking forward to sharing some of my favourite moments and memories from my trip - when I get them all worked out in my own head! But for now I'll leave you with this photo at the top of my post - from the balcony of our hotel room in Paris. Ahh Paris!