Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Reading Journal #2: Race, Fairies and Epic Fantasy


With Tom on Christmas holidays for the past week and a bit, I've had more time to sink into some fantastic books.  Christmas makes me crave something magical from the fantasy genre, something full of wonder and delight and escapism.  One year I devoured the whole Inkheart series by Cornelia Funke, and it was just perfect for the season.

Aside from The Hobbit, which I have a full review of here, I also decided to pick up Jo Walton's Among Others this Christmas, which I've heard great things about.  It features one of the strongest protagonists I've come across in a long time, Morwenna Phelps, a fifteen year old girl in 1979 who has just run away from her mother, a dark witch, after the death of her twin.  She ends up at an English boarding school and the book is told in the form of a diary.  The real magic in Among Others is the way that Mori's love of reading is expressed.  Any book lover will relate to her descriptions of her feelings as she reads various books, and how books have become her solace in difficult times. When she has to be thankful for something as she prays, she is thankful for the interlibrary loan system.

I think Among Others would be even more special for someone who grew up reading science fiction.  I've read my fair share, but nowhere near as much as Mori, and I didn't catch all of the references.  But as a book lover, her enthusiasm got to me and I ended up writing a list of all the books she mentioned that I must get my hands on, Ursula Le Guin prominent among them (should I start with Earthsea?).  The main plot of the book follows Mori's attempts to use magic to stop her mother and her attempts to come to terms with the death of her sister, but the fantasy elements are written with a light touch.  In fact, I'm not even sure whether I believed Mori at all, or whether she just had an over-active imagination.  I treasured the book mostly as a coming of age story, in line with Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle. Highly recommended.

A lot of my December reading has been taken up with the fourth installment in Robert Jordan's epic Wheel of Time series, The Shadow Rising.  These are really immersive books and by now I know enough about the world and characters that reading them is just pure escapism.  As always, the writing was a bit meandering, and the way that the female characters are written leaves a lot to be desired, but I have so much fun reading them.  This volume was roughly 1000 pages, but it just flew by.  I loved visiting the Aiel Waste and finding out more about women who can channel (do magic) in the different societies of the world, and the varying ways they are treated.  I found the sections where Perrin returns to the Two Rivers, his homeland, to defend it rather boring, and I'm optimistic that he will feature less in the next volume, which I'm sure I will pick up before too long.

And now for something completely different - race relations in the Deep South.  Earlier in the month, I wrote a blog post about all the fantastic books on my kindle I have yet to get to, and Scottsboro got a lot of love in the comments.  And well deserved all of that love was.  It's based on the true case of a group of nine black boys arrested in Alabama in 1931, accused of raping two white girls, which they didn't.  One of the girls stubbornly sticks to her story, but the other keeps changing her statements, and it's soon clear to anyone with a brain that the boys are innocent.  But this is the Deep South in the 1930s, and the political powers in Alabama have no interest in freeing the boys - indeed, they think they have been remarkably fair by giving them a sham trial, rather than just lynching them on the spot.

The story is told mainly from the perspective of a female journalist from New York, who becomes part of the campaign to free the boys.  She is a great voice as she's remarkably perceptive on the subtle nuances of the different prejudices of those supporting and condemning the boys.  She points out that a lot of the support is for personal or political gain, observing that if the boys were to suddenly turn up in the middle of a New York party full of their 'friends', no one would know quite what to do with them.  We are also introduced to Ruby, one of the two girls who originally cried rape. Feldman deftly uses Ruby's poverty and life history to show why she lied, and why she would tell the truth.

In places, Scottsboro was a depressing read.  There's one point late in the novel where I had to set it aside for a minute, disgusted by the selfishness of humans in general, and how willing we as a society are to knowingly allow others to suffer for our gain.  Somehow, no one in this book is doing the right thing for the right motives, and it made for grim reading.  I take my hat off to Feldman's wonderful writing and perceptiveness, and this is surely an important book. I can't see I enjoyed all of it, but it had a powerful impact on me.

And that's my recent reading up to date.  At the moment, I'm in a bit of a classics mood, and I'm thinking of rereading Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen over the next few days.  After that, I'm intending to look through my classics club list and pick a few more titles to immerse myself in. Happy reading in 2015!

Monday, 29 December 2014

Best of 2014: January - June

2014 was a reading year of two halves for me.  For the first six months, I was pregnant and this contributed to me reading so many books.  Especially towards the end of my pregnancy, I was so tired that I would literally come home from work, eat dinner, and then snuggle in bed with a book.  Reading was also a great companion during the first part of my maternity leave as I had a very late baby!  After Giles was born, I stopped reading for about a month, and then slowly started to fit it back into my life again. Now that he is six months and going to bed at a regular time, I have time for a bit of bedtime reading again, and it's been lovely to rediscover all of my books.

Here are my monthly top reads from January to June, with the rest of the year to follow at a later date.


January:

The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond
This is a really interesting non-fiction book about what we in the modern world can learn from traditional societies, and the way we lived for most of human history.  It covers child care, war, the elderly, health and religion and it made me think about the way I live my own life.


February:


Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
In a dystopian society, human emotion has been controlled so that no one suffers.  But is a life without experience, even negative experience and pain, worth living?  Does our emotional pain make us who we are?  I really enjoyed this classic sci-fi novel, as it combined really interesting concepts and stories with a fast moving plot.


March:


Kindred by Octavia Butler
Dana, a modern African American, is flung back through time to the slave-era South.  This is a really interesting look at slavery that doesn't shy away from complex situations and moral ambiguities,  I need to pick up more Butler in 2015.


April:


The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham
Kitty must accompany her husband into a cholera-stricken area of China as punishment for having an affair.  All of the characters in this novel are immensely unlikeable, but the character growth and development is superb.


May:


We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo
An unflinching look at the life of Darling, growing up in a shanty town in an unnamed African country.  She dreams of moving to America, but when she actually gets the opportunity, it's not all she thought it would be.  Darling is one of the best protagonists I've read all year.


June:


The Golem and the Djinni by Helene Wecker
I love stories that blend fantasy into the real world, and this one follows Chava, a golem made out of clay to be a bride, and Ahmad, a djinni accidentally released into nineteenth century New York.  This book is so atmospheric and magical, and I just adored it.

Have you read any of these books, or do you want to?
Also, if you've done a 'top reads of 2014' list, I'd love to hear about it!

Saturday, 27 December 2014

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkein


I have a bit of a long history with The Hobbit. I tried (and failed) many times to read it as a child, but never got out of the Shire.  It was enough to make to decide that Tolkein was just not for me, but then I saw the Lord of the Rings films, loved the books on a second reading, and now I've come full circle and picked up The Hobbit again.  It's the story of Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit who accidentally gets caught up with a group of dwarves off to kill the dragon who is guarding the stolen treasure of their ancestors.  Along the way, Bilbo will learn a lot about himself.

The Hobbit was a surprising read for me, in that it didn't turn out in the way I expected it to at all. From the initial chapters, I had Thorin, the leader of the dwarves, pegged as the hero of the novel, and was imagining him smiting Smaug and generously sharing his treasure in the final chapters. But it wasn't like that at all, and the characterisations were surprisingly complex for a children's novel. Thorin is shown as brave, determined, and a good leader, but he is also greedy and blinded by his desire for Smaug's treasure.  Similarly, the Master of one of the towns is morally ambiguous too.

Really, The Hobbit is all about Bilbo.  Like most good children's books, it's main themes are centred around growing up and developing as a person.  Bilbo starts the novel as reluctant to leave his home, scared of the world around him, and overly dependent on Gandalf and the other dwarves. When Gandalf leaves the group around half-way through the story, Bilbo gets a chance to come into his own.  He starts making decisions, believing in himself, and in the end he emerges as one of the few characters untainted by greed for Smaug's treasure.  There are a lot of opportunities for him to learn to be resolute, and to never give up, even when the going gets tough.

The other main theme of the novel is money and greed.  We see good characters caught up in their desire to hoard the treasure, even when there is more than enough of it.  Thorin doesn't want to give any of it away, even though there is no way he could use or transport more than a small quantity of it. The Hobbit is very much focused on friendships, personal strength and doing the right thing, as opposed to acquiring money or possessions.  So it was perhaps a good read for the Christmas season!

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed The Hobbit, even more so than I did the  Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Perhaps because it is aimed at children, the adventure moves on at a brisk pace, and there is always something going on.  Highly recommended.

Source: Personal copy
Score: 4.5 out of 5


The Classics Club: Book 30/72
My list of titles and reviews can be found here.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Merry Christmas!


Christmas seems to have come around so quickly this year, and it feels like I've spent the last week frantically rushing around trying to get everything done.  But finally the presents are all wrapped, the food is in the fridge, the house is all clean and I'm looking forward to celebrating with our families. As always, we are visiting both families on Christmas day; mine at lunchtime and Tom's in the late afternoon.  We usually do it this way, and this year we don't want to deprive any grandparents of the opportunity to share in Giles' first Christmas.  Of course, we will spend the morning together at home, opening presents and I imagine taking lots of photographs!

And then on Boxing Day my parents are coming to us.  I'm not cooking another roast dinner, but we'll have cold meats, salad, pasties, that kind of thing.  As we live near to town, we'll probably take a walk together and then just spend the rest of the day relaxing.


Giles turned six months on Monday, and over the past few weeks he has suddenly become able to do a lot of things that he couldn't before.  He can say ba-ba and da-da, and we're getting close to a 'mmm', but it seems to be more in annoyance than anything else!  His bottom two teeth have come through, he is eating finger foods, pulling himself up on anything he can get his hands on and he has started crawling.  At first, he went backwards for a few days, but now he has mastered the forward motion too and nothing in our house is safe!  It also makes changing him particularly tricky as he tends to crawl away when you're in the middle of things.

I hope everyone has a great Christmas, and gets to spend some time doing whatever you enjoy most over the holidays. I'd love to hear what you have planned, or any traditions you have in your family.

Friday, 19 December 2014

I would be ashamed of a book whose spine was not broken...


I Murdered my Library is a kindle single by a famous author downsizing her book collection as she moves to a new property.  It's full of gems that book lovers will adore and relate to.  This particular one struck me:

"The glory for me is how many of the books are in poor physical condition.  They are books that have been read and read intensely. They are knocked about and shopworn.  I would be ashamed of a book whose spine was not broken."

I know some readers are careful, and hate to damage their books in any way.  I am the opposite - I crease spines on purpose to mark my progress, turn over corners, highlight, underline, scrawl my thoughts and sometimes even bend the covers,  With a single glance at my shelves, you would be able to work out which books are read, and which are unread.  The more battered the book, the more I have loved it - the story of my reading is told by the condition of the pages.  The pristine ones nag at me to pick them up as soon as possible.

Of course, I do have some special editions I wouldn't like to damage (mainly classics), but on the whole I prefer the look of a book that has clearly been enjoyed.  I love buying out of date, battered copies in charity shops, especially if they have names, notes or annotations in them.  Books are extremely special objects to me, but I don't believe that I have to treat them like glass.

How do you treat your books?

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Empire by Niall Ferguson


After finishing Kate Grenville's The Lieutenant, I was left with an urge to find out more about the British Empire.  As a Brit, it's one of those topics that has always made me uneasy; I almost feel ashamed whenever it's bought up in conversation, so it's not something I have ever made a point to study.  Niall Ferguson's Empire covers the whole history of the Empire, from its earliest foundations to its eventual demise.  Although the history is largely told in chronological order, the text is organised thematically, with chapters on pirates (the founding of the Empire), colonisers, missionaries, mandarins, bankers and finally bankrupts (the end of the Empire).  This organisation really appealed to me, so I was excited to delve into this book.

Unfortunately, I closed the final pages with mixed feelings.  To start with the positive - the writing in Empire is engaging, and Ferguson has a talent for spotting the little details that make history more human, such as accounts of what it was really like to arrive in a new country.  Ferguson makes good use of primary source material, quoting from journals, and this helped me get a feel of what the colonisers were like as people, rather than just appreciating the facts.  I certainly learned a lot from this book, and I would say that I now have a good overview of the Empire and the reasons why it first prospered, and then fell apart.

At the beginning of Empire, I had high hopes that it would be a balanced history.  In the introduction, Ferguson writes about how he grew up thinking the Empire was brilliant, as his family members had been involved in various capacities, but that he had eventually began to research and reassess his views.  This was a promising start.  Ferguson does include the darker episodes of the Empire, such as the response to the Indian mutiny, and the concentration camps during the Boer war, but he is very quick to make excuses.  When discussing the systematic murder of all natives in Tasmania, he argues that it wasn't that bad, as it was restricted to a small area, whereas the independent colonists in the USA would have done much worse!  

As the book wore on, these excuses started to grate on me, and it became clear that although Ferguson was willing to admit that the Empire wasn't perfect, he still felt that it was overall a good thing.  His final argument is that everything wrong can be excused because the British Empire beat Germany in WW2.  I can't even get my head around logic like that!    In the conclusion, he writes that there are still 'backward regions' and that the US should probably colonise them.  Had these views been apparent earlier in the book, I wouldn't have made it to the end.

Still, there can be enjoyment in reading a book you disagree with.  Undoubtedly I learned a lot of history, and mentally arguing with Ferguson made me examine my own feelings about the Empire. Empire is well written and engaging, but only one to try if you can overcome the views of the author.

Source: Personal copy
First Published: 2003
Edition Read: Penguin Celebrations, 2007.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

A Wintry Walk


This morning, we bundled up and took a walk through a forest/park near to us.  I've decided to take a leaf out of Jade's book and share some photos, as it was such a gorgeous, wintry morning.


Of course, Giles slept through most of the walk!





Someone was very happy when we got home :)

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Kindle Books I'm Excited to Read

As can sometimes happen in our house, I put my kindle down somewhere a few months ago and then couldn't find it anywhere.  I didn't really look very hard, as I've been in the mood for reading off my actual shelves lately, but I was still happy to come across it whilst de-cluttering this morning.  And I had forgotten how many great books I still have yet to read on there.  Here are some I am particularly excited for at the moment:

  

  • Life After Life by Kate Atkinson - I've had this ever since it started getting lots of hype, and I know I'm going to adore it.  I love the premise of getting to relive parts of your life.  I also have Atkinson's Case Histories, so hopefully this one will trigger an Atkinson reading binge.
  • The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her own Making by Catherynne M. Valente - I have seen lots of positive reviews of this one, and I'm excited to delve into the atmosphere of the novel.
  • Gossip From the Forest by Sara Maitland - Part travelogue and part history/development of fairytales? Yes please!

  

  • Under the Skin by Michel Faber - I love Faber, and if I can't justify buying his new book yet, I can at least read from his back-list.  This is a creepy story of a female driver who likes to pick up male hitch-hikers with big muscles.
  • Scottsboro by Ellen Feldman - Historical fiction about black boys accused of raping a white girl in 1930s Alabama.  It was short-listed for the Orange prize too, which makes me more keen to read it.
  • Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters (Amelia Peabody 1) - I'm generally not into mysteries, but this one is set in Egypt and features an ahead-of-her-time main character.

  

  • Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin - I like non-fiction like this, that blends travel with literature, history and politics.  I'm planning on reading this once I get to Orwell's Burmese Days.
  • Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa's Greatest Explorer by Tim Jeal - I've done quite a bit of reading into African history and the creation of different empires, and Stanley is fascinating, but for all the wrong reasons.  This is the man who helped King Leopold plunder the Congo and commit horrific deeds there.  I'm interested in reading more about his motivations and frankly, how he lived with himself.
  • Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami - I heard about this one when it was nominated for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize earlier in the year.  It's about a relationship between a 30 year old woman and one of her high school teachers, and something about it really appeals to me. 
It goes without saying that there are of course more unread books than this on my kindle - I am a hoarder in all mediums, but these are the ones that really strike my fancy at the moment.  If you've read any of them, I'd love to know your opinions.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

The Lieutenant by Kate Grenville

I picked up The Lieutenant because I thoroughly enjoyed Grenville's The Secret River, also about the colonisation of Australia.  Whereas The Secret River focused on a family deported after the father is convicted of theft, The Lieutenant takes as its subject Daniel Rooke, an outsider with a fascination for numbers and the stars.  He travels to New South Wales as a naval astronomer charged with charting a comet through the Southern Hemisphere.  On arrival, Daniel becomes fascinated by the language of the Aborigines and this leads to an unexpected friendship with a girl named Tagaran.  But he can not escape the fact that he is a representative of the British, and that he is compelled to follow orders or face trial.  The closer he becomes to Tagaran, the more the starts to view the Aborigines as equals, and the more he is conflicted by their treatment.  Eventually, Daniel will have to decide where his loyalties truly lie.

The Lieutenant was a quick read that dealt with some interesting issues.  Although I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as The Secret River, I appreciated Grenville's writing and how she approached big topics with a light touch.  The awakening of Daniel's conscience is gradual, and Grenville avoids any preaching.  The complexity of the Aboriginal characters establishes them as equals from the moment they are introduced, and Daniel, with his social awkwardness, is the only British character able to take them at face value.  He hasn't got the social skills to absorb stereotypes or prejudices, and his academic fascination with their language soon leads to a respect for the people.  Daniel is able to appreciate that their language and lifestyle is as complex as the British one, and therefore can not morally treat them as savages.  Sometimes it does take someone who is an outsider, who doesn't fit in, to see what should have been staring everybody in the face.

Although I liked the way Grenville wrote the Aboriginal characters, I would have liked to have seen more of them.  Their society was left largely as a mystery, and I would have liked it if Daniel had been able to interact with Tagaran more before being forced to make a big decision at the end of the novel.  I understand that Daniel is based on a real British astronomer, William Dawes, but I still think Grenville could have done more to really show that the British were disturbing a whole society.

On paper, The Lieutenant ticks all of the boxes of what I love reading about, but the reading experience somehow fell a little flat.  Daniel wasn't as compelling as the Thornhill family were in The Secret River, and I never felt any dramatic tension, as it was always clear what Daniel was going to end up doing.  Overall, I would recommend it, but you should start with The Secret River first.

Source: Personal copy
Score: 3.5 out of 5

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Sam Sunday #61: A Tiring Week


All of my best blogging intentions have gone out of the window recently, as I've had the most exhausting week.  On Monday, I spent the morning in work for some training, and when I got home with Giles I noticed that he had a really bad cough.  He had been suffering with a cold the previous week, but this seemed to be worse than just the sniffles.  By Wednesday, he was wheezing and refusing feeds, so we took him to the out of hours GP, who examined him and told us to take him straight to A&E, where he was diagnosed with bronchiolitis.

Bronchiolitis is a viral infection in which the bronchioles in the lungs swell, become full of mucus and can be very painful.  As it's a virus, there is no treatment for it.  It's something that lots of babies develop and it usually only causes mild symptoms.  However, Giles has got a particularly bad case of it, meaning he needed nebulizer treatment to clear his lungs, as he was having to work hard to breathe.  We had to return to the hospital for more treatment on Thursday, and he was almost admitted.  Thankfully he is doing a bit better now - he still sounds like a chain smoker when he breathes, but he is drinking his milk again and I'm not checking his breathing every five seconds.

As you can imagine, everything else has gone out of the window this week.  I'm getting about two hours sleep a night, and spending the rest of the night rocking Giles, as it's so hard for him to get comfortable enough to sleep.  Being a parent is a worrying business at the best of times, but it's worse when your child is ill.  Hopefully he has turned a corner now and will make steady progress this week.  The doctor expects it will take several weeks to clear completely, but we should be out of the worst of it soon.  His first tooth is also pushing through, which only adds to his overall discomfort levels!

One thing we have managed to do is decorate the Christmas tree.  Every year we buy a new bauble, and this year we purchased a personalised Christmas tree decoration for Giles' first Christmas.  I love the tree being up and the lights twinkling away.

How was your week?

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Library Trip #1



I have been very good recently at not acquiring any books at all and just reading from my shelves, but last week the siren song of the library was just too strong.  Giles went asleep in the pushchair on the way, so I had plenty of time to have a good browse and make my selections.  I've gone for four non-fiction and four fiction.  I can't promise that I will end up reading them all, as this stack is rather over-ambitious, but I had fun choosing them.



  • Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua - Memoir.  I remember the controversy around this parenting book when it came out, and now I have a little one of my own, I'm keen to read it.  Being a 'tiger mother' is all about pushing your children to their limits.  Hopefully this will be thought provoking.
  • There was a Country by Chinua Achebe - History.  I first read about the Biafran War, in which part of Nigeria tried to become independent, in Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun.  This promises to be a personal history of the period by a writer I admire.  I can't wait to get to this one.
  • The Viral Storm by Nathan Wolfe - Science.  Wolfe is a biologist specialising in viruses than can cause pandemics, and this book is all about his work tracking and trying to defeat them.  




  • The Devil Came on Horseback by Brian Steidle - Memoir. Steidle was hired by the African Union to document the genocide in Darfur, and this book is about his experiences.  I'm sure this will be a powerful but difficult read.
  • The Gospel of Loki by Joanne M. Harris - Fantasy.  I know next to nothing about Norse mythology, so this retelling by a respected writer seems like a good place to start.
  • The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan - I've read two books by Tan and have had a somewhat mixed experience with her.  I like the sound of the plot of this one, about the daughter of an American forced to become a courtesan.  We shall see.


  • River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay - Fantasy.  I haven't got much idea of the plot of this one, I've just seen it featured on a few lists of more diverse fantasy.
  • Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie - A book I've been meaning to read for the longest time.  Set in the aftermath of 9/11 and the Nagasaki bombings, it promises to be an epic read.

Have you read any of these books?  I'd love to hear your opinions if you have, to help me prioritise which ones to get to first.

Friday, 28 November 2014

Chinese Cinderella by Adeline Yen Mah

Chinese Cinderella is a memoir of growing up as an unwanted child.  After her mother died giving birth to her, Adeline is regarded as bad luck and a nuisance to her new stepmother.  Although she shows great academic promise and would do anything for love and acceptance, Adeline is ignored at best or treated with cruelty at worst.  Her coming of age story is told alongside the history of the Chinese civil war and the emergence of the Communists as the ruling party of China.

I had no idea that this memoir was aimed at children until I started reading it, so I had to adjust my expectations accordingly.  I really enjoyed the tone of the memoir, how Adeline's experiences are relayed without sentimentality, as this gives the book more power.  Had I picked this up as a child, I would have loved it and would have inspired me to learn as much as possible about China.  As I am an adult and I've already studied Chinese history a bit, I found some of the explanations of what was going on around Adeline too simple.

The real power of the book is in Adeline's grit.  At one point, she writes about how she read Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess, and resolved to be as strong as Sara.  And she is.  Although we see Adeline being damaged by a total lack of affection and abandonment, she manages to overcome her experiences.  There's no fairy godmother in this Cinderella story, instead we get Adeline working hard and finally earning her right to travel abroad to study.  This message, of inner strength and persistence is a great one for all of us, regardless of our age.

This book is definitely one I will be recommending to the children I teach, and to Giles when he is old enough.  It's a good example of a well written memoir aimed at children.

Source: Personal copy
First Published: 1999
Score: 3.5 out of 5

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Why I'm No Longer Accepting Review Copies

Last week, I finally made a change to my blog that I've been toying with for quite a while; I updated my 'contact me' page to state that I am no longer accepting review copies.  I won't be emailing publishers, logging onto Netgalley, replying to review requests, using Bookbridgr or readign unsolicited ARCs any more.  This applies to self-published books, books from minor publishers and books from major publishers.

It's taken me a while to come to this decision as like most book bloggers, I've always found it flattering and exciting to receive review copies.  I remember how accomplished I felt when I received my first email requests, and when I was first approved on Netgalley for a title by a major publisher.  Receiving a copy of Americanah before it came out was a real high point in my blogging 'career'. All these things felt like validation of the hard work I'd been putting into my blog, recognition that I was doing an OK job.

However, the longer I've been accepting review copies, the more I've come to see the negatives too. I can get a bit 'trigger happy' on Netgalley and Bookbridgr and end up with more review copies than I can possibly read.  I don't like the pressure of having to read a certain book by a certain time, even if I'm not enjoying it, or having to write full reviews all the time.  Sometimes I'll get excited about a book when I receive it, but then not feel like reading it when it's actually close to it's release date.  Even though I try my hardest not to let the fact that I have received a review copy effect my opinion, it's always there in the back of my mind when I'm writing down my thoughts.  Replying to emails and building up contacts with publishers is time consuming, and it's rare that I'll receive an unsolicited request for a book that fits with me or with my blog.

All these reasons have contributed to my decision, but the main one is that I'm no longer happy with how review copies have changed my reading habits.  I miss being a mood reader, browsing my shelves and picking the next title to try at whim.  I miss flitting between different books, rereading my favourites and spending months immersed in an epic series.  I'm sick of neglecting the books that I have accumulated and I want to dive into the back-lists of authors I love.

I'm sure I will miss out on some great review copies over the coming months and years, but I don't mind waiting and purchasing a book if it's something that I am excited for.  In the meantime, I have plenty of books on my shelves to keep me occupied.

Do you accept review copies?  If so, have they changed your reading habits?

Monday, 24 November 2014

Five Months Old



On Saturday, Giles turned five months old.  I can't believe my screaming newborn bundle is already almost half a year old; everything has changed so completely since he arrived and I've learned so much about myself.

We've reached the point now where it feels as though Giles has always been here, and I can't imagine my life without him.  This past month has been an interesting one as his personality is really starting to shine through.  Looks wise, he is all Tom, but I'm seeing a lot of myself in his personality.  Like me, he is very determined (some might call it stubborn!) and likes to do things for himself, rather than be helped.  He's always on the go and always looking for the next thing to do.  He's very curious about people and the world, which probably comes from my nosiness!

At the moment, all of his determination is focused on one goal: becoming mobile.  He'll try anything to get where he wants to go, including pulling himself up on whatever is around, repeated rolling and a bizarre half-crawl-half-shuffle move.  I have a feeling he is going to be a bit of a monster when he learns how to move around efficiently!

Friday, 21 November 2014

Blogging Break Reads

Whilst I wasn't blogging over the last month or so, I was most definitely still reading.  Here are some quick thoughts on the titles I finished:

Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch

Peter Grant thinks he is headed for a dull life of police paperwork when he finds himself interviewing a ghost following a murder in central London.  This leads him to Chief Inspector Nightingale, the last wizard in England, and the person in charge of policing the parallel, magical London.  The number of gruesome murders across the city is increasing, and it's up to Grant and Nightingale to find out and apprehend the supernatural culprit.

I had high hopes going into this book, as it's the first of a very well regarded series, but I was disappointed.  I liked the urban fantasy atmosphere and the originality of the supernatural elements, but ultimately this book was too much crime, too little fantasy for me.  I wasn't interested in solving the crime alongside Peter and as a result the pages dragged.   This one has been donated to the charity shop, and I won't be continuing with the series.
2.5 out of 5


A Little History of Literature by John Sutherland

I love the Little History series, and this literature based volume did not disappoint.  Covering everything from Greek myths to the future of printed books, this book is divided into short, bite-sized chapters that give an overview of authors and trends from the Western canon.  There's also chapters dealing with the development and history of the publishing industry.

I studied science at university, so I was missing a general overview of the history of literature, and this book filled that gap nicely. It's perfect to dive in and out of, as each chapter only takes a few minutes to read. Although I would have liked to have seen more on non-Western literature, I loved this book as it inspired me to pick up more classics.  Highly recommended.
5 out of 5




The Impressionist by Hari Kunzru

Pran Nath is the son of an Indian woman and English man.  Throughout his life he experiences being a privileged son, a cast out, exploited in a backstreet brothel, a political pawn, a student at Oxford university and finally an anthropologist.  Pran is able to flit between these roles effortlessly, assuming new identities, but what are the consequences of lacking a true identity?

This book is truly epic in scale, covering three countries and a dazzling array of side characters.  It's also utterly engrossing, mainly for the minor characters and the settings, which are bought vividly to life.  I really enjoyed this for the story, but have a feeling I missed some of the deeper meanings involving post-colonialist identity.
4 out of 5


The Dragon Reborn by Robert Jordan

The third volume in Jordan's epic fantasy series, The Wheel of Time. This series is a bit of a guilty pleasure for me.  Objectively, I know there is lots to dislike about it - the repetitive descriptions, the fantasy clich├ęs, the gender stereotypes, the unnecessary, pace-slowing detail - but I just can't help but find this series utterly compelling.  It's just wonderful escapism, especially now Jordan has broadened the world somewhat and introduced new places in this volume.

I wouldn't recommend this series to everyone, and I'm not even sure why I like it so much, but like it I do.

4 out of 5

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Changing Things Up on the Blog

Pile of books in Mr Tulk © Mark Chew
Image Source
I started this blog four and a half years ago, and it has always been a book related blog.  I wrote my early posts during my first year of being a fully qualified teacher, and it was a way for me to switch off from the chaos of having my first class, and devote time to my favourite hobby of reading.  I was delighted to discover that book blogging was a thing, and to slowly build up a community of readers to share thoughts and recommendations with.  For a little while I did get distracted by stats and review copies, but this blog has always been foremost about having a community of blogging friends, quality interactions rather than numbers.

For a few years, I  just posted reviews.  It was rare for me to take part in memes or post hauls, and I kept my personal life strictly off the blog.  My motto in this regard has always been to never post anything that I wouldn't want the parents of the children I teach to see, if they happened to stumble across my blog.  I am a bit jealous of bloggers who have more posting freedom, but at the same time I wouldn't want to be someone who put everything on the internet for anyone to see.

As the years went by, the more I realised that what I enjoyed about blogging wasn't necessarily writing reviews, but interacting with other bloggers, that I had come to regard as my friends.  I opened up a bit and started posting weekly personal updates, as well as experimenting with Twitter and Instagram.  Again, I still have to be very careful about what I post, but I love that I'm now actually getting to know other bloggers, rather than just talking about books.  Talking about books is great, but getting to know other bookish people is so much better.

Ever since having my baby boy five months ago, I've been struggling with my blog and where to take it.  Part of that is due to time restrictions - I simply do not have the same amount of time to read and review any more.  When I return to work, I suspect I will have even less time, just snatches of time in the evenings when Giles has gone to bed and my planning/marking is completed.  I'm also finding that reading is taking up less of my mental space; I'm still a big bookworm and suspect I always will be, but I haven't got the mental energy to keep book blogging at the pace I was.

But I do still want to blog.  I love having something that is just for me, and the creative outlet of writing posts is good for me.  So I've decided to open up my blog even more.  I will still be posting about my reading (although maybe not one dedicated review per book), and reading related topics, but I'll also be writing about whatever takes my fancy too.  There might be baby posts, cookery posts, posts about my cat, or photos from trips we have taken together, or just random ponderings.  The only thing I won't ever post about is teaching.  I hope that this way I can carry on blogging and keep in touch with everyone that I've met through my blog.

Have you ever considered changing the way you blog?

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Sam Sunday #60: Hopefully I'm Back


So this little blog has become rather neglected over the past month or so.  There are quite a few reasons, the main one being that there are things going on in my private life that I'm not comfortable sharing with the internet, and I haven't really felt up to posting much.  Me, Tom and Giles are all well, but it's been a tricky couple of months.  Giles is also what our Health Visitor refers to as a 'velcro baby', in other words he protests loudly at being put down, even if he is asleep.  It's not often that I have two hands free for long enough to put together a post!

Speaking of Giles, he is going to be five months old in just a couple of days and I can't believe it.  He is still a big bundle of energy that doesn't stop going from the moment he wakes up to the moment he falls asleep.  He is so completely determined that he will be mobile as soon as possible; he's already pulling himself up to standing, rolling all over the place and pushing himself along the floor.  I have a feeling I'm going to spend the next ten or so years running around after him, he is going to be a terror when he learns how to crawl!

Now that he is going to sleep at a decent time every evening, I'm getting in much more reading time. I have a post planned in a couple of weeks detailing what I've read whilst I've not been blogging, but basically I've been mood reading and completely enjoying my reading freedom.  In fact, I'm enjoying it so much that I've decided to completely stop receiving or requesting review copies and just focus on what is on my shelves.

As I've been away for so long, I'd love to hear what everyone has been up to.  I've missed all of my blogging buddies!

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton

Ava Lavender is the daughter of a woman scorned in love and the granddaughter of a woman haunted by the ghosts of her past.  She also happens to have wings, which she was born with.  In The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, Ava traces the history of the women in her family, and the ways in which love in all its forms has caused them pain.  Their stories lead naturally on to her own, as her wings make her the focal point of a dangerous obsession.

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender is an unusual book that is hard to describe.  The thing I enjoyed most about it was the quirky tone and narrative voice.  Walton's world just hints at the magical, and at the fairy tale, a world in which wings, ghosts, children with different coloured eyes, and cakes infused with the feelings of the baker, are possible.  I love books with atmospheres like this - our normal world painted in vivid technicolour.  Ava Lavender is as a result a very visual book, and one that would be great turned into a film.

I mentioned above that this story is a bit like a fairy tale, and therefore there is a darker side lurking underneath the surface.  Emilienne and Viviane (Ava's mother and grandmother) are troubled by love in rather ordinary ways, but Ava really experiences the darker side of obsessive love.  The later sections of the novel deal with brutal events, which seem even harsher set against the imaginative setting. I found what happened to Ava to be problematic, not because I don't think violence against women shouldn't be written about, but because there was a glamour to the scene.  Ava's sorrows are beautiful, it's all in the title, and her attack and it's consequences are written about in the same, fairytale, beautiful-tragic way.  When really it's just tragic and there are fewer things in life that would feel less beautiful.  I'm sure this was completely unintentional, but it still bothered me.

I found that I connected with Emilienne and Viviane better than Ava herself, as Ava remained a bit of a mystery throughout the novel.  I particularly connected with Viviane's story, her years spent pining after a lost love that didn't really turn out to be a love after all.  Including all three women in the narrative was definitely a good decision.

On the whole, I did enjoy The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender.  The writing style and the magical elements worked fantastically together, and it was a pleasure to pick up.  Fans of Sarah Addison Allen will enjoy this one.

Source: From the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.
Published: 2014
Score: 3.5 out of 5

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Jacob Jankowski is a veterinary student about to sit his final exams when he receives the devastating news that his parents have been killed.  Desperate and unable to cope, he hitches a ride on a freight train that turns out to house the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth.  The circus has fallen on hard times due to the Great Depression but Jacob's background ensures him a job as the circus vet.  Jacob is seduced by the exotic animals, glamour and romance of the circus life, but there are darker currents running underneath the sequins and glitter.  When he falls in love with married performer Marlena and the circus acquires Rosie the elephant, Jacob finds himself tested.

As always, I bought this book when it was surrounded by a lot of hype but then failed to read it in a timely manner.  I also failed to see the film, so I went into Water for Elephants with completely fresh eyes.  I was expecting a light, sentimental type read, and that's exactly what it was.  Even though Water for Elephants discusses some heavier themes such as animal cruelty, murder and the brutality of circus life, it does so in a Spielberg-esque way that left me in no doubt that things would be OK in the end.  It's like life without the sharp edges, and it makes for comfortable if not challenging reading.

My favourite element of Water for Elephants was the setting.  I'm not surprised this novel was turned into a film, as it's so visually evocative of both the time period and of the circus.  I could almost smell the popcorn and taste the excitement that the circus bought to the dreary towns it stopped in.  I also really enjoyed the character of Marlena, who had more guts than I initially took her to have.  The bits dealing with Rosie and the other animals made me want to try Gruen's novel Ape House, as I liked the way the animals were characters in themselves.

However, there were some flaws.  Jacob falls in love with a married woman, which could have made for some interesting complexity in the novel, but Gruen shies away from this by making her husband to be a bad guy.  This seemed a little too convenient for the plot.  As I mentioned above, there's never any doubt that things will end well for Jacob, and this takes away some of the tension.   Despite this, Water for Elephants is a really fun, escapist read.  I loved immersing myself in the world of the circus for a while.

Source: Personal copy
First Published: 2006
Edition Read: Two Roads, 2011
Score: 3.5 out of 5

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Everyday Sexism by Laura Bates

In 2012 after being sexually harassed on London public transport Laura Bates, a young journalist, started a project called Everyday Sexism to collect stories for a piece she was writing on the issue. Astounded by the response she received and the wide range of stories that came pouring in from all over the world, she quickly realised that the situation was far worse than she'd initially thought. Enough was enough. From being leered at and wolf-whistled on the street, to aggravation in the work place and serious sexual assault, it was clear that sexism had been normalised. Bates decided it was time for change.  (from Goodreads).

Everday Sexism is a thoroughly depressing and yet important book.  Bates has collated the normal, run-of-the-mill experiences of countless  women, on a range of topics, and together it makes for pretty grim reading.  I was shocked to find out that one in three girls from 16-18 have experienced unwanted sexual touching at school, that women are still missing out on jobs in case they decide to take maternity leave, and that the unemployment rate for men in the recession has increased by only 0.32%, whilst for women it has jumped by almost 20%.  The statistics were shocking enough, but what makes this book more powerful is that Bates includes the individual stories of the women that have tweeted her and posted on the everyday sexism website.   I could identify with so many of the experiences - the newlywed woman being asked when she is going to start having babies, the pregnant woman who only ever gets asked about her pregnancy, and the teenage girls who know they are more than their looks, but can't escape their insecurities.   Bates also shows how these experiences are normalised in the context of 'banter', with women who protest to e.g. sexual comments getting responses like "can't you take a joke?" or "you should be flattered."


I think the chapter that made the most depressing reading was the one concerning teenage girls.  I was lucky enough to be a teenager before the internet was everywhere (the days of dial-up), and I'm sure that it's so much harder now social media means that sexual bullying is common.  I was shocked to read about the amount of rape jokes reported in secondary schools, but when I asked my husband about it (he's a secondary school teacher), his experience matched those in the book.  When I was at school, boys might have joked about how girls looked, and that is cruel, but to be the subject of jokes about raping you, or what they want to do to you, or to have private photos shared - I can't imagine how hard that must be.  Bates reports on the girls that have committed suicide as a result of all these things.


I've always known that if I had a girl, I would raise her to be a feminist, to value herself for more than her looks, and to know that she can do anything that she wants to do.  Reading Everyday Sexism, I've realised that it is just as important for me to raise my son to respect women, to see them as more than objects, but as friends, colleagues, partners and equals.  I don't care if my son wants to cry when he is upset or play with dolls, and I certainly will try my best to ensure that he judges men and women in the same way, as people.  


I'd definitely recommend Everyday Sexism.  It's depressing reading at times, but does end on a note of hope, with stories of how women are starting to protest against the current culture, and how things could change for the better.


Source: Personal copy (kindle)

Published: April 2014
Score: 5 out of 5

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

The Bellwether Revivals by Benjamin Wood

Oscar is a care assistant working at a nursing home in Cambridge. Despite being very intelligent, his academic career was cut short and he has always dreamed of attending one of the famous colleges near by.  One night, he finds himself drawn into a concert by the haunting sound of the organ, and there he meets Iris Bellwether, a medical student at King's College.  Through his relationship with Iris, Oscar becomes part of a group of students revolving around Iris' brother Eden, a gifted musician.  Eden is charismatic, bizarre, brilliant and perhaps a little insane.  As Eden begins to develop strange and possibly dangerous theories about the power of his music, Iris reaches out to Oscar for help.  Is Eden a great genius, or will his arrogance and instability damage the group?

I should start this review by pointing out that I've never read The Secret History or Brideshead Revisited, although plenty of other reviewers have noted similarities to these titles.  I went into The Bellwether Revivals with fresh eyes and I found it a bit of a mixed bag.  There were parts I loved, and parts where the narrative seemed to drag a bit.  Mostly, I loved the setting and the characterisation of Eden.  I'll read pretty much anything set at Oxbridge or amongst privileged individuals (I know, I really do need to get to The Secret History). so I was guaranteed to love this part of the book, the exams and colleges, textbooks and bicycles, grand houses and wealthy parents.  Wood's Cambridge has a slightly gothic atmosphere as well, which only added to my enjoyment of the setting.

The characterisation of Eden was superb too.  Wood perfectly captures that kind of person who is either manically clever or completely insane.  Eden has a magnetic personality that draws other people to him and his charisma is almost a force.  I enjoyed all the little details about Eden, like his notebooks full of scrawling, his air of superiority towards Iris, and the crazed way he plays the organ.  Wood keeps plenty of ambiguity about Eden, so you're not quite sure whether he is what he says he is throughout the novel.  Although Eden was such a well developed character, some of the others felt flatter.   Oscar was a bit of a bright-boy-held-back-by-working-class-family stereotype, and some of Eden's friends (Jane and Marcus particularly) just seemed to be there to make up numbers.

My main issue with The Bellwether Revivals was one of pace.  The book opens and closes with the same dramatic event, but the middle section felt a bit heavy by comparison.  I was keen to keep reading to find out what was going to happen, and I enjoyed the big reveal at the end, but it felt like I had to wait a long time to get there.  I'm not sure what Oscar's favourite patient Dr Paulsen added to the narrative; I know he had to be there for the plot to work, but his sections could have been cut considerably.

On the whole, The Bellwether Revivals was a worthwhile read.  If you enjoy books with academic settings or mysteries, you're sure to like this one.

Source: Personal copy
First Published: 2012
Score: 3.5 out of 5

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Top Ten Authors I Need to Read More Of


It's rare for me to join in with Top Ten Tuesday over at the Broke and the Bookish, but something about this theme really struck me.  I am terrible for reading author backlists - I keep on discovering amazing authors and adding all their titles to my wishlist, but I never get around to actually reading them.  So without further ado, here are the ten authors I need to read more of:

  

  • Geraldine Brooks - I absolutely adored People of the Book when I read it during my historical fiction kick a few years back.  I even own copies of March and Year of Wonders, I just need to pick them up and read them!
  • Angela Carter - There are no words for how much I loved her dark fairytale retellings in The Bloody Chamber.  I'm very keen to try Nights at the Circus in particular.
  • Daphne du Maurier - Rebecca became one of my favourite books as soon as I tried it.  I loved the twists and turns, and how unreliable the narrator was.  I think Jamaica Inn will be next.
  

  • Jane Harris - Gillespie and I was another deliciously creepy book with an unreliable narrator.  I've heard The Observations is just as good.
  • Eva Ibbotson - Eva's books are fluffy and fun and like a warm bath in the middle of winter.  There's so many of them I want to read!
  • W. Somerset Maugham - I'm only just getting into modern classics, and I adored The Painted Veil. I have a whole set of his books, but think I will be trying The Magician next.
 

  • Marisha Pessl - Night Film was just awesome!  I know it's very different, but I really want to try Special Topics in Calamity Physics.
  • Brandon Sanderson - Steelheart was good, but the Mistborn trilogy is the one I really want to try.  I love some epic fantasy when I'm in the mood.
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  • John Steinbeck - He's my husband's favourite author, and I loved East of Eden.  The ones I really want to try are Cannery Row and Grapes of Wrath.
  • Lucy Knisley - And finally and graphic novelist.  I loved Knisley's account of he time in France in French Milk, and fully intend to get my hands on Relish as soon as possible.

Have you read any of these authors? If so, what did you think?
If you're taking part in Top Ten Tuesday this week, I'd love to visit your list.