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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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?