Sunday, 1 March 2015

Reading Journal #6: Catching Up

As predicted, I simply didn't have time to post during the week, and unfortunately I didn't get to visit many blogs either. By the time I have taught all day, attended meetings, got Giles home, cooked dinner, eaten dinner, given Giles his bath, put him to bed and sorted out everything for the next day, including planning and marking, I'm not in much shape for anything! Happily, one of the things I am in shape for is reading, so I've still been steadily going through books. Here's what I have read over the past two weeks or so:

Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre is a non-fiction expose of the pharmaceutical industry and how trials, biased publications and access to doctors' training can lead to drugs being prescribed incorrectly, and patients not always getting what is the best for them. Prior to reading this, I had heard about the pharmaceutical industry in the USA, but had naively thought that we were more protected here in the UK, because we have the NHS and our medical system isn't for-profit. Goldacre quickly disabused me of this notion, pointing out how missing data, where nine unsuccessful trials could be buried and one successful one published, skews prescribing habits in all countries. It turns out that our regulators are no good at enforcing their own rules, that doctors can be paid to add their names to papers they did not write, and that drugs reps are allowed way too much sway over GPs. The single scariest fact in the book was that drugs are rarely if ever compared against the best available treatment, only against a placebo. This means we have no idea which drugs are the most effective for a whole host of common treatments.

Bad Pharma is well researched and it helps that Goldacre is a UK trained doctor, but at times his rhetoric was a bit over the top. I could have done without lots of the repeated anger, especially in a book as long as this one. It did however make me appreciate my own GP, who prescribes generic medications rather than the fancier branded ones that have the exact same ingredients, and who has explained this to me before prescribing. Bad Pharma covers an important topic and is well researched and written, so I would recommend it if you don't mind a bit of repeated anger on the part of the author.  3.5 out of 5

After non-fiction, I always need a bit of palate-cleansing fiction.  I've read White Teeth and On Beauty by Zadie Smith, and liked them both, so I decided it was time to pick up N-W. It tells the story of four Londoners from the same area - Leah, who is trying to avoid growing up and starting a family; Natalie, who has worked hard to leave her working class roots behind; Felix, who is trying to start again, and Nathan, who is angry.

Reviews of N-W seem to be very mixed, with readers tending to rank it lower than her other books. This is mainly due to the experimental writing style; parts of this novel are written in numbered sections, in fragments of sentences and in lists. Personally I loved that Smith had chosen to write like this, as she is definitely talented enough to pull it off.  The chaotic writing style matched the chaotic lives of the characters and I was hooked within a few pages. This book was challenging to read at times and the style didn't always work, but I found it thoroughly engrossing and a realistic portrait of London today.  3.5 out of 5.

And finally, an audio-book.  I was excited to start China Dolls by Lisa See, as See is one of my favourite historical fiction authors. Shanghai Girls in particular is up there with the best historical fiction I've read, and I've never read a bad book by her. Until now. China Dolls is the story of Ruby, Helen and Grace, who meet when they are auditioning to become dancers in a Chinese night-club in 1930s San Francisco. They soon become firm friends, and the narrative follows them through several decades, as they move through disappointments and traumatic times. Each is hiding a powerful secret.

To start with what I liked - I had no idea about the way 'Orientals' were treated in America at this time, and it was fascinating to learn about the 'Chop Suey Circuit' and the interment camps for American citizens of Japanese descendants during WW2. I liked the epic-ness of the story, how it covered many decades and events and gave a real sense of time passing. However, the three main characters were a major let-down. The only one I could ever really like was Grace, which wouldn't have been a problem if their storylines weren't so unbelievable.  Ruby, Helen and Grace kept on and on hurting each other, and their friendship seemed based only on jealousy and a common race. I just couldn't comprehend how they kept forgiving each other some pretty unforgivable things, and why they were so keen to hurt each other. It completely ruined what could have been an interesting novel, if only the portrayal of female friendship was more nuanced.  2 out of 5 stars.

So that's me almost up to date.  I've also finished The Bronte Myth by Lucasta Miller, but as it has led directly on to a reread of Jane Eyre, I'm going to save it for a joint post another time.  What have you been reading lately?

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Sam Sunday #63: Eight Months and a New Routine

Returning to work hasn't actually been as disruptive as I was fearing (so far!). Granted, I only had to work a week before getting a week off for half term, but that week went as smoothly as it could have done. Giles is being looked after by family members, and every time I picked him up in the evening he was happy and settled, which does make it a lot easier for me. He's still sleeping well at night (in fact, better than he did before I went back to work), so if anything the transition was harder for me than it's been for him. I found myself clock-watching in after school meetings and trying to make the most of every bit of time that I get to spend with him.

I think one of the hardest adjustments will be trying to fit in all the extras that go along with being a teacher. I'm not willing to give up any evening time with Giles whilst he is awake, so I think I will be working later in the evenings, when he has gone to sleep. That's absolutely fine with me, but in turn that means less time for relaxing, blogging, reading and other hobbies. I still want to keep blogging, but I'm leaning towards weekly reading journal type posts, rather than full reviews of each title I finish. I'm planning to write full reviews for classic club books, and anything I finish for my two 1001 books projects, but everything else will probably just get a mention in a reading journal. Hopefully this way, I'll still be able to fit blogging into my life.

Giles turned eight months today and he is well on his way to becoming a terror!  He is pulling himself up on everything and cruising all along the furniture. At the moment, he is keen to press all the buttons on the TV, pull the socks out of our under-bed storage, hide from us while giggling and of course climb his bookcase (which is attached very securely to the wall).  He has well and truly reached the stage where he is into everything and it's a lot of fun to watch his brain working as he explores new things.

I have a feeling this week is going to be a tough one as tooth number seven is threatening to poke through, and as always, Giles is coming down with a teething cold.  But next Sunday is my birthday, so I'm looking forward to some lovely family time at the weekend.

How was your week?

Friday, 20 February 2015

Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga

"The business of womanhood is a heavy burden.  How could it not be? Aren't we are the ones who bear children? When it is like that you can't just decide today I want to do this, tomorrow I want to do that, the next day I want to be educated!  When there are sacrifices to be made, you are the one who has to make them. And these things are not easy: you have to start learning them early, from a very early age."

Nervous Conditions is the coming of age story of fourteen year old Tambudzai, who lives in rural Zimbabwe but is able to attend a missionary school following the death of her older brother, Nhamo. Living with her aunt and uncle in a house on the mission grounds, Tambu is at first overwhelmed by their lifestyle. But the more she becomes accustomed to it, the more she starts to feel herself better than her beginnings. Tambu is determined to be educated and to provide for herself, but she keeps coming up against prejudices and barriers based on her gender, meaning that she has to battle for what she wants. Her story is contrasted with the stories of the complex women in her life; her Westernised cousin Nyasha, starting to examine the effects of colonisation, her uneducated mother, tied to a man she doesn't love by her children, and her mother's sister, forceful, outspoken and determined to do what is right for her and the people she loves.

Nervous Conditions is a wonderful book, and lots of that is to do with Tambu herself. As a narrator she is self-aware, honest, intelligent and full of complicated thoughts about the people around her. It helps that Dangarembga's writing is vivid, peppered with Shona vocabulary; reading Nervous Conditions is like being immersed in the Shona culture of the mid twentieth century.  This isn't a novel written with a Western audience in mind, and I liked that.

What I loved most about Nervous Conditions is that Dangarembga never over-simplifies the complex issues of gender, race and colonisation. Tambu is quick to realise the limitations placed on her by her gender, for example when her father states that it isn't worth educating her, as she will only get married and belong to another family.  Tambu also notes the powerlessness of her mother in the family, and the negative effect of her many pregnancies, but Dangarembga also writes about powerful Shona women, who are uneducated, but still refuse to accept gender boundaries. And the same is true of race and colonisation - Tambu views a Western education and lifestyle as her ticket to happiness, but her cousin Nyasha, who has actually lived in England for a spell, is torn between her conflicting identities and feels isolated from her Shona heritage. The portrait of both of these issues is complicated, many-layered and realistic,

To be honest, the only thing I didn't like about Nervous Conditions was the cover, which I think looks too cheaply made for the quality of the book. Although this book is set in a specific place and time period, it's coming of age theme is universal and it's one I would highly recommend.

Source: Library
First Published: 1988
Edition Read: Ayebia Clark
Score: 5 out of 5

Project 1001 Books: Book 2/80
My list of titles and reviews can be found here.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

A Little London Book Shopping...

One of my Christmas presents from Tom this year was a trip to and overnight stay in London. He arranged it for this half term, knowing that I might need a bit of a pick me up after returning to work last week.  As it's also my birthday very soon, I persuaded him that what I wanted most for my birthday was to browse all of my favourite bookshops in London and pick out a few things to read.  Giles was with my Mum, and it felt like such a luxury to have the time to properly scan the shelves and choose what struck my fancy the most.  Here's what I picked out (links to goodreads):

  1. The Virago Book of Women Travellers edited by Mary Morris - This is an anthology of travel writing by women throughout the past few centuries, and it looks so interesting.  I'm hoping to be inspired to read lots of full length books after getting through this one.
  2. The Candy Machine: How Cocaine Took Over the World by Tom Feiling - Feiling travelled the cocaine routes of the world and this book is part history and part contemporary review of the status of cocaine.  I love a good micro-history.
  3. Wild Women edited by Sue Thomas - I've been trying to get into short stories lately, so I was excited to find a second hand copy of this anthology of short stories by women, all with a feminist slant.  Some of my favourite authors have contributed, and I'm sure I'll find more authors to try.
  4. Shadows of the Pomengranate Tree by Tariq Ali (Islam Quartet #1) - Another second hand find, and I hadn't heard of this one before.  I've never read a novel set during the fall of Granda and Moorish Spain, so it will be interesting to try.
  5. The Bronte Myth by Lucasta Miller - I love the Brontes, so this non-fiction account of how they have been viewed and mythologised over time will definitely be read soon.
  6. Devil on the Cross by Ngugi wa Thiong'o - I've read about this Kenyan author, and finally I've found a copy of the book of his I want to try.  He wrote it whilst he was imprisoned, and it's apparently a bitter indictement of corruption.
  7. Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami - Purely because I've been getting into Murakami lately.
  8. A Short History of Polar Exploration by Nick Rennison - I would love to be an explorer, but I'm simply not cut out for it.  I will have to content myself with reading about exploration instead.
I'm really excited about all of these books.  I feel like my reading tastes are going through a change at the moment, and my shelves don't reflect that.  I'm still into my classics, but I'm more and more drawn to books about the world, about travelling and history, and books by authors from different countries, full of different experiences.  If you've read any of these titles, I'd love to know what you thought of them.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Reading Journal #5: February So Far...

It all went a bit quiet here last week, mainly because I returned to work after nine months on maternity leave.  That was always going to be a shock to the system, but I also returned to a slightly different role, so I had lots of new things to get used to as well.  Thankfully Giles has taken the change very well, and has still been happy, which has made it a bit easier.  I am still reading in the evenings, but at a much slower pace, as I often have to work instead once Giles has gone to bed.

The first book I picked up in February was Robert Jordan's The Fires of Heaven, the fifth book in the epic Wheel of Time series.  This one is a real chunker too, coming in at roughly 1000 pages and I have to say that I felt the length in this installment.  I still loved the fantasy world and particularly the magic system, but I found myself getting a bit bored with the cliches and repetition that weighed the story down.  Jordan appears to equate strong women with argumentative, stubborn women, and this became tiring.  Stock phrases were repeated one too many times, and I have to admit that I was glad to finish this one.  I still want to continue on with the series, but I'll need a good break before I pick up the next one.
After this, I turned to Cannery Row by John Steinbeck.  It was my third Steinbeck and it was a grower.  At first, I didn't think I liked it, but by half way through I was enjoying it.  However, I only really appreciated and loved it after finishing and reflecting on it, which can happen sometimes. I've written a full review of this one, which you can read here.  Cannery Row left me in the mood for something else equally literary, so I picked up Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga, from my Project 1001 list.  Dangarembga is a Zimbabwean author, and Nervous Conditions is a wonderful coming of age story that focuses on feminism and the effects of colonisation.  It was so good it deserves a full review, which I will hopefully get a chance to write soon.  Please ignore the dreadful cover - a book as good as this deserves a much less misleading one.

And that leads up to my current reading situation, in the middle of three books.  On audio, I've almost finished China Dolls by Lisa See, a book I was looking forward to, but which has turned out to be very disappointing.  My non-fiction pick is Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre, a scary account of the power of the pharmaceutical industry, and fiction-wise I'm about a third of the way through Zadie Smith's NW, which is fantastic.  It's half term next week, so I'm hoping to finish all of these and maybe start something new as well.  
What have you been reading recently?

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

Cannery Row is the third John Steinbeck novel that I have read,  but it was completely unlike the other two.  Lacking what anyone could call a real plot, Cannery Row is best described as a series of vignettes that star the inhabitants of the Row, that work together to build up a vivid portrait of a particular place at a particular time.  Steinbeck takes as his subjects the misfits of society - prostitutes, drunks, artists and squatters, and he describes their lives and the everyday occurrences that happen in them.  Homeless Mack and his group of boys move into an abandoned building and set about improving it.  Lee Chong, the grocery owner, is called upon to accept payment in frogs rather than cash.  Doc, a lonely biologist, journeys to the coast to collect specimens.  And the prostitutes at Dora's place face a busy season.

I loved that Steinbeck set this novel among the 'low-life' inhabitants of the Monterey area, and that he infused it with such humanity and hope.  Despite the miserable surroundings the characters find themselves in, their lives are essentially happy.  They aren't caught up in consumerism and the desire for status, and they are able to appreciate some things about life that we can miss, such as how valuable simple acts of kindness can be.  Perhaps because they have found themselves at the bottom rung of society, they live without judgement and simply take people for who they are.  That's a message that we all need to be reminded of every now and again, that beauty and kindness can be found anywhere.

The sense of place in Cannery Row is fantastic.  Steinbeck's writing seemed more poetic in this novel, particularly when he was describing the quality of light over the row, or the sunrise over the sea.  It made the novel extremely visual, and by the end I felt as if I knew Cannery Row myself, as I could imagine it all so clearly.

My only complaint with the novel is that, in common with the other Steinbeck novels I have read, there was too much focus on the male characters.  The character of Doc was fascinating, and so was Mack, but I wanted to read more about Dora and the women who worked for her.  There's a great little section where Dora schedules the girls to deliver soup and company to families during a flu outbreak between clients, but it's never expanded on.  I wanted to know their thoughts and motivations, and experience their lives too.  Similarly, it's hinted that Lee Chong has a wife, daughters and daughters-in-law, but they are entirely absent from the novel.

Still, Cannery Row is a beautiful novel.  The writing and the characters combined to give me such a feeling of hope, that people anywhere can live their lives in a decent and caring way.  I'm looking forward to getting to the sequel, Sweet Thursday.

Source: Personal copy
First Published: 1945
Edition Read: Penguin Modern Classics, 2000
Score: 4.5 out of 5

The Classics Club: Book 33/72
My full list of titles and reviews can be found here.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

January 2015 Wrap-Up

January was an awesome reading month for me, the best since Giles was born in June.  Not only did I finish 11 books and 3259 pages, but I was really into reading and lots of the books ended up being 4 or 5 star reads. I read the following (links to my reviews):
  1. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen 
  2. World War Z by Max Brooks
  3. The Viral Storm by Nathan Wolfe
  4. The Good Earth by Pearl Buck
  5. Under the Skin by Michel Faber
  6. Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn
  7. The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami
  8. There Was a Country by Chinua Achebe
  9. The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery
  10. State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
  11. Where I'm Reading From by Tim Parks
My favourite book of the month was unquestionably The Blue Castle.  Even though Under the Skin and The Good Earth were also five star reads, The Blue Castle was just so cosy and comforting, and I loved Valancy's journey to independence and freedom.  The only disappointing book of the bunch was World War Z, which was a good idea but way too heavy on the army and logistics front.

In terms of diversity, 18% of the books were by authors of colour, and 36% by authors that aren't British or American.  I'm OK with that, but I'd still like to read more works in translation, something I'll keep in mind for February.  I read 36% non-fiction, which I am thrilled with, and my reads included classics, fantasy, horror, science, literary fiction, history and essays.  I'm glad that I'm reading a good mix of things and not getting stuck in a particular genre.

Eight of the eleven books that I read were from my TBR shelves, which would be amazing if I hadn't also purchased the following eight, thus cancelling out all of my good work:

  1. The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
  2. The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
  3. I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai
  4. The Visitors by Sally Beauman
  5. The Martian by Andy Weir
  6. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
  7. A Free Life by Ha Jin
  8. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Still, at least I haven't added to my overall TBR!

Looking forward to February, the only thing I will definitely be reading is Robert Jordan's The Fires of Heaven, book five in the Wheel of Time series.  I'm currently about half-way through it, but it's a chunky book so should keep me happy for some time.  After that, I'm going to read mainly by whim, but hopefully knock one book off my classics club list, and one off either of my Project 1001 lists.

How was your reading month?

Friday, 30 January 2015

Reading Journal #4: Two More for the End of January

I'm still reading books more quickly than I can review them, which is a shame as both of these titles deserve full reviews.  First up is Ann Patchett's State of Wonder, which I've been meaning to read since it was short-listed for the Orange Prize in 2012.  The story opens with Marina, a pharmacologist for a large drugs company, learning about the death of her colleague Anders in the Amazon rainforest.   Anders was checking up on the progress of the mysterious Dr Swenson, who had claimed to find a tribe where the women bear children right up until their death, and who was developing a drug to enable Western women to do the same.  Marina is given the task of finding out what happened to Anders, and of completing his assignment, and Patchett follows her into the rainforest, where she doesn't find what she is expecting to.

Patchett touches on a lot of big themes in State of Wonder, including race, colonisation, research ethics, the agendas of pharmaceutical companies and the decision of when to have children. However, she also combines this with a fast paced and interesting plot, which is surely the best of both worlds.  I enjoyed the character of Dr Swenson, who was full of contradictions, and Marina's personal growth was well done. Patchett's writing was lovely too, especially in the section where Marina has to inform Anders' wife of his death. My only complaint is that the final section moved way too quickly, with too many plot points resolving themselves in a way that seemed a bit too coincidental to be true. Reading State of Wonder was an enjoyable experience and I'm looking forward to picking up Bel Canto now.  4 out of 5.

Next I picked up an essay collection from the library.  Where I'm Reading From was a random pick from the shelves; I'd never heard of Parks before but I'm always susceptible to books about books (and pretty covers), so I was keen to give this one a go.  Where I'm Reading From contains 37 essays divided into four sections, covering world literature, bookish issues, being a writer and translated fiction. Inevitably, I enjoyed some essays more than others.  For example, I enjoyed Parks' thoughts on e-books, that in a sense they are a truer reading experience as you get the text of the book without the distractions of covers or publisher decisions, and there isn't the impulse to acquire them as they look good on your shelves, or because they make you look 'well read'.  It's not an opinion I agree with, as I think there is more to physical books than Parks gives them credit for, but it was still interesting to read.

One of Parks' main arguments throughout the collection is that 'world literature' is leading to everything becoming too similar, with the variety of local experiences being lost.  He quotes authors who make decisions based on the fact that their work will be translated into English, if they aren't writing in English themselves.  Characters with complicated names are avoided, and local customs are either left out completely or over-explained.  Authors paint a picture of their country that they think will satisfy the West, as so much emphasis is now placed on global sales and translation rights as a mark of author status.  Parks argues that this means that lots of the variety and richness of fiction rooted in a particular culture is being lost.  Again, I'm not sure that I agree, but it's something I had never thought about before.

Whilst Where I'm Reading From was definitely thought provoking, I found it too repetitive.  Lots of the essays basically say the same thing, just from a slightly different angle, and this made the collection feel over-long.  I enjoyed mentally debating with Parks, but think Where I'm Reading From would have been a lot stronger if it was shorter.  3 out of 5.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Sam Sunday #62: Seven Months Old

It's been a while since I've written a personal post.  Life on maternity leave has continued much as normal, with lots of walks round the park and playing.  Giles turned seven months on Thursday, and it's in this last month that I've really seen some changes.

The first change is how mobile he is.  Giles has always been mobile (even as a newborn he could roll over), and he started to crawl at five months, but now he is so fast and can get pretty much anywhere. He is also pulling himself up to standing against everything, cruising sideways along the sofas, and today I found out that he can actually climb the stairs.  We're spending a lot of time baby-proofing our house at the moment, but it's worth it as being mobile has made him so happy.  Giles was never a contented baby, no matter what we did, but now that he can go wherever he wants, whenever he wants, he is much happier.  I think this is what he has wanted ever since he was born!

His personality is really starting to show now, too.   Looks-wise, he is all Tom, but several people are commenting that his personality is more like mine.  Like me, he is very determined, and doesn't give up when there's something he really wants to do (like climb the stairs).  Some may even go so far as to call it stubborn, but there's nothing wrong with a bit of persistence in life!  He's also getting more into playing with his toys now, and has learned to wave and clap, which is very cute.  He's into his food, especially now he has six teeth to chew it with.

The main issue is what it has always been - sleep.  Naps have always been a disaster, and not much is improving.  When I put him down for a nap in the day, he will sleep for a maximum of 20 minutes and then wake up still tired and crying, wanting me to hold him while he goes back to sleep.  The nights are getting better (apart from the teething nights), but you would never describe him as a good sleeper.  I dream of getting a full night's sleep, just once!  But now that we have had seven months of poor sleeping, Tom and I are taking a more philosophical approach - he has to sleep through eventually, and until then we are just taking it one night at a time.

There's big changes coming up for both of us though - in two weeks time I return to work and I've got such mixed feelings about it.  I do genuinely enjoy my job (teaching) and I'm looking forward to the mental challenge and to do something that I find very rewarding.  But at the same time I know I'll miss Giles like crazy, and it's going to be hard to accept that someone else will be doing all of the little things I am used to doing with him during the day.  At the moment, I'm just planning to make the most of these last two weeks.

How has your week been?

Friday, 23 January 2015

Library Trip #2: I Have A Problem!

I just want to read all of the books, all of the time at the moment.  This has resulted in yet another library trip, in which I have checked out more books than I will ever have the opportunity to read:


  • Somewhere - This is a collection of short stories with the premise 'somewhere else', so it contains a lot of speculative fiction.  I'm in the mood for trying short stories at the moment, and this collection contains a story by Michel Faber, so I can't lose!
  • Ariel by Sylvia Plath - I never read poetry, although I keep intending too.  I loved Plath's poetry as a student, and am looking forward to reading this collection in it's entirety.
  • The Diving Pool by Yoko Ogawa - More short stories/novellas!  Ogawa's writing intrigues me, as it seems to have an undercurrent of darkness running through it.  I've been meaning to try some Japanese literature that isn't Murakami, and this seems like a good place to start.

  • Changing my Mind by Zadie Smith - I love Zadie Smith, so I'm keen to try her collection of essays.  It's split into four sections; reading, being, seeing and feeling, and I can't wait to dip in and out of them.
  • The Complete Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby - This is essentially a collection of essays about what Hornby has been reading, and I've seen rave reviews of it on other blogs.  I enjoy the light style of his fiction works, so hopefully that will translate well to these essays.
  • Where I'm Reading From by Tim Barks - As you can see, I was loving the essays section of the library today.  This collection promises to be about books and how the way we appreciate both them and literature is changing, which sounds very interesting.
If you've read any of these titles, I'd love to hear your thoughts on them.  It might help me to prioritise!

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Reading Journal #3: A Bumper Reading Month

This month, I am in love with reading again.  I always enjoy reading, but sometimes I get into a phase where I want to spend every free minute lost in a book, and happily that's where I am now.  I'm reading during Giles' naps and all evening after he has gone to bed, and I'm simply loving it.  What's more, I'm picking up some fantastic books too.

The first book I have to write about is Haruki Murakami's novella, The Strange Library.  I've read one other Murakami book, Norwegian Wood, and whilst I thought it was OK, I was disappointed to find out that it's one of his straightest novels, lacking in the surreal and magical elements that he is more famous for.  The Strange Library seemed like a good way of getting to grips with his more usual style.  Told with words and pictures, it's about a young boy who wanders into a library one day, as he wants to find out how taxes were collected in the Ottoman Empire.  He is directed to a special 'reading room' in an underground maze, and here he is imprisoned with a sheep-man and a girl that only he can see.

The Strange Library isn't really much of a story, and I read it in under an hour, but it had a beautifully haunting quality about it, a bit like a fairy tale.  I'm sure there is some deeper meaning to all of the strangeness, to do with grief and obedience, but I was happy just to revel in it and enjoy the experience.  It helps that this is a truly beautiful book, and the images add a lot to the story.  Now that I've finished this one, I'm looking forward to exploring the more surreal side of Murakami, starting with The Elephant Vanishes, a collection of short stories I already own.   4 out of 5.

After finishing The Strange Library, I was in the mood for some non-fiction so I picked up Chinua Achebe's There Was A Country. Ever since reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's excellent Half of a Yellow Sun a few years ago, I've wanted to learn more about the Biafran war, in which Biafra decided to declare itself independent of Nigeria.  Achebe was deeply involved in this part of history, being Biafran and acting as a Biafran envoy in countries all across the world, as well as living through the conflict.

There was a Country is a powerful book.  Achebe blends history, politics, memoir and poetry together to create a personal account of the time.  Starting from his childhood during the British Empire, Achebe gives a brief overview of Nigeria gaining independence, and the problems that came after, before launching into the Biafran war.  Achebe manages to impart a lot of information without it ever feeling dull, and the poems were haunting.  Whereas the actual text occasionally lacked emotional engagement, the poems more than made up for it.  Sometimes Achebe's straight-forward writing made the book all the more impacting, particularly when he was discussing the deliberate policy of starvation employed against the Biafrans, and the near-misses encountered by his family. My only complaint is that sometimes Achebe became too bogged down in names and individual events rather than showing the whole picture.  But the tone of regret, of Achebe's sadness at the lost opportunity Nigeria's independence represented, permeates the whole book and makes it devastating.  4 out of 5

After the heaviness of war and corruption, I turned the L.M. Montgomery's The Blue Castle, a novel I picked up on impulse from the library.  I have read and enjoyed Anne of Green Gables, so I was keen to read Montgomery's adult novel.  The heroine is Valancy, a twenty-nine year old woman who has been written off  as an old-maid.  Unquestioningly obedient, she has allowed her family to stifle her, and the only joy she has is escaping to a fantasy land, in which she lives in a magnificent blue castle.  But when she is told by a doctor that she only has a year to live, due to a heart condition, Valancy resolves to actually live.  Throwing off her fears, she sets out to experience as much as possible, and to do things that please her, of course scandalising her rather staid community.

The Blue Castle has a lot of comic moments and a perfectly swoon-worthy love story, but at heart it's a coming of age story, about finding yourself and having the courage to make your own choices in life.  I loved watching shy, obedient Valancy stand up for herself, and act according to her own personal values.  In a way, this book was ahead of it's time, what with Valancy moving out, getting a job to support herself, and even making her own marriage proposal.  The Blue Castle is a dream of a book, that made me smile, inspired me, and reminded me of the joys that life can bring.  5 out of 5.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Project 1001: Two Book Reviews

My two 1001 Books projects have got off to a flying start.  From my adult list, I picked up Michel Faber's Under the Skin, which I received for Christmas.  I was already a Faber fan before starting this novel, the fourth of his that I have read.  And it's completely unlike the others, being dramatically different in tone and content to his more famous work The Crimson Petal and the White. 

The story opens with Isserley, who spends her time driving along the roads of the Scottish Highlands, looking to pick up male hitch-hikers, but only the large, muscular ones.  Apart from that, there's nothing else I could say about this novel without ruining how unexpected, different, surprising and chilling it is. There's so much I could rave about, particularly concerning Faber's brilliant use of language, but the reveal in this book is so wonderful that I wouldn't want to spoil it for anyone.  Just trust me when I say that it is an amazingly gripping book, one that will lodge into your brain.  There's one scene in particular that I can not get out of my head, and that has made me completely re-evaluate a certain aspect of my life.  Under the Skin is a book that seeks to challenge and confront, and it does so very cleverly.  It's a book I will remember and think about for years to come. If you like thrillers, sci-fi, or books about ethical issues, you really need to pick this one up. 5 out of 5 stars.

From my children's list, my first selection was Lian Hearn's Across the Nightingale Floor, mainly because it was readily available in my library.  The main character, Takeo, is a member of a secretive religious group called the Hidden in a fantasy world based on Japan, when he witnesses the massacre of his friends and family. Escaping with the assistance of the mysterious Lord Otori, Takeo comes to learn more about his past, and the supernatural talents he has inherited from his ancestors.  When he discovers who is responsible for the massacres of the Hidden, and for the autocratic rule large parts of the island are suffering under, he becomes involved in a plot to assassinate the tyrannical Lord Iida.

Across the Nightingale Floor is best described as a crossover novel between YA and adult.  It's shelved in the adult section of my library but the two main protagonists are teenagers, and a lot of the plot deals with Takeo finding out who he is and what is important to him.  What I liked about the novel was that Hearn didn't shy away from darker issues or pretend that everything was always going to be OK.  Death and grief are handled sensitively but straight-forwardly, without talking down to the reader at all.

I enjoyed reading Across the Nightingale Floor, as it's always good to find fantasy set in non-Western contexts.  I liked reading about the belief systems of the people in Hearn's worlds, and the different approaches to marriage and politics.  Although the beginning and end sections of the novel were pacy and engaging, the plot did seem to lag in the middle, and sometimes I had trouble keeping track of who was related to who, and what others thought of them, as there was much in the way of intrigue going on.  Still, I enjoyed it enough to want to continue with the series.  3.5 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

The Good Earth by Pearl Buck

The Good Earth opens on Wang Lung's wedding day.  As the son of a farmer, his only option is to marry O-lan, a slave working in the great house of the village.  Although they start off as strangers and with next to nothing, Wang Lung and O-lan make a good pair, making the most of their land and growing family.  When a famine strikes and the family are forced to flee to the city, it is O-lan's determination and luck that keep them alive, and even enables them to return to their farm much richer than before.  As Wang Lung starts to accumulate more land and become more than just a peasant farmer, his expectations start to alter the family dynamics.  He starts to view O-lan as too simple, too plain and not enough for him.  As his sons grow up with more security than Wang Lung thought possible, the family begins to change for ever.

I really enjoyed The Good Earth.  Although Buck isn't Chinese, she lived in China for the majority of her life, and she presents the customs and attitudes of the time without judgement or condescension.  In fact, she doesn't even stop the story to explain things that would have been self-evident to Wang Lung, such as foot binding and the role of women, and this makes the story stronger.  Buck doesn't impose any Western ideas or views on her Chinese characters, even when their attitudes will make Western readers uncomfortable.

For me, The Good Earth was all about O-lan.  Having suffered through her childhood and adolescence, she is ready to live a quiet life with Wang Lung and devote herself to their family.  She suffers constantly throughout the book and yet is always thought of last.  Although Wang Lung does come to respect her in some way, for most of the book he ignores her presence, does not appreciate all that she does, and he is never able to love her.  When she returns to work the fields after literally just giving birth, he accepts this as what she should do.  O-lan made me wonder how many women there are like this in the world, forced by custom and attitudes to do everything for their family, never getting any reward or potential for personal growth, essentially giving up their own lives.  O-lan had so much inside her, but Wang Lung never thought to find out who she really was.

Another thing that struck me whilst reading The Good Earth was the parallels with Dickens' Great Expectations (this may sound strange, but bear with me).  Like Pip, Wang Lung starts to think of himself as grand, and therefore deserving things according to his new station.  A more attractive wife. Sons that are scholars rather than farmers.  Many rooms to their house.  Tenants that defer to him and treat him with respect.  As in Great Expectations, this can only end in misery for Wang Lung, something that is perfectly summed up in the last scene of the novel, which coincidentally was one of the strongest endings I've read in a long time.

I would definitely recommend The Good Earth.  I had my reservations about a book narrated by Chinese characters written by a Westerner, but these were unfounded.  The Good Earth is very well written with memorable characters, and I can't wait to read more of Buck's work.

Source: Personal copy
First Published: 1931
Edition Read: Simon & Schuster, 2005
Score: 5 out of 5

The Classics Club: Book 32/72
My list of titles can be found here.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

The Viral Storm by Nathan Wolfe

With the ebola outbreak capturing headlines, it seemed like a good time to pick up this non-fiction book about viruses and how they turn into pandemics.  Wolfe is a scientist, professor and self-confessed 'virus hunter' who spends his time studying viruses, their transmission from animals to humans, and predicting which viruses have the potential to mutate and turn into pandemics.  The aim is to catch viruses before they spread - pandemic prevention rather than pandemic reaction.  The Viral Storm is split into three sections, dealing with the science of viruses, how human societies and contact with animals has enlarged the risk of pandemics, and finally what can be done to prevent them.  The science sections of the book are interspersed with parts that feel more like a memoir, with Wolfe recounting his experiences studying viruses all over the world.

The Viral Storm is a great example of a widely accessible science book.  I have a science degree, but I specialised in neuropsychology, and I am rusty to say the least with regard to anything else! Wolfe assumes no prior knowledge in the reader, and has a really clear style that means he presents his information clearly and concisely.  I loved the initial section explaining the science of viruses, even if the information about just how many are out there made me squeamish (250 million virus particles per ml of seawater!).  Although studies are referenced, Wolfe doesn't get into the nitty gritty of how they were conducted or the analysis of results, which is just what I wanted in a general introduction to a topic like this.

One of the many things I didn't know before reading The Viral Storm is that viruses in humans can almost always be traced back to animal contact.  Whether it's a bite, or contact with tissues and blood through hunting, it comes back to our interaction with the environment.  The history of HIV included was very interesting, especially as this is something that is often misrepresented in the media.  I also didn't know that when a person has two viruses, they can mutate and create mosaic viruses combining elements of both, which is how some pandemics have started.

Wolfe's key argument is that we are living in a time when the potential for pandemics is high.  When our ancestors learned to cook food, destroying microbial life, the viruses we were exposed to gradually lessened, meaning that they are all the more potent when we do catch them from animals. Poverty forces many populations into subsistence hunting, which is often linked to human transmission of animal viruses.  And our inter-connected world means that viruses have a greater than ever potential to spread rapidly, and come into contact with more people than ever,  But that's not to say the book is all doom and gloom, as Wolfe recounts some of the work being done to prevent pandemics, and the early successes of such projects.

On the whole, The Viral Storm was an accessible and enjoyable read.  I learned a lot from it, but the reading experience never felt like a chore.  The inclusion of the memoir sections really broke up the science and it was interested to see what studying viruses in the field actually entails.  My only (minor) complaint is that sometimes Wolfe was a bit repetitive, but this didn't alter my enjoyment.  Definitely recommended.

Source: Personal copy
Score: 4.5 out of 5

Monday, 12 January 2015

Project 1001 Books: Let's Go!

Last week, I posted about two new projects I have created for myself using 1001 Children's Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up and 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.  I've spent the weekend flipping through both of them and have selected the titles from each that I want to read. This challenge isn't time limited, but I'm aiming to read one book a month, from either list.

  • From 1001 Children's Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up, I ended up with 101 titles, which I think is a great number!  You can find my list here.
  • From 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, I ended up with slightly less, mainly because my classics club reading has enabled me to tick quite a few of them off already.  My final list has 80 titles, and you can find it here.  Or alternatively, you can click the tabs at the top of my blog.
Of course, I already own lots of these titles.  In fact, the reason many of them have made it on to my lists is that I own them and want to read them.  Despite this, I couldn't resist the lure of the library and I wanted to see which books I could just pick off the shelves, without having to place a hold.

Unsurprisingly, the books I could find came from the classics section, with one fantasy.  Books that are translated, or more modern titles were much harder to find, although after a quick check of the library catalogue, I should be able to put a hold on most of them.  I picked up:
  • For my children's list: Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn and The Red Pony by John Steinbeck.
  • For my adult list: The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe, The Wings of the Dove by Henry James, A Room with a View by E.M. Forster, The Monk by Matthew Lewis and The Pit and the Pendulum by Edgar Allen Poe.
I'm thinking I will read one of these next.  I've already finished one title on my adult list, Michel Faber's Under the Skin, which I started on Saturday but just could not put down as it was so creepy and excellent and thought provoking.  At the moment, I'm drawn towards Henry James, as I've been a fan of all the books of his I have read so far.  I would love recommendations as to which of these I should try first.

Friday, 9 January 2015

New Projects: 1001 Books

Last week, I read this post on Iris' lovely blog about how she is intending to read books from 1001 Children's Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up, partly because she has a son who she wants to share wonderful books with.  And it really inspired me - I have my childhood favourites, but I want to be able to share as many great books as possible with Giles, to recommend to him a wide range of things, so he can find that part of the bookish world that he is going to love.  

Then I was thinking about how I can make sure that I actually read the books I intend to.  I'm terrible at TBR lists and challenges, with the one exception being the classics club, which I have stuck to for over two years, and am on track to finish.  So I've decided to apply the principles of the classics club to 1001 Children's Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up and 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.  

Here's what I am going to do:
  • Over the next few days, I'll post a list of books from each title that I want to read.
  • Books that I own will automatically make the list, but aside from that I'll be looking for diverse reads, books in translations, and books from authors I haven't read yet.
  • I'll make my lists tabs on my blog, then update with reviews when I finish each title.
  • I'm not going to set myself a deadline, but I'm aiming to read one book a month, which can come from either list.
As I'm not intending to buy books at the moment, I'll probably start by reading the ones I already own, then I will be fully utilising the library hold system.  Books that I read and love will be purchased and added to my collection.

I'm really excited to start these projects, and to spend some time looking through the books and choosing my titles.  Anyone who wants to join in is more than welcome, mutual encouragement might help me get through the books!

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

World War Z by Max Brooks

World War Z is about a zombie apocalypse, but rather than being told as a narrative, Brooks has instead written a faux-history book. In this world, humanity has only just come out of a devastating global war with zombies, and the 'author' is someone who has worked on a UN report into the war, examining the spread of and human response to the zombies.  Upon being instructed to leave everything personal out of the final report, he decides to use his material to make a popular history book.  And thus we get World War Z, a collection of interviews with the movers and shakers of the war, covering the initial outbreak in China through to the post-war reconstruction efforts.

I really wanted to like World War Z.  It was a favourite with my husband, and I think the premise of the novel is very clever.  I like the idea of it being a history book rather than a story, and it allows Brooks to bring in stories from people all around the world.  We get to be there when a doctor arrives on the scene of the first outbreak, when Israel decided to shut themselves off completely, when the bold decision was made to abandon parts and populations of whole countries, in order to save the few and avoid the total destruction of humanity.  I liked the descriptions of what it was like to face the zombies, and to be on the run from them.

Unfortunately, there were a few things that stopped me from enjoying World War Z.  Although it was a quick read and never hard to get through, it ultimately disappointed me.  The first problem was the lack of tension.  The 'history book' conceit of the novel means that you know that everyone who is narrating their account survives.  No matter how dangerous the situations they find themselves in, no matter how slim the chance of survival seems, you know they are going to survive, and this ruins it a bit.  Another issue was that all of the accounts were of people who made key decisions or were in key places.  Of course, that is who would make it into a history book if this were to happen, but I missed the run of the mill accounts of everyday people.  I can only think of one like this, and it's a shame there wasn't more.

However, the main problem I had with World War Z is that it was too focused on being technical and clever.  Brooks is very concerned with how the outbreak spread, the politics of the different countries and their reactions to it (and these were extremely stereotypical, another negative) and the military responses.  There are pages and pages of descriptions of weapons, and of arguments between different forces on effective responses and which weapons should be scrapped.  I can't deny that Brooks' scenario is plausible, and he has obviously thought everything through carefully, but I missed the emotional connection.  I didn't want to read about weapons and battle tactics, I wanted more human impact, more of the feelings that would come with your world being turned upside down. Perhaps diary entries of those that couldn't cope, or stories from families who had lost members could have been included, anything to make it more emotionally engaging.

Overall, the history book format is both the strength and weakness of World War Z.  It's a clever idea, and Brooks' scenarios are extremely plausible but it also completely destroys the tension and the emotional connection to the story.

Source: Personal copy
First Published: 2006
Score: 2.5 out of 5

Monday, 5 January 2015

Recommendations #1: Human Disasters


I can't remember exactly how, but as a teenager I stumbled across Romeo Dallaire's memoir, Shake Hands with the Devil.  It's about his time as the force commander of the UN troops in Rwanda during the genocide of 1994. Initially deployed to keep peace and observe, the UN forces were soon caught up in the violence and mass murder.  But they were stunted by their orders, unable to act in any decisive way to prevent more killing.  Dallaire spent his time requesting more troops (instead some were withdrawn), sending urgent memos and basically doing anything he could to give his force the power to stop the genocide, but through a mixture of bureaucracy and lack of political will, he was forced to simply observe and attempt to negotiate.  And it would have been easy to stop - the perpetrators of the genocide were largely unorganised and armed only with machetes.  Shake Hands with the Devil is both an indictment of the world political community for turning their backs on Rwanda, and a surprisingly personal account of how it felt to be in the middle of something you are powerless to prevent, and the long term effects of being a witness.  As a side note, the documentary with the same name is really worth watching if you can get your hands on it too.

Rather naively, I was shocked at the way the world ignored the genocide in Rwanda, and this led me to Samantha Power's Pulitzer Prize winning book, A Problem from Hell.  Power takes as her starting point the dreams of the UN after the Holocaust, and then shows how systematically it has failed to act in a timely or effective manner in every single genocide since then.  No matter the country, the story is the same - too much bureaucracy, countries unwilling to risk their troops, leaders reluctant as they know they will not be pressurised by their constituents.  Power's research is impeccable, and even though this book makes for grim reading, it is important, as the only way we can make organisations take more action is by exerting political pressure on them.


It's hard to discuss modern genocides without thinking of the Holocaust.  I first read Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl when I was twelve or thirteen, and I instantly related to the way Anne wrote about growing up and life in her family.  Her diary is so vivid; her personality just comes off the page, and I felt as if I knew her, almost as if she was a friend.  I still remember the way the diary ends abruptly and how I felt as I read the afterword explaining what had happened to her.  It was one of the first times I came face to face with the cruelty of the world, and the unfairness of it all.  I've since read the diary many times, and it's still got that power to upset me.  Anne's experiences of growing up are so relatable, and this is what makes it such an emotional read.

Although I'm sure there are many histories of the Holocaust out there, Lyn Smith's Forgotten Voices of the Holocaust is probably one of the most powerful.  Smith visited the oral archive of interviews with survivors in London's imperial war museum, and the book consists of simply their own stories in their own words.  There's no editing and not much context, and this makes it all the more impacting.


One of the consequences of human disasters is the creation of refugees. In Human Cargo, Caroline Moorehead visits refugees around the world and asks them to share their experiences.  In doing so, she relates the inhumane ways they are sometimes treated, imprisoned in detention centres and subject to interrogations.  Moorehead offers no solution to the problem of states handling more refugees than they can deal with, but she does give the refugees themselves a voice.  Often in news reports and editorials, they are treated simply as numbers, but in this account they are humans, with often horrific pasts and simple hopes for the future.

I'm conscious of the fact that I've been recommending non-fiction books up until now.  Of course fiction can deal with human disasters beautifully, and one of the best examples of this is Stephen Galloway's The Cellist of Sarajevo.  Narrated by four different people living through the siege, it's a novel that captures the resilience of humans, and how hope can sometimes be found even in the worst circumstances.  You can read my full review of it here.

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This is my first time writing this kind of post, full of recommendations and not reviews, so please do let me know if you enjoyed it, and if you would like to see more like this in the future.

Friday, 2 January 2015

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

When starting this post, I was so excited to find an image of the edition of Pride and Prejudice that I have just finished.  You see, I was browsing one of my favourite second hand bookshops at the weekend when I came across a complete Folio Society set of Austens, all hardback and stunning and gorgeous, for an amazing price.  It was one of my best bookish finds in years, and I knew that as soon as I finished the book I was currently reading, I'd have to read an Austen. In the end, I chose Pride and Prejudice, it's a reread that's on my classics club list, and it felt fitting as it was my first Austen.

I'm sure that most people are familiar with the story of Elizabeth Bennet and her four sisters, who are unable to inherit their father's property and will therefore have to live in poverty unless they make sensible marriages.  But set against Elizabeth and her older sister Jane's chances are Mrs Bennet's lack of taste or social decorum, Mr Bennet's bluntness, and the silliness of their younger sister Lydia. Of course there are a lot of misunderstandings as Elizabeth navigates the marriage market, but in the end both she and her sister manage to marry for love, conveniently falling in love with men who have the fortune to support them.

Pride and Prejudice will always be a special book to me as it was the first Austen I was ever able to complete on my own.  My older sister was a huge Austen fan from her teens, and even studied her work at university, but I could just never get into any of her books.  I didn't understand the wit, the social commentary or the understatement of Austen's prose.  But finally (and only after watching the BBC mini-series), I was able to fully appreciate Pride and Prejudice and since then, I've not looked back.  The more Austen I read and re-read, the more I understand why she is as respected as she is.

On this read, I found myself thinking a lot about mistakes.  Both Jane and Lizzy make mistakes, Jane in thinking that Miss Bingley is a good friend, and Lizzy about the characters of Mr Darcy and Mr Wickham.  But both are honest about their mistakes and set about fixing them.  Although Lizzy in particular feels ashamed after discovering the truth, she is able to explain herself and move on. This is something I struggle with, as I tend to want to hide any mistakes I make and find it hard to forgive myself, let alone others.  Jane in particular was good at this - her kindness towards others was matched by her kindess towards herself, and this is something I can learn from.

Now that I have read more (but still not all) of Austen's major novels, Pride and Prejudice is no longer my favourite.  I prefer the flawed characters of Emma and particularly Catherine from Northanger Abbey.  But it's still a special book, one that I'm sure I will reread many times in the future, getting something new out of each read.

The Classics Club: Book 31/72
My list of titles and reviews can be found here.