Monthly Archives: February 2011

Fallen and Torment- Lauren Kate


My older sister bought me Fallen and Torment by Lauren Kate for my birthday back in December, and though I’d like to think that I’m generally not very snooty about which books I will or won’t read I have to admit that I was wary- like much of the world I have been suffering Twilight Sickness, and these books are in a similar vein.

In Fallen, Lucinda Price is sentenced to time at a school for young offenders having been implicated in a terrible accident. Her strange testimony about shadows gathering has everyone thinking that she’s crazy, or worse, has something to hide. Once there she finds herself torn between two handsome men (as all good heroines in teen romance books seem to do…) the dark and edgy but considerate Cam, and the aloof and somewhat unfriendly Daniel. Now, to most women that would seem like an obvious choice, but Luce has a feeling that she has known Daniel for a very, very long time. Torment is the sequel to this story, in what will be a four part deal.


So, the comparisons to the Twilight books are inevitable. Intelligent young heroine is placed in an unfamiliar environment and relies upon the charms of two supernatural (oh come on, you saw it coming) young men to help get her through. We also have the Twilight love triangle going on, and the character of Daniel is a lot like the character of Edward (an annoying, controlling know-it-all). They’ve even pre-empted the Edward Cullen effect by having some blonde weightlifter pose for promotional material, which I found quite funny. The young man was more a pretty teen than eternally beautiful angel, but I suppose you have to work with what’s available.

Despite this, I think that the Fallen books are infinitely superior. Luce is a lot less annoying than Bella, challenging Daniel’s decision to establish himself in the role of authority figure instead of playing the insipid little wife. I also like the way that the author has made the lines between good and evil a lot more blurred than they are in Twilight making elements of the books less predictable than they might otherwise have been.

Having said that, I suspect that parts of the books might just be a little predictable. And I can’t wait to read the next book to find out how the author will unfurl the story to prove me right!

Oh, and in case you wondered? I’m team Cam. I’m starting that bandwagon rolling.

Season of The Witch- Natasha Mostert


Season of The Witch tells the story of Gabriel Blackstone, a professional computer hacker who is secretly able to connect to other people’s minds. When he is agrees to investigate the disappearance of his ex-lover’s step son, he soon realises the boy has been murdered, and traces this to the mysterious and beautiful Monk sisters. As he delves further into the sisters’ world, he finds himself falling in love with both women, at the same time knowing that one of them must be the murderer.

This book has been loitering on my shelf for months now, and I only got around to reading it because I saw a film of the same name advertised on TV and I didn’t want the story being given away. I needn’t have worried because this is a different book, but I am glad that I got around to reading it.

Natasha Mostert has created an intelligent though untaxing thriller, which explores the capacity and potential of the human mind, in thrilling and terrifying ways. The concept of remote viewing is subtle and serves as a compliment to the story, rather than being the crux of it. The action is well paced and consistently engaging, though if you are a native of the UK you may find the dialogue a little unnatural. This was a bit of a nagging issue, but became less noticeable as the action of the book gained momentum.

Sexy, dark and dangerous; I would recommend this to anyone looking for a grown up and credible supernatural novel.

What-the-Dickens by Gregory Maguire

Gregory Maguire is probably best known for his Wizard of Oz spin off, which despite its flair, owes some of its fame to the cult status of The Wizard of Oz and the runaway success of the musical version of the book, Wicked. However, in his modern fairytale What-the-Dickens: The Story of a Rogue Tooth Fairy, Maguire shows that he has the ability to craft his own fantasy world securely within the familiar confines of our own.

Ten year old Dinah waits with her big brother, little sister and adult cousin for her parents who have left the house during a deadly storm to find insulin. Their neighbours homes have been evacuated, but the family’s strong religious conviction has made them attempt to weather it out. With little food and no power, their older cousin Gabe tells a story to pass the time.

The story, he says, is a true one which happened to him during his child hood, and explains how What-the-Dickens, an orphaned skibbereen, or tooth fairy to you and me, comes to find his place in life, facing deadly challenges and making friends along the way.

Even as an adult I found the story charming and funny. If I was still teaching, I would include it in a scheme of work for 11-13 year olds. It’s an excellent starting point for exploring fairytales and mythology, as the modern setting takes us away from the traditional men-in-tights-and-women-in-need-of-a-bloody-good-haircut scenarios children expect from a fairytale. It’s also a lovely little tale about culture, identity and self belief.

If you have a small person between the ages of 9 and… well I refuse to stick an upper age limit on it, then you should get this book for them. Read it yourself first though!

True Love? I’ll give it a miss, thanks

I know that some people hate Valentine’s Day, and this list is for you. A list of books about doomed love, some weepy, some cruel, some just plain brilliant. Not quite Valentine’s Schadenfreude, these will leave you heartbroken. However, they serve as a reminder that while the course of true love never did run smooth, if does come along, you might just want to run in the opposite direction.


 After You’d Gone by Maggie O’Farrell

One day Alice walks out in front of a car, she is not killed but lies in a coma. Disjointed narratives tell a story of love, loss and family secrets. A seriously heartbreaking read.

 


 The Passion by Jeanette Winterson

You play. You win. You play. You lose. You play.

Against the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars, a naive soldier Henri and a streetwise young woman Villanelle learn about the destructive and regenerative powers of passion, when nothing is as it seems and what you risk reveals what you value.

 


 The Poison Diaries by Maryrose Wood

Jessamine has grown up knowing that the most innocuous looking plant can have the power to heal or kill. When a mysterious young man arrives to live with Jessamine and her father, little do they suspect that these sinister plants have their own plans for the couple, and that obsession and love when misused can be fatal.

 


Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Many people grow up believing that love is fate, love is their destiny. Kathy and Tommy have grown up knowing something different, but hoping that love will be enough to save them.

 


The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

The five beautiful and mysterious Lisbon sisters capture the hearts and imaginations of the neighbourhood boys. Twenty years after each of the girls committed suicide, as grown men the same boys reconstruct from relics and memory, the story of the tragic girls who shaped their early romantic ideals and coloured their desires.

Panic Buying in Waterstones

 

I spent about four hours looking for a nice, reasonably priced black cardigan in Oxford today. I was not very successful. Fortunately I had more success in spending my Waterstones Christmas gift card (which given the financial trouble I didn’t want to hold on to)  buying the books below, which I am looking forward to reading, and a booklight which will let me read in bed when I can’t sleep without the boyfriend whining at me. At least, that’s the theory. I’ll let you know how it goes.

 

Waterstones Book Haul

 

Desire Denied, Poems About Dissatisfaction

The guardian books section today had a subheading instructing us, “Steel yourself for romantic disappointment as the poet considers the literature of desire, from Marvell’s coy mistress to John Betjeman’s lovelorn subaltern.” In the article, poet John Stammers picks out his top ten love poems in which Desire is unsatisfied or denied. I was certainly disappointed, but not by thwarted desire, but the staid and predictable selection of poems, many of which had nothing to do with unsatisfied desire.

Why is it, of all the poems in the English language Sonnet 116 has to be stuck on every list of romantic poetry? It’s not even Shakespeare’s best. And perhaps I’m being slow here, but isn’t it about steadfast love and not desire unsatisfied or denied? Likewise Betjeman’s A Subaltern’s Love Song may reflect Betjeman’s feelings for the lovely Miss Hunter Dunn being unrequited in real life, but in the poem they sit in the car ‘til twenty to one and are engaged after… I wonder what went on in the car, between the lines. Nudge nudge, wink wink and all that. Not exactly unsatisfied or denied.

I agree that Donne’s The Flea deserves its place on the list; I would have put it at number one. Likewise, I love Wyatt’s Whoso List to Hunt though I suspect that has to do with the Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII love triangle that was going on, not just the poem itself. But To His Coy Mistress? This is why people say they hate poetry. The same boring tat trotted out again and again. It’s like people stop reading poems when they finish their school career or at the very latest their undergraduate degree and churn out the one cannon of poetry-that-was-considered-worthy-thirty-years-ago.

So for anyone who has made it through that rant and cares, here’s my alternative selection:

1. Correspondents- Carol Ann Duffy

A highly erotic description of a chaste and futile love affair between a married man and woman, who do not touch, but send letters and conceal their love for fear of shocking polite society.

2. Like The Touch of Rain/Go Now- Edward Thomas

The bliss of unsought love bleeds into the shock and pain of unexpected rejection.

3. Love Songs in Age- Philip Larkin

An elderly lady looks back at her collection of love songs, and realises with sadness that the idea that love will sustain and heal all has never been true, and will not be true.

4. For Desire- Kim Addonizo

What can I say? She wants to be desired. Definitely a poem about unsatisfied urges…

5. The Bath Tub- Ezra Pound

Have you ever anticipated something so much, that when it doesn’t live up to your expectations you feel the most disappointing anticlimax? Ezra Pound tells it like it is…

6. Porphyria’s Lover- Robert Browning

When obsessive love goes wrong. A cautionary tale ladies, about what happens when you toy with your lover but don’t give him the adoration he desires. That or a warning about what happens when you hook up with a psycho.

7. Libido- Rupert Brooke

Desire is portrayed as a pestilence and it’s fulfilment as death.

8. Nothing-James Fenton

“Nothing I give, Nothing I do or say,

Nothing I am will make you love me more.”

 

9. The Flea- John Donne

How can you not include this playful petition?

10. The Toilet- Hugo Williams

You meet an attractive stranger on the train, but what will happen when you decide to make your move?

Ancient Books and Library Closures

If you tolerate this…

I’m sure that any keen readers out there are following the campaigns against library closures which are going on across Britain, as library users desperately try to highlight the vital role their libraries play in their communities before it is too late. I live in Oxfordshire where the closure of 20 public libraries is threatened, and have been following the UK wide proceedings with some interest. I think my favourite campaign so far has been the library in Stony Stratford, outside of Milton Keynes, which simply invited the users of the library to take out their entitled allocation of books in protest – with over 24 hours to go to the date of the protest the entire library had been emptied. Not that it’s just books that libraries provide.

Have a look at what the author Phillip Pullman and Nicky Wire of The Manic Street Preachers had to say on the subject, they say it better than I can, but I think we should all be vocal about this important subject.

I watched The Beauty of Books on BBC 4 last night. There were copies of ancient bibles which had been safely held in churches and libraries for over a thousand years. Image that, a thousand years. Empires have risen and fallen, worlds been discovered, space travel invented and these books have quietly existed alongside all of that telling the story explicitly or implicitly of the people who made them. Who will look after these resources and this knowledge if we close our libraries?

What will happen to the millions of books they contain?

 

The Children’s Book- A. S. Byatt

Open at your Own Risk

Most readers will probably have heard of The Children’s Book, it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, but lost out to Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. I picked this book up a few times in bookshops before I bought it, I’m not going to lie, it was the cover which attracted me (not that I judge a book just by its cover but it was one of the most beautiful I’ve seen in recent years) but was put off by my experiences of reading Byatt at university.

I read Elementals as a part of a contemporary fiction module, and I hated the fussy prose she used in her short stories. The Children’s Book is better initially, as Byatt’s writing style is better suited to the novel form. I say initially, because like the rule that says a task will expand to fit the time you allocated to it, Byatt’s writing seems to expand to fill the page allocation rather than in order to tell the story. It would have been vastly improved by an editor getting busy with a red pen and cutting vast swathes of text out.

The story is an ambitious work, following a group of people associated with the Fabian Society and the Arts and Crafts movement from the “golden days” of the later 18th century to the aftermath of the First World War. There is no strong plot line, more an attempt to explore the social mores of the time, in the style of a non-satirical Vanity Fair. However, it lacks the dynamic and punch of Vanity Fair as Byatt strangles the exploration of action and character with her elongated prose and history text book summaries.

The novel began and ended very well, they were interesting and emotionally engaging. There are a large number of characters, but the bonds between them are intelligible and sustained. Towards the middle however, Byatt (and consequently the reader) loses the plot, bringing in an army of unnecessary minor characters who add nothing to the plot, name checking historical figures who have nothing to do with the action- to contextualize or appear learned I can’t decide- and sticking in chunks of half written fairytales which take the reader along a path to nowhere. This is to say nothing of a strange fascination with the sexual desires of teenage boys. Many of the characters are vain, selfish and irritating, which would be fine, but this left me with no interest in the story. I couldn’t empathise with them. I didn’t care. It’s a miracle I finished the book, but I’m glad I did. Some of the description of the war was quite moving.

I wonder what the author was hoping to achieve when she wrote this book. I would be vaguely interested to know. Did she want to tell a story about parents who fancied themselves Bohemian and damaged their children through their self indulgence? Did she want to write a history of a period in history? It’s not clear and I think that this is the problem with the book. I have a keen interest in history and still found the constant references to figures and events annoying- a well written story doesn’t need this historical name dropping. If I want to read a factual account I will pick up a history book, if I pick up a novel I want to be entertained. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to learn from a novel, but I most certainly don’t want to feel like I’m in a history lecture or watching one of those dramatisations we watched in school history lessons showing us how the plague was passed from ships to the common man and the lord as well. I felt that Byatt was simpering to herself about how she was bettering me. Irritating.

The book probably isn’t as bad as I’ve made it out to be. There are some very good moments. The trouble is, you feel like you’re experiencing the book as things happened. Living through the wheat and chaff of twenty years of history, wondering whether the time you’re investing is possible worth it. If you’re looking for an engaging and entertaining story, don’t pick this book. If you manage to finish it, you’ll feel quite worthy, but next time I think I’ll just try War and Peace.

The Problem With Poetry

My friend, who likes reading, just told me she hates poetry. I was shocked. I am always shocked when someone tells me they hate poety, not just because it’s a sweeping dismissal of an entire literary genre, but also because… well, how can you not like poetry?

I get that some people don’t like the complexity of the language some poets use.  Was it Nietzche who said that poet’s muddy the water to make it appear deeper? To me that’s bad poetry. Bad poetry is complex to give a false impression of depth. Good poetry is like a literary strip tease, the slow removal of doubt and the tantalising glimpse of understanding. A detective game, in which you solve the poets clues to reveal the truth at the end, or have you?

For me, poetry is a game, and I enjoy playing the game well. I think that a lot of the problem is the way poety is taught. Either people are numbed young as children by being forced to learn some bloody poem about waving daffodils by rote (he nicked the idea for that from his sister’s diary…) or they are told what a poem means, when really poetry should be as subjective as any other form of literature. You bring your own interpretation to the table.

Teaching poetry was my favourite aspect of teaching and I conciously avoided forcing my interpretation of the poem on a class. I like to think this allowed students to gain confidence enough to provide their own analysis. When they see there is no right or wrong, they enjoy pulling out words and thinking about what the word means to them, how the poem relates to their own experiences of life.

I wouldn’t go as far as to say there’s no such thing as bad poetry, there’s plenty of bad poetry, just like there are plenty of god awful novels out there. But there is also brilliant poetry, and people shouldn’t be put off by bad experiences. I only wish it was afforded a greater status and made more accessible.

I’m attaching a video of a girl I used to go to a drama group with performing her poetry. She’s amazing. I think it would be great if slam poetry had some kind of television profile so people can see how much fun it can be and that it isn’t some high brow elitist medium.

Chinese New Year: Top Five Fictional Rabbits

In honour of the Chinese year, the year of the rabbit, my list of my favourite rabbits in fiction are as follows:

1.       Velveteen Rabbit The Velveteen Rabbit Margery Williams

2.       Br’er Rabbit from The Uncle Remus Stories Joel Chandler Harris

3. Peter Rabbit The Tales of Beatrix Potter

4.       Hazel and co. of Watership Down Richard Adams

5.       The White Rabbit Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Lewis Carroll

Special mention to Rabbit of Winnie The Pooh fame.

Lettice Reading

To me, rabbits have always had a certain pluck and are far from the insipid little beasties they always seem to be portrayed as. That might just be as a result of my pet rabbits having bullied me through the years, but I’ve chosen my rabbits to reflect this, with the White Rabbit thrown in for a bit of variety.

I will never forget hearing the story of The Velveteen Rabbit when I was about four years old and how sad that made me. If you haven’t read it yet, then you really, really must. If you’re in the mood to weep over rabbits (well, you never know) one that has the potential to get me going is a poem by Roger McGough Rabbit in a Mixer Survives based on the true story of a little rabbit who fell into a cement mixer.