Monthly Archives: January 2012

The Dovekeepers- Alice Hoffman

Set against the backdrop of the siege of Masada, The Dovekeepers is a haunting tale of four women who fight to write their own stories in a society which expects that their men should speak for them. Yael, the assassin’s daughter, is a single mother who having committed the ultimate taboo finds solace and belonging with the other dovekeepers. Revka, the baker’s wife, serves justice to the men who stole her grandsons’ voices. Fearless Aziza, the warrior’s beloved, is lost in the girlish role she has been forced into since coming to Masada while her mother Shirah, the witch of Moab, begins to find that even the ancient powers handed down from mother to daughter aren’t enough to protect the ones she loves.

Beautifully researched and immaculately written, this book had me yearning to visit Jerusalem and Masada to visit the site. Seriously, I spent most of my Christmas looking for flights out and transport to the Dead Sea. Each character is beautifully constructed with an authentic voice. The lyrical prose and historic back drop really made me feel like I was listening to the voices of women who lived through the siege.

Numerous Guardian reviewers recommended this as one of their best books of 2011 and I cannot recommend this book highly enough, except to say that as soon as I read it I bought a copy for my sister as a Christmas present and insisted that Jon bought one for his mother as well.

The Name of The Wind – Patrick Rothfuss

I have stolen princesses back from sleeping barrow kings. I burned down the town of Trebon. I have spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity and my life. I was expelled from the University at a younger age than most people are allowed in. I tread paths by moonlight that others fear to speak of during day. I have talked to Gods, loved women, and written songs that make the minstrels weep.

You may have heard of me. The Name of The Wind – Patrick Rothfuss

I’m currently a third of the way through the story of Kvothe, as narrated by the same in The Kingskiller Chronicle by Patrick Rothfuss. The first book in the series, The Name of The Wind, tells the story of Kvothe’s early life as he comes to explain how he has transformed from the larger than life character quoted above to an innkeeper apparently hiding away in the middle of nowhere, revealing his identity only to his assistant Bast.

The first novel is an quirky mix of folkloric motifs; hero journeys, tricksters and legends of demi gods sprinkled liberally with magic, music and monsters to create an exciting fantasy novel, with the perfect amount of shake up of roles and subverting of expectations to keep it modern and compelling.I was a bit peeved when it ended, because you’re left waiting to go into day two and hear the rest of the story, I was enjoying it so much. But as you can see, when the second day arrives there will be plenty to read. The second novel is even meatier than the first so if it’s just as well written I’ll be a happy young lady.

If you’re looking for a well written fantasy series to get your teeth into then I would definitely recommend these books. I’m currently part way through a Charles Dickens biography (which is also a monster…) but I can’t wait to start the second book in the series, The Wise Man’s Fear.

Fiction Series Spin Offs

Literary fan fiction is nothing new and has spawned some interesting and imaginative offerings. Think The Wide Sargasso Sea Jean Rhys’ parallel novel to Jane Eyre,Gregory Maguire’s Wicked, The Penelopiad Margret Atwood’s retelling of the Odyssey or my particular favourite, Rebecca’s Tale, by Sally Beauman. These tributes are fantastically constructed works in their own right, widely different in concept and which stand alone as works of art.

You also get your concept spin-offs, which don’t necessarily link to the original work, but very often rip the skeleton from it and pad it out. They often seem to me like authors pin pointing what has worked well for another author and rehashing it in their own work. Think the numerous novels heavily based on Pride and Prejudice thinly veiled by smoke screens of time, location etc. I never seem to enjoy these books however well they are written because they feel a little bit predictable, at best like de ja vu.

But for me there’s a new trend emerging and I find it a little irritating. I’m sure it’s been around for a long time, but as a publishing cash cow it’s becoming worryingly prevalent if you’re looking for something new to read- especially in the Young Adult market. I’m talking of course about the minor character spin offs from major fiction franchises which might also be termed “the money spinner spin-off”. From Stephanie Meyer’s Short Second Life of Bree Tanner (which raised money for the American Red Cross in the US but as far as I’m aware was not affiliated with a charity in the UK/ROW market) to Lauren Kate’s Fallen in Love, publishers of young adult fiction seem to be churning out these books whenever they have a profitable series. And is it a coincidence they coincide with present buying seasons like Christmas and Valentine’s Day?

What I want to know is, have or would any of you read such a book? And if you have, did it feel like money well spent or as if you’d been short-changed?

Putin’s Literary Canon

Let us take a survey of our most influential cultural figures and compile a 100-book canon that every Russian school leaver will be required to read.” Vladimir Putin

You may not have heard about Putin’s plan to develop a Russian literary canon of 100 books which ever student leaving school would be required to read. For those unfamiliar with the problems surrounding state mandated reading, Alexander Nazaryan outlines them pretty effectively here so I won’t go into the political/national/historical side of the issue.

What gets me, apart from the above, is the psychological impact of such a mandate. I’m not a huge fan of reading by numbers, I don’t find that it motivates me and as a big fan of book topic blogs on wordpress, I’ve noticed that many people who set themselves a yearly target of books to read are already becoming stressed at “falling behind” or are worrying about “what counts”.

As a former English teacher, I hate the idea of a dictate stating that students must read x amount books from a list of y and z which is a pity, since the study of English literature generally necessitates some required reading.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m wholly in favour of encouraging anyone to become a reader. But when something becomes a rule, the pleasure is taken out of it. Though some people find a numerical target motivating, there are an equal number who will find it causes them to dig in their heels or shy away from a task. By forcing students to read from a list of prescribed books I believe that you are at risk of creating a huge number of reluctant readers.

A hundred books? That eliminates anyone who has any kind of literacy issue or comprehension difficulty (and who would benefit most from reading regularly) from wanting to read.

A set literary cannon? During The Big Read, the BBC published a list of 100 books that everyone should read. Say that this was a compulsory literary cannon and I had to read every book on there, I’d rather eat your eyeballs (not mine, I need them) than read Jane Austen’s Persuasion. And I’m something of a compulsive reader. I’ve read several (too many) Jane Austen novels and found myself irritated beyond belief in some way by each one of them. Being forced to read another (my grandmother has tried) would spoil my enjoyment of reading.

So politics aside, I think that for any government to set a list of 100 books that all students must read would do more harm than good. When their intentions are to create a forced sense of “unity” or preserve the “dominance” of a culture then you’re in trouble. (Though interestingly as a side note, that’s how the study of English literature came into being- the British government decided that it would have a “civilising” influence on the Indian population they were oppressing ruling at the time and they wanted to indoctrinate the populace with British values.)

In the immortal words of David Nicholls,

 “And Jackson, of course you should study whatever subject you want, the appreciation of literature, or any kind of artistic endeavor, is absolutely essential to a decent society, why do you think books are the first thing that the Fascists burn? You should learn to stick up for yourself more.” David Nicholls, Starter for Ten

You can control a person’s ideals and beliefs by controlling what they read.

More Bookish Presents

As you may or may not have noticed, I’ve been a bit slow to the post this month. The main reason for this is Virgin Media. Apparently they’re updating our area to broadband which is twice as fast as light soon. Sadly, this won’t matter much if their service continues to be down two weeks in every four.

Anyway, that’s why I’ve been a bit late sharing some of the lovely bookish presents I received from my family and friends this Christmas which I thought any bookworms out there might like to see. They’re pretty cute!

Alice mug

 

My friend George got me this cute mug with Alice wrestling the flamingo to play croquet. I think it might be from Whittard. It’s now my tea mug of choice, out-ranking even my Wizard of Oz mug collection.

 

 

 

 

 

Books to Check Out Journal

Jon’s mother bought me this Books to Check Out journal. It’s really handy with columns for books to read (really handy for me because I can be a bit scatty when I’m busy) and sections for favourite passages and books lent. It also has a pocket in the back which will keep my scribblings safe until I get a chance to use them sensibly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Golden Shred Apron

My mother bought me this apron which I guess is based on the Golden Shred marmalade campaigns of the 50s. It reminds me of the illustrations in Enid Blyton books like The Magic Faraway Tree that I read as a child. Or maybe even the Noddy books to some extent, though those were more my little sister’s thing.

 

 

 

Book and Biscuit Biscuit Tin

Perfectly matching the theme of my blog, my superhuman cousin turned up at with this amazing box of biscuits neatly wrapped just days before she went into hospital to have my gorgeous mini-cousin Cari. The biscuits quickly evaporated (how does that work, scientists?) but the box will live on forever at my desk. With helpful little snack in case I need energy to help me think.

 

 

Penguin Postcards

Last but not least were this bumper set of Penguin post cards from Jon’s sister. I’m a big fan of the Penguin look- a great design which is both classic and contemporary, they’re a publisher’s dream. I’ve been collecting some vintage look postcards for a while with a view to framing them and using them to decorate the walls. The fanned postcards are ones I’ve picked out from the set to use for this, and the rest I’ll use in my correspondence. Now to order frames. Where did I put that measuring tape?

The Discovery of Jeanne Baret- Glynis Ridley

I made a vague new year’s resolution to read more non fiction. I like to keep my resolutions vague because it means that failure is less of an option. However, I am making an effort with this and kick started my non fiction year with The Discovery of Jeanne Baret by Glynis Ridley, an English professor at the University of Louisville.

Jeanne Baret was the peasant born mistress of William Commerson, the botanist, who disguised herself as a man to enable her to join her lover on the first French circumnavigation of the globe. On this trip she helped discover the Bourgainvillea. In her book, Professor Ridley attempts to offer “a forgotten heroine a chance to bloom at last” if you’ll forgive the pun in the blurb (she was a herb woman/botanist). I couldn’t really. I’m just like that.

While Prof. Ridley’s book was certainly well written and engaging, I found myself very frustrated by it.  For me it suffered from the same problem that plagues so many books about the less famous mistresses of famous men- the majority of historical records associated with the woman are actually about her more famous and powerful lover. In Baret’s case there are contemporary records which tell some of her story but they are of questionable integrity (which Ridley addresses very well) and require a degree of interpretation. Ridley’s methods for interpreting these records involve detailed exploration of the lives of Commerson and Bougainville in order to contextualize the records about Jeanne Baret which is really the only way to proceed under the circumstances, but results in a book which, for me, was more about Commerson than his mistress, making the title The Discovery of Jeanne Baret something of a misnomer.

Working in academic publishing, I read a lot of books like Ridley’s as a part of my day job and I think that my expectations as a result of this may have tainted Ridley’s book for me. It’s a dangerous strategy as a publisher to bring out a book with a very academic tone which attempts to cross over for the general reader. The book is poorly referenced throughout and though it includes some passages by way of evidence, much of the time I found myself muttering to myself “Where’s your evidence for that? What are you basing this on?” to the point where I felt that sweeping of (admittedly quite lovely prose) were pure conjecture which could easily have been remedied by replacing phrases like “Jeanne would have felt” with “Jeanne might have felt”. I’m not a fan of speculation presented as fact in these books, it read more like an exercise in gender studies than a historical account.

This is worth a read if you are happy to skip over the material which is presented in the footnotes of more academic texts. It has been well written and well researched, but I felt that by attempting to be a hybrid text it overlooked the level of detail and integrity its readers might look for.

Have you read this book? Would you disagree?

Chinese New Year: My Top 5 Dragons

Smaug

I can’t tell you how disappointed I was to learn that dragons aren’t actually real. Growing up in Wales where dragon memorabilia is almost as prevalent as the accursed sheep I thought they must be. I’m sorry if this revelation has crushed your own dragon dreams. Life can be so cruel.

Fortunately, in fiction dragons are very much alive and kicking, so in honour of Chinese New Year here are my top five fictional dragons.

  1. Smaug One of the last great dragons of Middle Earth, Smaug is a very naughty dragon, but I have something of a soft spot for him. While I wouldn’t sleep on a bed of gold and jewels myself, preferring a warm and squishy bed, I admire his dedication to all things shiny. Just imagine having that attention for detail. I’ve heard that Benedict Cumberbatch will be voicing Smaug in the forthcoming film of The Hobbit, which is all kinds of brilliant, and makes up for some weirdly attractive actors playing dwarves.
  2. Falkor

    The Red Dragon of Wales The first story of dragons that I remember learning was the story of Merlin and the warring dragons (which I’ve since learned was recorded in Nennius’ Historia Brittonum no less!).

  3. Falkor Who doesn’t like a luckdragon? The best thing about The Neverending Story. This is only compounded by the luckdragon in the film adaptation bearing an uncanny resemblance to my dog.
  4. The “Denner Resin Draccus” This is my most recent dragon and it features in a book that I will be reviewing soon The Name of the Wind. There’s something strangely compelling about a dragon in a drug fuelled frenzy…
  5. Norbert Of Harry Potter fame of course. I can’t blame Hagrid for wanting a pet dragon. I’d love one of my own!

So who/what is your favourite fictional dragon? I know I’ve missed out loads (Penn books, Earthsea…) let me know.

Our luckdragon

Wicked Book, Wicked Musical

The dragon on’t clock and map of Oz

In addition to my obsession with Alice in Wonderland, I have an obsession with The Wizard of Oz. In fact, my love of the Merry Old Land of Oz came first. When I was a toddler I would force my parents to play the video two or three times a day, I had a black rabbit called Dorothy and a little white guinea pig called Scarecrow, there are videos of me singing Somewhere Over The Rainbow before I could properly walk in a voice which sounds strangely like Donald Duck. Imagine, a tiny little Donald Duck with blonde curls and a Welsh accent. Chilling, isn’t it?

Anyway, where I’m headed with this is, that when I heard about Gregory Maguire’s Wicked and the musical adaptation I was very excited. I hadn’t heard of either until the musical came to the West End, but my boyfriend bought me the novel in the summer of 2006 ahead of the musical arriving, and for my 21st birthday I was promised tickets to the show… which didn’t materialise until my 26th birthday, but wow, it was worth the five-year wait.

The plot of the musical differed from the plot of the book in many ways (as I explained to my poor boyfriend during the interval, he received something of an academic lecture on the differences) but ultimately to make the plot suitable for a musical and family audience. The book was quite political and adult in places, so it’s been simplified and sweetened, but ultimately the spirit of the piece remained intact so I was happy. The only thing I didn’t really see the need for was the shift in Fiyero’s character. He starts off in the musical with a lot more swagger than I remember and I just thought it was a bit unnecessary. Otherwise, I loved it. Loved the costumes, loved the songs, loved the set and loved the performances.

I’m definitely getting myself the soundtrack, and maybe even a beautifully tragic t-shirt. It seems appropriate.

I had a great time in London too. Given that I’m still on crutches, my boyfriend supplemented the 21st birthday present with a stay in a nice hotel opposite Fortnum and Mason, and even treated my macaroon addiction. Yum. I want this pouring tea-pot decoration. Anyone fancy stealing (or buying, I suppose that should’ve been the first option…) it for me?

Blood and Ice- Robert Masello

When it’s cold outside and I need to choose a book to read, it can go one of two ways. Either I want total distraction, in which case I go for something with descriptions of somewhere nice and warm, think Under the Tuscan Sun. Otherwise, I hop in a hot bath and read about poor souls suffering in a subzero climate. Schadenfreude. Blood and Ice was one of these.

Set on a base near the South Pole, Blood and Ice follows a journalist writing for an eco travel magazine who is trying to escape his personal demons following an accident for which he was responsible. His editor wants him to take some stunning pictures, write about the work that the scientists are doing there and point out that climate change may destroy the stunning landscape for ever. But of course, having a title like Blood and Ice, it was never going to be that simple and his problems really begin when, on a diving expedition, he discovers a man and a woman chained together beneath the ice with a cache of wine bottles containing human blood. Guess where we’re going with this…

As a vampire story it was satisfying enough, not a great work in the genre, but an entertaining read and no one sparkled which was good enough for me. What really struck me about it was how similar it was in many ways to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. There were countless references to the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which given the setting and scenes like a ship trapped in sea ice or dog chases across the poles can’t have been a coincidence. Maybe it was trying to say something about humans meddling with science, though if it was it didn’t work. Maybe the author just found himself inspired.

It’s not a bad book, but it’s nothing great either, especially if you’re looking for a horror book.