Friday, 28 November 2008

Last sighting of the year

The geese have been flying south for weeks now, and we have even had some snow. Nevertheless I must report what is surely the last sighting of the year* of the student in flip-flops. This brave little chap, toes exposed to the elements, was spotted in the vicinity of his natural habitat, the university library.

For goodness' sake! At this rate the last flip-flops of autumn will overlap with the first flip-flops of spring ...

*unless you know differently

In which your bibliophile is not as unbowed as she thought

Anna has lent me The Silver Pigs by Lindsey Davis and I settled down to read this last night. It features a witty, Marlowe-like private detective - but it is set in ancient Rome (and ancient Britain). I couldn't concentrate though. Perhaps that bump on the head has had more effect than I thought! At any rate I ended up watching the SHOPPING CHANNELS on tv, thinking, "Ooh yes, that looks like a bargain" and, almost, reaching for my credit card. Where will it end? Will I ever read a book again? Come back later to find out.

Day 51; Book 47

Thursday, 27 November 2008

How do you choose a book?

How do you choose a book if you haven't already received a recommendation?

I find I am quite successful just by looking for a title and a cover that appeals to me! Then I just read the first page and if I like that, then I will read the book. I never read the blurb if I can help it because that gives away the start of the story. Similarly with introductions; I always leave those until I have finished the book because I don't want to be given any hint as to how the story progresses.

This would never work with a film of course! That must be why they need trailers ... although I wish they told you rather less of the story in the trailer. You need to attract people in though; it must be a difficult balancing act.

In which your bibliophile is bloody but unbowed

Monday's reading was Jodi Picoult's Plain Truth. I am so pleased to have started reading Jodi Picoult, whom I avoided for years because I thought she wrote about child abuse and other "issues", and I never enjoy issue-driven fiction. Happily I was wrong about this great author. Certainly she does use contemporary situations and dilemmas as her starting point but she also tells a gripping story with believeable characters. Plain Truth is centred on the Amish community in Pennsylvania. Images of the Amish are now familiar to most of us, but Picoult demolishes some misconceptions as well as teasing out the mysterious story of Katie Fisher and her baby. Well worth reading.

Tuesday was book-free as I managed to spend the time in A&E after fainting and smacking my face into the road. I could have done with a book actually, after I felt better. Quite rightly the staff were busy dealing with more urgent cases so we had to do a lot of waiting around. Surely your intrepid reader should have had a book in her handbag at such a time!

Wednesday I spent recovering and then reading Val McDermid's Wire in the Blood. This was a new author for me. I generally like crime novels especially when they concern the psychology of criminals so this one about the profiling of a serial killer should have been ideal for me. However although I enjoyed it overall, for me there were too many characters, some of whom were dropped from the story part of the way through. None of the characters seemed particularly sympathetic either.

Day 50; Book 47

Monday, 24 November 2008

Latest books

It's a good job I've started numbering my books because it looks like I have been off track for a few days. *Note to self: must do better*

On Friday I read Isabel Wolff's Forget Me Not. This is of the chick lit, romance type. It's well written with a heroine who has the dream job of garden designer. As in a many novels, it seems just a case of taking a degree or other course in your chosen field, and then simply setting up a successful business or landing the exact job you wanted. This of course if rather different from how real life can turn out. I enjoyed the novel which at first I thought was going to be predictable. In some ways it was but it others it confounded my expectations. The character of Citronella was satisfyingly monstrous! My only quibble with the writing was the depiction of the little girl, who from the time she was a toddler would talk of "Mum" and "Dad" and in my experience little tots would say "Mummy" and "Daddy". It's just one of those little details which nevertheless can annoy you a lot!

On Saturday I read Joanna Trollope's Brother and Sister. Thanks to David I have a mini Trollope pile and was quickly engrossed in this one. Joanna Trollope is never afraid to set up an emotional scenario and to explore people's feelings and reactions honestly. Well-written and absorbing.

Finally I read the last of my current supply of Agatha Raisins, Agatha Raisin and the Day the Floods Came. It was another adventure in which the men in Agatha's life support her and let her down in equal measures. It turns out that the story of James Lacey is not yet over ... Excellent characterisation as usual, with Mrs Bloxby gently laughing at Agatha's excesses.

Day 47; Book 45

Greetings, fellow reading blogger!

I've heard from Helen, whose blog is here. She has a target this year of 250 books, but thinks she will make 300. She gave me a good tip, which is to number each book as I post about it ... if I combine it with the day, that should enable me to see at a glance if I am on target.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Newspaper headlines

I love punning newspaper headlines! At least if they are good - but what makes one good? I'm not quite sure, to be honest. Have a look at these though, which are hilarious. The first is from The Metro of 25 September 2008, where an innocent man found out that his old SIM card from his phone was being used illegally. He called his story, "I paid for the SIMS of others".

My all-time favourite has to be the Sun's headline from February 2000 when little Inverness Caledonian unexpectedly beat football league giants Celtic. The Sun's inspired headline was "Super Caley go ballistic, Celtic are atrocious".

Reading and rating

I should really think of some way of rating the books I've been reading, like 5 quills for Excellent and one quill for Meh, not so good. I need to find some appropriate little symbols I could import into my blog.

Perhaps I should also give an idea of which readers each book would appeal to. The problem is I like so many different kinds of books myself, and I suspect lots of other people are like that too. How would you decide?

I'll leave this thought to simmer for a while.

Agatha Raisin and the Love from Hell by M C Beaton

It's a great feeling which all readers will recognise when you come across a new author and realise they've written lots of books. Off you go to the charity shops or Abebooks for second-hand or out-of-print works, your friends' bookshelves if you have kind and understanding friends*, or you may even go to a proper bookshop and buy new copies (not in hardback though!)

But then after every high must come the low, and you realise that you have made your way nearly to the end of your new favourite author ... I'm not quite at that stage yet with the Agatha Raisins but the end is in sight. I must ration them out. Agatha Raisin and the Love from Hell was an excellent read once again, with some rather surprising happenings (as well as the usual murder of course). Well worth a read.

*butters them up*

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Drama Queen

I'd heard of the classic film The Winslow Boy, but had never seen it. I was put off in case the story of a boy accused of stealing a postal order was too upsetting - I know, I am such a wimp. I read the script last night, however, and I really enjoyed it. Terence Rattigan wrote the play in 1946 but it is set just before the First World War. The themes are of truth, justice, family and sacrifice. The characters are all memorable, and most of them are admirable in their own way. One poignant scene comes when the older son says he has joined the Territorial Army because he knows there is "a bit of a scrap" coming up and he doesn't want to miss it. Of course from our vantage point we know just how horrific his "scrap" will be. The play was based on the real-life case of George Archer-Shee; when you realise that George did go on to die at the First Battle of Ypres in 1914, Rattigan's foreshadowing of the fate of Dickie in the play becomes even more resonant.

I went to the completely opposite extreme of drama when I then watched the film Bad Santa! The easily-offended, or even the not-so-easily offended may wish to avoid this film, plumbing as it does the depths of bad taste. The redeeming factor is that much of the film is completely hilarious. Also Billy Bob Thornton is strangely attractive in this role ... just don't watch this with your granny (not least for some of the scenes involving Granny in the film). Here is a link to a review of the film on the IMDB website.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

How do you decide what is worthwhile?

I've heard that somebody has commented that they don't see the point of my Book-a-Day for a year scheme. They said that they could understand it if I'd made it into a fundraiser for charity ...

I wondered why. Is expanding your knowledge of books not a worthwhile aim in itself? Is there something wrong with challenging oneself intellectually just for the sake of it?

Am I on track with my targets?

Well, I've just counted up the books I've read and I've completed 40. I started reading on the 10th November so (going by weeks on my calendar) on Friday 21st November I should complete book number 42. As this is Wednesday it looks to me as if I am 1 book ahead. I could give myself a night off! On the other hand I have already selected a book for tonight, a play of about 100 pages. It looks as though I could read that AND have time to watch Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa ...

There must be an easier way to count up the books I've read and still have to read. Perhaps there is some sort of Gadget for Blogger. In the meantime I'll continue doing it the hard way!

The Saffron Garden by Jasmine Crowther

This is a book about an Anglo-Iranian family. It opens with a shocking event, and the rest of the book traces the causes of that event, and the lives of the two main characters who are a mother and daughter. The strength of the novel lies in its evocation of the mother's rural lifestyle as a young woman, and the particular problems she had to face in that society. This would probably be considered a woman's book.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Poetry corner

Sneakily, I realised that I could catch up with my quotas if I read a poetry book, as they tend to be much shorter!

Of course, poetry cannot really be read quickly. The fewer the words in a poem, the more carefully each one seems to have been chosen, and the more attention they demand. However, I decided I could at least widen my knowledge by picking poets I had never read.

I had already read Larkin's This be the Verse, the famous poem where he says, "They f**k you up, your mum and dad" and an excellent poem it is too. However I had never really fancied reading any more of his work, for the shameful reason that he didn't fit my romantic conception of a poet with his unattractive looks and specs. Fortunately my book-a-day scheme is leading me into unfamiliar ways!

The poems I enjoyed most in this collection were about animals: Wires, At Grass, and particularly Myxomatosis. This last is only 9 lines wrong but it perfectly captures a moment in time and the rabbit's confusion. The last lines are particularly touching and if it reflects an actual incident, you can only be glad that Larkin was there to dispatch the poor animal.

Without Reservations: the Travels of an Independent Woman by Alice Steinbach

Caroline lent me this, so I rushed home to read it (after Strictly Come Dancing: It Takes Two of course!)

It's the true story of a woman who decides to take a year off from her pressurised job as a journalist, and to travel and to try living in the moment much more. It's written in an easy, flowing style and you will drool at the descriptions of Paris, Monet's Garden, Venice and many more locations. It's a kind of modern Grand Tour. Really, she was brave enough to do what many of us would like to if we could organise the time and money to do it.

I thought her best writing, however, was her "remembrance of times past". She captures exactly those moments when we realise, for example, that the little boy we knew has gone forever, that we never realised those seemingly-ordinary, everyday moments would ever be lost to us in the past. Then she picks herself up and gets on with her life.

Luckily for her, getting on with her life often seems to involve meeting gorgeous foreign men!

Monday, 17 November 2008

Too much testosterone this time ...

I started thinking about the Victoria Holt historical novels I used to read as a teenager and quickly found some on Ebay. I started with The Demon Lover. Victoria Holt writes just as well as I remembered, with a sympathetic heroine who finds herself in some danger. Disturbingly for today's readers though, the heroine falls in love with the man who drugged and raped her. It's not just the historical setting of these Gothic romances which are outdated, it's the attitudes. I've got another couple to read, but hopefully these won't be setting feminism back 100 years like this one.

In other news: Strictly Come Dancing

I watched Austin's testosterone-fuelled tango* on Saturday night and ladies, I am a convert!

I'm not too disappointed by John Sergeant's continuing success. Yes, public votes for John mean that better dancers have to leave, but by this stage of the competition they would be competing against each other anyway. Heather has had to leave, and Cherie, but to be honest I don't think they would have been in the final anyway.

If John ends up in the final though, that WOULD be a travesty!

* Scroll down past the main screen and you can click on clips of the different dances from Saturday.

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

I'd heard of this, but hadn't read it because I feared it might be too upsetting (it is the story of a murdered teenage girl, and of how she watches her family from Heaven). Well, in parts it was very upsetting, particularly those concerning the little brother. However, it was also an enthralling read which I couldn't put down. It was even funny in parts. Alice Sebold's humanity shines through in her treatment of all the characters.

In which I get all philosophical

In my reading pile was The Fall by Albert Camus (in translation, thank goodness). This is a monologue and as you might expect from the philosopher Camus, the emphasis is on the ideas rather than plot. This made it rather hard going. It is well written, but the concepts are such that you cannot appreciate them on one reading. Another point of difficulty is the narrator's character: is he being truthful? There is not much action either, except for one very striking scene at the heart of the novel ...

Friday, 14 November 2008

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

I finished Snow Falling on Cedars last night and I was really caught up in it by the end. I could see then why the author had set things up in the detailed way he had. San Piedro Island had become a real place to me by the denouement, and when I looked up it was almost surprising not to be in the middle of a terrible snowstorm.

I still had time for The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett, which is only 121 pages long. Bennett writes amusingly of the Queen taking up reading, and there were several laugh-out-loud moments. Things get a little more serious as the book goes on, with the author imagining how singular it must be to be the Queen, and there is an excellent conclusion.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

So farewell then, beloved apostrophe?

I posted here about "correct", or probably I should have said "accepted", grammar and punctuation a while ago. Simply because accepted usages promote ease of communication, I felt that this was A Good Thing. I added a corollary though, here.

Back in September the Register (online IT newspaper) reported on John Wells, Emeritus Professor of Phonetics at University College London, who was proposing "freeing up" English spelling and doing away with the apostrophe. This was the response. It's rather frightening that people should get so hysterical and abusive (and also ironic that they should include so many errors themselves).* University professors SHOULD come up with radical ideas, not reinforce your cosy perceptions. I'm not keen on the phonetic spelling myself because I don't think it's really easier to read. I could say farewell to the apostrophe without much of a pang, though, because I don't think it's usually vital to comprehension. I suspect that SOME of these people (the nasty, aggressive ones) actually like feeling superior when somebody else gets the apostrophe wrong. Grammar as distinguishing between them and us? I shouldn't think it's a new idea ...

*Incidentally if you manage to read on you will also come across people who are talking perfect sense for and against the proposal in a balanced way. Thank goodness!

Snow falling on Cedars by David Guterson

This came highly recommended and is really involving. It's taken me a while to read, even though it's not particularly long. The descriptions really put you on San Piedro Island and you feel as though you know all the inhabitants ... although obviously I don't, because it's yet to be revealed just what happened when Carl died. I am a fan of the courtroom drama, and this has courtroom scenes, plus flashbacks to the war and to the experience of Japanese Americans in particular. I love the title, reminiscent of haiku writing. I will finish it tonight, and then I'd better read some shorter books to catch up with my book-a-day aim. I'll be pleased if I can get to the end of the year with 365 books read: even if some took a few days, I'll let myself off the hook if on other days I've read 2 shorter books!

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

More books!

Thanks to Lorraine for lending me Alan Bennett's Uncommon Reader, and to Somi for Albert Camus' Fall, Yasmin Crowther's Saffron Kitchen and Marilyn Manson's Long Road out of Hell.

Well, I said my tastes were eclectic!

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Special delivery!

Thanks to my friend Jo I am now gloating over the following:

Agatha Raisin and the Day the Floods Came by M C Beaton
Agatha Raisin and the Love from Hell
Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
Plain Truth by Jodi Picoult

So many books, so little time!

The Boy who Loved Anne Frank by Ellen Feldman

I put off reading this because if there's one thing I can't cope with, it's harrowing. However it has turned out to be a really interesting idea: what if Peter, the boy who also lived in Anne Frank's secret apartment, had survived? Peter manages to make his way to America and lives there, denying his Jewishness. What I wasn't prepared for was the amount of anti-Semitism prevalent in America after the war. That was shocking. I've got about a chapter to go, and wonder whether Peter will acknowledge his past and whether this will bring him peace.

Read Alexander McCall Smith every day for free

Every day, the Daily Telegraph is publishing another chapter of Alexander McCall Smith's online novel Corduroy Mansions. You can find it here. It started in September but links are provided to take you back to the start, so in fact you can read loads of chapters at once until you get up to date!

I'm afraid I haven't found out how to make links open in a new window, so A Book a Day will disappear *sob* but you can always open it up again, and if you know how to make a link in Blogger that opens up in another window then please let me know!

Just noticed that if you right click on the link, it gives you the option to open it in a new window. That's still not ideal, oh loyal readers, but it's getting there ...

Monday, 10 November 2008

Misery memoirs

I was in a bookshop at the weekend and was horrified to spot a whole bay of books labelled "Tragic Life Stories". Who on earth would make a bee-line for this section? Catharsis is one thing, but surely this is verging on voyeurism. Of course you might find one of these books interesting and might even want to bear witness to the author's suffering by reading it. It's the fact that there seems to be a whole industry based on people's harrowing childhood experiences that is disturbing.

Jodi Picoult

Jodi Picoult came as quite a revelation to me. I had heard of her but had always put off reading her books, simply because the covers made me think of those misery memoir books and I thought that was what they would be like inside. Shallow, moi? But of course!

However on Sunday I was at home looking for something to read and came across Jodi Picoult's Vanishing Acts. (It must have belonged to my daughter, aka the Rock Chick). Well thank goodness the Rock Chick had left it there. It really was involving, and beautifully written too. There were upsetting scenes but they were important to the story. It wasn't just a "woman's book" either. I can't say too much without giving away the story, but I do recommend this. Worth reading, and worth going to buy as well!

Nora Roberts

Nora Roberts has been recommended to me as an author, so I bought her novel Angel Falls on Saturday. It started off excellently, gradually revealing what had brought the heroine to this point in her life. I thought it could have been wound up a bit earlier though, because I started to lose interest in her predicament. I would read some more Nora Roberts but I wouldn't go out of my way to get the books. Johnson thought that a particular sight was "Worth seeing? Yes; but not worth going to see". In a similar vein I feel that Nora Roberts is "worth reading"... of course her next novel may well prove me wrong. I'm very willing to be convinced!

Boy Meets Girl by Ali Smith

I didn't really like the look of this ... anything without conventional punctuation is going to have that effect on me! The story was interesting in the way details about the characters were gradually revealed, and there were some very funny as well as touching moments. Overall however I felt the author's message was too obtrusive. I like a novel to be firstly plot. If any deeper meanings are revealed then all the better. However I don't like the message to come first and then the plot to be devised around it, as seemingly happened here.

Agatha Raisin and the Fairies of Fryfam

I've finished the last of my borrowed Agatha Raisins, and that started me wondering just what it is I like about them. I don't think it's the mysteries particularly. They are not really intriguing enough to keep you on the edge of your seat, desperately turning pages to find out whodunnit. Much of the enjoyment of the Agathas is the humour, and that is based on character. Agatha gets to say all those things you wanted to yourself, but never dared to, and she is hilarious as she punctures pomposity, hypocrisy or simply speaks out about poor service. Ironically Agatha can be pompous and hypocritical herself, and it's funny to watch her get herself into awkward situations. She is basically good-natured though, despite all her intentions to the contrary, so at the same time as laughing, you are cringing with her and hoping she can get out of her latest scrape.

The characterisation is consistent throughout, from Mrs Bloxby's real goodness, to Charles's tight grip on his wallet, to the all-round awfulness of the Boggles. (Bring back the Boggles by the way! They haven't featured enough recently!) However, the characterisation is not static. M C Beaton can still surprise us with new details, such as Charles's addiction to Star Trek on Sky Television (naturally he watches Agatha's, presumably being far too tight to pay for it himself).

An added bonus to the stories is that although each one can be read individually, other story lines are developed across the whole series. (I think this is what is meant by that dreadful phrase, story arc).

Finally, I think there is a basic humanity to the characters, murderers excepted (and thankfully they always come to a satisfyingly-bad end).

Friday, 7 November 2008

I need some new books

Actually I want to keep reading my* Agatha Raisins (I read Agatha Raisin and the Witch of Wyckhadden last night), but that must be getting a bit boring for anyone reading this blog ... I'll see what else I can come up with.

* I mean Jo's, because I borrowed them!

Thursday, 6 November 2008

What not to read

I've just finished another amusing Agatha Raisin detective novel, the Wizard of Evesham, but I've been thinking about other books I HAVEN'T liked. In fact, there are a few books I have never been able to finish at all. I've had two goes at Moby Dick but never got past the first few chapters. I've never been able to finish anything by Joseph Conrad either. Henry James has pretty much left me cold except for The Turn of the Screw (which I must re-read now that I've thought about it), and E M Forster does nothing for me either. Hazel Holt is a modern writer of murder mysteries but I've had to abandon her too.* Fortunately there are many more authors still to enjoy! In fact I have been receiving so many suggestions of books to read that I am going to have to organise my "recommended" list into categories.

*I've just had a look online and Hazel Holt has published numerous novels. Somebody must like them! Maybe I will try again but the one I started to read was almost stream-of-consciousness in its tedious detail ... is it just me? Is there anybody out there who can explain the attraction of Hazel Holt?

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

In which your intrepid reader reaches the limits of her brain power

My latest book was The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks. Sacks is the doctor whose work was fictionalised in the film Awakenings. Here he discusses neurological case histories from his practice. The case histories are fascinating and in some cases baffling, but the doctor's own humanity comes through in every instance. Some of the scientific discussion was rather beyond me I am afraid but overall this was a very interesting book.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Photography books

First up was Vietnam by Larry Burrows. Burrows was a photographer for Life magazine and covered the war in Vietnam from 1962 until his death in a helicopter crash there in 1971. His photographs have an immediacy which draw you right in. Some of them have a huge emotional impact, the kind which hits you with a shock of feeling giving you a lurch in the stomach. The first of these is the frontispiece which has no text but speaks for itself. Three soldiers are pictured but what is horrifying is that they look like young teenagers. One still has his baby-faced features, even though presumably he must be at least 18. This photograph brings home the youth of the soldiers more than any statistics about average age. Many of them weren't men, they were boys. Another photograph had a particular impact for me. It was a shot of the marines landing at Da Nang to defend the airport, early in the war. I had a jolt of recognition as I realised that these were "my" marines, the ones I had just been reading about in Philip Caputo's Rumor of War.

Of a completely different nature was Diary of a Century by Jacques Henri Lartigue. This is a charming book, illustrated by photographs taken by Lartigue right from the time when he was given a camera as a small boy about 1900. When you think of photographs from around this time you normally think of them as being stiff and posed, but Lartigue took action photographs of his mischievous brothers and cousins as they leapt down steps, plunged into pools and raced carts. Lartigue was fortunate to come from a wealthy family with a country house outside Paris, as well as having supportive (and brave!) parents who encouraged the boys in their various pursuits such as building and trying to fly gliders. However as the later photographs show no one is immune to tragedy in their life. The photographs continue right through 2 world wars to the end of Lartigue's life.

Slang of the Day

Looks like my little Slang of the Day box is running out of slang ... today it is telling us about the importance of voting! Stoppit, Slang of the Day! I signed up for new slang words, not lectures!

Monday, 3 November 2008

Duma Key by Stephen King

Another whopper from Stephen King - 670 odd pages which took me from Friday night to Sunday afternoon so way over my book-a-day rate. Stephen King is an excellent author, although personally I would prefer more psychological stuff and less horror (my favourites of his are Stand by Me and The Shawshank Redemption).. This book grips you right from the start and really keeps you turning those pages as mysteries are set up and then gradually explained ... however as is usual with King I felt the story could have been wrapped up sooner.

Next I turned to non-fiction and my all-time favourite on prose writing, Stunk and White's Elements of Style. This is a little book of under 100 pages which is so well-written that you can read its rules on grammar and punctuation for pleasure! Keep it on your reference shelf and dip into it again and again.

Then I returned to Carsley in the Cotswolds with Agatha Raisin for "Agatha Raisin and the Wellspring of Death". Fortunately for us, Agatha is now back in the Cotswolds with the familiar cast of characters and with another murder to solve. Fortunately for me, I still have lots of this series left to read.