Tuesday, 31 March 2009

A Big Boy Did it and Ran Away by Christopher Brookmyre

I'm in the middle of this and it really has a lot to recommend it. (I wasn't quite so keen when I was trying to read Jane Austen at the weekend, and Mr F was in fits of laughter over this book, insisting on reading sections to me ...)

Despite many humorous passages (the sustained rant against the whole city of Aberdeen at the start is a case in point), this book is as much a crime thriller as a comedy. There is a lot of darkness. Excellent characters so far are Ray, the English teacher whose class at the start are running rings round him with foul language and foul illustrations on his blackboard. (Read the book to find out how he stuns the class and gets them on his side). Some of his pupils get caught up in the dramatic action as well, and there is plenty of West Coast of Scotland banter.

How will it finish? With the villain getting his just deserts, I hope.

Day 173; Book 173 (Mr F, your counting was right!)

My Jane Austen Weekend

I decided to catch up with some of the lesser-known Jane Austens over the weekend. First I read Northanger Abbey which I found charming and amusing. It wasn't without its darker side, although that was not the Gothic horror anticipated by the heroine but had a rather more mundane explanation. I really must try to read The Castle of Udolpho (ETA, oops, I meant The Mysteries of Udolpho), one of the works satirised by Miss Austen here. It's not essential though and you can still appreciate her sharp wit without this. Some critics feel this book (an earlier one) suffers from a lack of cohesion but I think it works very well and is as well worth reading as the more-famous Pride and Prejudice.

Next I eagerly attacked The Watsons, the story of a young girl first coming into society in a small country town. The interplay between the sisters and the characters of Tom Musgrave and Lord Osborne were hugely promising, so imagine my horror when I turned the page only part of the way into the story and discovered that I had been reading an unfinished fragment. Noooooooooo! It's still worth reading, but just be warned, unlike me, that the story comes to a sudden end. The same applies to Sanditon, an unfinished novel from Jane Austen's later life. It's set in a speculative seaside resort which must have been a very topical subject at the time. Again there is an interesting cast of characters whom I would love to have read more about.

Lady Susan is an early, short work, written in letter form. This isn't my favourite style but I soon became absorbed in the different characters as they were cleverly introduced. Lady Susan is a deliciously bad anti-heroine. Although the book is completed, the ending comes very suddenly and seems rather disappointing, but at least the ends are all tied up.

The Alibi Man by Tami Hoag

This is another crime thriller by Tami Hoag and again she keeps the romance fairly low key. She does have one of those damaged heroines though (I think this is the second in a series featuring Elena Estes). This can sometimes seem like a plot device rather than a an essential part of the character. Good plot though and interesting developments (although a depressing view of the moneyed horsey set in Florida).

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Oedipus Rex by Sophocles

Even I, with my minimal knowledge of ancient Greek drama, knew this one was going to end badly. This translation (sorry, I forget who by) was dense but not impenetrable. The chorus were rather annoying as I suppose pushy commentators on the action often are ... Sophocles made great use of dramatic irony, as Oedipus railed against the murderer of Laius (himself, of course, as it turns out). It's funny to think that all these centuries later soaps such as Eastenders and Coronation Street are also keen users of irony. I was glad I had read this as it filled a gap in my knowledge, but even at only 54 pages, it wouldn't be my ideal choice of reading.

Day 168; Book 167

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Finished Falco

Now, most of you will assume as I haven't mentioned the latest Falco mystery since last week that I had finished it, but Mr F wants me to tidy up my loose ends. So just to confirm, I really enjoyed it. There was lots more involving Falco's family, some of it very bad though. We learned lots about the Roman cities in North Africa (Falco has to make a trip there) and amusingly lots about the Greeks who seem very exotic to our protagonist.

Four legs good, two legs bad!

Yes, I've been reading Orwell's Animal Farm. Was it only yesterday I was saying I didn't like analogies? A day is a long time in blogging ... perhaps it is only religious analogies I am not fond of, because I loved this political one. I'm ashamed to say I had never read this. It's beautifully written, with clarity and precision, telling the sad tale of a well-intentioned revolution gone wrong after having been hijacked by an ambitious and completely ruthless character. He's the source of the slogan, "All animals are created equal but some are more equal than others". This totalitarian state is quite horrifying, as is the ending where the animals are told that it's now "Four legs good, two legs better". The concluding images are creepy and horrible. This is only 100 pages and well worth reading. I still had time to read Heat and the Sun, so I think I lived up to my eclectic aims!

Day 168; Book 167

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Random Readings

Crusoe's Village by Ian Morton is all about the village of Lower Largo in Fife on Scotland's east coast. The village was home to Alexander Selkirk, the real-life Robinson Crusoe from the 17th and 18th centuries. Defoe based his novel about the castaway on him. The village itself is well worth a visit; photos will hopefully follow of the trip made by Mr F and myself.

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome is a light-hearted, surprisingly modern read. It was written in 1889 and concerns the trip of 3 men and their dog on a rowing trip up the Thames. Not much really happens, but the author's style is readable and amusing. He is rather reminiscent of a stand-up comedian at times, as one train of thought sets him off on another anecdote, usually embellished for effect. I laughed out loud a couple of times but it was fun throughout. This would be a nice holiday read.

Finally I read Antoine de Saint-Exupery's Little Prince. I'd heard of this as a children's classic but I'm not really keen on fantasy as a genre, and it was a bit whimsical for me at times. As a card-carrying grump at times, I really don't care for whimsy (which is what put me off reading Winnie the Pooh). The ending of the book was very touching though, but I think that it would reduce children to tears (not what I would recommend in a children's classic). Was the ending a religious analogy? I hope not!

Day 167; Book 166

Monday, 23 March 2009

Dirty Little Angels by Chris Tusa

Chris Tusa is an English lecturer and author from Louisiana. Dirty Little Angels is his debut novel, so I was excited to be reading a book by a new writer.

At first I really didn't like the novel's imagery. Everything seems to be ugly or decaying. The imagery was powerful, however, and I remembered how in an art history class I had once complained about the ugliness of a sculpture and how much I hated it, only for my tutor to point out how great an effect that "ugly" image had actually had on me, given that I was talking about it so much. The imagery in Dirty Little Angels is the same: unpleasant but unforgettable. Gradually, too, I came to realise that the imagery was reflecting the state of mind of the protagonist, Hailey.

Hailey seems to me to be another character who is more sinned against than sinning. She is an imperfect but nevertheless sympathetic character, let down far too often by the people in her life who should care most for her. Her story ultimately ends in betrayal and tragedy, in a way which made me think of a heroine from a completely different time and place - Tess Durbeyfield.

The overall atmosphere of the book is darkly Gothic, even though Tusa avoids the cliches normally associated with the New Orleans setting (in fact much of the book is set around Hailey's home, which seems to be in a suburb rather than the inner city). Illness and decay feature prominently.

It's hard to say just what sort of genre this book would fit into. Perhaps Bildungsroman would be closest, although Hailey's maturity in this case is hard-won and ultimately regrettable.

Was it worth reading? Yes, because while it wasn't always enjoyable, it was certainly memorable. I wondered what happened to Hailey next, which is surely one of characteristics of a good book. It should also appeal to senior high school students.

I made a card and I liked it!

Scrapbooking fans, you will be surprised to hear that I have been tempted over to the dark side and embraced my inner card maker! Well, it was Mother's Day, but that doesn't explain why I made a Mother's Day card and then went on to make 4 other cards ...

Friday, 20 March 2009

Mehercule!

*insert other Latin exclamations here*

New job -- head spinning -- still reading my latest Marcus Didius Falco mystery. Hopefully I will have more to report on Monday, loyal readers!

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Nothing to report ...

until I finish Two for the Lions by Lindsey Davis. This time Falco's investigations take him into the world of the bestiarii (the gladiators who fight animals, in case you didn't know. I didn't!) But apparently, just like today's wrestling contests, some playacting can go on. Who knew?

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote

Thanks to Gayle I am now in temporary possession of some modern classics. I'd never even seen the film of Breakfast at Tiffany's so I was keen to find out what the book was all about. It's beautifully written and constructed and has the memorable character of Holly Golightly, infuriating and touching all at once. Now I must see the film - but will the characters be as I imagined them? The book also included 3 short stories, the last of which "A Christmas Memory" I can't recommend enough. It's warm and touching and full of nostalgia for a little boy's childhood.

Day 161; Book 161

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Nostalgia Fest!

Last night's book was a slim volume called Jackie: Growing Up As a Jackie Girl. It had lots of features and extracts from the teenage magazine (or as I should call it , "mag"). They decided to make the focus their most successful decade, the 70s, and so they featured Donny Osmond and David Cassidy as well as all the glam rockers of the time. The adverts were for things like Linco-Beer shampoo and Aero dry shampoo and there were clothes like hot pants and ponchos and smock dresses. Of course nobody had a mobile phone or a computer or even a calculator. Lots of people didn't even have a phone at home. Everybody was obsessed with slimming. It's funny because today we blame skinny models for eating disorders, but everybody was slimming then and the stars like Pan's People were well-covered by today's standards. Oh and nobody was gay.

Day 160; Book 160

Monday, 16 March 2009

Mr F and I visit Literary Location No. 2, The Hawes Inn in South Queensferry

This is the real-life inn from which the fictional David Balfour was kidnapped (thanks to the machinations of his uncle) in R L Stevenson's Kidnapped. The inn still stands today in the very picturesque village of South Queensferry which sits between the two Forth Bridges. As you can see from these photos the weather was threatening rain:

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The inn sign refers directly to Kidnapped (although it makes me think of Treasure Island)

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You can see how rough the waves were on the Forth here:

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This is a moody picture taken from the High Street:

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and finally a lonely pillar box contemplates ending it all ...

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A Motley Selection

Fiction first: in a triumph of hope over experience, I read another Jeff Abbott book. Jeff Abbott writes well, and he writes mystery/suspense novels but I just can't warm to his characters. He also writes about espionage and organised crime rather than "ordinary" people. I'll stick to Harlan Coben but I'll need to wait for his new book to come out (next month, and it's a new Myron Bolitar book!)

Next was Garrison Keillor, a new author to me but one I'd heard mentioned in glowing terms. Again he writes well, but again I just didn't take to him. I think it's possibly because he writes as if we should know all about Lutherans. It's funny because often you read a book about a completely different environment and it's one of the benefits of reading that you come to feel as if you know about that environment. I just didn't feel that here. I did laugh out loud a couple of times but that was the exception. There seemed to be an underlying sadness to the book too (which does give it extra depth).

Men and Sheds is an amusing book about men and their fondness for sheds ... with pictures of the men in their sheds of course. There is one woman but mostly the shed is a male environment. None of these sheds are beautiful but their owners obviously love them and the opportunities they offer for peace and seclusion and frankly, obsessions!

Finally I came across in a charity shop a book I had when I was about seven. I loved this book! It's called Something to Do and the author was Septima (a pseudonym for a group of mums who wrote the book). I still liked this book and all the information and activities it suggested, but it was also amusing and thought-provoking to see that in those days (the 1960s) children were expected to be able to have penknives, make fires, boil kettles etc. What freedom!

Day 159; Book 159

Friday, 13 March 2009

Creating Papercrafts by Labeena Ishaque

I finished Dead Sky by Tami Hoag last night. It was really good with lots of suspense (although I guessed the end). The characters were strong and there were a couple of wise-cracking detectives.

My other book was Creating Papercrafts by Labeena Ishaque. There were some really good ideas in there, including greetings cards with tiny bundles of twigs attached to the front, and a fabulous travel journal with covers made from an old map. I loved the aged effect, and you could put all sorts of pockets inside to hold tickets etc.

I love travel journals! (Even though I never keep one ...). I think it is the promise of them that is so enticing. Here is a webpage devoted to journals including travel journals.

Day 156; Book 155

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Dead Sky by Tami Hoag

This is one of Tami Hoag's later books, where her focus has moved almost completely from romance to crime. Hooray! This author started out as a writer purely of romance then moved through a combination of the two to the crime thrillers she writes today. Characterisation is good, with the protagonists in this one being neither completely good or bad. Much more interesting and much more true to life! I'm about three-quarters of the way through this one but I've been too busy to finish it. Hopefully tonight ...

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

My 5-Month Anniversary is Today!

Five months of Book-a-Day that is! I started on 10th October last year so now I have only 7 months to go. This is where my calculations let me down because I reckon that is 151 days but I thought I was on Day 153 and Book 153. Oh well, I'm either keeping up or I am ahead ...

Penelope Lively

I'm afraid I had never read this author before, despite her having a prolific output of books for children and adults. Judgement Day is erudite and detailed in its observations of people and places and well worth reading, although ultimately rather sad. I'm going to try her other books.

I also read the play version of Robert Tressell's Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, by Stephen Lowe. This is a classic of socialist literature which, however, I don't think I would ever have got round to reading without this blog. The best scene comes when the character Owen demonstrates capitalist economics to his fellow workers, using the cutlery and food on the table as props. The bosses may strike us today as too reminiscent of moustache-twirling villains, but that doesn't take away from the significance of this work and the radical thinking it represented at the time.

Day 153; Book 153

Monday, 9 March 2009

More Sublime and Ridiculous Reads!

I'll start with an old favourite - Return of the Bunny Suicides! If you haven't heard of this, it's basically a book of cartoon bunnies with but one aim in life: self-destruction. Why is this funny? It's a puzzle, but I think it's probably to do with the contrast between the cuteness of the rabbits and the darkness of their intentions. The situations are ridiculous too, with horrible ends involving toasters or maypoles. The book ends with a picture of a Venus Fly-Trap, and then you notice the fluffy little tail sticking out ...

Also light-hearted was Reading My Arse! I had to buy this for the title alone. It's by the actor Ricky Tomlinson and was another of the Quick Reads series. (Incidentally, if you want to attract non-readers, is placing these books in a traditional bookshop the best idea? What about supermarkets, or pubs?). This story was much better than The Cave, but did have an element of wish-fulfillment about it. This is all very well for the author, but may not appeal to the reader quite so much ...

I also read another of the Marcus Didius Falco detective books, with Falco this time investigating a serial killer in Ancient Rome. Did they have serial killers in those days? It makes an interesting story anyway. It's darker than usual but there's still room for Falco's quips.

Finally I read Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende. Fortunately Catriona had leant this to me, because on the basis of my usual trick of going purely by the title and cover I would have missed out on this book. It turned out to be beautifully written and a fascinating romance and adventure story. Highly recommended.

Day 152; Book 151

Friday, 6 March 2009

Wholemeal Shortbread

This recipe produced accusing cries of "Why have you never made this before?" so I reckon it is worth sharing.

8 oz wholemeal flour
6 oz butter
5 oz demerara sugar
pinch of salt

Rub the butter into the salted flour (I softened the butter for 30 seconds in the microwave first - check how powerful your microwave is first though!). Then add the sugar and knead with the hands until the mixture is soft. You are then supposed to roll it out to 1/2 inch thick, but I just pressed it into a baking tray, and I think it would be crisper if you made it less than 1/2 inch thick. Back at 375 degrees F/190 degrees C for 20 minutes, then cut into slices and cool on a rack.

The Guardian Book of English Language edited by David Marsh and Amelia Hodson

Is it sad to like reading guides to grammar and spelling? Probably!

This one is a 100-page extract from Guardian Style, as used by the paper's journalists. Wisely, the editors admit to the "Grauniad" image of misprints and misspellings straight away, and then get on with the job of giving guidelines to their journalists. Fifers will be happy to know that the correct spelling of Kirkcaldy is included (thanks to Gordon Brown, we presume). This isn't as easy to read as The Elements of Style, but it does have some funny moments. For example there's this entry (which I should probably heed) for Exclamation marks: Do not use! Or when spelling this singer's name: Meat Loaf sings, meatloaf doesn't. They also reckon that the prejudice against split infinitives goes back to 19th century Latin teachers who felt that as the Latin infinitive was all one word, the English one shouldn't be split by another word inbetween. They give another couple of examples then say, "As the Guardian is written in English, rather than Latin, do not worry about any of this even slightly".

Day 149; Book 147

Thursday, 5 March 2009

On the Perils of Buying Second-Hand Books

My book about ice skating has arrived! It looks promising, with section one covering how to keep your balance and also how to fall (presumably if you fail at keeping your balance). However somebody (and I'm guessing somebody male and adolescent) had "improved" the line illustrations with anatomical details! Ooh er! Now where is that eraser?

Language I love

After yesterday's disappointment with The Cave, I consoled myself with a copy of Heat. It doesn't count for my stats but it is so cleverly written. I don't think its writers invented these words but they have certainly popularised moobs, muffin top, weird crush and the dreaded camel toe! Other inferior magazines have tried to copy Heat but they don't realise abuse on its own is just cruel, not amusing. By contrast, here Heat comments on a dress made out of ties (!) : "We’re all for a bit of recycling, but surely rooting through the wardrobes of some newly unemployed bankers and turning the findings into a red carpet frock is a bit much?" Harsh but fair and cleverly incorporating a topical reference!

AND Heat World has footage of THAT Robert Webb Flashdance performance!

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

The Cave by Kate Mosse

I pounced on this to give myself a break because it was labelled a "quick read" - and only £1.99! Well, the story was well-constructed but unfortunately it was very predicable. You knew everything that was going to happen just about from the first few pages. Cliches abounded as well. Loyal readers, you will know that I am not a stranger to the use of the cliche myself, but when you find yourself looking out for the next tired phrase you know that the writer has overdone it. From "spin like a top" to "noisy enough to wake the dead" to "crack like a whip" they were all there. It serves me right for choosing a book by length!

I believe this series is intended to appeal to people who have not read many books before, but I'm not sure if this is the way to attract them.

Day 147; Book 146

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks

This looked promising and it was well-written, but I just didn't like it! The hero and heroine obviously loved each other but I couldn't join in with thinking how wonderful they were when there really wasn't much evidence of it. Our hero loves nature (fair enough) but also thinks nature is much more "real" than man-made objects. How, exactly? However, this is a best-seller and was made into a film so it obviously appeals to a lot of people.

Edited to add: I checked out people's comments about the film on IMDB and people either seem to love it or hate it. Most love it, it has to be said, but there are a few hard-hearted old cynics out there too - hooray!

Day 146; Book 145

Monday, 2 March 2009

From Tolstoy to True Crime

Will I read any more Tolstoy short stories? I might! However my Tolstoy-fest was followed by a weekend of very different books.

First I borrowed and read LeNae's Scrapbooking Basics by LeNae Gerig. This took me several hours to read, which to me is an indication of a good scrapbooking book - one with plenty of text and information and not just pictures. I picked up several good tips, which will no doubt be coming to a scrapbook near you very soon. For the unconverted, here is a link to the UK's most popular scrapbooking website.

Next was Widows by Lynda La Plante. I remembered this as a TV series so I wanted to see what the book was like. The series had several very striking plot twists, which unfortunately for my reading I remembered clearly. The book was still an exciting crime thriller though, even though the author was too fond for my taste of using commas instead of conjunctions. That distracted me from the story a bit.

Finally I read Finding Shannon: the Inside Story. This account of the recent kidnap case was well-written by a journalist with a conscience. He points out the sweeping generalisations which were made by national newspapers about "sink estates" and "the underclass". In fact the estate where Shannon lived had 80% employment. He gives credit to the local community for organising a campaign to find Shannon, even though they were later to be betrayed by the very woman they were trying to help. He sticks purely to the facts but it would have been very interesting to know more about the personalities of Karen and Mick and what could have led them to act as they did. He does give some fascinating asides from the local courtroom, including where you hide pills that you want to take into prison - ewwww! (And it's not where you might think).

Day 145; Book 144