Friday, 26 December 2014

Keeping up Appearances

We have an unnerving resemblance to Daisy and Onslow, so said Stefano last night.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

10 books that have stayed with me

I was set this challenge as part of a Facebook thing. It's not my Top 10 favourite, it is a list of ten books that, for one reason or another, have stayed with me. Sometimes the reason they have remained firmly in my memory bank is not pleasant...

Friday, 22 August 2014

Quick reviews of 'The Bell' by Iris Murdoch and 'Sacred Games' by Vikram Chandra

The BellThe Bell by Iris Murdoch
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Murdoch shows us how to combine philosophical questions with readable fiction. Love and religion, two subjects that when combined often leave both author and reader disappointed, are brilliantly dealt with in this 1950s, middle-class England story. There are no cringe-worthy moments, no point at which you find a philosophical argument uncomfortably shoe-horned into the story, this is a seamless piece of writing.

Some people think too much, others not enough and so it is with the characters in the novel. Those who think are slow to act, and when they do act impulsively it creates problems. Dora Greenfield, one of the main protagonists in the novel, rarely thinks until it is too late, and her actions help bring about the implosion of the small lay community at Imber.

Both hetero- and homo-sexual love are treated with care and tenderness, which considering the novel was written in the 1950s when homosexuality was illegal in Britain (though the Wolfenden report of 1957 had set the ball rolling along the decriminalisation path)makes the philosophical argument about love all the more poignant and meaningful.

The symbolism of the delicate butterfly which Dora rescues and sets free near the beginning of the novel encapsulates the argument for and about love. The bell rings in the changes - out with the old, in with the new - although for some the pattern is repeating albeit in different hues and places. This is a perfectly balanced piece of writing, neither contrived nor muddled though the philosophical questions remain.

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Sacred GamesSacred Games by Vikram Chandra
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is a lot of things all rolled into one (and at over 900 pages there is space for that): a gangster story, a detective story, a post-colonial look at India, an Indian's view of the different castes, religions and sects found in India and Pakistan, a commentary on the creation of Pakistan and a history lesson; then again it is not completely any of the above.

I took my time reading it, and the form in which it is written lends itself to that, it is easily 'put-down and pick-up-able'. The different strands of story are neatly woven together, but I have to admit to a slight disappointment with the ending, which with its insets was just too neat for my liking.

The different narrative p.o.v.s all seemed to have the same voice, there really wasn't much to separate the different characters other than the events occurring to them...I wanted to love this book, but could only like it. Perhaps a second reading will show me things I missed the first time, but my wrist needs a rest from holding up this weighty tome. Sometimes, less is more.

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Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Budding authors...never lose hope.

Jan Ruth was turned down 30 years ago from traditional publishing houses as she did not fit into a definable genre.

Friday, 13 June 2014

Review of 'Day of the Oprichnik' by Vladimir Sorokin

Day of the OprichnikDay of the Oprichnik by Vladimir Sorokin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sorokin is not a fan of Putin and I am quite certain that there is much in this novel with which Putin would be less than happy with. After a bearded woman (transvestite Conchita Wurst) won the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest, Putin was quoted as saying that Wurst could live the life she wanted, but that there should be more traditional values in life. Putin is certainly not tolerant or accepting of homosexuals, having caused the wrath of those more liberal than himself with his stance on the subject. How then would he react to the bechaviour of the Oprichniks as they celebrate a successful day of controlling Russia with a homosexual orgy?

The oprichniks in Sorokin's dystopian novel, are a revival of the old protectors and controllers employed by Tsar Ivan from 1565-1572. Their oath of obedience was
"I swear to be true to the Lord, Grand Prince, and his realm, to the young Grand Princes, and to the Grand Princess, and not to maintain silence about any evil that I may know or have heard or may hear which is being contemplated against the Tsar, his realms, the young princes or the Tsaritsa. I swear also not to eat or drink with the zemschina, and not to have anything in common with them. On this I kiss the cross." (Wikipedia)
The oath would have change very little in the novel. The Oprichniks of Sorokin's world are cloaked in a veneer of monasticism: they thank God for everything, they do not swear, they protect the Tsar and his country with all that they have, and support the decisions of His Majesty seeing all that he does as for the good of the country. The Oprichnina are both the past and the future of the Russian secret police.

It is hard not to draw parallels between present day Russia and Sorokin's Russia of 2028 - there are too many to ignore - and Sorokin is an arch-satirist, not to mention writer-prophet. 'Day of the Oprichnik' was published in 2002, forseeing a Russia only 26 years into the future. By the time I got round to reading it that distance had almost halved to 14 years, and in an incredibly short space of time it seems that a number of Sorokin's ideas have become, or are becoming, a reality: Russia annexed Crimea (theoretically in order to protect Russia and her people); Russia is becoming separated from Europe by a virtual wall, much like the Iron Curtain and ideologically similar to the Western Wall of the novel that keeps Russia safe from the putrefying effect of Europe; Russia has signed a deal with the Chinese over gas supply which could see the dominance of the $ as the petrocurrency wane (China is Russia's main trading partner in the novel, though that does lead to some taxation issues); and perhaps most tellingly, New Rus has returned to Tsardom, and I am far from the first to remark upon the resemblance of Putin's leadership to that of the tsars who have gone before.

Recently, Putin has been likened to Hitler and within the novel there are two particular actions that have been identified by other reviewers as Hitler-esque: the book-burning by the psychic and the style of the Russian bookstand. Komiaga, the Oprichnik whose day it is that we follow, is happy with a bookstand that provides reading materials that are standardized and approved by the Tsar and the Literary Chamber. He sees control as necessary for the good of the country but he also believes that the selected literature and writers are "caressed by the love of the people and His Majesty". As for the book-burning, I do not feel that this sits so comfortably with Komiaga, though he does not say as much and indeed requests more books from the Tasrina for the psychic to burn. The monkish attire of Komiaga and the book-burning brings to mind not just Hitler but also Savonarola who, with his supproters, held Bonfires of the Vanities in 15th century Florence. These bonfires not only included manuscripts and books but any items that could be seen to encourage vanity or tempt one into sin. Komiaga and a number of fellow Oprichniks lit one very large bonfire in the form of a dissident nobleman's house at the start of the day, at the same time gang-raping his wife; the latter not something that Savonarola would have approved of.

This is the irony - the veneer of monasticism is paper-thin. The Oprichnina indulge in crimes for which they would torture, mutilate or kill citizens of New Rus for committing. As well as the burning and gang-rape, they 'do deals', take hallucinogenic fish drectly into the vein and the day climaxes with an orgasmic caterpillar with glowing members. Despite these nefarious activities, I was not as disturbed by the novel as I was led to believe I would be; Sorokin has written far more undigestable works than this. Perhaps it is the light touch with which Sorokin paints the picture, reminiscent of Solzhenitsyn's 'Day in the Life of ...', or maybe it's because with no plot to be absorbed within, I was less involved.

This is a work that looks back almost as much as it looks forward; like a pushme-pullme, it is going nowehere. However, the blend of futuristic - mercedovs, mobilovs, news-bubbles and rayguns - with the ancient - knives, torture rack and the Tsardom and Oprichnik revival - drives home the realisation that for all the technological changes the human race has changed very little.

Sorokin draws upon dystopian and Sci-Fi novels of yesteryear with Bradbury's 'Farenheit 451' and Orwell's '1984' to name but two that are evident. Orwell's use, or misuse, of language is similarly employed by Sorokin. When Komiaga listens in on radio channels for dissidents he hears of 'medhermeautical adultery' and a barrage of meaningless neologisms strung together with some standard conjunctions (like listening to a Homi Bhabha theory being read aloud, it's a wonder Komiaga's ears didn't start to bleed!). Sorokin also employs a number of italicised words which draw attention to the way in which ordinary, seemingly innocent, words and phrases are used to describe contradictory actions: the rape is described as 'succulent work' and book-burnings take place in the Oprichnina 'courtyard', which to my mind is like calling the gas chambers in Auschwitz ovens - these are not innocent spaces.

All in all, this is a very readable novel despite the violence. I have seen it described a funny or hilarious, not adjectives I would readily use, but there is a dark humour to its scarily predictive text. I must read it again soon to see what Putin will be up to next.

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Thursday, 29 May 2014

Phenomenal Woman - Maya Angelou

Yesterday witnessed the passing of Maya Angelou, an incredible writer with an early personal history that few would wish to have but which continued to influence her writing throughout her life.  'I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings' was the book that brought her to the attention of the world, dealing with her early life including rape, sexism and identity. She published a further 35 books including poetry, essays and autobiographies. 

Friday, 9 May 2014

'We' - quick review

WeWe by Yevgeny Zamyatin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The edition of 'We' that I read was the 1959 translation by Gregory Zillborg, where the totalitarian world dominated by the Well-Doer is known as United State (this differs from many reviews I have seen that refer to One State).

The reader is introduced into the dystopian world through the journal of D-503, builder of the Integral and a once content member of society, more than comfortable with his manner of living, until he happens upon I-330; and so his world unravels.

The unravelling of D's world is reflected in the unravelling of his previously well-ordered mind. Piece by piece, all that he thought was perfect, well-ordered and controlled by the Well-Doer is seen for what it really is - though he fights against this realisation as best he can.

The influence upon Orwell's '1984' is evident, including providing an ending in which I was disappointed (hence only 4 stars). Despite this, it is a work that grabs you and in light of recent uprisings around the world, where the people are making their voices heard and fighting against dictatorial regimes, it is very poignant.

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Wednesday, 12 March 2014

My favourite opening lines.

World Book Day last week (6th March), got me thinking about my favourite opening lines. An opening line has been said to be one of the most difficult to write - some authors have created some very memorable lines...

Friday, 14 February 2014

St. Valentine: Love and Marriage… don’t forget boils, fits and bees.

February 14th, Saint Valentine’s Day, is now associated more with the giving of sentimental cards and flowers (whose prices have been vastly inflated for the occasion) than with the saint himself. This is a shame as the patron saint of lovers had an interesting life, or lives as it seems he may be more than one man, and is the patron of many other things besides.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

A few reviews...

In the Shadow of Gotham (Simon Ziele, #1)In the Shadow of Gotham by Stefanie Pintoff
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This novel won the author two awards for best first crime novel and I am trying to figure out why. The premise of the novel is good - turn of the (20th) century New York is the location, combined with an insight into the suffragette movement, the emerging sciences of forensics and psychological profiling, a detective who has a decent back-story and a suitably disturbed killer. Sadly, Pintoff failed to deliver.

There was no feeling of place – New York was as flat as a theatre back-drop; the characters suffered the same fate. The detective, Ziele, may have had an interesting back-story but at no point was I able to feel the grief that Ziele was apparently experiencing. The research which Pintoff had evidently carried out was shown in the way of facts scattered throughout the narrative, but the activities of suffragettes, criminologists and the police were not engaging or enlightening. As a result I felt disconnected from characters and storyline alike.

The pace of a thriller is crucial, it needs to keep you engaged and in suspense until the denouement. Pintoff felt the need to explain her character’s emotions and ideas not just in their speeches but repeated in clunky narrative. These repetitions were unnecessary; I felt like a schoolchild being led by the hand. Just when the storyline picked up pace, like the horses drawing Ziele up the hill to the murder scene in Dobson, we stumbled over a loose cobblestone of narrative; momentum was lost. A decent editor could have made this a smoother read. But the most disappointing aspect of the novel was the fact that I was able to work out the identity of the killer 1/3 of the way through; and so should have the supposedly intelligent detective.

In short, ‘In the Shadow of Gotham’ promised much but was a disappointing read.

View all my reviews The Library of ShadowsThe Library of Shadows by Mikkel Birkegaard
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I selected this book from the shelf as it provided me with an immediate mental connection to Zafon's Cemetery of Forgotten Books trilogy. That may be the reason for my rating only being a 3 instead of a 4...

Birkegaard is not Zafon; he cannot create the mental imagery that sucks you so completely into the novel in the way that Zafon can. Whether this is due to the skill level of his translator, it is hard to say; but whilst the concept of Lectors (people able to influence readings through one means or another) is a wonderful concept it was not as convincing as it could have been.

That is not to say that the novel is a complete wash-out, it isn't; it moves along at the right pace for a thriller and it reaches a suitable climax. However, I found that the twists were too well indicated - more slight bends in the road with 100 metres of chevrons leading up to them - and there was little enlightening from the literary history aspect. Birkegaard is not on a par with Umberto Eco as far as weaving historical aspects of literature into his work is concerned (having said that, I found Eco's 'The Prague Cemetery' to be one of the best soporifics on the market).

But when all is said and done this is a good novel for literature-focused thriller escapsim. I would love to have the power of a transmitting Lector and create compelling pictures in the minds of listeners when I read a book out loud, and because of this wonderful idea it receives the rating it does.

View all my reviews The Little StrangerThe Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Faraday is not a particularly likeable or reliable narrator but they way in which Sarah Waters writes pulls you in regardless.
I could not say that I found the ghost story 'chilling' or that it made me 'want to sleep with the light on' as some of the cover blurb would have it. However, I did find it enjoyable; I felt for the characters (except Faraday who seemed to have only one attainment in mind, and it wasn't Caroline), and could recognise some the description of old estates falling into ruin due to lack of funds for the once wealthy gentry.
Sarah Waters is immensely skilled at recreating historical periods and the shift of power and position from the old families to the nouveau riche and the 'coming men' of the working class is subtly weaved throughout the novel. A most enjoyable read, but nowhere near as good as 'Fingersmith'.

View all my reviews Sacred HeartsSacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sarah Dunant writes beautifully. From the very beginning I was transported into 1570 and the closed world of the Benedectine nuns of Ferrara. It is not only a historical trip back to Renaissance Italy when the Catholic Church retaliated against the Protestant Reformation, it is a look at the minds of women. The full duplicity of women is brought to the fore, along with their weaknesses and strengths. Science vies with faith, politics with religion and youth with age.

Do not expect descriptions of Ferrara, a university town in the north of Italy, everything takes place behind the convent walls. Do not expect a complicated plot with multiple twists and turns. Do expect a vivid,suspenseful account of how a young novice, entered into the order against her will affects the running of the convent bringing out the good and the bad in the sisters. This is a well-researched, mesmerising narrative that moves at the pacce of a thriller, whilst providing cold comfort.

I heartily recommend this novel.

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Unplug yourself

An article in TIME magazine* on Mindfulness made me think how one of my friends in particular (though she may contest this) would benefit from letting go of her smartphone for an hour or two per day.
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Word Cloud

Wordle: Untitled