Sunday, 2 August 2009

Novel Insights has a New Home!

So it's au revoir, but not goodbye - I have decided to move over to Wordpress so please do pop by and take a look at Recent book reviews include:

Would love to hear what you think of the new site!

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Booking Through Thursday - Recent Funny

Q: What’s the funniest book you’ve read recently?

A: I haven't read any laugh out loud books recently although The Believers by Zoe Heller was quite witty and I remember Kate Atkinson's One Good Turn having amusing characters - a sort of comic mystery story. One of the few books that has made me laugh out loud was How to be Good by Nick Hornby - I read it while on a visit to New York and giggled so much at one bit that the lady on the train asked me what I was reading!

Oh and actually I just remembered that The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins really did make me laugh because of the hilariously over the top characters and the way that on of the leading characters, Marian Halcombe makes sweeping statements about how useless women are despite her being quite fabulous.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Lawrence Durrell Discovery: The Alexandria Quartet

A little belated blog about some gems I picked up in Savidge Reads' favourite 5 for £2 secondhand bookstore a couple of weeks ago. Actually they were a bit more expensive at £1 each from the classic literature section, but I couldn't help myself as it was a full matching (ish) lot of 4 Faber books.

So here they are - The 'Alexandria Quartet' comprising Justine (1957), Balthazar (1958), Mountolive (1958) and Clea (1960) by poet and novelist Lawrence Durrell.

The books didn't have much of a blurb on the back and even a quick flick through didn't really help me in figuring out what they were about, but I guess I was sort of drawn to the mysteriousness of them. Also, I noted that the prose at the beginning of the first book was quite beautiful;
"The sea is high again today, with a thrilling flush of wind. In the midst of winter you can feel the inventions of Spring. A sky of hot nude pearl until midday, crickets in sheltered places, and now the wind unpacking the great planes, ransacking the great planes..."
According to the bumpf on the Faber & Faber website, the Alexandria quartet is 'an investigation of modern love', exploring the sexual and political intrigues of a group of expatriates in Egypt before and during the Second World War. Each book tells essentially the same story from character different perspectives.

I have a suspicion that these might be a bit of a mission to read, but I'm looking forward to giving them a go and hopefully finding something special.

Has anyone read these novels? Are they beautiful literature or just plain odd?! Would love to hear any thoughts before I embark.

Friday, 24 July 2009

Booking Through Thursday - Bookish Preferences

Q: Which do you prefer?

  • Reading something frivolous? Or something serious?
  • My favourite books have a bit of both but tend towards serious.
  • Paperbacks? Or hardcovers?
  • Paperbacks - especially small size classic penguins that bend nicely in your fingertips.
  • Fiction? Or Nonfiction?
  • Definitely fiction.
  • Poetry? Or Prose?
  • Prose.
  • Biographies? Or Autobiographies?
  • Biographies.
  • History? Or Historical Fiction?
  • Historical fiction (terrible considering my degree is in History!).
  • Series? Or Stand-alones?
  • Stand-alones.
  • Classics? Or best-sellers?
  • Modern classics.
  • Lurid, fruity prose? Or straight-forward, basic prose?
  • As fruity as a margarita!
  • Plots? Or Stream-of-Consciousness?
  • Plots.
  • Long books? Or Short?
  • Short.
  • Illustrated? Or Non-illustrated?
  • Non-illustrated unless it's for children and has beautiful plates.
  • Borrowed? Or Owned?
  • Owned - without a doubt!!!
  • New? Or Used?
  • Used (or as I like to think of it, loved).

Sunday, 19 July 2009

The Believers - Zoe Heller

Last night I just couldn't sleep, so thought I might as well finish reading The Believers by Zoe Heller. Unfortunately it was not the kind of book that makes you snooze!

I very much enjoyed Notes on a Scandal and having been given a copy of The Believers by the lovely Savidge Reads, I was curious about how it would compare. To be honest, I didn't quite know what to expect with this one as it is one of those novels that revolves around a family and the experiences of the different people in it which I'm not normally 100% keen on reading.

Without giving too much away, plot-wise, the book revolves around a family living in New York whose father Joel Litvinoff, a prominent and radical lawyer, becomes ill. Audrey, his wife makes a devastating discovery about him and is forced to re-examine everything she thought she knew about her 40 year marriage. The grown-up children of the family (Rosa, Karla and Lenny) have to face this secret themselves, alongside their own muddled up lives.

At this point, I just want to say that this isn't a bleeding-heart story at all, rather the illness is more a lynchpin around which we see the different characters develop and change. It is a moving novel, but so carefully crafted with Heller's trademark dark humour that it never feels contrived or soppy in any way.

Initially it took me a little while to get into The Believers, but I always think that it does take a while with novels that revolve around the experiences of a variety of different characters. After all you have to get into the heads of each one instead of just following a main protagonist.

To my surprise, religious belief played much less of a part in this novel than I thought it would. Whoever drew the cover with all it's different religious symbols on it confused me greatly! The character who confronts religion is Rosa who despite her parent's adamant atheism has discovered a new found attachment to Orthadox Judaism. Rosa finds herself naturally drawn to Judaism, but struggles with the intellectual basis of the rules and rituals. I recently read The God Delusion, and in the light of that, I found the clash between Audrey and her daughter's opinions on the topic of organised religion particularly interesting. Audrey's strident anti-religious stance reminded me of Dawkins, particularly when asks why exactly she should respect other people's religious views if she thinks they are rubbish. To further illustrate how anti-religion the Litvinoff's are, Heller describes how upon receiving invitations to bar mitzvahs of their friend's children, they would send them back with "THERE IS NO GOD" scrawled across the engraved lettering! But, while Rosa's battle is theological, the other characters are also struggling with their own demons - Lenny with drugs and Karla with an unhappy marriage and having to think about what they believe in.

Even though it took me a little while to relate to the characters in this novel, I became really absorbed in it by the halfway point. I was particularly intrigued by Karla's relationship with her smarmy husband Mike, and the budding love affair between her and Khaled, a shopkeeper at the hospital she works in. The characters are well drawn and often painful to imagine, caught up as they are in their internal problems and insecurities. Audrey particularly is spiky with a sharp cutting tongue who simultaneously made me wince and smile at her bitchy comments.

Going back to The God Delusion I found that, despite enjoying it and thinking it was a genuinely brilliant book (very highly recommended), it is by it's very nature one long argument aimed at convincing the reader of a point of view. When I read The Believers, and the ideas about belief and religion Heller touched on, I realised that what I love about fiction is that it is thought provoking but leaves more room for making up your own mind. A definite thumbs up from me.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Booking Through Thursday Belatedly & More Bargain Books

Having just discovered Booking Through Thursday today, my contribution is a little belated but here it is anyway:

Q: Do you keep all your unread books together, like books in a waiting room? Or are they scattered throughout your shelves, mingling like party-goers waiting for the host to come along?

A: I had to downsize my accommodation before travelling, so I actually put all my 'read' books into storage. So I only have TBR's in my room now, except for those which I've read recently which I kind of put to one side. My read and unread books are definitely not partying, they are in fact, estranged!

On another note, I did a bit more book buying today. I felt compelled to pop into my local charity shop today - not for myself you understand, but for my boyfriend. His birthday is coming up and being a frugal pair, we like to collect all sorts of bits of inexpensive random stuff to give each other. So after perusing the bookshelves, I discovered the following:

The Guide to Family Photography, by Reg Mason - My boyfriend loves photography and so I thought I would pick this little gem up for him. It's probably pretty useless from a theory point of view as it was printed in the late seventies, but I couldn't resist it's fabulous combination of step by step cartoons, interspersed strangely with images of Prince Charles. I thought that this one was Mills & Boon-worthy actually!

Then because my man is always moaning about how he's getting old now, I snapped up Happy Birthday (you poor old wreck). A compilation of messages to 'old people over 21' by young children, including such wisdom as;
"Cats have birthdays like us. No one nose what cats thik about birthdays probly nothink." Denis Hutchinson, 8

"When you die you don't have birthdays" David Pollick, 7
OK, so it's not that hilarious but it was birthday-related and only a quid. I also saw a copy of the original Jane Fonda workout book, which I was sorely tempted by but resisted. Although there were actually two copies so if I change my mind...

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

A Perk of the Job

Warning! Second-hand book-shop in close proximity to new office alert!

Popped in to my new offices in Wimbledon today so that they could check my passport and make sure that I am not illegal and lo and behold, there is a really great bookshop just a short distance away called Copperfield's.

Actually I did spot it when interviewed (not that it influenced me in any way at all!) but resisted the urge to go in after telling myself I have too many books on my 'to read' pile already!

But today I wasn't so steadfast, and was drawn like a moth to a flame to their stack of Penguin Classics craftily placed by the entrance.

Copperfield's has all the hallmarks of an excellent second-hand bookshop - happily jumbled looking books stacked on a table outside, good prices and most of all that lovely lived-in feel and bookish smell which makes you feel you can browse for ages. Plus, just look at the signage, it just says 'come into our little treasure-trove!'.

I was fairly restrained and purchased two lovely Penguin Classics -

Savidge Reads got me into Susan Hill's creepy stories and blurb on the back of The Bird of Night, by Susan Hill (1976) made me think it might be an interesting little number for £1.
"Francis Croft, the greatest poet of his age, was mad. His world was a nightmare of internal furies and haunting poetic vision. Harvey Lawson watched and protected him until his final suicide. From his solitary old age Harvey writes this brief account of their twenty years together [secret gaylords perhaps?!] and then burns all the papers to shut out an inquisitive world."
Then I spotted The Bachelors, by one of my favourite authors Muriel Spark (1960). Not one I've heard of but had a fabulous cover and I love everything she writes. Plus it has a great plug on the back from Evelyn Waugh who writes;
"I am dazzled by The Bachelors. It is the cleverest and most elegant of all Mrs Spark's clever and elegant books."
Well, that convinced me to hand over my precious £1.50 and snaffle it into my handbag.

I always have the excuse that I need the reading material for my commute, plus I have discovered that there is a Lush in Wimbledon too. A book and a luxurious bath. What could be a better combination?

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Brick Lane - Monica Ali. Did it live up to the hype?

I had been wanting to read Brick Lane by Monica Ali (Black Swan, 2003) for ages but never really got round to it. The impetus to finally read it came from from book group and I picked up a copy at a brilliant second hand book shop in Tooting frequented by Savidge Reads for a bargain 40p along with variety of others!

Brick Lane follows the experiences of Nazneen, a Bangladeshi woman married off to a man - Chanu - twenty years her elder at the age of eighteen. He takes her to live on the other side of the world in London's East End. The book follows Nazneen as she adjusts to her new life, initially speaking no English and being virtually confined to the tower block where she lives with such wonderful wifely duties as cutting her husband's corns and plucking his nasal hairs along with housekeeping and cooking. Far away from her home and receiving only occasional letters from her sister who endures all sorts of problems after eloping with a man whom she loves, Nazneen is isolated and feels powerless to help. As time passes she settles into family life raising two daughters and makes a close friend within the community. She also finds a certain measure of Independence through working herself, squirrelling away pennies for her sister abroad. However this new Independence brings a young man into her life with radical ideas and the potential to uproot her family life completely.

I have to say that the hype around this book had the effect of putting me off slightly and perhaps for me it did suffer a bit from being so highly recommended in that my expectations were very high. The first few pages threw me in at the deep end with Nazneen's dramatic birth and the story of "How I was left to my fate", and I very much enjoyed reading about Nazneen's first impressions of England in contrast to that. In particular, I loved the bit where she watches the "Ice-eskaters" on television and is totally enamoured by their beautiful outfits and how they seem to float on the ice. some very sweet and witty moments! However while I did think that the book was very well written and enjoyed reading it I didn't find it to be a book I was rushing to pick up. Perhaps it was because I didn't feel that I warmed to the main character as much as I could have and also I didn't really feel that I had a sense of how much time passed throughout the story. I lost interest a little around the middle of the book, exactly at the time when it should have become more interesting with the arrival of Karim (Nazneen's love interest).

I don't think that I'm alone in finding this a difficult read. A quick glance at Amazon ratings reveals some mixed feelings about the book.
Also I was interested to read up on Wikipedia that there was actually quite alot of controversy surrounding the book in the way that Ali represents certain groups and on top of that, she managed to annoy the Richard and Judy producer Amanda Ross (oops!) causing her to say that Brick lane is the only book that Ross selected for the book group that she didn't believe in.

However I'm glad that I persevered with this as in the final part of the story you really see Nazneen's character develop and see her making some difficult decisions. Towards the end of the novel she fights against her ingrained idea that "fate will decide" and becomes more active in her choices. Also, I couldn't help but feel totally endeared to Chanu, the philosophising husband who could cook better than his wife.
One of my favourite lines is when Nazneen says "From the very beginning to the very end, we didn't see things. What we did - we made each other up." A few very wise moments but not always as well tied together as they could have been.

Overall I enjoyed Brick Lane and feel that for a debut novel it is very good, but I wouldn't put it on my best books list. Maybe this is because I felt frustrated that it could have been even better!

It's usually pretty easy to pick up a copy of Brick Lane in your local second hand bookshop. Alternatively, you can get a used copy from £0.01 from Amazon or a new one for £4.80 (at the time of writing) here.

"Brick Lane has everything: richly complex characters, a gripping story and it's funny too." Observer

Friday, 10 July 2009

Back from a Blogging Hiatus!

Memories of travelling: Sunrise at Changi Beach, Koh Samui April 2009, courtesy of the photographer boyfriend.

Over the last few months I've had a bit of a blogging hiatus, due to travelling, job applications and whatnot. Composing cover letters drains all the fun out of writing! But while I might have given the keypad a break I've been enjoying catching up on some great books.
There's nothing like long plane, and bus journeys to give you some good reading time, in fact the only downside was fitting the books into my rucksack and making sure I didn't have to pay excess! I even sacrificed a pair of shoes to make space for Margaret Atwood's hefty novel The Blind Assassin. Below is my travel reading list (from which you'll notice that I managed to get through quite a few on my 'catch up list').
  • The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood - A big old pullitzer prize winner full of original ideas as the perfect escapism from cramped hostels in Tokyo.
  • The Parasites, Daphne Dumaurier - A dark little novel exploring the relationship between and the personalities of a group of self-centred siblings enjoyed in the sunshine in Bangkok.
  • No Time For Goodbye, Linwood Barclay - Unputdownable thriller / mystery about a girl who discovers her family have gone missing one morning. Beach reading for Koh Samui.
  • One Good Turn: A Jolly Murder Mystery, Kate Atkinson - Entertaining read about a curious collision of lives pilfered from a hotel bookshelf (I did leave the Parasites in return!) in Koh Samui.
  • Mudbound, Hillary Jordan - A moving story about the struggles of rural living and racial tension in the Mississippi Delta after the second world war, consumed mostly in a hotel room in Ho Chi Minh City.
  • A Case of Need, Michael Crichton - A fantastically battered copy of a 70's novel about an abortion doctor and a heated legal case read in a very hot, fanless guesthouse in Siem Reap Cambodia.
  • Sovereign, C.J. Sansom - A monkish mystery set in Tudor times that now I think of it has lots of parallels with The Name of the Rose. Fitted in between lots of partying in Sydney!
  • In Cold Blood : A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences, Truman Capote - An incredibly detailed journalists account of a gruesome murder of an all-american family that occured in Kansas in 1959. An instant favourite during my stay in Auckland
  • Just After Sunset, Stephen King - Awful and at times just plain wierd book of short stories, by a usually excellent horror writer.
  • The Body Farm, Patricia Cornwell - My first foray into the Kay Scarpetta novels was entertaining but I still prefer Tess Gerritson and Sophie Hannah
  • The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins - Such an enjoyable classic, I loved the over the top characters and the thick plot while staying on Rarotonga in the Cook Islands
  • The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco - A bit of a struggle to get through the theological philosophising to the actually very good plot while driving around sunny California!
  • The Testament, John Grisham - A multi-billionaire commits suicide and leaves the expected heirs nothing while pledging everything to a daughter who lives a life of a reclusive missionary! A recipe for trouble thoroughly enjoyed on a 2 night stint in an LA hostel.
The stand out novel by far for me was Truman Capote's In Cold Blood which, on putting down thought 'I think this might be the best book I have ever read!'. I found the depth to which Capote investigates the characters and the skill by which he conveys them to be truly extraordinary. It's a book that really got under my skin and it is definitely my 'new favourite'. Really I should have been organised and planned books for different countries (although I did read In Cold Blood in advance of visiting the States!) but I enjoyed picking up novels I might not normally have read in hostels and second hand bookshops along the way. For instance, I have never particularly wanted to read a Michael Crichton novel or a John Grisham having had some idea that they are the kind of books read by middle aged business-men, but actually really, really enjoyed them to my great surprise and found the writing style to be superb. It just goes to show how important it is to stay open minded about what does and doesn't make a well written book.

Sunday, 25 January 2009

The Book Thief & The Joy of Being Read To!

I managed to read The Book Thief by Markus Zusak in time for book group, although I have to admit it was pretty close, with me sat on the tube reading with a tear in my eye on the way to the restaurant!

I don't think it's really giving much away to say that this is a moving novel. Narrated by Death, the story, set during WWII follows a little girl called Liesel, who is taken under the wing of foster parents Hans and Rosa Hubermann in a German village following the death of her little brother. It is implied that her Mother, a communist has been taken to a concentration camp. The story follows Liesel from her induction into book-thievery, her new life in the village and her relationship with her indomitable friend Rudy, through to the difficult experience of hiding a Jewish refugee in their basement.

I felt that the device of using Death as narrator was an original idea, and a good way to develop a birds-eye view on the situation, however I found the way in which he was given such a 'human' perspective a little implausible. I also didn't feel that the characters were particularly complex, with traditional Nazi 'baddies' and the endearing grumpy but ultimately 'good' Rosa Hubermann. I almost had the sense that the book was written with a film in mind (particularly the relationship between Rudy and Liesel), as it was quite cinematic in content. The upside of this was that the the story itself was a joy to read - engaging, beautifully written and with charming characters. The highlight of this novel for me was the personalities described by Zusak and the warmth that he was able to develop between different characters. Liesel herself was beautifully described and her friendship with Rudy was completely enchanting. Although I felt it wasn't quite gritty enough (WWII 'lite'?), I enjoyed reading from an alternative perspective on this period of history. Overall this was a wonderful read, and reminded me of stories that my own grandmother used to tell me about her experiences during the war.

Another reason why I enjoyed The Book Thief was because it was a fantastic distraction from the horrible flu that I had that week! And even better, in my sorry state, I had the pleasure of having a few chapters read to me in bed by my indulgent boyfriend which was really quite wonderful. It's quite special to have something read out loud to you for two reasons. Firstly, you experience the story in a different way than you would reading it in your head - I found that the way that my boyfriend read it brought out the humour in the novel because the form of the sentences and style comes through more clearly. Secondly, being read to is great because it makes you feel cared for and is a sweetly intimate experience reminiscent of more innocent days. I have also enjoyed having first chapters of favourite novels read to me by friends (Perfume, by Patrick Suskind) which is a great way to be introduced to novels that like minded people are passionate about. Whether it's a loving partner, a good friend or a reader at a book group, I thoroughly recommend seeking out an opportunity to hear stories being read out loud.

Monday, 12 January 2009

'Catch-up' Book List 2009

Sitting at home with the sniffles and the last episode of Tudors series II on pause, I was suddenly inspired to have a look through my shelves and decide which of the books that I already own, I would really like to get round to reading this year. This is a particularly good time to decide, as I am moving out of my beloved flat in a couple of weeks. I have to say it's a thoroughly cathartic process, organising myself down to the minimum of possessions to store at my boyfriend's house before I go travelling next month. Of course I have tried (not really) and failed to actually get rid of any books, but I will be putting a few out of sight and out of mind for the time being. I'm thinking that the short (ish) pile left cluttering up my dressing table will consist of the following:

The Book Thief Markus Zusak

My next book group read, I've finally conceded that I need to put down the Never-ending Anna Karenina temporarily in order to meet Thursdays deadline for reading this. Luckily I've been hugely looking forward to reading The Book Thief , but I really don't like starting one book while I'm reading another...grrr!

American Psycho Brett Easton Ellis

Oddly for me my desire to read American Psycho hasn't been dampened by having seen the film beforehand. Perhaps it's because I imagine it being different from the film, and because it is generally hard to put me off a bit of dark and gruesome fiction anyway. A gory gift from my ever benevolent book benefactor Savidge Reads, perhaps I will have to sacrifice a few pairs of undies so I can fit this copy into my rucksack for my travels.

Dorian: An Imitation Will Self

Having read both Great Apes and The Book of Dave, I know that I find Self's writing to be tough going and pretty pretentious. However... I still enjoy reading his books... perhaps because I feel like he's allowed to be pretentious because he's so damned clever and original. When I read his books, I always feel as if my perception of things has been pushed around a bit and stretched which I like. Also, Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, is one of my all time favourite novels so I'm looking forward to reading this even more twisted version!

Hurting Distance Sophie Hannah

Having recently read The Point of Rescue in the wrong order (slap on the wrist!), I now feel compelled to go back and fill in the gap by reading Hurting Distance before The Other Half Lives is released. I do so enjoy Hannah's clever plots, and suspenseful writing style.

Calendar Girl Stella Duffy

Another book gifted to me by Savidge Reads, after I joined a certain literary salon that is Polari and met the lovely Stella herself. Looking to forward to delving into this intriguing novel that promises a heady mixture of mystery
and lesbianism. Oo-er!

The Blind Assassin Margaret Atwood

Ok, I don't know much about this except that it's got a great cover, a brilliant title and won the Booker prize. Sounds good to me!

I, Claudius Robert Graves

Most people don't like the kind of books that people are made to read in school. Being contrary, I seek them out. I was a bit of an English Lit geek,
plus I also love reading Classical stuff, having devoted much of my childhood to reading Greek myths... plus the blurb promises folly, vileness, wickedness and tragedy. What more can a girl ask for.

Brighton Rock Graham Green

I struggle with Graham Green a bit, but again, because I'm contrary I like to stick at authors when they're clever but difficult and give them the benefit of the doubt. You see I loved The End of The Affair (although it wasn't at all what I expected), and was completely confused by Our Man in Havana. Anyway, this is one of those GCSE-type books and the blurb makes it sound so odd I have to read it. Oh, and I have a lovely old Penguin copy which I shall have to add a picture of when I read it with pink writing, so that sealed the deal for me.

Tennyson selected by Kingsley Amis

Another one I will have to add an image of, I picked up this lovely battered copy of Tennyson poems on a visit to my Nan's house. Apart from the brilliant 1970's cover, I mainly want to read this so that I can be even better at University Challenge. When Paxman asks a question about poetry the answer is nearly always Keats, Shelly, Wordsworth, Byron or Tennyson and I want to improve my 1/5 shot at getting it right. I know it's so wrong. I'm hoping that I might also discover something beautiful at the same time mind you, especially as one of my favourite paintings is The Lady of Shallot by John William Waterhouse so I suspect I will have that rather romantic image in my head when I read the poem.

Here's that lovely picture by the way, (although it's much better seen in real life for free at Tate Britain in a moment of contemplation):