Monthly Archives: November 2008

20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth – Xiaolu Guo

I absolutely loved ‘A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers’ by Xiaolu Guo and so when ‘20 Fragments of Ravenous Youth’ arrived it went straight up to the top of my TBR. I was hoping that I would find the writing both touching and comical and that the protagonist would be again someone I enjoyed following the journey of and Guo delivered one hundred per cent.

‘So I was the 6787th person in Beijing wanting to act in the film and TV industry. There were 6786 young and beautiful, or ugly and old people before me trying to get a role. I felt the competition, but compared with 1.6 billion people in China, 6786 was only the population of my village. I felt an urge to conquer this new village.’ So Fenfang introduces us to her life in Beijing as a young woman searching for work, love and herself at the same time.

We follow her as she moves from place to place, man to man and random job to random job. I loved the descriptions of the parts she played such as ‘woman waiting on a bridge’ or ‘woman who says nothing in a café’. This is where I think Guo is just superb in writing her characters, in very few words she can conjure up a people by what they say, for example ‘oh heavenly bastard in the sky’ being on of the most common thing to come from the mouth of Fenfang. It conjures up a character very quickly that tries hard but is very much aware of how hard life can be.

Indeed Beijing life is what this book is mostly about though featuring the TV world that Guo has so much experience in. Reading the afterword I found out this was actually the first book Guo wrote, she has now gone back and rewritten it as it was ten years ago and she didn’t agree with everything the original heroine was saying. For a debut novel, even if reworked some what, it is a great set of twenty snap shots of a young life in Beijing dealing with the hardships as well as the great sides. I loved the fact Fenfang particularly loved living in the area full of pirate DVD’s and books regardless of all the cockroaches, the pro’s outweighing the cons. One scene involving Fenfang swallowing a cockroach and her doctor being completely unsympathetic and saying she wouldn’t die made me feel slightly ill and laugh in abundance at once.

All the other characters are very secondary in the novel, no one else features heavily and you don’t find out masses about the people she interacts with just short concise paragraphs that tell you all you need to know. For example, one of her boyfriends who shares a room with his whole family… and a dog that uses their bed as a toilet. Can you imagine sharing a room with your partner’s whole family? The book is as it says simply 20 fragments of Fenfang’s life in Beijing and its cultures. I found it fascinating, funny and in places unsettling. I think Guo is undoubtedly one of the best new writers around and everyone should give this ago, just don’t expect ‘a concise history’ part two, I think that’s why people have said its not as good, I think it’s a sign Guo isn’t a one trick pony.

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Filed under Books of 2008, Review, Vintage Books, Xiaolu Guo

Oscar Wilde & The Candlelight Murders – Gyles Brandreth

The lovely people at John Murray sent me the second in Gyles Brandreth’s Oscar Wilde Mysteries Series I thought really it was about time that I read the first. I cannot read series in random order; I don’t know why I just can’t it seems wrong somehow. The premise for the Oscar Wilde Mysteries is that Oscar Wilde and Arthur Conan Doyle became very close friends, along with Wordsworth’s grandson Robert Sherard who is Oscar’s sidekick become involved in a mystery after meeting and set out to solve it.

I have wanted to read this for a while, Arthur Conan Doyle is one of my favourite authors of all time and I like a good mystery. I also wanted to see how it compared to the brilliant ‘Arthur & George’ which I have recently noticed have lost my copy of, not that the two books are in the same market but I like the idea of writers in fiction and Oscar Wilde as a leading man could be an interesting read.

One thing I will say for Gyles Brandreth is he knows the 1880’s and has clearly researched Oscar Wilde and the areas of London he frequented. Occasionally this does border on too much as Oscar and Robert in all seem to spend as much time eating and drinking as they do trying to solve the mystery which is fine once or twice but after a few hundred pages I was wishing for slightly less prose and more plot.

The book starts as Oscar finds the body of a young man named Billy dead in a house of questionable repute; the young escort has been murdered. Having cared for Billy ‘as a brother’ he decides to take it upon himself to find out who murdered Billy and why, even when Detective Aidan Fraser of Scotland Yard shows no sign of interest after the body goes missing. What follows is a hunt for the killer told by Sherard as he notes Oscar’s detective skills, very Holmes and Watson indeed.

I did on the whole enjoy the book though I did find it lacked the punch it promised on the blurb, I need to do a blog on blurbs, as you are told a series of murders unravel after the first. In actual fact the next murder doesn’t happen for about 200 pages after trips to Paris and the seaside and of course some meals. This isn’t boring, you just want more action, and I found I was putting the book down and not rushing back to it but enjoying it when I did pick it up. Not the quick read I expected. Once the action picks up I couldn’t put it down even though I had guessed the killer very early on.

I did overall enjoy the book and it looks to be a promising series, I think that the second will hopefully win me over when I read it in a few weeks. Give this one a go and persevere this took me a fair few days. That’s my advice with this first in the series, keep at it and it will pay off dividends. 4/5.

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Filed under Gyles Brandreth, John Murray Publishers, Review

Dear Fatty – Dawn French

I absolutely adore Dawn French she is one of the nation’s greatest comediennes and actors and also one of the nations treasures (a lot like Julie Walters whose autobiography I nearly picked up instead of this one but am holding off for now) and after an amazing 20 years in the limelight she has written her autobiography. This however is not quite an autobiography as she points out it is in fact a book of her memoirs written to people in her life throughout her life and I simply loved the whole collection.

A huge part of the book is written to her father who committed suicide not long before she got a place at The School of Speech and Trauma as she calls it ‘Dear Dad, so you’re still dead’. These letters though sad are a delight and whilst very funny in places also show a very raw side of Dawn French that you don’t tend to see behind the humorous woman she shows in her interviews. Her letters to her father deal with times in her life when he was there and times in her life when she wished that he could have been there. I learnt so much about her childhood through these letters I had no idea that as a daughter of someone in the RAF she spent a lot of her time travelling the country and other parts of the world never really settling down, something she is now incredibly keen to do. An episode involving the queen mother is actually one of the funniest parts of the book.

She covers her teenage years and those turbulent teenage times through letters to her daughter and younger relatives. She is completely happy to divulge the negative parts of it and all the kissing and hormones in letters to both some of her ex boyfriends and some of her icons at the time. I loved a letter of all the people she’s kissed and the comments she has on the experiences. Speaking of icons interspersed amongst the letters to family and friends she writes some incredibly funny ones to Madonna who famously has refused to appear on every series of French and Saunders ever.

Whilst there are lots of belly laughs in this book there are some incredibly raw and open parts. There is a letter to Lenny Henry, her husband, telling of the ups and the downs that marriages can have and looking at those in an incredibly open way. I think bar one of the letters to her father the most touching letter she writes is one to her daughter Billie regarding her adoption and how much her birth mother loved her to have to give her away, its both fascinating and emotional and beautifully written.

If you are looking for lots of gossip on celebrities and her times with Jennifer Saunders (or Fatty as she is addressed in letters that are just very long jokes and very funny) and the Vicar of Dibley etc then this has those in the background they are not the main part of the book. What it focuses on is what has made Dawn French who she is today and most importantly by writing to them, who the people are who have made her who she is today.

I have read a lot of autobiographies in my time and they can be sensationalist and show you a very rosy side of the author. This is an upfront no holes barred autobiography that looks at people from all walks of life and how one girl became one of the nations most famous funny faces and it was the insights into her family members, pets and events in her youth that I found so entertaining and make this one of the best, if not the best autobiographies I have read. You have no excuse not to read this book. I could have read this much quicker than I did however I wanted to savour every page. A must buy and one of my books of the year.

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Filed under Books of 2008, Dawn French, Random House Publishing, Review

Introducing… Novel Insights

I have the great pleasure of introducing a new book blog today. Novel Insights has been set up by one of my dearest friends and I think brings something fresh to the book blog world. Its not just all about the latest books that the blog writer has read its also about what she has learnt from books and what life lessons some characters and plots have taught her along the way.

I am not explaining it too well so just head over to http://novelinsights.blogspot.com and get reading as its much better explained there. So lets welcome a new blog to the boook blog world!

Also we might be collaborating, I say might we are, on a book group called ‘Rogue Book Group’ as we are reading a book together every month, one we either already own or have always wanted to read so I will be dropping her name into my blog a lot in the future.

Thats all today!

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Filed under Book Group, Book Thoughts

Black Butterfly – Mark Gatiss

I have always love the Lucifer Box books and read the first two as soon as they came out in paperback. I was lucky enough to get my mitts on the latest Lucifer mystery and devoured it with the same delight as I have all the previous. There is always a worry with a series that the latest wont be as good as the last, however with Mark Gatiss as the series author I didn’t think I should worry and I was right not to. Now if you are new to the Lucifer novels then I should say they are based on a rogue bisexual secret agent. There have been two previous novels The Vesuvius Club and The Devil in Amber which have been set in different periods of British history, the latest set as the new Queen Elizabeth is crowned and Lucifer is getting old.

I have to say I didn’t think that a Lucifer Box novel would work with him as an aged and almost retiring member of M.I.5, I mean how much action and mystery could he get involved in, it would appear a lot. As the novel starts Lucifer is now in fact the head of Her Majesty’s Secret Service under the pseudonym Joshua Reynolds ready to say goodbye to the life of a spy, until he finds out that one of his colleagues has died suddenly, after witnessing another bizarre death Lucifer starts to hunt for the ‘Black Butterfly’ and embarks on a final adventure.

Mark Gatiss is of course famous for being a comic mastermind. He has also written Doctor Who so you know their will be comedy and action in equal measure. The book opens on a fabulous Bond-esque scene in an aquarium involving a damsel in distress and some piranhas which is quite a tense sequence and gives you a hint of the action to come. The comedy however is everywhere Lucifer is sarcastic and witty, you also get the feeling Gatiss is having a ball writing these with names such as Melissa ffawthawte and Kingdom Kum there are double entendres lurking everywhere. These names no matter how funny detract from the book and you getting totally involved they just add to your chuckles.

The only downside (bar the cover which I don’t like very much) is of course that for now at least, there maybe some new ones of the missing years of Lucifer one day, the Box series sadly seems to have come to a halt. I wanted this book to go on and on and so when I came to the final page I felt it had all been over far too quickly, the book is just over 200 pages and you will whiz through it. I seriously recommend this for fans of fun, mystery ad adventure you’ll have a complete hoot.

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Filed under Mark Gatiss, Review, Simon & Schuster

Why Do I Say These Things – Jonathan Ross

I have been lucky enough that the delightful people from New Books Magazine feel they can send me books and the like to review. Sometimes though when a package comes through the door be it from a publisher, a review for a mag, whatever you can inwardly groan. Now had this been Jonathan Ross’s book I would have possibly wept (you have seen the number of books arriving through my doors at the moment) and also I don’t really like him that much. However an audio book I was more than happy with, I could listen to it while I popped round Sainsbury’s and I actually did.

If you are a fan of Jonathan Ross then I won’t need to really sell you this because you will have already bought it or popped it onto your Christmas list. If you aren’t a fan of Jonathan Ross then this could be quite a hard sell and if you aren’t either a fan or foe of Jonathan Ross then it’s not going to matter. I will first of all say that this is not in fact an autobiography which it seems to be being marketed as. It is in fact a ‘selection of memories’ throughout his life.

I have to admit thought I found this puzzling as there wasn’t any order to it. He started of discussing the time that he ‘accidentally date raped himself’ now I know his humour is controversial and crude (especially of late) but this simply wasn’t funny and he didn’t actually make the point of when or how, and to discuss Mexican families he sponsors in the same context I thought was wrong.

I was surprised though as when Ross talks (for it is he who is reading his own work) about his pets that is when you see him at his funniest, and though you wouldn’t think he could shock when it comes to pets you would again be wrong. However it’s when he talks about his pets and the love of them all that you finally sense you are seeing a much truer side of him than you see on the TV and in the media, a much softer side. I found that really interesting and it was these bits more than the random theories on fame or date raping himself that I enjoyed the most.

I think this is also much better in audio format compared to book format. You hear the voice telling the stories that experienced them and he seems much less arrogant and patronising. It also will in places make you really chuckle, one particular story about a kitten made me laugh very loudly in public so that’s a good sign I was enjoying it, and I was… much more than I thought I would.

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Filed under Review, Transworld Publishing

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher – Kate Summerscale

You know when you keep seeing a book and you pick it up four or five times in the space of a few weeks and you think you want it, people have said you should read it and you just think you have too many books? If this is the case just buy the blinking book, as this is how I have been feeling about Kate Summerscale’s ‘The Suspicions of Mr Whicher’ or ‘The Murder at Road Hill House’ as it suggests, and frankly I think this is one of the best books that I have read all year. So I must say a thank you to Bloomsbury for sending me this.

The subtitle of the book refers to the fact that this is not your normal gothic Victorian murder mystery; it’s a real murder mystery. In fact ‘The Murder at Road Hill House’ somewhat gripped the nation back in 1860 and saw the dawn of the detective in the form of Jack Whicher. This murder mystery in a country house where one of the occupants definitely did it sparked imaginations of the greats and inspired novels by Dickens, Conan Doyle and Wilkie Collins over the years. It all started on an unremarkable evening during the night in Summer 1860, the Kent family went to bed a s normal however the next morning the body of a young boy was found having died in tragic circumstances, the police couldn’t work out who had done it and so Scotland Yard were called. The case became huge news and in the small town of Road there was uproar and unwanted attention with the whole world guessing ‘whodunit’.

Now I am not a massive fan of non fiction, I love diaries and letters but with most non fiction I tend to wander and read it alongside my fiction, the fiction taking priority. Not when this book was around it wasn’t. Summerscale makes all the facts and theories turn into a wonderful and spellbinding read that could put to shame some crime fiction around at the moment. The research she has done is incredible down to the trains caught on what dates, the timetables from the time to match the possible escape of the killer. Clothes worn, movements of every member of the household and makes it come to life effortlessly. You really could have been a member of the public at the time following the case, making your own assumptions and falling for the red herrings along the way.

The book does also deal with the time significantly after the murder and looks at the future of all those involved including the murderer themselves. What is also fascinating with this book is that Summerscale shows how the best writers of that era and just after used various parts of this story and its characters to create some of the masterpieces still being read today such as the ‘Moonstone’ so it’s a fascinating look at the history of crime fiction and the ‘sensationalist’ novels that became so popular following, and of course left me with a list as long as my arm of books to read in the future.

This book is nothing short of pure brilliance, and will appeal to so many people for so many reasons. If you love books then you can learn about the history and add another twenty to your TBR. If you love crime then read the murder that helped establish the genre. If you love a good yarn this ones brilliant and its true. If you like non-fiction then the research and facts you’ll read and learn without even knowing is unbelievable. Yes you might have guessed that this book is one of my very favourites of the whole year, simply a must read.

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Filed under Bloomsbury Publishing, Books of 2008, Kate Summerscale, Review