Monthly Archives: February 2009

A Month in Books: February

Summing up their month of reading is something that I am seeing on a fair few book blogs now and there is something I really like reading so I thought ‘oh, I’ll join in’. It won’t be a really long blog as I have a manic weekend this weekend but I thought would be a little something to keep you all going.

Now having just finished Summer Crossing by Truman Capote literally a few minutes ago my total of books read this month is ten, I’d love to sneak another read in today but its not going to happen. This is despite having some really bad readers block during the month that sent my planned TBR and reading habits into a slight meltdown. Thanks to Susan Hill and some of her crime fiction I was soon sorted out. It also beats January as I read eight books in a slightly longer month and is also three more than I read in February last year.

This seems to have been an unintentionally crime based month with Susan Hill, Sophie Hannah and David Ebershoff. It has also of course been a month filled with Richard and Judy books which I know often get frowned upon for me however a fair few of this months best reads have come from their selection. I had read Kate Atkinson prior to this month so can’t count it, if I had read it this month it would have been my favourite book hands down. My TBR pile has gone crazy thanks to publishing houses and second hand shops, what was a pile of 702 books to read has in the space of a month gone to 754 which is verging on the excessive. Anyway here is a quick summary of my month, which from now on I shall do every month… it feels a bit like the Oscars.

New author I want to read ‘the works of’: Truman Capote (by new I mean one I haven’t read before)
Favourite character of the month: John Cromer from Pilcrow, Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany’s or Marianne Engel from The Gargoyle
Best crime: Hurting Distance – Sophie Hannah (so clever and so full of twists)
Best non-fiction: The Bolter – Frances Osborne
Surprise of the month: The Gargoyle – Andrew Davidson
Book of the month: The Bolter – Frances Osborne or Breakfast at Tiffany’s – Truman Capote, both were wonderful.

What about you? What were your highlights of a fiction filled February? What are your plans for March? Me, I think my aim is to get a few more classics under my belt. I was also going to say that I would try and restrain the number of books that come through my door (not from publishers) but it’s my birthday in March and that invariably means lots and lots of book vouchers… hoorah!

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Filed under Andrew Davidson, Book Thoughts, Frances Osborne, Sophie Hannah, Truman Capote

The Bolter – Frances Osborne

Now you should all know that I have a small obsession about all things Mitford, which at the moment with the amount of books filled with letters, essays and diary entries from these sisters is very lucky for me. The Bolter by Frances Osborne has been on my book-radar for quite some time because of being part of my Richard and Judy Challenge and also because apparently the book is all about, Idina Sackville, was the inspiration for Nancy Mitford’s ‘The Bolter’ in three of her novels. For this alone I know I would like this book, even though looking at some reviews have been slightly underwhelming…

Well I won’t hold back on this… I loved this book. However I can understand why some people out there might not like it so much, but more of that later. The Bolter can be summed up pretty much by its full title ‘The Bolter: Idina Sackville – The Woman Who Scandalized 1920’s Society and Became White Mischief’s Infamous Seductress’. This book promises to be full of gossip and scandal whilst taking a look at just what was going on in the rich upper classes in the 1920’s and 1930’s. It does exactly what it promises on that front with some very insightful tales even of royalty. It also lifts the lid further on ‘The Happy Valley’ (which I had no knowledge of prior to this book – but I have been looking up on the web like mad) in Africa where bed hopping, drug taking, suicide and murder along with attempted murder all took place.

These things were great, Frances Osborne makes a lot of affairs and bed hopping very easy to keep up with and digest. She also brings in some really interesting social history such as what could and couldn’t constitute the rights for divorce and what counted as adultery. She looked at the women suffragettes which were something that Idina and her mother Muriel were very much involved with. It also looks at how war affected people not just in terms of rations but in terms of love and affairs of the heart. All this was wonderfully written and all over too quickly. However for me it was the background on Idina herself along with her childhood, parents and the society she grew up in and how they made her into the character which she became that I found so fascinating.

Yes she was a sexual predator in some ways, no she couldn’t be faithful, married and divorced five times, loved to party and left her sons and husband but deep down her story is of struggle and tragedy and how people react to that. Plus she in historical terms as Frances (who is her great-granddaughter) finds, from her family alone regardless of society back in the day, is blamed for this and getting the real insight your opinion is changed. Her first marriage to her true love wasn’t a happy one after the war and he ended up marrying his sister’s best friend Barbie. Some of the names in this book are wonderful. If all the things that happened to her happened to most people they would have given up aged about 21. However Idina is incredibly strong and fights and pushes to get what she wants which you believe is actually a quite settled life just with lots of sex.

This book also did something that very few books tend to do nowadays (unless I am having trouble keeping up) which is to make notes. There are some wonderful quotes such as when Idina describes why she married one of her husbands ‘he had broad shoulders, a long attention span and an endless supply of handkerchiefs’ and facts that I felt I wanted to chase up and learn more about. I also laughed and smiled quite a lot too thinking that anyone who loves the words and works of Nancy Mitford would be right at home with this. It does appear she very much borrowed from Idina and her real story for her own fiction. I also actually felt very solemn when the book ended and quite moved.

All in all a marvellous book which I would recommend to Mitford fans and particularly people who wouldn’t normally pick up a non fiction novel. This book has made me want to know so much more about the era and the other people mentioned as well as more on Idina herself and you cant ask more than that from a good book (this also happened with The 19th Wife which was fiction based on fact but a completely different subject) I am really pleased that Frances Osborne is writing more.

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Filed under Books of 2009, Frances Osborne, Nancy Mitford, Review, Virago Books

Collectibles – Booking Through Thursday

Hardcover? Or paperback?
Illustrations? Or just text?
First editions? Or you don’t care?
Signed by the author? Or not?

That is the question or questions today from Booking Through Thursday. I have to say that though I own a ridiculous amount of books and it is ever growing I dont actually ‘collect’ books specifically. I dont even on the whole mind if they are all issued at around the same time or are the same series. There is only one exception so far and that is my Evelyn Waugh books which are all the art deco range such as you can see here this was never intentional I just bought three at once in that range for a pound and that was it! This may change though as publishers such as the lovely Vintage have now started to do really gorgeous covers on their books such as with the new W.Somerset Maugham books which I will be reading shortly. You can see a few of them here and they just look beautiful.

So some of the covers like that could get me collecting. I have just been and had a second look at my shelves and I have to admit that all my Agatha Christies are the 60’s versions when books were 75p, can you imagine that now, wouldn’t it be amazing! However again I dont think the Christie’s being the same series is intentional. Maybe I’m a subconcious collector without even knowing it? On the whole with books in general I prefer paperback, so if I was to collect it would be those. I do have some signed first editions, if I in a store and the book, which I am going to buy anyway, is signed why the heck not? It could become a collectors item of the future.

If I did do a collection of old books it would have to be of the Ladybird 606d series which was the series I inherited from my aunts and uncles when I was young and have about six of and really remind me of my childhood. They go for around £10 each now if not more and so maybe with my birthday coming up I shall add a few to my birthday list, we shall see.

How about you?

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Evelyn Waugh

The Dog – Kerstin Ekman

It wasnt my intention to read this so soon, but I did as The Bolter didnt turn up till today and so am now reading that like a demon… plus I wanted to leave the review up of Mr Toppit for a while, well at least until someone commented (violins for sympathy ha). Yesterday though I was just in the mood for a short read and something different and this seemed just right. I was sent The Dog by Kerstin Ekman from the lovely people at NewBooks Magazine to review for their next issue (they have had something different from this one as I couldn’t ramble on as I normally do on here) and I have to admit bar Dovegreyreaders review of the book, which made me interested, I probably wouldn’t have bought such a short novel for £12.99 – well it is the credit crunch. Moving swiftly on can anyone tell me what the difference between a novella and a novel is? This is 144 pages but quite a few are delightful illustrations.

The Dog is about a dog. A young puppy one day follows its mother as she chases their owner mistakenly thinking they are going on a hunt. The mother can barely keep up with the owner let alone the puppy and soon enough he is lost in the wooded lakeside unable to find his mother or owner. From then on he must fight for survival can the natural wild instincts come from a domestic puppy. I won’t say too much to give anything away but for those of you who are worrying and feeling sad I found the outcome incredibly uplifting and positive.

After the opening of the book, which evokes such sadness, the rest of the novel continues to take you on an incredibly emotional journey. You are taken through fear, joy, desperation the whole gambit and I thought that was remarkable. I also loved the way that Ekman really looked at how the instincts of a puppy and dog would work and how scents triggered his brain. I had never thought of ‘the scent of a predator’ and that idea particularly fascinated me and made me really think. The only draw back for me in all honesty

I hadn’t heard of Kerstin Ekman before this novel, but in fact The Dog was actually released in Sweden in 1986 though the book hasn’t aged at all it feels very fresh but then the story could be set at anytime in the past, now or even in the future. She has quite a few novels that are just starting to be published over here and one thing I must say is that she is a wonderful writer. The book is in extremely poetic and I could so imagine the scents and scenery quite vividly. I think it could be slightly shorter but the illustrations along the way are lovely.

This is a 3.5/5 book for me personally. I would recommend it but wait until it comes out in paperback. This is definitely a book for dog lovers though. I think maybe because I am more of a cat person that’s why it didn’t quite work as well for me? Cats verses dogs in the reading world which one wins? I can only think of Gobbolino The Witches Cat as a book solely about a cat. I shall leave you a picture of Charlie and Phoebe in their natural book habitats and you can decide.

Which wins?

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Filed under Kerstin Ekman, Little Brown Publishing, Review

Mr Toppit – Charles Elton

As soon as this arrived from the lovely people at Penguin I knew I would have to read it pretty much instantly, and that is just what I did. After finishing David Ebershoff’s thought provoking The 19th Wife I wanted something a bit different and Mr Toppit looked just that. From the cover the book looks slightly gothic and ominous (more on the cover later) and that was exactly what I was in the mood to read. If that was what I was expecting it certainly isn’t what I got, however this book was a very pleasant surprise.

Luke Hayman has become world famous after his father Arthur Hayman’s death (this happens early on so am not spoiling the plot) when his series of children’s books ‘The Hayseed Chronicles’ go from being books that shift a few copies to books that become stratospheric selling bestsellers. The reason he becomes immortal is down to the fact his father called the main character, a young boy, Luke Hayseed. The Hayseed Chronicles also tell of a dark evil character called Mr Toppit who never actually appears, though his ominous presence drifts in and out of these tales, until at the end of the 5th novel when he comes out of the Darkwood ‘for everyone’. This to me promised a real mystery, which the book didn’t really deliver.

What it did deliver was two things. The first an insightful look at the trappings of fame, from those like Luke who really don’t want it but have it to his sister Rachel who craves it but isn’t mentioned in the novels. Luke’s story seems to reflect the story of Christopher Milne and his fame from The Winnie The Pooh books. There is also Laurie a woman who was with Arthur when he died and who suddenly becomes part of the family before going back to America and becoming part of the train of events that make The Hayseed Chronicles one of the biggest selling series of children’s books the world over.

The second thing that the book delivers is a fantastic family drama in the form of the Hayman’s and all they have go through when Arthur dies and then when the books become so well known in particular Rachel ‘the unknown sister’ who after her fathers death becomes dangerously obsessed with the books and their subliminal meanings and what could have happened next. It also looks at skeletons in all family’s cupboards and focuses on the fabulous Martha who is such a wonderful character even if she is cold, self obsessed and quite distant.

As for the plot… Hmmm, a puzzling one as I didn’t feel everything got quite wrapped up, which I know some books shouldn’t and I don’t expect all things to work out to a happy ending but I felt like some loose strands along the way were never quite chased up. I also had difficulty when Elton describes how people react to certain world famous scenes from the book that he never really describes them to the reader. I felt that more scenes from the book could have been entwined in the novel and also thought you could have had five interludes where the synopsis of each of the series was thrown in.

The characters, as well as their dilemmas and dramas in this book are undoubtedly what made it such a great read for me. I loved Martha as I mentioned and I loved Laurie’s cantankerous mother Alma equally. I also found the character of Laurie fascinating and in some ways her back story was the one that I found the most interesting as it deals with how childhood shapes us, which can also apply to Luke’s character.

Overall a very interesting debut novel and one that I would recommend to people who like a good family drama, just don’t be expecting the gothic story that the cover suggests. Speaking of covers what I did think was marvellous was the covers, yes covers. I take dust jackets of when am reading a hardback as I don’t like to tear or scuff it, when I removed it I was greeted by a cover of The Hayseed Chronicles which whilst on the tube made me look like I was reading a very big new children’s novel which doesn’t exist… which I quite liked.

I’d give this novel a 4/5. I actually closed the book wishing I had The Hayseed Chronicles to hand so that I could devour those to read next. Sadly Elton isn’t going to write them.

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Filed under Charles Elton, Penguin Books, Review

Latest Reading Arrivals…

I thought as I have gone a fair few book reviews in the last two days that I would put up some pictures of the latest arrivals here in Tooting Towers. I have had some lovely parcels (some people call them promotional items – I call them presents) from some of the publishers which I always greet with great excitement. You can see these below…

The First Person & Other Stories – Ali Smith (Penguin)

I had the pleasure of reading Girl Meets Boy earlier in the year and so far its still one of my favourite reads in ages, I also loved The Incidental when I read that a few years ago. A collection of short stories that are “always intellectually playful, funny and moving’ should be a joy to read.

Mr Toppit – Charles Elton (Penguin)
The cover (or covers… more when I review) of this makes it look like a gothic mystery novel and I adore those. I have high hopes for a debut which seems to have a massive marketing campaign going and took fifteen years to write. The line “and out of the Darkwood Mr Toppit comes, and he comes not for you, or for me, but for all of us” sounds deliciously dark. I have to admit I have started this it just looked to good to savour.

Netherland – Joseph O’Neill (Harper Perenial)
Another one of the Richard and Judy Books of 2009 for which I am doing the challenge. This one is the one that in all honesty (and I will always be honest) has the least appeal to me initially as it seems to be about cricket which I am not a fan of. However its also a book about ‘belonging and not belonging’ which sounds unusual plus it was longlisted for the Man Booker and didnt win which is a good sign. I am more of a fan of the longlisted or shortlisted than the winner.

The Devils Paintbrush – Jake Arnott (Sceptre)
I meant to re-read his novel The Long Firm earlier but didnt manage to get round to it (don’t worry though I will) which is part of his trolgy about gangsters. This scandalous tale is set in Paris in 1903 and is Arnotts first foray into ‘historial fiction’.

The Dog – Kerstin Ekman (Sphere)
Dovegreyreader reviewed this recently and I would never have heard of it if not for her… and the people at NewBooks Magazine who have asked me to review it. It sounds a bit sad though, a puppy getting lost in the wild and having to fight for its survival. However this may actually make the dog loving Non Reader pick up a book after I have finished one for once.

The Prophet Murders – Mehmet Murat Somer (Serpents Tail)
A crime which has the wonderful subtitle of ‘a Hop Ciki Yaya Thriller’ – I am already sold.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay – Michael Chabon (Harper Perennial)
I cannot count the times that people have told me ‘you will love that book’ its huge so I will be saving it for some very long train journeys I have lined up in a few weeks. The fact its a “heart-wrenching story of escape, love and comic-book heroes set in Prague, New York and the Arctic” does sound like quirky brilliance so I may very well love it.

King Kong Theory – Virginie Despentes (Serpents Tail)
This book has caused quite a lot of controversy of late (well in the broadsheets at the weekend anyway) and has made me want to read it and from the chapter titles (oh its short autobiographical stories) which I shant print just yet I can see why. Its also very short and short reads are the way forward after Mr Toppit I think.

I also went second hand shopping yesterday and found…

The Danish Girl – David Ebershoff (Phoenix)
After the thought provoking The 19th Wife it seemed like fate when I saw this for 50p. The story is again based on real people this time the “story of Danish painter Einar Dresden, this is a strange and eerily haunting novel about a very unusual love affair between a man who realizes he is really a woman and his remarkable wife” sounds unusual and is currently being made into a film with Nicole Kidman and Charlie Theron in it!

The Leopard – Giuseppe di Lampedusa (Vintage)
I have seen this book listed in so many ‘books you must read’ lists and the like that again for 50p how could I say no? I had no idea what it was about but apparently its a materpiece “is set amongst an aristocratic family, facing social and political changes in the wake of Garibaldi’s invasion of Sicily in 1860” time will tell I sometimes have issues with masterpieces. Love the old Fontana edition I got will feel cultured andretro reading it on the tube.

The Secret River – Kate Grenville (Canongate)
I had been out shopping second hand especially for this. It’s for this reason that charity books are brilliant, money to a good cause and also when your unsure of an author its a good way of trying them before you become addicted and buy everything they do th moment it comes out… or never read them again. I heard Grenville on the Guardian Book Group podcast and despite the fact it pretty much gave everything away (I shant dear readers) I thought I should try it. It is another Man Booker nominee that didnt win so the signs are good I will like it.

As for what I am specifically reading this week after Mr Toppit… mainly short reads including The Dog as mentioned. After a few heavier novels I want some faster fiction plus I had a readers block for a while and short reads are the best medicine for that. I might recah for another Capote maybe. I have also promised Novel Insights (who is on a world tour so wont be blogging till the summer now – selfish) I will read The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood for our mammoth Rogue Book Group and shes stared already!

Any short read recommendations out there? What are you all reading?

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Filed under Ali Smith, Book Spree, Charles Elton, David Ebershoff, Jake Arnott, Joseph O'Neill, Kate Grenville, Kerstin Ekman, Virginie Despentes

The 19th Wife – David Ebershoff

So I finally get round to reviewing the latest Richard and Judy Challenge read which has only come in almost 4 days late… whoops. The thing is The 19th Wife is huge and actually didn’t take me as long as I thought it would but at the same time wasn’t as quick to read as I had thought it might be. Has that confused you yet?

When I opened this novel I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I was thinking ‘wow a Mormon murder mystery how unusual’ and indeed it is an incredibly different novel. There are really two stories running through it. Firstly there is the tale of Jordan Scott a young man in his mid twenties who sees in the news that his mother has murdered his father. Jordan has seen neither of his parents for quite some time, in fact since his mother drove him into the desert and left him on the roadside ‘at God’s will’. Jordan’s parents are in fact part of the First of Latter Day Saints and his mother was one of many wives, in fact she was his 19th wife. Jordan decides that he will go back to his home town and try and help his mother meaning he has to look back at his past and face some of his demons.

The second story of the book is all about Ann Eliza Young, the 19th wife of Brigham Young the second Prophet of the Mormon Church, who in the late 1890’s leaves her village and sect and battles for freedom and an end to polygamy in the United States. Ann Eliza Young was in fact a real person, which I didn’t realise until I had read the authors notes at the end which everyone should do with this book, and to me this made her story all the more compelling. Ebershoff tells her tale both from his fictional reworking of her novel (which she actually did write) through Brigham Young’s diary, letters from her son and through Kelly Dee who is researching the life of Ann and the fact that the Mormon’s one time biggest enemy actually helped create the Mormon religion of now and made the break between them and the ‘Firsts’.

Now this sounds confusing and I am going to admit that in parts of the novel I was somewhat lost. Especially as thrown into Jordan’s narrative keep coming press cuttings and news reports from Ann Eliza’s tale and I thought they should have been in the other sections of the novel as they related to that. As an editor himself I am surprised that Ebershoff didn’t have them moved. I also thought in parts the book was a little too long and yet, I am going to sound very contrary, I wanted so much more of Ann’s tale as I found it fascinating. This is actually what was bizarre, at the start of the book I really wanted to read more of Jordan’s story and by the end I wasn’t so bothered about the Mormon murder and was much more interested in Ann.

I think this had to do with the character or Jordan and the way he spoke and the two people he became attached to. He kept speaking in slang, so for example instead of saying something was boring he would say ‘same old blog’ and while I understand he is meant to be a young man ‘of the now’ it annoyed me. When he then meets Tom I found their relationship far too convenient and also quite unrealistic. After going to the cinema once they seemed to be a married couple. Then one scene where they are on the true killers heels they spend several paragraphs checking if the dog’s have the right toys and blankets. I just found that all quite ridiculous. However what Jordan’s character was good for was his story of being gay and the effects that causes in the ‘Firsts’ sects interesting and heartbreaking especially when his mother leaves him. It also showed how in the 100+ years since polygamy was outlawed that it is still going on as it the rape and grooming of children in these sects which makes for quite difficult reading.

I think what Ebershoff has done over all is quite spectacular. I know I had a moan about some of the Jordan parts of the book but that part was still a very good murder mystery and really looked at how children are affected by polygamy. I think really this was two separate books in one which is quite some feat. What this book has done that no books have made me do for quite a while is research. I have been trawling the internet looking to find out more about Ann Eliza and Brigham Young, reading about all the incidents she depicts. I think her story really sang out of the book and in a way the book could have been solely about her and still have been great. I think in bringing in the second tale helped to show that in all this time nothing has hanged for the ‘Firsts’ and they are still a law unto themselves which is slightly shocking and worrying.

If your looking for a huge book that will really make you think about things and want an insight into the life of ‘Firsts’ not Mormons (as I have learnt thanks to Ebershoff there is quite a difference) then this is a fascinating, clever and extremely well written book. I really enjoyed it and have come away wanting to find out much more about a woman I didn’t even know existed, and thanks to the authors notes I now have a list of more books to find and read. As for another Ebershoff… would I read one? No question, I would and will be. I thought Ebershoff was a new author however this is his third, randomly I found a copy of his debut novel ‘The Danish Girl’ in one of my favourite charity shops for 50p. I will report back on it in due course.

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Filed under David Ebershoff, Review, Richard and Judy, Transworld Publishing