Monthly Archives: January 2011

The Murders in the Rue Morgue – Edgar Allan Poe

I ummed and ahhed about whether I should pop my thoughts on ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ by Edgar Allan Poe up on the blog to be honest as I am not normally a fan of more, erm, negative reviews. However firstly it’s a new year and maybe time for new rules, but also as long as I justify it (even if people respectfully disagree with me) why not have the occasional negative review on Savidge Reads, I hope it could give you all a fuller picture of what I like and why. So here goes, time for me to take a deep breath and have a bit of a vent…

To say that I was disappointed or underwhelmed by ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ by Edgar Allan Poe would be some what of an understatement, but stay with me as I can see why it should be read. I have always wanted to get my mitts on a copy of Edgar Allan Poe’s tales of Dupin, who is pretty much the first detective in fiction (though I am sure there are others), because I had heard that it is these tales that gave inspiration to the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie who are seen as the great masters of detective fiction in modern times, and who also happen to be two of my favourite authors. I therefore thought that I was going to love this collection.

The collection starts with the title story. From reading the first page or two I found myself thinking ‘this is going to be hard work’ as a whole three paragraph free pages about analysis of people and I think (and I say that because I was so confused, but simply could not force myself to read it again) Dupin who is the great detective that we come to learn so much more about through his accidental side kick (you can see it almost exactly retold in ‘A Study in Scarlet’ the first Holmes novel), as the pages then go on finally we get to the murder. In all of the tales of Dupin that deal with murder, for some don’t, all I can say is that nothing quite competes with the title story which is a shame as it’s the first one so everything sort of goes downhill from there.

I did find the ‘The Mystery of Marie Roget’ quite interesting as it is based on a true tale, so whilst its not as far fetched as the tale before it insightful as to how people looked at murder in the 1840’s, or sort of didn’t in a way. That brings me to the subject of when the book was written because as I mentioned this collection is seen as the start of the genre of detective fiction, which is why I was so annoyed that it read like both an instruction manual for detection and also like a deconstruction of the whole genre. In fact because so much I have read is based on this book it started to read like a lit crit book of this whole subject and I just couldn’t work with it.

You might be sat there thinking ‘but why is he not telling me about the stories in this collections. Well in truth it’s because there aren’t many. It’s much more about showing how clever Dupin, and therefore Allan Poe, is at solving a mystery and therefore things like character traits, back stories and the very atmosphere of Paris falls by the wayside and so sadly I felt disappointed in every tale. It seemed to me that ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ sadly failed for me because of its credentials. It might be the first of a genre which is now huge and I respect it for that, the thing is people read it then built on it and made something better. I’d recommend this for anyone studying the genre, not for those who want fantastic mysteries, stick to Sherlock if that’s the case but do remember who inspired those tales. 4/10

You might all think I am an imbecile (I am sure in a polite way) for having written this. I do value the novel but I think I would rather have read about it in a section of Kate Summerscale’s rather wonderful ‘The Suspicions of Mr Whicher’ or an essay about it rather than fictions which read like rather patronising essays and a how-to-write crime guide. Please tell me that his ghost stories aren’t like this!

I got this book from the local library.

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Filed under Edgar Allan Poe, Review, Short Stories, Vintage Books, Vintage Classics

A New TV Book Show…

A very quick post between lots of pre-scheduled posts (which are proving invaluable between doctors appointments, hospital visits and generally feeling rather rubbish) as I wanted to share a link with you that made me feel very happy when reading the paper earlier today as there is a new TV show coming soon which is apparently rather like the wonderful ‘Desert Island Discs’… but with books!

‘My Life in Books’ will be on BBC2 and will be hosted by Anne Robinson who will interview the likes of Deborah Devonshire, PD James etc on which five books have proved the most influential, loved or both in their lives, and it will be DAILY! It’s also the start of a year of programming devoted to the written word. Have a look at the link below for further details…

http://www.guardian.co.uk/tv-and-radio/2011/jan/23/anne-robinson-bbc2-books

I have to say after having just watched The TV Book Show/Club/Thing barely managing to discuss Andrea Levy’s ‘The Long Song’ (which I loved) and being really rather let down by it all I couldn’t be more pleased that this show, and hopefully many more are coming… Now who do I send a pitch to for a book show I have been thinking about? Can you tell I am a little over excited about this?

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Filed under Book Thoughts

Truth or Fiction – Jennifer Johnston

I don’t know about all of you but I do think Sundays should be quite a restful day, maybe lots of reading in bed and pottering around? So instead of doing my book thoughts in order of what I have read, which I tend to do but might go out the window as at the moment I am reading some proofs for later in the year as well as dipping into Deborah Devonshire’s memoirs, I would discuss ‘Truth or Fiction’ by Jennifer Johnston as it could be an ideal Sunday read being initially quite gentle and easily read in a long morning in bed. And yes, I did say it’s initially a gentle read.

‘Truth or Fiction’ is really a novel that looks into just what the difference is between people’s own truths and their own fictions. Caroline Wallace is a journalist in her forties who thinks she is fairly happy in her living with her partner Herbert, an author, living in Notting Hill. That is until Herbert proposes, a scene which actually made me laugh out loud, and it brings all the things that have been bubbling under the surface of Catherine’s mind to the fore. Around the same time her editor decides to send her to Dublin to meet and interview the rather reclusive ageing author Desmond Fitzmaurice whose works seem to have been forgotten and are deserving of resurgence.

You might think ‘oh this is obvious Catherine is going to fall for Desmond and that’ll be that’ which I might possibly have thought was coming only having read Jennifer Johnston before (thanks to Kimbofo who is a Johnston connoisseur and chose ‘The Illusionist’ for the NTTVBG last year) and knowing that she is far to clever for that, and indeed far too deceptive too as you have the feeling something darker is set to come. As we read on Catherine gets more and more entangled in Desmond’s life from his current wife, ex-wife and the one that got away, to his relationships with his children and to something in his past he did and cannot quite get over.

This is where I come into some slight conflict with the book however. Whilst I liked the way Desmond was quite quirky, the fact there was more to him than met the eye and the fact that Johnston used him to look at the feelings behind old age and the modern family with divorces and estranged children. I didn’t ever feel like I got to grips with the depths of the other characters, his first wife Pamela being a slight stereotype of the woman who needed to be free, and the same with the current wife Anna being the woman who became more and more embittered as she aged. Catherine herself was another character that I never quite formed fully in my mind, but maybe that was all me?

I thought the first three quarters of the book were rather brilliant in that observational writing style where little happens but much is said and passed on to the reader, a style I am quite a fan of and always impressed by any author that can do it so well and Johnston certainly can. Yet suddenly it seemed Johnston went from a fifth gear into first and so much happened within a few pages, which of course I won’t give away, that I was thrown before suddenly it was the final page and that was that. I don’t believe an author has to tie everything up nicely; in fact I really like authors who leave the reader to do some work themselves, here however I felt a few strands had simply been dumped and it bothered me a little especially as I was left wondering what in the last 152 pages had been fiction and had been truth. Maybe though that is the idea? 7/10

It sounds a little bit like I am moaning about this book reading it back and honestly I am not. Though I came away wanting a longer book and wanting to understand more of the peripheral characters (so that I could make sense of the big character of Desmond at the forefront of it all) I did come away still wanting to read much more Johnston. I really like her prose; Johnston’s writing has an honesty, humour and darkness to it which works for me. The fact Johnston trusts you to, and possibly thinks you should, work at the novel is a quality I admire and I will definitely be picking up another of her books in due course.  

I wonder if my surprised enjoyment of ‘The Illusionist’ and its becoming such a hit with me created a certain level of expectation in this one to some degree. Have you ever had that experience where you have read and loved an author’s book and then read another one, liked it a lot, but expected more? Has anyone got any suggestions of where to turn for another Jennifer Johnston novel?

I got this book from the library where they seem to do a good line in Jennifer Johnston, I shall have to get another!

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Filed under Headline Review, Jennifer Johnston, Review

Young Adult, Teen & Crossover Fiction…

I think it’s quite well documented here on Savidge Reads that I have a few little glitches in my personal reading taste; the last one I mentioned was of course audio books. Non-Fiction used to be a real issue, yet in the last year I really worked at it and by the end of the year quite a few of the books I really loved were that very genre. The next genre or category on my hit list is Young Adult Fiction… or Teen Fiction… or Crossover Fiction whichever one you want to call it. I might have just come up with a new way of getting my head around it, but I will need your suggestions so do read on and recommend.

I have been talking this who conundrum over with The Bookboy lately, he did after all suggest I read ‘Just William’ and lend me it. He of course is coming up to the teen market age (he’s 12), though having said that he has just recently finished ‘Wuthering Heights’ a book I didn’t read until fairly recently, and reads widely. The ‘Harry Potter’ novels are the only books that we have both read, and so we came up with an idea. As well as me doing the blog as normal and him doing his collective posts every now and again, wouldn’t it be interesting if we both read the same book and reported back together?

Now of course we have the issue of which titles should we head for? As we all know this is a huge, huge market…

…And one which neither of us feels we fully know enough to pick a prime title or three from to try out. It needs to be something new to both of us, though he is itching to read ‘The Graveyard Book’ and I did mention he read the first three Twilight books and then we could do ‘Breaking Dawn’ but I think that’s too old at the moment for him, plus he gave a very outward groan. We know there are some perfect books out there for us both to get our teeth into. I can almost hear you all screaming ‘The Hunger Games’ before I have even asked for suggestions, its one I think we would consider, but what else is there out there?

So which fairly recent ‘young adult/teen/crossover’ novels would you recommend? What is it about the genre that you love, or indeed that you don’t? Do you think a joint blog from me and The Bookboy every now and again would work?

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Blaming – Elizabeth Taylor

I have been told by many a friend and reader of this blog that I ‘simply must read Elizabeth Taylor’. You can call me slow on the uptake but until I had done some research the only Elizabeth Taylor that I knew of was the actress. It happened that in the library the other week they had a lovely old copy of ‘Blaming’ by Elizabeth Taylor as they were ‘digging up forgotten gems from the basement’. I liked the cover, loved the fact no one had taken it out for about a decade and thinking of all the recommendations I promptly picked it up.

Not having previously read any Elizabeth Taylor novels before I didn’t really know what to expect from ‘Blaming’ if I am honest, maybe something a little twee.  The story opens in Istanbul where Amy and Nick are taking a holiday after his recovering of an illness, what it is we are never quite sure. Here they meet the American Martha, a novelist which they don’t know initially, who is travelling alone. Slowly but surely the three start to become acquainted and before they know it, or have even really consented to it, Amy and Nick find they are sharing a holiday with someone who was until recently a stranger.

“Nick was reading her book about Byzantine art. On the flyleaf was written ‘Dear Martha, I’ll miss you. Love, Simon.’ He and Amy had discussed this, for they couldn’t place Martha, though were less occupied with her than she with them. The three of them, knowing nothing of one another, were cast together by their language and nothing else.”

As the trip continues tragedy strikes, this could be a spoiler so you might want to stop reading or skip this paragraph though it does tell you on the blurb and happens early in the novel, when Nick dies in the night. Amy is left widowed and stranded alone in a foreign country with no one to help her or comfort her than Martha who almost relishes the role especially as an observer. Once back in England Martha tries to get into Amy’s life once more, and with reluctance though as an escape from her rather irritating family (both to the reader and Amy) slowly but surely she allows this friendship to blossom even though she doesn’t want it too and the two are drawn in to each others lives through a mixture of grief, guilt and blame.

I won’t say anymore about the plot as it’s a short book and I would recommend that you gave it a whirl yourself. Taylor never quite puts us into the heads of any of the characters, including Amy’s wonderful cook/parlour man Ernie who provides some brilliant and occasionally needed light relief when he appears on the page, yet she shows us just enough of their motives to see we need to read more and that not everything might be quite as it seems.

‘Blaming’ was actually Elizabeth Taylor’s last novel, in fact having done some research it was published posthumously in 1976 a year after her death. Her writing is beautiful yet sparse, no words are used that needn’t be. Initially though there doesn’t appear to be a huge plot there is so much going on. We observe people and what they do and how they react to circumstances learning how there is much more to every action, and indeed every page, than meets the eye.  along the lines of Jennifer Johnston and Anita Brookner, whose books I have enjoyed as much, Taylor is an author who watches the world and then writes about it with a subtly and emotion that seems to capture the human condition. 8.5/10

Now that I have read Taylor I think I am going to have to delve into her back catalogue for many more of her novels, so do recommend more if you have read her. I am also itching to read another Brookner or Johnston. Which other authors have you read where subtly wins over initial storylines? Is the observational a form of fiction you enjoy?

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Filed under Elizabeth Taylor, Review, Virago Books

Presumptions, Assumptions & Hype

Book group this week has really got me thinking. You see when I started the latest choice ‘Water For Elephants’ my expectations for the novel were rather low, and so when I had finished it and really enjoyed it I was left pleasantly surprised. It showed me once again that you can’t simply judge a book by its blurb or latest cover, or rather than judging you simply can’t make assumptions or presumptions. I always get presumptions and assumptions mixed up which is slightly annoying as bookish presumptions and assumptions are what today’s post/ramble of mine is all about.

It interested me that out of the rest of the book group the people who knew nothing of it, bought it off the internet and started reading it pronto simply because it was the book group choice got a lot more out of it than those who had read the blurb, got quite excited about the premise and then read on. In fact people who had got really excited about it prior the meeting seemed to think they had been let down in some way. This could of course simply be sod’s law, or the fact that the book just wasn’t quite for them, but it brought up the question yet again of book hype and how it can affect a read for you.  

I brought up the fact that I had personally bought the book ages ago because there was a whirl of hype about it on its release in the US, I had then promptly not read it. I myself am prone to getting swept up in the excitement when a book seems to explode in the media by the tag ‘New York Times Bestseller’ (or any other newspaper) and endless review or of course all over the blogosphere. I would find myself vicariously buying several books in one shopping swoop because I had heard lots of good reviews, and then go off the idea of all of them (probably swept up by another set of rave reviews of another book) and hence end up with the rather large TBR that I now have – I will get through it one day. Yet last year when I put myself on a book buying ban for 12 months I was amazed that the books I heard lots about and instantly wanted would then fade from my mind a few weeks later. I think only four or five are still on my ‘most wanted’ list. I haven’t been out and binge bought those either.

So that showed me up for my ability to be completely bowled over by media which thankfully I think one other book group member agreed would make them consider reading a book too. The other hype that interests me though is the one we do ourselves. It could be because the blurb simply sounds ‘so you’, the fact you have loved the author before, the quotes on the cover, the cover itself (and in this case most people had a cover they actually said made them think ‘Water For Elephants’ wasn’t for them because it looked rather chick-lit like, they aren’t a snobby bunch, and then were again pleasantly surprised), the fact the premise just really appeals, the list can go on and on. Its something I find interesting and so thought would ask you all about it.

How can we stop ourselves from falling for the hype in newspapers and our favourite blogs? Why is it that we hype certain books up so much in our own heads and if we do it extensively can a book ever really live up to the impression we have made of it without even turning a page? Do you think its something we are just programmed to do? Have there been books you’ve been desperate to read, then not bought and eventually not been bothered about? Which books have you hyped up yourself and then been disappointed by and which ones have you had the reverse experience with? Any other thoughts? Oh and who can tell me the difference between assumptions and presumptions?

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Water For Elephants – Sara Gruen

I bought a copy of ‘Water For Elephants’ a few years ago after having heard lots of acclaim for it all over the place on its initial release and not really having taken its premise in. The idea of a book combining the circus (I don’t care for clowns) and the Great Depression (which I knew nothing about other than maybe it was… well… depressing) didn’t really seem to be my thing and so sadly it was left languishing on the TBR. So when it was chosen as the next book group choice I was filled with a mixture of ‘oh finally I get to give it a whirl’ and ‘oh dear this probably isn’t going to work for me is it’. Sometimes though great successes come from low expectations…

Sara Gruen can certainly describe something vividly if ‘Water For Elephants’ is anything to go by. I don’t think I have read a book that has captured me quite so much in the world it creates for quite some time. In this case, through the eyes of protagonist and narrator Jacob Jankowski after the death of his parents, loss of his inheritance due to the financial climate and with nowhere else to turn, we are thrown into the world of the 1930’s circus and ‘Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth’. Here he joins a world of underdogs, freaks, misfits and the beautiful ‘star of the show’ Marlena who is married to the tyrannical and rather unhinged animal trainer August. Gruen slowly sets up a love triangle which you have an inkling from the prologue could end in disaster.

It might sound rather like a typical love story and indeed could be if it weren’t for the setting, animals and most effective interspersed chapters where we find Jacob narrating from an old people’s home in his nineties. This added a certain something to the novel as we see how a man who lived a rather adventurous life, as we come to learn through his memories of the circus, and yet has now been pretty much dumped in a home where no one knows his past and no one really cares, with the exception of a rather delightful nurse called Rosemary. This to me actually made the whole novel all the better, and could have been a novel in of its own in many ways, as it added a rather bittersweet note to the book and gave you pause between the thrills and spills of his life in the 1930s.

Clearly Gruen had done a huge amount of research for this book, as explained by the authors note at the end, and the circus itself was incredibly vivid both in its glamorous ‘working’ glory and the rather dark and horrendous ‘behind the scenes’ aspects. Yet in some ways this occasionally was at the expense of some of the characters and some of the story. The plot is incredibly tight and keeps you turning the pages but then some strands suddenly end, or characters suddenly vanish with no real explanation and it slightly broke the spell Gruen so wonderfully weaved because I found myself thinking ‘oh so so-and-so has gone, maybe Gruen didn’t need them anymore’. Also despite Jacob being so wonderfully written characters like Marlena, August and Walter the Clown seemed more two dimensional. I came away having being thoroughly entertained but also left wanting to know why August was such a psychopath, why Marlena allowed herself to be in the position she was and how Walter ended up this bitter dwarf who then played clown. But then really I think the circus and Rosie the Elephant, who I loved, were maybe meant to be the secret stars of this book.

That said ‘Water For Elephants’ is a truly cracking read. I was occasionally frustrated I couldn’t simply sit and read it all in one go because the world Gruen created I really wanted to be a part of and stay in. It was a book I would simply take to read a few paragraphs of whilst boiling the kettle or walking down the stairs (dangerous) and was constantly in my hands whenever I had the chance.

Pages were quickly turned, I was often shocked at the way the people and animals were treated, two themes which Gruen explores, and I liked the fact that though the Great Depression was there in the pages it loomed darkly in the background not taking over the whole book yet letting its presence be very much known. Again this isn’t the most perfect book I have come across but its one I thoroughly enjoyed and one that I think will stick with me for the atmosphere Gruen created and the sense of having actually been right there with her characters and almost lived it all myself. 8.5/10

I bought this novel from a chairty shop a couple of years ago, it was originally bought in ‘Manali Bookshop, Anjuna, Goa’ apparently according to the sticker on the back, isn’t it lovely its travelled like that?

I had thought I might try and do something a tiny bit different with my thoughts on ‘Water For Elephants’, I was going to do a fair whack about what I thought and then I would do a smaller portion about at the group thought, however it seemed that my thoughts (as I wrote the actual main part of the post before I went) were pretty much along the same lines as everyone else’s both in the pro’s and con’s camp. We did all agree that we much preferred the old ‘unisex’ cover to the rather more ‘chick lit’ cover, these are important things after all.

I am finding it really interesting that so far in 2011 with this and with Brighton Rock’ it’s the books that are making me think about reading and writing that seem to be sticking with me the most so far over the ones I out and out love. I wonder if this is a trend that will continue.

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Filed under Hodder & Stoughton, Review, Sara Gruen