Monthly Archives: November 2011

13:55 Eastern Standard Time – Nick Alexander

I am sometimes really rubbish at reading books that people tell me to, or in the case of ‘13:55 Eastern Standard Time’ by Nick Alexander a book which a friend (the lovely Dom who shares a slight Mitford obsession with me) thrust their copy of it in my direction after going on and on about how wonderful it was and I didn’t read and had to give it back when I moved. I hadn’t thought about the book since if I am honest, oops. Yet when I was stuck in my slight reading funk, which I think I glossed over, I saw a copy in the library and thought ‘ooh why not’ and so took it home… and really enjoyed it.

BIGfib Books, paperback, 2007, fiction, 156 pages, from the library

I would describe ‘13:55 Eastern Standard Time’ as a series of snippets of peoples lives, basically very, very short stories like snapshots. All these characters interlink and yet they have no idea that they do, and sometimes you as the reader have to wait a little while for the connection to make sense. That’s not a criticism as actually I rather liked feeling clever when I joined the dots and started to reveal the fuller picture. There are some characters who return as these stories progress and in the main we follow Alice who as we meet her has moved to The Big Apple looking for a change, and a fresh start yet on the day we meet her she makes her first new possible friend and looses one of the dearest people to her. It’s the butterfly effect of these two incidents, actually sparked by one in China in the opening story ‘OK Sticker’, which we follow.

I am aware that probably doesn’t sell the book well enough but because every story is such a snap shot it would be hard for me to write too much in detail. I can say that we go to Germany, England, America, China, from the busiest cities to the wilderness of the outback, from chance meetings in Apple stores (Alexander’s description of the Apple store had me in hysterics, its very, very true to life) and gay sex bars and the perfect home life’s to the lonely existence of a bed-sit. In many ways you could say that not only does ’13:55 Eastern Standard Time’ covers life in the modern world. I am aware that sounds grand but these people are from all walks of life, all ages and sexualities, some poor some verging on celebrity, and at pivotal points in their lives both good and bad.  

I thoroughly enjoyed ‘13:55 Eastern Standard Time’ and read it rather greedily in one sitting. I wanted to know where the ripples of events and actions would lead me next and Alexander does very cleverly, and not in a clichéd way, make the whole collage of these lives and characters come full circle. I laughed, was rather shocked (sometimes if you peak into the private lives of people you need to remember you might learn or see more than you bargained for) and also incredibly moved in parts, in fact very like the characters created by Alexander in this book I went through the emotional spectrum and couldn’t put it down.

I am not sure I would have picked this book up without the recommendation (and eventual and rather tardy follow up of said recommendation) from my good friend, Dom so to him I owe huge thanks. What was the last book you were recommended by a friend you didn’t think would be your cup of tea and most certainly was? Has anyone read any of Nick Alexander’s other novels?

P.S I have used the Kindle edition cover of the book as its rather less garish, I didn’t read this on a Kindle.

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Filed under BIGfib Books, Nick Alexander, Review

Book Blog Based Banter

If you love books and book blogs then you might like to listen to the latest episode of The Readers, a podcast I do with Gav Reads, as this week we have a special guest in the form of the wonderful Kim of Reading Matters. We have a right good old chin wag between the three of us about “Books, Blogging & Culling” in Episode Nine, oh and what we’ve been reading, want to read and are excited about reading.

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If that wasn’t enough book blogging delight we also have the lovely Polly of Novel Insights and five of her favourite books too!

We will be featuring more book bloggers and the like in future episodes, so be you a blogger (or just a fan of blogs or books) and fancy contributing then let us know. Oh and, as ever, we would love your feedback. Hope you enjoy this Book Blog Based Banter!!

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My Cousin Rachel – Daphne Du Maurier

There are some books which you finish and feel a mixture of utter joy that you read something so wonderful, swiftly followed by that lurch in your chest when you realise that these books come few and far between and that you won’t have this exact experience ever again, even if you were to re-read the book from the start… something which you invariably want to do in these situations. This was the exact set of feelings that I had after I had read the very last line, and oh what a closer it was too (no spoilers coming though I promise), of ‘My Cousin Rachel’ by Daphne Du Maurier.

Virago Books, paperback, 1951, fiction, 304 pages, from my personal TBR

Philip Ashley is the narrator of ‘My Cousin Rachel’ he is a rather naïve young man who has grown up under the care of his elder cousin Ambrose, who owns a large estate, and has become like a mixture of father, brother and best friend. He is also being lined up as Ambrose’s heir and replacement as manager of the estate which often means when Ambrose has to go away to avoid the winters Philip is left in charge. On one such trip to Italy Ambrose writes to Philip that he has met ‘our cousin Rachel’ a woman who slowly looms larger in letters before Ambrose announces they have married, only soon after Ambrose suddenly dies after sending Philip some much more ominous correspondence and soon Rachel herself descends upon Philip’s life.

The story so far does sound a relatively simple one; however I have only really given you the gist of the very first parts of the book. As it goes on, and what sets it apart, the psychological intensity Du Maurier weaves through the pages along with the constant sense that she could pull the rug from under you at any given moment is incredible. Before Rachel even appears herself, around 80 pages in, she is quite the presence and the reader has quite possibly made up their mind about her through Philip’s utter jealously and then suspicion of this woman. Daphne then brings in a character quite unlike the one we would imagine. It is this game of Rachel being a misunderstood sweet if tragic innocent or magnificently manipulative calculating monster that makes you turn the page, are you right about her or utterly wrong?

“Since my journey to the villa she had become a monster, larger than life itself. Her eyes were as black as sloes, her features aquiline like Rainaldi’s, and she moved about those musty villa rooms sinuous and silent, like a snake.”

As with all of Daphne’s novels this is also a book about the human psyche generally, again this is often the case, the much darker sides of it. Jealousy is at the heart of this novel (I occasionally wondered about the nature of obsession too in terms of Philip and his attachment to Ambrose, or was there something other that dared not speak its name?), Philip makes all his initial opinions on Rachel on nothing more than that one pure emotion, after Ambrose’s death comes grief and anger and here too Rachel becomes the focal point for this. We also have to ask ourselves if Philip is an incredibly perceptive young man despite his almost closeted childhood, or is he possibly just as unreliable and possibly as innocently beguiling as Rachel herself? Something on every page makes you question yourself, it is quite incredible.

The atmosphere of the book is also utterly brilliant. In fact ‘My Cousin Rachel’ rather reminded me of the sensation stories of the late 1800’s, which I think is when this novel is meant to be set though we never officially know the time period. From the very opening sentence ‘They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days.’ we know we are in for a dark and brooding tale, and Du Maurier certainly doesn’t disappoint.

Many people claim this is like a sister novel to Du Maurier’s most famous work ‘Rebecca’ and I think to say that does do ‘My Cousin Rachel’ an injustice. Yes there is the gothic feel and uneasy atmosphere of both novels, they both feature large estates, we also have a mystery at the heart of each tale and a woman who takes over every page even though she may not be in the book that often. I grant the fact they do both also look at dark human traits but in very, very different ways and though ‘Rebecca’ will always be my favourite Du Maurier novel I am not sure that ‘My Cousin Rachel’ could be beaten for it’s sense of never knowing the truth, in fact I would say Daphne leaves much more to the reader in this novel than she did in ‘Rebecca’ and I loved that.

I had always been told to leave ‘My Cousin Rachel’ as one of the last of Daphne Du Maurier’s novels because it was one of the best. I would heartily recommend people read this as their first Du Maurier novel because once you have read it I can almost guarantee you will want to go off and discover more of her works, I really envy you joy you have ahead of you if you haven’t read this novel before. This will easily be a contender for my book of the year almost exactly fifty years after it was originally published.

I should actually thank Ruth (and I think Jeanette) for making me read ‘My Cousin Rachel’ much sooner than I had ever intended, this was going to be one of those ‘save it for a rainy day’ reads that would languish on my TBR forever. I had also not anticipated reading Daphne so soon after ‘Discovering Daphne’ with Polly. I am thrilled I read it and it’s another reminder that I need to stop putting off the books I really want to read and just get on and read them as I mentioned a week ago.

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Filed under Books of 2011, Daphne Du Maurier, Review, Virago Books

Addiction to an Author…

I mentioned earlier in the week that I shared a few pots of tea and then glasses of wine with my book loving (and book writing) friend Emma. We had a big chat about lots of literary based bits and bobs, one subject was funny books which I have already mentioned, and one of the things Emma was doing which I was quite jealous of was binge reading. She was reading all the Glen Duncan novels that she could get her mitts on after loving ‘The Last Werewolf’. This is not something I am often tempted to do and then don’t. I have started to ponder why on earth not?

I thought this even more when I opened a parcel that the postman was weighed down by, which both matched my recent desire for some Mitford Mania and also matched this train of thought marvellously, the parcel contained ‘The Penguin Complete Novels of Nancy Mitford’

This was a wonderful surprise and I noted, and giggled at the fact, I almost instantly thought ‘oh, well this will last me a good few years’ rather than ‘wow, that’s a selection that could give me weeks of my favourite author endlessly’.

It could be the fact that I fear that once I have read all an authors work I will be bereft, especially those authors I love who are sadly deceased, or it could be the fact that I am constantly aware that there are so many authors and so many new books out in the world to discover. It is probably a mix of the two. I am now wondering though if when I next pick up a book by an author I love I should, if the mood takes me, promptly read the next one and not think about it and just follow the whim instead.

Do any of you read a whole authors works in a binge? Do you sometimes read one or two by your favourite author in one go or do you do the opposite and always make sure you slip in a favourite author now and again so you always know there will be a book you’ll most likely love on the horizon? I would be really interested to know, other people’s reading habits really do fascinate me.

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Browsing Bookshops…

I don’t know about you, but sometimes just browsing around a book store for a while (ok, maybe an hour or two) can be one of the best things to do when you are having any reading issues, or if you just want to calm yourself. I did this recently when my head was in a spin and it was just what I needed, a chance to gage where my ‘reading head’ is and let my eyes and mind wander over the spins.

As I went from A – Z, I saw authors I had been recommended only days before (Jenn Ashworth), authors that I had heard kerfuffle about and wanted to try (Leo Benedictus), authors I have started a book of recently and then not finished though I don’t know why (Jasper Fforde), authors I ‘really should have read’ but still ‘really haven’t’ but will honest (William Golding), authors I had never heard of but after the spine catching my eye, a read of the blurb and flick through I really fancy reading (Tama Janowitz), authors whose books have impacted your life (Harper Lee), authors who remind you of the excitement and reading possibilities in translation you haven’t as yet uncovered (Per Petterson), authors you seem to be hearing about all the time at the moment and have decided you simply must read them (Owen Sheers) and authors whose debut novels blew you away and you wish they would hurry up and write another one (Kathleen Winter).

As you wander the shelves, rather than be intimidated by the vast number of books you might not get to read, there is a certain joy in the books you spot be they the ones you love or the ones you might love in the future. Oh how a browse can be such bliss.

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Random Savidgeness

Finding Books Funny…

Nothing quite beats sitting down with a book loving friend in the flesh over a pot of tea/glass of wine or two does it? It is also great for catching up over what you have both been reading and passing on great reads. It also sometimes throws up heated debate, say about Jennifer Egan’s ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad’, and some lively discussion which fires your brain about all things bookish. This is exactly what happened when I spent several hours with my lovely friend Emma yesterday and the first of two things we talked about which made me internally note ‘that would make a good blog post’ was funny novels. I have always struggled with comic novels and yet would like to read some as I do like a laugh. Yet we were both really pushed to think of that many novels that have made us laugh out loud.

I do pointedly say novels because I have noticed as Christmas draws near it’s that time of year when all the comedians decide it is really time to share their life story and generally, in my humble opinion, they are rubbish. The only good comedian memoirs I can think of are Alan Carr’s ‘Look Who It Is’ and Dawn French’s ‘Dear Fatty’, the latter was funny but also very moving.  

Dawn French was actually one of the first names I thought of, and her novel ‘A Tiny Bit Marvellous’, when I was thinking of contemporary writers who might be very funny, but I wouldn’t know as I haven’t read it (I should here apologise to my mother who bought me this last Christmas) as yet. I then thought about Stephen Fry and pondered if maybe his novels would be funny? Not memoirs, the fictional novels. Julie Walter’s novel didn’t sound like it was going to be funny, was it? Has anyone read them? Emma was struggling too, she mentioned Jon Niven and we both discussed Sue Townsend (though we also said Adrian Mole etc were funnier when we were younger) but then we were a little lost.

Even with classic funny novels I struggled, I could only think of three. Emma said Charles Dickens, and then told me to ‘get out this house’ when I shamefully admitted I have yet to read him. Dickens… funny… really? Anyway the first I thought of was ‘The Loved One’ by Evelyn Waugh and the second and third were ‘The Pursuit of Love’ and ‘Love in a Cold Climate’ both by Nancy Mitford. I have heard Stella Gibbons is very funny, ‘Cold Comfort Farm’ has been on my TBR for years, I really must get round to it… I must.

  

The thing is though that humour is subjective isn’t it. I like my humour dark in the main, hence the Waugh novel which is set in a funeral home and cemetery is right up my street, and also that dry observational wit which can leave me in stitches as Mitford does. I don’t like slapstick and I am not that fussed by pastiche. It is tricky isn’t it and yet quite unlike Zoe Williams who believes in a time of worry/crisis we should read nonfiction (you can hear me and Gavin discuss this article on the latest episode of The Readers); I think I might quite like the odd hilarious read instead.

So I thought I would throw this out to all of you and see if you could help. Have any novels by comedians been as funny as you hoped? Which books have made you laugh out loud be they modern or classic and why? Recommendations are highly welcomed.

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Americus – MK Reed & Jonathan Hill

I like books about books and books about reading. It was this that drew me to a copy of the graphic novel ‘Americus’ written by MK Reed and illustrated by Jonathan Hill. It was a book I hadn’t heard of and it was only by chance that I spotted it in the library and swiftly borrowed it and took it home. I seem to be having a little graphic novel phase at the moment, if you don’t tend to like graphic novels then still bear this one in mind as it does have a very bookish twist.

First Second Books, paperback, 2011, graphic novel, 2151 pages, from the library

‘Americus’ is a small town in America, where we find Neil and his friend  Danny getting very excited about the latest in the series of “The Chronicles of Apathea Ravenchilde” which has caused a storm in the reading world, and not just with the adults as the local librarian is also desperate for the kids to read the book so she can talk to them all about it.

Neil and Danny are bookworms and as we follow their daily routine at school we realise this is a deeply ‘uncool’ thing to be known for, especially as they are also about to embark on going to High School. Only after Danny’s mother catches him reading the latest ‘Apathea’ book, which she believes is promoting witchcraft and Satanism in children she wants is banned leading to a show down, an announcement from Danny which shatters her life further and his being sent to a Military School and his bitter mother on a crusade to ban all ‘Apathea’ books in the library.

 

If you think I have given too much away I haven’t, I promise. This book has so much more than the initial stories that greet us. It reminded me of some of the controversy that has followed the publications of Harry Potter and Twilight which have both had parents trying to ban them for just the reason’s Danny’s mother does. It also looks at the struggles we all have had, and that some of our children might have, as you go through those teenage years and the transition to the big scary school. It is also a tale of friendship but most importantly it is a tale about books and why they are so important.

I should have fallen in love with it just for that, and I did like it a lot, yet there were a couple of small quibbles I had with it. The first was the ending, it just seemed to fizzle out and after the story had been building so much there was a lot of drama and then suddenly ‘oh, it’s the end’. My second quibble was the interception of an illustrated version of “The Chronicles of Apathea Ravenchilde”, which while I thought showed how it fired these two young readers imaginations I didn’t really need quite so much of it in the book, especially as we never got the full story or idea of what the concept of “The Chronicles of Apathea Ravenchilde” was. 

 

I did enjoy ‘Americus’ though and I’m glad I pulled it off the library shelves on a whim. In fact borrowing this book from the library seems most apt given the story. It reminded me of a graphic novel version of ‘The Borrower’ by Rebecca Makkai (though the latter has etched itself on my brain and resonated with me a lot more) and is worth a read if you fancy a book about books or should you fancy dipping your toes into graphic novels.

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Filed under Books About Books, First Second Books, Graphic Novels, Jonathan Hill, MK Reed, Review