Tag Archives: Books of 2009

Little Boy Lost – Marghanita Laski

If there is a Persephone Classic that I think I have heard the most about it of course would be Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (which I still haven’t read though I will) because of the film. However if I think in blogging terms then the title I think I have heard the most about would have to be Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski. Over the last year or so I have seen wonderful reviews about it and how the last line, so don’t read that line first, will reduce you to a tearful wreck. Intrigued I had to give this book a go, would it be a case of so much hype it didn’t live up to what people said?

Little Boy Lost is the tale of Hilary Wainwright’s search for his son who has been lost in France. How could a child be lost in the wilderness like that, well it is France in the time of the War when the boy goes missing, so actually even easier than you would think and with his mother killed by the Gestapo a young boy might want to be lost or indeed purposefully lost. Hilary has indeed only seen his son once and that was when his baby boy was a day old, since then he has assumed that the boy is being looked after in France until he can go and collect him. On a Christmas night he finds out that this isn’t the case and so must, once the war is over, go and find his son where he may be.

This isn’t just the tale of a man looking for his lost child though. Through the novel Laski looks at what war can do to families, the politics and extremists behind war and the devastation it leaves behind once the battle is done. Not only in the cities like Paris but also, as the journey takes Hilary, in the countryside and surrounding area’s. It is also the tale of a man so used to pain and loss that he is cold to the world and in some ways this tale of a man finding himself and questioning if he can ever love again. It also looks, sometimes in quite a sickening and disturbing way at just what happened to children in the war and the plight of those that survived.

Now my thoughts so far make the book sound bleak and depressing and in some ways it is quite a solemn tale. I can’t of course say if this book has a happy ending or not, that is for you to get the book and find out. It is a very emotive book that will have you feeling quite bleak and yet you never stop reading, well I didn’t, as you so want to know just what happened to Hilary’s boy. Did it make me cry, not quite, though it put me through the emotional ringer and no mistake. It also made me angry, unless you have read the book I can’t really say why (helpful that) but there is a point where Hilary has to make a decision and I was almost screaming at the pages for him to do what I thought was right and a book hasn’t made me feel like that in some time. That’s a good thing in case you were wondering.

I thought Laski’s writing was wonderful, emotive, atmospheric you name it she could probably write it and I definitely want to read much more of her work. It’s a book that needs to be read by people as it hammers into your mind the effects of war, whilst also being an emotional tale anyway, and was doing so way before the wondrous books like The Book Thief or The Boy in the Stripped Pyjama’s did, unlike the latter though it didn’t make me cry at the end nor the last lines hit my as hard, I think that was partly because I had read in advance it should. I thought it was an amazing book though and most definitely a classic novel that should never be forgotten or lost.

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Filed under Books of 2009, Marghanita Laski, Persephone Books, Review

Lady Into Fox – David Garnett

I pulled this book down from a random shelf in a great library binge. Partly because of the intriguing ‘Lady Into Fox’ title and then I saw the cover and fell in love with it. I have always been a bit fascinated by foxes am not sure why. Then I read the quote on the back “The bride was in her twenty-third year. She was small, with remarkably small hands and feet. It is perhaps worth noting there was nothing at all foxy or vixenish in her appearance” I knew this was a book I had to read. I have also heard various rave reviews of Hesperus Press and have been meaning to try out a book or two of theirs.

The lady mentioned in the title of David Garnett’s novella ‘Lady Into Fox’ is Silvia Tebricks or as she was before she was married, Silvia Fox. Though the surname it seems is a coincidence as becoming a fox doesn’t seem to actually run in the family looking back through its history as the author, and also narrator, tells us. No indeed, it appears that Silvia Tebrick’s becoming a fox one day is just one of life’s great puzzles.

The event itself happens in the opening pages of the novella and what happens when ones wife suddenly becomes a ginger four legged creature. For really though the awful thing has actually happened to Silvia it is Richard who we really follow in the novella as his wife not only changes physically but also characteristically. At first Silvia continues to happily sit at the table and play bridge dressed in one of her jackets. She is also happy to follow him round the house and point out, though she can’t speak for she is a fox now, where he is going wrong and loves nothing more than snoozing on the bed or an armchair not going out. Nature soon takes over and how does one deal with a wife who has become a fox and becomes as cunning as one too with the natural desire to escape?

David Garnett takes us through Richard’s life as he come to terms with not the loss of his wife but the change in his wife, how villagers talk, how he copes as she becomes wilder and wilder and its fascinating. I read through the book in one sitting, I couldn’t put it down and was laughing along and then in parts wanting to cry as Richard copes with what life has oddly thrown at him. It’s in parts very funny and yet in parts quite heartbreaking and tells the tale of what lengths people will go to for the ones they love.

I had never heard of this book let alone the author until I saw it in the library. Thanks to a great introduction I found out David Garnett was one of The Bloomsbury Group and also Virginia Woolf’s nephew in law. I then found, oddly through a review on a certain bookish website that Simon of Stuck in a Book has read this and put it in his top 50 books you may not have heard about and should (a list which every single book on which I may have to track down)… and rightly so.

I am definitely going to try more books from Hesperus Press especially if they are all as good as this one, what ones should I try next, am sure some of you will have read one or two… or ten??!! I am also definitely going to try more David Garnett and am itching to read Aspects of Love which Lloyd Webber based his musical on. If an author can make what could be an absurd tale such a touching and thoughtful modern adult fairytale I need to read much more of their work.

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Filed under Books of 2009, David Garnett, Hesperus Press, Review

UFO in Her Eyes – Xiaolu Guo

I have been a big fan of Xiaolu Guo ever since I first read ‘A Concise Chinese English Dictionary for Lovers’ back in the early days of book blogging. I fell in love with the heroine and her thoughts on the UK from a Chinese girl who has never travelled. This was then repeated when I read ’20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth’, actually Guo’s first book rewritten, and I fell in love with the heroine as she takes us through Beijing and the world of the movie and film industry. This latest book had passed me buy until I saw it in the library.

UFO in Her Eyes is another look at life in the countryside of China and though set in the not to distant future of 2012 it seems to look at Guo thoughts on the way China is changing and what happens to the small villages where over 700 million peasants live and work. This isn’t a dull or lecturing book, but mainly it’s told with a rye knowing smile. It’s not a light book though and has a statement and looks at the situation and is in part saddening and thought provoking too.

Kwok Yun is a peasant living on the edges of Silver Hill Village when one day she witnesses a flying disc in the sky “a UFThing” she then finds a foreignerin the rice fields and shadows of the craft with blue eyes and yellow hair in a field who she looks after. Once these things are discovered by the villagers and then Chinese intelligence from Beijing armed with questions who interrogate the town. Kwok slowly becomes an instant celebrity and the town becomes famous. Soon what was once a small peasant village becomes a tourist attraction gaining chains of shops, a leisure centre (on top of a peasants fields without asking) and a huge statue in honour of the UFO and all of the villagers lives are changed though not for the better as you might think. 

Once again Guo has created a wonderful female lead in Kwok, even if everyone really thinks she is a man. Though we don’t see too much of Kwok all in all as we meet a host of villagers who share the limelight. Guo has written some brilliant bad tempered and comical villagers such as the noodle man who only cooks you what he wants you to eat, the Butcher who starts to relive his days as a Parasite Eradication Hero and the leader of the town Chief Chang who wants to ‘demolish the weak demolish the rotten’.

Like with her books before it’s the bluntness and honesty that comes through Guo’s writing that I love, she doesn’t hold back is witty and says things like she sees them. I also love how with Guo’s work she uses different mediums for fiction. In ‘A Concise Chinese English Dictionary’ it was diary entries and letters. In ’20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth’ pictures are interspersed along with occasional pieces of script dialogue. In this case, as I briefly mentioned before, we have files, emails, interviews, meeting notes from village gatherings and plans of the future city. Yet still without giving you just straightforward prose every crazy villager comes to life as do some of their motives and how dictators are born.

 I thought this book was marvellous and Guo is certainly becoming one of my favourite authors. I am now very excited about ‘Lovers in the Age of Indifference’ which is out in January and am expecting to be another gem. I haven noticed I haven’t read any Chinese or Japanese literature for a while and am wondering where and who to head to next. Where indeed?

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Filed under Books of 2009, Chatto & Windus, Random House Publishing, Review, Xiaolu Guo

The Shuttle – Frances Hodgson Burnett

One thing I love about the library is that you can take out books that you would like to read but might not really buy. The one thing that can be a problem is you take out so many that you forget to read them. This happened with me last week when an email arrived with the word ‘overdue’ in the title. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem I would renew the books and pay the fine, no probs. Someone though, quite selfishly ha, had already reserved one of my books on loan ‘The Shuttle’ by Frances Hodgson Burnett so I had less than 24 hours to read it. Fortunately I am having a month off and so I could, doubly fortunate as the next night was book group and I hadn’t read a page of 1984 yet.

The Shuttle is one of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s adult fiction books. I should admit here I haven’t read any of her children’s titles either. I had picked it up purely as it was a Persephone novel and I have wanted to read as many as I can get my hands on frankly. Reading the synopsis in the book cover I wasn’t sure this was going to fare very well with me as it seemed to be about the ships that took American’s to England and vice versa in the late 1800’s. I don’t really do books with ships and so with trepidation I opened the book… and then simply couldn’t put it down.

Though there are some chapters involving ships and the description of ships not once was a bored as this book has so much more to offer it is actually a wonderful social history study and romantic mystery. Nigel Anstruthers travels to America in search of a rich American wife. He has a title and a stately home but absolutely no money, in fact he is in debts up to his eyeballs and beyond and a wife is a means to an end to that. He meets the meek and suggestible Rosalie Vanderpoel and tricks her into believing he is marrying her for love. Once across the ocean she learns that he didn’t marry her for that at all and in fact wants her money and to shut her off from the world.

On the other side of the ocean her family are mortified, but Anstruthers hasn’t counted on Rosalie’s younger and much more forthright and spirited sister Bettina wanting to find out the mystery of her sisters sudden disappearance. The novel then takes you on an epic journey as Bettina grows up and uses all the skills and knowledge she can in order to counter an attack against Anstruthers and whatever may have happened to her sister. The journey is filled with drama, adventure and a brilliant romantic storyline. I loved the evilness of both Nigel and his mother, Nigel in particular is a true villain if there ever was one. Bettina does steal the show with her gutsy determination and quick wit.

This novel really does have everything and you cannot help yourself from turning all the 600 pages in almost one sitting, I was almost unable to put the book down. Plus anyone who can name a character Ughtred is naturally going to be someone I treasure. This is unquestionably one of my very favourite books of the year, it has everything and a slight sensational feel so how could it not be, and may be one of my favourite reads of all time. If you want a book that has with mystery, adventure (in the form of a collision at sea which starts a possible romance), comedy, darkness, romance and some wonderful, wonderful characters then this is most definitely for you.

It was the fact that I loved it so, so much that it ended up making me cross because I had to give it back. Though when I am taken to the Persephone Bookshop for a treat in the next week or so it will be one of the books I instantly have to have, I do feel there will be a few of these though.

Have you read The Shuttle? Did you utterly, utterly adore it as I did? What else of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s books must I read? Have you borrowed a book from the library and not wanted to give it back, if so what was it?

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Filed under Books of 2009, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Persephone Books, Review

The Dead Secret – Wilkie Collins

So now it is time for me to divulge all of my thoughts on the latest Sensation Sunday read. I was tempted to call this post ‘a sensationally sick Sunday’ as I have been hit by some bug that’s made me feel unbelievably tired, throaty and nauseous hence why the post is a bit late… have been doing a lot of Sunday snoozing! Something must be going around, though I do find it most unfair that it has chosen a time when I am relaxing with a few weeks off to make me feel so rubbish. Hopefully is just a twenty four hour thing and will be back in my stride tomorrow. I have noticed though that since I had swine flu my immune system has been really poor. Anyway, enough about me lets move onto more about my latest foray into another fictional world of Wilkie Collins.

The Dead Secret is one of the Wilkie Collins novels that I have been looking forward to the most and not just because of the wonderful title. I have been really looking forward to it because people in the know, from many Wilkie Collins sites, say that this book is an incredibly important book in his career as it was the first book published for the purpose of serialisation and was in many ways the book that influenced his style in the future on the following novel he wrote which happens to be the legendary ‘Woman in White’ which is also one of my very favourite books. Also one of the main characters, a tragic servant figure, in this book then appears in ‘The Moonstone’. This is why I have started to do my research on books as I read them as its fascinating but what of the actual plot and book itself.

It is a scene on a death bed that aptly opens this novel as Mrs Treverton dictates her own (you guessed it) deadly secret onto her maid whom she also implicates in whatever the secret may be. I would tell you all but then what would be the point of the book as though in typical Wilkie style you are given some big clues, and plenty of red herrings, nothing is fully revealed until much later on or why would anyone read it? The maid against her mistresses’ wishes does not pass on the secret to Mr Treverton instead hiding it in the disused part of the Treverton’s home, the dark, wonderfully rambling and mysterious Porthgenna Tower in the knowledge no one will find it.

Fifteen years later though Porthgenna Tower has been sold on Mrs Treverton’s daughter Rosamond becomes the new mistress. On her way back to become mistress of her childhood home fate intervenes, through Rosamond’s giving birth, and a last minute nurse imparts the message ‘when you go to Porthgenna, keep out of the Myrtle Room’. Naturally and given to the fact that Rosamond is a wonderfully flighty yet headstrong character she resolves that that is the very thing she will do, but what is The Dead Secret she will uncover?

How Wilkie Collins does all this in just over 350 pages (one of his shortest novels) is quite amazing. This book is filled with mystery from the start and shows the true meaning of ‘page turning’ and cliff-hanger chapter endings which Collins became so famous for. I was utterly gripped from the gothic death bed opening scene until the final word of the last chapter. What this book also has in abundance, which so far in the sensation season I hadn’t noticed so strongly, is quirky and wonderful characters which even if are only used for a chapter are drawn in such depth you would read about every single one. Be they the leads character such as Rosamond or the hilarious and slightly irritating hypochondriac and whittler Mr Phippen, the sneaky deviousness of Mr Shrowl, the indignant Mrs Norbury or the ever happy Miss Sturch. This book has everything and I think shows exactly why Wilkie Collins not only became one of the great and most popular writers of his time and over 100 years on has become one of my most favoured writers. A must read if ever there was one.  

The next Sensation Season read is Aurora Floyd by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, which I am already looking forward to, and will be next Sunday. I am now off to find some comfort reading though what my exact ‘comfort reading’ is I am never quite sure. What’s the latest sensation book you have read, will you be adding this to the TBR? I do hope so.

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Filed under Books of 2009, Oxford University Press, Review, Sensation Novels, Wilkie Collins

Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell

There are many reasons why joining a book group can be so much fun and I am actually planning on posting more on that next week. For now though I will just mention the fact that one of the things that I started a new book group for was that it would make me read books I normally wouldn’t, books I have always wanted to try or books that I am a little bit intimidated by and challenge me. George Orwell’s book Nineteen Eighty-Four was one such book (intimidating but always wanted to read) and it was the choice for last months book group and brought out some major procrastination in me as it seemed immense, it probably didn’t help I did Animal Farm at school and hated it.

1984 (I am not going to write Nineteen Eighty-Four every time as will be a long post and my fingers may bleed/be worn to stumps) was originally written in 1948 and is Orwell’s idea of what the future could be in a world 40 years on. What is amazing with this book is just how much of what Orwell thought might happen actually has, in fact it is quite worrying in some ways.

The story of 1984 is told through the eyes of Winston Smith a member of the Party working for the Ministry of Truth in London the capital of Air Strip One (once Britain now really an additional part of America and the superpower Oceania). The story starts with Winston’s act of crime as he starts to write a diary something deeply criminal and forbidden in the totalitarian world in which he lives where the eyes of Big Brother are everywhere. Once taking part in this act of rebellion and ‘thought crime’ Winston knows he is ‘dead’ it is simply a matter of time as to when the Thought Police will get him because once you rebel they know, Big Brother knows everything nothing escapes his eyes.

Once Winston commits the crime he tries to throw himself into the path of The Brotherhood the rebellious underground criminals who want to see Big Brother’s demise. Along with Julia a girl at work who he commits another heinous crime with, the act of sex for enjoyment and falls in love with, they give themselves up to fighting Big Brother but how long can they go unnoticed and can anyone truly beat Big Brother and The Party? I could tell you but most of you have probably read this, and those of you who haven’t shouldn’t have the ending spoilt.

I loved this book, I thought it was marvellous. This was something I was very grateful for as I left it until the day of book group to start it (thank heavens I am not working at the moment) and once the first page was opened I genuinely couldn’t put it down. Oh, apart from the book within the book which I found decidedly dull but still went through anyway and it was a minor blip of twenty pages. This book falls into so many genres as it could be labelled a thriller, it’s a classic and of course falls into the science fiction category which I sometimes have problems with. Not in this case though.

This book was so beautifully and sparsely written despite being a dark book with quite a depressing and cloying subject matter it didn’t weigh me down or depress me. It did make me think and things like Orwell’s predictions of terrorism, Newspeak and even the Lottery shocked me by how accurate they are in the now. I could actually rattle on about all the subjects Orwell picked upon for hours and hours but that wouldn’t be very interesting for you. Suffice to say I thought this book was amazing and I am now going to have to rearrange my readers table so that this classic can be on it.

It has made me wonder if I should re-read the books I was given and detested during my schooling years such as ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘A Room With A View’ the latter in particular sends a shudder of dislike down my spine, I didn’t like my sixth form college very much is all I will say. Now along with ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ this Orwell novel has become school taught classic, though I missed both and now as an adult reader I have loved, I wonder if I would have at school?  Thinking about it probably not as if I had been made to read and re-read 1984 at school I would have probably ended up hating it. Reading it for book group was another matter and was possibly my favourite discussion so far… more on that next week though.

What are your thoughts on 1984? What other Orwell is great to read? Which books did you study at school so much you just ended up not liking them? Which ‘school taught’ classics have you missed and want to read or have read as an adult? Should I try Animal Farm again?

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Filed under Books of 2009, George Orwell, Penguin Classics, Review

Goodbye To Berlin – Christopher Isherwood

This new method of just mooching through my shelves is already a vast improvement on the bookish burn out I was in danger of a while ago, and I am only on day four! Actually over lunch yesterday myself and Kimbofo were discussing the merits and possibilities of doing ‘a Susan Hill’ and bar being bought books by friends and sent review books not buying a single book in 2010. Neither of us has said we are definitely doing it but we mused it for some time. Anyway I didn’t have a book to read after the weekend so when I got an invite on Sunday night to see Cabaret yesterday I went and found my copy of the book that started it all off ‘Goodbye To Berlin’ by Christopher Isherwood.

Goodbye to Berlin is less a novel, though it classifies itself as one, and more a collection of four stories and two diary entries. All these tales are based around the underground and lower end of society in 1930’s Germany as the Nazi’s slowly come to power and there is a great time of change in Berlin. Though written from the perspective of Christopher Isherwood a young writer at the time these, the author clarifies in the introduction, are all works of fiction – I wasn’t sure if I believed that as the characters we meet are so vivid.

One of the stories in the book, which do all interlink, and possibly my favourites is Sally Bowles and was the story that inspired the film I Am Camera that then became the iconic Cabaret. Sally is a wonderful character living on the wrong side of town and hanging out with the wrong kind of people invariably getting herself into trouble. She moves into the same apartment as Christopher that we see in the first Berlin Diary where we also meet the wonderful landlady Fraulein Schroeder who is a wonderful motherly, yet incredibly nosey landlady who takes in the tenants other people wouldn’t rent to.

We also see how men who liked men coped with such a forbidden love in On Ruegen Island, and tales of poverty in The Nowaks and The Landauers before a wonderful final Berlin Diary as Isherwood, both the character and the narrator bid farewell to the city and the love affair they have had with it and the people who walk its back streets. Through all of these tales we meet the minorities and the rejects of Berlin who give an unusual insight into Berlin during its history that I hadn’t read the likes of before.

Actually I tell a slight lie as some of the characters that you meet in the wonderful The Luminous Life of Lilly Aphrodite by Beatrice Colin are part of the Berlin Cabaret set though maybe not so vivid and that in part is why I find it hard to believe that the characters we meet, emotions we feel and the streets we walk are purely fictional they come so fully formed and so full of life even in the most difficult of circumstances.

I really loved this book, I sadly really didn’t love the version of Cabaret that I went to see this week though but I shall say no more. I thought all the characters I met in this book were wonderful and think Sally Bowles may be one of my favourite characters of the year. I also loved seeing that period in history and the lead up to WWII and the Nazi Regimes rise to power through such a different perspective utterly enthralling. It’s also wonderfully written evoking the emotions of the people and the sounds and smells of the streets.

I already have the other of Isherwood’s Berlin books Mr. Norris Changes Trains and may have to read that very soon. I may break one of my reading rules as normally I like to hold off from another read by a wonderful author I have just discovered, does anyone else do this? However with my new ‘read whatever’ whim takes me on or follow whatever journey the books I read lead me on and I feel Isherwood’s Berlin has much more to tell. Has anyone else read these or any other of Isherwood’s non-Berlin based books?

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Filed under Books of 2009, Christopher Isherwood, Review, Vintage Classics