Tag Archives: Vintage Books

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

The Daydreamer – Ian McEwan

After the joy of reading the ‘cross-over’ book Tuck Everlasting I had been wanting to try another one and see if it got to me in the same way. I am not talking Twilight which I know is all the rage, I am talking crossover books that take me back to my childhood favourites such a Roald Dahl. I had turned for another one of the short reads I have been reading amongst the sensation season novels of late and saw that not only was one of them by one of my favourite authors it was also another ‘cross-over’ book and had the quote, by Vogue, “as far fetched and funny as anything by Roald Dahl” so I thought ‘well, why not?’

The Daydreamer is actually Peter Fortune a young boy who though people might see as quite and a little bit subdued, dull and distant is actually a boy who has such an over active imagination he often vanishes off into the land of daydreaming. In fact Peter does this so often that he tends to forget everything around him, what the time is, what day it might be or even who he actually is. In fact it is this part of his personality that makes people label him difficult when really what he is harbouring is actually quite a talent.

After being introduced to Peter which is a comic little opener to the book we then in the following chapters, which read like individual short stories, get to see just how his imagination goes off with him in some wonderfully surreal tales. One day his sister Katie’s evil dolls one day turn on him and try and make him one of them when he gets his own room. One day he swaps places with his very old cat and goes around showing the local cats just who is boss. One day he manages to get rid of all of his family. One day he manages to catch the local burglar causing a suburban wave of fear during a crime spree down The Fortunes road.

In fact what the book is also looking at is things from the eyes of children for adults that read it and through the eyes of others for children that read it. For example The Cat looks at loss and mortality (it is quite sad be warned), The Baby looks at things through a babies eyes and tries to deal with jealousy of older children and The Grown Up looks at the future and sort of touches on puberty and trying to understand adults a bit more which for a child must be a mystery. You could call these modern fables in a way but all done with a human angle whilst being sometimes quirky, sometimes surreal, sometimes humorous, sometimes sad, sometimes disturbing and yet always very entertaining.  

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would actually recommend that you all give this a go especially if you think you don’t really like McEwan, he appears to be a bit of a marmite author I personally am yet to read anything by him I haven’t thoroughly enjoyed. It shows just how much thought McEwan puts into all of his works in terms of getting into differing characters heads.

This book is actually now ten years old but seems incredibly fresh and undated and was a work of his that I hadn’t heard of before and so has been a delightful little find. Which in a way links with my post from the other day about all works by an author… isn’t it lovely when you discover that they have published a book that a) you didn’t own b) hadn’t read and c) had never even heard of? Lovely stuff! Has this ever happened to you with one of you favourite authors? How do you rate cross-over fiction and indeed the author Ian McEwan?

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Filed under Books of 2009, Ian McEwan, Review, Vintage Books

I Served The King of England – Bohumil Hrabal

As I mentioned earlier today last night was the monthly meet up of book lovers and book bloggers in the London area for Book Group. This month’s choice had been one whose title and author I had never heard of. However ‘I Served The King of England’ by Bohumil Hrabal did make it into the 1001 books that you must read that the Guardian did a while back. So I was looking forward to a new author who I had read nothing by before. I was also looking forward to reading something by a Czech author, another first.

I Served The King of England is the tale of Ditie who at a young age starts the only career path available as a waiter in the Golden Prague Hotel (which isn’t actually in Prague) and then follow his life as he goes from servant to served and becomes a millionaire. In the process we see through his eyes how the rich Czech people live leading up to the war, a life of gluttony and prostitutes in the main (the book is quite explicit for the delicate of mind out there) and then the change as war reigns and the German’s come and take over.

I actually found that when the Germans invaded in some ways the book really came to life. Ditie becomes a German sympathiser, something not written about in many books which is very interesting if occasionally difficult to read, after he falls in love with and after being approved by the relevant bodies marries. This book for me was fantastically written and was darkly comic and the book sort of came alive after the first half of the book which seemed to just follow Ditie as he went about his daily business and observed all these rich people and became obsessed with joining them.

What of the plot? It’s very much a straight forward, though quirky, rags to riches and back to rags tale. That isn’t giving too much away as it is written on the blurb and there are a few random twists and events (dark and deeply funny) along the way. What about characters? There is a plethora of characters cast in this book but you never really get to know them they may pop up again from time to time but what motivates them and who they are eludes you slightly and I felt that could also be added to the main character himself.

I never really got under Ditie’s skin, I still by the end didn’t really know anything about him before he started waiting and what made him tick. Well apart from money and sex. He is a slight loner and unlike other books where the loner gives you their internal thoughts Ditie never really gives anything away. It left me leaving the book feeling like I liked it and yet didn’t like it all at once which very rarely happens to me. Maybe now I have finished it and the book and I spend some time apart it will grow on me as others have, or not. Strangely though I would read Bohumil Hrabal again despite my fuzzy grey thoughts on the book (not sitting on the fence), after all anyone who can make me whizz through a book with no paragraphs must be doing something right!

The book groups feelings were mixed too you can see Novel Insights and Paperback Reader’s, whose choice it was, Kimbofo and soon to be member Books Snob’s thoughts (when more members pop their thoughts up will let you know) on the book. As I said I would read him again, this book just left me feeling very nonplussed and I like things to be black and white not grey and this has left me in a grey fuzz. Have any books done that to you? Have you read any other Hrabal you’d recommend?

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The Woman In Black – Susan Hill

In taking on my own challenge to read as much sensation fiction as possible over the next few months as part of my ‘Sensation Season’ I didn’t just want to stick with the originals for out there in the never ending world of books I knew, having already read a few or bought some that are as yet to be read, that there are many modern day books that have a sensational twist and Susan Hill is one (of my favourite) authors who I would categorize as ‘modern sensation’ with her ghost stories. So I thought it was the perfect time to re-read the book…

‘The Woman in Black’ is one of my favourite books and I think would definitely classify as my very favourite ghost story. Starting on a Christmas Eve (best time for ghostly tales, that or a professor or doctors office) the children in Arthur Kipps house are all telling ghostly tales. It is however Arthur whom first hand has witnessed the events and the effects of a most terrible ghastly tale himself. As he can’t bear to tell anyone the tale for fear of the consequences he writes it down, for you dear reader to see.

Arthur Kipps is a solicitor and one day in London he receives instructions that he must sort the estate of recently departed Alice Drablow in Crythin Gifford. He takes the many hours journey to the town where at first people are friendly, however as soon as they learn of his business and hear the name ‘Alice Drablow’ people eye him suspiciously or avoid him. It isn’t until he crosses to the isolated and marsh/bog bound Eel Marsh House that he begins to learn things are much darker than he could ever imagine and also starts to witness the work of The Woman in Black.

I can’t really say more than that on the plot because I wouldn’t want to give anything away but for a relatively short book it packs a lot of chills and quite a punch or two with the twists towards the end. The whole book is covered in suspense and how Susan Hill creates such an atmosphere needs to be read to be believed. The writing is sparse and yet incredibly descriptive and shows, as all her books do, why Susan Hill is a master at her game. My only criticism would be that I could have read more, but then really would that just be over egging the scary pudding?

If you haven’t read this then do give it a go. Perfect for a night in, by the fire (if you have one – if not just curled up on the couch) where you can get lost and spooked whilst deeply ensconced in a great book. This, for me at least, holds all the glorious details of a modern sensation novel, more on those in detail tomorrow though.

Now for those of you who have read this far and fancy reading the book for yourself I have a copy that I am going to give away. I would have loved to have given away tickets for the show which is excellent but some of you live far afield and so wouldn’t be fair!! All you have to do, by Friday, is leave me a tale of something spooky that has truly happened to you (I don’t know how I will know if its true or not, but I just will) then The Converted One will pick a random name out of a hat on Saturday! Good luck!

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Filed under Give Away, Review, Susan Hill, Vintage Books

The Seance – John Harwood

You may remember a few weeks ago that I asked for your thoughts on great books based in big creepy houses. This was partly inspired by being a tiny bit disappointed by Sarah Water’s ‘The Little Stranger’ initially and also because I was off to stay in a big stately home. Just a quick additional note though; the more time I have had away from ‘The Little Stranger’ the cleverer and better I think it is and I thought it was good to begin with, I just wanted to update you all one that. I then read ‘The House At Midnight’ which had the stately home and was a good book again but wasn’t creepy. Would ‘The Séance’ by John Harwood succeed with my mission… with a title like that and not one but two big spooky stately homes it did exactly what I wanted it to. 

‘The Séance’ already had me from the fabulous cover, which I know you shouldn’t judge a book on but sometimes how can you not, and also from its subtitle ‘A Victorian Mystery’ which instantly in my mind makes me think of the ‘sensationalist’ books from those times which prove to be some of my favourite fiction books ever. Now though I wouldn’t say that this book could be compared to such iconic books as ‘The Woman In White’ it has a damn good stab at it and on many levels succeeds in fitting into that genre only written a hundred years late.

The book is told through three narrators, the opening and closing voice of the novel is Constance Langton opens the book for us as she tells of growing up in a manor, her father often away and so is left with a mother who is in constant mourning for the loss of her other daughter Alma. Constance tries to lift her mothers ‘spirits’ she pretends to evoke the spirit of her sister taking her on a very dark journey that changes her life and circumstances forever. Yet this isn’t actually the main story, it’s the events that inspire afterwards that make the rest of the tale – though this early opening storyline does lay some clues and some big red herrings for what’s to come as Constance finds she is the inheritor or Wraxford Hall which holds dark secrets itself and the mystery of the vanishing of many of its family and the darkest deceptions. Chills hit you when Constance is told ‘sell the Hall unseen; burn it to the ground and plough the earth with salt, if you will; but never live there…’

I won’t say anymore than that in case I accidentally give anything away. I will say that I thought that writing the book through these differing accounts was a brilliant idea of Harwood’s and really worked into adding even more twists and various dead ends to the plot. You also, until the end of course, never quite knew which narrator you could trust and that added to the suspense and mystery. The fact that there was a slightly supernatural element added even more to the book and in two parts I actually jumped and had the chills several times. What more can you ask from a dark tale of a spooky old house than that?

Harwood’s other strength is plotting which reminded me very much of the sensationalist novels, which I love, without actually ripping any of them off. How he managed to come up with all the twists and turns at the end is beyond me. The fact that he manages to incorporate them all and still makes it all clear and unconfused to the reader is remarkable. I lost count of all the twists in the end. This is genuinely is a superb book, whether you love a good creepy Victorian tale or not this is great fiction writing.

If I had one small gripe it would be at myself for the timing of reading it. This isn’t really a book to read when you have lots on, like moving house for instance. We have had just the right weather for this book in London though in the last week with some cracking storms which is the ideal setting to curl up and read this in one sitting. Maybe next time as I am sure I will be reading this again and will also be tracking down John Harwood’s debut ‘The Ghost Writer’ very soon.

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Filed under Books of 2009, John Harwood, Review, Vintage Books

The Invention of Everything Else – Samantha Hunt

The second of my Orange shortlist reads has quite taken me by surprise. I think I am going to have to stop myself reading other peoples reviews of what I am very shortly going to read and hold off until I have finished reading the book. I love reading other peoples thoughts on books and indeed find some great new books to read through others but sometimes it can overhype a book and other times it can make you dread a book. Samantha Hunt’s novel ‘The Invention of Everything Else’ was falling into the latter category and frankly I shouldn’t have let it.

The Invention of Everything Else starts quite surreally with the inventor and scientist Nikola Tesla waiting for a pigeon at his hotel window, one who when doesn’t appear he goes to find and ends up in deep conversation with. If scientists talking to pigeons would put you off reading a book like it might do me please do try and continue, normally I would have put the book down and not picked it up again, it just seemed a little bit too whacky. However something in Samantha Hunt’s writing kept me reading and held a promise of more to come and she didn’t fail in that.

Nikola Tesla has become something of a recluse in his later life, slightly embittered after having his colleague Marconi steal his invention of ‘the radio’, he has lost touch with reality and the world and lives alone in room 3327 of the New Yorker Hotel creating new inventions and avoiding people. However one person he cant seem to avoid is Louisa, a young chambermaid who has an inquisitive streak and keeps ‘cleaning’ his room/laboratory which she finds as mesmerising as his inventions and mysterious air. However it isn’t only the fact that they have the hotel (which is wonderfully described as in the 1940’s it was one of the tallest largest hotels in existence) in common, as the book continues their separate lives become more and more linked. A friend of Louisa’s father suddenly reappears after two years ‘missing’ claiming he has designed a time machine which happens to be based on Tesla’s theories. It is chance that at the same time mysterious man called Arthur bumps into Louisa and knows everything about her and then who is told, by her fathers friend, to be her future husband? I wont say any more for fear of giving away more of the plot which I became totally lost in.

Like I said I wasn’t sure I was going to like this book at all from how it started and also from the fact I hate science (seriously it goes over my head or bores me) but I completely fell under its spell. I can see why people found it The premise is a little whacky though Nikola Tesla is indeed a very real scientist and inventor but I loved the magical almost science fiction to it that in some ways reminded me of one of my favourite books The Time Travellers Wife and in other ways some of Margaret Atwood’s surreal magical moments both of which are great things. An unusual book that I wasn’t expecting and which completely won me over where many couldn’t have.

… So at the moment two books in it’s a roaring success, and I have nearly finished Burnt Shadows which is… no, I shall hold my tongue until the last page is turned as it could all change for the better or worse.

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Filed under Books of 2009, Orange Prize, Review, Samantha Hunt, Vintage Books

The Risk of Darkness – Susan Hill

Now you may all know that I am quite a Susan Hill fan, in fact I was surprised (only partly not hugely) when I saw realised she is the author with the most books on my bookshelves, and as you will see from yesterdays post I only put books on my shelves I have actually read. Therefore not only is she one of my favourites she’s actually my most read (followed closely by Daphne Du Maurier, Kate Atkinson, Stella Duffy and Tess Gerritsen), that was a long winded way of saying I like her work a lot basically. I started with her ghost stories, The Woman in Black being on of my all time favourite reads. Bizarrely as my mind started to develop a fondness for crime she started writing her Simon Serrailler Series. I have just finished the third ‘The Risk of Darkness’ and I think that so far it’s my favourite of the three.

If you haven’t read any of the other Simon Serrailler series such as The Various Haunts of Men or The Pure in Heart, I actually would recommend you start with them. While they can stand alone, in particular the first, I think you’ll get the most out of the book if you read them in order, though there is ‘what happened so far’ intro in The Risk of Darkness. I have to say personally I can’t read a series in the wrong order I don’t know why this is I just can’t. Simon Serrailler is a Detective in the city/town (I always imagine it’s a town but having a cathedral it must be a city – in fact in my head its very like Salisbury) of Lafferton, he is also an artist and this novel sees him weighing up the two careers. He is quite a complex character being a bit of a loner and having serious issues with women along the way. His family all live in Lafferton except on of his triplets who remains hidden in Australia, I always think something is going to happen with that story.

As for the plot I don’t want to say very much as if you haven’t read the previous two I could give quite a lot away. I will say this novel deals with the dark subject of female mass murderers which is one that isn’t tackled that often in crime. Well in my limited experience anyway. In all Hills ‘crime novels’ she deals with big subjects she wants to talk about. In this novel its not only female murderers but what might make someone who you would never think a killer become one, and in this novel there is a separate storyline discussing just that. We also gain more insight into Simon’s personality in this novel as he meets the new priest Jane Fitzroy. Could there be a happy ending for the two? In this particular series of Hill’s it would be most unlikely but that is what is great about Hill’s writing she is unpredictable and takes you to places and subjects you didn’t think she would.

This is a really good novel regardless of fiction genre. I don’t really label these as crimes like I don’t label Kate Atkinson’s Broadie novels as crimes though Atkinson’s have a lot more humour in them. It’s dark fiction with quite a lot of chaos, quite a lot of death which also looks at what makes people who they are and why. Apparently this is now the end of the trilogy but we do have the new Serrailler novel The Vows of Silence to look forward to which I will be reading in the next couple of weeks.

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Breathing Lessons – Anne Tyler

I vowed last year that I would read much more Anne Tyler after reading Digging To America, and only read that novel. So when Cornflower said that I could join the Cornflower Book Group and that they were reading an Anne Tyler I was thrilled. You can read everything everyone else thought here, as for some reason I am not allowed to upload any comments onto any blogs at the moment. Naturally I am doing the review for you anyway here.

Anne Tyler won The Pulitzer Prize in 1989 and twenty years on you can still see why, her writing style is superb. She writes the whole novel in third person and yet through the characters thoughts you can hear their voices in first person and it’s incredibly effective. Breathing Lessons tells a day in the life of Maggie Moran. A woman nearing fifty whose own daughter asks her ‘when did you become so ordinary?’ As fifty nears she is looking at the lives of her children, husband and herself as she heads for the funeral of her best friends wedding.

Not the storyline for many laughs, though there is humour because it’s Anne Tyler, but it isn’t meant to be a happy book. It looks at how satisfied people are with their own lives and the lives of their family. Maggie feels her husband Ira thinks she is fat and worthless, clearly how she perceives herself, that her daughter Daisy can’t wait to leave her ‘ordinary’ mother and her son whose wife walked out on him with their daughter feels much the same. On the journey and on the way back Maggie’s journey takes several surprising detours, mainly through Maggie’s interfering. Through these detours Anne shows us Maggie’s family past and why she is in the state she is in, you never hear about her childhood much, a mystery I thought might have solved many questions to her deeper personality.

With Maggie’s endless interfering and severe swaying of the truth it did leave you feeling you were seeing life through slightly unreliable eyes. The dialogue both external and internal is fantastic. I found the writing sparse, I have to admit I was shocked Ira and Maggie were still married and the rare signs of closeness and emotional contact between the two of them somehow felt false. I didn’t like Ira, but then again I didnt like anyone in the book particularily, not even Maggie and I normally love that sort of character but playing with peoples lives to such an extent isnt that likeable. It doesn’t paint a promising or fulfilling picture of married life as it goes on. I was shocked to see this in the ‘love’ volume of The Guardians 1000 Novels Everyone Must Read. I would have thought this would have been much more at home in ‘Family and Self’ out later in the week. More on that tomorrow.

All in all I found this a great read, though not possibly one of Tyler’s best I do think that it is a great read and one that everyone should give a try. I haven’t been put off Tyler from this which reading many reviews people were, I wonder what they were expecting. I will definitely be putting many more of her books on my TBR within the next few months.

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Jim Giraffe – Daren King

I bought this from a charity shop as with cheap books you are always more inclined to try something a little more risky. Having not really know what it was about but vaguely recollecting a woman say it was one of the most immature vilest pieces of fiction she had read I thought I’d give it a go. As I have said, I am not a book snob plus one man (or woman’s) rubbish is another man (or woman’s) treasure, I wouldn’t say this was exactly a treasure.

Scott Spectrum is being haunted, not by your typical spooky ghost but by the ghost of a giraffe called Jim who has come to save him from a fatal heart attack and early death. Jim points out the weaknesses and loop holes in Scott’s life, from his unfulfilled and unsatisfied wife, to his personality faults. He is a dirty minded giraffe who says what most people think but wouldn’t say. However are Jim’s motives as genuine as they seem… well for a ghost giraffe anyway?

I thought the first half of the book was absolutely brilliant. Witty, blunt, brutally honest and looked at things we have all thought or experienced but would never in a million years talk about. It’s incredibly surreal, I like books that have a surreal twist yet sometimes it can go too far and veer off to no mans land and sadly this book did just that. I managed to believe in ghost giraffes, well why shouldn’t there be such a thing if we have human ghosts. All of a sudden though, I can’t pin point where without giving everything away, I just thought ‘no’ and what had been a book I was racing though suddenly felt like racing through mud. The characters became too much, the dirtily funny became a bit obscene and I lost interest.

I would bizarrely read another Daren King book though. I think his imagination and visions though weird are also wonderful. I think his prose is brilliant if slightly stark and sweary perhaps and I thought his characters were really interesting which is what you want from a book, well an author maybe as this book isn’t quite the right example. It was different and short though which was just what I needed right now.

I think when you find a book like this that is either a love it or hate it book (or in my case love the start hate the middle to end book) then charity shops are great for taking a risk. However if I had paid out the £10 that this was originally going for then I would have been really disappointed.

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In Search of the Missing Eyelash – Karen McLeod

So my first read of 2009 is already done and dusted. No it’s not Anna Karenina! As I have explained I am having a small break after every part of Anna to read a book or two, as Novel Insights and myself aren’t having Rogue Book Group until later in the month. So the first book I chose for my first Karenina break is Karen McLeod’s debut novel ‘In Search of the Missing Eyelash’ and I devoured it in two sittings one when I went to bed shattered from the return from holiday, and again straight away when I woke up.

‘In Search of the Missing Eyelash’ is narrated by Lizzie. Lizzie is a really interesting character that at first I couldn’t work out if I was going to like. By the end of the novel I was on a complete emotional journey of hilarious highs and also some surprising and shocking lows. Lizzie is in a strange emotional place. Her father has died a while back which has scarred her, she has fallen out with her mother, her brother Simon (or Amanda as he likes to be known) is missing and she is pretty much obsessed with and stalking her ex-girlfriend Sally who has left her for a man ‘with a fat neck’. When I say stalking I mean proper stalking with cameras and stuff collecting bathroom fluff and other odd assortments.

Her confidantes are her self obsessed neighbour (who I didn’t quite like and yet who supplied many laughs) who is always falling in love and her boss Ruby of ‘Ruby’s Caff’. Her workplace and its customers I think were a stroke of complete genius from McLeod secondary characters such as Elsie who is a bit psychic and Alf whose son finds him a Thai Bride, just made light in some very dark parts of the book. The story follows Lizzie as she follows Sally and as things start to unravel all around her.

I couldn’t believe this was a debut novel. I thought that McLeod’s prose was perfect and in some parts very poetic, and I don’t mean because of one of the characters poems about Pickled Onions, and had me totally spell bound. I thought the way it dealt with gender, sexuality and a family breakdown was honest and poignant without being overly dramatic (there is a good sprinkling of drama in there though). I just thought it was an incredibly accomplished novel and was much deeper and darker than I was expecting, I thought it was going to be very funny from the blurb which it is. I laughed at several parts out loud on particular scene which I won’t mention actually left me laughing out loud for about five minutes.

I saw Karen McLeod read some of her favourite book; the very funny and poignant ‘Crocodile Soup’ by Julia Carling (which I read last year) who she said helped her to write. I thought this was an equally wonderful book, in fact I think they should sell the two together like sometimes Vintage do, I think they would be a perfect pairing.

What a brilliant start to my reading year!

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Filed under Books of 2009, Julia Darling, Karen McLeod, Review, Vintage Books

20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth – Xiaolu Guo

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amsterdam – Ian McEwan

My Gran simply cannot understand why I like Ian McEwan novels and I simply do not understand why she cannot like them. Despite the fact that it had it written in massive letters on the front it wasn’t until I was half way in that I saw that ‘Amsterdam’ had won the Man Booker Prize in 1998. I don’t know what the longlist was that year, I will look it up, yet I think its win is deserved.

This book is one of McEwan’s books that show exactly why I think he is a great writer and why I love his novels. The start of the novel centres around the funeral of Molly Lane (brilliant character name) who ‘could still turn a perfect cartwheel at the age of forty-six’ which I think is a brilliant way of summing up someone we never actually meet in a novel but who’s death and affairs it centres around.

At the funeral are at least three of her ex-lovers whom she would still entertain whilst she was married to her husband George. Clive Linley is successful composer though slightly conservative who is looking to write his masterpiece. Vernon Halliday is the latest editor of The Judge a long ruining but sadly failing newspaper which needs a change in style. Julian Garmony is the foreign secretary who could become the next Prime Minister and possibly ruin the country forever. However though her relationship is what ties them together initially it is the actions that follow her funeral that change their lives forever.

Like ‘The Innocent’ which I read earlier this year McEwan leads you down the garden path thinking that the story is about one thing when it is in fact about many. I have seen reviews where this is said to be a dull uninspiring book yet I was strangely gripped. I wonder if these people love ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ and ‘Heart of Darkness’? After Molly dies photo’s are found she took of Garmony cross-dressing. George gives them to Vernon and tells him to publish them, but should he, is he that desperate to shame Garmony and make The Judge successful again? When Linley goes away to the Lake District for inspiration and to get away does he see something that could have changed people’s lives forever and will he love with the guilt, and why do the ex-lovers feel the need to carry on competing?

I thought this was a fantastic book possibly one of my McEwan favourites and there have been quite a few. If you want understated plots that have sudden shocks with characters that you would hate to meet but secretly would love to be for one day and fantastic prose then I can’t see why you wouldn’t love Ian McEwan and Amsterdam. So there you are Gran, get reading!

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Empire Falls – Richard Russo

The latest Book Group Book ‘Empire Falls’ by Richard Russo has not only won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002, it has also taken me ages to read but with book group books I have made myself read to the end (I have only not done this on two books London Fields and Suite Francaise both of which I loathed, the latter will shock people I am sure) in the hope that once I had managed it would be one of those books where you feel immensely rewarded and are thoroughly grateful that you persevered. Can I at this pint as its so near say I didnt have this cover and think they need to rethink it as this english cover is so boring looking.

In some ways I am but let’s start with the setting. Empire Falls is a sleepy and slowly failing town in Maine (but as we all know sleepy town have dark secrets) a town that is predominantly owned by the Whiting Estate, the head of whom is now Francine Whiting, sadly the story isn’t based on her as it should have been – more of her later. One of the many buildings and enterprises she owns is the Empire Grill, run buy our protagonist Miles Roby.

Miles is stuck in a rut, after coming home from his degree to look after his dying mother he has never left Empire Falls again. He is going through a divorce with the warped Janine, his daughter Tick is a typical teenager, he has an ongoing feud with an old school friend who is now the law, he’s doing up a church, his father is a money grabbing semi-alcoholic and is played like a puppet by Francine whose cat wants to kill him and crippled daughter wants to marry him. That’s quite a character isn’t it? Bizarrely Miles plays second fiddle to almost every other character in the book.

Francine is undoubtedly for me the star of the show and sadly doesn’t feature in the book as much as she should I wanted so much more of her back story. Her cat Timmy (who is a girl) certainly needed to be in it more as it made me laugh which was much needed fabulous light relief. Janine is a wonderful slightly bitter slightly reminiscent ex-wife who has just discovered sex again which led to her affair and shes not letting the object of her new sex life get away and wants to be heading straight down the aisle once more. The women characters were actually by far the best and I think had the novel been written from their aspects the whole way through I would have enjoyed it so much more. But then there wouldn’t have been quite so many twists in the end.

There is one big twist that though there are some seeds of thought dropped along the way was much more dramatic and in many ways darker than anything I could have come up with which has little to do with Miles Roby at all and did make me re-read the page. The other twists involve flashbacks of both the Whiting family and Miles himself and give the book an extra depth in a way. Sadly though despite a wonderful host of characters (Russo from reading reviews is a wonderful character author in general) and the invention of a clever town setting with its mysteries and shock endings the book is far too long and at points became a real effort to read, thank fully the cat would appear during some of these.

I guess the test with a book, and with a new author in particular (by new I mean one you’ve not read before) is if you would read them again. Would I read Richard Russo again, at the moment I would say probably not, however the more I think about the book the more I realise what a clever writer he is and how observant. So maybe he is someone to add to my TBR in 2009 pile, I guess time will tell.

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Filed under Book Group, Pulitzer Prize, Review, Richard Russo, Vintage Books

Grotesque – Natsuo Kirino

Hmmm, a puzzling novel this one. I don’t think I would ever have picked up Natsuo Kirino’s book ‘Grotesque’ if it hadn’t been the latest Book Group novel, though it does have quite a good cover and I do really enjoy Japanese and Chinese fiction so maybe somewhere along the line I would have. From what we had been told by the blurb was that this was a dark gritty crime novel about the murder of two prostitutes in Tokyo, there would be sex, murder and mystery all told by the bitter sister of one of the prostitutes, and it sounded really interesting. In reality, well…

I would not put this in the crime section of a book store, but then I am not a fan of putting everything in to pigeon-holes, pretty much from the start you are told who the murdered of one of the girls and probably the other, so there is really no mystery to that part. The mystery is finding out the truth in the differing stories as the book goes along.

I would say this is a fiction novel that happens to have murder in it. So, what about the story? Yuriko and Kazue, two prostitutes, have been murdered in Tokyo; they are linked, not just by the murderer but also by a school and by Yuriko’s nameless older sister. The novel tells of the sister’s childhoods then their time at Q School and eventually moves to the order. I have to be honest the school part bored the hell out or me, it just went on and on and was then told by both sisters which I understood was to show their truer characters but even the author writes as one of the characters ‘these words may drag’ and at another point with some letters says the same, is this a clever way of disguising the fact that the author knows that some of the book is aware that the story is going on and on?

Other than in these occasional parts the writing style is fantastic which made me persevere with the book as I did enjoy Natsuo’s novel. The book is told in several parts, first two parts by the vile bitter sister cover their childhood and the present time not long after the murders, from childhood Yuriko is a stunning girl, something that makes her sister bitter, distant and hateful towards her. We then have Yuriko’s diaries a tale of incest (which seems to be a common theme in the book and if you took it as a true reflection of Japan could appear a high concern) and how she uses her looks to get ahead in life, and what happens once they fade. Then follows the trial and statements of the accused murderer, his story of how he ended up in Japan illegally after fleeing China. Then the other prostitute Kazue’s diaries, her tale I actually found the saddest and most desperate, how she want from a high flying student, to high flying business woman who has to resort to selling her body for money on the side, before the conclusion. Bizarrely what I liked with this book is that all the characters are awful and yet its still makes you read and you find your enjoying how awful they are to one another. Maybe thats just me?

So I think this is much less a crime novel and much more a novel about Japanese culture and also the state of the society as a whole today, the selection process of schools, and their hierarchy that continues into adult life. It is also a deep look into the female psyche and how what happens in your youth and how you are raised and treated can lead you become the person you are, and in the case of some how it has nothing to do with it at all. I found that side of the book fascinating. It really is a rollercoaster book of highs and lows. It also looks at how women are treated in Japan.

This made the book more interesting and made you read on so I guess there was a sense of mystery, sadly the ending with its ‘ghosts’ and ‘visions’ – I wont give the ending away – is slightly, no is, a let down. However that bizarrely hasn’t put me off the author, I want to give her first novel (which has won awards galore) ‘Out’ a read at some point. See like I said a puzzling novel this one.

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Filed under Book Group, Natsuo Kirino, Review, Vintage Books