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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