Book Blogger Appreciation Week – ‘Community’

Welcome to Book Blogger Appreciation Week! All through the week, there are daily topics for posts on participants’ blogs. I probably won’t have time to join in all of them, but will at least today and tomorrow.

The first topic is ‘Community’ – in particular to celebrate the blogs and bloggers that got us blogging in the first place …

Gaskella’s First Ever Commenter …

When I started my blog back in September 2008, I had been lurking around lit blog land for a while, and plucked up the courage to start making a few comments before launching my own blog.   When I got around to it, my very first commenter was a blogger who was one of the first I discovered, and still read every post on today. It took just five days of blogging to get that comment – and it was on a Guilty Secrets post in which I confessed to never having read Thomas Hardy.

That commenter was Teresa, and her blog is the wonderful Shelf Love which she co-writes with the equally lovely Jenny. Between them, they read and discuss such a wide range of books of all types and genres, and Teresa’s Sunday Salon discussion posts are an absolute must – she always makes me really think with these. Recent subjects have included the use of coincidence in novels, depth versus breadth in reading genres, and who can tell a story? You can rely on Teresa for intelligent reviews and lively discussions. I love that we read many of the same titles and types of books. Living on opposite sides of the pond, we’ve never met, but I feel that we would definitely be friends.  Thank you Teresa – and good luck in the BBAW Awards (Shelf Love is shortlisted in 2 categories).

A blog that always cheers me up & tugs at my heartstrings …

Another blog that I never fail to read is the wonderfulThe Age of Uncertainty written by Steerforth, who is currently setting up business as a book dealer. Steerforth primarily writes about bookish and ephemeral things – Victorian book illustrations, old photos that fall out of books, silly, interesting, and non-PC book covers and titles. Interspersed with these posts are Steerforth’s more meditative ones in which he looks at the world in which he lives and comments with a dry sense of humour. Even more eloquent are his occasional heartfelt posts about his own life and family.  His blog never fails to either cheer me up or tug at my heartstrings – do visit.

My life in my books read – the 2011 version

An updated version of the popular meme in which you answer questions using only titles from books you have read this year has started doing the rounds.  With a whole set of new questions, I couldn’t resist!  Feel free to copy, and check out  Simon T’s, and Fleur Fisher’s goes at it too…

Here are my answers with a couple of small edits to the questions in brackets.  The links are to my reviews…

One time on holiday: Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada

Weekends at my house are: Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

My neighbour is: A Greyhound of a Girl by Roddy Doyle

My boss is: Lord of the Flies by William Golding

My superhero secret identity is: The Wizard of Oz by Frank L Baum

You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry because (of): Lasting Damage by Sophie Hannah

I’d win a gold medal in: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by William Torday

I’d pay good money for: The Novel in the Viola by Natasha Solomons

If I were Prime Minister I would (be): Pure by Andrew Miller

When I don’t have good books, I (read): Everything and nothing

Loud talkers at the cinema should be: The Waste Lands by Stephen King (Dark Tower #3)

Vamped out? Book Group Report

Two months ago, we were trying to choose a book to read in August, and no-one could come up with any suggestions that met any consensus. I suggested one of the books in the latest series of the Channel 4 TV Book Club that happens to be a vampire story and a jolly good summer read, everyone said OK then.

The book in question was The Radleys by Matt Haig, which I previously reviewed here. In the pub last night, it got quite a mixed reception – but it was a good discussion!

Most of the group agreed that it was a great summer read.  Some, not knowing that it was also being marketed as a YA crossover title wondered whether it was particularly aimed at teens upwards rather than adults.

Some like me, had loved it, but there were a couple for whom it didn’t hit the mark of being original enough, being True Blood fans, they were vamped out by it. I argued that half the point was to have a comic particularly suburban British look at the entire vampire phenomenon.

We were agreed that there were some great scenes though, the whole vegetarian thing, the dinner party drinks, etc, but several found the ‘Abstainer’s Handbook’ which punctuates the chapters unfunny.  We felt that the darker softback cover (right) promised a different read to the paperback (above).  We also spent some time discussing whether the vampirism was a metaphor for drink, drugs, or a case of name your addiction.

The Radleys would make a good book choice, particularly for groups that haven’t read as many vampire novels as we have between us!

Next month:  Candide by Voltaire – you can’t say we don’t read a wide choice of titles!

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To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
The Radleys by Matt Haig
Candide by Voltaire

A nanny state of affairs …

Everything and Nothing by Araminta Hall

I needed a quick read in between two chunky novels, and when this popped through the door the other day it was just the ticket. This debut novel has been picked up by Richard & Judy for their autumn list, and is billed as a Nanny chiller – shades of Sophie Hannah perhaps I thought?

It’s about a family trying to have it all but failing. Ruth & Christian have baggage – him from an affair that went very wrong, and not understanding his wife at all; her from not being able to totally forgive him, plus shedloads of guilt at being a working, i.e. bad in her books, mother – both are in the middle of deep mid-life crises. Their young kids are suffering too. Betty can’t sleep, and Hal won’t eat, and their parents just can’t work out what to do with them, so they get a Nanny.

Agatha comes ‘recommended’- she’s young, doesn’t mind doing some light housework and instantly gets on with both the children.  In fact she gets on so well with them, that Ruth and Christian could just let her do everything – except that does make them uneasy (phew!). Aggie also turns out to be an obsessive cleaner, the house has never looked so spick and span – she’s too perfect!

But of course she’s no Mary Poppins – Aggie has a dark side. We get little hints at the start, and as the story builds up, we find out the true and perhaps inevitable truth.  Parallel to this is the decay of Ruth and Christian’s ever more creaky marriage.  Christian’s old lover comes back on the scene, and he manages to get himself in big trouble again…

Although Aggie’s story is sad and tragic, this novel is ‘chiller-lite’. Ruth and Christian were particularly irritating and I found it hard to care about them at all, although I could sympathise with their children, especially Hal.  An assured debut, it was a quick and enjoyable read, but compared to the aforementioned Sophie Hannah, was rather predictable. I’d like to see her next novel develop some real twists if she goes the chiller route. (6.5/10)

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My copy was sent by the publisher. Thank you.
To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Everything and Nothing by Araminta Hall
Little Face by Sophie Hannah

A fabulous little modern fable…

The Tiny Wifeby Andrew Kaufman

This small but perfectly formed novella could be the wackiest thing you’ll read this year. A modern fairy tale about a bank robber that doesn’t steal money, but items of sentimental value from everyone held up.

He explains before he leaves, that those items give him 51% of everyone’s souls, and that will have ‘bizarre and strange consequences‘ in their lives, and they’ll have to learn to grow them back or die. Strange things do indeed begin to happen, and the victims meet to share their experiences, some of which are rather unsettling to say the least.

The story is recounted by the husband of Stacey, who had been in the bank.  She’d handed over her calculator on which she worked out everything – at first she thought she was just losing weight, but it soon becomes clear that Stacey is shrinking!  Will she work out how to stop it, and even reverse it, before she pops out of existence like the Incredible Shrinking Man did?

This story has a large amount of charm, which is augmented by wonderful illustrations in silhouette by Tony Percival. however it’s not all nice – parts of it are totally grim, (or should I say Grimm!).  The story is deceptively simple, yet packs the suitable moral punch that all good fairy tales need.  I will be definitely be searching out Kaufman’s previous short novel My friends are superheroes, after reading this great little book. (9/10)

My ARC came from publisher The Friday Project – thank you!

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If you like modern fairy tales, I can also wholly recommend The Girl with Glass Feet by Ali Shaw, and Tokyo, cancelled by Rana Dasgupta.  Links below:

To explore further on Amazon, click below:
The Tiny Wife by Andrew Kaufman. Pub Sep 1, as a gift hardback, 80 pages.
All My Friends are Superheroes by Andrew Kaufman
The Girl with Glass Feet by Ali Shaw
Tokyo Cancelled by Rana Dasgupta.
Incredible Shrinking Man [DVD]

Stephen King’s Dark Tower Readalong #4

The Dark Tower: Wizard and Glass Bk 4 by Stephen King.

It’s the fourth month of the Dark Tower Readalong hosted by Teresa and Jenny at Shelf Love.  The fourth book was the longest yet at a massive 845 pages (I’ve been able to say that each month!), but it was also very enjoyable and the pages sped by.

This is a series that you can’t really dip into, you have to start at the beginning and go on Roland’s quest for the dark tower with him all the way.

In book four, we rejoin the Ka-tet (a group joined by fate) where we left them – on board the runaway train having to riddle for their lives to appease the insane computer brain of Blaine the train – how about all those rhymes eh!

Needless to say they work out a way to get the train to stop at the end of the tracks in Topeka Kansas, and emerge to find a strangely familiar city which has been ravaged by a superflu virus. Getting out of the city, finding their way back to the path of the beam, they sit and finally Roland is persuaded to tell his story.  We are taken back to what happened next after he became a young gunslinger.

The teenaged Roland and his compadres Cuthbert and Alain are sent to the town of Mejis to be ‘counters’, verifying numbers of horses, fishing boats, etc for the Affiliation.  This should be an easy assignment, but it soon becomes clear that factions in the town are no longer for the Affiliation, but are with the rival for power in this crazed land – John Farson.  We have a classic Western set-up – all that’s missing is the girl.  Young, blonde and beautiful, Susan Delgado has been promised to the Mayor come the Reaping Moon, but when she and Roland happen to meet, it’s love at first sight, and they risk everything in a hidden relationship – doomed of course!  The one other component which takes us away from a pure Western is the witch Rhea – she’s definitely more of a witch than a wise woman with her crystal ball.

Roland’s story takes up around three-quarters of the book and it’s a great one. After the post-apocalyptic tones of the opening, this western is a great contrast, and we finally get to hear how Roland heard of the dark tower, and elected to go on his quest.  Roland’s back story over for now, the band get back on the path of the beam, only to come up against the ‘Emerald city’ – yes, that one, and it ties up the two previous sections neatly.

I particularly enjoyed Roland’s story – loving westerns as I do, and there was more than a hint of Romeo & Juliet about the central love story too.  I wasn’t so fond of Blaine the train at the start, and couldn’t wait to get the riddling over.  I liked the increasing influence of the Wizard of Oz on the story, which I only really got thinking back once the Emerald City emerged – we’re definitely not in that Kansas any more though!

Book four is a definite highlight (9/10) and I’m with the series until the end now. It’ll be interesting to see how the others hold up to the first four.

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The Dark Tower: Wizard and Glass v. 4 by Stephen King
The Wizard of Oz by Frank L Baum

Class wars in the suburbs – just ‘champion’ …

The Champion by Tim Binding

Tim Binding is one of those authors of whom I’ve been aware for a while, and I’ve even got a couple of his books in my TBR piles, but never read any of them.  The publicity blurb for his latest published earlier this year, said ‘The Champion pulsates with black humour and wit, and will find appeal amongst fans of Jonathan Coe.‘ Well, I am one of those, so I hoped for a great read – and I wasn’t disappointed.

The Champion is a tale of class war, greed and ambition, and what happens when small town life gets disturbed.

The main characters are two men, and a girl.  Charles Pemberton is the product of a posh middle class family. His father is a local bigwig, they have a big house, and Charles went to the top school. His parents always hoped he’d marry someone like Sophie Marchand, but Charles is rather quiet and a bit introverted, and Sophie is a bit of a live wire.  Still they can hope. One day a new pupil arrives.

We knew he’d make it, and when he did, we drank to our own success as much as his. He’d done it all in our names, and though we understood he would be leaving, as leave he must, we bathed in the certain knowledge that he’d be carrying something of ourselves with him, just as there would be a trace of himself left behind. Like the scene of any crime.

Clark Rossiter is known as ‘Large’, his family aren’t old money, he’s a working class boy with big ambition and a huge personality.  He builds a crew around him, and Charlie is roped in on the outside. Naturally Sophie gravitates to Large, and Charles is left watching. School ends. Large goes off to work in the City. Charles starts to study law, but realises it’s not for him, and he becomes a chartered accountant, much to his father’s disgust, and settles down for a quiet single life.

Some time later, Large returns.  He’s made his money in the City. He has plans to revolutionise the Care Home industry, and he’s going to start it in the town of his alma mater, and Charles is to be his accountant.  Large, or Clark as he now wishes to be known, has everyone eating from the palm of his hand, his magnetic personality charms them all, but underneath he’s ruthless, and greedy, and wants to get one-up on the middle classes, including all his former friends.  Charles, initially gets sucked in by all his bravado, but he realises that sooner or later, Large will fall – and he is not going to be treated like a faithful dog any more.

I know I shouldn’t have, but I couldn’t help liking the larger than life Clark either. He was such an elemental force of life in this novel and breathed life into the town. I couldn’t help but picture him as Philip Seymour Hoffman in full charm mode by the way.  However, as Sophie was to find, a little of such a personality goes a long way, and he was rather overpowering on full-time exposure. Charles, meanwhile is so repressed, that even while I could feel a lot of sympathy for his mother, who had many trials to overcome in this story, that didn’t transfer to her son.  He was set up as the boring, introverted accountant, whose veneer finally cracks and he gets his own back.  The roles of hero and villain got flipped between Clark and Charles and you wondered who would come out on top in the end.

Large rather reminded me of Dougal Douglas in Muriel Spark’s The Ballad of Peckham Rye, in which a young man arrives in a slightly posh bit of South London, stirs things up rather devilishly bringing this staid bit of town to life, and then disappears.  A similar black comedy, but Binding’s style is more expansive than Spark’s sparseness.  The Champion is not without sad moments and tragedy which widen the dramatic depth. The entire story is recounted by Charles, who looks back wistfully on this period of his life – one senses that he wouldn’t have missed it for the world, but is rather relieved that it’s over.

If you like contemporary English black comedies, this could be a novel for you. I really enjoyed it and want to read more Tim Binding. (9/10)

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I got my copy through the Amazon Vine programme.  To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
The Champion by Tim Binding
The Terrible Privacy Of Maxwell Sim by Jonathan Coe
The Ballad of Peckham Rye (Penguin Modern Classics) by Muriel Spark