Friday, 30 September 2011

A quick catch up on the week's reading

A.C. Swinburne: A Poet's Life
by Ricky Rooksby

A relatively brief and disciplined biography.  The book makes liberal reference to Swinburne's own creative output and thus gives insight into not only the life of the poet but importantly into his work. A unique and eccentric figure his life makes for interesting reading.  Swinburne's involvement with other leading figures of the age such as the Pre-Raphaelite circle, Monckton Milnes and Richard Francis Burton means this book offers insight into the avant-garde culture of the time.  If this book has a  flaw it is in its heavy dependence on biographical criticism making it perhaps to academic for the merely curious reader.  This book has fuelled my curiosity about Swinburne and his work.

The Apothecary
by Maile Meloy

This was another school/work related read.  I do try to keep up with new young adult fiction and I must admit to being drawn to the cover of this title.  Essentially the premise of the novel revolves around Janie an American girl having to move to London with her parents who have left the McCarthy fuelled hysteria of cold war America.  Once in London Janie discovers magic and mystery in unexpected places as well as friendship in face of threat and challenge.  Much of the story involves an ancient and magical book the Pharmacopoeia, a book that contains the means to achieve some magical results including the ability to turn into birds.  This book certainly sounded and looked as if it would be a great read but  I must admit that while it was a diverting enough read it has not proved particularly memorable.  Certainly the setting of 1950s post war, cold war Britain was novel but not particularly convincing or compelling.   I suspect this novel would have had greater appeal to a younger reader, it was well executed and the historical setting may have been more convincing and more interesting for a younger reader.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Pigeon english - the modern world is brutal.

Pigeon English
by Stephen Kelman

A timely and fascinating tale told with childish innocence and perception.  Shortlisted for the Booker it is a debut novel of some note, relevant for its contemporary comment and for it's playful use of language and narrative.  Set on an inner city estate in contemporary London, it explores the world in which childhood ends abruptly in face of the harsh realities of what is a fairly brutal modern life, where knife crime is a constant possibility.  A good book but not perfect, what book ever is.

Narrated by Harri, eleven years old and newly arrived from Ghana, he tries to make sense of his new home and life.  An astute observer, Harri is fascinated by the life around him from the gangs that operate on the estate, to the life of a pigeon that visits his balcony.   When a boy is murdered on Harri's estate he and his friend Dean, (a crime show junkie), begin a naive investigation into the murder.  The story is punctuated by the occasional brief aside from the pigeon that gives comment on the nature of life and human self delusion, from the pigeon: What your problem is, you all want to be the sea. But you're not the sea, you're just one raindrop.  One of an endless number.  If only you'd accept it, things would be so much easier...(p.210)  The pigeon's asides can be a bit clunky, nevertheless, this is a book worthy of attention.

Harri's narration is at times joltingly colloquial but there is a kind of poetry to phrases like 'advise yourself' and words like 'hutious', as someone who has no real experience of Harri's world it is hard to judge the authenticity of his voice but it certainly sounds authentic and convincing.  Harri's innocence is often captured in his confusion over phrases with sexual portent and Kelman has done well to keep Harri's endearing naivety in face of what is a fairly ugly world.  Harri is one of those wonderful child narrators who speak with such authority and conviction they linger in the memory.  They allow adult authors to make observation and comment that would otherwise sound hollow and absurd, but from a child sound insightful and powerful.  I am thinking of characters like Scout in To kill a Mockingbird or for that matter Mina in David Almond's recent book My name is Mina, another great recent title with a memorable child narrator.

This certainly seems to be a timely tale, given recent events, certainly the London riots probably influenced my choice to read the novel as much as its presence on the Man Booker shortlist and I can't help but wonder if recent events did not influence it's inclusion on that shortlist.  It certainly has a current relevancy which can't be overlooked, combined with it's strong narrative and the intrinsic humour in Harri's voice this is a great read.

Monday, 26 September 2011

R.I.P. or Readers Imbibing Peril

It is that time of year when reading thoughts turn towards Halloween fare and the annual R.I.P  challenge begins.  I first discovered this challenge a few years ago in my previous online life, under a different name and blog, these days I just use the book blog as a personal reading journal and I don't normally sign up for challenges, I like to keep things simple and pressure free but R.I.P. is pretty simple and stress free and I love the concept.  Carl V at Stainless Steel Droppings created a great reading challenge in the annual R.I.P. event and I can't resist but since I am starting a bit late I thought I would only sign up for peril the second; read two books of any length that fit with the loosely defined terms of the challenge:

The purpose of the R.I.P. Challenge is to enjoy books that could be classified as:
Dark Fantasy.

The emphasis is never on the word challenge, instead it is about coming together as a community and embracing the autumnal mood, whether the weather is cooperative where you live or not.(copied from Stainless Steel Droppings).

I always love the art work that Carl V finds for the challenge banners and this year is no exception, the images are the work of Melissa Nucera and the angels evoke the creepiness of the weeping angels of Doctor Who fame, (Blink one of the scariest episodes ever and Moffat at his creepy best).  I love the angels.

Now to what I will read, well since I am starting late and the challenge ends on the 31st of October I have only set myself to read two books, one of which will be the Mark Hodder Burton and Swinburne novel The curious case of the clockwork man, not sure what the second title will be.  I do know that I will also try to read at least one short story and as part of the Halloween reading plan I thought I would re-read the original Grimm version of Cinderella, which is a whole lot darker than anything Disney came up with. So this is just my first challenge post and the start of my reading pool, further additions soon.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Heat and Dust

Heat and Dust
by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

A relatively short novel, set in India and recounting two relationships that occur there, although the English relationship with India itself is a principal theme. A young woman visits India searching in part for details of her great Aunt Olivia who in the 1920s disgraced the family by having an affair with a local prince, the narrator also develops a relationship both with a local man and with the nation itself thus to an extent repeating history in the 1970s.  The novel won the Booker prize in 1975.  A quick read and reasonably diverting but for me largely disappointing, somehow I expected more, maybe I am missing something but I did expected more substance.

Monday, 19 September 2011

My name is Mina and I love the night.

My name is Mina
by David Almond

The journal of a unique and wonderful girl, Mina.  This book is a wonderful contrast to the last YA novel I reviewed.  This is a remarkable novel, rich and complex in terms of its story and language.  A prequel to Almond's brilliant, masterful novel Skellig, this lovely book sees Almond return to the story of Mina just before she meets Michael and Skellig. The novel takes the form of a journal and Mina's story is told in rich and experimental language that celebrates beauty and creativity.

Lush and imaginative it is Mina'a story told in her own words and voice and what a voice, still quite child like but with Mina's remarkable intellect and perception, this is simply a lovely book.  The journal form is both creative and inspiring, how many kids would find Mina's journal inspiring in their own exploration of themselves and the world via a journal.  I must admit Mina was my favourite character in Skellig, her independence and original thinking was very appealing.  Her difference from the everyday made her unique.  It is interesting that Almond has used this work to offer a critique of contemporary education and the regimented assessment that now defines education.  He exposes the intrinsic failure of such education to meet the needs of those who deviate from the norm, he exposes the stifling lack of imagination and empathy in contemporary education and the way it pushes any child who is different despite their intelligence to the margins, exposing them to even further hurt and marginalisation.

This is a great little book but perhaps it is not quite as great as Skellig, which is a truly remarkable novel, my favourite children's novel of all time and one of my favourite novels full stop.  Mina's journal speaks to everyone but especially to anyone who feels different and anyone who sees the world in a unique way.  What a great combination the two books make, I recommend them both in the highest terms possible to any reader of any age.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

YA reading, a romance and the path to discernment.

by Aprilynne Pike

Again this is just a quick update my recent reading post.  Wings is a young adult paranormal romance novel a couple of the kids at school had me read, not a novel I would have chosen for myself, I can however, see why it appeals to them.  It has drama and romance, an easy accessible prose style and magic, lots and lots of magic, not always plausible but with big teenage girl appeal.  The main character has recently moved to a new school and seems to be developing an unusual problem, she is sprouting leaves.  Is she becoming a plant or something all together more magical?  Fairies and trolls feature, a relationship with a boy at school and an another encounter with an apparently fairy boy, complicate the plot, while primarily the main character has to thwart the evil plans of trolls.  Overall this is a pretty mediocre book to say the least, the prose is pedestrian at best, the plot is silly  and the characterisation is simplistic and predictable.   
I don't want to sound like too much of a snob about this book, but to put it briefly, it is just a Twilight clone that replaces vampires with fairies, literature it is not.  Is it a bad book?  Well it certainly is not a good book but then, it is what it is.  If it entertains a teenager and keeps them reading, stimulates their imagination and curiosity then it is a good thing, it becomes merely a step in their reading development, a building block to discernment and reading maturity, such books are necessary, how else will kids learn to appreciate truly great books if they do not have the privilege of reading many and varied books on their reading journey, at least this is a book that makes them want to read and keeps them turning pages.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

A Rage to Live and steampunk fantasy and reality!

A Rage to Live.  A biography of
Richard and Isabel Burton.
by Mary S. Lovell.

Burton &Swinburne in The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack.   
 By Mark Hodder

Yet again I have been a neglectful blogger, so this is a another catch up on recent reading.

The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack was a book I had been eagerly looking forward to and it did not disappoint.  A Steampunk sci-fi, it makes good use of intrinsic time travel dilemmas and paradoxes to create an alternative reality in which Hodder can play out steampunk fantasies within the confines of a plausible logic. The novel is perhaps not perfect, but it is certainly one of the better recent additions to what is  a growing body of work within  the genre. Over a skeleton of plausible fact, Hodder builds an entertaining story, but the use of very real historical figures can also be a little jarring at times and requires some effort from the reader to accept these fictionalised, mythologised characterisations.

In essence the novel occurs in an alternative history where Queen Victoria has been assassinated and Albert is on the throne.  Richard Burton rather than pursuing a diplomatic career is appointed as a special agent to investigate strange mysteries, hence his involvement with the mystery of spring heeled Jack.  Jack is of course a real figure in British urban mythology, his identity was never discovered and he may in fact have been more than one person. Hodder makes great use of this very real historical mystery to weave the framework of his alternative history, other historical icons abound in this sci-fi tale where steam technology  moves beyond the limitations of its time.  Technology and Eugenics (or rather genetic engineering), explode in possibility, new animals are  breed or evolved like the entertaining, 'messenger parakeets', who swear prolifically when delivering messages.  Steam engineering exceeds it's historical limitations and coal powered vehicles abound, including the invention of primitive helicopters, while Brunel builds the first  geo-thermal power plant, well before its time.  Hodder explains this exceptional technological progress in terms of a time travel paradox, to say much more, will give away to much of the plot.

Hodder's use of Richard Burton and Charles Algernon Swinburne as heroes is inspired, if ever a historical figure was suited to adoption by a steampunk adventure it is Sir Richard Francis Burton, explorer, adventurer, linguist extraordinaire.  Swinburne also makes for an interesting characterisation, the diminutive poet is a nice opposition to the masculine and dramatic Burton and the two men were in real life friends. It was however, some of the other characters that I did find a  bit of challenge to accept, at least initially.  Oscar Wilde features, but not the Oscar known to history and literature, in Hodder's universe Oscar is a child in London after having fled the Irish famine.  He appears as a paper boy who Burton christens with the nick name Quips and many of Wilde's famous lines issue from Quips' precocious mouth, while this is an interesting ploy I, did at first struggle with this use of Wilde.  Many of the other characters are also very real historical figures and the novel begins by recounting one very real dramatic adventure from the life of Burton, the attack in Somalia that left him seriously scared as a result of being speared through the face.  From this point onwards Hodder changes Burton's story to fit the demands of his narrative.  Isabel Arundel,the woman destined to become Burton's wife  appears at the start of the novel but Hodder manages to push her out of the story, (I hope this is only temporary and Isabell will re-appear in later novels, the possibility for further appearances certainly exists).  Other figures also make appearances, from Darwin to Brunel, Hodder utilises the icons of the age with some effect, and many of the characters are in fact very real historical figures, including the women who were in fact the victims of spring heeled Jacks rather odd and disturbing attacks.

Like Scott Westerfield,(Leviathan),  Hodder has played with both history and science fiction in  creating this great new fantasy.  Like Westerfield, he has created the twin disciplines of technology and genetics to feed and drive his narrative, the view he creates of an alternative 19th century is imaginative, creative and entertaining, furthermore, his story is more mature and adult in its outlook, than Westerfield's.  Ultimately it is just outrageously good fun. 

One of the side effects of reading a novel that takes the bulk of its cast of characters from history is that of course it leads you into further reading in order to satisfy the curiosity that the original work sparked and this is what lead me to seek out a biography of Richard Francis Burton himself.  A Rage to Live is the somewhat lengthy biography of both Richard and his equally interesting partner Isabel, that I found in the local public library.  It was a rather daunting book to start and when I did start it I wondered if I would persevere and read it all the way through, I needn't have worried, Burton's life reads like something straight from the pages of a Boys Own adventure and combined with the romance of genuinely loving relationship with an equally interesting woman the work was a compelling read.
This is the only biog of Burton I have read and so find it a little difficult to comment on the validity of Lovell's interpretation of their story.  From the text I gather there is considerable controversy surrounding Burton and Isabel.  Her destruction of some of his papers after his death left something of a shadow on her reputation and many biographers have speculated about both their marriage and Burton's sexual orientation but Lovell does present a very convincing portrait of one of the great men of the age and a convincing portrait of a loving couple.  Lovell clearly developed considerable affection for her subjects and while she aims for objectivity, she does seem a little in awe of them.

The book presents an account of their lives including Richard's time in the army in India, his early,  fascination with languages and cultures foreign to him.  Lovell describes his remarkable ability to blend in, his fondness for disguises and his fascination with all aspects of cultures new to him, including sexual mores.  Episodes like his historic Hajj and his early exploration of Africa, including the infamous trip with Speke to find the source of the Nile, are fully recounted and they make for great reading.  Burton emerges as a remarkable, if a somewhat self destructive figure.  Isabel is no less compelling in her determination to spend her life with this unusual man.  Later sections of the book deal with their lives together while Richard pursued a  career as a Consul in a variety of postings, towards the end a posting to Trieste, largely designed to keep him out of trouble.  The later part of the book also covers the translations that resulted in Burton's enduring fame; Thousand Nights and one, and the Karma Sutra.

I must admit I did struggle a little with the last hundred odd pages, certainly the tragedy of Isabel's loss of the man she loved was sad, but then all biographies must end with a death, and her struggle to protect his reputation was really no less compelling than the earlier parts of the book, perhaps the work could have benefited from some tighter editing and a more concise account of those final years for the participants in Lovell's history.  Overall A Rage to Live was a great read, what a good biography really should be, it bought to life the biographer's subjects, illuminating them in clear, if essentially kind light.  I enjoyed it very much.

I note that Hodder has begun a trilogy featuring Burton and Swinburne, The Strange affair of Spring Heeled Jack, is just the first book in the series, the next entitled, The Curious case of the clockwork Man is now sitting on my shelves awaiting my attention and as soon as the third is available it to will find a place on my TBR shelf, their can be no greater praise really than that.  Perhaps, too a biography of Swinburne is on my horizon, reading does that, it creates webs of connection that expand exponentially out, one book leading to another and on and on, ad infinitum, with fiction arousing curiosity that must be satisfied.