Thursday, 31 January 2013

The Song of Achilles - Madeline Miller

This book took me a long time for me to read. Not because it isn't brilliant, because it is, but because the number one thing that makes me sad is media where the characters are happy and I know that something tragic is going to happen to them. Dramatic irony like that absolutely kills me. And since I have read The Illiad since, you know, I went to college, I knew what was going to happen.

I picked up this book at least five times before I made my way through it as, the first few times I tried, I got to the third page where Patroclus sees Achilles for the first time, my heart ached and I put it down again. I knew I had to read it, though, and one day, I just pushed through. I'm so glad I did.

The narrator of this book is Patroclus and he tells his life story, from when he was a small boy and saw Achilles for the first time at a sports event to the end of the Trojan War. Patroclus narrates his life with humor and amusement, as well as reflection and understanding. He's a ridiculously charming narrator and very easy to relate to, ignoring the fact that he's an ancient greek.

The writing style of this book is beautiful. It's simple and easy, bringing subjects that are usually told of in epic poems (and thus a bit hard to swallow) into a modern age where things just seem to work. Beyond that, the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles is absolutely beautiful. This book, to be honest, is more of a love story than anything. The relationship between the boys is the stuff of fairy tales and to explore it through Miller's writing is a treat.

It does get a bit hard to read towards the end, as you see the inevitable coming towards these two characters that you have watched grow and become great men. I started crying about forty pages before the end and didn't stop until about an hour after I finished. To be honest, I found it a bit funny that I was sitting in bed and crying about the Trojan War. The last few pages, however, are just spot on perfect and the kind of thing that books were created for, to show images like that.

This book won the Orange Prize for 2012 and it's clear to see why. It's an original take on an ancient tale, turning an epic story into a simple tale of two boys growing together. It's full of love and life, skill and song and every sort of thing a book should have. It's one of the best books I've ever read and I think you should go and read it. Yes, you.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale is one of those books that you always think you should have read but for some reason have never gotten around to. I bought myself a copy months ago so that I would finally read it but only got along to it now that I'm trying to read my entire collection of books so that I can give them away. Once I settle down again, though, I will have to get myself another copy because I absolutely loved it.

The Handmaid's Tale is set in a dystopian America that has recently undergone a major revolution. A fundamentalist theocracy has taken over and civilization has changed so as to be nigh unrecognizable. Taking their rules from a few passages in the Old Testament, the roles of men and women have been completely changed, a strange caste system having formed.

The heroine, known as Offred (for of Fred), is a handmaid for a Commander. Going off of an old Biblical precedent, households that are having problems with conceiving, are given a handmaid (if they're well off enough), a woman proven fertile that basically just serves as the womb of the family. She is not to be looked at, does nothing else but keeps herself comfortable, and once a month has to complete a ceremony with the Commander and the Wife in hopes of conceiving a child.

The novel is told completely through Offred's thoughts and memories. She tends to zone out and jump back in forth through time as she remembers the years before the new regime, her training to become a Handmaid once everything had changed and her present situation. 

It's strange but The Handmaid's Tale is one of those books that doesn't really need a plot. The world building and exploration of social mores is more than enough to fill all the pages. I found, as I was reading, that I had no idea where the plot was headed because I didn't really know what the plot was, other than Offred's life and I was completely fine with that. The world of The Handmaid's Tale just completely sucks you in and you find that hours have passed while you've read and you hadn't even noticed.

Another thing I loved about the book is the framing device. Well, you don't really know there's a framing device until the end of the novel. There is a wonderfully meta epilogue that is told as keynotes from an academic conference years in the future, post-Handmaid, discussing Handmaid as a historical text. As someone who just finished her Masters in English, this was completely up my alley. I loved what this allowed Atwood to do with the story and the insinuations she could make without messing up the extremely personal first person narrative that was the novel. It was absolutely brilliant.

I can't believe this is the first Atwood I've read. I've been meaning to read her forever and if this is any indication of how great an author she is, I'm jumping in feet first. I absolutely adored Handmaid's Tale and could not recommend it highly enough. Please, please read.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Visit Sunny Chernobyl! - Andrew Blackwell

Although I haven't reviewed many for this blog, I am a big fan of travelogues. I think perhaps it's that I'm such a big traveller myself (I'm writing this entry, for instance, on a train from Edinburgh to London after an impulsive holiday) that I enjoy reading the things that happen to others when they travel. There is nothing quite like experiencing new cultures and places and travelogues are the closest we're ever going to get to a real life adventure.

In Blackwell's book, a quest of sorts develops after a trip to a very polluted town in India at the tail end of a vacation. Seeing the way this town has been ravaged, he nonetheless finds it the most interesting part of the trip and so the theme of this book is founded: Blackwell is going to become an ecotourist of the world's most polluted places. 

Treating each trip like a vacation, Blackwell visits places renowned for their ecological problems: Chernobyl, the oil sands of Northern Canada, Port Arthur, Texas and the like. At each place, he treats the disaster as any other tourist trap, something to investigate and enjoy. Through this, the reader gets to understand both exactly what is happening at that point of the world and also a view of what it's really like, not just what the news portrays. 

The book starts a bit slow and, surprisingly, I found the chapter about Chernobyl to be one of the weaker ones. Perhaps it is that, as the trip continues, Blackwell throws more of himself into each subsequent trip, making the quest more and more personal as it goes on. It becomes more than a trip; it becomes something that he can cling to when his fiancee breaks off their engagement. 

That is one of the things I found most interesting about this book: there is an entire story told in perhaps fifty sentences total spread throughout the book about Blackwell's life outside the adventure. He proposes to his girlfriend, she says yes, the wedding is planned and upcoming and then she breaks it off. Although it is barely discussed in the novel, there is a definite undercurrent through the writing that intensifies as the travelogue goes on. I found this a very powerful device and it helped me get even more into the narrative.

Each chapter, as well, is memorable for different reasons. The Amazon chapter is entertaining if only for Blackwell's guide, Gil, who is such a ridiculous character. The chapter he spends at sea trying to find the giant pit of garbage in the ocean was perhaps my favorite, playing up how much Blackwell wants to be a sailor and written more like a captain's log than a narrative chapter. I was completely pulled into that chapter and was sad when it was over. I really enjoyed pretending to be a pirate with Blackwell.

Blackwell has a great style, telling each story with humor and empathy. He doesn't pull his punches and he definitely isn't afraid to hide anything. He comments on everything he sees and really seems to appreciate the trouble everyone is going to to help him out in the quest. He forms real bonds with the people he meets in each country, to the point where I could see him keeping in contact with them for a long time. It's things like that that really make travel diaries. 

Although it's a bit slow at times, Visit Sunny Chernobyl! is a fun exploration of worldwide problems. It's fun and interesting, a great combination. I would recommend it for those who enjoy travelogues and those who enjoy reading about the environment.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Blindness - Jose Saramago

You know those books that you know are really good and you know you should read and you know you'll probably like but you can never quite make yourself pick up? Yeah, that was Blindness for me for awhile. I really liked the idea of the plot and the author had won the Nobel for Literature the year before it was published so that gives you an idea of its quality. Nevertheless, it sat quite sadly on my bookshelf for months. 

However, with my imminent departure from the UK and the lack of room in my suitcase for books (and the ridiculously exorbitant amount they expect you to pay for shipping), I have started reading everything and anything I own and then, almost immediately, giving it to a friend I think might like it. And so it was with Blindness.

Blindness tells the story of a sudden epidemic of a new kind of blindness. One day, as a man sits in his car, waiting for the light to change, he no longer can see. It isn't a dark blindness, either; he can only see a bright white. A good samaritan helps him back to his home but then proceeds to steal his car. When his wife gets home, she takes the man to the eye doctor who has never seen anything like it. The next day, the "good samaritan", the eye doctor and various patients in the clinic that day become blind, as well.

As the blindness moves from person to person, seemingly from just making eye contact with each other, the government begins to worry and quarantines the blind and the infected into old mental hospitals. However, as the government begins to fall apart, the blind become rowdy and without a clear leadership, criminals begin to take over the ward.

Throughout all this, there is one character who can always see. The eye doctor's wife never goes blind but fakes it so that she can accompany her husband to the quarantine. She spends the novel trying to help but also having to pretend that she is also blind. It is with her character we are supposed to empathize with (and I did, at least) and her character that we see the suffering of the others.

The plot of Blindness is quite brilliant. It is always interesting and page turning, never growing dull. I also really enjoyed the narrative voice. It was a bit meandering, in the best kind of way, throwing in asides and ideas so much that the narrator became a sort of invisible character, someone watching a movie with you and making up comments as they go along.

The only thing that bothered me about Blindness, to be honest, was the formatting and some editing choices. Most of the story is told in huge, chunky paragraphs with long, run on sentences whose endings and beginnings don't make a ton of sense. While I understand at least part of the choice to do this, throwing the reader into a disorientated state with the characters, not allowing you to skim by forcing you to concentrate on long paragraphs, I still didn't enjoy it. But what can I say? I'm not a Nobel winner.

I did quite enjoy Blindness and found the plot very interesting. While it's not a super thriller, it's definitely page turning and I would recommend it, as long as you're up for the challenge.

Oh! And there's a lovely movie starring Julienne Moore and Mark Ruffalo. A great adaptation of the book. I think the end works particularly well in the movie version, I thought.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Is It Just Me? - Miranda Hart

I'll just be honest here: I'm a fan of Miranda Hart. I think she is very funny, very relatable and just all around a cool person. Well, not cool but that's the whole point. She isn't afraid to tell a story, no matter how embarrassing and then smile and go, "Right?" This is a big breath of fresh air and as I love her sitcom, Miranda, I was happy to give her first book a try.

Is It Just Me? is a nonfiction book, not really a memoir or an autobiography so much as an exploration of topics with silly anecdotes alongside. She uses the narrative device of talking to herself as an eighteen year old to get across lessons and morals or just simply as an excuse to tell more silly stories. 

I will admit, I found the talking to past!Miranda thing a bit off-putting when I started reading. It seemed to come out of nowhere and while I understood why it was happening, I didn't know if I liked it. However, as I got further into the book, I found it quite funny and enjoyed reading about young!Miranda's life. If you can believe it, I think she was cooler than me at that age. Way to go, Hart.

I really enjoyed reading her views on different things. Her dieting method, for example, is marvelous : basically, don't eat so much and do a bit of exercise. Very true and very concise. I do love the cutting through the nonsense. Her ideas on weddings, as well, are very fun.

It's a very quick read (I got through it in an evening) and very fun. Good for a bit of light-heartedness.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Ghostwritten - David Mitchell

After reading (and falling in love with) Cloud Atlas earlier this year, I definitely wanted to read another David Mitchell book and see what he could do in other stories. I had bought myself Ghostwritten when I finished my dissertation and hadn't sat down to read it yet. As I'm moving soon and trying to get rid of a lot of my books, I decided to start it.

Ghostwritten, much like Cloud Atlas, is written in sections. Each section is a different area of the globe and a different character. Sometimes the section is only one day in their life and sometimes it's whole months following them. Each character is a unique voice and each has something a bit strange going on. Sometimes there's a ghost involved, a noncorpus, a dopelganger. Sometimes there's something a bit technological like the Zookeeper and sometimes there's just a doomsday cult. Each of these characters is just living his or her own life in a world populated by the others but through Mitchell's prose, you see how each of them, despite being worlds away and incredibly different, impact each other. 

I devoured this book. I was just completely taken aback by how good it is. I like this idea of cutting a book into sections and then using each section as a way to make an individual work that will play into the whole. Cloud Atlas did this with time and Ghostwritten does this with place. You are very aware that things are happening at different ends of the globe, in differing levels of schooling, poverty and success. Still, somehow, each characters' choices and actions impact each other to an astounding degree. 

Another thing I loved was the fact that Ghostwritten seems to take place in the same world as Cloud Atlas. There are characters from CA that show up in Ghostwritten as side characters. I really appreciated that and there were even hints in Ghostwritten towards events that would happen in Cloud Atlas. Although these books were written years apart, I love the idea that Mitchell created characters he liked and them kept them, exploring their lives in later books. 

Beyond his character creation and lovely fluidity of plot, Mitchell is also a great wordsmith. He can describe things in a way that makes them real and immediate. I particularly love a passage where he describes the different London tube lines as different personalities. He says, "The Victoria Line for example, breezy and reliable. The Jubilee Line, the young disappointment of the family, branching out to the suburbs, eternally  having extensions planned, twisting round to Greenwich, and back under the river out east somewhere. The District and Circle Line, well, even Death would rather fork out for a taxi if he's in a hurry."It's just one of those things where you read, think 'yes', and move on with a smile on your face. 

I absolutely adored Ghostwritten and think you should definitely give it a try. I want to read everything Mitchell's ever written now. I'm quite the fan.

Monday, 7 January 2013

A Dance With Dragons - George R.R. Martin


There is something very intimidating about picking up a Song of Ice and Fire book months after you've finished the last ones. I tended to take breaks in-between the books but this was the longest pause I had taken, to the point where I didn't even remember what had happened at the end of the last book. Luckily, Song of Ice and Fire is so popular that there were tons of websites that could help me out.

Dance with Dragons takes place at mostly the same time as Feast for Crows but from different characters' points of view. Going in, I didn't think I would like it as much because it was more peripheral characters, ones that had ventured beyond the main bits of Westros and were in uncharted territories. However, this turned out to be a blessing in disguise because there are some very exciting things happening beyond the Narrow Sea.

I'm usually not a big fan of Dany's stories but this book kept me hooked, mainly because there were so many people out to find Dany that I wanted to know just who would make it. I'm still not entirely sure what she thinks she's doing out in Meereen but to each dragon queen, her own. I did enjoy hearing about the things the dragons were up to because them being dangerous, though obvious, was unexpected and I liked Dany losing a bit of her control.

Tyrion continues to delight the reader with his wits and cunning. I have no idea what is going to happen to this guy as the story goes on but I love reading about him. His time in Griff's company was great and I love his strange friendship with Penny, who I think is lovely. She's a great additional character.

I'm enjoying Griff very much, as well. I like that we have a few new characters in this book to follow. Griff and his boy, along with the rest of their strange party, add a lot to the story, bringing in a new possible ending and some good intrigue. 

I continue to adore Dorne and everyone in Dorne. I thought Quentyn was a great character, a good addition to the mix. I want to hear more about Arianne in the next book and I think we will so I'm quite excited about that. Westros could definitely use some more Dornishmen.

The use of the Boltons is getting a bit old. Although they are some very nasty enemies and that Ramsay is a piece of work, I think we need to move on the tiniest bit. Can someone just flay Ramsay and get on with it?

The Wall continues to be interesting, although it has become a bit overly political with Stannis up there. I like having a Melisandre POV chapter, though, which I thought was very interesting and added a lot to her character that wasn't normally there. Definitely a good addition.

All in all, I think Dance with Dragons was a good continuation of the series but definitely left out a lot that should have been included. And you all know we're going to have to wait years for Winds of Winter. Ah well. Winter is coming, eventually.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Blood Sisters: The Women Who Won the War of the Roses - Sarah Gristwood

After all the lightness of the past two books, I was in the mood for something a bit more serious and I was very intrigued by this nonfiction book exploring the events of the War of the Roses from the point of view of the women involved. To be perfectly honest, much of my knowledge of English history comes from literature, Shakespeare in particular. We all know that while Shakespeare got the gist of the story, he definitely took heavy dramatic license and I was interested to read the story from someone who would be telling me the facts, not just the fun bits.

Blood Sisters begins with Henry VI marrying Marguerite of Anjou. Marguerite comes over from France as a young girl, not quite knowing what's in store for her. Gristwood manages to weave together a bunch of different women who will all become important as the story moves forward, telling us what a different woman is doing at times, if she's just being born or being betrothed to someone she won't end up marrying. 

The War of the Roses is a very interesting time in English history. The crown keeps going back and forth between different people, different kings fighting cousins and brothers for control. Although I knew the basics of the conflict, I was happy to find most of the events spelled out to me in normal English as I was better able to follow the actions and beliefs of the people involved.

Following it from the women's point of view, as well, adds to the story as you get more about the children and the different things the people expected out of them. Marguerite tried to be strong and was called unfeminine. Elizabeth would do the same thing a hundred and fifty years later and be praised for it. 

You really got a feeling for each of the women, how they reacted and felt about different actions and people. You could guess how each woman would act in different situations and what was important to them. Although this is all the stuff of history, it really came to life with Gristwood's words and she was very good about trying to give all sides of a situation (while subtly pushing her own.)

The only real issue I had with the book was how it was formatted. I read it electronically and while there was nothing wrong with that, I was surprised to find a whole section of notes past the acknowledgements that would have been very helpful to know about while I was actually reading the book. Although they are, of course, in the table of contents, they are not appropriately referenced in the text that it is hard to find what they are referring to. Also, there are footnotes already in the text itself that seem about the same importance as what you find in the appendix. I wish that had been formatted a bit better but that is a minor annoyance, I suppose.

I really enjoyed this book and think it is good reading for anyone who wants to know more about this interesting period of English history. Highly recommended.