Friday, 29 March 2013

Book Reviews - March 2013

The Discovery Of ChocolateThe Discovery Of Chocolate by James Runcie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Some of the 'facts' were a little out of kilter with the actual history of places but thankfully I am one who can ignore those and just take a story for what it is...a story.

Travelling through time Diego and his dog discover and experiment with chocolate. From Cortez's expedition to Mexico and meeting with Montezuma, through the French revolution, creating Sacher torte and into the twentieth century this is a light-touch tour of history and the history of chocolate with some love thrown in.

The novel is not going to test anyone's vocabulary or make them think overly but it is a pleasant read. Ideal for the beach or time spent at airports and onboard a plane (as I did).

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CoriolanusCoriolanus by Lee Bliss
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I've never been much of a fan of Shakespeare's plays so with some little trepidation did I approach Coriolanus. Pigeon-holed as a tragedy in 1623 by Heminges and Condell the play has perhaps suffered from genre-typing. This is not the tragedy one may expect if thinking of Lear, Othello, Hamlet or Macbeth - there are no heart-rending, soul-searching soliloquies to give insight into the man's psyche. This is the tragedy of a public man, played out in the public arena. It is also full of commentary on the political situation at the time.

The introduction by Lee Bliss can be a little dry at times but it is comprehensive. I would recommend working your way through it in order to appreciate some of the political angles Shakespeare obliquely puts in.

Overall, this is a tragedy for the people, the city, the public man and worth the read.


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The Long and the Short of ItThe Long and the Short of It by Jan Ruth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jan has taken 5 instances of human emotion and thrown some Celtic magic over them. Each of the short stories takes the reader to a different emotional space, ones that you recognise even if you have not experienced them, and pulls you in. The stories may be short but they are fully formed, Jan Ruth has not skimped on detail and you are fulfilled at the end.

My favourites were Over the Moon and Two Hearts, One Soul which, though touching different emotional triggers, left me with a sense of satisfaction in each case.

The bonus of this book is the three chapters, one from each of Jan Ruth's full length works, that tempt you to savour them.

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The Book of Human SkinThe Book of Human Skin by Michelle Lovric
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is a year since I finished reading this novel (and noticed I'd failed to put a review up) but I can honestly say I recall it very clearly and that is the sign of a good read.

Was it the morbidity that kept the novel in my mind? I think to a large degree it was. A person with a deviated mind, sick perversions and the stories of his victims were written in such a way that I cannot forget them.

I won't put a synopsis in this review as I think the reader needs to make their own way through this work. If there is one criticism it would be the ending which I felt was a little rushed, as if Lovric did not know what to do with her left-over characters. For all that, this is a read that lingers...

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Sunday, 3 March 2013

My Top 10 of Fiction


Over a year ago I wrote a blog post about my Top 10 works of fiction and thought it was time to review it. Had anything changed? Yes, one. Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte has been demoted and Animal Farm by George Orwell has taken its place. This has been brought about by reading a Bertolt Brecht adaptation of Shakespeare's Coriolanus. The rhyming couplets employed by the plebians as they thought up slogans for their uprising reminded me of Orwell's work, so I whipped out a copy and read it again. 

The other nine remain the same, one of the criteria for making the top 10 is that these are works that I can revisit time and time again. Here they are in no particular order. I have cheated a little (or have I?) by including an anthology and a ‘complete works’. 
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
I like the characterisation and the thwarted love story. But more than that I like the portrayal of the America of the 1920s – bootlegging, excess, the jazz age – and ultimately the corruption of the American Dream.  You can read it with all its nuances or purely as a love story – it does its work on more than one level.
Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie
Excellent! Since when did all those with a motive all carry out the murder? Original, suspenseful and, as always with Christie, good characterisation. I did own all Christie’s works but sold them when I moved to Spain (couldn’t afford yet another storage container, it broke my heart). I like a good murder mystery that you can rip through in an afternoon and there are none better than Christie.
Tess of the D’Ubervilles, Thomas Hardy
I was introduced to Thomas Hardy’s written work through ‘The Return of the Native’ for my A level English Lit. Surprisingly it did not put me off but that may have been because I had seen Tess and Madding Crowd as TV adaptations when younger and liked the stories. I admire the way in which Hardy portrays his heroines with compassion, highlighting the Victorian hypocrisy of sexual mores. Hardy is also sympathetic to the rural way of life and how it is transformed by the on-going industrialisation. Particularly in ‘Tess’ it is the effect of the new social elite with their money from industry on the ‘old families’ and Hardy’s assertion that to be of  old stock is far from desirable that strikes a chord. Little wonder his works caused a stir in his lifetime.
Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
Gothic; Horror; a commentary on the pursuit of knowledge, social acceptance of non-conformity, birth and death, sublime nature and much more besides. I have never been so glad that I was able to read the book and to dismiss all previously seen appalling filmic interpretations from my mind. This book has more levels to it than can ever be expressed in film. From the moment the creature was ‘born’ I felt empathy and sympathy for it. To my mind Victor Frankenstein is one of the greatest literary villains ever created.  I LOVE this book.
The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde
What can you say about Wilde that has not already been said? The wit, the acute observation of society and some of the most memorable lines in literature; be it plays, short stories or ‘Dorian Gray’ there is skill in these writings. Apart from ‘The Happy Prince’, which makes me cry every time, the works of Wilde put a smile on my face. His is laugh out loud humour that will get you funny looks on the train – but who cares, it is superb.
The Turn of the Screw, Henry James
Yes, more horror with a touch of Gothic. I read this work as part of my A level English Lit dissertation which I titled, ‘Psychological Horror as a Literary Genre’. I wish I still had that paper; it had the makings of a bloody good piece of literary analysis. That aside, this story gripped me. I could not make up my mind as to where the horror emanated from for ages; it kept me on my toes and who is to say that my interpretation is correct. It is the story’s very ambiguity that makes it such a cracking read.
The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Stories, Edgar Allan Poe
Mm, my English Lit A level has a lot to answer for. These stories were also part of my dissertation, particularly ‘House of Usher’ and ‘The Pit and the Pendulum.’ Poe combined the gothic horror literature, such as the House of Usher and ‘Ligeia,’ with the detective fiction genre in ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ and ‘The Purloined Letter.’ These are two of my favourite genres as can be quite clearly seen from my list but Poe stands above the rabble. I think that Poe’s work as a literary critic was invaluable in helping him create the characterisation, plots and to use the language most appropriate for each of the genres in which he wrote. You can tell that he took time to make sure that the words and imagery he used conjured up the desired effect.
Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
‘Ah those Russians’ to quote Boney M. Only one of them made it into the top 10 but what a book. Murder, philosophical arguments as to the ability, and even right, to commit murder, wrapped up in the story of an impoverished, conflicted student. Little wonder as a student I was drawn to it.  Even better that as a slightly maturer being I am able to revisit and delve more deeply into the philosophical arguments within it. Every reading makes me consider the arguments differently; it is like reading a new book each time.
 The Life of Pi, Yann Martel
This is a departure from the other nine in the list; I’ve only just noticed now I’ve come to write about it. Interpretations of the same event, I had to read the book again to see what clues I had missed in the first reading. I still enjoyed it on the second reading, and the third. It’s the carnivorous island that haunts me. If a book remains within your mind (in a positive sense) for some time after reading then it definitely has something. I’m still not entirely sure what that something is with Pi, but it has it.

Animal Farm, George Orwell
Written during the second world war Animal Farm is allegorical looking at the Russian Revoultion of 1917 and the Stalin era of the Soviet Union. This was the first 'political' book I had read (swiftly followed by Orwell's 1984) and the use of animals, perversely, made it more real for me. Orwell was a socialist but he did not approve of Stalin's brand of socialism and made it very clear by making the Stalin figure a large Berkshire Boar called Napoleon. I cry every time I read of the old workhorse leaving for the 'hospital'. It is a book that touches me.
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