Saturday, 24 January 2015

Charles Dickens by Simon Callow

"This was pure bliss for Dickens: making things happen by throwing all his energies at them, performing the role of the director - and indeed the role of the character in the play - to the hilt, leading his band of players and prompters to the top of the theatrical mountain."

I liked this book so much I bought it twice. Let me explain. I was supremely fortunate enough to witness first hand Simon Callow's address to the Melbourne Writer's Festival on Charles Dickens and quickly snapped up a copy post speech. That copy sat in my to read pile through 4 moves - namely because I have a large to read pile.

I finally cracked the covers some time last year and was immediately enchanted. So much so, that the book accompanied me on buses, ferries, trains and taxis and at page 160, that is no doubt where the ill fated tome ended up.

When its replacement arrived recently, I figured it was time to make haste while the sun shined and was not disappointed. Callow's joy in Dickens' works and portrayal of the importance of theatrical performance and character study is fantastic.

I have to say that after listening to his speech, I started reading a number of Dickens novels that I had avoided to date - intimidated by size and language. One unforgettable message is the power of reading Dickens aloud - something which has the power to truly alter your experience, if like me, you had been a little reticent to jump in.

The life, loves, performances and personal history of the author is delightfully captured and Callow's prose is easy to devour.

5 out of 5 best of times.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Fear of Flying by Erica Jong

"Zipless, you see, not  because European men have button-flies rather than zipper-flies, and not because the participants are so devastatingly attractive, but because the incident has all the swift compression of a dream and is seemingly free of all remorse and guilt"

Ah Isadora, ditching your boring dependable husband for a decent sexual adventure with an unreliable Englishman; what would you make of today's Tinder fuelled get togethers?
I was torn by this book, some of it was a tad close to home; honestly lady, get out of my head.The rest was a little frustrating.

Choosing freedom and unbridled lust works for a while, but then, after celebrating the notion of no guilt and just enjoying life, she misses poor old reliable Bennett and bubble-bath.That really annoyed me!

Perhaps that is all our cross to bear as the female of the species. We're constantly told that we have to settle - mainly due to the horrendous beating of the reproductive drum. If we dare to unleash the inner minx, we're branded with horrid slurs and sometimes end up believing them.

There is a navel gazing honesty in this novel that explains its success and its ability to remain relevant. Then of course there is also that train scenario which, lets face it, sounds pretty tempting. Ladies, if you haven't had an Adrian like crazy episode in your life, your memoirs might be sadly lacking, but your life might be just fine. I'd take the memoirs option.

5 out of 5 eternal optimists dream of a happy ending.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum by Heinrich Boll

“He had wanted a bang, hadn't he, and I'd banged, hadn't I?”

This is a relatively short read that for me, necessitated a second look. Perhaps I read through it a little quickly on the first pass and on reflection I derived a whole  lot more than the first.

It seems oddly appropriate for today, where the 24 hour news cycle acts as judge, juror and executioner, to explore this story. The prose is direct and to the point, it reads almost like a police report and that fits perfectly with the subject matter.

 4 out of 5 words get twisted in the ether.

Friday, 9 January 2015

The History of Love by Nicole Krauss

"I don't know what  I expected, but I expected something"

Another hard fought tick of the 1001 books to read list down for the year and this one proved an initially difficult read. Engagement with the convoluted plot and diverse characters was particularly challenging, right up until the final few chapters.

Strangely enough, it was the ending which completely drew me in and made me re-evaluate my initially negative response to the text. The books is quite postmodern, a book within a book, challenging the divisions between the real and imagined.

It is the story of 15 year old Alma Singer that drew me in, one of a number of tales that appear completely independent save for their interaction with the book The History of Love. The mystery that surrounds the book and its authorship almost make it another character in of itself.

4 out of 5 books are full of love.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

The Lady Vanishes by Ethel Lina White

"Her witnesses must satisfy the most exacting taste - being British to the core."

Reading the novel that formed the basis of the Hitchcock classic was lots of fun. I'm currently re-watching the film to refresh my memory and there are a great deal of differences and yet some central similarities.

Warning: Spoilers lie ahead.

In the novel, there is quite a lot more back story with Iris and her scandalous friends. This is hinted at in the movie where she throws her money about, drinking champagne and tossing people out of their rooms in the hotel, but neglects the partner swapping and near naked hi jinks of the novel.

Miss Froy, while middle-aged, seems a lot younger in the novel and is not part of a spy ring, so as you can imagine, the central business of the story is changed significantly.Mind you, I absolutely love the Miss Froy of the movie - it is almost impossible to watch the film without loving her.

In the novel we learn to harbour a fear of the Doctor character far earlier on, with Miss Froy's tale about the wrongly diagnosed young woman trapped in the asylum.
The reason for the lady vanishing in the novel lies more in what Miss Froy is a witness to rather than humming a tune to relay information back to the Foreign Office as in Hitchcock's film.

Put simply, both works are great and I really enjoyed their differences. The novel reads more like a morality tale in some ways. Ignoring and treating fellow hotel guests with disdain leads to a lack of sympathy from them when Iris gets into trouble. All the passengers, particularly the 'newly-weds' (the adulterous couple whose story is more fleshed out in the novel) have their reasons to ignore Iris' pleas for help, wanting an uninterrupted return to England and thus put the life of Miss Froy in danger.

The movie to me, seems more about the growing love story that guides Iris' progress and I confess to enjoying the visually appealing couple in focus.

5 out of 5 train trips are never this eventful.

Friday, 2 January 2015

Yes Please by Amy Poehler

“Drink­ing and dri­ving is the ab­solute worst, be­cause un­like doing coke in your base­ment while you teach your­self gui­tar, you could kill some­one else”

I didn’t expect to enjoy this even more than her comedy counterpart’s recent book BossyPants, but I did. Amy seems like the kind of crazy I’d enjoy hanging out with.

Amy is self deprecatory, effusive in her praise for her friends and colleagues and of course, down right funny. The photographs and mementoes included are destined to bring a smile to your face. I loved the the time travelling swim suit too.

The section on the mobile phone reminds me so much of myself, that and the reaction to the Haitian chauffeur.

My first book read for 2015 and what a positive start to the year! Perhaps I should have had writing more insightful reviews as my resolution, but who keeps those anyway.

5 out of 5, yes I’ll have what she’s having.

The Eye of Zoltar by Jasper Fforde

"The King and Queen had told me she needed educating, and a fact-finding mission to the wildly unpredictable Cambrian Empire might be just the thing"

The third instalment of the Last Dragonslayer series is, put simply, great fun. I love Fforde's zany tales, and Jennifer Strange is such an endearing character. 

Throw in a dangerous quest ( is it a quest, well it sort of is a quest, but unofficially) in a treacherous land, with a ten year old tour guide, a trainee wizard and a disguised princess of Snood ( that disguise isn't fooling anyone).

Off to find the Eye of Zoltar, will Kazam's acting head triumph or fall victim, the statistics don't look good. Chock full of giggles and unlikely adventures this will keep your inner child entertained.

5 out of 5 plastic dragons make good pool toys.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Funny Girl by Nick Hornby

"Being at the top of your ca­reer was like being at the top of a Fer­ris wheel: you knew that you had to keep mov­ing, and you knew which way you were going."

This delightful tale from Mr Hornby sees former beauty pageant contestant, Barbara from Blackpool, discover a successful sitcom career in the 1960s.
It is a snappy and entertaining read, framed in a non-fiction style, complete with photography of actual events that are incorporated into the story to give a sense of the period.
I don't want to spoil this one for you. 

5 out of 5 bathing beauties make it big.

The Return of The Soldier by Rebecca West

" So Kitty lay about like a broken doll, face downward on a sofa, with one limp arm dangling to the floor, or protruding stiff feet in fantastic slippers from the end of her curtained bed; and I tried to make my permanent wear that mood which had mitigated the end of my journey with Margaret "

A harrowing look at the after effects of war that is brilliantly rendered. You can really feel the emotions here giving a sense of the contemporary to a book that was published in 1918.
Before PTSD was a commonly known phenomenon, particularly in relation to the horrors of war, this gives an insight into the impact on the loved ones waiting at home for their returning warriors.

The narrator, is the cousin of the returning soldier, who sees first hand the outcome of the return of her shell shocked cousin, Chris, from the battlefield on his family. Kitty, Chris' wife, has struggled with stoicism through the lack of communication from the front and is initially incredulous that her loving husband can no longer remember she exists.

Beautifully written and moving, it is amazing that so much emotion can be derived from such a short story that still retains its resonance today.

 5 out of 5

Hit List by Laurell K Hamilton

"Ed­ward nod­ded, smil­ing his Ted smile, as he tipped his hat back from his fore­head, his P90 pointed one-handed at the ground."

I felt like diving back into Anita Blake territory and frankly I think this one was an improvement. I enjoy her adventures with Edward, its amusing that the one truly sex-free relationship she has with a man in some ways seems the most intimate.

Yet another serial killer ( goodness there are a lot in her life) brings the crime solving duo. Oh look, its that nasty Harlequin, shady killer organisation again. They are pesky!
Taking on Mammie Noir, Anita is in fine form and her latest addition to the throng of men in her thrall, the rather tasty Ethan, is a great additional tiger.

3 out of 5 bad vamps get sucked dry.

Morvern Callar by Alan Warner

"Though he was dead I used the air freshener spray"

It is rare that I read something which really shocks me. This was that novel. A typical reaction to discovering your boyfriend has killed himself right next to you, might not be to go get drunk, get high, have random group sex and head off on the equivalent of a Contiki tour while laying claim to the boyfriend's magnum opus.

As dark as things appear there is something quite compelling about the text that will have you reading on.

It is haunting, disturbing and in eliciting such shock and dismay, quite brilliant in its delivery. Having said that it left a bad taste in my mouth, like a really horrid hangover.

4 out of 5  - christmas should not be like this.

The Rachel Papers by Martin Amis

"Noth­ing of the kind, need­less to say: just two jabs of peni­cillin up the bum and much hu­mil­i­a­tion at the local clinic."

There is something rather clever about this novel, it encapsulates that annoying self-obsessed insular world that we have all inhabited in our late teens and early twenties.Charles is the warts and all embodiment of that time. His quest to over-come the clap, competition from America in the form of DeForest to win over the Rachel of the title.

I enjoyed the humour inherent in the story. Charles' description of himself at the beginning as:

     "It's such a rangy, well-trav­elled, big-cocked name and, to look at, I am none of these."

His diaries and notes form the basis of this relatively short read and I think I only removed one point because I remember how horrid I was at that age, along with the aspects of Charles' character which are less than favourable.

4 out of 5 randy twenty year olds should be more careful

Much Obliged, Jeeves by P.G.Wodehouse

"When a man is an old friend and pretty bosom at that, it depresses you to hear that he's engaged to Florence Craye."

What isn't to love about an outing with Jeeves and Bertie Wooster? 

This one seemed familiar, however, that did nothing to diminish its enjoyment for me. A book kept by the butlers of the upper set containing all their escapades and foibles, has gone missing and spells trouble for all and sundry. Bertie and his friends are firmly ensconced in their usual dilemmas trying to get into or out of prospective marriages, add a soupcon of crazy aunts and queue the laughter.

If you are ever feeling a little bit blue, overwhelmed by the horrors of the 24 hour news cycle or just basically in need of a pick me up, Wodehouse never fails to deliver. He is literary prozac. In the words of Jeeves 'Very Good Sir'.

5 out of 5 butlers make a mean G & T.

Doomed Love By Virgil

"His tall body was left lying headless on the shore, and by it the head hacked from his shoulders: a corpse without a name"

Well, if you've read the quote above you might get the impression that this little book's inclusion in the Penguin Great Loves series might seem a little unlikely. I confess I've been trying to complete the collection because they look cute on my bookshelf and at around 100 pages each, make for a quick nibble of a read.

This particular volume represents an excerpt from the Aneneid which to be honest I thought I'd read before, however my Goodreads  list says otherwise. As a child I was a huge fan of ancient Greek and Roman tales, perhaps my tastes have changed with age. I found the prose of this translation hard going.Making 130 pages of text feel like 1030.

This was another effort to beat the NYE countdown and finish off my reading challenge and I guess it served that purpose.

2 out of 5 loves are doomed

Woman In The Dark by Dashiell Hammett

"She had on a pink wrap­per over a pink silk night­gown and green mules dec­o­rated with yel­low feath­ers."

This one was a last minute quick read to up my tally and meet my reading challenge goal of 120 books for 2015. Okay, I revised down my challenge when I realised 230 was impossible for me to achieve whilst holding down a job and being a functioning human.
A return to the noir world of Dashiell Hammett seemed a no-brainer and this one is a speedy read with some classic noir flourishes, dame on the run after getting mixed up with the wrong crowd... I think you know the drill.
Nowhere near as fun as The Thin Man  or as captivating as The Maltese Falcon. Apparently this work was also adapted into a movie in 1934 starring Fay Wray (from King Kong  fame).
For a more indepth review, I found a great one here at Tipping My Fedora.
3 out of 5 stone cold kissers in this one.

Varney the Vampire by Thomas Peckett Prest


"The eyes look like pol­ished tin; the lips are drawn back, and the prin­ci­pal fea­ture next to those dread­ful eyes is the teeth—the fear­ful look­ing teeth—pro­ject­ing like those of some wild an­i­mal, hideously, glar­ingly white, and fang-like."

I had no idea what a marathon i was embarking upon when I commenced reading this never-ending vampire tale. It took me over a year of sheer bloody minded perseverance and and impending new year deadline to finally knock this one over and the fireworks were warranted.

This is the penny dreadful vampire figure so ingrained in our popular culture. This is the kind of melodrama that would have been delightful for a small snippet and yet becomes fiercely tiresome after more than 500 pages and unbearable by the end.

Reading this makes for an interesting exploration of the history of the vampire in popular culture and that is about where the interest wanes. There are moments of entertainment that kept me going, but I continually lost interest, broke off, only to return much later, still confused about where  I was up to.

I have since discovered that the Gutenberg epub that I read missed the final few chapters. Well I won't be actively seeking them out at this stage. I'm calling this one read!

3 out of 5 Gothic moments won't make this worth the 

A Brief History of the Private Life of Elizabeth II by Michael Paterson

"They crowded to look at her at every opportunity and, when she discovered they were disappointed not to see her wearing more jewellery, she obliged by putting on in public every stone she had available"

A quick and easy read which gives an arms length view into the life and times of Elizabeth II. 

Clearly she is a switched on woman with a particularly demanding career. The book highlights the great divide between her need to remain popular, while maintaining the distance and mystique that her office demands.

4 out of 5 royal waves must get exhausting