Thursday, 20 December 2012

End of Year Book Survey 2012

Over at The Perpetual Page-Turner, Jamie has put together the End of Year Book Survey. As this was my first year of book blogging, I've decided to join in and revisit some of my favourite books from this past year!

1. Best book you read in 2012?
Adult fiction: The Group, by Mary McCarthy, and The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach.
YA fiction: The Boyfriend List/The Boy Book by E. Lockhart and Amy & Roger's Epic Detour by Morgan Matson.
Non-fiction: The Lost Continent by Bill Bryson.

(A little bit of cheating there, maybe... But it's difficult to narrow down!)

2. Book you were excited about and thought you were going to love more but didn't?
Queen Camilla, by Sue Townsend. A sequel to one of my all-time favourite books, The Queen and I, but this one just didn't grab me and seemed quite weak in comparison. Gaudy Night, by Dorothy L. Sayers, was also good but not as good as I'd hoped, and I really didn't enjoy The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer E. Smith, even though I was convinced it'd be just my thing.

3. Most surprising (in a good way!) book of 2012?
Equal Rites, by Terry Pratchett. I'd never read any Pratchett before, and was certain it wasn't really for me, but I borrowed this from a friend and thought it was excellent.

4. Book you recommended to people most in 2012?
How To Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran. I lent my own copy to my mum, and after going on about it so much my housemate at the time, and a good friend of mine, both read it too.

5. Best series you discovered in 2012?
The Ruby Oliver series by E. Lockhart. I still have to read the third and fourth books, but the first two were absolutely brilliant.

6. Favourite new authors you discovered in 2012?
E. Lockhart, Morgan Matson, Brigid Lowry, Mary McCarthy and Chad Harbach.

7. Best book that was out of your comfort zone or was a new genre for you?
Probably Riding the Magic Carpet by Tom Anderson. Although it forms a travelogue of sorts, which is a genre I enjoy, this book was about surfing, a sport of which I have a limited knowledge!

8. Most thrilling, unputdownable book in 2012?
Both Amy & Roger's Epic Detour, and If I Stay by Gayle Forman, were very much 'just one more chapter' reads this year.

9. Book you read in 2012 that you are most likely to re-read next year?
I'm not really a re-reader, bar a few favourite series, although there are plenty of books I read for my thesis (which I don't track or blog about) that I will no doubt have to revisit!

10. Favourite cover of a book you read in 2012?
If anything, there were more dodgy covers that good ones, looking back - but my favourite was Fatherland by Robert Harris. Maybe "favourite" is the wrong word, but it certainly has impact, and not only the cover but the edges of all the pages are red, too, which makes it unusual.

11. Most memorable character in 2012?
Ruby Oliver, from The Boyfriend List series, and Tyrion and Arya from the A Song of Ice and Fire series.

12. Most beautifully written book read in 2012?
Tigers In Red Weather by Liza Klaussmann.

13. Book that had the greatest impact on you in 2012?
The Group, for some wonderful writing and a brilliant examination of women in the 1930s, and Fatherland, for an alternate post-WWII history that was genuinely chilling in places.

14. Book you can't believe you waited UNTIL 2012 to finally read?
I started reading Pride and Prejudice, but seeing as I still haven't finished it, I'll have to say either The Group (again) or The Laughing Policeman by Martin Beck, one of the original Scandinavian crime gems.

15. Favourite passage/quote from a book you read in 2012?
I am terrible at remembering quotes from books, so I'll just offer up this passage from Equal Rites:

“At some time in the recent past someone had decided to brighten the ancient corridors of the University by painting them, having some vague notion that Learning Should Be Fun. It hadn’t worked. It’s a fact known throughout the universes that no matter how carefully the colors are chosen, institutional decor ends up as either vomit green, unmentionable brown, nicotine yellow or surgical appliance pink. By some little-understood process of sympathetic resonance, corridors painted in those colors always smell slightly of boiled cabbage—even if no cabbage is ever cooked in the vicinity.”

16. Shortest and longest book you read in 2012?
Longest: A Feast For Crows by George R. R. Martin. Not my favourite of the series, mostly because of all the new characters and plot points that it had to establish. It was worth it in the end, but it was a slog at times!
Shortest: Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan. There were a few short books I read this year, but I remember this being finished in an afternoon.

17. Book that had a scene in it that had you reeling and dying to talk to somebody about it?
Overall, this probably has to be between A Feast For Crows and the two parts of A Storm of Swords - I read all of these books after my brother had finished with them, and had to pick them apart with him every time I went home.

18. Favourite relationship from a book you read in 2012?
Probably the sibling relationship in Brigid Lowry's Follow The Blue. While most of it occurred in the background of the novel, it was warm and realistic and really enhanced the story.

19. Favourite book you read in 2012 from an author you read previously?
Looking back I read more authors for the first time than authors I'd read previously, but I think this would have to be The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, who wrote Middlesex and The Virgin Suicides.

20. Best book that you read based SOLELY on a recommendation from somebody else?
Losing It, by Julia Lawrinson, which was recommended by Mandee at VeganYANerds, who then sent me a copy to read. Other than that, Equal Rites.

I have a busy Christmas period on the horizon, including some time with my family, a trip to see some old uni friends, and Christmas with the boy by the sea. Hope everyone has an excellent holiday, and I'll be back on the blog in the New Year!

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Review: Heist Society, Ally Carter

Heist Society

Ally Carter

Orchard Books, 2011 (2010)

When Katarina Bishop was three, her parents took her on a trip to the Louvre…to case it. For her seventh birthday, Katarina and her Uncle Eddie traveled to Austria…to steal the crown jewels. When Kat turned fifteen, she planned a con of her own—scamming her way into the best boarding school in the country, determined to leave the family business behind. But now her dad's life is on the line, and Kat must go back to the world she tried so hard to escape...

This book was a lot like being swept up on a wave of improbability and having such a fun time that you forget to look down until the end. This was my second Ally Carter novel - the other being the first Gallagher Girls book - and the two have a lot in common.While the Gallagher Girls books take place in a boarding school for spies, Heist Society opens up with Kat being expelled from her prestigious school for a crime she didn't commit. She finds herself thrust back into a world of robbery, heists, secrecy and ingenuity, a life she has tried to escape only to find she must pull off the most difficult job yet in order to save her father's life.

Carter gets the pacing spot on in this book, and I think this is its outstanding feature. The backstory is only ever glimpsed or mentioned briefly by other characters. It has to be pieced together, rather than stopping for much exposition, and this meant the action started up almost immediately and didn't let up until the end. Kat has a certain number of days in which to steal a number of paintings from the world's most impenetrable gallery, aided by a group of her equally skilled friends. A bit like Ocean's 11 with fifteen year olds.

The plot is vaguely ludicrous and highly improbable, and the reason that Kat must do the theft in the first place is a bit mad, but as a piece of fun action-adventure it works. It would almost work better as a film that as a book, in a way. There's a romantic element that lingers in the background, but I wonder if that is explored over subsequent books in the series - there were a few things in Heist Society (the dead mother, the family business that Kat maintains an uneasy relationship with, her reasons for running away to school) that seemed important but had to remain on the sidelines, that I suspect might be revisited in later installments.

A fun, slightly silly but gripping adventure with a lot of dashing around Europe and plenty of instances of distracting security guards, crawling through air vents, and hacking into the mainframe. This is definitely worth a read if you enjoyed Carter's other series, or if you just fancy a bit of escapism.

Overall rating: 5.5/10

Book source: Borrowed from the library.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Review: With Lots of Love From Georgia, Brigid Lowry

With Lots of Love From Georgia

Brigid Lowry

Allen & Unwin, 2005

My name is Georgia. I live in a town called Anywhere, that has too many shopping malls and not enough skate parks. I like to think of myself as a brilliant creative person, but sometimes I just feel like a sad lonely girl with a big bum.

Things I want:
A magic bicycle
Two tickets to Natural Affinity
A Vietnamese blue silk eiderdown
To see a ghost
Eva to shift to another planet
A cyborg to clean my room
Purple tulips

If Seinfeld was an Australian YA book about a fifteen year old girl whose main aim in life is to save enough money for tickets to a pop concert, this might be it.

Well, okay, not really, but Seinfeld was famed for being about 'nothing', and in a way this book is about nothing, too. That's not say it's boring, and there's certainly a lot of different threads - but rather than focus on any of these, it's more about Georgia's journey through.

Georgia lives with her mum. Her dad died when she was young, and her mum remains fixated on her dad's memory. She's close to her grandad, but the rest of her family drive her a bit mad - her crazy aunt, her other aunt and uncle, who can't stop fighting, and her cousin Gilda, limp and disappearing under the weight of her parents' constant battles. Georgia's best friend is Mel, a vegan girl with acne who understands Georgia's anguish at not looking like everyone else, except Mel is a) in love and b) going to the beach for the summer, leaving Georgia all alone.

Feeling alone, Georgia starts to make lists. Useful lists and silly lists and wishful lists, all in a yellow journal. Her aim is to save up enough money to see her favourite band, Natural Affinity, in Melbourne, which prompts a string of jobs over her lonely summer. She hangs out with the cool kids but still feels inferior. She and her mum tiptoe around the subject of her dad. And, obviously, there's a boy.

I still couldn't say the book was about any of these things: mostly, it's about all of these things to some extent, but moreover it's a kind of coming of age, as Georgia comes to terms with her family, her friends, and herself. On occasion I found her narrative voice to be annoying, but the more I thought about it the more I think Lowry got it spot on. There's an edge to some of the things she says, a kind of self-righteous defensiveness, that reminded me of someone I knew when I was a teenager. But then a lot of the things that Georgia is dealing with - insecurities about her weight and appearance, growing apart from her best friend, simultaneously wanting and not-wanting to be like everyone else - reminded me of the same person, so although it was a little bit annoying at times it did in fact ring true for me.

That's not to say Georgia is an annoying character - it's easy enough to sympathise with her, and I liked that there wasn't a miracle makeover involved at any point, and that the boy wasn't used simply to fix all of her problems. Her changing relationship with Mel was also interesting, and there were some nice moments between Georgia and her grandad.

My only real issue was that although Georgia's voice rang true, some of the conversations didn't. Some of the conversations between the teenage characters sounded very obviously written by an adult, and rather than have conversations develop a character would just say everything they needed to say in one go, or offer up a handy pseudo-psychological reasoning for their actions, one of those "I'm sorry I yelled but I guess growing up with a violent father means I don't know how to handle my emotions properly" moments that seems unlikely to ever come out of someone's mouth in real life. Georgia and her mother handily resolve an issue that's been simmering for most of the book in less than two pages, going from full-blown yelling and accusations to hugs and forgiveness without the reader ever having to blink.

As a light, realistic coming of age story, this is certainly worth a read, and was perfect for a lazy weekend. Although I didn't enjoy it as much as the other Lowry book I have read (Follow The Blue), it's still a fun slice of contemporary YA.

Overall rating: 6/10

Book source: Borrowed from the library.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

From The Vaults: Review: The Book Thief, Markus Zusak

The Book Thief

Markus Zusak

Black Swan, 2007 (2006)


HERE IS A SMALL FACT - YOU ARE GOING TO DIE. 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier. Liesel, a nine-year-old girl, is living with a foster family on Himmel Street. Her parents have been taken away to a concentration camp. Liesel steals books. This is her story and the story of the inhabitants of her street when the bombs begin to fall. SOME IMPORTANT INFORMATION - THIS NOVEL IS NARRATED BY DEATH. It's a small story, about: a girl, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fist fighter, and quite a lot of thievery. ANOTHER THING YOU SHOULD KNOW - DEATH WILL VISIT THE BOOK THIEF THREE TIMES.

Reviewed February 2010

I have not devoured a book so quickly in a long time as I did The Book Thief. Death as the narrator made perfect sense: who else to oversee the destructiveness of Nazi Germany? As a narrator, Death is upfront, often wry. As a reader, you often know who will die long before they do. For me, this did not ruin the story at all, but rather lent it a sense of foreboding that brought home the indiscriminate nature of war: the good will not always triumph.

Despite the many traumatic moments the book details, The Book Thief is not a bleak novel - it is blackly humorous, and often touching without being saccharine. The main character is compelling: Liesel, who discovers the redemptive power of words amidst the horrors of her young existence. In a world where the words have been stolen by Hitler to exert his power over the people of Germany, Liesel learning to read and write offers her the opportunity to take the words back, to use them to offer comfort to those around her: Max, Frau Hotlzapfel, the mayor's wife, and the residents of the Himmel Street air raid shelter.

The Book Thief touches on a theme common to many novels about the Holocaust: the ability of one person to make a difference, to potentially save another human being. As is often the case, too, there is no happy ending, but nevertheless, Liesel's words are one girl's way of fighting back, however briefly.

Original Goodreads rating: 4/5 stars

Book source: Bookcrossed to me by a friend.

From the Vaults is an attempt to resurrect those book reviews I wrote and published on Goodreads before I started Bibliotekit. They tend to be quite short, but I hope they might highlight some good books I picked up in the last couple of years!

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Showcase Sunday

Showcase Sunday is hosted by Vicky at Books, Biscuits and Tea.

I've been absent from the blog for a couple of weeks now, mostly due to the looming deadline of my thesis draft, which was finally submitted on Friday. It's been a hazy month of manic typing, frantic footnoting, leaping out of the shower when I think of the exact right way to structure the end of a chapter, and lots of late nights and early mornings. As a result, also, not a whole lot of reading for fun.

I did manage to finish Liza Klaussmann's Tigers In Red Weather, however, which was a brilliant debut novel and highly recommended. (Review here.) At the moment I reading Brigid Lowry's With Lots of Love From Georgia, which is a fun Aussie/NZ YA novel (so far it hasn't been specified and Lowry is from New Zealand but lived in Australia so I'm hedging my bets... ;) ) and nice and summery for my brain!

Only one book to share this week, rescued from a bag of books my brother was donating to charity. In amongst lots of Charlaine Harris I found Marina Lewycka's A Short History of Tractors In Ukrainian, which I've heard some good things about, so I might give it a go at some point.

Have a good weekend!

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Review: Tigers in Red Weather, Liza Klaussmann

Tigers In Red Weather

Liza Klaussmann

Picador, 2012

The epitome of East Coast glamour, Tiger House is where the beautiful and the damned have always come to play in summer, scene of martinis and moonlit conspiracies, and newly inherited by the sleek, beguiling Nick. The Second World War is just ending, Nick’s cousin Helena has left her in search of married bliss in Hollywood, and Nick’s husband is coming home. Everything is about to change. Their children will surprise them. A decade later, on the cusp of adolescence, Nick’s daughter and Helena’s son make a sinister discovery that plunges the island’s bright heat into private shadow. Summer seemed to arrive at that moment, with its mysterious mixture of salt, cold flesh and fuel. Magnificently told by each of the five characters in turn, Tigers in Red Weather is a simmering novel of passion, betrayal and secret violence beneath a polished and fragile facade.

Sometimes a line or two in a book just grabs me. There's a line not long into Tigers In Red Weather where one of the principal characters, Nick, is thinking about her relationship with her husband. She muses that it was "meant to be different" for the two of them, different from the rest of the world, different from other relationships, because they were "special". I'm paraphrasing slightly, because the book went back to the library before I could make a note of the exact quote, but it was such a recognisable sentiment, and so well crafted, that I knew I was in for a treat.

I wanted to read Liza Klaussmann's debut novel ever since I saw a sampler of it in Waterstones, and for the most part it didn't disappoint. Nick and Helena are cousins, and the novel starts with them at the end of the Second World War, living together in a small apartment, poor but reasonably happy and muddling along. But this is an end rather than a beginning: Helena, whose first husband has died in the war, is moving to LA, while Nick is moving to Florida to be with her husband Hughes, back from the war and ready to continue their life together. The book passes through five rounds of narration - Nick, her daughter Daisy, Helena, Hughes and Helena's son Ed - as the family move beyond the war and into the 1950s and 60s, the action revolving around the family's summer home (Tiger House) and the tensions and secrets swirling around the family as the years pass.

The writing was wonderfully evocative without being over the top, and the feeling of the book reminded me a lot of Donna Tartt's The Little Friend in many ways - the too-hot summers, the hint of secrets and illicit relationships, the quiet despair, the children who stumble upon something that can't be undone. Plot-wise, it meandered along nicely. There are no big shocks, not even in the final section, which is meant to shed some light on the preceding events. That's not to say that it was predictable, but rather that things happened and were absorbed into the novel, rather than presented as devastating or surprising events. Imagine a slightly drunken summer evening at a glamorous old house, all champagne and lights and whispers and fleeting colourful images, and that's kind of what this novel felt like.

The ending fell a little bit flat for me - I felt that Tigers started out stronger than it finished, which is what led me to a slightly lower rating overall, despite my conviction that it was a five-star read at the start. Somehow it seems to be building up to more, and the opening narrative viewpoints felt more vibrant than some of the later ones. Nevertheless, Tigers In Red Weather is a glorious, immersing novel that oozes betrayal, lust, jealousy and family secrets, all hung on five characters who remain difficult to fathom and not always likable, but ultimately worth the ride.

Overall rating: 8.5/10

Book source: Borrowed from the library.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Review: Gaudy Night, Dorothy L. Sayers

Gaudy Night

Dorothy L. Sayers

Hodder and Stoughton, 2003 (1935)

When Harriet Vane attends her Oxford reunion, known as the "Gaudy," the prim academic setting is haunted by a rash of bizarre pranks: scrawled obsentities, burnt effigies and poison-pen letters -- including one that says, "Ask your boyfriend with the title if he likes arsenic in his soup." Some of the notes threaten murder; all are perfectly ghastly; yet in spite of their scurrilous nature, all are perfectly worded. And Harriet finds herself ensnared in a nightmare of romance and terror, with only the tiniest shreds of clues to challenge her powers of detection, and those of her paramour, Lord Peter Wimsey.

I am reasonably rubbish at putting books down once I've started them - some strange compulsion towards completion, I guess - but this one quickly fell foul of being written by a highly-recommended author and yet failing to deliver in the first few chapters. Disappointment almost turned it into a DNF, but I decided to give it one more chance.

I'm glad I did, because Gaudy Night has a lot of elements that I enjoy: crime fiction, for a start, and set in the 1930s. Setting-wise, it also benefits from taking place at an Oxford college (fictional, but surrounded by those that exist in real life). Poison-pen crime set in academia is a bit niche, but it's a niche I wish was bigger.

So - why the almost-DNF? Gaudy Night opens with an introduction to Harriet Vane, one-time student of Shrewsbury College and now crime writer (there were, I feel, shades of Ariadne Oliver here). In the past, Harriet was saved from the death penalty after being accused of killing a man, her saviour being none other than Sayers' famous detective hero, Lord Peter Wimsey. Harriet is off to a school reunion weekend, which she is dreading. What follows is a wonderfully bitchy, minutely observed rendering of the reunion, right up to the point that Harriet discovers an anonymous note in the sleeve of her gown.

The writing and the detail were both brilliant, and yet I was frustrated with the lengthy musings and conversations, given the fact that I was expecting a crime novel. Whilst the reunion, with all its social etiquette and host of characters, was interesting, a lot of these characters never appear again. And even when Harriet does discover the anonymous letter, she doesn't do anything about it and simply throws it away. Instead, she goes home to London, where the book seemed to stall momentarily as it waited for the phonecall from Shrewsbury to report (gasp) a spate of poison pen letters - and would Harriet, with her experience of criminal procedure and her existing relationship to the college, be prepared to advise?

From here, the book began to improve. Harriet decamps to Shrewsbury, and the investigation begins. There are a lot of characters, mostly the female dons (Shrewsbury is a women's college), who were sometimes difficult to keep track of, plus a smattering of domestic staff, students, and men from a nearby college. The perpetrator begins by sending cruel notes, but this escalates into sabotage, vandalism and physical attack, as the staff begin to suspect each other, and tensions run high.

Harriet calls in Lord Peter to help, at which point the book descends into a sometimes-tedious subplot of Peter being in love with Harriet, and Harriet refusing his (numerous) proposals of marriage. There is a lot of musing on marriage in general in Gaudy Night, and a separation of the women along the lines of those who are married (and therefore removed from scholarly life and tied to a husband and children) and those who are not (thus, able to pursue their independence and scholarly interests). The book also discusses women's education and the continued opposition to its credibility during this period of time, and some of the men at Oxford are characterised as being opposed to women being awarded degrees. Part of the reason that Harriet, rather than the police, is called in relates to the desire not to besmirch the fragile public image of women's education with stories of the poison pen letters.

The action increases towards the end of the book, as you might expect, and various red herrings and possible suspects are thrown up (my guess ended up being quite wide of the mark!). This went some way to redeeming the novel after the slow start and the odd patches in the middle that didn't seem to move the story along particularly. (One lengthy chapter details Peter's visit to the campus, in which he engages various members of staff in dinner conversation in order to subtly evaluate their characters, yet his motives are obscured and the conversations as a result are pretty tedious.) I'm very glad I continued with Gaudy Night - the feminist musings and the academic backdrop were interesting, and once it got going the criminal element was solid. Yet I felt it could have been half the length and just as effective.

(In addition, the edition I read was absolutely riddled with spelling errors and punctuation that was either missing, wrong, or doubled. There were numerous instances of missing speechmarks, double commas, and a couple of times when "?" and "!" were transposed, turning exclamations into questions and vice versa. While this didn't affect the story, it was incredibly frustrating to read!)

Overall rating: 7/10

Book source: Borrowed from the library.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Exit Roth: "I have dedicated my life to the novel."

This weekend, it emerged that Philip Roth - probably my favourite author - is no longer writing novels. Nemesis, published in 2010 and currently sitting on my shelf waiting to be read, is apparently Roth's last book.

As Robert McCrum writes in this short article, its not beyond Roth to have "one last piece of literary magic" up his sleeve, but at 79 and with dozens of novels to his name, it seems fair to take Roth at his word for now.

I was first introduced to Roth's books as an undergraduate, when I took a Jewish-American lit module as part of my degree (taught by my absolute favourite lecturer at the time, and still the best lecturer I have ever had the pleasure of being taught by, Dr. Abramson, who is now retired). We read Portnoy's Complaint, and my housemate and I, who were in the same class, spent most of the week we'd been given to read it reading out the rudest bits to each other. (For the record, I think the most-repeated section was the part where a young Portnoy masturbates into a joint of meat, which is later served to the rest of the family by his unsuspecting mother.) But apart from being gloriously funny and rude, it also made me want to run out read all of Roth's other novels.

Over the last few years, I have read a small number of them, against the backdrop of so many more than I have yet to read. (Of the 27 novels of Roth's, excluding collections and non-fiction, I have read 12.) Some of my favourite books of all time are on that list: The Plot Against America being the most obvious, but not discounting The Human Stain, Everyman, American Pastoral, and a raft of others that it has been (mostly) nothing but a joy to read.

Roth says he has stopped writing in order to be able to reread his favourite novels. I still have a long way to go until I come anywhere near to needing to embark on a reread of Roth to satisfy my love of his work - those other 15 novels should keep me busy for a long time - but I can't think of many writers who I have enjoyed so much as a reader, and it'll be shame to see him leave the field. I learned a lot from Dr. A in those Jewish-Am Lit classes, but I think my appreciation for Philip Roth is the most enduring legacy. Apart from knowing how to pronounce "Chaim" correctly, maybe... (And that whole Woody Allen thing.)

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Review: Twisted, Laurie Halse Anderson


Laurie Halse Anderson

Hodder Children's, 2008 (2007)

Seventeen year old Tyler is totally enjoying his position as high school Alpha male after years of being 'the geek'. But then Bethany - rich, blonde, beautiful and the girl Tyler wants - is the victim in a teenage sex scandal, and somehow Tyler is nailed as the prime suspect. Tyler knows he had nothing to do with it, but when everyone - including his hard-nosed father - believes he did, Tyler starts to spiral into a nightmarish, paranoid state of mind. He is desperate to find a way out of the mess he's in... Will he have the courage not to take the easy option?

Tyler is seventeen and lives with his younger sister Hannah and their parents. His dad is a bit of a control freak, and obsessed with his job and impressing his well-to-do boss, Mr. Milbury. Before the summer, Tyler pulled a prank at school and ended up being put on probation, spending his summer doing community service and further souring relations between him and his dad. When he returns to school, Tyler finds he has caught the attention of pretty, popular Bethany Milbury, but this is far from being a straightforward romance. Instead, a drunken party leads to Tyler being accused of something he didn't do - but he finds it difficult to convince anyone of his innocence.

I found Tyler to be a sympathetic protagonist from the start. His voice is convincing, and I found him likable as a guy who did one stupid thing, got caught, and is trying to figure out how to fix his life. His parents don't trust him, he has one good friend (who just happens to be in love with his sister), and the sense of meaning and purpose that he appears to have carved out whilst doing his community service among a group of janitorial staff is set to disappear as soon as school starts again.

The book really gets into Tyler's head, which makes it that much more frustrating when he falls under suspicion after the party. Having done the right thing, the plot veers away from a neat and tidy solution and instead stretches Tyler to the limit, not least because his own father seems intent on protecting his own reputation rather than standing up for his son. The fact that Twisted is not neat is one of its strengths, and something I find appealing in YA fiction in general.

There are some big issues being dealt with in Twisted - suicide and sexual assault being two of them - but I didn't feel like this was an ISSUES BOOK. The idea that Tyler is a normal enough guy, who is protective of his sister (and points for what felt like another good portrayal of sibling relationships) and stands up for his friends and panics when a hot girl invites him to a party, made Twisted feel more powerful. Tyler isn't perfect, and he isn't evil, he's mostly just a boy becoming a man without a handbook to tell him how.

Overall rating: 7/10

Book source: Bought from Oxfam bookshop, Kings Heath.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Showcase Sunday

Showcase Sunday is hosted by Vicky at Books, Biscuits and Tea.

A few exciting things this week from the library (Goodreads links below images):

Heist Society - Ally Carter

I read the first Gallagher Girls book a while ago, and found that although the cover made me want to throw the book out the window, the book itself was really fun. This is the first book in another of Ally Carter's series, and I've heard some good things so I'm hopeful this will be entertaining!

With Lots of Love from Georgia - Brigid Lowry

Follow The Blue was one of my stand-out YA books that I read this year, so when I saw another of Lowry's books in the library I snapped it up! This looks like quite a short book, but it promises lists... and I do like lists.

Down Under - Bill Bryson

I haven't listened to an audiobook since I was young (for some reason, I was obsessed with Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, and would take the audio cassette out of the library on numerous occasions), but I have a longer train journey onto campus now, so I thought I'd give it a go. This one jumped out at me at the library, mostly because I recently read another of Bryson's travel books (The Lost Continent) and was eager to try another one. This one follows his trip around Australia.

Reviews posted this week:

...And That's When It Fell Off In My Hand - Louise Rennison (7.5/10)
The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding - Agatha Christie (5.5/10)
The Serpent's Daughter - Suzanne Arruda (From the Vaults: 3/5 stars)

Thanks for stopping by!

Saturday, 3 November 2012

From the Vaults: Review: The Serpent's Daughter, Suzanne Arruda

The Serpent's Daughter (Jade del Cameron #3)

Suzanne Arruda

Piatkus, 2011 (2008)


Joining her mother for a holiday in the ancient port city of Tangier, American adventuress Jade del Cameron expects their trip will be far less dangerous than her safaris in East Africa. But soon after their introduction to a group of European tourists, Dona del Cameron goes missing-victim of an apparent kidnapping-and, shockingly, the French authorities seek to arrest Jade for the murder of a man whose body she discovered in a series of ancient tunnels. Now, Jade must call upon her friends to find her mother and expose the true villains, who have every intention of bringing about her own destruction...

I picked this book up originally anticipating a light, quick read. This was my first Jade del Cameron book, one which finds Jade in Morocco, attempting to solve her mother's kidnapping and becoming embroiled in a smuggling plot, murder, and the supernatural traditions of an ancient tribe along the way.

Jade's character is strong and entertaining, and kept me reading even as the plot seemed to slip away in some places. The kidnapping plot and the parallel mystery involving the amulet involved the same adversary, and yet the link between the two at times seemed convoluted, with perhaps one too many coincidences or leaps of faith. While Jade and her mother do discuss the 'how' and 'why' briefly at the end of the book, I was hoping for a broader, Poirot-style denouement at the end.

That said, I'd be interested to read the two previous del Cameron books, and as a light mystery this was enjoyable.

Original Goodreads rating: 3/5 stars

Book source: Bought.

From the Vaults is an attempt to resurrect those book reviews I wrote and published on Goodreads before I started Bibliotekit. They tend to be quite short, but I hope they might highlight some good books I picked up in the last couple of years!

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Review: ...And That's When It Fell Off In My Hand, Louise Rennison

...And That's When It Fell Off In My Hand (Confessions of Georgia Nicolson, #5)

Louise Rennison

Harper Collins, 2005 (2004)

(US title: Away Laughing On A Fast Camel)


The Sex God has left the country, taking Georgia's heart with him. So she decides to display glaciosity to all boys - a girl can only have her heart broken so many times.
Until she meets Masimo, the new singer for the Stiff Dylans. The Sex God is gone, but here comes the Dreamboat, and Georgia's away laughing on a fast camel (whatever that means).

I read the first two or three Georgia Nicolson books around the time they were first released - I think I was about 15 when the first one, Angus, Thongs and Full Frontal Snogging, came out. A while ago, Mandee at VeganYANerds asked me to recommend some British YA, and this was the series that immediately came to mind. Around the same time, I found this title in a charity shop for less than a quid, so I picked it up and stashed it on my bookshelf. This weekend, in search of a fast, funny read, I picked it up and sped through it in the space of an afternoon.

Georgia and her friends (The Ace Gang) are at secondary school in England (although I don't think it's ever stated, the town that is depicted in the books appears to be Brighton - they mention the clock tower, Churchill Square and the Odeon cinema in this one). While Jas (and her fringe) is all loved up with Hunky Tom, and Rosie is eagerly anticipating the return of her boyfriend Sven, Georgia is heartbroken after Robbie (the Sex God) has moved away to New Zealand (or Kiwi-a-go-go-land, as Georgia calls it). Unfortunately, Georgia's boy problems don't stop there - there's Dave the Laugh, sometime friend and font of all boy knowledge, and sometime snogging partner; Mark Big Gob, a less desirable specimen of boy; and Masimo, the gorgeous, Italian singer who has replaced Robbie in the Stiff Dylans. Throw in the mad antics of the Ace Gang, their humourless teachers at Stalag 14, and the ever-unwelcome sight of Wet Lindsay and her crew, not to mention Georgia's crazy family, and it isn't the best of times for Georgia.

These books are very funny. Georgia and her friends are more likely to be acting silly than sophisticated, and despite the fact that they all seem to be constantly agonising over boys, they manage to (more or less) watch out for each other at the same time. Georgia's family - Mutti, Vati, her little sister Libby and their slightly unhinged cats, Angus and Gordon - are all a little bit crazy, but in a believable way, where their activities are all exaggerated through Georgia's teenage eyes. One thing that I always liked about this series is the presence of Georgia's parents and sister, which provides both a realistic home life for a teenage protagonist (Georgia has a curfew and parents who think nothing of walking into her room and quizzing about her about where she's going and who she's with) and a sense of endless embarrassment for Georgia.

As are all the books in this series, they are told in diary form, with lots of slang and made up words for which there is a glossary at the back (as Georgia states, provided for readers in "Hamburger-a-go-go-land" - the US). Georgia is an incredibly likable protagonist - she doesn't always do the right thing, but her heart is in the right place, and most of the time she's just perpetually confused by everything going on around her, especially boys (and her Vati's insistence on buying a "clown car" and dressing up as Legolas). There were a few instances where this book made me laugh out loud, and Louise Rennison has a hilarious way of writing Georgia that makes these books fast and funny reads without taking away from the real-life traumas of being a teenage girl.

Overall rating: 7.5/10

Book source: Bought from Oxfam Books, Kings Heath.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Review: The Adventure of The Christmas Pudding, Agatha Christie

The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding and a Selection of Entrees

Agatha Christie

Harper Collins, 2009 (1960)

An English country house at Christmas time, with its crackling log fires and fine food, may seem an incongruous setting for a crime -- but a sinister note left on his pillow tells Hercule Poirot everything is not as it seems.

The great detective plays his cards close to his chest -- until the discovery of a young woman lying in the snow, a Kurdish knife in the centre of a crimson stain on her white wrap, spurs Poirot into revealing his hand.

Six cases in which Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple prove conclusively that their powers of detection take the cake…

I borrowed this book from my new local library the week that I started volunteering at the Book Festival. The train into the city takes around 20 minutes, and as I was volunteering a few times during the festival I figured a collection of short stories would get my through the journeys there and back. As a big Christie fan, this seemed like a good choice.

I have a collection of Poirot short stories, and although it's a few years since I read them, I vaguely recognised most of the stories here. As usual, Poirot is three steps ahead of everyone else, including the reader, and it was a race to the end of the story to discover who committed the crime. The shorter stories, while excellent reading material for a short-ish commute, didn't have much in the way of character development going on, and a couple simply amounted to Poirot asking a few questions, gathering everyone in a room, and revealing who had done it without any build up or much plotting at all.

This was really a mixed bag - The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding is a decent story, and I enjoyed The Mystery of the Spanish Chest, but The Under Dog was reasonably tedious, and The Dream was solved almost before it properly began. (Having seen the TV adaptation of The Dream, it's amazing how a feature-length episode could have been made from such a scant story!) The final story in the collection is a Miss Marple mystery - I am not as much of a fan of Miss Marple as I am of Poirot, but it made a nice change and was one of the more interesting stories.

Some nice moments, and it got me through my Book Festival commute, but I think I'll go back to Christie's full-length novels after this.

Overall rating: 5.5/10

Book source: Borrowed from the library.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Halloween Horrors: Top Ten Tuesday

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.

This week's theme is Top Ten Books to Get You in the Halloween Spirit. I haven't done a TTT in a while, and I don't read a lot of scary/creepy books as a rule, but then I read this short piece in The Guardian last night, about one of my favourite short stories, The Landlady, by Roald Dahl. This particular story has made The Guardian's list of 'Scary Stories for Halloween', so using that as my jumping off point, here are a few more I think would be worthy of a Halloween re-read!

1. Kiss Kiss, Roald Dahl
The collection that The Landlady appears in. Not all the stories are as creepy as this one, but they're all very black, rather unsettling and a little bit macabre! The real horror isn't monsters, it's other people.

2. The Stepford Wives, Ira Levin
A bright young woman moves to the suburbs with her family. Unfortunately, this suburb has more secrets than most. Incredibly creepy - I read this all in one go as I couldn't put it down!

3. Rosemary's Baby, Ira Levin
Another Levin book, this time about a young couple who are befriended by their neighbours, only for the neighbours to concoct a fiendish plot with the husband to hijack Rosemary's pregnancy.

4. The Little Stranger, Sarah Waters
I definitely tend towards creepy, slow-burning horror, rather than jump-out-of-your-seat-scary, it seems. A village doctor gets sucked into the dramas of a woman and her two daughters who live in a large - and, it seems - haunted house. a psychological ghost story that leaves you wondering even when it's finished!

5. The Turn of the Screw, Henry James
Classic ghost story, in which a governess begins to see ghosts... maybe.

6. Twins, Caroline B. Cooney
And now for some classic horror from my teen years! This is the book I would hide in the wardrobe because it creeped me out so much (especially the cover). I'm sure by adult-reading standards, it's not that scary, but at the time I was terrified by the whole thing.

7. Flowers in the Attic, Virginia Andrews
Not technically a horror story, although there are plenty of horrific things going on here. Mostly remembered for being dubious and incestuous, but for all that I still remember it being genuinely unsettling (and not just because of That Scene).

8. The Silent Scream, Diane Hoh
Another Point Horror, like Twins, and another one that I remember being on my shelf. I remember being marginally scared of this at the time - girl moves into dorm room where another girl once hanged herself, and starts to hear her screaming through the walls. I remember that this book had some classic suspect-the-janitor action going on...

Have you read any of these? Thanks for stopping by!

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Birmingham Book Festival: On the fringe!

My final two events as a volunteer at the Birmingham Book Festival were both Fringe events, organised by Birmingham Libraries.

The first, on October 12th, was Take Three, an author event featuring three very different writers: Stuart Evers, Adam Nevill and Chris Morgan Jones. Stuart Evers is a former editor and bookseller who has previously published a collection of short stories, and was talking about his novel If This Is HomeAdam Nevill is also a former bookseller (and night watchman!), who started out writing erotica and horror but is now known for his supernatural horror books, one of which, Last Days, was being discussed at this event. Chris Morgan Jones is a former corporate spy, and his novel An Agent of Deceit draws on some of his experiences in that world.

Each author did a short reading from the new novel, and then opened up a discussion in which they talked about their pasts, before they became full-time writers. Adam talked about the variety of jobs he has held whilst simultaneously writing his first few books whenever he could find the time, and about the twenty years in between beginning to write seriously, and being able to call writing a full time job. There were lots of insights into life as a writer, and all the authors on the panel offered some writing tips to aspiring authors: read a lot; write a lot; don't be afraid to be autobiographical; when you think it's done, revise it again; listen to things happening around you. There was also some discussion regarding the worst thing about being a writer,  of which finding time to write was a perennial concern!

The second event, on October 13th (and my last as a volunteer), was What's Love Got to Do With It?, featuring three authors who discussed writing about love, relationships and marriage for young Asians. The panel was made up of Bali Rai, Yasmin Hai and Sagheer Afzal, who spent over an hour discussing their books, their writing and their portrayals of young British Asians in their work, particularly related to how relationships are built and presented. They also discussed issues of diversity with fiction, particularly for young adults, and the problems of integration facing British Asian kids today.

The talk was one of the most interesting ones I have heard at the festival. Bali Rai talked about his novel Killing Honour, which addresses honour killings in the British Asian community. Sagheer Afzal talked about The Reluctant Mullah, his novel about a guy who is training to be a mullah, but is disgraced when he is caught trying on the niqab and burka to see what the women around him experience. His father gives him thirty days to find himself a wife, or else he will have to submit to an arranged marriage. Yasmin Hai talked a little bit about her memoir, The Making of Mr. Hai's Daughter, which covers her life growing up and her search for an identity as a British Asian girl.

The Q&A covered lots of topics, including the definition of honour killings as somehow outside, or separate to, domestic violence, and Bali argued that cultural sensitivity shouldn't stop them being treated as such. There was some discussion about faith schools and polarised communities, particularly after 9/11. As both Bali and Sagheer have worked in schools, they had some insights into how children are increasingly gravitating towards other kids with similar religious or ethnic backgrounds, rather than diversifying (as Bali suggested was more common when he was at school). Yasmin talked about how, growing up, a lot of her Asian friends would flirt with boys and (secretly) date, but would already be arranged to be married to someone else from a young age. Sagheer told some funny stories about his parents trying to match him with various girls (one of whom looked like his dad), and the difficulties for young Asians with traditional parents to find partners, as well as the focus put upon financial factors, rather than personality, from a family's point of view.

Above everything else, there was a definite desire to see more diversity in young adult fiction, and the importance of young readers being able to see themselves in the books they are reading. I was all ready to purchase a couple of the books talked about, but they were so popular we sold out!

This was my last event of the festival. The whole thing has been a lot of fun - time wise, it came at a really unfortunate moment, when I had a million other things commanding my attention, but it's been well worth the extra effort and evenings out of the house. I've met a lot of nice people, seen a lot of interesting talks and got to attend events I never would have been able to otherwise. Hopefully the programme will be just as exciting next year!

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Birmingham Book Festival: Ray Tallis, In Defence of Wonder

My third event at the Birmingham Book Festival, on October 10th, was a talk by Ray Tallis, a philosopher, writer and former professor of geriatric medicine, who was giving a talk entitled In Defence of Wonder, based on his latest book.

Again, I was lucky enough to catch all of the talk this time around, as the event took place in the New Street branch of Waterstones. Once we'd pushed all the book displays to one side there was just enough room to fit everyone in! Ray's talk covered a lot of topics in a short space of time, including some thoughts on the mind and the brain and how we know (or don't) who we are and what we are and why we're here. There was also some talk about the nature of the unconscious, and his dislike of Lacan and post-structuralist theory.

What stood out most for me was the idea, discussed by Ray, of the extent to which humans are able to see "wonder" in everyday (and not everyday) things. One of the questions from the audience brought up the idea that many people, after suffering from a lengthy or life-threatening illness, come out of the other side of it with a new found desire to "live everyday as if it's your last". The audience member questioned why this state of mind seems to be possible only once something terrible or monumental has happened, and whether it is possible to harness that same approach to life without having experienced a devastating event beforehand. (That's not to say that there was an answer to this question, but rather that it was an interesting discussion!) He also talked a little bit about being an atheist humanist, and the insistence on defining himself as "atheist" rather than "agnostic", as other people have suggested to him (and as came up in the Q&A).

I wasn't sure what to expect when I volunteered for this event, but it turned out to be an interesting evening, with lots to think about!

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Review: Story of a Girl, Sara Zarr

Story of a Girl

Sara Zarr

Little, Brown 2008 (2007)

When she is caught in the backseat of a car with her older brother's best friend--Deanna Lambert's teenage life is changed forever. Struggling to overcome the lasting repercussions and the stifling role of "school slut," she longs to escape a life defined by her past. With subtle grace, complicated wisdom and striking emotion, Story of a Girlreminds us of our human capacity for resilience, epiphany and redemption.

Sara Zarr's books have been consistently recommended through numerous book blogs that I read, as well as making a lot of lists of some of the best contemporary YA out there. I was excited to finally read one of her novels, not least because I've been waiting a long time for the city libraries to locate a copy of a Zarr book - for over a year they've been showing up as lost on the system.

Story of a Girl tells the story of Deanna, a high school girl with a reputation. When she was thirteen, she was caught having sex in a car with a high school boy, Tommy, by her dad. The story spread around the town and around her peers, and ever since Deanna has been talked about, laughed at, mocked, and insulted, not to mention shunned by her own dad, who can barely look at her.

Deanna lives with her mum and dad, her older brother Darren, Darren's girlfriend Stacy and their baby daughter April. Barely any of the scenes that take place in the house are comfortable. Deanna's dad makes pointed comments about his daughter's behaviour, always alluding back to the fact that he caught her having sex. Darren and Stacy are living in the basement, desperate to move out but struggling for money and working the same job on opposite shifts so someone is always with the baby. Deanna's mum is tired and stressed out all the time, and trying (kind of) to keep the peace.

As a character, it's easy to feel for Deanna. Her home life isn't particularly happy. She dreams of moving out with Darren and Stacy, and the four of them living happily ever after together, but it's obvious that this is just a pipe dream on Deanna's part. Her two best friends, Jason and Lee, are a couple. Deanna likes Jason, and is jealous of Lee, even though Lee is by far the nicest girl she knows. Tommy is suddenly, unexpectedly back in Deanna's life, which forces her to deal with the emotions stemming from their sort-of relationship and the subsequent fallout.

If I didn't warm to the story much at first, it was because of all the different issues flying around, piling on top of one another in quick succession as the story gets established. (I was also surprised that in the first few pages, Deanna reacts to one of the idiot high school boys who taunts her about her reputation by suggesting that he's gay. So just as we're establishing - correctly - that calling Deanna a slut is wrong, we're counteracting with a bit of light using-gay-as-a-cheap-insult.) There were a lot of threads in the story that never really went as far as I felt they could: the journal that Deanna kept was interesting enough in revealing her state of mind, but it didn't really add much for me. The underlying issues that her dad was dealing with had some potential mileage in them - a lot of his anger and resentment seems tied up not only in the Deanna and Tommy debacle, but in him being laid off from his long term job, and being unable to provide properly for his family. Maybe there weren't room for those issues with this book, which is after all Deanna's story, but it added to the feeling that there was more under the surface that we never really got to.

The relationship between Deanna and her dad was particularly sad. Her dad refuses to forgive her after he finds her with Tommy, and makes snide and hurtful comments in her vicinity about her morals, her promiscuity and her behaviour. His inability to let go of this is mirrored by almost everyone in the town, exacerbating the shame inflicted on girls who have sex early, or often, or outside of acceptable relationships. Deanna's unwanted reputation seeps into every aspect of her life, and it seems like everywhere she goes, someone knows what happened with Tommy. It seemed a little heavy-handed at times, as if Deanna having sex was the only scandalous thing that ever happened in this town, but it revealed how harmful the whole culture of slut-shaming can be to girls, especially young girls.

Story of a Girl was a short read, and brought up some interesting issues. While I enjoyed it, I found I wanted more depth - the book tackles so many different things, and yet it didn't resolve a lot of things, and ends rather abruptly. While realistic that it didn't try and solve all Deanna's problems by the end, it would have been nice to see a little bit further and go a little bit deeper.

Overall rating: 6/10

Book source: Borrowed from the library.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Review: Fatherland, Robert Harris


Robert Harris

Arrow, 2012 [20th Anniversary Edition] (1992)

It is April 1964 and one week before Hitler's 75th birthday. Xavier March, a detective of the Kriminalpolizei, is called out to investigate the discovery of a dead body in a lake near Berlin's most prestigious suburb.

As March discovers the identity of the body, he uncovers signs of a conspiracy that could go to the very top of the German Reich. And, with the Gestapo just one step behind, March, together with an American journalist, is caught up in a race to discover and reveal the truth -- a truth that has already killed, a truth that could topple governments, a truth that will change history.

Fatherland is an alternate history novel, set in a world in which Hitler and the Nazis have triumphed in WWII. The book's events take place in 1964 in Berlin, which stands as the capital of the Greater German Reich, a city dominated physically by the looming dome of the Great Hall, overshadowing the area around Unter den Linden, and in everyday life by the vast bureaucracy of the regime, which keeps a close watch on all of its citizens. Eastern Europe has been dissolved into the Reich, and the countries of Western Europe, still in existence, form the European Community, over which Germany maintains a large amount of control. Only Switzerland remains outside of any form of German power, essentially a no-man's-land right next door. The USA is aiding Russia in its guerilla war against Germany, and Germany and the US are the two Cold War powers, edging--perhaps--towards detente.

In the middle of all of this, the novel focuses on Xavier March, an officer in the Kripo (Kriminalpolizei), who is investigating the death of a prominent Party member in the week leading up to the vast celebrations for the Fuhrer's 75th birthday (Fuhrertag). March is in many ways a typical police-officer-in-a-novel. He's divorced,  and his relationship with his young son is strained, particularly when it becomes known that his son has been informing on him to the Gestapo, who are charged with investigating subversive behaviour. March is in dogged pursuit of the truth, and his suspicions are heightened by the case he is on. Rather than leave things alone, he embarks on a dangerous quest to uncover the truth, aided by an American journalist and borrowing favours from his friends in various government offices, much to their discomfort.

At the centre of Fatherland emerges the question of what happened to Europe's Jewish population during the war. The Holocaust has never been revealed in this version of events: Jewish people have simply been 'relocated' to the East. The case that March is investigating slowly becomes intertwined with the truth behind this whitewashed version of events, putting him in even more danger.

I am a big fan of alternate history and of crime novels, and in most respects this was an excellent book that I thoroughly enjoyed. Harris creates a depressing, grey image of Berlin after twenty five years of Nazi rule, a population cowed by the knowledge that they are being watched, that their friends and neighbours are compelled to report undesirable behaviour. The graffiti March sees on a wall - "Anyone found not enjoying themselves will be shot" - sums up the oppressive atmosphere enveloping the city and the wider reaches of the German Empire. The historical information that the book is built upon seeps in as the book unfolds, rather than being dumped on the reader all at once. While this made the crime-novel aspect of the book more enjoyable, I did often find myself wanting more details. While there are explanations of how Germany came to win the war, and of the country's relationship with the USA and Russia, the book was quite sparse on details of everyday life, and it would have been interesting if that had been more well-developed.

The crime side of things was a little slow at times, and built up quite gradually, but the final third of the book was much faster-paced as everything started to come together. March is a compelling main character, increasingly disillusioned by his life as a police officer and (by default) a member of the SS, investigating the case in front of him even when threatened with the SS Honour Court and faced with interrogations and a regime to which death comes easy.

The ending was deliberately ambiguous - both hopeful and devastating all at the same time. While there were some slow parts in the middle, by the end I couldn't put this book down. A gripping, slightly uncomfortable read at times, highly recommended.

Overall rating: 8.5/10

Book source: Bought from Waterstones, Brighton.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Birmingham Book Festival: The World According to... Stuart Maconie and Caitlin Moran

As I mentioned in a previous post, for the last week I have been involved volunteering for the Birmingham Book Festival. My second event, on Tuesday 9th October, was one of the big draws of the festival, and certainly the event I was most excited about: Stuart Maconie and Caitlin Moran.

I reviewed Caitlin Moran's How To Be A Woman a while ago, and I thought it was an excellent book, hilarious and rude and feminist and brilliant. (Review here.) Stuart Maconie is one of my favourite radio presenters, and I have spent many an afternoon listening to him and Mark Radcliffe on BBC Radio 6, playing great music and engaging in some weird and wonderful conversations. I read his book Pies and Prejudice a while ago. As a result I was pretty excited to be involved in the event!

Again, my volunteer duties took up the initial portion of the evening, but once everyone had arrived and the event had started, I got to sneak in the back and watch. There was lots of conversation about growing up working class, the importance of libraries, politics, feminism, socialism, the erosion of working class pop culture in favour of kids whose parents can bankroll them being in a band... Stuart talked a bit about visiting Paul McCartney's childhood home for a documentary he's been making for the BBC for the Beatles' anniversary, and how he was overwhelmed with the idea that "this was where the world changed". As someone who is attempting to carve an academic career out of a belief in the importance of pop culture, I found this all particularly interesting: the idea that cultural revolution goes beyond pop music or television and has a much wider reach.

There were some good questions from the audience, including some discussion of women in the (media) workplace and how they were (and are) treated, which was particularly topical given this week's news about the misogynistic culture in television and radio alongside all the Savile stuff.

Even though the event was an hour and a half, I could happily have listened to both of them speak for a lot longer. If you get the chance to hear either of them speak, I highly recommend it!

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Birmingham Book Festival 2012: Patrick Gale and Femi Oyebode

This year, I am volunteering at the Birmingham Book Festival, an annual event hosted by Writing West Midlands that takes place at various venues around the city. On Friday 5th October, after a crazy afternoon of teaching, I spent the evening volunteering at my first event: the author Patrick Gale and the poet and psychiatrist Femi Oyebode in conversation, taking about the Psychiatry of Character.

The event took place at the Ikon Gallery in Brindley Place (amidst superduper lockdown security for the Conservative Party conference next door at the ICC). I had never been in the Ikon Gallery before, but it's a pretty cool building, and in the gallery where the talk took place there was a exhibition of Tony Arefin's graphic designs - lots of fun bright stuff to look at!

As a volunteer, I had various jobs to do, but I did manage to see a good portion of the talk, and all of the audience Q&A session at the end. I've never read anything by either author, but they were both really interesting to listen to. Patrick talked about how he became an author after the death of one of his brothers, and how he constructs his books from the characters upwards - rather than focusing on plot, he creates the characters and allows the plot to develop from their interactions. He also talked about the process of writing a book, and how he thinks about a book for a long time before putting anything down on paper, so that the whole process takes around two years. There was some discussion about the growth of creative writing as a university degree programme, and Patrick argued that it's possible to teach writing techniques, but not to teach someone to be a writer - that writers have a skill that can be enhanced by learning different techniques, but a writer can't be created from scratch by teaching alone.

Femi talked about the extent to which his profession as a psychiatrist influences how he reads, and how he has little interest in diagnosing characters on the page. Questions from the audience brought up lots of different topics, including Quakerism, difficult mothers, characters with disabilities, morality and 'good' characters, and Patrick's desire to create well-rounded gay characters, rather than token stand-in figures.

Overall, it was a interesting and stimulating talk, and I'm looking forward to the other book festival events I get to be part of in the next week!

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Showcase Sunday: New library!

So, for the first time in ages I am linking up with the lovely Vicky at Books, Biscuits and Tea for Showcase Sunday! Bibliotekit has been pretty quiet lately, because of lots of things (moving and teaching and new job and thesis and and and and and... sleep), but yesterday I ventured to my new local library and came out with some books.

Agatha Christie - The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding and a Selection of Entrees

A trusty Agatha Christie collection of short stories, perfect for those ten-minute snatches of reading that seem to be all I can manage at the moment!

Dorothy L. Sayers - Gaudy Night

My first Sayers! I've been meaning to read one for ages, and this will be my first meeting with Lord Peter Wimsey...

Philip Roth - Nemesis

Philip Roth is maybe my favourite author. (It's generally a dead heat between Roth and Maupin, every time.) This is his last novel, from 2010, which I have yet to read. Even though I am struggling to find time to pick up a book at the moment, I couldn't resist picking this up.

My new library is small, like most of the other neighbourhood libraries in Birmingham, but it was nice to poke around some new shelves and spot some new (to me) books that I'll definitely be picking up in the future. I almost came away with a copy of Christopher Isherwood's Goodbye to Berlin, but I think that might have to wait until next time. I didn't get chance to venture into the YA section, but hopefully there's some good stuff there too!

Recent reviews
Patrick DeWitt - The Sisters Brothers (6/10)

At the moment, I am still reading Fatherland, by Robert Harris - a great piece of alternative history and an intriguing crime thriller too. I have put Pride & Prejudice to one side for the moment, mostly because after a long day of working at my computer I have no desire to read a book off the screen on my Kindle app!

I have also been volunteering at the Birmingham Book Festival, so look out for some posts on that in the near future!

What have you been reading lately?