Sunday, 26 August 2012

Showcase Sunday

Showcase Sunday is a weekly meme hosted by Vicky and Books, Biscuits and Tea, giving bloggers the chance to share any books they've received this week.

I haven't participated in Showcase Sunday for a few weeks, as I have been reading some of the books already stacked up at home, but this week I did pick up one reservation from the library:

The Group, by Mary McCarthy

Blurb (from Goodreads): Mary McCarthy's most celebrated novel portrays the lives of eight Vassar graduates, known simply to their classmates as "the group." An eclectic mix of personalities and upbringings, they meet a week after graduation to watch Kay Strong, the first of the group, be married. After the ceremony, the women begin their adult lives--traveling to Europe, tackling the world of nursing and publishing, and finding love and heartbreak in the streets of New York City. Through the years, some of the friends grow apart and some become more entangled in each other's affairs, but all vow not to become like their mothers and fathers. It is only when one of them passes away that they all come back together again to mourn the loss of a friend, a confidante, and most importantly, a member of the group.

Written with the trenchant, sardonic edge that can be attributed only to Mary McCarthy, The Group is a dazzlingly outspoken novel, as well as a captivating look at the social history of America between two world wars.

Recent reviews

I am currently reading The Art of Fielding, which I am really enjoying, although I have also become distracted by The Wire (about five years after everyone else, I know)!

Happy reading!

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Review: Death In The Clouds, Agatha Christie

Death In The Clouds

Agatha Christie

Harper Collins, 2008 (1935)


From seat No.9, Hercule Poirot was ideally placed to observe his fellow air passengers. Over to his right sat a pretty young woman, clearly infatuated with the man opposite; ahead, in seat No.13, sat a Countess with a poorly-concealed cocaine habit; across the gangway in seat No.8, a detective writer was being troubled by an aggressive wasp. What Poirot did not yet realize was that behind him, in seat No.2, sat the slumped, lifeless body of a woman.

Death In The Clouds begins on a short-haul flight between Paris and Croydon, on a half-empty plane containing a number of interesting passengers, including M. Hercule Poirot himself. In the air, one of the passengers, a Parisian moneylender named Mme. Giselle, is killed, and Poirot must aid the police in unravelling the clues and catching the murderer.

I enjoyed Death In The Clouds. This is Poirot how I enjoy him the most - sure of himself but not so pompous, as in some of the later books, and putting his little grey cells to use is picking apart the clues, both obvious and hidden. The murder seems to be straightforward - a weapon is found, a cause of death established, and all that remains is to narrow down whodunnit. But Poirot is convinced there is more to the scene than meets the eye, and embarks on a Channel-hopping quest to put his theories to the test.

There are a range of characters, all of whom fall under suspicion to some extent - the society lady, the young hairdresser, the doctor, the French archaeologists. Poirot acquires lists of what was in their luggage, which the reader is privy to, and there is little investigation that goes on behind closed doors, yet the reveal is still a surprise. I read this book a long time ago, and remembered only part of the solution, but even then I failed to put all the pieces together on a second read. Death In The Clouds, in its original premise - the murder is committed on a plane, therefore one of the passengers must be the murderer - recalls some of my favourite Christie mysteries (Death On The Nile, And Then There Were None), and is an excellently executed and enjoyable mystery.

Overall rating: 7.5/10

Book source: Borrowed from the library.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Playing Favourites: Top Ten Books I've Read Since Bibliotekit Started

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and The Bookish. This week's topic is: Top Ten Favourite Books Read in the Lifetime of Your Blog. I haven't participated in a TTT for a while, so here goes!

I have only been blogging at Bibliotekit since February of this year. Picking ten books, then, was quite an easy task. Rather than go back through and see which ones I rated the highest, I’ve just picked out those that I remember as being the most enjoyable, for whatever reason.

Amy & Roger’s Epic Detour – Morgan Matson (review)
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this. I love road trip books, and this one was a lot of fun. I particularly enjoyed the maps, pictures and lists that interspersed the narrative.

The Lost Continent – Bill Bryson (review)
Another road trip, this time in real life. Back to 1989 with Bill Bryson, revisiting the America of his childhood after a lengthy expatriation in the UK. Funny and totally absorbing.

Cat Among the Pigeons – Agatha Christie (review)
I have read a few Christie novels since starting this blog, but this one is my favourite of the last few months. Murder and intrigue and scandal (oh my!) at an English boarding school, with a late appearance by Poirot to sort the whole thing out.

The Marriage Plot – Jeffrey Eugenides (review)
A long-awaited new novel from Eugenides, and one that combined one of my favourite authors with one of my favourite settings: college. Disillusioned graduates and doomed love affairs ahoy.

The Boyfriend List – E. Lockhart (review)
Not just another YA novel. I picked this up expecting a fluffy high school romance and got the wonderful and slightly neurotic Ruby Oliver, whose boy traumas are myriad and often hilarious. I am waiting (impatiently) for my library to stock the last two in the series, but TBL and the second book, The Boy Book, are both excellent.

How To Be A Woman – Caitlin Moran (review)
I haven’t laughed this hard at a book in a long time. From being a teenager in Wolverhampton battling with fashion, doleful dogs and having a crush on Aslan the lion, to being an adult dealing with bras and sexism and whether or not to get married, this was incredibly funny and very, very true. And that’s even before the chapter on what to call “down there” in front of the kids.

Touching the Void – Joe Simpson (review)
More real life, this time Joe Simpson’s account of his climb in the Peruvian Andes that saw him break his leg and his climbing partner Simon Yates cut the rope that joined the two of them, believing Joe was dead. Stark and moving.

A Storm of Swords: Blood and Gold – George R. R. Martin (review)
After the first book, perhaps my favourite of the series so far. The previous instalment (and the first half of ASOS) concentrated on the war; B&G concentrated on what came after the war, when everyone realised things hadn’t gone quite to plan.

Follow The Blue – Brigid Lowry (review)
A great coming of age YA novel focusing on Bec, who is left alone for the summer with her brother, sister and an unwanted housekeeper. It becomes a summer of juggling friends, boys, and finding herself (not to mention a lost guinea pig).

Twin Spirit – Matthew Thompson (review)
Children’s fantasy book that sees Rose transported to a galaxy of strange people and vibrant ‘sectors’, all at the behest of her dead twin sister Lily, who is eager to gain a body of her own.

Leave me your links and I'll check out your lists!

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Review: Losing It, Julia Lawrinson

Losing It

Julia Lawrinson

Penguin Australia, 2012

Click image for Goodreads link.
To avoid Losing It in the bushes with some random guy in a heavy-metal T-shirt after too many tequila shots, four best friends make a bet: to lose it before schoolies week – and preferably in a romantic, sober way that they won't regret.

What follows is a sometimes funny, sometimes awkward, but always compelling comedy of errors as Abby, Mala, Bree and Zoe each try to find their Mr Right . . . or at least get laid.

Losing It centres on a pact made between four friends during Year Twelve, to lose their virginity before schoolies week, in the hope of doing it with someone they actually like (and, you know, getting rid of that pesky virginity thing). The book is split into four main sections, each focusing on one of the girls: Zoe, Abby, Mala and Bree. The girls have pretty varied backgrounds - Zoe lives with her mum, who is pretty easygoing and trusts Zoe to behave herself, more or less; model student Abby lives with her devoutly Christian parents and is dreading the return of her disruptive older brother Zeke; Mala is coddled by her parents and longs for some freedom; and Bree is both super confident and verging on full-blown popularity, and being vague and evasive with her friends. What links the four of them is their scholarship status at their school, and their collective existence as the GeeGees (Geek Girls).

Each section focuses on one of the girls' attempts to have sex, but in and around this are their broader issues with their families, friends, and themselves. Although the big mystery at the beginning is who will lose their virginity by the time the 'challenge' is up, and to whom, in actual fact this was only a small part of the story in the end, interwoven with the girls' struggles to define themselves in relation to everyone around them.

I particularly enjoyed Mala's section, which might also contain one of the funniest scenes I've read in a book for a while. Abby and Mala's stories in particular felt like they could have been books in themselves, and when each of them finished I was dying to know more about what happened next!

I enjoyed the fact that Losing It felt completely realistic throughout. The story starts off with the girls secretly drinking vodka in one of their bedrooms, which immediately struck me as being real rather than overly glossy or sensationalist. They talk about sex like you might expect a group of teenage girls to talk about sex. I don't think you could class Losing It as a romance, although there are some minor elements of that here and there, but I felt like this captured an essence of teenager-dom that I find unrealistic in some of the more kissing-in-the-moonlight-true-love-forever YA out there. (I might just be old and cynical. You never know.)

I thoroughly enjoyed Losing It - a great contemporary read and a great continuation of Australian young adult lit that I have been dipping into. My only gripe is that I wanted more from all the girls' stories, which isn't a complaint so much as wishful thinking, perhaps... :)

Overall rating: 8/10

Book source: Borrowed from Mands at VeganYANerds. :)

Friday, 3 August 2012

Review: Agatha Raisin and the Wizard of Evesham, M. C. Beaton

Agatha Raisin and the Wizard of Evesham

M. C. Beaton

Constable and Robinson, 2006

After a home dye job ruins her hair, Agatha Raisin, the prickly yet lovable amateur sleuth, turns to the wonderful new hairdresser in the neighboring town for help. And as Agatha soon learns, Mr. John is as skilled at repairing her coiffure as he is at romancing her heart. 

But the charming Mr. John isn't all he appears to be. According to gossip around the salon and the village, some of his former clients seem to be afraid of him. Could Mr. John really be a ruthless blackmailer? When a murderer strikes at the busy salon, Agatha must discover the truth and the killer's identity before it's too late.

It's well-established by now that these books are my comfort reads: easy, light, and a fun little foray into the surprisingly criminal Cotswolds. However, I found this one to be disappointing. Agatha's sidekick in this book is Sir Charles Fraith, a character I found to be less likable, and certainly less warm, that Agatha's previous crime-solving partner and sometime love interest, James. I actually enjoy it when Agatha is sleuthing alone, but the addition of a sidekick seems perhaps inevitable.

The mystery was less satisfying that previous Raisin books I have read. The case - a murdered hairdresser who may or may not be a blackmailer on the side - is taken up by Agatha and Charles because they're bored, and that sentiment seems to remain with the case the whole way through. I found it to be rather repetitious: frequent visits to different hairdressers by Agatha, Charles chatting up young girls, and lots of tenuous evidence, including quite a few huge leaps of thinking that miraculously propelled the case forward, which I found to be lazy and not particularly fun to read about.

Although the detective work takes on much the same form as it does in the other books in this series, the mystery seemed a little bit flat. There was a lot of driving out to places, and not much in the way of village life, which I always find to be part of the 'charm' of these books, however fictional it may be in its own way.

There were, as ever, some nice touches. The meetings between Agatha and Mrs Bloxby I enjoyed, and the reaction of Mrs Bloxby's husband, the vicar, to Agatha's visits was funny. The glimpses into Agatha's private feelings - towards James and Charles, but also her anxiety regarding her friendships with Bill and Roy - were also a nice touch, and what makes the character, for me, worth returning to. Another light and enjoyable read, but one that lacked too much in the crime department for it to be a favourite of the series. I will no doubt return to these books in the future, though, as Agatha and the residents of Carsely are too much fun to revisit!

Overall rating: 5/10

Book source: Borrowed from the library.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Review: Touching The Void, Joe Simpson

Touching The Void

Joe Simpson

Vintage, 2008 (1988)

Tackling the unclimbed west face of the remote Siula Grande in the Andes, Joe Simpson and his partner Simon Yates achieved the summit before disaster struck. A few days later, an exhausted Simon staggered into base camp to tell their non-climbing companion that Joe was dead. For three days he wrestled with guilt as they prepared to return home. Then a cry in the night took them out, where they found Joe, badly injured, crawling through the snowstorm. Far from causing Joe’s death, Simon had saved his friend’s life when he was forced into the appalling decision to cut the rope.

Touching the Void documents the successful scaling of the west face of the unforgiving Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes by Joe Simpson and Simon Yates in 1985 - and the accident that occurred on their descent, leaving both men struggling for survival, and Joe in particular fighting to stay alive.

There is no 'surprise' in in Touching the Void. The story is a classic of mountaineering and the book makes no attempt to keep the central event hidden. On their descent from the summit, Joe and Simon are caught in a  storm, and Joe falls and breaks his leg. Faced with the reality of his climbing partner's death - on a stormy mountain with no gas, no water, and no help - Simon attempts to lower Joe down the face, until Joe falls into a deep crevasse. Simon, at risk of exposure and tied to the fallen Joe, cuts the rope.

The book begins with Joe and Simon at base camp, preparing for their climb, before moving on to their summit challenge. I was a little bit overwhelmed by some of the terminology at first, and had difficulty picturing the mountain and their progress. Though not a lot happens in the first few chapters - beset by a few difficulties, they nevertheless make it to the top - there is a strong sense of foreboding for the reader, who knows what is, inevitably, just around the corner.

The second half of the book documents the events after Joe's accident: the attempted rescue by Simon, the fall into the crevasse, and his lonely, agonising crawl down the mountain with a badly broken leg. Parallel to this are Simon's thoughts as he, too, makes the perilous descent and deals with the horror and guilt of letting Joe go. Simpson's writing is quite matter of fact, but if anything this heightens the unimaginable pain and fear underlying the story of how he makes it down alive. The fact that Simpson is writing the book suggests that Joe's survival is somehow inevitable - of course he makes it! - but this does not diminish the nearness of death that haunts this half of the book, as Joe faces dehydration, haemorrhaging, hallucinations, and the fear of being left to die alone at the age of 25.

Touching the Void is a sometimes harrowing read, sometimes amusing (a delirious Joe trying desperately to get a Boney M song out of his head), and does a good job of telling what is a difficult story to tell (Simpson acknowledges in the afterword the impossibility of capturing the sheer awfulness of the whole situation). The inclusion of Simon's view, and his decision to cut the rope, is interesting and adds another dimension, allowing the book to counter the criticism that Simon received on their return.

Touching the Void is a slow read, but worth taking your time over to let the implications of Joe's fall and subsequent descent sink in fully. For me, this and Into Thin Air are my mountaineering must-reads.

Overall rating: 8/10

Book source: Bought with a birthday giftcard from Waterstones, Birmingham.