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?

Monday, 1 October 2012

Review: The Sisters Brothers, Patrick DeWitt

The Sisters Brothers

Patrick DeWitt

Granta Books, 2011

Hermann Kermit Warm is going to die. The enigmatic and powerful man known only as the Commodore has ordered it, and his henchmen, Eli and Charlie Sisters, will make sure of it. Though Eli doesn't share his brother's appetite for whiskey and killing, he's never known anything else. But their prey isn't an easy mark, and on the road from Oregon City to Warm's gold-mining claim outside Sacramento, Eli begins to question what he does for a living and whom he does it for.
With The Sisters Brothers, Patrick deWitt pays homage to the classic Western, transforming it into an unforgettable comic tour de force. Filled with a remarkable cast of characters losers, cheaters, and ne'er-do-wells from all stripes of life and told by a complex and compelling narrator, it is a violent, lustful odyssey through the underworld of the 1850s frontier that beautifully captures the humor, melancholy, and grit of the Old West and two brothers bound by blood, violence, and love.

The Sisters Brothers is a slightly off-kilter affair. On the surface, it tells the story of Eli and Charlie Sisters, a notorious pair of brothers known for their ruthlessness and possessing a formidable reputation as killers. The story is told through the eyes of Eli, the more sensitive brother, who despairs of Charlie's drunkenness and penchant for violence, but who nevertheless follows his brother on their missions for the enigmatic Commodore. The book follows the brothers as they take up one of these missions, this time to kill a man called Warm, who has been tracked down in California.

On the way, Charlie and Eli meet a whole host of weird and wonderful characters. Accompanied by their horses--Nimble, Charlie's healthy horse, and Tub, Eli's slightly battered, unfortunate horse--they make their way from Oregon Territory to California. Along the way, Eli begins to re-evaluate his life, no longer happy with the contract killing and living in his brother's shadow. As Charlie schemes to make money and one day usurp the Commodore, Eli dreams of settling down with a girl and leaving the bloody frontier behind.

Eli is an interesting narrator, and as a result much more well rounded than Charlie, who is a particularly unsympathetic character. Eli's relationship with Tub, and his reluctance to let his horse go even as Tub became more and more pathetic, was a nice thread. The plot itself felt reasonably thin, and by the time the brothers got to California I didn't particularly care any more about why they were there. There is a slightly not-quite-real feel to some of the book, as if the events are being seen in a dream, broad strokes and bright colours and improbable escapes.

There are some funny moments, and for the most part I found the book enjoyable, but I also found it difficult to engage with most of the characters, and as a result it felt a bit like reading a book about a bunch of stick figures (albeit stick figures wearing cowboy hats). There was enough to keep me reading, and the unfolding frontier was fun to witness, but by the end I just wanted to move on to another book and another world.

Overall rating: 6/10

Book source: Borrowed from my dad.