The true university these days is a collection of books.
-Thomas Carlyle

Friday, 31 December 2010

December Roundup

Thanks to my friend holgachick for this frozen leaves photo taken last year. It has been pretty frozen here in Britain this month so it is a good picture to start with. Here is how the reading went this month...
Read - 1 book
Completed - The Distance Between Us by Maggie O'Farrell (finished earlier today!)
Currently Reading -
Blindness by Jose Saramago
Caught by the Water: A Collection of Words on Water by various authors
TBR Pile - Currently at 87 (according to Goodreads) with 6 new ones after the Christmas gifts were added...
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned by Walter Mosley
The Summer Book by Tove Jansson
The Natural Navigator by Tristan Gooley
One Day by David Nicholls
No and Me by Delphine de Vigan
Challenges - will be covered in the next post Looking back and looking forward
Wishlist Additions
The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton
Discoveries - Some lovely new blogs from the Book Blogger Holiday Swap...
Events -
I will be doing my end of year wrap up with loads of lovely lists and statistics (love it!) in my next post. Wishing you all a Happy New Year. Stay safe and happy!

Poetry Books reviewed at The Octogon

There seem to be a few Poetry titles that I have talked about in the past so I have given them their own section for reference. Click on the title for the review...

Previously reviewed books at The Octogon - 2010

A very colourful map to accompany this year of literary travels during 2010. Click on the titles to read the review...

Previously reviewed books at The Octogon - 2009

This map illustrates all of my literary travels during 2009. Click on the book titles to go to the review...

Previously reviewed books at The Octogon - 2008

This colourful map catalogues all of the countries I visited during my literary travels in 2008. Click on the book title to take you to the review...

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Book Bloggers Holiday Swap - my presents

I was a good girl and opened mine yesterday and what a lovely Secret Santa had sent me the following presents...
2 books -
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (which I have wanted to read for ages), and
Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned by Walter Mosley
plus 2 lovely Christmas Tree decorations that look handmade.
There was also a lovely Christmas card that included the details of my Santa. Thank you so much Annabel Gaskell from Gaskella for my presents which are all lovely. Not only have I got some excellent new books to read, but also another book blogger to call in on.

Saturday, 25 December 2010

Merry Christmas

Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas. I hope Santa has brought you lots of books and you are getting to spend time with those you love.
I have opened my book blogger holiday swap gift and will cover it at length tomorrow in my post, but just to say it was a very generous present and lots of fun to take part in.
This photo of a real snowflake is from a book all about them called The Snowflake: Winters Secret Beauty by Kenneth Libbrecht and photos by Patricia Rasmussen and you can read more about it by clicking the link.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

A Meme

I did this meme last year and thought it was good fun, and then saw it again over at Stuck in a Book so I have done another with this years books.
You have to answer the questions using the titles of the books that you have read throughout the year. Try not to repeat your answers. It can be a bit tricky and some answers need a little bit of imagination, but here goes...
Describe yourself The Blue Fox (Sjon)
How do you feel? The Deeper Secret (AnneMarie Postma). Also used this one last year but I finished it in January.
Describe where you currently live The Magic Apple Tree (Susan Hill)
If you could go anywhere, where would you go? A Month in the Country (J L Carr)
Your favourite form of transportation Ship Fever (Andrea Barrett)
Your best friend is Emma (Jane Austen). My best friend is not called Emma but it is the only title that fitted!
You and your friends are The Girls (Lori Lansens)
What's the weather like? To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee)
You fear The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (Kate Summerscale)
What is the best advice you have to give? Atonement (Ian McEwan)
Thought for the day The Mystery of Grace (Charles de Lint)
How would you like to die? The Distance Between Us (Maggie O'Farrell)
My Soul's present condition An Awfully Big Adventure (Beryl Bainbridge)
How would you answer?

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Book Blogger Holiday Swap: an update

Just a quick message to say that my Secret Santa package has arrived and looks very exciting. I haven't opened it yet but hope to post a picture of it in the next few days. I am old fashioned so will open it nearer to Christmas itself but I have had a good feel/rattle/smell. As soon as it is open I will blog about it, I just wanted my Secret Santa to know it has arrived safely with many thanks. Exciting!
My package went off in the post last monday and hopefully, snow permitting, has reached its secret destination.
Stay warm wherever you are!

Sunday, 5 December 2010

November Roundup

This photo was taken by my friend (holgachick) recently up in Northumberland where they have had about 10 inches of snow. There has been some snow here in the North West but not nearly as much. Time to recap my reading for November.
Read - 1 and a quarter books.
Completed - 2 books...
The Magic Apple Tree by Susan Hill
Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell
Currently Reading -
The Distance Between Us by Maggie O'Farrell
Caught by the River: A Collection of Words on Water (various authors)
TBR Pile - currently at 82 (according to GoodReads) with 2 books added...
Through the Kitchen Window by Susan Hill
Through the Garden Gate by Susan Hill
(I have become a bit of a fan!)
Challenges - finished Cranford for my 'read another Elizabeth Gaskell' directional reading challenge from January.
Wishlist Additions -
The Distant Hours: A Novel by Kate Morton
The Last Days of Ptolomy Grey by Walter Mosley
The Crossing Places: A Ruth Galloway Mystery by Elly Griffiths
Half a Life by Darin Strauss
Discoveries - More country living books by Susan Hill from the '80s
Events - The Book Blogger Holiday Swap (see my sidebar). Mine is parcelled up and ready to go to its surprise destination. Such a great idea and thanks to Nicole from Linus's Blanket for hosting this.
Christmas is well and truly on its way. Hope you are warm and toastie where you are!

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

I got this one from a box of old books that a friend gave me some time ago. After seeing the brilliant series by the BBC a couple of years ago, starring Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins, Philip Glenister and so many other famous names (for full BBC Cranford Cast click here), I wanted to read the novel and see how closely it had been adapted. I also set it as one of my directional reading challenges in January, to read another novel by this author. This is my 3rd Gaskell novel having read Cousin Phyllis and North and South previously.
Written and set during the 19th century this story is essentially a character study of the genteel ladies who inhabit the small Cheshire town of Cranford throughout a series of happenings and local events. Narrated by a young lady called Mary Smith on her many visits to Cranford, she is privy to all the gossip while she stays at Miss Matty's, an old friend of the family as well as a respected and loved member of the community. A paucity of males in the town due to war, illness or old age means that the Cranford ladies have free run to visit, gossip and also to support each other. There are some men, but this story is about early-Victorian middle aged women of certain social standing.
The tone of the book is one of subtle and gentle humour that never fails to hit its mark. After a briefing on town etiquette as regards visiting others and acceptable topics of conversation, we are introduced to the ladies who form the bulk of Cranford society as they prepare for such things as a visiting magician, the protocol regarding a certain Lady Glenmire as a guest, contact from a former suitor of Miss Matty's and the threat of robberies in the local area.
Those who like a substantial meaty plot which progresses at a fast pace will be disappointed with this book. It is gently paced, about small happenings and the interest lies in getting to know the characters who are portrayed with warmth and more than a little satire in a small setting. It is all in the detail.
I really liked it. It is clever, witty and acutely observational. The time period is palpable and a delight. I grew very fond of the ladies, particularly Miss Matty, who lives in her older sisters formidable shadow even after her death. I also liked Miss Pole with her concrete belief in her own exaggerations. It is the kind of period setting that becomes very comfortable very quickly. I felt as if I was there with them, through the various interiors, taking part in town life.
An English classic which would be great for those who love the study of 19th century manners and lots to talk about for reading groups.
There is a free online version of Cranford if you click the link.
The Gaskell Society website can be visited by clicking the link.
There is even a Cranford walk around Knutsford in Cheshire.

Monday, 22 November 2010

The Magic Apple Tree: A Country Year by Susan Hill

I picked this one up in Oxfam when I was stocking up on Herbal Medicine books and I was totally drawn to it. By the author of The Woman in Black this is a completely different kettle of fish altogether. Documenting a whole year of her life in Moon Cottage in a small Oxfordshire village during the 1980's.
The book is split into seasons, starting with winter, and then split into chapters covering such things as village life, creatures, cooking, the garden, people, the wood, festivals and many other subjects. Overlooking all of it is the Apple Tree in the garden, gnarled, weathered and constant. Throughout there are lovely engravings by John Lawrence depicting the year passing around.
We are taken through all the lovely transitions of nature and how Susan and the other villagers lived alongside it, worked with it, and with each other to share their strengths and look out for each other. This is not a book about self sufficiency but about people living side by side. In fact Susan says she doesn't believe anyone can be totally self sufficient and she has seen many a well-meaning person arrive in the village only to depart a year or so later. The secret is not to exist alone but to exist as a community and this is a strong message that comes through in the book.
Susan's voice is unassuming and very easy to listen to, describing the beauties of the home she clearly loves and the people of the village. I loved hearing about the Twomey brothers who make cider, the WI autumn fair where jams and cakes are on show, the carol singing in winter, the preserving week in autumn, the hens, the cats, the walks with the dog in the woods. It is not about a super-woman ploughing the land single-handed in all weathers, but an attainable life in a small community, and what that meant to the author. It is quiet, observant and gentle. Looking for lights in the other houses, picking damsons, riding your bike up and down the lanes.
I totally loved this book. I felt a calmness descend upon me whenever I picked it up. Described as a 'comfort book' it was a pure pleasure to read and I recommend it to anyone with an interest in country life with nature and the English countryside on your doorstep.
Susan Hill has her own website and you can read about this book and lots of others by clicking the link.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Book Blogger Holiday Swap

Michele over at A Readers Respite has reminded us about this event again this Christmas and I have signed up for the fun. I think the deadline for signing up is today. It is such a brilliant idea and thanks go to the organisers. I remember seeing this event on the blogs last year so I am glad to be taking part for this Christmas.
I am really looking forward to finding out who I am to be Secret Santa to. You can read more about the Book Blogger Holiday Swap by clicking the link here or on my sidebar.
I am about two thirds through Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell so hope to be able to blog about it soon. I have also nearly finished The Magic Apple Tree by Susan Hill which I have enjoyed immensely so look out for that too.

Monday, 1 November 2010

October Roundup

Apples are such a part of this time of year, colourful fruits on trees, as well as duck-apple at Halloween. A neighbour brought us a bag full from the tree in his garden and I have been cooking appley things. Also, with evenings drawing in it is easier to spend time indoors with a book.
Read - 1 and a quarter books
Completed - Tethered by Amy Mackinnon
Currently Reading - Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell as well as continuing The Magic Apple Tree by Susan Hill
TBR Pile - Currently at 81 (according to GoodReads) with one book added...
The Peoples Act of Love by James Meek.
Challenges - I am reading Cranford because one of my directional reading challenges from January was to read another Elizabeth Gaskell.
Wishlist Additions - none this month, probably a good job too.
Discoveries - Slung Low Theatre (not strictly true because I encountered this theatre company in the summer) who have brought their unique and brilliant style of theatre to Liverpool during October and created a buzz around the Hope Street area with Anthology (see below).
Events -
Anthology, part of the Unbound season at the Liverpool Everyman Theatre, by Slung Low. Seven different stories all playing simultaneously, written by seven writers. Each night you see one story, determined by a prop, a feather, party popper, spoon, milk bottle...put on your headphones and follow your actor outside the theatre to tell you a story, with the streets of Liverpool as your setting. It has been so much fun, moving and very addictive. I managed 5 of the stories over 5 nights and loved all of them. Sadly this event has finished but I hope Slung Low come back to Liverpool soon. Very memorable.
Also Shakespeares Antony and Cleopatra at the Liverpool Playhouse with Kim Cattrall and Jeffrey Kissoon. A notoriously difficult play, done with lots of style and sophistication.
It has got colder and darker, time to curl up with a book...

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Tethered by Amy Mackinnon

I was intrigued by this novel after reading many reviews around the blogs last year. I was attracted by the unusual story, and also by the cover on the American version (although our English cover is also quite attractive). I finished it only a few hours ago.
Clara is a reserved young woman who seeks refuge from a troubled past in her work as a mortuary attendant, safely hidden from the living. Her only aims in life are to be as invisible as possible and to honour those whose bodies come her way. Her passion is for the flowers that she lovingly tends in her ornamental greenhouse, and their traditional meanings, which she uses with appropriate care when preparing the dead and including a personal bouquet. The more unsavoury parts of her job are preferable to any interaction with the people she comes into contact with. There is affection, but at a distance, with Linus, the caring owner of the Funeral Home and his wife Alma, who have come to call Clara their own. There is also Mike, the police officer from the various crime scenes they have attended together, including that of his wife 3 years earlier. Clara has enough bolt holes when the closeness of others becomes too much within her carefully planned life. That is until a young girl, a child, is discovered playing in the funeral home, reopening a distressing case of a murdered girl and forcing Clara to revisit the parts of her past she has fought to forget.
This book is very easy to read and the pages turn over very quickly. The subject matter is interesting and mysterious, without descending into unnecessary distaste. Clara is a fascinating character who drives the story and I found myself caring for her a great deal. The accounts of her painful dealings with other people, her rejection of any contact, her self-loathing and tangible pain and her need to disappear and not be noticed were so well written. I loved all of the references to flowers and their meanings, and the relief she feels when safe in her greenhouse.
The plot took a number of interesting twists and turns, accelerating the intrigue towards the end. There is more than a hint of the supernatural, making you question her perception of events throughout, and I found the final sequence very moving.
There are accounts of recovering dead bodies and preparing them afterwards, and you should be aware of this. These passages are sensitively dealt with but there are details some readers may find too much for them. I personally found these parts of the book essential in discovering Clara's character, which for me was the most satisfying part of this novel. I have never quite come across anyone like her and I enjoyed reading about her very much. The other characters are well constructed too, and develop throughout the book.
As the book progressed and Clara starts to let her guard down, with others as well as with you, this proved to be a really good read and I highly recommend it to readers who love mystery and crime, as well as those, like me, who love a strong main character and an unusual story. I will be keeping an eye out for more by this author. A brilliant first novel.
Amy Mackinnon has her own website should you want to read more about her. Just click the link.
My version of this book contained its own book group discussion questions too!

Sunday, 17 October 2010

The Mystery of Grace by Charles de Lint

I was totally into Charles de Lint novels about 20 years ago and read 3 in succession...Yarrow, Greenmantle and Moonheart and I loved them, so when I saw a review of one of his novels last year I added him to my personal challenge list to read another. The wonderful cover illustration and story description attracted me to this particular one.
Grace is a car mechanic, covered in tattoos and specialising in hot rods and customising Fords. She loves her cars and rockabilly music.
Grace meets John, a lonely graphic designer still haunted by his brothers death when they were children, at a Halloween party and they instantly fall for each other. The problem is that Grace was killed in a botched store robbery 2 weeks earlier and is allowed to go back to her life only twice a year. One of those nights is Halloween. As the sun comes up, Grace disappears from the bathroom and John is left wondering who she is and where she went. Exploring theories about spirituality, the hereafter and love, we are taken on a journey with Grace and John as they both try to work out what has happened.
I was excited about this book as soon as it arrived because I loved the cover, the book felt nice in the hand, and I like stories that bend reality. It was very easy to read and I got into it very quickly. The chapters swap between the points of view of Grace and John, but the book is dominated by Grace who proves to be a pretty captivating protagonist. I loved the whole adventure into the afterlife and found the details inventive and interesting. I was rooting for the couple throughout the story and loved the swapped points of view. I found the end quite moving too.
I did find the reason for the existence of the in-between state of the after world, that Grace and the other characters find themselves, unconvincing, as well as its conclusion. However I was enjoying the rest of it enough for it not to cause a problem. I also found the sudden shift in direction in the last part of the novel a little bewildering because up to that point Grace and John's relationship had been the main driving force in the book. I did take away a lot of interesting parts of the story with me however, and found the love story really beautifully written.
I am glad that I have revisited this author from my past and I will most probably read more. It was a gentle, heart felt and original novel and I am sure that many readers will find a lot to discuss within its pages.
Fantasy Literature has a list of all Charles de Lint Novels on their site.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

An Awfully Big Adventure by Beryl Bainbridge

A friend bought me this book a while ago, simply because it is set in my home town and in the Liverpool Playhouse Theatre in 1950. I have never read anything by Beryl Bainbridge even though she was from Liverpool too, and I have to say that even though she was known for her outspoken opinions, her comments about Liverpool people have irked me somewhat. Bainbridge died earlier this year so I thought it was time to put my own prejudices away and give this book a go.
It is 1950 and Stella has been taken on as assistant stage manager just as the Liverpool rep company are about to stage Peter Pan for Christmas and she has fallen for the director, Meredith. Working with all of the other quirky characters who work at the theatre we learn about Stella, her background and vulnerability. The story comes to a head with the return of O'Hara, the legendary actor who is standing in for the lead.
I really enjoyed revisiting locations in Liverpool, some of which I remember but are long gone, like Reece's cafe, Blackler's store and the old Clayton Square. Of course our own lovely Playhouse is still there and going strong. I did however find it really hard to follow at times. It seemed to jump about unpredictably within chapters. It wasn't until towards the end that I started to connect with the the style of the writing and appreciate the subtle layering that was taking place. This was the only time that I began to see why Bainbridge has such a strong following. Sadly for me it was a little late to help me connect with the characters. At times it felt I was seeing them through a fog and only getting snatches of their existence.
I am glad that I did get to see some of the wring talent within the book because a lot of the start was quite sketchy. I did love the trip down memory lane though and I think the writing style will give readers a lot to comment on and discuss.
Book Rags do a study guide for An Awfully Big Adventure with topics for discussion.
To read more about Beryl Bainbridge click the link.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

September Roundup

A few days late with this post due to a nasty little cold virus I picked up at the weekend. Been taking the Rosehip Syrup I made a few weekends ago which is rich in Vitamin C as well as A, D and E, and it tastes good too, hence the picture to your left. The only good thing about being holed up is having a little more time to read...
Read - 2 books
Completed -
An Awfully Big Adventure by Beryl Bainbridge
The Mystery of Grace by Charles de Lint
Currently Reading - Tethered by Amy MacKinnon
and also The Magic Apple Tree by Susan Hill
TBR Pile - currently at 81 books (according to GoodReads) with one book added...
The Magic Apple Tree: A Country Year by Susan Hill
Challenges - I set myself the challenge, in my directional reading post at the beginning of the year, to read another Charles de Lint novel, and I have now done that with The Mystery of Grace. The review will follow soon.
Wishlist Additions -
The Human Bobby by Gabe Rotter
The Summer Book by Tove Jansson
Discoveries - I guess you could say I have rediscovered an enthusiasm for Charles De Lint novels.
Events - It is not a reading event in itself, but has lead to the acquirement of books on the subject so I am going to include it for that reason. I went on a Herbal Medicine course in Manchester, run by the Low Impact Living Initiative (LILI). It was a brilliant day at Hulme Community Gardens, and so inspirational that I not only immediately went off making lots of remedies that I learned on the course, but I raided some local bookshops for books on the subject. I didn't include them above because they are reference books and not novels, but I wanted to share them just the same...
The Readers Digest Ultimate Book of Herbs
Grow Your Own Grugs: A Year with James Wong
The Holistic Womans Herbal by Kitty Campion
The Food Pharmacy by Jean Carper
Herbal Medicine:The Natural Way to Stay Well with The Herb Society by Dian Dincin Buchman.
Most of these I got second hand so it didn't break the bank and I have had a lot of fun increasing my knowledge in this area. It has been especially useful in looking up cold and flu remedies in the last few days!

Sunday, 19 September 2010


A couple of bibs and bobs that have come my way this week as well as some booky things to share with you.
As many of you know it has been Book Bloggers Appreciation Week this week and although I haven't played a very active part in it I do think it is an good way for book bloggers to interact and learn more about each other. It is an excellent source for finding new blogs and there have been some good articles and interviews too. One in particular caught my eye about the difference between American and British blogs, but there are lots of articles of the above link if you fancy a look for yourself.
The Chapter and Verse Festival is running again at the Bluecoat in Liverpool from the 9th to the 19th October. Tickets for various sessions are now on sale. Follow the link if you want to know more.
The Poetry Book Society is encouraging readers groups to try poetry for one of their meetings based on one of the nominated books for the T S Eliot prize. The poets included are Derek Walcott, Simon Armitage, Seamus Heaney and Annie Freud. From the 21st October you can download discussion questions, biographies and photos for these authors books. I think this is a great way to get groups to read poetry and if you want to read more about this scheme click the link.
I released another BookCrossing book just over a week ago in the Bluecoat gardens. The book was Amsterdam by Ian McEwan and it had been taken later in the day so lets hope someone logs it on the site and I can follow its progress.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

I must be one of only a handful of book bloggers who have not read this book...until now. We did do some chapters at school, but not the whole book. It was time to correct this and complete my 'read another American classic' category in my directional reading challenges for this year.
The story is told through the point of view of 2 children, Scout and Jem in the Deep South during the 1930's, and the lead up, during and aftermath of a trial where there father, Atticus, is defending a young black man accused of raping a white girl. Racism, class and childhood are all explored during this episode of their lives.
The story is told with warmth and humour, and a lot of the first part of the book follows their childhood games, curiosities, schooldays, friendships and rivalries. Because it is told from the childrens point of view, particularly Scout the youngest daughter, we are given a nostalgic take on the other characters, quirky neighbours, poorer class mates and the tales and adventures we all recognise from when we were younger. The adult world of court rooms, prejudice and politics are recounted as an interjection in their lives, and with an incomprehension that we as adult readers can share with them. Their simplistic view of the proceedings makes the adult complexities seem absurd at some points. However, the wisdom and kindness of their father, a literary hero of famous proportions, is a joy.
Like so many other readers, I loved this book. I was surprised by how much of a back seat the trial took, especially during the first part. I enjoyed the humour and the Deep South accents, and those important times during a young persons life where games overtake reality, in a way that makes them just as real. I also found that the lessons within it were not rammed down your throat.
While reading around the internet about this book, obviously most people speak with affection about it, but I found more than a couple of comments saying it was the most racist and unsavoury book ever written. I am glad that there are a variety of views but I feel these people have missed the point and I cannot agree. The story contains the views of some racist characters during a much earlier era, to which the book is sympathetic and consistent. In highlighting the racism that was rife at the time, where black Americans were easy targets for abuse and exploitation, the book brings attention to the injustices of the past in a balanced way, and this is important historically as well as a sociologically. It is also entertaining and very human and it is clear to me why this book is so highly regarded.
This year celebrated the 50th anniversary of this influential and much loved novel and there is a dedicated website for To Kill a Mockingbird 50th anniversary, just click the link.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

The Vagrants by Yiyun Li

I had heard a lot about this book on the blogs last year and then bought it as part of a 3 for 2 offer at Waterstones. I took it on holiday as something different to read after being surrounded by Jane Austen.
It starts in 1979, in an industrial town in China called Muddy River, just a few months after the death of Chairman Mao. It is also the day that a young woman called Gu Shan, is to be executed in the town for losing her faith in Communism. We follow several people through this day and the effect it has on them, her parents, the TV news presenter who has to report on the execution, Nini, a young crippled girl, the seven year old schoolboy Tong, the young layabout Bashi who is looking for a girl, and a few others along the way. The second part of the book moves forward a number of months to the day of a public protest over her death and the repercussions this has on many of them for years to come.
The political situation plays a very tangible backdrop for the stories of these very ordinary people, a lot of whom we can easily relate to. The writing is easy to follow and I was quickly caught up in the characters lives, concerned about where they were going and how it would progress for them. I found Yiyun Li's style captivating and skillful in making the thick grey atmosphere of fear and oppression, and also poverty, very realistic. You can feel it closing in on you as you read, and are grateful that you were not born in such a society.
The shocking elements in the book are told in such a matter of fact way I sometimes re-read them to make sure I had read it right. Without sensationalism we are given quite a few scenes that made me reel, and are more worrying for being almost an aside at times. This was everyday for those in China at this time. But these are recognisable people too, kind people, mean people, ambitious people and those just trying to survive. I particularly liked the Hua's and the baby girls they had tried to adopt along their way, in the absence of any children of their own. I also liked the story that followed Nini, a crippled burdon on her family so therefore an unpaid slave, and her friendship with Bashi. There were some moments of humour too, such as the comments about the women getting perms now that it was no longer thought frivolous.
This is a serious story though, important to be told and well written. It is not light hearted, and it is difficult and harrowing in parts. There were times that I wanted to put it down and do something cheerful for a bit before coming back to it.
An excellent choice for book groups as there is a lot to discuss about the historical context, the writing style and different personal opinions about the book. I am glad I read it, because of its significance on a human level. I was also glad that I was able to leave that world behind at the end, and seek out something more light hearted, so as to counteract the heavy damp cloudy feeling that I had after reaching its last few pages.
You can download a readers guide for The Vagrants by clicking the link.
There is also an interesting interview with Yiyun Li, if you are interested, follow the link.

Monday, 30 August 2010

August Roundup

This is a picture that I took while on holiday in Hampshire at the beginning of the month, in beautiful Mottisfont Abbey gardens, owned by the National Trust.
Read - 3 and a quarter books, not a bad month at all.
Completed -
A Month in the Country by J L Carr
The Vagrants by Yiyun Li
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Currently Reading - An Awfully Big Adventure by Beryl Bainbridge
TBR Pile - currently at 83 books (according to GoodReads) with 5 added...
The Girl with Glass Feet by Ali Shaw
The Red Tent by Anita Diamant
Ines of my Soul by Isabelle Allende
Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier
The Mystery of Grace by Charles de Lint
Challenges - read and finished To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee as my 'read another American classic'. Also bought another Charles de Lint (see above) to read another of his, as set by me at the beginning of the year for directional reading challenges.
Wishlist Additions -
Wildwood by Robert Deakin
The Ninth Life of Louis Drax by Liz Jensen
The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald
Canning for a New Generation by Liana Krissoff
Juliet by Anne Fortier
Discoveries - A lovely website called Forgotten Bookmarks written by someone who works in a secondhand bookshop and records everthing that they find in the books, from photos, lists, letters, tickets and lots of unusual things. I spent ages on it and some of the finds are really moving.
Events - Of course the rest of my Jane Austen holiday at the beginning of the month, and also planning the next one! Lots of ideas and information coming in already, as well as interest from a number of people.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

A Month in the Country by J L Carr

I know I only got this a month or so ago, and with over 80 odd books on my TBR pile I don't have any excuses really, except that I could not resist this one, for reasons explained on my Rural Novels post. It is only 85 pages so more of a novella really.
Set in Yorkshire just after the First World War, Tom Birkin arrives at Oxgodby to restore a medieval wall painting in a small church. He is also seeking refuge and peace after the horrors he has seen, betrayed by a stammer and a twitch. Tom is our narrator, as he reflects on that long-ago summer from old age, with nostalgia for a lost rurality and more than a little humour. Living in the bell tower during that hot summer he describes his sleepy and beautiful surroundings, and his relationships with the local's with affection, his friendship with Charles Moon who was also in the war, his crush on the vicar's wife, and his admiration for the artist who created the fresco and the mysteries it holds. During his stay amongst the quiet and rhythmic hum of the countryside, Tom Birkin begins to heal.
The humour of the narration makes this book very easy to read, and the warmth of the summer is tangible through Tom. This is not a fast paced book full of action. It is instead a wonderful meditation about people and their surroundings, and appreciating it for what it is, before it is lost forever. Tom is irresistably drawn into the lives of the locals, by his routine, and by the mysterious painter who never managed to finish the work on the chapel wall, which is of a rare quality. There are some sadnesses along the way, especially Moon's background in the war. These are only alluded to, and the rest is left to your imagination. Their experiences are not less for this. You know Tom is haunted enough to get a tic and seek some peace. This is an upbeat study about how one man tries to quiet his mind, told with witty observations and warmth.
I already knew the story having seen the film (which adds a few details where the novel holds back) so I knew what it was about. I loved the film, with Colin Firth and Kenneth Branagh, and I really enjoyed reading this book. The whole thing feels like something to savour and I recommend it highly.
Bookrags has a study guide for A Month in the Country, which may be of use for book group discussion.
There is also a good article from The Independent about the author you may find interesting, entitled The Last Englishman: The Life of J L Carr by Byron Rogers

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Novel Holiday - Jane Austen in Hampshire

You may remember back in April I spoke about organising a holiday in Hampshire for some friends, our first Novel Holiday, with a set book in an area that included places to visit that celebrated either the book or the author. We got back just over a week ago.
We stayed in a lovely wood cabin in the New Forest. There were 4 of us altogether, myself L, and S, A and R. R stayed for 4 nights, and the rest of us had the cabin for a week.
Although Bath is heavily associated with Jane Austen, Hampshire is where she lived most of her life so it was perfect for this type of holiday.
Our set books were Emma by Austen, and also a contemporary novel, The Blue Fox by Sjon, which we were to discuss on holiday. I didn't know how that part of the holiday would go, but I needn't have worried because the discussions went really well.
We talked about Emma on the first morning after breakfast. Accompanied by a handout with some context, the conversation covered opinions about the book and the characters, and went on to include feminism and the rights of women, marriage, and also the historical contexts of the book. Not everyone had finished the book, but the discussion still went on for an hour and a half anyway. R, who had read all of Jane Austen's novels years ago, really enjoyed re-reading Emma so much, she said she wanted to read the others again. A had not read it but wanted to at the end of the discussion and started the book while on holiday. When we had finished talking, it seemed a good time to have our bookswap, where a number of books found new homes. I came away with 2...The Girl with Glass Feet by Ali Shaw, and The Red Tent by Anita Diamant.
The following day was our Jane Austen day. We visited Steventon first, where her father and brother had been rectors at the village church, and Jane lived her earlier years in a house that is no longer there. You can see her brothers grave in the church yard and the setting is really peaceful. We then drove to Chawton where her house in the village is now a Jane Austen museum. She moved here after living in Bath and there is a lot of memorabilia here, as well as information about her life. The table where she wrote her later novels, Emma and Persuasion, is still there. The gardens are also pretty, as is the village. We didn't have time to walk to the church but Jane's sister and mother are buried there. Lastly we drove to Winchester where Jane is buried in the cathedral. You can see her grave stone as well as the monument to her life and work. The cathedral has also exhibited a display about her life.
The following day we spoke about The Blue Fox. I had enjoyed it, as had R. S and A were more perplexed by it and A felt she hadn't understood it at all. Our discussion, which took about an hour, confirmed this to her. We examined the format of the book, the style, and also its 3 parts. As we did this, more meanings came to light. We also discussed whether the references to Icelandic legends enhanced or detracted from the book, with none of us knowing the background to them. Two of us thought that it added to the mysteriousness, but two of us felt they were missing out on some of it.
After talking we did our lucky dip book. I got Ines of my Soul by Isabelle Allende. We then talked about our recommendations and I compiled a list, as well as a list of all the other books that had come up during our discussions, to send on after the holiday.
Of course we did lots of other things that were not book related...walking in the New Forest, a visit to Salisbury, and also a day at Mottisfont Abbey (a National Trust property with beautiful gardens full of butterflies, including a Victorian walled garden). We also watched the excellent and very funny Lost in Austen series on DVD.
Everyone has said they really enjoyed the holiday and would be interested in doing another one next year. No one said that they were sick of Jane Austen at the end, mainly because we didn't overdo it and interspersed it with other things too. Hampshire and the New Forest were perfect for this. A beautiful part of the country. In fact A went back and immediately watched a film version of Emma while finishing the book, and wants to buy a copy of Lost in Austen.
I really enjoyed it. I thought the balance of stuff to do worked very well, the discussions went better than I could have hoped, and I loved the whole week. I also enjoyed putting the whole thing together.
I am currently researching our holiday for next year.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

July Roundup

This lovely picture is of Jane Austen's House in Chawton, Hampshire, where I was exactly one week ago. You can read more about it on InfoBritain. My post about the Jane Austen holiday will be coming soon, I just couldn't resist this picture.
Read - 1 book
Completed - The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
Currently Reading - The Vagrants by Yiyun Li
TBR Pile - at 81 books (according to GoodReads) with one book added...
A Month in the Country by J L Carr
Challenges - completed my own challenge to 'read another Russian' with The Master and Margarita.
Wishlist Additions -
The Allotment Book: Seasonal Planner and Cookbook by Andi Clevely
On the Plot with Dirty Nails by Joe Hashman
Discoveries - A Month in the Country by J L Carr
Events - The beginning of our Jane Austen holiday in Hampshire, to be covered in my next post.
Loving the new Sherlock series on BBC at the moment with Benedict Cumberbatch as a modern day version of the famous sleuth.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

When I said that I wanted to 'read another Russian' at the beginning of the year, a kind person e-mailed me with this book as a recommendation. I liked the sound of it so it joined my wishlist and a friend then bought it for me. It sat on my TBR pile for a few months until I saw that it was the favourite novel of Sjon, the author of The Blue Fox (review here), so it was time to give it a go.

Written just before Bulgakov's death in 1940, but not published until 1966 this novel follows the events affecting some of Moscow's literary elite when the devil and his motley band of followers (including a big black cat called Behemoth and a naked lady) pay them all a visit, resulting in carnage and chaos in the city. Posing as a magician and calling himself Woland, the devil takes over someones flat, causes several people to be admitted to the local mental hospital, undertakes a show at the Variety theatre causing the audience to strip naked and run out of the theatre with fists full of paper that they are convinced are money and lots of other mischief. The only people resistant to Woland are The Master, currently residing in the same mental institution previously mentioned, since his disappointment over his own novel about Pontius Pilate, and his ex-lover Margarita. Woland invites Margarita to a ball where history's most macabre characters are due to attend. But beforehand, she is transformed into a witch and flies over Moscow and Russia to a lakeside. This is one of the novel's more fantastical scenes, as well as the ball itself where Margarita is guest of honour and has to receive the bizarre and the wonderful while sitting naked. Margarita manages to pull this off and is rewarded by Woland. Interspersed with all of this are sections from The Master's book about Pontius Pilate and the events of the day of the trial and execution of Yeshua Ha Nostri, or Jesus of Nazareth as we know him more commonly.

The language of this translation and the literary style of the novel is not difficult to read, and certainly the narrator in my version resembled the chirpy, friendly voice that reminded me of the narrator in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke (which I never completed). This constantly cheery voice may possibly be to convey humour but the resemblance to a Blue Peter TV childrens show presenter seemed to totally belie the subject matter. This is probably personal to me, and could be a voice I have concocted in my own mind, but it is one of the reasons I stopped reading the Susanna Clarke novel.

I have found the review of this book to be one of the hardest ones I have had to write, not only for the complicatedness of the novel, it's story and themes, but also because of how I feel about it. When I told a work colleague, who has also read it, that I was writing this review, he said, 'Where are you going to start...?'

There were parts of this novel that I enjoyed immensely. Mostly the beginning few chapters, and the sections about Pontius Pilate as an alternative view of an ingrained story from the Bible. I also liked it that Woland was not your conventional kind of devil, showing a generous and also a compassionate side. However there were other sections where I was aware of my attention waning. Hordes of more naked women ended up boring me. I like fantasy realism a lot (see my review of The Stolen Child by Keith Donohue) but some style of fantasy may just not be to my taste I guess.

When I was trying to think of what to say in this review I realised that I have probably enjoyed the novel more afterwards, while reading about it's innovative stance on social and literary issues in Russia at the time, rather than during the actual reading of it. There is another author, a hugely loved and inspirational writer, who has had the same effect on me, and that is Virginia Woolf. I can see the reason why they are important, I can admire their forward thinking and talent, I enjoy learning about them and their work and some parts are memorable, but the reading of the book itself was hard work.

This book is an excellent choice for reading groups however. There is such a lot to talk about both with the story and also its literary and social context and it will probably raise a whole array of opinions. I am glad I read it, some of it will stay with me, even though I didn't find all of it enjoyable.

Penguin does a Master and Margarita reading guide if you click the link.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Rural and Pastoral Novels

I first saw this film many years ago. Made in 1987 it stars a young Colin Firth and Kenneth Branagh and is set in the English Countryside in 1919 during one balmy summer. I have seen it a few times since and I have always loved it. So much so that I have found myself recommending it twice in the last two weeks.
Then, (how is this for a coincidence), I was in Waterstones in Southport at the weekend, and they were promoting books about the British Countryside and there was the novel of the same name by J L Carr. It was the last copy left on the display so I snapped it up and can't wait to read it.
Apparently the film has been quite scarce in recent years and there is a website dedicated to reviving A Month in the Country on DVD.
Anyway, it got me thinking about how much I love stories set in the British Countryside, 'Far from the Madding Crowd' so to speak. I can be a bit of a country bumpkin and totally buy into the nostalgia of it.
Here are some of my favourites...
Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
Precious Bane by Mary Webb (my all time favourite book)
Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks
Middlemarch by George Eliot
Cousin Phyllis by Elizabeth Gaskell
and numerous Catherine Cookson's from my youth.
On my TBR pile I have...
The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot
The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy
Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell
and now A Month in the Country by J L Carr.
Do you have any favourite pastoral novels?

Sunday, 4 July 2010

June Roundup

After having a great weekend last week in Shropshire and seeing Othello at Ludlow Castle as part of the Ludlow Festival, this logo seemed a good place to start.
Read - 1 and a half books
Completed - 1 book...The Girls by Lori Lansens
Currently Reading - The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
TBR Pile - No books added so the pile is at 80 books (according to Good Reads).
Challenges - My current book by Bulgakov complies with my personal goal to 'Read another Russian' this year.
Wishlist Additions -
The Natural Navigator by Tristan Gooley
The Passage by Justin Cronin
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
Kings of the Earth by Jon Chich
What is left the daughter by Howard Norman
The Unit by Nimmi Holquist
Pray for Silence by Linda Castillo
Discoveries - The Ludlow Festival
Events - Othello at Ludlow Castle, really good production on a summers eve in Shropshire. Would love to go again and will be keeping an eye on the program for next year. I love outdoor theatre!
Now preparing for our Jane Austen holiday at the end of July, and also make progress on The Master and Margarita.

Thursday, 1 July 2010


Just a quick post to fill you in on how things have been going here at The Octogon. I was camping in Shropshire last weekend so missed my usual slot here on the web, and it seemed like a good time to regroup some thoughts.
We have had some gorgeous weather here in England, warm and sunny. Perfect weather for camping. My lovely friend and her cool sis, who both live in Nottingham, invited me camping to test out their new Bell Tent that they want to take to Bestival in August. We chose Shropshire on my recommendation because it is kind of between Nottingham and Liverpool, and one of the most beautiful and less well known counties in England. I had not visited for about 15 years but used to go quite a lot because it is the place where my favourite author came from...Mary Webb (Precious Bane, Gone to Earth etc). All of her novels were set in the county during the 18th and 19th centuries and you can visit lots of the natural locations that appear in the books. It is one of my favourite places and I have lots of special memories there.
Coincidentally, we were staying near Ludlow and the Ludlow festival was on and we got tickets to see Othello at Ludlow castle on Saturday night. It was brilliant, a real treat. I didn't know what to expect at all. Of course the weather was fantastic, and Ludlow is a lovely old medieval town. The play was full and everyone was dotted about, lounging on the grass inside the walls, having picnics and drinking wine and Pimms in the evening sunshine. The performance took place within the castle walls itself. The set was impressive and the production was really good, very exciting all the way through with excellent performances and direction. A lovely summers evening thing to do and a great location. We have already mentioned going again next year, and we know it has quite a following. The play is not the only thing happening at the the link above to see for yourself. It was a great weekend.
I am still reading The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. I am about a quarter of the way through. Some parts are interesting, then others drag a bit and my concentration wanes so it is slow progress at the mo. I need a good session with it to pick up the motivation again.
Lastly, over at Book Club Girl there is a link to an interesting article in the LA Times about Book Bloggers and their relationship with publishers which I wanted to mention. Click the link to take a look.
Thats where I am at for now. Hope the sun is out where you are!

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Tree Wisdom by Jacqueline Memory Paterson

I bought this book with some book vouchers that I was given as a graduation present. I like to get a book that feels like a gift with vouchers. I love vouchers!
At the time, a few years ago, I still had my caravan on a farm in Wales but realised there were only some of the trees surrounding it that I could identify, even though I had spent 10 years living alongside them. The gaps in my knowledge prompted me to buy this book.
I already had a pocket tree guide, but wanted to know more, about how each trees personality has been perceived and what they have been and are used for. This was the perfect choice.
I read the book straight off at the time and I remember whole chunks of it still. About how you still find lots of Yew trees in graveyards because they were associated with the afterlife, and how the Apple tree is the tree of love in many cultures (if you cut an apple in half there is a heart shape inside).
I still dip into the book, to remind myself of something I've read, or to use it as reference. Each chapter is dedicated to a tree type that complies with the ancient Ogham alphabet and has information on identification and where it is usually found, as well as uses and legends.
I was picking Hawthorn flowers recently on the Organic farm that I work on in Devon, to be dried for use in skin and heart remedies, so the book was brought down again from the shelf to re-read the relevant chapter. I remembered Hawthorn was one of the trees that fascinated me the most and is said to be held high in the affections of those who love the countryside. It always likes to grow near people, and in England it is the staple of most of our hedgerows because it is not greedy with the soil, so other plants grow around it happily. It was called the bread and cheese tree, because in the past, when people travelled the countryside looking for work, they could stave off hunger by chewing on its leaves. It is also known as The May tree because this is the month that it flowers (see my recent May Roundup post) and for this reason was a fertility symbol too and used as decoration during weddings.
Anyway, this book has been a treasure to me for a few years now and anyone who has an interest in trees and their folklore will find it a valuable addition to their book shelves. The cover illustration is beautiful too, making this book a lovely gift.
Just for the record, my caravan was surronded by a huge Ash tree down by the lake, several Alder trees, a Sycamore, some Hazel trees (when the mice broke into and squatted in my van one winter, they used my oven glove as a cosy warm place to sleep and the evidence left was a stash of empty hazel nut shells...the critters), Hawthorn, Holly and a Rowan tree. I almost forgot about the Larch tree too. I hope they are all still there.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

The Girls by Lori Lansens

This book was lent to me by my friends mum as an unusual read. I had seen a BBC documentary about Lori and Reba Schappell some years ago and so I was interested to give this book a try.
This novel is a fictional account of the lives of Rosie and Ruby Darlen, who are writing down their unusual life. They are the oldest living Craniopagus conjoined twins, so they are joined by the head and unable to be separated because of a shared essential vein. Other than that they are totally seperate people, different bodies, different brains, different personalities. Rosie wants to be a writer and so it is her voice that we hear for the first third of the book, telling their story through her eyes. She believes that their unusual story should be told, about how their mother abandoned them at birth, and how they were adopted by Aunt Lovey and Uncle Stash, a kind and loving couple with no children of their own. Rosie tells us about their condition (Ruby has 2 club feet so has to be carried by her sister), their childhood on a Canadian farm, their closeness as sisters, and their relationship to their adoptive parents and their own story.
Ruby is coerced by her sister to include her own parts for the joint biography, and here the book takes on a new dimension, not just because we have a new voice, but there are some things that Rosie has chosen not to tell us. The sisters will not read each others writings until the book is complete.
It took me a little while to get my head around the fact that this book is fictional because I felt like I was reading a true story. It is very easy to read and I was engrossed quite quickly. It was when Ruby's voice came into it that realised I was completely attached to these sisters and I cared a lot about them. Each of them wheedle their way into your imagination with their stories, and their humourous encounters with other people. Some of their descriptions of peoples reactions had me laughing out loud. I was equally touched by their relationship to their kind and wise adoptive parents who bring them up in a world of love.
There are quite a few pre-emptive sections to warn you of something sad to come, and when it did I cried my eyes out. I can still get a lump in my throat when I think of it now. But this is in no way a depressing or self-indulgent story. It is inspiring, moving, funny and entertaining. It is about the closeness of families and a unique sisterly bond, and about being different. There is also a lot to say about identity, dependence and independence.
I really enjoyed reading this book and it surprised me by how attached I became to Rosie and Ruby. There were a few times along the way I had to remind myself that the were conjoined. Towards the end of the book Rosie says,
'It's easy for Nick (a friend) to say it doesn't matter if my story is ever read. He says, "Just that you wrote it Rosie, let that be enough." But I want more. So much more. I want this collection of words to transform themselves into visions of Ruby and me. I want to be remembered like long-ago friends.'
Lori Lansens certainly manages this with a skillfully written book that brings the twins to life.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

May Roundup

Apologies for my brief absence. I was working on the Devon Farm that I went to last year and we spent some time each day picking Hawthorn flowers (as in the picture, courtesy of the Wild About Britain website), to be dried and used for heart and skin remedies. We had fantastic weather and it was a great way to spend the mornings, in the sunshine gently gathering these lovely flowers. Also known as The May, this tree is perfect for my months roundup. Back to the books...
Read - 1 and three quarters of a book
Completed - 2 books...
Emma by Jane Austen
The Blue Fox by Sjon
Currently Reading - The Girls by Lori Lansens
TBR Pile - now at 81 (according to Good Reads) with one book added during May...
Water a book of short stories, part of the Ox-Tales series produced for Oxfam
Challenges - finished Emma by Jane Austen
Wishlist Additions -
Four Letters of Love by Niall Williams
The Scent of Rain and Lightning by Nancy Pickard
Babettes Feast by Karen Blixen
Discoveries -
The wonderful Almeida Theatre in London
Events -
Ruined at the Almeida Theatre, one of the best plays I have seen.
Kursk at the Everyman in Liverpool, totally brilliant, original and moving.
Also my 2nd Blogiversary!
June is already underway, as I try to integrate into ordinary city life after an idyllic week working on the farm in the sunshine.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

The Blue Fox by Sjon

This book has been on quite a few blogs for a while and highly recommended, so when I needed another non Jane Austen choice for our holiday in August, this seemed an interesting book to go with.
It is only 100 pages long and I read it in a day. Written by Sjon from Iceland (he writes lyrics for Bjork), it is set in the Icelandic wilderness in 1883. We are told two juxtaposed stories that become invariably linked as the tale comes together. The first follows Baldur Skuggason, a priest, hunting for the valuable Blue Fox in the snowy wastelands. Then we follow Fridrik B. Fridriksson a few days earlier, a naturalist who knows the priest. Fridrik had come back to his parents home 17 years earlier, to sell it and move on. But after rescuing Abba, a girl with Downs Syndrome, who had been shackled to a ship that had run aground, he had stayed and she had stayed with him. The last part revisits the Priest and the fox. All of them are bound together.
As I said, this is a quick read, which makes the depth of its imagery and meaning a skillful achievement. Some pages contain only a paragraph or even a sentence. It suits the rhythm of the book without being pretentious at all. Lyrical and poetic, but never difficult to read, you realise quickly that this book is special. Called a fable, and 'part-mystery, part fairy-tale' this book operates on lots of levels, some of which are incredibly moving (I was gulping back tears at one point during my lunch break at work so as not to embarress myself), and some of which are truly beautiful. It is also funny, no more so than when the Priest is enraptured by a cods head he has to eat. I want to read it again to enjoy the subtleties I missed the first time around.
The book has not suffered in translation as far as I can tell, Victoria Cribb deserves a mention for a translation that maintains its humour and warmth. The only thing that non-Icelandic readers will miss out on are some of the significant references to traditional stories and myths, as I did. It was, however, fun and interesting to find out some of them while reading about the book afterwards.
A beautiful book, full of intelligent passages and magical moments, memorable and moving. A good choice for book groups also. I am looking forward to discussing it on holiday later this year.
You can read an interview with Sjon about his book The Blue Fox on Me And My Big Mouth

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

2nd Blogiversary

I almost can't believe it but The Octogon is 2 years old today. To celebrate this I have indulged my love of lists by compiling some categories about the books I have read.
My top 5 books...
Precious Bane by Mary Webb
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley
The Passion by Jeanette Winterson
Books that made me cry...
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
The Time Travellers Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
Books that made me laugh out loud...
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
Books that I hated...
Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens
The Magus by John Fowles
Books that it was important to read...
Moments of Reprieve by Primo Levi
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Germinal by Emile Zola
Books that surprised me...
A Passage to India by E. M. Forster
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
Empire of the Sun by J. G. Ballard
The Beach by Alex Garland
Books that disappointed...
The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
Orlando by Virginia Woolf
Books I read after seeing the film...
Atonement by Ian McEwan
The Shipping News by Annie Proulx
The Handmaids Tale by Margaret Atwood
Books that scared the pants off me...
The Shining by Stephen King
The Woman in Black by Susan Hill
Books that everyone else has read except me...
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
A book I loved but no one else seems to have heard of...
The Dreamer by Daniel Quinn
I compiled this list for my own record really, but I am sure there may be some in there that you agree or disagree with. Hopefully The Octogon will continue so that I get to indulge more lists like these for a while yet..

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Emma by Jane Austen

The edition that I read of this classic was a lovely Hamish Hamilton Novel Library edition that was published in 1952. It was in a box of second hand books that a friend gave to me some time ago, and has a fresh green cover not unlike the one to your left.
As I have mentioned previously about my Jane Austen holiday coming up in August, this is one of the books set for the trip. It is my fourth Jane Austen (I have previously read Mansfield Park, Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey), and also completes my personal directional reading challenge for this year to 'read another Jane Austen'.
For those of you who are not familiar with the novel and have not seen any of the film or TV adaptations, this tells the story of the well-to-do families residing in the fictional town of Highbury in Surrey in the earlier part of the 19th century during the period of one year. The main character of the title, Emma Woodhouse, is 'handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition...and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.' So says the first sentence in the whole book. The trouble is, Emma has a high opinion of herself and fancies herself as a bit of a matchmaker for those around her.
For herself she claims she will never marry, but as we are introduced to the other members of this genteel society, Emma, with kindness in her heart, tries to predict matches and cajole them into reality. In doing so, she gets herself and others into pickle of dashed hopes and unpredictable preferences.
We accompany Emma on her journey from bright and intelligent young girl, oblivious to her own vanities, to a more mature and balanced young woman who retains all of her warmth and generocity but in a much more balanced and attractive way.
We are also introduced in detail to the other friends and residents of Highbury, not only by character, but their all important social standing within this close knit society. The many characters and their interactions are the bulk of this story. We rarely step outside the comforts of this. It is their subtleties of manner and interaction that drive this novel, centering around Emma.
Austen's style is known well enough for her books to be a surprise these days. Many love her enclosed worlds of the higher classes of early 19th century England, the measured behaviour, the concentration upon marrying the right man and bettering your position. You can read between the lines about gender roles and the essentials of health and securing your future, but rarely does anything more topical or gritty infiltrate her stories, and this is her strength for some, and her weakness for others.
Personally I welcome the little holiday from the harsh realities of life that her stories provide. I know that there are wars, poverty, prostitution and child cruelties all just beyond the covers of the novel, and widely covered by other great novelists, many of whom I also love reading. But sometimes Jane Austen provides an enjoyable alternative. Her books are not without talent or importance, and the concerns of her characters are very real.
I really enjoyed reading Emma. I found her suitably naive and slightly annoying at first and therefore enjoyed her development. I grew fond of many of the other characters too, the dependable Mr Knightley, the warmth of the Westons, the intrigue of Jane Fairfax, the ridiculous Eltons, the comedy and sadness of Miss Bates. As the preface of my edition says, 'Jane Austen's laughter is of the quiet and private kind, mocking but sympathetic, sometimes genteel, often sly, seldom unkind and never cruel. And of all her books Emma has the most of this gentle gaiety'.
I have certainly found it the lightest of Austen's novels that I have read.
Jane Austen herself said, 'I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.' I think many, including myself, have and will enjoy reading about her, as well as indulging their need to enter Emma's world for a while. I am looking forward to discussing this book with my friends on holiday to Hampshire in August.
A reading group guide to Emma can be found by clicking the link.
To read an essay written by the Australian Jane Austen society entitled Emma -Understanding Jane Austen's World click the link.

Hay on Wye

Hay on Wye