Friday, 28 January 2011

Rebecca Readalong: Post #2 - The END

As you must know by now, this readalong is (was?) hosted at The Literary Odyssey here - even if you don't care about Rebecca, check out Allie's blog - there are a ton of readalongs and a lot of reviews of classics to keep you entertained!

Over this past fortnight, participants were finishing the end of the book. Although, from what I've seen so far - nobody managed to make it last that long!

Where did we leave off? Our somewhat lacklustre narrator was whining her way around Manderley; Mrs Danvers was creeping everybody out in the way that only a shrine-maintaining housekeeper can; Maxim was sulking a lot and all was less than rosy in the newly-weds' life.

I've re-read my first post with the benefit of hindsight (and some helpful points from the Afterword in my version) and its made me realise how good it is to have a note of your thoughts of the first half of a book in isolation. Usually, I'll sweep on through a book, get caught up in the excitement and my love (or lack thereof) for the story as a whole dampens those first impressions. So that's good lesson from the readalong number 1!

The Second Half

****Spoilers from here onwards - if you haven't read Rebecca yet but are planning on, be warned!!****

At the end of my first post, I said that I wanted the narrator to become more assertive - so did she? Surprisingly, I found myself completely charmed by her by the end of the book! And that was something I completely wasn't expecting. She wasn't exactly forthright and occasionally she had a fainting spell, which strikes me as a mostly nineteenth/early-twentieth century phenomenon, but I was in awe of her stoicism. I'm quite an emotional person in some ways so I'm not the best judge here but I'm fairly convinced that if my new husband admitted to me that he had shot his former wife and drowned her body in her boat, I'd be a tad perturbed...to put it lightly...I admired her quiet strength more than I would have admired a big showdown with Mrs Danvers.

I also changed my opinion of Firth. Yes, he was still creepy (to me) but only because he kept popping up everywhere unannounced! Having thought on that, perhaps that's because I don't have house staff and the idea of somebody other than me and the boyfriend skulking around my house unheard and unseen unnerves me....

On to the story: The action unfurled very quickly after I passed the agreed half way marker. I still found Manderley itself to be fantastically and unswervingly present as an entity in the book - particularly when just a picture on its walls wreaks such havoc for our narrator. From what I have read about the book and Du Maurier since, this was based on the house in which she lived for many years and I'm so totally visiting Cornwall this summer to see if I can catch a glimpse!

A lot of the second half of the book reminded me of a play - all of crucial events take place in one room, with characters entering and exiting and playing their parts beautifully. From the moment Maxim confesses to the narrator, they seem to become part of Manderley - their fates are all bound up in the events playing out in the library and I thought the final paragraph reflected the destruction wreaked on all the characters with brilliant poignancy.

And one last thing, I found the social aspects very interesting - the way the 'Establishment' works to protect Maxim, as a wealthy and upstanding gentleman of class, and ultimately sees him escaping punishment (in the public sense) for his actions, is creepy in its historical accuracy. And, even though I obviously didn't like him, I found myself feeling extremely sorry for Favell. He seems to genuinely have loved Rebecca (in his own warped way...) and is desperately reaching for some form of justice only to be thwarted by the protection the upper class law enforcers afforded their "equals". The narrator's perception that they are knowingly being protected is unnerving - I found it all to be very throught-provoking, and I love that in a book!

Some minor downers: The part of the story where the narrator is preparing for the ball and choosing her outfit was too predictable, at least I found it to be. Had my arch rival "kindly" suggested an outfit choice to me prior to the biggest event in my life after my wedding, I'd like to think I'd have the common sense to think, "Hang on a second, maybe all isn't quite as dandy as it seems...?", rather than flop straight on the idea and wind up realising that, yes, Mrs Danvers is a bit of a crafty one...I've tried to ponder this one and come to terms with it - is it intentional and meant to demonstrate our narrators trusting nature and general naivety? Maybe. Was it a slack plot device on the part of the writer? I'd like to think not.

Overall: I really enjoyed this book - it does have a kind of slow beginning but just after the half way point, everything speeds up immensely. From the moment the boat was found, I was hooked. I read this at every available minute of my day and was sad when it was over. Good signs indeed.

One final thing: this book was on my 'TBR Pile Challenge' list - what a way to start! So that's one down, eleven to go!

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Weekly Geeks: My first geekish outing!

Whew - what a week!! For some unknown reason, I was beaten into submission by work and general life since my last post - I have read but seemed to have had my post creativity sapped and so just plodded on...on with today's post, though!

One thing I have been in awe of ever since I started blogging was the sheer volume of memes out there - I have wanted for an equally long time to find one that I can participate in regularly but that I won't eventually find a bit formulaic...since I keep my blog fairly up to date with what I'm reading, what I have read and what I buy, that ruled out a lot of memes of that nature! I also wanted something which I could get stuck into with a bit of thought (although I'm sure I may on occasion regret that!).



Problem solved: I have now found...






For those who haven't seen it, there is a weekly theme/discussion topic/blog-related activity that you can post about or do and they seem rather varied! So, I'm declaring myself a weekly geek...at least for the time being! My plan (after this week, obviously) is to post my thoughts on the topic on a Sunday, since I'm mostly just hiding in my house on a Sunday trying to deny the impending working week...


This week's topic: WOMEN WRITERS

The questions (my selected questions, that is..):
  • Do you tend to read more books authored by men or women?
  • What are your thoughts about the label "chick lit"? Do you think it makes a difference what we call women's fiction? Are books written by women more likely to be labeled "light", or unimportant?
What I read: Had you asked me this question before I started blogging, I would have probably answered that I read mostly books by men, as that was my instinctive reaction when I first read this question. However, of the 48 books I read last year, a massive 37 were written by women - that's over 75%! Clearly, then, this is utterly unintentional as I was under the opposite impression! I am, as you can imagine, quite shame-faced that I had so dilluded myself...I am also somewhat disconcerted that the balance is this far off. But then, as long as it's done subconsciously, I'm not overly concerned...

Thoughts on "chick lit"

I'm sure I've mentioned before that I went to an girls-only high school. The headteacher there was a fabulous woman and extremely encouraging - her ideas weren't necessarily that women should all be career-driven or challenging men on every corner but that they should be what they want to be: want to be a lawyer/scientist or whatever? Fine; want to be a full-time mother? Go for it.
Rather than making me a feminist, I think it's made me generally more accepting: Want to read James Joyce? Fine; Want to read Marian Keyes? Go for it. I know I should be insulted that books written by women and intended for women are referred to almost derogatorily as "chick lit" but it doesn't necessarily concern me. I think that the insult isn't implicit - I use the term myself, sometimes, but in an almost affectionate way. An insult is in the ear of the receiver, I guess you could say...

It isn't the fact that it's written by a woman that makes a book 'chick lit' so I also don't think the label is any reflection on an author's gender; it's the target reader. But sometimes it's just too easy to say, "How dare you imply I can't cope with grand ideas because I'm a woman?!" And so ladies, I say, don't take offence! Who wants to read fashion garble/stories about "Mr Right"/inevitably happy endings/cry into a stereotypical cocktail of the moment?! Much more likely to be a woman than a man - and that's why we're the delightfully charming beings that we are! Just a fact. (And, please, don't take this too seriously - I know that not all women want to read this stuff! That's kind of my point...if you want to, you should be able to without worrying that it has any reflection on your intelligence or worth to society...)

So don't be offended - embrace your ability to appreciate the innane without getting caught up in the fact that someone is implying that's all your good for, because you know that it's just what you fancy at the moment, right?! You can get round to Dostoyevsky another time...Crime and Punishment isn't going anywhere!

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On an aside, I've *tried* to install the Intense Debate feature on my blog - if that messes things up, hopefully I'll realise and be able to fix it...sorry if it causes any problems!

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Some thoughts on re-reads...

Over the past couple of days, I have wolfed down the end of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier and have to say that, overall, it's as brilliant as people would have you believe - ordinarily, I'd crack straight on with a review and extol its many virtues for all to see. However, as you may have noticed, I have read it for a readalong and my thoughts aren't due for nearly two weeks so it can wait until then :)

One thing that struck me though while I was reading other bloggers' posts and comments on the first half was how many people declared this one of their favourites and how the readalong had reminded them that they were due a 're-read'.

Which got me thinking/made me realise: I don't think I've ever re-read a book unless required to at some stage in my education! I've re-read parts of books to refresh my memory if someone asks about it, if the next one in a series is out or if I remember particularly enjoying some part but no full re-reads.


I suppose there are a couple of reasons why: I think the main one is that with so many great books out there that I want to read, I just can't help but grabbing for something 'new'. Another one is that I only manage a small amount of books a year as it is, what with not having nearly enough time as I would like to read, and if some of those were re-reads I'd just never get to read some of the fantastic books I'm looking forward to.

Although on some level, this all worries me a tad - perhaps I've just been reading the wrong books and am missing that special one that will compel me to read it over and over...

So first, to those of you who re-read: I am in awe of you but also curious, what is it that makes you pick back up a book you've already read once/twice/ten times?

Second, I'm beginning to think I'm alone in this: does anybody else feel as though re-reading something means they're missing out on something new to love?!

And that's it really...just some thoughts...:)

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Rebecca Readalong: Post #1 - The First Half

This Readalong is being hosted over at A Literary Odyssey here - this weekend, those participating will be posting their thoughts on the first half of the novel and, no doubt, speculating on where it will go from here. If you click on the link above, you should be able to check out other bloggers' thoughts on this wonderful book.

So, where to begin?

At first, I wasn't sure what to make of this much adored story. It is to this day one of my mum's favourite books and as soon as I told her I was reading it, she was squeaking away in enthusiasm - I always feel uneasy reading someone I know's favourite books. What if I don't like it? I know how I feel when someone pans a book I adore - a little bit like they've insulted a person I adore - so I was hoping this wouldn't happen.

For the first few chapters, I found my attention drifting. The unnamed narrator is clearly troubled and her thoughts a little haphazard. She seems a little sad, haunted and jaded, which was an interesting start. Comparing that to the shy and awkward teen that she reminisces about and you have a great start - what has driven the innocent and youthful girl to become like this? After this curious start, however, I found the pace dropped a little.

This has picked up again, though. The more I read, the more involved in the house and its characters I become. I'm not a huge Maxim fan - he's clearly damaged irreparably by the infamous Rebecca's death and his manipulation of the besotted narrator is sad to read. From his lacklustre proposal to their arrival at Manderley, I felt so sorry for the future (then new) Mrs de Winter. The contrast between her imagined proposal and wedding day and the reality of Maxim's efforts is heart-breaking! Every girl wants, whether they admit or not, a bit of sparkle in their nuptials - and no, gentlemen, a piece of bitter tangerine is not that sparkle!! And sacrificing the white dress, fine, but an over-the-counter marriage? Hmm...there's more then meets the eye to Mr de Winter, I think!

Speaking of characters, there's certainly an array! As above, there's selfish Maxim de Winter and the introverted narrator. When we get to the house, there's the equally infamous Mrs Danvers with her almost tangible memories of Rebecca. I also think that Firth, who freaks me out no end, deserves a mention. The way he always seems to appear and the way he always says, "Mrs de Winter/The mistress used to..." is insensitive at best. I actually like the irrepressible Beatrice for her refreshing honesty too - the only person not to shroud her knowledge of the house or Rebecca in mystery.

My favourite thing about this novel is Manderley itself - I love the descriptions of the house and its twists and turns, particularly when the new Mrs de Winter first moves there and finds her every move around the house dictated by what Rebecca did: mornings in the Morning Room, afternoon tea in the Library and so on...the house has a chilling quality all of itself and it could just be me but I find something eerie about the descriptions of the rhododendrons too...atmosphere wise, this book deserves its reputation.

While I am enjoying the book, I am finding myself a little frustrated with the narrator even while I feel desperately sorry for her. Obviously Mrs Danvers is appallingly devilish (by likening her to a skeleton, the narrator doesn't help at all there!) but I can't help feeling that if the narrator asserted herself a bit more, she wouldn't feel so victimised and Mrs Danvers wouldn't be so unnerving.

Where to from here? Well I'm obviously hoping that Mrs de Winter learns to start defending herself and being more dynamic and less petulant and self-pitying. I'm hoping that she finds her own way to be the mistress of Manderley and I hope she recognises Maxim for the selfish man he really is. I'm so looking forward to finishing this one and definitely feel a late night coming on...

Now, back to Manderley!!

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Review: 'Changeless' by Gail Carriger

Still rolling on with the TBR Dare (OK, so I'm only two weeks in but still...) and have started Rebecca for the TBR Pile challenge - all is well in the blogging/reading world :)

Date finished: 08 January 2011

Rating: 4 stars

Format: Paperback

Source: Bought (2010)

Genre: Steampunk/Urban Fantasy

Published: (in the UK) by Orbit Books in September 2010

The Synopsis

As I often find (or maybe I'm just over-cautious about these things), the synopses of this book on most websites gives away the ending of the first in the series - if you're curious, you can find it on Goodreads here.

The Review

I mentioned in my review of the first instalment of this series (here) that I felt I hadn't quite finished with Alexia and her companions and felt compelled to continue on with the series. This isn't unusual - I often, if not always, back-to-back books in a series out of impatience to know the ending. That's also in no small part owing to the fact that I tend to jump in feet first and buy all of a series at the outset and have no self control...Occasionally, that habit leads to me being disappointed by the later novels simply because I've treated it as one long novel and I become frustrated if the style changes or the characters shift unrealistically or something - I definitely wasn't disappointed with this one!

There isn't a great deal to add, as it happens, to this review that I didn't say in the first - the characters are still utterly irresistible and the new ones (particularly Madame Lefoux!) fit right in and don't upset the dynamics anymore than the story dictates. There's a bit more of that beautifully naive and enthused Victorian science - ah to be excited about being able to communicate with people at a distance again without having to employ pigeons...

The eagle-eyed among you will note that I gave the second book half a star less than the first. This was simply because I felt that the mystery side of this one was slightly weaker - its still there and the story is still intriguing, it still has great pace and still flows fantastically but there's something less...original about it. I don't mean that as harshly as it sounds because, don't get me wrong, this book is still excellent! In fact, what are you doing reading this?! Go read Soulless!

Overall: This is another amazing steampunk novel that is every bit as fantastic as Soulless. If you like the first, you'll love this one! I would, without a shadow of a doubt, recommend these books to anybody even remotely into paranormal fiction looking for something new (and a little bit different) to love :)

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Review: 'Soulless' by Gail Carriger

Now we're officially in 2011, I'm also officially in the TBR Dare - no buying books and reading exclusively from my shelves until the end of March 2011. An excellent opportunity to start going through all of those books I've been holding on to for years.

Date finished: 02 January 2011

Rating: 4.5 stars

Format: Paperback

Source: Bought

Genre: Steampunk/Urban fantasy

Published: (in the UK) by Orbit Books in September 2010

The Synopsis (taken from Waterstones.com)

Alexia Tarabotti is labouring under a great many social tribulations. First, she has no soul. Second, she's a spinster whose father is both Italian and dead. Third, she was rudely attacked by a vampire, breaking all standards of social etiquette. Where to go from there? From bad to worse apparently, for Alexia accidentally kills the vampire - and then the appalling Lord Maccon (loud, messy, gorgeous, and werewolf) is sent by Queen Victoria to investigate. With unexpected vampires appearing and expected vampires disappearing, everyone seems to believe Alexia responsible. Can she figure out what is actually happening to London's high society? Or will her soulless ability to negate supernatural powers prove useful or just plain embarrassing? Finally, who is the real enemy, and do they have treacle tart? SOULLESS is a comedy of manners set in Victorian London: full of werewolves, vampires, dirigibles, and tea-drinking.

The Review
What do you say about a book that is reviewed (and adored) widely? Well, add to the cacophony of praise, obviously! I bought this some time ago after reading the first chapter somewhere online (I forget where...) but then saw a lot of reviews for it that essentially touted it as a must-read of its genre(s). I'm not one to avoid something simply because it's hyped because I think that's a solid way to miss something truly fabulous - cutting your nose of to spite your face, if you will. Sometimes the hype is for a reason, you know? ANYway, the reason I didn't want to read it right away was because I was getting too excited and figured that could only end in disappointment.

How wrong I was! This is one instance in which the hype is most definitely true. If I had finished this in 2010, it would have been most definitely one of my favourite reads of the year. As it happens, it is to date my favourite of the year by virtue of being the only book I've finished but that's inane so let's not go there...

I instantly adored Alexia - the history of England is blighted with insipid women who were so repressed they didn't even form opinions, never mind express them. Obviously by Queen Victoria's reign this was abating a little but women whose prime concerns were taffeta and tea were still prevalent. Alexia is fantastic. She isn't rebellious, as such, but she is firm-willed, strong, opinionated and even, heaven forbid, well informed in the matters of science! All while maintaining some sense of decorum and propriety. Her wit is unfailing and her sarcastic (and other) barbs were a highlight of the book for me (her comments on friend Ivy's hats are hilarious!)

This book was also no doubt enhanced by the fact that I was in love with Lord Maccon - a hunky, muscly werewolf who is also an Earl? Yes, please...he's rugged and moody and delicious and...! I digress...The interaction between him and Alexia was another high point of the book for me. It had me giggling all the way through and was extremely well portrayed. Although I haven't mentioned them all - the supporting characters are equally awesome and the balance between them all is as seamless as the rest of this novel!

Another thing I liked (yes, another!) was that the paranormal and mystery elements held equal sway. The supernaturals aren't stereotypical and their history and evolution is detailed without being overly romanticised. I liked the addition of ghosts along with the usual suspects too. The mystery is intriguing and surprising of itself too, regardless of the supernatural element, which made for quite a "realistic" feel. By that I mean that the tone is impeccable - social observations, nonsense trends and speech included - and I felt like I was reading a genuine Victorian novel which just happened to have a bit of a new slant. As though the Bronte sisters lived alongside vampires and werewolves but nobody ever mentioned it...

Incidentally, this was my first foray into the mysterious genre that is 'steampunk' and I would definitely try out more if they're anything like this. The science and technology aspect is fascinating - particularly the characters' considerations of the weight of the soul and the latest in glassical technology! From what I can gather, this is a major point of steampunk so I'm on the lookout for my next trial!

Overall: This book is absolutely superb - I was absolutely hooked from the start and kept giving myself that "just one more section" talk. The book isn't overly long either at a snip under 300 pages - not nearly long enough for me to feel like I was done with Alexia et al so I immediately started Changeless...this series is nigh on perfect so far! Go read it and giggle your bustle off!

One of the other reasons I was finally swayed into the 'I have to pick this up' camp was having a browse of Gail Carriger's website - if you're still unsure, take a look!

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Review: 'Dandelions in the Garden' by Charlie Courtland


Rating: 3.5 stars

Format: eBook

Source: Won at The True Book Addict

Genre: Historical Fiction

Published: By Createspace in 2009


The Synopsis (taken from LibraryThing)

Amara Borbala is certain she is the only living person in the sane world with intimate knowledge concerning the life and exploits of the Countess Elizabeth Bathory. After all, she was Elizabeth s companion and confidant since her eleventh year. In 1573, after the death of her mother, Amara is sent by her cousin to serve as a lady-in-waiting at the castles of Sarvar, Varanno, and Cachtice. Now it is years later, 1628, and Amara is aging, alone, and reduced to eavesdropping at her favorite cafe around the corner from her townhouse in Vienna. Befuddled by gossiping ladies, Amara determines perhaps it is time to finally put a stop to the rumors and once and for all, answer the question, Is it true?

Did Elizabeth Bathory, a descendant of Vlad Tepes really commit the horrible acts of torture, bathe in the blood of slaughtered virgins, and dabble in the dark magic that she was accused of during her trial? One thing is certain, Amara knows the truth, but will it be enough to explain the habits of her friend? Dandelions In The Garden is book one in a two-part series that begins with the journey of Amara, an impressionable girl who follows the Blood Countess through all the horrid events that lead to her rise and secure her place in history.

The Review

One of the reasons I love to read historical fiction is that I like to learn more about other cultures and countries while enjoying a good story! Now, before you think I believe every word of the fiction I read, let me assure you that I often finish the novel and read up on the history behind it - my way of gently broadening my historical horizons... (Worry not, Phillippa Gregory's musings on the world of Anne Boleyn did not appear in my Tudor History A-Level!) This book was no exception - I have learnt much more about Hungary in the 16th century than I knew before. Largely because I formerly knew nothing...

Anyway, this one is another of those deliciously intriguing areas of history where there is still some debate over what happened. Although the Countess was imprisoned for the monstrosities she was accused of, she was never actually tried, which obviously means no court testimonies or similar to base her guilt on. It's a morbidly fascinating case and that is translated into the book brilliantly. Even though the narrator, Amara, knows the "truth" of the story, she maintains the intrigue by weaving her tale fairly objectively.

The narrator, Amara, is a life-long friend of the Countess after being sent to live with her when they are both young. The first part of the novel could be any historical fiction book and I didn't really get a sense that the book was set in Hungary - in fact, it felt very British in its traditions. That could well be realistic, however. The narrator's voice is very accessible and isn't blighted by an author's attempts to be overly authentic. I had a sense of the time, I think, just not the place.

As the novel progresses, so do the characters. The more depraved Elizabeth became, the more interesting the book got for me. And that isn't because of the actual monstrous behaviour but because of Amara. One of my favourite things about the novel was the way it dealt with morality. Amara witnesses, and in a way is an accomplice to, horrifying acts of torture and degradation. She is repulsed and disturbed by the actions...and yet, she loves Elizabeth so she tries to stand by her. The descent is gradual and I got the feeling that Amara was being pulled along by her dominant mistress and just kept rationalising as she went. A "slippery slope" type argument, if you will, that I was both intrigued and appalled by.

I really enjoyed the book - it wasn't always easy to read in its brutality but I got the sense of a darker, more physical age which was interesting. Having said that, my main criticism is of the ending. For the most part, the pace is very consistent; the character development likewise. Towards the last 100 pages or so, however, there is a shift and it seems as though the author is reaching desperately for a cliff-hanger, something that will drive you to the second book. I found it a bit unnecessary - there were unresolved romances, a descent into utter carnality to witness and a whole host of characters I wanted to see through their tempestuous existences. I'm sure I and other readers would have stuck with the Countess without a "mystery" to follow...

Overall: This is in no way suitable for younger readers but I would definitely recommend it to fans of historical fiction looking for a new period to explore. It's stormy and cruel. it has romance, revenge, scandal and history and it will not let you go - I will definitely be reading the sequel.