Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Teasers and 'Figures of Catastrophe: the Condition of Culture Novel' by Francis Mulhern

Today I'm sharing a book with you that I'm quite excited about even though it's proving to be an intellectually complex read. Mulhern is a great writer and as such Figures of Catastrophe is actually quite an enjoyable read.
A bold new vision of the modern English novel
The leading critic Francis Mulhern uncovers a hidden history in the English novel and demonstrates its intimate, formative association with the course of the British labor movement, from its rise in the early twentieth century to the years of decline from the 1980s onwards. In this striking reconstruction, culture emerges as a stake in social conflict, above all that of classes; the narrative evaluations of culture's ends—the aspirations and destinies of those whose lives are the matter of its fictions—grow steadily darker as time passes. Readings of classic and contemporary novelists from Hardy and Forster to Amis, Kureishi and Smith, among others, illuminate the forms and narrative logics of the genre that Mulhern terms the “condition of culture novel,” and places it in international context.
Tuesday Intros and Teaser Tuesdays are hosted by Diane over at Bibliophile by the Sea and MizB over at A Daily Rhythm, respectively. These quotes are from an uncorrected proof so may be different in the finalized copy.

Intro:
(from the first chapter, rather than the introduction)
'1. Imagining Other Lives 
By the end of the nineteenth century, the question of working-class education in Britain was hardly a novelty, however controversial it remained. The principle of universal, publicly supported elementary schooling for children had been established in law for the greater part of a generation. Adults had been served by the Mechanics' Institutes since the 1820s, while the Woking Men's Colleges sponsored a liberal arts curriculum from the mid-century onwards. Yet it was now that the topic caught fire in the imaginative fields of the English novel, in two stories of working-class educational aspiration that furnished the occasions for general assessments of the current state and prospects of culture. In doing so, Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure and E.M. Forster's Howards End pioneered a new genre, the condition of culture novel.' p.15
The 'condition of culture'-novel is not one I'm very familiar with but, strangely enough, I've read a lot of books which could be considered to fall in this category. I like that education is such a big part of describing and assessing culture.

TeaserTuesdays2014eTeaser:
'Two large questions govern the narrative of Brideshead Revisited. The first is the generic question of the Bildungsroman as such: what will become of young Charles Ryder? The second, which begins from quite distinct assumptions and has far wider significance but nevertheless becomes for a time a version of the first, is: what will become of Brideshead, the house and the line?' p.54
I still haven't read Brideshead Revisited, which has been on one of my 'English Classics I should read' lists for quite some time. I think that reading about it might be the trigger I need to get myself to finally read it.

So, does Figures of Catastrophe sound like a book you'd be interested in? Do you enjoy reading non-fiction?

Monday, 25 January 2016

Interview with Katarina Bivald from 'The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend'

Last week I had the absolute pleasure of being a part of Sourcebooks' blog tour for the amazing The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend. I absolutely loved the book so you can imagine how excited I was when I got to send Katarina Bivald some questions about the book itself and the importance of bookstores.


 Sara is a woman who has very much sought an escape from her own life in books but then she suddenly finds herself in rural America, alone. How did you come up with this initial set-up?

Gradually. Since it was my first book, I had no idea what I was doing. So in the very first draft, Amy was alive. I knew I would have wanted a pen pal like Amy, I knew I wanted to visit a small American town and be welcome there, and I knew I wanted to spend hours on a porch with a woman like Amy. So what could possibly be wrong with the set-up?

And yet, I had the troublesome feeling that it didn’t really work. In fact, nothing actually happened. Sara traveled to the US, she met Amy, they talked and then they drove places. My god, did they drive! Back and forth, from one scene to the next, where absolutely nothing happened, and then they drove back, and talked.

So one evening I was talking to my sister about it, how the “beginning” of the novel didn’t really work, and then we just sort of looked at each other, and my sister said: “Amy has to die. You have to kill Amy.” It was the most difficult decision of the book, but one of many examples on how writing basically just means being very, very mean to your characters.

For me, one of my favorite things about the book was the way in which Sara slowly finds herself and her own strength, partially through the books around her. Do you think books have that power to bring us closer to ourselves?

Yes, and to life and to other people: it brings us closer to our emotions, which leads to all the others, I think, if we’re open to it. 

What I loved about The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend was the clear love for small, independent bookstores. I myself absolutely love them as well. Do you think they’re a dying breed or is there a place and a need for them in our fast-paced world?

I definitely think there’s a place for them, especially in our fast-paced world. I love internet bookstore as well (being Swedish, it’s easy to love Amazon: all the books I buy from there aren’t sold in any independent bookstores in Sweden), the way I can find almost any book I look for by a simple search engines, but real, physical bookstores, they’re the ones that can surprise us. It’s there we find the books we didn’t know we were looking for.

I have a life-long love affair with the poems of Siegfried Sassoon, who wrote haunting and sarcastic and moving and funny poems during the World War One. I find my first edition of a collection of his war poems while in London with my sister, naturally visiting a bookstore. She wanted to find poetry books. I browsed in the section while waiting for her, and there it was, this one little, slim volume, The War Poems. I had never heard of him. And I ask you, where, except in a bookstore, would a fourteen year old Swedish girl in the 90ies find herself with a book about World War One poems? 


You really introduce the reader to the different people in Broken Wheel and their problems. Was it important to you to, for example, be able to address the issues such as alcoholism and racism in your book?

Yes, in a way, because I wanted my characters to be human, and find community; and community is impossible I think if we don’t also acknowledge the problems we’re experiencing. 

And finally, the impossible question: what is your favourite book?

I cannot answer that. I would have to harass you to change my answer every time I thought of a book I should have said, and then you would have to spend hours everyday updating an old blog post you no longer cared about, until you came to resent my very name and cringe every time you saw that dreaded email-address in your inbox: from Katarina Bivald… “Oh no!” you would say. “Not again! It’s been years. No one cares.”

Drop by Katarina's website or check out The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend yourself!

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Weekly Overview

This has been a pretty strong week for me! I don't know when the last time is that I reviewed four books in one week... this might actually be the first time. I've also been actively prepping myself for the start of the second term at University. I might actually be properly prepared for this term and I'm really excited to start working on Old English again. I also made the terrible mistake of creating a Netflix account once I got a good grade back and have binge watched The Thick of It and Marvel's Jessica Jones!


Monday:
Tuesday:
Wednesday:
Thursday:
Friday:
So, how was your week? What was your favourite book this week?

This post is linked up to the Sunday Post by Caffeinated Book Reviewer.

Friday, 22 January 2016

Review: 'Yuki Chan in Brontë Country' by Mick Jackson

Ever since I read Jane Eyre and then devoured Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey I've been a Brontë  (but especially an Emily) fan. The whole concept of the three sisters itself is beautiful in and of itself but the impact they have had on English literature is nothing to scoff at either. So when I saw Yuki Chan in Brontë Country I knew I'd want to read it. And I'm most certainly glad I did! Thanks for Faber & Faber and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 21/01/2016
Publisher: Faber & Faber
The new novel from Mick Jackson, Booker Prize-shortlisted author of The Underground Man and Ten Sorry Tales.
'They both stop and stare for a moment. Yuki feels she's spent about half her adult life thinking about snow, but when it starts, even now, it's always arresting, bewildering. Each snowflake skating along some invisible plane. Always circuitous, as if looking for the best place to land...'
Yukiko tragically lost her mother ten years ago. After visiting her sister in London, she goes on the run, and heads for Haworth, West Yorkshire, the last place her mother visited before her death. 
Against a cold, winter, Yorkshire landscape, Yuki has to tackle the mystery of her mother's death, her burgeoning friendship with a local girl, the allure of the Brontes and her own sister's wrath.
Both a pilgrimage and an investigation into family secrets, Yuki's journey is the one she always knew she'd have to make, and one of the most charming and haunting in recent fiction.
As a verified Brontë fan I couldn't have passed this book and not been intrigued. What makes Yuki Chan in Brontë Country stand out from a lot of other Brontë-inspired literature is that it is inspired and not derivative. This is no adaptation of a Brontë novel or a slight spin on the sisters' own lives. There are no winks to the books, cheeky mentions to Mr. Rochester or women in attics. Rather, Jackson seems to have recognised the mood that suffuses all of their novels and recreates that in his own. There is something intensely Gothic and out of the ordinary about Yuki Chan. Jackson's willingness to let Yuki explore everything from snow flakes to ghosts means that there is an atmosphere of the uncanny and random about the whole book which keeps the reader a little bit unsettled throughout.

Yuki Chan in Brontë Country isn't necessarily an easy book to read and it can feel strange at times. Jackson very much puts the reader into Yuki's head which means that when she panics or worries, the reader isn't far behind. Usually this works to the favour of the book, letting the reader suspend his or her sense of disbelief for a bit, but throughout the book there are moments at which it feels as if the ambitions of the novel are a little bit beyond its scope. I kept waiting for something truly big to happen and kept feeling disappointed. On the one hand this places one directly in Yuki's shoes, but on the other hand it causes frustration. The biggest let down for me was the relatively sudden ending. I had hoped for more and felt left with questions.

Jackson's writing itself was great. He hits both comic notes and darker tones, even allowing the two to come together frequently to create the aforementioned uncanny atmosphere. All his characters feel very human, with their messy relationships, complicated histories and strange fascinations. For me one of the greatest accomplishments of the book is that Jackson manages to write Yuki as Japanese without making her "exotic". Her habits may be different and she may stand out a bit from plain West Yorkshire, but Jackson never exploits her foreignness for plot. On the other hand, he also never forgets that she is a stranger in a strange land. Jackson lets Yuki ramble and go on tangents, not really care about the Brontës all that much and be really, really lost occasionally. It makes for a fascinating main character.

I give this book...

3 Universes!

I really enjoyed reading Yuki Chan in Brontë Country. There was something dark and engrossing about it which made it feel like an indirect tribute to that recognizable Brontë style. At times the book seems to lose focus a bit, but I'd recommend it to anyone who is up for an engrossing and unconventional read.

Friday Memes and 'Yuki Chan in Brontë Country' by Mick Jackson

It's been a while since I really dug into the Friday madness of book blogging so today is going to be the day where I trawl through the blogosphere with a strong cup of coffee for a few hours. Today I'm sharing a novel with you which I absolutely loved reading last month: Yuki Chan in Brontë Country by Mick Jackson. I just posted the review for this charming book as well so hop over if you want to indulge in some more Brontë-madness.

The new novel from Mick Jackson, Booker Prize-shortlisted author of The Underground Man and Ten Sorry Tales.
'They both stop and stare for a moment. Yuki feels she's spent about half her adult life thinking about snow, but when it starts, even now, it's always arresting, bewildering. Each snowflake skating along some invisible plane. Always circuitous, as if looking for the best place to land...'
Yukiko tragically lost her mother ten years ago. After visiting her sister in London, she goes on the run, and heads for Haworth, West Yorkshire, the last place her mother visited before her death. 
Against a cold, winter, Yorkshire landscape, Yuki has to tackle the mystery of her mother's death, her burgeoning friendship with a local girl, the allure of the Brontes and her own sister's wrath.
Both a pilgrimage and an investigation into family secrets, Yuki's journey is the one she always knew she'd have to make, and one of the most charming and haunting in recent fiction.
Book Beginnings and Friday 56 are hosted by Gilion over at Rose City Reader and Freda over at Freda's Voice respectively.

BB:
'Your only hope of getting a half-decent photo of the Post Office Tower is to shoot it from a distance. You can try standing directly below it, but the concrete base just gets in the way/ There may be something in between these tow perspectives, but Yuki couldn't find it. Which is kind of odd, since she long considered the Post Office Tower to be as much an icon of her beloved Swinging Sixties as Biba, The Beatles and Mary Quant.' 1%
You admittedly don't get a very strong taste of the book from this beginning. But Yuki also only stands at the beginning of her tale here and everything is still quite contained and sane.


F56:
'And there he was, in back and white, sitting in his mountainside laboratory, with a sheepskin hat on his head and the flaps down over his ears, apparently talking quite earnestly, with the warmth of his words turning to steam before his face.' 56%
Yuki is here looking at Ukichiro Nakaya, a Japanese scientist who made the first artificial snowflakes. I loved this part of the book because just like Yuki I can get really obsessed with random things like snowflakes and start researching that thing like crazy.

Does Yuki Chan in Brontë Country like your kind of book? Share your Friday post link in the comments!

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Les Misérables Read-Through #16: IV.vi.3 - IV.x.4

It has officially happened, we've gotten to the part of the book from which my favourite song of the musical comes. This song is the sole reason I make it through the film. So I was definitely looking forward to this section. I am now also nearing the final quarter of the book and yes, I'll be commemorating every single milestone because I can't believe it's actually going to be over soon. I've got 800-odd pages to go, in my Kindle copy, which I'm going to give 4/5 weeks for. I'v got two or three different options for what I'll read after, but do you have a suggestion on a big fat book I could spend the next half year reading?


Chapter Summary:
These chapters see a lot happening! On the one hand Thenardier escapes from prison, where he was stuck by Javert for, unbeknownst to the latter, assaulting Jean Valjean. Then there is Book vii, which is a digression on slang, which feels strangely out of place whereas usually Hugo's digressions feel at least a little bit relevant. It's interesting, of course, and I agree with much that he's saying, but the three chapters don't mix as well with the rest of the story.

From there we move back on to the bliss that is the love between Cosette and Marius which is so terribly sweet and pure that it's only redeemed by the fact it's surrounded by terrible things and people. And then, of course, it goes completely wrong. Despite Eponine's hardest efforts, she can't prevent Valjean from feeling unsafe and he packs up Cosette and departs, leaving Marius desperate. From there Hugo begins to describe the 5th of June, 1832, and the beginning of the rioting.

Feel of the Chapters:
By now I think I've established that Hugo likes to set up a balance between good and bad, having something beautiful happen, directly followed by a description of something technical or horrible. There's a similar up and down here, with his almost academic discussion of slang giving way to the romance between Cosette and Marius and then returning to the fragmented and authorial discussion of the 5th of June. This back and forth between different emotions is quite fun because nothing can become "too much". Although I'm all for happiness, the all too perfect love between Cosette and Marius is maybe a little bit too much for me. God, only 22 and already bitter.

General Thoughts:

  • I'm very much in love with Eponine. I like how Hugo manages to make her tragic without making her weak or submissive. She's not in tears, or pleading, or, even, singing in the rain. Rather he is very precise in making little changes in her behaviour to show how she's affected by what's happening around her. I'm already anticipating tears for later. The illustration above is her facing down her father and companions to protect Marius and Cosette.
  • I can now tell why Marius' survival and relative happy end in the film felt so disingenuous to me and that's because his involvement with the Friends of ABC is relatively minor in the book. It's only really a chance for Hugo to introduce the Friends, rather than an actual part of Marius' life. 
  • Javert has been largely absent, both as a character but also as a threat. Although I didn't like it, perhaps the musical does a better job at setting him us as a direct opponent to Valjean. But then the novel manages to hit all kinds of shades of grey in its character development which the musical passes over.

Something Extra:
It should come as no big surprise that today's SE focuses on Lamarque's funeral. Jean Maximilien Lamarque was a commander under Napoleon and outspoken about his political views. His support of human rights and political liberty made him popular with the crowd. He died of cholera, which was sweeping through France at the time, and his funeral became a catalyst for rioting to break out throughout Paris, as Les Misérables shows. 

Similarly to the book, the funeral cortege proceeded through Paris when suddenly there were cries of 'down with Louis-Philippe, long live the Republic'! Students jumped the carriage that was bearing the coffin and disorder spread. This June Rebellion lasted for 2 days and 800 were killed as the army tried to suppress the growing discontent. It's agreed by historians that although Lamarque was liked by the people, his funeral was very much just the chance that the Bonapartists had been waiting for.

Quotes:
'I'm not the daughter of a dog, since I'm the daughter of a wolf' p.1714
Oh Eponine, this poor girl really wasn't given the best of lives. And you can see that Hugo himself even feels sorry for her.
'Show me in what direction you are going. Rise, if you will, but let it be that you may grow great.' p.1770
This is part of Hugo's discussion on the June Rebellion. In his eyes a revolt is bad, but an insurrection is good. It's all about the abused masses standing up to the privileged minority, rather than a small minority trying to overthrow the masses. 

And, as a treat, here's the one Les Mis song that really gets me excited:

Who wants to come start a revolution with me? Let's hope for a better outcome than the end of this video!

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Review: 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny' by Wang Du Lu, tr. Justin Hill

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of DestinyCrouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is one of my favourite foreign films and was what made me fall in love with Chinese martial arts films, as well as Ang Lee. So when I heard there was not only a sequel but a novelisation of said sequel I was very excited! And I'm glad I had a chance to read it and that I am today's blog tour stop! Thanks to Netgalley and Little, Brown for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 14/07/2016
Publisher: Little, Brown
When master warrior Shulien learns of the death of her family's patron, she abandons retirement and returns to the capital to protect Green Legend, a sword renowned for its historic triumphs. But much has happened in the years she has been in seclusion, and she finds herself beset on all sides with hidden enemies, and the tragic past which she had hoped to forget returns to haunts her. 
In her hour of need arrives a beautiful young warrior, Snow Vase, who is seeking a master. But the new apprentice is not all that she seems. When she falls in love with the bandit Wei-fang, a secret is revealed that makes all of them question who is friend and who is foe. In an age of thwarted love, can these two youths find happiness? 
Based on the original novels by Wang Du Lu, this is a beautiful love story set in the fading years of nineteenth century Imperial China.
What I have always loved about Chinese martial arts films is the crucial role women play to the plot. In Hollywood action films they're too often relegated to the sidelines, made to fight in high heels or are killed to provide a tragic backstory for the male hero. In the last year we've seen some change come into that with films like Mad Max: Fury Road and The Force Awakens, but it's something that I've always found in films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero. Shu-Lien was one of my favourite characters in the original and she continues to be so in Sword of Destiny, where she undoubtedly becomes the main star. The novel also fares best when dealing with her and her story, calming down a little bit and going into depth on the ideas of honour and duty which were also strong in the original film.

I very much liked the idea that Shu-lien has left the life of fighting behind but that the reappearance of Green Legend, a sword, also forces her to return to the political and martial stage. The novel quite successfully brings together a number of different themes in its pages through this plot, such as sacrifice, romance, redemption and heroism. There is something of a generation divide in the novel between Shu-lien on one side and Snow Vase on the other. Whereas the former has a history to reconcile with, the later has to try and carve out a space for herself in this world. Again it was very refreshing to see a mentor-student relationship between two women, especially two women in what is seen by many as a male profession. It is partly what made the novel engaging for me, but Hill's development of the two characters was also intriguing.

It's important to remember that this is a novelisation of the script, most likely not the shooting script but an early finished draft. As such, it may be that once the film comes out next month there will be some changes to the story. However, these films are also based on the novels of Wang Du Lu, which have never been translated. Sword of Destiny is based on the novel Iron Knight, Silver Vase (鐵騎銀瓶) in the Cran-Iron series. Personally I love this kind of intertextuality and linking between different novels, but there is, for me, the sense that maybe the original story has been lost a little bit. Sword of Destiny wasn't as dazzling a novel as the original Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon film was in 2000. Justin Hill did a great job though, changing a screen play into an actual novel. The descriptions are stunning as are the battle scenes, which can tend to be rather dull when not well written.

I give this book...

3 Universes!

Overall I did enjoy reading Sword of Destiny. Hill writes a beautiful story which isn't always equally engaging but has heart to it. Shu-lien remains an amazing character and Hill writes her well. Above all, this novel has made me very excited to see the film. I'd recommend this to fans of martial arts films and China-inspired literature.

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Review + Blog Tour: 'The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend' by Katarina Bivald

Every once in a while you see a book popping up all over the blogosphere with people loving it left and right. If you are. like me, very suspicious of book hypes you won't know whether to trust public opinion or not. And then you give that book a try and it blows you away as well. The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend was one of those books of me so  I'm very excited to be today's stop on the blog tour for this book!  Thanks to Netgalley and Sourcebooks for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 01/01/2016
Publisher: Sourcebooks
Once you let a book into your life, the most unexpected things can happen... 
Broken Wheel, Iowa, has never seen anyone like Sara, who traveled all the way from Sweden just to meet her pen pal, Amy. When she arrives, however, she finds that Amy's funeral has just ended. Luckily, the townspeople are happy to look after their bewildered tourist—even if they don't understand her peculiar need for books. Marooned in a farm town that's almost beyond repair, Sara starts a bookstore in honor of her friend's memory. All she wants is to share the books she loves with the citizens of Broken Wheel and to convince them that reading is one of the great joys of life. But she makes some unconventional choices that could force a lot of secrets into the open and change things for everyone in town. 
Reminiscent of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, this is a warm, witty book about friendship, stories, and love.

Central to The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend is the love of literature. Books suffuse the pages of this... book. There's references to classics of literature and there are descriptions of moments which every avid reader will recognize. As such, this novel feels a little bit like a mirror for readers. On the one hand we let books dominate our life sometimes, rather thinking about fictional characters than the people around us, but on the other hand our lives are enriched by all these fantastical worlds we visit. We experience love, tragedy, horror and beauty from these pages and there's only beauty in that. The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend celebrates this with its main character Sara, who has lived much of her life through books. Her insistence that books is what everyone needs in their lives is not only reminiscent of every reader I know, but also allows the book to tell loads of different stories.

Key to this book is Bivald's beautiful description of the daily life of little towns, those that are forgotten about, that are hardly a dot on the map and which are, nonetheless, everything some people have. Bivald beautifully sketches some of the generations-long feuds and expectations that exist in such towns. There are traditions to uphold, there are prejudices and there are public secrets, all of which come together to make one very complicated little town. Each of the characters in Broken Wheel are interesting, with independent backstories and all with something to add to the story. Bivald sketches them beautifully and you'll get attached to and invested in all of them! I was also extremely pleased to see Bivald address the way in which society can vilify people for their own pleasure. One of the female characters is so stuck in her expected role that it becomes quite heart breaking eventually. Bivald finds a good balance between good fun and quiet, reflective moments.

Bivald's writing style is one of the highlights of The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend. The plot is, in and of itself, a simple one but Bivald infuses it with a lot of heart and kindness. Sara is a very sympathetic character, stuck in a place where she's completely out of her comfort zone. The narrative is interspersed with letters from Amy to Sara, which form something of a guiding light throughout the book. Amy very much introduces Broken Wheel and its inhabitants to the reader. As I've said, the story of The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend is quite simple and, at times, very predictable. However, because Bivald opens the story up to a number of other characters while also truly enjoying the more bizarre aspects of "small town values", the novel is an incredibly fun read. Once I got closer to the end of it I simply couldn't put it down and stayed up quite late for it.

I give this book...

4 Universes!

I truly enjoyed reading The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend. It was one of those books that's just great to read when it's cold outside and you're wrapped up warm, preferably with a cup of hot coffee. It's also reignited my desire to own a book store. The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend is a celebration of literature and I'd recommend it to everyone who loves reading.

And there's a giveaway! You can win one of three copies of this great book and give yourself the perfect spring read!
a Rafflecopter giveaway

Monday, 18 January 2016

Review: 'A Guide to Berlin' by Gail Jones

Vladimir Nabokov is one of the most well-known Russian authors and his Pale Fire has been on my to-read list for a while. So when I saw A Guide to Berlin, a novel based on one of his short stories I figured there was no better way to prepare myself for starting his book than by starting with Gail Jones. And it was definitely one hell of a rollercoaster ride. Thanks to Netgalley, Harvil Secker and Random House for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 14/01/2016
Publisher: Harvil Secker; Random House
We travel to find ourselves; to run away from ourselves. 
‘A Guide to Berlin’ is the name of a short story written by Vladimir Nabokov in 1925, when he was a young man of 26, living in Berlin. 
A group of six international travellers, two Italians, two Japanese, an American and an Australian, meet in empty apartments in Berlin to share stories and memories. Each is enthralled in some way to the work of Vladimir Nabokov, and each is finding their way in deep winter in a haunted city. A moment of devastating violence shatters the group, and changes the direction of everyone’s story. 
Brave and brilliant, A Guide to Berlin traces the strength and fragility of our connections through biographies and secrets.
A Guide to Berlin is the kind of novel that you need to think over after you've finished it. It's a little bit like a thriller or suspense novel in that sense, where you have to take a step back and try to understand how everything you've read comes together. The set up is an absolutely fascinating one, with a group of international visitors to Berlin coming together because of a shared fascination for Nabokov and the powers of language. As each performs a 'speak-memory', a speech in which each recounts his or her life to the other five and a reference to the title of Nabokov's autobiography Speak, Memory, the reader really gets to know all six and Jones manages to drive her points about language, memory and speaking home. You can't help but know someone after they share themselves through language with you, which sounds obvious, but is actually made beautifully explicit in this book.

The book's main character is Cass, an Australian who has run to Berlin to find herself. She is something of a reluctant main character, I'd argue. She isn't very forthcoming and you only really get to know her towards the end of the novel. At times it feels as if the reader is a seventh member of the club, shortly dropping into these people's lives and then leaving them again. The only problem I had with the book is that it seems to constantly leave you hanging. Jones gets beautifully deep with these characters but then moves away again with seeming easy. The intensity of certain moments is sometimes unsatisfactorily balanced with the calm tone of the novel. Perhaps this frustration is intentional since speaking of memory can only get one so close before you hit another barrier and it turns out you may not know people as well as you thought.

Gail Jones' writing is one of the big draws of A Guide to Berlin. Ranging from stunning descriptions to quiet character moments, she really offers the reader every chance to get close and attached to these characters. Her descriptions of Berlin were especially effective as the city became something of an extra character in the book, affecting each of the characters differently. Jones manages to write in a highly literary way and play with words without alienating readers who may not be as comfortable with highly prosaic text. A Guide to Berlin celebrates language but also, indirectly, explains some of its power through examples and as such is a great book for anyone who might want to try the verbose Nabokov. I myself am in the process of reading his Pale Fire and his play with words, his willingness to go the extra mile just to get alliteration in, it requires some working up to.

I give this novel...

3 Universes!

Overall I really enjoyed A Guide to Berlin. It's plot is a mix between literary fiction and suspense means that you'll want to keep reading no matter what. Although I somehow left the book feeling unfulfilled I'd definitely recommend it it to fans of literary fiction and Russian literature.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Weekly Overview

It's been one hell of a week, loads of stress and loads of fun as well! Read some amazing books and, guess what... I got an offer to do a PhD at one of my top university choices!! I still have another one I'm waiting on and then it's hoping that I'll get funding because I can't afford it without. But it was such a boost of confidence to get the odder that it really cheered up this weekend. But what have I been posting this week?


Monday:
Tuesday:
Wednesday:
Thursday:
Friday:
I'm getting really good at blogging every single day but I know I probably won't be able to keep that up once University starts back up. I also went on a trip to Edinburgh and the St. Mary's Cathedral is absolutely stunning, let me tell you!

The Sunday Post is hosted by Caffeinated Book Reviewer!

Friday, 15 January 2016

Review: 'The Astonishing Return of Norah Wells' by Virginia MacGregor

MacGregor's first book, What Milo Saw, was a hit for me, showing how close MacGregor can get to her characters' inner worlds and to the heart of families as well. Family is also at the heart of The Astonishing Return of Norah Wells but this novel also allows MacGregor to spread her prosaic wings a little bit more. Thanks to Netgalley, Sphere and Little, Brown for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 14/01/2016
Publisher: Sphere; Little, Brown
One ordinary morning, Norah walked out of her house on Willoughby Street and never looked back. Six years later, she returns to the home she walked away from only to find another woman in her place. Fay held Norah's family together after she disappeared, she shares a bed with Norah's husband and Norah's youngest daughter calls Fay 'Mummy'.
Now that Norah has returned, everyone has questions. Where has she been? Why did she leave? And why is she back? As each member of the family tries to find the answers they each need, they must also face up to the most pressing question of all - what happens to The Mother Who Stayed when The Mother Who Left comes back? 
From the author of What Milo Saw, comes this powerful, emotional and perceptive novel about what it takes to hold a family together and what you're willing to sacrifice for the ones you love.
The Astonishing Return of Norah Wells is, above all, an incredibly touching family story. MacGregor makes the Wells family come to life for the reader through her incredibly eye for little, seemingly irrelevant details that everyone will immediately recognize from their own family life, whether it's how quickly a kitchen becomes cluttered or how obstinate teenage girls are. MacGregor gets right to heart of what makes a family tick and what can throw it off balance. She explored the fragility of families in What Milo Saw as well but pushes it further in Norah Wells by allowing the reader to witness an active breakdown. Too often in novels about family-life the parents are Parents with a capital P who have no depth or background themselves, or the children are Children who run around causing havoc without, seemingly, any kind of awareness of the family. But families are incredibly complex things, where each person is tied to every other family member by invisible strings that can get twisted. The balance between love and dependency, the past and the present, the future and the unknown, all of these can shift and tear holes in the fabric of families. Norah Wells sketches a beautiful and touching portrait of how a family can both break and heal itself, repeatedly. 

MacGregor tells her tale through a variety of different characters. There is no one character that dominates but rather it is each character's right to tell of their own feelings and worries. Whether it's the mothers' worries about what will happen now, the father's worry that he will mess everything up or the children's different responses to the craziness that surrounds them, each narrative adds a distinct layer of interpretation to the story which gives its emotional depth. Whatever age you read this add, there will be a character that you can identify with. Just as in What Milo Saw, MacGregor's characters are varied. They are old and young, headstrong and acceptant, English and not. As such, Willoughby Street becomes a "normal" street. The characters seem taken from real life, with quirks that seem ridiculous and yet are recognizable. One of my favourite characters has to be Willa, the youngest daughter, whose narrative touches upon the Magical Realist quite frequently and who brings a vibrancy to the story without which the novel would be a lot less fun.

MacGregor's writing reads so easily that it belies its efficacy. The dialogue feel taken from life, rather than fabricated and there will be plenty of moments where the reader wonders whether these moments were taken from their own lives. The plot of the novel is, at its most basic level, simple but MacGregor knows nothing is simple when it comes to family. Throughout her writing remains close to the heart, not reaching for overly dramatic tension but letting her characters' actions and feelings speak for her. There is also no overt judgement from MacGregor for any of her characters, allowing the reader to try and come to their own conclusions about the situation and walk away from the novel with a new appreciation for the complexity of love, in whatever shape or form. There are a number of twists and turns in the narrative which will either have you reaching for tissues or for your pearls, but the novel never turns farcical.

I give this novel...

4 Universes!

The Return of Norah Wells is an incredibly sensitive portrayal of the complexities of family life, of love and of the complexity of forgiveness. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and whizzed through it, incapable of putting it down for too long. Virginia MacGregor is quickly on her way towards becoming one of my favourite contemporary authors. I'd recommend this to fans of family dramas and Magical Realism. 

Friday Memes and 'The Astonishing Return of Norah Wells' by Virginia MacGregor

Last year I was lucky enough to get to read What Milo Saw by Virginia MacGregor and I ever so slightly fell in love with MacGregor's writing. She just sketches family life beautifully and her stories are incredibly intriguing! So I'm incredibly happy to share some teasers from her latest literary effort: The Astonishing Return of Norah Wells! Hop over to my review to find out the rest of my thoughts about this novel!
One ordinary morning, Norah walked out of her house on Willoughby Street and never looked back. Six years later, she returns to the home she walked away from only to find another woman in her place. Fay held Norah's family together after she disappeared, she shares a bed with Norah's husband and Norah's youngest daughter calls Fay 'Mummy'.
Now that Norah has returned, everyone has questions. Where has she been? Why did she leave? And why is she back? As each member of the family tries to find the answers they each need, they must also face up to the most pressing question of all - what happens to The Mother Who Stayed when The Mother Who Left comes back? 
From the author of What Milo Saw, comes this powerful, emotional and perceptive novel about what it takes to hold a family together and what you're willing to sacrifice for the ones you love.
Book Beginnings and Friday 56 are hosted by Gilion over at Rose City Reader and Freda over at Freda's Voice respectively.

BB:
'The world is waking up. Or it is trying to, anyway.  
It's waking up in the small town of Holdingwell.  
It's waking up on Willoughby Street.  
It's waking up in Number 77, the tall red-brick house with scaffolding that stretches up to the roof.' p.1
I absolutely loved this beginning! It was such a gentle way of working your way to the main characters, echoing the process of actually waking up and settling in your own body each morning. And somehow it also real;y reminded me of that typical Disney film openings where the camera slowly but surely zooms into the house where its main characters live. Such an idyllic beginning and oh how wrong it'll go.


F56:
'Not again. This time, he'll hold it together. He'll be the one to take charge. He'll take Norah's return calmly. He'll keep his promise to Ella: he's going to make it okay.' p.56
By p.56 it has already gone slightly wrong, but then MacGregor never hides that this book is about the difficult process of healing a broken family. How will the husband cope, how will the daughters cope? I guess you'll just have to read it yourself to find out!

Do you like the sound of The Astonishing Return of Norah Wells? And have you read What Milo Saw?

Thursday, 14 January 2016

Les Misérables Read-Through #15: IV.ii.3 - IV.vi.2

I'm slowly but surely getting back to regular scheduling as I get my stuff together for the start of the next term. Included in that is the weekly Les Misérables post. I'm now officially 66% through, that means 2/3 of the book are done and I've read 1565 pages since August in this book alone. I've now also suddenly realised that the end of the book is relatively nigh, especially if I manage to read every single week. I'm definitely appreciating this way of reading "big books". I guess I should start thinking about which one to start next! Time to go through my 100 Classics List!


Chapter Summary:
Well, it can be said that a lot has happened, but that they're the kind of happenings that fill the gaps between stories, rather than actual major beats of the story. We're getting different points of view, more character development and small, little tangents that Hugo so loves. We get a proper insight into how the relationship between Jean Valjean and Cosette truly works. Although it's a father-daughter relationship, there's also a sense of jealousy and dependency between the two since they're each others whole world. When Cosette grows up, discovers her own beauty and develops feelings for Marius that relationship is endangered. It's an interesting dive into Valjean's and Cosette's psyche, especially since it doesn't necessarily show Valjean in the best light. The love between Marius and Cosette finally becomes tangible in these chapters and I now actually like it, rather than despise it.

The last two chapters are about Gavroche and I'm now starting to understand why everyone loves him so much. He's sort of adorable and when he takes his two little brothers under his wings without knowing so it's heart-warming. The fact he lives in an elephant sculpture is also just amazing.

Feel of the Chapters:
While Hugo describes the tight relationship between Valjean and Cosette there's something a little bit claustrophobic about it all. Neither of their behaviour is completely healthy and that definitely comes across. Similarly, Hugo's prose is infused with languorous romance when he's building up Marius and Cosette's meeting. You can't help but feel that the mood is getting darker as we get closer to the end, which slightly scares me about what's coming next.

General Thoughts:
  • Hugo describes how Cosette discovers her own beauty and some of the things he writes are incredibly recognizable for a female reader. The idea of looking in a mirror one day and realising you've grown up, that some of the childish features have disappeared. I think it's fascinating that Hugo managed to capture that. 
  • One of the chapters is called 'The Chain-Gang' and it allowed Hugo to once again discuss the injustice that the treatment of prisoners was and is. When I started Les Misérables I really wasn't expecting it to have such a powerful, social message but it really does.
  • Another brilliant chapter title is 'The Rose Perceives that it is an Engine of War'. I mean... wow! This is, of course, about Cosette realising her beauty but I thought it fits so well with the whole new genre of YA books in which girls realise their power of their physique. It's not the best representation of women, maybe, but it's a great title.
  • I really feel like I need to take the people who wrote the musical to task. I, of course, understand that in an adaptation you can't include everything from a book, especially if it's as massive as Les Misérables. Still, they've lost so many small moments of such significance that the story loses much of its power.
Something Interesting:
We've covered quite a lot of different things in this section, from guillotines to monarchies to battles, but today we've got something completely new. In this week's section Hugo gives us a little bit of a glimpse as to his music tastes by letting Cosette sing a song he considers 'probably the most beautiful thing in all the sphere of music'! And that is the chorus if Euryanthe, 'Hunters Astray in the Wood'. I've done some searching and unfortunately wasn't able to find that particular piece from the opera, but I do know that the piece of music Hugo is referring to is called 'Die Thale dampfen, die Hohen gluhn' and comes in the third act of the opera. The piece I've added below is the Jägerchor, 'Hunter's Choir', which should at least give you a taste of what the piece of music is like.

It's interesting to think of this as the kind of music either Cosette would be singing or Hugo would love so much. Does it suit your tastes?
Quotes:
'The tiniest worm is of importance; the great is little, the little is great; everything is balanced in necessity; alarming vision for the mind.' p.1500
I loved this quote because it's such a beautiful reminder that everything does matter. It reminds me of the quote in one of the previous instalments, 'Nothing is nothing'. It's an important sentiment and with his crew of social outcasts it's beautiful to see Hugo support it in such a heart-felt way.
'Destiny, with its mysterious and fatal patience, slowly drew together these two beings, all charged and all languishing with the stormy electricity of passion, these two souls which were laden with love as two clouds are laden with lightning, and which were bound to overflow and mingle in a look like the clouds in a flash of fire.' p.1517
This may be one of the most beautiful description of fated love that I've ever read. It tends to get a bit dramatic, usually, and so does this description, but in a very lyrical way. Hugo also spends so much time on letting the love between Marius and Cosette grow that it actually feels real, unlike in the film.
'It will be remembered that she was more of a lark than a dove. There was a foundation of wildness and bravery in her.' p.1567
Yes, I'm giving you an extra quote today because I simply loved this description! In the film version Cosette is such a submissive and un-spirited character, but this quote just made me fall slightly in love with her. The fact that her past has given her a bit of wildness makes me very happy.