29 December 2011

Top Ten Books of 2011

So here is my Top 10 of 2011, as with the YA rundown, they aren't books necessarily published this year just books I discovered this year. I'd love to hear from others of the best books they've discovered this year or whether you've enjoyed the same books as me. Click on the title to see the full review.

10. The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna (2010) 
A close battle between this and The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht, both on the Orange shortlist this year, but ultimately I found this to be more readable with a better ending. Very emotional story set in Freetown, Sierra Leone, as it attempts to rebuild itself after the civil war. Forna weaves lots of stories together in a moving yet pacy novel.

9. A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel (1992)
A complicated, historical epic about the French Revolution focusing on three of the main players: Camille Desmoulins, Georges-Jacques Danton and Maximilien Robespierre. The brutality of the period is brought to life as the lives of the three complex, fascinating men are explored. A bit of a project as it gets packed with names and politics but well worth the challenge.

8. Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman (2011)
An emotional novel about Harri, a Ghanian little boy growing up in central London and becoming involved with a knife crime incident in his neighbourhood. It is by turns uplifting and crushing as Harri tries to navigate the brutal life he finds himself in the middle of but does so with charm and humour.

7. The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (2011)
A beautiful looking book with a melancholic, careful story inside. The winner of the Man Booker Prize is a contemplative and literary look at life and memory as Tony reflects back on his school days, friendships and his first romantic relationship with the complicated Veronica.

6. One of our Thursdays is Missing by Jasper Fforde (2011)
The next excellent installment in the Thursday Next series. It's worth reading this series in order as this won't make much sense without some background knowledge so start with The Eyre Affair. The book follows the written Thursday Next trying to track down the real Thursday amidst the threat of war between Racy Novel and Women's Fiction. Complex, funny and clever and packed with literary jokes and puns.

5. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (1989)
I read four novels by Ishiguro this year and this is the first of two on the list. I am constantly in awe of his talent for language and story and I have enjoyed everything he has written. This is the lovely story of the butler Stevens and his meandering thoughts on loyalty, dignity and being a butler. Beautifully written and both gently humourous and wonderfully melancholy.

4. Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch (2011)
A superb historical seafaring adventure for grownups. Jaffy is employed by Jamrach to look after the exotic animals in his menagerie which turns into an adventure to try and find a dragon for an eccentric millionaire. Superb characterisation and a story that is interesting, strange, dark and wonderful.

3. The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro (1995)
One of the strangest and yet most amazing books I have ever read. Bizarre and dreamlike from the outset,  Ishiguro really challenges what a novel is suppose to be. There is not a big reveal that explains the weirdness, just a literary meander through the amazing things a talented writer can do with words.

2. The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt (2011)
My personal choice for the Man Booker Prize, this is a darkly funny Western that follows the brothers and assassins, Eli and Charlie Sisters. Quirky without being weird with a superb first person narrative in Eli who is one of the best characters and narrators I have recently encountered in fiction.

1. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (2011)
I just loved this book; magical, quirky and beautiful. The circus arrives and leaves mysteriously and contains wonders that teeter on the edge of possibility. A wonderful cast of characters surrounding the entrancing central relationship between Celia and Marco who have been pitted against each other in a war of magic outside their control. I didn't know whether to devour it all at once or spread it out and make it last as longa s possible.

Top Ten YA Books of 2011

These are my favourite ten young adult or children's books I've read this year - they weren't necessarily published this year. Click on the title of the book to link to the full review.

10. The Death Defying Pepper Roux by Geraldine McCaughrean (2010) 
A charming, quirky novel about a boys attempt to escape his prophesied death by his fanatical aunt who saw it in a vision. Told in a series of vignettes as Pepper has adventures around France. He meets a variety of bizarre characters and learns a little bit about himself and taking charge of your own destiny.

9. Grace by Morris Gleitzman (2011)
A thought provoking but quick read about a very charming heroine. Grace has grown up as a member of a strict Christian cult where she has to keep her hair long and is forbidden to talk to or touch the unsaved. When her Dad is thrown out for asking too many questions, Grace has to work out what her faith in God means she should do.

8. Out of Shadows by Jason Wallace (2010)
Another book that will provoke discussion, this is the tense story of Robert. He lives in Zimbabwe and goes to an all boys boarding school in the years following Mugabe's ascent to power. At school he has to work out what is right and wrong when nothing is clear cut. One for older readers as it contains some upsetting scenes but is a powerful story about friendship, family and race that will challenge teenager readers.

7. Prisoner of the Inquisition by Theresa Breslin (2010)
An excellently plotted, fast-paced historical drama and romance set in Spain during the Inquisition. Zarita is the privileged daughter of the magistrate who unwittingly condemns a beggar to death; the beggars' son, Saulo, ends up sold onto a slave ship governed by a flamboyant sailor and crosses paths with Christopher Columbus before a very dramatic finale where all the threads wind together under the genuinely frightening Chief Inquisitor.

6. My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher (2011)
A superbly written, very moving book about a little boy, Jamie, whose sister died in a terrorist attack and the effects it has had on his family. Jamie is a heartbreaking narrator as he desperately tries to stick his family back together. He also has to deal with life at a new school where his friendship with a student, Sunya, challenges what his father has told him about Muslims. 

5. Archer's Goon by Diana Wynne Jones (1984)
A bit of a nostalgic read for me as this was one of my favourite books as a child. The magical and witty story of a family embroiled in the arguments of a family of warring sorcerers who are secretly in charge of the entire town where they live remains an example of a near perfect children's story. Beautifully written, funny and wonderfully unique. 

4. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster (1961)
The other 'vintage' entry on my list, this was the 50th anniversary of this iconic children's novel which follows the bored Milo as he travels to Dictionopolis and rediscovers the magic in everyday life. A supporting cast of quirky, funny characters will entertain and appeal to everyone. A classic for a reason. 

3. When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead (2009)
A really unique and wonderful novel with a hugely appealing main character. Set in New York in 1979, Miranda starts getting mysterious letters from someone who seems to know things that have yet to happen. A great twist at the end which cleverly wraps everything up without being trite makes this a very satisfying novel to enjoy. 

2. Chaos Walking Trilogy by Patrick Ness - The Knife of Never Letting Go (2008)/The Ask and the Answer (2009)/Monsters of Men (2010)
This is a total cheat as I have put an entire trilogy at number two but if I'd separated them out I would only have had to miss off numbers 9 and 10 as they are all as brilliant as each other and are best enjoyed when when one after the other. This is a superb trilogy - moving, exciting, challenging and just generally outstanding. It has action, romance, science fiction and everything in between. 

1. A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness (2011)
So the top entry on my list is another book by Patrick Ness - his newest novel which wa sbased on an idea by the late Siobhan Dowd. It is the story of Conor, whose mother has cancer, and the way in which he is forced to face and deal with the emotions of this. Bolstered by superb illustrations by Jim Kay, this is a tear jerking, magical read and the best young adult I have read this year. 

6 December 2011

Review 52: How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran

“1913 – Suffragette throws herself under the King’s horse. 1969 – Feminists storm Miss World. Now – Caitlin Moran rewrites “The Female Eunuch” from a bar stool and demands to knoww why pants are getting smaller. There’s never been a better time to be a woman: we have the vote and the Pill, and we haven’t been burnt as witches since 1727. However, a few nagging questions do remain... Why are we supposed to get Brazilians? Should you get Botox? Do men secretly hate us? What should you call your vagina? Why does your bra hurt? And why does everyone ask you when you’re going to have a baby? Part memoir, part rant, Caitlin Moran answers these questions and more – following her from her terrible 13th birthday through adolescence, the workplace, strip-clubs, love, fat, abortion, Topshop, motherhood and beyond.”

I found this an empowering, very funny and very true look at what it is like to be a woman today.  Whilst I didn’t agree with all of her opinions, that didn’t lesson my enjoyment of the book and I would highly recommend it to be read by all women, and indeed all men, for a look at the face of what to me is real feminism advocating less self-loathing and more self-control in terms of women having control over our own bodies, jobs and lives.

Review 51: Operation Eiffel Tower by Elen Caldecott

“Lauren, Jack, Ruby and Billy live by the seaside with their mum and dad. But their parents are always arguing, and one day their dad moves out. Lauren and Jack are desperate to get their mum and dad back together, and hatch a plan to do just that. Let Operation Eiffel Tower commence! A brilliant story about four children (well three really, Billy is just a baby so can’t do very much) who are worried about their parents – and take action!”

Story: Simple but involving.
Protagonist: Blandly likeable, the older sister has a bit more character.

Writing: Effective if unexciting.

11 November 2011

Review 50: Grace by Morris Gleitzman

“In the beginning there was me and Mum and Dad and the twins. And good luck was upon us and things were great and we were bountiful. But it came to pass that I started doing sins. And lo, that’s when all our problems began…”

Story: Thought provoking and modern which provides teenage readers with plenty of food for thought.
Protagonist: Incredibly charming.

Writing: Gleitzman is a master at created easy to read stories with real depth.

9 November 2011

Review 49: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

I'm going to struggle to structure this review into anymore than a stream of superlatives...

"In 1886, a mysterious travelling circus becomes an international sensation. Open only at night, constructed entirely in black and white, Le Cirque des Reves delights all who wander its circular paths and warm themselves at its bonfire. Although there are acrobats, fortune-tellers and contortionists, the Circus of Dreams is no conventional spectacle. Some tents contain clouds, some ice. The circus seems almost to cast a spell over its aficionados, who call themselves the reveurs - the dreamers. At the heart of the story is the tangled relationship betwen two young magicians, Celia, the enchanter's daughter, and Marco, the sorcerer's apprentice. At the behest of their shadowy masters, hey find themselves locked in a deadly contest, forced to test the very limisof the imagination and of their love..."

One thing's for sure, that blurb doesn't do it justice.

Story: Magical, whimsical and unique
Characters: Hugely appealing from the two main characters to the wide array of secondaries.
Writing: Crazy good.

7 November 2011

The Red House Children's Book Award

The shortlist for this prize has been announced and I think looks like the best for a few years...

- A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness - you can read my glowing review here
- My Sister Lives on the Mantepiece by Anabel Pitcher - my very positive review is here
- Grace by Morris Gleitzman which I haven't read yet but should be appearing very soon.

Edit: Review for Grace is now up here.

My favourite has to be A Monster Calls but I think this is a very strong shortlist and whilst I think Ness is in a class of its own, I wouldn't be to angry if any of them won.

4 November 2011

Review 48: An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro

I'm trying a new format for my reviews so they're not so wordy and impenetrable and it's easier to see what I thought and jump to or avoid bits of the review that interest you or don't. It's actually ended up longer but hopefully is easier to read, so let me know what you think or if you prefer the more traditional format...

"It is 1948. Japan is rebuilding her cities after the calamity of World War II, her people putting defeat behind them and looking to the future. The celebrated painter Masuji Ono fills his days attending to his garden, his house repairs, his two grown daughters and his grandson, and his evenings drinking with old associates in quiet lantern-lit bars. His should be a tranquil retirement. But as his memories continually return to the past - to a life and a career deeply touched by the rise of Japanese militarism - a dark shadow begins to grow over his serenity."

Story: As meandering and confusing as I have to expect, and love, from Ishiguro.
Protagonist: Not as empathetic as some of his other protagonists, Ishiguro leaves us guessing as to Ono's real motives.
Writing: Beautiful and unique but very much in the Ishiguro style.

1 November 2011

Review 47: Pretty Little Liars by Sara Shepard

"Everyone has something to hide - especially High school juniors Spencer, Aria, Emily and Hanna. Spencer covets her sister's boyfriend. Aria's fantasising about her English teacher. Emily has a crush on the new girl at school. And Hanna is using some ugly tricks to stay beautiful. But they've all kept an even bigger secret since their friend Alison vanished. How do I know? Because I know everything about the bad girls they were and the naughty girl they are now. And guess what? I'm telling."

My public-stated reason for reading this was that it's popular at school so I need to know what the fuss is about. The real reason for reading this is that I love the TV series that is based on it and I wanted to see what the source material was like. Often with books, a whole series is based around one book but this book covers basically what happens in the first episode of the series. It's quite a brave choice by Shepard as the book basically sets up the main characters and the story without huge developments in plot. The end of the book is when the action really kicks off.

Review 46: Buttercup Mash by Joanna Nadin

"Do you ever feel like your life's going a bit crazy? That you're not in control of anything... at all? At times like these, what's a girl to do? Shopping? Cinema? Hanging out with friends? Or singing rock ballads and dancing like a demented giraffe on a sugar rush? It may not sound very cool - and definitely isn't very calming - but it's glee club and thats exactly where Buttercup Jones is heading..."

Buttercup Mash is an enjoyable teenage comedy, very much in the style of Louise Rennison's Georgia Nicholson series. Whilst it does not quite match up to the humour levels in Rennison's series, it is still a well written and appealing novel and Buttercup is a more likeable heroine than Georgia although similarily quirky. It holds up well in the teenage girl market even if it is not groundbreaking stuff.
Buttercup Jones is our titular heroine and the book is her diary to Dr. Sven, an online psychiatrist. However Buttercup does not have the £500 necessary to actually send her outpourings to 'Dr. Sven' and receive a reply. The novel follows the exploits of Buttercup, her unorthodox family and her string of bizarre and bitchy schoolmates as well as her best friend Stan. The plot revolves around the formation of a glee club at Buttercup's school, which Buttercup is forced to join by her best friend (she was forced to sign a contract to this effect) the melodramaic Imogen who has a crush on Blake, the coolest boy in school and newest member of Glee Club (in turn at the behest of his bitchy girlfriend Sunday). Meanwhile Buttercup is trying to find out who her dad is and dealing with her first experiences of a crush of her own.

Review 45: The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

"One genuine Turnpike Tollbooth. If not pefectly satisfied, your wasted time will be refunded. When Milo receives a mysterious an intriguing package through the post, all his previous feelings of boredom are banished. Having nothing better to do, he points his pedal car towards the strange land beyond the Tollbooth, and quicker than a flash he's entered the Kingdom of Wisdom, where everything is unexpected..."

I read this when I was really young and really enjoyed remembering how awesome this book is. It's a wonderful book for children but possibly even better for adult who can appreciate more of the wordplay and probably find the sentimets even more touching.

Milo is a boy who is bored by everything. "Wherever he was he wished he was somewhere else, and when he got there he wondered why he'd bothered." I'm sure everyone can relate to this sentiment which is what makes it such a wonderful opening to the book and is also somewhat reminiscent of Max from Where the Wild Things Are - boys escaping what they see to be un unsatisfactory reality for an adventure that teaches them the worth and potential of their everyday lives.

20 October 2011

Man Booker Prize Winner

So on Tuesday night the winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize was announced as Julian Barnes for The Sense of an Ending. In my summary post I had predicted this although it wasn't my favourite.

I did think his book was beautiful (although I thought the ending could have been more subtle) and wonderfully written. I also loved the physical cover of the book - Barnes commented that with ebooks being so popular he wanted to make sure his books were things that were physically appealing as well, a sentiment I agree with as someone who loves beautiful books on a purely physical level.

Whilst there were two books I preferred to Barnes, it is a wonderful book and Barnes' talent for writing is undeniable. The thing that dampens my pleasure is however Barnes' attitude towards the prize. He hardly did any publicity and didn't attend the event the night before the announcement which all the other shortlisted authors did. Speaking to one of the organisers, this wasn't because he couldn't but because he didn't want to.

When he speaks, he gives the impression that he's above it all which is hardly appealing. When he won, he didn't mention the other novelists in his speech and thanked the judges 'for their wisdom'. Needless to say, he did accept the £50 000 prize.

16 October 2011

The Man Booker Prize Summary

The winner of the prize is announced on Tuesday so I wanted to get my summary in before it was tainted by knowing the outcome. All in all a strong shortlist in my opinion. Some have accused the judging panel of 'dumbing down' and have criticised the weight that readibility was given in the criteria. Whilst there is obviously worth in literary novels and clever explorations of language where plot is a secondary concern, I am a great believer that whether a book is deemed good or not should very much take into consideration how much people want to read it and how much they enjoy reading it. I found the shortlist accessible but still intelligent and personally think the panel struck an excellent balance. I am going down to London tomorrow night to a Man Booker event where all the author (except Barnes) will be there to discuss and sign their novels so hopefully I will get some photos to add into a post about the winner on Tuesday or Wednesday. 

Review 44: Snowdrops by A. D. Miller (Man Booker Shortlist)

I think that my review of this novel is a cautionary tale about reading a novel with high expectations. My colleague had read and loved this book and I was looking forward to reading it, I also knew a fair bit about the setting and the plot. This unfortunately meant that I was disappointed with what is ultimately a good novel due to perhaps unrealistically high expectations. I believe that if I had read this book blind I would have enjoyed it more. Nonetheless, here is my review, tainted as it may be by it not living up to expectations.

Snowdrops is the story of Nick, an English property lawyer who has moved to Russia. The story is narrated by him as he relates what happened to him to his English fiancee, we will get to my opinions on that narrative choice later. He meets the glamorous Masha and her sister Katya who show him the high life in Moscow and also introduce him to an old lady, Tatiana, who is looking to move from her central city apartment to a more rural setting in the large Moscow suburbs. The title refers to what the Russians call a body that is discovered long after death, normally murder, due to it being hidden in the snow and ice; it is only discovered when the snow melts.

Review 43: The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt (Man Booker Shortlist)

To put it plainly, this story of Eli and Charlie Sisters, hired assassins is my favourite (so far) on the Man Booker shortlist. This is the first Western to be included on the Man Booker shortlist but whilst the book is unmistakeably a western, it's genre doesn't really define it. It seems to defy descriptions to a large extent; it's easy to read but not an easy read, it makes you laugh but it's not a comedy, it's not a complicated novel but it's characters certainly are. In fact it's real strength lies in the incredibly strong narrative voice of Eli Sisters.

Eli and Charlie have been sent by the mysterious Commodore to assassinate Hermann Kermit Warm for an unidentified theft from the Commodore. The brothers set out from Oregon to a Californian gold mining town to meet their contact there and track down Warm. Along the way they encounter various characters from a perpetually weeping man to a dentist who introduces Eli to toothbrushes.

4 October 2011

Review 42: Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch (Man Booker Shortlist)

This is the third book from the Man Booker shortlist I have read and it has only made it harder to decide which my favourite is. So far all three have been really good and also really different making it challenging to compare them. We have had a contemplative thinkpiece, perhaps most typical of your Man Booker expectations and a modern novel about knife crime. Added to this is Jamrach's Menagerie which is a grown up adventure story that dips into darker waters and probably the book that least matched my expectations of it.

Jamrach's Menagerie is the story of Jaffy Brown who lives in Victorian England amidst the dirt and grime of Ratcliffe Highway until he is snatched up in the jaws of an escaped Bengal tiger. The owner of this tiger is Jamrach who buys and sells exotic animals and impressed by Jaffy's lack of fear (Jaffy is taken by the tiger only because he goes to try and stroke his nose) he offers him a job in his menagerie. This leads Jaffy onto the Lysander, a whaling boat where the crew is also trying to catch a 'dragon' where the story moves from a Sarah Waters-esque historical London the novels darker section.
I really liked this book, contrary to the feelings of the sixth formers and teacher am I'm doing a shadowing group with. I found it fast-paced, exciting, disturbing and very emotionally involving.

26 September 2011

Review 41: Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman (Man Booker Shortlist)

Pigeon English is the story of Harri, a Ghanian boy who has recently moved to London with his mother and older sister Lydia. They have left behind his father, grandmother and baby sister Agnes as they couldn't afford the plane tickets in one go. They live in a flat in a neglected tower block in inner city London and the book opens with the stabbing of a local boy. People being 'chooked' is part of normal life and they play 'suicide bomber' in the playground. Kelman was inspired by the murder of Damilola Taylor and the parrallels are clear throughout.

The boys killer is unknown and Harri and his friend Dean decide they are going to track the killer down so they can earn the police reward and buy a new bike. Their inept attempts at working it out include a stake out of a fast food van and trying to collect fingerprints using sellotape.

21 September 2011

Review 40: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (Man Booker Shortlist)

The Sense of an Ending is the first novel from the Man Booker shortlist that I've read and I was drawn to it primarily because of its beautiful cover, so it definitely wins points for having the best cover design on the shortlist. Barnes is the bookies favourite to win and when the shortlist was announced the judging panel claimed it as Barnes' best work, which considering he has already been shortlisted several times does seem to bode well for his chances. I will get back to you once I've read the others...

The Sense of an Ending is the story of Tony Webster as he looks back on his life and is a contemplative look at memory, life and death. He recounts his schooldays and his frienship with Adrian and his first relationship with the complicated Veronica.

19 September 2011

Review 39: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

This is the first 'classic' that I have tried to review and it's pretty challenging. What do you say about a book has been talked about so much and is so loved by people all over the world? To Kill a Mockingbird was recently voted the UKs favourite book on the World Book Night website. To make matters harder, I pretty much agree with the generally held opinion on this book; its a lovely, engrossing, and thought provoking book with wonderful characters in Atticus and Scout.

Everybody knows the story. I knew the majority of the plot before I started reading this. It was a book that I have always felt like I should read and have in fact let people assume I have read by not correcting them. A pitfall, if you can call it that, of being a librarian is that people assume you have read everything. Particularly classics.  Anyway I can know knock one more off the list. To Kill a Mockingbird: Check.

16 September 2011

Review 38: What Was Lost by Catherine O'Flynn

What Was Lost is a strange book. It's not very lengthy, it has characters that range from quirky to unappealing and you are never quite sure where Catherine O'Flynn is taking you next. These could very easily be criticisms of a lesser book but in O'Flynns capable hands they are most definitely positives. What Was Lost begins in the 1980s with the story of 10 year old Kate Meaney who lives with her grandmother and spends her time conducting private investigations around the local shopping centre. The book then abruptly turns to the story of Lisa and Kurt, 20 years later as they work in the same shopping centre as a music store assistant manager and security guard respectively as we find out that Kate disappeared and has never been heard from since.

The book is totally engrossing, I came to the last ten pages or so as my train pulled into Euston station and I ended up standing on the platform having to finish the book before I could put it away and continue with life. It is unusual in its structure, its character and its story and wonderful because of that. I also enjoyed that it was set in Birmingham, as that is where I currently live, as whilst the shopping centre is fictional it is easy to imagine what O'Flynn is describing and Kate's home is also familiar - I found myself picturing a row of houses with a newsagents on that I drive past every day on the way to work.

12 September 2011

Review 37: Sky Hawk by Gill Lewis

Sky Hawk is the story of Callum who discovers an osprey on the land near his familys farmhouse in Scotland alongside the granddaughter of the local recluse, Iona. The first half of the novel deals with Callum's attempts to keep the osprey a secret and dealing with comments at school from his classmates over his friendship with Iona.

I read this book on the recommendation of a colleague and because of the rave reviews when it was published. Unfortunately I found this a book of two halves. I found the first half incredibly difficult to get through, I read it occasional page by occasional page as despite reviews claiming it was unputdownable I struggled to get involved at all. However, around halfway through the book there is a big event and from then on the book is exciting, moving and charming.

10 September 2011

Man Booker Prize Shortlist

The Man Booker Prize shortlist was announced on Tuesday and after my next review of a young adult book I've just finished I'm going to be reading the six shortlisted books over the next six weeks before the winner is announced on October 18th. I'm running a shadowing group with some of our sixth formers at school and am really looking forward to getting stuck in, I think it looks like a really promising shortlist with a lot of different kind of books there.

The shortlist is:

Julian Barnes - The Sense of an Ending (Random House)
Carol Birch - Jamrach's Menagerie (Canongate Books)
Patrick deWitt - The Sisters Brothers (Granta)
Esi Edugyan - Half Blood Blues (Serpent's Tail)
Stephen Kelman - Pigeon English (Bloomsbury)
A. D. Miller - Snowdrops (Atlantic)

5 September 2011

Review 36: The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna

The Memory of Love is a moving and thoughtful story of love in Freetown, Sierra Leone but none of the relationships are your traditional hearts and flowers romances. There is the manipulative Elias who is in love with his friends beautiful wife, Saffia. There is Kai who was in love with Nenebah before the civil war began when everything changed. And there is Adrian, the English psychologist who despite his wife and child at home falls in love with Mamakay the freespirited African woman who will only tell Adrian the minimum about herself.

Forna was nominated for the Orange prize for this book and I can see why. I had previously read and thoroughly enjoyed the winner, The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht but I think that this book compares favourably with that and would probably by my favourite of the two as has a similar theme of many interlinked stories but manages to be much more cohesive as well as more emotionally engaging.

26 August 2011

Review 35: The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro

This has got to be one of the strangest books I have ever read but it also one of the most wonderful. Perplexing, bizarre and yet moving and tense it is a truly unique book which divided opinion when it was first published. Opinions ranged from 'it has created its own category of badness' (critic James Wood) to 'it's almost certainly a masterpiece' (writer Anita Brookner). It is interested that Brookner included the 'almost' in her thoughts as it is a book which it is difficult to be sure about. I finished it a week or so ago but am still not really sure what I want to say about it.

The Unconsoled is the strange story of the pianist Ryder who arrives in an unnamed European city for a performance in an evening to try and resolve the political problems in the city. The problems are never really revealed and neither is Ryder's involvement. I don't want to give away the small amount of details that are revealed but I think it's worth saying that to really enjoy the book you need to relax about the fact that you have no idea whats going on. When I started the novel I was waiting for a big reveal and when I realised it wasn't coming I settled into just enjoying it.

12 July 2011

Sour Cream Chocolate Cake with Peanut Butter Frosting

The first cake I've made from the lovely Sky High book and it more than lived up to expectations. The book is packed with mouthwatering looking recipes and I have a long list of recipes I want to try and am trying to invent occasions that warrant the time and money investment!

I made this cake for a church lunch and it went down very well and despite being a huge cake, all of the Sky High cakes are by definition as its a triple layer cake book, it vanished. The cake was super moist and almost sticky in texture; to an English mind making the cake felt a little weird as it has large amounts of vegetable oil and white vinegar in which aren't very common and coupled with the sour cream and water it made the batter very liquid. I had a bit of a disaster when I first tried to bake the cakes as the recipe calls for only the bottom of the tins to be lined and my loose bottomed tins meant that the batter started leaking out the bottom in the oven and burning on the bottom. I ended up hurriedly lining the whole tin but didn't have time to do it properly so the cakes turned out slightly odd shapes from where the greaseproof paper wasn't smooth. Once it was trimmed and frosted it was fine though.

4 July 2011

Review 34: The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht

This modern fairytale of family, superstition and death won the Orange Prize for fiction in June. The Orange prize, which celebrates outstanding and original work by female authors, gave the award to what had been seen as the underdog of the shortlist. Obreht is only 26 and this is her first novel and she was up against well established favourites such as Nicole Krauss. You can find the rest of the shortlist and more information about the prize here: http://www.orangeprize.co.uk/.

The Tiger's Wife is the quirky story of Natalia and her grandfather. Whilst it is set in Yugoslavia, there is no mention of real people or names and Belgrade is always referred to as simply 'the city'. The war has left boundaries changed and loyalties questioned. Natalia is a young doctor who is taking medication to a remote rural orphanage across the border into unnamed Bosnia. The novel opens with Natalia relating one of the many times that her grandfather took her to the city zoo to see the tigers and is swiftly followed by her finding out on the way to the orphanage that her grandfather has died. From then on Natalia's story of the orphanage is interspersed with tales of her childhood and her grandfathers story of his childhood in Galina, a tiny mountain village.

Review 33: My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher

There has been a fair amount of buzz about Annabel Pitchers debut novel but after reading it, I have to say I think it lives up to it. My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece is the story of 10 year old Jamie and his family. His sister, Rose, was killed by a terrorist bomb in London 5 years ago and it has broken his family apart. His Mum has had an affair and left and his Dad is an alcoholic who is obsessed with Rose's ashes that sit on the eponymous mantelpiece. Rose's twin sister, Jasmine, has stopped eating and dyed her hair pink.

At the start of the novel Jamie, Jasmine and their Dad leave London for a fresh start in the Lake District. At his new school, Jamie struggles to fit in but makes a friend in Sunya despite his Dads warnings that all Muslims are terrorists. The novel is the story of Jamie trying to work out how to live his life with his family. It is both lovely and upsetting as a story. Jamie is a heartbreaking hero as he desperately wants his family to get back to normal and struggles with the fact that he can hardly remember Rose, let alone miss her. Despite this melancholic concept, the novel has some lovely moments and Jamie's realisation that his Dad is wrong and that Sunya is a true friend and a person beyond her religion is a strong message for young adult readers.

29 June 2011

Food Blogging

So I've abandoned my Baked plan in favour of just blogging about anything particularly interesting/successful/tasty/disastrous that I cook. I got a wonderful book for my birthday that I'd been after for a while called Sky High which is a book of three tier cakes which some really original recipes which I'm quite excited about getting started on. I'm going to make the peanut butter and dark chocolate cake this weekend so whilst I'm still going to be trying plenty of recipes from Baked, I'm widening my scope for what recipes I blog about!

I love reading food blogs. Some of my favourites are:
Smitten Kitchen (http://smittenkitchen.com/)
Desserts for Breakfast (http://www.dessertsforbreakfast.com/)
What Katie Ate (http://www.whatkatieate.blogspot.com/)
The Boy Who Bakes (http://theboywhobakes.co.uk/)

I'd like to include more food related posts as I'm really into cooking, particularly baking which is my other love alongside books so hopefully I'll be able to feature both.

27 June 2011

Review 32: The Confession of Katherine Howard by Suzannah Dunn

I have a love/hate relationship with historical fiction, particularly that which is set in the Tudor period. I studied Tudor history at university, focusing on the reign of Henry VIII and so am fairly familiar with the accepted historical fact of this era and I'm particularly interested in the lives of his wives and their relationship to him. I find myself reading quite a lot of these novels as I just find these women so fascinating, however more often than not I am frustrated by the novels as being inaccurate or just plain awful. I particularly struggle with Philippa Gregory as she presents herself as a serious historian writing fiction whereas in fact she is not a historian and bases her books on secondary sources, not the primary sources. She completely lost me after I read The Other Boleyn Girl as I have a bit of a thing for Anne Boleyn who I think was a remarkable women and she was presented as a scheming, obnoxious trollop in that book! Anyway, onto the actual book in hand!

I was interested to read The Confession of Katherine Howard as she is the wife that we know the least about historically, there is little evidence relating to her childhood and she was queen for only just over a year before she was executed. She was never actually crowned and had little to do with politics or religion whilst she was married to Henry. It is therefore interesting to see how authors characterise her and as we know very little, I thought there might be less opportunity for me to be frustrated by inaccuracies.

Review 31: The Unwritten Vol. 1 - Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity by Mike Carey

The Unwritten is the first graphic novel I have bought, rather than borrowed from someone. I liked Watchmen and I really enjoyed the Fables series, both of which were recommended to me by someone who knew what they were talking about. The Unwritten is my first time striking off on my own and trying something I'd chosen myself. The Unwritten seemed to be something I would enjoy as it is packed with literary references and is based on the concept of real life and literature merging, something I've enjoyed in Fables but also in novels such as Jasper Ffordes work.

The Unwritten Vol. 1 does a lot of introducing and setting the scene. It is the story of Tom Taylor, the son of the prolific author Wilson Taylor who mysteriously disappeared at the height of his popularity. Wilson was the author of the Tommy Taylor series about a boy wizard who was inspired by his son. The books are basically Harry Potter and Carey really enjoys gently mocking that series and using themes from Harry Potter in his work. Tommy Taylor has a mysterious tattoo style mark on the back of his hand, a brainy female friend and a earnest male friend, a malicious evil wizard to defeat etc. etc.

23 June 2011

Carnegie Winner

The winner of the 2011 Carnegie Medal was announced at 12.30pm today as being...

Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness!

I am super-pleased because it was my favourite by far from the shortlist and the one I chose as my winner in my summary of all the shortlisted books.

You can read his superb acceptance speech at the Guardian website: http://www.guardian.co.uk/childrens-books-site/2011/jun/23/patrick-ness-carnegie-prize-libraries

15 June 2011

Carnegie Summary

Over the last few weeks I've been reading the shortlist for the 2011 Carnegie Medal which celebrates excellent young adult writing in the UK. As a school librarian, the Carnegie Medal is a book prize I'm particularly invested in. I am always impressed by the shortlist and it always includes a great selection of brilliant writing. Last years winner was The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, which was superb.

I've just finished reading the sixth of the shortlist and this is my rundown of the books and which are my favourites. So here is a brief summary of each one in descending order from my least to most favourite. (Having said that, I did enjoy all of them!)

Review 30: A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute

At school recently, I asked members of staff to be photographed reading their favourite books to make posters to promote reading around school. One of my colleagues, who is actually also a good friend, chose A Town Like Alice and was amazed, considering our very similar taste in books, to find out that I hadn't read it. So I borrowed it and was pleased to discover this unusual romance which is set across Malaysia, Australia and England.

A Town Like Alice is the story of Jean Paget, a young woman who is taken captive in Malaysia by the Japanese forces. The men in the group are sent to a labour camp and the women and children are forced to walk hundreds of miles across Malaysia whilst the Japanese decide what to do with them. On the way they meet, and are helped by, an Australian man, Joe Harman who is horrifically punished for trying to get them some food. The book begins after she has returned, and the part of the story in Malaysia is related as she tells her lawyer what happened. She has a lawyer because at the start of the novel she finds out that she has come into a huge amount of money from a distant Scottish relative. The rest of the review below the jump gives away some plot points, some of which were made obvious by the blurb on my copy of the book, which was frustrating, so if you haven't read this and would like to don't read on.

If you do stop reading here then in summary this is a wonderful book with adventure, romance and history that is slightly tinged by occasional sexist and racist element which make you pause slightly and remind you that this book was written 60 years ago.

8 June 2011

Review 29: Out of Shadows by Jason Wallace

My final stop of my tour of the 2011 Carnegie Medal shortlist. I had put this one off as it didn't really appeal; male protagonist in an all boys boarding school set in 1980s Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe, not something I know a lot about, to my shame. However, once I started I couldn't put down this exciting, thought-provoking and moving story of race, friendship and loyalty.

Out of Shadows is the story of Robert Jacklin, an English boy who moves to Zimbabwe with his parents. He is enrolled in a prestigious boys boarding school which has recently been moved to start accepting black boys after Mugabe took control of Zimbabwe. At school, Robert encounters Ivan a white boy who is determined to follow through with his plan to restore what he sees as the right way for 'his' country to be.