17 September 2012

Review 52: The Prisoner of Heaven by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

"Barcelona, 1957. It is the week before Christmas in the Sempere  & Sons bookshop. Daniel Sempere has married the love of his life, Bea, and they have had a son whilst their partner in crime, Fermin, is busy preparing for his wedding to Bernarda in the New Year. Just when it seems as if luck is finally smiling on them, a mysterious figure with a pronounced limp enters the shop. He insists on buying the most expensive volume on display - a beautiful illustrated edition of The Count of Monte Cristo - and then proceeds to inscribe the book with the words 'For Fermin Romero de Torres, who came back from the dead and who holds the key to the future'. Who is this man and what does he want of Fermin? The answer lies in a terrible secret that has lain hidden for two decades, an epic tale of imprisonment, betrayal, murder and love that leads back into the very heart of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books."

The Prisoner of Heaven is definitely an enjoyable read with some great moments and plenty of intrigue but it really felt like a build up towards the fourth and final novel that is planned and is not satisfying enough as a standalone read. It suffers for being weaker than its predecessors. The Shadow of the Wind is absolutely exceptional, The Angel's Game is good although flawed and unfortunately The Prisoner of Heaven is just a little too mediocre to stand up to their reputation. It does work as part of the series and the love of books and the written word as well as the hugely appealing character of Fermin make it enjoyable without it having the depth to stay with you after you've finished it.

First Line: "That year at Christmas time, every morning dawned laced with frost under leaden skies."

Why I read it: I adored The Shadow of the Wind and really enjoyed The Angel's Game and was keen to see how Zafon would add to the story.

Who I would recommend it to: People who have already committed to Zafon's Barcelona and have read his previous two installments.

11 September 2012

Man Booker Shortlist 2012

The shortlist was announced this morning:

I'm excited, although not surprised, to see Mantel there. Please to see Moore there as well. Very disappointed not to have Beauman there - I'm sad more people won't read it. I would have never heard of it if it wasn't for the Booker longlist and I loved it so I'm disappointed it won't be read by a wider audience. I am unsurprised to see Self there despite my frustrations with Umbrella but in an interview today Sir Peter Stothard, the chair of the judges, assured us that if you stick with it, it gets better. I would be unsurprised to see it win so I really hope that I get into it as I persevere.

I haven't read Thayil, Twan Eng or Levy yet but of the three I am the most excited to read Thayil - Narcopolis would have been next on my list to read from the longlist if I hadn't run out of time and people with similar taste to me have been praising it. I know very little about The Garden of Evening Mists so am looking forward to trying it. Levy didn't seem to be getting very positive reviews so this is the biggest surprise for me. The people that loved it seemed to really love it but the majority of reviews weren't best impressed so I'm interested to see which camp I fall into.

I'm a little nervous about the seriousness of the shortlist - none of the more joyful books have made it - it would have been great to see Beauman, Barker or Joyce get here just to add a little bit of joy to the proceedings (or even Frayn even though he's not my cup of tea). I am concerned my sixth form shadowing group will find them all a little depressing but we shall see. I'm going to pick up our copies from Waterstones tomorrow morning and we start our shadowing group tomorrow with tea and cake, I can't wait to get going!

10 September 2012

Review 51: Game Change by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin

"In 2008, the presidential election became blockbuster entertainment. Everyone was watching as the race for the White House unfolded like something from the realm of fiction. The meteoric rise and historic triumph of Barack Obama. The shocking fall of the House of Clinton - and the improbably resurrection of Hillary as Obama's partner and America's face to the world. The mercurial performance of John McCain and the mesmerizing emergence of Sarah Palin. But despite the wall-to-wall media coverage of this spellbinding drama, remarkably little of the real story behind the headlines has yet been told. In Game Change, John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, two of the country's leading political reports, use their unrivaled access to pull back the curtain on the Obama, Clinton, McCain and Palin campaigns. Based on hundreds of interviews with the people who lived the story, Game Change is a reportorial tour de force that reads like a fast-paced novel. Character driven and dialogue rich, replete with extravagantly detailed scenes, this is the occasionally shocking, often hilarious, ultimately definitive account of the campaign of a lifetime." 

This took me months to get through but I found it fascinating. As someone who follows US politics, but not in a huge amount of detail, it gave me a huge insight into not only the 2008 presidential election but also how the whole US political system works. Despite being pretty dense, it's very readable and accessible to people with only a smattering of political knowledge. Heilemann and Halperin are clearly big fans of Obama as he is portayed extremely positively, but it felt as though the key figures were all represented relatively fairly, from my somewhat ignorant perspective. All in all, an interesting and enjoyable read that taught me a lot.

First Line: "Barack Obama jerked bolt upright in bed at three o'clock in the morning."

Why I read it: I was vaguely aware of the book and then came across it in a hostel I was staying at in Reykjavik where I read it.

Who I would recommend it to: Anyone with an interest in politics - it's a great introduction for people who don't know a great deal about the US system and an interesting new way of writing political history for those who already know the facts.

Man Booker 2012 Predictions

Tomorrow the shortlist for the 2012 Man Booker Prize will be announced. The longlist was announced on 25th July and I was slow getting started as we were away on holiday. I have read four of them, will have finished another by tonight and waded through about a quarter of one that I struggled with.

The four I have read are The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman, Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel, The Lighthouse by Alison Moore and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce. I will finish The Yips by Nicola Barker tonight and I started Umbrella by Will Self. So far my two favourites are Mantel and Beauman, although Moore is close behind. I just reviewed the Mantel on the blog but as I am behind on my reviews, the others haven't been tackled yet. My two favourites are very different; Bring up the Bodies is a complex, historical epic whereas The Teleportation Accident is funny and audacious. However I found both of them to be massively accomplished and very successful in what they set out to do. I was already a big fan of Mantel and Bring up the Bodies more than continues her legacy. Beauman was a new discovery, it was the book on the longlist that most appealed to me initially and I just loved it - it was so enjoyable to read whilst also having enough substance to satisfy. Definitely reminiscent of The Sisters Brothers in tone, which was my favourite from last year's shortlist. I am confident Mantel will be on the shortlist and I wouldn't be surprised to see her win again (she won in 2009 for Wolf Hall). On the other hand I would be pleasantly surprised if Beauman managed to get onto the shortlist, I worry it's too much fun for Booker. But you never know quite what their criteria are each year and they generally like the shortlist to be varied.

I run a Man Booker shadowing group at my school which starts on Wednesday with staff and sixth formers so my opinions are always some mid-point between my own personal tastes and wanting the shadowing to be successful. Which is one of the main reasons I would also like to see Joyce make it onto the shortlist. I really did like this although personally I'm not sure it is unique enough to be really wonderful. However, I think my sixth formers would really respond well to it and as many of them this year don't read much modern fiction at all, if any, I want there to be at least some that are accessible as I'm worried some of them might be a bit much for unconfident readers.

Speaking of being a bit much, I really struggled with Umbrella. It is really hard work. I read roughly a quarter of it before moving on and I very rarely don't finish books, in fact I can't remember the last time I didn't finish a novel. If this is on the shortlist I will end up persevering and in fact even if it isn't I may well continue at some point as I don't really like leaving unfinished books and some of the reviews I read said that it comes together well at the end. I really did feel that it was just trying too hard, whilst there were some wonderful phrases, on the whole it is just so pretentious. I was reading some of the sentences out loud to my husband and we found it entertaining how tortuous and ridiculous they were. I'm all for challenging reads and in fact I love reading things that require some effort but I didn't feel like I was getting anything back for all my effort on this one. Sometimes things can be said far more powerfully if they are simple, something being clever doesn't make it good. It does have a lovely cover though.

Then there's The Lighthouse which I felt was in many ways the opposite of my feelings about Umbrella. The writing is simple but so powerful and effective. It was atmospheric and haunting (atmosphere was something severely lacking in Umbrella, I was concentrating so much on understanding it that it was a very clinical reading experience), The Lighthouse gets under your skin and is clever without bashing you over the head with it. Moore doesn't feel the need to try and impress with really long sentences full of words no-one uses, but instead impresses with carefully chosen words that suggest and probe and unnerve. It's very readable but there's plenty to discuss so it is perfect for our shadowing group, so for a multitude of reasons I really hope to see it on the shortlist.

Finally, The Yips, which I am about two thirds of the way through and hope to finish before the shortlist is announced. So far I am enjoying it, although not loving it, but I feel as though it's hit it's stride a bit more now as I have enjoyed the last 100 pages a great deal more than the beginning so hopefully it will continue on that trajectory and have a triumphant end.

There is a part of me that hopes the shortlist is the six books I have bought and read, just for my own personal satisfaction. I genuinely want to see Mantel, Beauman and Moore on the shortlist and would like Joyce there for my sixth formers. I think Barker will probably be there and I am happy with that. I worry about Beauman though, I will be disappointed if it doesn't get to the next stage and to a wider readership. Of course there are six novels I haven't read and I know next to nothing about them. I think that we will see at least Brink or Twan Eng to cover the foreign, racism is bad angle, probably Brink. Levy and Thompson haven't been getting great reviews so I doubt we will see them. I hope that Beauman pushes ahead of Frayn to get the comedy spot (although I haven't read Skios, but Frayn's interviews on the Man Booker website are intensely irritating so I don't think I share his sense of humour and the cover is awful). That just leaves Thayil's Narcopolis as a bit of a wild card, I haven't seen many reviews, I don't really know what the tone of it is and I don't know much about Thayil as an author so who knows with that one.

I'll post the shortlist tomorrow when it is announced and reviews of the books over the next five weeks before the winner is announced on 16th October as well as some updates about our shadowing group.

6 September 2012

Review 50: Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

"By 1535 Thomas Cromwell, the blacksmith's son, is far from his humble origins. Chief Minister to Henry VIII, his fortunes have risen with those of Anne Boleyn, Henry's second wife, for whose sake Henry has broken with Rome and created his own church. But Henry's actions have forced England into dangerous isolation, and Anne has failed to do what she promised: bear a son to secure the Tudor line. When Henry visits Wolf Hall, Cromwell watches as he falls in love with the silent, plain Jane Seymour. The minister sees what is at stake: not just the king's pleasure, but the safety of the nation. As he eases a way through the sexual politics of the court, its miasma of gossip, he must negotiate a 'truth' that will satisfy Henry and secure his own career. But neither minister nor king will emerge undamaged from the bloody theatre of Anne's final days." 

In short, this novel is superb. It perhaps doesn't quite reach the heady heights of Wolf Hall, which is one of my all-time favourites, but it is certainly significantly better than nearly everything else I have read recently and is a wonderful, lyrical look at the next section of Thomas Cromwell's life, which follows Anne Boleyn's reign and downfall and Jane Seymour's rise. Mantel creates an enigmatic Cromwell, so different from what the history books tell us, who is aggressive and single minded and yet intelligent and sympathetic. The real draw though, is Mantel's phenomenal writing, the book is a joy to read and to wallow in the wonderful way that she writes.

First Line: "His children are falling from the sky."

Why I read it: I adored Wolf Hall and so this is one of the books I was the most excited to read this year. I read this when it first came out, but it has since been announced as being on the Man Booker longlist.

Who I would recommend it to: Fans of literary historical fiction, people who enjoy beautifully crafted novels.

4 September 2012

Readers: Blood Donation Centre, Acocks Green

Review 49: The Kissing Game by Aidan Chambers

"From the master storyteller, Aidan Chambers, comes a collection of Stories of Defiance - moments in life, realisations, insights and sudden revelations. Mixed with longer stories are some 'Flash Fictions' - very short but complete stories that reveal, as in a flash of light, a moment of awkward truth in the life of their characters. Prepare to be amazed, enchanted and to gasp with shock. In 'Kangaroo', a girl loses her humanity when she takes an unusual summer job. In 'The Tower', a boy rescues a girl from a fiery death, only to have her disappear. And in the unforgettable title story, a seemingly innocent game between a boy and a girl takes a horrific turn. Once again Chambers treats his readers to his intelligent prose, playfulness of form and incisive understanding of the wonderings of young people on the verge of adulthood."

It's difficult to review a book of short stories as they are obviously varied and different, these particularly so. Chambers tries a variety of different style, ideas and tones throughout the book so it is pretty much impossible to characterise the whole book in a few words. I found many of these very effective, especially the modern retellings of fairy tales and the titular The Kissing Game is particularly powerful. Some of them fell a bit short for me though and elements didn't quite feel authentic. Nonetheless, I enjoy it when authors play with language and form and I also like it when teenage authors don't patronise their readers so all in all, this is definitely a success in my book. Also, I love Aidan Chambers - I've heard him speak at several library conferences and the man is inspiring!

First Line: "Enough! She said to herself."

Why I read it/Full Disclosure: The author bought a copy of this book for me.

Who I would recommend it to: If you enjoy authors playing with what fiction is, trying new versions of old stories or just trying new things.

1 September 2012

Review 48: Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops by Jen Campbell

"A John Cleese Twitter question ('What is your pet peeve?'), first sparked the Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops blog, which grew over three years into one bookseller's collection of ridiculous conversations on the shop floor. From 'Did Beatrix Potter ever write a book about dinosaurs?' to the hunt for a paperback which could forecast the next year's weather, and from 'I've forgotten my glasses, please read me the first chapter' to 'Excuse me... is this book edible?': here is a book for heroic booksellers and booklovers alike."

A short but impressed review for this book of the funny and/or horrifyingly ignorant things customers say in bookshops. This will only take you twenty minutes or so to read through but it is well worth the time for some laughs and giggles as well as some horrified gasps at peoples ineptitude and rudeness. Both a celebration of the wonders of bookshops and a (generally) affectionate look at the huge variety of people that frequent them.

First Line: "Customer: I read a book in the sixties. I don't remember the author, or the title. But it was green, and it made me laugh. Do you know which one I mean?"

Why I read it: I saw it on the wonderful Literary Gift Company website (www.theliterarygiftcompany.com/) You should definitely check it out - full of amazing and creative presents for book lovers (or for yourself as is more often the case for me.)

Who I would recommend it to: Book lovers.