Books I want but don’t need #1

Books are like shoes…and handbags…and lipsticks…there are ALWAYS ones you see that you want but very definitely DO NOT need.

And now Christmas is coming, which is the worst/best time for a book addict as the bookshops become filled to bursting with glorious temptations of the literary kind.  I’m hoping that by sharing some pics of the books I want (but definitely do not need) I’ll get them out of my system and save myself from book-induced bankruptcy.

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See, now this looks gorgeous doesn’t it?  I have a bit of obsession with medieval manuscripts (slightly odd, I know) so was instantly drawn to this.  But I’m restraining myself because, let’s be honest, it would take me about a year to read such is its tome-like status, and I already have a number of beautiful books that cover the same subject.  So reluctantly I’m putting this into the “want not need” category.

There will be more to follow over the coming weeks on the blog without a doubt.  Do let me know which books are giving you the come hither look right now…

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Some Wednesday night facts about me!

I’m in between book reviews at the moment and thought a fun way to fill the blogging gap would be to share a few utterly random things about myself.  I love getting to know the people behind the blogs, and I’ve not yet shared that much about the girl who’s doing all the reading…

Favourite food – chicken and sausage casserole…however, there has to be sage and onion stuffing in there as well or it’s just not complete!  Otherwise, cake.  Literally any cake will do.

Biggest fear – spiders (very boring, I know).  Or my somewhat more abstract but no less real fear of getting to the end of my life and having regrets about things I haven’t done.

Most amazing place I’ve been – so far, Rome, without a doubt.  I didn’t think it was possible to have so much awe-inspiring history crammed into such a small radius, and I’d love to go back and fill in all the gaps I missed first time round.

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Place I’d most like to go – there are so many, but I think top of my list would be a trip to see the Northern Lights.

When I’m not reading I’m… usually at work unfortunately, although it does involve books so it’s not all bad!  Or I’m finding an excuse to eat more cake.

Cats or dogs?  – having owned both I’m afraid I’m going to alienate my cat-loving readers now by coming down on the side of dogs (sorry!)  Don’t get me wrong, I adore cats too but let’s face it, you can’t take a cat for a run along the beach or down the pub with you!

Guilty pleasure – I spend – sorry, waste – far too much time watching episodes of The Big Bang Theory on E4 that I’ve seen a million times before.

Book I’m reading right now – there’s never just one!  In fact, I’m doing quite well at the moment by only having two on the go: “Sacrilege” by the ever-reliable S J Parris, and “The Watchmaker of Filigree Street”, which is completely wonderful!

I’ll be back on the blog soon with more reviews for you, but in the meantime, happy reading!

Summer Distractions

After a bit of a dry patch where my blog was concerned, I was just starting to get my mojo back… and then the flippin’ Olympics happened.  For someone who just about manages to drag herself to the gym once a month and would rather have her nose in a book than participate in any activity that involves running/hitting a ball/getting moderately out of breath, I enjoy watching sport on TV an inordinate amount.  But after an embarrassing July in which I managed a measly single blog post, I’m determined that August will be a better month – so with that in mind, I’m typing away at my laptop while keeping half an eye on Tom Daley in the diving…

If you’ve visited Girl, Reading over the last couple of days you’ll know that I’ve just finished reading Jessie Burton’s “The Muse”, which will be a pretty hard act to follow.  So I’ve gone for something completely different and am currently half way through “The Vegetarian”, a bizarre and unsettling novel translated from the Korean that’s worlds away from anything I’ve read recently.  I am also part way through Orhan Pamuk’s “Silent House” – but it’s one of those books that while being top quality writing isn’t calling me back to it when I’ve put it down, so that one may be shelved for a later date when I’m in the right mood for it.  A friend of mine has lent me “The Past”, which I’m excited to try as it looks like it might be reminiscent of Marilynne Robinson, an author whose novels I do appreciate despite the fact that they tend to be pretty downbeat and not the most uplifting of stories.  And after all that I feel like I also need a nice, easy comfort read to counteract the drama and trauma – the book to provide that laid back reading experience, however, is yet to be decided!

I’m off to the New Forest this week for a few days of walking, wildlife spotting (hopefully) and relaxation – see you all again on my return.  I wish you a happy week of reading 🙂

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“The Essex Serpent” by Sarah Perry – review

It’s not at all unusual for me, on finishing a great book, to go around feverishly recommending it to as many people as will listen.  It is unusual for me to stick my neck out and declare that a book has become one of my all-time favourites.  The deliriously happy aftermath of “The Essex Serpent” has been one of those unusual times.  I finished it a few days ago and it’s still out on the coffee table; putting it away on the bookshelf right now would feel like severing a piece of the connection with this thing of absolute beauty.  I’ll do my best to give you a sense of just why this novel has captured my heart and my imagination so completely, but I already know my words are going to come up short.

So let’s start with the easy bit!  Following the death of her husband, Cora Seaborne decides to escape from London and heads to Essex with her companion Martha and son Francis.  This being 1893 there are certain mourning protocols a widow must observe – dress in black, appear suitably downcast – as Cora knows too well; but the truth is she feels almost no pain at the loss of her husband, who was at best neglectful and at worst abusive.  His death is in fact a blessing in many ways: Cora, an intelligent and self-sufficient woman, is at last free to discover what kind of new life she wants for herself.  On her arrival in the coastal village of Aldwinter she is delighted to hear tales of the mysterious Essex Serpent, an immense beast rumoured to live in the waters surrounding this otherwise peaceful community.  Cora is a huge fan of renowned fossil hunter Mary Anning, and immediately hopes that this quasi-mythical creature may actually be a living thing that resembles the enormous sea creatures of prehistoric times.  Few people, if any, share her enthusiasm; she walks into an atmosphere of fear and superstition fuelled by a series of unusual events that locals attribute to the presence of the monster.  A mutual friend introduces her to William Ransome, the parish vicar desperately trying to keep a lid on the rising hysteria and the two connect in an instant.  Both are on a personal quest to debunk the serpent myth – Will’s weapon is faith while Cora’s is science.  From there the story follows both the deepening mystery of the Essex Serpent and the developing relationship between these two characters that are coming at the world from polar opposite standpoints.

So now it gets a bit harder: how can I put my finger on exactly what it was that earned this book such a privileged place in my heart?  There’s no doubting the fact that the list of fabulous things about “The Essex Serpent” is a very long one.  Firstly, the characters: a rich and varied cross-section of humanity, not one of which strays into cliché or feels as if they’re there to make up the numbers.  Even the more peripheral inhabitants of Aldwinter who only make brief appearances are absolutely real, envisaged with the same care as the more prominent players.  Cora herself strides across the page, with her unconventional attire and resolutely non-conformist attitude to femininity, and yet she carries a vulnerability and uncertainty about her emotional place in the world that resonated deeply with me; how can you ever give yourself completely to another person when your greatest sense of security comes from within, and your default position is to want to be alone?  Cora’s relationships, both romantic and platonic, are complicated and their consistently blurred outlines leave them defying categorisation.  The candour and perspicacity with which the author probes the phenomenon of love is one of the novel’s greatest strengths.  Much as we would probably all feel more comfortable in a world where being in or out of love were two absolute and mutually exclusive states, one of the challenges of our existence is the realisation that feelings are so much less straightforward than that.  Populating the pages of this book are a man who steadfastly believes that he genuinely loves his wife whilst pursuing another woman, Cora herself who desires love even as she pushes others away, and friends whose love for each other may or may not include an element of sexual attraction.  And does sexual attraction ultimately matter when two like-minds and like-souls meet?  I loved the nuances with which Sarah Perry infused her story; we reach the end still unsure about the exact nature of the relationships between some of the characters, and I liked it that way.

So love is left hanging as an unfathomable mystery – but what of the Essex Serpent, the more obvious mystery that has managed to drag a whole village into a state of near-panic?  I think the author’s multi-layered, ambiguous exploration of the mythical (or is it?!) beast and the way it manifests itself in the hearts and minds of Aldwinter’s inhabitants is the stroke of genius here.  On the one hand there are some genuinely creepy passages that send a shiver of unease up the spine, as we see some unsettling phenomena occurring across the unforgiving waters of the estuary and among the increasingly frightened villagers.  Throughout the novel there are flashes of the gothic that Sarah Perry clearly relishes.  And yet there is much more to this than the quest to discover whether or not the monster is real; perhaps the more important question is, why do so many people believe in it?  By the end of the book what I took away more than anything else was that we all have a serpent lurking inside of us, one that is shaped by our own unique fears, insecurities and experiences.  For the residents of Aldwinter the monstrosity comes to reflect many states of mind, from the fear of being driven off life’s comfortable path by unexpected emotions, to the unrelenting weight of grief, the turmoil of adolescence and even simply the confused ramblings of a brain ravaged by disease.  Absolutely, I wanted to know the answer to the mystery in its most literal sense, but it’s the more metaphorical manifestations of the Essex Serpent that stay with you longest after the final page.

There is just so much packed into this book that it will utterly consume you, both while you’re reading it and afterwards.  I’m actually incredibly jealous of anyone who has yet to read this for the first time!  I hope more than anything that you’ll love it as much as I do; as always, I would love to hear your thoughts.  Happy reading!

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Uncomfortable reading

There were two books that I had to stop reading today.  One featured an act so unbelievably brutal that I found myself in what I can only describe as emotional shock, and I felt I needed some time to recover.  The other was a novel with which I’ve persevered for a while but had to set aside due to the fact that the entire plot centres on the prolonged manipulation and deceit of innocent people, and to be honest it got to the point today where I’d had enough.  One of these books I’ll definitely return to very soon; the other I may well not.

My experience with these books got me thinking.  Bad things happen to good people in almost every novel you’ll ever read; so what makes some acts of malice or unpleasant characters more palatable than others?  If you’ve followed my blog for a while you’ll know I’m not a huge fan of the cupcakes and glitter worldview – lovely as life would be if we all knew that we were guaranteed to find happiness at the end of our allocated three-hundred pages, in truth reality is very far removed from that, something I feel the very best stories will acknowledge at some point.  So if I can read and love the utterly tragic “The Mayor of Casterbridge” or the emotional portrait of mental illness that is “The Shock of the Fall”, why is it that I balk at novels like the ones I cast aside today?

One thing I do appreciate – in fiction as in life – is a sense of justice being done.  There are some authors who have the ability to write about the most atrocious things while maintaining a feeling of reassurance that karma will eventually do its thing.  Ken Follett’s magnificent books “The Pillars of the Earth” and “World without End” would probably win the top prize for this.  There are some truly poisonous, boo-hiss villains in these novels, but much as you’re repulsed by them as they go about their business of raping and murdering, you’re also quietly confident that at some point they’ll be stabbed, get trampled by a horse, succumb to the plague or meet some other grisly demise thoroughly in keeping with their wicked deeds.  Follett is by no means afraid to kill off his heroes, but he will never let a villain win the day.

Yet my enjoyment of a book can’t just be about securing an appropriate ending for each character based on their moral standing; after all, does Casterbridge’s Michael Henchard really deserve the fate that Hardy chooses to allocate him?  And actually, at this moment in time, the novel I broke off reading because of its brutality doesn’t look like offering any guarantees of retribution, divine or otherwise – yet out of the two I mentioned at the start of this post, this is the one to which I will undoubtedly be returning.  There’s only one conclusion I can draw, then, as to what it is that’s rescued this novel from being added to the charity shop pile while the fate of the other one is as yet undecided.  For me, there simply has to be a spark of hope in humanity visible throughout a novel even if at some times it’s fainter than at others.  Despite the dreadful event that has occurred, there is enough warmth in the heart of so many of the characters, and such a deep sense of compassion for people that emanates from the author through her writing that I have the confidence to carry on.   Whatever happens, I believe that behind this book lies an intention to celebrate the things that bring us together as human beings as well as the hideous things we are capable of doing to one another.  The problem I think I have is with unrelenting unkindness, and prolonged abuse or cruelty with nothing to counteract it.  If at some point I decide to revisit my second half-finished novel, I may well find that by the end my faith in humanity is restored – but is it worth several hundred pages of unremitting spite and deceit to get there?  Maybe not for me.

As a footnote I’d like to explain that I deliberately didn’t name the two books in question – I may review them in the future when I’m able to pass judgement on them in their entirety!

 

Past Masters – Sarah Dunant

I haven’t done one of these blog posts in a while, so if you’re new to Girl, Reading this is an occasional series of articles in which I highlight my favourite authors of historical fiction.  Today I’m spreading the love for a novelist who knows how to get inside her characters’ heads like no other: the fabulous Sarah Dunant.

Which historical period does she write about?

She’s written some thrillers as well as historical fiction, but the novels for which she’s best known – and the ones that I particularly love – are set in late fifteenth and sixteenth century Italy.  This is the world of the Borgias and the Medici, a world where the religious, the profane and the political all intertwine in a brutal, sensual melting pot of humanity.

Why should I read her?

If like me you’re already fascinated by Renaissance Italy then you’ll be hard pushed to find another author whose fiction engages with the era so well.  I’ve read a number of novels set in this period and I’ve enjoyed most of them, but Sarah Dunant’s books are a cut above the rest.  What I find so fascinating about this setting, and what the author captures so well, is the fact that squalor and opulence, deprivation and extravagance rubbed right up against each other in a slightly bizarre society reminiscent at times of a surreal puppet show.  Yet behind the hedonism of the Borgias, the obscene wealth of the Medici and the hysteria-inducing religious extremism of Savonarola and his followers, it was also a time when intellectualism was bursting forth and unleashing new philosophies and creative expression on the generations to come.  In Dunant’s novels we experience in a very tangible way what it must have been like to live – or to survive – in a time such as this, in particular what life was like for women.  She creates some exceptionally strong female characters, some real and some imagined.  In “Blood and Beauty” we have a reimagining of Lucrezia Borgia, possibly the most famous member of this notorious family; in “Sacred Hearts” she gives us an insight into the life of a woman on a much more modest scale in the shape of Serafina, an unfortunate girl who has suffered the fate common to many women of the time of being forced into a convent.  All the characters truly become flesh and blood, and you feel every joy and every agony alongside them.

Which book should I start with?

I loved “Blood and Beauty” – apparently the story is going to be continued in a second novel of unknown publication date (if anyone has any news on it please feel free to comment below!) but it’s still a wonderful book and very much worth reading even if there’s no follow-on as yet.  Otherwise I’d go for “The Birth of Venus”, which has one of my favourite leading ladies of any novel I’ve ever read.

The Bard on the Blog

As if you needed reminding, this month sees the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.  It’s a pretty safe bet that there will be hundreds, if not thousands of bard-related blogs and articles popping up over the next few weeks, so I thought I’d get in nice and early and share with you some of my favourite Shakespeare-themed things!

Favourite Shakespeare play – undoubtedly “Macbeth”, as I think it’s the most powerful and striking one that I’ve seen performed.  I’ve been lucky enough to be in the audience for quite a few different versions, ranging from the traditional to an extremely physical interpretation that took place almost entirely on a giant pyramid constructed from ropes, and I’ve taken something new away from it every time.

Favourite character – I guess it should be Juliet really seeing as I’m named after her, but as my second choice I’m going to go over to the dark side and pick Lady Macbeth, surely one of the most gloriously terrifying women you’ll ever see on stage.

Favourite film adaptation – there was a point in my life when I was watching Kenneth Branagh’s “Much Ado about Nothing” with alarming regularity (I think it may have been something to do with Keanu Reeves in leather trousers…).  However, if I’m allowed to broaden the definition slightly to include modern retellings of Shakespeare’s stories then I’d have to plump for “10 Things I Hate about You”, which takes as its inspiration “The Taming of the Shrew”.

Favourite factual Shakespeare book – “Will in the World” by Stephen Greenblatt is without doubt the best one I’ve read when it comes to examining what we know of Shakespeare’s life in the context of his time.  It packs in an enormous amount of information while remaining completely readable.

Shakespeare in fiction – “The Tutor” by Andrea Chapin is a page-turning imagining of a passionate love affair between a young William Shakespeare and the woman who becomes his muse.  In a completely different take on history we have the jaw-dropping linguistic triumph that is Ros Barber’s “The Marlowe Papers”, a novel written entirely in verse that plays with the idea of Christopher Marlowe being the real playwright behind the name “Shakespeare”.

Favourite Shakespeare quote – it’s only right that the great man himself should wrap up this blog post in his own words:

“….We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”

If you’re interested in all things Shakespearean there’s a really interesting blog you might want to visit that explores the world of the bard and his contemporaries, Standing up for Shakespeare.

As for me, writing this has made me keen to go and see another Shakespeare play, so I’m off now to see what I can find!