Monthly Archives: January 2014

Book Review: Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell

HEATWAVEInstructions for a Heatwave is another book that seemed to have a lots of buzz about it in 2013 when it came out (see my recent review of Stoner by John Williams for all the buzz about that). Originally published in hardback at the beginning of the year, the paperback followed fairly quickly and was published in the same year (it was picked for the Richard & Judy Autumn 2013 Book Club). Maggie O’Farrell is a writer that, for me, seems to straddle the gap between chick lit (brr, horrible term) and literary fiction – I read her novel The Hand That First Held Mine (which won the Costa Novel award in 2010) a few years ago and although I enjoyed it, I found it lacking a certain je ne sais quoi. I’m sorry to say that Instructions for a Heatwave left me with a similar feeling of ‘meh’.

Blurb from the publisher

‘It’s July 1976. In London, it hasn’t rained for months, gardens are filled with aphids, water comes from a standpipe, and Robert Riordan tells his wife Gretta that he’s going round the corner to buy a newspaper. He doesn’t come back. The search for Robert brings Gretta’s children – two estranged sisters and a brother on the brink of divorce – back home, each with different ideas as to where their father might have gone. None of them suspects that their mother might have an explanation that even now she cannot share.’

The story starts out well, setting the scene as Robert disappears, a normal morning, except the heatwave has been going on for weeks and people are starting to go crazy. The children start to gather back round the family home, and I particularly enjoyed the parts concerning Aoife who returns home from New York. It wasn’t a surprise to me after reading these sections that O’Farrell had been inspired and influenced by Colm Tóibín’s wonderful novel Brooklyn.

The other characters just didn’t feel fleshed out enough however, and I wanted more depth to them. For example, Michael Francis’s relationship with his wife, and in particular her breakdown, just didn’t seem real to me – it felt like his ‘problem’. Because each of the characters has to have a ‘problem’. For Aoife, it’s her learning disability which she feels ashamed of and tries to hide; for Monica, (she gets two) it is her struggle to endear herself to her stepdaughters, and the secret of why she split from her first husband, Joe; and for Gretta, it’s a secret that she’s been hiding from everyone for quite some time and isn’t ready to reveal yet. I wanted there to be fewer characters to focus on, or more time to spend with them to find out what made them tick. I wanted the heatwave to make them act crazy, to do things they wouldn’t normally do and for the reader to be challenged a bit more.

There are some nice episodes in it, and I do enjoy O’Farrell’s style of writing as it’s both lyrical and accessible. But the plot seems to get a bit lost in the characters’ various ‘problems’, and it seems to get completely forgotten at points that their father has gone AWOL and, in fact, there seems to be a general lack of sentimentality when they talk about him, poor man. He is but a plot device to bring the family back together and to bring their secrets out into the open. What was his name, again?

The ending in Ireland is a bit twee and inconclusive. It doesn’t really give many answers, not in that good way where part of the fun on the reader’s part is deciding what happens for yourself, but in an ‘oh well, that’s that over I suppose’ kind of way that fails to leave much of a lasting impression. I feel like I’m being rather hard on it, it’s not really a bad book (and an awful lot better than a lot of fiction out there marketed to women), but it just falls a bit flat and I had expected a lot more given the buzz. All that said, I really did love the cover! (I never know if you’re meant to consider that in a review…)

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Book Review: Stoner by John Williams

stonerStoner was one of last year’s publishing success stories. Originally published in the 1965 to a quiet reception (it received few reviews and went out of print the following year), it was revived in a new edition and given a new lease of life. I remember seeing all of the buzz about it on twitter last year and finding it quite astonishing that it was for a book published almost 50 years ago. It was even named as Waterstones Book of the Year 2013 which is certainly very unusual as this would have been expected to go to a book first published in 2013. John Williams died in 1994 so was sadly never able to witness the revival in popularity of this wonderful novel.

I can see why this is considered a forgotten classic – it deals with both the First and Second World wars, the deterioration of the land in the American Midwest and at its centre, the life of an unassuming man, literary scholar William Stoner. It’s funny that nowadays historical novels spend so much time setting the scene, creating a sense of place and really making you feel as if you are in that historical period, making it worth all of the research into the time period. The joy of books that were actually written in the times they are set, or at least by someone who has lived through the times discussed, is that there is a natural ease in the depiction of a time because it is second-nature to them. I think that’s what I loved about this book the most, the quiet influence of history. And this is the story of a quiet man, who led a reasonably quiet life.

Stoner reads like an obituary for an ordinary and unexceptional man, which I think was wholly its intent. Stoner marries the wrong woman, Edith, who does not understand him or herself, inflicting her identity crises on him and making him a victim to her whims. He also deals with academic politics, being willingly passed over for important positions at his university as he is comfortable as he is. William Stoner is a quiet and unassuming man, an introvert, who can be at times so frustrating. He talks and doesn’t even realise that the words have come out of his mouth, or forgets what he has said after saying it; his words are inconsequential to himself, and so how can he expect them to be consequential or influential to others? He doesn’t have a feeling of self-worth, surprised that a publisher would be interested in publishing a literary criticism book he has spent years working on, and even more taken aback by the love and devotion shown to him by his daughter Grace in her younger years.

Sometimes I wanted to shake him and shout at him to listen to himself, to stop being pushed around by his colleague and adversary Lomax, to tell his wife Edith to stop messing about with his and, even worse, their Grace’s life. He is passive, and although there are moments of triumph and small acts of rebellion, they seem minute in comparison to all of the wrongs that have been done to him. He is a sad and lonely man in the end, but I’m not sure how sorry I can feel for him when he didn’t do much to help himself. His life just passes by him, and even the love affair he has with a young student (one of the most fulfilling experiences of his life) is doomed to end as things weigh against him and he quietly gives it up. He doesn’t like to make a fuss.

This quote made me feel so sorry for him, but at the same time completely highlighted everything that was standing in the way between his current life and a happier, more fulfilling life:

‘He was forty-two years old, and he could see nothing before him that he wished to enjoy and little behind him that he cared to remember.’

Isn’t that just the most depressing way to sum up life at that age? I know that when he was born, life expectancy was a lot shorter, more so for the agricultural stock he came from I suppose, but is that really an attitude to carry you through life? It’s an unjust life and I think that’s what’s hardest to deal with – he is a real man, a believable character, and one who stands for all of the people in the world whose lives may not have the gripping plot of a novel, but their lives are no less worth recording for it, are no less worthy of remembering. I think this is a splendid book and very much deserves its status as a classic.

I’d love to discover some more hidden gems from the past, the unsung heroes and heroines of literature, the forgotten (or as yet undiscovered) classics. Do you have any books that you would like to shout about, and wish were given more praise? I remember being very taken with Catherine Carswell’s novel The Camomile about the life of a young woman in Glasgow in the early ’20s, trying to find her own identity in a society that isn’t quite ready for strong females. I’m not even sure it’s in print anymore, the edition I have was a local Glasgow press I think, printed as a short run partially to provide copies for university courses. If you can track it down it is very much worth a read, or there is her more well-known novel and still in print Open the Door! which (for shame!) I haven’t actually read yet but do have on my shelf!

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Literary Blog Hop Giveaway – Coming Soon!

literarybloghop_february

The first weekend in February I will be taking part again in The Literary Blog Hop hosted by Leeswammes. I’m really looking forward to it as it’s been some time since I last took part (October 2012!) and I feel like my blog has grown a lot more since then. There are certainly loads more reviews – I’m aiming to post something weekly in 2014 so this should continue to grow.

I love this giveaway (whether I’m taking part or not) as not only is it a chance to get your hands on a free literary book (let’s be honest, there probably aren’t many people that wouldn’t appeal to!) but it’s also a brilliant way of finding some new blogs on books, which will in turn lead to discovering books you’ve never heard of before.

I haven’t decided yet on the title I’ll be giving away yet but I’m pretty sure it’ll be something that I read in 2013 and have reviewed on my blog, so I’ll be looking over my Books 2013 page for inspiration! The blog hop begins on the 8th of February so check back then to find out which title I’ll be giving away and, of course, to find out about all of the other blogs that are joining in.

Want to be part of the fun? The last date to sign up your blog is the 4th of February – check The Literary Blog Hop blog post here for further details!

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Top 10 Book Adaptations

I’m not much of a film buff, I haven’t watched everything on any ‘100 films to see before you die’ list, and I certainly don’t think anyone would describe my film choices as particularly cool, whatever that means. But, I do enjoy watching a good film from time to time, and I always look out for adaptations of books I’ve read, or books I’d like to read. There are always discussions about adaptations, and I find it interesting that they always divide opinion.

Are you a fan of Leonardo Dicaprio or Robert Redford as Jay Gatsby?

Are you a fan of Leo Dicaprio or Robert Redford as Jay Gatsby?

A perfect example of this is the reception of Baz Luhrman’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby which came out last summer (I loved it, but then I hadn’t seen the 1974 version starring Robert Redford as the inimitable Jay Gatsby).

I think there are often two main areas of discussion around a book adaptation:

1) How faithful it is to the book
2) How it compares to previous adaptations

On number 1, film directors always seem tempted to play with book adaptations, some striving to be as faithful as possible, or others being more adventurous with the format, such as Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet (which will always be my favourite adaptation of Shakespeare’s play), or 2012’s version of Anna Karenina by Joe Wright (which I also thought was brilliant).

Another example for point 2 would be Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. If you’ve seen the original adaptation, known as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, filmed in 1971 and starring Gene Wilder), then it may have been quite hard to warm to the more recent 2005 Tim Burton film starring Johnny Depp as Willy Wonka. It’s all a matter of which one you’ve seen first in some cases, as that’s the one you’ll come to associate most with the book. I’ve been thinking about book adaptations and wondering what my favourites have been, so I decided to come up with a list of my top 10 book adaptations on screen (in no particular order).

pride-and-prejudicePride and Prejudice
I loved both the BBC TV series with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, and the 2005 film with Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen, as I particularly loved the actor chosen for Mr. Bingley. I only read Pride and Prejudice last year but I felt that I already knew the story inside out – it’s such a well-known story that it could probably be adapted into many different styles, in fact, the Bollywood version Bride and Prejudice was also good fun.

lord_of_the_rings_the_return_of_the_king_xlgThe Lord of the Rings trilogy
This trilogy will always remind me of those long student winter breaks, and watching the extended versions of the films over the course of a few days with my brother who is a big fan of both the films and the books. I haven’t read the trilogy (I think I’ve read just 100 pages of The Fellowship of the Ring), but the world that J.R.R Tolkien created is brought to life on screen by Peter Jackson and the detail in each of them is astonishing. I miss being able to see them on the big screen at the cinema. There may also be some truth in the allegation that my love of men with beards comes from watching these films. Ahem.

Harry Potter series
I loved the books, as most book lovers of my generation do. Yes, the first few films have some cringe-worthy acting in them, but I love them all the more for it. It’s so nice to see the characters (and the actors who play them) grow up on screen. Perfect films to watch on a rainy afternoon!

Harry-potter-films

Still from the 2002 TV movie of Doctor Zhivago

Still from the 2002 TV movie of Doctor Zhivago

Doctor Zhivago
The version I love is probably not the same as others have seen (I’ve heard many people love the film version starring Omar Sharif). For me it’s a TV adaptation – I think it was an ITV adaptation (starring Keira Knightley in her younger years) that came free with a newspaper many moons ago. I love the story, and it will forever remind me of winter in my old flat as I watched it whilst wrapping Christmas presents and making cards with my Christmas tree twinkling beside me. I haven’t read the book yet but it’s on my list – it’s such a beautiful story and the setting is wonderful which is why I think I fell in love with it. I’d be interested to watch the Omar Sharif film and see how it compares.

pp32424-audrey-hepburn-breakfast-at-tiffanys-posterBreakfast at Tiffany’s
I caught the last hour of this film on TV recently ago and it reminded me of just how much I love it, particularly Audrey Hepburn’s portrayal of the ‘genuine phoney’ Holly Golightly. I did enjoy Truman Capote’s novella, but in this case I think the film is far superior. A classic!

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen

The Hunger Games trilogy
I thought the books in this trilogy were brilliant, I read them furiously, spending about a day over each of them. I remember finding it really hard to write book reviews for them as I couldn’t find a way to express how much I’d enjoyed them and was just finding my feet with blogging at that stage. I think Jennifer Lawrence is pretty great as well and look forward to anything she’s in. I have recently rewatched the first film as I hadn’t loved it the first time round – I felt it had been dumbed down (or made less harrowing) to appeal to a wider audience (aka making it a 12A so that kids would be able to see it and they could make more money at the box office). It’s much better on the second viewing, and the second film Catching Fire was far superior, although it seemed loads of details were missed out to get it within a reasonable time. I’m looking forward to seeing the final instalments which have been split into two parts, á la Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and Breaking Dawn from the Twilight series.

The film poster for Bright Young Things

The film poster for Bright Young Things

Bright Young Things
This is based on Evelyn Waugh’s brilliant satirical novel Vile Bodies – the film by Stephen Fry sticks pretty faithfully for it and it’s such a hilarious story. A glimpse of the young and pretty people in 1930s England, it’s as glamorous as the book is and really captures the whole feel of it. An example of an adaptation that sticks quite closely to the original story and works really, really well.

romeo_juliet_1996Romeo and Juliet
Do you remember the first time you studied a play by William Shakespeare in school? This was mine, and I remember watching this adaptation after studying it and appreciating for the first time how the play could come to life on screen and wasn’t solely fit for the stage. It’s a daring adaptation this, a modernised version, but it really works. It has the glamour and bright lights of all the best Baz Luhrman films – it’s magical, and is all the more heartbreaking for it.

Trainspotting
It doesn’t make for easy watching but it certainly packs a punch. It’s a powerful portrayal of the drug culture featured in Irvine Welsh’s novel of the same title and has brilliant performances from Ewan McGregor and Robert Carlisle – it’s one of those films that once you’ve seen it, you certainly won’t forget it. It’s an iconic film that really captures the ’90s so well.

trainspotting-poster

A Tale of Two Cities (1935 adaptation)
I remember using this book for teaching when I was working in Spain and fell in love with a black and white film adaptation which I think is probably the 1935 version. The entire film used to be available on youtube but I can only find the trailer now. If you can track it down it’s well worth a watch!

I’m hoping to watch the adaptation of Diane Setterfield’s gothic thriller The Thirteenth Tale at some point this week as I have it saved on the iPlayer. I loved the book and I’m hoping the film will live up to it! What are your favourite adaptations? And which book adaptations are you looking forward to this year?

Here’s what I’m looking forward to this year:

the-book-thief-poster-books-burningThe Book Thief (UK release on 14/02/14)
Book Review | Film trailer

Under the Skin (UK release on 14/03/14)
Book Review | Film trailer

Gone Girl (UK release on 03/10/14)
Book Review

Mockingjay: Part 1
(UK release on 21/11/14)
Film info

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Book Review: Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

half-of-a-yellow-sun-1

Set in the 1960s in Nigeria, Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie follows the fates of a small cast of characters before and during the Biafran war, a civil war between different Nigerian peoples, the Hausa tribe in the north of the country, and the Igbo tribe in the south. The title takes its name from the flag of Biafra, the secessionist state which was fleetingly in existence from 1967 – 1970. In the early ’60s, Ugwu is hired as a houseboy to Odenigbo, a professor working at Nsukka University. Odenigbo hosts gatherings with other academics, dinner parties where they have heated debates about their country, revolution, secession and the after-effects of colonialism (Nigeria had recently gained independence from the United Kingdom). Olanna, his partner and fellow academic, moves in and things begin to change – Olanna and Odenigbo have a child, the political climate becomes volatile and they are ultimately forced to flee Nsukka. Olanna’s twin sister Kainene is heavily involved in keeping their family business running and tires of negotiating favours and bribes, and of courting the attention of people who bore her. She meets a British ex-pat, Richard, whose life becomes intertwined with hers and those of the Igbo people, becoming absorbed by their culture and language.

The narrative shifts back and forth between the early and late ’60s, split into four sections – I enjoyed this change, it was nice to slip back into the happier times before the conflict, before you knew what was to come. The characters each struggle to deal with everything that happens to them and those around them – their loyalties and love are tested, in a time when terrible things are happening, what they consider to be ‘unforgiveable’ is redefined. Adichie’s writing is so engrossing that you get drawn into the story, and the human impact of historical events, through the stories of her characters.

There are three main narrators in the novel. Ugwu is warm and funny and one of my favourite characters. He starts off trying to make sense of the academic world and reconcile that with the village life he has come from, then grows from a young teenager into a young man, learning about love, lust and loss. Olanna spent a lot of time travelling about within in the country and to London, and never seems settled, even before her life is uprooted by civil war. I found Richard a bit wet, he is in awe of Kainene and it seems a bit embarrassing in his Britishness, researching and photographing local customs, and trying rather unsuccessfully to write a book about Nigeria. I loved some of the minor characters, particularly Kainene who is very different from her twin, much more blunt and braver in many ways, and is always active in finding solutions for the problems she encounters. She seems very glamorous and self-assured, but the reader is left wondering if that can save her. The ending of the book felt a little quick to come, I would have liked to have found out more about how the characters recovered, and how it affected their life later on. I guess I’ll just have to come up with my own ideas and what this could be.

I have been thinking about this book a lot since I finished reading it, thinking about all of the things I have learnt from it. I realised just how much food and drink are central to the story – in the parts set in the early ’60s, Ugwu is constantly thinking about what he will cook, comparing his cooking to Olanna’s, and Harrison’s (Richard’s houseboy), as well as being very suspicious of Odenigbo’s mother’s cooking. With food comes power. It plays a massive role in cultural identity, identifying you with certain regions, countries and your own family and friends. In a country that is being ripped apart, food is something everyone is trying to hold on to, something to remind of who you are and where you’re from. In the late ’60s, Olanna spends hours queuing for food supplies to feed her family as famine spreads; it’s also a cultural indicator and a weapon of snobbery – Harrison thinks British food is far superior to Nigerian cooking, and Olanna is horrified at the thought of Baby eating lizard despite the fact that rations dwindle day by day. Odenigbo in particular, struggles with alcohol – at the beginning it is something to enjoy in the company of friends, but in grief it turns into a release, a way of numbing himself to the pain. In an unpredictable environment, where boys are captured and turned into child soldiers, women are raped, people are massacred and refugees are cut off from food and aid, it is all the characters can do to just survive.

This book is rich with detail, complicated characters and powerful stories. I loved it, and was unsettled by it, by the stories it relates of the cruelty done to the Biafran people by the Nigerians and vice versa during the conflict, as well as by the Biafran people to themselves. I love how educational this book has been, I was constantly looking things up online, reading more about the conflict, the culture, the food, music and fashion. Don’t you just love it when books open up new worlds to you? Parts of it aren’t easy to read due to their subject matter but I would highly recommend this book, not just for its history but for the way it opens up a different world. I have added both of Adichie’s novels to my wish list – her début novel Purple Hibiscus and her recent novel Americanah, published in 2013.

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Rounding Up 2013

Happy New Year! Hope you all have a brilliant 2014 and discover many new and wonderful books to help you on your way. I wanted to round up the reviews of books read in December and write a few of my thoughts on what I read last year, as well as looking forward to what this year will bring. I thought the best way to start the new year fresh was to a few mini reviews of the final books of 2013.

Wilkie Collins – The Woman in White

woman in white

I have been planning to read this book for a long, long time, after studying Victorian Gothic literature at uni and reading The Moonstone and absolutely loving it. I’d heard The Woman in White was even better, in fact, a seminal piece of Gothic fiction. It’s told in the form of a detective story, with a series of testimonies surrounding the mysterious Anne Catherick (the Woman in White who gives the book its title), the doomed marriage of Laura Fairlie to Sir Percival Glyde and the shady dealings of Sir Percival and Count Fosco. I was a little disappointed, but perhaps more because it didn’t quite live up to the hype for me. I enjoyed the descriptions of the characters, Count Fosco was particularly unforgettable, and the story was great but I found it started to drag in the middle and I found parts of it a little predictable. That said, it’s hard to look back on fiction from so long ago as ‘new’ as such as the themes and storylines have been read or viewed so much in modern times on the page or on screen that it sometimes feels like cliché. I really wanted to love this book but I wasn’t as enchanted with it as others are.

Anne Frank – The Diary of a Young Girl

anne-frank-cover

I have been meaning to read this book for such a long time (I think probably since I learnt about it in primary school!). The diary of Anne Frank, a young Jew in hiding in Amsterdam with her family during the Holocaust, shows the horrors of that time from the eyes of a teenager, alongside all of the worries and angst teenagers go through. It begins before they go into hiding and gives an idea of the growing concerns of Jews and the increasing level of persecution they faced. Anne is trying to make sense of it all herself and writes in her diary most days talking about life in hiding, family fights, food shortages, the kindness of those who helped them and the fear of being discovered. It’s funny that, even though Anne Frank was alive in a completely different time, I recognise so much of her writing style from my own diaries at a similar age – the melodrama, the feelings of being misunderstood, and those intense feelings for a certain boy. It is so sad what happened to Anne and her family, and to think that if another month had gone by before they were discovered, they may have just survived.

Michel Faber – Under the Skin

under the skin

This novel. It is a little terrifying. Isserley spends her days travelling up and down the A9 (the main route connecting the Central Belt of Scotland with the Highlands) on the hunt for hitchhikers – not just any hitchhikers, but strong and healthy male specimens – to pick up in her car. What happens to them afterwards is someething quite unexpected. It’s pretty creepy and this is such a chilling book that will leave you with images in your head you could hardly have conjured up in a nightmare. I was recently driving along the A1 (another main artery from Scotland down to Newcastle in the north of England) and experienced it in a completely different way, leaning forward, imagining myself as Isserley, trying to imagine what she would be thinking. This is a work of fiction unlike anything I have ever read and I’m looking forward to seeing the film, coming out in early March this year. It’s a bit of a departure from the novel from what I’ve seen so far but the trailer is available here if you would like to see what you’re letting yourself in for beforehand!

I’ve seen a lot of posts with reading stats – I never knew I was a stats geek (I hated the subject in school) but I really enjoy them now so I have been browsing through my reading from 2013.

53 books read in 2013

21 written by women, 32 by men
19 were published in 2013, 11 were classics
27 were written by British authors (6 of these by Scottish authors), 12 by Americans, 2 by Australians, 3 by Italians, 2 by French authors and 1 by an African author
6 books were translated
48 fiction, 5 non-fiction

It seems I’m not very adventurous in my reading, with the majority written by British authors, hardly any translated books and just one book by an African author, NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names. It seems there is a bit a gender imbalance as well with just under 40% of the books I read last year written by women. I’ve not consciously analysed my reading before so it’s really interesting to see how it all pans out. I’m starting the year off with a book by a Nigerian female author which is a step in the right direction at least!

For a look at all of the books I read in 2013, have a look at my Books 2013 page. I’m looking forward to getting started on my 2014 page! I’m not taking part in any challenges, although I have set myself one to read one non-fiction book a month as I tend to favour fiction so that’ll bump up my non-fiction number for this year.

half-of-a-yellow-sun-1The first book I’m reading this year is Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I’m about three-quarters of the way through and it is a very powerful novel so far, focusing on the life of a small cast of characters in the 1960s before and during the Nigeria-Biafra war. I didn’t know anything about the events at all before I started reading it but I keep finding myself looking things up online to learn more about what happened. I love it when a book feels educational, not forced, but inspires you to learn more about things you haven’t experienced before. More coming up once I’ve finished reading!

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