27 February 2012


After this post I absolutely completely promise I won't mention my Dickens bounty any more but I just had to show you all of the lovely books that I have almost killed myself getting home with from work this afternoon. (Hoorah!)

The snippets on the back of every single one of these books fills me with huuge excitement I can hardly suppress. They just all sound so epic and enthralling...

So peeps - where should I start? Since I've read it previously the boyfriend already has his claws in Great Expectations...

24 February 2012

The Cider House Rules

John Irving's much lauded (and very long) novel The Cider House Rules has been sat on my bookshelf for years and years. A completely random teenage purchase that I have picked up time and time again and abandoned 50 pages in every. single. time. I therefore, feeling like I've grown up enough now to get through the books I have struggled with in the past, took the plunge, and boy was it a plunge!

Our story begins with Wilbur Larch; an obstetrician, undercover abortionist and father to St Clouds' orphanage; a place of displaced and abandoned children where we meet Homer Wells, a quite singular little boy who, despite various attempts made to find suitable foster families, constantly and quite unintentionally boomerangs back to the place that he and reluctant father figure Dr. Larch, call home. Growing up close to the doctor, his nurses and their delicate procedures, Homer grows into a remarkable young man; capable of great introspection and independent thought, a man whose fate lies far beyond the realms of the humble St Clouds.

One day, this strange, isolated little world is broken up by the arrival of the sweet (as her name denotes) Candy Kendall and the buff, quite lovely, all-American Wally Worthington; heir to a thriving apple orchard on the coast and the soon to be home of Homer Wells as he drives off into the sunset with his new found friends, leaving broken hearts behind among his large adoptive family. What started off as a short break away from his home becomes an entire lifetime of drama, love and loss until Homer comes around full circle and we are left realising what Wilbur Larch and his apprentice were really placed on this earth to do.

To be honest I found this book very slow going initially. (I've already been criticised for complaining about this on Twitter so please go easy on me!) I really felt and still do, after persevering right up to the very end, that this book is waaaaayy too long. More precisely, the first ...say-200 pages I could really have condensed into just two chapters. Yes, yes, I know this is a classic and that John Irving is a 'legend' but the repetitive nature, particularly of Wilbur Larch's very important, but rambling initial narrative really tried me and made me realise why I found this book difficult to push through in my younger days. Should anyone really feel like they need to 'push through' a book at all? Although I heartily support the space this novel gives to the issues and arguments for and against abortion and the challenges that women faced in order to take back control of their own bodies in the early 20th century, certain passages of the novel (again, in the initial chapters) detailing each and every stage of the queasy process were particularly difficult to stomach, mainly due to the circular narrative and definitely on a slightly hungover bus ride to work in the morning. Geeee, I'm sure I've read this all before somewhere!?

Complaining over, this is nevertheless one of those relieving times where you choose to read on and come up trumps. Homer Wells leaves St Clouds and when he does, life begins for both our main protagonist and his intrepid reader...

There are a few large volumes lurking in the deep dark depths of my TBR that really, given the right mood, give me something that a novel of an ordinary length could never hope to achieve. 700 pages and layer upon layer of narrative allows you to immerse yourself so completely in a story that you emerge blinking into the sunlight and feeling like you have wandered out of an alternate reality, so deeply acquainted with characters, times and places that you wonder how you ever did without them. John Irving does paint some fabulous portraits and creates some fantastically memorable characters; Homer's childhood girlfriend and future stalker Melony being an absolute favourite; wild, tough and tormented I find it impossible to see how they left such a key character out of the well-known Hollywood filmic adaptation of the novel.

Happily my initial experience of The Cider House Rules (and my first John Irving book) was not ruined by its rambling beginning and I would return to his work in the future. Homer's life with Candy and Wally is well worth exploring, as is life working at the Cider House, where uncomfortable topics such as racism, war and abortion live side by side with the pressing of apples and making of friends and are dealt with purposively and sensitively. Although Homer moves on from his humble and unconventional beginnings, Wilbur Larch's legacy will effect him more than he realises, but thank god that he gets to see a little of the world first and that we get to join him in that discovery.

21 February 2012

What the Dickens!?

It has transpired that I am so so full of pancakes this shrove Tuesday that I can barely reach my keyboard, let alone write my latest review. Therefore, (and many thanks to Ellie @ Curiosity Killed the Bookworm for drawing my attention to this website) I have decided to do some shameless, spontaneous promotion for The Book People who...wait for it...are selling 16 of Charles Dickens' classic novels for £26!

This is all so vulgar of me but I had to let you know all about this deal. I have only ever read Great Expectations and A Christmas Carol and, after the madness the great man's 200th birthday has created this year, I have been absolutely dying to read more... I'm so excited!!

16 February 2012

The Scapegoat

As well as suffering from an entirely understandable obsession with everything Charles Dickens at the moment, I am also the unwitting victim, since reading Rebecca a few months back, of a Daphne du Maurier related buying/borrowing frenzy. I just cannot get enough of her. Every book seems to catch me out with something entirely new and unexpected and I am currently begging, borrowing and stealing every book of hers that I am lucky enough to stumble across.

I find that the best charity shops are usually found in the most unlikely places. There is a pretty musty, fairly scruffy little place on a certain 'frontier' town on the outskirts of Derby that provides the Relish family with countless gems. There is most definitively a bibliophile with amazing taste frequenting that little shop whose high TBR turnover is currently filling our own little library corner to bursting!

All of this gushing about charity shops aside, I snapped up a practically brand new copy of Du Maurier's The Scapegoat whilst staying with family over Christmas and I just can't stress how much I loved this brilliant book; the story completely surprised and bowled me over and you must all go out and buy it right now!  But...what is it about? **Warning** I'm going to be very sparing on the details here..

'John' is a pretty dull English university lecturer, travelling back home to England through the village of Le Mans following a brief sojourn in France; a country that is very close to his heart. Thoughts of returning to work and his solitary, bachelor lifestyle is beginning to take its toll on our professor and his loneliness is driving him to pay a visit to the local abbey when he bumps into Comte Jean de Gué in the local watering hole; a man with an extremely dramatic life and some very messy relationships indeed.

This is sadly where my narration ends because I couldn't bare to spoil this book for anyone and think I would if I were to reveal any more. There are some formidable and typically 'Du Maurier' characters and atmospheric locations to be grappled with here and the prevailing feeling of displacement and tension kept me completely hooked to the very end. The premise of this story is just brilliant; terrifying, creepy, you name it. Du Maurier was apparently going through a particularly intense time in her own life at the time and the novel was written in a quite frenzied six months; a manner of birth that, although I'm sure was not pleasant for the author, merely lends weight and magic to this dark tale.

The plot may stumble into the realms of predictability for some people at times, but my only genuine criticism of this book is that the story only spans a period of a week and that I couldn't go on enjoying her writing for ever. There's a lot of room for introspection in John's tale; a deep exploration of desire, morality and identity that I just couldn't get enough of. What ever will happen to me when I run out of her books to read?

… I lived and breathed and had my being as a law-abiding, quiet, donnish individual of thirty-eight. But to the self who clamoured for release, the man within? How did my poor record seem to him?
Who he was and whence he sprang, what urges and what longings he might possess, I could not tell. I was so used to denying him expression that his ways were unknown to me; but he might have had a mocking laugh, a casual heart, a swift-roused temper, and a ribald tongue … Perhaps, if I had not kept him locked within me, he might have laughed, roistered, fought and lied. 

12 February 2012

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

After being a very lucky girl this Christmas and receiving countless book tokens to spend wherever I please, I decided to pick up a brand new copy The Elegance of the Hedgehog in my new spiced-up local Waterstones. Mainly pulled in by the atmospheric picture of the Paris skyline and the quirky title, I felt confident that this book was for me - in hindsight I really had no idea of the philosophy lesson I was letting myself in for, albeit a very pleasant one.

The 'hedgehog' of this tale is Renée Michel; the aging concierge of 7 Rue Grenelle, an address in one of the most exclusive, 'bourgeois' areas of Paris and home to Paloma Josse; a deeply intellectual and profound young girl, so dismayed by her existence among the shallow trappings of her class that she is seriously contemplating 'escaping' from her life indefinitely.

Renée is a highly intelligent, passionate autodidact with a huge internal life. A bright, vibrant intellect who hibernates away (à la hérisson) in order to conform with the stereotypical image of the French concierge; dull, uninteresting and hooked on daytime television. She is utterly terrified of being 'found out' (a huge element of her personality that I really struggled to comprehend at the beginning of the book), a problem that is thrust out into the fore once she begins to develop exciting new relationships with those around her.

Only at the halfway point, after meeting some lovely Frenchies on the bus home from work, did I discover that Muriel Barbery and her novel are both French, and (thankyou Wikipedia) that she herself is a professor of philosophy. Finally everything falls into place! This book is so very thick with philosophical musings and introspection yet, you would think quite miraculously, still manages to tell a deceptively simple tale about a woman constrained by the social boundaries that she has quite unwittingly exacerbated for herself.  From what I know from my university studies and living over there, this masterful mélange is typically French but, for that very reason, may not be everyone's cup of tea, however lovely the story might be. Despite the excellent translation by Alison Anderson, had I known I most certainly would have read this in the original language.

I always found our own concierge (and they always seemed, quite strangely, to be Portuguese!) to be completely fascinating; keeping our narrow little apartment building running like clockwork and the mirror in the hallway shining like new and yet still remaining squirreled away in her ground floor flat. I think I saw her once in a whole year of living over there - The question is will this story really interest those without such a specific frame of reference? Well yes, I think it will.

For those of you who can embrace the philosophy for dummies, Barbery's quirky, anti-bourgeois characters cannot fail to pull at your heartstrings. As I learnt with Lively's Moon Tiger, this compassion is an essential aspect of enjoying any book, as is the uncanny ability of a good book to advertise other literary classics within its pages. In the same way that I have been persuaded to read Dickens' David Copperfield from recently reading John Irving's The Cider House Rules, dear Renée has boosted my confidence to perhaps finally tackle some of the Russian monoliths such as Anna Karenina and War and Peace. (I have also been inspired to name my first cat, like Renée, after a favourite literary character...I'm thinking 'Bilbo' could be quite cute...)

6 February 2012

A Kindred Spirit

 In other news, there's a chap both myself and the boyfriend find so intriguing who can be regularly found ensconced in our local watering-hole reading a plethora of fascinating things. Not only this, but he seems to be able to read in any situation. Take Friday night for example - packed full, nowhere to sit, huge levels of drunken rowdiness - he leans against the wall close to the bar and pulls out? The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. I am very impressed indeed.

Moon Tiger

Moon Tiger is one of those books that I have seen on the shelves of charity shops and libraries for years, got wind of from bookish friends and just never felt compelled enough to pick up and read. However, following a compelling review by Simon at Savidge Reads, I decided the time had finally come, and what better excuse do I need to explore Manchester's temporary - but very nicely done up - City Library.

I have to admit that this has been a difficult book to reconcile myself with. Not only did the premise of reading about an elderly woman on her deathbed sound a little depressing but our main protagonist neither said nor did very much to endear me throughout the initial few chapters.

Claudia Hampton is a 76 year old woman; terminally ill and compiling her 'History of the World', a history that quickly descends into reminiscing about her life, the people within it, and the events that have shaped her. Throughout the sporadic retelling of her history, which occurs quite naturally and not necessarily chronologically as she slips in and out of consciousness, we meet significant characters and are transported through two world wars, the stark desert landscape of a besieged Egypt and an earth shattering romance to the present day to observe a strained and awkward daughter, a self-absorbed lover and a tortured, Hungarian artist visiting her bedside.

Although I struggled to get along with Claudia at first, upon reflection I get the feeling that Lively has quite deliberately created a woman who the reader isn't necessarily going to warm to right away. Why, after all, should we always been indulged like children and feel comfortable with every character we encounter? As a professional (albeit controversial) historian and war correspondent, she is a strong, opinionated, compelling character whose ramblings betray some intriguing points of view. On the other hand, I found her to be obnoxious, arrogant, self-centered, cold and superior, meaning that I spent the first few chapters wondering exactly why I should care about her life at all!

That aside, Lively did a fairly good job at crawling back some of my compassion, although her (almost) mother-like relationship with Lazlo didn't quite do it, her passionate relationship with Tom, an officer fighting out in the desert in Egypt during WWII, certainly did. In this short portion of the book we could almost be reading the internal thoughts of a completely different woman; soft, loving and refreshingly vulnerable.

It is very difficult to really adore a book when you can't completely sympathise with characters or situations (e.g. I found her relationship with her brother Gordan to be a little disturbing, you'll have to read the book to learn more!) but I do relish a challenge and I do admire strong female characters. Do persevere with this book. It is very well-written, quite compelling and does create a bit of conflict in your mind. And if you persevere for just one thing, stick it out for the end. The final chapter contains some of the most beautiful and poignant passages I have read over the past couple of years. Claudia's honest approach to both her situation and the legacy she will leave behind is both admirable and thought-provoking.

2 February 2012

Library Corner

This weekend the boyfriend and I officially became real life, full-fledged adults; we bought our first pieces of furniture together and, yes you guessed it, the most exciting piece of all was a quirky bookcase made out of old doors (apparently) that acts as both ornament and as our saviour as our cheapo B&Q bookshelves have started to bow under the strain of Mount TBR.

All this purchasing has resulted in a major shuffle around at Relish Towers, a reshuffle that has resulted in what I am fondly calling 'Library Corner'. It may not quite be a library of Beauty and the Beast proportions but now our collection is all pretty much in one place and when I sit in my little rocking chair, well, I'm a very happy girl indeed.

In other tip top news, I have been awarded a 'Liebster Blog' award by the lovely Victoria Corby (do check out her wonderful blog here) an award that aims to promote fledgling/little known blogs that deserved more recognition. Now, I'm loath to guess how many followers/hits my favourite bloggers get as I know that this often isn't obvious to the casual reader so really I'm just sticking my very favourites down here, perhaps omitting those superstar bloggers of whose heights I'm sure we all aspire to reach one day!

1. Only Orangery - This lovely lady's blog had to hit the top of my list. Around for about as long as Literary Relish I have been absolutely astonished (and slightly envious) at just how many books she manages to get through and completely and utterly entertained by her short, snappy posts that, more often than not, express feelings very close to my own.

2. The Oliva Reader - 'Spangle' is a blogger whose posts really do brighten up the day. Clear, concise reviews (split down into sections such as 'what's good/bad about the book' etc) 'Sunday Snippets', 'Wordless Wednesdays' and 'Words of the Week' make for a relaxing, intriguing and diverse read.

3. Bundle of Books - Another great book blogger I have been lucky enough to discover over the past couple of months. A big Twitter fan (a way of networking I am increasingly becoming a fan of myself) BundleofBooks has a highly imaginative and aesthetically pleasing website and lots and lots to say; excellent taste in books and in everything good that life has to offer.

4. Deborah Lawrenson - This is a MASSIVE cheat for the above award because, as I'm sure many of you are aware, Deborah is an extremely successful/well-known author as well as being a very accomplished blogger as well. However, I can't help but count her on my favourites list. Her dreamy pictures and prose right from the heart of Provence really do brighten up the Manchester gloom.

5. Open a Book - Geetanjali first caught my eye with a post about the book markets in Delhi (a part of the world that really has captured my imagination.) Her posts are chatty and engaging and feature books (and passages from books) that seem to spring up from her personal library, whims and fancies, just like me! It's nice to find a kindred spirit out there...especially one whose last post feature Roald Dahl's Revolting Rhymes, now there's a classic!