25 April 2012

World Book Night

Just wanted to post a quick word and see how all of you gorgeous bookish folk spend World Book Night on Monday. Although I naughtily missed the boat to be a World Book Night book giver (I would have clamoured to give out Remains Of The Day this year...) I spent a very pleasant evening at Waterstones in Manchester listening to Simon Savidge and a whole host of other authors and writers reading from their all time favourites. Although I also missed out (I'm not doing very well here am I!) on the free books and free wine (of course we are focused on literature here and not JUST free stuff!) it was all jolly good to see the bookish people of Manchester spreading the love and being proud of the fact that, shock, horror, we love to read!

Two of this year and one of 2011's WBN treats!

22 April 2012

Before I Go To Sleep

                       'DON'T TRUST BEN'

It is remarkable how three simple words can strike such anxiety into the hearts of intrepid readers experiencing S J Watson's debut novel; Before I Go To Sleep for the very first time, myself included. 'Psychological thrillers' (if I must name a category) are not usually my cup of tea, particularly the kind that look like they may promptly end up on a Richard & Judy/Oprah/TV Book Club-type list.  This book however has been the exception in my case. After hearing S J Watson read from the first chapter at the Bookmarked Salon in Manchester last year, naughtily ending his reading on the cliffhanger above, my curiosity was accordingly piqued. 

Christine Lucas is a 47 year old woman who suffers with a very rare and severe form of amnesia. This means that she can generally not remember anything beyond a 24 hour period. Once she goes to sleep, her memories vanish into thin air, meaning that when she wakes up she has no idea who or where she is and, most importantly, who that man is in bed beside her...

We rapidly learn that the man is Ben, her husband, and he tells her that she lost her memory in a car accident in her twenties. We also meet Dr Nash, a neurologist assisting Christine in her recovery by persuading her to put together a journal; a journal she writes in every day and that includes the quotidian facts of her life, flashbacks to her past and, most worryingly, the three words printed above. As she is forced to reconstruct her identity from scratch every single day, this journal becomes her lifeline and, we hope, a path for her out of the fog, as she begins to recollect more and more as time goes along.

The upkeep and reading of this journal is the main way that Watson manages to stop this story from grinding to a halt. We quickly realise that Christine is completely and utterly dependent on those around her and it is when doubt in these other characters enters the picture that this tale become truly terrifying, both for the main protagonist and her readers. She describes herself as living almost like an animal, completely in the moment; a comparison I thought captured her situation so vividly, reinforcing the undeniable fact that without our memories, we almost cease to exist.

This is a gripping novel and I have well and truly rapped my knuckles for the fact that this book would have probably passed me by had I not been confronted with the author himself and a tantalising virgin copy for him to sign (:-O shameless!) I surprised myself by caring so much about what happened to Christine and suffered several anxious moments on the bus to and from work as I begged her to remember crucial things happening around her. The superbly drawn characters aside, the sheer planning that must have gone into this book alone is something to marvel at...I personally wouldn't even know where to begin...

On an extra plus side, S J Watson seems to be a extraordinarily nice, normal chap, which makes buying his debut novel all the more satisfying!

19 April 2012

A Fiction Habit

Since I am lucky enough to have caught this beauutiful 24 hour bug that's going around at the moment (the guilty, germ-ridden parties know who you are!) I thought I would take the opportunity to post a big thanks (albeit a rather queasy one) to my lovely fellow blogger Sarah at A Fiction Habit who has very kindly nominated me for a Versatile Blogger Award. *Blushes*

As well as being a fellow Withingtonite (Mancunian) once upon a time, Sarah is also the creator of a neat and surprisingly new book blog where she posts some really very engaging and well-thought out reviews, as well as some other interesting little tit bits. Most importantly of all, she reads books that I love/am bound to love and I endeavor to take all of her recommendations very seriously indeed :) Thanks Sarah.

Of course I can't just take my prize and run. The Versatile Blogger award comes with certain conditions which I will fulfill to the best of my abilities, hopefully without boring you all too much!

1. Thank the award-giver Done!

2. Share 7 things about yourself
- I HATE cucumbers (I'm sure I've used this one before but it always strikes me as the most important thing to know!)
- I speak French, Spanish and Portuguese 
- I dream of living in Paris again one day
- I can't add up for toffee, though it is a major part of my job. Thank God for calculators!
- I am hugely allergic to wasps
- I can't open any of the windows in our flat because, if we do, birds and squirrels climb in and nest in our kitchen...
- I am terrified of going to the dentist and unfortunately have an appointment next week that is already making me sweat a little...yikes!

3. Pass the award along

Blimey. I have built up a Google Reader so chock full of entertaining booky blogs that this is a bit of a nightmare challenge. To make sure I don't duplicate those I've nominated for awards in the past I've picked a couple of brand new favourites of mine:

The Sleepless Reader - Alexandra's blurb on Twitter first caught my eye, reminding me a lot of myself: 'By day I live in the corporate world, but by night I’m looking for the book that'll keep me awake longer than I should.' A kindred spirit has certainly been found! I spend so much of my time either reading books or about books that it's nice to stumble across blogs that offer both a variety of reviews (when I tend to just read and review fiction) and fun posts you can just dip in and out of such as her: Top 10 Literary Crushes. Now who wouldn't enjoy that!?

A Room of One's Own - Jillian is a woman after my own heart. A literature student who, up to 2010, had never read any of the classics. Her blog is a dedication to classic literature, an area I am striving to become much more well-versed in and I thoroughly enjoy her posts. Cheers Jillian!

4. Contact your chosen bloggers Done!

16 April 2012

South Riding

South Riding has been a prime example for me of the influence fellow bloggers can have over your reading habits. Hype generally puts me off a book, that and BBC screen adaptations (with the exception, of course, of The Crimson Petal and the White) however, I ended up reading so many glowing reviews of both the novel and the absorbing personal life of its author that I was blindsided into purchasing the highly attractive Virago reprint - apparently based on an old Yorkshire Railways poster, which is just superbly apt I think.

Being a Northerner, if not a Yorkshire-woman, myself and desperate to acquaint myself with all the real classics I have yet to read, this tale of a feisty, London headmistress landing in a remote part of Yorkshire to inspire the young, and often very poor local women, seemed right up my street. As I'm sure any of you acquainted with the author are aware, Winifred Holtby led an exceedingly interesting, highly politicised life but sadly died in her late thirties, with this novel published posthumously by intimate friend and author Vera Brittain.

Her portrait of an imagined portion of West Yorkshire, sorely suffering from the Depression and mammoth hangover of the first World War, seems largely considered to be her finest work and contains a cast of characters so large that, although many of you I'm sure will be disappointed with me saying this, my attention span began to waver as I was introduced to wave after wave of local government busybodies to get to grips with. Although headmistress Sarah Burton plays a key role in the shape and thrust of Holtby's narrative, it seems that the central character in this novel is the community itself, with people appearing to represent certain ideologies and types rather than the focus lying on the personal stories of the individuals themselves (I can practically hear everyone clamouring to disagree with me on this!)  Although the backgrounds of Robert Carne, Sarah Burton, Lydia Holly and other, considerably less prominent personages are explored, I felt so overwhelmed by the minutiae of local politics and the ideologies at war (e.g Carne vs Burton = reactionary vs progressive) that my reading slightly suffered at its expense. Characters I felt I barely knew (e.g. Joe Astell and Sarah Burton) suddenly became the closest of friends with me left having little understanding of how their relationship reached such a point.

The politicised element to this book made complete sense once I found the time to read up on Holtby's own life and that of her mother; who was, unsurprisingly, the first female alderman in East Riding and a woman who was a model for the warmhearted yet influential Mrs Beddows, close friend and confidant of Robert Carne; a man for whom both she and Sarah Burton fall heavily (one more reluctantly and revealingly than the other.)

Putting my confusion and easily distracted reading of this book to one side; when Winifred Holtby chooses to zoom in on one particular event or person she does so beautifully, leaving me hungry for more. Her portrait of Lily Sawdon; a young, innkeeper's wife who is slowly and very quietly dying of cancer, is extremely moving and her stoicism and love for her husband touched me very deeply. These wonderful snippets left me desperate to know what giving them more room to breathe could have meant for characters such as Lydia Holly; so enticing yet, all the same, kept at arms length.

*that Yorkshire

Despite my misgivings (probably not helped by the fact that I took this book on holiday - hardly a sun lounger read) there is no doubt that Holtby has succeeded in creating a remarkable and worthy portrait of hardy, humble yet stunning region of the country - a love letter to Yorkshire and its people if you don't mind that terrible cliché. It is easy when walking in the foothills and along the coasts of this region to fall into some kind of romance, but Holtby easily does away with this; speaking for plain, honest folk, some of whom (quite shockingly) lived in conditions akin to those in the slums of great industrial cities. With a strong female character at its centre, South Riding is worth a look, but, unlike me, I beg you do it in the right mood, in the right place and at the right time. What a travesty that this lady didn't hang around long enough on this earth to give us more...

10 April 2012

Happy Easter

I hope you've all had a lovely, amazingly bookish Easter weekend and are feeling prepared to face the world again. At Relish Towers we have been mostly reading (namely Mary Barton), book buying and drinking beer and, although I felt particularly grumpy at having my nose forced out of my book this morning, I feel bright and light as a feather after a detox day of soup and salad (and just a little bit of Easter chocolate!)

A certain member of the Manchester Book Group from Leeds inadvertently put me completely to shame by recently revealing her trip to the deepest, darkest depths of South Manchester, mere minutes from my own front door, to a warehouse/shipping containers literally full to the brim with books. Pick a book at random about any subject/ genre on earth and at Sharston Books you shall find it. We certainly did this Easter weekend.

The little bearded chap who owns this Aladdins Cave is just lovely and was very keen to get our opinion on how he'd arranged the shop, which I found to have struck the perfect balance between extremely organised and excitingly haphazard. I can't thank Alex enough for discovering it for us. After speaking to the owner it actually turns out that most of his custom comes from much further field than Manchester, with us Mancunians being largely completely ignorant of its existence. Quelle horreur!

I was actually forced to have words with myself after two excitable hours in the fiction section and came away with the modest pile you see before you. A particular favourite was The Small Miracle by Paul Gallico; a beautiful little volume that matches my copy of The Snow Goose which (I think) I received for Christmas last year. The Eric Newbys are a treat for the boyfriend who is on a travel writing frenzy at the mo (recently interrupted by Great Expectations) and loves the Picador editions of Newby's adventures.

Adventure beckons...Does anyone have any travel writers they could recommend as our next port of call?

6 April 2012

On Chesil Beach

These last two weeks leading up to the Easter Holiday have been completely and thoroughly exhausting. Writing these words I can barely keep my poor itchy eyes open but as usual I have far too much to say, including a big thankyou for you lovely people who turned up to the first meeting of the Manchester Book Club. It was brilliant to get such a nice and varied mix of personalities and people at various stages of their own personal reading; whether it be the book-obsessed or those just trying to get back into it more, everyone had really varied and interesting tastes. Some YA fiction even materialised; a genre I don't ordinarily touch with a barge pole but perhaps will get the opportunity to with this new endeavour?

Simon very chivalrously (ha ha!) allowed me to pick three books that, not only have I not read and would like to, but that I felt would be interesting and appropriate for a group of bookish people I had never met before - yikes! With two votes for each book you can see surrounding this post, the pressure to decide was left to little ol' me, who after much agonising, plumped for Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell. Although I did feel slightly anxious choosing something a bit more classic for everyone, I felt it would be an appropriate starting point for a Manchester-based book group, a true celebration of the city, and I am already enjoying Gaskell's name dropping of roads and landmarks I already know so well. I also know a lovely lady I used to work with, a renowned expert on the author, who I'm sure will be delighted to hear I finally picked this up! I'd just like to also note that I am glowing slightly after reading the fab Alex in Leed's mention of our new group on her engaging blog. She was a pleasure to natter books with and, along with everyone else, I am relishing what thoughts she'll have to offer on Gaskell at our next meet!

Exciting events to one side, I thought it might be time I popped some thoughts down about Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach, a book, like many, that I have had sat on the shelf for ages and that was just the right length and period to help come down from my 19th century Wilkie Collins' - fest. Even if his books don't always hit the nail right on the head for you (as it didn't for me with Enduring Love) there is always something undoubtedly satisfying about Ian McEwan's writing and On Chesil Beach seems to always be mentioned some place or other, even by my best friend who is known for his short concentration span and the mounting collection of unread masterpieces lining his shelves.....

I suppose, put quite simply, On Chesil Beach is an elegant statement about the complex and volatile nature of a new relationship. McEwan sets the story of Edward and Florence, a young couple enjoying their honeymoon in a Dorset Hotel 'on Chesil Beach' within a socially and sexually ambiguous period of time; the early 1960s; an age still suffering from the restraints and frigidity of the 50s yet close enough to the freedom that became so characteristic of the decade to feel the pressure...

Although I failed to warm to Florence, who, although I appreciated certain defining elements in her past that result in the tension she feels becoming physically close with the man she loves, I found a little melodramatic and superior for my tastes; the warmth I felt for Edward and his difficult family circumstance allowed me the room I needed to care about their predicament. I marvel at the way McEwan can portray such a complex series of emotions using such simple tools; two main characters, one bedroom, one bland meal and limited dialogue. The question is; did I really see tragedy (as many do) in this short tale? I'm not sure I do. This strikes me as a very well written portrayal of real relationships, life and people. I do hope I don't sound all English and sardonic but, well, life isn't a bed of roses after all is it?! What really got my brain ticking was the realisation, that I have occasionally had in the past, of how the most mundane turn of events can completely change the course of your life completely.

Ian McEwan never fails to astound me with how varied and consistently excellent his novels are. How one mind can have such a wide range of stories to tell and points to make will never fail to impress and I look forward to picking up those works of his that haven't yet quite managed to capture my imagination.

1 April 2012

Countdown to the Manchester Book Club!

The last couple of weeks has been a frenzy of venue searching and book choosing and finaaaalllllyyy it seems that all is set (touch wood!) for myself and the lovely Simon Savidge's Mancunian bookish venture. Hurrah!

Our date is set, our venue chosen and my three books set to one side for some exciting new bookish folk to peruse and choose over a glass of the good stuff (woo hoo!) If any of you lovely folk out there are around the North West on Tuesday evening and would like to join in the fun please click on the Manchester Book Club link above and let us know!