Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Best Books of 2009

I read a total of 64 books this year which is a good number for me. I think I increased my speed after I started my book blog. I read many wonderful books and in fact, I confess that many of them were Persephone books (seventeen to be exact). Its really been a Persephone year and I suspect the next one will be the same. I really tried to have a wider range of books on this list so I thus limited the list to three Persephones and I didn't repeat any authors. Indeed, it wasn't easy to come up with a final list of the best ten of 2009 but here it is in no particular order. The top ten are....(drum roll)....


They Were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple
I discovered Dorothy Whipple this year and I read six of her books. If I could list most of them here, I would. They are all wonderful. However, I limited myself to only one Whipple for this list and my absolute favourite is still the first one I read which is They Were Sisters. The story follows the married lives of three sisters and though it's a domestic story it's a page-turner. I simply couldn't put it down.

 
The Age of Innocence of Edith Wharton
I can't believe it took me so long to read this book. A beautiful and devastating novel about love and loss set against the backdrop of old New York. Gorgeous and unforgettable.


The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett
This was my first FHB book having never read any of her children's novels. A thoroughly engrossing read. I was actually surprised to find out that the Persephone version I read was abridged. You can read my posts on that here and here.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
I loved this book although I wasn't quite sure at first. It got better by the second half at which point it was unputdownable. I think it makes you look at people quite differently because really nothing is what it seems. A dowdy, middle-aged, uneducated, aloof concierge in a Parisian apartment building who reads Tolstoy, listens to classical music, loves Dutch paintings and classic Japanese movies. Who would have thought there was a an intelligent mind lurking there? But of course, it took two quite special people to see it.


The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer
What an absolutely delightful read! I loved it! Loved every character in the book and all the stories they had to tell. You can read my more detailed review here.


The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
This might be the oddest book on a list like this but I had to put this in because I was completely riveted by this young adult novel from start to finish. I devoured it as I did the second book in the trilogy. I'm eagerly anticipating the third book which will be released in August 2010.


Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
I wish I had read this as a child or a young teenager. But it's also a joy to read now as a wife and mom. It contains a wealth of valuable life lessons for daughters, wives and mothers. It's a truly special book and I think it should be required reading for every young girl.


 Mariana by Monica Dickens
This is one of those Persephones that some people didn't enjoy but I thoroughly did. A very cozy, warm, enjoyable and satisfying novel about a young girl coming of age in England in the 1930's. Since it was written in the same period it gives an accurate picture of life in England at that time.



Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
Atwood is brilliant. I was completely blown away by this novel. An excellently constructed book about the devastating effects of genetic engineering with a love triangle thrown in. More here.

A Homemade Life by MollyWizenberg
Molly's food blog, Orangette was one of my inspirations to enter into the world of blogging. Molly writes wonderfully about food interspersed with stories about important events in her life and meeting her soul mate through her blog. She ends every chapter with a recipe. My own copy is filled with purple post-it notes of recipes I've tried or have yet to try. This book has been lying around my house for most of the year...in the kitchen, by the couch and even in the car. So in a way, I really identify this book with the year 2009.

So what do you think of my final list? Have you read any of these novels? This will be my last post for 2009 so I'll sign off for now. I wish you all a Happy New Year and I'll see you in 2010!

Books Read in 2009

1. The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Armin
2. Past Imperfect by Julian Fellowes
3. Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym
4. The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West
5. The Victorian Chaise-Longue by Marghanita Laski
6. Into the Wilderness by Sara Donati
7. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
8. My Antonia by Willa Cather
9. The Face of a Stranger by Anne Perry
10. American Wife by Curtis Sittenfield
11. The Lacquer Lady by F. Tennyson Jesse
12. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
13. The Far Cry by Emma Smith
14. The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
15. The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg Larsson
16. Chess by Stefan Zweig
17. The Summer of Katya by Trevanian
18. The Gentlewomen by Laura Talbot
19. Mariana by Monica Dickens
20. The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson
21. Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig
22. The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding
23. They Were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple
24. They Knew Mr. Knight by Dorothy Whipple
25. The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett
26. Down River by John Hart
27. Because of the Lockwoods by Dorothy Whipple
28 The Sybyl in Her Grave by Sarah Caudwell
29. A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg
30. Family Roundabout by Richmal Crompton
31. The Priory by Dorothy Whipple
32.  The Spiritualist by Megan Chance
33. Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple
34.  My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin
35. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer
36. The Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden
37.  The Expendable Man by Dorothy Hughes
38. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
39. Lady Rose and Mrs. Memmary  by Ruby Ferguson
40. A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray
41. Mudbound by Hilary Jordan
42.  Fidelity by Susan Glaspell
43. Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford
44. Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
45. Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
46. We Have Always Lived in a Castle by Shirley Jackson
47. The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
48. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte
59. Sorcery and Cecelia or the Enchanted Chocolate Pot by Patricia Wrede
50. Nation by Terry Pratchett
51. The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher
52. Crown Duel by Sherwood Smith
53. Consequences by E.M.Delafield
54. Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger
55. The Pyramid by Henning Mankell
56. All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West
57. The Closed Door and Other Stories by Dorothy Whipple
58. The Yellow Paper by Charlotte Perkins Gillman
59. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley
60. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
61. Saplings by Noel Streatfield
62. Hetty Dorval by Ethel Wilson
63. The Queen of the Tambourine by Jane Gardam
64. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Oryx and Crake


What if mankind as we know it was almost completely eliminated because of a virus that was created by humans? This is the theme Margaret Atwood explores in her Maddaddam Trilogy. Oryx and Crake is the first book in the series and it opens with a man named Snowman scavenging among what is obviously the leftovers of civilization. He may be the only human left alive and the world now abounds with genetically modified animals and subhumans. As Snowman explores what is left of mankind, we see his life unfold in a series of flashbacks as he recalls a time when his name was still Jimmy.

I confess that I actually picked up this book years ago when it was shortlisted for the Booker, and gave up after a few pages. I should have continued. It's a bit confusing at first and even disconcerting but the moment Crake, Jimmy's Machiavellian-like friend, was introduced in the narrative, I was hooked. Orxy then appears and then you are completely ensnared in this love triangle which is also a futuristic and ultimately catastrophic story. 

I don't want to give away more of the plot as it's best not to know too much if you plan to read it, but I honestly cannot gush about this book enough. Atwood is pure genius. I'm totally in awe of her. How come this woman hasn't won the Nobel Prize yet? Oryx and Crake is brilliantly constructed and written in excellent prose. It's a thought-provoking book and in fact, Atwood prefers the term speculative fiction rather than science fiction because through this novel she is actually contemplating about where our current world is headed based on the scientific trends such as genetic engineering. Atwood describes speculative fiction as "a slight twist on the society we have now." It's a very scary yet believable prospect and I do admit this book isn't for everyone because it's shocking and disturbing. However, I did enjoy it immensely and I'm so looking forward to part two of the trilogy that was just released this year, the Year of the Flood. Apparently you don't actually have to read the books in order.

It's amazing how much range Margaret Atwood has, because all her novels are different and unique. I  feel like rereading all her novels that I've read in the past. 2010 will definitely be the year I revisit and rediscover Atwood.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Happy Holidays!


I just wanted to wish all of you dear readers, a Merry, Merry Christmas! Thank you for stopping by my blog and thanks for commenting or just reading what I have to say. Thank you to all of you who have book blogs of your own for inspiring me and giving me excellent book recommendations. May the new year bring us lots of joy and of course, more books! Happy Holidays!!!

*card from www.cafepress.com

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Saplings



Noel Streatfield is best known for her children's books, especially Ballet Shoes. Although Saplings (published by Persephone) is written for adults, it's a novel about children during war time. Its main theme is the importance of stability and routine in a child''s life.

The saplings referred to in the title are the four Wiltshire children who come from a happy and ordinary middle-class family but due to world war two, the parents and siblings are forced to spend time apart. The background of this novel is actually based on true events. In London and other major towns, many parents chose to evacuate their children to the countryside to keep them safe from the threat of bombing that was looming over the cities. The posters below are actual ones from that era.  


A September 1939 government poster urging women to register their children for evacuation (from the Persephone Post)



A propaganda poster  (from the Daily Mail website)

About 3.5 million children were evacuated from the cities and had to endure gas mask training, rationing and living with strangers. Many of them had traumatic experiences because of being separated from their families. 

Noel Streatfield worked as an air raid warden during the war and often made visits to London's southern areas to help organise the evacuation of families. She must have had close contact with children to have such an extremely realistic insight into their thoughts and feelings. Their confusion, anger and homesickness are very well portrayed. Although the Wiltshire children didn't have to endure living with strangers, they were still shuffled from their home, schools and relatives several times during the war. We see how they deal with the instability of their home lives and how the death of a parent throws their small world into further chaos.

What is actually surprising about this novel is that it was written in 1945 when the psychological effects of war on children hadn't yet been closely studied but Streatfield shows she is definitely in tune with her subject matter. According to Dr.Jeremy Holmes who wrote the afterword in the Persephone edition, "Streatfield's supreme gift was her ability to see the world from a child's perspective."

I didn't find this an easy read and actually started it a few months ago. I put it aside and read other novels and recently picked it up again. This is not a happy book but it's an interesting one nonetheless. Saplings isn't one of my favourite Persephones but it's still a very good one.

Have you read this book? What did you think of it?

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Another Persephone Surprise



Receiving a Persephone book is always a joy but imagine my surprise when I received my second one this week from my Virago Secret Santa, the lovely Danielle (noodlejet) from  Leaning Towards the Sun. I was surprised to receive a Persephone and one that's been on my wishlist for ages, the Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Danielle also included a super cute penguin bookmark!




Isn't this such a lovely cover? Thank you so much Danielle! It's such a wonderful choice. And thanks again to Christina and Laura at Library Thing for hosting this wonderful gift exchange. Merry Christmas to all of you!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Little Reminder



It's now December 17th so I'd just like to remind everyone joining the Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden group read to post your reviews/thoughts during the first week of 2010 (January 4 to 10). Leave a link on my blog or at Bookheaper's site to your review and we'll compile everything at the end of that week.

For those of you who've just heard about this, there may still be time for you to participate. It's a pretty slim book at 222 pages so we hope more people can manage to join in. For more background on the book, check this post.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Little Women


I've just finished Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. What can I say about this book that hasn't already been said? I adored it and I wish I had read it as a child or a young teenager. But having said that, it's also a joy to read now as a wife and mom. It contains a wealth of valuable life lessons for girls, daughters, wives and mothers. It's a truly special book and I think it should be required reading for every young girl.

I saw the film a number of years ago and I loved it. I plan to see it again, so I thought I'd join the challenge hosted by C.B. James,  Read the Book, See the Movie (see post below) . This would be a wonderful choice for it. I'll keep this short for you'll be reading more about  Little Women in this blog in the coming year.

Have you read Little Women? If you haven't, it's never too late for it.

*Since many of you commented that you plan to read Little Women, I'm editing this post to add that you must read the unabridged version. This is the one with two parts.

Read the Book, See the Movie Challenge


I'm excited to join this challenge hosted by C.B. James, Read the Book, See the Movie. It sounds like a lot of fun. Its premise is simple -read a book, see a movie based on the book, include both in your review.

You don't have to write full reviews for both the movie and the book. There are no stringent rules. You can see films you've seen before or read a book again.

For how to join, check out C.B. James' blog here.
 
I'll probably join at the Saturday Movie Marathon level, four books and four movies. I haven't decided yet which ones they'll be. But one will definitely be Little Women.

Have you heard of this challenge? Are you participating and what books/movies have you chosen?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Teaser Tuesdays


Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

Quote two or more sentences from the book you're currently reading:

Turkey, Afghanistan, Nepal, China - all this was done by Victorian women, Joan. There is no need for us to follow the intrepid trail again. It is the interior, spiritual trail that the new liberated woman has to work at now, and there is no need to go to the East for that. There are splendid meditation classes to be had in Woodlands Road.

The Queen of the Tambourine by Jane Gardam, page 19

A Persephone Surprise



Thank you so much Claire from Kiss a Cloud for your wonderful Persephone Christmas present! I was a bit worried that my package didn't have a card so I was wondering who my Santa was but luckily Claire dropped me a note yesterday to let me know.

My Persephone present is the New House by Lettice Cooper. It's a Persephone that was also published by Virago so this is a doubly special present for me and it's a complete surprise. It's a terrific choice Claire!

From Amazon:
"All that outwardly happens in The New House is over one long day a family move from a large imposing secluded house with beautiful gardens to a small one overlooking a housing estate. But all the characters and their relationships with each other are so lovingly portrayed that one cares passionately what happens even to the unpleasant ones. "


(endpaper of the New House)

I'm so looking forward to reading this. Thank you so much Secret Santa and thank you to Stacy at  Psmith for organising everything.

My giftee was Sarah, at What We Have Here is a Failure to Communicate. You can check out my gift to her at her blog.

Did you participate? What did you receive from your Persephone Secret Santa?

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie



I mentioned in a previous post that I was reading The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, the wonderful debut novel by Canadian author, Alan Bradley. Thanks Kyusi reader for recommending it. It's a delightful little book though it did drag a bit towards the end. Although the first half of the book was more enjoyable, I still think it's a fun read mostly because of its quirky and precocious 11-year-old protagonist, Flavia de Luce. She's a mix of Harriet the Spy, Nancy Drew and Sherlock Holmes.

The setting is the English countryside in 1950. Flavia, a budding chemist, lives with her reclusive widowed father and two sisters in a crumbling country manor. She  sets out to solve a murder mystery after discovering a dead body in her garden and  a dead bird with a rare stamp impaled on its beak. What follows are red herrings, clues, chemistry experiments, poisons, bumbling villagers and interesting factoids about philately (the study of stamps). Though you can guess the murderer a mile away, all is forgiven because the book is so original. Bradley also uses a generous amount of similes and metaphors and from any other writer this would be considered quite weak or pretentious but he somehow makes it all work in a charming way.

I remembered a piece of sisterly advice, which Feely once gave Daffy and me:
"If ever you're accosted by a man," she'd said, "kick him in the Casanovas and run like blue blazes!"
Although it had sounded at the time like a useful bit of intelligence, the only problem was that I didn't know where the Casanovas were located.
I'd have to think of something else.

This is a very refreshing and enjoyable read and the good news is there's more Flavia de Luce mysteries to come. Have any of you read this and what did you think? Are you looking forward to the next one?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Vote for Best Cover of 2009



Amazon is holding a Best Cover of the Year Competition. You can vote  here .

I was surprised at how many of the finalists were actually bad covers. In fact some of them were hideous. Is this all they could come up with?  I finally voted for the above, Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork. I thought this cover was the best of the bunch. It also sounds like a good read. From Amazon:

"Marcelo Sandoval hears music no one else can hear--part of the autism-like impairment no doctor has been able to identify--and he's always attended a special school where his differences have been protected. But the summer after his junior year, his father demands that Marcelo work in his law firm's mailroom in order to experience "the real world." There Marcelo meets Jasmine, his beautiful and surprising coworker, and Wendell, the son of another partner in the firm. He learns about competition and jealousy, anger and desire. But it's a picture he finds in a file--a picture of a girl with half a face..."

Doesn't that sound interesting? I'm surprised I've never heard of this book.

Which book cover are you voting for? Are there any other covers that caught your eye this year that are not included in the competition?

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Teaser Tuesdays



Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

Quote two or more sentences from the book you're currently reading:

 "That's bad; you ought to make a dive, and go visiting everywhere you are asked; then you'll have lots of friends, and pleasant places to go to. Never mind being bashful, it won't last long if you keep going."
Laurie turned red again, but wasn't offended at being accused of bashfulness; for there was so much good-will in Jo, it was impossible not to take her blunt speeches as kindly as they were meant.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, page 77

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Recent Acquisitions




I bought four books this week. I hope these will be enough to sustain me during the holidays as I don't want to buy more this year. I've still got a cache of books I ordered from the internet on the way but it appears they won't get here till January...aargh!

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley - I'm currently reading this and loving it. Review to come soon.

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood - Its been years since I read an Atwood novel. I loved Alias, Grace and I also thought Cat's Eye and the Handmaid's Tale were brilliant. With many recent reviews of her latest novel, the Year of the Flood, I decided to purchase this which is supposedly the first part although it's not compulsory to read the books in order.

Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel - I'm now regretting this. I'm not sure I'm going to like it. It was an impulse buy because Mantel recently won the Booker prize. But on closer inspection and after checking it out on Amazon, it sounds like it's also a bit bizarre. A medium plagued by nasty spirits? Hmmm...any thoughts?

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott - This is beloved by many of you and I loved the film. I figure it's about time I read the book and it seemed like an appropriate choice for the season. I know there are abridged copies out there so I hope I got the right one. There seems to be two parts so I do think this Puffin edition includes Good Wives. I hope so!

So, what do you think? Have you read any of these books? And...what books have you bought lately?

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Yellow Wallpaper and My Other Viragos



I've been ignoring my Viragos lately. I haven't read one for a while and I've been feeling guilty about it. About a year and a half ago I started collecting Virago Modern Classics. VMCs are books published in celebration of  frequently neglected women writers mostly from the early part of the twentieth century. I love the green-spined versions with beautiful cover art, most of which are now out of print. I currently own 62 Viragos which I acquired through bookmooch, through the wonderful Virago group at Library Thing and through the internet. They're not available where I live and I've had to rely on trips abroad to find them. Last summer, I drove Mr.B. nuts because I wanted to stop at every second hand bookstore in Amsterdam. But I must say, there is a certain thrill in finding these little green-spined books. And if you're wondering...no, I didn't purchase every Virago I saw. There are surprisingly a lot in Holland.

I'm ashamed to say though that of the Viragos I own, I've only read 15. There have been some duds among them but there have also been some marvelous discoveries. The ones that standout are The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins, Mary Lavelle by Kate O'Brien, A Woman of My Age by Nina Bawden, The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Armin, Good Behaviour by Molly Keane and All Passion Spent and No Signposts by the Sea by Vita Sackville-West.

I now have a new Virago to add to that list,  the Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. It's such a slim little novella at 37 pages that I finished it in one sitting. It's a powerful and chilling masterpiece about a woman forced into confinement in the upstairs nursery of an isolated house. The room has barred windows and yellow wallpaper with a maddening pattern. We see her slowly go insane from idleness and lack of mental stimulation. She spends her days staring at the yellow wallpaper which winds itself into her mind and slowly drives her insane.

"I believe and follow that pattern about by the hour. It is as good as gymnastics, I assure you. I start, we'll say, at the bottom, down in the corner over there where it has not been touched, and I determine for the thousandth time that I will follow that pointless pattern to some sort of a conclusion."

Highly recommended. A chilling portrait of a the helplessness of a woman trapped in a Victorian marriage.

Have you read this? What did you think? Do you like Virago Modern Classics and if so, which ones did you like best?

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Whipple Cures the Book Slump



'Wet Winter Evening and a Book Lover in Bloomsbury' from the Persephone Post

I had a book slump last weekend. Don't you hate having one of those? It doesn't matter that I have 99 books on my TBR pile. Yes, you read right. 99 books. (Thank god for Library Thing for helping me keep track).

I'm sure you know the feeling. I picked up several books at random and I quit after a few pages. Nothing seemed to satisfy me. I even picked up old favourites but soon abandoned them. Do you want to know what I really felt like reading? A Lord Peter Wimsey mystery by Dorothy Sayers. However, the few copies I own seem to have (Poof!) magically disappeared. Don't you hate it when that happens? I then glanced over my shelves and spied a Persephone book by Dorothy Whipple that I haven't read, The Closed Door and Other Stories. I've actually had this since May of this year. I've hesitated picking it up because it's a short story collection and I'm definitely not a fan of those. Well there was certainly no time like the present so I read one story on Monday, The Closed Door. Its 75 pages long and though it's not the best Whipple, it's still a Whipple and definitely worth reading if you're a fan.

The Closed Door is about a daughter who lives with her stifling and controlling parents and feels powerless to break free and live her own life. As always Dorothy's....oops I mean Whipple's writing is absorbing and so readable. I almost wrote Dorothy there because she surprisingly feels like an old friend. After reading a number of her books, her writing is so familiar that it's so easy to just sink right in.



There are a total of ten stories in the book and I'm controlling myself from reading the rest. I think I'll save them for when I have another reading slump. Whipple is clearly the best cure for them.

Have you ever had a book slump? Can you recommend a good book to cure it?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Teaser Tuesdays



Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

Quote two sentences from the book you're currently reading:

Suddenly she felt a hand close over her own under the table. Her eyes flew wide; she almost exclaimed aloud. The hand was withdrawn, but in her palm she felt a small, flat object - a folded piece of paper; a note. 


The Closed Door and Other Stories by Dorothy Whipple, page 40.

Monday, November 30, 2009

All Passion Spent



All Passion Spent (1931) by Vita Sackville-West is the second book I've read for the Women Unbound Challenge .

The novel opens with six siblings all in their sixties, discussing the fate of their newly widowed mother. Lady Slane at 88 has lived what many women would consider a full life having been happily married to a viceroy of India and a prime minister, borne six children and is grandmother and great-grandmother to many. Her children discuss accomodating her in their homes at different intervals for the remainder of her life. However, Lady Slane surprises them all by moving to a small house in the country that she admired thirty years ago. Here, she recollects her lost youth, her lost ambition of becoming a painter and acquires an odd assortment of friends and companions. Among them is Mr.FitzGeorge, an eccentric millionaire who met her once in India more than fifty years ago and loved her from afar.

Though Lady Slane concludes that her life has been satisfactory, she finds passion in the freedom to choose and in the end she bestows this knowledge to one member of her family. Lady Slane was thoroughly likeable and admirable in her decision to stand up to her pompous children and finally live her own life. The book has a wonderful message about it never being too late to fulfill your dreams and to be true to yourself.

"If one is not to please onself in old age, when is one to please oneself?"

This is the second book I've read by Vita Sackville-West and between the two, though All Passion Spent is a touching novel, I preferred her other book No Signposts in the Sea.



Women Unbound Challenge: 2 down, 5 to go.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Pyramid



Sometimes I just feel the need to curl up with a good mystery and after being recently let down by Her Fearful Symmetry, I craved for a good one. Luckily, I spied the new Kurt Wallander book, the Pyramid, at a bookstore this week. I actually have a thing for Swedish detectives and Swedish mysteries. If written well, they can be fun and quite gripping and I love that they're set in the lonely, harsh and cold Scandinavian landscape. A setting that's somehow so appropriate for terrifying murders and a hardened policeman.



Kurt Wallander is my favourite Swedish detective  and is the creation of Swedish author Henning Mankell. There are ten books in the series and all of them are good. They've been translated into 40 languages and there's now a BBC series starring Kenneth Branagh. Before the Frost was the last one I read and that was over five years ago. I didn't think it would be the last but it seemed Mankell grew tired of penning mystery novels and decided to write books about Africa instead. Quite a change! Fans were disappointed and begging for more but it appeared that there wouldn't be new books in the series. Recently, he surprised us all with the publication of the Pyramid which is a short story collection of the first cases of Wallander before he became an inspector. Most of these stories were written by Mankell prior to writing the full-length novels and a few have already been published in newspapers.

Revisiting a favourite character after so many years is always fun and though they're short stories Mankell doesn't disappoint. Mankell recently mentioned that there will be a final Wallander book released later this year. "It's the last time," Mankell says. "When you read it, you will understand. It doesn't mean that he (Wallander) dies – he doesn't die – but you will understand it's not possible to write any more about him."



If you're not familiar with Mankell and you love mysteries or police procedurals then I highly recommend the Wallander mysteries. They are all set in the Swedish state of Ystad. Wallander is the divorced, middle-aged, opera loving detective who solves shocking and at times gruesome murders together with his police team. What I especially love about this series is that you're with the team every step of the way and not in the mind of some killer. You don't have to start with the first novel. My first was actually the seventh book in the series,  the Fifth Woman and it's still my favourite.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Her Fearful Symmetry



I'm still reeling from the ending of this truly messy novel. I really wanted to like this especially when many book bloggers whose opinions I respect just raved about it. But I'm so disappointed. In fact, I want my money back!

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger is about two twenty-one-year-old American twins who inherit a flat in London from their dead aunt. Their aunt Elspeth was also a twin, estranged from her sister for 21 years. There's a mystery there and the solution is hidden in Elspeth's papers, the bulk of which the twins are not allowed to touch. The twins move to London and spend their days aimlessly wandering around the city. They meet Martin, an obsessive-compulsive man and Robert, the boyfriend of their dead aunt, both of whom live in their building. Elspeth is now a ghost trapped in her flat. She soon starts haunting the twins. Sounds good? Yes, that's exactly what I thought but I was wrong!



Siamese twins by Audrey Niffenegger (from her website)

The novel started out just fine and gripping in its way but I just couldn't sympathize with any of the main characters. I found Elspeth annoying, Robert boring and creepy and the twins just plain flaky. The only people I found charming where the suppporting cast: obsessive-compulsive Martin and his Dutch wife Marijke. Just two people in love who somehow make it through in the end. Why couldn't the book just be mainly about them? Now that would have been a lovely novel!

I did appreciate the background setting of Highgate cemetery. The history of which is captivating and it made me want to pick up more novels by one of the cemetery residents, Mrs. Henry Wood (I loved East Lynne). But a setting does not a book make. Just when the story starts to get interesting it seems to spiral out of control. Ouija boards, a spirit of a kitten, a ghost in high heels, distasteful family secrets and out-of-body experiences. Eek!  It was way too much!  I don't want to give most of the plot away in case some of you want to read the book but suffice it to say that I don't recommend this novel. It was cheesy and just ultimately unpleasant.

I almost have the feeling that Niffenegger had a great idea for a novel but she just didn't know how to build it up and how to end it. She seems to have done a rush job. I wonder if she had a deadline because of her five million dollars advance? Hmm....

Have any of you read this? What did you think? If you have reviewed it, please leave a link to your review.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Shuttle - Some Answers



Recently I posted about abridged novels (link here) focusing  primarily on the Persephone edition of the Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Thank you to everyone who commented and offered their opinions. It's surprising how this has struck a chord with so many people.

It was precisely because I had such an interesting response that I decided to contact Nicola Beauman at Persephone Books. She promptly responded. However, being quite busy because of the upcoming Christmas season (there are only two of them in the shop), she was unable to check her notes to recall exactly what was cut off from the original text. But she did tell me the reason why they abridged it. None of you guessed that it was purely a cost issue. Apparently The Shuttle was only affordable if they cut it slightly as it costs more than £3 a copy to print as it is. Imagine that! You'll all be glad to know that it is also the only Persephone book that is abridged.



(endpaper from the Persephone edition of the Shuttle)

It's curious how everyone was speculating about what exactly was cut off. Romain at Library Thing has read the original book and she thinks they played down the god-like adoration everyone had for Bettina Vanderpoel which I admit at times seemed over the top. She was much admired by peasants and peers in the book and Romain mentioned there are several chapters written in purple prose devoted to doting peasants bowing and scraping.

... she stopped the carriage before old Doby's cottage... and Doby, standing up touching his forelock and Mrs Welden curtsying, gazed at her with prayer in their eyes..."  (page 283 of the original edition)

Digfish at Library Thing then pointed me to the Gutenberg website where one can dowload the entire original text. Here's the  link. Upon first inspection, there are 50 chapters in the original in contrast to 25 in the Persephone edition. However, it does seem that Persephone merged two chapters into one several times. The PE edition has 476 pages while the original has 512. That's pretty close even considering they had to use a different typeface.

I didn't have time to go through the entire text. I just went through the first chapters comparing it to my copy and I soon observed a chunk that was definitely cut from the new edition. Upon arrival in London, Bettina visits Mrs. Worthington and has a discussion about the Tower of London and Lady Jane Grey. In fact, the title of chapter nine is called Lady Jane Grey. This entire part is cut off from the Persephone book.  I also noticed that upon alighting from the train at Sir Nigel's village, there are a few paragraphs devoted to the station master's impressions of Bettina and her beauty. These were slimmed down to just a few sentences in the new edition.

As Nicola mentioned, they only cut it slightly and I now see that what she omitted was carefully selected paragraphs here and there (more likely ornate and flowery prose) that don't destroy the gist of the novel. It seems the cuts were necessary to enable it to be published again and allow a new generation of readers to enjoy it. Honestly, in spite of being familiar with Frances Hodgson Burnett, I don't think I would have heard of this forgotten novel if Persephone hadn't republished it. I think I'm quite satisfied with the knowledge I've gathered and I do forgive Persephone for abridging it. It's a wonderful edition on its own and as I said before I didn't think it was lacking in any way.

In other news...and wonderful news it is, according to Nicola, Persephone will next publish Dorothy Whipple's Greenbanks and after that, Because of the Lockwoods. Isn't that exciting?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Consequences




Consequences is the first book I've read for the Women Unbound Challenge and it was an excellent choice. I read the book without any idea of the plot so I wasn't sure if this was fitting for the Challenge but then how could I go wrong with a Persephone book?

Consequences was written in 1918 by E.M. Delafield who ironically is more known for her domestic light hearted novels such as the Diary of a Provincial Lady. I admit I haven't read any of her other books but I'll definitely be on the lookout for them because I love the way she writes. Consequences is truly a departure for her being a serious novel with an underlying social commentary on the state of women during her time. Alex Clare is the eldest child of an English upper class family and the only expectations her parents have for her are to develop and polish herself at a foreign school, make her social debut and marry an eligible man. Alex is a victim of her time, unable to be happy being a social butterfly and incapable of committing to the one person who asks her to marry him. She is deemed a failure by herself and her family.


(from the Persephone Post, E.M. Delafield photographed for LIFE magazine six years after she wrote Consequences)

This is a deeply feminist novel because it questions the role and expectations of women of the Victorian era. There was really no choice for a woman from a good family but to marry and have children. Schooling was ultimately incomplete and girls were never taught to learn a trade. Alex was probably not meant to be a wife and mother however being a prisoner of her era she was powerless to find out what her ambitions were. She wasn't even aware if she had any.

Throughout the novel, I felt Alex's restlessness, her clumsiness, her unhappiness and her frustration. She is unable to break free from the confines of her own personality and yet feels envious at her peers' social successes and attractiveness to the opposite sex. She wants to make her parents happy yet is unable to do so if she stays true to herself.

Though a sad novel, I highly recommend this brilliant book. I could not put it down, I was completely riveted from start to finish. The last sentence  will really break your heart! Consequences really struck a chord in me because we've all been an Alex at some point in our lives or we've all known an Alex but somehow we all grew up and found our passions and niches in the world. Alex never did.



Women Unbound Challenge: 1 down, 6 to go.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Greengage Summer - Group Read




Bookheaper and I would like to host a group read of the Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden. Simon at Stuck in a Book has expressed an interest to join too. It would be wonderful if many of you can join in whether you've read the book in the past or have yet to read it.

"On and off, all that hot French August, we made ourselves ill from eating the greengages. Joss and I felt guilty; we were still at the age when we thought being greedy was a childish fault, and this gave our guilt a tinge of hopelessness because, up to then, we had believed that as we grew older our faults would disappear, and none of them did."

The Greengage Summer (1958) is set in a French countryside hotel, where five young children are virtually left alone after their mother is suddenly taken ill. What follows is a haunting summer where the children suddenly come of age. The story is told from the point of view of the second oldest child, thirteen-year-old Cecil. From the Evening Standard, "'An exciting tale, this novel has both charm and atmosphere, and Miss Godden recaptures with an easy unsentimental naturalness the unfocused vision of adolescence."




Rumer Godden is a British writer (1908-1998) who was awarded an OBE in 1993. She has published over 60 books both for adults and children. Her stories usually touch on her childhood spent in both India and Britain. Godden's novels are characterized by rich atmospheric description and vivid portrayals of children and their innermost thoughts, confusion and childhood disappointments.

This book seems to be out of print but it's readily available in libraries and there are second hand copies from various booksellers. For those who'd like to post their thoughts and reviews on the book, please post in the first week of January.

Friday, November 13, 2009

To Abridge or Not?



I recently read a review of the Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett at savidgereads. I also reviewed the book during Persephone Week (link here). Reading the comments for both our reviews reminded me that so many of you have mentioned that Persephone's edition is actually abridged. I was appalled as it's almost 500 pages long and I also didn't know that Persephone published condensed novels. Truly shocking! That said however, I didn't feel like the book was lacking in any way and I thought it was perfect as it was. But of course, that was before I knew it was abridged.

The whole discussion started me thinking about abridged novels in general. If you had asked me before I knew about the Shuttle, I would have said I dislike condensed novels. I think it started when I was really young and discovered that the Nancy Drew books I was reading, which were published in the 70s, were heavily abridged. For those who don't know, Nancy Drew is a titian-haired American teenage detective who solves mysteries together with her cousins Bess and George. The mysteries usually involved haunted houses, spooky intruders, secret passages and mysterious letters. Nancy would bravely whip out her magnifying glass and fearlessly investigate, solving all the puzzles in the end.



I was enthralled to discover the originals from the 40s and 50s in my local library and I devoured them. The characters were much more developed, the mysteries more intricate and the writing much more sophisticated. Also, they were five chapters longer than the newer versions. My young mind couldn't fathom why they would condense something that was so enjoyable in its original format. The characters of Bess and George for example were so much more interesting. They actually had real personalities as opposed to the caricatures that were portrayed in the newer versions. The mysteries weren't also that easy to solve. It took much more than pluck and luck for Nancy to solve everything. However, I guess if I had never known that the Nancy Drew books were condensed I would have probably still loved them. I wouldn't have known what I was missing.

To learn that the Shuttle is actually abridged is very disappointing. Rachel from Book Snob mentioned that an entire storyline and character have been eliminated. Now that's intriguing! Why did Persephone deem it necessary to do this? I do have to say though that the Shuttle had some tedious parts especially in the beginning when Burnett described the ships that took the British aristocracy and American heiresses across the ocean. If it had been any other book, I may have given up after just a few pages but being a Persephone, I perservered and was soon rewarded. Maybe the book actually needed to be trimmed down. And I must admit, now that I know the truth, The Shuttle doesn't read like a condensed book. So whatever their reasons, Persephone did a good job!

It would be interesting to hear from someone who actually read the original book. What do you think? Have you read this book and was it the original or the Persephone edition? And what do you think about abridged novels?

Monday, November 9, 2009

Women Unbound



Yay! I'm joining the Women Unbound Challenge.  I was a bit hesitant at first as it seemed such a daunting goal but the challenge starts this month and ends in November 2010. I figure I have more than enough time to complete this. Plus I'm hoping this task will get me to read some of the books on my To-be-read pile. I already have all these books except for one.

I'm joining at the Bluestocking level (read at least five books, including at least two nonfiction ones).

Fiction:
Consequences by E.M. Delafield
The Group by Mary McCarthy
All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West
In this House of Brede by Rumer Godden
Fugitive's Return by Susan Glaspell

Non-Fiction:

Portrait of a Marriage: Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson by  Nigel Nicolson
Etty Hillensum: An Interrupted LIfe, Letters from Westerbork by Etty Hillensum

Have any of you read these? Would love to hear your thoughts. I'd also love to know if you are also participating in the challenge.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Because of the Lockwoods


A dear internet friend of mine sent me an obscure copy of Because of the Lockwoods by Dorothy Whipple. I feel extremely lucky to have read it as it's now out of print, however, I wouldn't be surprised if Persephone Books publishes it in the near future. Since reading my first Whipple, They Were Sisters, she has quickly become one of my favourite writers. She is indeed a fabulous storyteller and I've loved every one of her books that I've read.

Whipple has been described as the Jane Austen of the twentieth century and it's hardly surprising since she writes wonderfully and so effortlessly about domestic dramas. She was quite popular in the 30s and 40s but her popularity waned in the 50s after her last novel, Someone at a Distance hardly sold at all. Luckily, Nicola Beauman, the founder of Persephone Books, discovered her and republished several of her novels.


Just like all the other novels of Dorothy Whipple, Because of the Lockwoods is a page-turner. It tells the story of Thea Hunter who grows up living in the same neighborhood as the wealthy and arrogant Lockwoods. The Lockwoods influence her life and her family's through the years during which Thea struggles with a constant feeling of resentment and envy towards them. Below is a picture of the beautiful endpaper of the original hardcover edition.


Let's hope that Persephone Books will republish this wonderful book very soon. If you can't wait, there's lots of secondhand copies to be had for a song at several internet booksellers. Failing that, you can always get Dorothy Whipple's other novels from Persephone Books.
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