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Book Review: Demelza and Jeremy Poldark by Winston Graham

28/11/2015

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I am mesmerised by this series. I love it.. I am now one book ahead of the new BBC series which covered the first two – Ross Poldark and Demelza. The fourth one is waiting for me – I am quite desperate to read it but trying to be sensible here and eke them out a bit. I haven’t been like this over a series for a long time – probably since I was eighteen and read the first four books of Outlander one after the other.

However I must confess – I have done something I never do. I have read spoilers – not overly detailed ones but enough to get the general gist of what will happen because the worry over these characters and what was happening, or I could feel was going to happen was too much. They were making me anxious – I had to do something!!!

These books really are really well written, good historical escapism. The love story that is at the heart of these books gives it a heart beat that makes you want to keep coming back. I love Demelza and she really comes into her own in the second and third books. She is a fantastic character because she grows as a person and she is such a positive and open and honest character who you want to be best friends with. Ross and his dark moods are frustrating which make him occasionally hard to like. Although this series is called ‘Poldark’ and does revolve around Ross in many ways, he is not really the character you root for – it is Demelza I think that is at the heart of this series.

The first book introduces you to Ross and Demelza is a small secondary character who is only just beginning to blossom by the end. In the second and third books her character blooms. Her good nature and well meaning-ness doesn’t always have the result she hoped for and the consequences can be hard for her to bare. Jeremy Poldark is quite a short book and picks up where Demelza leaves off – I won’t say anything too much. Each book so far very easily leads onto the next – which makes it very hard to not just keep picking them up one after the other. Jeremy Poldark very much sets up the scene that Warleggan will follow. You can guess simply from the title that it is going to be a rather combinative book in some way or form.

These books pick into a reader’s emotions like a needle – which is why I cheated so early on. This is what makes these books so good – they get to the core of a person’s emotional heart. Graham has a certain way of writing scenes to convey emotions and it works well.

Since starting this review and now completing it – I am actually half way through Warleggan (feeling stressed out by it) so I’ll stop before I get too confused between books. It is taking all my willpower not to buy ‘The Black Moon’ which is the fifth book – in vain effort that I might get some other books read and not just Poldarks by the end of the year. As I am  now feeling the urge to check the price on www.hive.co.uk I don’t know how long this strength of character will last. I tried very hard not to read Warleggan but frankly – every book I picked up suddenly became boring or crap – all I could think of was Poldark Poldark Poldark so I gave into myself.

Uuuughh….  must… not… buy

Book Review: Curtain Call by Anthony Quinn

02/11/2015

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I read this for book group. It was chosen off The Telegraph’s ‘Best Books of 2015’ List. Not one I would have chosen myself necessarily – which is quite the point of a book group. I of course like historicals but I do really find the 30’s era that interesting – hmm – I’m not sure what it is about this era I do not like. I don’t like posh people of the 1930’s although I do like their use of the word ghastly which I don’t think came up enough in this book at all.  Historically, it should be fairly interesting.

Curtain Call starts off with Nina Land, who inadvertently interrupts an attempted murder in a hotel – saving the girl but of course putting herself in a but of a conundrum – because she is in fact at the hotel with a married man.

The story is not a murder mystery as I first assumed – but a literary ensemble piece about a bunch of characters that are linked (very loosely sometimes) to the event of the attempted murder. There is Nina Land the theatre actress of course who witnessed it. Her lover – the upcoming portrait artist Stephen Wyley, Jimmy Erksine a theatre critic, his assistant Tom and the girl who got away – Madeline.

The problem this book has is that it felt empty. The writing is okay and easy to read and the best I can say about the story is that it wasn’t boring. Had it not been a book group read, I probably wouldn’t have given it the time of day. It hasn’t added anything, or given me anything to really think about or feel about – it wasn’t even fun. It was just easy enough to finish and it didn’t bore me enough to make me put it down.

None of the characters were that interesting and they all felt a little generic – the kind you have seen before time and time again particularly in this era. Perhaps he wanted to appeal to the readers of Wodehouse or Forster but unfortunately he doesn’t quite share their literary ability. The story lacked a good atmosphere or that something which makes a book feel unique. It is decorated with assorted references to history – such as Mosely and the black shirts, small references to Hitler and even the burning of the Crystal Palace pops up – but for no real good reason other than to mention it. It is rather as if the author looked through a historical timeline on Wikipedia and decided to add a few things to make the time and setting feel realistic. It is however a rather shallow attempt at anchoring the story into a certain time.

When you read, you build up a library of experience with books and authors. It is hard not to compare standards when reading one book that has certain similarities with another. Before I started the book properly, I was already comparing it to another book I had read which was a historical mystery set in 1934 that included the rise of  fascism  in the country. This book is Andrew Taylor’s Bleeding Heart Square and it isn’t even what I’d consider his best novel. He is one of my favourite authors for his ability to create atmosphere and an environment you can believe in. He can make you live in a book and breath it.

Anthony Quinn couldn’t do this in Curtain Call. It felt like the 1930s, but then it is quite an iconic era and if you’ve watched a bit of Jeeves and Wooster or even Downton Abbey it isn’t that hard to place yourself there. He was not able to create the 1930s in a natural way. He could not create his own atmosphere. The story was weak. The characters were limp.

Is it worthy of being on a list entitled ‘Best Books of 2015’? No. The book is mediocre. I don’t put a great deal of stock in lists anyway, but I do roll my eyes at them.

I have been fairly critical of a book I’ve given three stars on Goodreads. Overall I’d say ‘meh’ to this book and move on. It isn’t terrible. It isn’t boring. It’s okay.

Farscape!

22/10/2015

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Um, I love Farscape.

It was one of the first things my boyfriend introduced me to and I pretty much love it the way I love Buffy. We recently re-watched it together and I just wanna turn back to the beginning and start again. Anyway – got to the end of the series and I realised – there are comics! This seems to happen all the time now – you have comics following games (like Mass Effect) and then Firefly comics, Buffy comics… all of which I have wanted to read but less willing to buy the physical copy.

Lately however I bought myself a Samsun Galaxy Tablet which is awesome and then I realised I could buy all those comics for a slightly cheaper price and not have to have them hanging around my over crowded bookcase. So after being absolutely bereft after finishing the two part mini-series Peacekeeper Wars that completes the whole storyline – I picked up the comics. I’ve only read the first two – very quickly. They consist of four parts and each part very annoyingly leads to the next so that you keep reading and they’re quite quick. The only reason I haven’t rushed on and bought the rest is Money. They’re not expensive but once you start adding them all up – not cheap either.

It isn’t the same as the series of course, but you still get the feel of all the characters and the usual crazy storylines that pursue poor John Crichton.

Now maybe you’re wondering – what in the bajeebaz is she blathering on about? Farscape, Farscape WHO???

FARSCAPE!!!

It is about John Crichton, Astronaut, he got hit by a radiation wave, sucked through a wormhole and thrown out into some far off part of space where he meets a bunch of aliens on a living ship and gets chased around the universe by some crazy-ass warlord.

The series is pretty crazy and totally whacky. It is also very Australian. I’m not a sci-fi person in all truth – I don’t like Star Wars, not interested in Stargate, might give Battlestar Galactica a go and do have a passing fondness for Spok as I used to watch Star Trek back when I was a little kid. What got me hooked on Farscape is the characters.

The storylines are whacky, but without such a strong cast who you come to truly love and feel for – it wouldn’t be such a great series. Good stories have great characters – I have John Crichton, Aeryn Sun, D’argo, Xan, Chiana, Rygel, Noranti all very close to heart. I love these guys. They feel very close by. Even the baddies have wonderful and complex characterisations.

It is funny and yet also heart breaking. One minute laughing until I cry and the next moment sobbing my heart out. On our recent re-watch I began crying about something that wasn’t even going to happen until a series or two later. I looked forward to series four simply because my favourite character Noranti appears then. (I named one of my cats after her.)

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It kills me that they cancelled it after series four – which ended on a cliff hanger – and had only two feature length episodes in which to round the whole storyline up. A storyline they would have had up to twenty episodes during a normal series run – squashed into two or so hours. What moron cancelled it? I am so glad I wasn’t watching this when it was first aired on TV – I feel belatedly mad about it now!

It is a really immersive series. The use of puppets and make up rather than a lot of CGI makes it feel more real and believable – you can imagine them and how they would feel if you touched them. They breath – it’s pretty amazing.

Well, now I just want to watch it all over again – but my boyfriend says no. I really could though – I could just put the first DVD of the first series back in and start watching it again. I could stay up all night watching it, living with these characters again.

 

However, I guess I shall just have to continue withe the comic series – which is pretty darn good and it is good to follow the characters directly after the end of the Peacekeeper Wars and see what happens to them. I don’t really see the pictures – I see the characters as they were on screen.

And now I’ve just remembered a sad bit. Sniff.

Book Review: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

19/10/2015

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I was not thrilled to read this book. My book group chose it as their August read and in all honesty I was planning on giving it a miss – but after failing to read Love in the Time of Cholera  by  Gabriel García Márquez, I didn’t want to miss another meeting. So with some reluctance, I bought it.

Now, I admit – To Kill a Mockingbird is not my favourite book. It was good, I enjoyed it – but it isn’t  a book that I absolutely love. It’s just a good book, worthy of its praise especially given the time in which it was written. So I did not get that excited when a ‘sequel’ was announced especially reading about the whole hoopla surrounding the publication. It was just so predictable. Everyone got super excited and then it seemed to fall kind of flat because naturally it did not live up to ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and many people seemed disappointed.

Go Set a Watchman, is in a very simplistic term – boring. It is a good thing the book is so short because otherwise I could never have forced myself through such dribble. There were paragraphs I skipped over just to hurry though certain parts a bit quicker because I just couldn’t care less. In Mockingbird I cared about Scout, Jem and Atticus – in this book I couldn’t give a hoot.

There is evidence in this book that Lee is a good author – there are parts, especially the parts where she is looking back into Jean-Louise’s  childhood that really shine through which is perhaps why Lee decided to take the story back to when they were children in Mockingbird. The rest of it was a meandering argument she seemed to be having mostly with herself that was resolved in a slightly limp-wristed way.

If you don’t already know – the main gist of the story is that Jean Louise is returning home to visit her aging father Atticus who we all of course know as the hero standing up for a black man accused of rape. Home is also with her aunt Zandra and boyfriend Henry Clinton. All her life she (as well as countless of other readers) have looked up to Atticus as the upholder of moral values – only to discover that he isn’t that at all. He is in fact, slightly racist.

As I said – the book seems to serve the purpose of talking out an argument that Harper Lee has going on in her head. It is set during the time when black people have been awarded the vote. Now – if your memory for history is a little shady as you’ve been out of school for a while and civil rights was only a small part of your education anyway, the political background of this book is quite hard to easily grasp. It was written in a time when the context would have been relevant and more interesting. Published for today’s audience – it comes across as a little flat. Unlike Mockingbird, Watchman is not timeless – it is very much of its time.

Ultimately too – the characters are people of their time and their opinions as it turns out do not actually match with our twenty-first century opinions which have moved on (for most decent people anyway) from rather out-dated ways of thinking. Whilst Jean-Louise looks at her father in shock and horror when she discovers he is not quite the defender of black rights as she believed him to be – we too can look at her as not completely free of prejudice either.

This book will not live on as Mockingbird has done – a short very profitable exercise for its publishers and soon charity shop fodder. Although it is interesting as a study to almost experience ourselves the knowledge that our parents are not perfect and just fallible humans who get things wrong and may not be the people we thought them to be. We all go through that when we grow up – being able to see our parents as people behind the names of Mum and Dad. We as readers got to see Atticus in a different light, through an adult Scout’s eyes.

It is a shame that Lee did not return to this work and re-write it after Mockingbird because you can see that she is a fantastic writer. This work felt unfinished and unpolished. Had she spent some time re-writing it and expanding it then it would have been a better book. As it is presented to us now – in its original and untouched form it is just a disappointment. Not a disappointment in that I was expecting something better – I wasn’t – just a disappointment in what it could have been. I am not saying that I would have wanted a touched up version by some editor who may have tried to make Atticus less racist – it is good to get the unadulterated form – if it had to be published at all. it is just a pity in my opinion, that it was in the first place.

My book group was not overly keen on it either – it received a unanimous “meh” factor – but great to discuss at the very least.

Meow…

11/10/2015

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Will be waking up shortly… expect reviews for:

Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh

Farscape Comics

Demelza by Winston Graham

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

Meanwhile…

 

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2015-09-26 13.15.23

The Book Coop’s Top 100 List

23/08/2015

A few days ago I came across this article about Robert McCrum’s list of the best novels written in English. McCrum in case you don’t know was the editorial directory chap of Faber & Faber from 1979 to 1989 (according to Wikipedia) and has written a few books including P. G. Wodehouse: A Life and co authored The Story of English with William Cran and Robert MacNeil. Personally I know as much about him as I do about these books (nothing). Anyway – he spent two years coming up with this list. Here are the top ten:

 

1. The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan (1678)

2. Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (1719)

3. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (1726)

4. Clarissa by Samuel Richardson (1748)

5. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding (1749)

6. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne (1759)

7. Emma by Jane Austen (1816)

8. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)

9. Nightmare Abbey by Thomas Love Peacock (1818)

10. The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket by Edgar Allan Poe (1838)

The list has already been criticised for its lack of women, lack of fantasy and general diversity. The trouble with these lists also being that no one is going to agree with them. We all have our own opinions as to what should be there and what shouldn’t. I haven’t read a great deal of these I admit and the ones I have I didn’t even like very much apart from Tom Jones by Henry Fielding there. My main problem with this list though is that it is basically just a list of classic English books that anyone could come up with just by picking names out of a hat. It doesn’t say or do anything that hasn’t been done a million times before.

My second problem is – why the Hell should I care about Robert McCrum’s opinion? Until I read this article I didn’t know him. Why does he get to say these are the best books written in English – why him alone? I’ve always been a little sceptical really about lists. The ‘1001 Books Before you Die’ list for example – well why? I’m even distrustful of book prizes like the Booker or even the Pulitzer. (Personally speaking I think the Pulitzer Prise winners are more worthy. I have never read a Booker winner that I liked!) Why should I care about a list, written by a bunch of people I don’t know who are probably a load of book snobs. That’s a bit judgemental right there I guess, but who gets to make a list? What makes a person qualified to make a list official enough to be mentioned by The Guardian?

I prefer the BBC’s Big Read List as it is a list nominated by people and it is by far more representative – and contains good books. From Harry Potter to Ulysses, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to The Count of Monte Cristo. I may not agree with every book on there, but I feel every book deserves to be there and there are some good recommendations.

Well – all this got me thinking about my own top 100. What qualifies a person for making a list? I may not have a PhD in English Literature or ever be the director of a big old publishing house, or even write for The Guardian. However I read, don’t I? If Robert McCrum can make a list, so can I.

However now I have to think – what will this list be? It’d be too easy to just list a bunch of my favourites – a little too subjective. Of course, it has to be subjective otherwise I don’t think the list will be of any value. Objectively I can say The Book Thief is a good book. Subjectively I hated it.

So will my list be the same – English Language Authors? Or should I do International Authors? Or the Top 100 books beginning with the letter R.

I do like reading foreign authors but I probably haven’t yet read 100 of them. Also, I would then be sad to miss out many a good English language author. Maybe I should just settle with my 100 best of all time. Or I could split it up into categories. I would like to do continents – then I could really say it is the world’s best books. It might take me my life time in which to read enough books from every continent to be able to choose books that deserve to go on a list. And I’m not an organised reader enough to really concentrate on reading from such a narrow specification.

I’m beginning to see why it took this McCrum two years to write up this list. Frankly, I’m a little impressed – I won’t even read 100 books in two years due to my slothlike reading capabilities as of late. So don’t expect to see a list for a while yet – I’m speaking years, not days or weeks – years. By which time no one will remember reading this here blog post and who knows what will be going on in life. Of course – I do have a fair idea of some books already that should be on this list – maybe – if they fit.

This is work under construction. I need to decide on a theme – if there will be one – to my list. Hmm.

Book Review: 1864 by Tom Buk-Swienty

18/07/2015

This is a non-ficion book about the 1864 battle of Dybbøl in Denmark against Prussia, 18th April. Have you heard of it? Unless you’re Danish or German, or you’ve recently watched the Danish TV drama of the same title, it may not be too familiar.

The drama is a fictional account of the lives of the people who lived and fought through this war. It took inspiration from the book but though the characters in the series may share a few names and backgrounds, they are not portrayals of real people. I love Danish TV and film and it is refreshing to finally have something which is not crime or politics, but history. Especially a history that to begin with I knew very little about. I’m not going to go on too much about the drama – apart from the fact I loved it and for weeks it stuck with me and I couldn’t stop thinking about it after it finished. It has some of the best war scenes I have ever seen even in film. They are devastatingly real and they showed a true horror and honesty of war. It wasn’t gratuitous, but it didn’t censor anything or make it too clean like some other war dramas.

The war broke out in February after Denmark made the ‘November Constitution’ in 1863 which incorporated the duchy Schleswig  into the kingdom of Denmark. However it really started back in 1848 when a civil war broke out between the duchys Schleswig and Holstein and lasted three years. Denmark won the war but the  peace agreement known as the ‘London Protocol’ enacted by France and Great Britain stipulated that Schleswig and Holstein should remain independent and never be separated. So when Denmark tried to break this peace agreement it created fissures throughout Europe.

Prussia was primed for war. Otto von Bismarck at the time was suffering a political down turn. He sees the war as a way to regain confidence and power. Denmark’s Prime Minister of the National Liberal Party Monrad leads a patriotic fervour in Denmark in his own aspirations to expand Danish territory and claim back a land they think of as their own. It is a war of egos.

Neither France or the UK were forthcoming in their support for Denmark. Their cause was not popular and Denmark was unwilling to revoke the constitution or find a different way other than war. Denmark thus found itself alone against the much larger forces of Prussia and Austria.

1864 is about Denmark’s loss. How decisions made my political madmen condemned thousands of men to their deaths. Whilst Prussia exhibited an outstanding force and strategic brilliance, Denmark demonstrated mistake after mistake. Monrad was completely out of touch with what was really happening on the front and his government’s continuing instruction to defend Dybbøl at all costs, and refusal to allow the men to retreat resulted in Denmark losing land, in fact almost losing its entire existence as a country.

Tom Buk-Swienty tells the story of Dybbøl through the use of letters and memoirs from both sides of the trenches. His writing is often quite descriptive and sometimes it feels more like he is narrating a story but this is quite normal for some non-fictions nowadays. I imagine it appeals to people like me who do not generally read such books. Sometimes I feel it is too much – how can he describe something and present it as non-fiction when it is clearly being imagined. However this is my only criticism and frankly it is not one I am too much bothered by.

I really enjoyed this book, enough in fact to give it five stars over at Goodreads. It gripped me and I just wanted to keep reading. In fact after finishing I felt bereft. I didn’t want to leave the soldiers behind. I forgot that these people whose letters I read are long gone. If not killed in 1864 then died of old age. I enjoyed learning about these people and period of time. Reading the letters from soldiers, some who survived but many whom didn’t is heart-rendering because these are the letters of real people and it contained their hopes and fears, their love for the wives and children they would leave behind.

Buk-Swienty concentrated a lot on the emotional side of these men, their personal relations. One letter by a Prussian solider describes how a very brave soldier was found clutching a photo of his family and crying uncontrollably just before setting off on the 18th. He was later found dead. He goes into detail the wounds and disfigurements caused by shells, bayonets, bullets and shrapnel. The suffering of these men are great and it only reaffirms how horribly pointless the whole war was.

When we think of wars we think of the first world war or the second world war, but forget about all the wars beforehand, maybe because we do not learn much about them at school.  When we do look back to these wars it seems it is only with a sense of victory or righteousness. We won the Battle of Trafalgar, Captain Nelson as the hero and then the Battle of Waterloo with the Duke of Wellington. Although I confess – these are mostly names to me and I know little of the history behind them.

The memory of Napoleon reigns large in the minds of the people taking part in this battle. Many of the old commanders were veterans of the Napoleonic wars. What was war like back then? Perhaps not so large in scale as the first world war and without the more advanced weapons. How did people cope? How many lives were ruined throughout history and the seemingly constant bickering going on in Europe.

Reading this book makes me want to find out more. I would like to learn about Florence Nightingale, the Red Cross, the Crimean Wars and the Napoleonic Wars as well as the rise (and fall) of Prussia. I should really focus my area of interest, when I do settle down to read a non-fiction I tend to jump all over the place.

Some historians believe that the battle of Dybbøl foreshadowed the first world war – Denmark upset a pot of boiling water over fragile European relations and bolstered Prussia’s confidence leading to the unification of the German empire in 1871. If Denmark had better leaders in charge of the war (or had not sacked the most competent commander and replaced him with a stooge) then history may be a little different today.

I hope some more of Tom Buk-Swienty’s will be translated to English by his wife. I believe he has written one about Wilhelm Dinnesen who features a bit in this book. He is father to Karen Blixen who is famous for her book “Out of Africa”.

I’d recommend watching the TV series if you can and reading the book as itmakes a good companion to  the series. I really enjoyed both and they are probably the highlights of my TV and literary year so far.

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