2013: A year in 10 books

There’s a bit of a theme to my reading this year: as with my blog for part of the year, there’s a definite Roman/Italian tinge to some of my reading!   I’m not going to blog about all of them (I’ve already blogged Untangling the Web in any case) but just a few that stood out (for both positive and negative reasons!) with thanks to Goodreads for helping me keep track.  Resolution for next year: to read more.

coriolanusbookI ended the year reading Coriolanus, before during and after seeing the Donmar Warehouse stage version.  It made me remember how much I miss reading, watching and studying drama.  Still not sure what to make of everything that happens in this one, but it could be new favourite Shakespeare play (after Hamlet studied to death at school!).


tigressA bit of an obscure one inspired by (say it quietly) watching The Borgias.  This was the amazing story of Caterina Sforza di Riario Medici.  Born the illegitimate daughter of a duke of Milan, she mingled with popes and Cardinals, was both imprisoned in and held Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo, survived the death of two husbands, held the besieged city of Forli, and basically lived a life completely unlike what we might expect of a 15th century noblewoman.


This was great preparation for both our visit to Pompeii and for the British Museum exhibit.




dominionDominion was a stunning reimagining of what life would have been like if Britain hadn’t entered the Second World War, and instead was under the control of Hitler’s Germany in the 1950s.  I think it appealed even more as its central character was a conflicted civil servant – I loved the little details as well, such as the processes involved in accessing top secret files.  I came to Dominion as a result of reading Samson’s Winter in Madrid  – another tale of a civil servant turned spy that I really loved reading.


I bought The Reason I Jump for someone who works in a SEN school, and they very kindly let me read it.  It’s a series of little vignettes from a teenage boy with autism in Japan, translated by David Mitchell.  This was an unexpected delight, and gave some real insights into how the world as experienced by people with autism.



I didn’t enjoy this as much as Chevalier’s other works – notably Girl with a Pearl Earring and Burning Bright.  It’s the story of women (including archaeologist Mary Anning whose discoveries helped shape the discipline) who stand apart from what’s expected of them, but can’t quite escape the confines of Victorian womanhood.



Others didn’t make quite the hoped-for impression but I was still glad to have read them…

neuroI finally made it to the end of William Gibson’s Neuromancer, after not a few false starts over the years.  Not sure why it’s never really appealed.





This wasn’t the same Bridget Jones that we remember fondly from the late 90s – this is a grown up widow with children and  a financial cushion that makes her harder to identify with.




I’m persevering for this one, as it was much-anticipated after reading and being fond of both its series predecessors: Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood.

Writing Britain at the British Library

This exhibition exploring the relationship between literature and landscape in the British Isles is part of the London 2012 Festival and Cultural Olympiad.   It’s hard to know where to begin in this attempt at a review, as the treasures of British (and Irish) literature just kept on coming – from illuminated manuscripts, handwritten manuscripts like Middlemarach; letters from Charlotte Bronte and Dickens; scribblings by James Joyce; letters and typed notes from George Orwell; right up to more present day items including Ian McEwan’s draft of On Chesil Beach (written by hand in a spiral bound notebook no less); and Kazuo Ishiguro’s scribblings titled “Butler in England” (which turned out to be the eventual Remains of the Day).  You can see the complete list of items on display here.

There are so many different ways that this exhibit could have been put together – by region, by time period for example, but the curators have chosen to display the content thematically, covering:

  • Rural Dreams – the legends and stories of the British Isles
  • Dark Satanic Mills – the impact of the Industrial Revolution and the city
  • Wild Places – the influence of wild landscapes, such as the moors (think Wuthering Heights)
  • Beyond the City – from Chaucer’s pilgrims starting their journey on the outskirts of Southwark to today’s suburban influences;
  • Cockney visions – writing London
  • Waterlands – the influence of lakes, rivers and the sea. 

The curators of the exhibition must have shared their inspiration with Danny Boyle to some extent, as many of the Olympic ceremony’s themes were reflected here too – the destruction of the rural idyll giving way to post-industrial revolution literature bemoaning the life in cities.   Yet, the city and the suburbs (where else would J. G Ballard’s Crash and the Harry Potter series be viewed in the same category) move to a more central status.  It’s apt that I was about halfway through reading Zadie Smith’s NW – as in White Teeth (which was featured in the exhibition), the author’s north-west London is again almost a character in its own right, holding the others in place  

An exhibition like this cries out for audio-visual support, though, and it was there – in videos with contemporary authors detailing the impact of wild spaces upon their work, and a similar piece the influence of London.  Readings from poets such as Auden, Larkin, Hughes et al showed the extent to which their writings may have influenced by their location – even if their accents weren’t!  The visualisation of the landscapes play second best to the written word though.

I guess I was most affected by some of the Northern Irish displays – including Seamus Heaney’s reading of “An Aisling in the Burren” from Station Island which I can’t find online, but which brought back to life landscapes familiar from my own childhood. 

Sweet Tooth

I’m not talking about my taste for chocolate here, rather the latest offering from Ian McEwan that I could easily have devoured in one sitting.  Moving away from the more comedic territory of Solar, this novel returns to familiar McEwan themes – the role of the writer, the place of fiction, and the manipulative power of the author for example – and employs a plot device akin to that used in Atonement.  Even though I’d guessed a little of what was really happening before the final chapter’s big reveal, I wasn’t disappointed.

McEwan apparently claimed in a recent Edinburgh Festival appearance that he’s not a British (as opposed to purely English) writer, but for me viewing this as a purely “English” piece of fiction didn’t and doesn’t really ring true.  So, Selena Frome (her surname rhymes with plume, it’s been drilled into me, so I’ll repeat it here), the narrator, a flawed graduate recruit to MI5, works in an organisation focused on the political struggles of the early 70s, developing a fascination with both sides of the Northern Ireland troubles, even though her primary focus is on combatting 20th Century communism in all is guises.

The action takes place in the early 1970s – within my own lifetime, but an utterly unrecognisable landscape, still affected by postwar uncertainties (economic, social and geopolitical), and learning to live with the freedoms of the 1960s.  As a civil servant, I thankfully don’t recognise the atmosphere of hostility towards women that Serena encounters in the office setting, nor the lack of prospects that even a well-educated female of the time seems to have been up against.

McEwan again pokes fun at the writer’s craft – through the earnest Serena’s disdain for novelists’ tricks, for example.  She has to rank novelists as part of her new intelligence role, while McEwan’s contemporaries, including his publisher and a young Martin Amis, make guest appearances.  Tom Haley – the novelist  who takes on the voice of Serena while being lied to by her – is faintly ridiculous, while McEwan shows he can laugh at himself by using his own early writings and making fun of the institution  that he and the rising young author share.  But in doing so, is he also laughing at us as well?

Evolving English at the British Library

I had a quick whizz round the fascinating Evolving English exhibtion at the British Library after work.  It’s a really interesting mix of rare printed works in old, middle and modern English from throughout the ages to more mundane things like notes of phone calls taken at work, and songs from various parts of the UK and the rest of the English speaking world.

It was fascinating to see the earliest printed book, and illustrated manuscripts, for example Beowulf, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, The Canterbury Tales and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (all of which I’ve studied).   From later times, there was  a letter supposedly in Henry V’s own handwriting, which was more recognisably English.

But it wasn’t just great works of literature represented.  There was equally a focus on “everyday” English with the 1440 “Boke of Kokery” (cook book!) as important as Viz!.

I thought the 19th Century grammar books for children were brilliant – using poetry to introduce nouns, adjectives, verbs etc as guests at a party – so adjectives:

“took their places/

Before the great Nouns, and turn’d round with a sneer/

To tell what their virtues and qualities were”

It was great too that they used music to demonstrate accents – so Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s Murder on the Dance Floor (and especially the way she pronounces “dance”) was used as an example of received pronunciation, with the Proclaimers unsurprisingly used as an example from Scotland.  And I never knew that there was such a thing as “Valspeak”.

I think more could have been made of the regional dialects – I noticed a passing reference to Ulster Scots and Northern Irish English, but I guess they could have had a whole exhibition on that.  I hope people don’t go from this thinking that all NI peoople speak and sound like the old guy from co Tyrone who was singing in a way that’s totally different from the way I speak ;-D

I even added my own voice to the voicebank – doing a reading of an extract of Mr Tickle.  I realised as I was doing it that reading out loud meant that I wasn’t exactly pronouncing some words as I would if I was, say, at home in Northern Ireland or tired, for instance.

I wish I’d had more time and space (a bit like the Book of Kells and other similar exhibitions people tended to cluster around interesting artefacts), but it was lovely to see some of these rare pieces of literary and linguistic history.  I actually said to someone afterwards that I think this should be a permanent exhibition at the Library, as it really does trace the language’s development in interesting and relevant ways.


I thought I should write a post as it’s World Book Night.  I’ve just finished David Mitchell’s Number9dream (the name comes from the Beatles song and brilliantly captures the structure).  This novel has been recommended to me so many times that I felt I was missing out by not reading it.  Having read, it I’m not so sure, as it took me a number of goes to actually get into this one.  And I had to restart after a couple of breaks, which tells a tale in itself.

I do appreciate how this work was put together, and the innovative way in which different techniques were used to illustrate this story – 8 sequences.  But I felt it lacked warmth; by the end I was empathasing with the main chracter, Eiji Mikake and his search for his father, but it took me a long time to get there.

Reviewing Never Let Me Go (spoilers attached!)

It’s always difficult to watch the film of a much-loved book as you find yourself nit-picking “No it wasn’t like that”, or “that’s not what happened”.  That’s probably never been more true for me as I sat down to watch the film version of Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, which is one of my favourite books.

It’s obvious that a film can never completely replicate the stylistic decisions that an author has made; so it was made clear from the very beginning that this is an alternative vision of reality, one where sickness and ill-health have virtually been abolished.  So, unlike the book where differences are made clear gradually, and surprise is key, the viewer is obviously going to be treated very differently, and have a different experience as a result.

We get answers to some of the questions that readers of the novel may have asked.  Readers often ask why do the children, and later adults, not just run away – here they are rigidly controlled by electronic tagging wristbands.   Other images of control and order were also vividly present – regimented rows of medicine for the children, for example.   Those additions actually worked well, but I found there to be more omissions, some of which detracted from the strength and power of the original story. 

A key loss was the significance of the song “Never Let Me Go”, and the hunt for Kathy’s missing tape.  We don’t hear about the headmistress’s tears as she watches a young Kathy pretending to be a mother, while Kathy’s adult relationship with Tommy is compressed – causing it to question its sincerity.  Similarly, we don’t get much of the background or social context which is briefly conveyed to Tommy and Kathy in their visit to Madame.

None of this means that I didn’t enjoy the film.  I did: it was by no means a comfortable watch any more than the book is a comfortable read.  The film makers have created a deeply unpleasant world which raises ethical and moral questions which don’t ever seem to be even raised by carers, donors or ordinary people.  That in itself was unsettling, as were the landscapes and muted colours.  Even more so were the agonies undergone by the characters, but particularly Ruth (Keira Knightley) and Tommy (Andrew Garfield).  The former was twisted and angry, while the latter was so deliberately quiet and vulnerable.  Carey Mulliagn’s Kathy was almost like my own vision of Kathy H.

I’m glad that the film makers didn’t try to sugar coat the awfulness and vision of this world, and there are no attempts at glib happy endings as narrator Kathy leaves us waiting for her own donation process to begin. 

All in all, a powerful watch.

It was interesting to hear Andrew Garfield and the Director talking about the project, and how they had tried to bring some Japanese influences into the film; previously, there have been discussions around how Ishiguro’s joint English and Japanese heritage may have impacted upon character development within both  Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day. 

See the trailer at http://www.neverletmegomovie.co.uk/

Breaking the rules

Like anybody, I’m a sucker for a bargain, and especially book bargains.  Seeing that W H Smith’s latest half price deal was Marian Keyes’ The Brightest Star in the Sky, I decided to forgo my reading list for a little while.  Where’s the harm?

Keyes is often dismissed as a chick lit writer, which is doing her a real disservice.  She belongs to that blend of current Irish female writers (I would also include Cecilia Ahern in that category) who combine a real focus on serious issues (alcoholism, depression, domestic violence, drug problems), with magic realism and accessible writing styles.  Sadly, all too often these writers get marketed as chick lit, which “they” say the serious reader is not supposed to like.   Well, no apologies for breaking that rule!

The Blind Assassin

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After a slow start, I really got into this Margaret Atwood novel, a novel within a novel within a novel.

It’s very different to any of the other Atwood works that I’ve read so far; this novel is firmly rooted in reality (although the embedded novel “The Blind Assassin” allows Atwood to give sci-fi a go, there’s no sign of the dystopia or concern for the environment that were so marked in The Year of the Flood, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Oryx and Crake.  That said, the format allows the fate of women to be explored effectively.

I’ve seen the novel referred to as historical fiction somewhere (I think on Shelfari elsewhere), but that’s a definite misnomer in this case.  True, the novel uses the device of the main character, Iris, writing her own history for her grandchild, and traces some of the history of Canada from the First World War to the 1990s, when the old woman intermingles the domestic fears of old age with memory of a youth when, motherless, she was essentially “sacrificed” in marriage to save her father’s business during the Depression.  Her husband and his sister are despicably superficial and socially aware bullies from whom she manages to escape with her dead sister’s novel to sustain her.

“Fact” and “fiction” intermingle and it’s clear that the “history” we are presented with is by no means accurate or “true” and truth is only revealed near the end of the novel, although an astute reader will largely have guessed the real story that is hidden in the Chase novel, and be silently championing the love affair and its consequences at the heart of both novels.

Progress and frustration (of the reading kind)

Remains of the Day

Image by elycefeliz via Flickr

I’m making good progress through my reading resolution list – largely thanks to more than 5 hours spent on train journeys on one day. But, my reading order has gone out the window.

From the number of times I mention Never Let Me Go, it’s pretty obvious it’s one of my favourite books. I’ve tried only one other Ishiguro novel – A Pale View of Hillsand found that equally compelling. I’ve had The Remains of the Day recommended to me so many times I thought it was time to give it a chance – even though the glimpses I’ve seen of the Anthony Hopkins/Emma Thompson film didn’t give me much hope. It always felt so stilted.

This is one of those books that belongs to the long line of novels dealing with the post war decline of the big house in English society – there were immediate links to it’s counterpart Atonement in many respects. But I think this is probably the first of these novels that’s been I’ve read that’s been written from the ‘downstairs’ perspective.

And what a perspective! Such an annoying and frustrating (should that be frustrated?) character I think I’ve yet to meet. This dessicated character’s sense of his own importance is bound up with that of his master’s, and he views history from the sidelines while those around him (even his dying father) fail to reach beyond this surface quest for ‘dignity’ which comes at the expense of humanity.

Last year I completed an online course introductory course in literary theory, and just wish I had the time to give this a detailed political analysis – I’m sure Marxists would have a field day with this.

Anyway, i felt I had to vent about this character. Now it’s onwards to the blind assassin!

My New Year’s Reading Resolutions

Portrait of Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882 –...

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Since my post on Room, I’ve succumbed and bought a kindle and I’m finding that this has changed my reading habits, not to mention increased my access to the full range of classics as most of them are free. I won’t just read books on kindle – I’ll continue to buy paperbacks, that’s for sure, but I’ve somehow developed a list as long as my arm of items to read. A combination of books I’ve started and neglected, books I need to finish, new books I’ve bought, books I’ve downloaded onto the kindle, and (best of all) the freebies that I’ve downloaded onto the kindle. I don’t usually have more than one book on the go at once, but thanks to this device I do now.

 To try and organise myself, I’m going to (try to) be quite strict about what I read from now on: so in a changeable order, I’m going for:

  • Burmese Days (Orwell) – finishing off paperback
  • The Waves (Virginia Woolf) – paperback
  • Why E=MC2 (Brian Cox) – (started on kindle, need to complete)
  • Cleopatra’s Daughter (Margaret Moran) (I’ll deserve a guilty pleasure after the science)
  • Toast (Nigel Slater) – (finishing off on Kindle)
  • The Remains of the Day (Kazuo Ishiguro, inspired by Never Let Me Go, and A Pale View of Hills that I finished before Christmas)
  • To the Lighthouse (Virginia Woolf)
  • Bone China (Roma Tearne, inspired by Brixton Beach that I read last year)
  • Midnight’s Children (Rushdie – I started this for a bookclub, but didn’t get very far, so this is a restart)
  • number9dream (David Mitchell; again, another restart – I’ve had this recommended to me by so many people, that I feel it deserves another chance)
  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (Philip K Dick) (ditto number9dream)
  • The Aeneid (Virgil)
  • Clarisssa (Richardson; the longest novel in the English language, I think. I’ve owned this for a few years, but it’s too heavy to cart around so I’m never going to comfortably read it on the train where most of my reading gets done these days)
  • Ulysses (James Joyce)
  • The Blind Assassin (Margaret Atwood, on kindle version; I’d actually forgotten about this til I started making this list!)
  • The Vampyre’s Tale (Polidori – the 19th Century vampire novel that started them all)
  • Dracula’s Guest (a kindle freebie and follow up to Dracula)
  • Anna Karenina (Tolstoy and another kindle freebie)
  • The Last Man (Mary Shelley and another freebie)

As I’ve recently discovered Shelfari.com, I’m hoping that this will act as a good visual reminder/count of what I’ve read through the year. But, in the meantime I’ve been sidetracked by my trip to see “The King’s Speech” at the cinema (I’ll blog about that later) and have found a paperback bio of George VI and the Queen Mother.

Now, the challenge is to stay away from bookshops both real and virtual and do this list justice.