19 Dec 2012

"The Odessa File" by Frederick Forsyth

Have you heard of Simon Wiesenthal? If not you seriously need to google him pretty much right now. He was a very special, very cool man who dedicated his life to chasing nazis who had actively participated in the atrocities during WWII. In his quest to bring these criminals (I'm really wanting to write a much less diplomatic word) to justice, he had to give up a lot of things that most people would be reluctant to and his work paid off and some of the most disgusting nazis were made to pay for their crimes.
Simon Wiesenthal is one of the inspirations for "The Odessa File" by Frederick Forsyth, a 1972 novel, which tells the story of a young freelance reporter who finds himself getting tangled up in the chase of a  
man who lead a concentration camp in Riga. Although the Peter Miller lives a disorganized life of reporting and relaxing with his gorgeous girlfriend, the eh... showdancer... Sigrid. When he comes across the diary of an old man who has killed himself, he first regards it as nothing more than an interesting story. But the more he researches and learns about the story, the more it starts to affect him. It is a gruesome tale of a Jewish man who experiences the worst of nightmares under the nazi regime and Peter Miller decides that he must chase down the responsible commander and find out if he is still alive. And if he is alive, he wants revenge or justice or at least to make this beast face his past.

As crime fiction goes, this one is pretty good. At least in my opinion. As historical fiction maybe not so much... But it works for what it is. The only thing that really got to me was the ending, I would have written that differently. But that might just be me. It is a popular book that has sold a lot so it might be that I'm just being difficult... All in all a bit of a meh read for me, should probably have read a Wiesenthal biography instead.

16 Dec 2012

Are you "Brandwashed"? (by Martin Lindstrom)

Have you ever wondered what on earth persuaded you to buy those red skinny jeans/that post-modern poetry collection/the deconstructed flower vase? Or why you religiously choose Coca Cola over Pepsi? Or feel a strange kinship with the royal family?

If yes, then you NEED to read "Brandwashed" by Martin Lindstrom. For anyone not living in the Amazon jungle or rural North Korea, this will be an eyeopener. For those of us regularly trawling shops for things we don't need, this is a jolt, an awakening.
Lindstrom is a brading guru, has been on the Time magazine Influential 100 list and has worked with a number of the world's biggest, most influential companies on their branding strategy. This is a man who knows what he's talking about. And who will scare the living daylights out of you if you think that you're in charge of what you buy.

Did you know that you can target unborn children through music? For example by playing it in shopping malls thereby instilling a sense of familiarity that will mean they are attracted to going to the mall even as toddlers.

Did you know that you can actually be addicted to lip balm?

Did you know that a royal baby is one of the best PR stunts that a royal family can pull and that it often has a great impact on the popularity of the monarchy?

Did you know that the best way to market a product, the strongest, most impactful way is through referrals and recommendations? So next time you buy something your next-door-neighbour recommended, you might want to ask yourself if they have been employed to recommend it...

Do you want to know more? Well then you'll have to get yourself down to your local bookshop and get "Brandwashed" by Martin Lindstrom - it will give you a whole new take on branding and consumerism...

15 Dec 2012

Non-fiction for Real Women

I like a good memoir or a non-fiction book by a strong women who has opinions and experiences that the rest of us can learn from. These women are like on-the-page mentors and have taught me a lot of things while at the same time making me laugh or cry or both as I read their stories. 
"How to Be a Woman" by Caitlin Moran

"Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady" by Florence King

"Mystics, Mavericks and Merrymakers" by Stephanie Levine

"The Mitford Girls" by Mary S. Lovell

"Female Chauvinist Pigs - Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture" by Ariel Levy

"Mennonnite In A Little Black Dress" by Rhoda Janzen

8 Dec 2012

10 Reasons to Love "Mennonite In A Little Black Dress"

There are a lot (a lot!) of reasons to love "Mennonite in a Little Black Dress" by Rhoda Janzen but here I will pick out ten in the hope that this will convince to read this brilliant book:

1) Janzen grew up in a Mennonite community, left it to become an academic and then went back home to cook and write a fantastic memoir when her hapless husband Nick left her for a guy named Bob that he met on gay.com. She rocks.

2) This quote from page 24: "I hope it's clear by now that the Mennonites wouldn't want me. The only reason they're nice to me is that my dad is famous, my mom makes great pie, and I babysat their kids when I was twelve."

3) Her take on men (from page 62): "Hannah's husband was fabulous. Among Phil's many excellent qualities was the expression of zero interest in leaving his wife for a guy he had met on Gay.com."

4) She manages to make Germanic food such as Platz, Borscht and persimmon cookies sound oddly attractive and I did actually buy persimmons to try the recipes at the back of the book. Thanks Rhoda's mom!

5) Her musings on modern womanhood (page 166): "Consider how impossible it is, for example, to aspire to the role of virtuous woman when professional commitments dramatically interfere with jam delivery to oldsters."

6) Her musings on what makes a man sexy (page 203): "In my opinion, sexiness comes down to three things: chemistry, sense of humour, and treatment of waitstaff at restaurants."

7) Her observations on the sorority that she is faculty adviser to (page 210): "One twelve-degree evening in February, when there was eight inches of snow under a layer of slippery drizzle, my sorority gals celebrated their fellowship by donning denim minis, pink tights, and stilettos."

8) Her explanation of the difference between Amish and Mennonite (page 226): "But the Amish cut away from the Mennonites in 1693 because the rest of us were too liberal. That's rich, no? A liberal Mennonite is an oxymoron if ever there was one."

9) The way she manages her mother who is a typical, practical Mennonite woman who at times approaches life in a different way: "If your mother takes a frozen uncooked chicken in her suitcase to Hawaii, all bets are off. You just go with the flow."

10) The fact that she manages to tell a tragic story about a woman who looks after and takes care of her mentally frail husband who then leaves her when she herself is at her most fragile without letting the grief and the unfairness take over. Instead she turns it into a story about life,  hope and looking towards the future, she is an inspiration.

24 Nov 2012

Role Models - Fascinating Fictional Females

I'm not sure if I'd call myself a feminist - I'm not that into the whole women-against-men rhetorics to be honest but I'm happy to confess that I love nothing more than a book with a strong female protagonist. Like Katniss Everdeen or Scarlett O'Hara. I like my women, like I like my G&T - strong and unapologetic. 
And with no further ado, here's my list of books that features strong, sassy females who make for great (albeit fictional) role models and mentors: 

"Rules of Civility" by Amor Towles

"The Best of Everything" by Rona Jaffe

"Gone With The Wind" by Margaret Mitchell

"A Vision of Loveliness" by Louise Levene

"The Stars in the Bright Sky" by Alan Warner

"The Summer Without Men" by Siri Hustvedt

18 Nov 2012

About the English Upper Class

We all have topic that we are especially fond of reading about and one of my favourite topics is the English upper classe. Why, you ask? I have no idea - but I have an odd attraction to reading about these wellie-wearing, tweed-clad, labrador-petting people. If you share my fascination, you're likely to enjoy these novels: 

"Snobs" by Julian Fellowes

"Past Imperfect" by Julian Fellowes

"The Shooting Party" by Isabel Colegate

"My Last Duchess" by Daisy Goodwin

"Brideshead Revisited" by Evelyn Waugh

"Palladian" by Elizabeth Taylor (no, not that Elizabeth Taylor)

"The Pursuit of Love" by Nancy Mitford

17 Nov 2012

"Mystics, Mavericks and Merrymakers" by Stephanie Wellen Levine

Ever read a book that had you gripping it tightly with anticipation? That was so full of emotions, actions, excitement that whenever you weren't reading the book, you were thinking about the book? A book that left you wanting more and made you yearn for a sequel? 

I read a book like that recently and much to your surprise, it was a non-fiction book. Probably the most gripping non-fiction I have ever read and definitely one of the best books I have read in 2012. "Mystics, Mavericks and Merrymakers: A Intimate Journey Among Hasidic Girls" by Stephanie Wellen Levine is a master piece in its genre. Having studied psychology, I have read a good number of similar books and this one stands out because it is written with passion, with a true interest and love by an author who can write. Levine is more than just a researcher, writing an academic text, she is an author chronicling lives. 

The lives she chronicles are those of Hasidic, Lubavitch teenage girls who live in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in a tight-knit, highly orthodox Jewish community. Everything in their lives is centered around the Jewish, Hasidic faith. They go to the Bais Rivka high school, a girls only school where they are required to very kosher clothes - no pants but long skirts and shirts covering their elbows. They obey the kosher food rules and have pizza at a local Hasidic pizzeria, where although both girls and boys come there, they talk only to other girls. A good Hasidic girl does not interact with males outside of her immediate family. 
They have hopes and dreams, the listen to music and watch movies (albeit only approved, Jewish music and movies) and they love shopping. However, in all of this their focus is on their God and while other, "normal" teenage girls might discuss hot boys and dating, these girls are more likely to discuss whether the Rebbe, a central religious leader, is the Messiah. Dating is not an issue for these girls because a majority of them will meet their future husband through a matchmaker and will marry him in a traditional, gender-segregated Lubavitch ceremony after as little as three dates. Falling in love is not a goal, growing to love your spouse is. 

This might make it sound like all of these girls are alike but nothing could be further from the truth. In this book, Levine introduces her reader to the a group of girls as individual as they come. There is the rebel who reads Satre and Freud, a rebel who works as a waitress in a strip club to fund her rent and college tuition. There's the academic, high-achieving golden girl who wants to train as a doctor and raise a traditional Lubavitch family at the same time. There's the normal girl whose frustrated mother sometimes takes her anger out in violence against her children. There's the highly religious girl who sometimes, secretly wishes she was a boy so that she could study the Torah instead of doing womanly chores such as cooking and cleaning. There's the girl whose faith is so unwavering that she wants to leave the safety of the community to spread the word about Lubavitch in faraway places where she and her husband will be the only Lubavitchers. 
It is a stunning insight into their lives. A fascinating, easily readable, tale of the strength of young women. Of their resourcefulness and intelligence and big hearts. Reading this inspired me and left me full of hope and love for the young women of today who have so many expectations forced upon them from media and society and yet manage to emerge as strong women. 

Read it if: You find teenage girls and their hopes and dream interesting. You want insight into a very different culture, thriving in the midst of New York. You want something to juxtapose the vacuousness of shows such as Gossip Girl and 90210, something with a bit more bite and a bit more value. 

15 Nov 2012

In the Style Of Jane Austen

Jane Austen is one of my favourite authors and many are the times where I have lamented that fact that she didn't write more books. If it was up to me, she would have written ten times as many books! Alas, she didn't so for years I have been on the hunt for books that remind me of her style and where the characters have the same sense of humour, a similar innocence and spirit and the same capacity for reflection.

This is what I have found - if you like books by Jane Austen, you will also like:

"I Capture the Castle" by Dodie Smith

"The Nonesuch" by Georgette Heyer

"Jane Eyre" by Jane Eyre

"Regency Buck" by Georgette Heyer

"Old Friends and New Fancies" by Sybil Brinton

"Vanity Fair" by William Makepeace Thackeray

12 Nov 2012

"The Lonely Polygamist" by Barry Udall

Sometimes a man wants to come to home from a hard day's work to a little peace and quiet. I imagine. Golden Richards does not have that luxury, ever. With three households, four wives and a large number of children, peace is a highly rated commodity last seen three marriages and a large number of children ago. Mayhem, chaos, screaming and living room races are the order of the day, yet in the midst of all of this life, Golden Richards is a lonely man. A lonely polygamist. 

If you have read "The 19th Wife" by David Ebershoff or "The Chosen One" by Carol Lynch Williams you might have a pretty bad perception of polygamists and mormons. And polygamist mormons. If you want a different take on things, you need to read "The Lonely Polygamist" by Barry Udall where the focus is not on the children of polygamist families as in the two other books but on the husband, the one who is often blamed as the bad guy. 

There is nothing bad about Golden. Nothing at all. He is a good, lovely, loveable man but he is also completely incompetent when it comes to decision-making. As the captain of the family, he is useless. Thankfully he has four wives to lean one, although they all wish that he would lean a little less and lead a little more... But seeing as he doesn't, they run the family, deciding how, what, when and where at the weekly Summit of the Wives. If it wasn't for the fact that it is Golden's construction company that brings in the money to fund food and soon to be hand-me-down clothes for the many children, they would do just fine without him. And most of the time they have to because Golden's business means that he has to drive far to work on projects - to their knowledge, he is building a care home for the elderly in the Nevada desert. In reality he is building a brothel. And this is just one of the many worries, that Golden struggles with and that make him so terribly lonely. 

Golden has a constant feeling that he is not doing well enough. He is struggling to finance the lifestyle with the three households and the many many children, he is struggling to live up to the expectations from the church's Elders, he is struggling to get along with his manager, he is struggling not to lust after his manager's wife and he is struggling to reconcile with his past. His life is a house of cards and a tornado is fast approaching. 
So caught up is he in his own trouble that he doesn't notice that of others. His wife Rose-of-Sharon is growing more and more depressed, their son Rusty is being swept away in a current of hormones and his difficulties finding his feet as a teenager is being interpreted as lack of good behaviour. Trish, the most recent wife, is finding it hard to adjust to life as a fourth wife and having to share her husband with other women. The tension builds and builds around the hapless Golden who entirely fails to notice anything but his own troubles. 

It is a stunning book. I read and read and ready and couldn't stop - I was entirely caught up in the lives of the people in this polygamist family. Trish really struck a chord with me as she beat her doubts and emotions into submission to give herself room to live up to expectations.

The way that Udall portrays the polygamist lifestyle somewhat underplays the difficulties and frustrations that it holds and it does come across as slightly more idyllic than I imagine it really is. This is forgivable though because it is necessary to tell the story. It is a love story but it is not about falling in love, it is not about loving because of - it is about loving despite!
It is a about the love not between a man and a woman but the love that binds a family together even though they don't necessarily agree. And as such it is beautiful and enjoyable. As such it also has a strong message: that the love portrayed in countless romantic movies and book is not the only form of love and that we can be happy even though our lives do not conform to the general idea about the perfect life. 

Read it if: You're not afraid to confront your own prejudices. You want to challenge your own perceptions of what the right way of living is. 

20 Oct 2012

"Stolen" by Lucy Christopher

Sometimes nothing will do but a re-read of a much loved book. Even though you know the story and the characters, some books are so special that you can read them again and again and still find something interesting, new or fascinating in them while at the same time the known provides a certain comfort. Last weekend I needed that comfort so I snuggled under the duvet with one of my favourite YA reads, "Stolen" by Lucy Christopher. 

The story is an unusual one. Gemma is a lucky 16-year-old girl. She lives in a wealthy part of London with her financier father and art dealer mother and it is a pretty easy life until one day, it is all taken away from her. She's travelling to Vietnam on vacation with her family, when she meets a handsome young man in Bangkok Airport. He buys her a cup of coffee and suddenly everything is blurred. Next thing she knows, Gemma is in the Australian outback, hundreds of miles from the nearest city, far away from her family and friends. The only one there is Ty, the young man who has abducted her. Why he has taken Gemma and what he wants from her is a mystery to her and is slowly revealed to both her and the reader. 

This is YA as it should be. Powerful, convincing, different and realistic. There's no paranormal romance here, yet it has some of the same qualities. As with many paranormals, this is set in a world very different to the one you and I live in and the rules are completely different. It is realistic yet it has the same magic as a good paranormal romance would have and it will appeal to the same readers. 

What is interesting is that even though there are only really two characters in the plot, it still feels dynamic and full of action with lots of interesting dialogue. These two main characters are well-written and come to live, their personalities spring out of the pages, so real are they. The work that Lucy Christopher has done on her protagonist Gemma and the difficult Ty means that this novel is classes above many of the other YA books on the market. It is simply of a different - and better - quality and so much more interesting and powerful. 

The story is scary, worrying, while at the same time being gripping and sorrow-ful. The way that Gemma matures throughout the book is rarely seen in the genre and it makes her a good literary role model for teenage girls. It reminds me of Sophie McKenzie's "Girl, Missing" but this one is better written with a more believable plot and more engaging characters. So if you're wondering what to get your teenage daughter/niece/friend for Christmas, I'd say that "Stolen" is a good contender for a great present. 

Read it if: You like intelligent, emotionally mature Young Adult literature with a twist. 

5 Oct 2012

Buon Appetito! Italian Cookbooks to Make Your Mouth Water!

My regular readers will know that I love cookery books and they might also have guessed that I have a special thing for... Italian cookery books. Nothing beats it. The Italian cookery book above them all is of course "The Silver Spoon" but there are several other cookery books that also deserve a mention. Not to mention a place on my wish list. 

POLPO: A Venetian Cookbook (Of Sorts) by Russell Norman
Recently I ate at Polpo in Covent Garden. It was absolutely delicious so imagine my joy (and book lust) when I found out that there is a Polpo cookery book.
On amazon.com they say: "The 140 recipes in the book include caprese stacks; zucchini shoestring fries; asparagus with Parmesan and anchovy butter; butternut risotto; arancini, rabbit cacciatore; warm duck salad with wet walnuts and beets; crispy baby pizzas with prosciutto and rocket; scallops with lemon and peppermint; mackerel tartare; linguine with clams; whole sea bream; warm octopus salad; soft-shell crab in Parmesan batter with fennel salad; walnut and honey semifreddo; tiramisù; fizzy bellinis and glasses of bright orange spritz. With luminescent photography by Jenny Zarins, which captures the unfrequented corners, the bustling bàcari and the sublime waterways of Venice, POLPO is a dazzling tribute to Italy's greatest hidden cuisine."

"Two Greedy Italians" by Antonio Carluccio and Gennaro Contaldo
From amazon.com: "Over 30 years ago Antonio Carluccio and Gennaro Contaldo separately left their native Italy for Britain where, in time, they met, worked together and established themselves as leading authorities on Italian cooking. In this compelling book - written to accompany the primetime BBC series - the two old friends have embarked upon an amazing journey back to their homeland to reconnect with their culinary heritage, explore past and current traditions and reveal the very soul of Italian gastronomy. Containing over 100 mouthwatering recipes, this extraordinary book goes beyond the cliches to reveal real Italian food, as cooked by real Italians. It includes an intriguing combination of classic dishes and ingredients as well as others showcasing the changes in style and influences that have become a part of the Italy of today. Reflecting the insights of both men into Italy then and now, Carluccio and Contaldo's return captures the essence of its authors - their humour, their wisdom, their curiosity and, most significantly, their shared passion for good simple food. It is an essential book for anyone with a genuine interest in Italian food."

Nigellissima: Instant Italian Inspiration by Nigella Lawson
Nigella is the kind of woman that Italian men will whistle after on the streets. If they were aware what an amazing cook she is, they'd probably propose on the spot. She is so glamourous and her food looks scrumptious. 
On amazon.com this is what is written: "Italian food has colonised the world. Nigellissima shows us how and why in over 100 delicious dishes - from telephone-cord pasta with Sicilian pesto to the crustless Meatzza, from Sardinian couscous to Venetian stew, from penne to papardelle, from ragù to risotto, from Italian apple pie and no-churn ices to panna cotta and sambuca kisses - in a round-Italy quickstep that culminates in a festive chapter of party food, with an Italian-inspired Christmas feast as its mouthwatering centrepiece. From the traditional to the unfamiliar, here are recipes to excite the taste buds and the imagination, without stressing the cook."

1 Oct 2012

Review: "Daughter of Smoke and Bone"

If you've never been to Prague, you need to put it on your to-do list, preferably right at the very top. It is a wonderful city. Beautiful in a gothic way that works best in autumn when the leaves turn yellow and orange and the air is crisp and sharp. It is great for Christmas markets as well and the people of Prague throw a great party for News Years... and I'm getting off track. So back to topic. 

Last night I finished "Daughter of Smoke and Bones" by Laini Taylor and it was a great paranormal adventure. One of the things that I absolutely loved about this book is how different it is to many of the other paranormal romances out there. It doesn't take place in small-town America and the protagonist is not an average-looking girl with average talents and skills. Oh now, not at all. 

Karou is fierce! Gorgeous looking with natural blue hair and she's intelligent and a talented artist on top of that. Oh yeah, one cool lady. She lives on her own in a small flat in Prague where she studies art and hangs out with her friend Zuzana. Sometimes she will disappear though, for hours or days, leaving her life in Prague behind as she sets out on mysterious errands for the man in the shop. Brimstone raised her in his shops where dodgy tradesmen and hunters trade in teeth for wishes. Sometimes, however, the tradesmen can't come to the shop and instead Karou must travel to them, walking out of the door and straight into exotic places - Marrocco, Paris, Russia. In return for her work, Brimstone grants her small wishes and being a cool chick, Karou doesn't wish for goody-two-shoes as if she was some pageant beauty, no no, Karou wishes for the eyebrows of her rivals to grow fat and dark or for her ex-boyfriend's behind to itch at unfortunate times. She rocks. 
Then one  day while she is out on one of her errands, she encounters a beautiful angel who tries to kill her and from that day, her fate is sealed. Soon she is drawn into a centuries old battle between angels and chimeara and her relatively normal life is becoming less than normal. 

If you like your paranormal romance gutsy, exotic, interesting and different, then this is for you. It is a tour-de-force through an intriguing paranormal universe where humans are just the extras. It's cool in a way that very little paranormal fiction is and which I absolutely adored. If this book was a piece of clothing, it would be a pair of skinny jeans with leather back pockets, rock'n'roll for the masses. 

Read it if: You have a love for Prague and other Eastern European cities. You like your paranormal heroines to be more of the rock star type than the beauty queen type. 

26 Sep 2012

Review: "Black Water Rising"

There's something really special about reading a good thrilling book. One with a bit of crime, a bit of mystery and lots of thriller-elements - you know a book that makes you turn the pages faster and faster because you need, NEED, to know what happens next. 

"Black Water Rising" by Attica Locke is not one of those books. It wants to be, yes, but it's not. I picked it up last Saturday when the weather here in South London was gorgeous and really warm for a September day. My plan was to spend the entire afternoon on the balcony with a good book and I did. The book was not very good though. Actually it was really a disappointment, especially as it has had so much praise. 

The plot is good, it has a lot going for it. The main character is a young-ish lawyer by the name of Jay - he has a strong, intelligent wife, a lazy secretary and a traumatic past. On his wife Bernie's birthday, their romantic evening on the river is ruined when they fish a young, terrified woman out of the water. Although Jay is adamant not to become involved in what becomes an increasingly mysterious and threatening situation, he slowly but surely gets dragged in. Not just into the case of the young woman from the river but also in a union strike which his father-in-law, the reverend, is championing. The case of the young woman is by no means straight-forward and it brings out memories from Jay's politically active past which ended in disaster. 

So far so good. It all sounds really interesting. But somehow, somewhere, it all goes horribly wrong and it just becomes dull. Really, really dull. I'm not sure exactly what it is but I think it's quite possibly down to the main character. Jay painfully un-exciting. There is nothing, nothing, there to make me care about him. Actually that goes for most of the characters - the only exceptions being Jay's wife Bernie and her sister Evelyn who is a minor character. 
It was a struggle to finish this one, it didn't become interesting at any point and the characters never came to life. What a waste of a good plot and a sunny afternoon. 

Read it if: You can't fall asleep. 

23 Sep 2012

An Autumn Tune from Regina

I love crisp autumn days where the sky is clear blue and the sun makes the colours stand out in all there glory. The grass seems greener on those days, the last flowers of the year are almost defiantly pretty in the sharp light. This autumn I will be listening to Regina Spektor's album "What We Saw From the Cheap Seats" and if you're not a Spektor fan yet, please give this amazing song a try. It sounds like an autumn day in the city, it is amazing!

20 Sep 2012

For the Love of Retro Reading

My love for vintage books like Mary McCarthy's "The Group" and E. F. Benson's Mapp and Lucia books have sent me on a journey to discover vintage books. Classics. Retro readings. Call them what you like. Books that were written in another time, by another type of author, in another context but with a message that transcends time and tradition and still stands as valid as ever today. 

The best place to start that type of hunt is over on Stuck In a Book. This is the blog that will open your eyes to books you didn't know existed and today Simon's post on Diana Tutton's "Guard Your Daugthers" showed up in my facebook feed and I was hit by book lust-at-first-sight. I want it so badly. 

It is - according to Simon and various other sources - the story of a family living in a time pocket in rural England and it reminds many readers Dodie Smith's "I Capture the Castle" which is one of the best books ever. So really it not a case of, I want it. It is a case of I need it!

Other retro readings that I would love to get my hands on are: 

"The Rector's Daughter" by F. M. Mayor
A story of rector's daughter - 35-year-old Mary - who has spent her life devoting herself to her father and sister without wanting more until one day, she experiences love. 

"Cheerful Weather for the Wedding" by Julia Strachey
A wedding day. A bride-to-be. A whole lot of doubt. 

"Angel" by Elizabeth Taylor
About the risks of daydreaming and the fine line between dream and delusion. 

19 Sep 2012

Review: "A Vision of Loveliness"

The people who say that the world was a simpler place back in the days before internet, mobile phones, waterproof mascara and Topshop haven't read "A Vision of Loveliness" by Louise Levene. Or "The Rules of Civility" by Amor Towles. Or "The Group" by Mary McCarthy". Or "The Best of Everything" by Rona Jaffe. Books about women in the pre-waterproof mascara days essentially. 

But back to "A Vision of Loveliness". It's London in the 1960s and Jane is an intelligent and ambitions young lady who studies everything from Paris catwalking manuals to books about etiquette. She's eager, more than eager, to leave her life in boring Norbury behind and enter another, more glamourous world. So when she spots her ticket to this world, an expensive handbag left behind in a pub, she is not slow to grab it and she makes fast friends with the owner of the handbag, the radiant, beautiful Susie. 

Susie lives a life of champagne, expensive dinner and jewelry on the surface but beneath is a life in a dinghy, dirty flat, working as mannequin wearing sweat-stained dresses and trading "favours" for furs. To Jane, this looks like the glamourous life that she has dreamed of for so long - miles away from the Scotch eggs and economical dresses of her aunt's house in Norbury where there's a distinct lack of both money and love. 
At least in Susie's world there's money, even if love is thin on the ground... 

This is the story of London girls using their beauty and body to make a living in a time long before the glamour models and reality stars. Nothing comes for free, it is hard work staying beautiful for these girls and even at 19, they are aware that there is a sell-by date only a few years in the future. So they put everything on the line to get to where they want to be. They risk it all in the hope of hitting jackpot, of marrying a rick, upper class man. 

Read it if: You like Mad Men and the 1960's and the idea of Swinging London. If you enjoyed "The Group" or "The Rules of Civility" or "The Best of Everything"

16 Sep 2012

Book Shopping Spree...

Yes I have been on a book shopping spree. Online shopping that is. And here's what will be arriving for me in the mail soon...

"The Casual Vacancy" by J. K. Rowling
It's been pre-ordered and is due for release on September 27th! This is what it says on amazon.com: 
"When Barry Fairbrother dies unexpectedly in his early forties, the little town of Pagford is left in shock. Pagford is, seemingly, an English idyll, with a cobbled market square and an ancient abbey, but what lies behind the pretty façade is a town at war. Rich at war with poor, teenagers at war with their parents, wives at war with their husbands, teachers at war with their pupils…. Pagford is not what it first seems. And the empty seat left by Barry on the town’s council soon becomes the catalyst for the biggest war the town has yet seen. Who will triumph in an election fraught with passion, duplicity and unexpected revelations? Blackly comic, thought-provoking and constantly surprising, The Casual Vacancy is J.K. Rowling’s first novel for adults."

"The Unnumbered" by Sam North
This is what it says on amazon.co.uk:
"Contemporary London. You know what that's like. But there's another London too, another race: the streets are swirling with them. They have no jobs, no driving licence, no social security, no identity of any sort. They pass us by every day; the unnumbered. Nio is an unnumbered. He's twenty three, and Greek. He's built a home for himself in Coldfall Woods, with a roof for a floor and a floor for a roof. It's his secret, but not for much longer. The city has eyes and ears. It's coming to get him. Then there's dark eyed Mila. She's fifteen and lives with her parents in three caravans parked off the North Circular Road. She's an unnumbered too, like her little brother, but she's just bought herself an identity, and works as a checkout girl. It's a start. She's smart. She's going to reach the stars some day. She can feel it in the air. Lucas Tooth can sense it too. He works his charm on all these women; the hopeful, the sad, the desperate. He's the heartless best at this game, but only when they feel the fear does it bring him the pleasure. He's destroyed Anjali, once a hardworking student; now it's Mila's turn. But Nio and Mila fall in love; dreamer and realist. Together they will take on this London and all it can throw at them. But it is not an easy city. It exacts a hard tribute. The city has brought them together. The city could tear them apart."

"Black Water Rising" by Attica Locke
From amazon.com: 
"Jay Porter has long since made peace with not living the American Dream. He runs his fledgling law practice out of a dingy Houston strip mall—where his most promising client is a low-rent call girl—and he's determined to leave the sins of his past buried: the guns, the FBI file, the trial that nearly destroyed him. That is, until the night he saves a woman from drowning and inadvertently opens a Pandora's box. Her secrets reach into the upper echelons of Houston's corporate power brokers and ensnare Jay in a murder investigation that could cost him his practice, his family . . . even his life."

15 Sep 2012

Review: "The Leopard"

There are some books that thoroughly deserve the honor of being called classics. "The Leopard" by Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa is one of those books. There can be no doubt that it is a classic, a master piece of Italian literature.

If you haven't seen the film, then please please read the book first. It makes more sense that way and I promise you won't regret it. Both the book and the film are splendid. Written by Sicilian prince (yes, no kidding) Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, they tell the story of a crumbling aristocratic family but the story of the author is almost as good. Growing up among the upper classes on Sicily, Lampedusa was in many ways the last of his kind and the edition of the book that I read had a great introduction to the author and his work which was quite an advantage.

"The Leopard" opens in a magnificent villa in Sicily during the time of the Risorgimento when Italy went from being several states to one single state known as Italy. The Prince is ruling his house and his family, dominating the Princessand their brood of children, the dogs, the horses, even the pastor - only the Prince's nephew, Tancredi, can soften the Prince. The Prince is truly a fomidable man, the last of his species. At the hands of Garibaldi, the Italy of his youth is changing and a new class is taking over, a class that the old aristocracy considers crass, vulgar and nouveau riche. 

One of these new families are Don Calogero and his peasant wife and their beautiful daughter. Angelica is everything that the Prince's own daughter's with the good breeding and traditional values can't be. She is sensual and sexual, beautiful, radiant, intelligent and accomplished. So accomplished that she can even fake the breeding and connections that she lacks. 
Although he has previously been courting Concetta, the Prince's daughter, Tancredi falls hard and fast for Angelica and the Prince has to come to terms with the new ways of the world and accept that people that would previously not have been invited for dinner are now to be considered part of the family. 

It is an stunning story of a changing world. Not only is "The Leopard" quite possibly the best way to learn about a very important time in Italian history, it is also a lesson in the way the world changes and the way that we have to change with it - or at least accept change - in order to survive and thrive. 

Read if it: You're interested in Italian history or just history in general. You like classic literature with strong characters. And don't forget - read it before you see the film!

7 Sep 2012

Black Sisters in a Cold World

There are books that you almost fear to read because you expect them to be difficult, emotional, unpleasant or all of the above. This is sort of how I felt about "On Black Sisters Street" by Chika Unigwe. I had no idea what to expect from it - I liked the title but for some reason I didn't expect to like it, possibly because it deals with a wholly unpleasant subject. 

Sisi, Efe, Joyce and Ama are all African women who have been trafficked to dark, cold Antwerp to take up places in bars and windows as sex workers, second-class citizens in a country where they have no friends and no family. They have come to seek a better future for themselves and for those at home in Lagos and to reach this goal, they are willing to sacrifice anything. They have only each other and though they have little in common, they are bound together by their misfortunes and tragedies. 
Sisi is a university graduate who dreamed of  cushy job in a bank, enabling to support her family. When the dream turns to dust, she takes fate into her own hands and sets sail for Europe. Efe is a teenage mother who has to leave her son behind to pay for his school fees. Ama is met with lust instead of love by her Christian step-father and Joyce is a refugee of war. 

Unigwe tells the stories of these four, strong, tragic women who have met with so much pain, so much rejection and hurt, yet they still have compassion, they still dream of romance and of happiness. She weaves their stories together, braids them into one story of hope and human unkindness. It is deeply moving but without playing on your emotions. Elegantly written, it tackles difficult subjects - subjects that are violent, evil, in a dignified manner where the violence is present yet not overwhelming. The focus is on the women and the way they are shaped by their experiences. The way they survive it and come out on the other side. It is almost hopeful, but only almost... 

Read it if: You dare to confront the dark realities of the world by want to do so while reading a beautiful piece of literary fiction. 

5 Sep 2012

A Prostitute, A Highwayman and A Pirate Walks into a Bar...

I have officially become a convert to the fandom of Erica Jong. Before I brought "Fear of Flying" with me no holiday and realised that Jong is a genius, I was terribly prejudiced and sure that she was one of those horribly 1970's shouting feminist, burning bras and condemning the use of mascara. How very wrong I was, this is one cool woman! I love her books and currently, I'm working my way through her many great novels.

On the menu this weekend was "Fanny", a novel that sounds like it was a bit of project for Jong. This is not just any old novel, it is a novel published in the 1980s but written 18th century style yet with a very modern heroine.

Fanny Hackabout-Jones is a fierce young woman who has to go through an awful lot at a terribly young age.
Orphaned at birth, she was left in the care of Lord and Lady Bellars at Lymeworth and grew up as a child of the household. The rakish Lord Bellars is never at home, preferring the parties and women of London but when he returns to Lymeworth after a two-year long absence, he falls violently in lust with the beautiful 17-year old Fanny. All red hair, white skin and large bosom, the beauty is both Fanny's best asset but also her downfall. Raped by her stepfather, she flees Lymeworth to seek her fortune in London, hoping to make it as a female bard, a writer. Quite a dream for a girl of her age and her time and as in all good fairytales, she has to go through an awful lot of ... well ... awful stuff before she can fulfill her destiny.
On her way to London she takes part in a witches' ritual, loses a close friend and is robbed by highwaymen who abduct her. 
Eventually she makes it to London where she has to make a living in the oldest way possible... From there her adventures become more and more daring and dangerous and along the way she meets secret societies, sadistic sea captains and honourable pirates. 

This is a romp through another time. Full of rump. Like a Georgette Heyer with more sex and more drama. The plot is not believable at all but that's the point - it's not about the plot, it's about the spirit. And if there's something that Fanny is full of, it's spirit. She's a feisty young lady with plenty of courage and her story is well worth a read. 

Read it if: You like your women like you like your chili pepper: redheaded, fiery and full of power. 

29 Aug 2012

The Boring Lives of Others

Some of you might remember "Privileges" by Jonathan Dee which I reviewed a while ago and today, time has come to review his novel "Palladio". I had looked so much forward to reading this book because "Privileges" was so amazing and I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed Dee's writing. His writing is incredibly skilled and he can do things with words that few authors manage. He is an artist and his ability to tell a story is great. 

The story that Dee tells in "Palladio" is a story of star-crossed fates, maybe even star-crossed lovers. Molly grows up in suburbia in a dysfunctional home where love is sadly lacking and in depression, frustration and an attempt to find love, she does something that leads her to be ostracized not just from the town but from her family as well. She feels to Berkeley, where she meets John, a young, impressionable man who falls head over heels in love with her. When Molly one day disappears without any clue to why or where she is, she leaves behind a wound in John's soul that never quite heals. 
Years later, John is successful in the fickle world of advertising when the enfant terrible, the prodigy of the advertising world, Mal Osbourne, tempts him to leave New York in pursuit of art and adventure. John takes the leap to Virginia and becomes an important piece of the puzzle that is Osbourne's empire. But then one day, out of the blue, his and Molly's paths cross again. 

Despite all of his talent, his beautiful artistry, "Palladio" did not work for me. For a very specific reason.  The two main characters, Molly and John, are annoying, frustrating and I found them impossible to empathize with. John is a gutless whiner who takes no responsibility for his life and just lets it happen to him without taken active part. He is an anti-hero but not a lovable one. Molly is to be pitied. If John is not a pilot in his own airplane of life, she is not even an air hostess, hardly even a passenger. Throughout most of the book she is depressed and she lets the depression guide her life, lets it take control and steer her away from anything that might call on her passion, her will to live not just survive. It is impossible to feel any love, any  empathy, any interest in these two. 

The story is fantastic, it's a really good story, but the characters leave me cold. I can't help wishing that Dee had told the story from the angle of Mal Osbourne instead. This maverick of a man, a dreamer with little to no interest in his fellow men, is so much more interesting even if he is not more likeable. The story would still have been difficult to empathise with but at least it would have had the advantage of a dramatic protagonist. 

Read it if: You think your life sucks or you think you're a boring person -  Molly and John will put this into perspective!

26 Aug 2012

So what do modern women want?

Everyone wants the answer to that question - from men to marketing companies, there are plenty of people who would pay big money for the answer. I don't have it but this summer I've been reading through a whole bunch of feminist, modern-womens books in the hope of finding the answer to this and other equally important questions. And I think there's a book I will need to have for my journey, a guide books of sorts. Namely "The Feminist Bestseller: From Sex and the Single Girl to Sex and the City" by Imelda Whelehan. 

This is what it says on amazon.co.uk: 
Imelda Whelehan provides an overview of popular women's writing from the late 1960s to the present, looking at how key feminist texts such asThe Women's Room, Kinflicks and Fear of Flying have influenced popular contemporary fiction such as Bridget Jones' Diary and Sex and the City. Whelehan reconsiders the links between the politics of feminist thought, action and writing and creative writing over the past 30 years and suggests that even so-called 'post feminist' writing owes an enormous debt to feminism's second wave.

Have you read it and can you recommend it? 

25 Aug 2012

The Japanese Godmother of the Fifty Shades Segment

Though "Snakes and Earrings" by Hitomi Kanehara is a short book, very short really, it is one that leaves an impression. The first time I read it was a few years ago. I was on my way out to shop for dinner just as it started raining, so I decided to read for a few minutes to see if it would clear and picked up "Snakes and Earrings" and started on it. It did clear up relatively fast but by then I was deep in reading and I didn't stop reading until I had read the last page. Dinner was delayed by almost two hours.

It is a forceful book and though I rarely say this about any book, this one is not for the fainthearted or for the young. Though it was written by Hitomi Kanehara when she was only 21, I would not recommend it to anyone below the age of 18 as it contains some really explicit scenes of sex and violence.

Lui is a young Japanese woman who is emotionally fragile and depressed. Her boyfriend Ama is an emo, goth type who loves piercings and body modifications and while living with him, Lui starts shedding her pop girl image and exploring the darker fashions, eventually deciding that she wants to split her tongue. To do so she first needs to have her tongue pierced and then gradually make the hole larger and larger. Ama takes her to a friend of his who is specialised in tattoos and piercings and from the very first second there is a fierce sexual chemistry between the piercer and Lui. It is a not a healthy love-at-first sight we are talking about here but a dark, sadomasochistic sexual current. One where there is only a short distance between pleasure and pain, between living and dying.

Kanehara takes her protagonist to the very darkest of places, the deepest despair and a pain that is difficult to handle. It is a beautifully written story. Every word is just right. It is no surprise that it won several awards and has already been made into a film. Don't cheat yourself of this read though you might be repulsed by some of the topics or the actions of the characters - it will stay with you for a long time as it did with me.

Read it if: You want a painful but authentic story that will pierce you with its words. You want a book that deals with sex in a very different way to the 50 Shades type books.

22 Aug 2012

Is it really Super in Cannes?

Ever dreamt of emigrating to France? In the U.K. it seems like it is a dream that  most people entertain every once in a while. Paris is just on the other side of the Channel and if you then drive south for a few hours, you'll be in the beautiful Provencal countryside where a smell of lavender is in the air and where all the women are gorgeous in that French way. At least that seems to be the perception and it definitely is the vision that Paul and his wife Jane from J. G. Ballard's novel "Super-Cannes" have when they up sticks and move to Cannes.

Jane is a 27-year-old doctor who married Paul, an older man and a pilot, while he was in the hospital after a nasty flying accident. When she is offered a role as a resident doctor at the prestigious Eden-Olympia business park just outside Cannes, it seems like the opportunity of a lifetime. Leaving a grey, miserable London behind and pursuing the possibilities that a great laboratory and lots of funding will provide. Paul, the protagonist of the story, is happy to tag along. He is head over heels in love with his teenage doctor, as he calls her, and he is still recovering from the accident and is hoping that the sun and the lazy days by the poolside will do him good.
As they settle into the pace of life at Eden-Olympia, a modern piece of paradise where all you need is inside the gates, Paul starts to become restless. In his restlessness he begins to ask questions - what happened to the doctor who previously held Jane's position? Why did he suddenly (?) snap and murder ten people in a shooting spree? And were they victims chosen at random or were they carefully selected?
Early on it becomes clear that there is more lurking beneath the surface of paradise than visible to the naked eye but what it is and how it will impact the lives of Jane and Paul remains hidden until the last pages of this thrilling novel.

"Super-Cannes" is exceptionally well-written. If you are one of those people who like mystery or thriller novels but hate the fact that the majority of them are thrash, written by people who are not exactly good at writing... then "Super-Cannes" will be for you. It is so subtle and elegant, yet despite the sunkissed setting, it sent shivers down my spine. It is so scary and the reality that Paul is trying to navigate is so distorted that he loses sight of everything but the mystery.

Read it if: You like stories about what happens behind the facade. If you like a well-written psychological thriller.