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.