29 Jan 2013

"Skios" by Michael Frayn

Looking for the perfect read for a holiday or a relaxing Sunday? One that will make you laugh with intelligent twists? Look no further than "Skios" by Michael Frayn... 

Skios a is a little paradise on earth, a warm, sunny Greek island in the middle of a glittering, blue sea, is the setting for an annual event where glamour meets science, the Fred Toppler Foundation's annual House Party. Nikki Hook, PA to Mrs. Fred Toppler, the dancer formerly known as Bahama LeStarr, is in charge of making the House Party a roaring success and she is damned if anything is going to spoil this opportunity to secure a promotion. Lightly tanned with discreetly blonde highlights, she is the embodiment of efficiency, when she's waiting in the airport to pick up the guest of honour Dr. Wilfred Norman. Unfortunately, the good-looking, charming man introducing himself as Dr. Wilfred Norman is not actually the distinguished doctor but instead professional charmer and chancher per excellence, Oliver Fox.

Oliver Fox is a ladies man with a penchant for making up identities. In certain London circles (among socialites and hedge fund wives), he is notorious. He party trick seems to revolve around picking up needy women and then sponging off them for as long as possible. This particular weekend, he has come to Skios for a hot weekend with a woman whose rich financier fiancee is away on a weekend trip but when he spots the dishy Nikki in the airport, he suddenly decides to try out the identity as Dr. Wilfred Norman.

Enough to say that hilarity ensues with Oliver Fox playing the important academic dignitary and explaining away to fellow scientists as only a true conman can and Dr. Norman enjoying the dubious honour of being trapped in a secluded villa with a beautiful woman who seems to think that he is a rapist.

"Skios" by Michael Frayn was longlisted for the 2012 Booker Prize and for a reason. It combines hilarious with elegantly written in a way that very few authors can while creating characters that engage  the reader and come to life. Many authors who master the comedic genre rely largely on the plot to carry them but in "Skios", the characters are what drive the story and bring forward the laughs. This is holiday reading for the intelligent reader who wants a little more and I can recommend it as the  most perfect entertainment for an afternoon on the beach or in the garden. 

27 Jan 2013

Showcase Sunday

Vicky at Books, Biscuits and Tea hosts a Showcase Sunday which is always quite fun and today I thought that I'd take part. This is what I have bought this week and will be reading in coming days: 

"The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine" by Alina Bronsky (LOVE the title!)

"The Pursuit of Italy" by David Gilmour (non-fiction and an attempt to mend my knowledge gap about Italy)

"Headhunters" by Jo Nesbo (want to see the film, have to read the book first)

What did you get your hands on this week? 

26 Jan 2013

"Skinny Dip" by Carl Hiaasen

Chaz Perrone is a douchebag, this is clear from the first page of Carl Hiaasen's "Skinny Dip" where aforementioned Mr. Perrone's wife is taking a headfirst, involuntary dive from a cruiseship into the ocean. Having somehow gotten in the way of her husband's plan, Joey Perrone finds herself thrown overboard in a pretty callous attempt at her life and as she hits the waves, she's not sure how she will manage to survive for long enough to swim ashore. With the help of fury, swim training and a bale of pot from Jamaica, she clings to life and finds herself being rescued by illegal drugs and a gruff lonesome ex-cop living a life of solitude on a small island off the Florida coast.

Although furious with Chaz for his deceit, Joey is in no way ready to go to the police, instead she wants to take revenge. No turning the cheek for this scorned woman who enrolls her rescuer, Mick, to help her get back at Chaz. She's not out to kill him, just drive him crazy enough to get him to admit exactly why he wanted her dead. 

"Skinny Dip" is a hilarious story of an avenging angel (Joey) who armed with a gold AmEx, Italian shoes and with a somewhat reluctant but very competent companion in tow (Mick) sets out to destroy the life of her hopeless husband. 

This is my second Hiaasen novel and it was even funnier than my first ("Star Island", reviewed earlier this month) and the strength is in the characters: 

Joey is the American dream, the girl next door. She has inherited a vast fortune but has earmarked it for charity and her only extravagance is a bit of clothes and Italian shoes. She's a clever, capable, big hearted and a little naive blonde who is hard not to love. Somehow she reminded me of Charlaine Harris's Sookie Stackhouse - one of those girls that you would love to hang out with. 

Mick is a real man and a real loner. Not in touch with his feelings in any way whatsoever, he has several failed marriages behind him and prefers the company of his dog. 

Chaz is ... indescribably annoying. A biologist with no respect for nature at all, he will happily sell his soul, his wife and his dignity for money. He is an inexcusable playboy who is guided by his genitals in all matters where he is not guided by money. Yes, there is very little to recommend him apart from his good looks and he his the perfect (if somewhat dumb) villain. 

It is these three characters, along with a range of minor characters, that makes "Skinny Dip" work. That and the many plot twists and these characters will have you laughing out loud and maybe read half the night (like I did) because it simply is a hoot. 

23 Jan 2013

"Shadow of Night" by Deborah Harkness

Since I finished "A Discovery of Witches" by Deborah Harkness in September 2011, I'd been looking forward to reading the sequel, "Shadow of Night", like a little kid looks forward to Christmas. And then the other day, it arrived in my mailbox and suddenly all my excitement vanished because what if... oh dare I write it... it didn't live up to the expectations set by the first book in what will in time be a trilogy? So I braced myself for disappointment and started reading, almost sure that I would not fall in love. 
How wrong I was (once I again - I never seem to learn) because although the first few pages were a warm-up session where I re-acquainted myself with Diana Bishop and Matthew de Clermont, I quickly settled back into the story and found as much to love in "Shadow of Night" as I did in "A Discovery of Witches". 

The story starts right where the story in the preceding book left off and if you haven't read that one, this will make little sense, I'm afraid but I will try to avoid spoilers by not explaining too much.  Matthew, a vampire, and Diana, a witch, have come to realise that in order to gain access to the mythical manuscript that might hold the key to the secrets of witches, vampires and daemons, they will have to travel back in time. Using Diana's newfound skills as a timetraveller, they journey back to 1590 where Matthew was a part of a circle around Queen Elizabeth I and friends with all sorts of notables. Even Shakespeare makes an appearance and although this could lead to some cringing, Harkness manages the staging of real historical persons in a paranormal setting much better that most. Kudos to her, I'm actually really impressed. 
The couple, whose love is illegal in the eyes of the Convention governing the Creatures (vampires etc.) are also hoping to find a teacher for Diana in this distant past. Somehow who can decipher her unruly magic and teach her how to harness it. Easier said than done.
Instead of spending a couple of weeks in the past, as originally planned, they end staying for a year or so and during this time, they accomplish an awful lot including traveling from Oxford to London to France and to Prague. I won't go into more detail here - keeping the spoilers at a minimum - it suffices to say that there is drama and romance enough for all in this tale!

Drama and romance is not enough, as we all know, and then it's rather luckily that not only can Harkness make up a great paranormal historical fiction piece, she can also write. And she has the research background and understanding of history that makes this stand out for it authenticity - yes, I said authenticity about a book with vampires in it, deal with it. 
Harkness is an inspiration in that her book is such a piece of quality work. It has obviously taken time and hard labour to produce but it has been worth it for it is splendid. The characters are fascinating and has plenty of psychological depth, the plot is well thought out and gripping and although a few too many historical celebrities have cameos, it is well-written with a mature tone to it that I find lacking in most paranormal stories. 
Summing it up, I'd say it's a triumph for Harkness. Now please go back to writing so we can have the last book in the trilogy. I can't wait!

20 Jan 2013

You don't mess with Mr. Darcy - "Death Comes to Pemberley" by P. D. James

Any book that puts the word "Pemberley" in the title is setting itself up for scrutiny because there are a lot of girls out there (myself included) to who Pemberley is pretty much sacred. You don't mess with Mr. Darcy. Nobody puts Lizzy in a corner. So a crime fiction novel featuring Mr. and Mrs. Darcy better not pollute the shades of Pemberley as Lady Catherine de Bourgh would say. 

"Death Comes to Pemberley" by P. D. James has a lot going for it. It is written by a capable author with a long career and plenty of successful novels to her name and it is true to the style and ways of Jane Austen. 

The plot is very different, however, from the Jane Austen novels as it is resolutely a crime fiction novel.     It is the night before a big ball at Pemberley and the Darcys and their closest friends are enjoying a peaceful night before the partying when a carriage comes hurrying towards the house at such a great speed that it almost topples over. It stops in front of the house and out of the carriage comes a hysterical,  screaming Lydia, Mrs. Darcy's fateful younger sister who ran off with the scoundrel Wickham. 

A murder has been committed in the forest next to Pemberley and all evidence points to Wickham being the murderer. To the proud Mr. Darcy this is a terribly difficult situation - by marriage, he is Wickham's brother and he has to put all of his hatred of the man to the side and do his best to keep him from the gallows. 

The strength of this book is the writing and the low-key plot line which keeps it as close as possible to Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" but at the same time this somehow is also the weakness. Because it stays very close to the original, it doesn't really take anything further. There is no elaborating on the relationship between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, between Jane and Mr. Bingley, between Elizabeth and Jane and their less fortunate sisters, so reading it as a sequel to "Pride and Prejudice" doesn't work. 

For me, any book that features the beloved characters from that novel have to put the focus on them and their stories and this one doesn't, it is all about the whodunnit and the trial. Verdict from me is that as a historical crime, it works really well but as a part of the "Pride and Prejudice" fanfiction, it's no good. 

18 Jan 2013

How Can You Not Love a Book...

...that begins like this:

At the stroke of eleven on a cool April night, a woman named Joey Perrone went overboard from a luxury deck of the cruise liner M.V. Sun Duchess. Plunging toward the dark Atlantic, Joey was too dumbfounded to panic. 
I married an asshole, she thought, knifing headfirst into the waves. 

"Skinny Dip" by Carl Hiaasen, page 15

17 Jan 2013

Ten Books I'm Gonna Read in 2013

It's the time for resolutions and although I have made any real New Year's resolutions, I'm up for making some bookish ones. One of the things that I really should do is make some headway on my TBR list... So my NY resolution 2013 will be to read the following ten books - what are you going to read in 2013?

10) "A Visit From the Goon Squad" by Jennifer Egan
Because everyone else seems to have read it... and I don't want to be the one left on the sideline.

9) "The Marriage Plot" by Jeffrey Euginides
Because I loved "The Virgin Suicides" and "Middlesex" and I'm sure I'll love this one. But it's soooo hardback-y and heavy to drag with me on the bus in the morning so I haven't gotten round to reading it yet... (I know, pathetic excuse)

8) "Even Silence Has an End" by Ingrid Betancourt
Because this is non-fiction that you couldn't make up and not in the nice sense.

7) "Shadow of Night" by Deborah Harkness
Her first novel "A Discovery of Witches" is one of favourite (if not just my favourite) paranormal romances and I can't wait to read the sequel. It arrived in the mail the other day and is not on my shelf waiting for me to get going!

6) "The Hottest Dishes in the Tartar Cuisine" by Alina Bronsky
It has been on my TBR for absolute ages so I need to get around to read it this year - I have a feeling I won't regret it!

5) "Life" by Keith Richards
Another one that has been on the TBR for ages. I listen to a lot, a lot of Rolling Stones so how could I not read this one? Actually ashamed that I haven't already...

4) "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" by Stephen Chbosky
And a third one from the loooong TBR. I want to see the movie but I want to read the book first, so order to get to the movie, I need to get this one read. Sooner rather than later.

3) "Moranthology" by Caitlin Moran
Her "How to Be a Woman" was one of my favourite reads of 2012 so of course I need to read this book! Sooner rather than later.

2) "The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared" by Jonas Jonasson
This one is supposed to be hilarious, well-written and clever, so what's not to like?

1) "Thinking Fast and Slow" by Daniel Kahneman
I love Antonio Damasio's "Descartes Error" and I've promised myself to read more neuroscience books so this one is a must read for 2013.

12 Jan 2013

"Last Curtsey" by Fiona MacCarthy

I've always been really interested in the history of women, I love reading about influential women in history and about those points in history when the fates and fortunes of women changed. "Last Curtsey" by Fiona MacCarthy is about a very British rite of passage that a select number of privileged young women had to go through (some more willingly than others) in order to be introduced into polite society. These young women were called debutantes and they came from the most privileged, the wealthiest, titled families and the rite of passage that they went through was called the season, the highpoint of which was the curtsy to the Queen, the presentation at court.  

Fiona MacCarthy was one of these debutantes, actually she was in the last batch of debutantes ever to be presented at court and in "Last Curtsey" she shares the story of the debutantes and their lives during the season. 

It is a fascinating read with host of interesting characters : the debs delights, young men escorting the debutantes to parties, some of whom were branded by the debs' mothers with the "can't be trusted in cabs"; the golden debs who had their pictures featured in magazines, walked in Cardin fashion shows or went on to marry rich and influential men; the independent debs who soon gave up the dresses and dances to pursue careers. And then there are the quaint details and historic notes such as accounts showing the expenses that a budget or a full-scale season would have cost or the musings on the traditional menu at the pre-ball dinners. 

"Last Curtsey" is the story of United Kingdom that is no more and it also hints at why because it is obvious that although the dresses, the balls and the dancing is fascinating at first, it demands nothing more of the girls than that they be pretty and sociable and there are no expectations of careers or achievements beyond marriage and kids. MacCarthy writes sensitively, hiding no flaws but condemning no one for their choices and brings to life a long-gone era in an engaging, interesting and thoughtful manner. 

8 Jan 2013

The Best Books of 2012 - part 2

5. "The City and The City" by China Mieville
A tremendous piece of fiction about an assumedly Eastern European city which has been split into two cities and where citizens must pretend never to notice the other half of their city. Defies genres and enchants readers. 

A classic tale of 1950s office girls striving for more in life - careers, marriages, fame. A mandatory read for lovers of Mad Men. 

3. "Mystics, Mavericks and Merrymakers" by Stephanie Wellen Levine
The most gripping non-fiction book I have ever read. I literally could not put it down. Levine tells the stories of Hasidic Lubavitcher teenage girls living in Crown Heights, New York, where everyday demands a delicate balancing act of normal teenage pursuits (shopping, gossiping, thinking about boys) and strict observance of orthodox Jewish traditions and rules (kosher food, kosher music and gender segregation). Eyeopening and inspiring. 

2. "The Group" by Mary McCathy 
Interested in feminism or womens rights? Enjoyed Sex & The City but found its values superficial? Drop the boxsets and pick up this book instead. It is a tale of women in 1930s New York, a time and place where the role of women and the traditional gender patterns were changing rapidly and drastically. 

1. "Fear of Flying" by Erica Jong
This is a must read for women born in the 1980s and 1990s because even though it was written in 1973, it was never more relevant than today. It is about the mental emancipation of one headstrong yet insecure young woman and I've probably thought about this book and about its protagonist Isadora every day since I started reading it It and she really made an impression on me and taught me something about letting go of your fears. More than just a book, this is a zeitgeist, a manifest and a must read for young women. 

5 Jan 2013

Top Ten Books of 2012 - part 1

Here we go - the first half of my top ten of books read in 2012: 

10. "Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady" by Florence King
One awesome women tells about her life as a Southern lady at a time when being a lady was something that required quite a bit of class and came with a whole lot of expectations. Emotional and hilarious at the same time. 

9. "How to Be a Woman" by Caitling Moran
Hilarious musings about what it means to be a women in our society today. Is it mandatory to have waxes? Who should we look up to as role models? Are we defined by the boys we kiss? Tackling some of the most difficult topics with a whole lot of humour and a completely lack of respect for comme il faut. 

8.  "Rules of Civility" by Amor Towles
New York in the 1930s. Glamourous girls, wealthy gentlemen, dubious playboys and lots of martinis. The perfect escapism read and a really good story to boot. 

"The Stranger's Child" by Alan Hollinghurst
Published in 2011 and already a modern classic, it tells the story of Britain in the last century through a series of linked stories. It all starts out with a love triangle and a poem. 

6. "The Privileges" by Jonathan Dee
The recession read. A story about a middle-class family who makes it big (really big, at least financially) through hard work and cunning investments that more than borders on financial crime. 

4 Jan 2013

"The Art of Fielding" by Chad Harbach

There are few genres that I genuinely have no interest in. Handbooks on DIY is one of them and sports literature is another. Yet I’ve found myself reading and enjoying what can very easily be termed a book about baseball. I will come clean immediately and say that I know nothing about baseball. Absolutely nothing. I have never watched a game, have no idea what the rules are or how many players it involves or even who might be celebrities in the baseball world. I imagine it to be a kind of upmarket version of rounders with slightly more action and slightly less misses but really, I have no clue. 
So Chad Harbach’s 2011 novel “The Art of Fielding” was an eye-opener. I actually thought the title referred to art made by an artist called Fielding… yes I’m blonde. Sorry. Turns out that’s not the case. Turns out that “The Art of Fielding” is a book (within a book) that young Henry Skrimshander treats as his personal bible. His one passion in life is baseball but he has no real idea of his own talent until he is spotted by Mike Schwarz, a baseball player at Westish College, a fictional but traditional liberal arts college. Suddenly and much to his own surprise, small-town boy Henry finds himself enrolled at Westish on a sports grant, living with decidedly gay roommate Owen who takes him shopping and training at the gym with his new team mates. Slowly but surely Henry grows physically – from a small, lean boy into a bulky baseball player, from a diamond in the rough into a real, recognized talent – but mentally it’s a much more difficult growth for him as the lines between his own dreams and the ambitions of his mentor Schwarz blur.
Westish is also home to President Affenlight, a former Harvard professor who has two loves in his life: his daughter Pella and Melville’s novel “Moby Dick”. Affenlight is a lovely man who has been led on his path of life by events often outside of his control and who has followed his passion for the whale novel and turned it into a career. He lives alone and is quite happy in a lonely way until one day his daughter Pella, a privileged child of academia who ran away from her private education to marry a much older man, returns from her failed marriage in California. Pella is bruised in the way that you only become when you realize that by following your own headstrong ideas and go up against your parents, your friends and conventions, you’ve actually sabotaged yourself. So with nothing more than a bathing suit and a tattered beach bag, Pella returns home to start a new life and kick her anti-depressant addiction.
The lives of all of these characters weave together in stories and each and every one of those stories could have been a book in its own right. The characters are strong and well-written and interesting. They have flaws and are real living people, not just clichés or stereotypes, I wanted to know them. I guess that is the strength of this novel, it’s real-ness and that the characters are relatable, even if wouldn’t know what’s up or down on a baseball.
It is a stunning novel, a piece of art and it wouldn’t be entirely unfair to call it a great American novel. It reminded me in some ways of Tom Wolfe’s “I am Charlotte Simmons” but “The Art of Fielding” is better, more well-written and doesn’t suffer the clichés (and horrible sex scenes) that drag “I am Charlotte Simmons” down. If you have an interest in baseball you have to read it. If you couldn’t care less about baseball, you still have to read it. Because it’s not really about baseball. It is about love, passion, talent, doubt. About following your dreams or following someone else’s dreams.

2 Jan 2013

"Star Island" by Carl Hiaasen

There are books that are written in a way that makes them obvious contenders for a film contract. Like Twilight or Hunger Games. The authors might not have been thinking this when they wrote them (though honestly with the money up for grabs in the movie business, they might have had it in the back of their minds) but the result still is a book that is ready to transition to the big screen. “Star Island” by Carl Hiaasen is one of those books. It is so ready to be made into a film and I’m pretty sure that it would be tagged with words such “Funny movie of the year” or “Action-packed comedy hit”. It has all the elements – it is even set in sunny Florida, mainly on South Beach, and conjures up a sun-shimmering blue ocean, palm tree and babes in bikinis. It is a place for charmed lives and in this place, young actress Ann DeLusia lives a … eh… confusing life. 
Her job might be one of the simultaneously worst and best jobs in the world. On the pro side, it requires little effort and there’s no requirement to be in the office 9 to 5, it also comes with a clothing allowance and business travel. On the con side, she is always on call and it’s not exactly an identity and integrity boosting job… Ann has landed herself the dubious honour of being stand-in for the volatile airhead superstar Cherry Pye. Having managed that difficult transition from the pageant world to international stardom, Cherry is determined to make the most of her fame by doing as many drugs and as many men as possible. She is a skank and most of the time, she is a strung-out, high as a kite skank. Not exactly the perfect employer and Ann's role mostly consists of pretending to be Cherry at parties, where the star herself is too out of it to appear. 
There is a whole industry around Cherrry and another person who makes a living out of her fame is the paparazzo Bang Abbott. In his vision, Cherry is one snort away from a fatal OD and he is planning to be the photographer that captures her final days. Bang Aboott is a pretty pathetic figure and in his quest to get close to Cherry, he ends up kidnapping the innocent Ann instead.
Ann is nothing if not feisty and she takes her kidnapping with a cool head and barbed wit. Throw into the mix a crazy hermit living in the Florida swaps on a quest to save Ann, a greedy property developer, a father of the star with little interest in her life and little conviction of her intelligence, a mother of the star with big ambitions and a manager with no conscience. It is a scenario ready to explode and it is a hilarious read.
Fancy something that'll make you laugh? And make you think of all of the Britneys and Lindsays of this world and wonder if this is what it is really like (disclaimer! You might end up pitying them!)? Then go for a holiday on "Star Island", it's bound to make you laugh.