January 2010 Summary and Plans for February

January was quite a poor reading month for me, in terms of both quality and quantity. I read 8 books and left a further two unfinished (one is a book I’ve not yet reviewed yet – I’ll leave you to guess which it is!)

The stand-out book was Uglies, something I would never have guessed had you asked me which one I’d enjoy most at the beginning of the month.

Uglies – Scott Westerfeld

Blink – Malcolm Gladwell stars4

Sacred Hearts – Sarah Dunant stars4

The Boat to Redemption – Su Tong stars4

The Infinities – John Banville stars4

The Wind-up Bird Chronicle – Haruki Murakami stars3h

To the Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf stars3

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: v. 1 – M.T. Anderson stars3

The Elegance of the Hedgehog – Muriel Barbery stars2

The Age of Innocence – Edith Wharton stars2

Twilight – Stephenie Meyer (Book and Film)  stars1 (DNF)

Plans for February

I am going to finish Cutting for Stone and Ruby’s Spoon, both of which are fantastic so far.

I failed to read these books that I highlighted in January, so they have been added to the list again:

Small Island – Andrea Levy

The Little Friend – Donna Tartt

Buddha Da – Anne Donovan

The Woman in the Dunes – Kobo Abe

I also hope to read some of these books:

When I Was Five I Killed Myself – Howard Buten

Blacklands – Belinda Bauer

The Catcher in the Rye – J. D. Salinger

My Father’s Paradise – Ariel Sabar

The Native Hurricane – Chigozie John Obioma

Disgrace – J.M. Coetzee

The Hiding Place – Trezza Azzopardi

Red Dog, Red Dog – Patrick Lane

The Love We Share Without Knowing – Christopher Barzak

Most of them are quite short, so I’m hoping I’ll be able to manage the majority of the list.

Have you read any of the books that I plan to read in February?

1920s Classics

To the Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf

I have been wanting to read some Virginia Woolf for a while, but I had been told that her books are very difficult to read and so had been putting it off. When I saw the Woolf in Winter read-along I decided it was the perfect opportunity to give her a try, as difficult texts are always easier when you have a group of people to read along with. Emily is hosting the discussion for To the Lighthouse today, so please pay her a visit if you’d like to join in!

I was pleasantly surprised when I read the first few pages of To the Lighthouse – it was much easier to read than I had expected it to be. Yes, the sentences were often long and meandering, but I found it easy to follow and some of the descriptions were strangely fascinating.

Disappearing as stealthily as stags from the dinner-table directly the meal was over, the eight sons and daughters of Mr and Mrs Ramsay sought their bedrooms, their fastnesses in a house where there was no privacy to debate anything, everything; Tansley’s tie; the passing of the Reform Bill; seabirds and butterflies; people; while the sun poured into those attics, which a plank alone separated from each other so that every footstep could be plainly heard and the Swiss girl sobbing for her father who was dying of cancer in a valley of the Grisons, and lit up bats, flannels, straw hats, ink-pots, paint-pots, beetles, and the skulls of small birds, while it drew from the long frilled strips of seaweed pinned to the wall a smell of salt and weeds, which was in the towels too, gritty with sand from bathing.

It is odd that in copying the above paragraph down I realised how little of it makes sense. It is a collection of random thoughts, but I didn’t worry too much about understanding why every little word was used – I just enjoyed the images they created.

The book begins with a young boy wanting to visit a lighthouse, but being told that it probably won’t be possible to go. I thought the scene was set beautifully, but I soon discovered that nothing else was going to happen.  In the final part of the book, set many years later, they head out to visit the lighthouse, but that is all that happens. There is no plot, simply observations of small scenes – this lack of any action meant that it turned out to be quite a boring book. It was very short, so I had no trouble finishing it, but in the end I was left with a feeling of disappointment. If the book had been much longer, but with more interesting events occuring, then I’m sure I would have enjoyed it as I had no objection to the writing style.

Overall, I’m afraid I just didn’t connect with this book. It felt more like an introduction to a set of characters than a novel in its own right. I don’t think I’ll be reading any more of Woolf’s work.


Have you read To the Lighthouse?

Did you enjoy it?


Booking Through Thursday: Twisty

btt button

This week I am proud to see that my question has been selected as the Booking Through Thursday choice.

I love books with complicated plots and unexpected endings, so I asked people to recommend fantastic books with a twist in the end. I’m looking forward to seeing all the suggestions!

My favourites are:

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

Stone’s Fall by Iain Pears

The Island at the End of the World by Sam Taylor

Little Face by Sophie Hannah

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

What are your favourite books with a twist in the end?

2008 Books in Translation

The Elegance of the Hedgehog – Muriel Barbery

Translated from the French by Alison Anderson

I had seen nothing but praise for this book in the blogging world, so was keen to find out why everyone raves about it.  Unfortunately the book failed to live up to expectations, so I am going explain why I just didn’t get this book at all.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is set in Paris and focuses on Renée, a concierge with a secret passion for culture. Living in the same apartment building is Paloma, a suicidal twelve-year-old. The outlook of both women is changed when one of their privileged neighbours dies.

The book started off very slowly, but I was prepared for that. I had seen several reviews that described the beginning as being uninspiring, but they assured me that after 100 pages I would be completely hooked. I admit that it did pick up a bit towards the end, but instead of falling in love with the characters I found myself being increasingly wound up by them. Was I the only one who found the characters very annoying? I didn’t understand why Renée needed to keep her passions hidden and found the whole idea of her pretending to watch television ridiculous.

Paloma was equally annoying. I struggle to believe that anyone, let alone a twelve-year-old girl, would come out with phrases like:

The most intelligent among them turn their malaise into a religion: oh, the despicable vacuousness of bourgeois existence!

The book was packed with profound statements, but there were so many that it felt contrived. It was as though a philosophy text book had been regurgitated and disguised as a novel.

The words were also ridiculously long and obscure – all those syllables meant that the flow of the text was continually broken up. I don’t think I have ever read a book in which I have had to use a dictionary so often, and I think I have a pretty good vocabulary – it just came across as pretentious.

The only reason I finished the book was so I could assure myself that it was the same all the way to the end. In previous years I would have given up within 20 pages, so if you find yourself agreeing with me then I recommend you save yourself a few hours and find something else to read.

This is a fantastic choice for book clubs, as it is bound to divide people, but I’m afraid that I’m on the side of those who dislike this book.

Please can you explain why you love this book?

Did you enjoy every single word?


Evil in Fiction – Guest Post by Pauline Melville

Pauline Melville is an award winning author. Her collection of short stories,  Shape-shifter (1990), won the Commonwealth Writers Prize (Overall Winner, Best First Book) and the Guardian Fiction Prize.  Her first novel, The Ventriloquist’s Tale (1997), won the Whitbread First Novel Award and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction.

I struggled to connect with her most recent novel, Eating Air (see my review) as it contained a large number of evil characters. I was intrigued as to why she loves evil characters so much. Here is her explanation:

It’s the evil characters who often bring fiction to life.  From the beginning we are enthralled by fairy tales – the wicked witch, the evil step-father, the malevolent goblin.  If Hansel and Gretel just munched their way through a sugar candy house with no witch in it, who would care less?  Martin Amis said that “happiness writes white.  It doesn’t show up on the page.”  Evil characters are more memorable, enjoyable and spine-chilling than goody-goodies.  They are the ones who enthrall.  Even the most vicious of characters usually have something to recommend them. Captain Hook played the flute and enjoyed reading Wordsworth and Coleridge and was a stickler for ‘form’.  He did, however, learn those outward trappings of civilisation at Eton – a warning for us all come the next election.

The most memorable characters in fiction are often those whose evil is not fully comprehensible – not clearly motivated by greed or lust or a mania for power, in other words those characters who have transcended the rationalism of the author and  become a dangerous life force of their own.  Take Stavrogin in Dostoievsky’s The Possessed;  a charming, intelligent, handsome man who even frightens his own mother and whose deeds are riveting, horrific and inexplicable.  And take the pilot in Bolano’s Distant Star who writes extraordinarily beautiful and exhilarating poems in the sky and turns out to be a murderous fascist.

Writers sometimes make an evil character the hero or heroine despite themselves – without quite realising what they are doing.  In Paradise Lost, Milton’s Satan is so much more attractive than boring old God – although Milton would probably be upset at that judgement.  When Tolstoy started writing he thought Anna Karenina was a thoroughly nasty piece of work but somehow by the end of the book she had become one of the most sympathetic heroines in fiction.  A villain more in tune with current times is American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman, the smiling, psychopathic face of Wall Street, who is hilarious and terrifying in equal measure.

There exists, of course, a whole argument as to whether there IS such a thing as evil.  A writer like Kafka sees evil embodied in a whole system rather than a particular character.  Hannah Arendt has written about the banality of evil and the possibility of us all contributing to it through bureaucratic detachment or the willingness of good men to do nothing, rather than specifically wicked actions.  These notions of evil are more difficult for a writer to depict. 

However, many works of fiction depend on that struggle between good and evil and the moral decisions which lead a character one way or the other and for us writers, there is often an energy in creating a ‘baddie’ which is more difficult to dredge up when we are creating the ‘goodies’.

When I was writing ‘Eating Air’ one of the main characters, Donny McLeod became hugely pleasurable to create;  the more amoral he became the more attractive and vivid he was on the page.  Another minor character– Hetty Moran – clearly a baddie, became equally powerful.  I can still feel her knocking on the side of my imagination demanding another whole novel to herself.


Thank you Pauline! You mention some great books and your argument is a convincing one. I agree that evil characters are often more memorable than the good ones, but I still like to read about the good guys.

What do you think?

Is it important to have evil characters in literature?

Do they need to be balanced by good characters, or do you love books which only contain evil ones?

2000 - 2007 Non Fiction

Blink – Malcolm Gladwell

Blink explains our instinctive ability to make decisions without thinking about them. Using a series of examples the book analyses the way in which we are able to make critical, often life-saving actions without understanding why we are performing them.

I loved Malcolm Gladwell’s bestselling book The Tipping Point, but I don’t think Blink was quite as good. It had the same number of well researched examples, a large number of those interesting little facts that you find yourself sharing with friends, and the same light hearted, but scientific tone, but overall I felt this book was less useful.

The premise implies that we are all able to make split-second decisions, but reading the book revealed that most of us are likely to be wrong – the ability to make the right choice takes a lot of training.  One of the sections I found most interesting was about a marriage counsellor called John Gottman. He is able to predict whether a couple will still be together fifteen years from now, just by looking at a short film of them talking. John Gottman has worked out that couples who display the tiniest amount of contempt for each other are unlikely to stay together, so he watches for specific indications of contempt, ignoring how aggressive or friendly they appear to be. Other people fail to spot these signs, but once John Gottman has trained them they will be almost as good as him at predicting the success of a relationship.

The book gave many other examples of people who are able to make important decisions based on an instinct that they may not understand. Often concentrating on police officers or fire-fighters the analysis was fascinating, but not of much use to the average person.

Recommended to anyone who enjoys sociology books, but don’t expect it to change your life in any way.

Which is your favourite Gladwell book?

Can you recommend any other authors who write similar books?