British Books Challenge 2013

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British Books Challenge 2013 – Round Up

Published January 7, 2014 by bibliobeth

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Goodbye 2013! I’m quite pleased with the amount of British books that I read last year, here they all are with links to my reviews.

Jasmine Nights – Julia Gregson

Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead – Paula Byrne

Gold – Chris Cleave

The Glass Room – Simon Mawer

Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll

Black Mischief – Evelyn Waugh

Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy

The Dark Winter – David Mark

The Water Babies – Charles Kingsley

Eloise – Judy Finnigan

Corpalism – Arun D. Ellis

Death on the Nile – Agatha Christie

Eve Green – Susan Fletcher

The Fever Tree – Jennifer McVeigh

Entangled – Cat Clarke

Bright Young Things – Scarlett Thomas

The Palace of Curiosities – Rosie Garland

Netsuke Nation – Jonathan Magonet

Churchill’s Empire: The World That Made Him and the World He Made – Richard Toye

The Universe Versus Alex Woods – Gavin Extence

Elijah’s Mermaid – Essie Fox

Among the Bohemians: Experiments in Living 1900-1939 – Virginia Nicholson

Lolly Willowes – Sylvia Townsend Warner

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark

Mrs Robinsons Disgrace – Kate Summerscale

A Study in Scarlet – Arthur Conan Doyle

The Bloody Chamber and other stories – Angela Carter

The Falcons of Fire and Ice – Karen Maitland

The Quietness – Alison Rattle

Stig of the Dump – Clive King

Nancy: The Story of Lady Astor – Adrian Fort

The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things – Paula Byrne

Skios – Michael Frayn

Frankenstein – Mary Shelley

Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

These Foolish Things/The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – Deborah Moggach

And Did Those Feet – Charlie Connelly

The Girl You Left Behind – Jojo Moyes

Idiopathy – Sam Byers

Close My Eyes – Sophie McKenzie

The Bone Dragon – Alexia Casale

The Slaves of Solitude – Patrick Hamilton

Dear Lupin: Letters to a Wayward Son – Charlie and Roger Mortimer

The Redemption of Alexander Seaton – S.G. MacLean

Buddha Da – Anne Donovan

A Little Princess – Frances Hodgson Burnett

Natural Causes – James Oswald

Possession – A.S. Byatt

The Casual Vacancy – J.K. Rowling

The Bolter: Edwardian Heartbreak and High Society Scandal in Kenya – Frances Osborne

Torn – Cat Clarke

Flesh House – Stuart MacBride

A Child of the Jago – Arthur Morrison

The Sea Change – Joanna Rossiter

My Dear I Wanted To Tell You – Louisa Young

The Girl Who Fell From The Sky – Simon Mawer

Cross My Heart: And Hope To Live – Carmen Reid

1984 – George Orwell

Walking Home – Simon Armitage

The Ice House – Nina Bawden

Tell Me Who I Am – Alex and Marcus Lewis with Joanna Hodgkin

The Sea Sisters – Lucy Clarke

Life After Life – Kate Atkinson

NW – Zadie Smith

The Comedy of Errors – William Shakespeare

The Humans – Matt Haig

The Cuckoo’s Calling – Robert Galbraith

Voyage In The Dark – Jean Rhys

Mr E. Morse BA OXon (Failed) – Colin Dexter

The Sign of Four – Arthur Conan Doyle

One Step Too Far – Tina Seskis

Heartbreak Hotel – Deborah Moggach

Kiss Me First – Lottie Moggach

The Killing – David Hewson

Never Coming Back – Tim Weaver

Northern Lights/The Golden Compass – Philip Pullman

A Month in the Country – J.L. Carr

The Red-Headed League – Arthur Conan Doyle

The Beautiful Indifference by Sarah Hall from the collection The Beautiful Indifference

The Village In The Jungle – Leonard Woolf

The Importance of Being Earnest – Oscar Wilde

So that makes 81 British books read over the year. I’ve found some great new authors and re-visited some old classics which has been brilliant. I’m looking forward to carrying on this challenge in 2014!

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The Importance of Being Earnest – Oscar Wilde

Published January 7, 2014 by bibliobeth

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What’s it all about?:

Oscar Wilde’s madcap farce about mistaken identities, secret engagements, and lovers entanglements still delights readers more than a century after its 1895 publication and premiere performance. The rapid-fire wit and eccentric characters of The Importance of Being Earnest have made it a mainstay of the high school curriculum for decades.

Cecily Cardew and Gwendolen Fairfax are both in love with the same mythical suitor. Jack Worthing has wooed Gewndolen as Ernest while Algernon has also posed as Ernest to win the heart of Jack’s ward, Cecily. When all four arrive at Jack’s country home on the same weekend the “rivals” to fight for Ernest s undivided attention and the “Ernests” to claim their beloveds pandemonium breaks loose. Only a senile nursemaid and an old, discarded hand-bag can save the day!

What did I think?:

This entertaining play from Oscar Wilde has become an instant classic, loved the world over, and a perfect example of Wilde’s wit and talent. It has also fairly recently been made into a film starring Colin Firth, Rupert Everett and Reese Witherspoon, which I came across first before reading the play and loved. The story opens on two old friends, Jack and Algernon, who are entertaining themselves with people that they invent, to get out of certain tiresome events. For example, Algernon has an imaginary friend called Bunbury who is often sadly quite ill, and he is obliged to dash off at a moments notice to the aid of his sickly friend, like a knight in shining armour, which may unfortunately lead to him missing one of his Aunt Augusta’s (Lady Bracknell) events. Shame! Jack on the other hand, has a house in the country and a young ward called Cecily whom he is very protective over, but occasionally a man has to get away doesn’t he? So he invents a troublesome younger brother called Ernest, who is constantly getting into scrapes which his poor older brother has to rescue him from! (And usually involves a trip to town of course!).

It is obvious that Jack and Algy have been friends for a while, but for some reason Algy has never heard him mention a young, pretty ward before…perhaps there was a good reason for that as Algy decides to visit Cecily at Jack’s country house masquerading as Ernest, the roguish younger brother and falls in love with her. In Jack’s story, he is courting Gwendolyn, the daughter of the fearsome Lady Bracknell, without much hope of ever getting her approval to marry Gwendolyn due to the fact that Jack was found in a train station. In a handbag to make it worse! And there’s also the slight problem of Jack wooing Gwendolyn under the name of Ernest, especially when all four meet at Jack’s house and there are misunderstandings a-plenty! Just imagine – two women both engaged to a man called Ernest….it’s asking for trouble.

This play is without a doubt one of the funniest things I have ever read and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The characters are fantastic, especially the intimidating Lady Bracknell who has some of the best lines in the entire play, and I can imagine it being quite fun to act her part:

“To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.”

I thought Wilde made some really humorous references to the English class system, the whole “courting” process and the occasional fickleness and selfishness of human nature. It’s sharp and quick, but so easy to read and absorb, and his cynical eye often shows us a new (and very funny) face of society. Although this is my first foray into the world of Wilde, it won’t be the last, and I can’t wait!

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

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The Village In The Jungle – Leonard Woolf

Published December 31, 2013 by bibliobeth

The Village in the Jungle

What’s it all about?:

This classic novel of colonial Ceylon (Sri Lanka), was first published in 1913 and is written by a prominent member of the Bloomsbury group, husband of Virginia Woolf. It reads as if Thomas Hardy had been born among the heat, scent, sensuality and pungent mystery of the tropics. Translated into both Tamil and Sinhalese, it is one of the best-loved and best-known stories in Sri Lanka. It includes a new biographical afterword by Sir Christopher Ondaatje, author of “Woolf in Ceylon”, and a short story, “Pearls before Swine”, which vividly draws on Woolf’s experience as a young District Commissioner. This book reeks of first-hand knowledge of the colonial experience, and of its profound, malign disregard for the psychology and culture of its subject peoples.
What did I think?:
Leonard Woolf is probably most famous for his marriage to Virginia but was also a noted political theorist, publisher (The Hogarth Press) and “leader” of the notorious Bloomsbury Group. As Woolf spent seven years in Ceylon as a colonial officer, he had first hand knowledge of the area which makes the book more authentic in my eyes. It is set in Ceylon around 1900 and follows the villagers of Beddegama (which means literally “the village in the jungle”)through their daily struggles. Although there are quite a few characters our main focus is a man called Silindu who beat his wife after she dared to give birth to daughters (after all, what use are they?!) but gradually comes to dote upon them, especially when they show interest in the jungle, which pleases him no end and he tells them many tales and folklore about the animals they should respect, and the demons that they should fear. However when his daughters grow up, their beauty attracts some unwanted attention and presents many problems for Silindu as he strives to keep them by his side, and protect them from evil. Silindu is also suffering with unpaid debts and being able to provide food for his family is a toil, with starvation and sickness ever looming.
The short story “Pearls before Swine” is also provided in this book, and felt like quite a contrast from the village of Beddegama. It is told by an unnamed narrator, whom after foolish comments from some upper middle class Englishmen in a club, tells a tale of how he supervised a pearl fishery assisted by a man called White who dies a horrible death in the throes of delirium tremens. This is compared to the death of an Arab fisherman which seems on the other hand to be serene and somewhat noble.
I really enjoyed The Village in the Jungle much more than I thought I would. It is a vivid, moving tale of how the villagers struggled with day-to-day life and things that we take for granted, such as having enough to eat. I loved the strange and superstitious character of Silindu, and felt sorry for the tragedies he suffered trying to protect his daughters, his constant hunger and worry about his debts and the almost obsessive worries over demons in the jungle trees. The prose flows beautifully throughout this story and as a reader I got a real sense of the place and time which I felt was captured perfectly. I didn’t get on as well with the short story Pearls before Swine, although I appreciate the message Woolf was trying to convey and thought it was written well.
Would I recommend it?:
But of course!
Star rating (out of 5):
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Short Stories Challenge – The Beautiful Indifference by Sarah Hall from the collection The Beautiful Indifference

Published December 28, 2013 by bibliobeth

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What’s The Beautiful Indifference all about?:

The Beautiful Indifference tells the story of a woman who is having a relationship (mainly sexual) with a younger man. However there is a darker undercurrent to the tale, as anyone familiar with Sarah Hall’s writing comes to expect.

What did I think?:

The Beautiful Indifference is the second and title story in Sarah Hall’s collection and took me two readings before I appreciated the intensity of the work. We are introduced to a woman whom we meet in a hotel room as she is deciding on what to wear before meeting her lover. The reader comes to learn that the woman in question is slightly older than her lover (she had left home as he was being born) but the age gap between the two is not an issue and that they are able to have a conversation and enjoy each other’s company as well as being sexually compatible. Her friends initially seemed to support her having a relationship mainly based on the physical side of things, but have become increasingly wary and concerned as the meetings have continued, with nothing more solid or permanent forming. For them, it almost seems like she is behaving “like a man,” with little interest of developing a firmer attachment. However, there is a darker side to the tale as we come to realise that our main character has a serious and life-threatening illness, possibly ovarian cancer although nothing is ever confirmed. And then smack bang, we come to a “killer” of an ending, hints of which have been provided since the first page, although the author leaves everything very open and up in the air, allowing the reader to come to our own conclusions about what happens next.

As I mentioned earlier, it did take me two readings of this story to come to grips with it, I think this is mainly due to the ambiguity of the ending, which I have to admit left me feeling rather foxed and unsatisfied. After further contemplation however, I have come to appreciate why the author did what she did, and look upon it as an absolutely brilliant piece of writing, that stays with you long after you have put the book down. I’m certain that if I go back and read it a third time, I will come across something new to think about and mull over, the sign of an excellent storyteller. If anyone out there has read this, I would love to know your thoughts!

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

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NEXT SHORT STORY: The Strange Career of Dr. Raju Gopalarajan by Rajesh Parameswaran from the collection I Am An Executioner: Love Stories.

Short Stories Challenge – The Red-Headed League by Arthur Conan Doyle from the collection The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Published December 21, 2013 by bibliobeth

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What’s The Red-Headed League all about?:

In The Redheaded League, Holmes is engaged upon two seemingly unrelated cases, a daring bank robbery and the disappearance of a pawnbroker’s assistant. Using minute details of the small mystery, he is able to solve the larger one.

What did I think?:

This is the second Sherlock Holmes story in Doyle’s Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, focusing on a mysterious case where a gentleman comes begging for Holmes’ assistance after his assistant has disappeared. As Holmes digs a bit deeper, he finds out that the pawnbroker had recently replied to an advertisement in the paper seeking men with red hair to join the intriguing “Red-Headed League.”  ‘four pounds a week for purely nominal services. All red-headed men who are sound in body and mind and above the age of twenty-one years are eligible.’  The perplexed pawnbroker informs Holmes and Watson that he answered the advertisement immediately, having a fine head of blazing red hair, and when arriving at the meeting point where a queue of other hopeful red-haired men were waiting, was hired on the spot. The most curious thing about this however, is that he is employed for four hours in the morning to copy out the encyclopedia word for word starting with A (naturally!) and is informed that he may not leave the room for the duration. After a couple of months of diligently copying, the pawnbroker arrives at “work” one morning to find the doors locked and the League apparently dissolved with no trace of his employer, or indeed his assistant who had first informed him of the vacancy in the League.

Of course Sherlock solves the case with his usual style and wit, confounding Watson in the process, as usual. As always, the solving of the case is my favourite part as we get an insight into the weird and wonderful deductions of Holmes and how everything fits together to settle the mystery. Unfortunately, this was not one of my favourite Sherlock stories, it seemed slightly on the shorter side of short, in that I felt I was just getting into the story when it finished, which was a bit of a disappointment. However, I believe any mystery and crime fans will find this a good, solid tale with a fascinating conclusion.

Would I recommend it?:

Maybe!

Star rating (out of 5):

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NEXT SHORT STORY: The Beautiful Indifference by Sarah Hall from the collection The Beautiful Indifference.

A Month in the Country – J.L. Carr

Published December 14, 2013 by bibliobeth

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What’s it all about?:

In J. L. Carr’s deeply charged poetic novel, Tom Birkin, a veteran of the Great War and a broken marriage, arrives in the remote Yorkshire village of Oxgodby where he is to restore a recently discovered medieval mural in the local church. Living in the bell tower, surrounded by the resplendent countryside of high summer, and laboring each day to uncover an anonymous painter’s depiction of the apocalypse, Birkin finds that he himself has been restored to a new, and hopeful, attachment to life. But summer ends, and with the work done, Birkin must leave. Now, long after, as he reflects on the passage of time and the power of art, he finds in his memories some consolation for all that has been lost.

What did I think?:

I read this novel as it was a book club choice, and I had heard so many good things about it. The story centres around a man called Tom Birkin who is pursuing a new career where he uncovers hidden relics i.e. paintings, after being discharged from the army post World War I. His new assignment takes him to the village of Oxgodby in Yorkshire where he is set the task of restoring a mural in the local church in which he also makes his home for the summer. The book tackles a number of different themes including war and the trauma experienced by its survivors, love and the paths we make for ourselves, religion, the process of ageing, and how we store our memories. Sadly, Birkin has been highly traumatised by the experiences he went through as a soldier, and in the break-up of his marriage, but through his work in the church and his interactions with the people in the vicinity learns to come back from the brink of despair, appreciate life more fully, and perhaps even fall in love again. I did enjoy the optimistic message of hope that came through the writing, and it was interesting to watch Birkin grow as an individual as the painting was uncovered over that memorable summer.

I’m sorry to say that even though I appreciated the beauty of this novel and what the author was trying to do, it did not resonate with me as much as I hoped it might. It was certainly atmospheric, and the author has a gift when describing evocative sights, sounds and smells. Moreover, I was intrigued enough by the character of Birkin that I wanted to finish the novel, but it just felt like something was missing for me. On the positive side, there was an undercurrent of humour throughout that did amuse me and I particularly enjoyed the scene where Birkin is harangued into preaching at the church, and does so with good grace but with considerable awkwardness, being neither religious nor a preacher! I probably wouldn’t read this novel again, but I am glad that I did read it, even just for the poetic undertones and descriptions of the suffering of war veterans.

Would I recommend it?:

Probably not.

Star rating (out of 5):

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Short Stories Challenge – Countless Stones by Lucy Wood from the collection Diving Belles

Published December 3, 2013 by bibliobeth

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What’s Countless Stones all about?:

Countless Stones is about a young woman who is trying to complete a number of mundane tasks (check the doors are locked and the windows are shut, switch off the electric etc) and you would think she is about to go on holiday. However, she is turning into one of the standing stones that sit on the edge of a cliff, looking out onto the sea.

What did I think?:

Like the previous story in this collection, Countless Stones has a touch of the magical realism about it which I loved and I was afraid that I wouldn’t enjoy this story compared to the beauty of the first one in this collection Diving Belles. Our central female character, Rita is a young woman whom from the very beginning is anything but ordinary. She wakes with a strange sensation in her toes, as if they are turning to stone, but does not seem particularly surprised or worried about it. In fact, she undergoes the same processes we all do when leaving our property for a while to make sure it is safe for our return. As she does this however she is interrupted by a call from her former boyfriend, someone who still seems quite attached to her, and relies heavily on her to help him complete certain tasks. She obliges by taking him to view a property he is interested in renting, even though the roads are treacherous with snow and ice, and oh yes… she is turning quite literally to stone.

So compared to the title story, Diving Belles, I have to admit this one did not leave me reeling as much with giddy happiness. But I’m not saying it was bad at all, it was good but unfortunately had a lot to live up to. Lucy Wood mixes a bit of fantasy and very beautiful descriptive writing to make a very special story though, and it becomes an absolute joy and pleasure to read her work. It is also so much more thrilling when the author brings a bit of mystery into the tale, as we discover that the thought of turning to stone does not particularly worry Rita. She is slightly concerned about exactly how long she will be “away,” but reassures the reader that this type of thing happens to all of the people in her town, and they would probably deal with the mail piling up at her house. The only thing I would have loved more is to find out more about Rita and her boyfriends relationship, and what had happened between them that they had to separate. However, I do believe that the unanswered questions of the story only serve to make it more mysterious and intriguing.

Would I recommend it?:

Probably!

Star rating (out of 5):

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NEXT SHORT STORY: The Sea of Trees by Randy Taguchi from the collection Fujisan