A blog for everything bookish

Monday, 19 December 2011

The Magician's Assistant by Ann Patchett

Around December/January time is the perfect time to read this wintery novel by Ann Patchett; a novel which spans from the busy warmth of Los Angeles to the desolate midwinter cold of Nebraska bringing warmth of a different kind.

The Magician's Assistant follows Sabine's life after the death of her husband Parsifal, the Magician to whom Sabine was the assistant. But there's a twist in this tale from the beginning. That Parsifal was a homosexual Sabine was well aware. She had lived with him and his Vietnamese lover, Phan, in the time before Phan's death from AIDS. And she had nursed Parsifal through his own sickness until his sudden death from a ruptured aneurism, as his wife in name and spirit if not in body. That Sabine had loved Parsifal was a truth that had held her life together to that point. That Parsifal was not who she had believed he was was the dark secret that threatens to blow Sabine's life apart.

After Parsifal's death, Sabine discovers that he had a family still living in Nebraska. Having been told by Parsifal that he'd grown up in Connecticut and that his family had all been killed in an accident, the existence of this living family came as a complete surprise to her. This discover leads to the inevitable questions: why did he lie to her, and what had happened in the past to so totally separate him from his family.

Sabine becomes more confused when his mother and youngest sister, Bertie, visit. To her surprise, his family are lovely, his mother caring and tragically saddened by her son's death. They knew he was a homosexual, and yet they accept the strangeness of Sabine's relationship with him easily. After a brief visit to Los Angeles, they invite Sabine to visit Parsifal's old home in Nebraska to visit for Bertie's wedding which is due to take place in just a few week's time. To her surprise, Sabine agrees to go. A few days later she's on a plan to Nebraska, sending herself into the cold, darkness of Parsifal's past, searching for the truth.

I won't spoil the story by giving away too much of the detail. Suffice to say that in the wide open spaces of the American Midwest Sabine finds a claustrophobic community, she confront's Parsifal's darker past and finds love, and magic, where she least expects it.

The Magician's Assistant is a quietly beautiful novel. Suffused with emotion this is a story of love and loss and love again. Some of my favourite parts of this book involve the dreams in which Sabine reconnects with the lost Phan and, eventually, Parsifal. This is a novel which gives us hope that love can live on beyond the grave, that after the loss of a great love we can still find something more. That magic comes in many forms, and not all of it a trick. This was a book which was hard to put down, and easy to revisit.

The Magician's Assistant receives a magical 8 out of 10 Biis.

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

Claudia Hampton is dying. And she's writing the history of the world. With Claudia at the centre of it, of course. Claudia: intelligent, independent, irascible, argumentative, sometimes cruel, not massively likeable and yet very human, very vibrant, very determined, very herself, the cornerstone of this short, but rich novel. As she lies in the hospital, awaiting death from cancer, she digs deep into her memory, writing the history of her world starting with her primordial roots - competitive fossil hunting as a child with her brother Gordon - to the very present - her current condition, her impending death.

Claudia, writer of historical novels, breaks the rules of linear narrative and the story shifts where her memory takes her. Sometimes back to her early life, her times growing up with Gordon the brother that was her greatest ally and stiffest competitor. Her lover, and almost the love of her life. Then later, to her difficult relationship with her daughter Lisa, the gulf of misunderstanding between them, of failed expectations on both sides. Then to Egypt, the war, and Claudia's great love: Tom Southern. A brief, but intense relationship that ends when Southern is killed in action, an event from which Claudia never truly recovers.

Claudia is truly the centrepiece of this novel. She presents something of an unsympathetic character. Her certainty, her self-assurance, her razor-sharp intelligence and uncompromising nature rise to the fore in all of her relationships with the exception, perhaps, in her relationship with Tom which elicits the only softening in her otherwise diamond-hard character. And yet there is something likable in Claudia, admirable perhaps. Her uncompromising nature in the time period in which she lives is something groundbreaking. She is true to herself at the expense of (almost) everybody else, and yet her relationships are solid and true, they are lasting. Claudia brings her own brand of honesty to each relationship, and a sharp humour which lightens what could otherwise be a difficult character to like.

Then there are the moments in which the same event is viewed from the perspective of not just Claudia but other characters. Lively interjects the alternative view of this history of Claudia's world alongside Claudia's own perception of the event, giving the reader a very different perspective. This technique works most effectively when addressing the relationship between Claudia and her daughter Lisa, both of which are strong in their own rights yet neither of which quite recognises it in the other. A relationship submersed in disappointment. 

Claudia approaching the end begins to seek some kind of reconciliation. She apologises to her daughter, roughly, for being the kind of mother she was. She reads Tom Southern's journal, which had been sent to her by his sister after she'd figured out who the mysterious 'C' in the journal was and which had sat, dusty, on the shelf, unread for some time. Just before her death Claudia reflects on what could have been, on who she might have become had Tom lived, and how she has become something unrecognisable from the person he had loved.

Moon Tiger is an excellent novel, a deserving winner of the 1987 Booker Prize. Where Lively works most successfully is in drawing the story around such a vibrant, well imagined character. Claudia leaps off the page, uncompromising from the start, and whilst this may put some readers off (Claudia is not massively likeable, but in the end it is hard not to admire her) with some small perseverance it is well worth the effort. A richly imagined novel, vibrant as the colours of Egypt, as uncompromising as nature. I was left with only one doubt at the end of it: what is a Moon Tiger anyway? I still don't know. Any ideas would be much appreciated.

Moon Tiger gets a roaring 9 out of 10 Biis. Highly recommended.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Great Gifts for Book Lovers

Christmas is fast approaching and if you're struggling to find something suitable for the book lover in your house, I'm here to offer some assistance. For me, Christmas isn't Christmas unless there's some sort of bookish gift included. You can forget your iPods, and Xbox games, your wines and spirits, you can even forget the socks, but if there's no book in the Christmas pile there's a sad Bii on Christmas day. So, without further ado here are my suggestions.

Book Tokens
As a child, the idea of a book token filled me with joy. That sturdy slip of paper which offered a world of choice was the one thing I always, always wanted...and never received. Am I bitter? Okay, maybe a little. The great thing about book tokens is that they offer the reader in the house a real choice of gift while acknowledging their bookish obsession. Plus there's no risk of buying the wrong book, something they already own or something they'd never read, which is almost as disappointing as receiving no books at all. How often have you gleefully unwrapped that book shaped parcel, hoping for Bleak House only to find the latest Dan Brown inside? Sigh. If you fear your choice of book with meet with a glum face, book tokens are the safe bet.

Most high street book retailers will offer gift vouchers of some sort, but my choice would always be National Book Tokens, which are accepted by most book retailers and give your book lover the ultimate choice. You can buy these online from a range of outlets or find out more from the source at: National Book Tokens 

Beautiful Books
If you are a bit more certain of your book lover's taste in reads, the next option would be to buy them a beautiful book. When I buy books, mainly I'm interested in the content and the cover art, etc, is not of that much interest to me. But when I receive a book as a gift, the more beautiful the better. I might not be willing to spend my own money on it, but as a receipient a beautiful book is guaranteed to make me happy. Fortunately, thanks to competition from the growing e-book industry, the publishers are fighting back with some truly spectacularly beautiful books with a reasonable price range. Here are my choices of true beauties this year.

The Folio Society
If you've got money to burn you can't go far wrong with a book from The Folio Society. These are books that a lot of thought and effort has gone into to make them stunningly beautiful. This copy of Lord of the Flies is truly head turning, and I'm quietly drooling over the beautiful Over Sea Under Stone (one of my favourite books) and this wonderfully illustrated Epic of Gilgamesh.

The Folio Society books can be found online at The Folio Society

Persephone Books
Another bespoke publishing house, Persephone Books publish high quality 'forgotten' classic books by women. I discovered Persephone by accident earlier this year and have become a firm fan, both because of the classy look of their books but also because of the quality of the fiction. The books have a very stylish and simple grey cover and each book has its own, unique endpaper with matching bookmark (and the book marks are also excellent quality - if only cardboard they're very sturdy and pretty). There's an interesting selection of books; my personal favourites (so far) have been Marghanita Laski's Little Boy Lost (it's a sad one) and Elizabeth Sanxay Holding's The Blank Wall. Most of the books cost between £10-£12 each plus postage and they're well worth it. My small collection looks beautiful on my bookcase, the binding is incredibly sturdy and the content excellent.
More information is available at Persephone Book's website

Virago Modern Classics
Ever since I discovered Angela Carter, I've been a fan of Virago books. Again, the focus here is on female writers, but with a wealth of great female writers available that doesn't in any way restrict the reader's choice. Along with many publishing houses, Virago have released a range of beautifully bound, textured hardback books with a price range of around £10-£15 each dependent on the retailer. Current books available are as follows:
The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Armin
Good Behaviour by Molly Keane
The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy
The Tortiose and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins
My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

Check out these beauties!

Penguin Classics & others
Penguin are another publisher than have branched out into a range of sexy hardbacks to tempt the book lover in you. Focusing on their 'classic' range, they've brought out a gorgeous selection of clothbound classics with something for pretty much everyone. Check out this stunning version of A Christmas Carol (surely the perfect Christmas gift?), or this equally stunning copy of The Odyssey. There are many books in the clothbound range including a number of works by Dickens and Jane Austen, there's Middlemarch by George Eliot, a flamingo crazed version of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland which I particularly like, Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorien Gray, Stoker's Dracula, The Hound of the Baskervilles amongst others. You can browse (or in fact buy, if you have the cash) the whole collection at Penguin's website here

If you fancy something a bit more modern, these Penguin deluxe classics are equally beautiful, if slightly less austere. Outside the classics range, penguin have also issued a number of contemporary 'greats' in jackets stylishly designed by tattoo artists, like the copy of Ali Smith's The Accidental below. The range also includes White Teeth by Zadie Smith, Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller, The Book of Dave by Will Self, High Fidelity by Nick Hornby and The Rotter's Club by Jonathon Coe. 

Kindle...or other ebook readers
Okay, I feel I ought to mention this though personally if someone bought me a Kindle I'd probably be deleting them from my friend list. As a book lover I am not a fan of the Kindle or, in fact, of any e-readers, but I concede they may have their uses. Whilst I can't see the point of carrying your entire library around with you, or why you would want to supplant your perfectly working paperback for something which requires power, I can't deny the power and appeal of the e-reader for many book lovers, and I can see that for students, for example, they could be a useful tool in obtaining cheaper academic books, storing their notes and it is a lot less to carry around. With a cheaper model out at £89, Amazon look likely to corner the e-reader market and depending on your book lover's persuasion it could be the perfect gift for Christmas. But for me, meh, I'd rather have the piece of coal to be honest.

So there's my thoughts for Christmas book gifts this year. I hope it's given you some great ideas for how to bring a smile to your book lover's face this year.

I hope that's given you all some food for thought. 

Thursday, 8 December 2011

The Ravishing of Lol Stein by Marguerite Duras

Earlier in the year I read my first novel by Marguerite Duras, a strange but compelling work called The Sailor from Gibraltar. I loved it. Duras has a classy style of writing, economical, sparse, open like a light, airy room. Having experienced her excellent writing previously, I had great expectations of The Ravishing of Lol Stein and in that respect this short novel doesn't disappoint. And yet, I can't say I loved it. It's a strange one, that's for sure.  

The story is told by Jack Hold, a doctor with an obsessive, destructive love for Lol and centres around a single event and the ongoing impact of that event on Lol and the people around her. As a young woman, Lol is jilted by her lover, Michael Richardson, at a ball held at a casino. With her is Tatiana Karl, her best friend. Together they watch until morning as Michael Richardson falls in love with another woman, Anne-Marie Stretter. Something changes in the hours of the night, something that transforms Lol completely. This event sets in place a kind of voyeuristic repetition cycle in which Lol observes the affair taking place between Tatiana Karl and Jack Hold and then in turn takes Tatiana’s place as Jack’s lover. So history repeats: Tatiana becomes the young Lol, Jack Hold becomes Michael Richardson, Lol becomes Anne-Marie Stretter. Lol’s illness requires a repetition, a continual repeating of events. The story culminates in Jack and Lol consummating their relationship in a trip to Town Beach, Lol reliving the places where her ‘fall’ occurred, replacing it with the Tatiana-Jack-Lol love triangle.

Or does it? From the beginning the circumstances and origins of Lol’s mental state are brought into question primarily through the ‘evidence’ of Tatiana Karl. As early as page 2 we are told ‘Tatiana does not believe that this fabled Town Beach ball was so overwhelmingly responsible for Lol Stein’s illness. No, Tatiana Karl traces the origins of that illness back further, further even than the beginning of their friendship. They were latent in Lol, but kept from emerging by the deep affection with which she had always been surrounded both at home and, later, at school. She says that in school – and she wasn’t the only person to think so – there was already something lacking in Lol, something which kept her from being, in Tatiana’s words, “there”.’ Yet only one further page later we learn ‘I no longer believe a word Tatiana says. I’m convinced of absolutely nothing.’ And then, in the next sentence, the whole story itself falls under question ‘Here then, in full, and all mixed together, both this false impression which Tatiana Karl tells about and what I have been able to imagine about that night at the Town Beach casino. Following which I shall relate my own story of Lol Stein.’

And that is what we get, Jack Hold’s ‘story’ of Lol Stein. The story of Lol’s fall, Lol’s history as told through the voice of Jack Hold who knows only what he has heard by rumour and may, in fact, be inventing the rest takes on the quality of a myth, a half-heard Chinese whisper. The entire novel takes on this quality, myth and rumour, a thin surface of fact laced with fiction. And the whole thing is overlaid with a strange kind of duality, a juxtaposition of the cold, unreachable nature of Lol against the heat of the summer and Jack’s obsessive desire for her. In the end it is impossible to decipher what is real and what is fiction (accepting of course that it is all fiction) with characters becoming interlaced and all, to a degree, unreachable, locked in their own perception of the events.

Duras writes beautifully, in crisp, descriptive sentences. There’s a clarity in her writing which is deceptive, particularly deceptive as it is what she doesn’t say that captivates. In the end, I felt there was just a little too much unsaid, it was all just a little too unreachable, I wasn’t sure I understood it. A strange, intriguing little book, hard to follow, strangely cold and at the same time almost oppressively sensuous. I’m still not sure how I feel about it, but sometimes that is the mark of the best kinds of books. One to read again.

The Ravishing of Lol Stein receives an uncertain 7 out of 10 Biis.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Theodora by Stella Duffy

This is a book I read a little while ago and reviewed for the Virago Book Club. I've been lucky over the past year to be the beneficiary of several Virago first look titles, and I've enjoyed them all to varying degrees.  

Theodora is the story of the Byzantine Empress Theodora, tracking her story from childhood to becoming the Empress. I found this a very vibrant, passionate and colourful book. I’m not a massive fan of historical fiction, but Duffy has really brought both Byzantium and its people, especially Theodora, to life. I think it’s a real strength of this novel, and its writer, that the characters are so real and so vibrant that you really do come to care about them. Theodora in particular is very well drawn. She’s not perfect, in fact her imperfections are frequently highlighted, but despite this she is a strong, believable character who, by the end of the book, you really want to succeed.

Not knowing really anything about Theodora prior to reading the book, I don’t know how historically accurate it is, and Duffy does point out that it is a fictionalised account albeit based on the loose information which is available about Theodora’s life before becoming Empress. Having read the book I’d really like to learn more about her which is, perhaps, the best sign of this novel’s success – it left me wanting more. One of the key themes running through the book is how Theodora is ‘shaped’ by others, but in being aware of this shaping she manages to retain a strong degree of control of herself and her destiny. Although Theodora has few choices in life, both as a woman and as an actress whose choices are further limited, she still embarks on a voyage of self discovery in which she is as much of a driving force as those who would seek to control her. And it really is a voyage of self discovery. Theodora, being aware of her own nature, seeks to become more than her humble beginnings, she is ambitious, strong, wilful and intelligent and she uses these characteristics not only to gain ‘power’ but to find happiness and freedom, and to help others. I also liked the way that despite Theodora’s passionate, impulsive nature, all the things that became important to her, her conversion to Christianity and her relationship with Justinian, came to her gradually. Almost by surprise. It created great depth of character, and a sense that those things gained became really a part of her.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. There’s something for everyone here: history, love, politics, religion. It’s a book which challenges your intelligence, makes you think about how you feel about those times, the challenges facing the people and how they relate to where we are today. But it is also beautiful. Like the fine silk Theodora learns to weave, this novel is beautiful and strong. A perfect combination.

Theodora receives a bountiful 9 Biis.      

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Crooked House by Agatha Christie

In my quest to discover the best female writers it occurred to me that I’d never read anything by the Grand Dame of crime, Agatha Christie. Why is this? Perhaps Christie’s popularity had steered me away (sudden realisation of terrible book snobbery: popular = not very good. Bad me) or perhaps the sheer familiarity with Christie’s most well known characters (fondness for Margaret Rutherford’s Miss Marple, and David Suchet’s / Peter Ustinov’s Poirot. And who hasn’t seen Murder on the Orient Express?) led me to conclude that there was nothing to discover in Christie. Wrong indeed.

Anxious to correct my error, I set about doing a bit of research. The last thing I want to do is read a ‘bad’ Christie. Because anyone who’s credited as being the best selling novelist of all time (Guinness Book of Records), with 66 novels and 12 short story collections to her name (and that’s just the detective fiction) is bound to have written something bad or at the very least not so good. A bit of research led me to The Crooked House which instantly appealed both because of the excellent reviews, and because it features neither the familiar Miss Marple nor Poirot.

First published in 1949 The Crooked House is something of a lightweight novel, weighing in at an easy 160 pages. The story follows the death of Aristide Leonides, a rich, aged Greek patriarch who lives in a ‘crooked house’ with his extended family. Leonides is poisoned when his insulin is substituted for his serine eye drops and injected to him by his wife. Initial suspicions of an unfortunate accident are soon dismissed and the murder enquiry begins. The story is told through the eyes of Charles, son of the Chief of Police and fiancĂ© to Sophia Leonides, granddaughter of Aristide Leonides. Charles needs to help solve the murder so that Sophia can be free to marry him.

Initial suspicion falls on Leonides's young wife, Brenda, who is suspected of having an affair with Lawrence Brown, a tutor engaged for Leonides’s grandchildren. The family are united against Brenda, seemingly certain (and at the same time uncertain) of Brenda’s guilt. And yet each of the Leonides is, as Sophia says, “ruthless in their own way” and each has a motive for murder. I won’t spoil the story, but it’s safe to say that no one is quite what they seem, no one is beyond suspicion and the killer is the last person you’d suspect...or is it?

Christie is certainly an entertaining writer; the story has a lightness and ease about it which, despite being over 60 years old, doesn’t feel particularly dated or awkward. The pace of the story flows just nicely and the characters, with the exception of Charles and Sophia perhaps, are well drawn and believable. With hindsight and careful reading, the identity of the murderer is identifiable and scenes which might have otherwise seemed frivolous are littered with clever little clues. The Crooked House is certainly an engaging read, the story carried me along and I found the 160 pages swallowed down in a couple of days. It was difficult not to skip to the end to find out ‘whodunnit’.

If I had any criticism of the book it would centre around the two characters of Charles and Sophia. Charles in particular, as a main character to the story, is something of a foogy, insubstantial character. Even the alleged ‘love’ he feels for Sophia is muted and unemotional and it lends an unbelievable tone to an otherwise character rich story. Equally Sophia, who plays such a key part to the story, is sparsely drawn to the point that she comes to feel somewhat unimportant. Had Christie brought into question Sophia’s involvement in the murder this could have introduced a degree of conflict to the Charles character that would have drawn him out more concretely. As it was the conflict arose around the detection only and it felt like something of a missed opportunity.

That being said, it was still an immensely enjoyable read. Not ‘great’ fiction (no Dostoevsky that’s for sure) but fun, clever, entertaining and easy to read. A great introduction to Agatha Christie’s impressive catalogue of works. I’ll be reading more.

The Crooked House scores a brilliant 8 Biis.
Hello all and welcome to my new blog, Bii's books. As you may have guessed, I'm a great lover of books and all things bookish and my plan for this blog is to spread that love by sharing with you my book reviews and thoughts about books, writing and publishing in general. I hope you'll find something you enjoy.

Each year I like to set myself a little reading challenge, and this year I challenged myself to read more books by female writers. So I'll be sharing my thoughts on what I've discovered and, hopefully, pointing you in the direction of some great writers (not exclusively female, honest).

Welcome, and enjoy.