Monday, 27 February 2012

February Book Club - Jamrach's Menagerie

Our February book choice was the Man Booker Prize nominee Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch. This caused quite a lively discussion with the controversial issues covered in the book!

Did we like the book?A split response with some of us enjoying the book, and others not so sure. We agreed that we liked the distinctive writing style, but some of the scenes were difficult to read with the graphic violence.

We agreed the book was split into three parts of Jaffy's adventure: 1) what did we lean about Victorian London, 2) Which sea-faring stories did the ocean adventure remind us of and 3) How would you cope with being stranded for so long?
1) We all liked the descriptions of Victorian London and it reinforced our image of a dark, gloomy and grim time to be living in. This part reminded us of a Charles Dicken's novel, in particular Great Expectations, as young Jaffy is involved in an incident and is given the opportunity which changes his life forever. We found attitudes towards women and animals very interesting.
2) The time on The Lysander felt very familiar to us with hints of Moby Dick, Treasure Island, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Life of Pi to name a few. The whaling scene was hard to stomach for all of us.
3) We agreed that we could never be sure how we would react in a situation like being stranded for so long, but could understand why the characters turned to such extreme measures to survive.

How did the author use the senses to convey imagery? Which was the strongest for you?
I found the sense of smell the recurring theme in this novel, from Jaffy's early days in Ratcliffe Highway to the smell of burning flesh. These were so strong to me, I could really get a sense of the surroundings. Others in the group felt sight, touch, taste and hearing just as strong. We could all see clearly what Jaffy was describing, could feel the salt clinging to them on the sea and could imagine the taste of the cups of blood. We also found the rhythm of the prose interesting, in particular one scene when something gruesome is happening to a crew member and Dan is making Jaffy and Tim sing a song, which is really effective in making you read the passage at a faster pace.

How does the author use foreshadowing?
There were a couple of scenes which stood out for us. Firstly, the initial scene of Jaffy meeting the tiger. We know he is going to be a survivor and that this will be the turning point in his life. The key scene is when the crew come across the dragons eating one of their own group. They are all disgusted, but they end up doing the same thing when the animal, survival instinct kicks in. We also discussed Skip's visions and were not sure if he really did have the sight, or if he suffered from a form of autism.

What did you think of the title?
We found it strange that the book was named after a character who does not appear very often, but agreed it was a huge part of Jaffy's life and the reason for his adventure. We came up with some alternative titles such as Stroking Tiger, Hunting Dragon, Laughter in the Deep, The Dragon's Revenge and The Angels in the Sky.

We had come across some alternative book covers, which one did we think was a true representation of the book?
We found the cover at the top of this blog to be very misleading, as the cover looks very 'pretty and magical'. We were expecting a quirky adventure rather than the gritty themes that were explored in the novel. We think the covers with a tiger's mouth are much more suited as they look more dangerous and dramatic.

Do you see Jaffy as the hero of the novel?
We really liked the character of Jaffy and think he dealt with his situations well. We think it is better to call him a survivor rather than a hero.

What did we think of the other main characters? Tim, Jamrach, Dan and Skip?
We did not like Tim and felt that his last act was selfish rather than him redeeming himself. We found it interesting that Jaffy describes Tim in such a favourable way with his blonde hair and angelic looks, but his sister who he is romantically involved with, he describes as dirty and with no finger nails. We really liked Dan and the way he looked under the young boys. He was the true captain of the ship. Skip was very interesting and our views varied from annoying to feeling sorry for his as he was misunderstood.

This novel was not what some of us were expecting, but is a great book to discuss. I would highly recommend it to other book groups!  

Care of Wooden Floors review

I liked the quirky, different premise of this book and it started in a promising way with an interesting style of writing full of imagery, but it soon became a predictable, farcical black comedy and reminded me of an extreme Mr Bean style episode.
The nameless narrator is sent to a mystery Eastern European city to look after Oskar, his old University friend’s flat while he is in LA sorting out the details of his divorce. Oskar is a composer and a cleanliness and tidiness freak, with his flat full of clean lines and expensive pieces, which are in direct contrast to the ramshackle, dirty and old-fashioned location. The narrator is tasked with looking after his two cats and in particular the very expensive, bespoke wooden floor, well you can already guess what is going to happen!

At first I quite enjoyed the juxtapositions between the white flat and the narrator’s visits outside, especially the visit to the local museum which reveals the city’s sadness and recent history, but unfortunately this was not explored any further.

Towards the second half of the book, I started to get extremely frustrated, as the events just didn’t ring true. How can a well educated man whose job is to copy write and proof important local council information leaflets full of small details, turn into a drunken, lazy lout with no self control once he is abroad and make such stupid mistakes which lead to catastrophes. Worse still, he shows no remorse and refuses to take responsibility for his actions.

I found the ending even more frustrating as Oskar’s reaction just makes the whole story pointless. This is a book with no emotion or human feeling and I’m afraid it just left me cold.

Monday, 13 February 2012

The Artist

Last night The Artist triumphed at the BAFTAS with seven awards including best film, director and leading actor. I saw this film a couple of weeks ago and have been meaning to wrtite my review as since leaving the cinema screening, I have realised what a great film this is.

The Artist tells the story of silent movie star George Valentin and begins with his appearance
at a film premiere where he charms the crowd with his faithful canine co-star. Outside, a fan
drops her purse in his path and he uses her in a show to the waiting paparazzi and fans, much to his wife's disgust. The young fan - Peppy Millar - decides that she wants to be in the movies too and signs up to be an extra in George's new film. They become attracted to each other and George offers Peppy some career advice, which is soon to be part of his downfall. The studio make the decision to produce no more silent films with the introduction of 'talkies' and George's stubbornness means that he dropped by the company. He can only watch with distress as Peppy becomes the new big movie star while he loses his wife, house and possessions. But George and Peppy's destinys belong together and they soon meet again...

I was surprised how much this film kept my attention, probably even more so than modern day
films full of stereo sound and special effects. The Artist captures the style of the silent movies of the 1920's perfectly and the fashion and sets are beautiful to watch. The moment when George
and Peppy are communicating to each other through the medium of dance with a screen between their upper bodies is delightfully fun and in contrast, George's nightmare with a short introduction of sound is intelligent film-making, with simple sounds such as the contact of a glass to a table sounding deafening.
The lack of sound is more than made up with a fantastic sountrack, occassional screen titles, brilliant acting and the use of visual metaphors for example George filming a scene where he is drowning in quicksand, just as his career is failing. The success of the film depends entirely on the three stars, who you cannot take your eyes off
of - Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo and of course Uggie the dog who has received worldwide adoration and critical acclaim. There have even been campaigns to get him nominated for an  Oscar and his red-carpet appearances have been the highlights of award season!

The Artist is a refreshing change to its contemporary counterparts and really is a love letter to
the movie industry and silver screen productions. Proof that all you need is a decent story
and cast to keep your audience's attention for a couple of hours. I can't wait to watch this
film again and urge everyone to see it for an uplifting and surprisingly emotional evening's
entertainment with a rousing finale that will see you leave the cinema with a huge smile on
your face!

Sunday, 5 February 2012

January Book Group - The Owl Killers

Our first read for 2012 was The Owl Killers by Karen Maitland. Set in a remote Norfolk village in 1321, the natives ruled by superstitions and the notorious owl masters become suspicious and afraid of a group of foreign women who set up camp nearby. As floods and disease threaten to destroy their livelihoods while the women's community thrives, the villagers become certain of witchcraft and call on the owl-men to get rid of the strangers.

Below are a few questions we discussed during our reading group meeting with a few brief thoughts on the answers. Please feel free to add any more comments.

Did we enjoy the book?
Most of us did enjoy the book and felt like we learnt a lot about life in the Dark Ages. We enjoyed the narrative style and the insight of various character's thoughts, but felt a little let down by the brief and enigmatic ending.

How did the style of narration add or detract from the book?
The Owl Killers alternates between first person narration from five different characters - Servant Martha leader of the beguine, Beatrice a member of the beguine who has suffered from various tragedies, Agatha / Osmanna daughter of the lord of the manor forced to join the beguines, Father Ulfrid the village priest and Pisspuddle a village child with no name. Although a little daunting at first, we all got used to the names and voices of all the characters and found it interesting to see events through all their eyes. We agreed that not all the characters were reliable with their stories as fear made them describe events that may not have happened - for example seeing a demon in the forest at night. At times it was a little frustrating as we wanted to hear more or less from a certain narrator and some story lines were shortened or left out.

What did we learn about the time the book was set in?
The superstitions and omens that the villagers lived their life by was very interesting to read about, for example owls were seen as a sign of death. It was also interesting to read about religion, with villagers needing to pay both taxes to the manor and tithes to the church. With no tithes, there would be no church to support them, which was a major difficulty during times of flooding and disease. The views against women were unsurprising, especially the controversy around Servant Martha giving the host to her women. None of us had heard of the concept of beguines before and were surprised to learn there are still communities existing today in Europe. We were also interested in the story of Andrew, the anchorite, claiming to live on the love and words of God alone.

How big is the relationship between fear and imagination?
Some of the narration is distorted as the characters reveal what they thought they saw rather than what they actually saw. For example at the beginning of the book, Osmanna is certain that she was attacked by the owl man and that a demon is growing inside her. The villagers have many fears to contend with - the manor, religion and the owl masters as well as the beguine. Father Ulfrid is afraid of his secrets being revealed. The downfall of the beguine is when Servant Martha, who had previously dismissed the superstitious stories of the owl man, admits his presence, therefore terrifying the other women. Once they give in to fear, nothing is the same again.

How is the link between name and identity used?
There are many examples of this in the book. We were all very surprised when it was revealed that Hilary was a man (an early chapter deliberately fools us into thinking he is a woman), Andrew the anchorite is a woman with a man's name and Pisspuddle the village child has no name, but is very much the voice of the village. The leaders of the beguine are all called Martha and each member is re-named after a saint when they are accepted into the community. Agatha certainly matures after she is given the identity of Osmanna, although her feisty, stubborn personality is still present.

What did we think of the primary characters?
Servant Martha - we liked and admired her, although she was stubborn and out of touch with the younger members of the beguine. She wasn't a great people person, but was loyal and brave.
Beatrice - although she had been much sadness in her life, we were unsympathetic to her selfishness and self-centeredness, especially her attitude towards Osmanna. We also blamed her for the arrest of Osmanna and the downfall of the beguine.
Agatha / Osmanna - we really liked Osmanna as she had a strong personality with her own views which she stuck to throughout the whole book. We really felt sorry for her when she crumples towards the end of the story.
Father Ulfrid - not a nice character at all! Out for himself and terrified of his secrets being revealed, he reacts to fear in a bad way.
Pisspuddle - we saw her as the voice of the village and she was one of the rare characters who was involved in both communities. She is used by adults throughout the book, but ultimately has her own views.

What did we think of some of the secondary characters?
Phlip D'Acaster - not a nice character and not in as much power as he thinks. We expected him to be involved a lot more in the story than he was.
Pega - we all agreed that we really liked Pega and could relate to her the most. She was the most contemporary character in the book and was able to mix with the villagers while being a member of the beguine. She is able to change her mind about people without stubbornness and after originally disliking Osmanna, she goes to great lengths to save her.
Healing Martha - loyal to Servant Martha, when she is injured it soon becomes apparent that she was her right arm and the true leader of the beguines.
Gudrun - the spooky child that Beatice adopts as her own after originally being scared of her. We are not sure if she really did have some supernatural powers or if the other characters just believed the stories about her.

This is a great reading group book, as there is so much to discuss. Many issues are covered within the book and it is set in fascinating time of history. I would also recommend reading The Company of Liars by the same author which is just as enjoyable and covers some similar themes. You can find out more about Karen Maitland on and she will be appearing at Windsor Library at the end of February.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Words Words Words at Selfridges

I spent an enjoyable afternoon in London yesterday browsing through some of my favourite places - British Museum, Foyles Bookshop and Waterstones Oxford Circus. I had heard about the Words Words Words event at Selfridges and popped in to have a look.

The Ultralounge on the ground floor has been transformed into a library where you can relax and reflect away from the noise and crowds of Oxford Street. There are plenty of books to sit and read from classics to modern fiction and interests such as art to food. My favourite features are the wall decorated with books and the Penguin Story Chairs which provide headphones for you to listen to the first sentence, paragraph, page or chaper of randomly selected classics read by favourite voices. I had a lovely time listening to Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Kidnapped, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Stig of the Dump, Peter Pan, Goodnight Mr Tom and Wuthering Heights.
Words Words Words is open until 1st March and there are plenty of events such as Penguin book clubs, talks and handwriting analysis. I recommend a visit if you are in the Oxford Street area!  

You can find out more about Words Words Words here:

Death Comes To Pemberley

From previous posts you will know that I am 'Austenite' and that Pride and Prejudice is my favourite ever book. As a result I have read so many modern adaptations and variations of the book that I feel a part of the Bennet family. I had been looking forward to reading P.D James' Death Comes To Pemberley ever since I read an interview with the author last summer. It offers a very different premise to other P & P spin-offs and promised to stay loyal to Austen's style of writing... warning paragraphs below may contain a couple of spoilers!

The book blurb is quite spooky with reports of a 'spectral' carriage speeding towards Pemberley the night before Lady Anne's Ball (Darcy's deceased mother), containing Lydia screaming that her husband, her mischievous husband, has been murdered. Cleverly, it turns out that this is not the case, with Wickham actually becoming a murder suspect, with all evidence pointing towards him.

The book starts with a brief description of the original tale and an introduction to all of the characters. This I skimmed through quite quickly as I know the story inside out, but it is quite useful for readers who have not read P & P or may have forgotten parts. There are lots of new characters introduced from the Pemberley staff, to the family living in the woodland cottage in the grounds to local police officers and magistrates, leaving a Downton Abbey style impression.

This is my first P.D James book, so I don't know how this compares to her other novels but I found the narrative style quite interesting. The beginning is as confusing to the reader as it is to the characters involved, but it all begins to be clearer as the novel goes on due to character conversation, the inquest and the trial. The information and evidence is repeated numerous times which makes the reader feel very informative, but it can at times get a little annoying. I guessed the conclusion quite early on and I found the involvement of Mrs Younge (Georgiana's companion who was involved in persuading her to elope with Wickham in P & P) a revelation too far and that it interfered too much with the original story.

The writing style is very similar to Jane Austen's but I found it far too factual and there was none of the famous Austen wit, which made me a fan of P & P. There is not enough Elizabeth Bennett - this is very much a story of the men of the novel. Elizabeth and Darcy's relationship is portrayed as very romantic and idyllic with none of the fiery spark or banter that I expected. Wickham and Colonel Fitzwilliam's personalities seem very different to the original novel and I missed the presence of Mr and Mrs Bennet - two huge characters who only appear briefly. 

I also found the epilogue hugely frustrating, with Darcy and Elizabeth discussing their courtship with some interesting theories from James. Would Darcy really have made his first proposal in such poor taste (announcing he wanted to marry Elizabeth against his better judgement and despite her embarassing family) on purpose as he knew she would refuse? I don't think so!

However, I did enjoy this book and will probably read it again in the future. Like Austen's novels, it feels like a very familiar read to curl up with on a dark winter's evening and I would recommend this to all Austen aficionados to make up their own minds!