Monday, 25 July 2016

Go Set A Watchman - Harper Lee

I first read To Kill A Mockingbird many years ago whilst at school. As it was a set text the obligatory pulling apart line by line was done complete with pencil notes in margin which is the kind of thing I love. Unlike some school texts (Far From the Madding Crowd, Macbeth) this one escaped my teenage loathing and I look back on it with fondness rather than with a shudder of exam stress.

We had clocked this book as soon as it came out but being price conscious (and carrying hardbacks on train adverse) decided to wait until it was out in paperback. I was surprised to note it was written in the 50s and had only been released very shortly before Lee's death. This made me suspicious as I was immediately dubious as to whether she wanted it released. Why wait so long? It didn’t stop me though and I approached it as you would meeting a long lost friend.

I initially enjoyed the train ride with Jean Louise and viewed the folding bed incident to similar trouble she would have gotten in to during Mockingbird. As the book enfolded however the plot seemed to falter. Viewing the return to ones home town through changed eyes and meeting old characters became an attempt to impress political views upon an audience that now had little recollection or understanding of the time. I don’t know the American constitution, I don’t really know of the political/race struggles that went on in that part of America in the 50s and whilst I'm not adverse to learning more, in a book that is very slim in the first place trying to encapsulate that in amongst recollections of childhood and deliberations about marriage proposals was just too much.

The book then swerved and became about Jean Louise and her idolisation of her father that needed to be severed so she could become her own person. All very well but to do this it felt like the Atticus in this book was totally different to that in Mockingbird. We discussed how he was always about justice and how if this went against white people so be it but phrases such as the Negro population is backward made him appear as a racist bigot something he simply wasn’t in Mockingbird.

What also didn’t follow was if Jean Louise was so straight laced black is black, white is white and we are all equal why would the book end with her agreeing with her Uncle that she wouldn’t marry Hank because he wasn’t her type – not because she didn’t love him but because he was trash. I think this is the part of the book I was most disappointed with. It was a throw away paragraph at the end of the book despite Hank and his attachment to Jean Louise being one of the main parts of the book.

I found at times the writing style hard to follow. The third person narration shifted haphazardly and I had no idea what Jean Louise's Uncle was talking about half the time. We discussed that this was how Jean Louise found him frustrating and full of riddles but it was just one more negative in a list that was becoming quite lengthy.

We all loved the parts where Jean Louise became Scout again and we reminisced with her. The school prom and Scouts 'pregnancy' were particular highlights. We also enjoyed the parts between Jean Louise and Hank – will they/wont they, should they/shouldn’t they. I loved the part where she questioned whether she should marry him as she would only go off and have an affair with the man she should have married had she had waited.

We definitely all learned something during our meeting. One of the group came fully armed with text books from the 50s and even pictures, brilliant! The biggest shock of the night to me was the fact it was written before To Kill A Mockingbird. We spent quite some time discussing this and the fact Trueman Capote was rumoured to have written Mockingbird. Dill is supposedly based upon Capote as a child! We concluded it felt like a draft that had been written and scrapped as the spark of Mockingbird emerged from its ashes.

Our scoring was very complicated this month with marks being given for plot, enjoyment, characters and writing style. Plot came out worse, characters the best but they all pretty much hovered around the 5/6 mark. It’s a shame in a way it was published as it almost lessens Mockingbird. The epic that is taught in schools everywhere the stoic moral rights compass that is Atticus, the hope of emerging racial tolerance are all stamped upon. Perhaps somethings should just be left as they are.

Question of the month – biggest shock for me wasn’t the book but the fact it was written before Mockingbird. What shocking facts do you know about literary giants?

Friday, 15 July 2016

The Jewel of St Petersburg by Kate Furnivall

This is a prequel to excellent The Russian Concubine and if you haven't read it or its follow on The Concubines Secret please do. Oh and while you're at it read Under A Blood Red Sky as well, no Lydia or Valentina but still good.

It has been quite a few years since I had read either of the Concubine books yet Lydia had stayed with me over the years and I was looking forward to reading about how her mother and father got together.

I really enjoyed the book and found it gripping from the get go. What I loved the most about Concubine were the characters and I was delighted to find old faces pop up in this book, it felt like I was meeting old friends. I don't want to spoil things by giving too much away but the book was tinged with sadness for me. Having said that I did find it tense even though I knew whether certain characters were alive or not by the time Concubine starts. I loved the description of Russia and its descent into chaos, the love story, the villans and the description of Valentinas work at the hospital.

I'm not sure in which order I would recommend you read Jewel and Concubine. There was enough in this book to not make me regret reading it last but I could understand how you would perhaps get more out of it reading them the other way round.

In any event I found it a real page turner, easy to read and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I haven't read any other Kate Furnivall books and have just had a spy on her website to check out her back catalogue as if her other books are half as good as these ones you're on to a winner. I'm fancying The White Pearl, has anyone read it?

Also let me know whether you are team Lydia or team Valentina. For me Lydia will always have a place in my heart.

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Inbetweeny - The Penguin Book of Classical Myths - Jenny March

I'm interested in history so was looking forward to reading this book – I actually picked it from the 30 plus unread books waiting for me on the bookshelf. My knowledge of Greek myths is/was very vague and I was keen on being to say to my children "ah yes Zeus, God of thunder do you know he …"

I realised pretty early on however that this wasn’t going to be the book that allowed me to do that and fell out of love with it once I realised the introduction was pretty much the theme for the rest of the book.

I didn’t like the way the book was presented – for example (sorry if this is a stupid question but having read 500 plus pages I still don't know) do some people actually believe this is how the world started? Virgil, Homer and all the other people she quoted, were they just waxing lyrical or is it them explaining what they believed to be a true account of how Athens came about or how a constellation came into being? This wasn’t made clear to the reader. Some sort of background/introduction to Virgil, Homer etc. would have been useful to help put their works into context. There wasn't any kind of conclusion either, in fact I found the ending quite abrupt (I actually turned the page expecting to see more). What happened to all these Gods that the author spent 500 pages naming?

That brings me to my next point – names – how many! The book literally read like this 'A married B and they had C, D and E. C met F and raped her to produce G. D had sex with E then with H and I and had 3 sons J, K and L. K married M who killed K and then married N. N was murdered by D. M murdered D in revenge and then killed herself in grief for her lost husband. And that’s just one paragraph!

That is pretty much what the book is, a list of people having sex (consensual or not), having children, killing (each other or themselves) or turning into trees, rivers, animals and so forth. I get that that is in essence what the Gods did but it was too list like. I wanted little things like why Helen is known as the face that launched a thousand ships, or why we wear laurel wreaths as a sign of victory to stand out rather than be swamped amongst the endless names. What made it more difficult was the fact all of the names were unfamiliar to me – Apollo yes I've heard him before but add Kynossema, Apsyrtos and Anaxarete in to the mix and you can appreciate why it was hard to remember who was who. Again I understand the author couldn’t suddenly start calling everyone Dave (that too would have been confusing) but she needed to someway make them memorable, more recognisable instead of another name beginning with A whose face made Zeus fall in love with her in an instant.

What a randy bugger Zeus was by the way and how much of a bitch was his wife? See I wanted more of that!

It's not that the book went over my head. I just found it boring, cold and repetitive. Maybe too many topics were covered and not enough word count devoted to each. Towards the end it did feel like she was trying to squeeze in as many people as possible just to have included them. There were also repeat references to certain people and it felt at times as thought I was reading the same thing twice so maybe the overall structure needed to be looked at and fine-tuned.

I totally believed that this book would be a #ontheshelf book to refer to at various points when homework or random conversations sparked the need. I'd even cleared a space for it in the read section of my little library. However I disliked the book so much that I've decided it's going nowhere near my shelf – I have Google if I need to answer who Athene was and 30 or more unread books that are more worthy of the space.