Book Haul | July 2014

Trying a new sort of post this time. I hope it works.

So yeah, these are the books I’ve got this month!

1. The Penguin Book of Word Histories, by Fred McDonald

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“Compiled by Fred McDonald, this new book traces the origins and explains the meanings of approximately 15,000 words. Words with similar ancestry or semantic development are cross-referenced or subsumed into one entry, making comparisons easier for the reader. There is also a short introduction explaining the book’s purpose and layout, and giving a very short account of the English language and the languages that have contributed to it.”

2. More Than This, by Patrick Ness

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I loved this book. Mindblowing. My review is here!

“A boy drowns, desperate and alone in his final moments. He dies.

Then he wakes, naked and bruised and thirsty, but alive.

How can this be? And what is this strange deserted place?

As he struggles to understand what is happening, the boy dares to hope. Might this not be the end? Might there be more to this life, or perhaps this afterlife?”

3. The Letter For The King by Tonke Dragt

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“The rule-book says that a young man who is to be knighted by King Dagonaut must pass the eve of the grand ceremony in silent vigil. However, Young Tiuri, son of the famous Tiuri the Valiant, breaks the rules – he opens the door to a stranger, who begs him to deliver a secret letter to the Black Knight with the White Shield. The letter is destined for the ruler of the neighbouring realm, King Unauwen, and concerns a matter of paramount importance. Tiuri accepts this dangerous mission, but when he arrives at the appointed place deep in the forest, he finds the Knight dying, murdered by the vicious Red Riders. As he races to deliver the letter to King Unauwen in the Knight’s stead, Tiuri is pursued by the Red Riders, who threaten his life – but he is determined to fulfil his promise: the Black Knight must not have died in vain.”

4. How To Be A Woman, by Caitlin Moran

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“Though they have the vote and the Pill and haven’t been burned as witches since 1727, life isn’t exactly a stroll down the catwalk for modern women. They are beset by uncertainties and questions: Why are they supposed to get Brazilians? Why do bras hurt? Why the incessant talk about babies? And do men secretly hate them?

Caitlin Moran interweaves provocative observations on women’s lives with laugh-out-loud funny scenes from her own, from the riot of adolescence to her development as a writer, wife, and mother. With rapier wit, Moran slices right to the truth—whether it’s about the workplace, strip clubs, love, fat, abortion, popular entertainment, or children—to jump-start a new conversation about feminism. With humor, insight, and verve, How To Be a Woman lays bare the reasons female rights and empowerment are essential issues not only for women today but also for society itself.”

5. The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, by Douglas Adams

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“On 12 October 1979 the most remarkable book ever to come out of the great publishing corporations of Ursa Minor (and Earth) was made available to humanity — The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

It’s an ordinary Thursday lunchtime for Arthur Dent until his house gets demolished. The Earth follows shortly afterwards, to make way for a new hypersapce bypass, and his best friend has just announced that he’s an alien. At this moment, they’re hurtling through space with nothing but their towels and an innocuous-looking book inscribed with the big, friendly words: DON’T PANIC.”

6. The Book of Life (All Souls #3), by Deborah Harkness

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“After traveling through time in Shadow of Night, the second book in Deborah Harkness’s enchanting series, historian and witch Diana Bishop and vampire scientist Matthew Clairmont return to the present to face new crises and old enemies. At Matthew’s ancestral home at Sept-Tours, they reunite with the cast of characters from A Discovery of Witches—with one significant exception. But the real threat to their future has yet to be revealed, and when it is, the search for Ashmole 782 and its missing pages takes on even more urgency. In the trilogy’s final volume, Harkness deepens her themes of power and passion, family and caring, past deeds and their present consequences. In ancestral homes and university laboratories, using ancient knowledge and modern science, from the hills of the Auvergne to the palaces of Venice and beyond, the couple at last learn what the witches discovered so many centuries ago.”

7. The Truth Is A Cave In The Black Mountains, by Neil Gaiman

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“You ask me if I can forgive myself?
I can forgive myself . . .

And so begins The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains, a haunting story of family, the otherworld, and a search for hidden treasure. This gorgeous full-color illustrated book version was born of a unique collaboration between New York Times bestselling author Neil Gaiman and renowned artist Eddie Campbell, who brought to vivid life the characters and landscape of Gaiman’s award-winning story. In this volume, the talents and vision of two great creative geniuses come together in a glorious explosion of color and shadow, memory and regret, vengeance and, ultimately, love.

. . . for many things. For where I left him.
For what I did.”

8. Hild, by Nicola Griffith

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“‘You are a prophet and seer with the brightest mind in an age. Your blood is that of the man who should have been king …That’s what the king and his lords see. And they will kill you, one day.’

Britain in the seventh century – and the world is changing. Small kingdoms are merging, frequently and violently. Edwin, King of Northumbria, plots his rise to overking of all the Angles. Ruthless and unforgiving, he is prepared to use every tool at his disposal: blood, bribery, belief. Into this brutal, vibrant court steps Hild – Edwin’s youngest niece.

With her glittering mind and powerful curiosity, Hild has a unique way of reading the world. By studying nature, observing human behavior and matching cause with effect, she has developed the ability to make startlingly accurate predictions. It is a gift that can seem uncanny, even supernatural, to those around her.

It is also a valuable weapon. Hild is indispensable to Edwin – unless she should ever lead him astray. The stakes are life and death: for Hild, for her family, for her loved ones, and for the increasing numbers who seek the protection of the strange girl who can see the future and lead men like a warrior.


So those were the books I got this month, and I’m so excited to read them! Not as many as last month (thirty books is an insane number) but I reckon eight is pretty decent!

 

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Review | The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy – Douglas Adams

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Paperback (Pan Books, 199 pages)

First published 1979; this edition published 2009

Rating on Goodreads: 3 stars

“On 12 October 1979 the most remarkable book ever to come out of the great publishing corporations of Ursa Minor (and Earth) was made available to humanity — The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

It’s an ordinary Thursday lunchtime for Arthur Dent until his house gets demolished. The Earth follows shortly afterwards, to make way for a new hypersapce bypass, and his best friend has just announced that he’s an alien. At this moment, they’re hurtling through space with nothing but their towels and an innocuous-looking book inscribed with the big, friendly words: DON’T PANIC.

The weekend has only just begun…”


I have to admit, the sheer scale of Mr Adams’s imagination is astonishing. I’m not sure I could come up with something quite as ‘mind-fucking’ as this.

I started this purely because I adore the film, and my friend Lucy had been telling me to read the series for quite a while. So I appeased her and sated my own curiosity by picking a copy up.

And as crazy and wonderfully weird as Adams’s imagination is, the book felt almost contrived to me. I can’t fault his ideas, but there are so many of them that I was overwhelmed and thus underwhelmed because nothing made sense and seemed pointless. Of course, I know that the magic of Hitchhiker’s hinges on the bizarre and often confusing, but for me there was too much nonsense and not enough of a solid plot structure.

The characters are fantastic, though, I must say. Poor Arthur. I really did feel for him. Zaphod Beeblebrox is a priceless joy, with Marvin ever comical. And I loved the British humour so much (being British myself, I couldn’t stop laughing at certain bits, though I won’t spoil if you haven’t read); Adams had a comedic gift, undoubtedly.

I gave this three out of five stars on Goodreads because I adored certain bits and disliked others, but what I do know is that the book made me feel like I’d just dunked my brain into a kaleidoscope. It’s that trippy.

And if you like trippy, try this. It’s a drug without the side effects.

 

Review | The Song of Achilles – Madeline Miller

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Paperback (Bloomsbury, 352 pages)

First published 2011; this edition published 2012

Rating on Goodreads: 4 stars

“Greece in the age of Heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the kingdom of Phthia. Here he is nobody, just another unwanted boy living in the shadow of King Peleus and his golden son, Achilles.

Achilles, ‘best of all the Greeks’, is everything Patroclus is not — strong, beautiful, the child of a goddess — and by all rights their paths should never cross. Yet one day, Achilles takes the shamed prince under his wing and soon their tentative companionship gives way to a steadfast friendship. As they grow into young men skilled in the arts of war and medicine, their bond blossoms into something far deeper — despite the displeasure of Achilles’s mother Thetis, a cruel and deathly pale sea goddess with a hatred of mortals.

Fate is never far from the heels of Achilles. When word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, the men of Greece are called upon to lay siege to Troy in her name. Seduced by the promise of a glorious destiny, Achilles joins their cause. Torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus follows Achilles into war, little knowing that the years that follow will test everything they have learned, everything they hold dear. And that, before he is ready, he will be forced to surrender his friend to the hands of Fate.”


Oh, my boys. My darling Greek heroes.

This book very nearly made me cry. It’s a beautiful, heartbreaking interpretation of Greek myth, and Ms Miller’s prose style is simply stunning. It’s a wonderful novel, to be sure. Characterisation is brilliant (nice twist on Thetis there) and the setting and description…I loved it. Loved every moment of it.

The novel takes place through several years and several settings, from caves to palace rooms, medicine tents and war zones. You’re involved enough – with Patroclus as the narrator – to see the characters grow from boys to men, and it’s masterfully done. I never got the sense that Miller’s writing didn’t fit a boy of the period. I could believe that they were boys, and I could believe that they were adolescents.

If you know your Greek mythology, as I do, then you’ll know what’s going to happen in the novel – but that doesn’t detract from the suspense. In fact, I was anxiously awaiting the most significant scenes, and I was kept on my toes constantly throughout the book. The ending was truly saddening, and it’s still in my mind, days after finishing it.

The Song of Achilles has made me want to delve back into my research on Greek mythology, and that surely is the mark of a great book. How many of us can say that a book has made such an impact that it causes us want to research and gain knowledge?

Wonderful. Truly wonderful.

 

Review | The Lemon Grove – Helen Walsh

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Paperback (Tinder Press, 320 pages)

First published 2014; this edition published 2014

Rating on Goodreads: 3 stars

“Set on the rugged, mountainous west coast of Mallorca, this taut, sultry, brilliantly paced novel is a meditation on female desire, the vicissitudes of marriage, the allure of youth, and the politics of raising other peoples’ children. 
     The story takes place over one week in the heat of Deia, a coastal village on an island off the southeast coast of Spain. Jenn and Greg go for a break to enjoy languorous, hot afternoons by the pool. But the equilibrium is upset by the arrival of Greg’s daughter (Jenn’s step-daughter), Emma, and her boyfriend, Nathan. Jenn is in her early 40s, loves her husband and her daughter and she is content, to an extent. But when this beautiful, reckless young man comes into her life, she is driven by a sexual compulsion that she’s seldom felt since adolescence. The holiday progresses and her world is thrown into tumult as the lines blur between desire and obsession–it is not just the idea of sexual fulfillment that Jenn finds attractive but the suggestion of youth: by Nathan’s side, Jenn is young and carefree once again, and at this stage in her life, the promise of youth is every bit as seductive as the promise of passion. What follows is a highly charged narrative liaison that puts lives in jeopardy and percolates with just enough sexual tension to make it impossible to put down.”


I think I’m the wrong target audience for this book.

Don’t get me wrong, this is a good novel. It’s pacy, it’s readable, it isn’t dull by a long shot. But I wonder if all the hype gave me certain expectations – ones that, sadly, weren’t met, in my mind. Hype declared it to be sexy and sultry – but I didn’t find that at all. I just found Jenn’s predicament very, very sad. She is a character I pitied – and her wish to regain her youth is palpable throughout the novel. Each character is full of depth, full of true emotion – but ye gods I wanted to slap Emma around the face. I hope I wasn’t as petulant as her when I was fifteen. Nathan I disliked from the first appearance, and Greg just made me groan. I’ve never liked pompous characters.

More than anything, I saw this as a poignant tale about lost youth and the callousness of the young. There was nothing erotic about The Lemon Grove for me, not in the slightest. I almost winced at a few scenes that were perhaps meant to be arousing. I’d recommend this to an older age group, but for people my age – young adult – I wouldn’t. It’s a good tale, but I know I wasn’t the right age to read it.

 

Review | Notes On A Scandal – Zoë Heller

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Paperback (Penguin, 244 pages)

First published 2003; this edition published 2007

Rating on Goodreads: 3 stars

“Schoolteacher Barbara Covett has led a solitary life until Sheba Hart, the new art teacher at St. George’s, befriends her. But even as their relationship develops, so too does another: Sheba has begun an illicit affair with an underage male student. When the scandal turns into a media circus, Barbara decides to write an account in her friend’s defense—and ends up revealing not only Sheba’s secrets, but also her own.”


 

What a bizarre novel.

Having watched a little of the film adaptation, I was curious as to whether the book would be worth my time. I picked up a gorgeous Penguin edition (I have a soft spot for their covers; they really are quite lovely) and proceeded to get stuck in.

And I have to admit, it is an engaging read. Barbara’s spiteful, snobbish narrative makes for an intriguing protagonist, and more than once I was left feeling both amused and exasperated by her words and her actions. Sheba, too, is a ridiculous character – but she left me with little amusement and far more exasperation than Barbara. Sheba is, in short, an idiot. That was the only word that kept ringing in my mind over and over. I didn’t like her, and I liked her teenage daughter even less.

Notes On A Scandal is a clever tackling of an often taboo subject, but there was nothing in the novel that made me go wow. The writing is easy to follow, and the characters realistic, but nothing really grasped me. I read it in one sitting, but I can blame that purely on the short length of the novel rather than the gripping narrative. It is engaging, but not spellbinding. Barbara and Sheba’s symbiotic relationship – more and more evident as the tale progresses – is somewhat sickening by the end of the book, and perhaps character building is the novel’s strength. But in terms of plot, I wasn’t thrilled.

If you like reading books on supposed taboo subjects, then you might like this. Otherwise, I wouldn’t recommend it. It left me with an unsatisfied feeling, and I won’t be rereading it.

 

Review | Wide Sargasso Sea – Jean Rhys

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Paperback (Penguin Modern Classics, 192 pages)

First published 1966; this edition published 2000

Rating on Goodreads: 2 stars

“In Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys brilliantly and imaginatively constructs the girlhood and marriage of Antoinette Bertha Cosway, the mysterious madwoman in Jane Eyre. It is a romantic and tragic novel of spellbinding intensity.”


I did not like this novel.

It seemed, to me, to be an utter mess that I couldn’t quite grasp. And it’s a shame. Jane Eyre is one of my absolute favourites, and I was so intrigued to read an interpretation of Bertha before she lost her mind. But within the first few pages, I was struggling to keep interest in Bertha’s story. Perhaps it was because it isn’t a gothic tale like its predecessor – and the reason I read Jane Eyre in the first place was because it is a gothic classic. The setting is simple enough – and it isn’t often I find a story set in the Caribbean – but I think the reason it didn’t grab me is because I had preconceptions of Bertha’s life, and Wide Sargasso Sea threw those out of the window, far away enough that I couldn’t connect with Rhys’s novel.

I gave it two out of five stars on Goodreads because despite disliking the novel, there were one or two short scenes between Rochester and Bertha that I did find touching. But they were few and far between, and quickly evaporated, to be taken over by her insanity. I can appreciate that the reader is supposed to be confused by her state of mind – madness is madness, after all, and makes little sense – but it turned the tale into a bemusing mess, one that never really solidifies or becomes clear to the reader. What only worsens the mess is that I could never quite understand which character was which in the tale, and found myself caring about them less and less. There was no emotional attachment to this story, which saddened me, because I was hoping for something heartbreaking. I did not get it.

Maybe I should read it again, to have a clearer picture in my mind of who is who and what happens when, but in all honesty, I was bored by Wide Sargasso Sea in spite of its very short length, and I don’t think I will be picking it up again.