Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Reading Wrap-Up | August 2013

Since finishing university August has definitely been the best reading month for me. I managed to get through ten very varied books this month; including a memoir, a children's book, three classics and a graphic novel. So on with the wrap-up!

Dante's Inferno

My Rating:

"Through me you go to the grief-racked city. Through me to everlasting pain you go..."

Depicting one man's horrifying journey into the depths of Hell, 'Inferno', the first part of Dante's 'Divine Comedy', is a soaring spiritual epic that continues to echo through the centuries with its moving portrayal of human sin and the tragedy of those condemned to eternal damnation.

For years Inferno was something I'd only read extracts of when I came across it while studying, but I'd never read it from start to finish. I knew that had to change when I came across the pretty new Penguin Classics addition in The Works for just £2.
     Journeying through the nine circles of Hell with Dante was both bizarre and fascinating, and the footnotes proved more than helpful whenever someone appeared whom Dante harboured a particular hatred for. What surprised me most was how easy Inferno was to understand; despite studying plenty of classics through school and university, I was worried that I'd find Inferno difficult to follow because of how long ago it was written, not to mention it was intially written in Latin! So I was pleasantly surprised when it turned out to be pretty easy to understand - all the footnotes certainly helped! - and I'd recommend it to anyone who's been putting it off because they're worried it's a difficult read. It isn't!

Titanic Survivor: The Memoirs of Violet Jessop, Stewardess

My Rating:

'I did not like big ships...I was secretly afraid' admits Violet Jessop in this unique eyewitness account of the most written about disaster of the twentieth century. Joining the Royal Mail Line in 1908 at the age of twenty-one, Violet Jessop spent her entire career at sea, travelling on more than 200 voyages. She was a stewardess for first-class passengers on the Titanic when it sank on its maiden voyage in April 1912 after hitting an iceberg. Her description of the sinking is chilling as she sees to the needs of the passengers before finding a warm coat for herself. While in the lifeboat, someone threw her a 'forgotten baby', and she watched, fascinated as the ship went down 'as if by looking I could keep her afloat'. Four years later, she was a wartime nurse aboard the hospital ship, Britannic, when it struck a mine and sank to the bottom of the Aegean. These memoirs give us a unique glimpse of life below decks aboard one of the great ocean liners. From Jessop's unusual vantage point, we learn what life was like for those who worked on the ships: hilarious fellow stewardesses, cramped quarters, wartime alerts, impossible passengers ('the haughty, gimlet eyes of a certain well-known society woman'), philandering shipmates, exotic ports, unrequited love and tragic deaths.

My second read in August was the memoirs of Violet Jessop, a woman who led an amazing life which included surviving both the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 and of the Britannic in 1916. The memoirs span from her early childhood all the way through to her later working life and are written with wonderful wit and humour.
     Though I thoroughly enjoyed reading Violet's memoirs the title, and indeed the cover, of this book are very misleading. While it is true that Violet survived the Titanic, only two chapters are really dedicated to her time on the ship; the book is more about her life in general than her time on the Titanic. So if you're looking for something centered entirely around the doomed ship I would not recommend this book, I do, however, recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading memoirs and non-fiction and to anyone who is a lover of history. Titanic aside, this woman's life is well worth reading about. 

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett

My Rating:

Sara Crewe, an exceptionally intelligent and imaginative student at Miss Minchin's Select Seminary for Young Ladies, is devastated when her adored, indulgent father dies. Now penniless and banished to a room in the attic, Sara is demeaned, abused, and forced to work as a servant. How this resourceful girl's fortunes change again is at the center of A Little Princess, one of the best-loved stories in all of children's literature.

My second classic and third read of the month was Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess, a book I have been meaning to read for years because I spent so many afternoons of my childhood watching and loving the 1995 adaptation. Though there are some differences between the book and the film I enjoyed reading it just as much as I enjoy watching it. It's a charming story and, though a classic, so easy to read that I read it in a day. It was a day well spent.
     The story centres on Sara Crewe, the beloved daughter of a wealthy widower who is sent to a boarding school in London which is run by the spiteful Miss Minchin. Despite the fact that she has never wanted for anything, Sara is always kind and considerate to those around her, earning her the nickname of 'Princess Sara' which she takes in her stride. When her father suddenly dies and leaves her penniless, Sara's strength of character is put to the ultimate test. It's no wonder this story's a classic, it's just wonderful. So if you're in the mood to read something heart-warming, go ahead and pick up a copy of A Little Princess.

The Dark by Lemony Snicket

My Rating:

Laszlo is afraid of the dark. The dark is not afraid of Laszlo. 

Laszlo lives in a house. The dark lives in the basement. 

One night, the dark comes upstairs to Laszlo's room, and Laszlo goes down to the basement.

This is the story of how Laszlo stops being afraid of the dark.

Don't judge me. I managed to land myself a few weeks of work experience in my local library this August, and one afternoon while the library was particularly quiet one of the librarians showed me Lemony Snicket's The Dark. Lemony Snicket (aka Daniel Handler) is perhaps best known for his children's series A Series of Unfortunate Events, which follows the lives of the Baudelaire siblings, Violet, Klaus and Sunny. Short children's read The Dark follows Laszlo as he learns not to be afraid of The Dark.
     Whether you're a child or not this short read is adorable. Snicket's sweet personification of The Dark will quell any child's fears (or even any adult's!), and the story tells the wonderful, age old message of how there can be no light without the dark.

Divergent by Veronica Roth

My Rating:

In Beatrice Prior's dystopian Chicago world, society is divided into five factions, each dedicated to the cultivation of a particular virtue--Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent). On an appointed day of every year, all sixteen-year-olds must select the faction to which they will devote the rest of their lives. For Beatrice, the decision is between staying with her family and being who she really is--she can't have both. So she makes a choice that surprises everyone, including herself.

During the highly competitive initiation that follows, Beatrice renames herself Tris and struggles alongside her fellow initiates to live out the choice they have made. Together they must undergo extreme physical tests of endurance and intense psychological simulations, some with devastating consequences. As initiation transforms them all, Tris must determine who her friends really are--and where, exactly, a romance with a sometimes fascinating, sometimes exasperating boy fits into the life she's chosen. But Tris also has a secret, one she's kept hidden from everyone because she's been warned it can mean death. And as she discovers unrest and growing conflict that threaten to unravel her seemingly perfect society, she also learns that her secret might help her save those she loves . . . or it might destroy her.

I'd been meaning to read Divergent for a long time because I'd heard so many good things about it and, to my delight, it's one of the very few YA dystopias out there that doesn't include a bloody love triangle. It was a fast-paced read, I'd recommend it to anyone out there who often gets bored of slow moving books, but no matter how hard I tried I just couldn't get into it. I desperately wanted to like Divergent, but in the end I couldn't finish it.
     Was it the characters? Not really. Tris certainly isn't the best heroine I've ever come across but she was pretty good, and I liked Four and Tris's mother a lot. Was it the writing style? Definitely not, Roth certainly knows how to pace an action packed story. My issue with Divergent was the world building. I like my dystopia to be believable; I want to really believe that society could end up like this in the future because that makes it all the more frightening, but the world in Divergent seemed, to me, entirely unbelievable. I didn't see how anyone could possibly believe the factions were a good idea. If I can't believe a story, I can't finish it. So I'm very sorry to say Divergent was a disappointment.

Vampireology by Nicky Raven

My Rating:

Explore (if you dare) the true history of the Fallen Ones — and follow the fate of a 1920s investigator lured by a beauty with violet eyes.

Long before the term vampire was born, long before Bram Stoker fictionalized this being’s ways, blood-drinking demons were banished to Earth by Michael’s host of Angels, or so the Bible describes. Now this rich, mesmerizing resource, written in 1900, sheds light on what happened hence to the three vampire bloodlines — especially the tortured souls known as the Belial. Interspersed are booklets, flaps, and letters between a young paranormal researcher who discovered the book in the 1920s and an oddly alluring woman who seeks his help. Among the phenomena explored are:

* vampires’ genealogical origins, attributes, and range
* myths about the making of vampires
* secrets of vampires’ powers and shape-shifting skills
* tips for spotting vampires, protecting oneself, and fighting back
* case studies of famous vampires — and vampire hunters — through history
* a shocking overview of vampires "living" among us

One of the books in the Ology series, Vampireology, like The Dark, was just another entirely fun, quick read. I came across this in The Works a couple of years ago for around £3 and just had to have it because I love the way the book is set out as a series of letters, booklets and research 'proving' the existence of vampires - the 'Fallen Ones' - in our world.
     The book looks at different types of vampire, and even suggests that some famous figures in our history, such as Elizabeth Bathory and Jack the Ripper, may have been vampires. This is a great read for anyone interested in the origins of vampirism, and I'd definitely like to read some of the other books in the Ology series.

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

My Rating:

Following the demise of bloodthirsty buccaneer Captain Flint, young Jim Hawkins finds himself with the key to a fortune. For he has discovered a map that will lead him to the fabled Treasure Island. But a host of villains, wild beasts and deadly savages stand between him and the stash of gold. Not to mention the most infamous pirate ever to sail the high seas . . .

I actually started Treasure Island last year as it was required reading for one of my modules at university. However, I ended up being ill the week we were due to look at it and I didn't end up finishing it. Like A Little Princess it's such a short classic read that I decided to pick it up in August and finally finish reading it.
     Robert Louis Stevenson's swashbuckling story follows the adventures of the young Jim Hawkins as he sets out on a quest to find the notorious Captain Flint's hidden treasure. Along the way he learns about life at sea, mutiny and how difficult it is to distinguish a friend from a foe when he befriends the infamous Long John Silver. I really enjoyed this read, it was a lot of fun and, like the other two classics I read in August, a very easy read. The reason it only garnered three stars rather than four or five was simply because I felt as though the pace of the story became very slow once Jim reached the island, and I actually enjoyed his time at the Benbow Inn and his journey to the island a lot more. That being said it's still a classic well worth reading, especially if you're a lover of pirates.

Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder

My Rating:


A quick death

Or slow poison...

Yelena has a choice – be executed for murder, or become food taster to the Commander of Ixia. She leaps at the chance for survival, but her relief may be short-lived.

Life in the palace is full of hazards and secrets. Wily and smart, Yelena must learn to identify poisons before they kill her, recognise whom she can trust and how to spy on those she can’t. And who is the mysterious Southern sorceress who can reach into her head?

When Yelena realises she has extraordinary powers of her own, she faces a whole new problem, for using magic in Ixia is punishable by death...

After reading Snyder's Touch of Power in July and really enjoying it I decided it was about time I finally got around to reading the start of her most well known series, and I'm pleased to say I wasn't disappointed. Poison Study takes place in the fantastical land of Ixia and follows Yelena, a young woman who has been sentenced to death for murdering the son of the man who took her in when she was young and orphaned. Instead of being sent to the gallows, however, she is instead offered the job as the Commander of Ixia's new food taster where, like all the food tasters before her, she will eventually die by poisoning. Yelena's story isn't as simple as that, however, for she is hiding secrets; secrets about the abuse she received at the hands of the man she murdered and secrets about her own abilities: Yelena is capable of magic in a land where magic is forbidden.
     I absolutely adored this novel. The world-building was fantastic, Yelena is one of the best fantasy heroines I have come across in a long time and, like in Touch of Power, Snyder once again refuses to use any form of instalove; the relationship between Yelena and Valek, the mysterious and charismatic assassin who hires her, develops naturally over time. In a reading world which is currently full to the brim with instant and predictable love triangles this is a godsend. I think it's pretty easy to see that Poison Study was my favourite read of August, and I can't wait to sink my teeth into Magic Study this month.

The Small Hand by Susan Hill

My Rating:

Returning home from a visit to a client late one summer's evening, antiquarian bookseller Adam Snow takes a wrong turning and stumbles across the derelict old White House. Compelled by curiosity, he approaches the door, and, standing before the entrance feels the unmistakable sensation of a small hand creeping into his own, 'as if a child had taken hold of it'. Intrigued by the encounter, he determines to learn more, and discovers that the owner's grandson had drowned tragically many years before. At first unperturbed by the odd experience, Snow begins to be plagued by haunting dreams, panic attacks, and more frequent visits from the small hand which become increasingly threatening and sinister ...

I came across two beautiful little hardback additions of Susan Hill's Dolly and The Small Hand in the library and simply had to borrow them. Susan Hill is best known for the famously chilling The Woman in Black, but that is not her only ghost story. Having only read The Woman in Black before August I decided it was about time I read another ghost story of hers. The Small Hand follows Adam Snow who, after stumbling across a derelict house in the countryside, is haunted by the presence of a small, cold hand in his own which slowly begins to turn sinister.
     I enjoyed this story. It was nice to dip back into Hill's writing because she writes beautifully, and many of her descriptions were stunning. I was a little disappointed, however, that The Small Hand didn't creep me out anywhere near as much as The Woman in Black did. But that being said that can't be an entirely bad thing; The Woman in Black stopped me from sleeping. If you're a fan of ghost stories then be sure to pick this up, but if you're looking for a ghost story that's going to frighten you I'd look elsewhere.

Joe the Barbarian by Grant Morrison and Sean Murphy

My Rating:

Joe is an imaginative eleven-year-old boy. He can't fit in at school. He's the victim of bullies. His dad died overseas in the Iraq war. He also suffers from Type 1 diabetes. One fateful day, his condition causes him to believe he has entered a vivid fantasy world in which he is the lost savior—a fantastic land based on the layout and contents of his home. His desperate attempts to make it out of his bedroom transform into an incredible, epic adventure through a bizarre landscape of submarine pirate dwarves, evil Hell Hounds, Lightning Lords and besieged castles. But is his quest really just an insulin deprived delirium—from which he can die if he doesn't take his meds—or something much bigger?

Joe the Barbarian is another book I came across in the library and just had to borrow for two reasons: a) because I've been meaning to read a graphic novel for ages and b) because the title is Joe the Barbarian. Why wouldn't I want to read it? The story follows Joe who, while in the midsts of a severe dip in his blood sugar levels, enters a fantasy world which parallels his own in many different ways.
     This was an absolutely charming read. It was sweet, sad and funny all at once, and I really enjoyed the mixture of writing and beautiful illustrations. The ending was just lovely, and I can't wait to read some more graphic novels in the future.

So that's everything I read in August! With any luck September will be another great reading month for me. Check back at the end of the month for another wrap-up, and keep your eyes open for plenty more reviews, rants and discussions throughout the month!
     Thanks for reading! J.

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