Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Top Ten Tuesday | Wanderlust

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature created at The Broke and the Bookish. Each week you compile a list of ten books which coincide with that week's theme. You can find everything you need to know about joining in here!

This week's theme is all about books that aren't set in the USA. Now because I'm not American I don't think I read as much set in America as a lot of Americans probably do. That's not to say that all Americans only ever read books set in America, that's not true, but because I'm British the majority of the books I come across are also set in Britain, so luckily I didn't find this week's challenge too difficult. But I like to read about different places as much as I can and I didn't want this to be a list of books set in Britain, so I've included ten different countries from all over the world.

Half of this list is European, and the other half is set outside of Europe. I'd like to make more of an effort to read more books set outside Europe and North America.

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent: Hannah Kent's fantastic debut is set in the bleak, hauntingly beautiful landscape of Iceland, and is a fictionalised account of the final days of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman to be executed in Iceland. It's a wonderful book, and a very atmospheric winter read!

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton: Jessie Burton brings 17th century Amsterdam, The Netherlands to life in her sumptuous debut novel. This book is glorious, and if you haven't read it yet because of the hype I can assure you the hype is worth it for Burton's writing style alone.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak: The setting is one of the things I love most about The Book Thief, because it's so rare to come across a WW2 novel set in Germany that isn't about soldiers or villains or prisoners of war. In this book Zusak shows that the German population were as much a victim of WW2 and Hitler's regime as everywhere else, perhaps even more so.

The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant: Not only is this book set in Florence, Italy, but I also bought my copy in Florence. I found this novel in the gift shop of the Uffizi Gallery, and having just seen Botticelli's The Birth of Venus I couldn't resist picking it up.

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon: As well as being set in Spain, this book has also been translated from the original Spanish. If you like mysteries and books about books, then this is the novel for you.

Signal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia: Did you really think I was going to miss an opportunity to mention this book? Silvia Moreno-Garcia's fantastic debut novel is set in Mexico City in Mexico. I'd love to visit Mexico, so I'd really like to read more books set there.

The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney: I really enjoyed the cold, 19th century Canadian setting of this novel, even if the story as a whole left me a little underwhelmed. I need to read more books set in Canada!

Cinder by Marissa Meyer: It may be futuristic, but Cinder is still set in China! The diversity in The Lunar Chronicles is one of my favourite things about the series, and I love how neither America nor the UK are settings in any of the books.

Show Me a Mountain by Kerry Young: This is the kind of historical fiction I love: historical fiction with a mixed race protagonist, and in this novel our protagonist's home is Jamaica. Jamaica is another country I know very little about, but one I'd like to learn more about!

The Untold by Courtney Collins: The complete lack of fiction set in Australia I've read is just plain embarrassing.

Which books (and countries) made your list this week?

Saturday, 16 July 2016

Literary Locations: A New Series

So I've decided to start a new series on my blog, one that will be updated as and when it can be. Living in Britain I'm lucky enough to have access to quite a lot of literary places, whether they're houses of famous authors, such as the Brontës or Jane Austen, or places that have been used while filming adaptations.

One of my New Year's Resolutions was to visit even more places, and I thought it'd be fun to document what I get up to on my blog - not only so I can share these places with you, particularly those of you who live outside the UK, but also to encourage me to go out and see these places for myself!

Why am I only mentioning this new series now? Because I'm off to Cornwall at the end of this month, and I'm intending to visit Jamaica Inn while I'm there! I read Jamaica Inn earlier this year - and reviewed it here - and can't say no to the opportunity to go and see the real Jamaica Inn for myself.

With a history of smuggling, Jamaica Inn is still a working pub. You can stay over night and even celebrate your wedding here, or visit the Inn's own smuggling museum, and there are even Murder Mysteries and Ghost Hunts to participate in. It sounds like such a cool place, so look out for my post on the real Jamaica Inn in August!

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Top Ten Tuesday | Ten Bookish Facts About Me

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature created at The Broke and the Bookish. Each week you compile a list of ten books which coincide with that week's theme. You can find everything you need to know about joining in here!

This week's theme is 'Ten Facts About Me', whether they're personal, bookish or any other kind. So this week I decided to do something a little different: these are facts about me that I share with various heroines from various books!

1. Like Hermione, I loved school. I was also a bit of a know-it-all, but I think Hermione is far brighter than I ever was.

2. Like Mary, I was raised in Yorkshire. I was also born there, but I moved around to a few different places and had three different primary schools before we finally settled for nine years in North Yorkshire, which is a beautiful part of England.

3. Like Matilda, I love to read. And like Matilda I've loved to read since I was very young. I wouldn't have a book blog if I didn't!

4. Like Sofia, I was once religious. I really enjoyed Sofia Khan is Not Obliged because it's one of the only books I've read where a main character has practised a religion and hasn't been mocked for it, and the plot hasn't involved her losing her religion. I class myself as agnostic now, but I was christened Catholic and as a child I loved going to church with my mum; I still find churches to be very comforting places even now.

5. Like Nix, I love history. Sadly I can't time travel like Nix, but a girl can dream...

6. Like Violet, I'm short and stocky. I have big hands, big feet and big boobs, but I'm only 5'2". Trying to put together a whole new outfit is a nightmare.

7. Like Catherine, I'm a fangirl. I don't let my favourite books and shows influence me so much that I'd accuse another person of murder, but I can certainly empathise with Catherine's ability to get a little carried away with a good novel!

8. Like Jo, I have sisters. Jo is the second oldest of four sisters while I'm the youngest of three, and I'm the youngest by quite a few years; there's only two years between my big sisters, but there's ten years between me and my oldest sister and eight between me and my middle sister.

9. Like Meche, I've loved a friend.

10. Like Alexia, I mainly attend parties for the food. Omnomnom.

Which heroes and heroines from fiction are you similar to?

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Top Ten Tuesday | So Underrated

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature created at The Broke and the Bookish. Each week you compile a list of ten books which coincide with that week's theme. You can find everything you need to know about joining in here!

This week's theme is 'Top Ten Books We Enjoyed That Have Under 2000 Ratings On Goodreads', so this week will be a good opportunity to show some severely underrated books some well-deserved attention!

Peter and Alice by John Logan: I don't tend to read plays that often, I'd much rather see them performed, but I'm so glad I read this one. John Logan's a fairly famous script and screenwriter; he wrote Gladiator and Skyfall, and also created Penny Dreadful, which was one of my favourite shows until that horrifically rushed and disappointing ending. Le sigh. Peter and Alice is a fairly short play based on the true meeting of Alice Liddell and Peter Llewelyn Davies, the real-life inspirations behind Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Peter Pan. It's wonderful.

Disturbance by Ivy Alvarez: This is a poetry collection published by Seren Books, where I used to work, and I think it's fantastic. It's narrative poetry that tells the story about a family and their community after the father of the family murders his wife and son and then kills himself. It's so well executed, and so worth your time.

Signal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia: I'm never going to miss an opportunity to mention this book. It's one of my favourite books of all time and I wish more people would read it because it so deserves to be read. Check it out!

Beyond the Pale by Emily Urquhart: The first piece of non-fiction on my list this week. Emily Urquhart is a folklorist whose daughter was born with albinism. She decided to explore how albinism has been portrayed in folklore, the history of albinism and the way people with albinism are treated all around the world. Parts of this book are harrowing, but it's so worth reading and so interesting.

Corrag by Susan Fletcher: A brilliant piece of historical fiction based on The Massacre of Glencoe, where a young girl, Corrag, is accused of witchcraft and murder and waits to be burned at the stake. If you like novels such as Burial Rites and Alias Grace, you'll like this too.

Unicorn Tracks by Julia Ember: This book has unicorns in it. What else do I need to say to get you to read it?

Jane Eyre's Sisters by Jody Gentian Bower: More non-fiction, but this time literary criticism. Jane Eyre's Sisters explores the heroine's journey, rather than the hero's journey, and I thoroughly enjoyed it - this is the book that got me reading non-fiction for my own enjoyment!

The Undressed by Jemma L. King: My favourite poetry collection. Jemma L. King wrote The Undressed after finding old photographs from the 19th/early 20th centuries of women in rather risque positions. In this collection King gives each of the women a name and a voice of their own, and it's fantastic.

The Creation of Anne Boleyn by Susan Bordo: The last piece of non-fiction on this list, and possibly my favourite. This isn't a history book about Anne Boleyn, but rather a cultural look at Anne. Bordo explores how Anne Boleyn has been portrayed in historical fiction and TV dramas, and looks at how people have seen her as everything from an incestuous whore to the mother of the Reformation. It's such a good book.

Rolling in the Deep by Mira Grant: If you like found footage films like The Blair Witch Project or Trollhunter, you'll enjoy this little novella which is basically a literary equivalent. I had so much fun reading this, and as someone who doesn't tend to read many mermaid books I really enjoyed this one.

Which books made your list this week?

Monday, 4 July 2016

Review | Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler

by Anne Tyler

My Rating: 

Kate Battista is feeling stuck. How did she end up running house and home for her eccentric scientist father and uppity, pretty younger sister Bunny? Plus, she’s always in trouble at work – her pre-school charges adore her, but the adults don’t always appreciate her unusual opinions and forthright manner. 

Dr Battista has other problems. After years out in the academic wilderness, he is on the verge of a breakthrough. His research could help millions. There’s only one problem: his brilliant young lab assistant, Pyotr, is about to be deported. And without Pyotr… 

When Dr Battista cooks up an outrageous plan that will enable Pyotr to stay in the country, he’s relying – as usual – on Kate to help him. Kate is furious: this time he’s really asking too much. But will she be able to resist the two men’s touchingly ludicrous campaign to win her round?

Anne Tyler’s retelling of The Taming of the Shrew asks whether a thoroughly modern, independent woman like Kate would ever sacrifice herself for a man. The answer is as individual, off-beat and funny as Kate herself.

I received an eARC of Vinegar Girl from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

As the world celebrates 400 years of Shakespeare, it only seemed right that I check out at least one of the books in the Hogarth Shakespeare series this year, and of the ones published so far it was Vinegar Girl that most captured my attention. I was expecting a tongue-in-cheek, clever little rom-com, but what I got was a trainwreck.

One of the reasons Shakespeare is so popular and his work has lasted so long is because it's so universal. His stories include themes and tropes that continue to appear in our stories, and as such his work is constantly being retold and reinterpreted in different cultures, countries and times. Of all his plays, I'd say The Taming of the Shrew is one of the more difficult stories to adapt, particularly into a modern day setting. The idea of 'taming' a woman - of selling her off to the best person you can find in the hopes of finally selling off her prettier, more amenable sister - isn't quite the kind of story modern audiences, particularly modern female audiences, are interested in reading.

So when Anne Tyler took on this challenge for Hogarth Shakespeare she certainly had her work cut out for her, and I wasn't sure how anyone could make this story work, but the idea sounded great. A scientist wants his headstrong daughter to marry his assistant before his visa expires so he can stay in the country and help her father with his research. Brilliant! That's such an imaginative twist on an outdated story.

Unfortunately, the idea turned out to be far better than the execution of it.

Firstly, Tyler's Kate just isn't Kate to me. At first she had promise. I was surprised to discover that the Kate in Tyler's retelling would be a teaching assistant but somehow it worked; she's stuck looking after other people's kids and while she might not be the best at the job the kids like her, and it's easy to see why. Tyler's Kate is a bit lost. She's a college dropout who has no idea what she wants to do and that indecisiveness has left her keeping house and home for her younger sister and her frustrating father. This would have worked so much better if Kate had a bit of gumption. Instead she lets her father walk all over her, and while she's rightly angry and upset when he broaches the subject of her marrying his assistant so he can stay in the country, the Kate I know would have had a lot more to say before she ran up to her room and wept.

Not only that, but she actually agrees to the marriage about 40% of the way through the book. Gee, that shrew sure wasn't hard to tame. I suppose that's not really fair, as Kate mainly agrees to it because, once again, her horrible, useless, selfish father guilts her into it. Her 'love interest' Pyotr isn't much better. When I first read the synopsis of Vinegar Girl I assumed that her father's assistant would also be unaware of his boss's plan, but he was all for it! It didn't seem to bother him at all that this woman was sacrificing an awful lot to help him out, not that Kate's particularly endearing either; she seemed to have a few thoughts regarding foreigners and immigrants that just made me feel a bit uncomfortable given our current political climate.

Kate doesn't have to be nice - one of the joys of her as a character is that she's past the point of niceness, she just wants to be left alone - but you have to be careful with what she isn't nice about. Kate does an awful lot of cooking in this book and appears to even be quite good at it, so why couldn't she burn the food? In fact if she's a good cook all the better, because then we know she's burned the food out of spite rather than incompetence. When the few times Kate is genuinely unpleasant have to do with immigrants it doesn't make her a sympathetic character, and considering her father is trying to get her to marry some guy she doesn't know because it'll help him out she should be a sympathetic character.

The only member of the family who seems to have any sense is Kate's younger sister, Bunny, which is ironic really considering how often Kate and her father think of her as a nitwit. In fact Bunny felt more like the original Kate than Kate did.

Once Kate's engaged she starts to think of this sham marriage as a chance for her to start afresh. Maybe she can go back to college and become a botanist - oh yeah Kate wants to be a botanist; it's mentioned, like, twice so clearly it's such a huge part of her life #not - but she only considers that after Pyotr suggests it. I know Kate's indecisive, but is she so indecisive that she needs this man she barely knows who she's being forced to marry to consider that possibility for her? That's not Kate! At one point Pyotr even says he's going to call her Katja - instead of, oh I don't know, her actual name - and Kate's response is to shrug it off and let him. That's. Not. KATE!

In fact their whole 'relationship' makes no sense. Kate has her own job, she has her own income, and she never goes anywhere - the poor woman has no friends - so she must have some money saved. Why doesn't she just leave her horrible father's house? She could take Bunny with her, report her father to the police and go back to college part time. Clearly Vinegar Girl wouldn't be a retelling if that happened, but you can't ignore massive plot holes for the sake of a retelling - you just have to write a better retelling. Besides given what Tyler's done to Kate she doesn't seem to be that bothered about writing a true retelling anyway, because the Kate I know would never let things get like this.

Then, right at the end of the book, Kate makes a sudden speech about how modern life is hard for men because they're not allowed to be emotional. If you think this review just took a sudden turn, then you'll feel an inkling of the confusion I felt when this sudden 'theme' appeared out of nowhere. Now as far as I'm concerned feminism is just another word for equality, and feminism works in favour of men just as much as women; men shouldn't have to feel like they need to be macho all the time, they shouldn't be ashamed to cry, but there was no place for that argument here. It was tacked on the end so badly that for a moment I thought I was reading the end of another book.

I don't know how, but somehow Tyler managed to write a 21st century version of The Taming of the Shrew that's somehow less feminist than the original 16th century version. There was promise with this idea, but the execution was poor and the whole story's just a mess. If you want a good retelling of The Taming of the Shrew, just watch 10 Things I Hate About You instead.

Friday, 1 July 2016

Review | Soulless by Gail Carriger

by Gail Carriger

My Rating: 

Alexia Tarabotti is laboring under a great many social tribulations. 

First, she has no soul. Second, she's a spinster whose father is both Italian and dead. Third, she was rudely attacked by a vampire, breaking all standards of social etiquette.

Where to go from there? From bad to worse apparently, for Alexia accidentally kills the vampire--and then the appalling Lord Maccon (loud, messy, gorgeous, and werewolf) is sent by Queen Victoria to investigate.

With unexpected vampires appearing and expected vampires disappearing, everyone seems to believe Alexia responsible. Can she figure out what is actually happening to London's high society? Will her soulless ability to negate supernatural powers prove useful or just plain embarrassing? Finally, who is the real enemy, and do they have treacle tart?

Gail Carriger's one of those authors who's been on my TBR for quite a few years now. I've read very few fantasy of manners books, but considering I love historical fiction, and particularly subgenres such as historical fantasy and historical magical realism, I'd certainly like to read more of them, especially now having read Soulless.

Soulless is set in an alternate Victorian London where vampires, werewolves and ghosts are known and integrated into society. Vampires keep to their hives and werewolves to their packs, and there are certain rules in place to ensure that everyone lives together as harmoniously as they possibly can given the circumstances. Our protagonist, Alexia Tarabotti, is a spinster who only really attends parties for the food (I'm the same, to be honest) and also happens to have no soul. This isn't exactly common, in fact it's so rare even her own family don't know about it, but in this world she can use it to her advantage, for if she touches someone supernatural they revert to a human state for however long she happens to be touching them, making it practically impossible for supernatural creatures to attack her. And even when they try she has her trusty parasol to bat them off with.

Friends with a flamboyant vampire and frustrated with a particularly handsome werewolf, Alexia is no stranger to the supernatural. At the beginning of Soulless she's attacked by a vampire who, oddly, doesn't appear to know what she is; those born without souls used to hunt vampires, and so any new vampires are warned of their existence. Throughout the country werewolves and vampires are going missing, and when an eerie figure with a horrid grin begins pursuing Alexia she realises whoever's taking the supernatural creatures is after her too, and she's determined to find out why.

From the beginning Soulless is fun and fast-paced. It's not exactly heavy on the action, as a fantasy of manners book much of the conflict is conveyed through witty dialogue and social encounters rather than fist fights or shoot outs in the middle of the street, but I was never bored. In fact I flew through this, and would have finished it much faster than I did if I hadn't left it at work over the weekend. That was frustrating.

Alexia's a very entertaining heroine. Historical fiction is full of women, usually spinsters, who are 'ahead of their time' to the point where they can become interchangeable, but in a way it's almost as though Carriger is aware that Alexia is something of a trope, and because of that self-awareness it works. She's also not the usual spinster who's declared the 19th century equivalent of 'I don't need no man', but a woman who's lucky enough to come from a fairly wealthy family which means she doesn't need to get married to advance her family's position in society or bring in extra money. She's comfortable as she is, so she stays as she is.

Then we have Lord Conall Maccon, the Scottish werewolf who plays the part of our love interest in this book. I have to be honest, I liked him a lot. Call me shallow but I have a thing for older men in fiction, particularly of the gruff variety. Moody and self-pitying I don't like, but a man who knows how to take control while also showing women respect? Yes. Yes please.

The book is populated by a colourful cast of other characters, from Alexia's Mrs. Bennet-esque mother to her loyal butler Floote, and altogether they're such fun to read. That's the best word I can think of to describe this book: fun.

Soulless isn't to be taken too seriously. Amidst all the flirting and tea there are moments where Carriger uses the supernatural as a way to comment on society, on the way we treat people we view as 'other', and while it's nothing ground-breakingly new I still appreciated it being there, but if you're looking for a serious historical fantasy I don't think Soulless is what you're looking for. At times it borders on the silly - particularly during the times when the romance overtakes the plot - but it's harmless and, there's that word again, fun.

I'm really looking forward to reading the rest of this series, and checking out more of Carriger's work.