Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Review: Gone by Michael Grant

After tackling the emotional imbalance brought about by completing Suite Francaise, I was in desperate need of something relatively light and plot-driven as a break for my tear ducts. Having heard some great things about Michael Grant's dystopian series, and finding myself bombarded with WH Smith adverts to the effect of 'buy this book right now', I felt it would offer me a desired reprieve. 

Gone, the first in Grant's series of six books, is set in a town on the shores of southern California. The book opens with the sudden and seemingly supernatural disappearance of all those over the age of 15. Thrusting the reader immediately into the premise of the plot, Grant explores the implications of this suddenly adult-free zone, limited within a mysterious shimmering barrier that has been constructed around the town, and affectionately named the Fallout Alley Youth Zone (FAYZ) by those contained within it. The book follows Sam, a 14 year old boy, as he attempts to understand the reasons behind the sudden disappearance of the town's old folk, accompanied (in standard Harry Potter-trio style) by his confused and at times perplexingly psychotic friend Quinn, and brainbox-turned-love interest, Astrid. Along the way, it is revealed that Sam and a number of other youths within the FAYZ contain various powers; in Sam's case, allowing him to shoot balls of light from his hands. But events truly reach their climax when students from the enigmatic Coates Academy arrive and take over the town with an efficiency that any political candidate would envy. Enter the story's antagonist - the brutally powerful and sociopathically unfeeling, Caine. Engaging in something of a power-struggle, Caine and Sam also find themselves racing against time to prevent their own impending disappearances as their 15th birthdays loom.

When I set out to write this review, I knew it would be difficult to keep my contempt to a minimum. As I have mentioned before, I am a generally kind reader and rarely do I come across a book about which I have little (if anything) good to say. Unfortunately, Gone falls into this category with a speed and assurance that could break records. I desperately wanted to like this book. Having read a couple of blurbs, I was hoping for a dystopian exploration akin to Lord of the Flies. A world in which children rule is ripe for psychological exploration. Lord of the Flies is, after all, fundamentally a thought experiment on the makeup and implications of human nature unchecked. In this sense, Gone had a repository of potential. But its offerings were superficial at best. The characters were never truly given a chance to develop, instead differentiated by seemingly arbitrarily-assigned personality traits. The 'trio' were particularly unengaging, leaving me, after 560 pages, rooting for the bad guys. And, worst of all, numerous chapters are given over to the work of the semi-robotic Albert in his attempts to keep the local McDonalds running. Sadly, this is not a joke.

" 'Welcome to McDonald's,' Albert said. 'May I help you?' 
'Are you open?' 
'What would you like?'
The kids shrugged. 'Two number-one combos?'"

I wanted to laugh. But mostly I wanted to cry. In a world suddenly without adults, where chaos reigns, and children are running around with supernatural powers, I find it extremely difficult to accept that keeping a fast-food joint in operation would be anyone's priority. 

The biggest problem I had with this book, however, was its stylistic condescension. I was aware, before reading, that this was a book very much embedded in the Young Adult (YA) genre. Given the spectacularly mature and beautifully crafted YA literature that I've had the pleasure to read, however, I find it difficult to excuse massively dumbed-down language and plot. Initially concerned that I was judging this book too harshly, I have reached the conclusion that the fault is not mine. Rather, it lies with an obvious underestimation of the reader's understanding of language and his/her engagement with relative complexity. As you become more familiar with the tone of the book, it becomes unfortunately clear that the simplistic character dialogue is not a reflection on personality or psychology, but rather for the 'benefit' of the reader's understanding. Enter Quinn's description of the nuclear power plant(!), into which the trio have just entered:

" 'It kind of reminds me of when I was in Rome and saw St. Peter's, this really big cathedral,' Quinn said. 'It's like, you know, you feel small looking at it. Like maybe you should kneel down, just to be on the safe side,' " (p.109).

I am perhaps too generous in supposing that a reader unfamiliar with St. Peter's would be willing to exert the effort to do a little research. But this piece of dialogue is just one example of the intellectual condescension that absolutely seeps through this book. This tone is, unfortunately, only added to by the completely excessive use of colloquialisms. Now, I am always one for linguistic realism. It adds to the angle of the dialogue and serves to further ingratiate the reader into the novel's setting. But, in Gone, barely a paragraph passes without a 'dude', 'brah', and (my least favourite colloquial expression of all time) 't'sup'. Whether or not this is how the populace of southern California interact (and my personal experience suggests not), the usage was disproportionate to need. Instead, it only served to further dumb-down the dialogue and, consequently, the plot. 

Yet the true issue here comes from Grant's attempt to juxtapose such language and style with some genuinely serious and mature issues. From dealing with Astrid's severely autistic brother, to confronting a girl with bulimia, Gone tries to grapple with problems that would certainly create acute turmoil in a youth suddenly without authority roles and adult helpers. But, again, the potential remains unfulfilled. By dumbing-down the language and failing to really explore the psychology of this new world, the place of these issues within the plot feels arbitrary. 

So, this truly is not a book that I would recommend, whether you are 14 or 40. To the youth out there who might be tempted, I would say pick up a copy of Harry Potter or Daughter of Smoke and Bone or (if you are feeling adventurous) Lord of the Flies. Because these are books that are compelling without being condescending. And, most importantly, not a 'brah' in sight.

Monday, 29 April 2013

Monday Musing

Following yesterday's post, what could be more appropriate?

Wishing you all a wonderful week!

Sunday, 28 April 2013

The Ultimate Literary Heroine

Sitting down to write a rough schedule for upcoming reviews and attempting to ensure some variety between new-to-me reads and old favourites, there was one book that I struggled to decide whether to add. Coming top in my estimation of the classics, Jane Eyre is a book that has been my constant companion since I first turned its pages many, many years ago. This is a novel completely imprinted on my mind and its characters so much a part of my life that they are practically invisible friends (perhaps revealing a little too much into the highlights of my social life). I imagine that we all have a book we feel similarly about - whether it be through a childhood immersed in the escapades of Rat, Mole and Mr. Toad of Wind in the Willows or perhaps too much time spent in the grips of Tolkein and Middle Earth. But the problems this causes in terms of offering a review or recommendation are numerous. The idea of reviewing Jane Eyre is virtually a task insurmountable for me, because to communicate, in a concise and somewhat coherent way, what this book means to me and why I love it would be like  asking Abraham Lincoln for a one-sentence summary of the Gettysburg Address. It cannot be done. But my love and irreverence for the masterpiece that is Jane Eyre is still something I want to share. Since, without this particular book in my life, I truly doubt that The Book Habit would exist.

So I sat down to ponder how best to tackle the epic and paradoxical feat of discussing Jane Eyre without really discussing it. And I realised that my love of this book, as well as the aspect most relevant in my choosing to recommend it to others, is its lead character. Because, for me, Jane Eyre is the ultimate literary heroine. So it is from this angle that my 'not-a-review' review shall proceed.

My much-read, much-loved copy of Jane Eyre.

The topic of 'ultimate literary heroine' is one that I find myself debating fairly often. With a recent influx of books, particularly aimed at young adults, placing females at the helm, it's a subject that I have also found myself thinking about more frequently. When you ask readers about their favourite heroine, the responses are typically standard - Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice (fair enough), Hermione from Harry Potter (also, fair enough), Katniss from The Hunger Games (losing me a little but ok), Bella from The Twilight Saga (we can no longer be friends). Too often, however, Jane Eyre is overlooked. Contemporary fiction, especially that aimed at teenage girls and/or YA fans, seems to be grasping for the extreme. There is no hesitation in placing female characters at the centre of a novel, yet their heroism must now be a feat of unrealistic ability. They must either possess supernatural powers or be able to fight as if they do. With certain exceptions, I truly believe that recent literary trends have led us to a point where realistic and rounded female heroines are almost null-and-void. This judgment is naturally borne of comparison, particularly a comparison to women portrayed in classic literature. 

Jane Eyre is a young woman brought up in horrendous circumstance. She is rejected by her aunt and cousins and is forced into a boarding school where cruelty is the norm. But her natural intelligence, empathy, and spirit, allow her to turn this situation on its head. She becomes an accomplished tutor, and takes the, almost revolutionary, initiative of advertising for a paid position as a governess. Winding up at Thornfield Hall, Jane's life intersects with that of the infamous Mr. Rochester (and, not forgetting, crazy Bertha). Jane is sensible and courageous. Her circumstances and upbringing are such that she would have every reason to turn her back on humanity, becoming self-absorbed and emotionally untouchable. But she never loses her empathy. And she never loses her capacity to love. Yet, above all of this, Jane always prioritises her dignity, self-respect, and freedom. 

"I can live alone, if self-respect, and circumstances require me so to do. I need not sell my soul to buy bliss. I have an inward treasure born with me, which can keep me alive if all extraneous delights should be withheld, or offered only at a price I cannot afford to give."

Jane requires no talent bordering on the supernatural to make herself heard and felt by the reader. Her heroism is natural, born of sacrifice, empathy, intelligence, and self-respect. She fights her corner with a ruthless integrity, while determined at all times to remain unconstrained by the perceptions and prejudices of others. As she demands of Mr. Rochester:

"Do you think I am an automaton? - a machine without feelings? and can bear to have my morsel of bread snatched from my lips, and my drop of living water dashed from my cup? Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! - I have as much soul as you - and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you."

This is why Jane Eyre is the ultimate literary heroine; because her choices and principles are ones that are not temporally or geographically restricted. They do not require to-the-death fights or wizarding wars to make themselves applicable. Rather the battles that Jane fights, and the way that she chooses to do so, have resonance for us all. Unremarkable in appearance and truly sensational in her commitment to her personal freedom and morality, this is a what a heroine looks like.

Friday, 26 April 2013

Review: Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky

This is a difficult review to write. Diving into Suite Francaise with tremendous anticipation last week, mostly due to my love of fiction set during the events of the First and Second World Wars, I did not give much thought to the resulting review. Ordinarily, I will find myself jotting down the odd note as I read - a habit borne prior to this blog, when I would write short reviews in an old notebook (mainly so that I didn't find myself getting halfway through a 'new' book and finding that I had already read it). But I failed to follow suit with Suite Francaise. And it was not until I sat down at my laptop to collect my thoughts and write the review, that I realised how difficult a task it would be.

This difficulty does not spring from a dislike for the book. My opinion is, in fact, quite the opposite. Rather, the subject matter combined with the almost unbelievable story behind the novel's discovery, make me enormously aware of how difficult it will be to do Suite Francaise justice. I say this not only as a disclaimer for what is to come but also in the hope that it might provoke you to reflect a little on the truly remarkable nature of this book and its place in history.

Suite Francaise is a story of the German occupation of France during the Second World War. Split into two parts, it gives personal perspective to this incomparably turbulent era of French history. 'Storm in June', the novel's first part, describes the displacement of citizens fleeing Paris to escape the Nazi forces. With each chapter detailing the experience of a different character, Nemirovsky offers an historical narrative of truly astonishing scope. The reader follows the honourable Michauds as they are forced to abandon their possessions and escape the city on foot, yet able to think of nothing other than the fate of their enlisted son; the decadent Charles Langelet who cares only for his extensive collection of expensive porcelain; and the author Gabriel Corte who cannot overcome his self-conceit and disgust for the lower classes, even in the most desperate of circumstances. 'Storm in June' is baffling in its honesty. Too often do fictional accounts of the World Wars steep themselves in unrealistic tales of personal redemption, where superficial difference and prejudice are automatically overcome by the extremity of war. Nemirovsky takes an approach that is unsettling but, I believe, truly revealing in its perspective. Yes, there is integrity and sacrifice present, brought on by desperation and despair. But there are also those who cling to prejudice and condescension, despicable in their display of this uncomfortable aspect of humanity. To truly understand the nature of occupation and its consequences, I think that both of these dimensions have to be reflected. 'Storm in June' is astonishing and horrifying. It provokes an emotional response at every turn. Nemirovsky's talent at balancing personal narrative with some of the most beautiful and evocative description I have had the pleasure to read, makes for a sensational first section to the book.

"A low muffled murmur rose up from the crowd, the sound of painful breathing, sighs and conversations held in hushed voices, as if people were afraid of being overheard by an enemy lying in wait. Some tried to sleep, heads leaning on the corner of a suitcase, legs aching on a narrow bench or a warm cheek pressed against a window. Young men and women called to each other from the cars and sometimes laughed. Then a dark shape would glide across the star-covered sky, everyone would look up and the laughter would stop. It wasn't exactly what you'd call fear, rather a strange sadness - a sadness that had nothing human about it any more, for it lacked both courage and hope. This was how animals waited to die. It was the way fish caught in a net watch the shadow of the fisherman moving back and forth above them," (p.43).

The novel's second part, 'Dolce', details the occupation of a French village by Nazi soldiers. Again dividing the narrative by alternating between the stories of several characters, this section poses some fundamental questions about the relationship between occupier and occupied. Nemirovsky considers the humanity of the German soldiers and the conflict that such humanity raises when forced upon the enemy. Nemirovsky's depiction of these soldiers as fundamentally human is astonishing when the context of her novel is considered. Writing Suite Francaise during the occupation, the author had no distance from events. This is not a novel written with the benefit of hindsight. It is written in a Europe steeped in blood, conflict, and the dehumanisation of the enemy. 

Considered a threat by Nazi authorities due to her Jewish origins and status as a celebrated author, Nemirovsky was sent to Auschwitz, where she died in 1942, aged 39. This is a woman for whom prejudice and demonisation of Nazi forces would be almost understandable. Yet she paints a picture in which German soldiers are remarkable in their ordinariness, their familiarity, their similarity to everyone else.

"During the three months they had known each other, Lucile and the German had taken many walks together, but never in such splendid weather, so conducive to love. By tacit agreement they tried to forget everything except each other. 'It's nothing to do with us, it's not our fault. In the heart of every man and woman a kind of Garden of Eden endures, where there is no war, no death, where wild animals and deer live together in peace. All we have to do is to reclaim that paradise, just close out eyes to everything else. We are a man and a woman. We love each other.' Reason and emotion, they both believed, could make them enemies, but between them was a harmony of the senses that nothing could destroy; the silent understanding that binds a man in love and a willing woman in mutual desire," (p.327).

The notebooks containing Suite Francaise were discovered in 2007, allowing the novel to finally find the critical acclaim that it deserves. Although unfinished (Nemirovsky had planned three further parts for the novel), this book is astonishing in every regard. The atrocities of the Second World War drive a certain desperation in us all - a desperation to explain. Nemirovsky makes no such attempt. She simply writes to reflect what she is seeing around her, without a desire to redeem or justify. This is a novel that I believe everyone everywhere should be required to read, but if this review provokes even one of you to pick up Suite Francaise, I will consider this blog worth creating. It is beautifully written and terrifyingly honest. And, I do not say this lightly, a novel that I believe no one could emerge from reading as quite the same person. 

I said at the outset of this review that I did not believe that I could do this book justice. But, if the story behind Suite Francaise and the tragic death of its author should leave you with anything, it is that we cannot hide our faces from history. The Second World War was an event of brutality and humanity. No where have I seen this tension better depicted than in Suite Francaise.

Just for Fun Friday: Throwing Insults Like Shakespeare

Hello chaps!

What a week it's been: fitting in World Book Night activities, some actual university-related work, book reviews, and enjoyment of the wonderful weather (proved, without doubt, by the attractively tomato-coloured skin I am now sporting down half of my face). One particular source of excitement brought about by this week was the birthday of the world's greatest playwright (and stuff of nightmares for secondary school children everywhere), William Shakespeare. Shakespeare is a strangely prominent feature of my life and Hamlet remains one of the few pieces of literature that I continue to revisit at any available opportunity (particular shout-out to the greatest Hamlet of them all, and my hand twin, Kenneth Branagh). My complete devotion to all-things Shakespearean (except A Midsummer Night's Dream - a fact that requires no explanation) is something that will undoubtedly be forced upon you throughout the summer, with the new season at The Globe beginning next month. I give you permission to begin allowing your excitement to build.

In light of these facts, and in celebration of The Bard's birthday, I give you Just for Fun Friday: Throwing Insults Like Shakespeare. Appropriate for all occasions, I challenge you to pull at least one of these out at parties.

Thou art a boil, a plague sore, an embossed carbuncle in my corrupted blood.
- King Lear

No longer from head to foot than from hip to hip, she is spherical, like a globe, I could find out countries in her.
- The Comedy of Errors

Away, you three inch fool!
-Taming of the Shrew

I'll beat thee, but I should infect my hands.
- Timon of Athens

Thou art a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy worsted-stocking knave; a lily-liver'd, action-taking, whoreson, glass-glazing, super serviceable, finical rogue; one-trunk inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a bawd in a way of good service, and art nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pandar, and the son and heir of a mungril bitch.
- King Lear (and why you do not mess with the Earl of Kent)

You starveling, you elf skin, you dried neat's tongue, you bull's pizzle, you stockfish!
- Henry IV, Part One

You rampallian! You fustilarian!
- Henry IV, Part Two

And with that I leave you, to be back later this evening with a review of the wonderful Suite Francaise. In the meantime rampallians, have a wonderful Friday!

Thursday, 25 April 2013

What I'm Reading Guest Post - Isabella from LOVE & WARdrobe

Well hello there!

It is with enormous pleasure that I give this post over to the wonderful Isabella from fashion and style blog LOVE & WARdrobe. Given that, if you look to spot me in the street, I will usually be sporting a plaid shirt and/or bandana of some description, it may come as a surprise that I read Isabella's blog somewhat religiously. There can be no higher recommendation!

This is an utterly fantastic post and I hope that you all enjoy it. As always, if you would like to be involved in a What I'm Reading post, please get in touch with me via thebookhabitblog@gmail.com


I'm Isabella, and I'm one of those nosey people otherwise known as a journalist. Specialising in Fashion (to make my addiction to clothes and shoes seem somewhat justifiable, and not really something rehab-worthy), I have undertaken a degree in Fashion Journalism, and now write on a freelance basis and run my own blog, LOVE & WARdrobe, where I pronouce my love for all things well-designed and lust-worthy. In a non Fifty Shades of Grey kind-of-way. (I haven't read those books, by the way, I am too much of a prude.)

Although I love books, I can find it hard to commit to finishing one. It really takes something quite gripping to get me to the end pages before I've had time to lose my page number, the plot (because I haven't read it in so long), or even at times, the book itself. This, which I'm sure some of you may identify with, is because book marks have a sneaky way of worming their way out. They think they are Free Willy. The Tamworth Two. Houdini at his finest. Well, Harry, I have news for you, if you carry on with your ways, there is a certain man that sorts out characters like you. He goes by the name of Kindle.

Although my hobbies lie in reading about fashion, design and art, my real love is my appreciation for the written form. A book that can teach me a new writing style, can make me laugh out loud in a crowded room or that can make me feel like I am on an exotic beach while I am sitting on a bus stop in the rain, is the type of book I like to read. Ones where literary skill can really pull you into the world of the author. My book collection comes in all shapes and sizes. I have whole shelves dedicated to fashion form, illustration, film theory and sociological investigations into consumerism. But today I am ignoring all of those, and have chosen three books which I feel stand completely free from each others genres, and therefore make me look a bit of a book schizophrenic.

It is with great pleasure that The Book Habit has asked me to share with you my top three literary recommendations, and so with no further ado, here we go:

A Book I Have Read: The Third Policeman

It seems only right to start with a golden oldie. The Third Policeman is a classic when it comes to black humour; a comical satire which covers the genre of a murder thriller, and somehow manages to pop-in completely made-up and insane philosophical theories at the same time.

Written by Brian O'Nolan, under the pseudonym of Flann O'Brien (yes, he's Irish) in the 1930's, it is still a literary must-have today, even if it isn't the most famous of his novels. Inspired by James Joyce, you know it's going to be a little absurd. And it doesn't disappoint.

I won't lie to you though, it isn't a 'lying on the beach with a martini' book. It involves a comfy armchair, with a pensive frown and a pair of quilted slippers. It is, after all, a mystery, with many twists and turns, and it really does take a bit of concentration. This isn't your Katie Price autobiography, but it is as entertaining.*

The Third Policeman begins with a murder. (The word 'murder' was indeed written with the intention that it was read in a Taggart way, so please put on your inner-Scottish accent.) The narrator, whose name has escaped his memory, is a philosopher who, after committing a money-motivated murder, philanders between a surreal world in which his soul, his victim and three rather unusual policemen collide, creating a series of unusual philosophical ponderings and even more incongruous notions. The policemen, for instance, believe that men can be turned into bicycles if they ride them too long. Why they do? Well, you will just have to read the book. And even then - you are unlikely to come away with a completely wholesome explanation; you won't finish the book and start up a petition to stop men from turning into bicycles, that's for sure. By the way, if you do, I will happily support your cause. If men start turning into bicycles, it could make pedal class quite an uncomfortable experience. It's already uncomfortable on the female anatomy as it is, without the uncertainty of whether you are sat on a bike, or in fact, a man.

Having committed the crime, the hero-cum-villian tries to retrieve the money, but finds himself on a journey of peculiarity. It's hard to know what's real, and what's superficial, in The Third Policeman. That's if any of it is real at all. (No, I know if's a fiction book, so it isn't real. But you know what I man.)

Littered with exhilarating twists, for such a slim book, it really is jam-packed with humour, intrigue and even a sense of uneasiness, which can only com about from the finest of novelists.

Although I am one of those annoying people who half-read a book, lose the page, and don't look at it again for another five years, this is a book I have read cover-to-cover three or four times over. And it doesn't even have photos of pretty shows in it. So you know it must be good!

*Disclaimer: I haven't read Katie's autobiography, I am merely assuming that it is entertaining, as she makes so many of them. If they aren't at least in a way entertaining, then I really do have to praise her marketing team. Bravo, bravo!

A Book I'm Reading: Jeeves & Wooster Omnibus

Sometimes, you read a book, imagine all of the characters mannerisms; how they look, what they wear, their accent, and you will watch the film version, and shudder in disbelief. I remember being devastated as a child when the makers of Harry Potter 'mispronounced' Hagrid's name. I had always imagined it as more of a 'Har-grid', like the secret 'R' in bath. I cannot tell you why I though this - there is no logical explanation, but all I can tell you is that for years, he had been Har-grid. And now he was Ha-grid. It really is like when somebody points out that there is no 'R' in bath, and you can't bring yourself to accept it. You know it's true, but it's wrong. Plain wrong. (Sorry Northern readers.)

In this instance, however, I saw Jeeves & Wooster, by the comical genius that is P.G. Wodehouse, before I read the book. And in this instance, having the concoction of talent that is Hugh Laurie and Stepehn Fry, only amplifies the book. I am not left rocking back and forth, whispering 'the book is better', or 'his shirt is from the wrong era!' Both are as equally '10/10 totes amazeballs' as each other.

No, I don't know why I wrote that either.

For those who are not aware of Jeeves & Wooster, it is the pinnacle of the stereotype in which Americans are said to see English people. Top hats, overuse of the word jolly and a stiff British upper lip. Bravos!, cups of tea, and a very idealistic view of what really is nowadays, nothing nearly as exciting or eccentric.

Bertram Wooster, the main character, is a wealthy layabout, who, although well-intentioned, has a tendency to involve himself in misadventures. Luckily for Wooster, his wise valet Jeeves is always on hand with wise quips and ideas, usually in exchange for Mr Wooster to throw away his latest peculiar fashion find. Surrounded by even more dim-witted and love-sick friends and a stubborn-minded Aunt, trouble is always only seconds away, and the awkward scenarios Wooster manages to land himself in never fail but to amuse.

P.G. Wodehouse once said, "I believe there are two ways of writing novels. One is mine, making a sort of musical comedy without music and ignoring real life altogether; the other is going right deep down into life and not caring a damn."

This explanation describes Jeeves & Wooster novels perfectly. The use of language really do create a song; a song full of "What how!" and "No, Sir's", but a song none-the-less.

Having written over 100 novels, there is certainly a wide array to choose from. If you want to be whisked off into a world of pre-first World War frivolities and tales, then I cannot recommend these books highly enough. Be prepared for accidental outbursts of Old English gent-style phrases though. It is awfully catching. But what ho! It could be worse.

On My 'To-Read' List: Anna Wintour

As I mentioned at the beginning, my main interests lie with fashion and journalism. If we bring those two concepts together, then we will almost certainly end up with Anna Wintour, editor of American Vogue, and all-round sunglasses wearing fashion powerhouse. With one twitch, she can bring down a fashion brand within seconds. Hundreds of jobs, years worth of work; all gone, with one disdainful look from under her infamous shades.

It's no surprise, therefore, that much of her private life is lesser known. A woman of such stoney illusiveness, she has always intrigued me. How did she land the top role in fashion? How does she know so much? Why does she always have that bob? Is it an animal in disguise? Does she keep squirrels under there? Is she does, do they wear stilettos?

So it seems only antural that I find myself levitating towards Anna Wintour: What lies beneath the chic exterior of Vogue's Editor-in-Chief by best-selling celebrity scandal author Jerry Oppenheimer, which, looks set to satisfy my secret thirst for trash. The title satisfies me less so, however, It's just a real mouthful. If you chose to name the title of the book while eating you dinner, half of your spaghetti would be down your top by now, and that really just can't do.

We may have had an inclination of Anna's ways through The Devil Wears Prada, which is said to be based on the Editor, but this book contains interviews and real insights, starting from her childhood, right through to her current journalistic reigning, which may just give some more factually-based notes into the mysterious world of the Bob. (I'm not saying that everything stated in the book is true - in fact, I would be surprised if it was. But does anybody actually watch Made in Chelsea thinking it is real? probably, but that's a whole different kettle of fish.)

However, having interviewed ex-boyfriends, former colleagues, distant relatives, and ex-school friends, Oppenheimer has dug into the nitty gritty of what has given Wintour her rather, how should we say, cold-hearted and ruthless reputation. He also covers the moments that have led to her importance; she was, after all, the first lady to put jeans on the cover of Vogue during a time when nobody mixed denim and couture, which means I can read this book, and feel like it is somewhat adding to my academic research. After all, if I am to become Editor-in-Chief of American Vogue, I should probably suss out my competition.

Whilst these three books may seem an odd selection to group together, The Third Policeman is perfect for those who love the written word, Jeeves & Wooster is the ideal choice for those who want light-hearted, old-fashioned escapism, and lastly but not least Anna Wintour: What lies beneath the chic exterior of Vogue's Editor-in-Chief - and breathe - preys on a deep-rooted, good old fashioned feminine need for information. Basically, the need for a bit of juicy gossip. And with a combination of all the three, my Springtime afternoons in the park with a tray of strawberries and a Solero, always seem a little bit more idealistic, and a little less, "I've got wasps chasing me for my ice cream, the sun is shining so bright I can't read my book and I've managed to sit myself down on the only bit of damp grass in the entire park."

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Literary Excursion: London (Take 1)

Evening all!

Those reading this blog since its inception (and anyone who has even a passing acquaintance with me) will know that I absolutely love living within an easy distance of London. Studying in the centre of the City means that much of my week is spent travelling back-and-forth for lectures and the like, but I never miss an opportunity to take advantage of what else the Capital has to offer. Having lived both here and in the US, and having travelled about a fair bit, I know how unbelievably lucky I am to have so much history and culture right on my doorstep. 

When I decided to start a series of Literary Excursion posts, I obviously knew that London would be featuring quite heavily. But, since there are just so many literary-related adventures to be had in our fantastically diverse Capital, there is no way to do the place justice without a session of posts on its offerings. So this is the first The Book Habit insight into literary London and, hopefully, a first glance at the blossoming relationship between yours truly and the world's most fabulous city. 

This trip was initially decided upon because of my inexcusable failure to make it to the British Library for their current exhibition: Murder in the Library. Having realised that the exhibition would be ending next month, however, I seized on the opportunity to take a day off and make a visit. Disclaimer: I would like to add that, despite how this blog makes me appear, I do actually focus on my studies periodically. 

Anyway, all literary trips to London must start in one place. Enter...the greatest bookshop that London has to offer (and no it's not Waterstones - shock horror). Foyles!

Please enjoy the unsuspecting bald man in this photo. An artistic choice on my part.

As the largest independent bookshop in London, Foyles is absolutely a must-see for any bibliophile. It is fantastically well-stocked, catering to virtually every taste and interest. Despite the immense number of books on offer, the shop is marvellously laid out and, being located on Charing Cross Road, there are plenty of cafes near-by to review your purchases. Also, if, like me, you have an intense addiction to book-related tote bags, they sell what has to be the best tote in the world. Seriously. Go and get one right now.

After substantially reducing my bank balance at Foyles, it was time for the British Library. This is hands-down one of my favourite places (big surprise, I know). 

When I started my Masters, one of the first things I did was register for a Reader Card - not only giving me access to the 150 million books housed in the archives, but also allowing me to use the amazing Reading Rooms as a study location. The British Library also hosts some fantastic exhibitions - and, from 17 May, they will have the fascinating Propaganda: Power and Persuasion exhibition on show. However, my trip was one of homage to my deep-seated love of crime fiction and, more specifically, the moustache(s) of Monsieur Hercule Poirot.

Sadly, there are some strict policies on photography in the British Library (although, given that I work in a Stately Home, I applaud their rigour) so I was restricted to photos in the public areas. I will say, however, that the exhibition was fantastic. Not only did I get to see some original manuscripts, but I learnt a little more about two of my favourite authors - Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle (aka the man who gifted us Benedict Cumberbatch in all his Sherlockean glory). On the way out, I even got to say a Happy Birthday to this attractive chappy:

A lesson in how to look super intelligent at all times.

And enjoy the world's greatest bench:

A lesson in how to make theft impossible.

Whenever I visit a country, I always make it a priority to book in a trip to the national library, because I fully believe that how a country treats its books is massively revealing. So I love that the British Library is such a fantastic institution and I massively recommend a visit to anyone in the UK or passing through. You will not be disappointed!

Ending your day here will also give you the chance to pay a visit to St. Pancras Station (right next door) - not only a stunning piece of architecture, but also the home of this guy:

Disclaimer: St. Pancras is not actually the home of John Betjeman.

John Betjeman, poet extraordinaire. And such a convenient way to wind up this post, having come across this doozie of an extract from his verse autobiography, Summoned by Bells:

Then I found
Second-hand bookshops in the Essex Road,
Stacked high with powdery leather flaked and dry,
Gilt letters on red labels - Mason's Works
(But volume II is missing), Young's Night Thoughts,
Falconer's Shipwreck and The Grave by Blair,
A row of Scott, for certain incomplete,
And always somewhere Barber's Isle of Wight;
The antiquarian works that no one reads -
Church Bells of Nottingham, Baptismal Fonts
('Scarce, 2s. 6d., a few plates slightly foxed').
Once on a stall in Farringdon Road I found
An atlas folio of great lithographs,
View of Ionian Isles, flyleaf inscribed
By Edward Lear - and bought it for a bob.
Perhaps one day I'll find a 'first' of Keats,
Wedged between Goldsmith and The Law of Torts;
Perhaps - but that is not the reason why 
Untidy bookshops gave me such delight.
It was the smell of books, the plates in them,
Tooled leather, marbled paper, gilded edge,
The armorial book-plate of some country squire,
From whose tall library windows spread his park
On which this polished spine may once have looked.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

World Book Night 2013 - What Reading Means to Me

Happy World Book Night everyone!

Today is important for so many reasons:

  1. It is William Shakespeare's birthday! I have been celebrating by sneaking Shakespeare quotes into my conversations and emails (no one noticed, but it made me excessively happy nonetheless). I will also be paying double homage this evening, celebrating both my love of the Bard and my love of Tom Hiddleston by watching Henry V (the BBC's Hollow Crown series, which is beyond amazing).
  2. It is World Book Night (WBN)! An opportunity for bibliophiles everywhere to share their love of reading.
WBN is a fantastic event, created with the recognition that not everyone is fortunate enough to have the access to literature that so many of us enjoy. This has recently become an even more acute issue in the UK, with the current government instituting serious funding cuts to our libraries. It is my view that the situation is a truly dire one, with one-third of households in the UK lacking a single book. Such statistics are beyond tragic. WBN works to combat this trend by encouraging those with a passion for reading to spread the joy - through donating books as 'givers', attending local events, or simply telling others what reading means to them. I assume that those reading this blog share a respect for the power of literature, both in terms of enriching and educating. And I believe that we have a responsibility to share this respect. 

The beauty of the internet (even if, as with myself, you spend most of your time engaged in a technological battle) is that our communities have gone global. In fact, part of my reasoning in starting this blog (yes, it truly is about more than the Colin Firth references) was to join the worldwide reading community. And, whether or not you are able to physically attend a WBN event, there are still many ways of celebrating, for which the internet serves as a fabulous forum. One suggestion made by WBN is that the readers out there simply share the reasons behind their love of reading. Now, I completely understand the difficulty here. Expressing why you love reading is, I think, similar to being asked why you love your bed or (even more troubling) why you love a nice cup of tea. But in the cause of unity amongst readers and a profound respect for the principles behind WBN, I will do my best to summarise my own thoughts.

I love reading because ... it lets us experience something so profoundly human. It connects us to our shared past and present, and it lets imagine innumerable futures. When I read, I am living another life and being privileged with a window into experiences so completely different from my own. Books have the power to take you anywhere, demonstrating that there truly are no limits to the human imagination.  My love of reading is absolutely the thing for which I am most grateful. Without it I would be lost. Because each book I read works a change, however minute,  in the way that I see the world. Because, in the words of fountain of wisdom C. S. Lewis, we read to know we are not alone.

So (although there is no way for me to say this without sounding like a teacher), I would encourage you all to take a minute to think about what reading means to you. It is so easy an ability to take for granted. But when I see library doors closing and learn that 1 in 3 households does not possess a single book, I know that it is not something about which we can afford to become conceited. I hope you will all take an opportunity to share your thoughts, either by commenting on this post or simply by telling someone you know about WBN and the work that it does.

And, with that, my stream of consciousness comes to an end. Here's wishing you all a very literary evening! I'm off to do a bit of reading before my Shakespeare (*cough* Tom Hiddleston) appreciation extravaganza. See you all tomorrow for a very exciting What I'm Reading Wednesday guest post, and stay tuned this week for some more reviews and an epic Harry Potter-related Giveaway!

Monday, 22 April 2013

Monday Musing

Over to one of the greatest mystery writers of all time (and, more importantly, creator of Hercule Poirot's epic moustache)...

Have a wonderful week!

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Review: The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

Hello and happy Sunday to you lovely people!

This post is coming to you in anticipation of World Book Night on 23rd April. I'll be writing more about the event itself on Tuesday but, after seeing that one of my favourite reads - The Eyre Affair - was on the World Book Night list, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to offer up a review. You may remember from my last What I'm Reading Wednesday post that I've been re-reading the book over the past week, so I am now sufficiently refreshed and ready to go...

The Eyre Affair is quite easily one of the cleverest books that I have read. Blending the surreal with some truly intelligent parody and an incredible number of literary allusions, this is undoubtedly a book for any bibliophile. The novel is set in an alternative universe. It is Britain, it is 1985, but, in this world, literature is the thing. It is a world in which children are named after authors and characters, where William Shakespeare machines spout out play extracts for 10p, where Surrealists and Renaissancites engage in street riots. 

"Miltons were, on the whole, the most enthusiastic poet followers. A flick through the London telephone directory would yield about four thousand John Miltons, two thousand William Blakes, a thousand or so Samuel Coleridges, five hundred Percy Shelleys, the same of Wordsworth and Keats, and a handful of Drydens. Such mass name-changing could have problems in law enforcement. Following an incident in a pub where the assailant, victim, witness, landlord, arresting officer and judge  had all been called Alfred Tennyson, a law had been passed compelling each namesake to carry a registration number tattooed behind the ear. It hadn't been well received - few really practical law-enforcement measures ever are," (p.107).

The book follows Thursday Next, a literary detective (LiteraTec) for the mysterious SpecOps, as she chases down the evil and illusive Acheron Hades. After the creation of a machine that allows an individual to blur the boundaries of reality and fiction by making trips into novels, Hades embarks upon a criminal escapade of the worst proportions. Beginning with the theft of the original manuscript of Martin Chuzzlewit and the subsequent murder of one of its minor characters (erasing him from the novel altogether), Hades escalates by removing Jane Eyre from her namesake story. Thursday, the only LiteraTec with an ability to withstand Hades' powers of persuasion and influence, must race against time to get Jane back into the novel and ensure that the narrative survives.

So, my verdict. Well, as inadequate a summarising thought as it may seem, this book is just fantastic. Granted, it is not a difficult read and offers no epiphanies or opportunities for introspection. But this is a masterpiece of a different kind. The Eyre Affair is the love-child of the best kinds of parody and satire, executed with a style that harps to Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll. The numerous literary allusions will have enormous appeal for those who (like me) believe that literature really is the thing and you will absolutely find yourself laughing out loud throughout (uncomfortable when reading on a commuter train - I advise against). Re-reading The Eyre Affair, I remain astonished at how a book that is unashamedly comic and playful could be simultaneously so intelligent. Case in point:

"There was a knock at the door and Buckett instinctively reached for his handgun. He was more on edge that I had thought. 'Easy, Buckett. I'll get it.' He joined me at the door and released the safety from his pistol. I looked at him and he nodded back in reply. 'Who's there?' I said without opening the door. 'Hello!' replied a voice. 'My name's Edmund Capillary. Have you ever stopped to wonder whether it was really William Shakespeare who penned all those wonderful plays?' We both breathed a sigh of relief and Buckett put the safety back on his automatic, muttering under his breath: 'Bloody Baconians!' 'Steady,' I replied, 'it's not illegal.' 'More's the pity.' 'Shh.' I opened the door on the security chain and found a small man in a lumpy corduroy suit. He was holding a dog-eared ID for me to see and politely raised his hat with a nervous smile. The Baconians were quite mad but for the most part harmless. Their purpose in life was to prove that Francis Bacon and not Will Shakespeare had penned the greatest plays in the English language...'Hello!' said the Baconian brightly. 'Can I take a moment of your time?'" (p.39).

In short (or not, as the case may be), this book is a huge amount of fun. Throw in one of the most capable female heroines and you have a novel well worth reading. That it carries off first-person narration so effortlessly (something that I maintain is extremely difficult to do), merely adds to the obvious literary skill demonstrated by its author. There is a reason why The Eyre Affair was selected to be on the competitive list of books promoted for the 2013 World Book Night - because it is, beyond anything, a book for lovers of literature. So use this World Book Night to give The Eyre Affair a go. I promise you'll enjoy the adventure!

Friday, 19 April 2013

Just for Fun Friday

Oh, books, what books they used to know, 
Those children living long ago!
So please, oh please, we beg, we pray,
Go throw your TV set away,
And in its place you can install
A lovely bookshelf on the wall.
Then fill the shelves with lots of books,
Ignoring all the dirty looks,
The screams, the yells, the bites and kicks,
And children hitting you with sticks - 
Fear not, because we promise you
That, in about a week or two
Of having nothing else to do,
They'll now begin to feel the need
Of having something good to read.
And once they start - oh boy, oh boy!
You watch the slowly growing joy
That fills their hearts. They'll grow so keen
They'll wonder what they'd ever seen
In that ridiculous machine,
That nauseating, foul, unclean.
Repulsive TV screen!
And later, each and every kid
Will love you more for what you did.

Wishing you all a fandabbydozy weekend!

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Review: Labyrinth by Kate Mosse

You may remember my excitement a couple of weeks ago at having rooted out some new purchases from Waterstones. After already tackling The President's Hat (see my review here), I decided it was time to wade into the 694 page epic, Labyrinth. I had high hopes for this one. Having steered clear of the recent TV serialisation, I will admit that the ads had me intrigued. Promising a Da Vinci Code-like plot, premised on historical mystery, it did not take a huge amount of effort on the part of Waterstones to secure my purchase (although the multi-buy sale certainly helped).

Labyrinth tells two stories simultaneously: that of 17 year old Alais in 13th century southern France, and that of the academic Alice Tanner in 2005. The narratives are tied together by the unravelling of the mysteries of the 'true' Grail, which is written and bound in three volumes, and the symbol of the labyrinth. After Alice happens upon a cave containing skeletons and an altar, whilst on an archeological dig in the French Pyrenees, she starts in motion a series of events that pose a threat to the security and secrecy of the Grail. Alice finds herself dreaming of Alais's existence in Carcassonne as she attempts to protect the labyrinth's secrets, against the backdrop of French Crusaders coming to Carcassonne to rid the land of 'heretics'. Alice eventually realises that, like Alais, her destiny is inseparable from that of the Grail. Kidnapping, murder, and the search for power drive this plot, as both Alais and Alice fight to the same end.

So, what is my verdict? Sadly, I really did not love this book, and not for want of trying. I slogged my way through all 694 pages, willing it to get better. But to no avail. It certainly contains all of the elements that you would ask for in a thriller - mystery, deception, and the inevitable confrontation with death. Yet there was something central missing here. For me, it was unclear what the mystery was supposed to be. Of course, a good mystery should keep its answer hidden until the narrative's climax - but Labyrinth failed to establish what question it was asking. What was the mystery? Clearly it involved the Grail and a labyrinth symbol, and yes there were some unidentified skeletons in a cave. But not until the very end was I able to truly understand the point of the plot. Whereas The Da Vinci Code makes clear from the outset what its question/mystery is, Labyrinth fails to do the same. Instead, the double narrative of modern versus medieval offers only confusion to the reader. The purpose of the plot gets somewhat lost in the numerous murders, betrayals, and kidnappings that are thrown our way.

I like to think that I am a fairly forgiving reader. And, indeed, there were some great aspects to this book. The story of Alais in the 1200s invoked some wonderful characters, and Alais herself was a heroine of true individuality and strength. The placement of strong female characters in the novel's central roles was refreshing, particularly given the tendency of some thrillers to assign females a somewhat stereotypical function. Kate Mosse is skilful in the creation of her characters and it is primarily this that drives the novel, despite the confused plot. The historical nature of the novel is also executed well, with some brilliant and vivid descriptions of life in Carcassonne during the 1200s. However, I think that Mosse fails to achieve the blending of fact and fiction that I believe defines historical thrillers. Rather, she attempts to differentiate Labyrinth from the likes of The Da Vinci Code (and there are undoubtedly a huge number of similarities) by invoking the supernatural without adequate explanation. Alice dreams about Alais's life, allowing Alice to be guided in her own quest to guard the Grail. But this seemingly supernatural ability is never adequately explained. The Grail is also asserted, and shown, to have the ability to allow individuals to live for hundreds of years, again unexplained. These elements all read as an attempt to set Labyrinth apart, but unfortunately serve to further confuse the narrative.

So, sadly, this is not a book that I would recommend. Yet I do not regret picking it up. I really did love that Mosse placed her female characters at the helm, making them naturally capable in circumstances that might provoke otherwise. And I would certainly be interested in seeing how the TV serialisation picked up on these elements. But if you are looking for a gripping and well-executed historical thriller, I would probably suggest looking elsewhere. Needless to say, Dan Brown's Inferno is already on my pre-order list!

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

What I'm Reading Wednesday - Be Involved!

It's that time again, friends. What I'm Reading Wednesday is upon us and there are some exciting reviews to come. Having finally finished Kate Mosse's Labyrinth (review coming your way tomorrow), I've been able to get down to the serious task of working my way through my growing To Read list. I've had some really excellent recommendations come through on email and promise to do my best to get to them all! It's always brilliant to hear what other people love to read and I appreciate everyone who has taken the time to get in touch. In fact, your thoughts have inspired a new conceptualisation of What I'm Reading Wednesday - as you'll see at the end of this post.

Anyway, to business. 

I'm almost done with me re-read of The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde and am falling in love with it all over again. Seriously excited for this review. As I mentioned last week, this is one of my favourites and an extremely timely read given that it is on the list for the upcoming World Book Night UK (23 April). I'm planning on getting the review to you all before the event and hopefully some of you will be inspired to give it a go in honour of WBN!

My new YA choice. I've heard very good things about this series (a world without adults...seriously? SOLD). I am such a fan of dystopian fiction and I know that the purists among us find it hard to diverge away from the classics - Orwell, Huxley, and the like. I very much come at the dystopian genre from this background. But I have found a huge amount of fantastic Young Adult literature out there that deals fantastically with the central dystopian themes - survival, human nature, anarchy. So Michael Grant's Gone is one that I'm hugely excited for.


This has been on my list for ages after reading a fantastic review. On a book-seeking rampage at my Aunt's house this weekend, I came across it, and the reading is now underway! The book is set in France at the time of Nazi occupation and attempts to capture the struggles of French citizens under German control. Having grown up in a family with extensive personal connections to the events of WWI and WWII (and, luckily, a LOT of documentation through letters, diaries etc.), I am fascinated by literature set during these periods. A number of works by Sebastian Faulks are high up on my list of favourites, as well as an awful lot of the poetry produced at the time. Suite Francaise ticks the boxes of much of what I look for in these historical works and I am looking forward to getting properly stuck in!

So those are the three books occupying my time at the moment. And now to the involvement part of this post. While I absolutely love telling you all about the books that I'm reading and I feel that my eclectic tastes should provide something for everyone, I want to be a bit more inclusive. We all come from a variety of backgrounds - different countries, different occupations, different tastes - and I would love for this to be reflected in the recommendations issuing from this blog. So I would like to give over some What I'm Reading Wednesday posts to you, my readers. If you are interested in participating (either describing your personal reads or perhaps those of a particular book club or group that you are in), I'd love to hear from you! Just send me an email (thebookhabitblog@gmail.com) and we'll go from there. Anyone and everyone are welcome!

I hope that you all enjoy the rest of your Wednesday. Halfway to the weekend!