Author Archives: Jane

Shenzhen; A travelogue from China – Guy Delisle

Jonathan Cape, London; 2006

ISBN – 978-0-224-07991-4

  

The inside sleeve: 

 

‘Guy Delisle’s work for a French animation studio requires him to oversee production at various Asian studios on the grim frontiers of free trade.  His employer puts him up for months at a time in ‘cold and soulless’ hotel rooms where he suffers the usual deprivations of a man very far from home.  After Pyongyang, his book about the strange society that is North Korea, Delisle has turned his attention to Shenzhen, the cold, urban city in Southern China that is sealed off with electric fences and armed guards from the rest of the country.  The result is another brilliant graphic novel – funny, scary, utterly original and illuminating.’


 

Guy Delisle finds himself in an unusual position to spend time in a relatively unknown corner of the world; Shenzhen, a city north of Hong Kong.  He documents the three months he is there in striking sketches and many captivating insights held within the pages of Shenzhen, A travelogue from China.  Delisle’s easy style brings you instantly into his world; in a mere six panels and three lines of text you are transported to China, experiencing the sights and the smells as though you had been there yourself. 

 

Delisle’s time in China was not altogether happy; he went through great loneliness and times of boredom, predominately borne out of the lack of a common language with the populous.  These experiences however are still interesting to read about.  I found it quite intriguing how he chose to occupy his mind in the absence of companionship; from talking to himself to seeking company in language students who can barely put two English words together.  Not to mention how he coped with navigating basic requirements such as what to eat, without the privilege of reading the menu or talking to the waiter.  I’m not so sure how I would have survived in the same situation. 

 

On top of his personal challenges, the book offers some wonderful insights into Chinese culture.  It is the subtle differences between the people of the World that I am most interested in and he captures these beautifully.  The differences in infrastructure, freedom of movement from place to place and of day to day living are also explored.  Should I ever travel to China I now feel a little more prepared for the culture shock that awaits.  His later novel, Pyongyang, offers more in the way of cultural and political insight, but I personally feel that this is predominately due to the unique obscurity of North Korea.  Shenzhen is a lovely book to own, and I will dip into it often on my armchair travels.    

 

Favourite Quotes:

 

“Dog isn’t bad.  It tastes gamey, a bit like mutton.”

 

“There are days when I don’t say a single word.”

 

“Across the way, people slave through the night, squatting over washbasins.  Weeks later, I realise it’s the hotel laundry service.”

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The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman

Bloomsbury, London; 2008

ISBN – 978-0-7475-6901-5

 

 

 

The back cover: 

 

‘It is going to take more than just a couple of good-hearted souls to raise this child.  It will,’ said Silas, ‘take a graveyard.’


 

The Graveyard Book is beautifully told children’s novel by Neil Gaiman.  After the cold hearted murder of his family on one chilly Edinburgh night; an adventurous toddler escapes the same gruesome fate by wandering into a graveyard, the inhabitants of which reluctantly agree to protect him. 

 

The book tells the story of this fortuitous orphan, as he grows up in his unusual new home with his ghostly adoptive parents and mysterious guardian.  We follow as the boy grows up into a young man, and see key moments in his life as he struggles to understand the world around him, and discovers the truth of his bleak history. 

 

The structure of the book is such that each chapter reads like a short story in its own right, each providing new characters or information that ultimately stitch together into a satisfying whole.  This is perfect if you just have time for a chapter a day as you never feel unfulfilled at a chapter end.  I don’t have children myself; however I feel that having mini-stories within a story would work really well for a younger reader. 

 

The concepts that Neil explores within this novel, particularly of life after death are really interesting.  For me, it actually made graveyards a happier place to visit after reading.  Speaking of concepts, there are some adult discussions and some scary moments within the pages, so this book may not be suitable for the lower age groups or for a sensitive soul. 

 

Overall I found this novel to be hugely enjoyable, I was entirely swept up by Neil Gaiman’s beautiful descriptions and light humour, not to mention the stunning illustrations by Chris Riddell that are sprinkled throughout.  The mystery of the boy’s history and the unusualness of his upbringing maintain your interest throughout, and there is plenty of action and excitement to keep you on your toes.  A truly wonderful and surprisingly touching book that will maintain a permanent place on my bookshelf – and I’ve just heard that there will be a movie!  Another one to watch out for! 

 

Favourite Quotes:

 

“You might not have seen a pale, plump woman, who walked the path near the front gates, and if you had seen her, with a second, more careful glance you would have realised that she was only moonlight, mist and shadow.”

 

“…You are not fading.  You are obvious.  You are difficult to miss.  If you came to me in company with a purple lion, a green elephant, and a scarlet unicorn astride which was the King of England in his Royal Robes, I do believe that it is you alone that people would stare at…”

 

“Abanazer Bolger had thick spectacles and a permanent expression of mild distaste, as if he had just realised that the milk in his tea had been on the turn, and he could not get the sour taste of it out of his mouth.”

 

“There was a woman riding on the horse’s bare back, wearing a long grey dress that hung and gleamed beneath the December moon like cobwebs in the dew.”

 

“You’re alive…  That means you have infinite potential.  You can do anything, make anything, dream anything.  If you change the world, the world will change.  Potential.  Once you’re dead, it’s gone.”

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Frozen Music by Marika Cobbold

Synopsis from Amazon: 

 

This tale interweaves the lives of two unusual children: Esther, whose father walked out of her London home without a word; and Linus, bullied by his father, spoiled by his adoring but eccentric uncles and aunts, and growing up in Stockholm, longing to be an architect.

 


 

Marika Cobbold wrote one of my favourite books, Shooting Butterflies, and since reading it, I have had it on my mind to find another of her novels.  I have recently stumbled upon Frozen Music, written prior to the book above.  I adored Shooting Butterflies, and Frozen Music didn’t disappoint, it was a very touching and rewarding read. 

 

On the most part, the novel is written from the perspective of the main protagonist, Esther.  Growing up in London, she had always been accused of taking life too seriously and had never understood what it is like to be in love.  The novel also follows the life of Linus, a passionate architect from Sweden with a difficult history.  Their lives have always touched owing to the friendship of their mothers; however their trajectory’s collide when Linus’ life’s dream comes up against Esther’s sensibilities. 

 

Esther is not a traditional heroine, she is a complex character but one that is easy to understand and empathise with.  The story is wholly engaging and pulls you through to the end, with enough drama and twists to keep you guessing right up to the last moment.  I found myself reaching for the tissues on more than one occasion; however this is not an unhappy book and is in dispersed with light funny moments.  It’s beautifully written, with descriptions that will stay with you long after the book is back on the shelf.  I would recommend this book to anyone that’s likes a different take on a romantic story. 

 

 

 

Favourite Quote:

Audrey:  “I’m not surprised to hear you say Linus isn’t your type.  You seem to have a preference for men with the kind of looks and personality that fail to engage your feelings too deeply”.

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A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka

A story of a family; their current life and their history, is portrayed in “A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian” in a unique and interesting style.  I think that the easiest way to explain the main story line of this novel is by transcribing the opening paragraph of the book:

 

‘Two years after my mother died, my father fell in love with a glamorous blonde Ukrainian divorcee.  He was eighty-four and she was thirty-six.  She exploded into our lives like a fluffy pink grenade, churning up the murky water, brining to the surface a sludge of sloughed-off memories, giving the family ghosts a kick up the backside.’

 

The main narrative follows the partnership between the father (Nikolai) and the Ukrainian divorcee (Valentina) through the eyes of his daughter Nadia; however the romance is not as it seems which leads to an enticing tale of deception and mystery; and sisters united in removing this lady from their father’s life.  The book is set in England, where the family moved from the Ukraine after the Second World War.  Much of the comedy comes from the poor grasp of the English language; with Valentina making statements such as ‘ you plenty-money meanie.  You want give me crap cooker.’  In addition to situational comedy moments, such as the daughters anguish at hearing their fathers interest in Valentina’s ‘breasts like ripe peaches’.  There flows enough comedy to keep you lightly tickled throughout. 

 

I found the most compelling part of this book however to be the layers of story that had subtly been woven in.  There was the present day drama of the father’s romance, which brought together his two daughters in a common cause, when they hadn’t spoken for sometime previously.  The development of the sisters relationship was interesting, but also allowed for a narrative on the history of the family, how they came to be in England and what happened during the War to the parents.  At the same time, the father is writing his life’s work, a book by the same name of the novel (if you were wondering how that came into the story).  Parts of his book on tractors are transcribed as he is reading them to anyone that will listen, and this gives another dimension to the story.  The history of tractors is weaved into an overriding history of the Ukraine, technology and again, the war.  All of these layers of story together, for me, made what was a book with a slow start, quite an enjoyable read once all was told. 

 

 

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Quite Ugly One Morning by Christopher Brookmyre

 

Christopher Brookmyre stands alone on my shelf, and I’m sure on all other shelves in the world; I don’t know any books quite like his. He is uniquely unsettling, warped, funny and mind bogglingly clever in his writing of crime fiction (a genre that I would normally never pick up).

 

Quite Ugly One Morning is the first book containing Scottish detective Jack Parlabane. It is a fulfilling murder mystery, with scenes so twisted it will have you grimacing through your fingers, trying to work out the case. This book is a departure from the books I would normally read however it was thoroughly captivating and joyfully horrible! I wholeheartedly recommend Christopher Brookmyre to anyone that likes to figure out the story and that has a very dark sense of humour (and strong constitution!).

 

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Quite-Ugly-Morning-Christopher-Brookmyre/dp/0349108854

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Hidden Words: Collected Poems by Spike Milligan

I’ve been reading this little by little over the last few weeks and have been really enjoying it. I love Spike Milligan anyway, his silly rhymes have always made me chuckle but this book reflects the other side of Spikes personality. The poems carry you through some of the darker periods in Spike’s life and explore his depression. These are certainly not the light quirky poetry you would be used to from him, they are all very moving and demonstrate the sadness that he had struggled with throughout his life.

God bless Spike Milligan, may he have finally found peace xx

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Shooting Butterflies by Marika Cobbold

I have to say that I loved this book. I cannot say that it is a heart warming journey, every page filled with life affirming goodness that everyone should read, but I can say that I was truly touched by the words on the pages. Every time I turned the page I found something so inextricably true that I am, on this rare occasion, moved by the openness and honesty of a very brave author. It seems to me that Marika Cobbold has laid down some of her innermost thoughts and feelings that most of us would not be inclined to admit to even our closest friends, let alone put them in print for the world to read (it is hard enough admitting them to ourselves!). It is the unflinching reality of her words that make this book such an absorbing and refreshing read.

This contemporary novel tells the story of Grace Shield, a successful photographer who has given up on her career and now leads a quiet and uneventful life. That is until an unexpected package and a newspaper article written about her life, lead Grace down a pathway of remembrance of her own past, and the discovery of hidden histories.

The book is set during the here and now of Grace seeking answers about her untimely gift. Cobbold uses the journalist’s article as an original way of allowing flashbacks into Grace’s past, letting the reader ‘remember’ the events as Grace’s memories are triggered by the journalist’s words. This mechanism gives the book a very natural flow and creates a closeness with Grace and an insight into her internal responses to situations which may not have otherwise been achieved. We follow her through her difficult childhood, her first love affair, a marriage and plenty of heartache along the way (and there is a lot of heartache).

In order to find out more about her package, Grace seeks out an old acquaintance, Louisa Blackstaff, who reveals her own history to Grace. These discussions are written in Louisa’s own words as she tells her story to Grace. Again, this feels like incredibly natural way for the story to unfold and allows the reader a connection with Louisa and a much greater understanding of her character. She talks us through her unhappy marriage, stifled dreams and a forbidden love affair.

Shooting Butterflies is a great commentary on human relationships, from Grace’s bond with her Step Mother, Mrs Shield, to the attachment to her first love, Jefferson and the affection for her husband and in-laws. When Grace was having difficulties with her marriage, the excerpt ‘‘She pretended to be asleep and he pretended to believe her” really sums up to me what it is like to be living with someone when there is tension. It’s this kind of delicate observation of human nature that I admire in this book. Furthermore, when describing the thoughts of meeting an old friend that she hasn’t seen for a long time, she thinks “I don’t know if you are married, if you have children, I don’t know what you do for a living, how you decorate your home, yet I’ve hugged you when you cried. I know that shellfish makes you puke and once, when we were scared, we shared a bed”. This captures perfectly to me the bond between old friends and the unspoken knowledge that despite being out of touch, and no matter where you are in life you still share these things.

As I mentioned before, this is not a heart warming journey filled with tenderness; in places it is very dark and very bleak; “the worst thing is losing someone you love and I don’t have that worry any more; I’ve lost them already”. Cobbold’s words had me sobbing into my pillow for about ten solid minutes one night, so raw is the pain that is portrayed. But, for me, underlying everything in the book is romance and emotion. Not just romance between a man and a woman, but real romance of thought and of the soul; for example, when thinking of her miscarriages “She fervently hoped there was such a thing as reincarnation and that her incomplete babies had been able to return to base to be told, with a smile and a slap on the back, ‘Better luck next time’”. This to me is a romantic and hopeful way of looking at a terrible situation.

Overall this book to me is perfect (I mean it, I loved it!). As a main character, Grace is not a wishy washy romantic heroine, she is flawed and has a very black outlook, and this non-traditional characterisation really appeals to me (not being a fan of traditional romantic novels). The emotion is real and raw in places, but not over the top, enough that you can really ‘feel’ the heart of story. There is a dusting of witticisms to lighten the air, and there is enough of a mystery to make you want to find out what happens next. Having just picking this book at random from the shelves at my local bookshop, I am now a full supporter of judging a book by its cover! I will definitely be reading Marika Cobbold’s other books.

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Eragon by Christopher Paolini

Dragons, swords, Elves, Dwarfs, magic, mountains, spirits and an epic struggle between good and evil – what will book 2 bring!

Wow! This is book is my answer to Harry Potter! Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoy the Harry Potter novels, but they didn’t capture my imagination in the same way that they seem to have for other people; Eragon does.

Eragon is a young boy, whose story begins on his uncle’s farm, where his whole mundane future is mapped out for him; that is, until fate brings a dragon hatchling his way that turns his existence upside down. The presence of the dragon draws enemies to the quiet village, the consequences of which are the destruction of everything that Eragon holds dear. Eragon and his dragon stead, Saphira, begin an epic journey of revenge and discovery which lands them right in the middle of a historic struggle of power across the Empire.

Christopher Paolini has created a wonderful universe, where magic, ancient languages and mystical creatures reside. The realm of Alagaesia contains the lands through which the journey takes place, Paolini’s vivid descriptions of the areas through which Eragon passes help to completely immerse the reader in this magical universe. With every new landscape or town that was visited Paolini managed to always capture the essence of the place, allowing you to see the dangers and hardships that each new area brings; providing a fuller understanding of Eragon’s plight.

The characters are very real, with their own back stories and secrets just waiting to be discovered. I found each character to have their own interesting personality and its fun to try and work out where each of their motivations really lie (I’m still not sure with some!). The relationships between the characters are also very real and touching in places, giving the book that extra edge as you can identify with their feelings (even if it’s difficult to imagine life with a dragon!). I love the special bond between Eragon and Saphira, their protectiveness over each other and the way that they are growing together; I can’t wait to see how their relationship develops in the next book.

Others have noted troubles with some of the language and names used in the book; something which immediately put me off (having stopped reading the Hobbit for the very same reason), but I persevered. Paolini created an ancient language to add weight to the magical nature of this book; an even though you have no hope of understanding these words (unless you look them up in the glossary), it doesn’t hinder the story in any way. There are only a small number of characters with unusual names to remember, and I was happy to read without looking up the ancient words. They are used on the most part in order to cast spells, and do not in any way stop you from understanding what is happening. I just read them as magical words like abracadabra (I’m sure Paolini would be mortified!); saying that, now that I’ve finished the book I may look back over it and see what they really mean (you never know – I may have missed out on something after all!!).

There are places in which you can recognise the influences, but I see this book as only adding to the magical lands created in the likes of the Lord of the Rings (I’ve never read it, but from watching the films, there are places where the similarities are pronounced  ); it is a great book in its own right. The crossovers with other novels, such as Harry Potter, are also there, but I feel this is likely to happen as they are both coming of age stories crafted within a magical universe.

All in all, I would rate this book very highly; I would list it among my all time favourites. It is a totally absorbing, easy read, with enough danger, mystery and heart to pull you along to the last page without a struggle. In addition, I find Christopher Paolini and his family completely inspiring (have peek on his website http://www.alagaesia.com ). He began work on this novel as a teenager, and through a couple of years of hard work and dedication, with support from his family (who published the book in the first instance), he has created a top selling novel and blockbuster movie to boot. His story makes me want to be a better person, I’m sure we all have it in us!

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The Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk Kidd

From the author of The Secret Life of Bees comes another vividly descriptive book, The Mermaid Chair.

The novel details a tempestuous time in the life of Jessie Sullivan, dependable wife and mother. At a time when she was feeling trapped in her settled and routine life with her husband; Jessie welcomed the opportunity to go home to Egret Island, after her mother has an ‘accident’. Upon returning to the island, after five and half years of being away, Jessie embarks on an emotional journey; as her soul re-awakens.

In a drastic departure from her quiet married life, Jessie begins a torrid affair with a Benedictine Monk, revelling in her new immense feelings of sexual desire, freedom and longing; and releasing her to find the real Jessie that had got buried during her marriage. The question of whether her marriage will survive the end of the book is one that kept me in agony, knowing how she felt about both the men in her life. I also really felt for both the male characters as the author gave enough depth to their characters to make me care what happened to them.

The sub-plot of her mother provides an equally emotional distraction to Jessie’s unfaithfulness. Her mother’s instability and the secrets surrounding her father’s death give an air of mystery to the novel which peaked my interest to try and discover the truth.

As with The Secret Life of Bees, this book is incredibly descriptive. It is set on an island for which Sue Monk Kidd has beautifully created the look, feel and smell of each scene; and for me, it perfectly captured the feeling of time spent by the sea. As an example…”…the aroma of the island penetrated, a powerful brew of silt, old crab pots, salted air, and black, gooey mudflats alive and crawling with pungent creatures”. Even now, I can close my eyes and picture the sights and sounds of Egret Island.

The Mermaid Chair has a nice easy pace and is very easy to read, with enough going on to pull you through and keep you interested. It explores themes of religion, faith, love, relationships and the strong bonds between female friends. I wouldn’t rank this book as one of my all time favourites, but it was an enjoyable read. I loved the self discovery aspect of the novel and how Jessie became a whole person again, taking control of her own life. I did find it a little too emotional at times for my taste (I don’t cope well with story lines of unfaithfulness), and also some of the scenes involving the mother were sometimes a little strong; but on the whole I would recommend this book.

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Shopgirl by Steve Martin

Steve Martin, comedy actor, pulls a surprise out of the bag with his touching novella, Shopgirl. The name ‘Steve Martin’ conjures up images of slapstick moments, hilarious gurning and perfect comedy timing; not penetrating insights into the soul and delicate melancholy which this story delivers in abundance. Not knowing anything of Steve Martin the person and only judging him on his movies, it was an unexpected pleasure to read this book.

This contemporary tale follows Mirabelle, a lowly shop assistant working in the almost forgotten glove department of a major department store in Los Angeles. Mirabelle is not a traditional heroine, she has a very quiet life, no real friends, two cats (only one of which will socialise with her) and she struggles to keep depression at bay. She has an interest in art and draws dark etchings from time to time, and even manages to sell a few to local galleries. The highlight of her week is when there is an opening at a gallery and she can spend a few hours outside of her normal life, being the kind of person that she wants to be. Mirabelle’s life is uneventful, unexciting and unchanging, that is, until Mr Ray Porter makes her the object of his desire.

Martin submerges the reader deep into Mirabelle’s world; we hear the narration not only of our heroine’s life, but also from the perspective of other key players; which gives a well rounded understanding of each character’s motivations and failings.

I found the perception of beauty to be a long running theme throughout Shopgirl. Being set in Los Angeles, Martin often compares the mystery and allure of a natural beauty (Mirabelle) against the seduction of cosmetically enhanced women, with the latter often shown to have the weaker attraction of the two. Mirabelle encompasses the appeal of subtlety; she has a number of admirers for whom a well put together outfit or an unnoticed glimpse of supposed to be hidden flesh will peak their desire and maintain their interest. This unassuming attraction is in direct opposition to Lisa, a sexual predator and rival Shopgirl at the department store. Lisa has an enhanced appearance and preens her assets into the most desirable manifestation she can conjure, in order to snare the attraction of everyman in the room. She uses her beauty and sexual prowess as an instrumental tool in becoming the epitome of lust which, to her, increases her personal worth and substantiates her existence. In a world where perfection is revered, are we correct to idolise the enhanced?

Steve Martin provides an accurate commentary on personality traits, exploring insecurities and desires. The over-riding feeling that I got from this book was not to let depression be a barrier to your hopes and dreams. I found Shopgirl to be a surprising and insightful read, and one which I would pick up again if I need a little inspiration. It seems there is more to this zany comedian than meets the eye!

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