“Mr Lonely” by Eric Morecambe

This is the story of Sid Lewis, with his modest beginnings as the host in a nightclub and, after his invention of the character, the eponymous Mr Lonely, his rise to fame through television and his own show in Vegas.

This was a very odd book for me to read. Continue reading

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“Artichoke Hearts” by Sita Brahmachari

Date finished: 31st May 2012

Artichoke Hearts has been on my radar since it won the Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize last year. It takes the form of a journal following one month in twelve-year-old Mira’s life. Her beloved Nana Josie is ill and her health is deteriorating. For her birthday, Nana Josie gives Mira an artichoke charm, and explains how it symbolises the heart and how as we grow older we grow hardened layers around our hearts to prevent us from getting hurt. The books shows how Mira and her family deal with Josie’s last days, while trying to keep a balance with Mira’s everyday life of growing up.

This book is wonderful. I’m welling up just thinking about it again now, and it will stay with me for a long time. I was fortunate in that I didn’t have to deal with the grief of losing anyone until I was in my thirties, and I can only imagine how difficult it is for a teenager, as well as for a parent who has to explain death to a child. This book does that with humour, warmth, honesty and emotion, and is very, very touching. The idea of using a journal which covers the most important month of Mira’s life to date works so well, and allows enough time to develop the characters and the experience, while giving a sense of closure at the end with the promise of the next stage of Mira’s life to come as well.

A whole-hearted recommendation for teenagers and adults alike, and one I won’t forget easily.

“666 Charing Cross Road” by Paul Magrs

An author I discovered through Doctor Who is Paul Magrs. I read a couple of his Brenda and Effie books last year, and thoroughly enjoyed them, and have had him on my wishlist ever since. When choosing my recent new book purchases, I couldn’t resist trying his latest novel 666 Charing Cross Road. Shelley works in an obscure Manhattan art gallery, and for her first exhibition as a curator, Women and Madness she finds the oddly strange sculpture, The Scottish Bride, in storage in the basement of the museum and it proves a crowd attracting exhibit. Meanwhile, her aunt Liza (who reads books for a living!) loves supernatural and paranormal fantasy books, but bored with all the specialist shops only selling new authors, she is delighted when her new friend Jack stumbles upon an advert for the antiquarian bookshop at 666 Charing Cross Road. When they send her an unusual tome she never ordered, Liza finds it unsettling and repellent, and Shelley’s boyfriend Daniel takes it off her hands, and sets in motion a chain of horrifying events, which will change all their lives.

An absolutely cracking book! Magrs British humour mixed in to a pan Atlantic story of supernatural powers and creatures, with believable characters who you want to spend time with, and generally a fantastic romp of a story. By far my favourite character has to be Aunt Liza, not only because she has the perfect job – reading books! – but she’s delightfully eccentric, quick witted and with a wicked tongue, she also has an unknown past which reveals itself gradually as the story progresses.

There is a small amount of sexual content and occasional violent scenes, but none are too graphic, and are essential to the story with nothing gratuitous.

Although I think this is intended to be a stand alone novel, I wonder if we’ll see some of the characters in different stories or even appear in some of his other series of books in the future. I, for one, would definitely love to read more with Liza in the future.

“Tamara Drewe” by Posy Simmonds

Date finished: 23rd May 2012

This book is a graphic novel that I’d heard a lot about, and I’d even seen the recent film adaptation, but had never read the book. I’ve always had the impression that graphic novels were sci-fi, fantasy or thriller/noir style books, and they’ve never interested me, but I’d read an article about this book and was intrigued.

I have to say, it was a fantastic reading experience, although I can’t deny, it did feel like I was ten years old again, reading the comic strips in my teenage magazines and albums. The difference was that this was a grown up reading experience. Sprinkled through the pictures (are they called comic strips in this format?) are bits of text telling a bit more of the story from a particular characters point of view. I’m not sure if my experience wasn’t actually better having seen the film, as I knew where the story was going, and it made it easier to follow the pictures and text in the right order, something I’d been concerned about, as sometimes the layouts aren’t in a strict linear fashion, depending on where the text it placed. The film version is actually incredibly close to the book, but one of the characters storylines ends in a completely different way, something I’m sure was done to help sell it to its demographic and please the studio, but gives a much grittier, realistic plot in the book.

As an alternative to the traditional novel, I thought it was very entertaining and a very satisfying reading experience.

“The Opposite of Fate” by Amy Tan

Date finished: 9th June 2012

The Opposite of Fate is a collection of essays and writing from novelist Amy Tan, author of, amongst others, The Joy Luck Club. The pieces vary in length, and cover topics such as growing up as a first generation American to Chinese parents, being required reading in educational institutions and the papers written about her work, moving to New York when her friend was diagnosed with a terminal illness and even a letter of apology for having to decline an invitation to join a panel at a literary event.

I received this as a present and I thought it was a novel, so when I actually looked at the notes on the back and realised it was non-fiction, I was a bit put off. Why would I want to read a memoir of an author I’d never read any of their novels? Actually, it’s turned out to be such a joy to read. I loved the variety of the pieces, from what the biographical remembrances to the reasons why she started to write, to what she loves to read.

My favourite piece of all is entitled Required reading and other dangerous subjects. Since her book The Joy Luck Club has been added to the educational curriculum under the heading of Required Reading or Multicultural Literature, she often encounters students who are/have written essays, papers or their thesis on her and her books. She talks about the variety of inferences and suppositions people have made about her work, and the analysis performed where the writer has found a particular symbolism or association with, for example, the number four. This is something I’ve always struggled with as a reader as opposed to a literary academic. I’ve often heard people talking about themes and symbols within text, which I’ve never noticed. I’m a reader who loves the story and the characters and wants to be entertained, so in depth analysis of books has always eluded me. That might sound odd as a book blogger, but I think all I do is put down my thoughts on a book and what I enjoyed about it (or not) and I don’t think I ever analyse, just commentate. So, it was wonderful to read the writers perspective on reading what other people have thought about her novel, and it made me feel less unworthy as a reader not to have noticed themes and symbols in books before.

In fact, this lack of pretension and her honesty about what and how she has written and lived is one of the joys of reading this book. Throughout the essays, Tan describes coincidences and experiences that she has had which can be interpreted in a variety of ways depending on your views and beliefs, so you might consider some of them being blessed by a higher deity, or for another incident, it could be you believe in ghosts, or you could just be a proponent of coincidence. Never once does Tan make a judgement or a conclusion on who is “right” about what has occurred, she simply explains what has happened and lets the reader make up their own mind about what they believe in themselves. It makes for a very inclusive experience as the reader never feels isolated from the Tan and her beliefs.

Her style of writing is very comfortable to read, and I loved dipping in and out of this book over the last week. I’m also now very much intrigued to read her novels, particularly The Joy Luck Club, and have added them to my wishlist for future consideration. Very enjoyable.

“Running With Scissors” by Augusten Burroughs

Date finished: 12th May 2012

This journey in to my TBR is throwing up some real gems at times, and the latest one was Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs. A memoir of his teenage years, which were unconventional to say the least! When his parents split up, his mother leaves him in the care of her psychiatrist, who eventually becomes his legal guardian, while she moves into an apartment and continues her treatment. The psychiatrist, Dr Finch, and his highly unusual family provide enough fodder for the most bizarre experiences which tells his story with painful honesty but also and humour.

The style of Burroughs writing is very informal and easy to read, and I thought that Running With Scissors read more like a novel than a memoir. You find it hard to believe how young he was going through some of these experiences, and how far removed his life was from what we would think of as a normal childhood, yet he recounts these episodes with candid realism and there is always a darkly comic side to his story. From how he is excused from school, to his first (and graphically told) sexual experiences, to his final realisation of where and what he wants in life, this book endears you to him, and I found it utterly compelling to read, and hard to put down until I’d finished it all.

“Wicked” by Gregory Maguire

Date finished: 8th May 2012

The premise of the book is that it’s the life story of the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz to explain how the events of her life shaped her to become the infamous villain of the classic children’s story.

Now I should explain before I start, I’ve never read The Wizard of Oz or even seen the film. I remember my mum sitting me down to watch the film what I was young – I can’t remember what age I was but it was definitely before the age of seven – but as a child I was so scared of witches that I ended up sat behind her armchair and being too upset to watch any more, and I’ve never been able to bring myself to watch it ever since. The problem with that is, although I have an idea of what the gist of the story is, I’ve never known how it is resolved. But actually, for reading this book, that didn’t matter at all.

I really enjoyed reading Elphaba’s story, from her birth through to her final meeting with Dorothy, but from what I can tell, the actual overlap of the main story is only in the final chapters, and even then is only alluded to and not part of the main narrative of this alternative story. I was quite surprised that this was aimed at an adult audience, with some sexual content and mature themes, bearing in mind that the original is very firmly a children’s book. The breadth of the story encompassing how the various experiences of her life shape the person she becomes made this a very satisfying book to read, but I have to say, I’m surprised that it hasn’t tempted me to read or watch The Wizard of Oz.

The thing that occurred to me after I finished was that I wondered if this story gives a different perspective to some of the characters from the original book, and shows them as much more complex than I imagine they would be in a children’s story. I felt that this would be most evident with Elphaba and Glinda (the Good Witch of the North/South?) who gradually become friends at college and their relationship alters dramatically as they grow and their own politics and morals shape the people they eventually become.

If I had one criticism (and let’s face it, I usually do) it was how awkward the names of both some of the characters and places felt to read. I realise that it’s a fantasy and the author is creating (or recreating) a fantastical world, but it did sometimes take me out of the story as I had to figure out how to pronounce a name, even if it was only in my head!

Overall though, I thought it was a good story, and a very imaginative alternative telling of a well loved classic.