Friday, February 26, 2010

Friday Book Quiz

Unashamedly piggybacking on a literary mystery photo for today's quiz, head over to Literary Kicks here for an intriguing aerial photo from 1924 showing the site of a literary murder - name that book!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Returners - Gemma Malley

Gemma Malley's new book The Returners is not an easy read. Originally picked for the school book group the consensus of adult opinion was that the book was not suitable for the first year age group 12/13 and that only confident 14 yr olds would find the book manageable. The book is set in the Britain of 2016, a time of economic collapse where racism and intolerance is on the rise.

Will, the main character, is living at home with his father. His mother has died. Will's memories of her death, whilst vivid, do not explain how his mother ended up in the water. Will's belief, reinforced by his father's explanation, is that she committed suicide.

Will's father, a lawyer, is under the sway of Patrick a member of a BNP type political party that espouses deportation for non nationals. When Will witnesses a violent act Patrick and his Father make sure that Will remembers correctly what exactly happened but Will suffers from memory lapses, vivid dreams and nightmares. He also believes that people are following him. As Will remembers more of his past he finds out things about himself that are disturbing and horrifying. Can he change his future?

Gemma Malley's dystopian novel is not an easy read for several reasons, the vivid nightmares Will has about Auschwitz and the massacres in Rwanda together with the fact that Will is not a likeable character are some. Issues abound which would keep an older book group, 15+ perhaps, talking for ages, rascism, spin, social attitudes to immigrants and their communities particularly in times of economic downturn, whether there is such a thing as preordained outcomes or whether we make our own future.

A worthwhile but difficult read that will not have universal appeal.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Answers to Friday's Book Quiz

Sorry about the late posting but a family crisis yesterday kept me away from the computer.

1. Tin Cans - especially diet coke cans

2. Steve

3. 12

4. Monkshood (also known as Wolfsbane)

5. Georgia accidentally shaves them off

6. Oliver Twist

7. The Golden Compass

8. Spanish Flu

9. Asperger's Syndrome

10. Calculus

How did you do?

Look out for reviews this week of Gemma Malley's new book The Returners and Sophie McKenzie's book The Medusa Project.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Friday Book Quiz

A quiz for children and teens.

1. In Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson Series what is Percy's friend Grover's favorite thing to eat: enchiladas and...?

Tin Cans

2. In Darren Shan’s "Cirque Du Freak" when they are deciding who should get the tickets, Darren gets one but who gets the other?
Mr. Dalton

3. In "Artemis Fowl", what age is Artemis?


4. In Charlie Higson’s Young Bond Series John Charnnage is a strange man who has a collection of poisons, including belladonna, death cap, cyanide and more. It also includes aconite. What is this also known as?

5. In Louise Rennison’s books featuring Georgia Nicolson what does Georgia accidentally do to her eyebrows?

6. In what book is Fagin a leader of the gang of thieves that the main character gets drawn into?

"Crispin: The Cross of Lead", by Avi
"Redwall", by Brian Jacques
"Oliver Twist", by Charles Dickens
"The Bad Beginning", by Lemony Snicket

7. In what book does Lord Asriel use Roger and his daemon to open a passageway into a new world?

"The Golden Compass", by Philip Pullman
"Bridge to Terabithia", by Katherine Paterson
"Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone", by J. K. Rowling
"Walk Two Moons", by Sharon Creech

8. In the Twilight Series What was Edward suffering from when he was turned into a vampire?

9. In Mark Haddon's book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, what does the narrator, Christopher, suffer from?

Asperger's Syndrome
Haddon's Syndrome

10. In Tintin what is the name of the Professor


Next week we will be joined by Luke a transition year student so expect an emphasis on young adult literature with reviews and views on some new releases.

Have a great weekend.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Friday Book Quiz Answers

Here are the answers to Friday's last lines quiz.

1. The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood

2. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz - Frank L Baum

3. The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald

4. The Road - Cormac McCarthy

5. The Colour Purple - Alice Walker

6. Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov

7. Gone With The Wind - Margaret Mitchell

8. The Dead in The Dubliners - James Joyce

9. In Cold Blood - Truman Capote

10. Little Women - Louisa May Alcott

11. The Picyure of Dorian Grey - Oscar Wilde

12. Brokeback Mountain - Annie Proulx

13. On the Road - Jack Kerouac

14. The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown

15. David Copperfield - Charles Dickens

How did you do? A pat on the back and a large slice of fat free virtual chocolate cake if you got them all right. Look out for another book quiz on Friday!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Friday Book Quiz

A large slice of virtual chocolate cake to anyone who can guess the author and titles of the books these last lines come from.

1. Are there any questions?

2. I'm so glad to be at home again

3. So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

4. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.

5. Matter of fact, I think this the youngest us ever felt.

6. I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita.

7. After all, tomorrow is another day.

8. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

9. Then starting home, he walked toward the trees, and under them, leaving behind him the big sky, the whisper of wind voices in the wind-bent wheat.

10. Oh, my girls, however long you may live, I never can wish you a greater happiness than this!

11. He was withered, wrinkled, and loathsome of visage. It was not till they had examined the rings that they recognized who it was.

12. There was some open space between what he knew and what he tried to believe, but nothing could be done about it, and if you can't fix it you've got to stand it.

13. So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry, and tonight the stars�ll be out, and don�t you know that God is Pooh Bear? the evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what�s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty.

14. For a moment. he thought he heard a woman's voice...the wisdom of the ages...whispering up from the chasms of the earth.

15. O Agnes, O my soul, so may thy face be by me when I close my life indeed; so may I, when realities are melting from me like the shadows which I now dismiss, still find thee near me, pointing upward!

Happy Reading

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Word of the Week GIN

GIN: a) A spirit flavoured with juniper berries

b) A machine for separating seeds from raw cotton

As a Gin and Tonic kind of girl I figured that Gin, the drink, would feature somewhere in literature. Surprisingly it features rarely, the most famous and extensive piece being Charles Dickens' 'Gin Shops' in'Sketches by Boz' published in 1836.

Gin had been thought to have medicinal qualities and became popular in England when unlicensed gin production was allowed by the government who at the same time imposed heavy tariffs on imported spirits. By the 1730's of the 15,000 drinking establishments in London over half were gin shops!

The government became alarmed when it emerged that the average Londoner drank 14 gallons of spirit a year. People would do anything to get gin…a cattle drover sold his eleven-year-old daughter to a trader for a gallon of gin, and a coachman pawned his wife for a quart bottle.

The desperation of the situation led Hogarth to produce two prints 'Beer Street' and 'Gin Lane' (above) in 1751. The print shows the horror and squalor of the times with a woman taking snuff as her baby falls into a gin cellar.

Realising the seriousness of the situation the government imposed a tax on gin in 1736 which led to riots and immediately the sale of gin went underground with bootleggers, runners and pushers selling their illegal wares under such names as Cuckold's Comfort, Ladies Delight and Knock Me Down.

Gin was however the 'Opium of the people', although it led to debt, starvation and death it kept them warm in winter and allayed terrible hunger pangs. The government again raised the duty on gin and throughout the 18th Century consumption began to fall. Consumption did not however fall very rapidly and the drink remained a social problem such that in 1836 Dickens wrote about it. Like Hogarth Dickens noted that poverty was the underlying issue

'Gin-drinking is a great vice in England, but wretchedness and dirt are a greater; and until you improve the homes of the poor, or persuade a half-famished wretch not to seek relief in the temporary oblivion of his own misery, with the pittance which, divided among his family, would furnish a morsel of bread for each, gin-shops will increase in number and splendour.'

The Cotton Gin

The Cotton Gin was invented by Eli Whitney in about 1793. It is a machine that separates cotton seeds from cotton fibres. The effect of Whitney's invention was a massive increase and growth in the cotton industry, by the middle of the 1800's America was growing 3/4's of the worlds cotton. The increased demand for cotton led to an increase in the demand for land and slaves.

'In 1790 there were six slave states; in 1860 there were 15. From 1790 until Congress banned the importation of slaves from Africa in 1808, Southerners imported 80,000 Africans. By 1860 approximately one in three Southerners was a slave.' (Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop)

As the plantations grew and spread and the price of land and slaves increased this inhibited the growth of towns and cities, which in turn exacerbated the differences between the North and South of America. The North of America at this time accounted for 72% of the country's manufacturing capacity whilst the South was an agricultural slave owning society.

In 1798 Eli Whitney figured out how to manufacture muskets by machine so that the parts were interchangeable, it was this that finally made him rich.

Eli Whitney was not only directly responsible for making cotton King but also the expansion of the slave trade that led to the American Civil War in 1861. Not only that, he provided the means by which the North triumphed by reason of it's superior arms manufacturing capabilities.

But what has this to do with literature? Many novels have dealt with the issues of slavery and the Civil War, 'Roots' and 'Gone with the Wind' are but two examples, and also the division between North and South and issues around racism (William Faulkner springs to mind here). Not only that but the conditions Eli Whitney created with the invention of the cotton gin, arms manufacturing and the resultant conflict changed the course of history, much of modern America and therefore it's literature are as they are because of the results of Eli Whitney's inventions.

Whew! I'm off for a Gin and Tonic.


Monday, February 8, 2010

The First Century After Beatrice Amin Maalouf

Maalouf's tale of science and superstition is both speculative fiction and elegantly written dystopian fiction. I would hesitate to call it science fiction as I do not want images of aliens and star systems to intrude but science fiction it is. Set in 2034 the novel is the memoir of a French entomologist and narrates the events of the end of the 20th Century and the beginning of the 21st.

Whist at a conference in Cairo the narrator discovers Scarab Beans sold at the local market that promise to increase a man's fertility and guarantee the birth of sons. Subsequently, the narrators partner (Clarence) discovers that such beans are being sold not only in Egypt but also India, all over Africa and the Third World. Further research reveals that a synthetic drug had been manufactured which would guarantee the results the beans promise and that sales had made the developing scientist rich. When Clarence, a journalist, tries to write about the issue in her paper she is met with indifference, her employers consider the matter a Third World problem and an ideal solution to the overpopulation and food shortages that are it's perennial problems.
'If tomorrow, or even today, a method could be found to reduce the birthrate without violence, without force,with the free consent of the parents....'
But what, asks Maalouf, are the consequences of such a policy of positive discrimination. As the number of female births decline and the numbers of men increase, men who have no hope of a normal family life, suspicion and paranoia between races, cultures and tribes increase with inevitably violent results.

The novel deals with themes of gender bias and selective birth and illustrates the power of fiction to make global issues immediate and real for the reader. My only criticism is that the tone of the narrator, the retelling of events rather than the immediacy of living through them, puts the issues the novel explores at a distance. The events are narrated too calmly and therefore loose their ability to engage, you can admire the writers style and argument without getting caught up in the drama as there is no real drama.

Maalouf is a Lebanese born writer living in Paris, he believes that

'the level of civilisation of any society can be determined by the place of women'.

He is not hopeful if we are to take his conclusions from this novel.

Never has the Egyptian prayer

May your name live forever and a son be born to you

sounded so chilling.

Teen Book Group

Due to problems getting enough copies of this months teen read 'Jackdaw Summer' I have changed the book and it is now Gemma Malley's The Returners.

Will Hodge's life is a mess! His mother is dead, he has no friends and he thinks he is being followed by a strange group of people who tell him they know him. But Will can't remember them first. And when he does he doesn't like what he can remember. While Will is struggling with unsettling memories, he learns that his past is a lot deeper than many people's, and he has to find out if he is strong enough to break links with the powerful hold that history has on him. This compelling novel, set in alternate future, challenges readers to consider the role we all have to play in making our society, and asks how much we are prepared to stand up for what's right.

Why not pick up a copy and read along with the group. I will post about the book and discussion at the end of February.

Answers to the Friday Book Quiz

1. Finnegan's Wake by James Joyce

2. 1984 by George Orwell

3. Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

4. The Good Soldier by Ford Maddox Ford

5. City of Glass by Paul Auster

6. Beloved by Toni Morrison

7. The Crow Road by Iain M Banks

8. Farenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

9. Back When We Were Grown Ups by Ann Tyler

10. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

11. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

12. Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe

13. Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice

14. Charlotte's Web by E. B. White

15. Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

How did you do? On Friday we will post a last lines quiz.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Friday Book Quiz

As it's Friday a quick First Lines quiz, there are no prizes just the chance to sit with a coffee/tea and exercise the little grey cells. Name the title and author of the books from which these first lines are taken, answers on Monday.

1. riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.

2. It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

3. If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

4. This is the saddest story I have ever heard.

5. It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.

6. 124 was spiteful

7. It was the day my grandmother exploded.

8. It was a pleasure to burn.

9. Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.

10. It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York.

11. I write this sitting in the kitchen sink

12. And then say what? Say, 'Forget you're hungry, forget you got shot inna back by some racist cop--Chuck was here? Chuck come up to Harlem--

13. I see . . ." said the vampire thoughtfully, and slowly he walked across the room towards the window.

14. Where's Papa going with that ax?" said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

15. Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.

Have a great weekend.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Word of the Week - Debt

Debt: a sum of money owed
Owing money and the amount owed is big news at the moment, from bankers and developers to mortgage default and credit cards, debt looms large in the national psyche. How is debt treated in literature?
We all have an image of the artist starving in his garret but what about authors, how do they fare? Historically debt has nipped at the toes of authors, Daniel Defoe went bankrupt in 1692 owing a whopping £17,000 and Samuel Johnson was arrested for debt. John Cleland finished 'Fanny Hill' while incarcerated in the Fleet Prison for owing a more modest, but by the standard of the times a not inconsiderable, £840 and Walter Scott's publishing house foundered on the rock of £120,000 of debt in 1826.
The ability to borrow relied on your standing ie your social and moral position, not just your finances. Debt encompassed therefore not just financial but moral and social obligations. Colin Burrows for his article 'The Borrowers'
points out that
'Stories of debt could touch on almost any aspect of human relationships,from friendship to commerce.'
Debt allows the author to explore the tensions and conflicts that can arise between those who owe and those to whom money (or other obligations) are owed. Probably the best known example of an author exploring these issues is Charles Dickens. In 1824, when Dickens was 12, his father was imprisoned in Marshalsea prison for debt. It is said that this experience led directly to 'Little Dorrit' which was a direct attack on the practice of imprisonment for debt (abolished in the England in 1869). Throughout Dickens' fiction there are figures that survive by borrowing from others with varying degrees of venality examples include Mr Micawber in 'David Copperfield and Harold Skimpole in 'Bleak House'.
Usury, another facet of borrowing and debt, is the lending of money at high interest rates. It wasn't always thus, it was originally just the practice of charging interest on loans but it's meaning has evolved over time. The church has since early times taken the view that usury is sinful and the practice grew of economically coercing those considered outside the normal professions to collect rents and interests on behalf of landlords. Thus the depiction of Shylock in Shakespeare's 'The Merchant of Venice' who has to convert to Christianity and forsake usury before he can be redeemed. Dante reserves a special place for usurers in his 'Divine Comedy' on the seventh circle of hell along with the blasphemers and sodomites!
A change occurred in 1545 when Henry VIII signed into law an Act of Parliament that allowed the charging of interest on monies lent. With the formation of the Bank of England in 1694 the link between social standing and social ties and debt began to unravel and with it the fertile ground for authors to explore social and other connections through the medium of debt. The separation of debt from it's social and moral aspects into a purely financial transaction (generally) between strangers is perhaps why debt is not used as a medium to explore social issues anymore. It remains however a plot device, the debt of money to a drug dealer or the obligations owed to the mafia don. As Burrows points out literature does explore issues around money but these issues are about 'disconnected individuals rather than society as a whole.'

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Other Hand Chris Cleave

Would you give a finger to save a stranger on a beach? Yes or No, answer now!

This is the dilemma that faces the O'Rourke's, on holiday in Nigeria in an effort to save their marriage. The person they are asked to save is Little Bee, one of the two narrator's of this book and a refugee from Nigeria's oil wars. Needless to say the O'Rourkes make different choices and it is these choices and their consequences that are played out in Chris Cleave's ambitious new novel.

The novel opens with Little Bee in a detention centre in Essex where she has spent the last two years having fled Nigeria in a cargo ship full of tea. It is here that she sharpens her survival skills, practicing and perfecting her Queen's English and hiding from the men in the detention centre by dressing badly and binding her breasts, her only indulgence painting her toenails red with a bottle of varnish she found in a charity box of clothes. The incident on the beach happened over two years ago but she has retained Andrew O'Rourke's Driving License and business card so that when she is released from the detention centre, as part of an administrative error without documents, it is Andrew she calls.

The O'Rourk's have spent the intervening years carrying on lives of desperation. Andrew, haunted by the choice he made, descends into depression whilst Sarah continues her life editing a women's lifestyle magazine, having an affair with Lawrence, a self deprecating Home Office official and entirely missing the signals Andrew is sending out. It is into this fraught and unhappy situation that Little Bee's telephone call lands, detonating and scattering their carefully constructed lives.

The novel explores issues around immigration, globalisation, political violence and personal accountability. Each character is presented with choices and is judged by the reader on those choices. Is Sarah as frivolous as she seems? How far is Little Bee prepared to go to remain in the UK? How much does Lawrence really mean to Sarah and what is he prepared to do to keep her?
This would be a great book group read.