Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Book Review: Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons, or, I saw something nasty in the woodshed!

Or,  how I learned to love (some) film adaptations, and didn’t have to learn to love Cold Comfort Farm - five minutes in we were mates for life.

Trailer for Cold Comfort Farm (1995) on YouTube

I used to be one of those people who could rarely bear to watch a film if it was based on a book that I wanted to read. If I watched a film adaptation of a book I enjoyed, then I would be really critical and nine times out of ten consider the film to be vastly inferior to the book. Then I did a course at university about adaptations, and I discovered that some adaptations actually build on the story in the book, or partially critique it, and I now look forward to seeing films that do this. (Great example: Sally Potter’s Orlando)

I also discovered that if I watch the film first, then it doesn’t usually spoil my enjoyment of the book, and I decided that I wanted to watch every film and read every book on the reading list. I didn’t get very far. I watched a couple of adaptations of Alice In Wonderland, got really interested in that, and did my class presentation on it. I watched The Handmaid's Tale. And then, after hearing Brenda Dayne talk about it, I decided to watch Cold Comfort Farm. About ten minutes in I was in love, but somehow it took me almost two years to get around to borrowing the book from the library. The plot of both film and book is as follows:

When Flora Poste’s parents die and fail to leave her a hefty enough inheritance, she can’t face the thought of getting a job, and decides instead to live off relatives. She writes to several, but when her cousin, Judith Starkadder, mentions a wrong that was done her father, and offers her a home at the ominous-sounding Cold Comfort Farm, Flora decides to go live there. She meets a whole host of weird and wonderful characters, from Amos Starkadder, terrifying preacher, to ethereal, poetry-obsessed Elfine, and seeing potential amongst all the mess, decides to single-handedly drag them all into the twentieth century.

Cold Comfort Farm is a satire of a type of rural family drama that was popular around the time that it was written. I guess it’s the 1920s-30s equivalent to the Twilight parody books that are out today, except that it’s actually good. I’ve tried reading a couple of the Twilight parodies and they lay it on so thick that I’m bored by the third page. Cold Comfort Farm has a subtlety and lasting charm that those books can only dream of, and I find it hilarious even though I haven’t read any of these rural family dramas. It’s a good story in its own right, being not entirely unbelievable. The characters, eccentric as they are, could really exist, which makes it all the funnier.

The thing I love most about the story is that although it’s satirical, it’s still strangely heart-warming. It’s not depressing, like my other favourite satire, Vile Bodies, or cruel as some can be – I’ve never enjoyed a satire in which all the characters are mean people being mean to each other. It’s satisfying to see Flora sorting everyone’s problems out. I cheer for her, even though she’s essentially smug, lazy, and shallow.

I’m still not sure whether I prefer the book or the film. The book of course has more going on in it; some of the characters were combined for the film, some lines changed character too. But there’s something about seeing Seth walk up to Flora whilst she’s sitting in the kitchen having afternoon tea, and attempt to creep her out/seduce her with his stare, that I find absolutely hilarious.

'Sure you did, but did it see you, baby?'

The BookDepository

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Book Review: Swordspoint, by Ellen Kushner

Photo by kablis

Swordspoint: A Melodrama of Mannersis a fantasy (of manners) novel set in a capital city and the almost-lawless Riverside district nearby. Neither the city nor the country are named, but the world is very different from our own. This society doesn’t have any modern technology, but they have strict laws, and a police force of sorts. The country is run by nobles, Lords and Dukes who see themselves as superior to the ordinary people. The nobles live decadent lifestyles under different laws – they go to parties, gossip, and when they quarrel they hire swordsmen to fight on their behalf, often to the death.

One such swordsman is Richard St Vier, the main protagonist of the novel, who lives in Riverside with his lover Alec. St Vier is the greatest of all swordsmen, and sought-after by the nobles. He can even, controversially, pick and choose who he wants to fight. He and Alec live as comfortably as people can in Riverside, drinking and gambling until the money runs out and St Vier needs to fight again. But this comes to an end when they get mixed up in the political plots of the nobles, who wish to use Richard to advance their own goals.

The world of Swordspoint does not have a strict moral code, some characters have tighter ethics than others, and every one is a product of the difficult, often brutal society they have been brought up in. I found all the characters very interesting, and although I wanted to know about some of them more than the others, they were all shrouded in enough mystery to keep me guessing and reading on. The characters were very believable. Although most of them didn’t develop over the course of the novel, they stayed pretty much the same; it didn’t matter because there was so much going on. The reader never gets to be ahead of the characters – so I was constantly trying to predict what was going to be revealed about who next. The story is written in third person, and follows several different characters at different times. Though the narrator doesn't seem to be a character, it has a very distinct style.

Swordspoint is quite a long book, and it took me a couple of weeks to finish it. This might be why I felt that it was over a bit too soon. It seemed to me as if the author spent a lot of time building up all this detail about the world and the characters only for the plot to turn out to be quite simple (though not predictable) and for the story to finish quite quickly. I also felt that one character, after having quite a large role in the narrative was just dropped, and it was disappointing that we didn’t get to see more of them.

However, the novel was really enjoyable, and beautifully written, with just the right amount of descriptive detail, in my opinion. I’m quite fussy about description, I need it to flesh out the world of the story and imagine it properly, but I don’t want so much that I don’t have any room to put my own spin on the way things look, and have to struggle to hold it all in my head. I love reading books that feature characters that live glamourous lives in an old fashioned way, and so I had a lot of fun reading Swordspoint

I am looking forward to reading the sequels to Swordspoint; The Fall of the Kings, and The Privilege of the Sword. I first heard of these books when I read Rie’s review of The Privilege of the Sword at Leaving Shangri-La.

The BookDepository

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Reading Challenges 2011

I used to set myself a challenge to read 50 books every year. This didn't work very well. The first year I didn't read enough. In 2009 I read over 90. Last year I sort of set myself the same challenge again, but having read over 90 in the previous year the pressure was off. I knew that as it was no longer my official 'job' to read and write books all day long (in 2009 I completed my MA), I had no chance of beating my previous total. I read 44 books in 2010. Well, if I counted all the picture books that I read whilst checking for scribbles and torn-out flaps (one of the perks of volunteering in a charity shop), I'd probably have read over 60. But I'm not counting picture books.

I'm not concerned by the drastic drop in numbers. I'm just bored with the 50-book thing. It's vague, but at the same time, too restrictive. For one, I always end up trying to find really short novellas and poetry books and graphic novels to read in the last 6 days of December. This used to work, but last time I found that I didn't have any left in my TBR, having used them all up in the previous years!

This year, I have decided to do several reading challenges instead, to make it all a bit more exciting. Not that reading books isn't exciting on its own, kids! I signed up for one challenge last year, the POC Reading Challenge. And I failed. I only read two out of the four books that I planned to read. So it will not be surprising to see that I am signing up for it again. All the challenges except for the POC Challenge, the GLBT Challenge and the British Books Challenge, were found via A Novel Challenge (though I'm sure the others are on there anyway), so the blogs that host them are new to me as well. Lots of new reading for the new year, yay!1

I am signing up for Level 2 again, but am going to try to read the maximum six books.

1. Born Confused, by Tanuja Desai Hidier
2. Monsoon Summer, by Mitali Perkins
3. Noughts & Crosses, by Malorie Blackman

Entering in the Home Grown category - 12 novels, one a month ideally. This should be the easiest challenge ever because I have 27 to choose from already on my TBR, plus I find novels by British authors slightly easier to read than all other books. I will probably read more than 12 though, may even go for that 50 books Crown...what am I saying? No more 50 books goals! The books I currently plan to read are:

1. Festival, by David Belbin (it's on top of a pile on the floor, calling to me)
2. Girl Meets Cake, by Susie Day
3. We Had It So Good, by Linda Grant
4. Five Miles from Outer Hope, by Nicola Barker (one for my 'teenage protagonist in literary fiction' tag)
5. The Butterfly Tattoo, by Philip Pullman
6. Candy, by Kevin Brooks
7. Noughts & Crosses, by Malorie Blackman

GLBT Challenge 2011

You can set your own goal for this challenge, so I am planning to finish Swordspoint and read the four books (I think? There may be more lurking subtly) I have on my TBR that qualify, which are:

1. Swordspoint, by Ellen Kushner
2. Dramarama, by E. Lockhart
3. Empress of the World, by Sara Ryan
4. grl2grl, by Julie Anne Peters
5. Valencia, by Michelle Tea

A Year of Feminist Classics

Not strictly a challenge, described as a 'project' by the creators, this is a good excuse for me to read the feminist books that I have lurking on my shelves. I've already read A Room of One's Own (it's awesome, by the way, and really short), and I don't think I'll be able to read all of the others, but I own copies of three of them, and should be able to get another three from my local library.

I am going to aim for level 1 - Curious, and read three books. This should not be difficult as I have 27 fantasy novels on my TBR to choose from!

1. Swordspoint, by Ellen Kushner
2. Tithe, by Holly Black
3. Valiant, by Holly Black 

I am actually going to aim to complete the "Fun Size" YA Reading Challenge (20 books), because although I only have 15 YA books on my TBR, there is, of course, the library, and re-reads count for this challenge. There are a few YA books that I read in 2009 and haven't gotten around to reviewing because, although I remember that I thought they were really good books, I can hardly remember anything else about them. These include Love and Other Four Letter Words, by Carolyn Mackler, and Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta. I remember thinking that Saving Francesca, in particular, was really amazing, but I can't remember anything about it that I wasn't reminded of by looking at the blurb or flicking through my copy!

1. Festival, by David Belbin
2. Girl Meets Cake, by Susie Day
3. If I Stay, by Gayle Forman
4. The Boyfriend List, by E. Lockhart (re-read)
5. The Butterfly Tattoo, by Philip Pullman
6. Born Confused, by Tanuja Desai Hidier
7. Dramarama, by E. Lockhart
8. Empress of the World, by Sara Ryan
9. Monsoon Summer, by Mitali Perkins
10. Tithe, by Holly Black (re-read)
11. Valiant, by Holly Black
12. grl2grl, by Julie Anne Peters
13. Ironside, by Holly Black
14. Candy, by Kevin Brooks
15. A Great and Terrible Beauty, by Libba Bray
16. Noughts & Crosses, by Malorie Blackman
17. The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

New Author Challenge 2011

This should be another easy challenge, most of the books on my TBR are by authors I haven't read before. Authors I have read before I tend to get more excited about, so they're less likely to languish on my TBR piles. I am planning to read 15 new authors, but I will hopefully manage more than that!

1. Swordspoint, by Ellen Kushner
2. Festival, by David Belbin
3. Girl Meets Cake, by Susie Day
4. We Had It So Good, by Linda Grant
5. If I Stay, by Gayle Forman
6. Five Miles from Outer Hope, by Nicola Barker
7. Born Confused, by Tanuja Desai Hidier
8. Empress of the World, by Sara Ryan
9. Monsoon Summer, by Mitali Perkins
10. grl2grl, by Julie Anne Peters
11. Candy, by Kevin Brooks
12. Valencia, by Michelle Tea
13. A Great and Terrible Beauty, by Libba Bray
14. Noughts & Crosses, by Malorie Blackman
15.The Princess Bride, by William Goldman
16. The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

2011 Book Blogger Recommendation Challenge

My method for choosing challenges for this year involved going through the A Novel Challenge blog, opening the pages for challenges that sounded interesting in tabs, and then going onto Goodreads and working out whether I had enough books - or almost enough books - on my TBR to complete them. This one was actually one of the quickest to check, because all I had to do was read through the list of titles, no fiddling around with tags or shelves was involved. I am signing up for Level I - to read five books from the list. Although I only own 4 books that are on the list, I can get one of the others from the library. Plus, the books I have are:

1. (9 on the list) The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak
2. (70) The Princess Bride, by William Goldman
3. (264) Swordspoint, by Ellen Kushner
4. (344) A Great and Terrible Beauty, by Libba Bray
5. (30) If I Stay, by Gayle Forman (purchased after I wrote this post)

and I read most of Swordspoint last year. I've actually finished the novel now, but I still have two short stories in the edition I have to read, and I don't count a book as read until I've read everything except the blurb, and the copyright page. Sometimes I read those too, but usually not. If it's a novel by a celebrity, I usually only read the copyright page. ;)

1 I've taken to reminding myself regularly of all the books I don't want to read, so that I feel less overwhelmed. Legal thrillers. Amish romance. Mills and Boons. New Moon, Eclipse, and Breaking Dawn. Anything by Todd McCaffrey.


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