26 August 2012

Literary Relish has moved!!!

Yes, shock horror! Literary Relish has finally took the plunge to Wordpress:

Please kindly amend all readers, bookmarks etc and join me over there! Posts will continue as usual as I try and get used to the more involved Dashboard and hopefully tweak and twist the style of the new site in the process. I'm not quite there yet so am welcoming all tips and suggestions (some of you have been so helpful and encouraging since my moany post of the 6th August). Cheerio Blogspot!

22 August 2012

The Master and Margarita

In part three of the Manchester Book Club catch up reviews I tackle Mikhail Bulgakov's masterpiece; The Master and Margarita, thoughtfully selected by Alex in Leeds for June/July's 2012 reading. She certainly didn't let the group down. After spending an entire month carefully devouring and endeavoring to understand each and every 'scene' of this classic, I finally (just about!) feel ready to commit my thoughts to the blogosphere....

The premise for Bulgakov's novel lies around two main story lines that very cleverly intertwine. The first tells the tale of Woland; otherwise known as Satan, who is paying a much belated visit to a deeply atheistic Moscow and, along with a madcap band of freakish sidekicks, is reeking complete havoc on the lives of its largely unattractive inhabitants. The second takes us all the way back to the Jerusalem of Pontius Pilate and plays out the brief period leading up to the crucifiction of Yeshua Ha-Nostri - Jesus of Nazareth and the inner turmoil Pilate battles with as a result of this pivotal event. Expertly weaved in with these two narratives, though much more involved with Woland and his extraordinary allure, comes the love story of the Master and his Margarita, a relationship between two individuals stifled by circumstance; Margarita by a stale marriage and the Master by the rejection of what has become his life's work - a narrative of Pontius Pilate's life.

Bulgakov's writing of this seminal book was, in the style Woland & Co, fraught with trouble. Like The Master of his imagination, the author became deeply troubled and stifled by the Soviet Union and its strict control over any creative output. Famously burning his first manuscript, it took decades of draft upon redraft for an eventually heavily edited manuscript to make it into the literary underworld. This early censorship, along with the pure surrealism and complex political satire, makes the various translations out there all the more significant, lending particular weight to Alex's suggestion that we read the version above, translated by Diane Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O'Connor. Although this is by no means the 'prettiest' edition available, my language student-geekiness came to the fore whilst comparing the first paragraph of this with Daddy Relish's Penguin edition. The more natural style and clarity of the Picador copy is obvious and helps the reader make sense of what is, essentially, a difficult read.

The curtain opens (as this novel seems very much at times to be laid out in theater 'scenes' or circus performances rather than your bog-standard chapter) onto academic Mikhail Alexandrovich Berlioz and poet Ivan Nikolayevich Ponyryov laying out a spiritual discussion for themselves. Is God real? Is man in control of his own destiny or are we all at the mercy of fate? Enter Woland, disguised as a 'foreign gentleman' to argue against their atheistic viewpoints and, along with our first portion of Pontius Pilate's story, begin a bewildering, fast-paced tale, dripping with symbolism and themes that are frankly too hot to handle. Truth, freedom, love, history, faith, good and evil all get a look in here, and that's just in the first two pages....

Flitting between Moscow and Jerusalem, I accepted after the first few chapters that this was a book that, although I can recognise its beauty now, will certainly need a good re-read in 20 years' time; when portions of text I could only enjoy for the simplest of satires/political points and the sheer theatricality can be returned to with a bit of life experience, in a much more considered, well-informed way. For now, Bulgakov's unflattering, often slapstick portraits of the bureaucrats and self-important elite of the day proved to be both hilarious and timeless. Burlesque, fantastical scenes such as Satan's ball and Margarita's escape into the night on an enchanted broomstick (don't ask!) whisked me away from reality completely, perhaps reflecting the escapist ideals of the the author himself:

'Margarita bent the bristle of the broom downward...The earth was moving toward her, and Margarita was already bathed in the scent of the greening forests. She was flying over the very mists of a dewy meadow, then over a pond. A chorus of frogs sang beneath Margarita, and from somewhere in the distance came the inexplicably heart-rending wail of a train....After overtaking it, Margarita passed over another watery mirror, in which a second moon floated by beneath her feet.  Descending even lower, she flew along with her feet nearly grazing the tops of enormous pines.' 
p. 207

The Relish family's very own Behemoth
With a sophistication rarely found in the novels we read day in day out, The Master and Margarita can clearly be appreciated on various different levels and, this being my very first read and with a limited understanding of Russian politics, history and cultural peculiarities, I found myself focusing quite happily on character and colour alone. Gone were any concerns of who was who (Russian names all appearing to be very long, complicated and similar) along with any concerns for grasping the deepest meaning from the text. Hurrah.

Bulgakov has undoubtedly created a masterpiece, a word I hesitate to use for fear of cliché, though there simply is no other that can be used. Despite certain concepts/jokes/cultural nuances potentially becoming lost in translation this book clearly contains some of the most fundamental assertions about human existence ever to be seen in literary fiction and it has, as a result, been a review that I have approached both with trepidation and, no doubt, much inadequacy. A re-read is already on the cards for 2032.  I never re-read books.   

12 August 2012

The Sisters Brothers

Yet again last month the Manchester Book Club came up trumps with, if not the most gob smackingly fantastic book in the world, at least one that I wouldn't have bothered to pick up otherwise and we all need to shrug off our bookish comfort blanket from time to time and try something brand new, especially with a hot, graphic front cover like this one <---------------------

The Sisters Brothers intrigued me first and foremost as a book that, although not my usual fare, was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize last year. Since blogging I've found myself honing in a little more on the big literary prizes and, although I certainly don't pressurise myself into reading them all, it does make a book all the more intriguing.

In an imagined west coast of the mid 19th century, Patrick deWitt places Eli and Charlie Sisters; professional killers hired by the elusive 'Commodore' to dispatch of prospector Herman Kermit Warm, for reasons that are not made immediately obvious. Set against the volatile backdrop of the California gold rush, I came away from book group feeling rather excited at the prospect of a cowboy tale with an edge.

As I explained to the group at our meet this week, the most telling sign of the conclusions I came to about this novel could be clearly seen from the fact that, by the end, I hadn't bothered to mark any one of the 328 pages. (I have a habit of sticking little coloured tabs where I see anything that captures my imagination/a passage that I particularly love or even dislike) This indifference is a bit of a shame really, I always think it's better to really hate something rather than feel completely indifferent about it, particularly with a book. A word I found myself using a lot was 'flat'. Although a couple of people felt very differently and discovered something they absolutely adored (which is wonderful as, had it not been for the book group, they may not have picked it up otherwise) it seems my expectations were so high that perhaps very few authors could have lived up to them.

The deadly pursuit is narrated by Eli Sisters; relatively mild-mannered and someone who seems ill-suited to his role as a hired killer, in stark contrast to his insensitive, impulsive, cold-killing older brother. Eli longs for a quieter life and I felt sympathetic towards the brief, domestic portraits of the small towns they visit and the glimpses we see of an alternative lifestyle; i.e. the lives of the dentist or the shopkeepers they run into. However, this sympathy is short lived as we only glimpse inside the heads of our characters for a matter of pages before the narrative becomes flat and our brothers become dull. Although a lack of emotional response to events does suit the role of hired killers, I eventually found the almost complete lack of depth extremely frustrating. Eli is soft, Charlie is petulant, and they are both DULL. *Yawn*

This pattern of teasing the reader with glimpses of something interesting only to snatch it away continues throughout. Intriguing cameos that I'm sure carried heaps of underlying meaning along with them were barely revisited; i.e. a witch-type figure who traps Eli within her cabin and a random weeping man the brothers bump into on a couple of occasions on the road... but what do they represent!? What does it all mean?! The most sympathetic, meaningful characters actually turned out to be the animals. Eli's horse Tub is a tragic character and it is through the killer's genuine care and concern for his well being that we are drawn about as close to our narrator than we will probably ever get.

A victim of my own expectations, more disappointment lay with the lack of focus on the setting. Part of what I was looking forward to about this book was the backdrop of the California gold rush. Although I wasn't expecting this to be the focus of the novel in any way, the two brothers pass through this exciting setting and it's fascinating characters at breakneck speed and I came away with precious little to enlighten or intrigue me.

I feel like I've come across having a real downer on this book and I really don't. It isn't a bad novel per say; it is simply written, well designed and, as I mentioned before, some members of the book group clearly found something very genuine within its pages. I just came away with the feeling that there wasn't enough of much really; hardly any characterisation, precious little plot and any focus solely on a couple of dullards who I really wasn't too bothered about. I wanted excitement, I wanted energy but instead I got a degree of tedium that made The Sisters Brothers position on the Man Booker shortlist a bit of a shocker; really making me wonder whether it relies far too much on a well designed front cover/typeset and not enough on content.

Mediocre. 5/10.

6 August 2012

Moving House!

A few weeks ago some of you may have noticed that I rather dramatically announced a move to Wordpress.  Since then, although I have had time to toy with various designs, I simply haven't had the serious chunk of time required to design a brand new website and make it work the way I want it to.

Wordpress seems to provide so much for bloggers yet it is a darn site more complex than Blogger and, above all, although I favour a more professional design, I don't want to lose the 'Literary Relish' identity which, at the moment, my standard Wordpress template does! Is it worth investing a little money on the design? Does anyone have any advice/experience of moving house yet wanting to retain their identity at the same time?

5 August 2012

The Dubious Salvation of Jack V

I am very naughtily behind on my reviews at the mo (taking the delay caused by the Paris themed month into account of course!) and, a whole three months since Simon selected The Dubious Salvation of Jack V by debut author Jacques Strauss for the second meeting of the Manchester Book Club, I am finally getting round to reviewing it because, frankly, it was all a bit 'dubious' really!

Jacques Strauss' novel sees apartheid-era South Africa through the eyes of Jack Vilijee; a mollycoddled, middle class and thoroughly muddled up eleven year old boy. With a Boer Father, English Mother, a sexually confused best friend and a black maid called Susie to whom he devotes as much love and reverence as he would his own mother, Jack, a boy who has never been completely comfortable with the idea of having black servants (unlike his Boer friends), is thoroughly confused. Confusion that, upon the arrival of Susie's troubled son Percy into his world, threatens to bubble up and reek havoc on his peaceful existence.

The beauty of running a book club full of completely diverse and intriguing people will always be the opportunity to try books you may not have picked up otherwise. I am not, unlike my other half, adverse to picking up brand new authors and approaching something without many expectations and I did initially get excited about the South African theme. Beyond the obvious facts, I have read disgustingly little account of life in apartheid-era South Africa and, although I understood from the cover alone that the story would probably be restricted by the white, child narrator, I was at least expecting something and, sadly, came away with precious little to enlighten me.

The 'coming of age' element to the book is utterly convincing and hilarious in places; with the frantic 'skommel'ling (i.e. masturbating :-)) in various different places and into various household objects punctuating childish portraits of friends and family and juvenile problems blown out of all proportion. However, despite my appreciation for Strauss' sympathetic young narrator and his universal trials and tribulations, certain elements left me mightily confused. The story is supposedly narrated by Jack as an adult yet there seems to be no hint of retrospection and the South African world ceases to be the deeply troubled place it was at the time and remains viewed through the tunnel-vision of an eleven year old boy. Let me be clear that I didn't want to read an 'apartheid' book, which would perhaps have been just a bit too obvious, however, I would have liked to learn much more about what life was like in the country at that time for everyone.

Although the clearly dramatic events occurring just out of our vision did become frustrating at times, it did help add a film of darkness over this otherwise innocent account. Racism, pedophilia and all manner of other evils lurk in the background to threaten Jack's bubble and gave the book a little more depth than it might have had otherwise. Jack's friend Petrus; who wants to be a mermaid or an air-hostess when he grows up, adds amusement and tragedy to the tale and his Boer family and their apparently wild differences from 'English' South Africans was something I had never considered and would certainly like to explore in the future.

This is Strauss' debut novel and I'm intrigued to see what he offers next; whether it will be more South African tales or whether he will branch out somewhere entirely different. This book, interestingly enough, completely divided the boys and girls at book club, with the boys seeming to gain much more from it...perhaps recognising a bit of themselves in his quite ordinary (servants aside), boyhood.

A mixed review all in all!

31 July 2012

Paris in July - Le Scoop!

Although, as per usual when I try to give myself any blog 'challenges', I haven't really achieved half as much as I would have liked with Tamara and Karen's 'Paris in July'. A wonderful theme for a particularly blustery, rainy month. As I concede that I have again failed to live up to (at least my own) expectations on the book reading/film watching/croissant baking front, I am devoting this little 'à bientôt' post to a few frenchie titbits I have been considering this month...
The first is a guidebook to Paris that, I must admit, I purely picked up due to the beeaauuttiful, art-nouveau style front cover that Alex so proudly showed off at the Manchester Book Club following her second book haul from Sharston Books. (Read her review here).

Metrostop Paris by Gregor Dallas is a pleasant guide to the city for someone who already knows it very well - like London, you do tend to navigate yourself around in relation to which metrostop you're closest to - however, I found myself wondering how those who don't know Paris so well enjoy Dallas' frequent tangents off into realms of time and space unknown that veer wildly away from the metro stations themselves. I personally enjoyed reading a little fact for a change, bombarding the boyfriend with particularly fascinating snippets and thoroughly enjoying the random points, obscure characters and themes in the city's history. However, I am, I have realised, a literary fiction girl through and through and I very naughtily skipped one chapter towards the end, desperate to leave the real world behind and return to some make believe instead......tralala.

My second mini-tangent comes in filmic form; Le hérisson, directed by Monica Achache, the beautiful screen adaptation of Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which I enjoyed reading earlier this year.

Josiane Balasko stars as Renée and delivers a completely authentic, heart-wrenching portrait of the lonely concierge, superbly supported by child actress Garance Le Guillermic and the chap of the Go Cereal Bar advert! (Togo Igawa :)). The film, quite necessarily, ditches the over-your-head philosophical, slightly narcissistic french musings and thus compliments Barbery's novel wonderfully. It is also far funnier; with Paloma's old fashioned video camera replacing her 'Journal of the Movement of the World' and her 'life through a lense' view on the people around her is both more amusing and far more intense. Paris is beautiful, and this film makes it all the more real and beautiful....I really should make the time to watch more french film...


The all important conclusion to my bitsy post today comes in the form of my very best friend Joe who has taken the idea of 'Paris in July' quite literally and moved back there for good this very weekend! Utter envy aside, I will miss him very much and wish him the best of luck....but no better excuse to visit I say!  

29 July 2012

Les Aventures de Tintin

At the age of nineteen, in a desperate attempt to improve my French, I spent two months working as an admin assistant in a gas bottle factory on the outskirts of Strasbourg; capital of the Alsace-Lorraine region of Northern France.

Despite the pretty scenery you see to your left, times were tough. My French was too rusty to communicate properly with the Alsatian (the Germanic local language) speaking natives and my British approach to life (fairly free and liberal, partying into the early hours of the morning, etc ...) clashed with the deeply traditional Alsatian attitudes.

However, like any self-respecting bookworm I found salvation at FNAC; a European bookchain that, although rather pricey, is so aesthetically pleasing, with a great selection of both French and foreign literature and deliciously effective air conditioning. It is here, and in the homes of my work colleagues, that I became acquainted with Les BDs or bandes-dessinées; comic strips of all shapes, sizes and genres that both young and old go crazy for over there and that has become a huge feature of French and Belgian cultural tradition, your typical comic section looking something like this:

It is in corners like these (being careful to avoid young 20-something geeky men reading the kinky adult comics in public..a w k w a r d) that my love of Hergé and his wonderful Tintin comics blossomed and, since then, I have made an effort wherever possible to expand on my collection of colourful, entertaining, sometimes slightly racist books (a sign of the times I assure you! - see Tintin in the Congo :-O); where promising young reporter Tintin, his dog Milou and a hilarious cast of characters and companions travel the globe in search of adventure, mystery and magic. Although his creator faced many obstacles throughout his career including the Nazi occupation of Belgium that severely restricted the scope of Tintin's adventures and harsh criticism leveled at the overly political and colonial flavour of his earliest works, these stories and characters have endured and been translated into countless different languages for publication across the globe. With an international presence and now a Hollywood 3D extravaganza courtesy of Stephen Spielburg, Tintin's stories are still very much alive and I love him. Beautifully crafted illustrations and an excellent way to practice French, I am determined to collect them all!

23 July 2012

The Girl at the Lion d'Or

July always turns out to be such a busy month that, like last year, half of what I had planned for my Paris in July simply hasn't materialised and it's suddenly dawned that I have precious little time to settle into the Manchester Book Club's choice for July; The Sisters Brothers by Patrick Dewitt - a distinctly none-Parisian tale of two hired gun men in the Wild Wild West --------->

Much like my approach to food ;-) I hardly ever restrict myself with my reading and Paris in July is the only real 'challenge' I ever commit myself to, mainly because the boyfriend and I feel such an affinity with that wonderful wonderful place :-) My lack-of-blog-rules approach means that I like to be a bit freer with the challenge and almost have my very own 'France in July' ..... well, all roads lead to Paris after all! (apparently).

Quite honestly Faulks' The Girl at the Lion d'Or certainly didn't have priority out of all of the titles in our mini-library at home, it probably didn't even have a spot on Mount TBR yet I caved in to its small size and the promise of easy-reading after June's Bulgakov marathon. I read Birdsong last year and, although it hardly changed my life, it is immensely readable and provides us with a very important, if fictional, account of life during World War I. The Girl at the Lion d'Or, as part of Faulks' 'France Trilogy' therefore promised something I could dip into with ease. (Charlotte Grey, however, is another matter entirely...) 

Faulks focuses on the life of waitress at the Hotel du Lion d'Or; Anne Louvert, at first glance your typical girl next door but, in reality, a lonely young woman with a dark mystery that seriously hampers her struggle to maintain a tranquil, anonymous existence. Throw in a cast of intriguing French characters and a married lover; Charles Hartmann and we have a neat circular story that, without blowing me away, was a pleasant, speedy read to pick up whilst sheltering from the monsoon-like Manchester weather.

Despite the huge shadow of WWI that permeates this novel; i.e. Anne's Father and Hartmann's (who also appears in Birdsong) war experience, I unfortunately found myself feeling a little indifferent about the story and a fair few of the two-dimensional characters' within it. Even Anne, whose endearing normality and calm acceptance of her precarious existence can be so attractive, does irritate at times and I found myself being fairly unsympathetic towards the adulterous relationship between her and Charles that literally seems to spring up out of nowhere at the beginning of the novel.

Slight superficiality aside, Faulks clearly has a firm grasp on this period of history and it is undoubtedly interesting to explore the lives of those living in the wake of the devastation of the war and the then glorious decade that followed. Those living in the 1930s, anticipating further conflict yet mindful of the dark past are an intriguing lot to be introduced to and Faulks' domestic, occasionally more intimate portraits of these people suit the anxious times perfectly.

Not Faulks' best work but a nice little break and, since Anne hails from Paris, another little tick for my 'Paris en Juillet.' 

P.S: Alex (in Leeds) did make me giggle when she told me that she read this novel whilst looking after a sick friend since it was, by the sounds of things, the only book without a cheesy looking lilac cover in the vicinity....

I think that probably sums the novel up, nice, but nothing to write home about....

17 July 2012

Aimez-vous Brahms...

Before I get started on my second read for this year's Paris in July, I would like to give a quick mention to the lovely Manchester Book Club and our utterly satisfying fourth meet on the 3rd July at Home Sweet Home in the centre of Mancland.  A nicer, cosier corner was nabbed and we welcomed both old and bright new faces (including a couple more boys which was particularly nice for the mix!) and had a good old dissection of Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita (more on this to come soon) The lovely Louise gave us no less than seven interesting titles to choose from to read in July, with us finally settling on The Sisters Brothers by Patrick Dewitt. I've seen this out and about and simply would never have gotten around to picking it up had it not been for Book Club, yet this is precisely the beauty of meeting a group of very varied, very interesting bookish people every month. I have however, a Parisian plan to fulfill before I get around to that...

After a thoroughly Russian June, I have really had to force myself to let my brain hang out a bit and get into the Frenchie Frenchiness I crave. After reading Françoise Sagan's novella Bonjour Tristesse earlier this year and really appreciating it, I was absolutely ready for another swift dose of precocious, aloof and sexy French  characters, wrapped up in their (in the grand scheme of things) unimportant love affairs and struggling to release themselves from their ground hog lifestyle, however stylish it may be.

In Aimez-vous Brahms we are treated to the classic love triangle that Sagan favours; Paule, a 39 year old interior designer is a woman at the end of her tether. Emotionally neglected by her long-standing, yet apparently rather dashing lover Roger she is unexpectadly swept off her feet by  the young, headstrong son of a wealthy client. Simon is strikingly beautiful and lovestruck, standing in sharp contrast to the philandering bully stringing her along.

This is may sound such a silly thing to say but this small book is so French. The shallow relationships between the three characters, the grandiose sentiments ending in disillusion and abandonment are so existential it almost made me laugh out loud. But that isn't to say Sagan is laughable.

Although I would never go as far as to say that her work is hugely deep and meaningful, there is a certain philosophy here that I find attractive. Although irritatingly wrapped up in themselves and their own problems I found Paule in particular to be pretty realistic. Beautifully flawed, weak and confused you could say she was the Everywoman, the French Everywoman that is, and her lapse back into mundanity left me feeling, well, rather reflective really...

16 July 2012

The Reader Summer Book Club 2012

Whilst popping together my thoughts on Françoise Sagan's Aimez-vous Brahms... which I finished this weekend, I thought I'd share the slightly mortifying yet highly amusing experience of listening to myself rattle on at Savidge Reads' Simon and Gav Reads' Gav for their Summer Book Club. The boys have developed an incredibly entertaining, insightful and fairly hilarious bookish Podcast; The Readers, that I enjoy listening to on my ramble home from work every evening. They were kind enough to invite me on to natter about Andrew Miller's Pure that, as you all know, I loved, precluded by an interview with the author himself. Any excuse to chat books!

You can find the podcasts below and I apologise in advance for how squeaky and Northern I sound (squeakier than expected!) Though BE WARNED, if you make it to my section at the end, SPOILERS are abound and I would hate to ruin this wonderful book for any of you :):

The Readers

8 July 2012


Paris in July 2012I am very happy indeed to be kick-starting my 'Paris in July' (hosted by the wonderful Bookbath and Thyme for Tea) with a book that, as I hammered home to Simon and Gav last week, I simply really enjoyed reading. No strings attached.

Pure follows the career of Jean-Baptiste Baratte; a country boy with ambition. An engineer whose main successes include the construction of an ornamental bridge over a lake in his home town in Normandy. Despite a humble background and unassuming demeanor, Jean-Baptiste likes to think of himself as a philosophical and forward-thinking kind of man, a man determined to see himself equal to the Minister's nightmare task of destroying the poisonous cemetery of Les Innocents in the center of the city; where the fat of partially putrefied bodies, packed in too tightly with thousands of others to decompose properly, rises to the surface and the air sickens the bodies and minds of those unfortunate enough to live around it.

To assist him in this logistically impossible and deeply disturbing task Jean-Baptiste enlists the help of a former colleague and friend from the Normandy mines; Lecoeur, along with a small group of the unfaltering miners themselves, hoping that with their highly specialised experience and hardened hearts they may disinter the thousands of bodies at Les Innocents in as timely and respectful a way as possible.

The story Andrew Miller has created here is so entertaining. Drawing inspiration from the real disinterred bones that lie for all to see in catacombs under Montparnasse in modern day Paris, Miller has done what many fail to do (myself included) when stumbling across this macabre Parisian sideshow which is to consider not only the bones themselves but just who in the world became responsible for carrying out this grim task, the problems they encountered and how this huge project tied in with the tense pre-revolutionary politics simmering over every aspect of life at the time.

I am not familiar with this city. Andrew Miller's Paris is one from dark fairy tales whose history has always enticed me; one of winding backstreets and open sewers, a far cry from Baron Haussmann's spacious and regimental construction we all see today. Whilst being hauntingly vivid (you can almost smell the decay rising off the page) Miller's prose is also beautifully spare and readable. He also manages, in a very literary way that stands completely apart from your traditionally 'trashy' historical fiction, to create a period setting, dialogue and characters without abandoning himself to 'ye olde' français; modern yet believable writing that reminded me of the likes of Michael Faber's Crimson Petal and the White.

Pure is firmly focused on the French Revolution and, therefore, reality. Despite Jean-Baptiste's normality and very human insecurities (insecurities that result in him pawning his simple clothes in favour of pea-green haute couture and a becoming a bystander to midnight revolutionary escapades) make him a sympathetic character; a mere mortal trying to stand firm against the monstrous task ahead, one which results in unimaginable and life-changing events for all involved. This novel is so symbolic it could almost become too obvious and hammed up for its own good; modern v traditional, pure v impure, light v dark, Jean-Baptiste or 'Bêche' (French for spade) as he is known, becomes a micro-symbol for the change that is happening on a grander scale (and that we readers know lies just a couple of years away.) Characters and themes are so sensitively drawn however that as readers we don't end up feeling beaten into submission by allegory. This is real life, with all its tragedies and nuances, where even the addition of the notorious Dr Guillotin (namesake of the guillotine itself - how symbolic can you get?)  onto the stage cannot distract from the story Miller is trying to tell; one of revolution and of the witnesses of that revolution who, in the end, were merely bones and dust like the rest of us....

5 July 2012

Out of order

This week Literary Relish has been mostly...

Out of order.

My poor dear old Toshiba, which has been with me through thick and thin for the past 5 years - two dissertations, one wine spillage and a whole lot of hammering with the blog, finally expired this week. RIP laptop :-(  To be honest I really had pushed the poor thing to the very boundaries of its capabilities and on Sunday, puffing and wheezing to the finish line it finally exploded in a puff of smoke! (I am clearly giving myself a little artistic license here...)

However, although this brief post was planned to be done in rushed fashion from the City Library I am finally all hooked up to the world at home again and raring to go, though my introduction to this years' Paris in July has taken a bit of a hit! Tonight however has hopefully given me a flying start as I have been chit chatting (and, I fear, rambling totally off the point) with the lovely Gav and Simon for their hugely entertaining podcast The Readers and the bookclub they have kindly been hosting over summer.  Once what I am concerned will be an extremely cringe-worthy (for me at least!) interview of me reviewing Pure by Andrew Miller materialises I will be sure to post it here. In the meantime I will just have to banish all thoughts of everyone hearing my 'Liam-Gallagher-on-helium' voice immediately preceded by Andrew Miller's dulcet (probably) tones....

For now though, I am back in the land of the blogging and all Frenched up, oooo lala! What next?

27 June 2012

Paris in July

Yes peeps, it's that time of year again; the sun is shining (....) our cornbeefy English legs are getting an airing and BookBath and Thyme for Tea are once again hosting the fabulous Paris in July. My favourite city, country, language, food....basically, everything I love rolled into one event that I can indulge in sans guilt for an entire month!  Apart from the inevitable Manchester Book Club choice that may not necessarily have anything to do with France, the rest of my month will be spent reading French authors, eating too much (also, not necessarily French food!) and generally pining for gay Pareeee :-)

I have heaps of literature/films in stock for anything French themed but would like to know whether anyone has read/seen anything particularly exciting in the past few months?  I think it may also be time for me to finally watch the much-lauded Trois Couleurs trilogy. ..

I thought I'd also take the opportunity to thank a couple of gorgeous bloggers for awards that they have kindly bestowed on Literary Relish this week! The lovely Cynthia (who has a brilliantly quirky blog - take a look!) with the Liebster award and the fabulous BundleofBooks (a Twitter fave!) with the Sunshine Award.

I've already been given the Liebster Award by Victoria Corby just recently so I won't BORE you all with too much inane information about myself and just treat you to BundleofBooks ten short, snappy questions:

1. Favourite colour – Red (Fiery!)
2. Favourite animal – Cat
3. Favourite number – 7
4. Favourite non-alcoholic drink – Lychee juice...mmmmmm!
5. Prefer Facebook or Twitter – Twitter
6. My passion – Books!
7. Prefer Giving or Getting presents – I prefer giving more than getting as I get older....am I becoming less selfish?!
8. Favourite pattern – Polka dots. Like Minnie. 
9. Favourite day of the week – Thursday. It's the new Friday!
10. Favourite flower – Tulips

24 June 2012

Wolf Hall

'Already there are too many books in the world. There are more every day. One man cannot hope to read them all.'
Henry VIII, p. 472

The world can never have too many books. However, Henry's exasperated claim that we can never hope to read all of them is, scarily, very true. This considered, it's becoming progressively more important for me to read really good books. Although it's impossible to guarantee you'll like something, with certain authors or themes you know you're on to a winner; in my humble opinion Hilary Mantel is one such author. 

Like many people my age in the UK, I studied the Tudors at least twice, maybe even three times, at school, something which ordinarily ruins a subject for pupils. This period of history however, never fails to be the most sumptuous, filthiest, most dramatic going; beheadings, burnings, fancy clothes, feasts and sex; now how could you ever get bored with that? 

As with plenty of books, I'm coming to Wolf Hall far too late really; although there's something to be said about reading a book like this after the hoohah has died down. (I'm taking the same approach with Bring up the Bodies; waiting patiently for the paperback edition to be released...) 

Hilary Mantel's (soon to be) trilogy, ending with The Mirror and the Light, will eventually chart the rise from obscurity and eventual demise of one of history's most controversial characters; Thomas Cromwell. Ordinarily painted in a fairly unflattering light, Mantel's more balanced portrait delves into both his public and imagined private life. Cromwell became a key player in Henry VIII's break from Rome, the dissolution of the monasteries and the highs and lows, in this particular novel, of his relationship with the notorious Anne Boleyn.  Normally portrayed as a ruthless and entirely manipulative man, in stark contrast to his contemporary Thomas More; Hilary Mantel plays with convention and, quite convincingly, imagines a more realistic 16th century world; where even Saints have their flaws and where ordinary men must sometimes abandon their morals to save their neck and serve their King.

Historical fiction that manages to steer away from the fluffy, über-sexed up stereotype is right up my street, especially when it's done well and Hilary Mantel is an absolute master at it. Although I'm no Tudor expert, it certainly seems that she's done her homework and has a profound understanding of her subject. At the same time, she is careful not to sacrifice her story for the sake of bogging us down in dates and facts, giving us one of those rare occasions where a 600 + page novel leaves us wanting more. Mantel has succeeded in recreating a luxuriant, elaborate and dangerous world, with a vast array of characters (see the 'cast list' at the beginning of the book) that, rather than confuse, merely serves to bring this multi-faceted world to life, where something intriguing happens or is said on every single page

Her powerful descriptions of executions are vomit-inducing:
'At Smithfield Frith is being shovelled up, his youth, his grace, his learning and his beauty: a compaction of mud, grease, charred bone.'
p. 480

'The chains retained the remnants of flesh, sucking and clinging...A man took an iron bar  and thrust it through the whole where the woman's left eye had been.' 
p. 355

Certain scenes, such as the bridal procession of Anne Boleyn are so vibrant and full of movement and colour that the scenes of medieval England almost reminded me of modern day India:

'At every turn on the route there are pageants and living statues, recitations of her virtue and gifts of gold from city coffers...blossom mashed and minced under the treading feet of the stout sixteen, so scent rises like smoke. The route is hung with tapestries and banners, and at his orders the ground beneath the horses' hooves is gravelled to prevent slipping, and the crowds restrained behind rails in case of riots and crush'
'And looking down on them, the other Londoners, those monsters who live in the air, the city's uncounted population of stone men and women and beasts, and things that are neither human nor beasts, fanged rabbits and flying hares, four-legged birds and pinioned snakes, imps with bulging eyes and ducks' bills, men who are wreathed in leaves or have the heads of goats or rams; creatures with knotted coils and leather wings, with hairy ears and cloven feet, horned and roaring, feathered and scaled, some laughing, some singing, some pulling back their lips to show their teeth; lions and friars, donkeys and geese, devils with children crammed into their maws, all chewed except for their helpless paddling feet; limestone or leaden, metalled or marbled, shrieking and sniggering above the populace, hooting and gurning and dry-heaving from buttresses, walls and roofs.'
 p. 463-64 

Thomas Cromwell by Holbein c. 1533

Most crucially to this novel's success is the fact that I both liked and believed in Thomas Cromwell and all who surrounded him, both at home and at Court. Avoiding 'ye olde' style English, Mantel creates a sense of period in her dialogue without resorting to unreadable language and creates characters who come out with 16th century versions of the kind of nonsense you or I would do. Cromwell is realistic; a working class hero and family man whose care for the young people he has taken under his wing and grief for those he has lost balances well with the more snakish sides to his personality that become more prevalent as the book draws to its conclusion. Wolf Hall, the novel's namesake and seat of the Seymour family is only mentioned a handful of times throughout the book and does not take a prominent position, though through this clever title (and our own basic knowledge of English history) we know that this is exactly where Henry is headed. It is an unusual thing to know precisely in what direction a story is going before it gets there (e.g. Anne and Cromwell's eventual executions, among many others) although how Hilary Mantel will arrive there is another question altogether. She kept me glued to the edge of my seat for a good two weeks with Wolf Hall and I absolutely cannot wait to see what she has in store for our anti-hero next.

'Arrange your face'

22 June 2012

Scotland reads...

Returning home to the rather taxing (though, I'm thinking, also pretty marvelous) The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, our Manchester Book Club read this month, I was doubly, triply glad that I took some 'light' book choices on our hols to Scotland with me. We took far too many books and board games in hindsight, planning for a week of terrible weather and being cooped up in sleeping bags. Instead, we were greeted with this:

Hot Cows

A week that was supposed to be all about reading (albeit Victoria Hislop-style fluff) Cluedo and cold pasta became one of sunshine, sheep and beer and between bouts of hiking and sunbathing I managed to finish the deeply disturbing (in the best way possible) Never Let Me Go and Andrea Levy's Small Island, a book I've been meaning to get around for ages and struck just the right holiday chord. 

I also promised a yurt photograph, so here we go, a yurt and a Relish getting stuck into the cider and a good read (photography courtesy of The Seed™):

(NB: On Saturday we spent the day wandering around the gorgeous Glasgow for the Voltaire and Rousseau Bookshop, which, partially due to my stubbornness and partially due to the humid weather, we completely failed to find. Although, if you do happen to be up that way, pay a visit and tell us what it's like! Looking at the winding streets on the map I don't feel too guilty for our failure now...)

21 June 2012

An evening with ... Carlos Ruiz Zafón

First of all, a big hello and welcome back to a more active Literary Relish! I'm sure you'll all be relieved (heh) to know that I feel rather refreshed indeed and full of musings and reviews for this, the first day of summer! (something I'm finding rather hard to believe judging by the deluge of water swilling around our doorstep this evening...) A Scottish update is soon to follow but, in the meantime, I'm itching to to talk about my.... I mean Waterstones Deansgate's ... delectable evening with the great Carlos Ruiz Zafón last night.

Donning a rugby top and some rather funky glasses, the enthusiastic Manchester crowd were greeted (unbeknowningly) by a slightly hairier, more owlish version of Daddy Relish, an impression that automatically made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside...

I'd heard Carlos (oo, listen to me, like we're best friends or something!) interviewed before on the BBC World Service and other miscellaneous podcasts and whatnot and had great expectations as a result. He didn't disappoint. After a slightly corny introduction by the overexcited compere, the refreshingly humble star-author led with a chat about his 'YA' fiction (children study his books in Spain) that, I should mention, are just as, if not more popular with adults than the youngsters, and the development of a fourth book (eeek!) to round up his quartet of atmospheric novels surrounding the Cemetery of Forgotten Books.

Talk of inspiration, location and translation were abound (his books are translated into English by Lucia Graves - Robert Grave's daughter. Interesting fact of the week) and Zafón spoke enigmatically about all three. I even took an excited lady's photo getting every one of his novels signed, including a cheeky slip of paper for his fourth book. I have a bit of an aversion to hardbacks at the mo and therefore managed to control myself, sitting on my hands until the paperback comes out, but standing with the hoards was worth it to meet the man. A chuffed Relish returns to the grindstone this week!

Photo stolen from Waterstones as mine were terrible.
 Hope they don't mind!

6 June 2012


... the boyfriend and I are lucky lucky people; lucky enough to be escaping away to the Outer Hebrides to live in a yurt for a week as of Saturday :-) Like my pre-holiday post back in March, I am feeling completely exhausted today; thoroughly in need of a break in short. I have a feeling that a lot of this may be some kind of subconscious wind down I always have the tendency to do a few days before I cast anchor....

 Last evening, minus poor Simon, who really hasn't been feeling too hot of late, the Manchester Book Club met for our third meeting to discuss Simon's book choice; The Dubious Salvation of Jack V by Jacques Strauss (a relishy review to come later on this month!) and to ponder and potentially break into sweats over the dear Alex in Leeds' thoughtful (and Russian; yes!) pick of three. We finally settled for The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov; thoroughly satiating my appetite for something meaty and Slavic.  
Although her other two books were also excellent and differed wildly from our final choice (I actually went for a Mapp and Lucia  book by E F Benson ... perhaps its all in the name...) the group pleasantly surprised me by being up for the challenge - helped along I think by the card-playing cat on the cover. Freaky. (See above.) We had a lovely mix of peeps there yesterday and had some mixed reviews on our Strauss book, which always makes life more interesting. We even welcomed another boy into the fold, hurrah! 

That said, I don't see this being a holiday book and would much rather give Bulgakov the respect he deserves by settling down seriously when I have regained some much needed energy and brainpower traipsing the shores of Scotland. Until then, enjoy your reading everyone!

3 June 2012

Important update..

Just wanted to post a quick note to let you know that Literary Relish will very soon, for various reasons, be transferring over to Wordpress. I have been pondering a move for some time and have finally been prompted by someone who shall remain nameless, whose nod towards the alternative blogging tool has finally given me the push I needed to move over.

More on this and a new URL to come soon! In the meantime do keep checking in on me here... :)

The Tiny Wife

It is quite unusual for me to drag myself out of my 'literary' mold and pick up a comicy number like Andrew Kaufman's The Tiny Wife. Wolf Hall had been calling to me from the bookshelf for weeks (especially considering the release of Bring up the Bodies a few weeks ago) so, before taking the plunge, this quirky little number was the perfect thing to let my brain hang out just a weensy bit. The perfect story to dip into over a weekend at Relish HQ; weekends that are often much more devoted to drinking, talking books and playing with cats than actually getting much reading done :) (I was also prompted by a tempting review via Simon at Stuck-in-a-Book.)

Kaufman has created a wonderful fable, a modern fairy tale and one that doesn't stop at including all of the dark (and slightly twisted) elements present in your traditional Hansel and Gretels and Red Riding Hoods a la Brothers Grimm.

A peculiarly-dressed man robs a bank stealing not money, but items of sentimental value and the SOULS of the patrons; victims who are soon plunged into a haphazard, frightening world where tattoos come to life, women metamorphose into sweet treats and husbands turn into snowmen. Although its a bit shallow of me, I have to admit to being delighted at just how pretty this little book is when it appeared on my doorstep, complete with attractive silhouette-style illustrations throughout. However, this isn't all fur coat and no knickers. Kaufman's imaginative tale is so much fun and made me appreciate the book in the kind of way I did as a child, sitting in my local library and letting my imagination run riot.

This isn't all fun and games, Kaufman doesn't lose himself in the madness so much that he forgets to include elements that draw the story in a little deeper. Some of the characters' demise, although fantastical, are really rather tragic and the focus on Stacey Hinterland, our 'tiny wife', her fear and relationship with her husband and young son really made this a very human and heartwarming tale.

Kaufman's previous novella All my Friends are Superheroes is supposed to be even better than this little treat. Onto my wish list it goes...

1 June 2012

Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty Dance with Death, by Kurt Vonnegut, a Fourth-Generation German-American Now Living in Easy Circumstances on Cape Cod [and Smoking Too Much], Who, as an American Infantry Scout Hors de Combat, as a Prisoner of War, Witnessed the Fire Bombing of Dresden, Germany, ‘The Florence of the Elbe,’ a Long Time Ago, and Survived to Tell the Tale. This Is a Novel Somewhat in the Telegraphic Schizophrenic Manner of Tales of the Planet Tralfamadore, Where the Flying Saucers Come From. Peace.


Such is the spandangling, wondrous full title of the Kurt Vonnegut classic Slaughterhouse-Five; yet another book pressed upon me by Daddy Relish which, after being slightly dismissed (I'm mortified to say) as 'another war book', not helped by the stark, though completely appropriate cover of the Vintage edition (see left), I finally picked up last month and can't believe I hadn't done sooner.

Billy Pilgrim; POW, optometrist, time-traveller and general outsider has become unstuck in time.  As we hurtle backwards and forwards after him to certain key points in his life, sometimes on more than one occasion, Vonnegut treats us to an insightful and inventive commentary on the nature of fate, logic, the concept of free will and even existence itself. So it goes. 

Along with the extremes of the mundane and completely fantastical that Billy supposedly experiences throughout his life, the pivotal event we return to continually is the bombing of Dresden in the closing months of WWII, a horrific event which Billy, along with a small group of fellow soldiers, miraculously survives. Our narrator (most probably K Vonnegut himself), inspired by his war experience, sets out to write an 'anti-war' book, with fellow-soldier Billy as his unlikely hero. Although war may have a significant role to play within the story, this is ultimately a hugely entertaining, complex satire, approaching a number of sometimes important, sometimes obscure ideas that absolutely astounded me from beginning to end. It is the best book I have read in a very long time, my admiration not having waned even now, a whole month later.

Slaughterhouse-Five presents a tantalising opportunity to reveal some completely original ideas and inventions to those who have yet to pick it up.. Huge concepts (almost too huge in places) are presented by a variety of unreal, satirical, often tragic characters (some who have reoccurring roles throughout Vonnegut's other fiction) to create a thoroughly enjoyable book that I feel should be made compulsory for everyone to read at least once in their lifetime.

The deeply insightful, and really quite comical portrayal of the very worst scenes of war and its protagonists should be argument enough to read this story, the completely unexpected, supernatural and philosophical elements (all superbly executed) help raise the bar to another level and will elevate this book to 'Top 100' lists for the rest of time.. What a weird yet wonderful place the world could become if everyone could think like Vonnegut....

'All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all, as I've said before, bugs in amber.' 


Do not dismiss this as a 'war book' or, even worse, sci-fi genre fiction and pick it up before I buy you all a copy!

Returning to the real world, I would just like to take the opportunity to thank Olga, of the wonderful Bibliophile's Corner, who was kind enough to recently devote an entire blog post to Literary Relish, something which completely took me by surprise and did make me blush a little! Do go take a look at her blog; her posts are both varied and hugely entertaining (her 'Special Feature's are a treat) and her taste in books is sublime :-) It's a lovely thing to meet such likeminded people over the 'blogosphere'! Thanks Olga.