15 July 2012

London: The Biography, by Peter Ackroyd

It took me a more than a year to finish this epic non-fiction book of history/biography. Not that I couldn't have finished it earlier – under normal conditions it would have taken me about a week to read a novel of this length – but this humongous piece of non-fiction just isn't the kind of book I want to devour in a few reading sessions. For starters, it's heavy, both literally and figuratively speaking. The paperback edition I started reading weighs one kilo (that's about 2.2 lbs.) – the kind of book you really need to keep on a lectern or a book stand to read. Therefore it was a physical relief to be able to set it aside for a Kindle edition for the last 200 or so pages.

As for the figurative heaviness, it could easily have been cut down by 200+ pages without losing anything important. Ackroyd's style here is verbose, bloated and often aimless (but admittedly never dry), the equivalent of the talker who speaks only for the pleasure of hearing his own voice. This made for slow going, especially in the second half of the book, where the verbosity often threatens to suffocate the narrative. I continued reading, however, because the subject of the book really interests me. I find London fascinating and have often felt, as I wandered its streets, that I wanted to know more about it. This book delivered that in spades. In among the verbiage there was fascinating information to be found and interesting speculations about various aspects of the city.

Although it starts with prehistory and ends with a speculation on the future, the book is mostly not organised linearly, i.e. it doesn't tell the story of London from it's beginnings to modern times, but is rather organised by aspects of its history and people. You'll find chapters on such varied subjects as sound, street layouts, entertainment, disease, death in its various forms, trade, food and drink, sex, crime, times of day, children, women, immigrants, and the growth of suburbia, besides many others.This means that you can dip into the book at random if you so wish – there is no need to read it linearly. You might even be happier reading it in random order than I was reading it from cover to cover.

While this organisation makes for some interesting juxtapositions and makes the book easy to read in random order, I think Ackroyd tried a bit too hard to cover everything there was to be covered about London, and could have produced a more focused portrait of the city. As it is, he has, in nearly 800 pages, managed to merely whet my appetite for London. There are numerous threads of history that he mentions briefly that I would like to pick up and follow to their end. Some, of course, I am familiar with, like the Jack the Ripper case, while others, like the story of the London Underground, I am not.

For the reasons given above, I feel I can only give this book 2 stars (out of 5), but I do not regret reading it. It has given me much to think about and pointed out to me a number of books I would like to take a look at. Now I want to find a straightforward history of the city, and after that I might  read John Stow's 1598 Survey of London, which I learned about on a fascinating walking tour of London's financial district last year and is mentioned several times in this book.

10 July 2012

Top Ten Tuesday: Top 10 epistolatory books I enjoyed and hope you do too

I haven’t participated in Top Ten Tuesdays for ages, but as it’s freebie week, I decided to enter one of my book lists. Do visit the hosting blog, The Broke and the Bookish, and click through to some of the other participating blogs.
  1. 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff. Non-fiction. Lovely, lovely collection of letters between Hanff and the staff of a bookstore in England, written over a period of 20 years. Recommend the movie as well. 
  2. The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. Written as a series of accounts of the theft of a precious stone, using different styles and voices. It’s long, but worth reading. 
  3. Letters to Alice, Upon First Reading Jane Austen by Fay Weldon. What the title says, plus much more besides. Discusses not only Austen, but the art of writing as well. 
  4. Dangerous Liaisons by Choderlos de Laclos. A novel told entirely in letters between the characters, a couple of scheming French aristocrats playing a dangerous game of seduction. 
  5. The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. A correspondence between a young demon and his "uncle" Screwtape, a senior demon. Occasionally funny, often insightful meditation on Christianity and on good and evil. 
  6. Dracula by Bram Stoker. Written as a collection of letters, diary entries and other writings of various characters occupied with the pursuit of the eponymous count. 
  7. Daddy Long-Legs and Dear Enemy by Jean Webster. Two entertaining romances told entirely in letters. The first one is just a little bit icky due to the age difference between the corresponding couple, but the letters are delightful. The movie makes the age gap even bigger and is therefore somewhat icky. 
  8. The Color Purple by Alice Walker. Written as a series of letters from the protagonist, a poor black woman in the rural southern USA, to God, telling a heartbreaking but also eventually heartwarming story. Recommend the movie as well. 
  9. The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾ by Sue Townsend, and the first two sequels. I haven’t read the rest, so can’t recommend them. The angsty and very funny diary entries of an adolescent boy doomed to perpetual loserhood. 
  10. Amy and Roger’s Epic Detour by Morgan Matson. I found this YA novel, which is presented for the most part as journal entries by Amy, fresh and funny. I hope they make a movie out of it.

03 July 2012

Reading report for June 2012

If you have been wondering why there have been so few posts this month, it‘s because I have been reading: voraciously, almost manically. I finished 17 books in June, reading most of them from cover to cover within the month. Three of them were rereads, the In the Garden trilogy by the fabulous Nora Roberts, who is also my most read author of the month. 13 of the books were romances, with a 14th being romantic but lacking the clear-cut happy ending of the others. Of the rest, two were mysteries, one of them a short story collection and the other the first book in the series. Lastly I read one book on language history.

The best read of the month was Morgan Matson‘s Amy and Roger's Epic Detour, a romantic coming-of-age epistolary road novel for young adults. It reaches into picaresque territory, with the eponymous characters going on a road trip across the USA and taking a route not sanctioned by the adults who planned it for them, doing things they aren‘t supposed to do and making discoveries about themselves and others. The writing is fresh and it takes you to several interesting places around the USA, besides containing some cool music playlists that could be fun to recreate.

The discovery of the month was the Black Dagger Brotherhood urban fantasy series by J.R. Ward. They are so very addictive that I read four of them back to back, three in June and one in July. Once you get over how badly the first one, Dark Lover, is written, it‘s difficult to stop. The writing improves book by book, the world-building is fantastic and keeps getting more and more involved and detailed with each book, the romances are blazing hot and the fight scenes not as sketchy as they often are in romantic suspense/thrillers. I am trying to back away from reading all of them one after the other, as I would like to stretch out my reading of them.

News of the month is that I finally got a Kindle and discovered that I actually read faster on one than I do from a book, much as I do from a computer screen. As a result, the TBR challenge has suffered, with only 2 TBR books finished in June. Even if I had not got the Kindle, I think the TBR challenge would have suffered anyway, because I keep discovering more books my grandmother owned that I am unable to resist taking for my own, so the stack continues to swell. I am therefore changing tack and abandoning the idea of reducing the stack down to a fixed number and will instead aim to read at least 50 TBR books newly added or old relics from the stack in 2012. I have already finished 20 and there are six months left of the year, so it will be a realistic goal while still being a challenge.

The Books:

  • Rachel Gibson: Tangled Up in You. Romance, contemporary.
  • Molly Harper: How to Flirt with a Naked Werewolf. Romance, contemporary, paranormal.
  • Michael Innes: Death at the President's Lodging.Mystery, police.
  • Michael Innes: Appleby Talking.Short mysteries, police.
  • John Bemelmans Marciano: Anonyponymous.Language history: people whose names have become words in English.
  • Morgan Matson: Amy and Roger's Epic Detour.Young adult novel.
  • Patricia Potter: Cassidy and the Princess. Romantic suspense.
  • Nora Roberts: Command Performance, The Playboy Prince. Romance, contemporary.From a series of 4.
  • Nora Roberts: Summer Desserts, Lessons Learned. Romance, contemporary. Paired novels.
  • Nora Roberts: Blue Dahlia, Black Rose, Red Lily. Romance, contemporary.Trilogy.
  • J.R. Ward: Dark Lover, Lover Awakened, Lover Revealed.Urban fantasy/paranormal romance, suspense. Books 1-3 in a series.