A Blogging Good Read - July

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Welcome to the July edition of A Blogging Good Read.  Joining me this month are Ruth from Ruthcrafts and Danielle from The Oxford Comma.

Up first, Danielle's pick.  She said:

I'd like to choose Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf for my book. I'm not sure how many people will have read it; I was scared of Woolf because she's a big, scary, modernist that I put off for as long as possible, but that might just be me. It's set during one day in June, shortly after the Great War, with various characters whose paths through London intersect during the day. On the surface it's the tale of a party that Mrs Dalloway is hosting that evening, but because of the way that the story shifts between different characters it jumps back in time so you can see why they've ended up the way that they have. I love it because it's such a wonderful evocation of a summer day in the city. Also because Woolf's ability with words to match up fact and metaphor is amazing.

I'm one of the people who hadn't read it.  In fact, I've never read any of Woolf's books, which is odd when you consider how fond I am of inter and post-war fiction by female writers (honestly, if I was rich I'd be Persephone Books' best customer). Having finally got round to reading one of them, I loved it.  It's amazing how a book where essentially nothing happens still manages to be so full of incident and history.  Every single character, whether lightly sketched or fully described, seems vivid and real.  I can see why it might divide opinion amongst readers because you either like the stream of consciousness style or you don't.  I do, with the full appreciation that it isn't always an easy one to read, but in this book it's done with such verve and panache that it's utterly captivating.  There's none of that wanky Jack Kerouac self-indulgence that irks me so.  This is like sitting down with a particularly chatty friend who's prone to rambling off topic on just about everything she tells you, but is a joy to converse with nonetheless.

(nb - if you do want to try this book, the complete works of Woolf, along with essays, plays and biographies is available here for £1.95 which is a total bargain)

Ruth said:

Mrs Dalloway has been on my 'to-be-read' pile for longer than I care to admit, and I was so grateful to Danielle and Alex for the motivation to knuckle down and actually read it! Having read it, and pretty thoroughly enjoyed it, however, I'm finding it very hard to describe – much as I found the blurb on the Vintage Classic edition I read rather hard to map onto the actual novel I was reading. I presume this is because Woolf's project remains a revolutionary one – I heard bits of the coverage of Bloomsday (16th June) as I was reading this, and Joyce's modernist project is clearly related to this one – and does not fit into our general expectations of what a novel is. Tracing the events of a day in the life of London socialite Clarissa Dalloway (as she prepares for her evening party) through the thoughts, memories and experiences of not only our protagonist, but her acquaintances, friends, and even those she and they encounter on that day, this novel creates a sense of lives intersecting and overlapping while maintaining a clear awareness of the ways in which all of humanity is a stranger to one another. Drawing on experiences in what was still simply The War (1914-1918), and the way those experiences affected those who survived, as well as on ideas about what might have been, and the effect of self-perception on both yourself and those around you, and full of a sort of stream-of-consciousness which travels from mind to mind as freely as glances across a room, it is hard to imagine what readers more used to the nineteenth-century novel might have thought of it – and it is not necessarily easy to read now. I loved it, for the lyrical prose, for the insight into characters, their motivations, and the way they related to other people (especially the sense I got of Clarissa and Peter and the relationship that they might have had, but didn't), but I'll admit that I did not find it an easy read – I needed powers of concentration to follow the meanderings of the minds it depicted, and a certain determination to continue. I am so glad I have read it, though, and I'll be adding more Woolf (no longer afraid!) to my holiday reading lists (on holiday I have more ability to concentrate).

My choice for this month was The Silver Pigs by Lindsey Davis.

This book has been in my mystery/crime bookcase for as long as I can remember.  It's an ancient copy with tiny print and a rather bizarre cover and I wouldn't trade it for a shiny new one if you paid me.  I fell in love with Falco in the very first chapter and I haven't changed my mind on that ever since.

It's the first in the Falco series of novels which are set in the Roman Empire under Vespasian.  Oddly enough, the Roman period isn't the author's true love. She's fascinated by the English Civil War but if you're thinking of trying Rebels and Traitors then I'd strongly encourage you not to - it's quite stonkingly dull.  That is not something you can level at the Falco books though as Rome and various exotic and not-so exotic parts of the Empire are brought wonderfully, vividly to life in them.  Falco is a private informer (investigator), ex-military, living in a tatty apartment and eking out a living solving run-of-the-mill cases.  In this book he discovers a conspiracy about the trading of silver ingots (the "pigs" of the title) and whilst trying to resolve it, ends up solving a murder, really not enjoying himself in a very wet and miserable Brittania and meeting the delightfully crotchety Helena Justina.  All of the books in the series (and there are 20 so far) are technically crime books but I find myself enjoying the world and the characters on a level that far outweighs the potential "whodunnit" interest.

What did Ruth think of it?

I read a great deal of mystery novels, and am partial to a bit of historical fiction too, so I was expecting to rather enjoy this novel, especially as I had a dim memory of having read or heard dramatised other works from the Falco series (BBC 7 did a series, which may be being repeated now it's BBC Radio 4 Extra). And I did – I found this an enjoyable read. What I was surprised by was that I didn't find it a gripping one – the suspense of the mystery just didn't quite hold my attention, and I missed the sense of a puzzle to be solved. Instead, I found myself enjoying the novel for its characters and for a certain sense of style, rather than the plot as such. The characters certainly repay your effort, as Falco in particular, but also his mother, and Helena, and a couple of others, seemed to me finely drawn, and created through actions and dialogue rather than description. Indeed, Falco's voice was one of the elements which kept me reading, and smiling away to myself as I read! His disparaging tone and the insight the reader is given into his thoughts are at once amusing and infuriating – a depiction of the narrator as flawed yet still likeable individual which requires particular skill to pull off! I also enjoyed the portrayal of a less exalted Rome than I've come across before, and found the portrayal generally convincing. I particularly enjoyed the appearances of Vespasian as 'minor' character, and some of the passing references to his story helped me round out some bits of Roman history that I've only learned about through fiction! All in all, I found this an enjoyable read, with a well-written first-person narration, and pleasing characters, which made up for a less gripping plot.

Danielle starts off her review with an apology but I think we'll forgive her:

Oops. I ought to have written my review at the beginning of June when I read The Silver Pigs, so here is my best one-month-later impression.

Firstly, archly satirical narratives are my life-blood, so I was surprised that I'd not heard of either Lindsey Davis or her 'private informer' Marcus Didius Falco before. Now, however, I am thrilled that I have twenty glorious books ahead of me, because I doubt that I will tire of Davis and Falco any time soon. Now I'm sorry to witter on about language all the time, but Davis's novel is a fine example of someone who can write intelligently, using the first person for comic effect. It actually reminds me of a strange combination of Adrian Mole and Bertie Wooster (idiocy masked by a thesaurus and similes). I think a good example would be:

 'I dreaded that the foundations would collapse and six layers of habitation collapse in a puff of plaster dust, or that one blazing night I would sleep through the fire watchers’ alarm and fry in my own fat.'
I also appreciate that the world of Classical Rome is so richly alive in the novel. I always find it relieving when it's clear how much research has gone into a novel, especially when the social ladder is so important to the relationships between characters. One of the reasons I adore Mrs. Dalloway so much is the detail Woolf goes into in recreating the hustle and bustle of Bond St, and the sensual experience of a summer's day in the city. I find something similar happening in The Silver Pigs:

'Steam billowed out to flatten us. Washerboys stamped the clothes, sploshing up to their cracked little knees in hot tubs. There was a great deal of noise slapping the linen, thumping and pounding it, clanging cauldrons all in a close, echoing atmosphere. The laundry took up the whole ground floor, spilling out into the courtyard at the back.'

Davis's description is just so vivid and real that it seems like you could touch it. To me, that is the hallmark of a brilliant writer, and an absorbing novel. I think this book is great, and I'd like to thank Alex for selecting it!

Well, things seems to going well so far, don't they?  Onto the final book, Fire by Kristin Cashore, which was Ruth's selection.


It's a YA fantasy novel set in a world where there is a class of creatures (a mutation of every type of animal, if you will), which are beautiful to the point of mesmerising everyone who sees them. Fire is the only living human 'monster', the daughter of a father who used his power over others to manipulate and control. As his daughter, Fire must not only negotiate the difficult role of a superlatively beautiful woman, but also his legacy at the heart of a kingdom in need of protection. What I love about the novel is the way it uses the fantastical elements to confront the notions of beauty, power and ideas about femininity. It is well-written, an adventure story with heart which creates really believable characters you end up wanting to spend more time with. I hope other readers will enjoy it too - for me, it's a young adult novel that approaches its readership as if they are intelligent and sensible, a fantasy novel that uses its setting to ponder our own cultural baggage, and an adventure story that creates characters who stay with you.

Over to Danielle first:

I have to apologise to Ruth because I am about to tear Fire apart. Until I studied fantasy literature at uni I tended to avoid it like the plague, but after reading some Tolkein, some Alasdair Gray, and some Le Guin, I changed my mind. Sadly, Fire is a book that I just could not enjoy, and I was irritated before I reached the end of the prologue. I'm terribly judgemental of writers who don't write properly – if you're making a living out of words then you should at the very least use them properly – and I was annoyed by Cashore's tone within a few paragraphs:

'Now she found the baby who conversed like a miniature adult while he drank at her breast, who made an eloquent announcement whenever his underwrappings needed to be changed, positively creepy'. Remove the adverb. Get out your thesaurus and look under 'creepy'. Select 'disturbing'. Better. Or, better yet, get rid of the whole awkward sentence. There's nothing eloquent about excrement, no matter how old this prodigy is.

A short way into Chapter One, a man says 'glumly', 'Now I'll have to kill you'. Fire begins to 'address that rather bizarre statement'. 'Rather bizarre statement'. I don't know about anyone else, but if someone said they'd have to kill me, I'd start running away, not addressing bizarre statements. I read on a little more, and it seems that her beauty is a weapon she can use. I just don't see the need for this in a heroine in YA fiction in the 21st century. Her narrative is jarring, I disagree with her use of femininity, and for those reasons I am afraid that I have to admit that I didn't read much more of the book.  I know, I know, I should give it a chance. I've read so many reviews on blogs and Goodreads about the whole series that sing the novel's – and Cashore's – praises, but I can't look past the bad writing to see the plot.

I also had serious problems reading this book.  My initial impression of Fire was very heavily coloured by how irritating I found the formatting. I know I should have been able to overlook it but I couldn't. I bought the Kindle version of this book and at £4.99 and from a "proper" publishing house, I expect better standards. The spacing was so huge and gappy that it made it an incredibly irksome book to read. It didn't make it any more comprehensible either - as Fire can transmit thoughts into people's brains, not all of the dialogue is italicised or in speech marks and when you don't know the difference between a paragraph space and a section break/POV switch, it can make things tricky! I ended up requesting a refund after I'd finished it (which Amazon gave me with no problems) so if you do want to read it, I definitely recommend getting the paperback!

Anyway, my actual thoughts on the book would probably be helpful, yes?  Well, they're very mixed.  By the time I finished it I enjoyed it but I nearly didn't get to that stage. It was probably partly due to the above issues and partly due to the extreme info-dump that was Chapter 2 (we really did not need that much back story about her father) but I absolutely could not get into it at the start, to the extent that at one point I was seriously contemplating not bothering to read on.  I'm glad I did, because it dramatically improved for me around the point when Fire arrived at the royal palace.  Whereas the world building and characters had been sketched in with quite a heavy, dull, hand earlier on, it really seemed to change here.  It was so refreshing to find a royal family that weren't just cardboard cutouts with crowns on and the whole world of the palace and the army was very nicely done - a little reminiscent of Tamora Pierce (and I mean that as a compliment). 

I think I was so pleased that it eventually improved from such a poor start that my overall impression is slightly skewed.  The more I think about it, the more nagging doubts I have.  As Ruth mentions above, the author has clearly really thought about how femininity and power are displayed in this world, but I wasn't at all comfortable with her portayal of it.  A teenage heroine who's a continual target for attempted rape by people who just can't prevent themselves, whether for mystical reasons or not, does not sit well with me, and in some ways it's more disturbing that the author deliberately chose that route than if it had just been casual misogyny.  Also I did have issues with Cashore's writing style.  Danielle has gone into more detail but there's one particular page of conversation later on in the book that really stood out because it read like something out of a Janet & John book - X said this, Y said that, Z said the other.  The writing does feel curiously passive at times too. There's a lot going on in this book (wars, intrigue, political machinations) and although Fire is a slightly more detached observer of some of these events, it comes across as slightly sub-standard writing rather than a conscious choice of tone.  On balance, I think I'll just reread my Tamora Pierce books instead.

Well, I suppose two out of three ain't bad!  Have you read any of these three?  Will anyone level the balance and say they liked Fire?  Do feel free to join in the discussion below.

Thanks so much to Ruth and Danielle for taking part this month.  I'll be back at the start of August with two other contributors and three new books.  I'd best get reading!


  1. I've designed and made some opal earrings for my latest giveaway, it would be lovely if you wanted to enter. Em ♥ http://mimiandtilly.blogspot.com

  2. Ooh, this has really made me want to go and reread Mrs Dalloway! Love this feature.


  3. FALCO! I wish Davis would write more (I really want to know what will happen to Albia and how Falco will deal with Thalia) but I think she's given up on the series. Currently reading the Odd Thomas series by Dean Koontz (super good and super scary) but I think you should read the badly named "Ravishing the Heiress" by Sherry Thomas. I think she read Heyer's "A Civil Contract" and decided it needed a happier ending.

  4. I have loved listening to Falco on Radio 4 extra - which is where I discovered The Silver Pigs!


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