Levels of Life by Julian Barnes

September 19, 2014 Julian Barnes, Non-Fiction, Short Stories 2

Levels of Life by Julian BarnesTitle: Levels of Life (Goodreads)
Author: Julian Barnes
Published: Random House, 2013
Pages: 128
Genre: Non-Fiction, Short Stories
My Copy: Personal Copy

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“Every love story is a potential grief story.”

It is official, I’m now a huge fan of Julian Barnes. Having read and enjoyed The Sense of an Ending and Metroland, I knew I had to read more of his novels. I did try Through the Window and found his essays challenging but mainly because the man is far too intelligent and I couldn’t keep up. I decided to try Levels of Life simply because I wanted to see how Barnes connects love and loss with ballooning and photography.

“Love is the meeting point of truth and magic. Truth, as in photography; magic, as in ballooning.”

Told in three masterful parts, Levels of Life tells stories that don’t seem connected but Barnes manages tol fit together. He is a master at the metaphor and this book told in narrative form tells the highs and lows of love. Part one “The Sin of Height” tells a narrative of Colonel Frederick Burnaby, an English soldier and traveller who crossed the English Channel in a hot air balloon in 1882. This story focuses on the obsessions that both Burnaby and French photographer Nadar had towards ballooning.

The next part, called “On the Level” looks at Colonel Burnaby and the French exotic actress, Sarah Bernhardt. Both shared an interest in ballooning which led to love. Two larger than life characters and a love that could never last, while Burnaby believed it was possible, Bernhardt thought differently. Here we have two stories; one depicting the highs of passion and love and the second, the idea of love fizzling out which only leaves one last essay.

“You put together two people who have not been put together before. Sometimes it is like that first attempt to harness a hydrogen balloon to a fire balloon: do you prefer crash and burn, or burn and crash?”

But sometimes it works, and something new is made, and the world is changed. Then, at some point, sooner or later, for this reason or that, one of them is taken away. And what is taken away is greater than the sum of what was there. This may not be mathematically possible; but it is emotionally possible.

“The Loss of Depth” is the last essay and is the story of the loss Julian Barnes suffered when his wife died of a brain tumour in 2008. This is a tender account of dealing with grief. The build-up of the other two essays just made the last one heart breaking and I found myself crying (something I don’t often do). Barnes explores life after losing his wife and at times it is a little funny, yet remains very moving.

“Initially, you continue doing what you used to do with her, out of familiarity, love, the need for a pattern. Soon, you realise the trap you are in: caught between repeating what you did with her, but without her, and so missing her; or doing new things, things you never did with her, and so missing her differently. You feel sharply the loss of shared vocabulary, of tropes, teases, short cuts, injokes, sillinesses, faux rebukes, amatory footnotes – all those obscure references rich in memory but valueless if explained to an outsider.” 

Julian Barnes managed to capture love and loss so perfectly, I felt like adding so many quotes to this review but I had to hold off. This is the type of book that will sit with me for a long time and I tear up just thinking about it. I’m amazed at Barnes’ skill as a writer and how he fit so much beauty and so many emotions into a short book is beyond me. I am going to have to read every book I can find from Julian Barnes.

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The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

September 17, 2014 Historical Fiction, Sarah Waters 6

The Paying Guests by Sarah WatersTitle: The Paying Guests (Goodreads)
Author: Sarah Waters
Published: Hachette, 2014
Pages: 576
Genre: Historical Fiction
My Copy: ARC from Publisher

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The Paying Guests is something a little different for Sarah Waters; set in 1922 London, it is a period of history I don’t expect from this author. The novel tells the story an impoverished widow and her spinster daughter who are struggling to keep their large Camberwell villa after the loss of her husband and sons due to the war. They take in a modern young couple, Lilian and Leonard Barber to help make ends meet. True to Sarah Waters form, The Paying Guest is full of tension and mystery, but there was something missing.

Granted I have only read Tipping the Velvet (I really should read Fingersmith) but what I know and expect from Waters is something set in the 1800’s. Needless to say this was an enjoyable novel, exploring the differences in classes and the effects of World War I on the people in London. This period of time is an interesting one; the results of the war and the modernisation of London make for an interesting backdrop.

What I think Sarah Waters does best is create incredibly complex characters and The Paying Guests in no exception. Told from the point of view of Frances Wray, all the characters within the novel slowly take form, as secrets and new facts are revealed about them. This is an effective way to build a character and allows them to grow with small reveals that are both expected and unexpected.

The main focus of this novel is the blossoming romance between Frances and Lilian, this is expected from Waters and where she really excels. The idea of forbidden love is a heavy theme, not just because a lesbian relationship would be taboo but also the fact that Lilian was stuck in a marriage she wasn’t happy with. This allows the reader to explore the concepts of love and relationships in interesting ways; should we be encouraging the relationship between Frances and Lilian when one is married?

As I said earlier, I still think there was something missing in this novel. There is a gothic element that runs through The Paying Guests which starts off well, with all the secrets that slowly began to be revealed. However this stopped working for me when the plot became too predictable. I’m not opposed to a predictable plot; the focus on the character development was effective enough. The problem was the whole gothic aspect became clunky and the basic plot didn’t allow this theme to really go anywhere and just left me wanting more.

Comparing this novel with Tipping the Velvet is probably a little unfair; this is a completely different type of book. Having read one great Sarah Waters book, I expected a little more. I like the way Sarah Waters writes characters and captures a time period; I would have liked to see her do more with a gothic theme. Somehow The Paying Guests was on track to being another great novel by Waters but for me, it fell a little short. Maybe someone new to Sarah Waters would enjoy this one more, as it gives a little tamer introduction to what this author does best. Having said that, I’m still excited to read everything written by Waters; she is a great author.

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Top Ten Tuesday: Authors I Need To Read More

September 16, 2014 Top Ten Tuesday 30

toptentuesdayIt’s Tuesday again which means time for another round of Top Ten Tuesday; I like joining in on this meme because I have a set topic to work with. Top Ten Tuesday is a book blogger meme that is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish and this week the theme is: Top Authors I’ve Only Read One Book From But NEED to Read More. I have a very bad habit of trying plenty of different authors and never returning to them. It isn’t because I don’t like the author but because I like to try a bit of everything. Here are some authors I’ve really enjoyed but have only read one book by them.

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It’s Monday! What are you Reading?

September 15, 2014 What are you Reading 24

It’s Monday, What are you Reading? is a weekly meme hosted over at Book Journey. I thought I’d join in with this meme as a way to be more consistent with my posting schedule, the idea is to post regularly. As I treat this blog as a book journal I thought it might be nice to have this kind of information documented.

The CircleThe Circle by Dave Eggers

The Circle is the exhilarating new novel from Dave Eggers, best-selling author of A Hologram for the King, a finalist for the National Book Award.

When Mae Holland is hired to work for the Circle, the world’s most powerful internet company, she feels she’s been given the opportunity of a lifetime. The Circle, run out of a sprawling California campus, links users’ personal emails, social media, banking, and purchasing with their universal operating system, resulting in one online identity and a new age of civility and transparency. As Mae tours the open-plan office spaces, the towering glass dining facilities, the cozy dorms for those who spend nights at work, she is thrilled with the company’s modernity and activity. There are parties that last through the night, there are famous musicians playing on the lawn, there are athletic activities and clubs and brunches, and even an aquarium of rare fish retrieved from the Marianas Trench by the CEO. Mae can’t believe her luck, her great fortune to work for the most influential company in America—even as life beyond the campus grows distant, even as a strange encounter with a colleague leaves her shaken, even as her role at the Circle becomes increasingly public. What begins as the captivating story of one woman’s ambition and idealism soon becomes a heart-racing novel of suspense, raising questions about memory, history, privacy, democracy, and the limits of human knowledge.

BeowulfBeowulf: A Verse Translation by Anonymous (Translator: Michael Alexander)

Beowulf stands at the head of English literature; a poem of historical interest and epic scope. Although the first manuscript of Beowulf dates from around the year 1000 CE, it is thought that the poem existed in its present form from the year 850. Beowulf’s adventures themselves stand in front of the wide historical canvas of 5th and 6th century Scandinavia. Against this heroic background of feuding and feasting, Beowulf first kills the monster Grendel and her mother, and later defends his people against a dragon in a battle that leaves them both mortally wounded.

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What Are You Reading?

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Black Widow, Vol. 1: The Finely Woven Thread by Nathan Edmondson

September 14, 2014 Graphic Novel, Nathan Edmondson 2

Black Widow, Vol. 1: The Finely Woven Thread by Nathan EdmondsonTitle: Black Widow, Vol. 1: The Finely Woven Thread (Goodreads)
Author: Nathan Edmondson
Artist: Phil Noto
Published: Marvel Comics, 2014
Pages: 144
Genre: Graphic Novel
My Copy: eBook

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Is it weird that I am drawn to heroes in comics that don’t have any powers? Batman and Iron Man’s only power is the power of money but I tend to be more interested in people like The Punisher (maybe his power is the power of not dying). So recently I read Matt Fraction’s series featuring Hawkeye and I wanted to explore my favourite Avenger, Black Widow. Thanks to a recommendation, I have now started the new Marvel Now! Black Widow series by Nathan Edmondson and illustrated by Phil Noto.

Natasha Romanov is Black Widow, a Russian soldier of fortune/assassin with a strict moral code. Her back story is a little sketchy. Through the course of the series there are hints that she once was a Soviet super spy but Nathan Edmondson intentionally keeps her past a mystery. Yet we still get a better idea of the character that is Black Widow and she really knows how to kick ass.

The Finely Woven Thread combines the first six issues of the new Marvel Now! series that follows Natasha on her different jobs which slowly start to piece together. Further into the comic Black Widow finds herself facing the Hammer of God, a mad Russian Orthodox monk wreaking havoc on the world. Soon Natasha is hired by Maria Hill and S.H.I.E.L.D. and together they work towards uncovering just what is going on.

It is hard to summarise the plot of this series as there is so much going on and I don’t want to give too much away. It all seems random but in the game of espionage these things start to come together and you get the sense that there is something bigger lurking in the shadows. In all honesty I’m about ten issues into the series and I can’t remember which other heroes or villains appeared in the first six issues but there are some great cameos.

At times the writing by Nathan Edmondson is a little weak and clunky, you get the feeling that he is all over the place but then I also suspect that it will start to make sense and come together in future issues. However what stands out in this series is the art; Phil Noto has done an amazing job and I’m not quite sure how to explain it. It reminds me of water colour paintings, with rich and vibrant colours throughout the pages. It is just stunning to look at the art and yet it still feels very much like a comic book.

Recently I asked for some recommendations into the world of comics and I am happy with what I have in my wish list so far, but keep them coming. I will be continuing this series of Black Widow and I’m curious to see where it goes. It is a real joy to read a superhero that is not only a woman but also someone without superpowers.

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Recommend Me… Comics

September 13, 2014 Recommend Me... 6

ms marvelRecently I have started dipping into the world of comics and graphic novels after I heard that the most recent reboot of Ms Marvel was the first Pakastani-American Muslim superhero. This new change was exciting, and there was also the news that the new Captain American was going to be Falcon, an African American and Thor was soon to be a woman. Finally, when Archie died after he took a bullet protecting his gay friend, I knew that it was time to jump into the world of comics.

First problem I found was the sheer amount of comic book series out there. If I wanted to dive into the world of a particular superhero, I had no idea where to start, what is good and what is bad. I asked a fellow book blogger (Nylon Admiral), as I knew she was knowledgeable in the world of comics. I have been given a nice long list of Marvel Now comics to try and I am very pleased that they are mainly woman superheroes (the new Black Widow, She-Hulk, Storm).

However I think I am just getting started and I know I have plenty of great series to read. So I thought I would ask for some recommendations. Not just superheroes but I want to explore some interesting comics and superheroes. However I would like to dive into the world of some of the greatest superheroes as well. To help here are a list of comic books series I’m currently reading at the moment, and keep a look out for some reviews in the future.

Currently on my TBR

  • Afterlife with Archie by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (art by Francesco Francavilla)
  • Captain Marvel by Kelly Sue DeConnick (art by David Lopez)
  • FBP: Federal Bureau of Physics by Simon Oliver (art by Robbi Rodriguez)
  • Peter Panzerfaust by Kurtis J Wiebe (art by Tyler Jenkins)
  • Richard Stark’s Parker by Darwyn Cooke & Donald E. Westlake (art by Darwyn Cooke)
  • Rocket Girl by Brandon Montclare (art by Amy Reeder)
  • She-Hulk by Charles Soule (art by Javier Pulido)
  • Storm by Greg Pak (art by Victor Ibanez)
  • The Private Eye by Brian K. Vaughan (art by Marcos Martin & Muntsa Vicente)
  • The Punisher by Garth Ennis (art by Lewis Larosa, Tom Palmer & Dean White)

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Landline by Rainbow Rowell

September 11, 2014 Chick Lit, Rainbow Rowell 15

Landline by Rainbow RowellTitle: Landline (Goodreads)
Author: Rainbow Rowell
Narrator: Rebecca Lowman
Published: St. Martin's Griffin, 2014
Pages: 320
Genre: Chick Lit
My Copy: Audiobook

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Georgie McCool is on the verge of getting her big break in TV. She and her writing partner, Seth have received the opportunity to pitch their show to a TV station, but this means there is a lot of writing to do in preparation for the meeting. Only problem is, she was about to fly to Omaha to spend Christmas with her husband, Neal’s parents. Their marriage is in trouble, not from the lack of love but from continuous tension and distance. Now her family is in a different state and things take a weird turn when Georgie picks up the landline and is able to talk to Neal, from before they were married.

First of all I must admit that I’m never going to be the target audience for a book like Landline and I don’t think I can ever enjoy a book like this. It just feels predictable and I know that Georgie and Neal will work things out before even starting the book. Being a literary explorer, I still feel the need to read book in the chick-lit genre and sometimes they surprise me. However for something like Landline, I felt the urge to yell at the characters to “use your words!” during the entire novel.

This is my first Rainbow Rowell book but I think I should have started with something nerdy like Eleanor & Park or Fangirl. I like the idea of nostalgic and nerdy references throughout a novel and while Landline did offer this, I was just too annoyed with the characters. The whole subject of relationships falling apart due to lack of communication doesn’t interest me too much; I just find myself getting frustrated with the characters and expect the plot to do something new and interesting. Landline didn’t give me anything I wanted.

This isn’t to say Landline was a bad novel; in fact it was entertaining, I just prefer some complexity. However this does bring up an interesting moral issue; there is a scene within the book where Georgie and past Neal are talking about her writing partner Seth. Georgie asks Neal not to make her choose between him and Seth, which brings up a fundamental problem in the relationship, she acknowledges that he is causing unease in the relationship but she is not willing to make an effort to solve the problem.

The idea of talking to Neal from fifteen years ago is an interesting plot device, it adds a little magical realism or science fiction into the novel but it does something more. This concept of holding onto the past seems to be a major problem, they don’t seem to understand people change over fifteen years and you have to evolve with them. It is also a really creepy plot device. Also the fact that Georgie has to try calling the landline because Neal is ignoring every call to his mobile from her is a whole other issue.

One last moral issue I found in the novel involved the relationship between Georgie and Seth. There was a point in Landline where I thought they should get together, they seem to be an easier more logical fit but then I realised what I was thinking. I would never want something like this to happen in real life; why would I want to characters in a novel to make this choice. This got me thinking about morality. As humans we expect people to do the right thing but in books, movies and TV we don’t have the same reaction when a character makes the wrong choice. We do react but I think we prefer to explore infidelity, murder and immorality via a work of fiction than in real life, but does this say something about humanity?

As soon as I finished the book I was angry and wanted to give the book a low rating but then I began thinking more about Landline. I don’t think it is a bad book, it has a nice and happy ending but I don’t think the underlining problems in Georgie and Neal’s marriage was actually solved. My initial impression to rate the novel with 2 stars ended up being the correct choice. Now I need to find a book in the chick-lit genre that I like; any suggestions?

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The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka by Clare Wright

September 9, 2014 Clare Wright, Non-Fiction 0

The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka by Clare WrightTitle: The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka (Goodreads)
Author: Clare Wright
Published: Text, 2013
Pages: 539
Genre: Non-Fiction
My Copy: Paperback

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In December 1854 Australia saw one of its most significant uprisings in its history known as the Eureka Rebellion. This act of civilian disobedience in Ballarat, Victoria was a protest to the expensive miner’s licence been imposed on them. The miner’s licence fee was a way around the taxation problem in the mine fields, allowing the Victorian government to provide infrastructure to the stockade. The miners didn’t see the fee this way and found it to be extortion; everyone had to pay the same amount no matter if they found gold or not, in fact you paid even if you weren’t a miner.

The Eureka Rebellion (or protest) led to the Battle of the Eureka Stockade, where police and British soldiers stepped in to break up the protest. This battle didn’t last long (around 15 minutes) but the effects were lasting. This piece of history has been taught in good high schools (not mine obviously) but it has always been focused on the men involved, even though about 40% of the mine fields consisted of woman and children.

The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka by Clare Wright is an attempt to remind people what happened and tell the untold story of the forgotten rebels. The term ‘herstory’ can be thrown around when talking about this book. My problems with this book was personal, I grew up in a small mining town that often talked about the gold rush in the 1870’s. I’ve heard enough about mining to last me a lifetime and I’m just not interested in the topic.

However I had to read this book for book club, so I made an effort and while I did find some interesting stories it felt too much like a chore. It didn’t help that the book started off as narrative non-fiction and turned into a text book half way through. In hindsight, the introduction was all I really needed to know about this piece of history, the rest just offered extra information.

I have to give the book credit to the huge section of endnotes found at the back. I respect a book more if they reference their work but I don’t seem to share the same concern with fiction. My concern however is the fact that the majority of references are second hand accounts of the Eureka Rebellion. It is true that most firsthand accounts of the rebellion were destroyed but I can’t help but take the information with a big grain of salt; it is like Chinese whispers.

The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka won the 2014 Stella Award, a literary award for Australian women writers similar to the Baileys Women’s Prize which is possibly the reason we read this one for our book club. In fact, since the next book is All the Birds Singing by Evie Wyle which one the Miles Franklin Award (Australia’s biggest literary award), I have no doubt. If you are interested in Australian gold rush history or the forgotten tales of women in a key historical events then try The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka.

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It’s Monday! What are you Reading?

September 8, 2014 What are you Reading 8

It’s Monday, What are you Reading? is a weekly meme hosted over at Book Journey. I thought I’d join in with this meme as a way to be more consistent with my posting schedule, the idea is to post regularly. As I treat this blog as a book journal I thought it might be nice to have this kind of information documented.

A Death in the familyA Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgård (Translator: Don Bartlett)

In this utterly remarkable novel Karl Ove Knausgaard writes with painful honesty about his childhood and teenage years, his infatuation with rock music, his relationship with his loving yet almost invisible mother and his distant and unpredictable father, and his bewilderment and grief on his father’s death. When Karl Ove becomes a father himself, he must balance the demands of caring for a young family with his determination to write great literature. In A Death in the Family Knausgaard has created a universal story of the struggles, great and small, that we all face in our lives. A profoundly serious, gripping and hugely readable work written as if the author’s very life were at stake.

Book One introduces readers to the audacious, addictive, and profoundly surprising international literary sensation that is the provocative and brilliant six-volume autobiographical novel by Karl Ove Knausgaard. It has already been anointed a Proustian masterpiece and is the rare work of dazzling literary originality that is intensely, irresistibly readable. Unafraid of the big issues—death, love, art, fear—and yet committed to the intimate details of life as it is lived, the six part series My Struggle (Min kamp) is an essential work of contemporary literature.

californiaCalifornia by Edan Lepucki

The world Cal and Frida have always known is gone, and they’ve left the crumbling city of Los Angeles far behind them. They now live in a shack in the wilderness, working side-by-side to make their days tolerable despite the isolation and hardships they face. Consumed by fear of the future and mourning for a past they can’t reclaim, they seek comfort and solace in one other. But the tentative existence they’ve built for themselves is thrown into doubt when Frida finds out she’s pregnant. 

Terrified of the unknown but unsure of their ability to raise a child alone, Cal and Frida set out for the nearest settlement, a guarded and paranoid community with dark secrets. These people can offer them security, but Cal and Frida soon realize this community poses its own dangers. In this unfamiliar world, where everything and everyone can be perceived as a threat, the couple must quickly decide whom to trust.

A gripping and provocative debut novel by a stunning new talent, California imagines a frighteningly realistic near future, in which clashes between mankind’s dark nature and irrepressible resilience force us to question how far we will go to protect the ones we love.

the odysseyThe Odyssey by Homer (Translator: Walter Shewring)

This prose translation of the Odyssey is so successful that it has taken its place as one of the few really outstanding versions of Homer’s famous epic poem. It is the story of the return of Odysseus from the siege of Troy to his home in Ithaca, and of the vengeance he takes on the suitors of his wife Penelope. Odysseus’ account of his adventures since leaving Troy includes his encounter with the enchantress Circe, his visit to the Underworld, and the lure of the Sirens as he sails between Scylla and Charybdis.

If the Iliad is the world’s greatest war epic, then the Odyssey is literature’s grandest evocation of everyman’s journey though life. Odysseus’ reliance on his wit and wiliness for survival in his encounters with divine and natural forces, during his ten-year voyage home to Ithaca after the Trojan War, is at once a timeless human story and an individual test of moral endurance. 

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What Are You Reading?

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My Spring Reading List (for University)

September 6, 2014 Literature 4

2014-09-04 17.00.12-2I’m back at university for another semester. This time I’m doing a course called Great Books part 1 (whatever that means). I’m actually very nervous and excited about this as I will be reading some very scary books. I’ve been doing an English Literature course part time and I feel like it will take me a very long time to finish this course. Studying online means I have a lot more flexible and that is hopeful for balancing my time between both work and study, however it also means it will take awhile. I thought I would share this list with you, not for sympathy but I’m hoping people might offer some advice (or encouragement) about getting through these books.

  • The Odyssey by Homer (translated by Walter Shewring)
  • Beowulf (translated by Michael Alexander)
  • Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (translated by Nevill Coghill)
  • Macbeth by William Shakespeare
  • Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

I think this is going to be hard, I don’t often read anything that was released before the 1800’s.

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