Why I love….. Sergei Lukyanenko

It’s been absolutely AGES since I did one of my Why I love…. blog posts, so I thought it was time to resurrect it as a feature! If you’re new to This Girl’s Book Room, the idea behind these posts is super-simple: I pick one of my favourite authors, then tell you what it is that makes me love them so much, and why you should try their books if you haven’t already. Today it’s the turn of an author who I think deserves a wider readership outside of those who naturally gravitate towards fantasy or horror: Russian writer extraordinaire, Sergei Lukyanenko. Without further ago, here’s why I love him so much.

He has an appeal that goes beyond fantasy fans

One genre conspicuously absent from my blog is, as I’m sure you will have noticed, fantasy or fantasy-horror. My general rule of thumb is that is if a book features either a map or an absurd fantastical character name on the first page then I’m not going to like it. I just about made it through Lord of the Rings and even slogged my way through a Juliet Marillier novel to prove to a friend I was willing to try something different, but nope, I’m definitely more at home in a real-world setting. I really thought, then, when The Night Watch (the series’ first book) was recommended to me, it was going to be another politeness read – but no! To my joy it’s set in modern day Russia (and other countries as well later in the series) and despite the presence of vampires, werewolves and magicians it’s fully grounded in a recognisable world.

Sexy vampires? Not here, thank you very much.

Let’s be honest, the constant fetishization of vampires is a bit yawnsome isn’t it? That’s not to say it can never be successful, but I for one was mightily relived that there are no brooding, sultry bloodsuckers here – at least none who take on that role unironically. On the surface Lukyanenko’s vampires appear almost no different to everyday people: they’re licensed, regulated, and most of them go about their business in a law-abiding fashion while holding down apparently normal lives in Russia’s capital city.

His books will make you think. And then think again.

There are 6 books in The Night Watch series, and while I’d say the first one is probably the biggest mind-bender of the lot, all of them have complex and well-executed plotlines and even more complex characters. The novels imagine a world in which magical forces are battling and collaborating by turns to maintain the elusive balance between Light and Dark that keeps society running as it should. There are constant questions being asked of the characters, and by extension the readers, about the nature of the false binary that we conventionally term “Good” and “Evil”. What sacrifices are acceptable in the pursuit of a greater good? Is it possible to do the right thing without ever having to compromise on your values? And most importantly, is there such a thing as being unequivocally on a single side?

Anton Gorodetsky

Light Magician Anton Gorodetsky is hands down one of my favourite literary creations. Despite having the power to rip dark magicians to shreds in battle, Light Other Anton is still somehow an everyman, walking the streets of Moscow alongside its human inhabitants while juggling the blessing of extreme power with the crushing curse of responsibility. I think that’s the secret to how Lukyanenko manages to make you so attached to him; despite his fantastical abilities he’s more human than many mortal characters we come across in the course of our reading lives. When I parted company from him at the end of book 6 I was broken.

I really hope I’ve tempted you into trying this fabulous Russian writer, especially if you’ve always thought he wouldn’t be up your street. Definitely start with The Night Watch, as this is not one of those series you can join part way through and not lose out. If you’ve read these books already, I would love to know what you think! Thanks for reading and see you back on the blog soon.

Related posts

Books I want but don’t need #1

Books are like shoes…and handbags…and lipsticks…there are ALWAYS ones you see that you want but very definitely DO NOT need.

And now Christmas is coming, which is the worst/best time for a book addict as the bookshops become filled to bursting with glorious temptations of the literary kind.  I’m hoping that by sharing some pics of the books I want (but definitely do not need) I’ll get them out of my system and save myself from book-induced bankruptcy.

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See, now this looks gorgeous doesn’t it?  I have a bit of obsession with medieval manuscripts (slightly odd, I know) so was instantly drawn to this.  But I’m restraining myself because, let’s be honest, it would take me about a year to read such is its tome-like status, and I already have a number of beautiful books that cover the same subject.  So reluctantly I’m putting this into the “want not need” category.

There will be more to follow over the coming weeks on the blog without a doubt.  Do let me know which books are giving you the come hither look right now…

Some Wednesday night facts about me!

I’m in between book reviews at the moment and thought a fun way to fill the blogging gap would be to share a few utterly random things about myself.  I love getting to know the people behind the blogs, and I’ve not yet shared that much about the girl who’s doing all the reading…

Favourite food – chicken and sausage casserole…however, there has to be sage and onion stuffing in there as well or it’s just not complete!  Otherwise, cake.  Literally any cake will do.

Biggest fear – spiders (very boring, I know).  Or my somewhat more abstract but no less real fear of getting to the end of my life and having regrets about things I haven’t done.

Most amazing place I’ve been – so far, Rome, without a doubt.  I didn’t think it was possible to have so much awe-inspiring history crammed into such a small radius, and I’d love to go back and fill in all the gaps I missed first time round.

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Place I’d most like to go – there are so many, but I think top of my list would be a trip to see the Northern Lights.

When I’m not reading I’m… usually at work unfortunately, although it does involve books so it’s not all bad!  Or I’m finding an excuse to eat more cake.

Cats or dogs?  – having owned both I’m afraid I’m going to alienate my cat-loving readers now by coming down on the side of dogs (sorry!)  Don’t get me wrong, I adore cats too but let’s face it, you can’t take a cat for a run along the beach or down the pub with you!

Guilty pleasure – I spend – sorry, waste – far too much time watching episodes of The Big Bang Theory on E4 that I’ve seen a million times before.

Book I’m reading right now – there’s never just one!  In fact, I’m doing quite well at the moment by only having two on the go: “Sacrilege” by the ever-reliable S J Parris, and “The Watchmaker of Filigree Street”, which is completely wonderful!

I’ll be back on the blog soon with more reviews for you, but in the meantime, happy reading!

Summer Distractions

After a bit of a dry patch where my blog was concerned, I was just starting to get my mojo back… and then the flippin’ Olympics happened.  For someone who just about manages to drag herself to the gym once a month and would rather have her nose in a book than participate in any activity that involves running/hitting a ball/getting moderately out of breath, I enjoy watching sport on TV an inordinate amount.  But after an embarrassing July in which I managed a measly single blog post, I’m determined that August will be a better month – so with that in mind, I’m typing away at my laptop while keeping half an eye on Tom Daley in the diving…

If you’ve visited Girl, Reading over the last couple of days you’ll know that I’ve just finished reading Jessie Burton’s “The Muse”, which will be a pretty hard act to follow.  So I’ve gone for something completely different and am currently half way through “The Vegetarian”, a bizarre and unsettling novel translated from the Korean that’s worlds away from anything I’ve read recently.  I am also part way through Orhan Pamuk’s “Silent House” – but it’s one of those books that while being top quality writing isn’t calling me back to it when I’ve put it down, so that one may be shelved for a later date when I’m in the right mood for it.  A friend of mine has lent me “The Past”, which I’m excited to try as it looks like it might be reminiscent of Marilynne Robinson, an author whose novels I do appreciate despite the fact that they tend to be pretty downbeat and not the most uplifting of stories.  And after all that I feel like I also need a nice, easy comfort read to counteract the drama and trauma – the book to provide that laid back reading experience, however, is yet to be decided!

I’m off to the New Forest this week for a few days of walking, wildlife spotting (hopefully) and relaxation – see you all again on my return.  I wish you a happy week of reading 🙂

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“The Essex Serpent” by Sarah Perry – review

It’s not at all unusual for me, on finishing a great book, to go around feverishly recommending it to as many people as will listen.  It is unusual for me to stick my neck out and declare that a book has become one of my all-time favourites.  The deliriously happy aftermath of “The Essex Serpent” has been one of those unusual times.  I finished it a few days ago and it’s still out on the coffee table; putting it away on the bookshelf right now would feel like severing a piece of the connection with this thing of absolute beauty.  I’ll do my best to give you a sense of just why this novel has captured my heart and my imagination so completely, but I already know my words are going to come up short.

So let’s start with the easy bit!  Following the death of her husband, Cora Seaborne decides to escape from London and heads to Essex with her companion Martha and son Francis.  This being 1893 there are certain mourning protocols a widow must observe – dress in black, appear suitably downcast – as Cora knows too well; but the truth is she feels almost no pain at the loss of her husband, who was at best neglectful and at worst abusive.  His death is in fact a blessing in many ways: Cora, an intelligent and self-sufficient woman, is at last free to discover what kind of new life she wants for herself.  On her arrival in the coastal village of Aldwinter she is delighted to hear tales of the mysterious Essex Serpent, an immense beast rumoured to live in the waters surrounding this otherwise peaceful community.  Cora is a huge fan of renowned fossil hunter Mary Anning, and immediately hopes that this quasi-mythical creature may actually be a living thing that resembles the enormous sea creatures of prehistoric times.  Few people, if any, share her enthusiasm; she walks into an atmosphere of fear and superstition fuelled by a series of unusual events that locals attribute to the presence of the monster.  A mutual friend introduces her to William Ransome, the parish vicar desperately trying to keep a lid on the rising hysteria and the two connect in an instant.  Both are on a personal quest to debunk the serpent myth – Will’s weapon is faith while Cora’s is science.  From there the story follows both the deepening mystery of the Essex Serpent and the developing relationship between these two characters that are coming at the world from polar opposite standpoints.

So now it gets a bit harder: how can I put my finger on exactly what it was that earned this book such a privileged place in my heart?  There’s no doubting the fact that the list of fabulous things about “The Essex Serpent” is a very long one.  Firstly, the characters: a rich and varied cross-section of humanity, not one of which strays into cliché or feels as if they’re there to make up the numbers.  Even the more peripheral inhabitants of Aldwinter who only make brief appearances are absolutely real, envisaged with the same care as the more prominent players.  Cora herself strides across the page, with her unconventional attire and resolutely non-conformist attitude to femininity, and yet she carries a vulnerability and uncertainty about her emotional place in the world that resonated deeply with me; how can you ever give yourself completely to another person when your greatest sense of security comes from within, and your default position is to want to be alone?  Cora’s relationships, both romantic and platonic, are complicated and their consistently blurred outlines leave them defying categorisation.  The candour and perspicacity with which the author probes the phenomenon of love is one of the novel’s greatest strengths.  Much as we would probably all feel more comfortable in a world where being in or out of love were two absolute and mutually exclusive states, one of the challenges of our existence is the realisation that feelings are so much less straightforward than that.  Populating the pages of this book are a man who steadfastly believes that he genuinely loves his wife whilst pursuing another woman, Cora herself who desires love even as she pushes others away, and friends whose love for each other may or may not include an element of sexual attraction.  And does sexual attraction ultimately matter when two like-minds and like-souls meet?  I loved the nuances with which Sarah Perry infused her story; we reach the end still unsure about the exact nature of the relationships between some of the characters, and I liked it that way.

So love is left hanging as an unfathomable mystery – but what of the Essex Serpent, the more obvious mystery that has managed to drag a whole village into a state of near-panic?  I think the author’s multi-layered, ambiguous exploration of the mythical (or is it?!) beast and the way it manifests itself in the hearts and minds of Aldwinter’s inhabitants is the stroke of genius here.  On the one hand there are some genuinely creepy passages that send a shiver of unease up the spine, as we see some unsettling phenomena occurring across the unforgiving waters of the estuary and among the increasingly frightened villagers.  Throughout the novel there are flashes of the gothic that Sarah Perry clearly relishes.  And yet there is much more to this than the quest to discover whether or not the monster is real; perhaps the more important question is, why do so many people believe in it?  By the end of the book what I took away more than anything else was that we all have a serpent lurking inside of us, one that is shaped by our own unique fears, insecurities and experiences.  For the residents of Aldwinter the monstrosity comes to reflect many states of mind, from the fear of being driven off life’s comfortable path by unexpected emotions, to the unrelenting weight of grief, the turmoil of adolescence and even simply the confused ramblings of a brain ravaged by disease.  Absolutely, I wanted to know the answer to the mystery in its most literal sense, but it’s the more metaphorical manifestations of the Essex Serpent that stay with you longest after the final page.

There is just so much packed into this book that it will utterly consume you, both while you’re reading it and afterwards.  I’m actually incredibly jealous of anyone who has yet to read this for the first time!  I hope more than anything that you’ll love it as much as I do; as always, I would love to hear your thoughts.  Happy reading!

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Uncomfortable reading

There were two books that I had to stop reading today.  One featured an act so unbelievably brutal that I found myself in what I can only describe as emotional shock, and I felt I needed some time to recover.  The other was a novel with which I’ve persevered for a while but had to set aside due to the fact that the entire plot centres on the prolonged manipulation and deceit of innocent people, and to be honest it got to the point today where I’d had enough.  One of these books I’ll definitely return to very soon; the other I may well not.

My experience with these books got me thinking.  Bad things happen to good people in almost every novel you’ll ever read; so what makes some acts of malice or unpleasant characters more palatable than others?  If you’ve followed my blog for a while you’ll know I’m not a huge fan of the cupcakes and glitter worldview – lovely as life would be if we all knew that we were guaranteed to find happiness at the end of our allocated three-hundred pages, in truth reality is very far removed from that, something I feel the very best stories will acknowledge at some point.  So if I can read and love the utterly tragic “The Mayor of Casterbridge” or the emotional portrait of mental illness that is “The Shock of the Fall”, why is it that I balk at novels like the ones I cast aside today?

One thing I do appreciate – in fiction as in life – is a sense of justice being done.  There are some authors who have the ability to write about the most atrocious things while maintaining a feeling of reassurance that karma will eventually do its thing.  Ken Follett’s magnificent books “The Pillars of the Earth” and “World without End” would probably win the top prize for this.  There are some truly poisonous, boo-hiss villains in these novels, but much as you’re repulsed by them as they go about their business of raping and murdering, you’re also quietly confident that at some point they’ll be stabbed, get trampled by a horse, succumb to the plague or meet some other grisly demise thoroughly in keeping with their wicked deeds.  Follett is by no means afraid to kill off his heroes, but he will never let a villain win the day.

Yet my enjoyment of a book can’t just be about securing an appropriate ending for each character based on their moral standing; after all, does Casterbridge’s Michael Henchard really deserve the fate that Hardy chooses to allocate him?  And actually, at this moment in time, the novel I broke off reading because of its brutality doesn’t look like offering any guarantees of retribution, divine or otherwise – yet out of the two I mentioned at the start of this post, this is the one to which I will undoubtedly be returning.  There’s only one conclusion I can draw, then, as to what it is that’s rescued this novel from being added to the charity shop pile while the fate of the other one is as yet undecided.  For me, there simply has to be a spark of hope in humanity visible throughout a novel even if at some times it’s fainter than at others.  Despite the dreadful event that has occurred, there is enough warmth in the heart of so many of the characters, and such a deep sense of compassion for people that emanates from the author through her writing that I have the confidence to carry on.   Whatever happens, I believe that behind this book lies an intention to celebrate the things that bring us together as human beings as well as the hideous things we are capable of doing to one another.  The problem I think I have is with unrelenting unkindness, and prolonged abuse or cruelty with nothing to counteract it.  If at some point I decide to revisit my second half-finished novel, I may well find that by the end my faith in humanity is restored – but is it worth several hundred pages of unremitting spite and deceit to get there?  Maybe not for me.

As a footnote I’d like to explain that I deliberately didn’t name the two books in question – I may review them in the future when I’m able to pass judgement on them in their entirety!

 

Past Masters – Sarah Dunant

I haven’t done one of these blog posts in a while, so if you’re new to This Girl’s Book Room, this is an occasional series of articles in which I highlight my favourite authors of historical fiction.  Today I’m spreading the love for a novelist who knows how to get inside her characters’ heads like no other: the fabulous Sarah Dunant.

Which historical period does she write about?

She’s written some thrillers as well as historical fiction, but the novels for which she’s best known – and the ones that I particularly love – are set in late fifteenth and sixteenth century Italy.  This is the world of the Borgias and the Medici, a world where the religious, the profane and the political all intertwine in a brutal, sensual melting pot of humanity.

Why should I read her?

If like me you’re already fascinated by Renaissance Italy then you’ll be hard pushed to find another author whose fiction engages with the era so well.  I’ve read a number of novels set in this period and I’ve enjoyed most of them, but Sarah Dunant’s books are a cut above the rest.  What I find so fascinating about this setting, and what the author captures so well, is the fact that squalor and opulence, deprivation and extravagance rubbed right up against each other in a slightly bizarre society reminiscent at times of a surreal puppet show.  Yet behind the hedonism of the Borgias, the obscene wealth of the Medici and the hysteria-inducing religious extremism of Savonarola and his followers, it was also a time when intellectualism was bursting forth and unleashing new philosophies and creative expression on the generations to come.  In Dunant’s novels we experience in a very tangible way what it must have been like to live – or to survive – in a time such as this, in particular what life was like for women.  She creates some exceptionally strong female characters, some real and some imagined.  In “Blood and Beauty” we have a reimagining of Lucrezia Borgia, possibly the most famous member of this notorious family; in “Sacred Hearts” she gives us an insight into the life of a woman on a much more modest scale in the shape of Serafina, an unfortunate girl who has suffered the fate common to many women of the time of being forced into a convent.  All the characters truly become flesh and blood, and you feel every joy and every agony alongside them.

Which book should I start with?

I loved “Blood and Beauty” – apparently the story is going to be continued in a second novel of unknown publication date (if anyone has any news on it please feel free to comment below!) but it’s still a wonderful book and very much worth reading even if there’s no follow-on as yet.  Otherwise I’d go for “The Birth of Venus”, which has one of my favourite leading ladies of any novel I’ve ever read.

The Bard on the Blog

As if you needed reminding, this month sees the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.  It’s a pretty safe bet that there will be hundreds, if not thousands of bard-related blogs and articles popping up over the next few weeks, so I thought I’d get in nice and early and share with you some of my favourite Shakespeare-themed things!

Favourite Shakespeare play – undoubtedly “Macbeth”, as I think it’s the most powerful and striking one that I’ve seen performed.  I’ve been lucky enough to be in the audience for quite a few different versions, ranging from the traditional to an extremely physical interpretation that took place almost entirely on a giant pyramid constructed from ropes, and I’ve taken something new away from it every time.

Favourite character – I guess it should be Juliet really seeing as I’m named after her, but as my second choice I’m going to go over to the dark side and pick Lady Macbeth, surely one of the most gloriously terrifying women you’ll ever see on stage.

Favourite film adaptation – there was a point in my life when I was watching Kenneth Branagh’s “Much Ado about Nothing” with alarming regularity (I think it may have been something to do with Keanu Reeves in leather trousers…).  However, if I’m allowed to broaden the definition slightly to include modern retellings of Shakespeare’s stories then I’d have to plump for “10 Things I Hate about You”, which takes as its inspiration “The Taming of the Shrew”.

Favourite factual Shakespeare book – “Will in the World” by Stephen Greenblatt is without doubt the best one I’ve read when it comes to examining what we know of Shakespeare’s life in the context of his time.  It packs in an enormous amount of information while remaining completely readable.

Shakespeare in fiction – “The Tutor” by Andrea Chapin is a page-turning imagining of a passionate love affair between a young William Shakespeare and the woman who becomes his muse.  In a completely different take on history we have the jaw-dropping linguistic triumph that is Ros Barber’s “The Marlowe Papers”, a novel written entirely in verse that plays with the idea of Christopher Marlowe being the real playwright behind the name “Shakespeare”.

Favourite Shakespeare quote – it’s only right that the great man himself should wrap up this blog post in his own words:

“….We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”

If you’re interested in all things Shakespearean there’s a really interesting blog you might want to visit that explores the world of the bard and his contemporaries, Standing up for Shakespeare.

As for me, writing this has made me keen to go and see another Shakespeare play, so I’m off now to see what I can find!

 

 

Spring is here!

I always feel a huge sense of relief when the clocks go forward.  It’s as if the countdown to summer has finally begun (despite the storm force winds and icy chill outside) and the lighter evenings bring with them a significant surge in productivity.  I’ve never been a night owl, and quite honestly in the dark depths of winter I can just about manage to get home from work and make dinner before my eyelids start to droop.  The minute I get that magical extra hour of daylight, however, I become a different person – a trip to the gym seems bearable, I lose all desire to fall asleep in front of the television and best of all, I can read and blog until the small hours if the mood takes me!  I’m really looking forward to blogging more over the coming months, and reading more too.  “The Silversmith’s Wife”, which I’ve just finished (and if you haven’t read my review yet, do head over to the reviews section and check it out) has got me back on the reading horse after being unseated by a few aborted attempts at some pretty depressing novels.  All in all, everything is looking up!  I hope you all had a lovely Easter break, and I’ll see you back on Girl, Reading very soon.

The Book Oscars 2016

Seeing as the Oscars are almost upon us it seems like the perfect time to conduct my own little awards ceremony.  Sadly I’ll have to make do without the extravagant dresses and tearful acceptance speeches, but what it lacks in drama it will more than make up for with amazing books!  By happy accident, it’s almost exactly a year since I launched Girl, Reading, so in true awards tradition I had a year’s worth of contenders to look back on.  It was difficult but I’ve finally whittled them down to a selection of worthy winners – see if you agree with my choices!

Best Leading Male – Dr. Finlay Logan (Devotion by Ros Barber)

You’ll be hard pushed to find a more finely wrought study of grief than this: Finlay Logan is so completely real that he could be any one of us if our lives happened to take a wrong turn.  The level of emotional depth captured here is so utterly authentic you’ll have a hard time convincing yourself that he’s actually fictional.

Best Leading Female – Grace (The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon)

One of this novel’s strokes of genius is the use of a child narrator; like all children, Grace can be devious and occasionally unkind, but she possesses a perspicacity that eludes most of her adult counterparts.  By the end of the book I absolutely adored her, and I feel she’s going to stick long in my mind.

Best Supporting Character – Ganesha the elephant (The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra by Vaseem Khan)

This is quite probably the first (and last) time a literary award has been bestowed on an animal, but I couldn’t resist!  I have a massive soft spot for elephants anyway, but little Ganesha goes above and beyond elephantine expectations, proving to be not just an adorable companion for the titular Inspector but a formidable sidekick in the fight against crime.

Best Cover Design – Devotion

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There was no competition in this category for me – this cover is arresting and memorable, sinister yet beautiful, and captures perfectly the novel’s themes of grief, torment and the fragility of the human mind.  I love it.

Best Debut Novel – Belonging by Umi Sinha

If you read the review of this book I posted a few weeks ago you’ll know how this unassuming, un-hyped novel caught me off guard.  The quality of the writing is sublime, the themes universally relevant and the emotional insights piercing – I really, really wish this book had received more of a fanfare because it deserves every plaudit it gets.  Read it now and discover a new author that (I hope) everyone will be talking about in the not too distant future.

Best Novel – A Reunion of Ghosts by Judith Claire Mitchell

This was the hardest winner to choose by far as I’ve read so many phenomenal books in the last year, but in the end I kept coming back to this.  What gives the book its impact is the extraordinarily delicate balance of genuine pathos ad deliciously black humour.  It takes real skill to make a reader laugh and cry – literally – at the same time, but this novel managed it.  It’s been almost a year now since I read it and I’m still moved when I think about it; there are many vignettes that are as clear in my mind as if I read them yesterday, proof surely that the author has worked her magic well.

As always, I’d love to hear what you think – who would your winners be?