Sunday, 28 December 2014

Desert Queen, by Janet Wallach

A fabulous story, shame about the prose.

Outside of historians of the Middle East, Gertrude Bell is not a name known to many. Given that she was an adventurer, archaeologist, diplomat and spy, and a female at that, it seems curious. Perhaps she was simply overshadowed by T E Lawrence - it would be hard to step out from the shadow of a movie like Lawrence of Arabia, certainly. Plus, she wasn't one to court publicity.

This may change as a film based on her life is due for release in 2015, starring Nicole Kidman. While it is unlikely to be a brilliant epic like Lawrence of Arabia - I've learned to lower my expectations when it comes to Hollywood biopics - it should give Bell some long overdue attention.

Which brings me to Desert Queen. The book recounts her life from her far from humble beginnings in northern England, the daughter of tycoon Hugh Bell, to her influential position as the person who helped found the state of Iraq in the 1920s. As that sentence implies, hers was an extraordinary journey. Young ladies in her situation in Victorian England - she was born in 1868 - usually confined themselves to doing good works and marrying aristocrats.

Bell had other things in mind. The first woman to gain a First in Modern History from Oxford University, she became by turns, mountaineer, archaeologist, explorer, writer, spy and diplomat. Her expeditions across the deserts of Arabia gave her an intimate and nuanced knowledge of the region's tribes and politics, a knowledge which was put to the test in the aftermath of World War One when the French and the British set about carving up the remnants of the Ottoman Empire. It was only in the East that she could escape the constraints of Victorian and Edwardian society.

The book details all of this, unfortunately in a rather overblown style. Wallach is partial to outbursts of purple prose, and the writing gets a bit melodramatic at times, especially when it comes to Bell's love life. The imperious Bell would surely not have approved.

Including footnotes and index, Desert Queen is a hefty 419 pages, and the florid style makes it seem rather longer at times. I finished the book feeling Gertrude Bell deserved better.  

Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell
Written by Janet Wallach
Published by Phoenix Books
ISBN: 9780753802472

Friday, 12 December 2014

Cressida Cowell opens the Christmas Reading Challenge

What a fabulous idea. Cressida Cowell, author of the How to Train Your Dragon series of books, has launched the Christmas mini-challenge to get young children reading. An offshoot of The Reading Agency's Summer Challenge, the Christmas version calls on children to take out and read three books from the library between today, 12 December and 6 January, and log their progress on the challenge website.

As someone who practically lived in the library from a very young age, I can only say: Bravo! Three books is child's stuff though - a proper bookworm will regard that as merely a taster.

As Cressida Cowell puts it: “The Christmas holidays are a brilliant time to read loads of books. The weather is cold, so you can snuggle up in bed and read as many books as you like.”

That's the whole point of Christmas, if you ask me.

Well, that and wine. Probably not for children though. Let them delight in books, and the wine will come later.

The Summer Challenge has been quite the success. This year 839,622 children took part - a 3.6% increase on 2013. The Reading Agency estimated children borrowed over 18 million books over the summer.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

The 2015 Authors A - Z Reading Challenge

I'm planning to take part in the 2015 Authors A - Z Reading Challenge, during which I will try to read books by authors according to their surnames, and try to collect every letter of the alphabet. Some will be re-reads, some will be new, and no doubt some will be 'how do you pronounce that name?'

The challenge is hosted by Samantha Lin, and you can find out more here.

So, here's my preliminary list. Some letters have a few possibilities, while others are a bit trickier. The challenge runs from 1 January to 31 December 2015, so I'm hoping I'll have time to fill in the gaps!

A - Apuleius, Isabel Allende, Isaac Asimov
B - Iain M Banks, Alfred Bester
C - Tracey Chevalier, Italo Calvino
D - Philip K Dick, Roddy Doyle
E - Umberto Eco
F - Frederick Forsyth
G - Graham Greene
H - Robert Harris, Homer
K - Nikos Kazantzakis
L - Donna Leon
M -Hilary Mantel, Marquez, Maalouf
O - George Orwell
P - Terry Pratchett
Q - Qiu Xiaolong
R - Salman Rushdie
S - Mary Shelley
T  - Lavie Tidhar
U - Barry Unsworth
V - Jules Verne
W - H G Wells, Evelyn Waugh
X - Xinran
Z - Emile Zola, Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Friday, 5 December 2014

Girl Online, by YouTube star Zoella, is the fastest selling book of the year!

girl online zoe sugg zoella

Not bad going for a book that was only published on 25 November. Girl Online, the debut novel of Zoe Sugg, also known as Zoella on YouTube, sold 78,000 copies in its first week, making her the fastest ever-selling debut author in the United Kingdom. Her first week sales have eclipsed the debuts of J K Rowling, Dan Brown and E L James.

See, it can be done.

The rather overwhelmed Zoe told the Guardian: “It’s such an amazing feeling. I’m so grateful to everyone who has bought a copy of Girl Online. I love that so many of my viewers are enjoying the book! This year has been so exciting and this for sure is the icing on the cake.”

Girl Online tells the story of young blogger Penny and her trials and tribulations, along with swoon-worthy rock star boyfriend Noah and supportive parents who don't quite get it. Told that Penny is "about to go viral", her concerned Dad says: "I thought you looked a bit peaky, love. Do you want a Lemsip?"

Girl Online is the first in a two-book deal with Penguin, with the sequel promised in summer 2015.

Who knows what it takes to make a literary splash? In this case, it looks to be a combination of a huge YouTube following (some 6.6 million at the last count), a sweet and well-written story, good luck and good timing.

Congratulations, Zoe!

Girl Online, by Zoe Sugg
Published by Penguin
ISBN: 978-0141357270

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

The 42 Science Fiction Challenge for 2015

Image copyright Paris Franz

As any science-fiction fan will know, 42 is a significant number.

I aim to take part in the 42 Science Fiction Challenge in 2015, in which I review 42 science-fiction related items - books, movies, novellas, television, graphic novels - anything related to science-fiction. You can read more about it over at 42 Challenge.

This one should be fun, and pretty easy. I love sci-fi, and have a lot of ideas for this challenge. Don't be surprised if I end up with more than 42 reviews on this subject. While this blog is primarily about books, it is really about stories, which can be told in many ways, so I'm not aiming to restrict myself when it comes to format.

Speaking of challenges, I came across a few others while researching this one, which I hope will give me a lot of ideas to get this blog up and running.  That's a relief!

Monday, 1 December 2014

A book blog! Why didn't I think of this earlier?

As a book obsessive for as long as I can remember, I really don't know why I didn't start a book blog a long time ago. Still, better late than never, I say!

Books have always been reliable friends. They may be evolving at a dizzying rate, from paper to pixels and beyond, but they can still be relied on to take us to different worlds, to let us experience the fantastic, the spine-chilling and the funny. From the days of Homer, when a bard would entertain his audience with a prodigious feat of memory, to today's proliferation of books, stories have always been key to the human experience. I suspect, I hope, this will continue, although who knows what form they will take in the future.

I have been assured that a genre blog is better in terms of gaining an audience, but I'm not sure I can limit myself to that degree. I enjoy many types of books, and I'm pretty sure I'm not that different from much of the reading public. If a book is well-written, thought-provoking and reluctant to let me put it down, chances are I'll blog about it!

That said, you're unlikely to find any chick-lit on this blog (is that even still a thing?).

I'm planning a series of posts and ruminations on my favourite books and genres - history, science-fiction, fantasy, mainstream. Stay tuned!