In Review – January 2017

2017-january

 

I’m not entirely sure how we’re already at the end of January (obviously, I know it’s the cycle of days but there must have been a few missing?)

January started the year well but it is also the month I started reading Anna Karenina and I have a feeling not much more will be read until mid to late February. I knew that reading classic literature and histories would slow me down this year and I’ve adjusted my Goodreads goal accordingly.

What can I say about this group of books?

Bleak House is simply superb. I adore Miss Summerson. Lady Deadlock is intriguing. Mr Guppy is a fawning fool and Mr Tulkinghorn is delightfully wicked. I know he’s essentially ‘the bad guy’ but I can’t help but like him. Dickens is a master of the craft – a book of this length, without all our modcons and phone apps, created entirely from his enormous brain and more than likely, copious notes. I am in awe of him that he managed to keep the narrative flowing and interesting and didn’t give the reader any information or instruction that wasn’t one hundred percent necessary.

One Day in France was interesting in a different way. Partly, I think, because it didn’t need to be an entire book. Jean-Marie Borzeix has written a fascinating family history of a town during WWII, however, it could really have been a slightly better edited essay in a history magazine or a journal. It felt like a stretch needing to have it produced as a book. This is in no way meant to detract from the story he tells. Those of us who are also keen on family history will share his excitement at meeting individuals connected to our own tree and also individuals connected to other trees you’ve been distracted by. It is truly a fascinating read.

The Simple Act of Reading is also falls into the ‘not necessarily an entire book’ category. The book is a series of short essays by Australian authors and describes the way they remember becoming a reader. Individually, their stories are fascinating. As a whole book, they’re a little monotonous. Had they appeared in a national magazine, newspaper or international blog site, it would have made more sense. I would recommend this book but it is one to dip in and out of, rather than consume in one sitting.

The Yellow Wallpaper is one of the best short stories I’ve ever read. I still think about it now, nearly two or three weeks later. If you haven’t read it and want something a little creepy before bedtime, this is my recommendation.

Magna Carter by David Starkey was a random selection one weekend at the library. I had only gone in to return a couple of books but as usually happens, left with a few more finds in my bag. For anyone who doesn’t know much about Magna Carter, this is a great starting point. Starkey breaks the history of the document down to focus only on the period it was written in. He introduces you to King John and the rebel barons and links them to the Pope and France and makes the relevance of the document clear. I’m not convinced it’s as important as some historians make out but the world would be a very different place if we didn’t have it. The only problem with the book is that it feels as though the editing was rushed. There are sentences that suffer from strange structuring and a lack of punctuation. If you ignore this though, which on some pages is easier said than done, you’ll understand a period of English history a little better.

Average rating for the month 3.6

Best Translation – Fiction & Non-Fiction 2016

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WOW! I am so impressed with this book that I desperately need Archer to push for the second and third in this series to be released in English. Beatrice Kaspary is one of my new favourite women in fiction. She is a divorced mother of two children who is actively involved in one of the biggest cases of her career and while others around her might think she isn’t coping with all of the demands placed on her, it is clear in the writing, this is not the case. I think she is fantastic!

The characters in this book are all so familiar from the first page even though the reader has never met them. Bea and her police partner, Florin are identifiable as a well paired team and the only duo I can say they remind me of is Anya Lipska’s Janusz Kiszka and Natalie Kershaw. The reader is enveloped in the novel and it is incredibly hard to pull yourself out of the text to do anything else life demands.

It was also nice to not know who the murderer is and remain fooled right up to the big reveal. I made so many mistakes in guessing before the halfway point, I stopped trying.

Congratulations must also go to Jamie Lee Searle for the fantastic translation.

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From the looks and stares and the “what’s a nice girl like you reading a book about him” comments, it would seem that this book is going to make an impact on an immediate, visual level. The cover really is the first challenge a reader faces, especially, if like me, you find only a few other people from history as terrifying as Hitler. The second is fighting your reaction to disbelieve a situation like this could have been a real thing.

Some of the people I’ve discussed this book with have been worried Ohler’s work is an apologists history of the Nazi regime. A few of them, no matter how much I tried to explain, refused to believe that this could be a condemnation of Hitler because “the author’s German.” Honestly, I could unpack that statement but we only need to look at the world we live in to know that this is an enormous conversation. What is abundantly clear from the beginning is that Ohler is not apologising for the crimes of Hitler and Nazi’s. Anyone who reads Blitzed and draws this conclusion has completely missed the point.

What proof can I offer to back up this statement? I can offer the following;

On this tranquillizing painkiller (Eukodal) the Fuhrer was fully in command of himself: this was the true Hitler, and that was how he had always been. The overestimation of his own significance and misjudgement of his opponents were both captured in his blueprint, Mein Kampf, published in 1925. His opioid addiction only cemented an already existing rigidification, a tendency to delegate violence and contributed to the fact that in the last phase of the war and in the genocide of the Jews he never once thought of relenting.

So the goals and motives, and ideological fantasy world, were not the result of drugs, but established much earlier. Hitler did not murder because he was living in a haze – quite the contrary: he remained sane until the end. His drug use did not impinge on his freedom to make decisions. Hitler was always the master of his senses and he knew exactly what he was doing. He acted always in an alert and cold-blooded way. Within his system, based from the beginning on intoxication and a flight from reality, he acted systematically and with terrible consistency to the end. He was anything but insane. A classic case of actio libera in causa: he could go on taking as many drugs as he liked to keep himself in a state in which he could commit his crimes. It does not diminish his monstrous guilt (Ohler, 230-231).

I’m not a historian of WWII. In fact, up until very recently, I wasn’t interested in the era and for this I blame incredibly boring high school history teachers. Followers of this blog will also know that this month is being devoted to non-fiction (with one exception) and while Blitzed wasn’t on my original list, the podcast by Dan Snow and Ohler on the History Hit network got my attention. You can listen to the podcast here – and you really should. It’s mind boggling.

This book will re-write what we know and what we accept as fact. Ohler has turned my understanding of the period and Hitler, on its head. Honestly, all of the upper echelons of the Nazi party and the SS, who were popping the same pills as Hitler can be held equally accountable. The whole period seems to have been a perfect storm of horrible people doing obscene things and believing the entire time that they would always get away with it. If you’re looking for a reading challenge, try Blitzed and Sarah Helm’s If this is a woman. They’re a powerful combination and serve as a warning to us still today.

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
― Edmund Burke

Most Disappointing 2016

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My review is going to be the polar opposite to many of those already available to read. I don’t wonder if I missed the point as I don’t know there was much of a point to be made.

This book is strangely unsettling and not simply because Mayfield was raised in a funeral home. What unnerved me was the way she wrote about her family. Mayfield is very open when describing her relationship with her parents and her sisters and this is to be expected in a memoir, however, there came a point, a point I can’t put my finger on, when this moved into the realm of expose and tabloidism. The other part of this that made me uncomfortable was the writing style. In creating a memoir that reads as fiction, it raised the question of how much of this am I supposed to believe? If I wrote a book in this style my family would string me up. I can guarantee you, I would be disowned. Obviously, every family dynamic is different but the style doesn’t sit well with me.

Some reviewers have arguably felt the same as me when they write Mayfield’s work reminds them of Harper Lee ‘s To Kill A Mockingbird. They recognise the fictional overtones but ignore the dishonesty. To see how many other fictional books The Undertaker’s Daughter is likened to is a worry for me because it really does spark an element of mistrust.

Mayfield’s description of her sister Evelyn is cold. This is not to suggest it isn’t anything other than accurate, merely my observation.

Mayfield neglects for the majority of the book to reveal her age so working out whether she is a clever 6 year old or a struggling 15 year old is difficult. On the odd occasion when an age is given, I found myself thinking ‘really?’

Some of the “villains” in the book are not convincing just as some of the “heroes” are just regular people. This is very much a perspective point. The reader is never truly given enough context to decide on the character of a person.

Nothing really happens to Mayfield that makes her book extraordinary. Remove the funeral home and the inheritance and you have the stock standard story of millions of families around the world. Alcoholic, cheating spouse, struggling children, the sale of a business, familial deaths – all fairly standard.

The standout element of The Undertaker’s Daughter is the eyewitness account of southern America at the end of segregation and even then, I have misgivings. I never really believed Mayfield had any feelings for the boys she dated – it felt as though she were being deliberately contrary and provocative but that to, I guess, is the point of being 15.

Initially, I did try to read every word and given the book the attention it deserves because regardless of whether I liked the end product, a lot of time and effort has been spent on the final product. At the 60% mark, I must admit, I began to skim read and jump large portions. At 80% I nearly gave up completely.

It is very important that you, the reader of this blog, understand I am not in anyway trying to make less of Mayfield’s life. What started off as an interesting memoir has been let down by a lack of focus and an inaccurate promotional circuit which has to be laid at the door of the publisher. The only part I do hold Mayfield accountable for is not reporting the teacher who was molesting girls. It doesn’t matter what age or era or context, there is no excuse for letting people like this get away with their proclivities.

I’ve given this book 3 stars but only because I want some wriggle room for the other 10.5 months left in 2016. If I were reading this in November I wouldn’t have been so generous.

Most Boring & Most Overrated 2016

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100% not what I expected. 100% disappointing. This reads like a bad first year essay. It’s repetitive and dull and I really didn’t get anything out of it.

You’d probably learn more interesting information from the links in the bibliography. In fact, the bibliography is probably the best thing about the book.

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Contradictory, condescending, ego driven clap trap. I’m sorry. This book is all the reasons I don’t like self-help books (which this is even though Gilbert claims it’s not).

Big Magic might be just what some people are needing to read. For me it didn’t help and it certainly didn’t make me feel confident in my own creativity. It actually had the opposite effect. Some points;

– I don’t want to feel as though I’m being patronised by someone who keeps calling me “you guys”. I’m not Gilbert’s friend, I’m her reader. I don’t want a relationship with her and I don’t want to be addressed as though she’s some street smart kid talking to the boys.

– The idea that when she embraced another author her idea about the Amazon rainforest deserted her is load of claptrap. What universe is Gilbert living in?

– The self-effacing, faux modest, name dropping was a trope that didn’t work well at any point in the text.

– Conflicting ideas and motivations. Plumbers are necessary but art isn’t. Doesn’t that completely defeat the point of the entire book?

– If you’re going to write what is essentially an autobiography, you need to work really hard to keep the tone right. This book was all about Gilbert. Only about Gilbert and good grief didn’t we know it. Personally, I don’t like autobiographies. They’re dishonest and made up of anecdotes that make the individual look good. Not many are warts and all, to quote Cromwell.

– One reviewer states that the “level of bullshit reached astronomic proportions” and there is just no way to argue this point. It’s 100% true.

– I know I’ll be in the minority for not liking this book and I’m not going to apologise for that. I’m allowed to not like something I’ve read BUT if it does help someone achieve their potential that’s a very good thing.

Most Horrible 2016

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I’ve read some terrible books. I’ve read some horribly messed up books but this…
This makes me want to peel my skin off & vomit.

I really didn’t like this book and I never want to see or hear of it again. There isn’t one single redeeming feature to give praise and I always look for that no matter how bad I think a book is.

This isn’t my only one star review of 2016 but it’s definitely the front runner for being the worst book. Yuck.

Worst Book 2016

I know I said the Awards would start on 19 December, however, this was before I had worked out how many categories there would be. That said, I’m bringing the start date forward to avoid running into the Christmas period because let’s face it, we’re not going to be interested in anything except roast, sprouts and pudding. So without further delay…

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This book was not ready to be published. The authors have taken an interesting subject and left it mired in poor grammar, half formed ideas and sentences that read like notes. Madame Lalaurie should be fascinating and instead she is boring. Dull. Dull. Dull. There seems to be little known about the woman or anything really to do with her so the book is all conjecture and hearsay. Far too much of the opening chapters is spent detailing the business of her first two husbands, a hasty timeline of which children came from which marriage and where she died. The book also starts with the climax, popular in this style of writing but in this case, the authors had no where else to go. They used their best asset in the first dozen pages and from there on it was a slow plod to the end.

Mad Madame Lalaurie is worth a read if you’re interested in Creole women, New Orleans, slavery in the south, ghosts etc but don’t get your hopes up that you’re going to come away feeling satisfied or that you’ve learnt something.

Blitzed – Norman Ohler

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Title:
 Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany
Author: Norman Ohler
Publisher:  Penguin
Date of Publication:  06 October 2016
Number of Pages: 368

Rating: stars

Summary: The Nazis presented themselves as warriors against moral degeneracy. Yet, as Norman Ohler’s gripping bestseller reveals, the entire Third Reich was permeated with drugs: cocaine, heroin, morphine and, most of all, methamphetamines, or crystal meth, used by everyone from factory workers to housewives, and crucial to troops’ resilience – even partly explaining German victory in 1940.

The promiscuous use of drugs at the very highest levels also impaired and confused decision-making, with Hitler and his entourage taking refuge in potentially lethal cocktails of stimulants administered by the physician Dr Morell as the war turned against Germany. While drugs cannot on their own explain the events of the Second World War or its outcome, Ohler shows, they change our understanding of it. Blitzed forms a crucial missing piece of the story.

Review: From the looks and stares and the “what’s a nice girl like you reading a book about him” comments, it would seem that this book is going to make an impact on an immediate, visual level. The cover really is the first challenge a reader faces, especially, if like me, you find only a few other people from history as terrifying as Hitler. The second is fighting your reaction to disbelieve a situation like this could have been a real thing.

Some of the people I’ve discussed this book with have been worried Ohler’s work is an apologists history of the Nazi regime. A few of them, no matter how much I tried to explain, refused to believe that this could be a condemnation of Hitler because “the author’s German.” Honestly, I could unpack that statement but we only need to look at the world we live in to know that this is an enormous conversation. What is abundantly clear from the beginning is that Ohler is not apologising for the crimes of Hitler and Nazi’s. Anyone who reads Blitzed and draws this conclusion has completely missed the point.

What proof can I offer to back up this statement? I can offer the following;

On this tranquillizing painkiller (Eukodal) the Fuhrer was fully in command of himself: this was the true Hitler, and that was how he had always been. The overestimation of his own significance and misjudgement of his opponents were both captured in his blueprint, Mein Kampf, published in 1925. His opioid addiction only cemented an already existing rigidification, a tendency to delegate violence and contributed to the fact that in the last phase of the war and in the genocide of the Jews he never once thought of relenting.

So the goals and motives, and ideological fantasy world, were not the result of drugs, but established much earlier. Hitler did not murder because he was living in a haze – quite the contrary: he remained sane until the end. His drug use did not impinge on his freedom to make decisions. Hitler was always the master of his senses and he knew exactly what he was doing. He acted always in an alert and cold-blooded way. Within his system, based from the beginning on intoxication and a flight from reality, he acted systematically and with terrible consistency to the end. He was anything but insane. A classic case of actio libera in causa: he could go on taking as many drugs as he liked to keep himself in a state in which he could commit his crimes. It does not diminish his monstrous guilt (Ohler, 230-231).

I’m not a historian of WWII. In fact, up until very recently, I wasn’t interested in the era and for this I blame incredibly boring high school history teachers. Followers of this blog will also know that this month is being devoted to non-fiction (with one exception) and while Blitzed wasn’t on my original list, the podcast by Dan Snow and Ohler on the History Hit network got my attention. You can listen to the podcast here – and you really should. It’s mind boggling.

This book will re-write what we know and what we accept as fact. Ohler has turned my understanding of the period and Hitler, on its head. Honestly, all of the upper echelons of the Nazi party and the SS, who were popping the same pills as Hitler can be held equally accountable. The whole period seems to have been a perfect storm of horrible people doing obscene things and believing the entire time that they would always get away with it. If you’re looking for a reading challenge, try Blitzed and Sarah Helm’s If this is a woman. They’re a powerful combination and serve as a warning to us still today.

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
― Edmund Burke