Sunday, 19 April 2015

How to be Both, Ali Smith

To say that I was excited to read ‘How to be Both’ by Ali Smith would be an understatement. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, the Bailey’s Prize and the Folio Prize, winner of a Costa Prize the Goldsmiths Prize and the Saltire Society Literary Book of the Year Award for 2014, and recommended to me by several of my friends, I began reading this book expecting to absolutely love it. While I did enjoy it, I’m sorry to say, it fell short of my (perhaps unreasonably high) expectations.

First, a bit about the book itself. The book is interesting in that it is split into two parts, one following the life of a Renaissance artist and the other following the life of a teenage girl in 21st century Cambridge. The two novella length sections are printed in a different order depending on what edition you have picked up, with my particular copy starting with the artist in fifteenth century Ferrara and then moving on to the teenage girl, named George. This makes the book very strange to write about as someone who began reading the book from George’s perspective may disagree entirely with everything I am about to say.

I found George’s story to be touching, interesting, well written and very funny in parts. When I finally did come to read this section, I really enjoyed it. In fact, I felt so connected to the character after 170 pages I could easily have read an entire novel continuing her story and will definitely go and read more Ali Smith novels off the back of it. The problem, for me, was with the first half of my copy of the book on the artist Francesco del Cossa. As someone who absolutely loves history and art I really wanted to love this but found myself a bit bored and disengaged with the character. Being completely honest, I spent the first fifty or so pages not having a clue what was going on. Admittedly, both parts refer to the other so I imagine that it is possible I could have had the same experience no matter which section I began with, and this experience of everything coming together as you continue reading is, of course, part of the point of having them split in this way. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciated it – it is very clever and very different to anything else I have read. But did I enjoy feeling completely lost as I was reading much of the first half? No, not at all. Had ‘How to be Both’ not come so highly recommended I would probably have given up after the first hundred pages. I am glad I didn’t give up as the experience of piecing things together and realising what the first half was referring to was fun. It just doesn’t change the fact I found the first half of the book a struggle. Reading a few other reviews of the book by critics, on Goodreads and on Amazon, it probably isn’t a coincidence that nearly all of the reviews giving this book five stars started with modern day Cambridge and many of those not enjoying it began in Ferrara.

This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy the book at all. This is an original and very intelligent novel that has some interesting points to make about gender and how things are not always what they seem. I particularly enjoyed during the second part of the book feeling that I was beginning to understand an ‘in joke’ from the first half. Without wishing to ruin the story, Smith is able to explore some very serious questions (some with more subtlety than others) without it feeling too preachy and moralistic, and this definitely deserves praise. And obviously the unusual way the novel is structured is daring and interesting to read with much written about Smith expanding the ‘boundaries of the novel’. But all in all this was a book that I admired rather than enjoyed, and for this reason it fell slightly flat for me.

If you are looking for a quick read or something to relax with or if you are looking for a conventional structure and narrative, this book is definitely not for you. If you are looking for something interesting, different and thought provoking, it is definitely worth a read.

Beth x

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Conflict, Time, Photography

I recently visited an exhibition at the Tate Modern called Conflict, Time, Photography. Luckily for me, my best friend from university is a member of the TATE and this particular exhibition is free for members and one guest so I got to go for free, but otherwise it costs £14.50 for adults and £12.50 for the concession price. This might seem a bit steep but I really enjoyed this exhibition and personally think it would be worth paying. So, a bit about it…

In short, this exhibition looks at photography of sites of conflict from the last 150 years. What makes it unique is the way it is ordered. Rather than working chronologically through the conflicts, the photos are ordered according to how long after the event they were taken. The first room therefore is called ‘Moments Later’ and shows the famous mushroom cloud, buildings as they are collapsing and one of the images used to promote the exhibition, the image of a shell-shocked US Marine in Vietnam taken by Don McCullin. You then progress onto ‘Days Later’, ‘Weeks Later’, ‘Months Later’ and then ‘Years Later’ which spans from one year to one hundred years after a conflict. I thought this was an interesting way of ordering it and allowed you to see that while some cities (Berlin, for example) have been able to rebuild and recover from conflict, others have remained badly affected and some, deserted entirely.

One of my favourite aspects of the exhibition was that it did not concentrate completely on any one conflict. There were images from World War I and II, two conflicts I feel that I know quite a lot about, but there were others from the Armenian conflict of 1915-1918, Namibia from 1966-1990, Angola from 1975-2002, Nicaragua from 1978-1979 to name but a few, that I knew less about and had never seen many images of. I realise this says more about my own ignorance than anything else, but even so, I appreciated that there were a wide range of conflicts represented and lots of information to read giving you context on the way around. I think many of the images in this exhibition needed a bit of explanation, particularly those that were in the later rooms and taken nearly 100 years after a conflict, but that the curators had done this really well. If you are the sort of person who walks through an exhibition and doesn’t read the context, there will definitely be a few images here you might not fully appreciate. One in particular that springs to mind is ‘Shot at Dawn’ by Chloe Dewe Mathews four photos which appear to show landscapes with no real landmarks, but are in reality photos of the exact spots where British, French and Belgian soldiers were executed for cowardice during World War I. The images, for me, were some of the most haunting in the entire exhibition.

The exhibition begins with some quotes from Kurt Vonnegut Jr who was present during the firebombing of Dresden in February 1945. He was locked in the underground meat locker of a slaughterhouse as a prisoner of war and twenty-four years later finally published his novel, Slaughterhouse-Five. The quote as you enter is one from after the book was published:

People aren’t supposed to look back. I’m certainly not going to do it anymore. I’ve finished my war book now. The next one I write is going to be fun. This one is a failure, and had to be, since it was written by a pillar of salt.”

This exhibition then forces you to do exactly that, to look back. I would recommend going to look back for yourselves and look at just some of the damage caused by some of the conflicts of the last 150 years and reflect on the many different ways in which conflict impacts on people’s lives.  

Beth x

Sunday, 15 February 2015

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler

I know that this doesn’t technically fall into any of the categories I set myself for my book challenge (see list here), but I don’t want to limit my reading and if I fancy something else I will just read it! We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is something I have wanted to read since it came out really, but one of those that I just didn’t get round to. My parents had both read it and enjoyed it, several of my friends had read and enjoyed it and I had seen lots of book bloggers I follow loving it.
I’m planning to keep this review short and sweet as it is going to be difficult to write about without giving things away! SO here is what I thought about it:

In a nutshell: A word of warning, don’t look up anything to do with this book before you read it – this will be spoiler free but a lot of reviews I have seen, in my opinion, completely ruin it. All I will say in terms of the story is that it centres round a girl called Rosemary who has had a very strange upbringing. She starts the story in the middle, flips back and forth and remembers and misremembers parts of her childhood. What follows is an interesting, original and genuinely thought provoking novel, but not one that I am completely blown away by.

Would you recommend this book? Yes I would. Not my favourite book I have ever read but I really enjoyed it nonetheless.

How quickly did you read it?  This took barely any time at all to read. It has really short chapters in a lot of cases so I was able to read a chapter or two on my commute to and from work which was great.

Why did you choose to read this book? As I said above, it had been recommended by lots of people, nominated for a few prizes and my dad had a copy which I borrowed. I also knew absolutely nothing about the story which I think is a really good thing anyway, but particularly with this book.

Favourite aspect of the book?  Honestly – the “twist”. I don’t think it gives anything away to say that there were lots of elements of the book which I didn’t see coming AT all. I know that lots of people like reading reviews of books before they buy them but I think the book is a lot more thought provoking if you go into it knowing nothing of the story (which is why I have chosen not to provide much about the plot in this review).

Anything you didn’t like? There was nothing I really disliked in particular, but I don’t think it has been the best book I have read so far in 2015. I enjoyed it and I couldn’t put it down once I got into it, but I probably won’t re-read it anytime soon.

Any additional thoughts?  This has been a book that I have enjoyed discussing as much, if not more than, I enjoyed reading it. It has certainly made me think about certain issues a lot more than I ever did before.

Overall this is one of those books that everyone seems to have read and have a strong opinion on and I would recommend reading so that you can decide for yourself.

I realise this has been a bit of a strange review as I haven’t actually said too much about the book but, I genuinely think that the more you know about this book before you begin, the less you will enjoy it. I think it would have ruined my enjoyment had I known anything about it before I read it, as the fact that the direction I thought it was going turned out to be completely wrong forced me to think about the book a lot more once the “twist” had happened. You will just have to take my word for it that it is a good read that isn’t too hard going and is really interesting to discuss and look up afterwards!

Beth x

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Alfred Hitchcock – The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

Continuing with my pledge to watch more classic cinema and more Hitchcock films I watched the 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much (see my full list of challenges here). This marks my 7th Hitchcock film in total. Here is what I thought about it:

Features: An incredibly weird and out of place scene in a taxidermist’s, the song Que Sera Sera, Jimmy Stewart being Jimmy Stewart, some cultural insensitivity in Morocco and a really tense scene in the Royal Albert Hall.

Plot Summary: The McKenna family are on holiday in Morocco when they unexpectedly become involved in an assassination plot.

Thoughts: This wasn’t actually a film I knew too much about before watching. I had heard of it and knew it starred Jimmy Stewart, but it doesn’t have the same amazing reputation of some of the other Hitchcock films out there. Actually, I was pleasantly surprised by this film! I found it really enjoyable, and where others have found the first half hour to be somewhat slow, I thought it built up the tension really well as I knew something was about to go wrong but wasn’t sure of what.
I was actually pretty surprised when I looked up other reviews of the film on the likes of IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes, once I had watched it, as people seemed to be slating it. I have to admit, I haven’t seen the original Hitchcock version from 1934, so I don’t feel outraged at the changes as some people seem to be. But even so, in my opinion, as a stand-alone film, if you haven’t seen the original/aren’t fiercely loyal to the original, this is a fun watch. Granted, not the best film I have ever seen, but not bad either. Probably a 7/10 I would say.
I know I mentioned it above but there is one scene I have to quickly point out. A scene in a taxidermy shop that had absolutely no relation to the rest of the plot! Jimmy Stewart walks in, gets in an argument and then has a fight with someone, crashing in to stuffed animals as he does so. I found it absolutely hilarious to look back on when the film finished and I realised it really did have no bearing on the rest of the plot.

Cameo: Hitchcock’s cameo here can be seen while the family watch some street performers in the market place. He has his back to the screen on the left side of the crowd and stands with his hands in his pockets. This is at about 25 minutes in if you’re looking to spot it. There he is on the left of this image!

Note: I had no idea that “Whatever Will Be, Will Be (Que Sera, Sera)” by Doris Day was from this film until I watched it and looked it up afterwards. It actually won the Academy Award for Best Song in 1957. You learn something new every day – I think that’s a good bit of trivia!

I will continue to watch and review Hitchcock’s films when I watch them! The next Hitchcock film I review will be Rope so look out for that.

Beth x

PS. Apologies for the delay in posting this – I have been busy with work this week and struggled to find time to write this up! x

Friday, 30 January 2015

Man Booker Prize Winner #2 – Bring Up The Bodies, Hilary Mantel

Carrying on with my challenge to read at least five Man Booker Prize winners this year (the rest of my reading challenges can be seen here) I read Bring Up The Bodies.
Note that Bring Up The Bodies is the sequel to Wolf Hall, so if you would like to see what I thought about that book, you can see my review here. It carries on with the story of Thomas Cromwell but as I said in my first review, it is far from a run-of-the-mill historical fiction set in the reign of Henry VIII. I’m going to keep this review pretty short, as I don’t want there to be too much repetition between my review of this and Wolf Hall! Here is what I thought about it:

In a nutshell: I loved Wolf Hall a lot, but in my opinion this was even better.

Would you recommend this book? Absolutely. If you read Wolf Hall and enjoyed it, this is pretty much a no-brainer as it has everything that was great about the first book and more. I actually think it could be read as a stand-alone book, but I think reading Wolf Hall gives you a greater understanding of Thomas Cromwell, the main character, and explains his actions in this in a greater detail.

How quickly did you read it? I actually found this fairly easy to read so it didn’t take me very long, just over a week. The hardback edition I have has 407 pages. Honestly though, I really didn’t want this book to end and took ages reading the last few pages.

Why did you choose to read this book? Other than the fact I really enjoyed Wolf Hall and this also ticks off another aspect of my reading challenge, the BBC adaptation has started and I wanted to finish the series before the TV show caught up with me.

Favourite aspect of the book? Where to start? Seeing as I started this the day after finishing Wolf Hall, my expectations were ridiculously high. But this actually surpassed my expectations.
The writing is brilliant – I think even more so than the first book. It is less confusing in its style which was my only gripe with Wolf Hall as Hilary Mantel, instead of using just ‘he’, starts to use the phrase ‘he, Cromwell’ or ‘he, Henry’ to give clarity! But honestly there were so many parts where the writing was so great I actually wrote down some of the sentences in my journal or texted them or read them aloud to friends and family who have already read it. I don’t want to ruin anything but after the final page I just stopped and took it all in, it was the perfect way to end it.
Once again the book felt well researched, the dialogue was witty and it continued to give a fresh take on the period with the well-known story of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn as the backdrop.

Anything you didn’t like? I would genuinely give this five stars, ten out of ten, whatever the top rating is!

Any additional thoughts? All I have left to say is that I cannot wait for the third book in the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light which (apparently) is coming out this year.

Deserving of the Man Booker Prize? Yes!

I will leave you with one of the parts that I stopped to read to someone:

"The things you think are the disasters in your life are not the disasters really. Almost anything can be turned around: out of every ditch, a path, if you can only see it."

Beth x

Monday, 26 January 2015

Film Review: Birdman

On Friday I went to see Birdman with a friend from university at the Curzon cinema in Soho (which by the way is probably my favourite cinema in London!). Here is what I thought about it:

Features: A method actor, lots of jazz drumming, a viral video of a man in his underpants, a fight between two people who can’t fight, brilliant acting all round and lots of people coming out of the cinema complaining that they didn’t ‘get it’.

Plot Summary: A washed up actor known for playing an iconic superhero tries to reinvent himself by putting on a show on Broadway.

Thoughts: I feel like this is a really difficult film to review as there is so much to say about it I am at risk of writing an entire essay! Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) seems to have split the opinions of my friends who have seen it and of those coming out of the cinema I was at. I get why lots of people are complaining about not ‘getting it’ as it is definitely not a conventional mainstream film. In fact, as I saw it, the whole point of Birdman was that it went out of its way to criticise a lot of the films that are commercially successful. This was one huge swipe at the likes of Michael Bay and the countless superhero sequels with little substance. There is even a pretty explicit reference to the Spiderman musical which was on Broadway near the end. This was partly why I really enjoyed it, because it was really interesting to watch. The film is able to criticise how empty a lot of the money-making blockbusters are for not caring about art when making films, while also criticising much of the theatre world and its critics for being snobby and pretentious (Edward Norton’s over the top method acting and the judgemental theatre critic who writes reviews without even seeing the plays first for example).

I loved the irony of the once-Batman Michael Keaton playing an actor known for being a superhero but trying desperately to be taken seriously, and of Edward Norton , a known method actor, playing someone who takes their method acting a bit too far. Both actors, by the way, are absolutely incredible in this film, as is Emma Stone. There is one particular scene in which Emma Stone’s character launches into a rant where she particularly shines. You will know the scene I am referring to if you have seen the film.

Even though one of the overriding themes of Birdman is struggle and failure – failed acting, failed parenting, failed relationships, failed rehabilitation – the film still manages to have some genuinely funny moments to lighten the mood. There was also some great dialogue and a couple of memorable lines – some personal favourites being Michael Keaton’s worry that he will forever be the answer to a Trivial Pursuit question and nothing else, and Lindsay Duncan’s character revealing her snobbery by telling Riggan he is not an actor but just a celebrity.

Note: I won’t pretend I understand the technical elements of the film in any detail as I’m not a film critic and have never studied film. I did however, think it was quite cool that it was filmed as if it was in one take as it took us backstage and showed us some of the chaos of running the show.

All in all I really enjoyed this film, even though lots of people I have spoken to absolutely detested it. I realise there are so many elements that I haven’t gone into but, as I said at the beginning, it was difficult to know where to start! I have only included a couple of the things that made it a hit for me!

Have you seen Birdman? What did you think? I would love to discuss this with someone. How do you guys think it will do at the Academy Awards this year?

Beth x

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Alfred Hitchcock - Strangers on a Train

As part of my goal to watch more films this year (which you can read about here), I decided to try and watch as many Alfred Hitchcock films as I could. Hitchcock, nicknamed ‘The Master of Suspense’, has so many classic films and had a career spanning six decades. He is often regarded as one of the most influential filmmakers of all time and the few films of his I have already seen have been ones I have really enjoyed. Also, fun fact: Hitchcock grew up very close to where I did so I kind of want to know more about him for that reason too – a local tube station even has mosaics depicting famous scenes from his films as you walk to the ticket barriers!

So here is how my challenge is going: before I started this I had seen 5 Hitchcock films (Rebecca, Vertigo, Rear Window, North by Northwest and The Birds). This week I watched Strangers on a Train (1951) and here is what I thought about it:

Strangers on a train

This film features: A chance meeting, Alfred Hitchcock’s daughter, a slightly hilarious/slightly absurd fight on a carousel, an incredibly intense tennis match and some strangely catchy fairground music that I am still humming three days later.

Plot Summary: When Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) and Guy Haines (Farley Granger), two complete strangers, meet on a train, Bruno Anthony has the perfect idea: “Two fellas meet accidentally; no connection between them at all never saw each other before. Each one has somebody that he’d like to get rid of…so they swap murders, criss-cross!”

Thoughts:  While I haven’t seen much film-noir, I really enjoyed Strangers on a Train. There were a couple of amazing scenes – my favourite of all being a tennis match where the entire crowd are following the ball across the court and looking back and forth while Robert Walker’s character, Bruno, stares directly at the camera. There he is, directly in the middle!

Another personal favourite was the incredibly suspense-filled journey through the ‘Tunnel of Love’ to some creepy fairground music near the beginning of the film.Strangers on a Train manages to be very atmospheric and creepy while at the same time having a few humorous scenes. I must admit, I think I laughed a little bit too much at the end of the film when I’m not sure I was supposed to but all in all this was really entertaining, very well put together, interesting and so different to anything I have seen that has come out in recent years, making it incredibly refreshing to watch.

Cameo: Hitchcock’s cameo here comes at about ten minutes in as Guy Haines is getting off the train and he is getting on holding a double bass. This is one of the easier ones to spot!

Note:  Apparently there is a remake of this coming out soon made by the same team responsible for Gone Girl – Ben Affleck and David Fincher. So if you want to see how Hitchcock does it, I recommend that you see it soon!

I will be watching a couple of other Hitchcock films this week and posting what I thought of them so stick around for that! I would love to know what you guys thought of this film, if you have seen it.

Beth x

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Man Booker Prize Winner #1 – Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel

One of my many reading challenges this year is to read at least five Man Booker Prize winners (the rest of the list can be viewed here). Continuing with my challenge, I decided to read Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel which won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 2009. As someone who absolutely loved historical fiction set in the Tudor period as a teenager, I have read so many different versions of the same story that I wasn't sure whether to read this for quite a while, thinking I knew the story inside out already and that it had got a bit tired. I decided to give it a go and here is what I thought about it:

In a nutshell: I really enjoyed Wolf Hall and will definitely be reading the sequel, Bring up the Bodies.

Would you recommend this book? I would recommend it to anybody who likes historical fiction or Tudor history (or both!). If you’re the sort of person who likes a quick read though, this might not be for you.

How quickly did you read it? It took me a couple of weeks to read. The writing style in particular took some getting used to. In saying that, once I was into the book, I read the last 350 pages in a day. My paperback edition has 651 pages if you’re interested in how long it is.

Why did you choose to read this book? I am a history lover and as this book and its sequel have both won the Booker Prize, I decided that this would be a good way to continue with my reading challenge and reacquaint me with the Tudor period in a fun way. Plus the BBC adaptation starts this Wednesday so I thought I should read it before I watch it!

Favourite aspect of the book? Ah so so much to choose from! I love Thomas Cromwell’s one-liners. I love the descriptions of different areas of London. I love the references to Cicero, and I love the fact that it is the story that we have all heard in school history lessons, in period television dramas and in films, but told from a point of view of a different ‘player’ in the game – one, being honest, I didn't know a great deal about before reading.

I think what I love most about Wolf Hall is that this book feels incredibly well researched on Hilary Mantel’s part and backed up by historical sources. It doesn't feel like history ‘dumbed down’ as some books on the period feel – It shows the inner workings of the court of Henry VIII and its complexities in detail, including minor ‘players’, family histories and foreign ambassadors along the way.

Anything you didn't like?  If there was one thing that I didn't like about the book it was that sometimes, particularly at the beginning, I struggled with the writing style a bit. It relies heavily on the word ‘he’ and in some scenes where there are several men in the room it was difficult to work out who exactly was saying or doing what and quite a few times I had to go back a couple of paragraphs to try and work out what was going on. Somehow though, I really got used to the style and realised that, for the most part, ‘he’ is referring to Cromwell himself. I can appreciate that some people put the book down though due to it being a bit hard to follow at points.

Any additional thoughts? I won’t give anything away but I love that the book is called Wolf Hall. Unless you are really into Tudor history then its significance might not be clear right away but as you progress, all is revealed!

Deserving of the Man Booker Prize? I have only read two Man Booker Prize winners in addition to this (The Ghost Road by Pat Barker and Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro) but this seems to be deserving in my eyes and I will most definitely be reading Bring up the Bodies and the third in the Cromwell trilogy once it comes out. 

Thursday, 15 January 2015

TBW - My 'To Be Watched' Challenge

When I finished University, I set myself a number of reading challenges (which you can see here) to encourage me to read more fiction after three years of sticking to reading lists. Before I went to University, not only did I used to read lots of fiction, but I also used to watch lots of films. I did watch the occasional film at University, but as they were usually with others, they had to be films everyone would enjoy (so lots of the time ended up being big Hollywood Blockbuster movies). So, I have set myself a number of challenges to force me to watch a wider variety of films, TV shows, and to go to the theatre.

  1. Watch the entire IMDB Top 250
  2. Watch at least 10 more films in a foreign language
  3. Watch a silent film
  4. Go to the National Theatre and watch a play
  5. Watch a film I have never heard of
  6. Go and see a musical
  7. Watch 2 TV shows in a foreign language
  8. Watch all the Studio Ghibli films
  9. Watch some of the classic Disney films I didn’t watch as a child
  10. Go to a midnight showing of a film
  11. Go to a cinema with a bar in it to watch a film
  12. Watch all Stanley Kubrick’s films
  13. Watch all Alfred Hitchcock’s films
  14. Watch at least 5 documentaries
  15. Watch every Best Picture Oscar winning film.

My goal is to have made a serious dent in these by the end of the year, but I haven’t really set myself a deadline. Lots of these I have already made a start on – I have seen 166 of the IMDB top 250 already, been to the National Theatre before, seen a musical in a theatre and seen lots and lots of films in a foreign language for example, but I have put them on the list to encourage me to continue or repeat some of the things I enjoyed.

Anyway this became a much longer post than I intended it to be so I should probably stop here. One more thing is that if you’re curious as to how many of these goals you have already completed, this website is a pretty easy way to take a look.

I won’t blog about every single thing I watch but I will post about anything that I come across that is particularly interesting. Have you got any suggestions for my list? 

Beth x

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Travel: Oxford Part Two

Favourite Bookshops

I absolutely love bookshops. Even if I have no money to spend, I love walking round a bookshop looking at all the different editions, reading blurbs and looking for books I have never heard of before. I know I have so many books to read but I can’t stop myself from buying new ones!

I thought I would tell you my three favourite places to get books in Oxford and show you a few photos of them.

The Last Bookshop, New Inn Hall Street

The Last Bookshop isn't the prettiest of bookshops to visit but it is definitely the best discount bookshop I have ever been to. Every book in the shop is £3 and you can get two for £5. This has gone up from the £2 a book it used to be, but that’s still a pretty good deal. For a discount bookshop, this has an amazing range of both paperbacks and hardbacks. Their stock changes all the time and I have found some really good bargains in here before.

Arcadia, St. Michael's Street

Whenever I go back to Oxford I cannot resist going to Arcadia and seeing what they have in there. It doesn't look particularly impressive from the outside, but it has a really great selection of vintage Penguin classics, post cards, stationary, scented candles and other exciting trinkets. The people who own the shop are absolutely lovely and really helpful if there is anything in particular you want, and every time I go in there I spot something different to spend my money on! If you’re the sort of person who loves their books to be new and in pristine condition then this definitely isn't the place for you. If you’re anything like me however, and you love old beaten up vintage books as much as new ones, then you wouldn't want to miss this little gem.

Blackwell's, Broad Street

Finally, no list of bookshops in Oxford would be complete without mentioning Blackwell’s. The shop is spread over four levels and has a separate shop across the road for art books, music and posters. The star of this shop is The Norrington Room which extends underneath the quad of Trinity College and contains over three miles of bookshelves. While it’s not the cheapest of places to find your books, it is a really good place to have a browse and find some new books to add to your to-read lists. Also it has started selling more book related merchandise and stationary recently so it’s worth a look for that too.

That’s all for now! What are your favourite bookshops? Do you have any recommendations? I have a few favourites in London I might post about at a later date :)

Beth x

Friday, 9 January 2015

Travel: Oxford Part One

Dreaming Spires.

This week I went to the city of dreaming spires to see my boyfriend who is studying there, and also to explore some of my favourite spots. I lived here for three years during my time at university, so got to know central Oxford pretty well and can honestly say it is one of my favourite places. It has several lovely museums (my favourite of which is The Ashmolean, a history and archaeology museum), a really wide range of restaurants and shops, incredible architecture wherever you look and a ridiculous number of bookshops and libraries. I think one of the things I have missed most about Oxford is the ability to walk out of my front door into libraries and bookshops – yes, London has some great bookshops and libraries too, but they are always a tube journey away! 

I have broken down a few things about Oxford to keep in mind if you fancy a visit!

Favourite things about Oxford:

- Being able to see the colleges has to be my favourite thing about visiting Oxford. Most of them are beautiful architecturally, and have really interesting histories. My favourite colleges to see are Brasenose, Christ Church, Magdalen, New College and Hertford, but everyone seems to have their own favourites and disagree on which are prettiest. Also if you ask Oxford students every single one will tell you their own college is the best (college rivalries are fierce here!). The colleges are also great to explore if you are a Harry Potter fan as much of it was filmed here.
- Everything is within walking distance!
- Really easy and cheap to get to from London if you use the Oxford Tube.
- Amazing range of independent bookshops and boutiques to explore – I will be doing a separate post on my favourite bookshops so look out for that.
- A really nice selection of cocktail bars if that’s your thing. Favourites include the Duke of Cambridge, Freuds, Raouls, Angels and House Bar.
- Also an incredible range of independent coffee shops to try out if you fancy a hot drink. I love Turl Street Kitchen, The Missing Bean, Combibos, Queen’s CafĂ© and Java & Co, but there are so many more. If you’re someone who doesn’t like to drink in Starbucks or Costa but love coffee drinking, visiting Oxford would be lovely.
- I should probably stop here because I could honestly go on forever with how much I love this place!

Things to watch out for:

- Oxford is the second most expensive city in the UK, after London, so not the cheapest day out. In saying that the museums and many of the colleges are free to look around so that’s not too bad. Food and drink however are pretty pricey, particularly in some of the more touristy pubs.
- If you’re driving to Oxford, there aren’t too many places to park, the places that exist are a bit pricey and there is a really irritating one way system that goes around the whole city! Try to avoid taxis because even if you seem close to somewhere you might end up having to pay to go round all of Oxford!
- It is quite a touristy destination in the summer so some of the attractions tend to get a bit busy!  If you’re someone who doesn’t like a place to be crowded then think about what time of year you want to visit. On the other hand Oxford is beautiful in the summer as all the college quads and gardens look beautiful.
- Finally, there are some ‘attractions’ such as the Radcliffe Camera (part of the Bodleian Library) and some parts of certain colleges that you simply will not be able to go into unless you are an Oxford student. You can go and see the outside and maybe even peek in, but I have seen quite a few people tourists really disappointed in Radcliffe Square when realising they could not see inside the libraries before.

That’s all I can think of for now! If you have any questions please ask, I would be more than happy to answer. Look out for my post (with lots of pictures) on my favourite bookshops! I also have loads of nice photos I may share at some point if anyone is interested - as you might be able to tell from the photo above, my boyfriend is really into photography! :)

Beth x

Monday, 5 January 2015

Reading Challenge: Read a ‘Bestseller’ I have never heard of

The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho

Brief Overview: The Alchemist is a novel written by Brazilian-born Paulo Coelho in 1988. It has been translated from Portuguese into 56 languages, and the front cover informs me that it has sold over 65 million copies worldwide, the record for the most translated book by any living author. I felt silly when seeing this, that I had never even heard of the book. I didn’t know anybody else that had read it, had no idea what the book was about and went in with absolutely no pre-conceptions. Having read reviews online I’m glad I went into it knowing nothing as Paulo Coelho seems to be an author who massively divides opinions and if I had read some of the criticisms of him I probably wouldn't have read the book at all! Anyway, I did and here is what I thought about it.

In a nutshell: I really didn't get on very well with this book.

Would you recommend this book? I know some people who would probably enjoy this book and value the moral lessons, but on the whole I wouldn't recommend this as I myself didn't like it.

How quickly did you read it? Only took a few hours. My edition has 161 pages and the text is huge!

Why did you choose to read this book? It was actually given to me as a present, and as it seems to be hugely popular, I decided that it must be something worth reading.

Favourite aspect of the book? I think there are some things the book highlights that were great, and I can see why some people would find it inspiring. The idea of not giving up on following your dreams in favour of settling into a ‘safe’ routine, and the importance of not being scared to fail, for example. Those aspects were good (though very repetitive). I also felt compelled, despite the fact I wasn't actually enjoying it, to read to the end to see what the treasure was and reveal the solution to the mystery. Partly, I wanted to see whether it changed my opinion of the rest of the book and partly because it had my curiosity.

Anything you didn't like? Being completely honest I didn't really like the story or the way it was written. Maybe this is unfair as the book is translated, but I found the prose simplistic and a bit boring. I felt like the book was seeking to have some profound effect on my life and being honest…it hasn't.

Any additional thoughts? I think the main gripe I have with this book is that it comes across as incredibly preachy. It is as if the author has gone about his writing with the intention of making every sentence ‘deep’, and as a result it took itself too seriously and nearly made me laugh at some points (and not in a good way). I also had quite an issue with some of the morals involved. Yes, there were some aspects which I agreed with, but some I found to be questionable. I won’t spoil what it is but I really didn't like what the treasure turned out to be in the end – I found it contradicted the rest of the book. The messages I did see as being valuable were not, in my opinion, anything new at all. These morals have been included in many works of literature and film before and in a far more subtle way.

Sorry for the negative review but I want to record everything I read, even if I don’t like it at all. Looking around this seems to be a love-it-or-hate-it kind of book, and I really can see why some people loved it if the issues dealt with are things they haven’t necessarily thought of before. Myself, I am going to be moving on to a new book pretty quickly and won’t be re-reading this.
I would be really interested to hear what other people have to say about this book, particularly if you are someone who really enjoyed it. I would love to know what others thought about the ending.

Beth x

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Pulitzer Prize Winner #1 – Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides

One of my many reading challenges this year is to read at least five Pulitzer Prize winners. See the post below to have a look at some of the other reading challenges I have set myself.

Getting on with it, I decided to read Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2003.

In a nutshell: I absolutely loved it.

Would you recommend this book? Yes, definitely – in fact I have done already to several friends.

How quickly did you read it? I won’t lie it took me longer than I usually take to get through a book but I was never bored. The edition I have is 529 pages, in case that is of interest to anyone.

Why did you choose to read this book? It was recommended to me by friends and I found it for a really good price when browsing in my favourite bookshop. A word of advice: don’t choose the book based on the title – this definitely isn't a book about the county in England.

Favourite aspect of the book? Having subsequently read a couple of reviews on Goodreads etc, a few people really didn't like that the story went back a couple of generations and traced the Stephanides family history. I actually think these were my favourite parts of the book. By the time it got to the life of the protagonist, I felt a real connection to the family. I also really liked the snippets on the history of Smyrna and Detroit that came alongside the family history. I loved the references to Greek epic throughout too (though this may just be my inner classicist).

Anything you didn't like? I’m not sure there was anything in particular I actively disliked. If I could change anything, I would have actually liked some of the scenes towards the end to be a bit longer so we could have had more development of the main character. I’m trying to keep this spoiler free!

Any additional thoughts? Since finishing the book I can’t stop looking up reviews and researching things from the book. The history of Smyrna after the First World War for example, was not really something I knew much about but is definitely something I have read into since. The amount of research that Eugenides must have gone into to write this book is absolutely amazing. The only thing I would love is to be able to discuss the book with someone who has had personal experience with some of the topics dealt with in this novel. Maybe if I ever get any readers on this blog someone could direct me to a discussion place for this novel, I would absolutely love to know what other people think about some parts.

Deserving of the Pultizer Prize? While I haven’t read very many Pulitzer Prize winning books, my opinion right now is yes. Well written, funny, sad, and above all, interesting. Definitely one for to-read lists.

Beth x

The Reading Challenge

Having studied History and Classics at university, I haven’t really had time to read many recently written novels in the last few years (note that as a history student, anything written during or after the 20th century counts as recently written!). So, now that I can read whatever I want to and not feel guilty about it, I have set myself a few reading challenges to try and complete. Some of these will be to read books I have been meaning to for a really long time and some will be designed to make me go outside of my comfort zone and read things I have never heard of or a genre I have never really tried before.

Anyway, cutting to the chase here are some of the ones I have thought of so far:
  1. Read at least 5 Booker Prize winners
  2. Read at least 5 Pulitzer Prize winners
  3. Read a at least 5 ‘Classic’ books
  4. Read at least 5 non-fiction books
  5. Read a graphic novel
  6. Re-read a book I have forgotten most of the plot of!
  7. Read a book released this year
  8. Read a book series
  9. Read a book that came out in the year I was born
  10. Read about a period of history I know little about
  11. Read a piece of Childrens’ Literature I never got round to reading
  12. Read a Sci-Fi novel
  13. Read a YA novel
  14. Read a ‘Bestseller’ I have never heard of

So there we go! I have actually already started on the list by reading Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, which I will hopefully post about soon.

What are your reading goals? Do you have any or do you just read whatever you are feeling like at the time? I feel like my categories are broad enough for me to be able to do that anyway really, at least at this early stage.

If anyone is reading this and has any suggestions of reading goals I could add to my list, or books I should read to help me complete the goals, then let me know :)

Beth x

First Post.

I’m not very good at introductions. I’m also not a particularly talented writer, so if you’re reading this, you’re going to have to bear with me.

Like lots of people, I have a mental bucket list of things to do ‘one day’. These include learning a language, travelling various parts of the world, joining a gym to get in shape, learning to drive (which I never quite got around to…), reading challenges and writing a blog. 2015 is the year I have decided to actually try to achieve some of these goals. While some of them will have to wait for a while (I am 22 and have recently graduated from university so don’t have the funds to travel everywhere I want to go just yet!), starting a blog is one that I can get started on. It’s something I have wanted to do for a really long time but have never been able to pluck up enough courage to put something out there. Picking a name was daunting enough so I will have to see how it goes. I’ve gone with Miscellaneous Musings for the moment as I can’t really think of anything that sums up what this will be more accurately.

If anyone reads this: great. If nobody ever sees it: it will be nice to come back to in a few years and remind myself of the things I read, things I saw, places I went and people I met.

The plan is to keep track of the progress of my goals and to keep things as short and sweet as possible.

Now that the awkward first post is over, I can get started with recording the first few things I have achieved so far in the very early stages of 2015 (aside from starting this blog, of course).

Beth :)