Monday, 31 December 2012

Bookish Resolutions for 2013

Now that Father Christmas has visited, the last of the turkey has been eaten in a late-night sandwich and the tin of Quality Street (or Cadbury Roses) has depleted severely, our attention is turning towards the impending New Year. It's a time in which we find ourselves looking back over the past year, reflecting on all that has - or hasn't - happened, and marvelling at how quickly time passes. It's also a time in which we will be forced to make unrealistic promises to ourselves and others, usually relating to health and alcohol consumption and often accompanied by the caress of a swollen stomach, or the clutching of an aching head. In the time-honoured tradition, I have determined that I will make a few book-related resolutions, as writing this blog has made me realise quite a few things about books that I hadn't considered before. So, for all and sundry to see - thus hopefully making me more likely to keep them - here are my Bookish Resolutions.

1. If I start a book, I have to finish it (with one condition...)
Too often I pick up a book and, barely 3 pages in, cast it aside in a disinterested manner. This has actually proven to be a bit of a downfall, as I have effectively delayed several great books from making their way into my life - one such example is Rook, by Daniel O'Malley, which I downloaded in my first Kindle-spree and then ignored for months, except for one or two occasions when I did half-heartedly read a few pages before promptly going back to ignoring it again. Another is the incredible Before I Go To Sleep by S. J. Watson, which again, I had sat on my Kindle for months before I gave it the proper attention it deserved - I then read it all in one day, because it was simply too hard to put down. These titles - and others - have made me realise that I need to trust my own judgement a bit; if at some point I picked it, for whatever reason, I need to follow my instincts and give the book a fair chance, and not just give up a few pages in. I'd like to apply a caveat, however; I reckon that, by about 50 pages in, I'd probably know if I was going to enjoy it or not. So I need to read at least the first 50 pages of a book before I decide whether to keep reading or not. That's fair, right?

2. To take recommendations on board
Several times this year, lovely people have recommended books to me, and I have - for a time - ignored them completely. It hasn't occurred to me that these people might actually know me quite well, and may well know what I might like. So I've snootily - and probably a bit patronisingly - acknowledged their suggestions, and then not done anything about them for ages. Again, this has proved to be to my own detriment, so I'd like to take a moment to thank a few people for their suggestions - sorry if I miss people out but hey, it's been a long year and these are the ones I remember most!
Based on this, I'm going to pay more attention to what people think I will like, and I'm happy to say I've already started on this one - I've recently downloaded The Woman In White by Wilkie Collins, which will be my next read, as a friend very enthusiastically recommended it to me over Christmas.

3. To read more "Classics"
A little while ago, I made a rather rash decision to attempt to work my way through a Top 100 Books list. Needless to say, it hasn't worked out well; I find that, for some books anyway, you need to be in a certain mindset to attempt them, and there's no point trying to force yourself. Nevertheless, it's high time I tried some of these titles, and I thought it might be best if I had a go at limiting myself to a select few, so that I can work my way through in easy chunks. Working on this, below are the first novels I plan to tackle.
  • The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. Just feel I need to read this one as two people have recommended it to me in the past year, and this will help me achieve resolution number 2.
  • The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. I've had this sat on my shelf for ages now and it's just starting to bother me.
  • Catch 22 by Joseph Heller. I've attempted this so many times but never got beyond 50 pages, so I need to give this another go.
  • Paradise Lost by John Milton. Having studied books 9 and 10 of this poem at school, I know I quite liked it, so why I've never got past book 2 in a serious attempt is beyond me. Must try harder!

It's only a small list to start with, but I figure if I can get through these tomes, I can get through any!

Hopefully, writing all this down will make it a bit easier for me to follow my own rules - it's like the time I gave up sugar in my tea for Lent, I never would've succeeded if I hadn't told so many people about it and backed myself into a corner. But I am determined to give more literature more respect in 2013, in the hope that, when I write my 'Best of 2013' list next year, I'll have lots and lots more first-reads to choose from.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Friday, 21 December 2012

Topnotch Reads of 2012: Part Three - The Winner!

Well, if you're a regular reader, you'll probably have seen that I have been counting down my top ten reads of 2012 over the past few days, with part one covering numbers ten to six, and part two looking at five down to two. The wait is now over, the fat lady has sung and we have finally arrived at number one - my all time, best read of 2012, the one that I enjoyed the most - and in honour of this, I shall be reviewing the winner in a bit more detail. So stand by, get ready and prepare yourself as I announce the best thing I've read this year.......


1. A Song Of Ice And Fire, by George R. R. Martin.

Okay, yes, I am cheating a bit - anyone who has read A Song Of Ice And Fire will know that it's actually a series of books, currently spanning five titles, with at least two more still to come, so it's not even a finished work. But hear me out, I can explain! See, in the same way you can't really refer to the three volumes of The Lord of The Rings as separate books, these can't be treated as individuals works either, with several storylines playing out across all the books, and many recurring characters who are vital to the various plots. So if I'd come along and said "A Storm Of Swords (incidentally, my favourite so far) is my read of the year", I'd kind of be lying, because there are elements of A Storm Of Swords that wouldn't make sense without knowledge of the previous two volumes. You can't read them in any old order, so that's why they are joint number one.

This is one epic story; so far, the five volumes add up to a total of 4629 pages - that's averaging out at 926 pages a book! Set in a medieval-style era, it follows several different characters in each book as factions war against each other for the Iron Throne, the seat of a fragile monarchy of a continent called Westeros. However, as the lords and knights of Westeros bicker amongst themselves, nearly everyone is oblivious to two threats from external sources; one, the heir to the deposed, mad king of Westeros, currently living in Essos and gaining power every day; the other, a mysterious, ancient fear in the far north known only as the Others or the White Walkers, believed to have been dead for eight millenia but now apparently walking again, and heading south for Westeros. As the series continues, both of these threats grow, whilst the nobility of Westeros continue to tear the continent apart, at the very time when uniting together could be the only source of salvation.

Because it is so long, you'll have to be prepared for the long haul. I myself read pretty quickly, but even then it still took me about 6 weeks to finish the series so far, and that's including a day in which I did hardly anything but read. It's incredibly meticulous, and I don't think comparing it to The Lord Of The Rings is a ridiculous notion; maps are provided at the beginning of each book, so you can trace character's journeys, and each settlement, town or city is described in great detail. The characters themselves are a mixed bunch; some are a bit stereotypical whilst others are far more well-rounded, and naturally the more well-rounded ones are those you're more interested in. There's also a huge number of them - five books into the series, and already there have been over a thousand named characters! Obviously not all of them are important but, as I am discovering on a second read, certain people do crop up a lot earlier in the series before their proper involvement later - a bit like Sirius Black getting a brief mention in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, only to pop up as a main character in the third book.

The storylines themselves - because there are several - are also very intricate; Martin has clearly decided to give himself the luxury of time with this one, as each plot is very carefully crafted. This, at times, can be a downside; with so many different threads to follow, it can be tricky to re-set your mind to one storyline in Essos, say, when you've spent the past few chapters in Kings Landing (the capital of Westeros). There's also one particular one which, as far as I'm concerned, would lift out entirely - I just can't see what it adds to the series, beyond loads of extra, boring chapters. I shan't say what thread it is because I don't want to cloud your opinion, but in these particular chapters I do tend to either rush through or not pay attention. This isn't helped by the fact that Martin is very descriptive; whilst this isn't necessarily a bad thing, it is when it's the fifth feast in as many chapters where every course has been described in detail; entire passages like this could be lifted out, and would probably reduce the number of pages by about 10 a book. Just sayin'.

I also have to express concern for the fact that, for the time being at least, two more books are scheduled - but I really cannot see how it's going to end; there doesn't appear to be a goal that could be reached, and the number of potential showdowns that could occur mean that there's no conclusive meeting to anticipate. In short, some of the characters seem to be slightly out of control - it's almost, in a slightly creepy way, like they've developed beyond Martin's original plan, and are now creating their own storylines, in a way, which Martin can't quite rein back in. All this does mean that, whilst I'm enjoying the ride, I can't even guess where the end might be, and that makes me a bit anxious.

I wouldn't recommend this book for everyone; that's not a snobby thing, it's a personal-preferences thing. For instance, if you're not one for sweeping epics that take place over several years, then it's not for you. Nor is it for you if you don't like, or have an interest in, politics, because these books are FULL of politics. And if your mind tends to wander, or you don't like violence, then I'd probably avoid these. If, however, none of the above bother you, then you're in for a treat; it's fun, it's intriguing, and there's so many twists and surprises you'll be left reeling. They're not the best books I've ever read, but in terms of my 2012 reads they deserve the top spot - for sheer entertainment value, and longevity. It's not particularly clever in terms of language, or even in the actual storylines, but what can't be ignored is just how cleverly Martin has woven so many stories together. Whilst the endgame might not be in sight just yet, there's still plenty to admire on the way.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Topnotch Reads of 2012: Part Two

The countdown of my favourite reads from the past year continues on from my previous post, so if you haven't seen numbers 10 through 6 yet, quick! Head over there now and familiarise yourself! Otherwise, stand by, because this time we're on to numbers five through to two. Brace yourselves...

5. The Stepford Wives, by Ira Levin
This has the dubious honour of being the first book I read on my Kindle, and it had quite the tough job. I was a reluctant convert to ereaders, and my first experience with one was not great; for a start, I struggled with getting used to reading off a screen, and secondly, I managed to ruin the big twist of The Stepford Wives because the ereader automatically loaded the foreword as the first page - I started to read the foreword and three lines in, guess what? The big twist was revealed. So I was not happy - which makes it all the more impressive that I enjoyed this book so much, considering I was in such a black mood when I started it. The plot follows the Eberhart family as they move to an idyllic suburb called Stepford. Things seems so perfect at first, but Joanna, the lead character, struggles to find anyone she can connect with, as all the men spend all their time at an exclusive mens-only hunting lodge, whilst nearly all the women are submissive, house-proud dullards. Joanna eventually finds a few like-minded women, but it becomes apparent that not everything in Stepford is as perfect and unspoilt as it looks... It's a chilling story, even if you do know the end already, but also pretty funny in places - the dialogue is witty and I did laugh out loud a few times. Joanna is a great character, a woman who is not a perfect wife or mother but does the best she can, who is frustrated by the lack of potential friends in her new home. There's loads to relate to here - feelings of inadequacy, loneliness in a new town, confusion when faced with a new culture - but as the suspense builds you'll be oblivious to any of that, just because you'll be desperate to find out what really is going on in Stepford.

4. Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell
I read this purely because it's one of those books that you kind of have to; it's one of those great English novels that never seem to age. However, I did not want to read it; I'd read Animal Farm by the same author a few years back, and it had thoroughly put me off Orwell. Yet the presence of a copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four in my house made it increasingly difficult to ignore, until finally, I bit the bullet and just got on with it. I was delighted to discover that I absolutely loved it. I mean, as much as you can - the story, as told from a man called Winston Smith's view, details a dystopian future in which an organisation called The Party runs the country, with the sinister Big Brother as figurehead. In this future, there is no privacy or secrets, and merely thinking anti-Party thoughts is a punishable crime. It's a terrifying novel to read, but at the same time, it can be surprisingly funny, and that's what I wasn't prepared for; in all I'd heard of Nineteen Eighty-Four, no one had ever mentioned how witty and sharp it was. There were, however, moments when I felt the book lagged a bit; there's a chunk in the middle which is basically a history of how the Party came to power, and whilst I understand it is crucial to the novel, I got quite bored with it, which meant my attention wandered. Once it turned back to Winston, though, I was back on board, and I have to say that I'd definitely recommend this book to anyone - it's bleak, the language is a bit out-dated now and there are some parts that will make you squirm but it'll make you think, and that's the important bit.

3. The Ancient Guide To Modern Life, by Natalie Haynes
This is the only non-fiction title in my list, and as it features pretty high up, I'm sure you can appreciate already that it's a cracking book. Looking at how the ancient cultures of Greece and Rome compare with how life is today, it's a disappointingly short book, humorously covering subjects such as philosophy, politics, entertainment and women's rights (which is in the hilariously titled chapter Frankly, Medea, I Don't Give A Damn. Well, hilarious if you know who Medea is and you're familiar with Gone With The Wind). My favourite part - personally - is when Haynes compares ancient rulers to modern politicians: 'JFK was Titus, loved by the people, but destined to die young. Tony Blair was Augustus, the master of spin. Berlusconi [was] Domitian, running his state amid secrecy and lies. Kim Jong-Il [was] Claudius, disgusing physical weakness... with a streak of war-mongering machismo.' Comparisons like this, between then and now, are peppered throughout the book, making the ancient world appear more relatable and understandable, especially in cases where you only have a basic knowledge, if that, of ancient events - I myself learnt a lot from this. It can be a bit of a drag at times - so many names, so many ending in -ius! - and it's not exactly a book you can curl up with and get lost in, but I enjoyed every page I read, and I was really annoyed when I got to the epilogue and realised there wasn't going to be much more.

2. The Rook, by Daniel O'Malley
I only reviewed this very recently, so I won't go into too much detail - however, as accidental book-findings go, this was a dream. I had downloaded it on to my Kindle when I first got it, then promptly forgot I had it to read. It wasn't until I was overcome with guilt at the fact I had spent money on this book and not even glanced at it that I finally sat down to read it. The plot follows a character called Myfanwy Thomas, a woman who has amnesia, as she struggles to regain some knowledge of the life that was hers before she lost her memory. The twist? Before she lost her memory, the woman she was then knew that at some point she would suffer some incident that would rob her of all knowledge of herself, and so was able to write a series of letters, guiding the amnesia-ridden Myfanwy through life. It sounds like one of those weepy, something-traumatic-has-happened-to-me-but-I-am-a-strong-woman type novels, but it's really, really not. Myfanwy is actually a high-ranking, powerful official in a secret organisation that monitors and controls the supernatural in the UK, and there's something rotten at the core that pre-amnesia-Myfanwy was investigating. And if that wasn't enough, an ancient threat from Europe appears to be making waves in the direction of the UK. There's politics, intrigue, more than enough monsters, and a healthy dash of humour to it, making for a hugely entertaining read that's incredibly difficult to put down.

Friday, 14 December 2012

Topnotch Reads of 2012: Part One

As we all know, it's now that time of year when we all gather together to "enjoy" each others' company, get a bit drunk and reflect on the past year... Yep, that's right, it's awards season once more! And what with all these shortlists emerging, detailing the best flicks, TV shows, comedians, etc of the past year, I thought I'd take the time to talk about my best books of the year. These won't necessarily be new publications from 2012 - rather, just ones I myself have read for the first time this year. Some I might have already reviewed in detail, in which case I'll link 'em so you can have a look if it piques your interest. I'll be counting down my top ten, starting with ten through to six today, and finishing with a proper review for number 1. So, let's get on with it, shall we?

10. The Damned Busters, by Matthew Hughes
I stumbled across this little number during a brief moment of weakness in the summer, when I almost - horror of horrors - caved in and bought a copy of Fifty Shades Of Grey. Luckily, however, I couldn't find a copy, and that little episode was done and dusted. Problem was, though, I'd walked into a bookshop and I am practically incapable of leaving a bookshop without buying something, so I had a bit of a browse and I found... this. As far as impulse purchases go, this turned out pretty well; the story follows a pretty unremarkable man accidentally summoning a demon from hell, refusing to use said demon as he didn't mean to summon him, thus causing hell to go on strike, meaning no bad things happen in the world - which actually turns out to be a pretty bad thing itself. Without greed, the stock markets plummet; without envy, no one is trying to outdo neighbours, meaning everyone becomes lazy - in short, the world stops working. So in order to get everything back to normal, our unremarkable hero strikes a deal with the unionists-from-hell and becomes a superhero - obviously. What I enjoyed about it was that it was a fun piece of escapism, pure and simple; a bit of a silly story which didn't require a lot of concentration, just something entertaining to read when you've got a spare fifteen minutes.

9. The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce
This one I discovered because it was nominated for the Man Booker prize this year, and wanted to read because I liked the title. It follows Harold Fry - a retired man who lives a comfortable but uninteresting life in a comfortable but uninteresting village - who is trundling along quite nicely until he hears word that a former colleague of his from years ago is terminally ill with cancer. Despite their tentative acquaintance, Harold is greatly affected by the news, to the extent that when he pops out to post a letter one day, he doesn't stop walking. Instead, he embarks on a cross-country journey to visit his old acquaintance, firm in the belief that if he gets to her, he can stop her from dying. It's a beautiful story, covering some of the best aspects of human nature - determination, faith, devotion, friendship, and I'd be fibbing if I said it didn't bring a bit of a tear to my eye from time to time. It's also surprisingly realistic; Joyce has clearly thought about this, covering all aspects of the pains of long-distance walking and sleeping rough. It does drag in parts - a sub-plot involving some 'followers' of Harold does clunk along a bit - but if you focus on the main story of Harold's quest, you'll find that it's one of those books that stays with you after you've finished the last page.

8. The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde
I think I've mentioned this book probably far too many times now, but it's one of the best I've read this year, so there. Nevertheless, I'll keep it short, lest I isolate my regular readers: a literary detective by the name of Thursday Next is roped into investigating the sudden disappearance of Jane Eyre from the classic novel of the same name. Obviously, without Jane, there's not much of a story, resulting in widespread horror and panic in the alternate-universe that Thursday lives in, where the real celebrities are book characters and the real heroes are authors. Thursday's task is to find Jane, and her kidnapper, before she meets the same fate as a poor, unlucky sub-character from Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens. Fforde weaves a fast-paced, clever plot with loads of witty observations, a few literary in-jokes and some very likeable characters. It's unfortunate that the next few in the series aren't nearly as good, but I'd still recommend this one as a stand-alone novel; it's funny, it's clever and it's well-written, and that's all you need to know.

7. The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
I stress, by the way, that this refers specifically to the first book in the trilogy; whilst I quite liked the others, I wasn't nearly as impressed by them. Anyway, as I've already reviewed this one, I'll keep it brief: The Hunger Games follows a young heroine, Katniss, who is forced to enter a life-or-death tournament in place of her younger sister, where she will have to kill other children and teenagers, or be killed. Many comparisons have been drawn to Battle Royale by Koushun Takami, which does essentially have the same plot, but there's enough differences to The Hunger Games to make it a really good novel. There's several comparisons to be made with the modern 'talent' shows that still seem to dominate the airwaves, and there's also several scenes that may surprise you with the emotion of them. I also - being a Classics nerd - particularly enjoyed the fact that many of the characters are named after Classical figures, such as Cato, Caesar and Coriolanus. As a young adult book, aimed at the Twilight market, it's not particularly taxing to read, but is gripping; you may find it surprisingly difficult to put down.

6. The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
I read this purely because I ran out of books to read on holiday, and The Boyfriend had already finished it. I knew it was considered as one of the most important books in American literature, and I had a basic idea of the plot from discussions about it with The Boyfriend whilst he was reading it, but nothing could have prepared me for it. The novel follows the Joad family during the Great Depression, as they embark on an epic journey west in order to build a new life for themselves. It's a pretty bleak novel; most of the time that I was reading it, I was almost crying out for something positive to occur - the few bright spots shone pretty dimly. Yet this was the point of Steinbeck's novel; as he summed up in a powerful, emotional chapter near the end of the story, the brunt of the Great Depression was borne by the poorest, who suffered more than any without sign of respite and little to hope for. Given the current state of affairs, especially with the UK's coalition government making a hash of things, it's a telling sign that a novel written about events eighty years ago can still be relatable now. If you decide to read it, persevere with it; you won't regret the decision. Like The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, it'll stay with you long after you've turned the last page.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Review: The Rook by Daniel O'Malley

I downloaded this book onto my Kindle about, ooh, 3 months ago, and I've only got around to reading it very recently. This is the curse of the Kindle; when you have access to so many books so quickly, it becomes far too easy for you to download one book with the full intention of reading it soon, only to find that your fickle heart is swayed by a new title. I myself currently have seventeen - yes, SEVENTEEN - books on my Kindle that have remained unread despite download, and all because I have a wandering eye when it comes to books. However, when the Boyfriend pointed out that this was a very uneconomical way to buy books, and certainly not how I would've done it with print copies, I was shamed into picking one of the rejected as my next read, and this turned out to be The Rook.

I can honestly say I have no idea why I downloaded this book. I can remember selecting it for download; I just can't remember why, because when I started reading it, I had absolutely no idea what was going on - blurbs aren't exactly easy-access on ebooks, especially not when you've already downloaded them. (Not that I'm complaining; I like the mystery of a plot where you literally have no inkling of what is coming next, especially as I've recently gone off blurbs. I've recently ploughed my way through A Song Of Ice And Fire by George R. R. Martin, the book series that Game Of Thrones is based on, and I managed to ruin Part 2 of A Dance With Dragons - basically, the last book in the series so far - by reading it's blurb before I'd read Part 1, which managed to ruin a major plot point for myself. But I digress.) It actually turned out to be a supernatural comedy-thriller with a dash of James Bond thrown in for good measure.

The story begins with Myfanwy Thomas, moments after she has woken up in the middle of a park surrounded by bodies with no memory of who she is or how she got there - all she has for a clue is a series of letters, written by herself, to herself, in the months leading up to the memory-loss incident in the park. As Myfanwy attempts to discover the circumstances surrounding her re-birth in the park, who she was before the incident and why she lost her memory in the first place, she has to try to disguise her amnesia from her colleagues in a super-secretive organisation dedicated to the management of supernatural forces in the UK. It's a pretty tough thing to do, so it's lucky that Myfanwy has the letters from her old self to guide her along. Unfortunately, her new persona is a rather bit more... sassy, shall we say, than her previous one, so cracks begin to show in her ruse, just as an ancient threat to the organisation rears it's ugly head.

Whatever I was expecting, this was not it. In fact, the opening line - 'Dear You, the body you are wearing used to be mine...' had me all prepared for some kind of body-snatchers type scenario, involving a conspiracy to put new souls in old bodies. Which, if I'm honest, I'd say is actually quite a good idea, although the first time I started to read this, that notion put me off - I'm not a huge fan of science-fiction, and I got the impression that this is what The Rook was. Once I gave the book a fair go, however, I discovered that it actually falls in with the fantasy genre, something I am a bit more at home with. It's not too clever in this respect, either; unlike most books which deal with a supernatural setting, what O'Malley has preferred to do is simply assimilate the fantastical in with the real world, as opposed to creating an entirely new land, animals and, in some cases, language. It is a bit like Harry Potter or - shudder - Twilight for adults in this sense; there's enough of the familiar to give the uncanny aspects of the novel a bit of a believable edge (not that I believe in vampires or wizards - I learnt that when my Hogwarts letter never arrived). And to make it identifiable as a 'grown-up' novel - rather than a different cover - there's quite a bit more gore, murder and bureaucracy to it than you may encounter in any of it's teenage counterparts.

It's funny, too; I know that sounds like a really stupid thing to say but honestly, it's refreshing to find a book that is not firmly wedged within a certain genre; recently, I've noticed that some of the books that I have been reading have been taking themselves a bit too seriously, and whilst in some that is appropriate, in others I think it's a shame. Admittedly, The Rook hardly deals with serious issues - it's a government organisation dealing with supernatural forces, it's ripe for ridicule - but whilst the plot isn't particularly silly, the main character has enough wit about her to make for entertaining reading. O'Malley also makes excellent use of other characters' confusion about Myfanwy's sudden personality transplant, which again not only amuses the reader but also ties you in with Myfanwy: only you and she know the secret about her identity, which lends her character more of an edge, and also ties you closer to her.

I don't actually usually get too excited about new books I've read - they're either a bit disappointing, or just simply enjoyable, but unremarkable - but every once in a while I do, and this is one of them. It felt like even more of a treat, simply because I discovered it purely by accident. It's a surprisingly refreshing idea, with a sympathetic lead character, and potential for the world O'Malley has created to be expanded. It's also accessible to both men and women; I feel that, previously, books I have reviewed have more often than not been more appealing to girls (which, as I am a girl, kind of makes sense); The Rook, however, has a decent balance of humour, action, suspense, and more than enough cliff-hangers to keep anyone reading well into the night. And best of all? No romance. There's nothing like an unsuitable character pairing midway through a novel to put you off your stride. It's also inspired me to give the rest of the unread seventeen on my Kindle a go, as who knows? Maybe there's another new favourite nestling in there somewhere.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas...

That festive time of year is once again upon us, spreading general good will, cheer and a mild sprinkling of increasing panic as everyone suddenly realises that actually, it's coming up pretty darn quickly and oh my god, I haven't bought anything. It's a weird time of year, Christmas; you're forced to go outside shopping in one of the coldest months of the year, expected to send cards to people you haven't contacted since last year's card, and as far as us Brits are concerned, it's the only time of year when we really go all-out on decorating our houses in psychotic lighting. Yet despite all this, Christmas is, for most people, a happy time of year; it's an excuse to get drunk with anyone that you can call an acquaintance, eat as much food as your poor tum will hold, and start indulging in all of those Christmas-only activities - singing Christmas songs, watching Christmas films and, my personal favourite, reading Christmas books. So, if you're not quite in to the festive spirit yet, here's a few of my best Christmas Books to make you feel all warm and cosy inside.

1. The Night Before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore
"'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse..." So begins the infamous, sparkling poem that sums up all the wonder, excitement and anticipation that Christmas - especially Christmas Eve - holds for children and the young-at-heart. Even now, when I read Moore's account of a man witnessing the arrival of Father Christmas to his home, I still get a gorgeous tingly feeling up my spine, as I recall how thrilling Christmas Eve was; putting out the mince pie and brandy for Father Christmas (and a carrot for Rudolph), before hanging out my stocking at the end of my bed, then trying so hard to go to sleep even though my heart was near bursting out of my chest as I strained to hear the distant tingling of sleigh bells... Nothing captures that feeling in quite the same way as The Night Before Christmas, which more than adequately explains why this poem has endured for so long, enchanting so many children.

2. Collin's Christmas Treasury, selected by Stephanie Nettell
Don't let the incredibly boring title put you off - this is a cracker (excuse the pun) of a compilation.  Nettell has selected hundreds of poems, short stories and extracts from novels to create a book that holds within it's pages almost every conceivable aspect of Christmas. There's a section dedicated to food and drink, another to the giving of gifts, yet another to the original Christmas story of Mary, Joseph and Jesus... the list goes on. There's also a pretty wide timespan covered here, with diary entries stretching back to pioneers celebrating Christmas during the long trek West, and Samuel Pepys' yuletide extravagances. You'll also see extracts from The Moomins, Ramona and Beezus and A Christmas Carol. My favourites, however, are the poems, and there are dozens of them to go around - an ode to Christmas stockings, Bad King John's plea for a particular present, a donkey's view of Christmas.... Some of them are thought-provoking (one about a father spending Christmas in a homeless hostel always gets me) but others, like Ogden Nash's I Remember Yule, a mild rant at how the values of Christmas have changed, are more light-hearted. It's wonderful to dip in and out of, but just as good to read cover-to-cover.

3. Tosca's Christmas by Anne Mortimer
This is a children's book that I've had for as long as I can remember and my god, do I love it. It's a beautifully-illustrated picture book with a lovely story, featuring the fluffiest-looking tabby cat I've ever seen, who just can't seem to find her place in the mad, mad world of Christmas. The story follows our feline friend as she discovers the human joys of Christmas - she manages to sneak a mince pie from the kitchen, attempts to have a paper chase with someone's wrapping paper, and even has a go at making a wish with the Christmas fairy at the top of the tree, all the while driving her human owners to distraction. Poor old Tosca becomes increasingly dejected with her lack of place in all the fun, until a certain, red-cloaked and bearded someone comes along with something special for Tosca to make Christmas all better... It's just lovely, and even though it's intended for an audience far younger than myself, I don't feel like it's Christmas without reading Tosca's Christmas at least once.

4. Magical Christmas Stories, by Various
I've actually got no idea about where this book came from - I suspect that Christmas elves had something to do with it - but it's another fantastic compliation, this time of original Christmas short stories by childrens' authors including Malorie Blackman and Adele Geras. There are some amazingly Christmassy stories in here; for example, a particular favourite of mine is one about a group of pirates - who are not so fearsome as they would like to think - throwing themselves fully into the spirit of Christmas, decorating their ship, cooking a feast, telling jokes. Then there's one about a boy who wishes that every day was Christmas, only to get his wish and find that it's not quite how it seems... Some of them are a little more sombre in tone, such as the boy who buys Christmas crackers from a strangely-familiar figure, under the belief that they will stop his parents arguing with each other, but in each story the magic of Christmas is a running theme, which is why I re-read it every year; I've found, as I've 'grown up', that I'm starting to realise why my parents find Christmas stressful, so it's good to get back to those childlike feelings of anticipation and excitement that Christmas brings.

5. A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens
Well, there was no way this one was going to avoid a mention, was there? Possibly the most familiar Christmas story of all (with the exception of the original one, featuring Jesus), I think most people of my generation have grown up with the story as told (surprisingly faithfully) by The Muppets. For those of you who have been living under a rock, however, a summary: a miserly old man who detests Christmas is visited by the three spirits of Christmas - Past, Present and Future - in an attempt to teach him the real joy of Christmas, and repent his grouchy ways. My mum always says that you need a good ghost story at Christmas, and, being a complete coward, I disagree. With A Christmas Carol, however, I make an exception; as ghost stories go, it is pretty chilling in places, but for the most part, it's a celebration of what the festive period should be about: family, friends, happiness, spending time with your loved ones. One of the most poignant scences - and also the one featured in Collin's Christmas Treasury - is when Ebenezer Scrooge witnesses his poorly-paid clerk, Bob Cratchit, celebrating with his family as best they can on a meager budget, but as happy together as if they were millionaires. It's the simplicity at the story's heart that makes it such a magical story, and if you haven't read it, I urge you to. I don't blame you if you keep hearing songs from The Muppets' Christmas Carol while you do, though. ("There goes Mr Humbug, there goes Mr Grim...")

I hope you've enjoyed my little Christmas summary, as much as I enjoyed writing it, and if you have any Christmas stories or poems that you love to read every Christmas, please let me know - I can never get enough of a decent Christmas story!

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Book Block!

Book Block is a terrible malady that can strike at any time in a person's life. It cruelly disrupts your reading, causing restlessness and irritation, which can lead to family members/friends/co-habiters getting a bit of a hard time. For a reader to be without a book (or two) on the go is a worrisome thing, leaving you with that horrible feeling that you get when you think you may have left something important behind, but you can't remember what, or indeed where. It leaves you a bit, well, lost, I suppose. So you can imagine how distressed I was when I found that, suddenly, I'd finished a book, but didn't have my next read lined up, ready to go. I have been struck down with a bad case of Book Block.

I think part of this can be attributed to the type of book I was reading before; see, I've recently found myself craving a bit of Downton-esque nostalgia (probably because the TV series finished a few weeks ago, thus leaving a void), so I started to work my way through the several Kate Morton books I have in my possession; The House At Riverton, The Distant Hours and The Secret Keeper. They're all of a similar nature; each have two stories running alongside each other, one set in the present day, the other set in the past - usually wartime Britain. Eventually, the two stories collide in some way; a mystery from the past is solved by a person in the present, or something like that. Quite often they also feature fictious stately homes in the 1920's or 30's, complete with the stiff upper lip gentry-types that you might expect to find in such grand abodes. They're not the kind of books that will change the world, but they're fairly well-written, often have a few decent twists and are just generally the kind of book you need to accompany you on a chilly evening. Annoyingly, I finished the last of them just the other day, and whilst I am still craving the comfort-reading that they provided, I've found that I can't quite pick a new book up and stick with it.

It's surprisingly tricky for me to 'make do' without something to read; it tends to be my touchstone, my go-to activity in those odd hours of the day where you're not quite occupied, or asleep. I read when I'm eating my breakfast and drying my hair in the morning, and sometimes I read at my desk during lunch; I also read in the bath and always have to read for a bit before I go to bed. In short, there's a lot of time during the day that I spend reading, and so you can imagine how those minutes add up when I suddenly find myself without a book. Sure, there's other things I could be doing - I could watch the TV whilst eating my breakfast, or listen to music in the bath - but to be honest, I'd rather be reading, and usually, I already have in mind the next book I'm going to read. This time, however, I've come to an awkward junction; I've read nearly every book in this house at least twice, and the ones I haven't read... well, it's not for lack of trying, but forcing yourself to read a book that you don't want to read is a bit like trying to force yourself to eat something that makes you want to gag, and that's not pleasant. It's been made especially difficult since I still want something 'easy' to read; nothing too taxing, without being mind-numbing.

The worrying thing is, my old favourites aren't helping. I started to read To Kill A Mockingbird the other day (readers - if there still are any - of this blog will know that To Kill A Mockingbird is one of my all-time favouritest books), and I just couldn't get into it. This freaked me out a little bit, as I've never, ever, started that book and not been sucked into Scout's world immediately. Shaken, I turned instead to a recently rediscovered childhood favourite, The Wind In The Willows, and whilst I've fared better there, I've not been able to fully immerse myself in Ratty and Mole's riverbank adventures in the quite the same way as I have previously. At this point, I managed to recall that there are several unread books still downloaded on my Kindle, so I tried to read some of them, but to no avail; it seems that, whilst I might have initially been interested in these books when I downloaded them, some of the shine has come off, and now I can't quite muster up the interest to keep at it. Subsequently, I am bookless.

For now, I'll have to succumb to the Book Block, wandering aimlessly and restlessly through the library in my mind, until I'll eventually find something to read. I always do - something will catch my eye, or present itself in a new light that demands a new read - but for the time being, I'm a book nomad, a bit lost without my usual talisman. So please, if you have any suggestions to tantalise my literary-tastebuds with, come forth; I'm getting a bit desperate.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Review: The Casual Vacancy, by J. K. Rowling

The Casual Vacancy is Rowling's first foray into the world of adult literature, coming after the infamous Harry Potter series. Consequently, it's going to be a bit tricky to avoid comparisons between both her ventures. Or at least, that's what I thought before I started reading The Casual Vacancy. There are comparisons to be made, of course - whether she likes it or not, Rowling must know that anyone who's ever read a Potter book would be intrigued to see the direction she takes in her next book, and that the probable majority of purchasers of The Casual Vacancy would be the same adults who read Harry Potter to their children, and people like me who grew up with Harry and are now (technically) adults. I have to say that, initially, I had absolutely no interest in reading this; being such a massive Potter fan, and being very aware of the fact that it was not a Potter book, I just didn't care very much. It's not that I am of the ilk that believe that Rowling should churn out Potter books for the rest of her natural life, writing spin-offs and prequels and sequels and all the other money-making ventures she could wheedle out of her hugely popular characters; on the contrary, I think it's time for her to move on, to stick to her original plan and to allow Potter to be the shining beacon of excellent children's literature that it is, without compromising it. My reluctance actually came from simple disinterest; I'd heard the story began with a man dropping dead in a village, and that just didn't pique my interest. Eventually, though, once the book did come out, I thought I would quite like to read it, and gave it a go. It's a tale of the aftermath that reverberates through a small village when a Parish Councillor dies suddenly, leaving behind a casual vacancy - a post on a council that has come free through unexpected means, such as a death or a resignation. Subsequently, a number of petty rivalries and disagreements swell into a festering ball of resentment, anger and revenge that threatens the supposedly close-knit community of the seemingly idyllic village of Pagford.

It's nothing like I ever expected. It doesn't even read like Rowling has written it; in fact, if she had decided to have it published under a pseudonym, I wouldn't have had an inkling it was by her, and that's because the language is a lot more grown up. I don't just mean the dialogue of the characters; descriptive passages also felt different, somehow. This was initially off-putting; it's a bit like when your phone rings, and a familiar name shows on the screen, but the person on the other end of the phone doesn't sound like them when you answer. There's an initial jarring moment as you wonder if someone else has rung you, and you struggle to realign yourself to the change in dynamic of the ensuing conversation. It doesn't matter if it turns out it is who you thought it was, and that they just had a cold, or had just swallowed a swig of tea quickly; there's still that moment of discomfort when you're not quite sure who you're dealing with. For a good 40 pages or so, I struggled to acclimatise myself to The Casual Vacancy in a similar manner, and so it took me longer to get into what was actually a very compelling story than it usually would.

The main plot - if there is one, as there are several storylines running alongside each other - focuses on the election that needs to take place now a spot is available. The three candidates are all running for very different reasons; one is compelled by his puffed-up sense of importance, another by the hints of bribes and backhanded dealings that he could benefit from, and the third by the need to continue the now-dead councillor's work. As they each struggle to persuade the village to their cause, an outside, underestimated force finds a method through which they find they can wreak vengeance on the wrongs perpetrated against them, without considering the consequences. This makes for fascinating reading, as it highlights the damage that gossip can do, and how you should never assume that everyone is on your side.

Many of the characters, however, are unsympathetic. To begin with, there's almost too many - it seems Rowling has tried to portray each member of the entire village, and as a result I struggled to keep track of who was who at different points; names would crop up and I would have to take a few moments to recall exactly who they were, and how they were connected to other people (and all the characters were connected to each other in some way). With such a large cast, it was difficult to feel anything for all of them - and that was without the vast majority appearing to be a stereotype; the single mother, the drug addict, the mouthy rebel, the resentful, neglected wife... they seemed to be stock-characters, taken from the usual supply, and I felt that it had become a case of quantity over quality, with Rowling trying to cover all her bases, and so that made it difficult to root for anyone - if you haven't got anyone to be on the side of, it makes getting involved in the book much harder.

However, even if the number of characters was depleted, and I found it easier to remember them, I still would have struggled to enjoy this novel, due to one key factor: the content seemed to be all about deliberately shocking the reader. Literally, every possible vice, crime or sin was shoe-horned into the plot, with characters either committing or alluding to these evil deeds and thoughts. Seriously, there is every kind of wrong being perpetrated in this novel; it's like Midsomer Murders, how corrupted can one community be?! Initially, these evils shocked and appalled when they cropped up, as they were probably meant to, but after a while it just got boring, to the extent that, after each reading session, The Boyfriend was subjected to an updated list of the latest wrongs that had occurred. Maybe this was the point Rowling was making, together with the dirty secrets of the characters, that every community, no matter how idyllic it might appear, has cankers at the core. This might be true - I'm sure every family has a few skeletons in the closet, or a relative no one talks about, or 'the black sheep' - but after a while these constant crimes, these supposed shocks, just got dull; nothing really surprised me anymore, beyond the fact that these imaginings came from the same brain as dear old Ron Weasley came from.

I wouldn't say I would never read this book again; I probably will, because despite the bleak content - and it is very bleak at times - I did find it an engrossing read, and difficult to put down, probably because the way in which all these secrets erupted to the surface of the calm Pagford community appealed to the gossip in me; I think we'd all be lying if we claimed we'd never discussed someone behind their back, or kept a particularly close eye on a neighbour we didn't quite trust. It's a very clever novel in that respect; it plays on the guilty pleasure that gossip is to most people, whilst also demonstrating the damage it can do. It didn't make for comfortable reading though, and this was probably the most off-putting thing; I never expected a Potter-esque novel, partly because that kind of thing comes along once in a generation, and partly because if I were her, I'd probably want to make it clear to the world that yes, I can write a magical world, with amazing characters and fantastic places, but I'm also capable of being really gritty and real too. Perhaps that's why The Casual Vacancy plays out as it does; it's a deliberate juxtaposition between the black-and-white morality of Harry Potter and Hogwarts, and the stark reality of the 'Muggle' world. However, when you think you know a writer's style, and then find they've written something that is not just completely different in content, but also feels different to read - that can be, and was for me, unsettling. Next time I read it, however, I'll be prepared, and maybe I'll find a bit more to enjoy than the gossipy tone.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Review: I Am The Secret Footballer, by Anonymous

I am about to astound you all with a fact that you may  have difficulty in believing: I do not know much about football. I mean, I can tell my Chelsea from my Celtic, I know that Joe Cole and Ashley Cole are not related, I know that Cristiano Ronaldo is such a good diver he should be doing it into a pool, and if you give me five minutes to think it through first, I can explain the offside rule in a relatively stilted way. Beyond that, I'm stumped. I'll only really watch football when it's the World Cup or the Euros - although on those occasions I will enter into it with a passion you may not expect (I actually got sent out of the room this summer by the Boyfriend in the Spain v Portugal match because I was being too loud in my support of Spain). So I'm not going to lie - I was as surprised as you probably are by my reading this. The Boyfriend was reading it whilst we were on holiday last month, and I was so intrigued by some of the anecdotes he related from the book that I felt I had to read it myself - and against the odds, for the most part, I was hooked, and I read it in less than a day. It's not exactly hard reading, I'll admit - whilst TSF is clearly an intelligent man, he's no Dostoevsky - but it certainly is gripping.

Based on his column in the Guardian, I Am The Secret Footballer is an insider's view of the so-called beautiful game - the dressing-room banter, the effect of a good manager, the money, everything. It's a light on what is actually quite a secretive world; as he points out, for the most part we spectators only get to see a certain amount of a footballer, upon which we base entire judgements of their characters. It's the same with all celebrities, but I suppose with football there's a certain aggression to it; for starters, it seems like a pretty easy job to earn so much money, and most of them seem to be jumped-up, idiotic cheats. Told from the point of view, however, of a man who admits to depression, hints at money woes and clearly knows his Shakespeare, it certainly made me re-think my opinions on certain footballers. I never considered it before, but the pressure they must be under, with fans, managers, teammates and families dependent on their good performances for so many reasons - faith, jobs, money, support... Of course, the same can be said of many jobs, but we don't all perform them under the media's scrutiny, do we?

But that's, of course, not the main reason for why I enjoyed this book. I can harp on as much as I like about how it's changed my viewpoint and taught me not to judge people and all that jazz - and to an extent, it has - but the real reason for why I liked it? The excess, the gossip, the dirty little facts you can't believe he's getting away with spilling. No names are mentioned in the dirty bits, of course, but there's enough to speculate on. Even without the names, there's enough going there to satisfy even a Hello! magazine reader; for example, there's a trip to Las Vegas which results in a Champagne War, in which groups - in this case, TSF's team and Barcelona - try to effectively bankrupt each other for the night by sending increasingly expensive drink orders and champagne to each other, until one can't afford the bill and has to be escorted from the premises. Then there's the Ferrari that got damaged by a game of Lets-Try-To-Surf-A-Baggage-Trolley-Through-The-Revolving-Doors-Of-A-Hotel-Into-The-Car-Park, and the subsequent denial of all knowledge. For a view on how the other half live, it really doesn't get much better.

However, it's not all Champagne Wars and Ferraris; there's a serious side too. TSF recounts stories of bad management from both managers and the higher-ups, in which clubs are driven into the ground (he actually refers - indirectly - to the poor management of Leeds United, by Peter Ridsdale), and the emotional impact of chants from the fans. We're all disgusted by the monkey chants that are still heard in some grounds, but it does tug at your heartstrings to read of an unnamed young footballer sobbing in the changing rooms after being shouted at by some so-called 'fans'. TSF refers to the sense of entitlement fans feel towards the players - they've paid their money, bought merchandise, cheered down at the pub - but no one deserves to be bullied, for whatever reason. Having said that, since TSF mentions how some older players bullied him when he first made the bigtime, I suppose there must be culture of it in the game - doesn't excuse it, though.

Not all of it was enthralling; I completely lost my way in a chapter devoted to, and entitled, Tactics, and there was one about Agents too that I sped-read so fast I may as well have skipped it; I know that when you're reading a book, you should give it the attention it deserves, but honestly? I know so little about the sport, I barely had a clue what I was reading, and I'll admit it, I didn't pick it up to read about the best way to score a goal. Kick it in the right direction, yeah? Just kidding. But nevertheless it was one I was surprised to find I enjoyed, and I would read it again. Part of this can be attributed to the mystery of just who TSF is - a happily married footballer who's been elbowed in the face by John Terry is what I would've thought a fairly narrow enough margin, but apparently it isn't (for in-depth speculation, visit the website). Whoever it is, I have to applaud them - even with the anonymity, it's a brave step to take, to openly discuss some of the subjects mentioned in the book. As well as that, they've crafted an intelligent, interesting, funny insight into an exclusive world, making it more accessible to football novices like myself.

Review: Cooking With Fernet Branca, by James Hamilton-Paterson

Have you ever been on holiday, and found a corner of the place you are staying in is piled high with books other guests left behind? I always find these books to be a bit mysterious; who left them behind, and how long ago was it? And why did they decide not to take them back - was it a bad story, or were they offended by the content, or were they simply forgotten and the loss was discovered too late? I myself have left books behind at holiday destinations twice before; once was earlier this year, with The Map by T.S. Learner, a story with a plot so unbearably convoluted, and characters so one-dimensional that after one read I abandoned it to it's fate on a communal bookshelf in a hotel. The other was years and years ago, when I was a moody teenager, and was called Tin Grin by Catherine Robinson. I have only the vaguest memory of the plot - I know it was a typical teenage story; some bullying, a new step-family, a few illicit rendezvous with the local bad boy who fancied the main character - the usual drivel. I don't remember being particularly offended by it, but as I made the decision to leave it in a holiday villa I evidently didn't care a great deal for it. We returned to the same villa on two more occasions after that, and I was both gratified and annoyed to find Tin Grin was still on the shelf; gratified, because it was dog-eared, so had obviously been read by other teenagers visiting the villa, but annoyed, because they hadn't loved it and taken my offering away. To be honest, they probably didn't love it because most books in holiday residences have probably been left there because other people didn't want them; but then someone else will come along, and they may find that this abandoned book, which wasn't gripping enough, or funny enough, or clever enough for someone else, is actually perfect for them. This is how my family discovered Cooking With Fernet Branca; some previous holiday-maker had left it, my dad picked it up, and that was that.

Cooking With Fernet Branca is a parody of two genres; firstly, it satirises the countless novels that revolve around Brits making a new life for themselves abroad, whilst also gently mocking the sometimes ludicrous recipes found in celebrity cookery books. The novel relates the story of Gerald Samper, a man of indeterminate sexual preference, and a ghost-writer for celebrity autobiographies, who rather fancies himself a chef, and so moves to Tuscany in order to explore his questionable culinary skills. Unfortunately, he discovers that the peace of his quiet retreat is disturbed by Marta, a composer from a fictional Eastern-European country, who he professes to despise and pity, but can't seem to stay away from. What follows is a series of increasingly ridiculous events, told from both Gerald and Marta's points of view, involving crossed wires (a staple of British comedy), a touch of xenophobia and several crates full of a spirit called Fernet Branca.

Gerald - or Gerree, as Marta calls him - is a buffoon. He is pompous, ridiculous and full of false modesty; some examples of this are the several 'recipes' for his culinary creations, which are peppered throughout his chapters, including Fish Cake (literally, a sponge cake flavoured of fish) and Alien Pie (ingredients of which include cat meat and a dash of kerosene), as well as his constant singing of ridiculous arias from made-up operas.  At one point he sings, 'Vedi, vedi vedi il fondo del barattolo!', which Marta translates for us as 'see the base of the container', perfectly depicting his ludicrous behaviour. Yet despite all his pretensions, he is endearingly clueless, and this is his saving grace - moments such as his tumble down a steep hill whilst attempting to dismantle an outhouse take the edge of off what could be a hideous character.

Marta, however, is far less entertaining, probably because she is far less eccentric. Whereas Gerry is mostly there for the comedy value, most of the key plots are driven by Marta and her life, which consequently impacts Gerry's. Without Marta, Gerry wouldn't have much of a story - he'd just be a flamboyant, narcissistic man playing at being a chef in Italy (could even be Jamie Oliver!... just kidding, I love that guy). With Marta on the scene, he is exposed to an Italian director with severe delusions about the subject matter of his latest film, the rebirth of a pop group fronted by an ageing star with interesting theories on extra-terrestrial life, Eastern European mafia... the list could go on. What Marta lacks in characterisation, she more than makes up for in plotlines.

No one would pretend for a second that this is world-class literature; it's simple, good fun. There's innuendos, battles of the sexes, explosions and even a bit of unexpected hanky-panky thrown in for good measure (and not between who you would think). I think what I enjoyed so much about this book was that I didn't expect to like it; my dad kind of insisted that I read it so many times that in the end, I just read it to shut up him up, so the pleasure I derived from it was heightened by my low expectations. Hopefully I haven't put it on a pedestal too much; I'd rather it was something people accidentally found entertaining, rather than it be one of those disappointing ones where you're told it's hilarious, but it isn't, because it's the kind of book that benefits from that - it's a slow-burner, one that you increasingly enjoy the more you read it. It's one of those books with jokes so subtle that you don't always pick up on them until the third, fourth, even fifth, read. I'm certain, however, that if it doesn't make you laugh the first time, it will at least raise a smile - and who knows? By that fifth time, you'll be laughing almost as loudly as I do.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Kindle: The Verdict

Well, I've had my Kindle for just under three weeks now, so I felt it was high time that I put you all out of your misery and finally revealed my opinion on the Kindle (because obviously, you haven't had anything better to occupy your thoughts with other than my dilemma - right?!). Well, I am pleased to say that, after several years of firmly denying I'd ever buy a Kindle, a year of umm-ing and aaah-ing as I started to cave in, and several blog posts in which I have documented my ever-weakening resolve, I can finally reveal that.... (drum roll please)..... I'm still not sure, and that makes me exceedingly happy.

Before I explain why my indecisiveness has made me so pleased, I'd just like to reveal a few of my own thoughts on the Kindle. I can't deny that we are getting along famously; within about two hours of getting my Kindle through the post, I had downloaded around twenty-one books, all for the bargain price of £14.50! I couldn't believe it - so many books, for so cheap! And so many for free! Obviously I was over the moon. Of course, I had just spent nearly fifteen quid without so much as batting an eyelid - it's not the amount of money that's concerning me, it's the fact that I was able to spend it without considering. If I hadn't spent so long perusing the free books, that figure could've gone up a hell of a lot. I've also been able to download books I've never had the chance to read, mostly because I was concerned about spending too much money for something I'd not enjoy. But instead, I've got Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray and A Game Of Thrones by George R. R. Martin all waiting for me, and just in time for my holidays, too. Brilliant, because I know the book editions of these are fairly hefty, and I'm willing to bet EasyJet wouldn't be so sympathetic to an overweight case that's mostly books.

I've also been able to re-introduce to myself a few childhood favourites that I haven't read for many years - The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain, and The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. I loved my abridged versions of these books when I was a wee girl, so to be able to finally read the full, unabridged versions was a true delight to me - particularly The Wind in the Willows, which now may have to be inducted to my Favourite Ever Childhood Books list; rediscovering the adventures of Ratty, Mole, Badger and the disreputable Mr Toad brought back some very happy memories of my own childhood.

Then there's also been the obvious advantage of size - I've been travelling on trains a lot recently, but instead of having to worry about finishing my book before my journey ended, I've had a constant supply, all handily fitting in my handbag without so much of jostle to fit it in. I've even managed to lose it once or twice between all the unnecessary handbag rubbish I usually lug around - that's never happened with a book; usually, I lose stuff in books.

But it's not been an easy start to the relationship; I've found reading on a Kindle to be surprisingly difficult, and I can't quite put my finger on why. It may be the fact that it's only the equivalent of one page at a time - I can be an impatient reader and not being able to see two pages has been difficult to get used to. Then there's the fact that it doesn't even feel like I'm reading a book, but instead feels a bit like I'm staring at a computer screen. Between my job, my blog and TV, I spend an inordinate amount of time staring at a screen, and reading books was always a break away from that - but a Kindle feels a bit like I'm holding a very large phone, or a very tiny tablet computer. Consequently, I'm almost reluctant to start reading anything on it - even though I've chosen to download these books, they're not attracting me in the same way that they might've if they were stacked in a tantalising pile on the bedside table.

There's also been a few technological hiccoughs that I've encountered. For example, my Kindle point-blank refuses to acknowledge our wireless signal, no matter how many times I rescan it. Sure, it'll find my next door neighbour's, and even the wi-fi from a coffee shop in the shopping centre about five minutes away, but the little box in the next room? Oh no, that's too much. Considering my rubbish iPhone, who has made it clear that it hates me and will only perform the most basic tasks with begrudging reluctance, can pick up the signal no problem, I find it especially infuriating. Sure, if I turn the Kindle on and off several times, turn the wireless off on every other device connected to it and hold it JUST SO I can get a connection, but really, who has time for that? Actually though, now I think about it, book-downloading in general just isn't as fun as I anticipated - after the initial binge I had, I'm now starting to find that, unless I have a particular book in mind to download, browsing just seems too stressful. For starters, I can't see book covers properly, and as I've discussed before, book covers are a crucial part of the book-choosing process (for me, anyway). The Kindle is all in black and white, and by-and-large, the images of the books are thumbnail size at best; this makes it harder to discern what is on the cover, which in turn makes it harder for me to make a decision. Plus, if you're wanting just a browse, I find the vast selection just too difficult to get my head round; when you go in the Kindle store and select 'browse by books', you're offered a mind-boggling number of titles, all under various categories and I'm sorry, but I haven't got time to flick through so many e-pages to find a book I might like! Browsing in a bookstore is so much better; you can see dozens of books with just a quick glance.

I've also found page-turning to be tricky. Usually, with a book, I have this down to a fine art, but on my Kindle Touch, I'm finding that even a slightly-too heavy press of the screen causes it to skip two pages. Then, when trying to get back, if I don't tap the screen in just the right place, it goes forward again. Conversely, I've sometimes tapped the page several times with no response whatsoever. I also find it harder to skip back pages to re-read something, and because a Kindle doesn't have page numbers, I sometimes lose my place, which is exceptionally annoying. This all conspires to make the book reading experience a slightly more exasperating one than I am used to.

In short, I'm not a full convert. I can see the appeal, I can see how useful it is, I can appreciate that it has made my travelling-life a lot easier, and overall, I am glad I have got one, if only for the free books, cheaper prices and general ease-of-transport. But I'm still going to buy books; if I'm at home, or just need something to read in a cafe whilst I wait for someone, I still prefer a book. The feel of pages, the weight of a book, the comfort I get from them is just incomparable and irreplaceable. I am happy I bought my Kindle, just because now I have a better idea of how I feel about them - it's been an expensive lesson, but it's resolved a few things for me. I'll be glad when I'm on holiday and I can be safe in the knowledge that I've got enough books to keep me happy for a week, but I'll not be giving up my book-buying addiction.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Review: The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

I used to love this book. It was one of those that you have to read several times a year, and for a while, it even held the top spot in my own personal Top 10 Favouritest Ever Books. Then Peter Jackson got hold of it, turned it into a film and that was the end of that. Sure, the all-star cast - Stanley Tucci, Saoirse Ronan, Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz and Susan Sarandon all feature - did a fairly decent job, but as happens so often, I felt that the film did not live up to the book. In this particular case, I felt that Peter Jackson had got a little bit too special-effects-happy, and had focused too much on Susie's interpretation of Heaven. Similarly, he had also put a lot of emphasis on Mr Harvey, and - as I shall explain later - that is not the point of the book. Subsequently, sadly, I left the cinema depressed and didn't pick up the book for about two and a half years - I just knew that, try as I might to avoid it, I would find myself recalling Jackson's interpretation of a scene when reading it, and nothing ruins a moment like someone else coming in and splashing their version all over it, particularly if it jars with yours. Call me selfish, call me vain, but I think my interpretation of scenes are the best ones, and I don't care for someone else's version very much unless it's exactly the same. (This was, in fact, a lesson I learnt as a result of seeing this film).  It wasn't until a recent conversation with my cousin, in which she had commented on the film version of The Lovely Bones, that I found myself wanting to read it again; so, before lending it to her, I decided to read it.

The Lovely Bones tells the story of the brutal rape and murder of a young teenage girl, Susie Salmon, and how she follows her family from her Heaven as they individually struggle through the years to regain balance and cope with her death. Given the subject matter, it's - unsurprisingly - difficult to read at times; Seabold does not shy away from what might be termed 'the gory bits', which are made all the more vicious by the otherwise poetic tone of the novel. However, as mentioned earlier, Susie's death, and her murderer, are only part of the story, and Susie is only the central character for being the narrator; the real story lies amongst her family, and the ways in which they attempt to cope with her death, understand her absence and endure the unwanted celebrity that violence brings.

First things first, beware; if you are, like me, a fairly emotional person, do not expect to make it through this book unscathed. There will be parts of it at which you will find yourself struggling to read the page because your eyes are swimming with tears. The really tricky bit is knowing exactly when the tears will hit, so that you can prepare yourself; get a tissue ready, make sure no one is around to see you, that kind of thing. Obviously first-time readers will not know when these moments will come, so will just have to wing it, but anyone who's read it before will probably have their own parts mentally bookmarked where they just know a chord will be struck and tears will begin flowing. Unfortunately, as I discovered, these moments are changeable; what had been the point at which I normally break down left me dry-eyed, whilst I found myself unexpectedly and quietly sobbing my way through the first 30 or so pages - a hitherto unknown event that caught me completely by surprise and so without any of my usual anti-tears tools. Instead, I just had to hope that my sunglasses hid most of the damage - I was sat in the garden - and that my snuffles could be put down to hayfever by anyone who might overhear (I don't suffer from hayfever). Such is the power of this novel; at different times, different parts can affect you; a change in your life might render a new response to a passage that had previously not meant anything to you. As a novel that deals with such a horrific subject matter, it's not surprising that there are so many scenes and events that may impact in various ways, depending on the point of view of the reader.

(I'm just going to take a quick moment to clarify - this is not a girls book, so I hope any boys reading aren't put off by the emotion of it. It's an everybody book, it just so happens that the language used, the scenes described, the characters involved often create images that are so bittersweet, or horrific beyond comprehension, that if you are inclined to the occasional sobfest, may wrest a tear from your eye. Hard-hearted types should not be put off by this; it's not a book written to make you cry, but to explore the notions of afterlife, and afterdeath.)

The key to the success of this novel lies in the characterisation; each character is perfectly crafted, with a balance to everyone that lies somewhere between being sympathetic and enraging, complex and straightforward. The ways in which each family member reacts to the death are at times questionable, at others infuriating and always understandable. Seabold paints a brilliant picture of grief embodying itself in different ways; one family member shuts down entirely, whilst another immerses themselves in their grieving, whilst another attempts escape through any means possible, and so on. The supporting cast is also brilliantly fleshed-out - Mr Harvey, the antagonist, is a vile character, made unnervingly complex by his background and Susie's insights into his life and past, whilst the boys who loved Susie and her sister, Lindsay, play a crucial role in the support of both girls, one alive, one dead. There are many other characters that I could speak of, as they are all crucial in their own way to the novel, but these aforementioned ones are the main carriers of the novel, the ones who power it forward and give it momentum - even though the events of the novel take place over the course of ten years.

Susie's Heaven is also a wonder; it's without religion, and is simply whatever your subconscious wants it to be. In Susie's case, Heaven is the high school in which she would have reinvented herself, without classes and teachers but with the good kind of swings. Her Heaven is full of little things designed to make her happy, such as products that are seasonal being available constantly, dogs in abundance, or 'riches in furry packages', as Susie terms them, and the good bits of fame - being in magazines and so on. However, it is a Heaven with limitations; until you can begin to let go of Earth, your Heaven cannot grow, and so Susie restricts herself initially by spending so much time watching her family, trying to connect with them. However, as the novel progresses, and Susie learns more about her family and the secrets of life, her Heaven correspondingly begins to expand, revealing more to Susie about life after death. This is probably my favourite version of Heaven that I've ever encountered.

One last thing: this is not a sad book. It is sad at times, yes, and disturbing at others, but most of all it is hopeful; whilst the book begins with death, it does not end with it, and is full of beautiful moments that remind you that ultimately, life does continue, and must be allowed to continue. I don't enjoy reading this book because it makes me cry; I love it - yes, that's right, I love it again - because, despite the horror, good comes out of it. Once you get past the initial assumption that this book is all about death, you'll come to realise that it is, in fact, about life, and how it must not be taken for granted - something which I think we all need reminding about, from time to time.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

A change is coming...

So I finally did it; I finally caved in and bought a Kindle. It was a long and arduous internal struggle, but in the end I found I had to jump aboard this bandwagon at last. There was a brief period of um-ing and ahh-ing (otherwise known as procrastination) in which I tried to decide between buying a Kindle or a Kobo, the main competitor of the Kindle. For a while there I was edging towards the Kobo - it's cheaper, you can download from loads of places, it has a capacity to increase the memory and comes with 100 classic novels already installed. But in the end - as a friend so aptly, if bluntly, put it - 'Kindle is boss, there's a reason it's the best selling one'. After all, if you're going to do something, you may as well do it properly. It wasn't easy though; even as I processed the order through Amazon, there was still an almighty urge to click 'back' and end the whole thing entirely. And once it had gone through, and I got the confirmation email, I felt a bit sad; in a way, I felt like I had betrayed my own principles. I've spent so long raging against e-readers, firmly insisting I wasn't interested that to finally turn tail and back up on myself... well, I imagine this is how Nick Clegg feels on a regular basis.

But now it's happened, I sense a change in myself. Already I'm adapting, planning, thinking Kindle. I've gone bookshop browsing a couple of times recently, and I've left both times without buying a single book. This in an occurence that even a month ago, would've been laughable; I am, or was, almost physically incapable of walking into a bookshop without buying something, and it's not like I didn't find anything in there that tickled my fancy. Instead, I found myself thinking, 'Ooh, I can download that on my Kindle for my next holiday'. This happened before I'd even bought the damn thing, and already I was planning what to download on it, and speaking about it as if I already owned it. 

I've even found myself looking forward to certain little joys the Kindle will bring; for example, I can finally start carrying a book around with me all the time, which was a habit I was trying to get into, but failing at - a battle of size of handbag vs size of book being the main barrier. Now, though, once it arrives and I've started downloading, I can carry my Kindle with me wherever I like, and be able to read whenever I like. Bliss. It'll also help me pack my bags efficiently when I go on holiday again next month, and as it was actually a holiday that made me start to consider buying a Kindle, what with all the heavy books in the suitcase and losing my passport between the pages of a book in my handbag, this will be a nice little bookend to the whole saga. Also, something I've just thought of - don't you just hate it when you're on holiday, lying in the sun, reading a book, and a sudden wind comes up and whips all the pages about unexpectedly? Not for me this time!

It's also got me and the boyfriend talking about literature again; a few nights ago, when I announced (somewhat dramatically) that I was going to do it, I was going to flipping well get on that computer and buy a Kindle, it led to a discussion on the book world; the boyfriend, very aware of my struggles over the issue, earnestly put forth the idea that Kindles were actually encouraging more people to read. However, I quickly countered with actually, it's just encouraging people who like reading, to read more, which is not the same thing as increasing literacy levels - if you're not a fan of reading or books, you're not going to go out and spend a hundred quid or so, plus the cost of the e-books, just to give it a go. This then led to the boyfriend mentioning Penguin Publishing's new money-making scheme, Book Country, a self-publishing kit for new authors (though it's clearly cashing in on the fear that more and more people like E. L. James will go ahead, self-publish, make a mint out of it and cut out the middle man entirely). It was nice to start talking about books and the world of literature again; I've been less attentive to this blog of late, so I've been missing out on my chance to vent my opinions. 

Also - it's just occurred to me - having a Kindle will also allow me to read new authors who maybe weren't given a chance by traditional publishers, so took the DIY approach, and that's a good thing; bookshops can be restricting in that their only literature is going to be what publishers have deemed good enough to publish, which does not necessarily mean that all the good books have actually been published. The Kindle will allow me to read these authors who didn't quite make it through the traditional gauntlet, which in turn will allow me to support and encourage new authors.

That's not to say that the advent of the Kindle to my life is all sunshine and roses. There's still that clawing guilt in me that I've betrayed print books - currently I'm sat next to a bookcase, and I feel like all the books on there are judging me - and I am worried that already, before I even own a Kindle properly, I'm not buying books anymore. One of my biggest fears about buying a Kindle was that I would stop buying print books, and that's started happening already. Sure, it's probably not entirely a bad thing - even in the new, bigger abode, bookspace is at a premium - but I'm a little bit ashamed that I so easily succumbed. Then, of course, there's the fact that I am a bit of a technophobe, and a Kindle is technology; I had a look at a friend's Kindle the other week and I have to say I was a bit flummoxed by it all, as it seemed opening a book on a Kindle was a bit more of a deal that taking one off a bookshelf. I'm also concerned about money; I may not be buying print books now, as I'm saving them up for e-books, but here's the thing; if I'm not physically handing over cash, or putting my card in a card machine, it's a bit easier to spend money, because it doesn't really feel like I am, so internet shopping can be an issue for me. As a result, I think downloading e-books is going to be surprisingly costly for me, especially as it'll be linked to my Amazon account, so I won't even need to put card details in or anything. Yep, this could be a costly mistake.

I thought making a decision on whether to just buy one or not would help calm my inner battle over this; once I'd committed, I could just move on in the direction I'd taken. I was hoping I still wouldn't be agonising over the pro's and cons of the whole thing, but here I am, still blogging away about it. I guess there has been a change in the waters in this; before, I was just staunchly resisting Kindles, but now it's more a case of guilt over the fact that actually, I'm really looking forward to my Kindle arriving, and quite excited about the ease in which it will allow me to access books; I just hope I can remember to buy print books too, from time to time!