Friday, 31 May 2013

Reviewing Holiday Reads Before I've Read Them.

I'm about to head off on me 'olidays soon, and I could not be more excited about it; apart from the distinct lack of warmth and sun this year, I'm going to one of my favourite places in the whole world. To top it all off, I'm going to be accompanied by the usual number of books - basically, too many. But this year I have the advantage of the Kindle - my old nemesis-turned-friend -  to carry all my books for me. In anticipation of this readathon, I thought I'd emulate something I attempted last year; a pre-read review, and I thought I'd have another go this time. However, I have got a lot more books this year,  so I'm throwing in an extra caveat - one-sentence pre-reviews. Let's see how well I get on with this before it turns into a stream-of-consciousness mess of no full stops...

1. A Load of Old Bones by Suzette A. Hill
Why I'm taking it: There's a cat and dog that go around a village solving crimes, and the story is told from their point of view; need I say more?!
Likelihood of enjoyment: 9/10; there appears to be an intriguing mix of comedy, silliness and thriller in here.

2. After Midnight by Richard Laymon
Why I'm taking it: To be honest, I downloaded it accidentally; what I thought was a crime thriller, which is a genre I'm loving at the moment, turns out to be a stalker/slasher horror story (typical girl-alone-in-a-house-but-she's-not-alone fare), but I've bought it so I might as well read it.
Likelihood of enjoyment: I am the biggest scaredy-cat in the world, so let's give it a 3/10 for expected enjoyment.

3. The Boy Who Sneaks In My Bedroom Window by Kirsty Moseley
Why I'm taking it: This isn't my usual type of book, seeming a bit too angsty and weepy for me, but the low price and the plot (a girl's brother's best friend secretly protects her every night from the monster that comes into her room) was enough to pull me in.
Likelihood of enjoyment: It's completely unknown territory for me, so I'll lowball it at 4/10 and hope I'm proven wrong.

4. Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
Why I'm taking it: It's about an impending apocalypse, but if Gaiman and Pratchett's surreal comedy stylings are anything to go by, it won't be that simple.
Likelihood of enjoyment: 6/10, because whilst I love the sound of the story, I didn't love Gaiman's American Gods, and Pratchett has always confused me a bit; I'm going on strength of story alone here.

5. Honeymoon for One by Beth Orsoff
Why I'm taking it: This is my guilty-pleasure read; it's not big, or clever, it's just an easy-to-read, easy-to-put-down romantic comedy - simple holiday tosh.
Likelihood of enjoyment: no high expectations at all for this one, so let's go with 6/10.

6. Inferno by Dan Brown
Why I'm taking it: Dan Brown is the king of crap holiday literature, plus I'm hoping this will finally inspire me to actually finish Dante's Divine Comedy, the poem around which Dan Brown's - sorry, Robert Langdon's - latest escapade is centred.
Likelihood of enjoyment: Again, no high expectations, but I've not heard great things, so 5/10.

7. Last Chance by Sarah Dessen
Why I'm taking it: I actually got this as a free book with a magazine on another holiday years ago, and although I've lost the hard copy, I loved the story so much as a teenager that, for pure nostalgia, I downloaded it.
Likelihood of enjoyment: Well, I liked it about 10 years ago, so for the nostalgia factor, 8/10.

8. The Man Who Forgot His Wife by John O'Farrell
Why I'm taking it: The whimsical title actually hides the intriguing, heartbreaking truth of this novel; a man with amnesia is divorcing his wife, having forgotten he was ever married to her.
Likelihood of enjoyment: 7/10, seeing as I'm not usually keen on novels like this, but I just couldn't resist for some reason.

9. Midnight in Austenland by Shannon Hale
Why I'm taking it: It's a murder-mystery set in a Pride and Prejudice theme park, essentially; what's not to love?!
Likelihood of enjoyment: 8/10, because I really enjoyed the original Austenland that this is the sequel to, and allegedly this is even better.

10. Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch
Why I'm taking it: It was recommended to me as a bit of a crime-thriller meets Harry Potter type book, and seeing as I'm enjoying my crime thrillers, and I'm a massive Harry Potter fan, sounds right up my street.
Likelihood of enjoyment: I'm going to say 8/10, purely based on my faith in the person who recommended it to me; I like to think they know me quite well.

11. Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
Why I'm taking it: Because I really enjoyed her other two offerings, Gone Girl and Dark Places; I just really like the way she paces her stories and packs them full of twists.
Likelihood of enjoyment: 7/10, because whilst I like the other ones she wrote, there's a reason I've left this one until last - it tickled my fancy the least.

12. The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes
Why I'm taking it: Everyone on the Twittersphere seems to be talking about this time-travelling murder thriller, and I've heard it's a bit like Gone Girl which, as we've already covered, I really enjoyed.
Likelihood of enjoyment: As stated previously, I'm really going in for my thriller-type novels at the moment, so 9/10.

13. The Woman Who Went To Bed For A Year by Sue Townsend
Why I'm taking it: An efficient mother and wife takes to her bed after years of running after her family; it's an intriguing notion and, as a fan of the Adrian Mole diaries, I'm inclined to think this will be pretty darn amusing.
Likelihood of enjoyment: Well, I'll say 6/10, because whilst I like Adrian Mole, I've not read any of her other stuff, so I don't really know much about her style.

14. Zoo Time by Howard Jacobson
Why I'm taking it: This story of a struggling writer who is tormented by his alluring wife and equally alluring mother-in-law is allegedly hilarious, and who doesn't love a funny on holiday?
Likelihood of enjoyment: 8/10, because having sneakily read the first few pages it does seem very promising in the hilarity stakes.

Now there's only one thing left for me to do - read them! Any bets on how many I'll actually get through?!

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Stuff I've Learned From Books

Pretty much anyone who has ever gone to a school has had access to books; they're one of the main resources used in education and, speaking as someone who works for a publishing house that publishes academic titles, there is pretty much a book for just about any subject, no matter how bizarrely specific. That's par for the course, though; you buy a non-fiction or educational book, you expect to be told something new. However, recently I've started to notice that I'm actually learning things from fiction, and not just stuff like 'if you start out single at the beginning of a book, you'll either be in a couple or dead by the end of it', or 'the killer is invariably someone you have previously established as a decent sort early in the story.' No, I am talking actual pieces of information I have now gleaned from just reading, and here, for you entertainment and education, are some little bits of knowledge that have sufficiently impressed me enough to remember.

FACT: The collective noun for a group of kittens can also be referred to as a kindle.
FROM: Bart Simpson's Guide to Life, by Matt Groening.
Does anyone else remember reading this as a kid? I never owned it but I remember borrowing it several times off a boy in my class at school, and I always liked it. Years later, I was trying to describe it to The Boyfriend, and was not doing very well; it's hard to describe a book you read over 15 years ago. So I bought it for him as a present and, in typical me-style, I read it before he did. It's basically just a collection of Bart-esque facts and advice, designed for children, but I was surprised to find that, in between all the silly, there were actually a few snippets of real information. One of these was a page of collective nouns, in which I discovered that a group of kittens can also be called a kindle, as well as a litter. I was so stunned by this simple fact I even had to look it up to make sure Groening hadn't fabricated it, but it's true! Makes me wonder if Amazon knew that when they created their world-dominating e-reader...

FACT: Squeezing a tea bag in a cup of tea releases tannic acid, which causes the tea to go bitter.
FROM: Before I Go To Sleep, by S. J. Watson
Before I Go To Sleep is a thriller about a woman who wakes up every day, having forgotten nearly all of the past twenty or so years. Each morning she has to rediscover her real age, her husband,  her house, come to grips with it all, and then forget it all again when she goes to bed at night. With the help of a doctor, however, she begins to remember more and more every day, and starts to make startling discoveries about her life, including a few secrets that are being kept from her. It's a great story, truly gripping, but I have to admit there was a part of it that lifted me out of the novel a bit; for, smack-bang in the middle, the protagonist goes to make a cup of tea and marvels at the fact she remembers not to squeeze the teabag, lest the tannic acid makes the tea bitter, but doesn't remember major events in her life. As an avid drinker of tea, I was so surprised to read this that I even changed my tea-making habits; and do you know what? It definitely does taste better. A good read and a handy tip to boot - not bad for a morning's read!

FACT: There is a wall in Postman's Park, London, that is dedicated to everyday heroes who sacrificed their lives for others.
FROM: Charlotte Street, by Danny Wallace
I wouldn't say I'm a big fan of Danny Wallace, but I do find him quite funny, so when he released a novel last year, I decided to read it whilst on holiday. It's not a fantastic book; whilst the story has an interesting premise (a man accidentally steals a disposable camera from a woman he briefly met, and became smitten with, and uses the photos on it to try and find her), but the characters sound a little too like the author - it's obviously Wallace writing it, if that makes sense. However, it does take you on a few little trips around London, and one of these trips is to Postman's Park where, I was stunned to find, there is a wall called the Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice, which is full of plaques dedicated to those who lost their lives in efforts to save others. It's a poignant reminder of how good people can be, and even just thinking about these kinds of people makes me feel humbled; it's definitely a place I now plan to visit.

FACT: You can theoretically catch trout by tickling their bellies
FROM: Danny, the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl
I love this book; it's one of my childhood favourites that I still love as an adult. It's one of Dahl's more serious offerings; despite some ludicrous scenes, the main focus of the story is on the beautiful relationship between Danny and his beloved father. The plot revolves around a snobby social-climber, Mr Hazell, with pheasants a-plenty on his land and a bad attitude. In revenge for his rudeness and threats, Danny and his father concoct a plan to poach the pheasants from Mr Hazell, and thereby ruin a big hunting event for him. In discussing poaching methods, the respectable Doctor Spencer admits to indulging in a bit of poaching himself - namely, trout-tickling, the art of sending a trout into something of a trance by tickling it's belly, so that it would be easier to catch. It sounds ridiculous, yet another of Dahl's fantastical creations, but as it turns out, there is a possibility that it works. I couldn't find anything that confirms it's a viable method, but the mere fact that there is debate on it is marvellous enough.

These are just a few of the things I remember learning from novels, and there's bound to be loads more 'facts' I can reel off now that I got from books - even if I can't remember the actual books they came from. If you've ever stumbled across something in a book that not only amazed you, but turned out to be true in 'real life', I'd love to hear it!

Monday, 6 May 2013

When The Screen Beats The Page

I noticed t'other day that The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald has made it into the top 5 downloads on the iBookstore, and is also coming up in the Kindle 100 Bestsellers, no doubt because everyone is getting very excited about the film adaptation, starring Carey Mulligan and Leonardo DiCaprio, which is due out in the summer. Now, when it comes to adaptations of well-known stories, I am firmly in the Read-The-Book-Then-See-The-Film camp; after all, if you think you'll like the film, it surely means that you'll enjoy the book upon which it is based as well. The book often offers more description, better characterisation and, in some cases, whole storylines that are deemed 'unnecessary' to the film plot. In the interest of cramming a 300-page book into a two-hour film, quite often sacrifices are made and the story can get changed drastically. However, there are exceptions to this - sometimes, for varying reasons, the book seems to get surpassed by it's big - or small - screen cousin. So, in honour of Gatsby's big-screen outing, here is my selection of films and  TV series that I think are better than their written counterparts.

1. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
Regular readers will know I have a certain amount of beef with this book. As a brief recap - saw the film, thought I'd like the book, DID NOT LIKE THE BOOK. The film just seemed more obviously funny, even with it's black humour - rather than focusing on the violent scenes, the film tends to look more at Bateman's descent into madness, not his obsession with torture and murder. By being less clouded by the graphic violence which seemed to dominate the novel, the film manages to make some of the murder scenes funny - no doubt as they were intended to be in the book. It can be hard to focus when whole pages are taken up by a description of one gruesome mutilation or murder.

2. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
I managed to read the book before seeing the film in this particular case, so I was familar with the plot to begin with. I read all 3 books in fairly quick succession - they do make for addictive reading - but wasn't overly impressed with either characterisation (man up, Peeta!) or the general tone of any of the novels. So, when I made it to the cinema for the film, I was ready for something enjoyable but insubstantial. So imagine my shock to find that the film conveyed emotional scenes about a thousand times better than the book -for example, I was a bit sad when (SPOILER ALERT) Rue died in the book, but the film had me sobbing. And then that bit when all of District 8 did the three-finger salute to Katniss on screen? Overkill! Obviously, the film had the advantage of visible expressions, creative licence and accompanying sorrowful music, but descriptively the book simply wasn't that great; the film filled in the blanks.
Incidentally, I am of course referring only to the first book and film - but whatever happens with Catching Fire and Mockingjay, I think I'll always find the first in the trilogy more sympathetic on screen.

3. Lord of the Rings by J. R. R Tolkien
Possibly the longest book ever, I've only actually read my way through the full three volumes the once. Tolkien took his creation VERY seriously, even lambasting his contemporary and friend, C.S. Lewis, for cutting corners with Narnia (Tolkien seemed to take umbrage with the fact that Lewis 'borrowed' so much from mythology, and didn't put much thought into the topography of Narnia.) Unfortunately, Tolkien's dedication was, in my opinion, to the detriment of the novel; there was so much in the novel that felt shoe-horned in for the sake of it, which lead to whole chapters feeling entirely unnecessary. Tom Bombadil, for example - a charming character, but the whole part of The Fellowship of the Ring that features him was simply lifted out of the film, and did anyone miss it? No. The films are still pretty flipping long, but even then they're taking the necessary bones of the story to tell it, rather than deal with the filler. No one can doubt how impressive and detailed Lord of the Rings is, but it does get to a point where it's simply less time-consuming to watch twelve-plus hours of DVDs than read the book.

4. Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
Another sufferer from Overly-Long-And-Unecessarry-Descriptions Syndrome. I enjoyed the books immensely - although I did start to lose interest by the first Dance of Dragons volume - and was eager to finish at least books one and two before starting on the TV series. However, now I have seen the first series (yes I am a bit behind), I have to say that it admirably covers all the necessary plot points, without any of the ridiculous descriptions of every damn feast, or making the telling of a 3-week journey actually feel like a 3-week journey. The TV series manages to get all that done AND keep it interesting - which, in itself, is interesting, considering Martin is a producer for the series - I can only hope he's realised in time for the rest of the novels that it's quality, not quantity, and he can tone down all the feasts once in a while!

 5. Bridget Jones' Diary by Helen Fielding 
She'd probably hate to hear it, but her turn as the eponymous singleton is probably Renee Zellweger's best performance (even with the overly-plummy Brit accent). The book is amusing, but the film is FUNNY - scenes such as Bridget singing along to 'All By Myself' performed by Jamie O'Neal is the kind of thing you can't really convey in writing; nor is the fact that, in the diary-format of the book, everything has already happened, and is simply being relived by Bridget. In the film, you're able to get the feeling of the shit hitting the fan as it happens, not after it has cleared up. It also cuts out all the really annoying 'feeling v. fat' crap. "V"?! Say VERY, you fool - you're the forerunner for the TOWIE morons!

6. Disney's The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Anderson
So, have you READ the Hans Christian Anderson version? It's not all singing crabs and anthropomorphic seagulls. Sure, the story starts off the same - mermaid goes to the surface of the sea, rescues a prince from drowning, falls in love with him. But after that, it's a completely different story. She gets her tongue cut out, her witchcraft-gotten feet cause her agony with every step, and then the damn prince runs off and marries someone else, causing her heartbreak and preventing her from returning to her family (unless she stabs him.) Er, what the blazes?! Screw that - gimme Eric stabbing Ursula with the prow of a ship and Ariel marrying him on a boat any day.