Monday, 7 December 2015

Living In A Serial World - The Sequel

In my opinion, any time is a good time to get stuck into a great book series, but there are two optimal seasons of the year for it: the first is the summer, when you’re going on holidays and want to slip seamlessly from one book to the other on the beach. The second is winter, when a good long series is just an excuse to stay put on the sofa. Back in June I wrote a list of recommended series, but since then I’ve discovered or thought of a few more, and with Christmas creeping closer I thought now was a good time to pass on the new discoveries so you’re all set for the holidays. Bit more of a mix, here – you’ll see some detectives, some fantasy and some pretty gritty YA. As before, images are taken from the first book in each series. Get stuck in.

The Tomorrow Series by John Marsden (7 books, with a sequel trilogy)
I’m going to get this one out of the way fairly early because, whilst it’s an amazing series, it’s also incredibly bleak at times. Set in Australia, a group of teens make a camping trip into a remote part of the bush. When they try to return about 5 days later, however, they find that their town has been invaded by an unknown hostile nation, and all their families imprisoned in the Showground (where, conveniently for the invaders, the town had all gathered to celebrate Commemoration Day). The teens, living in the 90’s without the internet or mobile phones, have no idea how much of the country is affected, or what’s happened to their families. They have two choices, then: surrender to the invaders and hope for the best, or try to avoid their clutches by waiting out the war and occasionally waging guerrilla warfare (guess which option they pick...). If this sounds far-fetched that's because it is a bit, but the way the story is handled is not: this isn’t a few kids digging ditches to make people’s ankles twist, or siphoning petrol out of trucks (much how I imagine the Famous Five would take care of ‘baddies’). People get maimed, captured and blown up; kids get killed and kill in turn. People suffer from PTSD and relationships change dramatically. I wasn’t expecting it to be as blood-soaked or grim as it was but for all that, I read the books compulsively and was at a bit of a loss when it was over.

The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen (3 books and counting)

The first in this series was one of those books where I saw it everywhere but refused to read it for ages, but when I eventually caved (as I always do), I found I'd been a stubborn ass who’d hurt only themselves because it's really, really good. At the beginning of the first book, Kelsea (stay with me – I know the name is a bit crap) is hiding out in the forest with her elderly foster parents. Kelsea is not like any other orphan, though – she’s the heir to the Tearling throne, which is currently under the corrupt rule of the Regent, her uncle, who wants her dead so he can rule as King. Then there’s the threat of the Red Queen, the sorceress who rules a neighbouring kingdom with a bloody fist and has a grip on the Tearling already - Kelsea’s ascension to the throne is not going to be an easy one, especially when only a handful of people know she lives. The best thing about this series is, you think you have the measure of it at the beginning – forgotten princess, corrupt relative, nemesis Queen, etc etc. You really, really don’t. These books are not quite fantasy, are a bit sci-fi, with some Game of Thrones-esque politics and most importantly, are utterly unputdownable.

The Cormoran Strike Novels by Robert Galbraith (3 books and counting)
I’ll start out by admitting: I have a few problems with these novels. Rowling (alias Galbraith) can write a great story, but there’s been barely any attempt to differentiate Cormoran Strike from any other modern detective. He drinks too much; he’s got a war record; his ex-girlfriend still exerts control over him even though he knows they’re bad together. His main USP is that he’s the bastard offspring of an aging rock-star and a super-groupie, which does get used from time to time in the series but on the whole is for character back story. That being said, they’re really enjoyable stories that keep you on your toes – the first novel in particular, The Cuckoo’s Calling, kept me guessing all the way through. You know that Cormoran’s relationship with his younger, dazzling secretary, Robin, is straight out of How To Write a Crime Novel 101 but you’re still invested all the same, and Robin’s professional and efficient approach to crime-solving contrasts typically - but nicely – with Cormoran’s own bull-in-a-china-shop attitude. I guess what I’m trying to say is, if you don’t mind your detectives being cut from the usual cloth, you’ll enjoy these. If you don’t – well, the crimes and criminals should still be enough to hook you, but you have been warned.

The Amy Lane Mysteries by Rosie Claverton (4 books, 1 novella and counting)
This (currently) ebook-only detective series is, to use a tired metaphor, a breath of fresh air in a fairly overcrowded detective market. Sure, it shares a few tropes with Cormoran Strike: odd-couple team? Check. Romantic tension? Check. Crotchety contact in the police who reluctantly helps out? Check. But the detective in question, Amy, is an agoraphobic hacker; her assistant Jason is her ex-con cleaner, and the action takes place in Cardiff and the surrounding countryside. The books rumble on at great pace and the storylines are really well plotted, but the appeal here is Amy: in a double-whammy, Claverton has created a main character with a debilitating mental illness who uses technology as the main way to solve crimes, rather than trying to dodge it for ruining the fun (‘Unfortunately, Detective McCrime’s electricity was cut off and his phone drowned in the whisky he’d drank last night, so it looked like he’d have crack this case, old-style… Just the way he liked it’.) if you like crime novels but you’re getting bored by the tropes, then these books are for you.

Percy Jackson and the Olympians by Rick Riordan (5 books)

First thing you should know about the Percy Jackson novels: they’re written with middle-grade kids in mind (is that year 7/8 in UK schools?). Second thing you should know about the Percy Jackson novels: that doesn’t matter one bit, because they’re extremely clever and fantastic fun. After being attacked by a harpy on a school trip, Percy is taken by his best friend Grover (who turns out to be a satyr) to Camp Halfblood, a summer camp for the offspring of Greek gods run by a disgraced Dionysus and Chiron the Centaur. There, he discovers that not only do the Gods exist and have children running around the world, but that he’s the son of one of the Big Three, Poseidon, and that his Uncle Zeus has got it in for him because he thinks he’s a thief. So begins Percy’s adventures as he struggles to prevent a war between the gods, and comes to terms with his own demi-god status. The stories are crammed through of retellings, allusions and easter eggs – my favourite being Medusa running a garden centre that specialises in statues – so there’s plenty here for people who are fans of Greek myths, but even if you’re not it’s still a great story. If you’ve seen the films, don’t be put off – Rick himself has never seen them because he had no involvement in the screenwriting or production, so you can be sure the books are much, much better.

The Baby Ganesh Detective Agency by Vaseem Khan (3 books and counting)

This one didn’t quite make it onto the list because it’s a new series with only this title currently available, and my criteria for this list was that there had to be at least two titles released with more to come.  But I couldn’t NOT give this one a mention because it was just so much fun to read. Again, like the Cormoran Strike novels it can be quite trope-y and a bit predictable, BUT THERE’S A BABY ELEPHANT IN IT (I’m not giving away any spoilers, it’s pretty much on the first page). On the day Inspector Chopra retires, two things happen: a young boy turns up seemingly drowned but possibly murdered, and Chopra’s uncle leaves him a baby elephant, Ganesh. I can neither confirm, nor deny, that Ganesh helps Chopra solve the mystery of the dead boy, but I can tell you that this was an utterly charming book with moments of genuine tension and even more genuine hilarity, and I’ll definitely be reading the second when it comes out.
UPDATE: two more books have since come out, at last legitimising the inclusion of this series in the list.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

I Forgot That Reading Is Fun

This might sound like a really odd thing to say but, last weekend, I realised that it has been a long, long time since I last read for fun. I voiced this discovery to my boyfriend the other night who – completely reasonably – laughed at me and replied, ‘But you’re always reading!’ This is an undeniable fact: I read on my commute, in lunch breaks, in the bath and before bed. On a bad day I’ll read for just under an hour – on a good one, nearer two. This is why I can steam through around 12 books a month – I read fast and frequently.

But when I read, I’m usually doing it to fill time. I read on my commute because it’s a 25 minute train journey. I read on my lunch breaks so I get a break from my computer. I read in the bath because having a good soak can get boring quickly without some literature to hand. I read before bed to help wind my brain down. I enjoy the books I’m reading, and I enjoy these little parcels of Designated Reading Time in my day, but it’s become part of my routine, and that’s kind of the problem – reading has become so institutionalised into my day, that when I have free time, I rarely reach for a book. Instead, I’ll watch a TV show or film, exercise, do some colouring in, go shopping, to the pub… all the things, in short, that I don’t usually get to do during in a working day. Reading is not one of those things – until last weekend.

I gave myself a payday present of two books last week – The Lake House by Kate Morton, and Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith. Normally these are books I’d buy on my Kindle, but when I discovered on Amazon that The Lake House hardback was only 30p more expensive than the ebook, that Career of Evil was actually cheaper to buy in print, and that if I got the two together it would get me free delivery – well, it was a no-brainer. Conveniently, the books arrived on the following Saturday, and the temptation to just ‘start’ one of these was pretty strong. However, not being a frequent hardback-buyer, I discovered an immediate problem with my new purchases: at 500-600 pages each, these were hefty books. Not exactly easy to cart back and forth to work, nor to hold comfortably in the bath or in bed. No, the only way I was going to be able to read these books was if I deliberately sat on the sofa or in the chair and read these, upright, like all good readers do in stock photographs. This, obviously, cut in on my film/TV/colouring/pub-going time, but I’d spent good money on these books because I wanted to read them, not just for the sheer fun of spending.

I wouldn’t say I was reluctant to deliberately choose to sit and read, but I was startled at how unnatural it felt. At first I thought I should be doing something else, but there wasn’t anything else that needed to be done – this was free time, leisure time, to be spent how I wanted. I didn’t need to explain myself or justify my decision to anyone, but I still had a nagging feeling of ‘you could be doing more with your time’. However – and this is hardly the plot-twist of the century – that feeling didn’t last long: within a few chapters I was thoroughly engrossed in Career of Evil, allowing my tea to turn cold as I became more invested in Cormoran Strike’s latest investigations. I read for over an hour, and at the end of it I still had that slightly-guilty feeling of wasted time – but now, I welcomed it, like an illicit treat. The next day I did the same thing, and the day after that, too. I was reading not just to pass time, but because I wanted to, because I chose to, because it was the thing I wanted to do most at that moment.  

I think the problem I created in my mind is that, reading is a rather singular activity, as Mr Hurst of Pride and Prejudice once said – my Designated Reading Times are nearly all points of the day when I’m on my own, and so when I’m not alone, I choose to do things that might be more inclusive of company and my boyfriend. I know I read a lot anyway – it seems silly to choose to read a book over any number of other activities, when I read so much in a normal day as it is. However, when I deliberately sat down and carved out some time in my day to read – as I’ve recently been hypocritically, pompously advising a friend to do – I found that actually, reading is fun. It’s not a time-waster, or a moment-filler – it’s something that can be done for the sheer joy of it, with the knowledge that you won’t have to put it down because you’ve reached your stop, or it’s time to go back to work, or the water has gone cold. I read so much, I forget that sometimes the best part about reading a book, is knowing you don't have to put it down.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Recommended Reads (and Drinks) for Autumn

As the evenings draw in and the clocks go back, I always find myself reaching for the same kind of books. These are usually the kind that are perfect for snuggling up with - crime novels, romances, thrillers - the kind of books that make you glad it's blowing a gale and raining sideways outside, so you can stay in and keep reading. Here I've recommended some of my favourites for the season, and a drink to accompany them as you read away the dark autumn days (well, you've got to keep yourself hydrated, right?):

Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
I love reading this book especially in autumn because I always imagine Manderley, the house where most of the story occurs, is shrouded in the kind of mists you only get at this time of year. It is, essentially, a ghost story, which is perfect for the season – the narrator is haunted by the memory of Rebecca, her predecessor as the wife of Maxim de Winter. Everything about this book is full of tension and foreboding, from the narrator’s first view of the great house to the descriptions of the stormy night that Rebecca died. Throw in the menacing Mrs Danvers and you’ve got a Gothic romance that, sometimes, is as creepy as a true-blue ghost story like The Turn of the Screw.
Recommended Drink: A large glass of red wine, to help calm your nerves whenever Mrs Danvers appears on page.

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
Another novel in a setting I always imagine as foggy, The Miniaturist is the tale of another young bride, Nella, arriving at her new husband’s house, apprehensive but hopeful. What she finds, however, is a household run by her intimidating sister-in-law, where all the inhabitants appear to be keeping something from her. A distraction arrives in the form of a doll’s house replica of her new home, which she sets to furnishing with the help of an unseen Miniaturist, who quickly becomes a menace when un-ordered items arrive that seem to foretell the future. Before long, Nella is unravelling her new family and home’s secrets, all the while unsure of whether the Miniaturist is an ally or an enemy. It’s not quite a thriller, nor a mystery, nor a historical novel, but a good mix of the three and perfect for curling up with.
Recommended Drink: The story is set in Amsterdam, so I’m going to suggest a beer – a proper one, mind, none of this Fosters business.

I get the train every day, usually at the same time, along the same route, and rarely does the countryside look as beautiful as it does in early morning autumn sunshine. The Girl on the Train takes place in the summer, so really it’s just the connection of trains that gets this book a place in this list – that, and Rachel’s (one of our narrators) familiarity with her own commute route. She’s a little too familiar with it, actually, concocting a backstory for a couple she espies from her train every day, and becoming so involved in her fantasy that, when she sees something that threatens it, she begins to insinuate herself into the couple's lives. It’s got a great pace and hooks you into the story pretty quickly, so it’s perfect to start on a grey Sunday afternoon as day seeps into night.
Recommended Drink: Given the alcoholism of one character, it might be in poor taste to recommend alcohol, so I’m going to go with a virgin mojito (it’s a thing…)

The Secret Place by Tana French
Bit of a hollow connection here, but this is set in a school, autumn is the season of going back to school, etc. After a boy is found murdered in the grounds of a prestigious all-girls school, the police throw all their resources into solving it – but the cliques of teenage girls are a hard nut to crack and the murder goes unsolved. Until, that is, a pupil finds a note tacked in The Secret Place – a noticeboard that allows pupils to spill secrets anonymously – stating only, ‘I know who killed him.’ The story is told in the popular dual format – part of the story comes from the perspective of a young officer helping re-investigate the murder, and the other is a third-person narrative detailing the lives of a core group of girls in the years and events leading up to the murder. It’s a bit slow-going at times – at over 500 pages it might be a bit overlong – but French keeps you guessing all the while, and the climax is worth slogging through the duller patches.
Recommended Drink: Cider, to help get you back into the mindset of being a teenager.

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
What better companion to a wild and windy night, than a murder mystery? And what better murder mystery than the Queen of Crime’s best work? Ten strangers, with no apparent connection to each other, are lured to a house on a remote Devonshire island under false pretences – it’s not until one of their number drops dead and a record plays that they realise the true reason for their presence. With no escape, numbers dropping fast and suspicion breeding distrust and paranoia, the inmates of the house find themselves driven close to insanity as they struggle to identify their assailant in time to save their own skins. It’s as creepy as any traditional ghost story and incredibly tense, so carve out an afternoon for this one – you won’t want to put it down.
Recommended Drink: It’s got to be a classic cocktail, to match the time period – a gimlet, perhaps?

The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
A warming romance now, featuring Henry de Tamble who, due to a rare genetic condition, frequently finds himself displaced in time, physically returning to events that have already occurred. This is how he meets his future wife, Claire, an artist whose early years and teens are haunted by a man who claims to know her in the future. It’s a bit dodgy on the science front – obviously – and I did sometimes get the heebie-jeebies thinking about how Henry spends a lot of time hanging around with a child he later marries. But ultimately it’s sweet, poignant and clever, dividing time equally between the man who can never stay in one place, and the woman who gets left behind.
Recommended Drink: A big steaming mug of tea, to compliment the warmth of the story.

This is a great book to read on a cold day when you’re all toasty-warm inside. Set in Alaska in the early years of the 20th century, Jack and Mabel are hoping to get a second chance at life after a personal tragedy. But the bleak Alaskan landscape, the hardness of the farming life and the weight of the past threatens to destroy everything they hoped to build. It’s not until they’re befriended by their nearest neighbours, the hardy Esther and George, and the mysterious girl Faina appears from the woods, that their new life seems possible. It’s a fairy tale that’s not afraid to address loss and depression, and the origins of Faina is a tantalising mystery that keeps you guessing throughout the novel.
Recommended Drink: Hot chocolate, made with milk (NOT hot water), with marshmallows in.

Any particular books you always find yourself reading at this time of year?

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Food, Glorious Food

Well, I’m back from my (completely intentional and not at all accidental) summer hiatus and quite frankly, I am more than ready for autumn. Don’t get me wrong, I love summer – pub gardens, leaving the house without a jacket, long sunny evenings – but at heart, I like jumpers and chunky scarves and boots, and these items of clothing are just not compatible with warm weather. I have a very romantic idea of what autumn is like – crisp sunny mornings, brightly-coloured leaves, sitting by a roaring fire in the pub... Never mind that the reality is usually grey drizzly days that cause leaves on the ground to turn to a mushy, slippery pulp, or that it’s nigh impossible to get near the fire in any pub, if they have one – I love autumn. And one of my favourite things about autumn is FOOD, because regardless of how little my autumnal expectations match up to reality, food is never an issue. Be gone, light summer dishes and salads! Hello, roast dinners, bangers and mash, lasagnes, casseroles, baked potatoes…  

No, this hasn’t morphed into a food blog over the summer - I am going somewhere with this, trust me. A little while ago, I wrote about some of my favourite passages about food, and since then, I’ve come across a few more. In the spirit of what I like to think of as the Training-For-Christmas period, I’m going to share them with you:

Danny’s Pie – Danny, the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl
Dahl is surprisingly good at describing food – it's easy to miss between all the other crazy, hair-brained stuff he came up with but some great food is in there too - the sweets of the Chocolate Factory, and Mr Fox’s fantastic feast, are two such examples that spring to mind. However, one that particularly gets me salivating is a short passage in my favourite Roald Dahl book, Danny, the Champion of the World. It’s just after Danny’s dad has broken his foot, and the doctor’s wife is worried about Danny eating, so sends a package with her husband when he pops by for a check-up:
'Very carefully, I now began to unwrap the grease-proof paper from around the doctor's present, and when I had finished, I saw before me the most enormous and beautiful pie in the world. It was covered all over, top, sides and bottom, with a rich golden pastry. I took a knife from beside the sink and cut out a wedge... It was a cold meat pie. The meat was pink and tender with no fat or gristle in it, and there were hard-boiled eggs buried like treasures in several different places.'

Minnie Frying Chicken – The Help by Kathryn Stockett
Minnie is a maid in 1960’s Jacksonville, a gourmand, and a brilliant cook. She’d be in high demand, if it weren’t for the fact that her cooking is 'nearly as sassy as her tongue’ (that’s a quote from the blurb, not me – makes you cringe, right?). Naturally, if you’re a writer, you’re not going to give a character a particular skill or trait unless you can back it up in the story, and there are several passages in The Help that lend credence to this claim on Minnie’s culinary wizardry. One that always sticks in my mind though – probably because it’s something I love to eat, when it’s done properly – is when Minnie is teaching her inept new employer how to make fried chicken:
'I turn on the flame and we watch [the Crisco] melt down in the pan.... "Chicken's been soaking in buttermilk," I say. "Now mix up the dry." I pour flour, salt, more salt, pepper, paprika, and a pinch of cayenne into a doubled paper sack. 
"Now. Put the chicken parts in the bag and shake it." Miss Celia puts a raw chicken thigh in, bumps the bag around...  Real careful, I lay the dark meat in the pan. It bubbles up like a song and we watch the thighs and legs turn brown.'

Elsa’s Big Breakfast - The Bed and Breakfast Star by Jacqueline Wilson
Weekend/occasion breakfasts are one of my favourite things. Whether out in town or at home, there are few things that feel as weekend-y to me as a proper breakfast. No cereal, toast or porridge here (unless as accompaniments) – I’m talking bacon sandwiches, a Full English, smoked salmon and scrambled eggs, Heuvos Rancheros – proper breakfasts, that are meals in their own right rather than just something to get your day started. Elsa’s breakfast at the Star Hotel, towards the end of the book, is probably an early influence for this appreciation:
'I had milky tea and cranberry juice and cornflakes sprinkled with rainbow sugar and then muesli with extra sultanas and apple rings and then scrambled egg on toast with tomato sauce and then sausages stuck in a long roll to make a hot dog and then a big jammy Danish pastry and I ate it all up, every little bit.'

To be honest, everything about this book is delicious, but there are multiple, all-too-brief descriptions of food in it that just get me every time – and, as I can read this book in one sitting, by the time I’ve finished it I’m nearly always craving some cold chicken, some ham and coffee (I don’t even like coffee), or a huge sundae:
Breakfast: 'Soon the blissful aroma of fried ham and eggs and coffee filled the air. She discovered an electric toaster. Toast took it's correct place. She went back into the room. "Everything is ready, Miss LaFosse."'
Lunch: 'They lunched at home, and Miss Pettigrew prepared it. She discovered the remains of a cold chicken in the pantry. Cold chicken, to her, was the height of luxury. Miss LaFosse opened a bottle of Liebfraumlich and made her drink some.'
The Ice: '... The ice was a marvellous concoction... There was cream and fruit and nuts and ice cream and a wonderful syrup, all skilfully blended. She slowly turned each ambrosial spoonful round her tongue.'

Molly Weasley Makes Dinner – Harry Potter by J. K Rowling
I think some of the death scenes in the earlier Harry Potterbooks leave something to be desired, but one thing JK does well, in my opinion, is food. In my last post on the subject I mentioned Harry’s first feast at Hogwarts, but let’s not forget Ultimate Mum, Mrs Weasley, and her literal culinary wizardry. Molly’s meals never fail to make my mouth water, and here are just  two examples:
The Chamber of Secrets: 'Mrs Weasley was clattering around, cooking breakfast a little haphazardly, throwing dirty looks at her sons as she threw sausages into the frying pan... "I don't blame you, dear", she assured Harry, tipping eight or nine sausages onto his plate, "Arthur and I have been worried about you, too. Just last night we were saying we'd come and get you ourselves if you hadn't written back to Ron by Friday. But really," (she was now adding three fried eggs to his plate), "flying an illegal car halfway across the country - anyone could have seen you"... 
"They were starving him, mum!" said George. 
"And you!" said Mrs Weasley, but it was with a slightly softened expression that she started cutting Harry bread and buttering it for him.'
The Half-Blood Prince: 'She tapped the pot again; it rose into the air, flew towards Harry and tipped over; Mrs Weasley slid a bowl neatly beneath it just in time to catch the stream of thick, steaming onion soup. 
"Bread, dear?" 
"Thanks, Mrs Weasley." 
She waved her wand over her shoulder; a loaf of bread and a knife soared gracefully on to the table. As the loaf sliced itself and the soup pot dropped back on to the stove, Mrs Weasley sat down opposite him.'

The Bakery – The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton
There are many beautiful descriptions in this book, but some of my favourites are from scenes within the bakery owned by Emilienne, the titular Ava's grandmother. I love baked goods – crunchy bread, cream cakes, iced buns – and the description of such delights in this book do nothing for any of my half-hearted attempts to stay away from such treats. This particular passage about a woman finally giving in to temptation is one of the most delicious in the book:
'Before her neighbour had a chance to object, Emilienne marched out to the front of the store and stuck the frosting-covered spoon in Marigold's mouth. 
Few people know this feeling: what it is to give in to a long-denied desire, to finally have a taste of the forbidden. After swallowing that mouthful of frosting, Marigold stumbled backward out of the store... In a daze, Marigold walked straight to her kitchen, tracking muddy footprints across her spotless linoleum floor. She pulled out her dusty cookbooks and began marking pages of the sweets she never allowed herself to eat. Then she tied an apron around her waist and set to making a coconut cake. 
Later, still wearing the apron - now covered in gratings of coconut and splashes of vanilla extract - Marigold ate the cake: the whole cake, including every lick of frosting left in the mixing bowl and on her fingertips.'