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Showing posts from 2015

My five best books of the year...and one turkey

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It is Christmas, after all.

I'm not much of a one for reading books hot off the press and, like one of my favourite artists Austin Kleon, I think most people read all sorts of items from all different time periods over the course of a year. So these are just going to be my five best reads from 2015, new, old, and otherwise.

In no particular order:

THE NEW ONE: 'A Little Life' by Hanya Yanigahara. It took me about 75 pages to get into, but I was then utterly engrossed. There is so much here that I recognised, and the tragedy and sadness that runs through the book is lightened by the kindness and love shown by so many of the characters. They are all flawed and painfully human characters, and your heart will break for them at many points over the course of this long book. Bring tissues.

THE NON-FICTION ONE: 'Dream Boogie' by Peter Guralnick. I don't read many biographies generally, but this one sucked me in from the start. It shows Sam Cooke in all his guises, from ta…

'Tis the season...to read weather-related fantasy

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Yeah, I didn't know this was a specific genre either.

My next arbitrary read (to be started once I have finished 'Red Rising' by Pierce Brown) is 'Windfall' by Rachel Caine. It is the fourth book in the Weather Warden series, which does seem to be a fantasy series about people who can control the weather. Maybe they're the reason for this unseasonably mild Christmas.

Going straight in with book four might not be a great strategy, but my experience with serialised fantasy of this type is that each novel tends to stand alone. In fact, the last one I read ('Fireborn' by Keri Arthur) was so keen for readers to keep up that it reiterated the key points with monotonous frequency. It also had a vein of overt sexuality that seemed designed to ensure that it was kept out of the YA section, despite it clearly being the natural home for such writing. I hope 'Windfall' tries less hard, embracing its genre and telling its story without apology.

The Amazon revie…

The literary equivalent of a fondant fancy

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It would be unfair to say that I didn't enjoy 'All The Things You Are', but it's not a work that is going to make any lasting impression on me.

First, the good stuff. It was largely well-written, with plenty of quickfire dialogue to keep the pace up. The setting and characters were convincing, which isn't necessarily to be expected considering Burton-Hill's background or the original plan for the novel (see the author's note at the end of the book to see what I mean).  

However, it didn't hang together. There is a lot of exposition, with each new character or new setting introduced with a paragraph of unnecessary back story. The characters are convincing but are very much tropes: the beautiful lesbian sister, the perfect boyfriend from the 'other side', the inspiring elderly holocaust survivor, etc. It kind of feels like Burton-Hill wanted to make her book as diverse as possible: a noble exercise but one that can lead to worthy rather than inspiri…

All The Things I'm Not

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I've been a bit absent from the site for a bit because of other writing commitments.  I've taken over some editing responsibilities at www.publicpressure.org and have even won a writing competition.  It's all very exciting, but it has not left as much time for reading as I would have liked.  So, back to it.

The next book for me to dig into is Clemency Burton-Hill's 'All The Things You Are'.  It's not appealing to me greatly.  Burton-Hill comes across as one of those women who is brilliant, hard-working and talented, but also from a couple of class layers above me.  In my experience, I have very few points of connection with private school, London types.  I grew up in a little village and went to a less-than-exemplary state school.  Sure, I've had a great education since then and live in reasonable comfort now, but it's a million miles away from the life of a person with the full name Clemency Margaret Greatrex Burton-Hill.  Yeah.

Even taking the empat…

I finished das Book!

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Sorry, couldn't resist.

I was unsure about reading 'Das Boot'.  War books and films can leave me cold, leaning too far towards the heroes vs villains model or being too overtly political, but Buchheim's novel is nothing like that.  It's less about war and more about men under pressure.  Often literally, in fact.  They are just doing a job, rarely engaging with the politics about why they're at war and what it is they are fighting for.  It's the day-to-day concerns that matter to them, the things that will keep them both sane and alive, leaving little room for rhetoric. 

Instead, they talk about normal man stuff - sex, ambition, food - a facade of masculinity to hide their fear about the very real chance that they will perish at sea.  There is little 'them against us' bluster.  They admire the Tommies with their bravery and sophisticated equipment, and are profoundly moved when they see the human cost of their torpedo strikes. That it is the lives of o…

Putting Das Boot in

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It was giggleworthy when my arbitrary reading challenge set me up with 'Das Boot' this week.  Well, until I realised that I had to read the blimmin' thing, that is.  The film is held up as a classic so I have legitimate reason to hope that the original source material is also great.

Although 'The Godfather' isn't much of a book.

And Stand By Me is much better than 'The Body'.

And 'The Hunger Games' is not a well-written trilogy.

Hmmm, my logic may be fallible here.

Flicking through GoodReads.com, the general feeling seems to be that it is a great book but too long.  It sounds like the author is fond of elaborate description, a feature that might get tiresome when you consider that the action is set on a U-boat.  However, the feelings of claustrophobia and foreboding are apparently put across well, and it is a slice of history worth discovering.

I have a little bit of 'Wizard and Glass' to finish before I get to it.  This is the fourth book in …

A question of style

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If you've kept an eye on my '30 for 30' page, you'll have seen a recent update about the book 'A Little Life'.  I started off reading it hesitantly, struggling a little to differentiate between the main characters and struggling further still to empathise with them, yet the book completely won me over.  The depth with which the characters were drawn, the honest portrayal of relationships, the inevitability of tragedy: it all combined to make something beautiful and profound.

One of the things I didn't mention in my update was the style, but reading 'Hinterland' made me realise how significant the style was in my enjoyment.  In some ways, for a 700+ page novel, the style of 'A Little Life' is quite sparse.  There is not a huge amount of physical description of places and scenes, aside from where it's there to emphasise something about character: we see a place a certain way because that's how one of the characters sees it.  The richnes…

A brief detour from the arbitrary

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Not a new favourite

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I read 'Forever Yours' as quickly as possible, not out of enjoyment but because I needed it to finish.

In my earlier post, I talked about how the violence seemed excessive, apparently designed as a way to elevate the inevitable happy ending.  It all felt mechanical, plot-driven rather than built on character development.

This paragraph is my favourite in the whole book:

He'd come across a couple of youths a few summers ago - ne'er-do-wells. by the look of them.  They'd netted and captured a good number of lapwings and had been busy cutting out their hearts, brains and eyes to be enclosed in necklaces which they sold, saying it would profit the wearer against forgetfulness, kidney trouble and the slow workings of the body.  Another old wives' tale.  To see the remains of the beautiful dark plumage shot with iridescent specks of metallic turquoise and the blood and bones had sent him fair mad.  Even their own mothers wouldn't have recognised them by the time he&…

This is what old ladies read?!

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Working in a library means spending a lot of time shelving family sagas.  Old ladies love them.  The covers usually look something like this, the very typical cover of my current arbitrary read, 'Forever Yours' by Rita Bradshaw:


It's so cliched: the pretty young woman in front of a vaguely old-fashioned landscape, here of the urban North persuasion.  You get a lot of the nurse/midwife stories that look similar too.
It may surprise you to hear that I never picked up one of these books for a casual read.  I just assumed that they would be twee stories about marriages and babies, with perhaps a few characters sacrificed to TB for the sake of some easy tears.
I can't speak for other books in this genre but 'Forever Yours' really does not fit into that description.  It's something far far worse.
Within the first three pages, we learn about a 7-year-old boy sexually abused by his mother.  By the end of the chapter, two characters have been murdered.  One hundred page…

I was wrong!

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Normally, I will not admit to being wrong.  After all, much in life is a shade of grey, where the right or wrong of a thing is more a case of personal opinion and taste than it is a truth carved in stone.  But here, I made a snap judgement about something and it turned out, happily, to be unfair.

I'm talking about this book: 'Assassin's Creed: Unity' by Oliver Bowden, a book based on the popular series of computer games.


As I said in my preview, I just couldn't see how it was going to be a good read.  And yet, the 460-odd pages flew by.  And not just because it uses a big font.

Now, before you get carried away, I am not going to make a claim for this being a great work of fiction.  It has some very lazy fantasy tropes.  There is some exceptionally poor editing.  The plot is really really silly.  But it is written with conviction.  It doesn't feel like a cheap attempt to cash in on the success of the videogame; it feels like a piece of fantasy fiction in its own ri…

It's not all fun and games though

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I've been away from the library for a couple of weeks, giving me a chance to catch up with some other reading.  I've read the acclaimed debut 'The Loney' and picked up 'Nora Webster' from one of my favourite authors, but it is time to return to the world of the arbitrary.  Meaning that my next read is this:


Yep, it's a book based on a computer game.  Even better, it's a book based on a computer game that was released with a whole heap of bugs in it.  Imagine your favourite game looking like this:

Anyway, I'm not a games player, let alone reviewer, so let's have a look at the book instead.  There have been some games franchises that have been turned into effective books, just as some of the film versions have managed to rise above their roots.  The Assassin's Creed books don't seem to make it onto these lists, but the author has reasonable credentials.  Oliver Bowden is a pseudonym for Anton Gill, a writer of historical fiction and non-fict…

Funny Games

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I finished Roberto Bolaño's 'The Third Reich' with a mix of feelings.  I had enjoyed reading the book.  There is a sense of tension and underlying threat that adds spice to even the most mundane of exchanges, yet little ever happens to justify this suspicion.  I liked the ambiguity of the characters whilst also wanting a clearer idea of their motivations and goals.  The book felt like it ought to have gone on further, providing a more obvious conclusion, but I was glad to have reached the end.

Seeing as this was a book written well before the author's death in 2003, perhaps there is a reason that it had languished in a drawer for so long.

The story, for what it's worth, is that Udo is on holiday in the Costa Brava with his attractive young girlfriend.  They befriend another couple, Hanna and Charly, despite them being a bit boorish and dull.  However, when Charly goes missing, presumed drowned, it is Udo that decides to stay behind until the body is found.  He begins…

Time is a factor, Lois

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I'm well aware that I need to be delving further into my '30 for 30' list, unless I want to spend the last weeks of my twenties reading solidly.  Now that I think about it, I kind of do but that might be difficult with the other demands of life.  However, I can tick another book off the list on the basis that I've read 'Ulysses' already.  That's good news, what with it being about 1000 pages and all.

My next '30 for 30' read will be Jonathan Franzen's 'The Corrections', a book that I'm 99% sure I've read but about which I can't remember anything significant.  I remember enjoying it, and I did consider skipping it, but it seemed like a cheat when my review would have been: “Yeah, I've read it, I think...'  It'll have to wait a couple more days until I've finished my current arbitrary read, 'The Third Reich' by Roberto Bolaño.  

For those not in the know, and I was not either,  Bolaño was a Latin American …

Still Life

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This evening, I literally had ten pages left of 'Life Drawing' by Robin Black but my husband managed to call me out for dinner before I could finish it. I'm going to save the last bit for before bed. For now, let me tell you all the reasons I love this book.
When I previewed 'Life Drawing' earlier this week, I predicted that it would be a dark tale. While that's not entirely wrong, it doesn't quite convey the tone of the book. The opening sentence warns the reader that the story will end with a death, and we are told within the first few pages the reasons for the tension beneath Gus (Augusta) and Owen's marriage. Our understanding of their marriage develops as we read about their daily routine working as a painter and writer respectively in their house far away from society. Here, while the impression of a successful marriage is maintained, the reader is acutely aware of the rottenness underneath, particularly as Owen sinks further and further into his w…

Back into my comfort zone

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I've spent quite enough time fuming about how much I disliked 'Echoes of Om'.  It's time that I move onto something more positive.

On that note, I went to the library and picked up my next arbitrary read: 'Life Drawing' by Robin Black.  I was immediately pleased when I pulled this off the shelf, as the cover has a bit of a Bryan Fuller/Hannibal aesthetic.  This idea of something dark and psychological is borne out by the blurb on Amazon, hinting at secrets, betrayal and jealousy.

I don't tend to read marital dramas but most subjects can become compelling when the inner lives and motives of characters are exposed.  Some of the best writing comes when not much is happening with the plot yet the reader witnesses every twist and turn of the protagonist's mind.  It's not a form for everyone though, as demonstrated by some readers calling the writing style 'slow-going'.  I'm a snob who spends far too much time reading 19th-century literature (an…

Two tales of the Empire

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I finished 'Dodger' even quicker than I'd expected.  Non-stop rain in the UK gave me a golden excuse to curl up in bed with a book, and this was a most welcome companion.

Benmore's tale of a grown-up Artful Dodger returned to English shores was an enjoyable 'sequel' to 'Oliver Twist'.  The title character was not a clear hero, but his thievery and trickery were made sympathetic through his love for Ruby and nostalgia for his early life with Fagin.  The plot is every bit as over-the-top as a Dickens novel, just with a less dense writing style and a more manageable list of characters.

Perhaps my only complaint is that I'm not 100% sure which audience the book is aimed at.  From the cover, I would guess it's for older teens, but some of the language and sexual references might make parents wary.  The storyline, characters and general writing style would be easily accessible to teens and I found it a bit young for me, despite it being shelved under Ad…

A twist in the tale

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I'd really wanted to get into another '30 for 30' text this week, but have been scuppered by someone else having the gall to take it out of the library.  I know, right?