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Showing posts from 2016

Great Sense of Schumer

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OMG - What a title! I'm super smart and funny.

Anyway...

2016 has been a generally terrible year, but it has also been the year of me reading books by celebrity women, so that must balance out some of the horror, right? I've enjoyed Caitlin Moran telling me how to be a woman, Lena Dunham making me feel better about my mental health problems, even Patti Smith reminding me of the romance of the creative life. I would recommend all three writers very highly.

What's interesting is that I'm not a massive fan of any of those three people generally. Caitlin Moran is funny but I often have to approach her columns with a massive pinch of salt; Dunham is from a liberal America that I barely recognise; Smith makes amazing music but often comes across as a pretentious prick. The lack of personal connection didn't stop me enjoying their works and is a reminder that you can admire someone's art even if you don't agree with them on many things/anything. And it was with that …

Enough!

Today, I took a load of library books back without having read them. In fact, one of them I had started and I just didn't fancy carrying on with. That one was my arbitrary read, the 24th book further along on the shelf from the last one I read. The first one I've not finished since I started this challenge a while back.

Yep, I think I'm done.

It's not that I haven't enjoyed the challenge. It's actually made me read a whole host of fiction that I would never have bothered with before. Some of it was dreadful (I do not like family sagas, I can say that for sure now) and some of it was fab (thank you, Robin Black) but all of it gave me an insight into the life of the library and the tastes of the general readership that I had never fully understood.

However, it's also slowed down my reading of other books, the ones that I've been eager to read. Over time, particularly as I've got busier with other projects, it's started to feel like a bit of a chore, …

Halloween reads

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If you follow me on Twitter (@arbitraryreader, y'all), you will have seen that I'm trying to watch 31 horror films over October. It's been fab, but it has taken a chunk out of my reading time. For those of you who aren't compelled to take part in arbitrary challenges, may I make some recommendations for scary books to take you through the Halloween period:

THE CLASSIC: I love reading classic literature as it often provides an insight into the ideas and tropes that influence our modern favourites. This is particularly true of horror. Can you imagine the genre without Stoker's Dracula or the gothic psychological horror of Poe? It's just so important. My choice here is not quite that old, but I think it contains imagery that all horror fans will recognise, imagery that has particularly influenced the way haunted houses look on the big screen. It's The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. It's got psychological horror, a creaky old house that seems to …

I'm into the Ds!

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It's true: Cataract City by Craig Davidson marks the move of my arbitrary reading challenge into the Ds. Also true is that, like my last arbitrary read Sweetland, this is a Canadian book. Randomness produces clumps, amirite?

Googling Cataract City brings up quite a lot of information. It looks like this was quite a big release when it was first published in 2014, but it's one that completely passed me by. I also didn't know that Cataract City is a reference to Niagara Falls though, so I'm probably just uneducated.

Oh shit! Davidson wrote the stories that inspired the film Rust and Bone! I love that film!

Ok, I'm excited now.

The story seems to be about the life of the town behind the touristy facade, a life which is much rougher than the beautiful scenery might suggest. 

What? Craig Davidson is also horror writer Nick Cutter? I also did not know that. 

From the reviews, there does seem to be an undercurrent of horror to this book, with a hypermasculine culture being port…

Bitter Sweetland

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Despite being only about 300 pages long, it took me well over a week to read Sweetland. It was unusually slowgoing, hard to read more than about 30 pages at a time. Thankfully, this was not for bad reasons, but because the style of the writing and pacing of the story encourage a slow read, wanting the reader to turn over each sentence in their minds and to allow the plot room to breathe. This is not a book for speedreaders.

I found the slow pace frustrating at first until I discovered that the pace was hugely important to the story. Sweetland is about a small island near Newfoundland, a place where life runs at a much slower speed than it does on the mainland. Inhabitants are being encouraged to leave for the sake of a large payoff but Moses Sweetland, one of the older residents who has spent most of his life on the island, is holding out, unwilling to leave the only life he really knows. Moses' existence is not a cluttered one: he fishes and shoots for much of his food, resting on…

Marmite books

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I've had a lot of reading and writing to do recently so I'm a bit behind on my arbitrary reading challenge. I have made it to the library, though, and my next book is Sweetland by Michael Crummy. 

It looks like something of a Marmite book: either people love it or hate it, according to the Goodreads reviews. Perhaps I'm a sucker for punishment, but that sounds like a good thing to me. If people have a strong visceral response to a story, it must have some emotional charge to it, some depth that intrigues or repels. Of course, there are some books that people love to hate because it's the 'cool' thing to do - "Oh, of course I would never read something like Fifty Shades" or "Isn't Harry Potter for children?" - but there are other books that just seem to polarise opinion. A Little Life is one of them: me and my friends adored it but I know others who found it pretentious and unengaging. Pretentious, it may be, but that book swept me along a…

No alarms and no surprises

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I can report that Dilly Court's The Lady's Maid was nowhere near as bad as I expected it to be. Well, for a book that contained absolutely no surprises anyway.

At no point is the reader anything other than completely aware of what is going to happen next. The opening chapter tells us that Kate is the lady and Josie the gypsy, even though they are brought up in the opposite situations, so the reveal of that means nothing. There's also never any doubt about who each girl is going to end up with despite the back-and-forth of the plot (yes, it is very much a story in which marriage is the only acceptable outcome for a female character). Even the minor characters have arcs that a nine-year-old could predict. There is a certain satisfaction to be had from such a neat story, but you need some suspense.

The predictability extends to the character types too. The noble poor; the selfish but ultimately goodhearted rich girl; the lascivious older 'gentleman'; the jealous help...…

It's literature festival time!

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Well, not quite. However, in the past couple of weeks, we've had announcements for a few literature festivals, including the Cheltenham festival and my local one in Birmingham.

These events aren't always the cheapest to go to, so it's often worth picking up a festival pass if you think you'll be attending a number of sessions. Alternatively, if you're in the Birmingham area in October and want to attend just one or two events, may I suggest you make an effort for these:

Trials, Tribulations and Triumphs – October 9th – 12-1.15 – Library of Birmingham

Juno Dawson and Nicola Morgan talk about writing for the YA audience and the stigma surrounding mental illness.

Now, I've seen Juno Dawson talk before at a Waterstones event with horror writers including Darren Shan and Derek Landy. The fact is, she is hilarious. Her books cover a range of genres, with some exploring aspects of her experience as a transsexual as well as delving with insight and humour into the tricky a…

The apocalypse is really bad this time

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The Fireman by Joe Hill might just be my favourite book of 2016 so far.

I've been a big fan of Hill since picking up Heart-Shaped Box a few years back. Much like his father (Stephen King, doncha know), he has a wicked sense of humour, the ability to develop characters quickly and believably, and a great feel for plot. Also like his father, he has an eye for the occult and unusual, with his stories normally falling into the horror genre. And again like his father, he sometimes writes other types of stories, but those horror elements persist throughout.

The Fireman is a science fiction novel more than a horror, but there are some scenes of violence and suffering that could be classic video-nasty fare. We follow the story of Harper Grayson, a nurse trying to help patients during an epidemic of Dragonscale. The disease is horrific, covering the victims' skin in scaly marks (thus the name), and leaving them prone to spontaneous combustion. When Harper discovers a very real need to pr…

They call it karma

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This, THIS, is what I get for being smug about getting to skip over Joan Collins and Jilly Cooper:


Yep.

Dilly Court, a writer who must be a thousand years old and has certainly written a thousand almost identical books.

Fucking family sagas.

I think what most annoys me is just how much this looks like one of my previous arbitrary reads:


I find this depressing. It's like readers are expected to think so little about what they're reading that they'll literally judge the book by its cover, picking up identical stories in identikit wrappers. 
What's especially annoying is that it works. My dad is a classic example. He'll buy those multipacks of cheap paperback crime books and discover he's already read most of them after getting through about 100 pages. It's reading, but it's pretty mindless.
This cover replication exists in a lot of fiction. Sure, covers are meant to give an indication of the kind of story within, maybe a sense of the tone or genre, but the indiv…

An ugly image of the future

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Rock Creek Park by Simon Conway is one of those books where plot seems to determine character, rather than the other way around. That's not ideal. As a reader, you want to feel like the personalities and actions of the characters dictate what happens next in the story, not that they are pawns being forced to play out the plans of the writer. For all that is interesting about RCP, it never quite gets over this.

As with many books of the thriller genre, Conway's work is high-concept and heavily plot-driven. And it's quite the plot. When a body is found near the home of a senator, an investigation is begun that discovers links with the Russians, a biological research lab dealing in genetic engineering, and Detective Freeman's own past as a soldier in Vietnam. With connections like that to pull together, it's no surprise that the machinations of the plot are prioritised over character.

In fairness, the main characters are ok, but it can be the secondary ones who are most…

"Sensational bonkers"

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First of all, a confession. I am, like, so all about The Dark Tower right now. OMG, amirite? By which I mean, I devoured Song of Susannah last week and am already about a quarter of the way through the final book in Stephen King's fantasy series. It's 700 pages long but there is a chance it could get finished before the week is out. It's just too exciting.

The odd part of this is that I've not necessarily been a big fan of the individual books in this series. I found The Gunslinger hardgoing, and it was a little while before I picked up the next one. The books aren't written in as easy a style as King's horror - there are times when the story seems overwritten, moments that pull the reader out of the books - and the fantasy genre has never been a favourite of mine. Too many coincidences; too many ways magic can conveniently save the day when the writer has apparently written themselves into a plothole. This is probably grossly unfair but it always seems to me th…

A very Victorian soap opera

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Reading Basil by Wilkie Collins was a definite blast from the past. Returning to the subject of my MA thesis after an absence of about five years, it was interesting to note how familiar the style was and how clearly I recognised his favourite tropes and themes.

The book itself isn't one of his best, but it certainly contains many of the features that made Collins famous (and notorious) during the Victorian era. It's rightly called a sensation novel, covering themes that most soap opera fans will be very familiar with: love, deceit, revenge, tragedy, etc. It's all a bit overblown in places, but that's kinda the point!

Basil is written largely as an autobiography, with the young man of the title telling us about his infatuation with the beautiful Margaret Sherwin and the doomed course his love took. That's not a spoiler: as much as this is hinted at by the story's very opening. Basil is not the most attractive of protagonists, admitting openly to his personality f…

A writer I know very well

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I had to laugh when my 24-count took me to Basil by Victorian writer Wilkie Collins. Although not a book that I've read, I know the story and the author very well, having written my MA dissertation on Collins just a few years ago. 
Wilkie Collins was a contemporary and friend of the great Charles Dickens, and there are some similarities in their works. Both often wrote about character types who might have been overlooked by other authors at the time, focusing on poor or criminal characters rather than just the well-to-do. Collins went even further than Dickens, often peopling his novels with fallen women and disabled characters. While these could often be absurd or exaggerated, they were always viewed as whole people and were given a voice by Collins in a society that worked hard not to.
The plots could be as intricate and complicated as those of Dickens too, although they tended to be less sprawling in scope. Collins' most famous work is probably The Moonstone, credited as one …

Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?

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Just as propositioning someone in French is meant to make it sound more classy than sleazy, Elizabeth Coldwell's His Secret Boss is an attempt to make erotic fiction a little more upmarket. Despite my earlier reservations, it largely works.

For a start, Coldwell puts as much effort into the plotting and characterisation as she does into the naughty bits. You could argue that there's too much plot if you're looking for a titillating read, with quite lengthy establishing chapters getting in the way. Once we get through that, things progress more obviously. Hotel chain boss Claudia Anthony is going on one of those undercover boss shows but, inevitably, is attracted to the hottie running the Welsh hotel. Knowing that he is falling for a woman who doesn't really exist, is it fair for her to pursue this relationship? Even if it's not, does she have the strength to refuse?

What's interesting about this plot is that it plays around with the traditional power dynamic. In …

They're sex people, Lynn!

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My new arbitrary read is His Secret Boss by Elizabeth Coldwell and, as you can probably guess, we're into the realms of softcore erotica. Um, yay? 

On the positive side, I've got nothing against a bit of raunch. On the negative, it's so rarely done well. It can be bad in many different ways. You get the overly technical descriptions, where Item A is slotted into Tab B and it all sounds a bit mechanical and gross. Or you have the over-sentimentalised version where everyone's 'making love' and it's all slow and sensuous without being at all squelchy and faintly embarrassing. Or (and this is the kind that has flooded the market thanks to books like the Fifty Shades series) you have the uncomfortable sexual dynamic of the naive young woman initiated into the darker side of sex by an older man. The sexual politics often at play in such texts are less than titillating.

I guess my problem is partly that these books seem like such a crap way to get your jollies. If y…

She's out of step with the style...

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I've said it before but it bears repeating: doing an arbitrary reading challenge in a modern public library is going to lead to a high occurrence of urban fantasy, chick lit and cozy crime novels. I'm not (necessarily) passing judgement here, just stating a fact. And if this is what most library users enjoy reading, I'm very much out of step.

My recent read fell into the second of these categories. Learn Love in a Week by Andrew Clover might be written by a man and have a review from a man on the front cover but it is most definitely chick lit. Arthur and Polly have been together for ten years (and three children) and their marriage is starting to get stale. Keeping a job she hates to fund Arthur's creative lifestyle, Polly finds herself resenting her husband's lack of earning potential and laziness around the house. Desperate to write and sell a teen novel, Arthur wants his wife to be more supportive and less rigid. When their two former paramours appear on the sce…

Is male chick lit a thing?

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Well, I suppose it must be. There's that Nicholas Sparks chap whose every sentimental offering is snapped up by Hollywood like a bad remake and, apparently, there's this Andrew Clover fellow too. This is my next arbitrary read and I've got to admit that I've been a bit slow in making a start on it. After all, Learn Love in a Week has a proper chick-lit cover and a very conventional plot: with a marriage on the rocks, will the wife be able to resist The One Who Got Away? And my answer: who cares?

No, that's mean. I've just not had much luck with this kind of book in the past. When I read Anyone for Seconds?, I actually became angry about how the gender roles were almost aggressively traditional, as if not wanting children is degenerate. Not all chick-lit is that way, I know, but the schmaltzier the cover, the more worried I become.

What gives me hope here is that having a male author in a typically female genre might lead to some deeper insights into the male char…

A thoroughly modern predicament

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One of the benefits of working in an academic library is the ready availability of smart books on a huge variety of interesting subjects. Thanks to this, I've recently read a book about the paranoia of bibliophobes, an exploration of punk music's links with dadaism and the situationist movement, and a history of early computing. If I was capable of retaining information, I'd probably be feeling a lot better informed right now.

The book pictured, Affluenza by Oliver James, is one of the best random picks I've made so far. It's by a prominent psychologist and broadcaster who believes that modern capitalism is making us both physically and psychologically unwell. He claims that we are trained to value the wrong things in life, having goals and motives that are to do with wealth gain and materialist satisfaction rather than more emotionally satisfying objectives. Not only does this poison our relationships with one another, it makes it almost impossible for those afflic…

What a girly read should be, part II

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I had the pleasure last night of going to a Waterstone's event in Birmingham. Laura Bates, founder of the wonderful Everyday Sexism website, gave a depressing/inspiring talk about her work and why fighting sexism is still such an important job.
Some of the stories and statistics she gave were frightening, particularly about the way gender and sexual difference is dealt with in schools. Can you imagine how distressing it is for a teenage girl to be told that female sexuality is like Sellotape - if you use it on three or four different things, it loses its stickiness...? Yep, that's the kind of empowering information that schools are passing on. Helpful, I'm sure. 
But the evening was about much more than griping about how shitty being a woman is. There were also positive stories about women who have fought back against sexism in the workplace or whilst out jogging. I imagine being a female jogger must be a lot more entertaining if you're wearing a "Honk if you love f…