Showing posts from 2017

Like Father, Like Son(s)

Collaborations are interesting beasts. As a reader (a Constant Reader, in this case), you find yourself looking for the seams, the evidence of two different writers with different voices and different ideas. To the credit of Sleeping Beauties, it's not immediately obvious where these borders are, which sections were written by Stephen King and which by his son Owen. In fact, this feels very much like a Stephen King novel, just with some of the sharper edges smoothed down. It'll be up to each CR to decide whether or not that's to their taste.
The story, weirdly, seems closer in tone to Joe Hill's The Fireman than King's more traditional horror. One morning, women stop waking up, instead becoming cocooned in a web-like mesh. If this covering is disturbed, the women turn murderously angry, lashing out before falling back into their sleep. As the world tries to come to terms with what's going on, the women of the small town of Dooling attempt to keep their eyes op…

We are all conspiracy theorists

Rob Brotherton's Suspicious Minds is a book written for these turbulent times. When it seems like those on opposing ends of the political spectrum - Republican/Democrat, left/right, Leave/Remain - are incapable of taking each other seriously or of having a genuine discussion about issues, this book provides a much-needed insight into why we think and believe the things we do.

The trouble with a book about conspiracy theories, ironically, is that we are all going to read it with some preconceived ideas. We'll either already think that it's all crackpot nonsense from losers in tinfoil hats or that conspiracy theorists are the kind of people who have a healthy distrust of authority and the official line on things. As Brotherton shows, we're quite likely to come out of the book with these prejudices reinforced, possible even strengthened, as psychological quirks like confirmation bias come into play. We'll see what we want to see, put more emphasis on the evidence tha…

At each other's throats

I really wanted to like Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution by Sara Marcus. Although I'm a little young to have been part of the Riot Grrrl scene, the music of bands like Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney was a big part of my late teens, so the idea of a history of the movement intrigued me. I wanted to hear the stories of the women involved, find out how teen-written zines inspired a generation to embrace the new wave of feminism, and get an insight into the inspiration behind some of my favourite music. Unfortunately, the true story is nowhere near as romantic as I'd hoped and, to Marcus's credit, she doesn't shy away from the ugly side of the Riot Grrrl scene.

Riot Grrrl had inspirational roots and was borne out of a genuine desire to address sexism within the punk movement and society in general. The earlier adopters worked to make gigs more open to women, particularly younger ones, both by getting them on stage but also making the crowd a …

Those who don't learn from history...

I'm not the greatest fan of non-fiction. It's a personal failing. I'm totally unable to retain information so learning about something new is always followed by the frustration of not being able to remember any of the interesting trivia or fun anecdotes when I try to talk about it with someone else. I'll remember the feeling I had when reading the book, will retain a general impression of the topic and people involved, but don't even try to get anything specific from me. It's not how my brain works.
However, certain non-fiction books do manage to break through this barrier, and one of them was Sarah Bakewell's How To Live, about the French philosopher Montaigne and his teachings. Again, there's a lot (A LOT) that I can't properly remember, but the humour of the book, the uniqueness of Montaigne and his way of life, those sort of features stuck with me, so I was thrilled to see that Bakewell had turned her pen to a subject I know very little about: e…

5 star cooking

Jamie Oliver gets an awful lot of abuse for championing family cooking and quality school meals for children. I do get some of the criticisms - he does seem unaware that easy and affordable access to certain products isn't universal; his 30- and 15-minute meals require quite a high level of skill to be realistic; his children do have terrible names - but it seems unfair to criticise a guy so heavily for trying his best to improve food and health for the wider population.

For his detractors, the idea of a set of recipes involving only five ingredients is likely to encourage an eye roll. Only five? Surely that means he'll expect a stacked cupboard of "essentials", like crushed unicorn horn and dragon roe? But no, Oliver also stresses only five essentials that are needed to supplement these recipes: salt, pepper, olive oil, red wine vinegar, and extra virgin olive oil. That doesn't seem so unreasonable, does it?

Which brings us to the second potential stumbling bloc…

Books to snuggle up with

We've had the quintessential British summer (rain interspersed with shortlived heatwaves) and we've now moved into September and the slow, inevitable decline into winter. But it's not all doom and gloom! Autumn is perhaps the prettiest time of year, what with the falling leaves and the dwindling sun, but it also provides a wonderful excuse to cosy up in bed with a cuppa and a good book. Which begs the question, which new releases should we be saving our pennies for?

If you're like my dad, it's a good thriller that you want on a cold night. After the death of Stieg Larsson, David Lagercrantz stepped in to continue the Millennium series; a daunting task but one which he seems to have managed admirably. The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye sees Lisbeth and Mikael back together for the fifth book in the series, and should be a gripping read throughout. The Girl... is published on 07/09 by Quercus.

Sometimes reading can be a great escape; sometimes it's needed to un…

Treading the same ground

Fans of M.R. Carey's wonderful The Girl With All the Gifts would have been forgiven for thinking that they were done with that particular story. The way it ends leaves room for a sequel, but it would require a very different focus, moving away from trying to save the world to finding ways to cope with the new one. The film adaptation is also such a fabulous rendering of the story that it makes Melanie's tale feel complete, like this world of hungries, junkers, and feral children can be left behind.

Yet here is The Boy on the Bridge.

It's not quite a sequel. Rather than following the events of TGWATG (catchy, no?), it's actually a prequel, although the hints at this might pass an inattentive reader (me, I mean. I found the chronology took a while to pin down). Anyhoo, a small group of soldiers and scientists leave the relative safety of Beacon in a large tank to test biosamples in the hope of finding something to at least retard the progress of the sickness that has wip…

In defence of The Dark Tower

Warning: this contains spoilers for both the film and the books.

Many Stephen King fans watched with despair as the terrible reviews for The Dark Towermovie started coming in. Generally considered a garbled attempt at adapting the popular fantasy series, the film has received lukewarm reviews at best. Personally, I kinda liked it. It's far from perfect but, and here's the controversial point, so are the books.

It took me a couple of goes to get through The Gunslinger. For a writer whose prose is usually silky smooth, King's foray into fantasy felt stilted and derivative. As the series goes on, the writing gets a lot more confident, but it is not the strongest start. And there are other issues too. There are long sections where the progress of the story is horribly slow. The Blaine the Monorail plotline would be a fun subplot but is far too insubstantial to justify an entire book. Ditto for the backstory about Roland's tragic love life. The forward momentum of the story s…

Volunteers: You're not actually helping...

I was reading in The Guardian the other day about the increase in volunteer-run local libraries. As someone who has worked in both community and academic libraries, it's a trend that really worries me.

The obvious argument in favour of volunteers is that the council may well close down libraries entirely if they have to pay staff. However, there is a (somewhat wishy-washy) law requiring a certain amount of library provision, so this is debatable. But there's no doubt that free labour is very much appreciated by councils who are feeling the squeeze. The Economist reported earlier this year that spending on public services is expected to be 22% lower in 2017 than it was in 2010 so, with the cost of social care increasing year-on-year, the money for "non-essentials" just isn't there. If that's the case, why aren't volunteers the heroes that we need?

Well, first of all, the idea of the library as a non-essential resource only makes sense if you are wealthy e…

Less than persuasive

It's hard not to enjoy Jane Austen, but Persuasion is definitely the weakest of her main novels. (FYI, I'm a Northanger Abbey girl.) I'm about halfway through a reread at the moment and it has been a struggle. Perhaps reading it on Kindle doesn't help, as I find myself an inattentive screen reader, but I keep getting the characters muddled up and I'm certainly finding Anne a bit of a wet blanket. With her broken heart and gentle ways, there is little of the feistiness of Austen's best characters. 

I wonder if there is a problem in rereading Austen once you're out of your twenties anyway. For most keen readers, of the female flavour anyway, Austen is a treasure you discover in your teen years. With her sparkling wit and her romantic dramas, books like Pride and Prejudice are perfect for hormonally-challenged youngsters. We might not be awaiting a proposal from a Mr Darcy, but we're certainly mooning over the cute guy in our English class or hoping to be a…

Murdering the King's English

Kingsley Amis's The King's English is not an easy book to write about. It concerns the correct way to speak and write in English, after all. For the careful writer, suddenly every clause is suspect. The pronunciation of the simplest word is called into question. What if I've split an infinitive? So many things to worry about.

Thankfully, while Amis does have some serious pet peeves when it comes to misuse of the language ("casual. Only a wanker makes three syllables of this word."), he is generally tolerant of the variety of pronunciations and forms that make up English. To his mind, worrying about a split infinitive is more likely to result in some linguistic barbarity than just writing as it comes naturally, and many of our more pedantic rules are more to do with asserting one's intellectual superiority than protecting the language. We all know pedants like that, right?

That's not to say that Amis has a lackadaisical approach to matters of grammar and lan…

When supernatural and real-life horror collide

At one point while I was reading Adam Nevill's No One Gets Out Alive, I tweeted that I was reading a horror so poor that even Garth Marenghi would have been ashamed of it.

For those not in the know, this is Garth Marenghi:

As a comedic creation, Marenghi is a legend; if he were a real writer, there would be... issues. And the opening chapters of NOGOA have more than a hint of Slicer to them. There is definite tension and intrigue as Stephanie takes a cheap room in this Birmingham house, only to be plagued by strange noises and the suggestion of something in her room, but by throwing the reader into the story in media res and starting with a pretty hardboiled account of scratching under the bed and a drop in temperature, it feels like the work of a hack. 
In truth, I would have given up on the book at this point if I had had anything else to read. But I was in France at the time, and the other book I had taken with me had been left on a table in a cafĂ© that I was never able to redisco…

Well, that escalated quickly

I won't say what makes the ending of The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender particularly troubling, except to say that some readers believe it should come with a trigger warning.

I'm not someone who thinks that authors should worry about hurting sensibilities. Some stories will demand suicide or rape or abuse as that is the truth of those characters, and it is vitally important that readers are able to approach these painful topics through the lens of fiction. Indeed, for every abuse victim who finds it impossible to pick up a book like A Little Life, there will be others who are able to make sense of their experiences by reading other accounts and exposing themselves to these narratives. As with all culture, a one-size-fits-all approach rarely works.

What we should never accept is where these experiences are used just as a McGuffin, something to shock or titillate the reader, something to ramp up the tension without tackling the wider issues that come from such actio…

A sensational start to the year

I started 2017 with a proper brick of a book: Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries. It's huge - a whole 832 pages - but it's no slog to get through, full of intrigue, unique characters, and vivid description. I like it muchly.

To be fair, it's very much my type of book. Victorian sensation fiction would probably be my Mastermind topic, as I read it for pleasure and completed a Master's thesis on one of the dominant authors in the genre, Wilkie Collins. Catton's book references Collins' work in many ways, mimicking the prose style and twisting plot, but is fresh enough to avoid feeling like a direct rip-off. If anything, it's even more convoluted than the works it's inspired by, using the narratives of multiple people to tell the story of missing gold, murder and thwarted ambition.

There's no way to describe the plot briefly. Suffice it to say, when Walter Moody blunders into a private conference on his first day in New Zealand, he could never imagine t…

Aaaand it's 2017!

Thank fudge for that, right?

I had an interesting reading year in 2016 - there were some great arbitrary reads and I caught up with some of the major literary fiction of the past couple of years - but most of the rest of it was rubbish. 

Though I can't control much around me, I can control my reading (well, now that I've scrapped my arbitrary reading challenge, that is) and my TBR pile for the next few weeks looks like this:

Starting from the bottom, I've got The Luminaries and The Narrow Road to the Deep North - both Man Booker Prize winners, both supposed to be fab. I'm about 100 pages into The Luminaries and I'm hooked already. It's a beast of a book but harks back to Victorian sensation fiction, which is both my passion and my academic specialism, so length isn't an issue. With my arbitrary reading challenge, I missed some of the big releases of 2015 and 2016 so I'm hoping to catch back up this year.
My top film of 2016 was The Girl With All The Gifts, …