Thursday, 18 June 2015

Book Club Chatter #3: '20th Century Ghosts' by Joe Hill

I was excited about this month's book club.  I missed the meeting for An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth because I didn't manage to buy the book in time, never mind read it.  I wasn't devastated because I wasn't overly excited about it but I'm still yet to really branch out with the books that I do pick up for book club.  I think that actually it's partly that every month is a bit much for me - I'm only managing to read a book a week at the moment and I'm reluctant to have a quarter of the books that I read be picked by my book club...

June's pick:  20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill

I was quite excited about this one.  We picked it a few months ago because one of the members had been given it as a gift and it was something different to the other books that we'd read.  There were a few Stephen King fans in the group and the introduction made it sound as though the stories would have a literary edge to entertain those less keen on the gory side of things (yep, ME!).

The verdict wasn't good.

Out of the 9 people that turned up (me included), only 3 people had read all of the stories all of the way through.  Nobody went so far as to say that they'd enjoyed all (or even most) of what they had read.  The lady who had suggested it actually apologised to everybody for bringing the book into our lives.  3 utterly despised it and refused to read more than a couple of stories (although one of them has quite sensitive taste and has previously complained about 'bad language' in books...).  The remaining 3 (me included) had read a good amount of the stories and were sort of ok about some but underwhelmed and disappointed overall.

I think the main problem was that Hill's short stories are either extremely disturbing (the first story in particular is awful and features eye gouging, rape and mutilation) or plain weird.  Like I said at the 'meeting', I couldn't shake the feeling that I was constantly missing something.  There was one story that I really liked (Pop Art) about a boy with an inflatable friend, a sort of balloon boy that bobs along and attends school but who can't talk and instead writes notes to express himself.  I got that it was in part about vulnerability and about the fragility of life but I'm sure there were plenty of ideas that bypassed me entirely. I hope that I was missing something, actually, because otherwise most of the stories are just bizarre.  

I've actually never been a huge fan of short stories and this collection wasn't the one to change that view.  Of the stories that I finished, I found that there were a couple that I wanted to be developed more (like the haunting tale of a ghost in an ageing cinema) and some that just felt like Hill had woken up from a bad dream, scribbled it down and thrown it into the collection (like the story of a man that wakes up half locust and goes a-rampaging).  There weren't any that felt like they encapsulated a single idea or image so perfectly that a short story was just enough.

One man's feeling was that it felt like the work of an undeveloped writer.  The beginnings of most of the stories are solid.  A few fade away, a few go off on a weird tangent but a few do start to build into something that could be great with a little more refinement.  I think that maybe I agree.  I did say that I'd recently read NOS4R2 and really loved it so there was more to Hill than this collection - I genuinely think that his skills are far better shown off in longer stories where he can play on readers' uncertainty over his characters to far greater effect.  With a full novel, you know that Hill is playing with you and that nothing is quite as it seems because you're shown enough to know that it isn't sloppy story telling but a web that he's weaving.  His short stories didn't give me (or any of my fellow book clubbers) that impression.  They just feel like he's had the start of some ideas, the beginnings of a whole host of NOS4R2s, but never quite worked them all way through.  

Part of this could also be the fact that none of us seemed to want to be scared just for the sake of it.  I'll read scary books (it turns out) but only where there's more to them than just the chills.  I don't want to read simple stories designed to terrify with the least amount of words possible or peek at snapshots of horrifying images.  I want grey areas and doubt.  Horror that creeps up on me in a dignified manner or lures me in gradually and artfully.  I don't want it shouting in my face.  If you prefer/can tolerate the shouting, 20th Century Ghosts could be more for you.

Oh, one last thing!  Interestingly, one person's complaint was that Joe Hill was over-rated and that the only reason he was published was because he was trading on his father's name.  It surprised me because I've always thought exactly the opposite.  His work could be splattered with quotes from Stephen King raving about how great his son's books are and he could use the name 'King'.  He doesn't.  Those arguments fell on deaf ears, because apparently it's Hill's fault that people just know who his father is...you can't win 'em all, I guess.

July's pick:  The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz

I'm really looking forward to this one.  Station Eleven and The Martian were both in the mix but The House of Silk was picked as the safest bit to pick everyone up after the Joe Hill disappointment.  Anybody have any views?  Please tell me that I'm not going to get let down again!

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Midori Traveler's Notebook: It's HERE!

The wait is OVER!  My Midori arrived over the weekend and it is so lovely...


The pictures don't really do the whole thing justice.  The box is banded like the actual Midori and has a little note tucked in that's adorable: 
Please write down at random what you feel or what you think in the cafe you dropped into during your travel, which will surely be your precious treasure.  Besides, you may find a new feature every day, going to work, having this notebook in your hand.  It may change your life!
So cute.  I'm planning on using mine more for trying to organise myself, to house a 'normal' journal and a review notebook but I do think that when we go away in September, I'll pop in a notebook to use as a travel journal to stick in tickets and receipts and other travel paraphernalia and break out the Midori for the purpose for which it was intended.  

Anyway, the starter kit comes with a cloth bag to keep the notebok in.  Obviously there's the notebook itself - I went for black, which seems a bit less popular than the brown but is more to my taste, and the regular size, which is slightly taller than a regular paperback and slightly narrower.  There's also an alternate band (red for the black notebook and orange for the brown), which I've put on because I like the red against the black. 

Everything that the internet says about the quality is just spot on.  It's lovely :)  It doesn't smell leathery (which I think I'd find off-putting in a notebook) and it's really flexible and soft, despite being thick enough that it feels sturdy.   

I actually can't tell you much more - I had a few plain inserts ready to go (one that came with the starter kit and two that I'd ordered from Etsy) but I'm still waiting for some inserts that I've ordered to arrive before I can really get into using it much more.  I've ordered an 'official' Midori planner insert (week to view with an extra page each week for lists and the like), a folder/pocket type insert and...some other things that I can't remember anymore.  In the meantime, I'm using the plain Midori insert as a journal and another as a review notebook but they're not banded properly in because...ah, because the extra bands are also in the order that's en route!

Immediate verdict:  SO PRETTY and so much potential.

Next up:  INSERTS!  (See how swept up in this thing I'm getting?!)  

Monday, 8 June 2015

Thoughts on 'The Great Gatsby' by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Rating: 2.5 stars

I feel as though I missed something with The Great Gatsby.  It was ok and listening to it was entertaining enough but a few months of reading War and Peace and a holiday later and I don't really have much to say about it.  So this is going to be a longer than necessary post where I try to pad out my limited views into something approaching a review.

When I mentioned to someone at work what I was listening to, they sort of lit up and started talking about how great a book it was and telling me about their favourite part.  I struggle to reconcile that kind of enthusiasm with the story that I read and that's before we even get the countless boards and groups and organisations lauding it as the greatest American novel of the 20th century.  I can appreciate that the themes say a lot about the time Fitzgerald was writing in and that it has merit as a social commentary on the various indulgences of the 1920s but as a story?  It's decidedly...blah.  I've never been one for themes and ideas over plot and characters.  It is mercifully brief, however, so I never got to the point where I was completely sick of it before it had finished.

I didn't really like any of the characters but I didn't hate them.  I enjoyed the descriptions of the lavish parties and decadent nights but Nick Carraway's general day-to-day musings were somewhat less than engaging.  Daisy and Tom are on the face of it the embodiment of the American dream notwithstanding the fact that they're completely dysfunctional as a couple.  The fact that they're completely uninspiring and actually faintly boring is actually quite an achievement, when you think about it.  There's one scene where Tom goes bananas and punches a woman in the face for being a bit annoying but other than that, they're dull.  Nick has a love interest, Jordan Baker, who was quite fun at first but seemed pretty brittle as a character and sort of wafted around on the sidelines without really being developed properly.  The overall effect was pretty underwhelming.

The only bit that I genuinely liked was the ending.  And not in a sarcastic 'I was only really pleased when it was over' way.  I just didn't see it coming and yet when I'd listened to it, it seemed the only way that the story could have ended.  It fit with the characters in a way that the rest of the story never seemed to and the final few scenes were actually quite moving, which was a pleasant surprise.

While I might not have been the biggest fan of The Great Gatsby, I do think it's sad that F. Scott Fitzgerald apparently died without knowing how much of a success the novel would eventually become.  I may not understand how it quite managed to obtain its spot on so many American teenagers' high school reading lists but I didn't hate it so much that I wanted Fitzgerald to believe himself a failure over it.

Overall:  Ach - it was alright.  I didn't hate it but I didn't love it.  I'm curious about the film and can't imagine anybody better than Leonardo di Caprio to play Jay Gatsby.  I'm glad I've 'read' it but I won't exactly be recommending it particularly widely.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Date finished: 16 January 2015
Format:  Audiobook
Source:  Borrowed from my library
Genre: Literary fiction
Pictured Edition Published:  in September 2010 by Naxos Audiobooks

Saturday, 6 June 2015

Midori Traveler's Notebook: My burgeoning obsession

Despite managing to stay organised in what can be quite a stressful and hectic job, I am appalling at keeping my personal life in order. This year, I'm maid of honour in one wedding and a regular bridesmaid in another, am unbelievably busy at work and am trying desperately to maintain some semblance of a life among the dress fittings, hen parties and deadlines. I've long since resigned myself to the fact that this blog will be tricky to factor in for at least a few months.  Unless I branch out and indulge myself with some miscellanous ramblings of only faintly bookish posts (yep, like this one...), that is.
Found in Pinterest here

So anyway, while I was scrabbling my way from week to week with a constant feeling that I was forgetting something, I saw this post on So Obsessed With. Seeing the Midori notebook (although in that case it was a "faux dori") was kind of a lightbulb moment.  The idea is simple - you buy the leather folder type thing, fill it with inserts (planners, notebooks and whatnot) and then you can carry around your entire world in one beautiful leather wrapper.  I could plan and outline blog posts while actually getting a grip on my life!  A couple of Google searches later and I was completely smitten with the idea of getting my own Midori.  Not only because I really need to get into the habit of actually using a diary properly but because it occurred to me that if I could just get into using it, it could solve a whole range of "problems"... 

1.  I *hate* having notebooks that don't have a single focus.  I know that's weird but it's just the way it is. There's no way I'd write a recipe or general thought into my review notebook, for example, or write a To Do list in my hen do ideas notebook. No way at all.  That means that I have a whole host of notebooks around the house for different things even though I can only really carry one around with me at any one time.  If I'm listening to an audiobook in my car and want to jot something down, I have to put it in my phone with the intention of transferring it to my review notebook later.  I almost never get round to transferring those notes.  Being able to carry around a number of smaller notebooks seems like the ludicrously simple solution. 

Found on Pinterest here
2. My brain gets cluttered.  When I was a teenager, I used to get an A5 page a day diary for Christmas every year and used to write all of my angsty thoughts into it. I kept it up until I was at university and then the habit fell by the way side. Having somewhere I could just jot down the odd thought again would be nice, I think, and be a good way of sorting through the jumble of ideas and idle thoughts that I have on any given day.

3.  I love picking up business cards from restaurants I love and saving tickets from places we've been on holiday but then I find that I have nowhere to put them and eventually they just end up stuffed into a plastic wallet in the study (or at least, the room that will be a study one day).  The idea of keeping a travel journal when we go away and having a keepsake from each trip full of scribbles and mementoes makes me feel all warm and fuzzy :)  

It took a few days of ogling photographs of other people's traveler's notebooks before I realised that I just needed to get one.  

Midori Traveler's Notebook starter kit
There are tons of videos and tutorials online about how to make your own traveler's notebook but I'm a perfectionist and it would drive me crazy if my effort was even a bit off (which is likely...I'm not so great with the crafts) so DIY was never an option for me. I could have bought a "faux dori" from any one of the numerous sellers on Etsy but most of the sellers were based in the U.S. so by the time I'd paid for shipping, I might has well have bought a "real" Midori.  Again, I'm a perfectionist so there was no chance I was spending a not insignificant sum on something that might not have been as good as the real deal.  So I figured that the original Midori would be my traveler's notebook of choice and had a nosey at a few UK sellers until I settled on buying my Midori from Amazon. I know that I probably should have used a smaller retailer for buying such a niche item but the price difference was about £15 so I went Amazon.  The down side is that it's being shipped from Japan so even though it was dispatched over a week ago, it's still on its way.  

I've gone for the regular size in black and waiting for it is KILLING ME.

SO PRETTY - CraftyAliCat
Since ordering, I've been scouring Etsy for fun inserts (and bought a couple from CraftyAliCat here) and things that I'll be able to use to make my traveler's notebook PERFECT almost as soon as it arrives.  I've gone so far as ordering some "official" inserts from a Japanese store (www.pencils.jp) because they're less than half the price of the exact same inserts when bought from a British stockist, even when you factor in international shipping costs. I've also spent an inordinate amount of time looking at pictures on Pinterest and picking up ideas of things that I want to do with my beauty when it arrives.

Basically, I'm becoming obsessed.  If it doesn't arrive soon, I'm going to pop.  Tell me that I'm not the only one that gets this hung up on stationery!!

Next up:  THE UNVEILING (*please* let that be soon...)

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Italy, You Were Grand

Why is coming home always so bitter-sweet?!  It was nice to get back to our house (and my own bed, oh how I always miss my own bed!) but we landed back to rain and endless grey, which was a bit of a downer.  We had an amazing time.  Routine, schmountine - I see no reason why I could not just stay in Italy forever, bumbling around and eating frankly delicious food, drinking amazing wine and actually seeing the sunshine occasionally.

Lovely, lovely Milan
Milan was predictably gorgeous and full of glamorous Italian women managing to cycle on the busy roads in skirts and stilettoes without sacrificing their dignity or their perfect hairdos.  We were there for three nights and although we both really enjoyed it, three nights was enough.  We'd covered pretty much all of the historical sites we'd wanted to see and headed out of the city to nosy at the San Siro football stadium (because I'm just that good a girlfriend, obviously) and drunk plenty of glasses of local wine and prosecco in the sunshine.  It was an excellent start to the holiday but as the temperature climbed, the heavy city air got a bit much and we were kind of glad to get on the train and head to Lake Garda.

Hello, Mr Blue Sky
Lake Garda was stunning.  Our hotel had bikes that we could borrow so we spent a few mornings just cycling around the lake and looking around little towns.  We'd planned to use Lake Garda as our downtime, though, so that was about the extent of our jaunting.  Actually, that's not quite true.  We did take a bus to Verona on one day, which was fun.  We went to have a look at "Juliet's balcony" but didn't go into the house because even though I'm sure that it's a lovely 13th century house, Shakespeare obviously made Juliet up and there was no way I was spending £10(ish) to look around the house of a family whose name happens to be quite similar to Capulet (dell Capello,,,),  It was a beautiful town though with an amazing Roman theatre and some truly beautiful views (after we trekked up a hefty amount of stairs!).  ANYway, Lake Garda.  Lots of fish eaten.  Lots of time reading.  Lots of fresh air.  Perfection.

Bologna was...interesting!  Apparently communism is still pretty popular in the area and the town was a mixture of medieval architecture and anti-establishment graffiti! The town felt a bit dilapidated in a lot of ways but it was also packed full of quirky bars and adorable shops selling vintage dresses that I could have bought hundreds of and accessories that I am nowhere near cool enough to pull off. Oh, and the food! The home of the now somewhat spoiled bolognese, it's a bit of a foodie hotspot. Colour me happy.

So the scenery was perfect, the food and the drinks were glorious and we got in plenty of much needed sunshine.  I know, what about the books?  I read...4 whole books and a bit of another.  More than I'd expected to read in the 9 days we were away.  After making my way oh-so-slowly through War and Peace, the pace felt blistering.  First up was The Day We Disappeared by Lucy Robinson, which was the perfect way to start my holiday.  I bought it after seeing Ellie Bookworm's review and picked it out from my Kindle on a whim before we headed to the airport.  It was funny and so sweet and it made me cry on a train.  It was light without being insipid and I'll definitely be keeping an eye out for other books by Lucy Robinson in the future.  I'd picked out The Fire Rose by Mercedes Lackey before I went and I was in the mood for some fantasy so that was up next.  I can almost hear Hanna's victory chant from here.  Unsurprisingly for a book that comes so highly recommended by Hanna, I loved it.  The focus on the elements in the magic system was great and I liked how there was plenty of background and detail without it being dull.  I think it helped that it was a Beauty and the Beast re-telling so the story itself was familiar, even though the characters and magic were new.  Another series I'll be carrying on with.

I didn't want to jump straight into another fantasy after that so I ducked off in a historical fiction direction with Wildthorn by Jane Eagland.  About a young woman who finds herself incarcerated in an asylum under a name she's never heard and her struggle to escape.  The portrayal of the diagnosis and treatment of mental health issues in Victorian England were fascinating and the main character was great but the romantic tangents were comparatively weak and let the whole down.  And you can call me morbid but I decided to stick with the asylum theme with a ghost story that there's no chance I'd be brave enough to read if it hadn't been for the almost perpetual sunshine, Asylum by Madeleine Roux.  It was...ok.  The photographs of abandoned institutions and of "patients" throughout the story were haunting and definitely creepy but the story itself was a bit daft.  It was kind of like the Goosebumps books I loved as a kid - the plot is unbelievable and follows a few blundering teens as they encounter sinister supernatural goings on and launch "an investigation".  A quick read but not a series that I'll be picking back up again, I don't think.

And that's it!  I read some articles by David Mitchell in his book, Thinking About It Only Makes It Worse on the plane but now that I'm home, I'm back into Dragonfly in Amber and am addicted.

Tell me everything that happened while I was away! Hope you all had a wonderful couple of weeks and read something amazing.