Monday, 28 July 2014

Review: 'Midnight Crossroad' by Charlaine Harris

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Welcome to Midnight, Texas, a town with many boarded-up windows and few full-time inhabitants, located at the crossing of Witch Light Road and Davy Road. It's a pretty standard dried-up western town.  There's a pawnshop (where someone lives in the basement and runs the store during the night). There's a diner (although those folk who are just passing through tend not to linger). And there's new resident: Manfred Bernardo, who thinks he's found the perfect place to work in private (and who has secrets of his own).

If you stop at the one traffic light in town, then everything looks normal. But if you stay a while, you might learn the truth...


Review

Just before I started this blog back in 2010, I spent a couple of months binge reading the Southern Vampire series. I read all of the books that had been released at the time pretty much back to back and (although I actually haven't read the last two books yet) reading new instalments was like comfort reading. So when I got offered the chance to be one of the first to read the first book in a brand new series, I just couldn't resist. I've been reading pretty slowly since I've been busier at work but, just like the exploits of the residents of Bon Temps did a few years ago, the exploits of the residents of Midnight had me hooked.

I read Midnight Crossroad in less than a week, which, compared to my pace before that, is blistering.  I don't know what it is about Harris' writing but there is something about the way she tells a story that I find unbelievably easy to get tangled up in.  This series is more subtle than the Southern Vampire series and, rather than marching right up to you and grabbing for your attention with raunch and gore, sort of sneaks up and before you know it, it's past your bedtime and you're still turning the pages.  Or, in my case, you're scrambling through the last pages sat in your car and desperately trying to finish it before you really do have to go to work!

I haven't read any of Charlaine Harris' other series (although this has reminded me that I probably should...) so a lot of the cameo appearances from characters from those series passed me by a little bit.  Much though I'm kind of sad that I didn't get to play the character spotting game and might have spoiled a couple of other books for myself but mostly I'm pleased that I got to read about these characters in Midnight. The town has a nice, kind of warm feel to it, even while everybody is making such a big deal about keeping themselves to themselves.  They're what keep the story going and really what made it one that I wanted to keep coming back to.  When I think about it, it was the characters that kept me reading the Southern Vampire series long after I was really interested in what was happening to them so maybe that's where the magic happens in Harris' series.  Go into this if you want something with a whiff of magic and paranormal, sarcastic talking animals, political gangs and fledgling witches but not so much if you want an innovative plot or mind-bending mystery.

One minor criticism that may well just be because I'm British but there was something about the names that I found a bit off-putting at first.  I don't care how many descriptions of someone's athletic physique, bronzed skin and pearly white smile you include, if you call a character Bobo, there is no way I am going to be able to think of him seriously as an object of desire.  It just wasn't working for me, even among the funkier range of names in Midnight...it's tiny now that I've written it out but it bugged me while I was reading it so there we are.

So I liked Midnight Crossroad well enough. It's fun, there are plenty of secrets and a few twists but there's still something lacking on the mystery side. I preferred the sides of the story that were about the residents and their hesitant relationships but there was something a bit lacklustre on the whodunnit side.  I say that but I didn't see the ending coming and I really did have to know the ending by the time I got to it so maybe I should give it more credit.  Either way, the characters are pretty great and the whiff of the supernatural was a nice change from some of the more in your face series. I didn't care about the murder and I wasn't really bothered who'd committed it (and wasn't really that sold on the big reveal after I knew the 'who' part) but the getting there was enjoyable enough.

Overall:  If you were a fan of the Southern Vampire series or any of Harris' other series (I'm guessing there...), I probably don't need to tell you to pick up her latest.  It was good to get to enjoy Harris' writing again without the angst of the later outings of Sookie Stackhouse and the series is one I'd try again, mainly because I'm intrigued to see if it keeps on the mystery path or heads more in the paranormal direction.

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Date finished: 08 May 2014
Format: Paperback
Source:  Received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review - thanks, Gollancz!
Genre: Mystery; Paranormal
Pictured edition published: by Gollancz London in May 2014

Midnight Crossroad was published in hardback and eBook format on May 6th!  Fancy a cheeky peek at the first four chapters?  Head HERE!

Thursday, 24 July 2014

A Game of Thrones Confession

When I sat down to my ever-increasing list of books that I need to review, I saw that A Clash of Kings was next up and felt a little bit stumped.  When I read the first in the series, I enjoyed it but I couldn’t quite pinpoint what it was that made George R. R. Martin’s series the acceptable face of fantasy.  For a while, it was rare to get on a train and not encounter someone putting their wrists in mortal peril and reading one of the Song of Ice and Fire tomes.  It’s still a fairly frequent occurrence, although the initial flurry does seem to have died down a little.  All of which is why, as someone who would list ‘fantasy’ as one of my favourite genres to read, I find it strange that, instead of writing a review and a glowing recommendation of a new favourite series that I’m waiting on with baited breath, I'm writing a post that is more like a resignation and a confession:  I’m not going to be reading any more of the series. 

Last year, I read A Game of Thrones and then persuaded Boyfriend that he wanted to watch the series with me.  The television adaptation turned out to be excellent and Boyfriend showed an uncharacteristic degree of enthusiasm for carrying on watching it.  I made a valiant effort to play for time while I listened to A Clash of Kings in my car, driving to and from work amidst a blaze of incest, death and dragons in a bid to stay ahead of where we were in the series.  The audiobook I listened to was absolutely wonderful in terms of quality (even though I was harbouring a deep resentment of Audible for separating the novel into two parts and charging as much for each half as they would for other complete novels) and I enjoyed it.  What I came to realise, though, was that even while I was enjoying it, I was listening to it in large part just so that I could assure myself that I had “read” it first when I was watching the TV series and could say with smug certainty at various points, “It isn’t like that in the book”.   Then I also realised that I was picturing the actors from the HBO series and was starting to find the differences between the audiobook narrator’s performance as Tyrion Lannister with Peter Dinklage’s a bit annoying (particularly given that the screen version was my preferred version).  Gradually, Boyfriend and I were watching the series faster than I could read/listen to the books and I loved the series enough to let that be the winning medium.

I know full well that I am denying myself some of the intricacies of the novels and that the version I am watching does differ from the version that I would have read but the bottom line is that I just don’t think that I care.  I'm not bothered that in the TV series, rather than losing his nose (as he does in the book), one character instead bears a hefty scar on his face because making an actor that has a nose look like he doesn’t would be tricky.  I'm not concerned that one character in the book broaches a negotiation that is taken up by another character in the TV series.  And the reason I don’t care is that the story that viewers see on screen is gripping, both funny and tragic and as epic as the books that I've read.  The books are undeniably impressive and the plotting and sheer volume of background are staggering.  I have nothing but the utmost respect for Martin for the political and historical detail that he has no doubt painstakingly created but they aren’t the aspects of the series that I was drawn to.  It was the characters that adored, their relationships that fascinated me and the many (many, many) tragedies that I cried over and each of those is superbly rendered on screen.  The books are good and undoubtedly more involved and more intelligent in many ways but the series is addictive and scandalous and brilliant.  The other fact is that I will gladly sacrifice some warring faction chat for getting caught up in a new series with Boyfriend. 

And now that I know what's coming?  I just don't know if I can face it again in book form.  Can I read upward of 2,000 pages when I know at least some of what I'll have to go through again?  Goodness me, no.  If I hadn't been watching the series, I would almost certainly carry on reading the series because it has a heck of a lot going for it and the end of every book/series is perfectly designed to have you dying for more pages of trauma to lose yourself in.  I would also carry on reading if it were possible to find out what happened next now that I've watched all there is to watch but sadly there's also nothing left to read (I think...).  

One last point before the purists unleash their wrath: I feel as though I should mention that I have read epic series in the past and have absolutely no problem with stories that span thousands and thousands of pages so that’s not it.  Sadly, life is just too short and my propensity to confusion too great for me to be at one point of the overall story in TV form and at another in book form.  Especially given that the books follow a different timeline than the series that could in theory have me way ahead on some characters’ stories while also being way behind on other characters’ stories…that, friends, is a recipe for a muddle.  And so this is where A Song of Ice and Fire and I part ways.  Until the next book is released, that is.  I do have to know what happens next to my favourite characters, after all...

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Thoughts on 'Robinson Crusoe' by Daniel Defoe

Robinson Crusoe was my Classics Club spin choice way back in February and I was due to read it by 2nd April, which just goes to show how far behind I am in the reviewing stakes! I actually listened to it comfortably by the time I was “supposed” to but by that point I was deep in new job territory and didn’t get chance to revel in the success. Let’s revel now....

Surprisingly, these thoughts aren’t going to be a bit scrappy because I’m talking about something that I read back in March but because, although I didn’t completely hate Robinson Crusoe and found a lot in it to exercise the old grey matter, I didn’t love it either. If somebody told me they were going to read it, I wouldn’t be inclined to wrestle it from their grasp and hurl it far away but I also wouldn’t be begging them to get started and talk to me about it. I’m a little ambivalent about the whole experience, I think.

As with so many classics that have spawned great numbers of adaptations, it turns out that I knew very little about the actual plot of this particular novel. Had I been inclined to pretend that I’d read it on the basis of the few versions that I’ve seen, I would have looked a plonker. I had no idea about the circumstances in which Mr Crusoe originally wound up marooned on a desert island (although I’d given it little thought beyond assuming some kind of shipwreck) and I definitely had no idea how long he was so marooned (we’re talking multiple decades, not months or years). One way or another, I’d got the impression that Robinson Crusoe was more of an adventure type novel than it actually is. After an initial flurry of activity (that included a whistle stop tour of Crusoe’s slightly chequered past and, surprise surprise, a shipwreck), Crusoe is stranded on a pretty small island with little to occupy him but a Bible and the local wildlife for a considerable time period. 

The writing isn't verbose or complicated and there aren't great rambling sentences spanning pages but there's still something that is a little bit draining about the narrative - it felt quite repetitive (although I know that in part that might be intentional and could easily be the best way of demonstrating the monotony of living alone with nothing but goats and cats for company...Crusoe loves a list. Be prepared for lengthy explanations of a day's activities when the upshot is: went for a walk, built a fence. There's also a good chunk where Crusoe narrates a few months of his early life on the island and then seems to remember that he'd had a journal for part of the time and then proceeds to "read" out from the journal. It's sufficiently similar that I got in the car to drive home and was utterly convinced that I'd managed to skip back a part. It happens a couple of times and although there is a little bit more information in the journal entries, it isn't really enough to warrant the repetition.

On the brighter side, Defoe uses his island to make some good points about society in a way not dissimilar to Lord of the Flies (although definitely less engagingly) that stop things becoming too dreary. Crusoe seems to have an innate desire to overwhelm and dominate and never seems to question that he (as a white, apparently educated man) is superior to the indigenous people, even going so far as to rescue someone from being killed and devoured by the local cannibals (because obviously they must be cannibals) almost exclusively to satisfy his burning desire for a servant. Given that he was at the time inhabiting a shack of his own making and had little to do with his time beyond maintaining that shack and existing, I assumed that the only real need for a servant was to secure himself as above someone rather than for assistance with general household chores…it doesn't paint the English mentality at the time in the greatest light.

And not only is Crusoe enslaving and generally demonstrating why colonialism wasn't necessarily the best, the way he communicates with Friday is infuriating and I did a lot of ranting in the car while he was insisting that Friday learnt English and and such like (rather than turning his own mind to learning the local language) and mocking Friday's use of the language when it was anything less than perfect English. It seems to me from a browse of the reviews of this book on Goodreads that a lot of the hatred of the book seems to stem from this unfortunately prevalent racism. Although my 21st century sensibilities do balk at slavery and the abhorrent way that Crusoe speaks of other races, it doesn’t make me hate the book. Robinson Crusoe was originally published in 1719 and was immensely popular. According to Wikipedia (font of all knowledge that it is), it was in its fourth edition by the end of its first year of release. Clearly what Defoe was writing about struck a chord with 18th century readers and that makes it a fascinating piece of history itself. One of the reasons I read classics is that there’s an insight into the ideas and attitudes that were prevalent at the time and it would be churlish of me to mark a book down for fulfilling that brief a little too well.

Crusoe also has a bit of a penchant for killing things for no real reason so if you’re particularly sensitive when it comes to animals, you might want to think twice. It isn’t graphic by any means but there is none of the relatively delicate modern approach to animal welfare, particularly where animals that we now see as domestic pets are concerned. It’s another thing that I was fine with marking down to being a sign of Crusoe’s times (or at least part of his character) but I can appreciate that it might be something that would put other readers off.

Readers might not (I hope!) sympathise with what Defoe is articulating through Robinson Crusoe now but they were prominent ideas of the time and ignoring them, refusing to read about them or shouting about how disgusting it all was doesn’t change that. I obviously don’t agree with the vast majority of Crusoe’s social commentary or musings but that didn’t hamper my enjoyment of the book. Actually, it probably enhanced it because it is at least historically interesting as opposed to the intricate details of the planning, execution and revelling in the completion of the construction of a wall out of materials that you are (I am led to believe) likely to find on a desert island, which is somewhat less intriguing.

Overall: I’d expected to either love or hate Robinson Crusoe but instead I find myself sort of in the middle. There’s plenty to mull over while you’re reading and as far as classics go, it says a lot about the time it was written in and the audience it was written for but there’s also plenty of drudgery that the book could do without. I think on balance I do recommend it but cautiously (with health warnings about the treatment of animals and slavery) and only if you’re in a ponderous mood.
 
A note on the audio: I listened to Robinson Crusoe and thoroughly recommend it - Defoe has Crusoe telling his own story in the first person and there's very little in the way of dialogue until later on so it really lends itself to being read out by a single narrator. Also, being entirely honest, listening to lists and one bigoted man's musings on the nature of religion and whether there is a Plan is a lot easier than reading it...

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Review: 'Running Like a Girl' by Alexandra Heminsley

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars


Alexandra had high hopes: the arse of an athlete, the waist of a supermodel, the speed of a gazelle. Defeated by gyms and bored of yoga, she decided to run. 

Her first attempt did not end well. Six years later, she has run five marathons in two continents. But, as her dad says, you run with your head as much as with your legs. So, while this is a book about running, it's not just about running. You could say it's about ambition (yes, getting out of bed on a rainy Sunday morning counts), relationships (including talking to the intimidating staff in the trainer shop), as well as your body (your boobs don't have to wobble when you run). But it's also about realising that you can do more than you ever thought possible. 

Very funny, very honest, and very emotional, whether you're in serious training or thinking about running for the bus, this is a book for anyone who after wine and crisps for supper a few too many times thinks they might...just might...like to run like a girl.

Review

“Lacing up and leaving the house is the hardest moment of any run. You never regret it once you are en route”

If you spend longer than half an hour in my company these days, the odds are excellent that I will mention running at some point. I’m also likely to mention that I'm loving it and that I whole-heartedly believe that exercise is the only way I'm avoiding becoming all balled up with stress as a result of the 10 hour plus days I usually work..  The thing I probably won’t tell you (even though I really should) is that Running Like A Girl is in no small part responsible for getting me back to pounding the pavement with such enthusiasm.  Thank goodness Ellie Lit Nerd recommended it!

On the face of it, Running Like a Girl is “just” a running memoir; a book full of tales of the trials and tribulations faced by one woman as she starts out running, completes her first marathon and battles down a few more milestone runs.  Two things make it different.  The first is that Alexandra Heminsley isn’t a professional runner recycling inspirational but slightly unrealistic material about how there’s a runner inside all of us and we just need to focus on a goal and write down a plan and blah blah blah; she started out running as an adult with no experience and recounts what she's been through in a self-deprecating (and very funny) manner.  When I read it, I was still bearing the vestiges of an injury and I was dying to put my trainers back on and get running.

One of the things I love the most about Running Like a Girl is that it neither makes light of running nor makes it seem like something only "real" athletes can do.  Running is completely accessible and can feel liberating; a good run on a bright day (with a light breeze, ideally) makes me feel proud and healthy and on top of the world.  For every one of those runs, though, there are probably two hard ones where I’m tired or haven’t drunk enough water or it’s raining in my face or it’s super hot and I’m sweating all over the place (the latter being less frequent in Yorkshire but still…) and keeping running is hard.  I love that Heminsley admits that running isn’t always a glorious activity that has us all bounding around happily with neat hair and pleasantly rosy cheeks and that not everybody is a natural runner (if there even is such a thing) but that, regardless of how much of a hot mess we might look while we’re mid-run, it’s totally worth it.  Because even with the stories of the falling off toe nails and the inconvenient calls of nature, Running Like a Girl makes running sound like the best thing you could ever do with your spare time.   

It’s perfect reading for anybody that is either starting out running, wants to start out running, is getting back into running or has even just lost the love a little bit.  There’s just so much to identify with if that’s the angle you’re reading from – like the nerves of the early runs and the utter certainty that people are looking at you and noticing how much of a plonker you look .  Every question you never wanted to ask but are the things that you really want to know.  I, for example, have quite long hair that will not sit neatly in a bun or a plait while I run and will whip me in the face with unnecessary vigour if it’s in a ponytail – enter Alexandra Heminsley and the plait that has a bobble at the top and bottom.  Genius.

Amongst the humour of the early chapters are more intense ones of Heminsley’s marathon experiences.  The chapter about her first marathon actually made me cry.  I couldn't even really tell you why except that it so perfectly evoked the harrowing experience that I felt completely involved.  It's funny, it's completely charming and has chapters like the one covering the “myths” about running that I'll dip back into again and again, I expect.  I hear a lot of things like, “Oh I don’t run because it’s bad for your knees/shins/hips/other random joint or bone”.  I don’t know the science (although I do need to bone up (haha) on it so that I can start to refute these comments properly) but I do know that I've been lucky enough not to suffer an injury while running that was attributable to the actual act of running (I do have a teeny scar on my right hip from where I clipped an iPod mini onto my leggings during a half marathon that somehow managed to get stuck to my skin and was pulled off over-enthusiastically in a post-race haze but that was really down to my own stupidity and running can’t be blamed…).  It's good to know that I haven't been deluding myself and engaging in an activity that is trying to kill me.

So it's fun to read, it's inspiring and it's practical.  What more could you possibly want?!

Overall:  What I’m saying (obviously) is that if you’ve ever even half-fancied running, I honestly can’t recommend Running Like a Girl enough.  Heck, read it even if you despise running with every fibre of your being but want to achieve something that requires commitment and hard work and that others might be sceptical about but that you believe that you can do.  Read it and get the kick up the bum you never knew you needed.


Please don’t blame me when you’ve read it all in one go and signed up for a marathon, though.

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Date finished: 30 March 2014
Format: Paperback
Source: Bought
Genre: Non-fiction; sports
Pictured edition published: by Windmill Books in January 2014

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Review: 'Echo Boy' by Matt Haig

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Audrey's father taught her that to stay human in the modern world, she had to build a moat around herself; a moat of books and music, philosophy and dreams. A moat that makes Audrey different from the echoes: sophisticated, emotionless machines, built to resemble humans and to work for human masters. Daniel is an echo - but he's not like the others. He feels a connection with Audrey; a feeling Daniel knows he was never designed to have, and cannot explain. And when Audrey is placed in terrible danger, he's determined to save her. The Echo Boy is a powerful story about love, loss and what makes us truly human.

Review

At the end of 2013, I rambled and raved about how much I loved The Humans and then posted an adoring review of it earlier this year.  It was easily one of my favourite books last year so I was extremely excited to be approved for Haig's first foray into the world of YA fiction on NetGalley.

When I read books like Echo Boy, I kind of wish that they'd been around when I was younger.  Maybe they were and I just missed them but my early teen years were populated by Point Horror, Sweet Valley High and a miscellany of random sleuthing novels.  Although I was as much of a sucker for the Point Horror novels as many other teens of the 90s, I sort of skipped "YA" and went from Goosebumps to the adult section.  What I think there seems to be much more of being done particularly well these days (over a decade later) are genre books that tackle more adult themes, such as grief, love that doesn't revolve around the cutest boy in school and mental health issues in a more accessible way.  Echo Boy takes a version of the future (that is actually worryingly believable) where technology has been developed in sort of an I, Robot type way, with families relying on computers and robots for education, travel (or the virtual variety), as well as for housework and for generally tackling the grungier side of life.  Audrey's father is out-spoken in his belief that humanity should be getting back to being more self-sufficient, warning of the dangers he sees in a world where robots are everywhere. 

It's a tried and tested premise and I enjoyed Echo Boy. It was well-paced and kept me entertained on a good few nights while I was facing down a sleep-defying bout of sciatica earlier this year but it didn't stack up against The Humans.  I was going to try to avoid the comparison but there were a lot of similarities in the themes.  Both have a non-human learning more about what humanity is and what it can mean and both have a pressing risk of danger borne out of a protaganist's difference (weaving in a bit of dealing with prejudice for good measure).  Echo Boy was a perfectly adequate (good, even) sci-fi tale but it wasn't outstanding.

I think that what my disappointment really came down to was that everything was just a little bit too predictable or a little bit too light (albeit with a couple of notable exceptions).  It's tricky to explain because the blurb doesn't give away a lot so I'm reluctant to either but Audrey deals with grief and depression; patches have been developed that can suppress negative emotions but the benefits (or otherwise) of using them is dealt with neatly and sensitively.  Much of Audrey's decisions and actions, though, are either obvious or a bit...stupid.  She's remarkably slow on the uptake, particularly when it comes to who she should or shouldn't trust, and it's more than a bit frustrating.

Daniel is a stronger character and much more interesting but isn't exactly perfect.  I loved how he was an echo (the name used for robots) but so irrepressibly human, an individual experiment designed to imitate emotion.  It's all well done; is it our feelings and desires and flaws that make us human or is it our flesh and bones?  The only point I wasn't sold on was Daniel and Audrey's relationship.  I know that Haig can write believable, meaningful love but this wasn't it.  I was ready to buy into Daniel being more than a robot and I would have bought into his being able to love but, as ever, I just can't get on board with InstaLove.

I sound like I'm moaning.  I'm not trying to, I'm just trying to say that this is a good book and that how much you enjoy it will probably depend upon what you're expecting (i.e. whether or not you've read and loved that book that I'll try not to mention again until I wrap up...).  I like the ideas and Haig is a great writer so they're done well, just in a way that I felt lacked depth.  I wanted more of Daniel, more of his background and more on the world and the background.  There was a bit set in a zoo that featured creatures (including some Neanderthals) brought back from extinction that was both fascinating and kind of heart-breaking and it was over too soon.  So this is a good, light touch sort-of moral book with plenty of action and some classic bad guy behaviour but it wasn't the tear-jerking, twisty science fiction tale that it I really felt like it could have been.

Overall:  Although Echo Boy won't be one of the best books of the year for me, it is one of the considerably better shifts from adult to YA by an author that I've read.  I wouldn't think twice about recommending it to young adults or to the more dedicated YA fans but if I were to be recommending a book that looks at inter-species relations, loss or really what it means to be a human, it would be The Humans every time.

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Date finished: 04 March 2014
Format: eBook
Source: Received from the publisher via NetGalley - thanks, Bodley Head Children's Books!
Genre: Science fiction; YA fiction
Pictured edition published: by Bodley Head Children's Books in February 2014