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 to run like a girl.


“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.

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.


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.

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

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Top Ten Tuesday: It's Summer TBR time!

Hosted by The Broke and the Bookish
It’s the Summer TBR edition of Top Ten Tuesday, which means that it’s time for setting some over-ambitious targets! It’s no real secret around here that my reading pace has slowed recently but I’m really enjoying audiobooks at the moment and it’s making me feel as though I’m reading and enjoying books in general, even though I don’t get to spend as many hours as I’d like curled up in a corner with Garfield (the Kindle) or a “real” book.

So what’s on the agenda for this summer? And these are in no particular order so even though I’m saying ‘agenda’, I mean ‘hodge-podge list of things I’ll pick up at some point soon’. My next holiday is early September (long haul flights being the best for reading – Manchester to Boston via Frankfurt has to equal at least one book) so I can at least pick up the stragglers then if my summer is a bit of a bookish bust.

1. Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas – another book that I picked up during the Leeds book blogger extravaganza and was dying to read but then didn’t. With the last in the series due out over the summer, it is long past time to get started.

2. Crushed by Eliza Crewe – I read the first in the Soul Eater series, Cracked, last year and really loved it so I was over the moon to snag the next one on NetGalley and not have to wait until August. I’m a little wary of the blurb (which refers to good girls having a weakness for bad boys…ugh) because one of the reasons I was super keen on the first was that it didn’t major on stalker-romance. Not wary enough to avoid the book, though, obviously.

3. The Lie by Helen Dunmore – I know, a book about World War I doesn’t exactly scream summer read but both my Dad and Ellie Lit Nerd recommend it and I am powerless to resist. Bring on the tissues.

4. Running Away: A Memoir by Robert Andrew Powell – I’m currently in the last few months of training for the Great North Run in September. After the roaring success that was Running Like a Girl by Alexandra Heminsley, I’m really looking forward to another inspirational running story to keep me on track (which I’m going to let you think is a pun even though I run on roads…). Maybe the hardest thing is going to be to resist the urge to go haring into signing up for a marathon, instead of the half marathon events I’m currently pumped for.

5. The Golem and the Djinni by Helene Wecker – I’ve seen so many positive reviews of this (the latest being Sam’s over at Tiny Library) and I need to read it. I’m not-so-patiently waiting on my library’s list for the audiobook and when I get to the top of the list, this will be in my car straight away.

6. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – another not particular sunny read but one that I came across over the weekend while I was consolidating my boxes of books so that they were a little less sprawly. We aren’t really close to getting the study done yet so they’ll be living in boxes a little while longer but at least this one is now at the top because I spotted it and remembered how much I wanted to read it. Plus, short.

7. The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas – only partly inspired by the TV series featuring handsome chaps! I figure that a bit of sword-fighting and general daring antics will be spot on for lazy afternoons in the garden.

8. Poison by Sarah Pinborough – these books look gorgeous and I’ve been eyeing this one up since Ellie ever so kindly bought it for me for Christmas.

9. The Stepsister Scheme by Jim C. Hines – another book that I’ve had for such a long time but must get to. The ever lovely Hanna bought this for my birthday last year and I really want to read it. Really, really. It’s time.

10. The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan – I’m not sure whether this will pop up but I have been having super bad cravings for some Wheel of Time and I have the final books (I think I have three left to go) but it’s been years since I read Book 10 from the series and I want to really love the last few books and I don’t think I’ll be able to do that based on hazy memories. I owe it to teenage me to re-read but I’m really not much of a re-reader so if this does make the cut, colour me surprised.

A bit of a mixture, actually! Just writing that has made me super excited for summer reading and itching to get home and get started! What have you got lined up for the next few months?! Sharing is caring!

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Review: 'The Mangle Street Murders' by M.R.C. Kasasian

Rating:  4 out of 5 stars

Gower Street, London, 1882: 
Sidney Grice, London's most famous personal detective, is expecting a visitor. He drains his fifth pot of morning tea, and glances outside, where a young, plain woman picks her way between the piles of horse-dung towards his front door. Sidney Grice shudders. For heaven's sake – she is wearing brown shoes.

Set between the refined buildings of Victorian Bloomsbury and the stinking streets of London's East End, THE MANGLE STREET MURDERS is for those who like their crime original, atmospheric, and very, very funny.


I'll be honest: the reason I requested this book on NetGalley was only partially because I have a weakness for Victorian detective romps; it was also because the author originally hailed from my home county (Lancashire) and I will take any opportunity I can to bang on about how great things that come out of Lancashire are.  Particularly seeing as I now live in Yorkshire, where people enjoy telling you how rubbish the things that come out of Lancashire are.  Let's proceed with the banging on about how great The Mangle Street Murders is.

The cantankerous male detective with the intelligent female sidekick defying convection to fight crime isn't exactly new but it's a formula that I will always love.  Maybe it's the feminist in me but I just don't ever seem to tire of women standing up to their counterparts and vying for a piece of the action but there are enough twists in this iteration that it's worth reading even if you think you've had enough of Victorian crime novels.  March Middleton, our leading lady, stays on the right side of plucky.  She's witty and gets stuck in but without being so cavalier that she jumps into ludicrous situations without thinking of the consequences.  Feisty I am fond of; disrupting investigations by requiring saving, not so much.

Sidney Grice isn't your usual grumpy detective either in many ways.  Sure, he consistently underestimates his peers and is aloof and utterly mercenary (and is generally faintly reminiscent of many people's favourite eccentric crime investigator).  But he's also fallible, has a fake eye that won't stay put, and lacks the charm or allure that I'm more used to finding in the detectives whose exploits I'm following about town.  There is little really to like about him other than the fact that his dry sense of humour was spot on...and that made me utterly adore him as a character.  I'd never want to meet the chap but I can't wait to read more about him.   In fact, the characters are generally just great and the dialogue is sharp and doesn't feel clumsy or as if it's straining under the weight of trying to be funny.  Tick, tick and tick.

I seem to be saying this a lot recently (and perhaps it speaks of the optimism in me) but what surprised me, and where The Mangle Street Murders breaks away from the usual, is how dark the story is.  There are murders, of course, but it's the way the plot plays out where things get really gloomy.  I was actually quite taken aback by some of the turns (and the ending!) - I was convinced that eventually it would turn out to be similar to other books of this genre (sub-genre?), with some red herrings, mild peril and a happy ending.  It took me nearly two thirds of the book to appreciate that I really was reading something a bit different and just surrender to the melancholy. 

My only slight criticism is that the way that March's back story is woven in is a little stilted.  The plot is interspersed with letters/journal entries and it isn't really clear at the outset how they fit in with everything else.  I'm not sure what else I would have preferred but I just felt that there could have been a less disjointed way of working in that character development.  Not enough to spoil an otherwise very enjoyable murder mystery but a niggle nonetheless.

Overall:  If you aren't from the north west of England and need a little more convincing to pick up The Mangle Street Murders, let me assure you that it really is rather good.  It plays around with what is usually quite a light-hearted trope and I never really got a handle on the mystery until everything was revealed.  I will definitely be keeping an eye out for the next Sidney Grice investigation, The Curse of the House of Foskett.

Date finished: 25 February 2014
Format: eBook
Source: Received from the publisher via NetGalley - thanks, Head of Zeus!
Genre: Historical fiction; crime
Pictured edition published: by Head of Zeus in November 2013