Friday, 31 January 2014

January 2014, You Were Solid

New Year, new "commitment" to monthly wrap-up posts! 

January has been an odd month for me.  I'm changing jobs in the middle of February and am FINALLY getting to the end of the three months' notice that I had to work for my current job.  I'm moving into an ever-so-slightly different legal sector that I'm really excited about working in but three months has been a heck of a long time to be in limbo.  The plus side to my brain not being taxed is that this month has been my most prolific in blogging terms since I started in July 2010.  I don't for a second think that I'll be able to sustain such regular posting when I start my new job but it's been nice to start the year with plenty of reading and internet blather.
 
The Reading
 
The other plus side to being in my notice period is that I actually get to finish work "on time" and get home in time to eat, read and watch something with Boyfriend so I've squeezed in a bit more reading than I would normally...
 
Books finished:  6
 
Pages read:  2,626 pages (plus 21% of Villette by Charlotte Bronte on my Kindle)
 
Random facts that seem interesting at the moment:  2 of the 6 books I read were review copies; all of the books that I have read so far this year are ones that I have only acquired within the last six months or so - more work needed on working my way through my own shelves, clearly; my ratio of male to female authors is 2:4 - hello, ladies.
 
Read and Reviewed
(Images link to my reviews)
 
http://litaddictedbrit.blogspot.co.uk/2014/01/review-ghost-hunters-by-neil-spring.htmlhttp://litaddictedbrit.blogspot.co.uk/2014/01/review-storm-front-by-jim-butcher.htmlhttp://litaddictedbrit.blogspot.co.uk/2014/01/review-bone-season-by-samantha-shannon.html

http://litaddictedbrit.blogspot.co.uk/2014/01/review-life-after-life-by-kate-atkinson.html

 Awaiting Review

 
The Internet Blather
 
I can't really believe how much easier blogging has seemed so far this year than it did at the end of last year.  I think it helps that I made a conscious decision to draw a line under 2013 and just start afresh in 2014.  I've reviewed a few books that I read before 2014 dawned because they were ones that I wanted to post about but I haven't felt obliged to go back over the whole 2013 back catalogue.  I got behind at some point last year and never really caught up.  Even if my serenity and feelings of organisation are gone by March, at least January worked out for me!
 
Let's do a whistle stop tour of the more random posts of the month!  In January, I...
 
...filled in the End of the Year Book Survey and rambled on (and on) about the good, the bad and the ugly from 2013. 
 
...FINALLY signed up for The Classics Club and posted my chosen 50 books...I'm currently reading my first from the list so I don't even feel as though I need to bury my head when I admit to signing up either! Double win.
 
...signed up for the Lucky No. 14 Challenge
 
...posted a sort of review/eReader comparison, Kindle Paperwhite vs. The Rest (Sort of...)
 
...made good on wanting to write more about food by extolling the virtues of Rick Stein's India in a Weekend Cooking post
 
 
...spread a little bit of library love
 
AND THAT ISN'T EVEN IT!  I snuck in a few 2013 reads so that I could coo over some books while I was getting started on this year's books:
 
http://litaddictedbrit.blogspot.co.uk/2014/01/review-humans-by-matt-haig.htmlhttp://litaddictedbrit.blogspot.co.uk/2014/01/review-cracked-by-eliza-crewe.htmlhttp://litaddictedbrit.blogspot.co.uk/2014/01/review-taste-of-darkness-by-maria-v.html

And that was January.  January, you were solid.  February, don't let me down.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Library Love (with Loot)

It’s been a while since I have properly used our local library. I’ve read the articles in the press about the rafts of libraries that are being closed as appalled as everybody else that would call themselves a “reader” but still haven't got off my bum to visit and prove that libraries are still relevant and valued. When I was young, I regularly raided the children’s shelves at the library in the village where I grew up and tormented my family by reading out endless amounts of undoubtedly hilarious jokes from the joke books that I had a penchant for at the time. When I was a little older, I borrowed endless seeming streams of Babysitter’s Club and Sweet Valley High books and, in braver moments, Goosebumps books. When I was a teenager, my friends and I devoured the Point Horror books and I started to branch out into grown-up books as I exhausted the admittedly limited Young Adult section. All without spending a penny. It breaks my heart that something like 10% of the UK’s public libraries are currently under the threat of closure and that websites like Voices for the Library have to exist. That reading has become such a low priority for the Government and for local authorities that cutting access to free material is seen as a sensible way of cutting outgoings.

BUT! This wasn’t really supposed to be a sad news story. I requested Allegiant back in November and got a random text a few weeks ago to say that it was ready for collection at the library in my village. As I tend to do these days (much to my shame), I dashed in on the way home from work one evening, paid the measly 90p that the library charges for tracking down any book I fancy and having it brought as physically close to my home as possible and dashed out again. I hadn’t been in the library for months before that time so when I had to return Allegiant yesterday, I decided to spend a bit longer in there to have a nosy around and dug out these delightful specimens:

I actually have an ebook copy of Bitter Greens on my old ereader and borrowing it from the library seemed more sensible than buying a second copy on my Kindle. I loved The Wild Girl when I read it last year so I'm hoping this will be even half as good. I can't remember where I saw The Night Rainbow but it's set in Southern France and seems to be about a five year old getting to grips with the death of her father and her mother's depression. Jack Glass was one of those library punts; an award-winning sci-fi about some kind of murderer in an intergalactic prison that I'm pretty intrigued by! It was only a matter of time before I succumbed to Laura's praise of Tell the Wolves I'm Home and now I know that it was one of Katie's favourite reads from last year too! Probably my next read. Maybe? I don't know! They all look great!

The library catalogue generally really looked like it had been given an overhaul and there were a lot of slightly quirky books from newer publishers (like Angry Robot) that somebody has obviously put a lot of effort into acquiring and arranging. Gone were the dusty, ginormous print hardbacks of previous years and in their place were some genuinely appealing modern paperbacks.  They even had a stash of Penguin English Library editions of classics rather than the frankly grotty versions with teeny tiny text. I didn’t really mean to borrow anything and I ended up with an armful in about 5 minutes and it was exciting that I wouldn’t have to get them home and feel a twinge of guilt at having bought yet more things that I may or may not read within the next five years. I could have lived without my attempts at acknowledging that effort at a time when I was the only person in the library aside from the librarian being rebuffed with a rather brutal, “Is the machine broken?” but that hasn’t dampened my overall warm, fuzzy feelings. (Although really, I was trying to be nice, Librarian Lady, and to let you know that I appreciated you and the rudeness did sadden and annoy me…)

Back in 2011, the Council responsible for the village I live in closed 13 libraries. It was originally supposed to be 15 but two were saved at the last-minute. The library nearest to me was not under threat, thankfully, but that obviously doesn’t mean that it never will be. I’m not always going to be the biggest patron because I read a lot of eBooks, have so many books at home that I haven’t read that it is bordering on disgraceful and most of the events that they run are while I am out at work during the week. I am going to try to keep an eye out for things that I can contribute to, though. Even if it’s just by trying to help get the word out about anything they might be doing. National Libraries Day is coming up so I’ll probably do another Library Love ramble then. It’s a shame that we need a day to acknowledge and celebrate libraries but for the moment, I’m just happy that there are libraries still there to love.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Review: 'Life After Life' by Kate Atkinson

Rating:  4.5 out of 5 stars

What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?

During a snowstorm in England in 1910, a baby is born and dies before she can take her first breath.

During a snowstorm in England in 1910, the same baby is born and lives to tell the tale.

What if there were second chances? And third chances? In fact an infinite number of chances to live your life? Would you eventually be able to save the world from its own inevitable destiny? And would you even want to?

Life After Life follows Ursula Todd as she lives through the turbulent events of the last century again and again. With wit and compassion, she finds warmth even in life's bleakest moments, and shows an extraordinary ability to evoke the past. Here is Kate Atkinson at her most profound and inventive, in a novel that celebrates the best and worst of ourselves.

Review

When Life After Life was published, it was one of those books that seemed like it was absolutely everywhere. I've never read anything by Kate Atkinson but I love novels that play around with time and/or have any kind of non-linear narrative so it was high on my wishlist for the beginning of 2013. As with so many books that are first released in hardback, I eagerly awaited the release of the paperback before proceeding to forget completely how badly I'd wanted to read it. When I saw it on offer on my Kindle while I was playing about at Christmas time, I went straight back to being desperate to read it. It may have taken me a year to get to it but I'm so glad I finally read it.

I’ll give you a clue about where this is going: I really, really liked Life After Life. The writing is just fabulous, the characters feel real and there will almost certainly be at least one that you fall in love with, the idea of multiple lives is well-handled and deftly done and it’s a wonderful work of historical fiction to boot. For a book that has quite a tangled plot (or many tangled plots) and that touches on some genuinely fascinating angles on questions of how much of what we become is what we are and how much of what we become is what we've been through.  Nature v. nurture, if you will.

It's easy to read and never feels stodgy or over-worked but it also manages to be extremely clever and packed full of things to ponder.  Think about it too much and it might actually cripple your decision-making abilities - what if a decision to walk instead of drive is one of those moments that decides whether you will meet the love of your life and live happily ever after or whether you will never meet them and be destined for a life of loneliness? There are a few pivotal moments in Ursula's life that we see again and again with varying consequences.  Sometimes the choices she makes change the lives of others, sometimes they don't.  Sometimes she has a sense that a moment is key and that there is something she can cause or avoid, sometimes she doesn't.  It makes the thread of the book almost impossible to predict (and, at times, follow) but there's more than enough that's common to keep you grounded and invested in the story generally.  I adored Pamela and Hugh, Ursula's sister and father, every time and I never understood (or liked) Maurice, Ursula's brother.  Her mother and other siblings are more changeable and there are a whole host of friends and lovers that she knows and loves and never  meets depending upon her earlier experiences.  Honestly, I sort of thought that the shifting might be gimicky but I couldn't get enough of it.  After each of Ursula's deaths, going back over her earlier years was like a puzzle.  Is it even possible for her to make every decision in just the right way and live perfectly, protecting everybody that she cares about in the process?  Especially tricky when you may not even care about the same people the next time around.  Almost as tricky as explaining how intelligent and fantastic this book is.

One of my favourite things about Life After Life was one that I didn't even know to expect. It might have occurred to me if I'd taken five minutes to think about it but the story starts in 1910, meaning that you get a range of takes on both World Wars, World War One from the perspective of Ursula as a child and the Second World War from adult Ursula's perspective.  Going through a range of lives gives readers the chance to see a range of angles of both wars through the eyes of a familiar character.  Whether it's living behind enemy lines in Berlin or working as an Air Raid Warden, each thread felt as real as the one before it 

I'm not quite sure what stops this being a five star, rave review but I think perhaps it was that there were times that I felt as though I didn't have a clue what I was reading about. I know I've mentioned it before but Atkinson's writing is genuinely terrific and it easily carried me through the times when I was scrambling to work out what had changed and why but the fact remains that I wanted a little bit more of a lead-in when we were back to World War II, for example.  Ursula contributes to the British war effort in a number of different ways but it was sometimes distracting that I was half-concentrating on reading about the traumas of surviving an air raid in a cellar and half-concentrating on where characters that had been present the first time around had gone.  A small point but one that I did find a bit disorientating, particularly when it took a while for it to become clear what was happening and what had changed.

When I first sat down to write this review, I thought that I wanted to talk about how I wasn't that sure about the ending. The more I think about it, though, the more I realise that it was sort of perfect. It makes a strange kind of sense, even though my initial reaction was that the story just stopped and left me feeling a bit cheated. Now I've had enough time to realise that there was really no other way to finish a story that twisted and turned in on itself about fifty times than with something slightly cryptic. From a quick scout around the internet, the ending means something slightly different to each reader and I wish I'd had the chance to read this book for a book club or something because when I finished, I was dying to talk to somebody about it.  If you could read it so that I can talk to you about it, that would be great. I promise that you won't regret it.

Overall: One of those books that has plenty to enjoy and that I am sure would give more on a re-read.  The more I think about it, the more I love it.  It's one of the most unique books that I've read in a good few years and one that pulls off being unique without being gimmicky.  If you're at all a fan of historical fiction or just fancy something a bit different from your literary fiction this year, read Life After Life.  It's as good as (almost) everybody was saying last year.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Date finished: 19 January 2014
Format: eBook
Source: Bought
Genre: Literary fiction; Historical fiction
Pictured Edition Published: by Doubleday in March 2013

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Top Ten Tuesday: My Reading Wishlist

Hosted by
The Broke and the Bookish
This week's topic is "Top Ten Things On My Reading Wishlist (if you could make authors write about these things you would. Could be a specific type of character, an issue tackled, a time period, a certain plot, etc.)"  Looking back over it, my list is a bit of hodge-podge of the first things that came to mind when I mulled over the types of things that I generally love to read about and that I will always want more of. I think it goes without saying that some of these will mix and match a little better than others...

Links are to my reviews if I've written them or to GoodReads if I haven't.

1.  A bit of friendly banter among friends. This might seem quite specific but I would take a strong friendship in a book or series over a “toe-tingling, gut-wrenching” or otherwise melodramatised romance any day of the week. I will love those friendships even more if they have the witty dialogue and sparky banter that I wish I could pull off in my actual life…
Something like: Theft of Swords by Michael J. Sullivan for Royce Melborn and Hadrian Blackwater’s perfectly written friendship (among many other things) or Attachments by Rainbow Rowell for banter envy.
2.  A touch of the Gothic. Think gloomy castles (abandoned or otherwise), a shifting, mysterious atmosphere, miserable omens and general darkness and moodiness. These are a particular favourite of mine during the winter months and I do try to keep an eye out for books to stockpile during the rest of the year for just the right snowy evening.
Something like: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier for something a little more classic or The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield if your more of a modern bod.
3.  Feisty ladies. I will always prefer my female leads with intelligence, independence and strength. No thank you to insipid ladies that can’t or won’t think for themselves or will swoon with too alarming a frequency. I should clarify that by “feisty” or “independent”, I do not mean rude, belligerent or obstinate.
Something like: Yelena from the Study series by Maria V. Snyder is a good’un, as is Katsa from Graceling by Kristin Cashore. If you prefer your fiction with fewer magical twists, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte is a classic for a reason.
4.  Tears. Lots of tears. This is more of an outcome than something in a novel, I suppose. So let’s call it “Something that will make me cry”. It isn’t super difficult to write an ending to either a book or a film that will make me cry. Anybody that has ever watched a film with me will ignore any part of a description that I give that involves a variation on the “it made me cry” theme. Regardless, I love a bit of a blub over a book. It means that the author made me care enough to provoke a physical reaction and I love how cathartic crying over a book feels.
Something like: Ah ha! And you thought I was going to go a Top Ten of anything without mentioning The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller! I cried buckets over that book and it’s just generally the best so I’d like anything that could traumatise me equally.
5.  A Message. One of those with a capital ‘M’. I don’t like to be beaten over the head with an idea and I don’t like clumsy delivery of a message and/or theme that I otherwise might appreciate. I do, however, very much appreciate the use of literature as a way to explore themes and ideas. Give me political warnings, historical lessons to learn from or a moral tale and I will love you forever.
Something like: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood as a cautionary tale of what might happen if “certain casually held attitudes about women are taken to their logical conclusions” or Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury as a gloomy look into a world ruled through ideological control.
6.  France. There’s something about France that I find completely charming. Something about the food and French food culture and about the delicious wine and the fact that it’s gorgeous and the language sounds so romantic just really appeals to me. This actually also extends to France’s history and I’d like to read more stories about the French Revolution. Given how close it is to us in the UK aswell, there’s no real excuse for the fact that Boyfriend and I always seem to overlook it in favour of more far flung holiday destinations. I want to read all about it and then spend a few weeks just driving round and eating stinky cheese and drinking rich red wine and generally making merry.
Something like:  I’ve no idea – any thoughts? I think this one was inspired by the later parts of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens and its portrayal of the French Revolution.
7.  Variations on the legend of King Arthur, Merlin and the Knights of the Round Table.  I absolutely adored the BBC TV series Merlin and have been meaning to read variations ever since I started watching it. Gallant knights, magic and fights against both mystical and mundane enemies? Yes, please.
Something like:  I have Le Morte D’Arthur by Thomas Malory by but haven’t read it yet. And I’ve had The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley on my wishlist but haven’t bought or read it yet.
8.  World War I and World War II. With it being the centenary of the start of World War I this year (bringing with it the advert on the BBC that has people singing that “pack up your troubles in your old kit bag…” song and always makes me well up), I feel as though this year I’d like to make a bit of an effort to read some fiction (I won’t go so far as to say that I’ll read non-fiction, although I might) that highlights what soldiers and their families went through. A little depressing, perhaps, but I just finished  Life After Life by Kate Atkinson and I found the parts of it set during World War II very moving.
Something like:  I borrowed the first in Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, Regeneration, from my Dad and need to get to it. I’m reading Wake by Anna Hope at the moment and that’s set just after the First World War so I'm sort of already digging out more of these but recommendations are always welcome!

I think that’s probably it, actually…I could scrabble around for another two but they’d be forced and my heart wouldn’t be in it so Top Eight it is!

Any recommendations, friends? Let me know what I need to shuffle to the top of my wishlist or dig out the pennies for right away!

Monday, 20 January 2014

Review: 'The Bone Season' by Samantha Shannon

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The year is 2059. Nineteen-year-old Paige Mahoney is working in the criminal underworld of Scion London, based at Seven Dials, employed by a man named Jaxon Hall. Her job: to scout for information by breaking into people’s minds. For Paige is a dreamwalker, a clairvoyant and, in the world of Scion, she commits treason simply by breathing.

It is raining the day her life changes for ever. Attacked, drugged and kidnapped, Paige is transported to Oxford – a city kept secret for two hundred years, controlled by a powerful, otherworldly race. Paige is assigned to Warden, a Rephaite with mysterious motives. He is her master. Her trainer. Her natural enemy. But if Paige wants to regain her freedom she must allow herself to be nurtured in this prison where she is meant to die.


 
Review

Sometimes I wonder how much of a bubble we book bloggers live in. When I was flicking through the reviews of this book on Goodreads, I was surprised to see that it wasn’t a sweep of four and five star reviews. Maybe I follow a group of bloggers with similar tastes to mine but I haven’t seen anything but glowing reviews, urging me to read The Bone Season as soon as I could. At an average of 3.66 out of 11,913 ratings (as at the time of writing), however, Goodreads tells a different story. So what is it that makes book bloggers crow with love and the wider reading population feel a little more than luke warm?

Maybe part of it is down to marketing. I haven’t seen the articles myself but apparently Samantha Shannon has been hailed as the “next J. K. Rowling”. Leaving aside the fact that J. K. Rowling is very much alive and well and might be a bit miffed to read that she was now being replaced by a fresh face in YA fantasy, I can see why readers might be a little disgruntled if they picked up The Bone Season expecting something akin to the tale of a young boy finding his place in a magical wizarding school, engaging in a bit of tom-foolery and ultimately fighting evil alongside a host of well-mannered and trust-worthy companions. I can vaguely see some similarities to the later Harry Potter books but only really in a (SPOILER FOR HARRY POTTER COMING UP!) “what would have happened if Voldemort won” sort of way.

Whatever the reason for the mixed reception, I really enjoyed it. It took a little bit of getting into but once I’d got my head around the types of clairvoyant and the slang, I was hooked. A lot of thought and imagination is clearly behind the creation of the worlds of Scion London and Sheol I.  Plenty of politics, a history that really seemed to fit with the current state of the world and with the characters’ memories and a huge range of types of clairvoyants that have their own skill sets and place in society. It actually took me most of this book to really feel as though I understood the different types of “voyant”, which was part of the reason I think it took me some time before I really felt as though I could focus on the story.  The detail is clever and is layered perfectly, without any clumsy information dumping or the like, but I found myself feeling a little as though I was behind on something and couldn't quite work out what.  I'd read the name of a new type of voyant and think, "but I don't know what you can do!" in the way that only a true control freak really can.  I did learn to shut that part of my brain off and trust Shannon to gradually dole out the relevant background and terms but it took some getting used to.  I was a much happier reader without that little part of my brain.  I probably would have been entirely happy had I not been reading an eBook copy that didn't reveal it's glorious glossary to me until I'd already finished the book...

I definitely liked Paige Mahoney well enough and was more than happy to spend some page time with her but it was the criminal underworld of Scion London and the hidden prison camp (effectively) of Sheol I that really pulled me in. There are some elements of Sheol I that stray a little close to the monstrosities of WWII concentration camps for comfort (take tattooing people with their identification number by way of an example) but it did make the setup seem worryingly realistic (if you ignore the fact that the subordinate class have some form of clairvoyance and the dominant class are aliens, obviously!) and much more morbidly engaging as a result.  If you wanted to read too much into it, I'm sure there are plenty more parallels that you could draw about the drone like, brainwashed voyants that serve in the Rephaite army, murdering on order but there's an external threat in the form of the flesh-eating monsters to keep the action up and moral disquiet down as needed.

Credit also to Shannon for boldly going where not many YA authors appear to be prepared to go and killing characters off. There’s really nothing else for it if you’re going to write good dystopian fiction in my view and I respect it even when it’s making my heart hurt and my stomach clench.

For all of the positives about much of the book, though, I wasn’t totally convinced by some of the events towards the end of this book. I don’t want to spoil this book for anybody because I do absolutely recommend it as a marvellous mix of some of the best that YA fantasy and dystopian fiction have to offer but some things towards the end felt a little…easy. Not contrived, necessarily, but just as though they didn’t quite work with the society that I had immersed myself in, particularly when it comes to Paige’s interactions with Warden. There is some gradual development of their relationship and respective characters but most of the book seemed to be spent with Paige thinking and feeling one way, only to have quite the turn around later on. I don’t mind shifting friendships and I’m fine with a changing captor-prisoner dynamic in fantasy series but I like there to be enough in the way of development and reasons for me to really get behind the direction the characters are moving in.  In a way, I guess that it's praise that I just wanted more of everything that was brilliant about the book.

Overall: Minor grumbles aside, The Bone Season is really very good so please don’t say that I didn’t warn you when you pick it up and find that 90 minute chunks of your time are disappearing in a blur of voyants. I will definitely be snaffling a copy of the next book in the series and am looking forward to seeing where the series goes.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Date finished: 13 January 2014
Format: eBook
Source: Received from the publisher via NetGalley - thank you, Bloomsbury!
Genre: Urban fantasy; dystopian fiction; YA fiction
Pictured Edition Published: by Orbit in May 2011

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Weekend Cooking: Rick Stein's 'India'


A little while ago, I toyed with the idea of going all out and setting up a food blog to have somewhere to spout about how much I loved food and cooking.  Then I remembered how much I loved this one and that dividing my attention would be moronic.  Instead, I'm going to try and make a concerted effort in 2014 to take part on a more regular basis in Weekend Cooking, a lovely weekly gathering of people chit-chatting about all things food related hosted by Beth Fish Reads.

First up on the menu for 2014 (SORRY!), is the absolutely gorgeous Rick Stein's India.  


In 2013, I enviously watched the BBC Two series of the same name that saw Rick Stein travelling around India, learning about the cooking styles of the regions and looking into where the British idea and definition of a "curry" actually stemmed from and whether it really has any kind of roots in modern India.  I have no idea whether Rick Stein has any kind of popularity anywhere else in the world but he's quite the stalwart of British TV cooking.  Fortunately, the series was originally shown not long before my birthday, so I didn't have a particularly long wait before my Grandma bought me a copy of the related book.

One thing that I always love about Rick Stein's books (India being no exception) is that the recipes are almost always accompanied by an anecdote about where he picked it up.  Be it from a street food vendor, someone cooking a family dinner or a high-end restaurant, the added detail always give the books a more friendly, chatty feel.  It also means that the books are filled with a mixture of recipes that you can use for all different types of occasion.  There's an India-style twist on a roast chicken for when you're feeding a family or entertaining, a really simple Lamb Dopiaza (an onion-based dish) that is perfect for a cosy Saturday night dinner for two (it's a real one pot treat and you basically throw everything in and simmer for two hours - so easy and really very delicious) and some fun street-food dishes that I'm looking forward to trying.  Some of the recipes are more complex (like the Chicken and Rosewater Biryani) and involve quite a lot of roasting and grinding of spices and simmering and layering that I will tackle one day when I have some time on my hands and want something special but on the whole the recipes are straight-forward and easy to follow. 

The quality of this book is outstanding too.  The pages are thick and perfect for withstanding a little bit of artful splattering (I am not the tidiest of cooks) and the photography is stunning.  There are mouth-watering pictures of the dishes but also fantastic images of exotic-looking markets, the people that Stein met and cooked with and India itself.  So not only is it a really good introduction to more authentic styles of Indian cooking, it's also a lovely book to browse through.

Find the recipe HERE
If you have any vegetarians in your household, there are plenty of recipes centred around terrific looking vegetables and lentils.  I actually do make quite a few vegetarian dishes for Boyfriend and me, despite the fact that neither of us are vegetarian.  The lentils are a particular favourite and perfect for packing in some protein in a healthier way than loading a plate with meat.  Cheaper too.  There's a spicy lentil soup with squash, tomato and green beans that is spot on for chilly winter nights.  This particular recipe freezes really nicely too so it's good as a standby for when you want something to pep up a gloomy evening without any of the work.

As with many books exploring different world cuisines, there might be quite a few new ingredients if you don't already cook Indian food at home that would take a little bit of investment before you get started.  The ingredients do tend to be common throughout the book, though, so once you've done a little bit of ground work, the dishes don't require much more expense beyond the meat and vegetables.  I cooked quite a lot of Indian food already but I haven't had any trouble topping up my spice cupboard from UK supermarkets and still haven't come across anything desperately obscure so a basic set of spices should see you through!

This is still one of my favourite food books, despite the fact that I got it last August.  It's pretty, fun to look through and feels very authentic.  If you're looking for something new to try in the kitchen or a gift for a foodie friend, I honestly can't think of many books that would be better.

If you want to have a nosy at the series or the style of cooking, you can see clips from the BBC series and pick up some of the recipes HERE, which I definitely recommend!

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Kindle Paperwhite v. The Rest (Sort of...)

I’ve been a big fan of the eReader ever since I first heard about the idea. I still have (and probably always will have) a big place in my heart for the lovely paperbacks that will one day be displayed properly in the new house as opposed to hiding in boxes but I can’t resist the convenience factor of an eReader. And any excuse to squeeze an extra pair of shoes into an inevitably already over-stuffed holiday suitcase will always be fine by me. Me and my long-suffering bag-carrying boyfriend.

When I first got an eReader in August 2010, I went for the Sony eReader Touch (a PRS-600, if we’re being super accurate). I didn’t make the decision because of any moral aversion to buying a Kindle but I liked the idea of a touch screen (which was pretty unique at the time and came accompanied with a little stylus for easy note-taking) and the fact that I could buy eBooks from more or less anywhere I wanted. Except Amazon, obviously.

Flash forward to November 2013 and poor Colin was showing signs of ageing. He still looked the part (I’ve always thought that the Sony design is quite sleek, particularly in comparison to the earlier versions of the Kindle with the keyboard that I personally wasn’t a fan of) but everything was getting a little slow. The screen started to flicker sometimes when I was turning a page and the whole ‘turning the page’ experience was starting to take a slightly irritating amount of time. I could have lived with that out of a probably unhealthy degree of affection for the inanimate eReader but I couldn’t live with it crashing and becoming completely unresponsive at what was usually at crucial and/or particularly gripping parts of books.  

For Christmas, I got a shiny new Kindle Paperwhite and, while I do still feel some guilt at replacing the faithful Colin, I’m a big fan. I thought about doing a direct comparison but given that the new models now have a four year experimentation and innovation advantage over the PRS-600, it seems a little unfair. Instead, in case anybody happens to be looking for a new eReader at the moment, what follow are my favourite things about the Kindle Paperwhite (that I have discovered in the three weeks that I’ve had it, obviously)…


1. It glows!  The screen has a special little lighting up feature that isn’t backlighting and so doesn’t hurt your eyes when you read for long periods but does mean that you can read when you run out of natural light. Very handy indeed for when you’re travelling, say, and want to read but can’t turn the car’s interior light on.  Also pretty useful if your boyfriend happens to not be a reader and finds it difficult to understand why there are some times when it is nigh on physically impossible to just stop reading and go to sleep and does not appreciate a lamp.
Alternative: The Kindle Paperwhite apparently isn’t the only eReader available in the UK that glows. If lighting up your surroundings is your idea of fun, you could also try the Nook Simple Touch GlowLight for a quite frankly bargainous price of £49.99.  Kobo also have one that I've mentioned below.
2. One Stop Shop: I despise this phrase that my firm seems to have adopted recently but it serves a purpose here, I promise! When I first got a Sony, I loved being able to shop around, dig out the best prices and make the most of almost any eBook sales. As the years went by though, it became apparent that Amazon was the best at making eBooks consistently available for a reasonable price and it got a bit annoying if there was a particular eBook that I wanted because I felt as though I had to check my favourite eBook sources to find where it was most sensibly priced. I also prefer that I can now download free classics in a set format, rather than relying on Project Gutenberg or similar to make a work look a certain way.

Alternatives:
Still want to be your own bargain hunter? The newer Reader from Sony has Wi-Fi capability and still gives you the freedom to shop ‘til you drop all over the internet.  If it's diversity of opportunity when it comes to your eBooks, this reader still seems to be a solid bet. 
UPDATE (with thanks to Ellie):  The Kobo Glo also gives you freedom with easy access to Kobo, which I actually used to buy a lot of eBooks from because their prices were pretty reasonable so this is a good alternative to a Kindle Paperwhite from what I can tell from a bit of a nosey around the internet.  I thought that the Nook was exclusively for Barnes and Noble (and I don't know what the prices are like in the UK so have no idea what that really means for readers) but I am most reliably informed that you can use it for whatever epubs you can get your hands on!
3. Shopping on the go: This is one of those things that I love about my new Kindle that isn’t new to others at all. Back when I got my original Sony, I don’t think that there were as many eReaders with Wi-Fi capability. Not having to plug the Kindle into my laptop every time I want a new book is the best. Makes spending all of my money on eBooks that little bit easier!
Alternatives: Pretty much any of the other eReaders in the market, I'd guess.
4. SO CLEAR:  I always thought that my previous eReader had a good screen.  I was a fool.  The Kindle Paperwhite is like the HD upgrade to the standard definition I was reading before.  The screen really is very clear.  I haven't tried it in super bright sunshine yet (I live in Yorkshire, England - sunshine is rare...)
Alternatives:  This is another of those things that I think all eReaders offer these days and I haven't seen enough eReaders "in real life" to make any real judgement on their prowess in this area.  I was going to write "sorry" but seeing as I am in no way actually a technology buff, I feel as though that lack of knowledge is kind of ok.
5.  All the rest...  It's super quick.  There's a nifty dictionary thing so I can hold on a word and it'll define it for me.  Apparently, I can also press on a character's name and it will tell me about that particular character (I haven't tried that properly yet!).  I charged it on Boxing Day and I haven't had to charge it since, despite having messed about on it pretty much daily.  It has a magical case that turns it on when I open it (because turning things on actively is for chumps, obviously).

The verdict?  I love the tentatively named Garfield the Kindle Paperwhite rather a lot, actually.  And I now don't have to be the plonker that responds to the question, "Do you have a Kindle?" with the slightly annoying (probably), "No - I have an eReader but it isn't a Kindle".  There's also clearly some merit in keeping electronic devices for quite long periods of time because then when you replace them, the new technology seem like wizardry!

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Review: 'Storm Front' by Jim Butcher

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Harry Dresden – Wizard. Lost items found. Paranormal investigations. Consulting. Advice. Reasonable rates. No love potions, endless purses or other entertainment.

Harry Dresden is the best at what he does. Well, technically, he’s the only at what he does. So when the Chicago PD has a case that transcends mortal creativity or capability, they come to him for answers. For the “everyday” world is actually full of strange and magical things – and most of them don’t play well with humans. That’s where Harry comes in. Takes a wizard to catch a…well, whatever.

There’s just one problem. Business, to put it mildly, stinks. So, when the police bring him in to consult on a grisly double murder committed with black magic, Harry’s seeing dollar signs. But where there’s black magic, there’s a black mage behind it. And now that mage knows Harry’s name. And that’s when things start to get…interesting.

Magic. It can get a guy killed.

Review

I seem to have a kind of patchy relationship with urban fantasy. I want to like it and there’s really no reason why I shouldn’t and I keep enthusiastically starting series and never getting past the first book. It’s only now that I’ve read Storm Front that I've even started to pinpoint what those first instalments are often missing; a mixture of character development and background and a decent plot, plumping instead for rather than too much of one or the other.

The thing that set Storm Front apart was that it didn’t try to do too much. Harry is a wizard and there’s a good amount of detail about the type of magic readers can expect to see in the series but there aren’t a whole host of other paranormal beings interfering all over the place.  Vampires are mentioned and one is introduced and the occasional demon is summoned forth to wreak some havoc but the extras are used relatively sparingly and only in a way that makes sense and at a time where it fits.  It's clear that there's a lot more to come but thankfully Butcher refrained from throwing it in readers' faces all at once.  The plot is solid, isn't crowded by information dumping and the novel works really well as a paranormal crime type story even without the prospect of further stories.

The magic Harry uses is a mix of the traditional staff, pendant and potion type stuff that works really well against a twenty first century Chicago setting.  It actually occurred to me while I was typing that sentence that a grown adult magician is actually new to me (at least, as far as I can remember right now) as a protagonist so I don't know what type of magic I was expecting.  What I do know, though, is that I was pleasantly surprised that the series appears to be sticking with the robes and quasi-latin chanting brand in favour of something more modern.

It also helped that Harry Dresden is the kind of main character that I like. I’m actually not bitter in person but I do like a cynical narrator.  I feel as though I'm saying this a lot these days but I will always respond well to liberal use of sarcasm.  It gives the novel a lot of personality and it's that personality that will have me coming back.  There are some other characters that I liked starting to get to know.  There's a faery with a love of pizza, a slightly pervy spirit living on the inside of a skull in Harry's basement, a feisty and independent detective (Karrin Murphy, my personal favourite aside from Harry) and a journalist that will do almost anything to get the perfect paranormal story.

I know that I’m by no means the first to read this series and that most people that are even half interested in urban fantasy will have read this, if not any of the later books in the series (of which, it would seem, there are many). If you are the other person out there that hasn’t read Storm Front yet, though, I recommend it.

Overall: I know that I’m not saying anything new by recommending this series. Series don’t get into double figures without a certain level of popularity, I imagine. I don’t know how far into The Dresden Files I will be delving but I will certainly be picking up Book 2 and spending a little more time with Harry Dresden the next time I feel the need for an urban fantasy hit.

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Date finished: 6 January 2014
Format: eBook
Source: Bought
Genre: Urban fantasy
Pictured Edition Published: by Orbit in May 2011

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Review: 'Taste of Darkness' by Maria V. Snyder

**SPOILER ALERT - TASTE OF DARKNESS is the last in the Healer series.  If you haven't read the first, Touch of Power, you might want to head over to my review of that HERE instead.  Looking for the second book, Scent of Power?  Pop over HERE**

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Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

She's fought death and won. But how can she fight her fears?

Avry knows hardship and trouble. She fought the plague and survived. She took on King Tohon and defeated him. But now her heart-mate, Kerrick, is missing, and Avry fears he's gone forever.

But there's a more immediate threat. The Skeleton King plots to claim the Fifteen Realms for his own. With armies in disarray and the dead not staying down, Avry's healing powers are needed now more than ever.Torn between love and loyalty, Avry must choose her path carefully. For the future of her world depends on her decision.

Review

And so ends another fantasy trilogy.  I started far more series in 2013 than I finished but it's always nice to get to round a story off.  The Healer series has been a bit of a mixed bag all along and Taste of Darkness was no exception. The first half was quite slow and mixed a bit of a recap on where all of the main characters were and what was going on with a lot of military tactics and politics.  I actually liked that that aspect of the story had been so well thought out but it wasn't always easy to read and my attention wandered.  Compare that to the second half when the characters are here, there and everywhere and there are betrayals and double-crossings all over and it seemed a little imbalanced.  It felt very much as though there was too much material and that the second half was a scramble to fit it all in. Really, there should either have been a fourth book or some aspects should have been made a little shorter.

The series has also always been a little bit dark but this book really kicks it up a notch.  Lord Tohon is pretty sinister but the Skeleton King is something else.  Think cannabilism, torture and general unpleasantness.  Gruesome stuff indeed and there were some scenes that genuinely had me feeling queasy.  More feint-hearted readers should be a little wary and I certainly wouldn't recommend this to readers at the younger end of the YA spectrum.  

Avry is as good a character as ever and actually showed some real growth during this book.  She's brave and I really enjoyed reading her research into her healing magic and many of the other types of magic.  Her scientific approach to some of the problems her cohort were facing made up for there being too much made of her being stubborn.  If one more person had commented on how Avry was impossible to sway once she had made up her mind, I'd have screamed.  Sometimes, listening to other people's arguably more expert views before making decisions that we're to believe might change the course of war is ok.  More than ok, actually.  The line between being stubborn and just plain belligerent is a fine one is the point I'm making, I guess.

So the chances are that if you've read this far into the review, you've read at least one of the books in this trilogy so far.  One thing that I have always found off-putting about the style is the casual, modern sounding narration in contrast to the medieval feeling setting.  The characters are camping in caves and don't have much in the way of modern comforts and yet Avry's narration reads very much like she's been plucked from the pages of a contemporary YA novel.  Take her observations on Flea, for example: "Flea had become monkeyfied".  Monkeyfied?  Really?  "The Monkeys" are one of my favourite things about the story but that description just seemed...sloppy.  Don't get me wrong, I really do like Avry and her independence and intelligence do still set her apart from many of the female leads in YA fantasy at the moment but her voice didn't quite fit.

Minor quibbles aside, the one thing that really bothered me about this book was the frequent resurrections.  One resurrection makes for a nifty plot twist.  Regular resurrections sows too much doubt. I still love the characters in this series but their constant disappearing and reappearing just meant that where I would usually hold my breath in worry or shed a tear, I didn't bother because there was a relatively high chance that everything would turn on its head again before too long. Kill off characters or don't, either is fine; playing about with characters and readers almost constantly isn't. 

In the end, this series was readable but seemed rushed and I found myself noticing a few flaws.  When I read the Study series, I absolutely loved it, each book took barely any time at all to get into and I can't remember having any real criticisms.  The Healer series seemed a lot more like hard work and I did much more eye-rolling than is strictly polite.  I didn't hate it but I hope that any future series that Snyder might write go back to the form of the Study series and Glass series.

Overall: If you've read the first two books in the series, you'll get more of the same racing around, banter and plague-based musings.  It's worth finishing the trilogy if you've come this far but this book was the weakest for me and I didn't love it as much as I wanted to. The storylines are all wrapped up so it's reasonably satisfying, even though many plots are tied up rather hastily.

Date finished: 29 November 2013
Format: eBook
Source: Received from the publisher via NetGalley - thank you, MIRA!
Genre: Fantasy; YA
Pictured Edition Published: by Harlequin MIRA on 31 December 2013

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Lucky No. 14 Reading Challenge

In 2013, I swore off challenges and boldly went where my reading whims took me.  It was fun and I read some fantastic books that I've been meaning to get round to for years.  Towards the end of the year, though, I took part in a couple of read-alongs and remembered how much fun it was sharing a common goal with other bloggers.  I started this blog in the first place as a way to connect with other book lovers and to babble aimlessly about reading, thoughts on reading, what I was reading and...well, everything to do with reading and books.  I'm only choosing one but, even if I fall flat on my face, I thought it'd be fun to try out doing a challenge again and to see how it goes!

Although I am by no means quite the eager bean that I was when I first started blogging and won't be taking on too many challenges, I really liked the sound of this one when Hanna signed up and decided that the Lucky No. 14 Challenge would be my book blogger challenge for 2014.  I've also recently signed up to The Classics Club but since that spans five years, I'm not counting it as a 2014 challenge as such...I know, I know, I'm not dilluding anybody but myself.

So what's this Lucky No. 14 Challenge all about?  Read one book in each of the following 14 categories.  Easy peasy, right?  :|

1. Visit The Country: Read a book that has setting in a country that you really want to visit in real life. Make sure the setting has a big role in the book and it can make you know a little bit more about your dream destination.

2. Cover Lust: Pick a book from your shelf that you bought because you fell in love with the cover. Is the content as good as the cover?

3. Blame it on Bloggers: Read a book because you’ve read the sparkling reviews from other bloggers. Don’t forget to mention the blogger’s names too!

4. Bargain All The Way: Ever buying a book because it’s so cheap you don’t really care about the content? Now it’s time to open the book and find out whether it’s really worth your cents.

5. (Not So) Fresh From the Oven: Do you remember you bought/got a new released book last year but never had a chance to read it? Dig it from your pile and bring back the 2013.

6. First Letter’s Rule: Read a book which title begins with the same letter as your name (for me, Astrid means A, and I can read anything that started with the letter A). Remember: Articles like “a”, “an” or “the” doesn’t count.

7. Once Upon a Time: Choose a book that’s been published for the first time before you were born (not necessarily has to be a classic book, just something a little bit older than you is okay. You can read the most recent edition if you want to)

8. Chunky Brick: Take a deep breath, and read a book that has more than 500 pages. Yep, the one that you’ve always been afraid of!

9.  Favorite Author: You like their books, but there are too many titles. This is your chance, choose a book that’s been written by your fave author but you haven’t got time to read it before.

10. It’s Been There Forever: Pick up a book that has been there on your shelf for more than a year, clean up the dust and start to read it now

11. Movies vs Books: You’ve seen the movie adaptation (or planned to see it soon) but never had time to read the book. It’s time to read it now, so you can compare the book vs the movie

12. Freebies Time: What’s the LAST free book you’ve got? Whether it’s from giveaway, a birthday gift or a surprise from someone special, don’t hold back any longer. Open the book and start reading it now

13. Not My Cup of Tea: Reach out to a genre that you’ve never tried (or probably just disliked) before. Whether it’s a romance, horror or non fiction, maybe you will find a hidden gem!

14. Walking Down The Memory Lane: Ever had a book that you loved so much as a kid? Or a book that you wish you could read when you were just a child? Grab it now and prepare for a wonderful journey to the past. Comic books or graphic novels are allowed!

Fancy signing up too?  Head HERE!

Monday, 6 January 2014

Review: 'Cracked' by Eliza Crewe

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Meet Meda. She eats people.

Well, technically, she eats their soul. But she totally promises to only go for people who deserve it. She’s special. It’s not her fault she enjoys it. She can’t help being a bad guy. Besides, what else can she do? Her mother was killed and it’s not like there are any other “soul-eaters” around to show her how to be different. That is, until the three men in suits show up.

They can do what she can do. They’re like her. Meda might finally have a chance to figure out what she is. The problem? They kind of want to kill her. Before they get the chance Meda is rescued by crusaders, members of an elite group dedicated to wiping out Meda’s kind. This is her chance! Play along with the “good guys” and she’ll figure out what, exactly, her ‘kind’ is.

Be careful what you wish for. Playing capture the flag with her mortal enemies, babysitting a teenage boy with a hero complex and trying to keep one step ahead of a too-clever girl are bad enough but the Hunger is gaining on her…

Review

There will be a certain degree of randomness over what I choose to review over the next few weeks but the general idea I’m going with is that, until I’ve read some books in 2014, I’ll be reviewing in accordance with my whims out of the books I read in 2013. I am by no means going to try to catch up on all of the reviews that I was behind because that would make me crazy but there’ll be a few until I read a bit more. Probably the ones that I liked the most or want to mention for some reason.  Hence me now talking about Cracked.

Not too long ago, I would have told you that I was done with YA fantasy for a while and that I finally thought I was too old to really enjoy it. I’d gotten pretty sick of female main characters falling in love at first sight and giving up everything they cared about to follow their man wherever he might lead, pretty bored of insipid secondary characters and pretty tired of Plain Janes finding out that they had special powers and that they were born to be great. If this one hadn’t have been picked up by Strange Chemistry, I probably wouldn’t have bothered with it, even though I liked the sound of the summary. From what I’ve seen and read, though, Strange Chemistry is becoming a go-to imprint for slightly quirky YA fantasy so I figured I’d give it a go.

Cracked had everything that I’d been missing from YA fantasy recently. Meda is a soul-eater. For her, though, eating souls isn’t a delicate practice by which some ethereal mist wafts out of her hapless victims in a dignified manner. Those pesky human “outer shells” take some cracking and Meda relishes the messy process of obtaining souls almost as much as she does the process of imbibing them. There’s plenty of gore (the head-squishing, bone-breaking, occasionally unpalatable type of gore) and embracing of her dark side and I loved that, even while she struggled with the thorny moral issue of killing people to eat their essence, Meda was perfectly frank about being a demon and what that means. Add to that her general sarcastic tone/cynical outlook on life and I was won over.

There was a moment when the “teenage boy with a hero complex” was introduced where my heart sank. So indoctrinated into the star-crossed lover trope am I that as soon as Chi arrived on the scene, I was convinced that I was heading for that age old “demon girl/boy meets crusader boy/girl and turns life around” tale. And I was completely wrong, thank goodness. There is a touch of romance for those of you that can’t bear the thought of reading a novel without getting that loving feeling but it isn’t necessarily where you might expect to find it and it in no way detracts from the main plot. There are even cross-gender friendships! Girls being friends with boys without getting all smitten, angsty and/or miserable! Who’d have thought? The shift in focus stops the secondary characters from being too one-dimensional and as Meda gets to know Chi, Uri and Jo, it becomes clear that they actually have multi-faceted personalities and stories of their own, rather than just adding to Meda’s story.

Not only did Crewe not take her characters’ love lives where I thought she was going to, she also managed to surprise me with her plot twists.  There's plenty of action and I pretty much flew through the book.  Crusaders are fighting a life-long battle against demons to protect the general population from their blood-thirsty ways and it isn’t pretty; people die and people’s dark schemes and secrets are outed and it’s just really brilliant. I won’t say too much more for fear of ruining everything about this that is unique but I do whole-heartedly recommend it to the more YA weary among you.

Incidentally, it appears that Cracked is the first part of a series and I will be snapping up the sequel as soon as it is released.  In the meantime, this does stand well on its own and you can (and should) read this without worrying that you’ll be left with half a story - there are some unanswered questions but nothing too major and no tremendously irritating cliff-hangers.

Overall: This really was something fresh and new for me in the YA fantasy genre; a snappy story with a main character that’s neither sickeningly good nor maniacally bad and a romantic sub-plot that really adds something and in no way disrupts the balance of the story. More, please.

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Date finished: 15 December 2013
Format: eBook
Source: Received from the publisher via NetGalley - thank you, Strange Chemistry!
Genre: Fantasy; YA
Pictured Edition Published: by Strange Chemistry in November 2013