Saturday, 22 February 2014

Audio Book Review: 'Bossypants' by Tina Fey

Rating:  4 out of 5 stars

Tina Fey, one of the most powerful and beloved women in entertainment, brings sharp wit and uncanny observational skill to everything she does, from television to major motion pictures. She's managed to be known as both the thinking man's sex symbol, and every woman's alter-ego/imaginary best friend. Now, for the first time, Fey takes her writing talent off-screen and into the pages of a audiobook. From her disastrous honeymoon cruise to the oversold joys of breastfeeding, from how to assemble the perfect female body to the working mom's inner thoughts (when cleaning under the couch: eat the Cheerio, pocket the penny. Unless your sweatpants don't have pockets...), Tina Fey puts her unique and endlessly funny mark on modern life, love, marriage, and motherhood.

Review

This week, I started my new job and with it traded travelling (and reading) on public transport for driving.  It's been strange adjusting to not starting and finishing my day with a book so, after a couple of days of getting used to my journey, I decided to give an audio book a go so that I could still keep reading (sort of) even when I couldn't curl up with an actual book/my Kindle.  I started with what I hoped would be an easy one that I already had stored from a free trial of Audible that I took up a little while ago and set off.  As it turns out, Bossypants was the perfect choice for an audio book novice.  It's read by Tina Fey herself so it's easy to listen to and almost immediately engaging because her chatty tone makes it feel like listening to a friend chatting through various awkward/funny/poignant moments from their life.  

I imagine that the same is true of the "real" book.  I don't read a lot of autobiographies (almost none, actually) because there a few people that I want to read/hear the life stories of.  It wasn't really that aspect of Bossypants that I liked either but the telling of them.  The writing is relaxed and has an effortless kind of feel to it.  The humour is sarcastic and self-effacing - my favourite kind!  There's something about Fey making fun of her dorky younger self that I think most of us can relate to and it doesn't come across as at all insincere.

What I really love about Tina Fey after having read/listened to her book, though, is that her ideas about feminism are more or less identical to mine.  There's a whole chapter about a photo shoot that Fey had and how, when the pictures were released, they had been photo-shopped so heavily that not only had they removed her "bad" features but that they had removed everything that made her look like a human being.  But, it wasn't the fact that her face had been altered that really bothered her, just that it had been done badly:  "“Photoshop is just like makeup. When it’s done well it looks great, and when it’s overdone you look like a crazy asshole”.  There's nothing wrong, Fey argues, with making photographs show the very best possible versions of ourselves.  It's ok to want a picture to remove the odd open pore or patch of "armpit stubble" and it doesn't make you any less of a feminist.  Not only were the descriptions of the shoot itself funny but I did find myself nodding along in my car to to her consideration of whether or not photo-shopping is really what is causing young people to have unrealistic ideas about how they should look because nobody really believes in it any more.  

And that kind of sums up why I've really enjoyed this audio book:  not only do I find Tina Fey really funny, I also find her interesting to listen to.  There's not much more that I feel as though I have to say about this, really.  It's Tina Fey recounting her at times cringe-inducing experiences and talking about how she has managed to succeed in what remains the male-dominated world of comedy.  If you like her, you'll love it.  If you don't, you probably won't.  As an added bonus, if you want a cheeky little reminder of why it's cool to be a feminist, Bossypants is a great place to start.  Not only will you come away from it feeling like the business, you'll get a few chuckles for good measure.

Overall:  If you're a fan of 30 Rock or have watched anything that Tina Fey has written and enjoyed it (including the 2004 classic Mean Girls, apparently...), I'd recommend this book (audio or otherwise) without thinking twice.  Fun, friendly and generally good for a giggle.  Buy it, enjoy it and pass it on to your friends.

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Date finished: 21 February 2014
Format: Audio book
Source: Bought
Genre: Autobiography; Humour
Pictured Edition Published: by Hachette Audio in April 2011

I have no idea how I'm going to fare when it comes to actually getting to know characters or places but I think I'm sold on audio books - any recommendations gratefully received!

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Review: 'Allegiant' by Veronica Roth

**SPOILER ALERT - ALLEGIANT is the last in the Divergent series so there may be spoilers for earlier books in the series (although I have kept things spoiler free so far as this book goes).  If you haven't read the first, Divergent, you might want to head over to my review of that HERE instead.  Up to the second book, Insurgent?  My review mini is HERE.

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Rating:  2.5 out of 5 stars
 
The faction-based society that Tris Prior once believed in is shattered - fractured by violence and power struggles and scarred by loss and betrayal.  So, when offered a chance to explore the world pat the limits she's known, Tris is ready.  Perhaps beyond the fence, she and Tobias will find a simple new life together, free from complicated lies, tangled loyalties and painful memories.
 
But Tris' new reality is even more alarming than the one she left behind.  Old discoveries are quickly rendered meaningless.  Explosive new truths change the hears of those she loves.  And once again, Tris must battle to comprehend the complexities of human nature - and of herself - while facing impossible choices about courage, allegiance, sacrifice and love.
 
Review

If you've even remotely followed this series as it's flown around the blogosphere, I can't imagine that you managed to avoid the furore that surrounded the release of the final instalment at the end of last year.  People's reactions seemed to range from utter emotional devastation to out and out rage.   I'd gone into Allegiant expecting more of the same high drama, fast action and semi-political wranglings that graced the pages of the first two.  The hurtling pace was still there and there were times when I managed to stop rolling my eyes and sighing in a melodramatic manner long enough to be gripped by what was going on but, when it comes down it, I just wasn't a big fan.  It was ok but not at all the life-suspending read I was looking forward to, was disappointing.

Perhaps surprisingly to those that have read it, it wasn't the ending that made this a bit of a retrospective dud but the plot generally.  For me, the first two books were made great by the idea of society being divided into factions. People living according to one defining characteristic and balancing governance and responsibilities for the protection of that society according to those attributes was a great idea that was executed well.  As Tris, Four and her band of loyal friends go Beyond the Fence, they more or less leave behind the factions and instead step into a world with a far less engaging and considered conflict based on some flimsy history and some even more wobbly science.

I won't go into too much detail about it all because I don't want to spoil it for those of you that haven't made it to this book yet but I will say categorically that the factions were better.  There was no need to completely shift the focus and try to set up and resolve a global conflict within one book and it just felt under-developed as a consequence.  Shelving pretty much everything that readers have come to love in the first two books of a trilogy and wandering off onto a tangent that just has no traction is brave in some ways and I suppose worthy of at least a small nod of praise.  But "genetically pure v. genetically damaged" backed up with some shaky explanations and some excellent glossing over of anything that might make it stand up to more thought?  As weak as it sounds.  I never bought into while I was reading and I haven't bought into it on reflection.

We also have a split narrative this time around, with the story being told both from Tris and Tobias/Four's perspectives.  Super.  I have no problem with having more than one narrator.  Actually, I'm quite a fan of the device in general.  Here, though, I found that I kept forgetting who was "speaking".  Both characters are now at the stage where they are internally conflicted and are having family problems and are all but indistinguishable in tone.  Both also seemed to be all too happy to put aside their worries and feelings of grave betrayal/upset/general anger any time an opportunity to snog in a hallway/empty room presented itself.  Maybe I'm not enough of a romantic or maybe it's been too long since I was a teenager but sporadic kissing in corridors does not a romantic sub-plot sustain.  The relationship that has been lauded generally as being realistic in its troubles just became silly for me.  Sorry.  Oh, and while I'm on the characters, pretty much all of the characters that you've come to know and love from the first couple of books will be put to one side so that you can spend some time with those that populate Beyond the Fence world. 

I suppose I couldn't let the whole review go by without at least mentioning the thing that had people talking, sobbing and/or throwing things.  When I started reading Allegiant, I had no idea where The Incident occurred and I spent the whole time waiting for something to make me incandescent with fury.  It isn't right until the end so if you're planning on reading this and might be in the hyper-aware state that I was for the first half, you needn't worry.  And The Incident?  It was a bit of a shock but not at all the trauma that I had come to expect and hasn't really impacted on my feelings towards the series in any way.  By that point, I was too exasperated with the whole experience to really care a great deal what happened to any of the characters and I didn't cry once.  Unusual for me and (you guessed it) disappointing.

In all honesty, I didn't hate Allegiant as much as it sounds like I did.  Everything is wrapped up reasonably neatly (almost too neatly, really...) and the conclusions to the plots that existed at the end of Insurgent fairly satisfying.  Most of my frustration lies in the fact that I was looking forward to a weekend spent tucked up with a riveting read and was left wanting.  Would I recommend the series as a whole now that I know where it ends up?  Sadly, I'm not at all sure.
 
Overall:  If you've read Divergent and Insurgent, this isn't a completely terrible end to the series and I wouldn't warn you off completely because it does wrap everything up and give you that "Ah, series complete" feeling.  Just please don't say that I didn't warn you that it's far from perfect and closure might be the best reward you'll get. 

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Date finished: 26 January 2014
Format: Hardback
Source: Borrowed from my local library
Genre: YA fiction; Dystopian fiction
Pictured Edition Published: by HarperCollins Children's Books in October 2013

Monday, 10 February 2014

The Classics Spin Take One: The results are in!

I was actually pretty nervous when I remembered that today was the day that the results of my first Classics Club spin were in!  I've spent the past week or so lamenting my own stupidity at including The Hunchback of the Notre Dame by Victor Hugo.  The more I read other participants' lists, the more I realised that I was not keen on reading it yet at all and the more convinced I became that I was going to end up lumped with it.
 
And so it was with no small amount of relief that I read that the lucky number for this month's spin is...20!
 
By 2nd April, I need to get my skates on and read Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe.

The funky edition I wish I had
I've downloaded a free edition for my Kindle and am actually really looking forward to starting.  I added it to my list after enjoying the deferential ramblings of Gabriel Betteredge in The Moonstone.  I can't imagine a much better setting for reading while sheltering from wind and rain than a desert island.  To make things even more exciting, it comes recommended by Blonde Ellie.
 
It made it on to my spin list in a section of books that were connected because they all had some link to my childhood.  In Robinson Crusoe's case, it was because I appeared in a pantomime version of the book when I was younger and so remember the story through a haze of dodgy pirate costumes, backstage giggles and memories of my dear Dad playing Man Friday.  I have no idea how much of that particular version was accurate (I expect next to nothing, actually...) but it was a heck of a lot of fun so I'm hoping for a good dose of nostalgia to go with my classic this month!
 
If you took part in the spin, what book will you be reading?  Have you read Robinson Crusoe?  Am I right to be excited or should I be a little more wary?  Tell me everything!

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Weekend Cooking: Jamie's 15 Minute Meals

Weekend Cooking is hosted at Beth Fish Reads and is "open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs"

Working full-time can make eating interesting dishes during the week a bit tricky.  By the time I get home, I'm usually famished and can end up falling back on a few faithful recipes that I know I can make quickly on at least a couple of evenings.  I have a slow cooker but I leave at 7 in the morning so I don't have the time to be browning ingredients in the morning.  Obviously I could do the prep the night before but I've never quite got into the habit.  There are few recipe books that I feel as though I can use with any regularity during a working week to keep things interesting but this is definitely one of them.

I know that Jamie Oliver has done a couple of programmes in America but I don't know whether this one has made it over.  The concept is probably obvious but this book is packed full of recipes that usually include a main dish and one or two sides that you can whip up in 15 minutes from start to finish that are all healthy and, in my experience so far, delicious.

The thing that I love the most about this book is that it has a real mixture of recipes.  There are some wonderfully bright and colourful salads that are brilliant in the summer but there are also some more surprising things like various curries and stews that manage to be full of flavour without taking the hours that you might normally expect.  Mostly through clever use of slightly random ingredients to achieve quickly what would otherwise take longer.  Some of the recipes, for example, use honey to create a sticky glaze.  It means that you need to fully read through the list of ingredients before you set out to make one of the recipes but once you've made a couple, the same ingredients do pop up time and again so it isn't unreasonable.

As you  might expect from a book that is designed with frequent use in mind, there's plenty of attention given to making sure that the recipes aren't full of hidden calories.  There's a nutritional guide in the back too so that you can clearly see which are better for a weekend treat and which you can tuck into on a more restrained week night.  I used to weight considerably more than I do now so I'm a big fan of anything that help me keep an eye on what I'm chowing down on.

My favourite recipe so far is a gorgeous fish tray bake that I've made for guests a few times. It looks lavish because it's full of king prawns, mussels/clams and fish fillets with crispy skin and it's great for eating with friends because it's the kind of thing that you can just put in the middle of the table and have everybody tuck into.  I've taken to serving it with cous cous, fresh bread and a little fennel salad and it's been a hit every time.  So not only is this a book that means you can have home-cooked, nutritious food without slaving over a stove after being at work all day but it has loads of dishes that mean you can entertain friends with plenty of time to spare on drinking nice wine and talking.

My only real problem is that some of the recipes have time-saving options that actually result in twice as much time spent cleaning as they probably save.  A lot of the chopping, for example, is recommended to be done in a food processor, leaving you with a food processor to pull apart and clean instead of just a knife and chopping board.  If you're even reasonably proficient with a knife or in the kitchen generally, you'll be able to pick and choose your prep but if you're going by the book, you might find yourself with quite a bit of washing up to do.  Generally, though, I whole-heartedly recommend getting your hands on a copy of this and giving it a try.  For mid-week dinners, I'm not sure I know of any books that are better.

If you want to watch Jamie Oliver preparing some of the recipes, you can find some of the episodes of the television series HERE.  Otherwise, you can buy your own copy of the book HERE

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Review: 'Wake' by Anna Hope

Rating:  5 out of 5 stars

Five Days in November, 1920

As the body of the Unknown Soldier makes its way home from the fields of Northern France, three women are dealing with loss in their own way: Hettie, who dances for sixpence a waltz at the Hammersmith Palais; Evelyn, who toils at a job in the pensions office, and Ada, a housewife who is beset by visions of her dead son. One day a young man comes to her door. He carries with him a wartime mystery that will bind these women together and will both mend and tear their hearts.

A portrait of three intertwining lives caught at the faultline between empire and modernity, Wake captures the beginnings of a new era, and the day the mood of the nation changed for ever.

Review

I always struggle a little with doling out five star ratings and for some reason it's even harder when it's the first one of the year.  There are some days when I think that five star ratings should be reserved for life-changing, world-affirming books.  There are others when I understand that the really great books aren't only those that tackle huge ideas or break new ground but those that perfectly capture a time or feeling.  Wake is an absolute gem that does just that.  I expect that there will be a lot of fiction focussing on various aspects of World War I released and/or talked about this year but I'm going to go out on a limb and say that I think that this will be among the best of them.

For a relatively short book, Wake manages to seamlessly cover an awful lot of the issues post-World War I Britain was facing.  The novel is set during the five days in which the body of the Unknown Warrior is transported from its initial resting place in France to Westminster Abbey, culminating in a public ceremony and the interment.  During those five days, readers get an insight into the lives of three frankly fantastic women doing what so many women were doing while the nation was recovering.  They're learning to live with loss, learning to be free from constant fear of telegrams containing devastating news and trying to find new ways to be content, if not happy.

One of my absolute favourite things about Wake is that it doesn't go in for shock tactics and isn't at all showy. It won't drag you through the mud, barbed wire and trauma of the trenches or baffle you with statistics about the sheer scale of the tragic loss of life.  Instead, it will introduce you to three women that are quietly struggling.  I defy you not to identify with and love at least one of them.  Hettie, Evelyn and Ada are all at different times of their lives and wading through different types of grief but I promise that they're all equally wonderful.

Between them, the women are recovering from the deaths of a son, a lover and a father and brothers that have returned from war as changed men.  I found Evelyn the easiest to relate to, I think because she is the most similar to me out of the three.  During the war, Evelyn found work in a munitions factory and, after the war, is working in a pensions office.  She was a similar age to me and I felt as though I understood her attitude and feelings somehow more than other characters'.  The tension between Ada and her husband was palpable and their efforts to find each other again after suffering terribly is agonising to read.  Hettie provides occasional light relief, although "light" is obviously relative.  There is obviously still loss there but she's a young woman that wants to dance at the emerging hidden jazz clubs, wear her hair in a sleek bob and buy a luscious sequinned dress.  It's nice to have a glimmer of hope and Hope does a good job of balancing that with the darker themes.

I suppose that what's amazing is that the book doesn't feel too heavy.  It will batter your emotions, without a doubt, but in a subtle way that isn't quite as exhausting as anything less delicately handled might otherwise have been.  As well as everything else, Hope manages to explore the frustration felt by returned soldiers that couldn't find work because of lasting injuries, both mental and physical.  There are some descriptions of dignified gentlemen forced to look to the state for meagre and ever-decreasing soldiers' pensions, queuing outside the office at which Evelyn works in the wind and rain.  Those descriptions broke my heart.  That men who had been through so were forced to endure such humiliation was just too sad.  There are just so many moments and so many ways that this book will get under your skin and it's so well woven together that it's easy not to realise how far it has burrowed until you're shedding tears.

If you're looking for a plot that will set your pulse racing, Wake probably isn't the book that you're looking for.  If you are in any way a fan of character-based novels, however, I can't think of a more beautiful example than this.  As you might expect, there are some poignant moments and I had a deeply ingrained need for Hettie, Evelyn and Ada to find their own kind of peace.  I genuinely cared about them and it was that that kept me feverishly turning the pages until I had finished and learnt everything about them and their secrets.  And, because I obviously haven't praised Wake enough, the ending is just spot on too.
"And whatever anyone thinks or says, England didn't win this war. And Germany wouldn't have won it, either."
"What do you mean?"
"War wins." He says. "And it keeps winning, over and over again."
Overall:  If you only read one book to commemorate the centenary of World War I, you do much, much worse than making Wake the one.  The writing is almost impeccable, the characters are perfection and the overall portrayal of the quiet side to the aftermath of war completely believable.  Absolutely stunning and worth every single tear.

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Date finished: 23 January 2014
Format: eBook
Source: Received from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review - thank you, Doubleday!
Genre: Literary fiction; Historical fiction
Pictured Edition Published: by Doubleday on 16 January 2014

For a much more concise review (and lots of other fantastic WWI goodness), visit Ellie of Lit Nerd fame's spot HERE on Centenary News

Monday, 3 February 2014

The Classics Spin: Take One

I had planned on posting a review of Wake by Anna Hope today but I always find it hard to review books that I really like so that's going to hang on until tomorrow (or Wednesday, if I am feeling as inarticulate tomorrow as I feel today!) and instead I'm going to sign up for this month's Classics Club spin.
 
I've watched on enviously for the past year or so as Classics Club members line up a list of 20 books and let fate decide which one jumps to the top of the pile.  I'm about three quarters of the way through my first Classics Club read (Villette by Charlotte Bronte) and, although it hasn't all been plain sailing, I'm pretty into it now and *may* have snuck in a couple of chapters over lunch in my eagerness to know what the future holds for Lucy Snowe so it'd be good to get cracking on another while buoyed up by that winner!  I don't know why I find the random element such a fun idea but I really do.  Probably because I know that if I don't have a push in the direction of some of the scarier tomes I'm going to find myself with just scary tomes in a couple of years' time...
 
So what's this spinning malarkey all about?  The "rules" look like this:  
  • Go to your blog.
  • Pick twenty books that you’ve got left to read from your Classics Club List.
  • Try to challenge yourself: list five you are dreading/hesitant to read, five you can’t WAIT to read, five you are neutral about, and five free choice (favorite author, rereads, ancients — whatever you choose.)
  • Post that list, numbered 1-20, on your blog by next Monday.
  • Monday morning [10th February], we’ll announce a number from 1-20. Go to the list of twenty books you posted, and select the book that corresponds to the number we announce.
  • The challenge is to read that book by April 2, even if it’s an icky one you dread reading! (No fair not listing any scary ones!)
Super simple and (hopefully) a kick in the right direction to topple a second book off my list early doors (is that an English/Yorkshire phrase?  It looks odd written out for some reason!).
 
My spin list this time around is...
 
Books I'm keeping my fingers crossed for
 
1.  John Wyndham - Day of the Triffids
2.  Shirley Jackson - The House on Haunted Hill
3.  Alexandre Dumas - The Three Musketeers
4.  Kurt Vonnegut – Slaughterhouse Five
5.  Truman Capote – In Cold Blood
 
Tomes that have me quaking in my boots
 
6.  Leo Tolstoy – Anna Karenina
7.  Margaret Mitchell – Gone with the Wind
8.  George Eliot – Middlemarch
9.  Victor Hugo – The Hunchback of Notre Dame
10.  Fyodor Dostoevsky – Crime and Punishment
 
Books about which I am currently non-plussed
 
11.  Anne Bronte – Agnes Grey
12.  Daphne du Maurier – My Cousin Rachel
13.  Edith Wharton – The House of Mirth
14.  Virginia Woolf – To The Lighthouse
15.  Salman Rushdie – Midnight’s Children
 
Random picks (that also sort of happen to have a theme of being linked to my childhood in some way)
 
16.  J.M. Barrie – Peter Pan
17.  C. S. Lewis – The Chronicles of Narnia (or, more specifically, I'd like to re-read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe)
18.  Robert Louis Stevenson – Treasure Island
19.  Jules Vergne – Around the World in Eighty Days
20.  Daniel Defoe – Robinson Crusoe
 
If you could keep your fingers crossed for a number between 1 and 5 and 16 and 20, that would be great.  Be kind, Lady Luck!
 
Fancy a spin yourself?  Sign up HERE!