Monday 1 December 2014

November: What I Read, What I'm Reading

How the hell is it December already?  Not that it feels like it, because despite the Channel 5 movie marathons and Christmas readalongs and Instagrammed decorations, there's still a whole lot of real life left between now and the 25th.  Give it another week, and POSSIBLY I'll be ready to watch or read something borderline seasonal, we'll see.

So, last month's reading.  Despite taking part in two separate readathons (the 24 in 48 readathon and Tika's minithon), I actually didn't read very much at all, especially over the last week or two.  Not that it was a bad thing, I've just been doing other things - like exploring going back into higher education, completing a couple of fairly heavy-duty job applications, helping my mum with a Forth Bridge-esque 5-coat paint job on our panelled hallway, blitzing my overloaded laptop, watching Criminal Minds (my new favourite thing) and stalking Amazon for Black Friday Week Christmas present deals.  Here's what I DID finish:
~ What I Read ~
by Toni Morrison
This was my first Toni Morrison, and it managed to be both everything I expected and nothing like I expected...  It's the story of Sethe, a runaway slave living in Ohio, who many years ago killed her small daughter to prevent her being taken away by a posse of men from her former plantation.  It's about how her actions have reverberated down the years, and about how slavery penetrated every part of society.  There is a pervasive feeling of fear and oppression that seeps under the skin of the reader and refuses to leave.  This is also, however, a ghost story, a feat of magical realism slightly akin to Eowyn Ivey's The Snow Child - and that I WASN'T expecting.  I'm still not entirely sure what was going on with Beloved and Sethe, and I'm not entirely sure I liked it as a plot device (especially the stream-of-consciousness weirdness near the end)...  but there we go.  As a whole the book was beautifully written, brutal and evocative, and I think that even when the content, the storyline itself, has left my memory, the FEELING of reading it will linger.  An interesting reading experience - 3.5 stars.

The Dead-Tossed Waves (TFoHaT 2)
by Carrie Ryan
Another novel that wasn't quite what I expected!  (That seems to be becoming a running theme of late...)  I really didn't like the first book (The Forest of Hands and Teeth) when I read it back in August, but I took a gamble on this one because my main problem was with the unbearably selfish protagonist and I knew the viewpoint for this novel shifted to a new character.  From her name - Gabry - I thought it would be a kind of prequel from the perspective of the girl-turned-Breaker in the first book, but it's actually not.  Instead we've jumped forward a generation - and Gabry's story is SO MUCH more enjoyable to read than Mary's.  There's another love triangle (bleurgh), and the pervading bleakness remains, but the overall plot is more interesting and I actually found I preferred the way Ryan concentrates on looking forward instead of returning to answer questions from the first book.  After all, the characters can't get answers from the past because the past is literally dead - so why should we dwell on it too much as readers?  I think I'll see this series through now, find out what happens to these characters and their battle against the Mudo in the end!  3 stars.

Relish: My Life in the Kitchen
by Lucy Knisley
A super-fun graphic memoir that seems to be doing the rounds at the moment.  I'd heard of Lucy Knisley, but had never visited her website or anything like that.  I will probably drop by more often now, because this book was so cute.  It's pretty much a series of comics about different elements of growing up as a food-loving individual in a household devoted to it (her mother is/was a caterer and her father a keen appreciator of good cuisine).  There are vignettes on craving garlic mushrooms and discovering the world' most amazing croissants in Venice.  She talks about following in her mother's footsteps as a student, and about the comforting power of cookies.  It's all done in a simple, charming and amusing style, interspersed with recipes that sound amazing.  Loved it - I'll definitely be reading more of her books!  4 stars.

The Unknown Unknown
by Mark Forsyth
This tiny pamphlet is this year's Independent Booksellers Week essay.  I missed last year's by Ann Patchett, and had to go looking for this one on AbeBooks because there was nowhere else for me to get it locally, but it's so good!  It's all about the idea that bookshops can lead you to books you never even knew you wanted to read, and that such serendipitous discoveries are actually quite important - not to mention FUN.  I've never read Mark Forsyth before, but his style is clever and amusing, with plenty of pop culture references and some interesting thoughts on book buying culture.  It's under 25 pages, £1.99 in-store and only takes a few minutes to read - so if you see one still sitting around on a bookshop counter, do pick it up!  4.5 stars, it's such a lovely little thing for a reader to be able to return to every so often.

~ What I'm Reading ~

At this moment I'm ACTIVELY reading three different books: The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens, Harry, A History by Melissa Anelli (a history of the Harry Potter fandom) and Project X by Jim Shepard (a novella about a pair of would-be school shooters).  I've also got two collections that I'm still dipping in and out of: poetry in the form of Charles Bukowski's The Pleasures of Damned, and columns in the form of Charlie Brooker's Dawn of the Dumb.
Aaaaand that was my November!

Saturday 22 November 2014

A Mini Readathon, in 50 Steps

1) Locate snacks, make cappuccino. Instagram them.
2) Go on Twitter.
3) Consider reading.
4) Text Hanna.
5) Go back on Twitter.
6) Pick books - completely different from planned reading or current reads, because fuck it.
7) Instagram them.  Peek at what other Instagramming minithonners are doing.
8) Text Hanna again.
9) Read first line of Charlie Brooker book.
10) Stare at wall.

11) Baaaack to Twitter. Pin hot Spencer Reid photo on profile so I can look at it and smile like a smitten teenager later.
12) Eat first snacks: mini rocky road bite, cappuccino (now cold).
13) Go get on bed, away from laptop, determined to read something.
14) READ SEVEN PAGES. Success!
15) Twiddle thumbs.
16) Reply to Instagram comments.
17) Use up new Candy Crush lives.
18) Cat climbs into arms for a cuddle. Instagram it.
19) Pop downstairs to make food. End up watching telly with mum and stepdad.
20) Show mum and stepdad cute Instagram of kitty cuddles.

21) Make tea.  Instagram tea.
22) Look at book. Watch Criminal Minds instead.
23) Use up new Candy Crush lives while tea 'settles'.
24) Pick up novella. Carefully read back cover.
25) Equally carefully read the 'critical acclaim' pages and author bio.
26) Congratulate self on getting back to quality reading.
27) Tweet about it so everyone knows quality reading is happening.
28) Use up new Candy Crush lives to celebrate.
29) Read 10 pages of novella like a FUCKING PRO.
30) Go downstairs to fetch copious amounts of coffee and popcorn. Pat self on back for deserving such a treat.

31) Instagram coffee and popcorn.
32) Look to see what snacks other people are Instagramming.
33) Read another handful of pages while shoving popcorn into face.
34) Decide to make bed for later.
35) Get distracted using up new Candy Crush lives.
36) Actually make bed for later.
37) Fuck it, put on pyjamas as well. LIVING THE THUG LIFE.
38) Devour entire bowl of popcorn while reading actual pages, for the first time since the minithon began six and a half hours ago.
39) Just one little game of Candy Crush.
40) Cat arrives for more purry snuggling time. Commence kitty smushing.

41) Send Snapchat of cat to sister.
42) Instagram cat for good measure.
43) Read more actual pages.
44) Instagram picture of bookmark in book to prove that pages have been read.
45) Use up new Candy Crush lives.
46) Imbibe huge mug of coffee.
47) Pause to consider that 11:30pm is probably not the best time to be imbibing huge mug of coffee.
48) Baaaack to the book.
49) Okay, one more game of Candy Crush.  Sneak it in there before midnight.
50) Just a couple more pages and - THEY THINK IT'S ALL OVER!  IT IS NOW...

Monday 3 November 2014

October: What I Read, What I Watched, What I'm Reading

Another month comes to an end, ALREADY.  I mean, Jesus, where the hell is 2014 going?  Summer's dead (R.I.P. Summer), the clocks have gone back, my winter coat has been brought out of retirement for another cold season, and wintery drinks like chai tea and hot chocolate have suddenly started to feel very appealing.  Even more scarily, the first 2015 reading challenges have appeared on A Novel Challenge.  IT HAS BEGUN.

So, let's get to the books and movies I consumed in October, shall we?  It's actually been a fairly slow reading month (it hasn't felt like it), but I DID watch quite a few movies, which is something I love but tend to let slide when I'm in a reading fever.  I think it balanced out okay in the end!
~ What I Read ~
Lord of the Flies
by William Golding
This was the second of the two books (the other being To Kill a Mockingbird) that I was determined I would definitely read this year - so hooray!  I've had it on my bookshelves since I was a young teen, so it was about time really.  Unfortunately for such a highly anticipated read, I wasn't as blown away by it as I'd hoped.  I wanted a kind of Coral Island-esque adventure that gradually descended into savagery and violence; what I GOT was a disappointingly jerky, uneven allegory that glossed over the survival element almost entirely, skipped forward in time in unspecified bounds, and grew quite repetitive at times.  As a result, some of the most important and moving scenes didn't have that much impact at all, and the hunters' savagery was less "diminishing sense of civilisation" and more "well, that escalated quickly".  It took me a surprisingly long time to read such a short novel - well over two weeks - and sadly the cover remains my favourite thing about it!  2 stars.

Austenland (Austenland 1)
by Shannon Hale
This book's been drifting on and off my reading radar for a while, when it first hit bookshop shelves and then again when the movie came out, but I finally picked up a copy from The Works this month and devoured it pretty much whole.  It was a nice break from the relentless misery of LotF, and FAR better than I expected.  It's about a Darcy-obsessed woman who travels to England to visit a holiday estate which promises a complete Austen experience - manners, men, a grand ball, and a happily ever after.  Jane hopes to use it to purge herself of her life-squashing romantic fantasies - only to find that maybe she's not quite done with love and the Austen magic after all.  I really enjoyed it and I'm looking forward to the sequel - same premise, new character - which I bought at the same time.  A cheery 4 stars.

Our Zoo: The Real Story of My Life at Chester Zoo
by June Mottershead
I was midway through the TV series when I found out this existed, and I bought it on the spot.  I actually read JUST this for the whole of the most recent Dewey's readathon (not something I normally do during a 24-hourer) because it was such an easy read, so charming and interesting and generally lovely to immerse myself in.  It's different to the BBC drama - that portion of the story is done within a couple of chapters, and the book moves on to the development of Chester Zoo from a tiny idyll to the world-famous force it is today - but the tone is just right, enthusiastic and entertaining, sharing stories from a magical childhood yet not shying away from the inevitable sadness that comes with working with animals, wild or otherwise.  June's voice is so warm and it's rather nice that now, in her eighties, her family's dream and decades of hard work are finally being recognised by a wider audience.  3.5 stars.

The Great Gatsby
by F. Scott Fitzgerald
This was a buddy read with Bex from An Armchair By The Sea (who is also hosting a readalong of The Pickwick Papers before Christmas, if anyone's interested), and it provided an excellent excuse to FINALLY read it!  It's so many people's favourite book, it's a classic I missed out on at school... it just had to happen, sooner or later.  Most people probably know the basics - the yearning love of the enigmatic Jay Gatsby for his old flame Daisy, set against a backdrop of moneyed twenties life in all its bittersweet glory.  It didn't have as high an impact as I'd hoped, admittedly - the end was spoilered for me, for a start - but it had all the alcohol, parties, wit and style I could possibly have wanted from my first Fitzgerald.  3.5 stars, and you can read my full review here.

I Remember Nothing, and other reflections
by Nora Ephron
Just sneaked this one in under the wire before midnight on Hallowe'en, whew.  And oh Nora.  How I love you.  In much the same vein as I Feel Bad About My Neck, which I read last year, this is a loosely-linked collection of wryly humorous sketches and vignettes, of various lengths, about family and getting older and life in New York.  It's not hysterically funny, it's not deeply profound, it's not life-changingly memorable - but it is warm and real and lovely to read.  Considering that I read a large portion of it alongside the decidedly less-than-lovely Beloved, that was exactly what the doctor ordered.  3 stars.

~ What I Watched ~
Seann to be Wild (2012)
 Stand-up comedy, by Seann Walsh
Not much to be said about this one really.  Seann Walsh is a young comedian who appeared on things like Stand Up for the Week and Live at the Apollo for a while, made me laugh hysterically every time, and that was that.  He sort-of reminds me of a bewildered lion, like he should be in Oz when he's not on stage.  His stand-up is of the 'everyman' observational comedy type, particularly aimed at 20-somethings and students I'd say, and I love him.  Yaaaay! (watch a clip)

Harold and Maude (1971)
Starring Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon, directed by Hal Ashby
Guys.  GUYS.  This movie is amazing.  Barry recommended it in a film video aaaages ago (possibly even before I started watching him - I binge watch BookTubers when I first find them to see if I like their stuff) and I spotted that it was on Netflix, so I gave it a go and IT WAS SO GOOD.  It's about a boy obsessed with death (mostly to try to get his ridiculous mother's attention) and an almost-eighty year-old woman overflowing with life, and their unlikely friendship-turned-romance.  It sounds so icky, but it's not, it's bittersweet and hilarious and I laughed and cried and the characters are wonderful and the soundtrack is by Cat Stevens and YES.  I want my own copy now, I adored it.  (watch the trailer)

Lost in Austen (2008)
Starring Jemima Rooper and Elliot Cowan, written by Guy Andrews
I was really fancying a little Jane Austen time in the middle of the month, but was already reading other things - so I went on a mini Austen TV and movie binge instead.  Rather than watching straight-up adaptations I first went back to this TV series, in which feisty Londoner (and die-hard Pride and Prejudice fan) Amanda Price finds a magical door into Longbourn in her bathroom and switches places with Elizabeth.  It's actually better (and funnier) than I remembered, watching Amanda completely screwing over the original plot and desperately trying to get everybody's storylines back on track - and Elliot Cowan's Darcy is seriously fine, WET SHIRT OR OTHERWISE.  So much fun!  (watch the trailer)

Austenland (2013)
Starring Keri Russell and JJ Feild, directed by Jerusha Hess
Hanna mentioned really liking this when I met up with her in September, hence buying the books and the DVD soon afterwards.  I watched it as soon as I was done with the novel, and I LOVED IT.  It's smart and cheesy and ridiculous and romantic, and JJ Feild is basically what would arrive on Earth if Tom Hiddleston and Alan Cumming had a love child, so...  Yes.  GREAT fun for Austen fans who aren't too precious about modern twists on the original stories, which I'm not.  Interesting fact: Jennifer Coolidge was actually on Shannon Hale's fantasy cast list before the movie was made, so it's nice that what's on screen at least partially matches up to what the author had in mind on the page! (watch the trailer)

Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)
Starring Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton, directed by Jim Jarmusch
FINALLY!  It feels like I've been waiting for this movie forever - buzz started early, festival fever fanned the flames (ALLITERATION), the rest of the world saw it, we finally got a limited release (which meant nowhere round here bothered), and then forever and a day later the DVD arrived...  It was worth the wait.  I think.  The immortal and slightly weary characters are beautifully portrayed (Tom Hiddleston, Mia Wasikowska, Tilda Swinton and John Hurt, come on), the cinematography is dark and interesting, and the soundtrack is one of my favourites of recent movies.  It's definitely a slow-burner - not much really happens - but it's gorgeous and intimate and I had a deep feeling of satisfaction when the end credits rolled, which is always a good sign for me.  Definitely one for a rewatch sometime soon. (watch the trailer)

Our Zoo (2014)
Starring Lee Ingleby and Liz White, written by Matt Charman
This is actually a TV series rather than a movie, but since I'm planning on acquiring the box set at some point I thought I'd include it here like I would any other series I own on DVD.  It's basically the story of the creation of Chester Zoo - a dramatized and enhanced version of the earliest part of June Mottershead's story (see above).  George Mottershead, a shell-shocked WWI veteran, and his young family move to a large house in Upton with the intention of opening a zoological gardens, a 'zoo without bars', where animals can live comfortably and safely while also providing an educational opportunity for visitors.  Unfortunately, the conservative residents of Upton have other ideas...  It's a beautiful BBC period piece, with superb acting across the board, a great cast, adorable moments and some really nail-biting ones, even though obviously you know it all came good in the end!  Lovely cosy cold-weather viewing.  (watch the trailer)

Catching Fire (2013)
Starring Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson, directed by Francis Lawrence
Do I really have to explain this one?  No, probably not, but here we go.  I rewatched the movie at the end of the month, because I want to finally read Mockingjay in November before the first instalment hits the big screen.  Unlike last year, I don't want to reread the first two books - not yet - so I watched the film instead.  It was as brilliant as I remember, from the thrilling moments of rebellion to the ingenious arena to that incredible Mockingjay dress.  I've heard bad things about the last book, but my love for the first two and their corresponding films goes undiminished! (watch the trailer)

World War Z (2013)
Starring Brad Pitt and Mireille Enos, directed by Marc Forster
First up, can I just say that this movie was NOWHERE NEAR as awful as I expected it to be from the dreadful reviews and tirades of abuse I've seen around the internet.  It was never going to be a straight-up adaptation of the book (which I read in September), because an oral history-style novel by its definition has no cohesive narrative or prominent character to root for - but I thought the compromises made to bring the overall story to the screen were excellent.  The tone remained quite faithful: the emphasis was on military intervention, and the zombie apocalypse as a contagion, rather than on gore and cheap thrills.  It did manage to cram in plenty of horror-movie staples - terror on a plane, terror in a military facility, terror in an apartment building - but although they were noticeable, I didn't mind.  It just added to the feeling of zombie saturation and the fact that literally nowhere was safe.  It's not going to be my favourite movie of the year, but I'm really glad I gave it a try and formed my OWN opinion.  Definitely one I'll be returning to next time I fancy an easy-to-watch sci-fi action movie of an evening.  (watch the trailer)

~ What I'm Reading ~
This has actually changed a tiny bit since I started writing this post (and took the photo for it), but let's go with it...  I've finally remembered that I'm working way my way through The Pleasures of the Damned, the collection of Bukowski's poems, so I've read a few more of those recently.  I picked up Relish: My Life in the Kitchen by Lucy Knisley, a cute graphic memoir that I'd originally planned to read during the Dewey Readathon but set aside in favour of Our Zoo, so I'm a couple of 'chapters' into that as well.  It's very cheerful and chirpy, providing the perfect happy-break from my final current read, Beloved by Toni Morrison.  I've actually finished it this evening and Jesus, it's brutal.  Beautiful, but brutal.  More on that in next month's wrap-up...  I haven't picked my next novel yet, but it'll probably be something from that groaning library pile that never seems to go down, haha.  Or Mockingjay!  Must read Mockingjay... *wanders off to have a look*

Aaaaand that was my October!

Monday 27 October 2014

REVIEW: The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald (3.5*)

(Penguin Classics, 2010)

The Great Gatsby is one of those classics that almost every eclectic reader is bound to read sooner or later, whether for school or for fun or just to find out what all the fuss is about.  It's also, however, a classic that no one really seems to know that much about until they read it (the Baz Lurhmann movie may have changed all that now, I don't know).  All I really knew was that there was a narrator called Nick Carraway, lots of decadent alcohol-soaked parties, and that a long-standing romance between the enigmatic Jay Gatsby and a girl called Daisy was important.

This was a beautifully written novel with a cast of flawed and interesting characters and a strong dose of extremely pointed social commentary - so why couldn't I rate it higher than I did?  Perhaps in some ways the fundamental nature of the characters, their shady backgrounds and compulsive lies and airy aloofness, served to distance me from their story rather than drawing me in.  Every time I thought I'd got a handle on a character they got flipped around again.  It's skilfully done by Fitzgerald, but it didn't allow me to really invest in anything that happened.

To be honest, I think one of the most irritating things for me was that just before I started reading the novel, some idiot on the internet spoiled the ending for me.  Obviously I'm not going to say too much, but I really think the climax would have knocked me for six and added a lot to my lasting impression of the book had I not known what was coming.

As the novel progressed the contextual themes and philosophical musings occasionally got a bit heavy-handed, but I did enjoy the insight into the shifts and changes happening in Twenties society.  Fitzgerald's careful skewering of rampant materialism and consumerism, of the corruption of wealth, and the poignant emptiness of the façade created by 'new money', is very well done.  Jay Gatsby is the embodiment of an ambitious self-made man holding on to an impossible dream, Daisy is a shallow butterfly, and her husband Tom is the epitome of arrogant privilege and entitled cruelty.  Of course, we only ever see what the gentle (though clearly biased) Nick Carraway wants to show us, but we can read between the lines.

I liked this novel.  I really did.  I think I'll get more from it on a second reading, and I'm definitely looking forward to watching a couple of different adaptations to see how they take this dazzling story into a new medium.  I quite liked Jay Gatsby in the end, which I think helped cement my enjoyment of the book as a whole, and I very much liked Fitzgerald's smooth writing style.  I'll definitely be reading more of his work - probably starting with Tender is the Night - and immersing myself further in the world of flappers and frippery to which he so frequently returns.

A note on my edition:  This is the foiled art deco-style Penguin hardback, designed by Coralie Bickford-Smith.  It has a bookmark integrated into the back flap of the dustjacket (which OBVIOUSLY I didn't use), a small section of notes in the back, and also an extensive introduction by Tony Tanner, which I recommend reading AFTER you've finished the novel (as I did) as it does contain fairly major spoilers.  This introduction may be ideal for students, and definitely contains some interesting perspectives and insights, but it's a bit dry and of the 'Look how many big words I know' ilk if you prefer your intros more informal and personal.  It also lost points for this completely straight-faced sentence about how far Nick believes Gatsby's fabrications about his life: -
"I would never... suggest that even in the most metaphorical way [Nick] ever goes upon his knees before Gatsby to be 'humbuggingly humbugged"...
- followed by repeat use of the word 'hankey-pankey', which I'm not going to lie, gave me the 'Uncle Geoffrey from Bridget Jones' creeps.  So... yes.  Beautiful edition, though!

Sunday 5 October 2014

September: What I Read, What I Watched

Du du DUH DUH DUH... another month bites the dust...  sing it with me!  Yes, you will have that song stuck in your head for the rest of the day.  YOU'RE WELCOME.  :)
~ What I Read ~
Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist
by David Levithan and Rachel Cohn
I've wanted to read this for a while, because I wanted to watch the movie and you know I always prefer to read FIRST - but sadly I didn't like it any more than Dash and Lily's Book of Dares.  It was a quick read, quite fun, quite amusing - but also 100% forgettable.  Like Dash and Lily, there were some brilliant little moments and some profound lines in there, but it wasn't enough to redeem the book as a whole and I've already forgotten all but the bare basics.  I'm glad I borrowed it from the library instead of shelling out for a copy of my own!  3 stars.

Red Dragon (Hannibal Lecter 1)
by Thomas Harris
My first book of the Halloween season - and what a pleasant surprise it was!  Hannibal himself is only in it for about 3 seconds, so what you're really left with is a well-written crime novel that focuses almost entirely on two characters: the murderer, Francis Dollarhyde, and the fascinating Will Graham, brought in by the FBI to use his empathic and imaginative talents to get inside the mind of the 'Red Dragon', who has already slaughtered two completely unlinked families in their homes.  I found the psychology of both these individuals to be the book's strongest element, with Dollarhyde's terrifying delusions and Graham's intuitive understanding dancing around each other as the FBI gets closer and closer to the truth.  I can't wait to read more from this series - an unexpected 4.5 stars!

And the Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks
by Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs
Finally, my first Beat novel!  It's been a long time coming, though I'd always assumed On the Road would be my first... but whatever.  I got this one from the library right after I bought Kill Your Darlings on DVD and realised that the book was essentially a thinly-veiled novelisation of the real events depicted in the film.  Labelled a 'crime noir', I actually didn't think it felt that way at all; the murder is a fleeting thing right near the end of the book.  It's incredibly easy to read, filled with tiny mundane details that build up a picture of a bohemian alcohol-fuelled lifestyle largely consisting of bar hopping and drifting in and out of each other's homes to eat, sleep, love, talk and dream.  I also liked the insight into how boys would 'ship out' to work at sea, and how that process worked.  An odd one, this, in that I didn't rank it THAT highly, yet I'd really like to reread it and have my own copy at some point in the near future.  3.5 stars.

Ketchup Clouds
by Annabel Pitcher
This was another book that ended up being a little different from what I expected.  From the 'teenage girl writing to a serial killer' premise, I'd expected a thriller more akin to Belinda Bauer's Blacklands.  What I GOT was something that was more like a fusion of Laurie Halse Anderson and Malorie Blackman: a pitch-perfect, wry and beautifully told story of a young woman spilling her darkest secrets to someone she hopes might understand.  It's gripping, yes, and provocative, but in a heartstring-tugging and realistic way rather than a chilling one.  4 stars - I might read her other novel at some point too.  Has anyone read it already?  Do you recommend it?

by Patti Smith
This is an odd one.  In well under 100 pages, Smith manages to cram in photographs, vignettes from her life and a dose of poetry.  I picked it up at the library after I saw it reviewed on BookTube, and I'm glad I did, even though I've forgotten most of it already.  It's undeniably well written and has its profoundly beautiful moments - I particularly liked the vignette entitled 'Nineteen Fifty-Seven', which manages to combine fire, grief, family and a dog into a heartbreaking few pages - but the poetry and more random 'artistic' moments didn't do much for me, I'm afraid.  It came across as a bit pretentious where I think it was just meant to be honest.  If Just Kids sticks with Smith's talent for writing and nixes the odd tangents, I think we'll get on just fine.  A tentative 3 stars, maybe?

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War
by Max Brooks
My last complete read for the month!  Despite having owned it for years, pretty much all I knew about this one was that everyone seems to love it, and it does what it says on the cover - it's an oral history-style zombie novel.  I thought it was fantastic!  It's so convincing that occasionally, when I was reading a segment more focussed on something not directly zombie contact-related (military tactics, say), I forgot I was reading fiction.  In these more technical areas I genuinely have no idea how much detail is real, and how much was entirely fabricated by Brooks.  The oral history format also made it extremely addictive, because each person's perspective only lasts a few pages at most, so it's too easy to read 'just one more'.  This isn't light reading, exactly, but if I've managed to make it sound even remotely intriguing then I highly recommend giving it a try!  4.5 stars.

~ What I Watched ~
Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist (2008)
Starring Michael Cera and Kat Dennings, directed by Peter Sollett
Meeeeeeeh.  So, I read the book because I wanted to watch the film, yes?  And the trailer looked quite amusing, and MOST of all I wanted to watch it because I have a tremendous crush on Kat Dennings.  I have to say, she made a great Norah, and her and her perpetually-intoxicated friend pretty much made the movie for me.  Whoever cast Michael Cera as Nick should be shot, but that's another matter entirely.  Once again, the ingredients for a good romcom were there - funny bits, kooky characters, great one-liners - but somehow it just didn't come together for me.  I watched it on Netflix, and it's definitely not one I'll be buying to rewatch or anything.  Oh well.  (watch the trailer)

Manhunter (1986)
Starring William Petersen and Tom Noonan, directed by Michael Mann
This one, on the other hand, completely outshone its trailer, and even managed to make the awful synth soundtrack feel faintly ironic instead of just cheesy.  I was urged to watch this adaptation of Red Dragon instead of the remake with Anthony Hopkins - and I have to say, it was a good call.  Will Graham is portrayed really well (not Hugh Dancy-well, but SSSSH) and Brian Cox's miniscule role as Dr Lecter is the perfect mix of charm and cunning.  It also alters the odd double ending of the book, which was possibly an improvement.  I'd definitely recommend reading it first - there were so many character details that made more sense that way - but if you're going to watch an adaptation this is WAY better than I expected!  (watch the trailer)

Kill Your Darlings (2013)
Starring Daniel Radcliffe and Dane DeHaan, directed by John Krokidas
This was another one that surpassed my expectations - though I had pretty high ones anyway, so it's aaaaaaall good.  I absolutely loved it.  I'd never even heard of it until I saw it in Tesco, but I bought it on the spot because it's baaaasically another version of the true story behind And The Hippos Were Boiled in their Tanks.  It's from the perspective of Allen Ginsberg, and is about him meeting Lucien Carr, being introduced to William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, and ultimately witnessing the fallout from the murder of David Kammerer, who had been obsessed with Carr for years.  As with the novel, however, the film is more about the build-up - the music, the alcohol, the poetry and flirtation and shabby decadence and the development of ideas that would shape the Beats for years to come.  It's funny and intoxicating but has its sudden dark, heartbreaking moments, the soundtrack is wonderful, and both Daniel Radcliffe (Ginsberg) and Dane DeHaan (Carr) are amazing.  Ben Foster is particularly impressive as Burroughs too.  I'm sure Beat experts can find plenty wrong with it - as always happens when real events are translated onto the screen - but it's one of my favourite movies of the year so far.   (watch the trailer)

~ What I'm Reading ~
Aside from a brief return to Charles Bukowski's The Pleasures of the Damned, which I dip in and out of whenever I remember I'm reading it, I've been concentrating on Lord of the FliesI'm not gonna lie, it's taking me a while - though I'm not sure why.  It's easy enough to read, and the dark undertones are building nicely - it's maybe just getting a bit... repetitive?  I'm not getting enough of life on the island and how the mindsets of the boys are shifting - it's all a bit "and then we traipsed around the beach a bit again and OH BY THE WAY SOME OF US MAY BE GOING MAD".  No real insight into why, or how - it just is.  I mean, I understand, I just think it would have been more effective to have explored that descent a little more deeply instead of just having another scene of small children eating fruit or playing in the water. 

Yeah, give it about fifty pages love.

Hopefully I'll finish it early this week, I've got so many I want to read this month!  Upcoming books may or may not include Pride and Prejudice, Austenland, The Great Gatsby and hopefully some of the non-fiction I've got checked out of the library at the moment.  Stay tuned!
Aaaand that was my September!

Monday 8 September 2014

August: What I Read, What I Watched, What I'm Reading

Flying in late YET again with my August reviews and wrap-up, oooops.  Hello!  How was your late-summer reading?  I feel like mine finally picked up a bit last month; I finished Lamb at last and leapt head-first into some long-awaited novellas from the library.  The impending 'final deadline' really boosted me to drive hard at my reading towards the end of August, because I desperately wanted to read these books and I'd had them for so long I couldn't renew them any more!  It's amazing how much time you find to read when you have the threat of library fines at your back.  :)
~ What I Read ~
Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal
by Christopher Moore
My first priority in August was to FINALLY finish Lamb, which I'd been reading since I went on holiday at the end of June.  I'd put it aside for some frothy summer reading and to finish a non-fiction book I'd been struggling to get through, so it was about time!  Happily, it lived up to all the rave reviews and Moore-hype I've seen everywhere over the past few years.  The basic premise is that Christ's oldest friend Biff has been resurrected by an angel and locked in a hotel room to write his own gospel - the real story of Joshua's life, filling in the massive gap between 'born in stable' and 'thirty and preaching the Word'.  Christopher Moore being a clever and hilarious dude, this manages to incorporate everything from Buddhist philosophy and the wisdom of the Kings of Orient to kung-fu and a Yeti, as Joshua sets about learning how to be the Messiah.  It's such an absorbing read, very intelligent, very funny, yet surprisingly wise and poignant sometimes too.  Definitely a keeper - I gave it 4.5 stars - and I see many more Christopher Moore novels in my future!

The Forest of Hands and Teeth (TFoHaT 1)
by Carrie Ryan
I'd heard a lot of good things about this book, and had been looking for it at the library for AGES, so when I finally spotted it on the reshelving trolley I grabbed it!  A zombie novel whose synopsis reminded me a bit of The Village - human enclave, very insular and ordered, evil things trying to breach the fences - this sadly turned out to be a tad disappointing.  The actual zombie mythology of Ryan's world is interesting, and the book definitely kept me hooked, but I had some problems with it too.  I felt like it set up more questions than it answered, paving the way for future books in the series in a way that was more frustrating than enticing, and I really wasn't keen on the main character, Mary.  She is extremely self-absorbed and self-obsessed, playing with people's hearts and constantly putting herself and others in danger through her reckless need to follow her whims instantly instead of thinking them through.  Of course everyone around her pays the price, and yet she never seems to learn!  I've picked up the next book, The Dead-Tossed Waves, mostly because it has a complete character shift so... no more Mary and her stupidity!  Hopefully I'll like this one better, and it'll fill in some of those unanswered questions that bugged me in the first book...  3 stars.

Ghost World
by Daniel Clowes
I loved the movie version of Ghost World as a teenager, so when Ellie (the Curiosity Killed the Bookworm branch of the Ellie Army) offered to send on her copy of the graphic novel, I eagerly accepted.  And I'm so glad I did!  To start with I wasn't sure I was going to like the style, either in terms of the art work OR the dialogue, but the further I delved, the more I appreciated it.  It's actually made up of several short and largely self-contained vignettes that fall along a linear timeline, rather than following one big story arc, which probably helped, because I could dip into it for light relief in between chapters of the Carrie Ryan novel.  It had its kooky moments, and its poignant ones, and it was a good excuse to watch the movie again for the first time in years.  I think I like the adaptation more, but it was still a lot of fun!  4 stars.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle
by Shirley Jackson
Finally, I read my first Shirley Jackson!  Jean over at Bookish Thoughts talks about her a fair bit, so I thought it was about time I gave her a go.  My local bookshops failed epically, but the library fared better and I picked We Have Always Lived in the Castle to start me off.  This book is more about atmosphere and character than plot, concentrating on an insular household comprising eighteen year-old oddball Merricat, her older sister Constance, her cat Jonas, and their eccentric uncle.  The rest of their family was killed in bizarre circumstances and the townspeople hate, ridicule and fear them in equal measure - all they have is their house, each other and their unchanging domestic routine.  Until a money-grabbing cousin unexpectedly arrives and brings their world tumbling down around them, that is...  The description and prose in this novella is beautiful, and the inside of Merricat's strange mind is quite fascinating.  It's fairly sedately paced, with the exception of one genuinely heartbreaking scene of chaos and misery that made me feel sick to the stomach, but it flows well and I never felt like it was dragging at all.  A hard one to describe all round, really... My best advice is just to read it for yourself!  4 stars - I'll definitely be reading more Shirley Jackson soon!

A Single Man
by Christopher Isherwood
Another beautiful little novella that's far more focussed on character, thought and ambience than it is on plot - and is thus difficult to describe or review in any meaningful way.  This was my first Isherwood - and again, most definitely not my last - and is pretty much a 'day in the life' of George, a British college professor living in Los Angeles.  He is still mourning the (fairly) recent loss of his partner Jim, and finds himself irreparably estranged from the world: from his neighbours and colleagues, because of his sexuality, and from his students, because of his age.  He spends his time perfecting his outer façade, searching for understanding, reflecting on life, and fielding the neuroses of his larger-than-life friend Charlotte.  It's gorgeously written and quietly devastating, and I plan to buy the film soon because if it's even NEARLY as good as this, it's going to be something special.  Another solid 4 stars.

~ What I Watched ~
The Double (2013)
Starring Jesse Eisenberg and Mia Wasikowska, directed by Richard Ayoade
This film was the reason I finally read my first Dostoyevsky novella back in April (jeez, was it that long ago?!).  The DVD was released in August and I bought it the same week, thanks to the winning (for me) combination of classic source material, 'what is real' mind-fuckery, and the combined talents of Jesse Eisenberg (who is rapidly becoming one of my favourite actors, he's amazing), the lovely Mia Wasikowska and the genius that is Richard Ayoade.  It was... slow, not in a bad way... extremely dark, blackly funny, strange and unsettling, picking up pace and getting simultaneously more coherent yet more warped as the movie went on.  The numerous cameos from Ayoade's fellow comedians (Tim Key), IT Crowd friends (Chris O'Dowd, Chris Morris) and cast members from his previous film Submarine (Sally Hawkins, Craig Roberts AND Paddy Considine) were fun to spot, but felt a bit out of place in such a pitch-black film.  I definitely preferred it to the book and will be watching it again at some point to see how much more I get from it the second time around.  Cautiously recommended.  (watch the trailer)

Ghost World (2001)
Starring Thora Birch and Steve Buscemi, directed by Terry Zwigoff
I finished the graphic novel during the last Bout of Books readathon, so it made sense to round off my BoB week by watching the movie, for the first time in YEARS!  It had so many little moments and snippets of dialogue that translated straight from the page to the screen (as you might expect, given that the screenplay was written by Daniel Clowes), but also gave the characters one film-friendly overarching plot which helped ease the transition between media.  The double act in the film is actually Enid and Seymour (a new character drawn together from several in the book) rather than Enid and Rebecca (who still has an important role, just... less so), but I didn't mind because the dynamic between these two soulmates-yet-polar-opposites was so much fun.  Seymour's a sweetheart and offsets Enid's confident feistiness a bit... it works.  The dialogue is still superb and the whole thing felt as warm and hilarious and full of heart as I remembered.  I also LOVE the music - lots of old blues and country rock, it's great.  Recommended! (watch the trailer)

House, Season 2 (2006)
Starring Hugh Laurie and Omar Epps
I actually watched most of this season aaaaages ago, then recently decided to rewatch it from the start so that I could finally finish it off and move on.  It's pretty much more of the same magic House formula as the first season - brilliant deduction, bucketloads of sarcasm, some nasty moments and lots of medical intrigue.  This season involves everything from a prisoner on death row to a famous doctor with possible TB, a woman with Munchausen Syndrome to an immuno-compromised heart transplant patient, all with a side dose of team bickering, hospital politics and House's ever-present leg pain.  Funny, brilliant, fascinating and moving by turn.  If, like me, you're a latecomer to this series and haven't started it yet, get on it - it more than lives up to the hype! (watch the ridiculously overdramatic US trailer)

~ What's Up Next ~
I finished my first book of September - Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist - on the first of the month, and moved straight on to my Red Dragon by Thomas Harris.  It's my first foray into the world of Hannibal Lecter, so me being me I decided I might as well dive straight in the deep end and not only READ ALL THE HANNIBAL, but also watch the movies and both series as well.  I figured I might as well stick with Hannibal's storyline instead of veering off into the worlds of Norman Bates or Dexter Morgan again just yet.  Each serial killer in his own sweet time!  So far I've been very impressed by the book AND the new series; the book, in particular, is far more accomplished than I expected, and the series is every bit as addictive as the hype suggested.  Bring on the rest!

I have highly inappropriate fantasies about being in this particular man sandwich. NOT LITERALLY DR LECTER PUT THE KNIFE DOWN.
Aaaand that was August!  I hope you've all had a wonderful summer and are looking forward to some great autumn reading!

Friday 1 August 2014

A Book a Day in July: 25th-31st

It's time for my last Book a Day post, based on a Twitter project called #BookadayUK, where bookish types tweeted their responses to a series of daily prompts.  Talking about the books here on the blog instead means I haven't had to worry about the 140-character limit, and I've been able to group days together; click on the links to read my answers for Days 1-6, Days 7-12, Days 13-18 and Days 19-24.  This post also contains the second 'lucky dip' day, in which Doubleday invited prompt ideas and then Tweeted the chosen question on the day itself.  :)

Here we go!  And don't forget to head over to Twitter to see what other people have been recommending...
July 25th: Book that is your guilty pleasure
I don't have guilty pleasure reading - just pleasure reading (or not-such-a-pleasure reading, as the case may be).  For the sake of this question, however, I'm going to assume 'guilty pleasure' means froth and fun, something light and super-easy to read when you need a pick-me-up.  This is actually quite seasonal for me; in summer my go-to is something like Jenny Colgan's 'food novels', and in winter maybe the Hannah Swensen mysteries by Joanne Fluke (also food-related, with Hannah running a cookie café and all!).
July 26th: The novel you wish you'd written
It's got to be the Harry Potter series, hasn't it?  It made reading cool, got kids immersed in books, changed people's lives, spawned massively popular tourist attractions, moved onto the big screen...  Just about everybody in the entire world knows the name of the Boy Who Lived, and it all started with one woman having an idea on a train, writing in cafes and a dingy Edinburgh flat, with no money and a baby daughter sleeping beside her, bringing this epic magical story into the world.  Amazing.

July 27th: For National Parents' Day - the best/worst parents in fiction
Ooooh, this is a difficult one!  I think the 'best parent' award has to go to the iconic Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird (my double review).  He's a hero in every sense, and perfectly treads the fine line between helping Scout and Jem find their way in the world and allowing them to work things out for themselves.   The 'worst parent' award is trickier, but in the end I went for Eva Khatchadourian from We Need to Talk About Kevin.  Not only did she play a significant part in turning her son into a monster by quite blatantly detesting him from birth, she THEN had a second golden child and fawned all over her, rubbing her lack of affection in Kevin's face every day for years.  Ugh.  Special mentions go to Margaret White from Carrie (my review) for being a crazy child-beater, and Mr and Mrs Wormwood from Matilda, who quite frankly just shouldn't have been allowed to reproduce.

July 28th: Favourite animal character
I'm going properly old-school with this one: I absolutely adore little Plop, from The Owl who was Afraid of the Dark by Jill Tomlinson.  He's a baby owl who gets frightened when his parents go off hunting every evening, so he goes on an adventure to find out all the cool things about night-time.  He meets all kinds of people and creatures, and by the end he isn't scared any more!  Our teacher read us this book in Year 2, and when it came into the shop nearly twenty years later it was so lovely reading it again and looking at all the beautiful illustrations.  :)
July 29th: Favourite likeable villain
Shiiiiiit.  Another prompt where I just can't settle on an answer!  Okay... I'm going to have to go with Dexter Morgan, from the Dexter series by Jeff Lindsay (my review of the first book), because 'serial killer who channels his instincts into destroying bad guys and has a wonderfully playful dark sense of humour' is about as likeable-villain as they come.  Outside of Tom Hiddleston's Loki anyway, and he doesn't count because FILM.
July 30th: LUCKY DIP - A book you've been inspired to read by #bookadayUK
For the first time, I actually don't have a single thing to contribute to this one!  To be honest, I haven't been keeping up with the Twitter feed that diligently, apart from occasional days when I've checked out other people's responses for inspiration.  It's been more fun being reminded of characters and books I already love, and books I definitely want to read sometime, rather than discovering new ones.

July 31st: The book that reminds you of someone special
I'm going to mega-cheat on this one, because I have three that immediately spring to mind.  The Life of Birds by David Attenborough was a Christmas present when I was a little girl because I was always mad-keen on birds and loved the TV series; my mum is a life-long Attenborough fan, so every time I see this on my shelf I think of her.  Dolphins by Jacques-Yves Cousteau was actually her book when she was younger and is now mine, and really speaks to my love of the ocean and sea creatures; I actually seriously considered pursuing marine biology at one time!  And finally, The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy, which my dad bought for me on a birthday trip to Scarthin Books years ago, where he let me loose for several hours and bought me a pile of books at the end as my birthday present.  I loved this TV series (with Damian Lewis and Rupert Graves), sailed through the novel, and the Wordsworth edition of the book is about the only one that keeps all three volumes of the saga together so I still have the same copy on my shelves all these years later.  Every time I see it, it reminds me of that birthday!
If you've enjoyed all this, the good news is that #BookadayUK has been taken up for another month, this time by the Siobhan Dowd Trust.  Check out their Twitter feed or follow the project hashtag to join in for August!  The first prompt is "most arresting opening line"...

Aaaand that's it!  I hope you've enjoyed my #BookadayUK posts this month!