Monday, 21 July 2014

How To Build A Girl readalong: Part two

Chapters 5-10

This readalong has been organised by Emily at As The Crowe Flies (and Reads.)

Part one of How To Build A Girl ends on a very melodramatic note. After embarrassing herself on live TV, Johanna Morrigan dolefully concludes: "There are no two ways about it: I am going to have to die." Dun dun DAAAH! In part two, she is swift to clarify matters. She's not actually going to commit suicide. "I don't want to not live. I just don't want to be me any more. Everything I am is not working."

Oh man! As fiction it reads quite lightly, an amusing anti-climax: okay, I said I'm going to die but I don't actually mean die. However, it speaks to a feeling that comes right from the gut, a dissatisfaction I know all too well, and I am twice Johanna's age.

Instead, Johanna goes about reinventing her image as the dark and mysterious Dolly Wilde, named after a scandalous niece of Oscar. I'm not sure how one can use the name Dolly nowadays without bringing to mind a very specific Dolly! But Johanna, or Dolly, takes this transformation very seriously, and I really enjoyed reading about her inspiration collage on her wall. It's the sort of thing I'd have done at that age, though I was always dissatisfied with the results - they never looked as cool as the things my friends from real life, film and TV would come up with. "Dolly" is a very deliberate, studied effort at constructing a new personality, as the book's title implies. I think we all do that to a certain extent, according to where we are. Am I the earnest book-lover on a quest for knowledge, or the out-and-out geek girl? Yes.

So Johanna decides to become a music journalist - only problem being that she doesn't know a thing about music. Not that this stops her! I felt her awkwardness as she tried to get into her goth cousin's group, or browse a non-HMV record shop which seems as girl-friendly as the comic book store of The Big Bang Theory. I remember how as a teenager, your music tastes defined you, marked you out as cool or not. (Confession: I was obsessed with Boyzone.) Actually, in my experience I felt far more accepted among the goths and skaters than I did among the "ordinary" kids at school, even at fourteen, and the Hobbit in Southampton was the first pub I ever felt comfortable in.

Still, Johanna is nothing if not determined, and builds up her music knowledge with records ordered from the library and listening to John Peel on the radio, and eventually walks into the coveted job at the age of sixteen, with no qualifications.

We finally find out about Johanna's dad's disability - he was seriously injured in his work as a fireman. I wonder if Moran deliberately delayed telling us the details to challenge our reactions: though I fought against it, I did catch a treacherous thought crossing my mind: "so he's heroically disabled, that's all right then." PEOPLE ARE PEOPLE, PEOPLE! How does one earn one's right to be "deserving" poor, anyway? (Possibly not through drink-driving. These scenes made me very nervous.)

Johanna began her writing career as a means to "save" her family from poverty and disrepute, and yet even this early on I can see her getting caught up in her work and losing sight of her noble aims. Perhaps it's not surprising - she is sixteen, and probably every sixteen-year-old wants to put distance between themselves and their parents. I was cringing on her behalf when her drunken father came backstage to meet the Smashing Pumpkins with her. But I can see this independence becoming a huge source of conflict later on.

Key Quotes:

I am my own imaginary friend.
 Sometimes, and suddenly, these barrages of me-excluding noise part to reveal things I find astonishingly beautiful, and useful to me and my heart, in their current position.
We are not just poor people who have not yet evolved into something else: i.e.: people with money. We are something else - just as we are.
I can see where I have drawn Dolly Wilde on top of my own face - the two uneasily co-existing - but perhaps others can't.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Sunday Summary: Pratchett and Presents

Hello to you all. I hope all of you who are enduring unusual heat and humidity are finding ways to deal with the weather. (I will not complain. I complain when it is cold and grey and dreary. I will not complain about the sunshine. The air conditioning timer at work apparently being set for Sunday trading hours on Saturdays - that I will complain about.) I had been very worried about some changes at work, but so far - so far - it is all going quite smoothly and I'm still enjoying my work for the most part.

I spent my days off this week at the beach and in the sea - it is absolutely gorgeous swimming now, and I found a new favourite beach, the morbidly-named Small Hope beach in Shanklin. My seaside reading has been Terry Pratchett's Discworld series. I have certain favourite books which I read and reread on a semi-regular basis (the Watch books, the Witches books, Going Postal, Monstrous Regiment) but I've decided this week to go back to the start and fill in all the gaps. ("You mean there are Discworld books you haven't read?!" has been the response of everyone I've told about this plan. I suspect this was partially influenced by blogger Mark Oshiro's latest mammoth project which is the entire Discworld series from start to finish. (He is also watching Star Trek, and posted his first entry, I believe, a year to the day after I first started watching the original series DVDs.) If you're not familiar with Mark, I urge you to check out his sites, in which he reads and watches favourite books, films and TV shows in a state of complete ignorance, and is utterly adorable. It's the closest thing to discovering a new story for the very first time, all over again.

I was often advised to start my Discworld reading with Mort, which was "where it gets good." The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic are interesting to read which a good knowledge of Pratchett's later books, seeing how things have changed. The style of the first book, in particular, is more openly parodying the tropes of the fantasy genre (I saw definite nods to H. P. Lovecraft and the Dragonriders of Pern books,) when later on he uses the fantasy setting to comment on the real world. A lot of thought has clearly gone into the world-building, whereas later, when readers are familiar with the setting, the focus shifts to the characters and a depth of message beneath the humour and the puns. Oh, the puns!
Exhibit A: They had dined on horse meat, horse cheese, horse black pudding, horse d'oeuvres and a thin beer that Rincewind didn't want to speculate about.
Exhibit B: "Rincewind, all the shops have been smashed open, there was a whole bunch of people across the street helping themselves to musical instruments, can you believe that?"
 "Yeah," said Rincewind, picking up a knife and testing its blade thoughtfully. "Luters, I expect."

I received my Ninja Book Swap parcel a couple of weeks ago, from Sophie: The Shock of the Fall, by Nathan Filer, whose name I keep on misreading as Nathan Fillion. I've had my eye on that since it was first published, picked it up and started reading it at work a few times *whistles innocently* but never got around to buying it, despite it being on various different special offers at different times. She also sent me a brilliant card and an adorable wooden postcard of Alice in Wonderland and a bar of Lindt Lindor, which sadly has long since ceased to exist. That is my favourite chocolate out of all the many kinds of chocolate I love, but it wasn't going to last very long in the July heat, so I put it out of its misery sharpish. So thank you, Sophie!

Monday, 14 July 2014

How to Build A Girl readalong: Part one

So, today marks the first update post for the How To Build A Girl readalong! Hello to you all.

The novel starts memorably, to say the least! I read Part One on the train, and found myself glancing behind me to check no curious fellow passengers were reading over my shoulder.

Moran writes about young female sexuality in as frank and unabashed a manner as I don't, and shames me a bit for blushing. The subject is tackled in a very matter-of-fact way, not to shock or titillate or giggle, but simply to challenge taboos or double standards. So go Caitlin.

So our heroine, Johanna, is fourteen years old and part of a big, dysfunctional family. Her mum is suffering from post-natal depression after the birth of "Unexpected Twins," and the father receives disability benefits and is convinced he's going to be the next great rock star. It seems quite clear that his idea of his own talent is somewhat delusional - the description of his demo cassette makes it sound arty and weird and terrible.

When Johanna accidentally lets slip to an elderly neighbour that her dad receives benefits, the sniffy reaction - very much a "he doesn't look like there's anything wrong with him... why, I saw him cleaning his car just last week" - makes her terrified that the neighbour will report the family and all the family's support will be taken away. A child should not have to worry about this sort of thing. This novel may be set at the back end of the Thatcher years, and yet nothing has changed. There is a passage describing how Johanna's father will play up his disability because "people have different perceptions of what disability is." A cursory glance at Caitlin Moran's Twitter feed will show how this is a subject close to her heart, with statistics of thousands of people dying after being declared "fit for work." She treats the subject with elements of humour, but underneath it is a real sadness and anger that the most vulnerable members of society are those hit the hardest.

After her gaffe and weeks of terror, Johanna tries to make some money with her writing, enters and wins a poetry competition. As well as the prize money, she appears on live TV and, as one might expect, proceeds to humiliate herself with a Scooby-Doo impression. It makes sense in context... but is by no means anything resembling a good idea in anyone's mind ever. Oh, the awkwardness of being a teenager, of saying something that seems funny at the time. (If only it was limited to the teenage years!) Moran captures that embarrassment so well, that feeling that the whole world is pointing and laughing and will never grow tired of doing so.

Key Quotes:

He didn't look like the future. He looked like 1984. In 1990, that was an ancient thing to be - even in Wolverhampton.

"We lie in the shallow depression her ghost left behind," I sometimes think, in my more maudlin moments. "I am born into a nest of death."

Today, like every other day, I'm going to bed still a fat virgin who writes their diary in a series of imaginary letters to sexy Gilbert Blythe from Anne of Green Gables."*

*Of course any Anne references count as key quotes.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Readalong: How to Build A Girl - intro post.

Hello all! Caitlin Moran's shiny new green novel was published in the UK last week, and after dithering about whether or not to buy a copy, I read about four different posts from my favourite bloggers all signing up for a readalong, organised by Emily at As The Crowe Flies (And Reads), which will take place over the next few weeks. The next day the book somehow fell off the shelves at work and came home with me. Curious!

For those of you who are new to me and my blog: hello! I am a twentymumble-year-old geek girl living on the Isle of Wight, and I work in a bookshop, which is awfully convenient for my book addiction and not terribly good for my bank account. I'm sure my employers are supposed to be giving me money rather than the other way round.

I've taken part in a couple of readalongs before, most recently The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, which was great fun, and I really enjoyed sharing thoughts with my fellow bloggers at various stages of the book, although my posts were sadly gif-less. I shall make up for this oversight with plenty of nerdy gifs for How To Build A Girl, I promise.

I confess I'm not what you'd call a fan of Caitlin Moran. It's not that I'm not a fan, so much as that she's someone whose awesomeness I know from everyone else. I enjoyed her books - How To Be A Woman, which made me giggle embarrassingly in public places - but haven't had much to do with her as a public figure. (Cue everyone descending on me to tell me what I'm missing.) Judging from her non-fiction work, I'm expecting How to Build A Girl to be outrageously funny, sarcastic and passionately feminist. I also suspect it will be difficult to limit myself to reading just a few chapters per week.

The Schedule:

July 7th (or 9th in my case): Introductions
July 14: Part 1
July 21: Part 2 - chapters 5-10
July 28: Part 2 - chapters 11-15
Aug 4:  Part 2 -chapters 16-20)

Aug 11: Part 3 and wrap-up

Let the readalong commence!

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Fringe: Season 2

After season one's breathtaking finale, in which Agent Olivia Dunham was whisked into a parallel universe to come face to face with the mysterious William Bell in a still-standing World Trade Center, we return to the original universe where the Fringe team are trying to piece together the mystery of what happened to her. Olivia is little help. Returned unconscious to her own world, her memories are vague and formless, returning gradually over the course of several episodes. The series goes back primarily to its former weirdness-of-the-week format, with a side plot involving shape shifters from the parallel universe, and while in equal measures compelling and ridiculous, I found myself impatiently wanting to know more about the bigger picture.

Season two goes into detail about the characters' backstory to reveal a devastating secret about Peter Bishop, who is not from this world at all! In a poignant and powerful flashback episode (with its credit sequence and other graphics redone '80s-style) we learn what had been previously hinted. Our Walter Bishop's son died from a childhood illness, but our mad scientist discovered belatedly how to save him and stepped into the other world to do for his counterpart's son what he could not do for his own. Only, he could not let this other Peter go back to his old life, but kept him and brought him up as his own child.

Oh dear, I thought. If our Walter has spent seventeen years in a mental institution, what effect would the loss of his son have on the other Walter (which he nicknamed "Walternate." Because of course.) The answer was not what I had expected. This other Walter has risen to a power, possibly taking the Bell role as the authority in this slightly but significantly different reality. (That world's Bell died in a car crash as a young man, a point that strikes me as suspicious.)

The season's grand finale sees Walter joining forces with his old mad-science pal-turned-enemy, Dr Bell, when our heroes cross over to the other side in an attempt to bring Peter back, but ends on another beauty of a cliffhanger when the wrong Olivia Dunham makes the return, leaving our protagonist stranded on the other side.

Best episodes:*

10. Grey Matters. Some of the reason for Walter's madness and loss of memory becomes clear. This episode is not to be compared to a previous time when Leonard Nimoy and ridiculous science-fiction brain surgery were in the same episode.
14. The Bishop Revival. A Nazi serial-killer has links with Walter's family history.
15. Jacksonville. Two buildings from different universes vie to occupy the same space, with gruesome results. Olivia's journey back into the nightmares of her childhood reveal some surprising results.
16. Peter. Fringe, 1985. Backstory galore, best episode yet.
22-23. Over There. The season finale: we meet the Fringe team's other-world counterparts, and discover that despite his dodgy ethics, Dr Bell has been, and always shall be Walter's friend.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Sunday Summary: My holiday - the places I went, the things I did, the books I bought

Yesterday I came home from a mini-holiday around the country on my own: first to London, to stay with my sister, then to Oxford, on to the Peak District, and back to my sister's before returning home. I was a little worried about holidaying alone, fearing that I might get lonely and depressed, and it did not get off to a promising start, as on my last day at work I had some bad news about my job that I was afraid would cast a gloom over my entire week off. (I still have a job, don't worry - but I am afraid I may wish otherwise before very long. Not looking forward to returning at all.) Although I had some melancholy moments, the worst being when I came back from a walk to find a message on my phone from my manager taking me right out of holiday-mode, for the most part I was able to get away from it all and forget about my life back on the Isle of Wight. I found it strangely liberating going where no one knew me, and I didn't have to carry the baggage of everyone else's expectations of me, but just be myself. It was very peaceful.


Last Sunday, my sister Jenny and I went to the British Library's exhibit on comic books. Despite having a limited number of tickets available for each time slot, it was quite busy, and I was a little frustrated a few times when people stopped in front of the displays I was trying to look at, and have a natter. But the museum was very interesting, providing a history of comic books as a medium, starting with the stories of Mr Punch, and exploring themes of diversity and representation, politics and sexuality as explored through the format of comic books and graphic novels. It certainly provided me with a long list of other books I'd like to read in the near future, as I still consider myself a newbie when it comes to the genre.

I headed off to the new Foyles store on Charing Cross Road (next door to the old shop, and even bigger and shinier than before.) Jenny, knowing what I am like in bookshops, left me at this point, and I spent a happy hour mooching around the fiction, fantasy and childrens' sections, among others. While browsing Fantasy, I overheard a customer asking the bookseller for Neverwhere, but there wasn't a copy on the shelves. But I had seen a nice yellow stack of the book on one of the tables and butted in, raving about the book and the radio adaptation. I felt a bit bad for doing the bookseller's job for him. I'm sure he'd have found it eventually but I did not want the customer to miss out on my favourite book. (Foyles ought to give me a job as I made some nice money for them that day.)

As for my own purchases, I finally bought Watchmen, which had only been for sale in hardback at the British Library, for £30. It's not that I don't think books are worth paying for, but £12.99 was much more of a Katie-friendly price. I also bought a science fiction novel called Terra, which I have had my eye on for a long time, and a new book called That's Not A Feeling about a teenager at a school/mental health facility, which could be either funny or depressing - probably both.

I did not buy any of the beautiful beautiful Anne Of Green Gables books in the children's section. I have three already: A massive hardback which I was given for my 8th birthday, the 100th Anniversary paperback, for reading when I'm out and about, and the standard Puffin edition, for when I don't want to damage either of my other editions, such as reading in the bath or camping or while having a barbecue. Any more, and I'll have to start actually collecting ALL OF THE ANNES, like a certain other blogger does with Pride and Prejudice. (I would like to replace my Windy Willows and Ingleside, as I've just got shabby TV-tie-in editions of those, but sadly Foyles did not have those in stock.)


I love Oxford. A city with centuries of academia, I feel as though my IQ goes up just from being there. The students have an air to them: the boys have a cockiness, a confidence in their own intelligence, but not in an arrogant sort of way - they were very polite, chivalrous. And the girls had an earnest, studious look, an old-fashioned, wholesome prettiness. When I passed Christ Church College, I saw two men (not sure whether they were students or staff) standing on the balcony of the old building, one in shirtsleeves and braces, propped up against the wall and looking exactly as if he belonged in Brideshead Revisited. But there was a marked contrast between "town and gown." There was a lot of poverty amidst the prosperity and ambition and the "dreaming spires."

At the Oxford University Press bookshop I found several volumes of the journals of Lucy Maud Montgomery - author of the aforementioned Anne of Green Gables. I had the option of buying the first two volumes of the "complete journals," at £25 per volume, but instead I went for the second volume of "selected journals," (the first was out of stock) which don't appear to have omitted much. It's a fascinating read for an Anne devotee, as interesting as some of her novels - and more so than others - and really helps to ground the beloved stories in place and time.

Peak District

I returned to the Peak District after Oxford, where I once more stayed at the Sheriff Lodge guesthouse in Matlock. I visited Bakewell, had a lovely morning browsing the shops, and came away from the Bakewell Bookshop with a collection of Haruki Murakami's short stories entitled The Elephant Vanishes. I thought that while I was in town I ought to visit Ellie's old shop, which has been sold to a charity, but I felt a certain reluctance to go in. It wouldn't be the same now. I dreaded going in to find what had been a wonderful sanctuary for book lovers, run by book lovers, might be no more than a charity bookshop, visibly the same but lacking its former heart. And of course Ellie wouldn't be there. (I had hoped to meet up with her while I was in the Peak District, but she happened to be on holiday abroad the same week I was in her part of the world.) As it so happened, that decision of whether or not to go into the shop was made for me, by the shop being closed that day.

One of the guesthouse owners had printed out directions for a walk along the river to Haddon Hall, and back, but somehow I managed to turn this into a walk through the woods and back along the road, occasionally crossing paths with the river before it wound away from the path again. I'm not quite sure how I got so hopelessly lost, but I ended up back where I started, which was the main thing.

I also visited Buxton, where I went "over hill and under hill," into Poole's Cavern and then wandering through Buxton Country Park. There were so many little hills (left over from limestone burning, I believe) which looked like they ought to have hobbit-holes carved out of them. I came to the conclusion that the Peak District is the real Middle-Earth, no matter what New Zealand might think.

Back in the town, I wandered through the arcade of little independent shops, where I found a vintagey, retroey shop with plenty of pretty polka-dot dresses. I have a gorgeous polka-dot dress which I am forced to conclude is too small for me to wear for any long stretch of time, and as there was a 10% off sale that day, I decided to try on some potential replacements. Of the three dresses I tried on - all size 12 from different brands - the first dress was too big, the second was too small, but, feeling like Goldilocks, I found that the third dress I tried on was just right. Naturally I bought it.

Travelling back through London on Friday was not a lot of fun. I was dragging a heavy suitcase on wheels, and carrying a bag of cakes, and trying very hard not to lose anything or run over anyone's toes. A bus journey I had expected to take ten or fifteen minutes took more like three quarters of an hour, and when we arrived at the station, we discovered that the trains were not running to my sister's little town on the outskirts of London, so we ended up taking the Underground to Wimbledon, and a taxi from there. All very fun, as you can imagine.

But all in all, it's been a good week, and I feel mostly rested and glad to be home, if not to be going back to work next week. It's weird having to remember how to interact with people, though. It's been really nice not having to wear the fake cheeriness. I would like to go away more often, maybe abroad. One of my colleagues thought that I was "really brave" for holidaying alone, but I found the only scary thing about it is the fear that people might think I have no friends. When I decided it doesn't matter what people think, and that they probably don't think that at all, I found it really peaceful and relaxing, a good chance to sort my head out away from the bustle of "real life."

Thursday, 26 June 2014

The Lies of Locke Lamora - Scott Lynch

I fell in love with fantasy as a genre at sixteen, after watching the first film and then racing through the book of The Lord of the Rings. For several years after that, epic fantasy was pretty much all that I read -  David Eddings, Cecelia Dart-Thornton, Julia Gray and Robin Hobb standing out as my favourites (although I tried to reread my beloved Elenium a couple of years ago and had real difficulty with it. I fear I have become too critical a reader.) More recently, although the fantastical remains my literary comfort zone, I've preferred the skewed realities of Neil Gaiman and Erin Morgenstern, the magical realism of Cecelia Ahern, and just lately, hard science fiction. With the exception of George R. R. Martin, "Fantasyworld" has given way to our world viewed through a different lens. The Lies of Locke Lamora took me back to the Fantasyworld of my teenage days, and I read about Locke Lamora's city of Camorr with warm feelings of nostalgia.

If Locke Lamora takes place in the generic fantasyworld - which is not meant as a criticism - Camorr itself is a very specific country within that world. Camorr has a medieval Venetian feel to it, with its canals and gondolas, ruled by Dukes, but it is a city built upon the indestructible "Elderglass" remains of a pre-human civilisation. We don't spend that much time among the nobility, but among an underclass of thieves and cutthroats, characters who would not be out of place in a Dickensian novel. Locke Lamora and his band of reprobates use precious little magic, but they have talents of their own: they are masters of trickery and disguise, the most prosperous thieves in Camorr. The titular Locke Lamora was sold by one Fagin-esque criminal (for not knowing the limits of respectable thievery) to a confidence trickster who appears in the guise of a blind priest. And it suits him well. Locke and his cronies revel in disguises and seem to complicate their confidence tricks for themselves for the sheer fun of it, just to show off. Locke Lamora has used his wits to gain himself his position in Camorr's underworld, but the time comes when his wits are all he has left.

I found the pacing of Locke Lamora quite slow to begin with. The narrative alternates between past and present, and it feels like a large portion of the book is there to set the stage for the real story. It was enjoyable getting to know the characters and their histories, and I found that the chapters about Locke's childhood flew a lot quicker than the present scenes, which contained a lot of underworld politics. I'd watch Locke's exploits enjoying the gradual revelation of what his end game would turn out to be, but I found myself wondering when the real plot was going to get started.

But around halfway, the plot hooked me in, keeping me gripping the pages and shouting at the book as I wondered how is he going to get out of this one? What happens next? I came to enjoy spending time with the characters, and their light-hearted banter makes the sometimes heavy prose easier to read. But there are shocking twists, devastating revelations, and one particular betrayal was comparable to a certain wedding in the Song of Ice and Fire series.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Top Ten Tuesdays (time warp edition): Books of 2014 so far

Tuesdays are funny things. By the time I notice a really good Top Ten Tuesday blog prompt, it's usually Wednesday, and by the time I get around to thinking of my own top ten lists, it's Thursday night, or Friday next week. Everyone else listed their top ten reads of 2014 so far two weeks ago, but better late than never, I suppose. (Plus, it is closer to the half-way point in the year now.)

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by the lovely ladies at The Broke and the Bookish.

1. The Martian - Andy Weir. The story of a man stranded on Mars, attempting to stay alive long enough to eventually make it back to Earth. This book is quite slow to start off with, but becomes an edge-of-your-seat thrill ride based in scientific plausibility, and the narrator has a goofy sense of humour that makes it impossible not to like him.

2. NOS4R2 - Joe Hill. The horror novel everyone was talking about around Christmas. The tale of a girl with a gift for finding lost things, and a villain whose lair is Christmasland. Joe Hill is the son of Stephen King, and has inherited his father's storytelling gene.

3. The Charioteer - Mary Renault. A gay soldier, wounded at Dunkirk, searches to find his place in the world and is caught between two friendships: one formed of romantic idealism, and the other of heroes and experience. Though painful at times, the book felt optimistic and ahead of its time (the 1950s).

4. Attachments - Rainbow Rowell. A love story with a difference - for the two people involved don't even interact with one another until late on in the book. It's a cosy, feel-good read.

5. Mr Penumbra's 24-hour Bookstore - Robin Sloane. A young man takes a job in a bookstore with a secret and finds himself embarking upon a quest that will unearth secret codes, medieval artefacts and the heart of Google. A bibliophile's dream.

6. The Explorer - James Smythe. My second choice involving an astronaut in isolation: a much darker, weirder story than The Martian, but every bit as gripping.

7. The Rosie Project - Graeme Simsion. A university professor comes up with a project to find the perfect wife. Needless to say, not all goes to plan. A heartwarming and gently funny read.

8. The Shining - Stephen King. I don't usually include rereads on these lists, but it's been long enough since I read this for the first time, and this time around I think I appreciated it even more. This has been made into an iconic horror film, of course, but the novel is so much more than just another haunted house story. It's about family, and fate, isolation and inner demons: The Shining is a gothic masterpiece.

9. An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth - Chris Hadfield. The third book on this list about astronauts, this time a work of non-fiction from one of the heroes of 2013. Commander Hadfield reveals just what it takes to become an astronaut (and has made me far more critical of science fiction after reading this book.) An extraordinary man, whose experiences provide insight not just for wannabe astronauts but also for those of us whose feet will remain on the ground.

10. Pretty Girl Thirteen - Liz Coley. A girl returns home with no memories of what has happened over the past three years. A thoughtful, unsettling novel.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Mini-Review: Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore - Robin Sloane

Clay Jannon takes a job as a night clerk at San Francisco's strangest bookshop. Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore sounds like a bibliophile's dream, quirky and tall, with shelves you need very tall ladders to reach. I imagined it rather like Belle's library in Disney's Beauty and the Beast, and the descriptions of the store certainly come under the heading of bookshop porn! But there is another side to Mr Penumbra's: shelves of ancient, uncatalogued books written in code, borrowed but never bought by excitable patrons whose details must be logged for posterity in the bookstore's ledger. Clay's curiosity leads him on a quest of epic proportions and, together with his friends, employs a combination of lost medieval artefacts, Google's headquarters, and Clay's own favourite series of fantasy books to crack a centuries-old code. Mr Penumbra is a light-hearted but unusual page-turner, a celebration of ancient books and new media, friendship and curiosity.

Key Quotes:

The whole economy suddenly felt like a game of musical chairs, and I was convinced I needed to grab a seat, any seat, as fast as I could.
Neel takes a sharp breath and I know exactly what it means. It means: I have waited my whole life to walk through a secret passage built into a bookshelf.
The books I love most are like open cities, with all sorts of ways to wander in. 
I'm really starting to think the whole world is just a patchwork quilt of crazy little cults, all with their own secret spaces, their own records, their own rules.

Read it if you liked: The Night Circus by Erin Morgansten, Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Thursday, 19 June 2014

The Shining - Stephen King

I first read Stephen King's The Shining at university, in my Gothic Fiction unit of my Literature degree. I came to the book with preconceptions, the famous bits of the Stanley Kubrick film. But although these scenes gave me a pretty good idea of where the story was going, none of the most memorable scenes of the film come from the book. I was familiar with Jack Nicholson's particular brand of crazy, and read the book just expecting it to build up to that moment. This time around, I took the book as it is, watching the struggle of Jack Torrance, who, if not exactly a good man, is a man trying to be good.

In case you're unfamiliar with the story, The Shining takes place at the Overlook Hotel, a popular Colorado tourist resort in the summer, but in the winter an undesirable place, cut off from the rest of the world. Jack Torrance takes a job as the winter caretaker, and moves in with his wife Wendy and five-year-old son, Danny, a bright young boy with a very unusual talent. Danny knows things that he shouldn't know, sees things that no one else can see, a gift that Mr Halloran, the Overlook's cook, refers to as "shining."

In a great gothic novel, the setting is a character in its own right, and the Overlook Hotel certainly is that, with its history of dark deeds and sinister deaths, and its isolation. It's one thing having characters separated from the outside world in centuries past, in ruined castles with dark, dank dungeons. But in America in the twentieth century, how isolated can the Torrance family really be? If you're the owner of a hotel in the Colorado mountains, and you're employing someone over the winter months, you'd make sure they can't get stranded there, right? The Torrances arrived at the Overlook by car, the hotel has a telephone, a radio and a snowmobile. But as the story goes on, Stephen King takes away these connections with the outside world, one by one, by a combination of natural and supernatural means.

The Overlook has a malevolent personality, and Danny's "shining" feeds it, make its powers stronger. The Shining contains several features of a conventional haunted-house story: the clanking elevator in the middle of the night, the topiary animals that move, the thing in room 217 - but its real terror is the way that it works with the Torrance family's own inner demons. And boy, does Jack Torrance have a lot of those! What marks Stephen King as a master storyteller rather than merely a horror writer, is the way that he makes us care for his characters before throwing terrible things at them to cope with. Jack Torrance is a troubled man: a recovering alcoholic with a deadly temper, clinging desperately to his pride. A former private school teacher, Jack lost his temper and his job, and what keeps him at the Overlook long after he and his family should have fled for their lives is his need to be provider and head of the family, his terror that this is his last chance and that if he messes this up he might never get another job. The Shining shows a family that has been under a lot of pressure, but is emerging from a dark period with a glimmer of hope - and then cruelly snatches that hope away in the story's terrifying finale. Jack's memories of his childhood and the darkness in his more recent past foreshadow the events in the book's finale, posing questions about addiction, inherited behaviour and fate. The real horror of The Shining is that it is unclear how much of what Jack becomes is natural, and how much is supernatural.

The Shining now has a sequel, Doctor Sleep, now available in paperback.
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