Monday, 5 January 2015

Elizabeth is Missing - Emma Healey


Maud gets muddled about all sorts of things these days, but she is sure of one thing: Elizabeth is missing. In her obsession to find out what has happened to her friend, Maud's quest takes her back to a long-forgotten mystery from her past.

Elizabeth Is Missing hit close to home, making me think of my own grandmother, who is 92, and growing increasingly forgetful and confused. And like Maud, she has very fixed ideas that no one else can quite work out where they came from. But they make perfect sense to her. It did not help matters that Maud's daughter in Elizabeth is Missing was named Helen - my mother's name - and her granddaughter Katy (though they were very different people from my mum and me.)

It was a courageous choice on Emma Healey's behalf to write this book entirely from the point of view of an elderly lady with some form of dementia. Written in the first person, the prose is in a sort of stream-of-consciousness, a mixture of past and present as Maud gets her thoughts confused, with gaps between scenes, and the search for elusive words (which may turn up in the next paragraph as if they were never missing.) Each sentence is in the present, although we can observe where it contradicts the thought that Maud had just a couple of lines back. We get to experience Maud's frustration and fogginess while seeing what she forgets, as she forgets it. This fictional view inside a fading mind encourages empathy, patience and understanding. Maud's world is not the same as the one she physically inhabits, but is a world of the mind, of past and present perceived as fluid and changing. 

Maud's memories are bound up in repeated behaviour and in objects, which take her back to a time in her past, in the 1940s, when her sister Sukey disappeared. Her recollection of seventy years ago is far more lucid than her short-term memory, which just will not retain information. She will latch onto small details, ask strange, apparently meaningless questions, such as where would be the best place to plant marrows? As well as the memories of her family, their lodger and her missing sister's lodger, a "mad" woman recurs in her flashbacks, making scenes, but for the most part seemingly unrelated to everything else Maud remembers. As well as perhaps being a parallel to her elderly self, one wonders if the "mad" woman's strange behaviour will be the key to unlocking the mystery. And ultimately the clues were in plain sight all along, if only Maud (and the reader) could figure out what they meant. 

Elizabeth is Missing was an excellent book to start 2015 with, a compassionate psychological study, and a compelling and satisfying mystery. A remarkable, perfectly-crafted debut. 



Sunday, 4 January 2015

Mini-reviews: It, The Last Englishman, Flowers for Algernon

It - Stephen King

2014 was the Year of Stephen King for me: although I had read his books before, it wasn't until last year that I recognised what a wonderful storyteller he is: not the mere writer of horror stories his reputation suggests - King writes about people, makes you care about them, and then, once you've grown attached, he makes you fear not just whichever monster they face, but fear for his characters. And as such, It really isn't "a horror story about an evil clown" at all. Yes, it is gruesome and unsettling at times, but the novel did not frighten me half as much as the idea of it did - and the clown does not appear nearly as often as I'd been led to believe. I still don't think I'd be up to watching the 1990 TV film adaptation though. I really. Don't. Like. Clowns. (I learned that a young Seth Green - Oz in Buffy - played the younger version of Richie Tozier. YES. Perfect.)

Just as someone once described Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane, (a very different book, with similar themes) what happens in It really isn't what it's about. Yes, there is a shape-shifting monster whose favourite disguise is as a murderous clown called Pennywise, but really the book is about the perils unique to childhood, it is about a hostile place, the power of people to ignore what is going on under their noses, it is about the strength in friendship to overcome monsters visible and unseen. At over 1500 pages, It was nearly double the runner-up for longest book read last year, but not a word was wasted, not a page dragged. King has a rich prose, taking his time in building up the town of Derry, inducting the reader into the Losers' Club with Bill, Ben, Richie, Beverly, Eddie, Mike and Stan, and weaving together past and present as our characters' forgotten memories of the summer of '58 slowly return to them as required in the battle against It.

Key quotes: "That's what happened when you got back to your used-to-be, as the song put it. The frosting on the cake was sweet, but the stuff underneath was bitter."

"If there are ten thousand medieval peasants who create vampires by believing them real, there may be one - probably a child - who will imagine the stake necessary to kill it."




The Last Englishman: The Double Life of Arthur Ransome – Roland Chambers.


To most people, the name Arthur Ransome is synonymous with quaint English adventure stories for children, full of decent English children in a time when they were allowed to run free, sail, camp, climb mountains and play at being adventurers, explorers and pirates with no supervision from anyone older than the age of twelve or thirteen. All as jolly and wholesome as anyone can wish for! But before he came to write the Swallows and Amazons books, Ransome lived a very different life as a journalist, witnessing first-hand the Russian revolution and cosying up to many of the biggest names of the Bolshevik movement so well that ultimately, his every motive and movement came under question. In The Last Englishman, Roland Chambers attempts to unravel the mystery of Arthur Ransome, only to find the writer to be a slippery fish indeed!

I have to confess myself very ignorant about such a momentous period in history, and as such I found this biography heavy-going at times, but also fascinating, leaving me wanting to read and understand more about early twentieth-century Russia. As a biographer, Chambers draws Ransome as a curious, enigmatic figure, but shows little admiration for him as a man, showing him to be a far more difficult, sometimes naive or irresponsible, and curmudgeonly figure than his character “Captain Flint” – Nancy and Peggy Blackett’s Uncle Jim – the retired adventurer who might be closer to how Ransome would prefer to be remembered.


Flowers for Algernon - Daniel Keyes

One of the science fiction classics of the 20th century, Flowers for Algernon is presented as the journal of Charlie Gordon, a young man with learning disabilities, who is eager to be the test subject for an experimental IQ-increasing drug trial. His journals (misspelled at first) chart his progress from "simpleton," working as a janitor in a bakery, to a genius who puts the world's leading scientists to shame. As well as his increasing intellect, Charlie's progress reports portray his emotional development and his new understanding of the world and the people within it. This is a bittersweet experience, when he comes to recognise the cruelty of his "friends'" jokes at his expense, and that intelligence brings as much trouble as it solves.

Flowers for Algernon is an important novel, as important now as at the time when it was written, raising discussions of personhood, and the treatment of the mentally disabled. It asks how far identity comes from one's perception of the world, and raises the question of the ethics of pushing the boundaries of nature through science: is it a miracle or an abomination best left alone?

Key quote: "Here in your university, intelligence, education, knowledge, have all become great idols. But I know now education that hasn't been tempered by human affection isn't worth a damn."

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Looking forward: 2015

Hello and a happy new year to you all. I hope you've had a lovely night, whether you were out partying or, like me, having a quiet evening in with TV, books or internet. I had made great plans to have a big Back to the Future marathon with all my friends, lots of pizza and nibbles - and then December 30th came around and I'd organised nothing. So instead, I just put the second and third films on (I saw the first one quite recently) and watched with my parents. I'm quite disappointed with how many people in the real world don't instantly associate the year 2015 with Back to the Future part 2: hoverboards, flying cars, etc.

My New Year's resolution this year is simply to try to be kinder and less self-centred. But I've also taken the time to reorganise my reading and writing life and plan some excursions.

Books:

Last year I set myself a read one/buy one rule regarding my book collection, but that did not have the desired effect of shrinking my to-read pile, as I did not take into account rereads or books that were already in the house, ie borrowed from parents. This year the rule is read three, buy two - and only books from the pile count. I know some bloggers are imposing a 3:1 or 5:1 rule on themselves, but I don't have the willpower to do that.

I intend to carry on filling in the gaps in Terry Pratchett's Discworld series, which should not be too much of a challenge as here are only about six I haven't read now. But I want to have read those six by the end of the year.

A more long-term plan is to read or watch all of Shakespeare's plays in the next five years. Will I stick with this? Who knows! I read a few last year, and have studied some in school and uni, so that's at least ten down already.

Writing:

After throwing off my writer's block last November and managing to succeed in NaNoWriMo, I intend to continue with my novel in progress, and finish the first draft this year. I took a break in December but now we're into the new year, I'd like to get that finished.

I plan to take the Rilla of Ingleside book-to-script adaptation out of the mothballs and get that finished this year, for my own satisfaction.

And I would like to have another bash at NaNoWriMo in November, see if I can match and beat last year's success.

Getting organised:

I have had to admit defeat. I have no more bookshelf space. Not that that's going to stop me - my first big purchase of this year is going to be replacing my six-shelf bookcase with an extra-deep six-shelf bookcase so I can fit twice as many books on the shelves. (Admittedly having two layers of books is not ideal, but it must be better than the shelf balanced on my to-read pile under my desk.)


When this arrives, I will reorganise my books and get rid of any I don't intend to read again. Likewise, I will be sorting through my clothes, CDs and DVDs - many of the latter I bought just to watch once, thanks to there being no Blockbuster any more, and the films not being available through Netflix or the library.

Travel

This year I may be able to go on holiday to America. I've not done this before because it's hard to ask friends to go with you when you're all poor and single and don't drive - it's a big expense - but when I grumbled about this to a friend who is a bit older than me, she suggested going with me. I'm thinking Boston.
I'd also like to go to York, which I've been meaning to visit for years (and which Hanna tells me is very good for book shopping.)

I'd like to go to see friends living in Liverpool, Bath and Cardiff, who I don't get to see much, and one of whom I've not seen in years. And I plan to return to Coventry and shop at the Big Comfy Bookshop once more.

When I visit my sister in London, I will seek out new bookshops on each trip, not just returning to Foyle's every time.

Finally, I'd like to meet up with some of YOU lovely bloggers in person! I've made some great friends through blogging, but have only met Ellie in person, two years ago. So, what about it? Who would be up for a book blogger meet-up to invade the bookshops for a day?

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Looking back: 2014

How can it possibly be the end of the year already? It seems like just a few weeks ago that I set myself some admittedly vague goals for the year: to do new stuff. So what have I managed to achieve this year? It certainly doesn't feel like much has changed in the last twelve months. I'm still single, still living at home, still in the same job - and still haven't had a single driving lesson. It's been a fairly pleasant year, if not a very eventful one.

I've been on a few excursions and holidays: In June I took a mini-holiday on my own, first to Oxford, and then on to the Peak District for a couple of days, and in August my best friend and I finally went camping in the Lake District, which we had been meaning to do for years.







After having really struggled with writer's block for a very long time, I came up with the beginnings of a story idea just in time for NaNoWriMo, and despite setbacks, I hit my 50 000 word count with an extra day to spare!

I attempted to get my to-read pile under control, not allowing myself to buy, borrow or otherwise acquire more books than I read in the year. However, as I did not take into consideration rereads, my pile is now three piles and I am in desperate need of replacing my tall bookcase with a tall extra deep bookcase, in order to shelve them in two rows! This self-inflicted rule did, however, change the way I do book shopping: I am more likely to buy single books that I really want to read, than to take advantage of multi-buy offers. I've also noticed the number of hardbacks I buy increasing too - and I think that can be put down to other bloggers' recommendations. When I bought myself a new smartphone, I downloaded the Kobo app, despite my loyalty to ink-and-paper books and discovered that... I really really am not an e-book person at all. I've downloaded a few previews, free books, and one out-of-print children's book, but it does not fool me that I am reading a book at all. It's like reading internet articles or fanfiction. No, I will stick to the physical books that are taking over my bedroom, thankyouverymuch.

In the autumn, I took one day trip to Coventry to visit at the newly-opened Big Comfy Bookshop, and I also met Cary Elwes, who is best known as Westley (or the Dread Pirate Roberts) in one of my favourite films of all time, The Princess Bride. He's very charming, polite, still handsome - but despite being English, his accent has more than a hint of American in it, which was a bit odd.

Top 10 books read in 2014


11.22.63 - Stephen King

 You really live within these pages, grow to care about the characters, and I would have been quite happy reading 750 pages just about Jake's day-to-day life in [the town of] Jodie, with Sadie. Everything seems wonderful - or at least, mostly a success; despite the past's resistance to Jake's every move, he seems to be mostly victorious. But through it all is an undercurrent of foreboding, thanks to the prologue in which a horrified Jake laments, "What have I done?" We can't quite forget, much as we'd like to, that some terrible consequences must come as a result of Jake's meddling. 
The Martian - Andy Weir
The Martian is a rollercoaster ride (or rover ride, perhaps) of victorious success and catastrophic setbacks, and each obstacle asks the same question anew: how can Watney possibly survive this?
N0S4R2 - Joe Hill
At nearly 700 pages, N0S4R2 requires some commitment, but it is a twisty page-turner, an unusual and attention-grabbing thriller. Each chapter takes the story in a new direction. In some ways, I was hesitant to read much of the book in one sitting, for fear of what might lie in store for the characters, but that was continually overridden by the desire to get caught up in this adventure and spend my time in the world of the novel.
The Explorer - James Smythe
The story of a doomed space mission, The Explorer shows us the last survivor on the spaceship Ishiguro, and how he found himself in this unienviable position. A claustrophobic thriller set in a not-too-distant future.
The Charioteer - Mary Renault
The Charioteer is[...] a thoughtful, intelligent and compassionate work of art that is way ahead of its time.
The Miniaturist - Jessie Burton
The Miniaturist explores the role of a woman in the seventeenth century, the expectations of a merchant's wife, and Nella's quest to make a place for herself in this unfamiliar new world [...] there is a sense of a fate neither escapable nor quite understandable until it is too late.
Terra - Mitch Benn
The world of Fnrr is a society evolved quite apart from ours, even perhaps a utopia, but one which reflects so much that is to be celebrated about people (whether human or not.) I came away from Terra smiling.
The Silkworm - "Robert Galbraith"
The investigation into the novelist's murder involves the unravelling of the cryptic caricatures in his would-be masterpiece, and I love a mystery which involves the cracking of a code [...] "Galbraith" does not cheat the reader, revealing enough information to make us feel smart, but holding back enough to keep us guessing, finishing up with an epic revelation at the end.
Kindred - Octavia E. Butler. 
It was curious; although I am very familiar with time travel stories, it was while reading Kindred that I realised how different the past can be. Then was then, now is now, but through Dana's eyes I had a sense of the two eras existing simultaneously, like two pictures drawn on tracing paper and placed one over the other.
I admit it: I loved Attachments because I'm nosy. Aren't we all? [...] We get to know Beth and Jennifer through their emails, which reveal them to be people who are a lot of fun to hang out with, sharing their relationship and family woes, quirks and insecurities, and a deep abiding friendship.
Honourable mentions:

Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore - Robin Sloan
Sputnik Sweetheart - Haruki Murakami
The Shock of the Fall - Nathan Filer
The Rosie Project - Graeme Simsion
It - Stephen King (also The Shining, but that was a reread.)
Flowers for Algernon - Daniel Keyes
The Girl with All the Gifts - M. R. Carey

Boxsets


As always, I am very far behind the times with my TV watching, my major discoveries being - for the third year in a row a Joss Whedon series - Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Finally I understand what made this show a big deal, why no one could ever shut up about it when I was a teenager.

I was also very surprised this year to fall in love with Fringe, a weird-science show that I knew nothing about when it was shown on TV, full of twists and shocks and such wonderful characters. Although Fringe took its time to win me over, it is well worth sticking with, and by the first of many many major revelations in the final episode of season one, I was hooked!

I also watched the first two and a bit seasons of Heroes, although my attention started to peter out a bit when I realised I didn't like very many of the characters very much (except Sylar, Hiro and Ando) or understand the plot. Fringe's plot was a lot more complicated, but the storytelling made it make sense. Heroes seemed like the writers made it up as they went along. I've also been steadily working through Star Trek: The Next Generation, where I am up to season six's famous "Chain of Command" episode, in which there!! Are!! Four!! Lights!!

Lucky No. 14 reading challenge



I only signed up for one all-year reading challenge in 2014: Astrid's Lucky No. 14 challenge, of which I managed to read books in twelve of the fourteen categories:
  1. Visit The Country: Read a book that has setting in a country that you really want to visit in real life. Make sure the setting has a big role in the book and it can make you know a little bit more about your dream destination.
  2. Cover Lust: Pick a book from your shelf that you bought because you fell in love with the cover. Is the content as good as the cover? Shine Shine Shine by Lydia Netzer
  3. Blame it on Bloggers: Read a book because you’ve read the sparkling reviews from other bloggers. Don’t forget to mention the blogger’s names too! N0S4R2 by Joe Hill, recommended by Hanna, Laura and Sarah.
  4. Bargain All The Way: Ever buying a book because it’s so cheap you don’t really care about the content? Now it’s time to open the book and find out whether it’s really worth your cents. From A Buick 8 - Stephen King.
  5. (Not So) Fresh From the Oven: Do you remember you bought/got a new released book last year but never had a chance to read it? Dig it from your pile and bring back the 2013.  The Cuckoo's Calling - "Robert Galbraith
  6. First Letter’s Rule: Read a book which title begins with the same letter as your name. Ketchup Clouds - Annabel Pitcher
  7. Once Upon a Time: Choose a book that’s been published for the first time before you were born (not necessarily has to be a classic book, just something a little bit older than you is okay. You can read the most recent edition if you want to) The Charioteer - Mary Renault (first published 1953
  8. Chunky Brick: Take a deep breath, and read a book that has more than 500 pages. Yep, the one that you’ve always been afraid of! 11.22.63 - Stephen King
  9. Favorite Author: You like their books, but there are too many titles. This is your chance, choose a book that’s been written by your fave author but you haven’t got time to read it before. The Sleeper and the Spindle - Neil Gaiman
  10. It’s Been There Forever: Pick up a book that has been there on your shelf for more than a year, clean up the dust and start to read it now :) The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan.
  11. Movies vs Books: You’ve seen the movie adaptation (or planned to see it soon) but never had time to read the book. It’s time to read it now, so you can compare the book vs the movie. Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg (link leads to review of the film.)
  12. Freebies Time: What’s the LAST free book you’ve got? Whether it’s from giveaway, a birthday gift or a surprise from someone special, don’t hold back any longer. Open the book and start reading it now :D We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves - Karen Joy Fowler (birthday present from Ellie.)
  13. Not My Cup of Tea: Reach out to a genre that you’ve never tried (or probably just disliked) before. Whether it’s a romance, horror or non fiction, maybe you will find a hidden gem! The Coldest Girl In Coldtown - Holly Black (Vampire fiction)
  14. Walking Down The Memory Lane: Ever had a book that you loved so much as a kid? Or a book that you wish you could read when you were just a child? Grab it now and prepare for a wonderful journey to the past :) Comic books or graphic novels are allowed! 

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Sunday Summary: Christmas!

A belated Merry Christmas to you all! I hope you have had a restful few days, with good food, company and presents.

Last week, for the first time since September, I only worked my contracted part-time hours, so although I didn't get to have an actual Christmas holiday (retail is rubbish 'cause people still want to buy stuff) it felt like a break by comparison with the last months, and with previous years when I've had less time off over Christmas than in a normal week. I was quite fortunate, finishing work at 2PM Christmas Eve, and having Christmas Day and Boxing Day off.

I was less fortunate a couple of hours before I was due to finish work, by coming down with my traditional Christmas cold. I suppose it was inevitable - there had been people sneezing and coughing in the shop all through December, but there are 365 days in a year - why did it have to hit me on Christmas Eve of all those days? It's ridiculous, and I am not impressed! But all moaning aside, it was a very mild case of the sneezes, and it didn't really make me feel ill, and by evening on Boxing Day I was absolutely fine again.

My sister has come back to the Isle of Wight for her Christmas break, her longest holiday since she's been living in London, and she goes back in the new year. Christmas Eve we watched the Muppet Christmas Carol, which we have seen so many times that we were joining in with all the songs and a large amount of the dialogue. It really is one of the best adaptations out there, and has to be watched as close to Christmas Eve as possible.

My Grandma was due to come to us for Christmas dinner, but when my Mum went to collect her from her nursing home, she decided she didn't feel well enough. She's 92, and very aware of the fact. It was disappointing, although not entirely surprising, when she decided not to come for dinner, although Mum persuaded her to come up to see us for a little while, even if not for lunch. My uncle and aunt dropped in with her Christmas present too.

I received some wonderful gifts from my family and friends this year, with a very bookish, creative and nerdy flavour to them.

Books:

I've already shown these off, but from my Secret Santa (who it is probably safe to reveal as Bex now): The Rook, The Thirteenth Tale and We Should All Be Feminists, as well as a bookish tote bag and some knitting wool.


From my best friend Judith: The Bookshop Book by Jen Campbell. This was my Christmas Day read, and it made me really want to take a Grand Bookshop Tour of Britain and beyond! (Coincidentally I bought this for another friend - and although I'd planned to look at it before wrapping it, I never got around to doing so.)

From my parents: The Handsome Man's Deluxe Cafe by Alexander McCall Smith, the latest in his No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series. The cover claims it is signed by the author, although the pen marks on the title page resemble some form of hieroglyphics. They also bought me Terra's World, the sequel to Terra which I read in the Bout of Books readathon and which was one of my favourite books of the year.


From my sister: The Year I Met You by Cecelia Ahern, one of my favourite comfort-read authors, and The Elements of Eloquence by Mark Forsyth, a non-fiction book about what makes up good writing. She also bought me a second-hand copy of Farmer Giles of Ham by J.R.R. Tolkien, and illustrated by Pauline Baynes, who is probably best known for her illustrations of the Chronicles of Narnia series.



Judith also bought me a book token, because she's been rather ill and lost track of how many presents she bought me (plenty. Too many, probably.)

Writer's materials:

From my sister: This t-shirt:



Also a notebook/journal which is a replica of River Song's journal from Doctor Who.

From my parents: Ready, Set, Novel - a Very Useful Resource for plotting a novel, with all sorts of pages for figuring out your characters, outlining, brainstorming, etc. This is produced by the people behind NaNoWriMo.

And Judith bought me a fancy notebook too:



I was very touched by all these writerly gifts, because it made me feel that my closest friends and family have noticed me picking up my long-neglected writing, and want to encourage me in it.

Crafty:

From Judith: a cross-stitch bookmark kit
From another friend, Sharon: a make-your-own purse set - part of which I can make up with my newly-acquired sewing machine.
From my friend Esther (who is also Judith's youngest sister) some homemade chocolate brownies, and hand-made earrings and bracelet.

Nerdy:

Thor: The Dark World DVD from my parents
Starfighter cookie-cutters - put together to make a 3D cookie spaceship! Awesome. (These were from Judith too.)

Boxing Day was a traditionally lazy day, with no alarms being set, and lots of lounging around the house reading. I am very much not someone who rushes straight out to the shops as soon as the post-Christmas sales are launched. Boxing day is for family. We spent the afternoon playing a long game of Isle of Wight Monopoly. I am terrible at Monopoly, but yesterday I managed to stay in the game a lot longer than predicted, even managing to acquire some respectable properties (although I was a very close second to be declared bankrupt!)

How did you spend your Christmas?

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

'Bout This Blogger

I've seen this mini-questionnaire doing the rounds recently, and so now it's my turn.

The 'Bout This Blogger tag comes from Cait at her newly-reinvented blog Paper Fury. I've just discovered Cait thanks to this meme, and she is brilliant. You guys must check out her blog if you haven't done already.

1. Why did you start blogging? Because of Anne of Green Gables. I tried to find online forums to discuss my favourite book series, but the comments just didn't go into enough depth for my liking, and were mostly about the adaptations anyway. So I set up my own space to witter at great length and depth and hope that it might prompt a discussion or two somewhere along the way.

2. What’s the story behind your blog’s name? When I was a kid, before I'd even started primary school, I had already got myself a reputation - somehow - among the teachers as "Katie Who Can Read." I could read, I can read, I've never really stopped reading since I was three years old.

3. How many designs have you been through since you started blogging? (Pictures! We demand pictures!) I'm on my second blog design, one of the Blogger templates customised a bit, because my web design skills are non-existent. Windows Live Writer (which I only really use if my internet connection is playing up, because it messes up the formatting when I come to publish) has kept my old background. I started off with this rather ugly, old-timey brown wallpaper look which made me think of a Victorian study (or maybe 221B Baker Street) but later decided to brighten it up with some cheerful peachy-orange stripes. Pretty and girly without being too pink



4. Have you ever switched blog platforms? What made you move? If you haven’t ever changed…why?
Many moons ago I had a personal blog on Xanga (does anyone remember that?) but for the book blog I'm happy with Blogger. I used to have a separate blog for TV and movie reviews, but I didn't give that enough attention so I brought those posts over to join the book reviews.

5. How long does it take you to write a post? What’s your postly process like?
As I read or watch things, I make notes in a notebook. I plan my posts rather like I used to plan academic essays: I make a list of bullet points, then expand them into paragraphs. Usually I'll open my post, stare at the screen, check Twitter, check Tumblr, try to come up with a first sentence, check Twitter... check Tumblr... Often I start in the middle, when the bullet point notes get longer and ramblier and turn into full sentences. Beginnings and endings are always hardest. How long it takes depends on how much I have to say and how much I procrastinate. It doesn't take that long once I settle down to actually do the writing.

6. Have you ever been super nervous about a post? Why?! What was it?
Most recently, my review of Kindred was a bit nervewracking. This is an amazing, thought-provoking book that will linger for a long time. I had many thoughts and feelings about Kindred, but as a white girl living in a probably 95+% white part of England, I worry that I don't have much authority to write about issues of race, and I don't want to say anything ignorant or insensitive. Similarly, any book about other Very Serious Issues that I have no personal experience with, but which can be painful to other people who might land on my blog. I'd hate to inadvertantly belittle or trample over anyone's personal experiences.

7. Do you have a blogging schedule?
Hahahaha no. Lately my blogging has been far too infrequent. I write my Sunday Summaries quite regularly, and occasionally take part in Top Ten Tuesday, and I try to balance out book reviews, TV or film reviews, personal updates and meme or list posts,

8. Do you tell people In-Real-Life about your blog? Their reactions? Occasionally, but not often. They might read it!

9. Top ten blogs you read/comment on the most! Go! Go! I don't always comment - one of my blogging resolutions for next year will be to comment more - but I read every post from the following:

Ellie @ Book Addicted Blonde
Hanna @ Booking in Heels
Laura @ Devouring Texts
Bex @ An Armchair By The Sea
Charlotte @ Lit Addicted Brit
Melbourne On My Mind
Ellie @ Lit Nerd
Alley @ What Red Read
Sarah Says Read
Ellie (yes, another Ellie) @ Curiosity Killed The Bookworm

10. If you could change/improve things about your blog, what would they be?
I'd like to write more often, at least twice a week and aim for three: at least one review and one personal or meme post.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Sunday Summary: It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas

Morning all! For the last few years, since I've been working in retail, I haven't exactly been feeling Christmassy until it's too late. I might find myself humming Christmas carols in October (September, August...) as I unpack the festive books, but I get so caught up in the stress of retail-Christmas that I haven't really been able to enjoy the season. This year I seem to have disassociated retail-Christmas with the real thing, being able to keep the two things separate in my mind, and now I am feeling very festive indeed - and there's still a week and a half to go! I hope this lasts.

My day off was Friday this week, and I spent the afternoon decorating our tree and living and dining rooms, while watching Anne of Green Gables. I also picked up a massive parcel from the post office. Some of the UK book bloggers decided to do a Secret Santa this year, and my sender was particularly generous. I'll keep their identity a secret until everyone else has revealed their presents (and I hope it was OK to open my parcel before Christmas day.) But it was someone who knows me well! As well as three books: The Thirteenth Tale, The Rook, and We Should All Be Feminists, I received some chocolate hobnobs - my absolute favourite! - some knitting wool for making cosy winter socks, and a book bag with the instructions to use it for taking my books for a walk.


Another thing that has made me feel Christmassy has been when my feet lead me out of work and straight into Costa Coffee, to find a tasty festive hot beverage to keep me company in the cold and dark as I trudge up the hill towards my home. But I've also been experimenting with making my very own deluxe spicey hot chocolate, and as it's Christmas, I'm going to share the recipe with you:

Ingredients:

1 x small bar/ 5-6  squares of dark chocolate. (I use Bournville. I think 6 squares may make it a leetle bit too rich, so feel free to eat the last bit.)
1 x mug of whole milk. 
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1-2 cardamom pods.

Grate or finely chop the chocolate (so that it melts better). Heat the milk in a saucepan over the hob. When hot but not boiling, add the chocolate and spices, and stir until all melted. Remove cardamom, pour into mug and top with whipped cream and a sprinkling of cinnamon. Et voila! Hot chocolate fit for a king.


I haven't got a lot of reading done this week, but - against my better judgement - I decided to face up to my childhood fear of clowns and read Stephen King's It. I think King was responsible for the longest book I've read this year, 11.22.63, and It is nearly twice as long. So far I've been intrigued rather than scared, but have only had the merest glimpse of the clown, and I will never ever ever be able to watch any screen adaptation. 

On the other end of the scale, a comment on a very old blog post prompted me to think of looking on the Kobo site for a book for which I've been searching for about seventeen years: the final installment of Anne Digby's Trebizon series of girls' school stories. The genre was pretty much extinct by the time the last book came to be published, with a tiny print run, and second hand copies are available for upwards of £40 in paperback. But to my joy, I found Kobo selling it for the same price a children's book would have sold for in the mid 1990s - a mere £2.99. I still can't convince my brain that reading on my phone or any other electronic device is the same activity as reading a book, but it's better than nothing, and I can gladly say I've finished the story, at last.

This week I started playing around with Grandma's old sewing machine, which is now mine. It had been at least fifteen years since I touched a sewing machine, but as I figured out how to thread it up, a lot came back to me from school, and once I'd worked out what to do with the bobbin, it was a lot simpler than it looked. I raided my mum's scrap bag to practice seams, and ended up with a patchwork cushion cover, which is not at all bad for a first try. The seams are mostly pretty straight, and I seem to have learned a bit more control over the machine than I had as a girl. The lovely thing about this cushion is that every bit of fabric has its own memories: the flowery fabric is left over from my mum's favourite dress, the polka dots were from pyjamas, and the navy blue material was a dress when I was very little.

Friday, 12 December 2014

Kindred - Octavia E. Butler


Time travel takes many forms in fiction. There are time machines which allow you some control over your destination, whether they take the format of police telephone boxes or DeLoreans; Stephen King's time portal was the pantry of a diner which always sends you back to the same place and time, always setting the timeline back to how it was supposed to be (or does it...?) Then there is time travel that leaves you at its mercy, sending you here and there in space and time as it sees fit, as in The Time Traveller's Wife. Octavia Butler's time travel affects her protagonist, Dana, in this way. Except that she is a young black woman living in the nineteen seventies, and her time-travelling is tied into the life of Rufus Weylin, who is the son of a plantation owner in Maryland of the early nineteenth century. Dana's trips to the past are unpredictable and dangerous, and she finds herself having to make unthinkable compromises in order to survive that hostile time.
"You might be able to go through this whole experience as an observer," I said, "I can understand that because most of the time, I'm still an observer. It's protection. It's nineteen seventy-six shielding and cushioning eighteen nineteen for me. But now and then, like with the kids' game, I can't maintain the distance. I'm drawn all the way into eighteen nineteen, and I don't know what to do."
It was curious; although I am very familiar with time travel stories, it was while reading Kindred that I realised how different the past can be. Then was then, now is now, but through Dana's eyes I had a sense of the two eras existing simultaneously, like two pictures drawn on tracing paper and placed one over the other. And it is a very jarring experience. Most historical or time-travel fiction persuades me that people don't change, that they may hold different views but that people are basically the same wherever and whenever you go. This is probably because I approach these narratives from a white point of view. Seeing slavery first-hand from Dana's point of view, I found myself questioning this. What kind of human being could ever think slavery was okay?! Dana tries so hard to influence Rufus when she meets him as a boy, to question the values he learns from his father and the society around him, and for a while she seems to have a certain amount of success. But she meets him as a man, and he has accepted his world as it is. It broke my heart to think maybe it was a losing battle. There is only a limited amount of influence Dana can hold over him while living the life of a slave on his plantation. She can't shake sense into him - any overt attempts to persuade him that he's wrong would result in dire consequences for her.
"He wasn't a monster at all. Just an ordinary man who sometimes did the monstrous things his society said were legal and proper."
I wonder. From twenty-first century England I'd shout YOU KNOW BETTER, RUFUS! IN YOUR HEART, YOU KNOW RIGHT FROM WRONG. At the same time, I found myself questioning myself. Are we born with a conscience, or do we learn it from our social context? Even at my most conservative and suggestible, I could never talk myself into accepting everything I was taught. I like to think that I would be a decent person even if I lived as a white middle-class person in the American South in the 1800s, but I wonder, and part of me is afraid to find out. I hope at a bare minimum I would hang onto the truth Terry Pratchett's witch Granny Weatherwax summarises as "Sin... is when you treat people as things."

In one of Dana's later visits (perhaps "summons" is a better word) to the past, her husband, who is white, comes along with her, and with much her disgust, she goes along with the pretence of being his slave. What shocked me was not so much her agreement to keep up this act, but the way that the life gets into her head. How even a strong, courageous, modern woman like Dana must submit and make compromises in order to survive, all the ways that one group of people will oppress and frighten another group in order to keep them where they want them. Maybe man's inhumanity to man is old news, but it does not stop being shocking. Octavia Butler takes the familiar narrative from history and brings it back to life, reminding the reader of the reality behind the fiction. And looking at the news the internet brings me every day, I fear that history is not as far in the past as people would like to believe. As such, Kindred is a Very Important Book. Go out and buy it.

Many thanks to Alley for encouraging me to think about diversity in my reading, and for your recommendations of Octavia Butler. I will certainly be looking out for more books by this author.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Fringe: Season Five

This review is very long overdue, so here are the links to the story so far:

Season One
Season Two
Season Three
Season Four

Warning: here be spoilers.


Season 4 of Fringe almost ended on the perfect note for a series finale, with the world saved, Olivia brought back to life, and the Bishop family tighter than ever, with a baby on the way. Happily ever after… but for the glimpse we had in a late episode of a very bad future indeed. It is this future we are plunged into from the start of season five, following straight on from that oddball future-episode, and the backstory unfolds gradually. We learn that Peter and Olivia married and had a baby daughter, called Henrietta, or Etta. But when Etta was only a few years old, the Observers came from the future, and at some point in the chaos, Etta went missing. Not long after this, the main team of the Fringe series: Walter and Peter Bishop, Olivia Dunham and Astrid Farnsworth, have been frozen in Amber for twenty years, allowing their story to carry on as if no time has passed, but in a terrifyingly changed world around them.

Once again, I had to applaud Anna Torv’s portrayal of Olivia. Although only a few years have passed in-universe, and she does not appear to have been aged-up, she plays a much older, sadder, wiser version of the character, one who has loved and lost and had her heart broken. The scene in which she is reunited with Etta and shows simultaneous joy to see her daughter again, and horror that she has missed twenty years of her growing up, are utterly heartbreaking. Similarly, Peter is no longer the carefree man-boy of the early seasons, but a responsible adult. Their relationship is strained to breaking-point by the loss of their daughter, the guilt and the relentless search.

The format of Fringe has evolved far away from its original weirdness-of-the-week episodes, and now that our heroes are fugitives, wanted by the Observers, there are no more official investigations into “fringe” events. Now this is war, a dirty war, and Walter and the team are driven to desperate measures in order to survive. This is not their world any more, but Etta’s, and they must play by Etta’s rules.

The first few episodes did not feel like the old Fringe again – although it’s difficult to say which version was the definitive Fringe, as it has changed so many times over the five seasons. And then, a shocking event happens, and just a few episodes after her introduction, Etta was killed. This seemed very unsatisfying, rushed, perhaps because of season 5’s shorter length, and Peter and Olivia deserved better. It felt as though Etta existed only to establish a personal link between the 2010s Fringe team and the dark 2030s world, and afterwards she had no place, so the writers gave her a heroic sacrifice, taking a few Observers with her.

That being said, I’m sorry to say it, but I think after Etta’s death, Fringe returned to its former quality, with the original team dynamics, although those regular characters who took the slow path to the future – Colonel Broyles and Nina Sharp – were relegated to playing multiple characters. The female characters take more of a back seat in the later episodes of this final season. The attention shifts more onto Peter for a significant fascinating (but rather too quickly solved) plotline, instead of former protagonist Olivia, and poor beloved Astrid is almost forgotten. Season four saw the closure of the bridge between worlds, and this shorter season just focuses on the original universe, original cast, but of course we get one more hop across the divide for the finale, getting to see how the second world has fared in the missing twenty one years.

Fringe is a demanding show for its actors, each playing many different versions of the same character. John Noble takes this to an extreme when Walter starts being recognisable as two different versions in the same man, as he struggles not to return to the same cold, ruthless scientist who got them into the mess in the first place, while trying to decipher his own, forgotten, coded messages (recorded on Betamax tapes and frozen in the amber).  By the time the plan is revealed, it did not come as a surprise that, despite the amount of time set in this bad future, there is once more a reset button, and that the future can be rewritten. Again, this is one possible future of many. For once, this trope did not feel like too much of a cop-out.

This season was all about parental love and sacrifice, and much as I longed for an easier happy ending, it was always going to be Walter’s sacrifice that saved the world, as he was ultimately responsible for nearly everything in the series (although, unless I missed something, he had nothing to do with the Observers’ invasion.)


Fringe has morphed and evolved significantly since I started watching it as a weird X-Files type show with science even I could see was nonsense. I’ve come a long way with its characters. It is a show that will stick with me a long time, one that I am very glad to have invested in the box sets, although it would be impossible to go straight back to the start after finishing the series, as it’s become almost unrecognisable. I did not expect to love it as much as I did.

Friday, 28 November 2014

11.22.63 - Stephen King

Wellll... my October blogging hiatus seems to have stretched through November as well as I got attacked by the plot bunnies on the eve of NaNoWriMo and have been putting all my writing energies into getting this new story into some sort of shape. Meanwhile, the list of things I really want to write about gets longer and longer... Some of it will probably have to go, but Stephen King's time-travelling epic 11.22.63 is not one of these, as it has shot right to the top of my Books Read In 2014 list, even overtaking The Martian which held the top spot for so long. It was a birthday present from Hanna, who wrote the review persuading me that I absolutely had to read it right now about two years ago. Whoops.



What if Kennedy was never assassinated? This is the question posed by Stephen King in this novel. Jake Epping, a teacher in his thirties, is shown a portal to the past by his dying friend Al. This gateway through time, in the back of the pantry of Al's diner, leads directly to 1958. Always the same time, always the same place. Al gives Jake the mission: to alter the course of history by preventing Lee Harvey Oswald from assassinating President John F. Kennedy. But what neither of them count on is for Jake making himself a new life in the 1960s and falling in love.

11.22.63 was very different from what I'd expected - my preconceptions were that the story would mostly focus on how the Kennedy assassination changed the world, and how different everything would be if it had never taken place: the impact of drastic changes to the timeline. In reality, the time portal sends Jake back to 1958, giving him five years to prepare, and to immerse himself (and us) into the world of the past. King paints a full picture of different places in America over fifty years ago, from creepy, unfriendly Derry (setting of his even bigger brick of a book IT - can't sleep, clown'll eat me!) to the seedy part of Dallas that was home to the Oswalds, to the place Jake comes to call home: Jodie, Texas, with its wholesome yet entirely human teenagers, good friends and of course, the lovely library Sadie Dunhill. You really live within these pages, grow to care about the characters, and I would have been quite happy reading 750 pages just about Jake's day-to-day life in Jodie, with Sadie. Everything seems wonderful - or at least, mostly a success; despite the past's resistance to Jake's every move, he seems to be mostly victorious. But through it all is an undercurrent of foreboding, thanks to the prologue in which a horrified Jake laments, "What have I done?" We can't quite forget, much as we'd like to, that some terrible consequences must come as a result of Jake's meddling. I've said it before: this is how Stephen King gets his readers. He makes us love his characters so that we feel so much worse when everything goes wrong.

You don't need to know too much about 20th Century American history. King educates us by sending us back in time with someone who never paid a lot of attention to history class, and immersing us into the middle of things we may know about but might not have thought about too deeply, illustrated with details that remind us that ordinary and extraordinary people lived through this time; it was more than just dry information on the page. I was well aware of the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, that everyone thought that nuclear war was inevitable, but I hadn't thought before about how it would have affected people in their day-to-day life. But King recreates that atmosphere of fear, that certainty that armageddon was only a matter of time, and I could not help but remember the days after 9/11 when the western world had to come to terms with the idea that we were not invincible after all.

The rest of this review could be considered spoilery.

"The past is obdurate. The past harmonises." 
Stephen King brings a fascinating new version of the time-travel narrative which has coloured my thinking every time I encounter the trope, every time I watch Doctor Who or Star Trek or Heroes. Because in this universe, the timeline is fixed in a certain way. Every time Al or Jake travel in time, they hit a reset button. Any changes they might have made on their last visit to 1958 will have reverted back to their original course, causing the list of things to be "corrected" to grow longer and longer on every visit. But the more you alter the past, the harder the universe fights to resist your efforts. With that in mind, the ending was the inevitable catastrophic success, which did not prevent me from feeling genuine terror when Jake is told, "You need to go back and see exactly what you've done." 

"I thought of an old ad for Memorex audiotape. It showed a crystal glass being shattered by sound vibrations. By pure harmonics."


Other (spoiler-free) reviews of this book from Hanna and Charlotte
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