Thursday, 2 July 2015

June in Review

Another month is over, and June has been a satisfyingly bookish month for me. We're in a heatwave in the UK at the moment, and it's uncomfortably hot at work (the air conditioning has broken in its classic timely fashion) so I'm spending as much of my free time as I can on the beach with a book. Last month I was working a lot, but I had a couple of days off to go up to London for a weekend. I met up with the lovely Bex around the time of her birthday, and met her family. Of course we did a little book shopping in Canterbury - although I only bought one book with her: Harriet the Spy, which I vividly remember reading as a kid, but not one I ever owned. However, I also came home with two more full-sized books, and a handful of the 80p Little Black Classics from Penguin. I've also paid a few visits to the labyrinthine Ryde Bookshop and the petite, vaguely Black-Books-esque (but only in the best way) treasure-trove that is Babushka Books in Shanklin.



Books from June's to-read pile


  • Tigerman - Nick Harkaway
  • Weirdo - Cathi Unsworth
  • Mr Mercedes - Stephen King
  • The Coincidence Authority - John Ironmonger
  • The Man in the High Castle - Philip K. Dick
  • A Room Full of Bones - Elly Griffiths
  • Dying Fall - Elly Griffiths
  • Lock In - John Scalzi
  • The Year I Met You - Cecelia Ahern

Other Books Read in June
  • The Janus Stone - Elly Griffiths
  • A Girl of the Limberlost - Gene Stratton-Porter
  • Harriet the Spy - Louise Fitzhugh
  • You Say Potato - Ben and David Crystal
  • The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend - Katarina Bivald
  • The Somnambulist - Jonathan Barnes
  • Family Secrets - Deborah Cohen
  • Emma: A Retelling - Alexander McCall Smith

Books bought in June
  • When We Were Orphans - Kazuo Ishiguro (Babushka Books, Shanklin)
  • Thrice Upon a Time - James P. Hogan (Fantastic Store, Ryde)
  • Harriet the Spy - Louise Fitzhugh (Waterstones, Canterbury)
  • Penguin Mini Classics: A Slip under the Microscope - H. G. Wells, The Fall of Icarus - Ovid, The Night is Darkening Round Me - Emily Bronte, Lord Arthur Savile's Crime - Oscar Wilde, The Life of a Stupid Man - Ryunosuke Akutagawa (all from Foyles, London Waterloo station)
  • The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend - Katarina Bivald (Regency Bookshop, Surbiton)
  • Penguin Mini Classic: Caligula - Suetonius (Regency Bookshop, Surbiton)
  • You Say Potato - Ben and David Crystal (Foyles, Charing Cross Road, London)
  • The Golden Notebook - Doris Lessing (Babushka Books, Shanklin)
  • The Go-Between - L. P. Hartley (Babushka Books, Shanklin)

July's To-Read Pile

For the first half of July I've planned to take time away from my own to-read shelf in order to get through my library books, borrowed books and gifts, the ones that "don't count" as part of my "read-three-buy-two" rule. I'm giving myself until the 13th to get through as many of the following titles as possible. The 14th, of course, sees the publication of Harper Lee's very long-awaited second novel, Go Set a Watchman (or first - I believe it was written before To Kill a Mockingbird.) I have my copy pre-ordered and will want to read it as soon as it becomes available.



  • Abarat - Clive Barker (borrowed from a friend)
  • The Rabbit Back Literature Society - Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen (borrowed from sister)
  • The Coincidence Authority - John Ironmonger (from Hanna)
  • The Outcast Dead - Elly Griffiths (library)
  • Nunslinger - Stark Holborn (library)
  • The Night Guest - Fiona McFarlane (Ninja Book Swap gift from Sarah)
Have you read any of these books? Any recommendations on where to start?  Here's wishing you all a happy July!

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Lock In - John Scalzi


It is the not-too-distant future, and the world has changed. After a worldwide epidemic of a debilitating disease, called Haden's Syndrome, whose worst (non-fatal) effect is lock-in syndrome, science and technology have made great leaps to help sufferers lead some semblance of a normal life. Firstly there are remotely-controlled robotesque bodies colloquially known as "threeps" (as in C-3PO). The Haden's afflicted person may physically be lying paralysed in a bed, but their minds can inhabit these synthetic bodies and do most of the things that everyone else can do. Then there is the Agora, a sort of fully-immersive internet, where people can meet in cyberspace without the hastle of computers or smartphones. Finally, there are the integrators, a small minority of people who can let the Hadens borrow their bodies for a while - but fully conscious, and are an essential part of the decision-making and action processes.

So, this is the world of Lock In. Quite a complex set of ideas to get your head around, and it's best to take the first chapter or two slowly to figure it all out, but it's a really fascinating concept for a book. After all, if a person's mind/soul/personality are all made up of electrical signals from the brain, then why not? Why can't they be remotely transmitted to other places outside the body?

The protagonist of Lock In is Agent Chris Shane*, a new recruit to the FBI - and a Haden. On Shane's very first day, an apparent suicide leads to the discovery that someone is abusing the Haden's technology for their own nefarious purposes, and it is up to Shane and partner Vann to get to the heart of the mystery. But the conspiracy goes far deeper than Shane could have imagined, with far-reaching implications...

Lock In is an intelligent science fiction novel which uses fantastical ideas to make you think about real-world issues, such as corruption in business, the dangers of the commercial side of the health industry, and raises questions about the ethics of  medical advancement, technology, and quality of life. The scientists in the world of Lock In see opportunity in disaster, and in treating Haden's Syndrome, they have made steps towards the evolution of a new life form. But what does this mean for the human race? In such a situation, do we have a moral obligation to fix what is broken or to take the broken pieces to create something new which could end up replacing us?

It is these questions which make Lock In something beyond a simple science-fiction detective novel. After finishing the book, I found myself missing it, sorry to have reached the end and said farewell to the characters, the world and the questions it provokes. An excellent novel, and I recommend it to anyone who enjoyed Ready Player One, Scalzi's Redshirts (very different kind of story but the same humour and narrative voice) or Joss Whedon's TV series, Dollhouse. 


*It was not until it was pointed out to me that I realised that Scalzi never specified whether Agent Shane was a Christopher or a Christine. I assumed all the way through the book that the character was male, possibly because of the masculine-sounding surname, but I'm going to have to reread imagining the character as a woman. Apparently there are two audiobook versions, too, one read by Wil Wheaton and the other by Amber Benson (the lovely lovely Tara from Buffy!)

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Top Ten Tuesday: Best books of 2015 so far

Ahhhh, how can it possibly be the last day of June already? Just the other day, at work, I was standing in the store room planning where I was going to put the Christmas stock when it starts to arrive, with exactly half a year to go. Madness! But the calendar tells me we're halfway through the year, so in no particular order, here are my favourite books of the year so far. (Note: these are books read in 2015, not necessarily published this year.)

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted at The Broke and the Bookish

  1. Elizabeth is Missing - Emma Healey An excellent book to start 2015 with, a compassionate psychological study, and a compelling and satisfying mystery. A remarkable, perfectly-crafted debut. 
  2. The Thirteenth Tale - Diane SetterfieldThe Thirteenth Tale is a rich, atmospheric novel that calls to mind the smell of old books, the cosy feeling of being wrapped up in a blanket with a hot chocolate while a storm rages outside. It is a self-aware entry into the canon of classic gothic fiction, settling among the classics as though it has always been there.
  3. Trigger Warning - Neil Gaiman Such is the power of his short stories that I found myself unable to go straight from one tale to the next without taking some time to digest what I had just read. If I tried, I found I would take one story with me into the next. Gaiman's writing lingers, whether it be a letter from a human statue, a Doctor Who adventure, or a reinvented fairy tale or three. 
  4. The Elements of Eloquence - Mark Forsyth. What makes Shakespeare a genius? In this entertaining and enlightening volume, Mark Forsyth analyses the tricks of the English language that make up good and memorable writing. I possibly learned more about good writing, especially poetry, than I did in the three years of my degree course.
  5. Arsenic for Tea - Robin Stevens. An instant classic of children's literature... Agatha Christie for children: a well-plotted, twisty mystery with plFenty of red herrings, a limited cast of suspects, but everyone keeping secrets, even if none of them are the secrets they are suspected of hiding. But Stevens plays fair, and hides the clues within the text, if you only know what you're looking for.
  6. Geek Girl - Holly Smale. The first in a series of books about hapless schoolgirl model Harriet Manners. For anyone who has felt like the odd one out among cool people, this is both hilarious and relatable, easy to read and impossible to put down.
  7. White is for Witching - Helen Oyeyemi - An extraordinary gothic masterpiece, centred, as so many novels in the genre are, around a big old house with a secret and a personality of its own. Unlike most gothic novels, however, the house itself is one of the narrators - or is it a ghost, a combination of all the women who have lived before? Miri, the daughter of the family, has battled mental illness and eating disorder, gone to Cambridge and started a life and love affairs away from the house, but always the house calls to her.
  8. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage - Haruki Murakami. Not one of Murakami's weirdy fantastical stories, Tsukuru Tazaki is a subdued, pensive tale of the lingering hurt caused by four friends' sudden abandonment of the titular Tsukuru. Years later, Tsukuru goes about finding out what happened that fateful summer, in a search for self-worth and his place in the world. This book quietly spoke to me on a personal level.
  9. The Year I Met You - Cecelia AhernAlong with Jasmine, we come to recognise that even unpleasant people are human too, and they'll never change if you write them off as irredeemable. Both Matt and Jasmine learn from the enmity that turns to friendship over the course of a year. 
  10. The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend - Katarina BivaldThe Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend is like settling down in a personalised, cosy bookshop with a comfy chair, all the time you need, and good friends to rave to about your latest read. It is... full of references to familiar stories and authors, and not just the classics to make you feel smart for recognising the reference... just as much a love letter to Sophie Kinsella, Terry Pratchett and Bridget Jones's Diary as it is to Jane Eyre or Pride and Prejudice.
Honourable Mentions:
  • Cross Stitch - Diana Gabaldon
  • Vintage Girl - Hester Browne
  • Resistance is Futile - Jenny Colgan
  • Love Alters - ed. Emma Donoghue
  • Saplings - Noel Streatfeild
  • Reaper Man - Terry Pratchett

Friday, 26 June 2015

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend - Katarina Bivald


I went back to Surbiton last weekend, and while I was waiting to meet a friend, I had a look in the Regency Bookshop. I am ashamed to admit that, although I lived ten or fifteen minutes' walk away for two years, I rarely shopped there as a student. I don't know if it intimidated me a bit, or if it was simply that I overlooked it in favour of the 3 for 2 or Buy One Get One Half Price offers in the chain stores. I have since become more picky in what I buy, which has helped me to realise the value of books, that a good book in a good bookshop is worth paying the full retail price for. While I was in there this time, my eye was caught by a bright, cheerful hardback, which I had never heard of before, but before I'd finished reading the cover blurb I had decided instantly to buy it; The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend was the perfect book to buy to make amends for my former neglect of the Regency Bookshop; a book-lover's dream.

Sara Lindqvist is a shy young Swedish woman, for whom life is something to read about in the pages of her beloved books. She has few close relationships, but has started up a pen-friendship with Amy, an elderly woman from Broken Wheel, Iowa. When Sara plucks up the courage to fly out to visit Amy, she is greeted by the sad news that Amy has died. Broken Wheel is a tiny town - a village, really - in the middle of nowhere, and it is little more than a ghost town now. But its people are kind, in their way, and they take Sara to their heart. And Sara decides that the thing she can do for them is to open a bookshop in town. Books make everything better, right? The people of Broken Wheel are not really a literary sort, but they support her in her venture, and in her cosy little shop, she pairs customers up with a carefully-chosen book. But Sara is only in America on a tourist's visa, and shouldn't really be working at all. As her time begins to run out, both she and her new friends realise that they don't want her to leave. So they come up with a plan...

There is something really special about a book about books. The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend is like settling down in a personalised, cosy bookshop with a comfy chair, all the time you need, and good friends to rave to about your latest read. It is, as you might expect, full of references to familiar stories and authors, and not just the classics to make you feel smart for recognising the reference. This is just as much a love letter to Sophie Kinsella, Terry Pratchett and Bridget Jones's Diary as it is to Jane Eyre or Pride and Prejudice. (And Anne gets a mention too, so even if I hadn't been won over before - I was - I would recognise this book as being a Kindred Spirit.)

As a small town, we get to know a few characters really well. There is George, a recovering alcoholic and a divorcee who just longs to see his daughter again. Grace, the latest in a long line of tough, strong, contrary women called Grace (though that isn't her real name at all.) Andy and Carl, who own the bar, the vicar, William, who is called to be all things to all people, and Caroline, the stern, disapproving church member who carries the same sorrows and fears as everyone else, hidden behind her stuffy exterior. And Tom; Amy's nephew, who everyone thinks would be such a perfect match for Sara, even if he doesn't seem to like her at all. It is a real joy to meet these characters, watch as their lives unfold, and see them won over to the pleasure of reading. Sara's venture really seems to breathe new life into this tired old community, which is falling to pieces, but is not ready to give up just yet.

Unfortunately, the story gets a bit weaker towards the end, with the introduction of a romance plot, which felt more like infatuation than a real relationship, and I felt that the ending was too neatly tied up, and somewhat implausible. Also, I couldn't help noticing a few basic proof-reading errors, most notably the spelling of George's daughter's name, which was sometimes Sophie and sometimes Sophy, many times both spellings on the same page! But none of this detracts from the fact that The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend is a really happy, feel-good book, with lovable characters and a setting so vivid I just need to close my eyes and imagine myself there.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

A Girl of the Limberlost - Gene Stratton-Porter

"But what is a limberlost?" my childish self wondered. I was at the height of my school-story-loving days, which would place me between ten and twelve years old. I must have been at some family function, and bored, so my Grandma went to her bookshelves and found an old favourite from her own schooldays, an ancient red-covered book held together by tape, smelling of dust and vanilla. Flash forward to 2015, and A Girl of the Limberlost now sits on my own bookcase - or rather, that same antique bookcase with the glass doors, but now in my room and full of my own childhood favourites. When my Grandma moved out of her house into a retirement flat, she let me choose from a selection of her books, as well as the bookcase, and I vividly remembered enjoying this one, even if I probably didn't finish it, and didn't actually remember what the Limberlost was. (It was an area of swampland in Indiana, full of wildlife and secrets.)
A Girl of the Limberlost is a sequel to Gene Stratton Porter's novel Freckles, but I read it as a stand-alone novel and didn't feel as though I'd missed out on much. It follows Elnora Comstock, a determined young girl, as she works her way through high school, against the wishes of her loveless mother Katharine. Although the language and details had changed, the opening chapter read just like so many modern-day books for teenagers, as Elnora turns up to her new school unprepared, unfashionable and humiliated. It reminded me a lot of the start of Eleanor and Park, and I realised that although fashions may change, high school students do not.

Luckily, Elnora has a kindly aunt and uncle, who are determined to make sure that she gets the upbringing and love that her mother has neglected. Katharine resents Elnora due to her being born at the same time that her husband, who she idolised, drowned in the swamp. Their fraught relationship is central to the book, and eventually Katharine comes to realise that the man she's been resenting her daughter over for sixteen or more years was not the perfect husband she has believed.

Elnora bears a few warning signs of being a turn-of-the-century paragon of virtue: generous to the poor, hard-working, beautiful and devout. But she is a very human character, one who may have an optimistic outlook, but who feels keenly her mother's neglect and the shame of being the outsider. She is proud when it comes to money, not allowing anyone to pay for her schooling but herself, which she does through selling moth and butterfly collections, and through tutoring younger children about natural sciences. She also inherits her father's talent for the violin, which she practices in secret, away from her mother, who would have none of it. But she is not so good at keeping track of her money, and when it runs out, she turns to her mother for help. This was where I thought she had a weird switch from being the Good Girl to being a bit of a brat: her high school graduation requires not one but three new dresses, but instead of buying them, her mother washes last year's white dress for her. Oh, the horror! Cue the horrified cries of "I've got nothing to wear!" and the frantic clubbing together of other friendsandrelations to customise someone else's cast-offs instead. For someone so normally thrifty, it seemed very out of character for her to throw a tantrum about wearing one white dress instead of another, but perhaps I just don't understand the importance of having a brand-new outfit for high school graduation (or perhaps prom.)

If Taylor Swift can do it, so can Elnora Comstock.

Elnora spends that summer working with a sickly young man called Philip Ammon, and they become close friends. He is engaged to another woman, a great beauty, but conveniently one who is an utter harridan, and who breaks off their engagement out of jealousy over Elnora, in front of all their friends and family. Elnora, it is implied, has developed feelings for Ammon, and as soon as his fiancee breaks up with him, he comes running back to Elnora. I didn't have a lot of patience for Ammon, finding him a bit of a drip. Like Romeo - and I don't mean that as a compliment; remember how Romeo mopes over the loss of his true love Rosaline at the beginning of the play, only to fall straight into the arms of someone he's only just met? But Elnora has more sense than to take Ammon at his word, and insists on giving him space to see if he really is over his first love. But he plays the persistent lover, which I'm not so sure is so romantic as it is intended to be. When he proposes formally to Elnora later on, her response is essentially, "Ooh, a ring, shiny! Let me try it on and see if I like it before I decide whether or not to marry you." Um... not quite sure that's a great basis on whether to marry someone or not. The whole romance element to the story is rather melodramatic and silly. A Girl of the Limberlost is not quite up there in the classic girls' coming-of-age canon with Anne, Katy and the March girls, but it is a good contemporary of them to keep them company.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Be A Good Human (part two)

Ignorance is bad, books are good. Books educate and enlighten, this is why books are important. They take you out of your own mind, and show you what it might be like to live a different life, with different struggles and triumphs in different circumstances. And yet, invariably, you find a common humanity in each life, fictional or biographical. So Jen created the Be A Good Human tag, for vloggers and bloggers to celebrate those books which we think help you become you a better person in one way or another. This is the second half of my list.

Where I've reviewed the book previously, I've linked to it in the title, and quoted from my review in italics. I also plan to go through my blog tags and include one for Be A Good Human.


The Universe Versus Alex Woods - Gavin Extence

Few books have completely challenged my worldview so much as this beautiful story of a friendship between a bright but innocent young lad and a curmudgeonly old widower with a love of Kurt Vonnegut books, who are faced with a very difficult decision. The novel combines humour and pathos, sometimes uncomfortably side-by-side, in a way reflective of real life.

Speak - Laurie Halse Anderson

I first read Speak when I was about fifteen, and it was a book I reread a lot in my high school years (see how battered my copy is in the picture above!) I was reminded of it a few years ago when parents called for it to banned from school libraries - ironically, considering its theme of encouraging people not to suffer in silence. Although, of course, there are books inappropriate for certain places and age groups, literature gives people a safe place to confront the dangers that well-meaning but misguided moral guardians may not be able to protect their children from. Author Laurie Halse Anderson has written about how many students have found help through reading this book, and how it has quite literally been a life saver.

Perfect

Two stories in different timelines: one of a young boy called Byron who becomes fixated on an unattainable "perfection" in the 1970s, to try to bring order to his troubled family life, and the other of an older man in the present day, who, after decades of battling mental health issues, is trying to get back into the community and live something resembling an ordinary life.
Deceptively simple in style, Rachel Joyce's prose is powerful and hard-hitting, yet it is not without hope or beauty. Perfect leaves the reader with a lot to think about and to feel, concerning family, class and mental illness, the power of friendship, the nature of time and the struggle for an impossible perfection.


Elizabeth is Missing - Emma Healey

This was the first book I read in 2015, an excellent start to my reading year. Elizabeth is Missing is a mystery with a twist; it is told from the point of view of an elderly lady with dementia. As she muddles around trying to find out what has happened to her friend Elizabeth, she finds herself reliving her past and uncovering a long-forgotten mystery.
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. 
To Kill A Mockingbird - Harper Lee

How could one write a list of books that help you to be a better human without including this one? Harper Lee shows us very adult issues simply, shown from the point of view of eight-year-old Scout Finch. This youthful point of view makes you want to scream and cry - especially when, daily, you read online of systematic racism in the American police force. Prejudice is not natural, it is learned, and it is stupid. A child can tell you what is right and what is wrong, but somewhere in adulthood things get muddied. Let's all retain a bit of the innocence of childhood, and the quiet heroism of Atticus Finch, a man who knows he will not change the world overnight, but who will fight just as hard as he can for right because he can do nothing else. And slowly, perhaps, the world may change a little for the better.

Monday, 8 June 2015

Be A Good Human (part one)

I wrote this post in response to Jen Campbell's video, in which she revealed some of the ridiculously ignorant, thoughtless and cruel comments she regularly hears about the condition she has called ectrodactyly, meaning that her hands don't look quite like everyone else's. What is wrong with people? In what tiny, self-contained world is it acceptable to make personal remarks to and about a complete stranger. It's utterly gobsmacking.

Ignorance is bad, books are good. Books educate and enlighten, this is why books are important. They take you out of your own mind, and show you what it might be like to live a different life, with different struggles and triumphs in different circumstances. And yet, invariably, you find a common humanity in each life, fictional or biographical. So Jen created the Be A Good Human tag, for vloggers and bloggers to celebrate those books which we think help you become you a better person in one way or another. I ended up with such a long post that I've split it into two parts; part two will appear tomorrow morning. Where I've reviewed the book previously, I've linked to it in the title, and quoted from my review in italics.



Kindred - Octavia E. Butler

Although Kindred's plot relies upon time-travel, it is more historical than science fiction, taking a black woman out of the 1970s and sending her to a Maryland plantation of the early 19th century. This narrative means that it's impossible to view the past as a dim and distant country unconnected to the world as we know it, and poses some uncomfortable questions about humanity and morality.
"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."
I Am Malala - Malala Yousafzai (with Christina Lamb)
More than just a memoir, this book helps you to understand not just what it is like to live under threat from the Taliban, but also the social, historical and political context that allows extremism to take hold. Malala is intelligent and passionate about the importance of universal education, demonstrating the harm done by ignorance, her frustration with those who would warp her religion to make it a tool for oppression. A powerful read from an extraordinary young woman.
The Year I Met You - Cecelia Ahern

This book struck a chord with me when I identified with some of the heroine's less heroic traits: Jasmine is judgemental, somewhat misanthropic, and highly opinionated. The "You" of the title is Matt, a radio DJ, who Jasmine despises for his controversial show which relies on people's bigotry to make for "entertaining" discussions. He is also a lousy husband and father, and unpleasant neighbour, regularly driving home at stupid o'clock in the morning and making a scene. But along with Jasmine, we come to recognise that even unpleasant people are human too, and they'll never change if you write them off as irredeemable. Both Matt and Jasmine learn from the enmity that turns to friendship over the course of a year. There is also a moving and thoughtful subplot about Jasmine's relationship with her beloved sister Heather, who has Down's Syndrome.

The Casual Vacancy - J. K. Rowling

Sometimes we learn what being a good human is by seeing examples of what it is not. J.K. Rowling's first novel for adults shows a seemingly idyllic community destroying itself in the run-up to a local council election, with the comfortable middle-class residents forced to confront that which they'd rather not acknowledge: the existence of the poor, the broken, the vulnerable, living in their midst and imposing on their self-satisfied worldviews.
The Casual Vacancy burns with an anger, a passionate call for justice for the social outcasts comparable to Dickens at his strongest: an exposure of hypocrisy, prejudice and complacency and forcing us to look at People Like That as human beings. If we can write off the poor as being only responsible for their own predicament, then it spares us the need for uncomfortable compassion. Rowling challenges us to ask ourselves: what right do we as humans have to give up on our fellow-creatures? How dare we? 
A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens

It irritates me a little when people call each other "Scrooge" if someone shows signs of not liking the sparkle and commercialism that comes with Christmas. That, to me, is missing the point of A Christmas Carol. Scrooge's sin is not that he doesn't like to have a good time, or is a party pooper, but that he has no compassion for his fellow humans. Christmas is not important because of the presents or the food or the carol-singing, but, as Scrooge's nephew puts it, it is "a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of the people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therfore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it." This is the message Ebeneezer Scrooge learns from the three spirits of Christmas past, present and future, and this is what he resolves to remember by keeping Christmas all year round.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Things that made me happy this week

Hello and happy Sunday! This week I've decided to borrow Ellie Lit Nerd's blogging idea. I'll start by being honest and say that I've been struggling a bit this week. Not entirely unhappy, but work has been getting me down, bringing a return of anxiety and that sinking feeling when I wake up which I'd been glad to leave behind after high school. But I've still been able to focus on the little things that bring me joy, and that's what I'm going to write about today.



  1. Uncovering my first "novels" stashed away in a box. When I was ten years old I wrote a book heavily influenced by ripped off from Enid Blyton's Malory Towers series, about a girl called Alice Thomas who goes away to boarding school. This was written in pencil in a Lion King notebook, and followed up by two or three sequels, before I abandoned the series for good. I plan to type the stories up before the pencil fades away completely.
  2. Late starts, early finishes. True, a six-hour working day doesn't feel that much shorter than an eight-hour one, so despite working more days than usual, I won't get paid any more, but it's been very pleasant being able to sleep in until 8AM (much more civilised than 7) and read a few chapters over a leisurely breakfast. 
  3. Summer is here at last! And thanks to the aforementioned shorter days, I'm not missing all the sun from being at work; I've been able to sit outside in the garden with a book in the evenings. Time for beach trips and barbecues, I think.
  4. Chatting about books. Customers, don't expect to be able to sneak a Neil Gaiman book past me without me pouncing on you and fangirling wildly. It won't happen! And on Friday I didn't have time to eat all of my lunch as my favourite colleague Simon was in the staffroom reading The Silkworm, and we ended up having a long conversation about J. K. Rowling, Game of Thrones, Terry Pratchett and adaptations of all of the above. 
  5. The MixRadio app on my phone. You select a couple of musicians, and it plays a load of suggestions based on your choices. My playlist came up with quite a variety; lots of Bob Dylan, Amanda Palmer, David Bowie, Evanescence (which brought back a lot of memories from my angsty high school days) as well as songs from Spamalot and Rocky Horror and much more. And all from just a couple of suggestions.
What has made you happy this week?

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009)


The Cylons were created by Man. They evolved. They rebelled. There are many copies. And they have a plan.
The miniseries that served as a pilot episode for the reimagined Battlestar Galactica showed the human race all but annihilated in a sudden, shocking nuclear attack by their own creations, the Cylons. The twelve home planets of Kobol were rendered uninhabitable, and the fifty thousand survivors take to the skies in a desperate attempt to find a new place to settle and ensure humanity's survival. Their ultimate destination: a long-forgotten planet called Earth, settled, allegedly, by a thirteenth colony from the original Kobol. But no one knows where Earth can be found, and meanwhile the Cylons, not content with their victory, continue their relentless pursuit across the galaxy. Some Cylons even look human, and are hidden within the fleet, ignorant of their own nature.

So, a pretty grim, ruthless premise for a series, and such a situation calls for tough people. There is a wide cast of fascinating characters, complex and nuanced, heroes and cowards, compassionate and selfish, full of love and hatred, loyalty and treason, justice and revenge - and all these qualities often found in the same person! There are very few straightforward heroes and villains, and that is what makes the characters so interesting. I could write about so many of them: Lee "Apollo" Adama, Saul Tigh, Kara "Starbuck" Thrace, Sharon "Boomer" Valeri, but I'm going to focus on the two leaders: Commander (later Admiral) Bill Adama, and President Laura Roslin. I was suspicious of Adama when I first encountered him; a military man all his life, he seemed cold, angry, and proud. My first impressions of Roslin, on the other hand was that she was an absolute sweetie; a motherly former schoolteacher with a strong moral compass. I adored her.

This paragraph contains minor spoilers, more about character than plot. But feel free to scroll down to the black text.


Meanwhile, though friends have proclaimed Whiny Gaius Baltar their favourite character, I could not stand him from first to last: a smug, snivelling coward with an overinflated ego. And yet, when he was pitted against our two heroes at the end of season three, I found myself gradually siding with him against them. Roslin and Adama's desire for justice became a hunger for revenge, and it was very ugly. I found myself furious with them. You're better than this! But I could not hate them for long. I gradually fell away from Roslin's spell during that season, felt less inclined to excuse her as a good person who made bad choices for good reasons. Yes, her ultimate goal remained the survival of humanity as a whole, and the search for Earth, but her moral compass was so unmovable it seemed glued in place: if someone disagreed with her, they were clearly wrong. And her concern for humanity as a species does not always extend to the individuals that make up that species. Meanwhile, Adama said and did some pretty awful things, and yet I found him easier to forgive, because beneath his hard military facade, you come to learn he is a man of strong but controlled emotions. And perhaps it is easier to excuse something said or done in the heat of a moment than a coldly considered cruelty. I did not hate Laura Roslin as a person - she remained lovable in her private moments - but she did not remain a likable president. A good one, nonetheless? The jury is out on that. Difficult decisions must be made, and sometimes there isn't a right choice.


The road to Earth is far from straightfoward, and the fleet is constantly confronted by conflict from within as well as exterior forces - and not just from the Cylons living among the humans. When they start to be revealed, the humans struggle to reconcile their preconceptions with the evidence that confronts them. One must acknowledge the shared humanity of others - even some Cylons - lest you lose your own. Yet this is easier said than done when still reeling from the near-destruction of an entire civilisation.

The plots keep you guessing, and nothing is straightforward. Political intrigue, twists of prophecy, betrayal and the just plain weird make for an exhilarating experience. The plot does not go where you think it ought - and I love a story to be unpredictable. People die that shouldn't, others outlive all expectations, and even the music gets in on the act to scramble your brain. This is not a story that reverts to the status quo. The series finales come with game-changing shocks, and the season finale turns everything you think you know about the Battlestar Galactica universe on its head. It must be very different watching it a second time around.

It is not a perfect show, however. There is a strange mystical subplot that I could take or leave, if it were less critical to advancing events. Prophecies lead to strange McGuffin-hunts ("The arrow of Apollo will open the tomb of Athena which will lead us to Earth" - what?!) There are too many self-proclaimed "chosen ones" and too many answers are provided by dreams and visions, and just accepted to be accurate predictions of the future (and usually are, in some way.) This seems like weak plot progression to me. Prophecies, visions and dreams should be used lightly, I think - see the twist in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix for an example of it done well. Also, I noticed there is a lot of repetition in the dialogue, and it sounds scripted rather than like real speech, sometimes even like poetry. And not good poetry, either.

But perhaps these are minor quibbles from one who has spent too long studying creative writing. Battlestar Galactica is a revolutionary space disaster adventure, and despite the irritations, I have thoroughly enjoyed watching it. It is a show best watched with very little foreknowledge, and I've enjoyed watching the mysteries unfold before being resolved in an epic climax. I know some of my Twitter followers have been reading my tweets with smug enjoyment of my ignorance (and one of my colleagues will be asking me tomorrow for my thoughts on the ending.) Definitely one to watch twice.

Monday, 1 June 2015

May in Review

May has been a pretty full month for me, books-wise, even if I don't have very much to show for it on the blog. I've not written a proper review for a long time, but I do have a couple of posts planned, and the possibility of some min-reviews as well. I read sixteen complete books (even if two or three were very quick reads) as well as beginning two and finally finishing off The Lord of the Rings when I took part in Bex's Rereadathon. It was great to take a week to return to some of my favourite books of recent years, and I'd love to do another one soon. I have so many books on my shelf that I loved when I read them, but have neglected rereads in favour of tackling my unread book pile.

To Re-Read Pile


To Kill A Mockingbird - Harper Lee
Before I Fall - Lauren Oliver
When God Was A Rabbit - Sarah Winman
The Universe Versus Alex Woods - Gavin Extence
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King - J. R. R. Tolkien
An Astronaut's Guide to Life On Earth - Chris Hadfield
The Martian - Andy Weir
Watchmen - Alan Moore

Post-Re-Readathon TBR Pile


The House at Sea's End - Elly Griffiths
The Silver Dream - Michael Reaves and Mallory Reaves (Story by Neil Gaiman and Michael Reaves)
Interworld - Neil Gaiman and Michael Reaves
A Wizard of Earthsea - Ursula Le Guin
Carol - Patricia Highsmith
The Beginner's Goodbye - Anne Tyler
The Year I Met You - Cecelia Ahern
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage - Haruki Murakami
Lock In - John Scalzi

What Else I read

Farmer Giles of Ham - J. R. R. Tolkien
White is for Witching - Helen Oyeyemi
The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories - HitRecord
Through the Woods - Emily Carroll
The Vintage Girl - Hester Browne
Robin Ince's Bad Book Club - Robin Ince
Resistance is Futile - Jenny T. Colgan

Books in progress

The Janus Stone - Elly Griffiths (which I discovered I had read out of order. Oh well.)
Tigerman - Nick Harkaway.

This month I went on holiday to York, and where there is a new city to visit, there are new bookshops. While I was up north I also met up with Ellie and Hanna, and we went on an epic bookshopping spree, so I came home with a very heavy suitcase indeed, containing as many new books as I had bought in the previous four months put together!

I also raced through watching all of the main series of the Battlestar Galactica remake in about a month, which was a thrilling if sometimes exasperating experience. I won't say much about it here as I plan to review it fully soon - or as fully as I can without giving away too many spoilers, as it is a very twisty story.

June's to-read pile (provisional)


Tigerman - Nick Harkaway
Weirdo - Cathi Unsworth
Mr Mercedes - Stephen King
The Coincidence Authority - John Ironmonger
The Man in the High Castle - Philip K. Dick
A Room Full of Bones - Elly Griffiths
Dying Fall - Elly Griffiths
Lock In - John Scalzi
The Year I Met You - Cecelia Ahern

I particularly want to get Lock In and The Year I Met You read this month, as both of them have been on several months' to-read piles. I keep delaying reading Lock In in particular, despite how much I adored Redshirts, and my friend assuring me of its brilliance. I think in some ways I have to have the right moment, the right setting, to get stuck into something really special. I also want to finish the Ruth Galloway books by Elly Griffiths, which were lent to me by a colleague. I don't think they're particularly well-written (and they are in the present tense which irritates me for some reason) but they are enjoyable page-turners with likeable characters, in a Norfolk with a rather eerie, gothic feel to it. Currently I'm halfway through Tigerman. I wanted to love it, because a Twitter acquaintance with excellent taste recommended it, but I'm struggling with it. The main character is pretty introspective, with not much interaction with others, which makes the book very slow-going. I don't want to give up on it - I'm over halfway through now - but I keep picking up lighter reads instead.
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