Sunday, 26 October 2014

Sunday Summary: Fly-by post 3

This one really will be a fly-by post I'm afraid. It's been a mad, pretty horrible week for me. The next  paragraph will be all about me feeling sorry for myself, so feel free to skip ahead to the kitten picture instead.

On my day off, I met up with friends and felt that I utterly humiliated myself by being in a foul mood, although thinking about it afterwards I realised most of the humiliation was in my mind, things I hadn't said or done at all. I just wanted to disappear. But there's nothing like working in retail, in full view of the general public, for feeling invisible. Thursday was manic, so many jobs to do thanks to it being a big release date for new books Christmas, and I worked so hard trying to get about a week's worth of work done in a single day. Of course, the next day, the manager only noticed the things that got missed! Add to that all the customers who studiously pay great attention to the air a little to one side of me just to avoid eye contact or saying hello or, you know, acknowledging the existence of the shop person (although woe betide you if you're not exactly where they want you when they want something from you.) And just to round off the week, I had a customer nattering on his phone while purchasing something. I came so close to refusing to serve him. I wish I had. It doesn't happen to me too much, but it's a behaviour so universally despised it always shocks me when someone is that rude. How can they live with themselves?

Oh well. Next week is the last of what has felt like one continual week with the occasional day off. I'll be down to working four days in November, and my days off won't be so far apart. Hurrah!

This week I have been:


Not a lot, due to busy work schedule and tiredness, but I'm still enjoying 11.22.63 a lot. It's so different from what I had been expecting, but only in the best ways. I had been expecting a look at "what would the world be like if Kennedy had never been assassinated?" but well over halfway through and the critical date is still far off. Instead it looks at the little changes a person might make due to time travel, as well as immersing the reader in a fascinating setting, with characters one comes to really care about. We've reached the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which to me, as to protagonist Jake/George was something far-off and vague. Yes, I knew that people used to be afraid of the possibility of nuclear war, but knowing that it was a threat that came to nothing, I never really imagined what it must be like to live with that terror. King compares it with the days after 9/11.

Overall, Jake's plan seems to be going too well, too successful. The prologue showed him with a "what have I done?!" attitude, at the end of the tale, and I just know it's going to end in catastrophe. I just don't know what form that catastrophe is going to take.

I also read the latest Neil Gaiman book; a short story really, a fairytale that seems very familiar but challenges what you think you know in a way that, as is Gaiman's way, made me conclude: "Of course! Why did I never realise this before?" It is a gorgeous telling, and a gorgeous book, illustrated by Chris Riddell in black and gold ink.

Watching: Star Trek: Nemesis which will get a full review to complete the set. The end of an era, although I would agree with those fans who slot parody film Galaxy Quest after Star Trek Insurrection to keep the "Even-numbered films good, odd-numbered films not-so-good" pattern correct. It was not terrible, but it was a bittersweet end to the series.

I also watched Tangled on Netflix, which, now I'm nearing the end of my free trial, is working fine or mostly-fine for me now. I will keep testing it, and if it doesn't fail me again, will renew my membership. Netflix is not all I had hoped for - it does not have half of the films or shows I had wanted it for - but it is worthwhile for the things I'd like to see if not to own.

And I started season 2 of Heroes. I was glad to see that supervillain Sylar miraculously survived being skewered with a samurai sword, as he is a very entertaining (and, have I mentioned, disturbingly attractive?) antagonist. Not so pleased that Slimy Nathan Petrelli also survived, though his brother Peter is Missing Presumed Dead (in fact, he has forgotten his identity and fallen in with a bunch of thugs in County Cork.) Claire has started her new school with her own secret identity, but the cheerleaders are from the exact mould as those in her last school. And I realise how bored I am with the Evil Cheerleader character. Just one character, cut and pasted and reused in every single high school story ever. 

Knitting: a long blue cardigan for myself (with sparkles in the yarn) which is finished except for the buttons, and a secret project as part of a Christmas present. (ssshhh.)

Sleeping: whenever I can.

Eating: Too much chocolate. I have discovered the Thornton's Special Toffee bars which are so good - crunchy tiny bits of toffee, rather than the chewy sort.

Saving up for: a new phone. I don't really want one - I want my phone to be a phone, not a super-deluxe camera, or computer, or toaster - but after a hair-raising experience when trying to get to Oxford from London by a certain time while the main train line was closed, I've decided I need at least to be able to get onto travel websites on the go.

Also, though only potentially, an exciting holiday maybe next year. (That reminds me: need to renew my passport.)

Looking forward to: Having two days off, one after the other, on November 5th and 6th.

Walking: Last Sunday afternoon after blogging, while it was sunny, I went for a short walk past a nearby farm and back along the cycle track by the river. It's one of my favourite places to walk and think and daydream, and looked really lovely with the autumn leaves (before it rained, and they all turned mushy. Oh well.)

 This really wasn't a fly-by post at all, was it? Again.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Sunday Summary: Fly-by post 2.

Good afternoon! There is sunshine today, which I have missed. Even though summer has not been over for long, I was starting to feel as though the sun had gone into hibernation until spring. I'm tempted to go out for a walk this afternoon, to make the most of the good weather and take in the bright autumn colours.

This week I have been...


I Am Malala by 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.

I have also begun 11.22.63 by Stephen King, in which a teacher is sent back in time to try to stop the Kennedy assassination. This book has a new, perhaps unique, take on time-travel. In this universe, it seems that there is a proper timeline, an established chain of events, and time really doesn't want to be altered. Every time you go back to the past (down an invisible flight of stairs in the pantry of a diner) the timeline resets itself. Or does it...?


I finished season 1 of Heroes, which I had been buddy-watching "with" my sister. I won't write a full review of this, but will put some of my thoughts onto the page in bullet-point form.

  • Fun, entertaining, incredibly cheesy at times, but not the greatest mastery of storytelling in the world. It felt a bit first-drafty, with plot holes and continuity errors, and seemed a bit disorientated. All I knew going into this show was "save the cheerleader, save the world," but I'm still a bit unsure of how saving Claire actually helped with saving "the world" (read: New York City) and how much of trying to prevent the coming apocalypse actually helped to make it (almost) a self-fulfilling prophesy.
  • There were several characters with their own subplots, but the ones that interested me the most were Claire the indestructable cheerleader, the adorably geeky Hiro and his friend Ando, Peter Petrelli (although I loathed his family) and the psychotic super-villain Sylar (played by Zachary Quinto, the young Spock in the Star Trek reboot films), who could perhaps be argued to be a darker version of Peter. Peter absorbs other people's powers by standing near them. Sylar absorbs other people's powers by killing them horribly.
  • Sylar reminded me in some ways of Spike from Buffy, starting from the time when he paid a visit to the Bennet home and charmed the mother while waiting for the daughter to come home. Both have mommy issues, and both have a sinister dangerous charisma which is disturbingly attractive. 
  • A couple of characters had what I called "the Umbridge effect," which is to be so creepy and unpleasant they make the watching experience less fun. Claire's father, who Jenny and I christened Creepy Bennet, was one of these, morally ambiguous, doing terrible things for noble motives, but making my flesh crawl, and not in a good way. He does get some backstory and character development along the way, but I will keep up the nickname. Also, Peter Petrelli's politically ambitious brother Nathan, and their mother, were just plain slimy, contemptible. And there were a bunch of sinister corporations and mobsters whose stories just didn't interest me. Ultimately, sexy psychopathic supervillains are much more entertaining than slimy older guys in suits.

The verdict: Probably not something I'd re-watch over and over, but it sustained my interest enough to order the second season second-hand. (I intended to renew my Netflix subscription to watch the rest of the season, but the internet is a bit slow and unreliable on my computer and doesn't always like streaming videos.)


Judith asked me the other day if I was going to do NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) this year, to which I answered unequivocally "no." I haven't written any fiction for a while, or at least not stuck to anything. And a couple of days ago, I was feeling sad about this lack of productivity, and my brain said, "surely you can write something, just a drabble or a short story?" But it seems I can't do short stories. With short stories you really need to keep it simple, about one thing, one event, just a couple of characters. And the plot bunnies got breeding, and the basic idea expanded and spread, until I came up with something that might at least go some way towards the 50 000 word count required to complete NaNoWriMo. My only fear is that I have two weeks before November starts: what if I lose interest? I'm not too concerned about hitting the 50K mark, but I'd like to write something in November. (I also have an idea for a drabble slash "fanfiction*" about two of the supporting characters in a novel I wrote several years ago. Hardly enough for a novel, but something.)

Enjoying: Pumpkin spiced lattes. As well as Starbucks, which I don't tend to visit, one of our local coffee shops has this as a limited edition autumn flavour, and it is delicious, one of the things that had me actually looking forward to autumn, which I tend to dread a little.

*Can one write fanfiction about one's own unpublished writing? I'm not sure this drabble is "canon" but I want to explore the relationship between these two characters nonetheless.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Sunday Summary: Fly-by post

Hello all, hope you're well. I've been back at work this week and it's been ridiculous. Two weeks into October, we are well and truly into the Retail Christmas season. I'm working full time this month to cover various other people's shifts, and my days off aren't even the same every week. I've worked four days, have today off, and have another four days starting tomorrow. I'm physically tired from moving so many heavy books and boxes around, so today is pretty much a duvet day.

This week I have been:


Moving Pictures by Terry Pratchett. I'm still working through all the Discworld books I haven't read before, and hope to finish the series by the end of the year.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. This was my birthday present from Ellie, a moving and surprising story about the effects of an unconventional upbringing on a family. It was very different from what I had expected - another book following this year's trend of excellent books with bright yellow covers.

Girl In Translation by Jean Kwok: the story of a little girl and her mother who move from Hong Kong to America, to find life there very different from the life they had envisioned. A beautiful, often sad but ultimately hopeful story about the triumph of the human spirit over adversity. Kwok evokes well the confusion of being young in a strange culture, with an incomplete understanding of the language and culture.

Not reading:

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. I have to confess that went back to the library unfinished. I would like to read it at some point, but I've got so many newly-bought and birthday books to read, and I'd much rather get stuck into them.


Two more birthday presents arrived this week: books from bloggers Hanna and Charlotte. Charlotte sent me science fiction classic Flowers for Algernon, as well as a little Tolkien treasury full of poetry, art and ponderings about the Lord of the Rings. (This has found a home on my Lord of the Rings feature shelf - yes, I have a shelf of my bookcase devoted to Tolkien!) Meanwhile, Hanna sent me Stephen King's 11.22.63 which I, along with probably all of the UK Stephen King readers, keep writing the wrong way round, and which I have been wanting to read ever since it first came out. She also sent me The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making. How can a book with that title be anything but excellent? Thank you both so much, I'm thrilled by all of these books. My only problem is: which do I read first?


Heroes, season one, which I have been buddy-watching with my sister (even though she lives in London.) This never interested me when it was on TV - I couldn't be having with those superheroes. And then The Avengers happened, and I realised that those kinds of stories appealed to me after all. So far, Heroes is fairly familiar territory to anyone who watched X-Men or Agents of SHIELD, but with a greater focus on the effects of developing superpowers on ordinary people's ordinary lives. I'm only a few episodes in so far but I'm already getting attached to the characters. Hiro Nakamura is my favourite character so far - he is so unashamedly geeky! His excitement is so endearing.


Some friends had a tabletop gaming evening last night. The previous week, I was introduced to Netrunner, which was not very successful due to a poorly two-year-old refusing to go to sleep. Luckily young Sam was fast asleep last night, and we got through a game which I can't remember the name of, but was based on Lovecraft's writings. It is a collaborative game: players versus the monsters. The monsters won.


Not a lot, because the thunderstorm a few nights ago did something - I don't know what - to our wireless router. But since that's been fixed, I've been reading and watching Mark Oshiro reading Wyrd Sisters. With the introduction of Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and Magrat Garlick, the series becomes a very different thing. This is when it starts to get really good. 

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Sunday Summary: Book splurges and birthdays

Hello! Hope you are all well. I'm feeling a particular case of the Sunday-itis. After having a lovely week off work, I'm going back tomorrow, and it's going to be crazy. Retail Christmas will be well and truly underway by now, and I've got a whole load of extra hours for the dreaded rearranging of the shop, and then my colleagues squeezing in their autumn holidays one after another. So for October, I'm allowing myself to take a step back from the blog, and just use what time off I have just to rest and try to stay sane through a usually-difficult season. I still hope to write some Sunday Summary posts, even if they are in bullet point format.

But first: BOOKS! ALL THE BOOKS! On Wednesday I took a trip up to Coventry, a city I haven't been to since I was twelve, in order to visit the newly-opened Big Comfy Bookshop, whose progress I've been following on Twitter. With the rise of internet shopping, it was so encouraging to see a new bookshop business - if you google how to open a bookshop, the answer tends to be "don't bother." Of course, the Internet would say that...

The Big Comfy Bookshop was pretty empty when I went in there, but the owner, Michael, told me it had been crazy-busy at the weekend, and he was pleased to have the chance to fill up the shelves and price the stock. It seemed to be Fresher's week at Coventry university, and Michael later tweeted that he had had lots of students in the shop. It is a decent-sized shop in a new shopping village away from the city centre, with a great range of books. It also doubles as a coffee shop, with comfy sofas and good cake. My problem was narrowing my selections down to what would fit in my book bag. For myself, I chose two Stephen Kings: Needful Things, which I have a vague memory of my ex-boyfriend raving about years ago, and Cell. I also discovered three of the four Space Odyssey books by Arthur C. Clarke, which my dad has been reading, but which have not all been readily available in the shops. I have the first book, the second was bought new and the third came from the library. The Big Comfy Bookshop provided the fourth and final book in the series.

As it seemed silly to come all the way up to Coventry just to visit one shop, I got myself thoroughly lost in the city centre, but had a chance to look around the old cathedral, which was famously bombed during World War 2. I also ended up buying more books in Waterstone's (Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler, an author who has been brought to my attention by Alley's rave reviews) and Oxfam (Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life In Space by Mary Roach, and Gravity by Tess Gerritson, which I know was reviewed by someone fairly recently, but I can't remember who. Sorry. Ellie?)

You'd think that might be enough books to be going on with, but my birthday happened yesterday, and it seems my mum has been cunningly intercepting the postman a lot this week. I had a stack of parcels from my lovely lovely blogger friends, and notice of some more to come. THANK YOU WONDERFUL PEOPLE! That was such a wonderful surprise!

So: the presents. From my parents:

Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Iron Man 3 DVDs, to add to my Marvel collection, and the William Shakespeare's Star Wars books: The original Star Wars trilogy rewritten in Shakespearean language and iambic pentameter. Right up my nerdy street.

From my sister:

A Spock figurine, a set of Lord of the Rings collectable Pez dispensers, a Lego Batman film, and the third season of Sherlock.

From Ellie:

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, which she says she is also reading along with Hanna, and some delicious Thornton's chocolates. (I fear these will not last long.)

From Laura:

This is in fact the coolest birthday card ever as the cakes on it are made of fuzzy-felt, and you can rearrange them if you like. Also Kate Atkinson's Life After Life which I've been wanting to read for ages. Thank you Laura!

From Bex:

My fellow Swallows and Amazons-fan bought me this biography of the series' author, who led a very interesting life indeed when he wasn't writing innocent stories of children camping and sailing and playing at being pirates and explorers. When I went to the Lake District in August I looked for this book in every bookshop I went into, but even though Ransome is so strongly associated with the area, I couldn't find it anywhere. Hurrah for Bex!

From my other friends:

Judith bought me the red polka-dot handbag, which as you can see is a good size to keep a few books in. I always say a bag not big enough for books is no more than a purse (and not a lot of use.) She also gave me some chocolates, a pair or red earrings (not pictured) the gorgeous colourful cushion and Adventures with the Wife in Space, the account of a man who decides to introduce his wife to the other love of his life - Doctor Who, working through the entire classic series, episode by episode. My friend Sharon bought me a Tardis mug - which will go very nicely with my Tardis biscuit jar, and I got some interesting bath stuff from Sam and her twin daughters, Alice and Evie who are four.

It was a quiet sort of birthday, but my sister had come back from London to see me, Sam and the twins came over in the morning, which was a lovely surprise. I don't get to see a lot of them due to work - if I've got the day off, she tends to be working, and vice versa. We put on the Lego Batman film to keep them entertained, (and very entertaining it was, too. Batman and Superman team up and spend the whole time bickering, as do Lex Luthor and the Joker. If the forthcoming Batman vs Superman film is not as bickery as the the Lego versions, I will be very disappointed.) The girls are big fans of Scooby-Doo, and thanks to a Scooby-Doo/Batman crossover, they could name more of the villains than I could. They are learning young.

Last Christmas, I bought Alice and Evie a selection of picture books and Neil Gaiman's Fortunately The Milk. I hadn't heard how the twins got on with the latter book, but I was very pleased when Sam told me yesterday that they took it to school (they have just started "big school") and made their teacher read it to the class for story-time. Success!

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Top Ten Tuesday: Books that were hard to read

Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted by The Broke and the Bookish
I haven't written one of these posts for a while, but this week's topic got me thinking. Not all of the titles listed below were books I hated - although some were - others were ultimately rewarding but hard work. In no particular order:

 1. Horns - Joe Hill. The main character wakes up one morning with horns on his head, and the ability to hear people's deepest, darkest secrets. And most of these are horrific. It is exhausting spending time with seemingly decent people only to find they are so foul underneath.

2. Les Miserables - Victor Hugo. Good story, (great music) and it really gives a lot more understanding to the musical adaptation - but could do with a ruthless editor. I'm not entirely sure we needed fifteen pages about the sewage systems of Paris, and that's one of the shorter digressions from the plot.

3. A Clash of Kings - George R. R. Martin. This was the point at which I was sorely tempted to give up on the Song of Ice and Fire series. I grew heartsick with the violence, the sexism, the awful worldviews of the majority of Westeros. I'm glad I stuck with it, but it's heavy-going at times.


4. 1Q84 - Haruki Murakami. Not my first Murakami novel, but the first I read full of his trademark surrealism. It's in three volumes, and is patchy in quality: fascinating world-building, but I was not convinced by the "love story" or the characters.

5. The Children's Book - A. S. Byatt. The only book I put down unfinished this year (so far.) The Children's Book follows a rather bohemian family at the turn of the last century doing... stuff. It was enjoyable enough, the characters were okay, but a hundred or so pages in, I couldn't figure out what the plot was going to be. The book got ruined on my camping trip in August; I still have it, it is still readable, though not in any condition to pass onto anyone else, so no doubt I'll pick it up eventually just to prevent it from feeling unloved. But I'm not in any hurry.

6. The Bitterbynde Trilogy - Cecelia Dart-Thornton. This is a pre-blogging favourite - as I said before, a book being hard work is not necessarily a bad thing. These books are rich in mythology, but also in purple prose - why use one word when a paragraph will do? I haven't reread them in a while. Life is short and there are so many books. But I still hold a fond place in my heart for The Ill-Made Mute, The Lady of the Sorrows and The Battle of Evernight. 

(Actually, just seeing the covers again makes me want to reread this series right now.)

7. Post Office - Charles Bukowski. One of the first books I had to read for my university course, Post Office was short, and I made myself read it in one go, knowing that if I put it down I would not want to pick it up again. I loathed it with a fiery passion, although I believe I was an anomaly in this. I was disgusted by the main character, could not get past certain decisions he made early in the book, and these feelings overshadowed any humour I might have found in the book. You may notice I haven't posted the cover for this one. I won't have that on my blog or my computer.

8. Rilla of Ingleside - L. M. Montgomery. From one extreme to another: Rilla is one of my favourite books, but only to be read when I am feeling emotionally strong. The first time I read it as an adult I sat up all night crying over it, not only a certain beloved character's death, but that the idea that the timeless, innocent world of Anne of Green Gables should be irrevocably changed by the First World War.

9. The Call of Cthulhu  - H. P. Lovecraft. One of the pioneers of a certain kind of horror fiction, but he writes for the most parts by hints and glimpses, and creating a spooky atmosphere. The prose is full of "indescribable horrors" - you're a writer, man, describe it! 

10. Moby-Dick - Herman Melville. Another candidate for "did not finish." I've read about fifteen chapters, and okay, it is not as impossible to read as I'd expected, even with some unexpected humour, but I'm not sure life is long enough to read another 135 or so chapters of a man chasing a whale, even if it does help me understand the references that seem to be popping up in every film and TV show I watch. I know what happens. Man chases whale past all sanity, resulting in his own destruction.

Monday, 29 September 2014

Star Trek: Insurrection (IX)

An undercover surveillance mission on a quiet planet of peaceful people, the Baku, goes wrong when Lieutenant Commander Data malfunctions and starts attacking the people around him. Captain Picard is faced with a dilemma: this is a dangerous example of technology going horribly wrong, but though Data may be a machine, he is a good friend and a trusted crew member. How can the captain allow his destruction? This could have been a major cause of conflict throughout the film, but in actual fact, all it takes is an epic rendition of Gilbert and Sullivan's "An English Tar" from the Captain and a reluctant Worf, to jog Data's memory and restore him back to his old self (with a bit of help from Chief Engineer Geordi LaForge.)

When Picard and Data return to the planet to make amends, they uncover a suspicious plan masterminded by the Federation Council itself, to move the Baku off their home planet and onto another one without their noticing, thanks to my least-favourite addition to the Next Generation Trek-verse, the Holodeck technology. This discovery calls into question the Federation's very soul, a systematic violation of the Prime Directive of non-interference of a culture's natural development. Insurrection adjusts this law to refer only to those planets who have not yet discovered warp-speed travel. The Baku have invented this technology, although they shun it, so apparently they are fair game. It seems a somewhat arbitrary place to draw the line, although we discovered in First Contact that this was the point where everything changed for the human race, when the Vulcans decided it was okay to say hello and introduce them to the wider universe.

This planet has some interesting properties in its atmosphere, restoring youth and extending life - which is why the Federation wants it. After all, there is a case to be made for the fact that it has the potential to help millions and billions of people, instead of just the few hundred who live there. "The needs of the many," and all that. But Picard and the Enterprise crew determine to defend the Baku against forced relocation. Data befriends a little boy on the planet, and learns from him a little more about what it is to be human. Picard finds a girlfriend, and Deanna Troi and Will Riker rediscover the romance that has been hinted at right from the start of the first season - but lose Riker's beard. Riker's beard, has been popularly linked with The Next Generation getting good, and so to have him shave it off - and in an odd-numbered Star Trek movie - could be viewed as a very risky move. Insurrection is not a terrible Star Trek film. It hasn't got the cringe-factor of The Final Frontier (V) nor will I deny its place in Trek canon, as I do Generations, but neither is it ever going to reach classic status with The Wrath of Khan, the one with the whales, or First Contact. It is a solidly OK film, but overall just feels like an average episode on a grander scale.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

The Coldest Girl In Coldtown - Holly Black (RIP IX book 2)

People liked pretty things. People even liked pretty things that wanted to kill and eat them.
Vampires have always existed, but until recently they took great measures to keep their existence a secret. That all changed a few years ago, when a vampire named Caspar Morales got carried away, creating many more. The epidemic spread out of control, and now the vampires of the USA, and anyone infected by them, are imprisoned in Coldtowns, where they party and feast all night long. These parties form the basis of the most popular reality TV shows, are there is a significant proportion of the population who longs to join them, attracted by the glamour and the danger and the romance of being forever young.

Seventeen-year-old Tana is not one of them. She's seen the other side: when she was very young her mother was attacked by a vampire, and infected. In this world, one does not automatically become a vampire until one drinks human blood, but before you can return to your human life, you have to endure the Cold - up to eighty-eight days of desperate cravings as the infection sets in. Not many people make it through.

When Tana wakes up to find herself one of only three survivors of a vampire attack on the party she'd been at - the other two being Gavriel, an ancient vampire and her infected ex-boyfriend Aidan - she heads down with them to the nearest Coldtown, where she finds herself caught up in a strange world of death-seeking misfits, vampire politics and her own nature. Gavriel is an enigma, an oddly charming but deadly vampire with a Past. Can she trust him? Can she even trust herself?

I was impressed with Holly Black's world-building for The Coldest Girl In Coldtown, bringing a renewed sense of danger and glamour to vampire fiction. There was a classic, pre-Twilight feel to this book, of beauty and horror, and I was not at all surprised to see Anne Rice cited as one of Black's influences in the acknowledgements. The crowds of uninfected humans who made their way to Coldtown, particularly the twins known as Winter and Midnight, repulsed me in their sick fascination for the vampire lifestyle, giving up what it was to be human to be part of the undead fame game - for the gate into Coldtown is, with few exceptions, one way only. Yet they were entirely believable too, liveblogging and videoing every experience, and everyone convinced that they were safe, they were immune, that danger and death were things that happened only to other people. This is vampire fiction for the social media generation.

I read The Coldest Girl In Coldtown as part of Readers Imbibing Peril IX.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Star Trek: First Contact (VIII)

The first Next Generation film that wasn't Generations, Star Trek: First Contact takes place as a far-distant sequel to the two-parter episode "The Best of Both Worlds," which took place over two seasons and was cut in half by a whopper of a cliffhanger, when Captain Jean-Luc Picard introduced himself as "Locutus of Borg." Six years later, he still experiences traumatic flashbacks to his time spent as part of a hive-minded killing machine. When the Borg show up to threaten the earth, Starfleet expressly forbid the Enterprise to come to help in the battle, but, defying orders, the crew are forced to travel back in time to prevent the entire world's population from being assimilated, and to ensure that two pivotal events in Earth's space-travel history take place: the first warp-speed space flight, and first contact with extra-terrestrial life forms.

First Contact makes an interesting use of time travel: as discussed in John Scalzi's Redshirts, normally shows like Star Trek will travel either to a significant historical date, or to sometime around the show's own air date. Here, the Enterprise goes back but to a date in our future: 2063, a dark period around the time of the Third World War. Of course, out of this darkness, a bright future dawns.

I left reviewing this film far too long, and had to re-watch it before writing up this post. As such, I'd forgotten how much happened in a relatively short time (and how little happened in its predecessor, Generations. Nothing happened in Generations, because that would imply that it existed, which I'm unwilling to acknowledge.) There are two main stories in this film. Picard's fight against the terrifying Borg, who have assimilated half of the Enterprise's crew (the most casualties so far?) and captured Data. The usually calm, moral and, well, Patrick Stewartish Captain Picard is driven half-mad with his desire for revenge. "The line must be drawn here! This far - no further! AND I WILL MAKE THEM PAY FOR WHAT THEY HAVE DONE!" We know he has gone too far when he accuses the Klingon warrior Worf of being a coward! Picard is kept from going completely overboard by Lily, the 21st-century Earth woman caught up in the battle, who compares him with Captain Ahab of Moby-Dick. First Contact is not the first Star Trek film to draw on this novel: Khan, too, imitated Ahab in his all-consuming pursuit of Captain Kirk and the first Enterprise. 

Meanwhile, on 21st century Earth, Geordi LaForge, Will Riker and Deanna Troi meet up with the man who would become the legend Zefram Cochrane, inventor of warp-speed space travel. He is perhaps not the man they had expected: most uncomfortable with the thought of being believed a hero, being in reality motivated by cold hard money. But Riker tells him, "Don't try to be a great man. Just be a man, and let history make its own judgements." Riker then reveals, this is a quote from the future Cochrane himself. This whole plot is as heartwarming as the Borg story is disturbing: the not-too-distant-future setting bridging the gap between the world as we know it, and the Star Trek universe. Certainly it reawakened the long-forgotten longing of a little girl in the early- to mid-'90s, lying on her bedroom floor poring over her space encyclopedia and dreaming of visiting distant planets. The score is a quiet, haunting theme that not only reminds me of the BBC's Chronicles of Narnia music, but evokes the exact same wistful feelings. And the first contact itself! The aliens push back their hoods, and are, of course, Vulcans, making their traditional greeting. When Cochrane can't replicate the salute, he takes the Vulcan's hand, and it is beautiful: the very, very beginning of the alliance between these two races, an alliance that would expand to include so many more.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Mini Reviews: Terra, The Miniaturist, That's Not A Feeling

Terra: Mitch Benn

On a routine expedition to Rrth, Llbp discovers what seems to be an abandoned, unloved child, so he does what any decent being would do: takes her home to his own planet and raises her as his own daughter. Terra grows up knowing that she is an alien, but is accepted by her peers. But when she starts school, she has to confront the differences between herself and the people of Fnrr, as well as their similarities.

I found Terra to be a really lovely science fiction novel, easy to read (once you get used to all the names that look like keysmashes) and refreshingly optimistic for the genre. If the story's conflicts were a little too easily resolved, that is a small criticism. 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.

Shelve next to: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Key Quotes:
"I guess I'm just wondering if everybody hates the G'grk because they're so angry and violent, or whether they're so angry and violent because everybody hates them."
"There's no point knowing something if you don't know WHY you know it."
"A bad scientist tries to prove himself right. A good scientist tries to prove himself wrong, and only when he fails does he conclude he's right."
"The cleverest of the scientists and astronomers admitted - privately at least - that any really intelligent life would be smart enough never to allow its presence to be detected by the human race. It wouldn't have cheered these scientists and astronomers up one bit to now that they were right."

The Miniaturist: Jessie Burton

Amsterdam, 1686. Nella Oortman arrives at her new husband's house to find a frosty welcome. Her sister-in-law and servants seem to have made up their mind to dislike her, while her husband Johannes wants nothing to do with her. On one of his rare attentive occasions, Johannes buys Nella a lavish wedding gift of a doll's house cabinet, and when Nella decides to furnish it, the miniaturist sends unsolicited and disturbing additions: items and characters which show too much knowledge of Nella's family, home - and future.

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. Set against the backdrop of the sugar trade, The Miniaturist takes the part of those who do not conform to the expectations of an oppressive society, that even the privileged classes find their own prisons. The cabinet plot is eerie and full of foreboding; there is a sense of a fate neither escapable nor quite understandable until it is too late. I grew emotionally invested in the family and ached for a happy ending, but tragedy is a foregone conclusion from the very first chapter. An extraordinary debut (and a beautiful cover.)

Shelve next to: The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

Key Quotes:
"It is not a man she has married, but a world."
"Growing older, Nella realises, does not seem to make you more certain. It simply presents you with more reasons for doubt."
"Everything about this cabinet was indeed distracting. So much happened while I was looking the other way. I was sure I'd been standing still, yet look how far I've come."

That's Not A Feeling: Dan Josefson

That's Not A Feeling shows a year in the life of Roaring Orchards School for Troubled Teens, seen through the eyes of newcomer Benjamin, who was abandoned there by his parents after attempting suicide. The novel has an air of surreality from the start, which could perhaps be attributable to Benjamin's fragile mental state. I have read other books that gave me the same distorted view of the world, but at no point could I actually believe in Roaring Orchards. The creation of a man with unique ideas about the treatment of "troubled" children, there was a troubling lack of distinction about whether it should be viewed as a psychiatric institution or a reform school. There was a regular administering of medication, but no medical staff unless you count the school nurse and counsellor, mentioned only in passing. The school's regime is full of ridiculous jargon, useless and sometimes abusive therapies, staff with no idea of boundaries, and, as the title suggests, the students/patients/inmates are never listened to, only told what the staff want to hear. That's Not A Feeling reads as a parody of alternative therapies, or teaching, or reform schools, but the lack of depth or understanding of the mental health issues touched upon meant that I could not fully engage with the text. Disappointing.

Key Quotes:
"Seeing us as objects of fun let the faculty imagine we were somehow protected, I thin, as comic figures are able to survive all kinds of harm."
"I didn't like the feeling of separating myself in two: the Benjamin who was doing the thinking and the Benjamin that was being thought about."

Friday, 5 September 2014

The Cuckoo's Calling and The Silkworm - "Robert Galbraith" (RIP IX book 1)

Earlier this week, a girl came up to me in the shop holding a copy of The Silkworm and asked "whether we had any more books by this author." I resisted the urge to take her to the children's section to show her the shiny new editions of the Harry Potter series, and explained to her the author's real identity, marvelling at how she had managed to miss this news.

The Silkworm is the sequel to J. K. Rowling's first crime novel under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith. The Cuckoo's Calling introduced down-on-his-luck Cormoran Strike, an ex-army detective now working as a private investigator, a large man with a prosthetic leg, a brilliant memory and an address book full of useful friends-and-relations, all of whom seem to have a different nickname for him. He is joined by Robin, a young temp worker who finds herself unexpectedly assigned a job as a secretary and general admin assistant. Robin has a keen mind, a great initiative and has always had a private dream of working as a private detective herself, and it is not long before she is well-established as Strike's crime-solving partner.

The Cuckoo's Calling is a tale of murder and intrigue, when the apparent suicide of a troubled young model reveals that all is not as it seems. We know from Harry Potter that J. K. Rowling is a master storyteller, strewing valuable clues throughout her books, but which come together only at the very end as she weaves in every detail of every subplot together to make a perfect plot. As such crime fiction is the logical genre for her to move to. The Cuckoo's Calling was an accomplished first crime novel, and The Silkworm surpasses it. The sequel shows Strike and Robin investigating the disappearance of a controversial novelist who has angered most of his acquaintances by loosely-disguised portraits of them in his latest manuscript. And when his body turns up things turn very interesting indeed - for he has been murdered in a manner taken straight from the pages of his unpublished novel.

The Silkworm is an intelligent literary novel as well as a page-turning thriller, full of references to Jacobean revenge tragedies, quotes of which form the epigraphs for each chapter. 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. The Silkworm was an incredibly satisfying read: "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. I can't wait to see what else J. K. Rowling and "Robert Galbraith" have in store for Strike and Robin, and I hope to read many more novels in this series.

I read The Silkworm as part of
the Readers Imbibing Peril challenge.

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