Tuesday 31 December 2013

Goodbye 2013

So here we are, at the end of another year. I hope you've all had a very merry Christmas. Mine was very short, as I was working on Christmas Eve, then was back in Boxing day through to the end of Saturday 28th, but I'm having part two of my Christmas break now. I'm feeling utterly exhausted - somehow it feels doubly tiring working when you know you should be on holiday than on a normal week - and Christmas feels like a distant memory, but I'll show off my bookish Christmas presents nonetheless.

From my Secret Santa at work: 

I love these "sprouting" bookmarks, they are adorable! And I think that the book holder could prove very useful for keeping my page open when I read while eating my lunch.

From my sister:

Dedicated To... compiled by W. B. Gooderham. This book is a collection of inscriptions found written in the front of second-hand books. I love second-hand books with writing in them; they are a little piece of history, and each one tells a story.

From Ellie:

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell. I could not resist this book, but as it was not yet published in the UK, Ellie sent it to me as a lovely surprise. I read this book on Christmas day and Boxing day, and it's absolutely wonderful: the story of a shy, nerdy girl in her first year at university, juggling the real world with fanfiction-writing in the run-up to the release of the final book in her favourite series. Wonderfully identifiable - a proper review is coming soon.

From my parents: 

Doctor Who: The Vault. Treasures from the first 50 years. I haven't really looked at this book yet, but it's a gorgeous, massive collector's book for any fan of the show, going through the series year by year, Doctor by Doctor.

Other books: 

A Steroid Hit the Earth was a present from my friend Sharon, while F in Retakes was a stocking present from my parents. Both are hilarious books full of hilarious errors, one in published material (especially newsletters) and the other from exams. Good for a giggle

From my friend Hannah:

I haven't seen much of Hannah the last year or so. She's one of my best friends from university, now married to Paul, one of our former housemates, and she, like me, works in retail. She sent me this wonderful personal library kit, so that I can keep track of who I've lent books to, and (in theory) they will remember to return them to me. (Also, I always wanted to use one of those library stamps.)

I also got some book vouchers, which I will save up to have a big splurge in the new year (once I've got my to-read pile down a bit.) All in all, a good year for bookish presents. I am very satisfied.

Top Ten books of 2013

  1. Redshirts - John Scalzi. I read this just as I was discovering Star Trek, which was perfect timing. Hilarious, fourth-wall-vaporising, embarrass-yourself-laughing parody of science fiction TV in general and original series Trek in particular.
  2. Tell the Wolves I'm Home - Carol Rifka Brunt. A heartfelt story of growing up, love, loss, family and art. 
  3. The Universe Versus Alex Woods - Gavin Extence. Thought-provoking, encouraging, funny and sad in equal measures, a wonderful, lovable character and a beautiful friendship between a teenage boy and an elderly curmudgeon.
  4. Ready Player One - Ernest Cline. A treasure-hunt set within the world of a computer game, packed full of nerdy references, a real edge-of-the-seat adventure.
  5. The Ocean at the End of the Lane - Neil Gaiman. The first adult novel from Gaiman in eight years, I finished reading the book the same day it was released, and went right back to the beginning to start again. A thoughtful, magical novel about childhood, family and identity, the power of memory and surviving in a messy world.
  6. The Casual Vacancy - J. K. Rowling. Rowling leaves Hogwarts far behind her in her first novel for adults. The Casual Vacancy is a grim read, dark and furious, Dickensian in her passion for social justice. Not a pleasant book, but a very important one.
  7. The Fictional Man - Al Ewing. All about storytelling and humanity, fiction and reality, and where to draw the line. Engrossing and hilarious, another book to be read in public at your own peril.
  8. The Rose Petal Beach - Dorothy Koomson. Koomson's novels, though definitely very feminine, belay their pastel-coloured covers. The Rose Petal Beach was a thriller to be compared with Gone Girl. I got far more emotionally invested than I was prepared for.
  9. Watchmen - Alan Moore. This graphic novel is a deconstruction of the superhero genre, dark but fascinating for its worldbuilding and storytelling. 
  10. After the Fall - Charity Norman. A story "of families and secrets, and the futility of running from the past," the author kept me on my toes, surprising me and avoiding the trap of predictability. I read it with suspicion, but Ms Norman got past the emotional barriers I'd put up, with unforeseen, devastating plot twists.
Other new story worlds discovered:
  • Dollhouse. Was it really only this year that I discovered this? Joss Whedon's science-fiction series about an illegal organising dealing in programmable people started off engaging me intellectually rather than emotionally, but by the end of series 2, I was shouting at the TV in almost every episode. 
  • Les Miserables. The book, the film and the music took over part of my brain at the beginning of the year. I saw the film twice, once before and once after reading the book. Far from being the best novel ever written (and in serious need of a good editor), nonetheless Les Miserables is a massive epic of humanity (and one you can really hum!)
  • Star Trek. This year I became a most reluctant Trekkie (I considered Dungeons and Dragons and Star Trek the point of no return when it came to nerdiness.) I watched the reboot movies, and the characters and the possibilities grabbed my attention and sent me right back to the original. Oops.

Other highlights of 2013
  • Obviously, the top of the list was meeting my favourite messy-haired fantasy author, Neil Gaiman, when he came to Portsmouth this summer. It was a pretty much perfect day, starting with Neil walking right past me as soon as I got off the hovercraft in Southsea, continued by meeting one of my blog and twitter friends in person, quite by chance, and then having my hat complimented by Neil himself! 
  • Meeting Ellie and buying up half her bookshop, when on holiday in the Peak District this year. It is a fine bookshop, and I'm sad that she's selling it, but happy for her that she's escaping the crazy customers and hectic six-day working weeks. Next time I'm up north, perhaps we can invade other bookshops together!
  • The Peak District holiday in general: exploring caves, getting lost, falling over in the Chatsworth cascade waterfall-staircase, long walks with gorgeous scenery, and imagining myself to be in The Lord of the Rings. And more ice creams than I care to admit to.

  • The Isle of Wight Festival: I spent a relaxing day at Seaview path, sitting on the grass and listening to music, culminating in Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer," and then, the crowd moving en masse towards the Big Top, all chanting "one way, or another, I'm gonna find ya, I'm gonna getcha getcha getcha getcha..." like a pack of zombies. 
  • Snow! Yes, the winter went on far, far too long this year, but the first snow day was good fun.
  • Visiting my friend Anna in Cardiff! It was good to catch up with her in her own environment, and I always enjoy visiting new cities. This trip included a visit to the Doctor Who Experience, free "milkshakes" (ahem) at TGI Friday's when the waitress got our orders wrong, and sampling as many different food places as I could. (Highlight had to be the crepe shop's "I'll have what she's having" crepe with strawberries, chocolate and cream.)

  • Barbecues on the beach. We didn't have a spring this year, but summer made up for the last few years of wash-outs, and I spent much of June, July and August in the sea and eating sausages and burgers on the rocky beach at Gurnard.

So, that was my 2013. How was yours?

Happy new year to you all, and best wishes for 2014.

Tuesday 24 December 2013

Perdido Street Station - China Mieville

May contain spoilers

I'd been intending to read China Miéville's Perdido Street Station for so long that I've completely forgotten who recommended it to me in the first place. At over 860 pages, it's rather an intimidating tome, but when I found a second copy in a charity shop to give to my friend, we decided to make a book club of it. I enjoyed Miéville's shorter novel, The City and the City when I read it earlier this year, which was a gritty police procedural set in an alternative but not quite fantastical universe. Judith had read some of his more science-fiction books. Perdido Street Station is epic fantasy, but as you've never seen it before. There are no wizards or elves to be found in the city-state of New Crobuzon, nor is it interchangeable with medieval England or Europe. New Crobuzon is a steampunk or clockpunk ciry, grim and grubby, a melting pot of communities. Alongside the human residents live the khepri (insect-people), cactus-people, vodyanoi (water-dwellers) and a few garuda (bird-folk.) Gangs of criminals and drug-dealers run New Crobuzon's underworld, while the government is ruthless. Horrifying tortures for punishments fitting the crime mean that the city is also filled with "Remade" mutants. New Crobuzon is not a pleasant place to live. 

Our heroes are Isaac and Lin, an inter-species couple - quite the taboo, though they mingle in more open-minded and bohemian circles. Isaac is a scientist (with a bit of what is never called magic thrown into the mix) while Lin, a khepri, is an artist. Both are commissioned with secret projects, and the opening part of the book kept me hooked.I was intrigued to see how the characters would rise to these seemingly impossible challenges. Though not science fiction, Perdido Street Station still came across as very scientific fantasy. As a science dunce, I found the pseudoscientific explanations and mathematical finale almost, if not quite, made sense to me. I would have loved to have kept on reading these storylines, but it was not to be. As part of Isaac's studies, he inadvertantly raises a giant killer moth from a caterpillar, and the story turns into a massive monster-hunt as he and his friends try to track down and destroy these insect-dementors with hypnotic powers that have been set loose on the city. Some of the creatures enlisted in the fight against the slake-moths are fascinating, while others are grotesque. The Weaver is a sort of giant spider-creature, who acts not out of morality but to manipulate the universe into patterns only it can see. Then, of course, there is the sentient hoover, which turns out to be part of a giant machine seeking omnipotence. But overall, I found the moth-battle far less interesting than the "commissions" plot in the first few parts. 

After a couple of hundred verbose and action-packed but overwhelming pages, I found Perdido Street Station became much more readable once we were reintroduced to a character who had been believed to be killed off earlier on. Even though I didn't think I favoured one character over another, it seemed that this person provided an emotional core to the story, something that kept me involved in the story, and their absence made me feel like a spectator rather than in the midst of the action.

Perdido Street Station came to a bittersweet ending and ultimately revealed some of the more interesting plotlines to be shaggy-dog stories. I felt quite betrayed by a character who I'd felt the most curiosity and sympathy towards throughout the novel, but who in the end I could not forgive. It's not an altogether satisfying finale, but it was never going to have a neat little happy-ever-after. Some of my reading suggests that Miéville prefers a story to pan out more like messy real life than into a tidy narrative shape. I think the ending suited the tone of the novel, even if I did find it frustrating. I went from loving the novel to struggling with it, but in the end Miéville left me wanting to know more. Overall, I'd say that is a successful outcome.

Saturday 21 December 2013

End of Year Reading Cram Days 13 and 14


Phew, it's almost over. I was most unimpressed when I realised that the last Saturday before Christmas was going to be filthy wet and stormy, and gloomily predicted that town would not only be very busy, but that everyone was going to be miserable as well as stressed. It was not as bad as it could have been; only had one tantrum from a child and one supercilious disgrace to the human race among the many customers I dealt with. Though I came very close to losing my temper with the latter, overall I think my general demeanor was friendly, if not jolly.

If I'd attempted jolly, I would no doubt have scared everyone off.
Hm. Maybe an idea for next year!
But I think the worst is behind me now. Apart from an afternoon shift on Christmas Eve, that's me done until Boxing Day, so I'm counting Christmas as starting from now. I really should get some presents wrapped this evening or I will find myself having to do them all on Christmas Eve. Again.

I didn't get a lot of reading done at lunch time as I was chatting with colleagues in the staffroom, but they left halfway through my break and I got through a few pages of Perdido Street Station. A plotline I thought had unceremoniously cut short has been picked up once more, and with it, so has my interest. The story has refocused on the characters, their actions and reactions, which I found far more readable than giant moths loose in the city. 

I don't expect to get much reading done tomorrow as I'll be spending the afternoon with my friend Sam and her twin daughters, before going on to a Carols By Candlelight service in the evening. I'd like to reread The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe before Christmas, or just after, and I also hope to read the other Christmas story in my A Christmas Carol paperback. I've had this book since 1996, according to the nameplate in the front (it was a Girls Brigade award when I was 11) but I don't think I've ever actually read "The Cricket on the Hearth." Maybe this year I'll put that right!

Fangirl, my Christmas present from Ellie is planned for Christmas afternoon, when presents are opened, dinner is eaten and I'm feeling stuffed and sleepy. N0S4R2 and Mr Penumbra are also high on the to-read pile, and I really ought to read my friend's Mindstar Rising before I see him again for New Year.

Saturday Stats

What I've read today: Perdido Street Station
Number of pages read today: 61
Running total: 1362 pages
Books finished: Four: The Explorer Gene by Tom Cheshire
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Perdido Street Station by China Mieville
Number of mince pies consumed during readathon: 13
My life outside books: Tentatively hoping the worst is over.

Sunday night:

Not a lot of reading time today, as predicted, but I managed to squeeze in that short Dickens story, "The Cricket on the Hearth" in between carol singing, visiting and present-wrapping. "The Cricket" is a lovely little story, a definite fireside read about a middle-aged man and his young wife, who, due to half-discovered secrets and low self-esteem, fears that he's lost his wife's love. Though less than 100 pages long, the first part of "The Cricket" establishes a very happy family, and even if John Peerybingle suspects his wife's faithfulness, I don't think there's any doubt on the reader's behalf. We can rest comfortable that it's all a misunderstanding, and wait for the truth to emerge in the third act. Despite Dickens' (well-earned) reputation for being a long-winded novelist, his shorter works prove that he can be concise when he chooses, painting vivid pictures with just a few well-chosen sentences. I really had no excuse for taking seventeen years to read this lovely story.

This afternoon, I visited my friend Sam at her parents' house, where she was staying for the weekend with her twin daughters, Alice and Evelyn. The girls are three years old and every time I see them they've grown up so much. Today, they were dancing around the living room singing "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" and "Jingle Bells" as well as a song about a sheep from their nursery school's nativity play. Their granny very proudly informed me that Evie had been the best singer in the play. Judith joined us a bit later, with a very well-chosen Christmas present: a marble run. I think we had just as much constructing the set as the girls did rolling the marbles down the obstacle course, and Sam and her Mum were just glad the twins could keep themselves entertained for a while. 

In the evening, I went with my family to a Carols by Candlelight service, so I am now feeling that Christmas has arrived. Every year I forget that Christmas carols can be quite a challenge to sing, especially if I've had to walk to the church in the cold air, but I'm always disappointed if I don't get to sing my old favourites. After the carol service, I came home to finish wrapping my presents - two days earlier than usual! Go me! - poured myself a generous helping of Baileys, and have settled down with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. 

What I've read today: The Cricket on the Hearth,
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
Number of pages read today: 142
Running total: 1504 pages
Books finished: Five: The Explorer Gene by Tom Cheshire
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Perdido Street Station by China Mieville
The Cricket on the Hearth by Charles Dickens
Number of mince pies consumed during readathon: 15 and a piece of a big one.
My life outside books: Honorary Aunt duties and carol singing. Feeling festive. Hurrah!

Friday 20 December 2013

End of Year Reading Cram: Days 10-12

What a week! Of course, with a week to go before Christmas, the shops are getting busier and during peak hours all I've been able to do is stay within a few feet of the counter and serve a steady stream of customers. Most people are full of Christmas cheer, if somewhat distracted, but  I've been coming home each evening feeling shattered and somewhat grumpy. This readathon has been a good distraction for me.

Wednesday evening was pretty miserable outdoors; wind and rain raging outside, so I disappeared into A Christmas Carol in a cosy armchair in front of the fire. Even though I've read the book dozens of times, and seen many adaptations over the years, to my shame I could not fight off the tears when the Ghost Of Christmas Yet To Come shows the Cratchit family facing their grief over Tiny Tim with love and courage. That gets me every time.

I think everyone is very familiar with A Christmas Carol, but this year it felt more relevant than just a cosy classic. With foodbank usage increasing tenfold on the Isle of Wight in the past two years, Scrooge comes across as the callous monster Dickens intended, rather than a mere grump. I think his "Bah, humbug" is misinterpreted a lot of the time; after all, you can buy black Santa hats with the phrase embroidered on the front. But Dickens does not condemn Scrooge for disliking magic and sparkle. Christmas, Dickens argues, is a time to stop with the navel-gazing and to remember what is important; to think of oneself as part of the larger community, the human race. Scrooge's sin is his flat refusal to do that.

Thursday and today I've been reading through Perdido Street Station, and hope to get to the end today. Although I have really enjoyed Mieville's world-building in New Crobuzon, the grimy, steampunky city full of strange creatures, I'm finding the main plot - the battle with the terrifying giant slake-moths - less interesting than that which was promised in the first half. The storylines which interested me more seem to have petered out or come to an abrupt and unsatisfying end about halfway through, and the novel has become quite slow and very verbose. I like to think I have a very good vocabulary, but Mieville's long words and complicated descriptions often leave me feeling quite overwhelmed and longing for a dictionary.

Wednesday Stats

What I've read today: A Christmas Carol
Number of pages read today: 82
Running total: 1117 pages
Books finished: Three: The Explorer Gene by Tom Cheshire
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Number of mince pies consumed during readathon: 11
My life outside books: Hectic tiring day, cosy evening

Thursday Stats

What I've read today: Perdido Street Station
Number of pages read today: 131
Running total: 1248 pages
Books finished: Three: The Explorer Gene by Tom Cheshire
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Number of mince pies consumed during readathon: 11
My life outside books: Zzzzzz!

Friday Stats

What I've read today: Perdido Street Station
Number of pages read today: 53
Running total: 1301 pages
Books finished: Three: The Explorer Gene by Tom Cheshire
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Number of mince pies consumed during readathon: 11
My life outside books: Adding the finishing touches to some handmade Christmas presents

Tuesday 17 December 2013

Book to Film: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Contains spoilers

This time last year, I was more excited about the first Hobbit film than I was about Christmas itself, and despite mixed reactions to the film, I was pretty satisfied. This satisfaction did not prevent me from being quite nervous about the second film of three based on a short book. Promotional material and internet rumours got me worried that Peter Jackson and his team might be getting carried away with their own storytelling, neglecting the book that they were adapting. Were my fears justified? Perhaps a little. The Desolation of Smaug is certainly the weakest installment of the series so far, and the bad bits were every bit as bad as I had feared. But these were fewer than they could have been, and did not affect my enjoyment of the film as a whole.

When you are adapting six chapters of a book into a film of nearly three hours, you'd expect each chapter to be fully fleshed out, but the scenes at Beorn's house are rushed through at top speed, which I found to be an incomprehensible decision. The most memorable part of this chapter was completely cut, which disappointed me, as was the fact that Beorn was not, nor did he resemble, BRIAN BLESSED.  I also thought, even taking into account that he is a huge man in the company of dwarves, the proportions were all wrong, and they looked strange and unreal on screen together. Still, the actor owned the part for the short time he was on the screen.

The story really got going in Mirkwood, the eerie forest that would gladly lead the company to their doom. This is where The Hobbit benefits from having been made after The Lord of the Rings: If one Shelob is horrid, then many are worse. I had wondered how the film would get around the problem of speaking animals, which we have not yet encountered on the screen. This was neatly shown by being a result of Bilbo's enhanced ring-senses. Martin Freeman is superb in this scene, and you really feel his horror when he realises what his desire for the ring can drive him to: a frenzy of spider-slaughter that may have saved their lives, but which was powered by the One Ring and not his own mind.

I missed the Elves' enchanted feast: in the film the enchantment of Mirkwood was stated to be because of the power of the "Necromancer." As predicted, the Elves' warrior aspect was played up, over their otherworldliness, though Elvenking Thranduil was deliciously, reassuringly creepy. I would have enjoyed seeing more of the Elvish feasting in the film. In a way, Noelle Stevenson's "Randy Thrandy: Racist Party Dad" is closer to how I picture the Elves of the book. The antagonistic Legolas was amusing to watch; a younger, hotter-headed Elf-prince than the one we've come to know.
Legolas: "What's this? Some goblin mutant?" Gloin: That's my son, Gimli.
Fans of Legolas' stunts from Lord of the Rings should be pleased with this film; they are as awe-inspiring and sometimes hilarious as ever.

And then there's Tauriel: a hot-headed young Elf-captain who kicks all kinds of buttock. If only that was all. My friends and readers probably know what I'm about to say, and I'd rather not even acknowledge this part of the film, but I feel I must.Frankly, I would prefer to have no female characters in the film at all than a two-dimensional one, and certainly I could do without one whose main role in the story is for the purposes of romance where no romance should be-o. I enjoyed the first scene between Tauriel and Kili, but it was better implied than overindulged, and it came across as overly sentimental, predictable and sloppily written. But my objection to the inter-species romance goes beyond "Ew, gross" or "It's not in the book and therefore did not happen." I felt that it made Arwen and Aragorn's romance in Lord of the Rings less remarkable and rare, as well as diminishing the power of Legolas and Gimli's friendship sixty years later. And that's all I shall say on the matter. Just no.

The scenes at Laketown were rounded out; I feel in the book of The Hobbit you don't get a lot of time to look around the settings or meet the characters. We get to know a bit more about the character of Bard who will prove important in the future, and also to see the poverty of the town in comparison to the master's lavish living. Stephen Fry as the Master of Laketown was wonderfully disgusting, with a greasy ginger wig and moustache, and his servant/spy could probably have been related to Grima Wormtongue: slimy, sneaky, despicable. Yes, there was an additional subplot added in here, but it was along the lines of the Elves at Helm's Deep or Aragorn floating down the river and being kissed back to life by his horse, unnecessary but inoffensive. Although, come to think of it, that entire subplot was there only to advance the aforementioned dreadful romance. Hmph.

As before, the best parts of this film are those that come straight out of the book, and after the Elvish and Laketown diversions, the film got back on track when Bilbo went inside the mountain and came face to face with the dragon Smaug. The slow reveal of the dragon was magnificent. The gold moves over here to reveal a dragon's eye and head... then, as Bilbo tries to hide from Smaug, the gold moves over there and you, with Bilbo, come to realise just how huge this beast is. Voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, Smaug is gloriously hammy, but terrifying as well. You know that he could swallow any of the heroes with a single gulp, and his snout comes way, way too close for comfort.The telltale orange glow through his belly before each exhaled inferno gives his victim a few seconds to feel terror with the knowledge of inescapable death. I was very impressed by this addition to the dragon mythology. As with the last film, the most powerful and impressive scenes were those acted by Martin Freeman and an actor in a motion-capture suit.

I am still unconvinced that The Hobbit really needed to be made into three extra-long films. Though I didn't really lose concentration, a larger proportion of this film than others were, well, padding. Last time I called it character development, extrapolation, filling in the details, but this time I don't think any of those words are as accurate as padding. The film is not two and a half hours of story, but is filled out to match the others in length by extended battle scenes, stunt sequences and unnecessary subplots. There was one long sequence towards the end when I though to myself, "I have absolutely no idea what they are doing, but let's just go with it." Turns out they were trying to give Smaug a golden crown a la Viserys Targaryen; a very very stupid decision of the Dwarves. If they'd read A Game of Thrones properly, they'd know that "fire cannot kill a dragon." But it can make him very, very angry. And an angry dragon is not a good thing to have around.

Monday 16 December 2013

End of Year Reading Cram: Days 8 and 9


As we start the second week of Dana and Jenny's Reading Cram readathon, I find myself still reading the same books as a week ago, perhaps a drawback of having more than one thing on the go at once. Perdido Street Station was never going to be read in a week, but a couple more evenings of undistracted reading should polish off The Explorer Gene and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Then onto the Christmas classics: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and A Christmas Carol, which really ought to be read in the next week.

Today I have been finishing off part 5 of Perdido Street Station, in which Isaac and his comrades are preparing an epic showdown against the hypnotic dementor-moths. Judith and I are reading this book together as an informal 2-person book club, and I'll be meeting her from work to discuss the story so far. Then, this evening, a group of us will be going to see The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (which I stubbornly stick to pronouncing "Smorg" even though I've long suspected that the film's pronunciation is actually correct.)

On the whole, I was pretty happy with An Unexpected Journey, but I am approaching part two with a lot more caution and suspicion. The Page Lady, who crocheted 13 beards for her and her friends to wear to the midnight showing of part 1, and who has sound judgement when it comes to Middle-Earth, came away from part 2 very disappointed. This time, I want very much to disagree with her. Other friends have spoken favourably of the film, and I've stayed well away from reviews (even Page Lady's) because I'd prefer not to have my opinion influenced by others. I know my enjoyment of Oz: The Great And Powerful was affected by having read a critical blog post about its portrayal of female characters. I'm wary of The Hobbit part two because the promotional material has been full of Peter Jackson and his people justifying changes they've made from the book, until I wonder whether I'll even recognise the film as The Hobbit. I'm particularly nervous of how they will present the Elves. The trailer seems to be playing up the warrior aspect, which certainly comes into force at the end of the story in the Battle of Five Armies, but I'd like to see more of the fey, otherworldly creatures that we meet in the book, to contrast with the all-wise and powerful beings of Lord of the Rings.

11PM: Met Judith from work, only to find that she had to stay on an extra half hour because her bus had made her very late starting her shift. So I used that time to take a long-way-round pootle to the post office to pick up a parcel which hadn't been delivered on Saturday because no one was in. It turned out to be a shiny new hardback copy of Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl, which I've been wanting to read since I first heard about it. A teenager obsessed with a particular book, off to university and trying to juggle fanfiction and the real world? Now why does that sound familiar? I think this book was a present from Ellie - it was sent straight from the Book Depository, and was the only surprise book parcel I was expecting, so thank you Ellie. (And if it was not Ellie who sent it, please own up now so I can thank you.) I think Fangirl will be excellent Christmas afternoon reading, when we're all stuffed and sleepy.

Judi and I spent the afternoon mooching around in the living room, eating homemade mince pies, cakes and cheese, and generally feeling Christmassy, discussing our thoughts on Perdido Street Station, which I can't really share because they are too spoilery. Suffice to say, one of the more interesting plotlines appears to have come to an abrupt end, rather disappointingly, and the world of New Crobuzon is not a very nice world at all.

We went to the 7PM showing of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, which I will review properly before very long. I was probably right to approach the film with caution and not expect my vision of the book to be beamed onto the big screen. Yes, it was padded, yes it probably could benefit with a generous trim, and yes, there was an unsurprising added subplot that I could not be havin' with at all, but all in all I enjoyed the film a lot, and would gladly go to see it again. 

What I've read today: Perdido Street Station
Number of pages read today: 41
Running total: 797 pages
Number of mince pies consumed during readathon: 9
My life outside books: Hobbit tonight! Excited but wary.


4PM: The last day of my nice long weekend has shaped up to be a very lazy one, grey and drizzly and generally rather sleepy. I spent most of the morning writing up my thoughts on the second Hobbit movie for the blog: in short, though the film was undoubtedly the weakest in the series so far, I enjoyed it for the most part. This afternoon I've actually finished a book - the first book to be finished during this readathon or even this month. I sat myself down to read the final installment in The Explorer Gene, reading about Bertrand Piccard, the third in a direct line to boldly go where no man has gone before, in his case around the world non-stop in a balloon. 

9PM: So I spend the first eight days reading the same books and then on day nine I finish two of them! Finally it feels like I'm getting somewhere on this readathon. I've finished my reread of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and because of the three-year cliffhanger between the books being published, it feels like a good place to stop for now while I pick up some festive reading. Goblet of Fire ends when it's just started getting very dark and very interesting (boy, how we picked over those last few chapters in sixth form looking for clues to what was to happen next!) I think I'll put this series aside till I've done some festive reading, though. Order of the Phoenix is a big book and one which I enjoy the least; it always feels like an effort to go through the oppressive "no one believes Harry and Umbridge is highly unpleasant" plot. 

Back at work tomorrow after a long weekend. These evenings are worse than when I've only had one day off at a time, as I've snapped out of work-mode fully and have no real desire to get back into it. Especially with just one more week till Christmas. Come on, Edwards, you can do it!

Just read on the internet that a film version of the Sandman comics is set to be made. I wonder how they'll condense that sprawling epic into a couple of hours screen time! I have one request regarding this: Cumberbatch for Dream, please! (I know that he is the fan choice for pretty much everything that Tom Hiddleston isn't, but I can't imagine anyone better suited to the role. It's his voice, or one very like it, that I heard in those white-on-black speech bubbles, and he's worked on a Gaiman adaptation before, as the Angel Islington of Neverwhere. Please, universe. Do this for me!

What I've read today: The Explorer Gene
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Number of pages read today: 238
Running total: 1035
Books finished: Two: The Explorer Gene by Tom Cheshire
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling
Number of mince pies consumed during readathon: 9
Quote of the day: "Extreme adventure, the real one, is not for showing off in public, nor is it an escape from reality, or a wish, whether conscious or not, to get high on adrenaline... It is a life-sized mirror and the opportunity to discover some new inner resources. Adventure is the breaking point when we realise that we can no longer be satisfied with reproducing automatically what we learned, that this won't do anymore." - Bertrand Piccard
My life outside books: A nice lazy day, end of a long weekend.

Sunday 15 December 2013

End of Year Reading Cram: Days 6-7


In the penultimate Saturday before Christmas, of course work was ridiculously busy. The good thing about weekends is that we don't have deliveries then, so there isn't the mad rush to get that all put out before the next lot comes in, while juggling a dozen jobs and all the customers. I was pretty much tied to the counter from ten till about half past 3, but though there was a constant stream of customers, they were pretty manageable on the whole. We had enough staff in, for once, and at least the day goes quickly when you're working non-stop.

Most of my day's reading took place over lunch. I was grateful to have the staff room to myself for most of my break, so I got stuck back into The Explorer Gene, reading about Jacques, the second generation of Piccards, who took over his father's work building a "bathyscaphe" (a kind of submarine) and being one of only 3 people ever to go to the bottom of the Marianas trench. For science, of course!

Saturday evening was the shop's Christmas meal out, which was delicious, enormous and a lot of fun. My manager (nattily dressed in a Christmas snowman jumper!) brought his girlfriend along, who I actually knew from school. It was good to catch up with her after ten years. Towards the end of the evening, probably as revenge for being outed as a former kissogram (which I think was pretty much common knowledge, but she looked shocked and embarrassed for the first time since I've known her) my colleague Joan made us all share stories of things we've done after drinking too much. Simon had woken up one morning to find a pub's hanging sign at the end of his bed, while James went missing for two days while his wife was pregnant. My story, of rambling at length to a new acquaintance about all the rude bits in Chaucer and Shakespeare, must have confirmed the impression I'm convinced my colleagues have of me as a weird academic type who doesn't really know how a twenty-mumble-year-old girl is supposed to act. (To be fair, that's not an inaccurate picture of me, only I don't think I'm all that clever, I just find books more interesting than the real world.)

What I've read today: The Explorer Gene
Number of pages read today: 50
Running total: 557 pages
Number of mince pies consumed during readathon: 5 1/2
My life outside books: Work's Christmas meal out. We've earned it.


7 PM: What a miserable old day it is outside. But though I love summer for its bright sunshine and outdoorsiness, I've come to appreciate the winter for lazy afternoons with a book in front of the fire, perfect conditions for a readathon. I've lit some Christmassy scented candles, put some more baubles and ornaments on the tree and tinsel everywhere, and spent the afternoon sprawled on the sofa catching up with Perdido Street Station. I'm about halfway through the book now, and Isaac and his friends have been set against the government in their quest to end the giant moths' reign of terror. There has been betrayal, the sentient hoover has made its changed condition known - though who programmed it is still a mystery - there is a capricious and crazed giant spider-creature who seeks for the world to be woven into patterns only it can see, and terror has ensued. What has not happened is a lot of action centred on the station itself, and I have yet to find out why the book is titled as it is.

10PM: Mum cooked a delicious roast beef dinner this evening, which was a lovely surprise. I carried on with Perdido Street Station for another hour or so. Isaac and his comrades have certainly got in over their heads with regards to these moths. After a shocking turn of events, the plot seemed to wander off in favour of some really horrifying parasitic hand-creatures doing battle with the dementor-moths. Mieville has a very warped imagination when it comes to peopling his world with beings other than the fantasy stereotypes. Also, the "cleaning construct" has led our protagonists to a junkyard of sorts, to a meeting of its own kind, the sentient machines. Quite what these machines have planned is not yet clear, whether they are friend or foe or have a completely alien agenda. I've started to feel my attention waning, so I'm thinking I'll get ready for bed and then put on Love Actually and do a bit of knitting. I'm not back at work until Wednesday now - nice long weekend - so I can afford a late night. 

What I've read today: Perdido Street Station
Number of pages read today: 199
Running total: 756 pages
Number of mince pies consumed during readathon: 7
My life outside books: Decking the halls with boughs of... tinsel and baubles... fa la la la la la la la.

Saturday 14 December 2013

The Fictional Man - Al Ewing

Some time ago, Hollywood started bringing fictional characters to life using cloning technology. Why employ actors when you can get the real deal? It is every author's dream to have their characters brought to life, and when Niles Golan, author of the Kurt Power thrillers is invited to meet with The Man From Talisman Pictures arranges a meeting with him, Niles thinks it's his lucky day. Perhaps he is too hasty: Kurt Powers is not to be brought to life just yet. Instead, Niles is tasked with adapting an old film, a secret guilty pleasure from his youth, for a new audience. The problem is, Mr Doll is terrible; offensive to everyone and not in an ironic way. Niles traces the story back, through an episode of a Twilight Zone-esque series called The Door to Nowhere, inspired by an obscure and creepy children's book which was itself based on a short story. From a writer's point of view I found it fascinating to chart the evolution of a story, and was curious to see what Niles would do with the tale in his turn.

As a narrator, Niles is far from likeable; he is self-important and hypocritical, tells himself "he's not prejudiced because his best friend is Fictional," but his true nature makes itself known when he gets angry. Quite frankly, it's astonishing that his friend Bob and his ex-wife haven't cut him out of their lives a long time ago. His string of Kurt Power novels come across similar to Lee Child's Jack Reacher series. Though I can't speak for the quality of the latter, it is clear that Niles is deluded about his greatness as a writer. He goes through life with an internal monologue, narrating possible turns of events in a hilariously terrible and melodramatic style. (In my review of The Gum Thief, I said that even deliberately bad writing was still bad writing and horrible to read. The Fictional Man is an example of deliberately bad writing used well, to comic effect.)

Yet despite its unpleasant narrator, The Fictional Man was a lot of fun to read, prompting embarrassing giggling and commentary on public transport. It contains a plethora of popular and nerd culture references; Niles' friend Bob is clearly based on Batman, and the world seems to be full of Sherlock Holmeses, who have to club together to solve the murder of one of their own. Bringing fictional characters to life can be a dangerous business, and there are passing references to "the Dexter Morgan incident," which probably don't need to be expanded on. Coming to this story straight from the original Star Trek series, the review of the 1960s Door to Nowhere episode (starring William Shatner) made me grin, because I could very well picture what was being described.

The Fictional Man is a brilliant piece of metafiction which making the reader think about the nature of storytelling and the line between fiction and reality, which may not be as clear-cut as one might think. Niles isn't a likable character, but he is an entertaining one, and as the book progresses he is challenged to think about his attitudes towards the "Other" - that is, the Fictional people he shares a city with. Niles' quest to find the definitive version of a story which had undergone many adaptations and transformations kept me hooked, and I got through the novel in two sittings. Highly recommended to anyone who is interested in the the workings of fiction as a living, ever-changing thing.

If you enjoy this, you might like:

Redshirts: John Scalzi
Ready Player One: Ernest Cline
The Eyre Affair and its sequels: Jasper Fforde.

Friday 13 December 2013

End of Year Reading Cram: Days 3-5

After two pretty good readathon days, my reading time has been rudely imposed upon by work. It's really starting to get busy now in the last two weeks before Christmas. I've been quite surprised how late people have left it and am expecting the next couple of weeks to be a special kind of chaotic. A customer asked me on Wednesday if I was planning to stay chirpy right up to Christmas Eve. It must be a pretty good year if I'm still getting described as "chirpy" in December! Back in September when I had a nasty emotional crash, I couldn't see how I was going to make it through the next three months, but here I am and I've just got six more days at work before Christmas day. I think I can do it!

Thursday, however, I did find myself getting stressed and irritable. The day got off to a bad start when my supervisor rearranged my to-do list for me, and I was still trying to finish my first job of the morning when my colleague came in mid-afternoon. I finished at half past 5, waved goodbye to my colleagues who were doing the late-night-shopping shift, and spent a happy hour finishing off my Christmas shopping. Despite my best intentions, I didn't get much reading done that day because I got caught up finishing off a couple of hand-made Christmas presents. (I am so going to be Molly Weasley if I ever grow up. I've no plans of marriage or children myself, but I fear I'm going to be that relative who sends everyone ugly Christmas jumpers. Mwahahaha!)

The story so far: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. 

Harry has got through the second Triwizard Tournament with flying colours, but something fishy is afoot in the Hogwarts grounds. Again, I was struck by how much more depth there is to the books to all the subplots that are either rushed through or completely skipped in the film, such as the Ludo Bagman red herring, and the madness and death of Mr Crouch, which is a really eerie and unsettling scene which the film galloped through at top speed and plenty of confusion. 

The Explorer Gene.

I have followed the exploits of Auguste Piccard, the first man to boldly go up into the stratosphere in a balloon, as well as those of his twin brother Jean, and other sciencey pioneers who have built on his experiments. Having conquered the sky, Auguste then turned to designing a vessel to boldly go to the bottom of the ocean - eventually to be piloted by his son Jacques. "Only dead men have sunk below this." 

Wednesday Stats:

What I've read today: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Number of pages read today: 88
Running total: 420 pages
Number of mince pies consumed during the readathon: 5 1/2
My life outside books: Met Judith for lunch.
Quote of the day: Ron: "I could have taken those mer-idiots any time I wanted."
Hermione: "What were you going to do, snore at them?"

Thursday Stats:

What I've read today: The Explorer Gene
Number of pages read today: 26
Running total: 446 pages
Number of mince pies consumed during readathon: 5 1/2
My life outside books: Christmas madness really kicking in at work, though customers still in good spirits for the most part.

Friday Stats:

What I've read today: The Explorer Gene
Number of pages read today: 61
Running total: 507 pages
Number of mince pies consumed during readathon: 5 1/2
My life outside books: Christmas shopping complete, parcels posted. Bring it on!

Wednesday 11 December 2013

Film - The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

When I watched the first Hunger Games movie, although I enjoyed it, my enjoyment was marred by having just reread the book, and knowing exactly what was going to happen and in what order. This time, I resisted temptation and went into Catching Fire with a knowledge of the book, but with enough distance between me and the book that I was able to watch the film as its own thing. Coming back into the world of Panem without having prepared myself, I was expecting to feel a certain level of detachment from the story, but I was surprised to find myself crying very early on, when Katniss and Peeta visited District 11 on their Victory Tour.

I wasn't quite convinced by Donald Sutherland as President Snow during the first film, possibly because he was so different from how I had pictured the character. By Catching Fire, however, he took the part and made it his own; once he has seen Katniss as a threat, he is no longer that outwardly charming, grandfatherly figure, but subtly menacing. "Their love will inspire us and will continue to do so every day for the rest of their lives..." brrr! You can hear the threat behind these words, and they are chilling indeed.

I still felt that the love triangle was incongruous, but this time I thought it was a deliberate choice, highlighting to the viewer that the emphasis on romance is supposed to be a distraction from what's really going on. In conversation, it became very clear that though Peeta is infatuated with Katniss, he really doesn't know her at all. As a result, I'm afraid I found his argument that without Katniss he'd have nothing to live for somewhat pathetic and unbelievable. Johanna's defiance, ("What can they do to me? There's no one left that I love!") was entirely convincing. I don't know if that's a comment on the actors or the characters - probably a mixture of both. Johanna was my favourite newcomer in the book of Catching Fire, and Jena Malone brought her to life perfectly; a tough, angry young woman who is yet pitiable and entertaining despite having been hardened by her experiences.

Catching Fire was notable for the hope amidst the horror. No matter how brutal the Capitol becomes in trying to stamp out every last spark of rebellion, the small acts of heroism and sacrifice shine out the brighter when all is bleak. Cinna, Beetee, Mags show a quiet strength that is extremely powerful when the world seems to be conspiring to dehumanise them all. Cinna's uncertain fate is devastating. Because I knew it was coming, I felt the dread in every scene he appeared in, and even being prepared did not protect me from the horror as he is dragged away just as Katniss is sent straight into a battle for her life while overwhelmed and disorientated by shock and grief.

Effie Trinket also grows as a character since her first appearance, having finally got to know her tributes - her victors - as people after years of seeing them as mere walking dead. Her false jollity in the farcical reaping ceremony is heartbreaking and grotesque. Beneath her daft ways there is a genuine affection, and perhaps even a small complicity in the rebellion. My friends and I discussed afterwards whether Effie and her Capitol cronies were just as much prisoners of the system as the residents of the twelve districts, how much of their superficiality was an act born of fear.

After the demise of suave Seneca Crane and his marvellous beard, there is a new head gamemaker, Plutarch Heavensbee. In stark contrast to Crane, Plutarch comes across as rather sleazy. Having read the book, it's difficult to say whether or not it was obvious that he was secretly conspiring against the government. It seemed obvious to me, but that is probably because I knew how to read his dialogue and motivations. However, he is not what one might picture as a revolutionary, being rather stodgy and unglamorous.

The Hunger Games themselves were the least interesting part of the film for me, probably because I was just waiting for the characters to figure out what I already knew, the nature of the arena, but there was a lot to think about nonetheless. This time, there was more than just action and violence; there was teamwork and characters actually trying to keep each other alive. I was struck by the weirdness of the characters working as allies when the time would come when they must turn on each other. (Of course, the plot has other ideas.) In these Hunger Games, however, personal survival comes secondary to protest, each act of teamwork, sacrifice and life-saving an act of defiance before the final, dramatic confrontation.

Tuesday 10 December 2013

Reading Cram Read-a-thon Day 2 and Top Ten Tuesday

12:15PM: I spent most of yesterday evening reading Perdido Street Station, and reached the end of part two. I went to bed quite early, as I could barely keep my eyes open, but managed to get in a couple more chapters of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire before falling asleep. Hagrid's secret past has been splashed all over the Daily Prophet, in a subplot that I don't think was touched on much during the films. I can't help feeling that Rita Skeeter must be based upon J. K. Rowling's own experiences with evil journalists (and if she were a muggle, Miss Skeeter would be the Daily Mail's darling. What a nasty piece of work.)

I made the most of my day off this morning by not setting my alarm clock and sleeping in late. I read another chapter of Perdido Street Station over breakfast, though since then I've really just been pottering around, dancing round my room to my Dreamboats and Petticoats CD and getting sucked into the internet. Time to put that computer away, Edwards! Get reading!

3:30PM: Oops.

Everyone seems to be talking about NOS4R2 among my bloggy friends. I've had my eye on it since it was first released, but was going to wait for the small paperback to be published. But with all the internet chatter about this book, and the fact that it is apparently a Christmassy horror story, I couldn't wait another year, and as I just needed to spend another £10 at Waterstone's before I got a free gift card, I decided to treat myself to an early Christmas present.

Perdido Street Station: The story so far:

Isaac's study of assorted birds, bugs and other winged creatures has brought him into contact with a brightly-coloured creature which has a strange effect, seemingly with powerful psychic or empathic abilities. This creature has been stolen from a research facility, where its siblings have been treated with caution, even fear. This cannot end well. My suspicion is that it will incite all sorts of nastiness from the people of New Crobuzon.

10PM: After coming back from town, I intended to get stuck back into my book for the rest of the afternoon, but after updating the blog, I ended up sorting out all my photos from the last 15 months and deciding which ones need to be printed for albums. I still love having physical photo albums to look back over my memories. Then I remembered I still hadn't reviewed the film of Catching Fire, so I put that right (scheduled for tomorrow morning when I'm back at work.) I settled back into my book for an hour or so, where some very strange events came to pass. First, as far as I can make out, someone programmes a hoover to make it become sentient. You may call it a cleaning construct all you like, but as far as I'm concerned it's a hoover. Now, quite what the plot has planned for a sentient hoover, I am yet to find out. Also, the weird psychic, drug-addicted caterpillar-creature Isaac has been studying has hatched out of its cocoon as a man-sized killer moth, and has freed its fellow man-sized killer moths from the research facility to cause chaos across the city. Despite how silly this may sound, it's quite suspenseful stuff, and I'm keen and dreading to see what happens next.

This evening I took over the kitchen and baked some delicious Christmas goodies: sugar cookies, Christmas cupcakes and a batch of fruit and nut shortbread, which should be ready to come out of the oven any minute. I am not posting photos because although they taste delicious, they look nothing like the photos in the recipe books, alas. I started icing the cakes when they were still warm, and it turned out a bit messy, but I ate the worst of the evidence.

I'm off to bed in a minute, for an early night and to see if I can get to the end of part three of Perdido Street Station before meeting Judith for lunch tomorrow.

What I've read today: Perdido Street Station
Number of pages read today: 127
Running total: 332 pages
Number of mince pies consumed during the readathon: 3 1/2
My life outside books: I am a baking queen!

Top Ten Tuesday: The to-read pile

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

Well, my to-read pile has more than ten books on it, but the following are likely to be read sooner rather than later.

1. Mindstar Rising - Peter Hamilton. This is a loan from a friend, who described it as "detective fiction set in the not-so-distant future." Aside from that I know very little about the book, but look forward to finding out.

2. From a Buick 8 - Stephen King. Because I haven't read any King for a while, and my brain is itching to read some more. This one was on the 3 for £5 offer at the Works, so I had to snap it up.

3. Interworld - Neil Gaiman and Michael Reaves. A Neil Gaiman book I haven't read yet? Better put that right!

4. Shine Shine Shine - Lydia Netzer: A book I picked up on my last-but-one trip to London: "This is the story of an astronaut who is lost in space, and the wife he left behind."

5. Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore: Robin Sloane: A book about books, bookshops, and bookshop customers. What's not to love?

6. Something Borrowed - Paul Magrs: The sequel to Never the Bride which I read on holiday this summer. If it's as good as the first, I'm in for a treat. This is a library book, and I've already renewed it once, so I ought to get to this one soon.

7. The Cuckoo's Calling - Robert Galbraith: Yeah, we all know "Robert Galbraith's" real identity. Though I didn't buy it because it's by J.K. Rowling, the extra publicity made me actually look at this book and decide it looked good. I enjoy crime fiction, but don't read that much of it because when I'm in the crime section of a bookshop or library, I don't really know where to start without a particular author or title in mind.

But before I get started on The Cuckoo's Calling, I ought to finish my reread of the Harry Potter books. I don't like having more than one book or series on the go by the same author or in the same genre at any one time.

8. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix - J. K. Rowling. Also Half-Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows.

9: A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens. 
10: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe - C. S. Lewis: These two are essential December rereads, for obvious reasons.

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