Bookworm briefs: August

Ooh! Aah! It’s a new regular feature. Bookworm Briefs will be a monthly dash through my reading, anything that’s been recklessly added to my already impossible-to-ever-complete TBR and any bookish activities I’ve been involved in. I’ll publish Bookworm Briefs on the first of each month and, as it’s important to start as you mean to go on, this one is already a day late. Marvellous.

What I read

The Watchmaker of Filigree StreetThe Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley
I was so wonderfully surprised by this. I borrowed it from the library on the back of a slew of Twitter recommendations, and because the artwork on the hardback version is completely arresting. There’s something very old-fashioned about the narrative; it’s slow and steady and it’s clever. It’s refreshing to read an author who expects you to pay attention and read between the lines. The writing is crisp and considered, her dialogue is both witty and natural and she draws her characters with real affection. This is Natasha Pulley’s debut novel and on the basis of this I’m very excited to see what comes next.

I love this book. It’s well-researched, well-written and has, at its centre, a genuinely moving love story. This is the book for you if you like a rewarding slow-burner, a vaguely steampunk historical mystery and a sweet love story with a dash of magic. Read it; love it; immediately attempt to acquire a clockwork octopus.

For God’s sake, the closest I can get to medieval England is a Walter Scott novel. People shouldn’t be throwing away their history when it’s doing archery practice forty miles up the road.

 

Armada by Ernest Cline
The second book by Cline, which is spookily similar to, but not quite as good as, his first book; Ready Player One. Both of Cline’s books are love songs to 80s films and video games, and a sort of lit-by-the-evening-sun, coming of age American childhood which may only have existed in movies like The Goonies and Stand by Me. They’re marshmallow books – fun and easy to get through, but there’s limited nutritional value. Armada starts with a cracking concept, so good in fact that it’s already been covered in Ender’s Game, but it’s let down by the ending. However, Ready Player One is good fun, and definitely worth a read before the film version is released in 2017.

 

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson
As always a brilliant premise from Stephenson, but for some reason I’m struggling to get through it. The moon has broken in to seven pieces and will shatter into many more before it destroys the earth. The survival of the human race becomes focused on the crew of a satellite orbiting earth, and a project to adapt the ship to house as many people as possible before time runs out. It’s intriguing, but I’m struggling to get more than a few chapters in.

 

My TBR

The First Bad Man by Miranda July The First Bad Man
Bought this for the cover alone, which seems to repel as much as it attracts. Forty pages in and the cover seems deeply appropriate for a narrative that is both fascinating and uncomfortable. I’m not exactly enjoying it, but I stood up reading it for 20 minutes because I was too engrossed to sit down.

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
Romance, sci-fi and another amazing cover – an honest to goodness work of art. Since buying it I’ve read this frank and moving interview with Faber which has added a new level to the novel. My reading of the novel will now be influenced by the knowledge of Faber’s real-life situation and I’m honestly not sure how I feel about that. Hmm…

 

Something Coming Through by Paul McAuley
Dystopian fantasy which seems to be in a similar vein to The Long Earth – there are multiple earths and shady affairs are happening on all of them. So far, lots to like about this. I’ll be doing a full review for Gollanz Geeks shortly.

The Shepherd’s Crown by Terry PratchettThe Shepherd's Crown
Another book which is impossible to separate from the real-life events that loom large over it’s release. I’m going to take a rare diversion into sentimentality and say that for me this book shows what the best literature can be; a pact, a friendship, an understanding between a writer and a reader. A gossamer bond that can lead you into strange new worlds, and help you find your way back out again. I’m five chapters in to the last journey I’ll ever take with Terry Pratchett and every page feels like a joyful goodbye to a dear, dear friend.

 

A LITTLE REWARD FOR A LIFE WELL LIVED. FOR I CAN SEE THE BALANCE AND YOU HAVE LEFT THE WORLD MUCH BETTER THAN YOU FOUND IT, AND IF YOU ASK ME, said Death, NOBODY COULD DO ANY BETTER THAN THAT . . .

Coming up

Budleigh Literary Festival
Budleigh Salterton (Bubbly Saltybum) is my favourite place in the world and for four days in September it will be full of sensational writers. I’m reading The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters in preparation and hoping to get in A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale before then too.

 

 

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5 reasons I love Outlander… and 5 reasons I probably shouldn’t

Right, shuffle closer, I’m going to share something personal. Part of my brain is permanently frozen at age 17, and as a result I develop ridiculous, teenage passions for things. When I first discovered Buffy the Vampire Slayer I binge-watched the whole first series in a day, I queued at midnight for Harry Potter (without the cover of a small child) and I actually have a Lord of the Rings tattoo. I’m essentially one bad decision and a bottle of tequila away from being this lady.

And soOutlander tv programme cover art to Outlander.

I’ve had the book for a few months, but it was the TV adaptation that first got me. I now love Outlander deeply, have already started gifting copies of the book to friends and family members and am developing a mild obsession with Scotland; but the grown-up part of my brain is aware that it has some flaws. So both parts of my brain have got together to write this review. And while you’re reading this I’ll be trying to drink whiskey and Googling tartan shawls…

 

Five reasons I bloody love Outlander

1. Production
You know a programme takes its production seriously when it has a herbalist on the crew. Ronald D Moore (the Outlander showrunner) knows exactly how to spend a clearly enormous budget to create a luscious, immersive experience. The sets are detailed, the Highlands are celebrated with long, loving scenery shots and the Emmy-nominated music is haunting (and it’s composed by a man named Bear). But for me it’s all about the costumes. Every outfit is gorgeous, especially the kilts. Dougal may be a sociopath; fathering children with abandon and fighting with everybody and everything including, at one point, a dining room, but he looks incredibly dapper doing it. If you want to know why the costumes look so amazing free up a significant chunk of time to read Terry Dresbach’s blog.

Outlander clothes

2. Writing
I was gripped after the first two chapters of Outlander. The writing is detailed but pacey, and Gabaldon’s characters are well-rounded. She’s also a tireless researcher and I do always like the feeling of learning something accidentally while enjoying a good story. For me the filmed version improves on the novel. Episode 7 ‘The Wedding’ is almost perfect – the writing is flawless, with a clever narrative framing device which allows the events to unfold in a much more interesting sequence. There are also some lovely subtle touches in the series; it was the second viewing when I realised the relevance of Geillis complaining that she was going to “a fucking barbeque!”

3. Casting
The casting is so nearly perfect. Jamie and Claire are crucial obviously, and for me are spot on to the book; but what really makes Outlander work is the excellent supporting cast. It’s an embarrassment of riches when you can draft in the likes of Tim McInnerny, James Fleet, Douglas Henshall (Nick Cutter!) and Simon Callow for short, slightly mad, guest appearances. A strong supporting cast makes a fictional world work and everyone in Outlander draws you in. My personal favourites are Laura Donnelly as Jenny and Graham McTavish as Dougal, but the honours must go to brave (and utterly terrifying) Tobias Menzies. I’m only sad we’ll never know how the conversation went as his agent tried to explain exactly what was required in this role…

4. Claire
I LOVE Claire – proper big capital letters love. The novel has a great premise, but it was Claire’s strength and humour that kept me reading. She’s a tough, clever, skilled, sweary, funny woman who, in a hyper-masculine world, earns the respect of almost everyone she meets. For me, the really great thing about Claire is that she is an unashamedly, unapologetically sexual being. It is, (although it shouldn’t be in 2015) refreshing and exciting to see a female protagonist who gets what she wants and enjoys herself. Outlander also proves that it is possible to have elegant and dignified sex scenes that are still very erotic.

5. Romance
I like romance. Real life is full of work and bills and toddlers weeing on the carpet (that’s not just my house, right?), so I want to be swept off my feet and I want to feel tingles. And Outlander delivers by the bucket-load. It’s an epic, magical romance which builds slowly and then absolutely sizzles. I also love the casting of Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe; I came to the programme without the expectations of the book so they are Jamie and Claire for me. I love Outlander because it sweeps me off my feet and gives me a world I want to spend time in.

Outlander - Jamie and Claire

Five reasons I probably shouldn’t

1. Plot holes
Seriously, holes so big you could drive a horse and cart through them. The biggest and most glaringly obvious; when Jamie rescues Claire from Fort William why doesn’t he just kill Randall? This is the man who has horrifically scarred him, raped (as far as he knows) his sister, attempted to rape his wife and put a price on his head – and the only reason given is that Jamie can’t kill an unarmed man? And why doesn’t Dougal just kill Claire and Jamie when they’re on the road? Obviously it’s because Outlander would be a pamphlet rather than an eight book epic, but that shouldn’t be the only reason.

2. Angry Claire
I love Claire, but she is very, very angry. I can understand that if you go for a nice walk and suddenly find yourself 200 years in the past looking down the business end of a musket you’re going to be a bit short-tempered, but it’s hard as a reader to engage with someone who’s annoyed for 700 pages. And I can’t help but think that if she wasn’t so aggressive and unsympathetic to Laoghaire and Father Bain they may not have been quite so keen to set her on fire.

3. The book is too long
There’s a scene in the book where Claire fights wolves with her bare hands. Sometimes the editorial decisions are right there in front of you.

4. The dodgy lines
Outlander contains two of the worst lines I have ever read. Claire gets one and Jamie gets one so at least they’re evenly distributed, but they are teeth-itchingly bad. What’s really upsetting is that they both make it in to the programme.

5. Episode 16
There’s really no way to talk about Outlander without mentioning how much sexual violence there is. Even in a post-Game of Thrones world, episode 16 ‘To Ransom a Man’s Soul’ is brutal and, for me at least, impossible to watch fully. There’s a couple of things here; the first is that there seems to be a weirdly relaxed attitude to rape in areas of the book – the story of Jamie being almost assaulted at age 16 is played for laughs by everybody including Jamie himself. Secondly the programme seems to deal much better with this until the very end when it opts for a staggeringly graphic approach. I know the programme makers have justified this decision, but I’m still not convinced it really adds anything to the narrative. We know Jamie is broken, I’m not sure what we gain by seeing it happen. If you want to read more there’s a really thoughtful article on Entertainment Weekly.

 

So I know it’s wobbly in places, but I love it. I actually love Ronald D Moore’s version a bit more than I love Gabaldon’s, but it’s basically all brilliant.

Outlander cast still

 

The birthday haul

Happy birthday to me

Happy birthday to me

Ok, so strictly speaking not a haul and one of them is for Booey, but I’m still very happy with this.

The Moth is a book of 50 short stories – they’re all true and were all first told at live storytelling events across America. I rarely do non-fiction and even more rarely do short stories so this will be way out of my comfort zone; always a good thing. It’s also got a beautiful gold and silver embossed cover so I’ll be leaving it artfully lying around the place.

I really don’t need to say anything about A God in Ruins. I love Kate Atkinson and am pretty sure that even her shopping lists are works of literary greatness. This will be brilliant.

Booey’s bonus book is a children’s story written, illustrated and hand lettered by Margaret Atwood. The illustrations and lettering are gorgeous – who knew Margaret Atwood had amazing art skills? The story owes more than a little to Dr Seuss, there’s lots of toddler-friendly repetition and Booey already seems quite taken with it. It also includes a cd of Atwood reading the story, which means that at some point in the future we may enjoy a car journey listening to something other than The Gruffalo repeated 15 times. So that’s good.

And finally, a shiny new bag. As a proud supporter of independent bookshops, my sister bought all three from Mr B’s in Bath. I’ve never been, partly because I haven’t been to Bath in years and partly because I’m afraid that once I go in to that shop I will never, ever leave.

Review-ish: The Olive Branch

Honestly, I’ve been trying to write this review for over a week. In fact it took me two days to read the book and I’ve been mulling over this post for about 10 days.

The problem is I started this blog to record the passion I feel for books and book-related things. I wanted a place to shout about the stuff I love and hate; an alternative to just confusing my husband with a random stream of consciousness about books he’ll never read and films he’ll never watch. I’ve only written about things I feel I genuinely have something to say about, and the bottom line is that I have almost nothing to say about The Olive Branch. This is an issue for me because I received an advance copy of the book in return for a review.

So, after  trying to write something ‘review-ish’ and then reflecting on why I couldn’t, I’ve come to a couple of important decisions.

  1. No more review copies. I’m not interested in creating a book review blog – and as this exercise shows I probably couldn’t. I’ll read what I want. Of course if I can get a review copy of a book I want to read I’ll be on it like a car bonnet, but I suspect that will be a very small Venn diagram indeed.
  2. I’m not going to try and write in a ‘review’ style. Either I write from the heart with passion and truth or I don’t write at all. I’ll list all the books I read on my Goodreads page, but I’ll only write about the ones that actually move me – whether that’s because they move me to buy everyone I know a copy, or they move me to hurl them forcibly in to the sea.

 

The Olive Branch cover artSo, now we’ve cleared that up I will, in good faith, share my actual thoughts about The Olive Branch by Jo Thomas

A romantic novel is not about the destination – when the cover blurb asks will Ruthie make her rundown olive farm work and find love with her tempestuous neighbour? The answer is yes, she definitely will. We know where we’re going with a romance, what we want is a charming journey with likeable people. For me The Olive Branch is an average journey with alright people – I simply can’t feel any more for it than that.

In one scene author Jo Thomas makes the idea of kissing a man who has literally been drinking olive oil sound incredibly sexy. That’s no mean feat and she should probably get some sort of award just for that.

Not long after Ruthie arrives in Italy she meets a mafia-type who extracts money for protection from her. This seems quite sinister and looks like a potentially interesting sub-plot; it is never mentioned again.

And my final thought is an editorial one – there are many exclamation mark in this book and only one of them (used in direct speech by a character exclaiming something) actually adds anything at all to the text. If you’re ever wondering whether to use an exclamation mark, remember the words of the great F Scott Fitzgerald:

“Cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.”

 

 

A problem

I really want to read Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs. I go to the library to borrow it, but it’s out on loan. ‘That’s ok,’ I think, ‘I’ll order a copy in.’

On my way out of the library I spot at least two more books I want to read, so I borrow those. I do not order Miss Peregrine. After reading them, I return the books I borrowed to the library and look for Miss Peregrine, but it’s out on loan. On my way out of the library…

I have now completed this cycle four times in two different libraries. I have not read Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.  

Picture of to be read pile of books

My current TBR pile. Chicken for scale.

A heads up for Heyer fans

Two useful bits of information for fans of Georgette Heyer’s romance novels.

First, BBC1 is showing a series called 24 Hours in the Past where a motley band of ‘slebs take on different 19th century jobs to show that, shock horror, living in the 19th century was really very hard for working folk. The second episode has the six celebrities working in the type of coaching inn featured in virtually every Heyer novel and includes a change of horses for the mail coach. Fascinating to see what a coaching inn really looked like and how it operated. Watch it on iPlayer until 3 June 2015.

Secondly, a recommendation. My current favourite Heyer audiobook is the abridged version of Venetia narrated by Richard Armitage. I don’t usually like abridged audiobooks as I just don’t see the point; and the plinky plonk music between each chapter in this one is tedious, but Armitage’s husky northern narration makes it all worth it. If you’re missing Ross Poldark, I recommend treating your ears to a few hours with the debauched Lord Damerel on a Sunday night instead. Armitage also narrates the abridged Sylvester and The Convenient Marriage. Enjoy.  

I’m just here for the literature

Review: The Martian

 The Martian by Andy Weir cover I’m sort of sorry that I set up the title style as [Review: Title] because this would have been the perfect opportunity to have a smart-arse headline like; ‘ a story that’s out of this world!’ And it would be appropriate, because the hero of this novel, the titular Martian, is a massive smart-arse. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing. 

Mark Watney is a sort of near-future Robinson Crusoe. A member of a Mars exploratory mission stranded on the red planet when an accident leads his fellow astronauts to evacuate leaving him for dead. Only he isn’t dead, merely wounded and wakes up to find himself the sole resident of Mars. And, like Crusoe, he’s been left with just enough skills and equipment to make survival a tantalising possibility.

It’s a high-concept premise and it lives or dies on two points really.

  1. How much you enjoy lots of detailed technical information about how to survive if you’re stranded on Mars. This is a huge similarity to Defoe’s novel, which often reads like a B & Q How To guide, although it put me more in mind of a Crichton novel like Jurassic Park. 
  2. How much you like and emotionally invest in Mark Watney as a character, because for large segments of the book he’s all you’ve got.

I  think that the technical detail is the novel’s great strength. I’ve no idea if any of it is true and I don’t care. Weir has the skill that Crichton had for making incredible science fiction sound like plausible science fact. By about halfway through I found myself thinking ‘yeah, that sounds reasonable’ as Watney pimped a Mars rover using tin foil and duct tape. I’ve since discovered that Weir is a bit of a genius and much of the science is sound.

Watney is more anti-hero than hero. He’s not a perfect, chiselled all-American boy fighting against the odds, he’s a sarcastic, rude, annoying man who scrapes by each day with a mixture of cleverness, street-smarts and sheer pigheadedness. And that’s why I like him. He’s real and relatable, if not always likeable. It will be interesting to see how Matt Damon’s Watney turns out when The Martian film is released in November.

Unfortunately Watney is by far and away the best drawn character, with the rest ranging from pretty well-drawn and amusing (Kapoor) to lazy cliche (Annie Montrose). This book is all about the technical detail and sadly the supporting characters suffer, but I think the science and Watney carry it. I didn’t realise how gripped I was until I found myself parked up outside the house unable to stop listening until I heard the end of the audiobook.

In spite of its futuristic subject matter, The Martian is actually a comfortingly old-fashioned adventure story. Interesting and enjoyable, but would for me have benefited from beefing up the supporting cast and somebody sticking a red line through the sentimental final paragraph.