Saturday, November 22, 2014

For Review: Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls ~ David Sedaris if reading David Sedaris hadn't been suggested to me, the chances of me picking up this book on the basis of its cover and title would have been pretty high. Quirky and owls gets me every time. Before reading this particular book, I'd watched some of his videos online and really enjoyed them. Even in writing, Sedaris comes across as clever, witty, and funny - so Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls was just what I needed right now.

The book is a series of snippets of writing about life - some autobiographical, or at least semi-autobiographical, others in the form of letters or short stories, and ending on a poem too. Sedaris examines the mundanities of life as well as the most bizarre of circumstances, often blending the two together. Across the various episodes, Sedaris covers taxidermy, bigotry, migration, sexuality, travel, and frustration of the ins and outs daily life. Despite the weight of some of these subject matters, they're dealt with lightly, and include humorous observations on interactions with strangers and overheard conversations.

Often writers attempt this and it comes across as very self-indulgent, self-important, and the deliberate effort to be 'cute' is painfully obvious. Sedaris, however, manages this in a fluently effortless way. Writing is what this man does, Day In,  Day Out (it's even a chapter title in the book) and it shows. While Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls is enjoyable, it doesn't have the same compelling grasp that a novel has (largely because this isn't a novel). For the busy busy month of November, however, this has suited me just fine. I've been able to read when I've had time, put down the book when I've had marking to do, or parents' evenings to go to, and pick it up when I've had the time without feeling lost. That's the bonus of reading short stories and essays - they can be put down, and picked back up whenever.

Ulimately, Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls was a smart and enjoyable read, suiting me just find as a cosy autumn read. It's also inspired me to think more about my own writing. I've often thought about cataloguing my own day to day observations more thoroughly or, in fact, even bother to write them down at all. While I can't see my own amusing glimpses of humanity and satire being even close to as spot on or interesting as Sedaris, it's still an avenue I'd like to explore. So thanks for that, Sedaris. I'm looking forward to reading more of his work, and he's visiting Edinburgh as part of a tour next June, so I might have to get on board with that too.

Abacus, 2014;
275 pages.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

For Review: City of Ashes ~ Cassandra Clare

Although I did read a few books between City of Bones and this novel, I was actually pretty excited about getting round to the second installment of The Mortal Instruments series. I'm really not much of a series person at all. In fact, I've only ever read Harry Potter and the Narnia series before now. But with this particular series I can really see how young adults get themselves so quickly involved with a world, and what makes it become 'fandom'.

Following on from book number one, City of Ashes follows Clary as she continues to learn the ways of being a Shadowhunter while her world is thrown into further turmoil. It's a little difficult to go into too much detail without giving away what happens in City of Bones, but suffice to say that this novel is full of a whole load of fast-paced action, a few twists and turns, and plenty of romance. As far as young adult fiction goes, Clare knows how to tick all the boxes. Despite the heft of the actual book itself, it's a quick read that ends with a hook that's already pulling me towards book number three.

The characters certainly had more space to be fleshed out and it's always good to see changes and developments from one book to the next, even if the novel largely takes place over the space of just a few days. There is, however, quite the host of different characters here. Clare's narration sticks mainly to protagonist Clary, but the perspective often switches to a different character's point of view which can sometimes be quite confusing. The plot moves along as swiftly as the previous novel, keeping the pace quick and exciting and there was much less exposition as with last time.

Although at points the language was somewhat clumsy and repetitive (such as descriptions of the colour of the sky, the smell and the taste of blood), what Clare really excels at is giving details and descriptions of young love. Again, I won't say too much for the sake of spoilers, but the scenes depicting forbidden love are very well done. Reading sections of City of Ashes really brought me back to what it feels like to be sixteen or seventeen and obsessed with someone, and that idea of love being stronger than anything else.

Ultimately, I think I'm sold with The Mortal Instruments series and along for the ride. Looking forward to seeing how the larger battle between good and evil, angels and demons, turns out, and keen to see what happens with all that unresolved sexual tension. In the meantime, I just have to say away from any spoilers or fanart kicking around the web.

Walker Books, 2008;
411 pages.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

For Review: The Haunted House ~ Charles Dickens

Typically, I'll read whichever book I'm in the mood for at whichever time of year. I'm not much of a 'oh, it's summer, I'll read summer things' type of reader. This year, though, I thought I'd give it a bit of a try. So, over the Halloween weekend, I read The Haunted House.

Despite what it says on the spine of the book, The Haunted House includes stories from more than just Dickens, so I was able to read a little bit by Elizabeth Gaskell and Wilkie Collins for the first time too. The concept idea of The Haunted House surprised me too: a man and his sister live in a haunted house (obviously) and they're both going through a high servant turn over because of all the creepy goings on in the house. So the narrator man of the house and his sister decide to go without servants and to get to the bottom of the paranormal activities. They invite a small group of friends, charging each of them to spend some time living in different rooms so that they can take account of any strange phenomena they might experience. The stories aren't all told by the narrator and written by Dickens, but instead several are written by other writers, including a narrative poem.

The stories in The Haunted House range from tales of women hearing voices of dead sons, to men stricken with illness, disgraced nuns, and ghostly apparitions. The idea alone is brilliant, I think. I love stories within stories, and that they're told by different characters and by different writers is even more fun. In fact, I like this idea enough that it's something I'd be interested in trying out myself with some of my writer friends. In The Haunted House, the concept works quite charmingly. Despite all the horror films set in the Victorian times, none of these stories were overly ghostly or creepy. It's hard to say whether these were scary or not for the original contemporary readers, but there were some stories that were more amusing or more interesting than others.

A short read, and not desperately scary, but Dickens' narrator and the structure of the novel[la] (if it can really be called that) make The Haunted House a quirky kind of enjoyable.

Oneworld Classics, first published 1862, this edition 2011;
120 pages.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

NaNoWriMo 2014

That time of year again, and actually only my second time taking part in NaNoWriMo!

I had fun with July's Camp NaNo, but I uhmed and ahhed over whether or not I'd do the same again in November. NaNoWriMo might trip off the tongue, but I find November to be such a horrible time of year to do it - when I was a student, there were always so many essays due, and exams coming up. Now I'm a teacher and November is pretty much the same game. So I've set myself a smaller goal than the 50K, but I'm hoping this will really give me the boost I need to get novel number three finished!

So, reviews here might be a little quieter this month - but I'm still around!

My username on NaNoWriMo is.... subtlemelodrama (surprise!) so feel free to add me as buddy.

Best of luck to everyone taking part this month!~

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

For Review: The First Phone Call from Heaven ~ Mitch Albom

Before I begin this review I want to point out how pretty this book is on a superficial, object level. This is the reason why I haven't invested yet in an eReader - I'd hate to miss out on pretty books like this! The book itself is glossy, and is an excellent shape or size. I've never read a book this size before, but it felt so perfect for holding that I wonder how it is that there aren't more books in the world in such a shape. Now that that's said, I should add that The First Phone Call from Heaven is more than just pretty.

In a tiny rural town in Michigan, a woman receives a phone call from her dead mother. Just a few words are exchanged, but it is enough to completely change her life. On the same evening, several other people in town also receive phone calls from dead loved ones, claiming to be in heaven, claiming to be looking out for them, and asking that their messages from above are shared. The story is passed on to TV journalist Amy, intitially as a little bit of curiosity news. However, as mass hysteria over the heavenly phone calls grows, she finds herself connected deeply with the story herself, risking her relationship for her career. The characters, all unique and individual in their own way, have their lives transformed with the connect with the dead loved ones - not just because they are provided with fresh hope and challenged beliefs, but because the rest of the world are obsessed with their stories one way or another.

Initially, the town of Coldwater respond in an overwhelmingly positive way - the people living their see this as proof of God, a change to affirm their faith. There are those, even if only few, however, who aren't convinced. Following a plane crash, Sully finds himself in prison while his wife is in a coma. She passes away, but he doesn't receive any phone calls. Certain that something is suspicious about the whole scenario, Sully dedicates his time to figuring out what is really going on while trying to tell his seven year old son not to get his hopes up of hearing from his deceased mother.

The First Phone Call from Heaven, then, manages to deal with the themes of hope, love, faith, and loss, without being pushy and 'preachy'. These are difficult topics to handle, particularly where religion is concerned, and I've read it done very badly before. But, of course, with the likes of The Five People You Meet In Heaven having gone before this, Albom proves that he is a writer who can create such stories with tact and subtlety. More than that, the novel isn't just a tract about faith - it is definitely a work of fiction, and one that readers can enjoy regardless of belief. Despite the number of characters, they are individuals in their own right with personalities, some more likeable than others, each dealing with their faith (or lack/uncertainty of) in their own way.

As well as the story of the phenomena in Coldwater, Albom describes and explores the initial invention of the telephone, comparing it to the modern use of communication by phone. Again, it's been done in novels before where the author has chucked in some history/explanation in between chapters and it can often feel misplaced. In The First Phone Call From Heaven, however, these sections are as enjoyable as the main storyline, and thought-provoking too.

The First Phone Call from Heaven, for all its dealing with heavy themes, is an easy read - light, full of dialogue, quick-paced. I was keen to see what would become of the phone calls and the people who received them, though I'm in two minds about the reveals towards the end: I'm not sure it's really the ending that I wanted, or hoped it would be. Despite sometimes not adhering to that mantra of 'show, don't tell', Albom has nevertheless written a stimulating and tender novel (so much so that I actually cried while reading the acknowledgments, and I've never done that before...)

Harper Collins, 2014;
323 pages.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

For Review: Bedlam ~ Christopher Brookmyre

Science fiction isn't really my thing but, as with any genre, I don't mind a wee dabble every now and again. At the time of writing this, I can't recall the last time I read a novel that was billed as 'sci-fi'. Seriously, I'll need to look through my reviews to figure it out. That said, the last Brookmyre novel I read had sci-fi themes, and I really liked the idea behind Bedlam. So why not?

Ross is a thirty something scientist working on medical research sometime in the future in Stirling, Scotland. He's extremely driven by his work, to the point where his girlfriend is beginning to feel incredibly neglected by him, putting his relationship on the line. When he volunteers to test a scan that his colleague has been working on, Ross finds himself somehow trapped in another dimension. He wakes up in a world that he definitely recognises - because it's the realm of his childhood favourite video game.

From the FPS Quake-style Starfire, Ross finds himself in a glitch that allows him to travel through multiple games. Some are GTA style, and others much more of a Skyrim roleplaying adventure. If the abbreviations FPS and GTA mean nothing to you, then Bedlam probably isn't for you. The none-gamer reader could probably manage with it just fine, but much of the humour would be lost on them. In particular, I had a good laugh to myself when Ross encounters an NPC who mentions taking an arrow to the knee. (Again, lost on any readers who aren't au fait with the gaming world). Forunately for me, I am, and though there may have been more references that I didn't pick up on, the concepts of rage-quitting and selecting an avatar make for interesting, and very amusing, reading.

Initially, I was really involved with what was happening to Ross (or, as the book and his online handle is named, Bedlam) and how he figured out what was really going on, making sense of his interactions as an intelligent character in an otherwise AI-filled world. He soon has to figure out how he can communicate with others, and discovers that he is not the only one that has been pulled into the video game world. There is plenty of action, adventure, and comedy - with some choice insults and swearing - so the first half of Bedlam was really enjoyable to read.

But I lagged a bit with the second half (approx) of the novel. There were even more characters introduced, and the setting changed so frequently that I felt things were moving on just as I was beginning to really enjoy a particular world or section of the book. Fast-paced is probably the word for it, but it was all too much too quickly for me. Perhaps it suits the moods of other readers, but personally I felt that there was just too much going on. That, and the computer jargon became a bigger feature, and more complex. Video games I can handle, and I do have some working knowledge of computers and the internet, but the second part of Bedlam seemed to leave behind the geekery fun and instead became dense and confusing. Again, this could just be my poor brain - but there's a world of computer 'geeks' out there who I bet would have a field day with this book.

Bedlam was a little trip into trying some more sci-fi, and I think Brookmyre was the right way to go, especially with a plot idea that I was so intrigued by. When the real science and explanationy bits start, though, I'm out of my depth and out of my comfort zone in a way that I don't really find enjoyable. Perhaps it is too fast-paced, and jam-packed full of lots of stuff, or perhaps that's what science fiction is always like and that, really, it just isn't to my taste. Still, there's plenty more Brookmyre out there that I look forward to trying - so long as the sentences aren't so dense and don't hurt my head so much.

Orbit Books, 2014;
448 pages.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

For Review: The Book of Lies ~ Mary Horlock

The blurb on the back of this book reads as follows:
It's been a fortnight since they found her body and for the most part I am glad she's gone. But I also can't believe she's dead, and I should do because I did it.
This alone was enough to make me want to read The Book of Lies - fifteen year old Catherine has killed her best friend, and the novel would be about figuring out what drove her to do such a thing. This is what the book is about, but it is so much more - I had underestimated how complex the story would be.

From the very first page, the reader knows that Catherine, fat and unpopular, has murdered her friend Nicolette, beautiful and popular. The scene of the crime is the cliffs of the island of Guernsey - a dangerous and perilous drop. Catherine isn't suspected of having killed Nic, and sets out her story of why it was that she had to kill her. She recalls how she and Nic became friends in the first place, and shows how very easily addicted she became towards the girl. But the friendship gradually, falls apart into bitter bullying. The story of two high school girls, though, is only part of the novel.

Between chapters about Catherine's life are the transcripts of secrets as told by her uncle Charlie Rozier. In the 1940s, Charlie details life in Guernsey at the time of the Nazi occupation. He explains what the island was like at that time, how people co-operated, and how people resisted. As a teenager at the time, Charlie found himself caught in difficult circumstances, wanting to out the Nazis and their sympathisers, while also being coerced into helping others escape.

The two stories intertwine, not just told along a parallel, but also reflected in each other. Similarities and differences are clear to see between the two, and Catherine becomes fixated in these and the other files that she finds in her dead father's study. Not only do the two stories connect in terms of some of the content and themes, but there are motifs and phrases of language that appear subtley in both. For example, lying on the grass outside a party after pushing away unwanted attention, Catherine calms herself by counting her breathing. In another chapter of Charlie's transcript, he also mentions using his breathing to stay calm.

The Book of Lies thoughtfully considers history, and how history can repeat itself, particularly between generations of the same family. The nature vs nurture argument appears throughout the novel, sometimes in a subdued way, and other times made more explicit in Catherine's narration. Most compelling for me, though, was reading Catherine's turmoil and tracing her gradual downward spiral. She is aware of how frustrated she is with life, and of the claustrophobia of living on such a small island. But she is an unreliable narrator, as it becomes clear, particularly towards the end of the novel, that she is quite unaware of her own mental breakdown and of the unhealthy ways in which she thinks and acts. Her relationships with male characters, for example, are especially interesting to read, particularly with her history teacher. With these relationships, Catherine has disillusions, or is naively unaware, of how an innocent relationship can be turned into something more sinister, and rather easily too.

In all, The Book of Lies had me thoroughly gripped, particularly by Catherine. As a reader, there was a real pull in seeing how Catherine made and broke relationships with those around her - her mother, her friends, her history teacher - and to have finally isolated herself, almost completely. Horlock has created some dark, brooding, and sinister, with characters and a story to match the bleak landscape of Guernsey.

Canongate Books, 2011;
Trade Paperback;
325 pages.