Friday, April 18, 2014

24 Hour Readathon #3 ~ The Adventure (aka the Results!)

On Monday I completed my third 24 hour readathon to raise money for charity. This year, I was raising money for both the National Literacy Trust, and the Scottish Association for Mental Health. This year, I started off with only four and a half hours sleep the night before. I start the readathon at midnight, and it's quite tricky for my night owl self to try and sleep at 6pm. So, after some tea and toast, I was ready to begin.

Here's a quick look at what I read:

1. The Elephant Vanishes - Haruki Murakami
This was a good one to start with - short stories, some that interlinked and shared characters. I enjoyed this, as bizarre as some of the stories were (but hello, it's Murakami) and it kicked off the readathon quite well.

2. Counting Stars - David Almond
Another collection of short stories, I suppose, but it was more like little autobiographical snippets of Almond's life growing up. This made me cry, because some of it was just beautiful. Some of the content really troubled me too, but very thought-provoking.

3. Notes from the Underground - Fyodor Dostoevsky
Well, this was a bit of an error on my part. Don't get me wrong, I love Dostoevsky, but I shouldn't have read this at 6am on very little sleep. The first part is largely philosophical tract, and my brain wasn't functioning enough, so it read very slowly. I enjoyed the second part more, I think, and found the interactions with the prostitute to be interesting, and Dostoevskyesque. I like this guy's writing a lot, but it was tough going in this instance.

4. The Cutting Room - Louise Welsh
  Was around the halfway point here, and this book helped get me back on track with my reading. An auctioneer finds some sexually shocking photographs in a dead old man's attack, and sets out to discover whether these are really snuff, or just staged. I especially liked some of the minor characters of the novel, and I think the more graphic parts kept me awake!

5. The Boy in the Smoke - Maureen Johnson
This little book was one of this year's World Book Day's £1 books, and it was quite some story for your money. Stephen's lack of attention and care from his family lead him to one day attempt suicide, but when he's saved by a ghost, it opens up a whole world that he didn't know existed. For an 89 page novella, it was gripping and rather touching. I believe this is a prequel/prologue to Johnson's existing series, and I think I might check that out.

6. Naked Lunch - William Burroughs
Wow. Okay. So, I'd been awake for at least 18 hours by the time I got round to this. I'd also consumed some amount of energy drink and... this sure messed with my head. I think it would have done anyway, but in the state my brain was in...whoa, it was weird. There were parts that I enjoyed more than others, and parts that I made sense of more than others, but it certainly was a very surreal read. There are scenes I read in this book that I really don't think I'm going to forget any time soon...

7. There - Various Authors
This book is one of the Elsewhere collection - a short story collaboration between Cargo and McSweeneys. Lots of excellent authors in here, and it was a lovely way to wind down my readathon. Many of the stories in here related to the sea, which I really enjoyed. A brilliant collection, that partly made me want to go on holiday, and partly made me want to stay at home, though that's what much of the collection is about. The readathon finished off well with this.

So, all in all, that was 24 hours of reading, in which I tackled 1485 pages - a personal best!
It wasn't easy, and was quite a rollercoaster, given the books that I had chosen.

The best part of all of this is that I was able to raise money for charity. I still haven't quite made my target yet (£150 altogether) so any help to get there would be much appreciated!

The links to do so are here: Donate to the National Literacy Trust or Donate to the Scottish Association for Mental Health.

Thanks for everyone who has supported and donated so far - it's a great help and your money and support goes a long way! :)

Sunday, April 13, 2014

For Review: The End of Mr Y ~ Scarlett Thomas

This is not the kind of book you should be reading before bed time. My dreams over the past couple of days have been utterly bizarre. Which freaks me out a little. But really, maybe you should read this before sleeping, just to see what it feels like.

The End of Mr Y is also the name of a cursed book that English PhD student Ariel Manto happens across. She is doing research on thought experiments, including obscure 19th century writer Thomas Lumas. 'The End of Mr Y' is a book so rare that she can barely believe her luck when she finds it in a second hand bookshop. The book tells the story of Mr Y who discovers a potion that can allow telepathy, and the ability to travel through minds. If that doesn't make sense, think Eternal Sunshine, or Inception. Using this potion, Ariel embarks on a bizarre and frightening journey minds. It's one that causes her to be threatened and chased while she tries to figure out what reality is, and what it isn't.

While Ariel deals with what's going on in her (and others') mind, she also has to cope and survive in the 'real world'. She has little to no money, and few friends. She meets and falls for an ex-priest (who is, I thought, a very compelling character), but is also having a self-destructive affair with a married man. As the novel progresses, Ariel's concerns move from the physical to the mental and metaphysical, but while she's a very clever lady, her thoughts and desires are human, and not always in the most positive of ways. But I liked Ariel a lot, and wanted to see her gain some sort of satisfaction from her life.

In brief, The End of Mr Y takes place in the physical world, and in the mind, on several layers. As much as I personally enjoyed this, it should maybe be said here that I'm also a philosophy graduate. I was au fait with many of the philosophers/scientists/thought experiments that were discussed, but some of that did take place over several pages so, if you're not keen on reading philosophy, or if you prefer it to be separate from your fiction, perhaps this isn't the book for you. If philosophical chats turn you on, though, this is your novel.

Thomas presents a well-written and intelligent, but also emotional, story that explores and bends what we know about ourselves and the world around us. If you could read the minds of all the people you know and love and travel through their memories, would you? At the start of the novel I thought yes, but now the idea scares me far too much. The journey to figure that out through The End of Mr Y was an enjoyable and thought-provoking one.

Canongate Books, 2007;
502 pages.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

24 Hour Readathon #3

It's that time of year again - 24 hour readathon for charity time! I've done this twice before (you can read about it if you click on my 'readathon' label) and raised a total of £340 for the Scottish Association for Mental Health. This year, on Monday 14th April,

Here's a little bit of about why I'm reading for 24 hours for these charities:

Scottish Association for Mental Health

To raise awareness of mental health issues in Scotland, while also reducing the stigma of various illnesses.
I plan on fundraising for SAMH again, but also for the National Literacy Trust.
If you broke your leg, you wouldn't expect that your friends would not understand. You wouldn't be embarrassed or ashamed to tell them. You wouldn't worry about what they would think of you, just because you have a broken leg.

So why the fear surrounding mental health?

More people need to understand what mental illness actually means, and how it affects those that suffer and cope.
More people affected by mental illness should have the confidence to admit their condition and its needs.

If you're interested in donating to this charity, you can visit my Just Giving page here.

National Literacy Trust

Because the ability to read gives a person the ability to access and understand the world that they live in. Because the ability to write gives a person the opportunities to communicate and to share ideas. Learning and imagination - being literate helps a person to grow.

If you're interested in donating to this charity, you can visit my Just Giving page here.

As per the last couple of times, I will be updating my blog and my twitter every 6-8 hours or so to show how my progress is going. I'd love to raise £150 between the two charities, and for a personal goal I'd also like to beat my total number of pages read (1341 last year).

Any help in donating, spreading the word, or support is much appreciated! I hope to do some good for both of these excellent charities and the work that they do.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

For Review: The Dead Beat ~ Doug Johnstone

There are a few reviews of Doug Johnstone's books kicking around my blog - always enjoyable, and set in an Edinburgh that I know and understand. The Dead Beat features the centre of Edinburgh, and some of my own haunting ground, and it always really excites me to know exactly what the characters are up to and where. I finished reading The Dead Beat on a train, and getting off at Waverley Station, then walking up North Bridge to get a bus, was a different experience than usual.

The Dead Beat sees Martha starting her first day as a obituary writer at a local newspaper. Only the first caller appears to be informing her of his own death before committing suicide on the phone. Not the most ideal first day. The call is a catalyst to a novel that deals with several suicides, mental illness, and family secrets. Martha learns more about her father through a series of cassette tapes, while also trying to uncover more about her family's past, and strange goings on in her present.

There's a lot going on in this book, and while there are some dark themes here, the book never feels heavy in a way that is trying too hard. Johnstone balances crime and mystery with friendships and romances, while colouring his novel with a city and its characters, and the sounds of 90s grunge. There were points where I wanted more, where there was this or that that could have been fleshed out, given more page time, but I think that would have made for quite a different (and a much longer) story.

Martha herself is a young woman that I liked straight away. She's sarcastic, and sometimes pretty mean, but she's clever and self-aware. Her twin brother Cal is, as she states at the start of the novel, quite the opposite - composed, calm, and patient. Then there's all the folks that Martha works with at the paper. V is an incredible character with some cracking lines, and I think every newspaper should have a crude-talking wrestling member of the team like her. For those that have read Hit and Run, Billy and Rose make a return. It probably took me a little longer than it ought to before I realised that Billy was that Billy, but when I did I was rather pleased and excited.

The Dead Beat was a fast-paced read that picked up speed towards the end - Johnstone allows his reader to move along with Martha's thoughts and ideas, dropping the odd hint here and there, then drops down the bam ending. The Dead Beat is funny, moving, exciting and, as always, Johnstone really brings the city of Edinburgh alive. Maybe in his next venture, Martha and Cal might resurface in someone else's story.

But as a writer...

This isn't something I've done in a review before, but I couldn't help but think about these things as I was reading The Dead Beat. In my own novel, Swings & Roundabouts, my protagonists are suffering from mental illness, and they're similar ages to Martha too. Same period of time, same ages, similar issues, same parts of town. So reading The Dead Beat, I couldn't help but think about how maybe, in some fictional version of Edinburgh, my characters might have met Johnstone's characters. Maybe they'd even be friends. Equally, there are several scenes and mentions of the Southern (my favourite local pub) and my main character Matt actually works in that very bar. Edinburgh is one of those places where the phrase 'small world' creeps up often, and I think that might even be true in a fictional sense too. Maybe for many writers in the world this is something that happens often - they read lots of book with lots of similarities and crossovers. But for my debut novelist self, this is a first for me, and it amuses me immensely.

The Dead Beat is launching 1st May, by Faber;
272 pages.

An accompanying playlist can be found on Doug Johnstone's blog.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

For Review: Pygmy ~ Chuck Palahniuk

Been a wee while since I last visited Palahniuk, and I realised (very early on in this novel when it really got to the gritty stuff) just how much I missed him.

Agent 67, also known as Pygmy, is sent from his homeland to America in order to take part in Operartion Havoc, a mission to destroy Americans and their culture. English is not Pygmy's first language, so the novel is told with his stilted and awkward diction. America and its customs is entirely new to him too, and the result is a teenaged stranger struggling to make sense of a culture he has been trained to detest.

"Worst ever torture to watch youth wasted."

Pygmy lives with his host family, including an overweight father and an underweight mother, each with their own sexual pecularities (some grossness included, of course), an obnoxious, bullied brother, and a sister is determined to win the school science fair, and who sneaks out at night spying. The novel also includes dubious religious leaders, a blond haired bully, and weird old ladies that work in WalMart. To assimilate into American culture, Pygmy attends high school and endures PE lessons, embarrassing school discos, and takes part in a fateful model nations event.

The peculiar narration is the biggest barrier to this book. At first, I found it slow and difficult to get used to. Though there were turns of phrase that became frequent and understandable, there were still several places throughout the novel where I had to stop to decipher what Pygmy is actually talking about. As the novel progressed, I was expecting (because it's Palahniuk and he's very clever), for Pygmy's diction to become more fluid, and for Americanisms to be more frequent in his vocabulary. The story takes place over several months and, because Pygmy appears to be quite a bright character, I'd assumed that he'd replace 'healing walls' with 'closed doors', for example. Palahniuk will no doubt have his reasons for not doing this, but given how much comment is made on the triviality of American life and culture, I thought it would be interesting to see how Pygmy grows and learns in the new world he's in.

Needless to say, with the name Palahniuk attached, this novel is not for the faint hearted. Equally, because of the interesting narrative style, it's not what I'd recommend for readers coming to Palahniuk for the first time (that's what Fight Club and Invisible Monsters are for). Those acquainted with the author and his quirks, however, would enjoy this. As I've said, the narrative makes Pygmy very different, and while the bare and unusual language can be difficult, it can be very funny, and also illuminating. Pygmy is gross, clever, hilarious, and also strangely moving. A good little read.

Vintage, 2010;
241 pages.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

For Review: Under the Skin ~ Michel Faber

Recently, I've been picking the books from my TBR according to imminent film releases. If I'm going to see a book turned film, then I like to have read the book first. There's a much smaller risk of ruining a film by having read the book first, than ruining a book by having watched a poor adaptation. I've not seen the Under the Skin film, but I'm very glad that I read the book first. The film will probably go amiss.

Isserley spends her days travelling through the Highlands of Scotland picking up hitchhikers from the side of the road. She is, however, very choosey about who she will let in her car - only the most attractive of males, once she has assessed them once or twice. She's a lonely woman, struggling to get used to a country/language/culture that is new to her, most of her daily conversations with the men that she picks up. Under the Skin is a difficult novel to give a brief summary of, because there's a lot of gradual revealing that's part of the enjoyment of the story. What is fair enough to say is that Isserley isn't quite of this world, and the reasons for her picking up hitchhikers are far more strange than they might first appear.

However human or otherwise, Isserley is a woman that I found myself empathising with, feeling symmpathy for, being complicatedly intrigued about, and liking but being uncertain about. She seems to have a similar effect on those around her - whether its the men she picks up who are attracted but also repulsed, or the men that she lives with who are often confused and intimidated by her. Isserley is the central force of the novel, and it was a desire to see her get what she wants, some satisfaction from her life, that kept me moving quickly through the book.

Anyone that had suggested Under the Skin to me had promised that I would love it, and they were definitely right. No disappoints here, just a thoroughly enjoyable and compelling read. There are scenes still firmly stuck in my mind, even though I finished reading days ago. Then again, I knew it would be great, because I'm still occasionally haunted by thoughts of Crimson Petal...

So am I extremely eager to see the film? No way. The setting of rural highland Scotland is so important to the novel in so many ways, and I have no idea whatsoever as to why they chose to set the film in Glasgow instead. Then, there's the casting of Isserley - she should be attractive, but also not, at the same time. I'm sure Scarlett Johansson, though, is nothing but beautiful the whole way through. Again, I haven't seen it, but from what I've heard, the film makes the story about things that it really isn't about, or so it seems to me, and to others I've spoken to. So, no, I'll avoid this film adaptation, but I'll be sure to recommend the book to anyone, whether they intend to watch the big screen version or not, because the novel is exceptional.

Canongate Books;

304 pages.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

For Review: A Thousand Splendid Suns ~ Khaled Hosseini

Another book that had a lot of hype surrounding its publication, and there's been a recent excitement of Hosseini's latest novel. As per usual, I'm deliberately late to the party. Still, A Thousand Splendid Suns is another of those reads that makes me wonder why it took me quite so long to get round to it.

1970s Afghanistan, and Mariam is fifteen years old when she is given away to marry a man thirty years her senior. During a time of increasingly difficult political unrest, Mariam learns to accept and endure her marriage with Rasheed, though it is far from the life that she wished for herself. A few years later, a girl called Laila is born to one of Mariam's neighbours, and following the attacks on Kabul and the rise of the Taliban, the two women become closer than they ever would have imagined. A Thousand Splendid Suns is the story of two women struggling to make their way in a society that is often unkind to its women, through its politics, its religious zealots, and its patriarchy.

I learned a lot reading this book. While I did have some general, vague understanding of the conflicts in Afghanistan, I wasn't aware of how constant and on going it is. At some stage in the novel I found my ignorance embarrassing, but I suppose that's the gift of reading, and the kinds of issues and understanding it can give about the rest of the world. There are several books I've read that detail political goings on and I've had to skip pages and pages of boring retellings, but with A Thousand Splendid Suns, the politics and the history was interwoven with the characters and the plot in a way that was interesting and accessible.

The lives of both Mariam and Laila are fascinating, though often very difficult, to read. From two different generations, each of the women grow up with quite different backgrounds and ideas about the world. But the realities of living as a woman in Afghanistan are not as they expect and, furthermore, there is a troubling and abusive marriage to endure. Mariam and Laila are likeable but, largely, they're admirable, each with their own strengths, and weaknesses. How the women find strength, and how they persevere in inspiring, but also incredibly moving. A novel with a plot like this wouldn't make sense without tears.

A Thousand Splendid Suns is a many-layered, and beautifully told story - love, heartbreak, faith, family, politics, endurance, friendship. There were places were plot twists were guessable, but these were sometimes played around with and made twists again. Ultimately though, the reader is often very uncertain of the fate of Mariam, Laila, and their loved ones, but it is the desire to see them pull through and see justice done that drives the story towards its conclusion.

Bloomsbury, 2007;
402 pages.