Thursday, 18 September 2014

I've Got Your Number - Sophie Kinsella

I wanted a change of pace after reading A Clash of Kings, and thinking about the unread books on my shelves I knew where to get it.  My sister had lent me a Sophie Kinsella book quite some time ago, but I'd never quite found the right mood to read it in.  Sometimes you just have to take the plunge and hope the mood finds you.

I've Got Your Number is a standalone Sophie Kinsella book about a woman called Poppy.  As we meet her, she isn't having the best of days.  She's lost her very expensive engagement ring and then has her phone stolen.  In a moment of desperation she picks up a phone that's been left in a bin.  And so, in true chick lit style, her whole life changes.

This book did me the power of good.  True escapism, and I genuinely found myself laughing out loud.  I've struggled to get into some Sophie Kinsella books in the past (although I tend to be hooked before the end) as they can be quite cringeworthy.  Thankfully the truly cringeworthy moments don't happen until several chapters in, by which point you're already invested and so it's easier to cope with.

The nice thing with reading this sort of book is that you essentially know how it's going to end, you just don't know how it's going to get there.  So, for example, you don't start every chapter dreading that your favourite character is about to be killed off (unlike other books I could mention).  The first-person writing makes it particularly easy to be absorbed into Poppy's world and follow the ups and downs1.

The concept of completely sharing part of your life with someone you don't know is such a simple but effective idea.  And it's used really well in this book.  Somehow it's easier to text a stranger about your worries than to tell your friends - something that a quick read of Twitter will confirm only too well!

Overall I would heartily recommend this book to anyone who's been taking things a bit too seriously lately and just needs to take a break.  Or anyone who just wants to have a good laugh.  Classifying this as chick lit might conjure up the image of trash, but, just like rom coms, not all books are created equal.  Although, if you only like books about war and killing then perhaps this isn't for you.  Maybe my next book will be?

1 And the footnotes help too.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

A Clash of Kings - George R.R. Martin

When you are dragged into the world of a book, you want to keep reading it no matter what.  And sometimes you'll only stop when you actually fall asleep, which means doing a lot of reading when you're tired.  Some books shouldn't be read when you're too tired, particularly those that are difficult enough to keep track of when wide awake.  Re-enter A Song of Ice and Fire...

A Clash of Kings is the second installment in the now-very-famous fantasy series by George RR Martin.  As you'd therefore expect, it continues storylines set out in A Game of Thrones, as well as introducing more characters and threads into the mix.  Because clearly there weren't enough already.  This is a kingdom at war (or should that be kingdoms?) with more sides and 'rightful' rulers than you can shake a stick at.  Or keep track of.

It has to be said that my reading of this book was quite on and off.  The timing coincided with the end of my maternity leave, and lots of visitors as I returned to work.  And when you try to dip in and out of a book that needs commitment you stop enjoying it.  But once I gave it another chance, after a short break, I re-found my enthusiasm and hit the magic point of no return that makes being immersed in a book so much fun.

Seriously though, do not read this book while over-tired.  I was pretty much falling asleep for a couple of chapters and woke up the next day unable to remember what had happened, other than a vague recollection of some ships.  Thankfully I flicked back through before continuing, as I'd half-read a hugely important battle.  Even now I may need to re-read parts before continuing with the next book.

The characters are the sort that you appreciate rather than love.  The realities that they live in would make being too friendly rather impractical.  But you do start to overlook aggressive habits, to become rather fond of people that will happily kill others.  Not too fond though.  You never know who will be next on the chopping block.

As any book in a series should do, the acceleration at the end leaves you wanting to read on.  And read on I shall.  I just hope that I can get the balance right so that it's not another 3 months before I finish my next book.

Monday, 23 June 2014

The Valley of Fear - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Looking for something a little lighter to read next I returned to the world of Sherlock Holmes.  This represented a complete change of pace from my last book, which was exactly what I needed.  My progress with the collection so far had led me to the final novel.

The Valley of Fear is a murder mystery that, once again, sees Sherlock Holmes finding clues that no one else does and making a mockery of police work.  Sounds kind of repetitive but actually it's not.  After all, the details are always what make the difference in these cases.  The murder takes place in an old manor house that is surrounded by a moat, somewhat changing the balance of options available.

As with the first novel, the story is split into two parts.  The first covers the 'present day' mystery solving and the second tells the past story of how the key players ended up in that position.  The format worked a little better for me this time round for two reasons.  Firstly, the change in scene is announced a little better.  But secondly, I'd glanced at the Notes page my Kindle showed before the story and it said the book was split.  Always helps.

Both parts worked quite well for me.  The mystery itself was interesting enough.  The solution was fairly straightforward but isn't it always once you know the answer.  As for the back story, I found it difficult to relate to, however it was an enjoyable read.

Overall the book fulfilled the exact purpose I wanted it too.  My brain had it a bit easier after trying to keep track of the last book I'd read, and my wrists got a nice light break with my Kindle.  Only 2 short story collections left and I'll have finished a mini-reading project.  It'll have to wait a bit though, there are other books begging more urgently to be read.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

A Game of Thrones - George R.R. Martin

I've never been that great at keeping up with crazes - I either seem to arrive at the party once everyone else has left or stubbornly refuse to turn up at all.  With the cult following that Game of Thrones has generated it was destined to be the latter.  My husband owns and has read the books that have been written so far, and is catching up on the TV series, but it wasn't for me.  Until I got really resentful of all the non-fantasy readers accessing this world I hadn't experienced.  So I thought I'd give the first book a go.  Just to say I'd tried.

A Game of Thrones is the first book in the series A Song of Ice and Fire.  Based in the lands of the Seven Kingdoms (and beyond) it follows the inter-woven lives of some very influential families grappling for justice, riches or power.  With friends not quite so friendly as they may first seem, stability is a fragile thing, with betrayal and fights almost inevitable.

As fantasy books go there's not a huge amount of fantastical activity going on, which is probably something that has helped it to secure a more mainstream TV following.  For the most part it could easily be set in a foreign land several hundred years ago.  This means that, unlike some fantasy books, it can't rely on wowing the reader with detailed explanations of magical sources, it needs to do that another way.  Like with the sheer volume of characters.

Not unusually, I've been quite tired while reading this book.  So much so that I commented to my husband I might have to restrict reading it to during the day, so that I didn't lose track of all the characters.  He assured me that I will never be able to keep track of all the characters, you just have to go with it.  He was right, of course.  The scale of the different houses involved is immense, and it is very easy to see how the detail will only get more complicated as more characters come to the forefront and allegiances change.

The storytelling style works well with the inter-woven experiences.  While the writing throughout is in third person, each chapter is told from the point of view of one of the characters.  For that length of time you experience only what they do, but are also privy to their thoughts on all those events.  This style has the effect of drawing you in closer to the characters' lives, and makes it very easy for the author to pick which side you are drawn to.

My intention was always to judge this book on its merits.  If I liked it, great, if not, that was fine too.  Unfortunately, at times it has been difficult to judge it truly.  I've been in the room for odd bits of selected episodes of Game of Thrones, and while at the time the scenes meant nothing the meaning of certain potions became very clear very quickly when characters were introduced.  Given I had previously decided not to read the books no one is to blame for this, but it would be nice not to spend the whole reading experience trying to match up references.

Still, there's a way to ensure my reading isn't tainted further.  I'll just have to catch up on the books before I walk in on any more episode watching.  And given how much I was absorbed into the first one, it's only a matter of how much free time I have in my day.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Déjà Dead - Kathy Reichs

At the moment I seem to be somewhat of a dreamer when it comes to reading.  I spend a lot of time thinking about books or series of books that I would like to read, and often browse them in my local library.  But actually reading the books is still difficult as ever.  When juggling various tasks all day even making time to read in bed has been going out the window.  So it's nice to know that sometimes I do manage to read the books I hunt down.

Déjà Dead is the first book in Kathy Reichs' series about Dr Temperence Brennan, an anthropologist specialising in bones.  This may sound familiar to you for the same reason I was aware of the series, in that they are the books upon which the TV series Bones is based.  I say 'based' in a very loose sense though.  The books are based in Montreal, a city that has fascinated me for quite some time and adds a different cultural element for an ignorant Brit.  Dr Brennan works with the regional law enforcement and helps to identify remains of dead bodies from their bones.  When subsequent major cases seem a bit similar Tempe tries to get a bit more involved with the different aspects of solving a crime, with escalating consequences.

Clearly reading a crime book wasn't a huge departure for me, but reading 'modern' crime was a little different.  The story is set in the 90s and so seems a lot more relevant than those from 50 or 100 years before that.  In some ways it does show its age.  Data is moved around on CD-ROMs and there is a very cute explanation of how Tempe is able to write a message on her computer and send it to her daughter's.  Still, it was recent enough to give the same realism factor that you get from watching crime TV shows.  Which helped with the scary factor.  That and I've never been good at dealing with stalker plotlines.  This also contributed to me not being able to read before bed.  I did try it at one point and hardly slept all night.

I think my reading experience suffered from me having watched so many episodes of Bones.  I kept making comparisons.  It's kind of difficult to treat them separately in your head, even when after just a few pages you're aware of how many differences there are.  It's a shame as, reflecting on what I read, I think I actually prefer the characters and the setup in this book to what I've watched.  The strengths and weaknesses of those involved were interesting to discover, as were the interpersonal relations.  I just wish I'd started with a blank canvas.  Or at least could have done a find-and-replace on Tempe's name.

Setting out to read this book I wasn't necessarily planning to read more of the series.  It was just one of those things I thought I should have read.  But it seems to have got me enough to want to read a little more.  That's not saying I'll keep reading til I run out though.  And whether my nerves will hold out through another of these books is a different matter entirely.  For now I will just continue to do what I have been doing, chipping through my to-read list at an annoyingly slow rate.  Hopefully one day I might manage to make that list shorter rather than longer...

Thursday, 1 May 2014

The Color Purple - Alice Walker

You know those books that are sat on your bookshelf because you feel you should read them?  Maybe they even include books that you tried to read some time ago but gave up on.  I have plenty of books like that.  Books that friends read at school, books that seem to appear as 'must reads' and so on.  And, very occasionally, I do actually read them.

The Color Purple first appeared on my radar in GCSE English lessons, with a few of my classmates selecting it for their wider reading coursework.  All I really remember of their discussions was the assurance that the first page was the worst.  Not that it really meant a great deal at the time.  When I started trying to read it a few years back I was glad of that comment, but even still I did not manage to persevere for long.  This year, however, it appeared on the World Book Day Writes of Passage list and I had one of those 'now or never' moments that made me determined.

The book is set in the American South between the wars and tells the story of a girl (later woman) named Celie.  Her story is told in letter form, as diary extracts that she writes to God.  This instantly brings a personal connection and is a very powerful way to approach some of the topics covered.  But it also brings the reason that I initially struggled reading.  The letters are written as Celie would write them and so contain a lot of dialect and also the phrases of someone who is simply not used to writing.  Once you get used to the style it's fine, but you do need to give it some time (preferably when you're not completely exhausted if possible).

So that first page that was so controversial in my English class?  It describes the first time that she is raped.  Other occurences cover the emotional impact, arguably making the descriptions fair worse, but the first is certainly as graphic as it gets.  The theme of abuse in relationships is widely explored in its different forms.  It's easy to see why it fell into the World Book Day's category of 'books that will make you cry'.  Other themes are covered as well, notably racism - particularly in its more 'casual' forms.  Sexuality also makes an appearance (definitely not the first book I've read this year with lesbian references). In fact, if I tried to list all the social, emotional and moral topics that feature I would struggle to finish this post today.

It's somewhat of an unusual read for me in that it doesn't have an obvious genre.  It's not fantasy, crime, or any of my typical choices.  It's 'just' a book.  But some books are well regarded for a reason.  Give this one a go, and stick with it if you struggle to get into the writing syle.  It might make you cry, but it might just also give you hope.

Monday, 31 March 2014

The Big Four - Agatha Christie

After the excitement of a decent length trilogy I wanted to read something a bit shorter and more sedate.  Returning to the world's favourite Belgian detective for the first time in almost two years seemed to fit the bill.  And, luckily for me, my local library happened to have one of the series in that I hadn't read before.

The Big Four differs in style to other Poirot books that I've read.  Rather than revolving round one key mystery it revolves around a key group of villains (no prizes for guessing how many bad guys are in the group).  This means there are many distinct events spread over several months - definitely fitting my criteria of being more sedate.  The resulting feel is of a series of short stories glued together, and since finishing the book I've found that it pretty much was that.

One major change since I last read a Poirot book is that I've fallen into the world of Sherlock Holmes.  As Agatha Christie based her detective on Conan Doyle's it is easy to see how I kept falling into confused comparisons.  Unfortunately the comparisons didn't reflect that well on the little Belgian.  I suspect that it is this particular book that this is the case for though, as the style didn't really suit me.

The 'serial short stories' format meant that each mystery was on a smaller scale.  The clues and observations in each distinct case were less meaningful than they would be in a larger case.  This wasn't really helped by the fact that it's obvious each time that the Big Four will be behind it, which somewhat takes away the mystery element.

I feel somewhat as I did when I'd read The Final Problem - slightly cheated out of a puzzle and like I'd read about a detective's trip instead.  But that particular Holmes short story did not stop me reading more, and I'm sure that this won't be the last Poirot book I try.  Perhaps it's just the case that I didn't want a sedate read after all.