Sunday, 18 October 2015

Sunday Summary: Belated Birthday Post

I've been doing pretty well this year at reducing the number of books on my to-read shelf, until it got down to about sixteen, and I thought I didn't actually like having that few books on the pile. Luckily, my shelf is looking nice and bright and full again, since my birthday, and after relaxing my book-buying rules.

I had a really lovely birthday, which began after work on the day before, when I went out to Pizza Express with a small group of friends, and then on to the cinema to watch The Martian, which hadn't been due out until November, but while I was rereading it during Bex's Rereadathon, I checked the release date to find it had been swapped with another movie (can't remember which) and brought forward to the weekend of my birthday. Nice.

The Martian was a really brilliant adaptation of an excellent novel. It doesn't bog you down with science (my only struggle with the book,) but it shows you what you need to know; it is a smart, tense and very fun thriller, true to the book with just enough changes to keep you guessing even when you know the story. The soundtrack (disco!) was well-chosen with some hilariously apt songs at certain moments, and it was gloriously geeky. Definitely to be recommended.

I had a pleasant surprise to receive a birthday present from my work colleagues (normally we just do cards, but this was a "big" one.) I had planned to keep it until the actual birthday before opening it, but I was surrounded by friends, so I gave in: I had a bottle of wine, a big box of chocolates, and a book token, which lasted a whopping three days, until I bought Man Booker Prize shortlisted A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. I'm reading it at the moment; it's the story of four friends who spend their adult life in New York, focusing in particular on the enigmatic Jude. It's rather harrowing in its subject matter - there are reasons why Jude refuses to talk about his past - but it's written in such a way to make you emotionally invested in the characters and want happiness for them. I've an ominous feeling that a happy ending is not on the cards and it will be hard-hitting and devastating. I hope I'm wrong.

From Judith, I had an assortment of things: scented candle, chocolates, Watchmen T-shirt, and the book version of Neil Gaiman's Make Good Art speech, delivered to graduates of the University of Arts in Philadelphia. It's a speech that really spoke to me as an unpublished author, and I keep it on the shelf over my desk for encouragement and inspiration.

Jamie bought me Neal Stephenson's The |Diamond Age, which he'd recommended to me before as one of his favourite (non Terry Pratchett) books of all time.

From Jenny, my sister: a game called Geek Battle - a sort of Trivial Pursuit emphasising science, science fiction, comic books and video games, as well as random geekery - and they are not all my areas of expertise, so her predictions of me winning every time are not likely to come true. I've only played one game, but not properly as you need at least three players and there were only two of us at the time. She also sent me Fun with Kirk and Spock, a spoof learning-to-read book a la Janet and John or Biff, Chip and Kipper, poking fun at some of the tropes of Star Trek. (Somehow she seems to have got the impression I'm a nerd, don't know how she arrived at that conclusion...) Also, from Jenny, the latest book (for adults) by Judy Blume, bestselling and best-known author of teenage fiction when we were growing up.(Just as Long as We're Together will always have a special place in my heart.) My parents bought me a dress and two more books: Am I Normal Yet? by Holly Bourne (special thanks to Jess Hearts Books for her recommendation) and a history book about The Bletchley Girls.

Parcels continued to arrive all through that week. Continuing the Bletchley theme, Ellie sent me The Imitation Game and another DVD, a film called X+Y about an autistic boy who enters an international mathematics competition, which was sweet and funny and moving. Bex sent me the third and fourth books in Holly Smale's Geek Girl series (again, noticing a theme?) Clare, one of my best friends from university, bought me Faulks on Fiction, the book tied in with a TV series Sebastian Faulks presented a few years ago, taking different character archetypes from novels down the years, showing how concepts such as Hero or Villain have changed, and how they have stayed the same. He had some very odd ideas at times (Mr Darcy suffering depression? It might be one way of reading the character, but I don't see it, and Faulks just seemed to take it for granted that it was an integral part of his character. And if Harry Potter and Dan Brown don't fall into the category of "mainstream fiction," then what exactly does? Still, it was a really interesting read, and added yet more books onto my must-read list.

Faulks on Fiction not pictured.

Laura sent me The Three, as well as a DVD of The Incredibles - one of the greatest superhero films of all time. And I had more parcels from Bex: The Book of Strange New Things which was not a birthday present, but a prize from a giveaway I hadn't really been aware I'd entered when I took part in her rereadathon challenge in September. She also sent me a pair of earrings which had a certain quote from the film Serenity in teeny-tiny print inside them. Thanks to you all for your wonderful presents! I really shouldn't have any need to do much book-buying for the rest of the year. (Never mind that I picked up two books in the British Heart Foundation shop last week - they were new books, not even in paperback yet, and only £3 each! And never mind that I'm off to Hay-on-Wye next week, the town that is renowned for being full of bookshops.)

My charity-shop finds

Thursday, 8 October 2015

The Accidental - Ali Smith

Ali Smith is one of those authors who, until now, I had repeatedly not read. How To Be Both has been on my radar for a while, highly acclaimed and alluring, but somehow a bit intimidating too. And, when I finally bought The Accidental from the Books for Syria table at Waterstone's last week, and read the blurbs for Smith's back list,I recognised the strangely-incomplete titled There But For The as another book I'd picked up many times but never quite brought home with me. Smith has a reputation for being very clever and lyrical, but somewhat experimental in style, which had slightly frightened me for a long time. But this was for a good cause - a charity donation that gets you a free book, right?

The Accidental focuses on the Smart family: two parents and two adolescents, all of whom have their own struggles and unhappinesses. Astrid, aged twelve, is a lonely teenager, trying to make sense of her world through her video camera. Magnus, who is about sixteen or seventeen, is eaten up with guilt after his involvement in an incident at school with tragic consequences. Their stepfather, Michael, is a creepy college professor with a midlife crisis and lots of affairs, while their mother, Eve, feels the weight of unhappiness of her family, her marriage, and her career as a writer.

Into their lives comes Amber, a strange woman who shows up at their house one day. Everyone thinks she's here with someone else, but who is she, really? Each member of the family perceives her differently, either finding what they long for or need in her, or perhaps projecting their wishes onto her. She is the narrator, probably, of the first-person passages interspersed with the Smart family point-of-view chapters, yet we don't really know much about her. She doesn't quite seem real. Some of the characters think she must be an angel, but if so, she is an unstable, maybe even dangerous one. At the end of part one, she starts to give you a few answers - surprisingly early on, I thought - until: "Well?" she said. "Do you believe me?" I didn't think to do otherwise until that point, but the question throws it all into doubt. But that's all the answer you get.

The Accidental is a story about story, structured tidily into three parts: beginning, middle and end. About how stories grow and change in the telling, mutating and shaping the perception of truth. We see this expressed in different ways throughout the novel, for example in Eve's book series called "Genuine Articles," in which she takes real stories from history, but rewrites them to give them happy endings and "what ifs."

The language is lyrical, poetic - one section being made up of actual poetry, in Michael's "middle," the changes in form showing his world and his mind unravelling somewhat as the style turns from conventional sonnets in the Shakespearean rhyme scheme, to a frantic, disjointed style, to words just apparently thrown at a page. For Michael, Amber represents an incorruptible purity, and is the woman immune to his attempts at seduction. And his sense of entitlement can not deal with rejection. He is a repulsive creature.

Ali Smith's narrative contains some stream-of-consciousness, luring you to read on, but also to take your time thinking about her word choices. I found The Accidental engrossing with lots of food for thought, and I'm glad I finally got around to reading it. She's not necessarily a new favourite author, but definitely someone I want to read lots more from in the future.

Friday, 2 October 2015

Month in review: September

Hello. Sorry I haven't posted much recently. I'm expecting it to be quiet for another couple of months here on the blog, as I'm trying to focus on my novel-writing, and next month being NaNoWriMo I don't expect to get a lot of reading done. But I've been reading lots and plan to at least do some mini-review posts over the next few weeks. I've also got an idea for writing about modern adaptations of classic novels, in book, film and webseries formats, so watch out for that.

I've managed to carry out my read-2-buy-3 rule up till the end of September, getting my to-read pile down from 38 books to 21 (22 if you count what I'm reading at the moment.) But this month, being my birthday and having scheduled a couple of book-shopping trips, I don't expect to keep to it. (I know that's another £20 I owe to the Beanstalk fundraiser, Bex. I'll pay that next month. I'm keeping track.) November and December I don't intend to buy any books for myself, due to NaNoWriMo and Christmas, so hopefully it'll balance out by the end of the year.

What I've bought:

I've been quite restrained with my book-buying over the summer, I think, but last month I've had a bit of a splurge and brought home the following:

  • You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) - Felicia Day
  • The Gracekeepers - Kirsty Logan
  • The Teahouse Fire - Ellis Avery
  • Love in Idleness - Charlotte Mendelson
  • The Children who Lived in a Barn - Eleanor Graham
  • The Girl Who Couldn't Read - John Harding
  • All of the Above - James Dawson
  • Finn Fancy Necromancy - Randy Henderson

And today, I bought The Accidental by Ali Smith from the Waterstone's Books for Syria table. Guilt-free book-buying, as it all goes towards helping your fellow human beings.

What I've read:

  • You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) - Felicia Day
  • Goodnight Beautiful - Dorothy Koomson
  • The Shepherd's Crown - Terry Pratchett
  • The Martian - Andy Weir
  • First Term at Malory Towers - Enid Blyton
  • 11.22.63 - Stephen King
  • The School at the Chalet - Elinor M. Brent-Dyer
  • Charlotte Sometimes - Penelope Farmer
  • The Girl in the Blue Tunic - Jean Ure
  • Fingersmith - Sarah Waters
  • First Term at Trebizon - Anne Digby
  • Cell - Stephen King
  • Miss Brill - Katherine Mansfield (a Penguin mini classic)
  • All of the Above - James Dawson

I haven't made a to-read pile for October, as it's my birthday on Sunday and I expect I'll get some more books to add to my list (at least, I hope so.) But I'm excited about reading The Gracekeepers, which the bookseller I bought it from raved about, and which I've had my eye on for a while. Ali Smith is an author I've kept coming across in the past few years, but I've never actually had any of her books until now. And I'd like to read some more of the proper sci-fi and cheesy sci-fi I've picked up over the last year, mostly second-hand.

I'll be turning thirty this weekend, which I've been dreading for a long time. When I left university in 2007, I consoled myself with the thought that it might be a struggle figuring out what I was going to do with my life, but by the time I was thirty I'd surely have things sorted. And the years passed by, quicker and quicker, and I still have no idea what I'm meant to be doing after all. But in the last few months I feel more at peace with that, My life may not be where I thought it ought to be at thirty, but I'm seeing the good in my situation. I work part-time - but that means I have more time which I can focus on my writing. I am writing again, and that means I feel like I've got back in touch with who I'm meant to be. No, I'm not published yet, but I'm walking back towards what Neil Gaiman referred to as my "mountain" - I'm heading towards of my goal. It might be a long way off still, but I'm walking in the right direction again.
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