Saturday, 28 January 2017

Top Ten Books of 2016

Better late than never, right? Also, check out my favourite books from previous years:


Wow, I've been doing this longer than I thought...

As always, I'm going to start with the Gold Books, the books that I always knew would make it onto this list - the ones that stand out without me needing to check my LibraryThing list.

In no particular order:

1) All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

I didn't even particularly want to read this but it completely blew me away. I remember being sat at my desk when I read the few pages, and I was just stunned into silence. I needed time to process everything I had just read. It's quite simply awful. But brilliant.

'Every second that I was not reading All Quiet on the Western Front, I wanted to be. It's simultaneously really easy to read and really difficult. It's quite obviously not a happy story. There are no chirpy evacuees, no whirlwind romances and no duck-shaped gas marks. This is solely one soldier's experiences of life at the Front and it is brutal.'

2) The Collector by John Fowles

It seems I only read depressing books his year and only in the red Vintage editions...

The Collector deserves to be on this list purely due to the masterful characterisation and shifting perspectives. Somehow you end up loathing both abductor and abductee equally in a way that's quite disturbing. 

'I wasn't sure about the ending, but it's been going round and round in my head since I finished reading and I don't think it could have ended any other way. It just fit the theme perfectly. Speaking of, the theme of 'collection' is hinted at throughout the book, but in an oh-so-subtle way and it's very clever. The final paragraphs are appropriate and haunting, and I LOVE THIS BOOK.'


Something a little lighter at least. This is a futuristic, sci-fi novel that takes place almost entirely on board a spaceship, but it's more than that. It's about the small crew on board and their fractious yet affectionate relationships. 

The world building is simply astounding with a variety of different races, worlds and politics, and I can't wait to immerse myself into the second book.

'The book is more about those little sub-plots than the overarching storyline about building the hyperspace tunnel.They embark upon a long journey across space to get to where construction can begin, and that is more the subject of the book. We stop off at secret hacker planet for semi-legal ship modifications, visit the home planets of the some of the crew and deal with moral issues relating to medical treatment and consent. It's way more interesting than a travel tunnel!'

4) The Cranes Dance by Meg Howrey 

I don't really read a lot of contemporary fiction, although I don't have anything against it. It's just that I tend to go for fantasy or classics and don't really have time for anything else. 

The Cranes Dance might just have prompted me to branch out though. I loved this book and couldn't get it out of my head for days afterwards. On the surface it's about ballet, but it's really about family relationships and the voice inside your head. 

'What made this book for me is Kate Crane. She is possibly the most relatable, the most believable and the most real character I have ever read. It was honestly like she was inside my head. She has flaws, but not those exaggerated traits that fictional characters are often given to pad them out a bit. She was so, so real. She was likeable, for the most part, but those parts where she wasn't so perfect just made her relatable.'

5) The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber

Charlotte hosted a read-a-long for this book, partly due to the sheer length of it. I thought I'd reviewed it, but apparently not.

It's a wonderful book. Twists and turns galore, and it's written beautifully. Whilst I couldn't say I liked any of the characters, they were all written perfectly. Shame about the awful, lazy ending. I still wonder if the TV show ended in the same way.

'My favourite thing is the odd second person thing. Normally I'd hate that but it's so subtle. I didn't mark down any quotes because I essentially wanted to quote the entire book, but it says thing like 'our story follows Sugar, so don't bother following Caroline. It'll be warmer where Sugar's going anyway, so let's walk with her into the brightly-lit doorway.'


I mean, it's better written than my feeble attempt, but you get the idea. It's not like that 100% of the time or it would drive us bad, but it's just enough.'  

6) The Chronicles of St Mary's by Jodi Taylor

This is a light-hearted series about a group of historians who travel back in time for research purposes. I've reviewed the first one, but I've actually just finished the fourth. 

They definitely have their faults (although the writing is getting better as the books continue), but they're so much fun that I really don't mind.

'There is actually a detailed over-arching plot, which impressed me. I expected Just One Damned Thing After Another to be a sort of set-up book for the series, just sorting out the Institute and how Max got her job, etc. I suspect this storyline is convoluted enough to last throughout the entire series (seven books at time of writing) and it surprised me that such an idea was implemented halfway through Book One.'  
The books below are the books that do still deserve to be on the list, but aren't quite as good as the books above. They're still in my Top Ten, but I had to go looking for them.

7) Cracked: Why Psychiatry is Doing More Harm Than Good by James Davies
This is a non-fiction book about the development of psychiatry, medication and diagnostic criteria. It's really accessible and well-written, by an author who really seems to care about his subject.

It deals with the over-diagnosis of emotions (like classing bereavement as a mental disorder), unnecessarily medicating children and the politics involved in something as simple as diagnosing illness.

It's worth a read if you have even a passing interest in mental health.

8) Empire of Storms (Throne of Glass #5) by Sarah J. Maas

It's funny, I never actually want to pick these books up when I've bought them. I always think that I won't enjoy it so I put it off and put it off... even though I've done this so many times that I know it's not true. It's just that I loved the first few books, when they were simpler and before the fairies and elves and things were introduced, and now they're just... different. 

Anyway, I loved this book, as I always do. There were some brilliant twists and an absolute shocker of an ending, even if it did go on a tad too long and the unecessary pairing-everybody-up isn't necessary.

I know I'm not being convinving that I liked this book, but I really did!  

9) Bad Faith: When Religious Belief Undermines Modern Medicine by Dr Paul Offit

Another non-fiction. This one is absolutely fascinating. It discusses.variety of topics from a close examination of Christian Science, televangelists, child abuse, abortion, etc. It's a well-balanced book with case studies, excerpts from the Bible and also scientific studies, which results in a discussion, not a rant.

'Bad Faith is heart-breaking and shocking. I finished this book whilst getting a train to York to see a show, and I couldn't get it out of my head during the train ride or the show itself. Some aspects hurt me, some angered me and others just caused bewilderment at how anybody could think that was acceptable.' 

10) Scarlet, Cress and Winter (Lunar Chronicles series #2, 3 and 4) by Marissa Meyer

I read these way back in January 2016 and they nearly slipped my mind!

The first book, Cinder, was okay-ish, but then the series really improves from there. I'm still not sure it needed the fairytale links, but it's well worth a read regardless.

'I thought it was actually a pretty fitting conclusion. Not as simple as it could have been, which I give Marissa Meyer full credit for. I've said it in my previous of reviews of this series - it's a good plot. There's a convulted political history and intricate delicacies that stop juuuuuuust short of being too much.' 

What were your favourite books from 2016? 

Sunday, 8 January 2017

The Year of Reading Whatever the Hell I Want - How Did It Go?

Very well, thank you.

You may remember that in January 2016 I made a revolutionary change (or what amounts to one for us book bloggers) in my reading habits. The whole post is here, but the gist is that I was so sick of reading for challenges and TBRs, and feeling guilty about reading new books, that I just decided to not bother. Crazy, right?

This year has been great.

As a comparison:

2016                                                  2015

Books read: 71                                     Books read: 63
Rereads: 15 (21%)                                  Rereads: 9 (14.3%)
Pre-2016 books: 27                              Pre-2015 books: 25
 Non-fiction: 11                                       Non-fiction: 5
Average date of publication: 1992           Average date of publication: 1952 

On one hand, it's clear that I've read a lot fewer classics than I would have if I were monitoring my reading more closely, which is strange as I didn't have any challenges going for date of publication or classics, in particular. I have read some this year, but I've read a lot of books from the nineties (Terry Pratchett, etc). Oh well, it's hardly the end of the world.

I've clearly read more books than I did in 2015. I do remember the days when I could easily read 100+ books in a year, but that was before my hectic schedule kicked in - boyfriend, Scouts, language classes, sewing classes, WI, career... Probably shouldn't have put career last, but there you go. I think I just need to get on board with the fact that my life just simply doesn't allow me to read that much anymore.

That makes it even more important that the books I do read are good ones. Another reason is the following:


The above is part of my car after I had a could-have-been-worse-but-still-quite-serious accident on the M62. The Police shut the road and the paramedics arrived and it was all quite stressful, to be honest. I was fine, bar moderate whipash and an inability to sleep, but it shook me up quite badly. For some reason it bothered me an awful lot that I could have been reading a book that I didn't want to be reading. It's twee, but life is genuinely too short to do things you don't need or want to do.

The thing I've enjoyed most about this year is being able to read linked books. For example, I read Curtain: Poirot's Last Case, which is set in the same place with the same characters as the first Poirot book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, which I'd read in 2008. It felt wonderful to be able to reread that book right after finishing Curtain, just to round off the whole experience. I didn't feel guilty, or like I should be rereading something new to whittle down my TBR.

Another example was after I finished The Cranes Dance by Meg Howrey. It's an amazing book about a ballet dancer currently in the midst of dancing Swan Lake. That made me want to reread The Black Swan, which is a retelling of Swan Lake by Mercedes Lackey. So I did.

This year I've felt so free to read. I was surprised that I hadn't read more, but that doesn't matter. I plan to do exactly the same in 2017 - I'm going to read what I want, regardless of TBR, date of publication, author origin, story theme... I'm just not going to care and it's going to feel great.

Will you be monitoring your reading this year? If so, how?      

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Review: The Fate of the Tearling (Book Three of the Tearling series) by Erika Johansen

The Fate of the Tearling (Book 3) UK book cover by Erika Johansen
For once, I was quite lucky with the timing of the Tearling series. Usually, when I read the first book of a series, I lose all interest by the time the second book is released and the third may as well not even exist. However, I was able to buy the second book, The Invasion of the Tearling, immediately after I finished the first, The Queen of the Tearling, and then, lo and behold, the third book, The Fate of the Tearling, was released just a fortnight afterwards. I have actually managed to start and finish a whole series in one year. I'm sort of stunned.

My joint review of the previous books in the series are here.

Plot summary: In less than a year, Kelsea Glynn has transformed from a gawky teenager into a powerful monarch. As she has come into her own as the Queen of the Tearling, the headstrong, visionary leader has also transformed her realm. In her quest to end corruption and restore justice, she has made many enemies—including the evil Red Queen, her fiercest rival, who has set her armies against the Tear.

To protect her people from a devastating invasion, Kelsea did the unthinkable—she gave herself and her magical sapphires to her enemy—and named the Mace, the trusted head of her personal guards, Regent in her place. But the Mace will not rest until he and his men rescue their sovereign, imprisoned in Mortmesne.

Now, as the suspenseful endgame begins, the fate of Queen Kelsea—and the Tearling itself—will finally be revealed.

To summarise this entire review into one sentence - it just wasn't as good and the ending sucked.

Whilst I enjoyed this book for the most part, there's no getting around that it just felt flatter than the first two books, which I really enjoyed. Previously, the most impressive aspect of this series had been the characterisation. There were so many fascinating minor characters - Father Tyler, Aisa, Andalie, Brenna, the Mace - each with their own personalities and subplots, and they were an absolute joy to read about. 

Unfortunately, as this book spends more time following the past than ever before, these characters barely get a look in.  This time we're in the head of Katie, a young lady who lived in Jonathan Tear's New London, immediately post-Crossing (I kept picturing her as Katie from College Humor). It's quite interesting and it fit the tone of the story much better than when we were following Lily in the last book. Unfortunately, as previously, I'm less interested in the past and the almost unnecessary overarching plot, especially when it means that the really interesting characters get little airtime.

When they do show (which is rare), they've lost their sparkle. The Red Queen has changed completely and serves very little purpose, and the Mace seems a little bit wet behind the ears. There seemed to be a lot more milling around than previously, which is strange for the final book of a series. I wouldn't say I got bored of it exactly, but I certainly wasn't as eager to pick it back up as I had been with the other books.

It's a very... passive book. The huge majority of the narrative takes place in either the distant past or involves a lot of travelling and waiting for things to happen. And there is nothing, nothing, more passive in the history of literature than that ending.

I'm going to be vague to avoid spoilers, but suffice it to say that it wasn't good. I can get on board with endings that just don't go where I want them to, or that don't reach the 'right' conclusion, but this isn't that. It feels like the author built up so many subplots and so much drama, but then got the ending and just pressed the 'eh' button. There is no resolution of anything and it actually renders the whole series redundant. What happened to Father Tyler, Ayla or the Mace? Or anyone?

It's such a ridiculous ending that I sort of feel like there's no point rereading the series at any point because everything you experience is redundant. Why spend so much time building it up only to... well, not bother. Some other reviews have called it brave and unique, but I don't agree. It's lazy. 

Sometimes I can dislike an ending without letting it affect my opinion of the rest of the book, and I can't explain without being spoilery, but the nature of this ending means that this is impossible. It's not quite as bad as '... and I woke up and it was all a dream,' but it's close.

If you've read The Fate of the Tearling, I'd love to hear your thoughts on that ending.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Review: Bad Faith: When Religious Belief Undermines Modern Medicine by Dr Paul Offit

Book cover of Bad Faith by Dr Paul Offit
Whilst I'd be the first to say that I've read a lot of great non-fiction this year, Bad Faith was my absolute, undoubted favourite (and I've only gotten round to writing a review because I'll need to add it to my Top Ten Books of 2016 list shortly). I read quite a lot of medical non-fiction due to my career, but I'd never read one that was as accessible, well-written and thought-provoking as this one.

Summary: In recent years, there have been major outbreaks of whooping cough among children in California, mumps in New York, and measles in Ohio’s Amish country—despite the fact that these are all vaccine-preventable diseases. Although America is the most medically advanced place in the world, many people disregard modern medicine in favor of using their faith to fight life threatening illnesses. Christian Scientists pray for healing instead of going to the doctor, Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse blood transfusions, and ultra-Orthodox Jewish mohels spread herpes by using a primitive ritual to clean the wound. Tragically, children suffer and die every year from treatable diseases, and in most states it is legal for parents to deny their children care for religious reasons. In twenty-first century America, how could this be happening?

In Bad Faith, acclaimed physician and author Dr. Paul Offit gives readers a never-before-seen look into the minds of those who choose to medically martyr themselves, or their children, in the name of religion. Offit chronicles the stories of these faithful and their children, whose devastating experiences highlight the tangled relationship between religion and medicine in America. Religious or not, this issue reaches everyone—whether you are seeking treatment at a Catholic hospital or trying to keep your kids safe from diseases spread by their unvaccinated peers.


I'm not going to discuss the content of this book. Anybody who knows me even vaguely will know what side of the fence I fall on and hundreds of people (Dr Offit included) have explained their views far more eloquently than I ever could. Yes, Hanna is keeping her mouth shut for once.

This book contains a variety of topics from a close examination of Christian Science (which believes that illness is an illusion caused by ignorance of God - therefore, as illness is not actually real, the only way to treat it is prayer), televangelists, child abuse, abortion, etc. It's a well-balanced book with case studies, excerpts from the Bible and also scientific studies, which results in a discussion, not a rant.

What impressed me the most was the balanced nature of Bad Faith. Dr Offit is a Pediatrician specialising in infectious diseases and is the co-inventor of a rotavirus vaccine. It's fairly safe to say that his sympathies are going to lie with science and medicine, and so I was more or less expecting a diatribe on the dangers of religion and how their beliefs are ineffectual and redundant. As it turns out, I completely misjudged both Dr Offit and his work. Several chapters discuss how much good religion has brought about with regard to healing and how their efforts can be misintepreted by the more cynical. It's only the (usually) well-intentioned few who are the cause of the controversy.


Faith healing parents often argue that they were only doing what Jesus would have done. But what would He have done? - this man who dedicated his life to relieving the illness, poverty, and death around him; who wept at the suffering of children; who stood up for those who couldn't stand up for themselves. One can only imagine Jesus would have used whatever was available to prevent that suffering, much as Christians have been doing in His name for centuries.
What I loved about this book is that I still can't tell if Dr Offit believes in God or not. He never once suggests that God does not exist and, to an extent, I don't suppose it really matters in this context. It's more about the ways in which the fervent, zealous beliefs of a few (not of religion as a whole) have affected the treatment of many.

Several case studies are discussed in depth (including the Texas measles outbreak and the case of Matthew Swan that led to the large-scale investigation of faith healing) and Dr Offit references a huge amount of papers and studies to back up his opinions. Whilst this is definitely a popular-interest book, its based on thorough research and investigation.

I think I would have preferred a little more discussion on abortion, euthanasia, vaccination (although I understand he has a whole book dedicated to vaccination, so perhaps he didn't wish to repeat himself), etc, instead of the slight repetition with regard to faith healing, on which Bad Faith mainly dwells. My favourite section was (unsurprisingly) the part about the statutes which make it so difficult to prosecute faith healing parents.

Bad Faith is heart-breaking and shocking. I finished this book whilst getting a train to York to see a show, and I couldn't get it out of my head during the train ride or the show itself. Sorry, Alan Cumming. Some aspects hurt me, some angered me and others just caused bewilderment at how anybody could think that was acceptable.

This is a compassionate yet logical discussion of how a misunderstanding of certain religious tenets can lead to severe harm, despite the multitude of scientific advances. Dr Offit has written several other books which I'm looking forward to reading, including Killing Us Softly: The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine, which I've totally already bought.

I recomend reading Dr Offit's article in the New York Times - What Would Jesus Do About Measles?  - or listen to an interview with him about this book here.

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Review: The Queen of the Tearling and The Invasion of the Tearing by Erika Johansen

Book cover of The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen
I've not been reading all that much fantasy in 2016. It's not a conscious choice but more an unintentional leaning towards literary fiction. That's fine, I'm sure it'll skew back the other way next year (I'm reading Whatever the Hell I Want, did you hear?). It did mean, however, that I'd forgotten just how engaging and enthralling well-written fantasy could be. Enter, The Invasion of the Tearling.

Book cover of The Invasion of the Tearling by Erika JohansenPlot summary: Kelsea Glynn is the sole heir to the throne of Tearling but has been raised in secret by foster parents after her mother – Queen Elyssa, as vain as she was stupid – was murdered for ruining her kingdom. For 18 years, the Tearling has been ruled by Kelsea’s uncle in the role of Regent however he is but the debauched puppet of the Red Queen, the sorceress-tyrant of neighbouring realm of Mortmesme. On Kelsea’s 19th birthday, the tattered remnants of her mother’s guard - each pledged to defend the queen to the death - arrive to bring this most un-regal young woman out of hiding...

And so begins her journey back to her kingdom’s heart, to claim the throne, earn the loyalty of her people, overturn her mother’s legacy and redeem the Tearling from the forces of corruption and dark magic that are threatening to destroy it. But Kelsea's story is not just about her learning the true nature of her inheritance - it's about a heroine who must learn to acknowledge and live with the realities of coming of age in all its insecurities and attractions, alongside the ethical dilemmas of ruling justly and fairly while simply trying to stay alive...


I'm going to review both books as a whole, as I didn't get round to reviewing The Queen of the Tearling earlier in the year. That said, there will be no spoilers for either book. 

The Good

I really like these books, although I do have some concerns as well. I actually left it a few days before starting this review, because sometimes my opinion of a YA-esque book (that isn't actually YA, not really, but I'll talk about that later) fades after a few days and I end up shrugging my shoulders and deleting the next installment from my wishlist after all. Instead, with Invasion of the Tearling, I've actually just gone ahead and pre-ordered it.

It's rare to find a light fantasy book that's both well-written and has a unique premise, but it's fantastic when it happens. The plot is definitely a page-turner - a new Queen, difficult decisions to make, a looming invasion... it's wonderful. The dialogue isn't stilted and I didn't feel I had to concentrate overmuch to unravel the world building, which is also very impressive.

Invasion of the Tearling is definitely slightly better written than Queen of the Tearling, however. It's not that the latter was bad, not at all, but there were far too many instances of 'Kelsea suddenly just knew...' or 'With a flash of intuition, she realised...' for my liking. Seriously, it's really frequent. But that was my only gripe with the writing in either book and that particular flaw doesn't crop up even once in Invasion of the Tearling. I love it when I can see an author develop between books.

I love the characters. Well, aside from Kelsea, but that deserves a whole paragraph to itself. My favourite is Father Tyler, the elderly priest inserted into Kelsea's Court as essentially a spy, but who finds himself racked with indecision. I also like the Mace, Andalie and the whole of the Queen's Guard. They're all unique and well-written, and I can't wait to hear more about all of them.
 
It looks like a YA book and it has the tone of a YA book (albeit better written), but I don't think it is. Kelsea is nineteen years old, a little out of the scope of teenage books, and there are some fairly graphic scenes of violence. There's also a sex scene but it's vague. It would probably fit into the New Adult category, as loathe as I am to say it. Why is that even a thing!? It doesn't really matter anyway - it's an adult plot with quite informal and casual prose.

The Bad

I wasn't a huge fan of the narrative suddenly jumping to the year 2050, in our world. It was ridiculously jarring to read The Queen of the Tearling and the first third of The Invasion of the Tearling, which are set in your typical high fantasy world (magic, dungeons, horses, torches, etc), and then suddenly the next chapter talks about cars and mobile phones. It's meant to be flashbacks to just before the Crossing, set in 2050 or so, but it just doesn't fit at all. There was nothing in either book to indicate this was going to happen and it felt grossly out of place and completely unnecessary.

The Ugly

So I'm not usually great at picking up on these things, but it was too sledgehammery in both these books (but especially The Invasion of the Tearling) to go over even my head. There's no getting past that these books set an appalling example for young women.

It's possible that I was hyper alert to the possibility when reading the second book, just because I was so shocked at this sentence in the first book:

Kelsea saw now that there was something far worse than being ugly: being ugly and thinking you were beautiful. 

The context of the above quote refers to an older women dressing far younger than Kelsea deemed that she ought, but I don't care. Who approved that sentence for inclusion in a novel that will cross the paths of thousands of impressionable teenagers!? That quote is absolutely disgusting and I was genuinely shocked when I read it. It's not okay.

So yes, I was potentially on the look-out. But even if I wasn't, there are some truly awful examples of how not to come of age.

Kelsea. I was really impressed by how she was described in The Queen of the Tearling. She was a little bit chunky, with a flat, pudgy nose and a sort-of okay complexion. Slightly short, to boot. Awesome. An average looking fictional heroine that we can all admire and feel better about ourselves. Except, in The Invasion of the Tearling, her magic gradually transforms her and now she's notably beautiful. Fuck you. The one thing about this woman that didn't make me want to scratch her eyes out, and then it's 'rectified.'

Let's see. The way she treats men is appalling. She essentially wants to hump all of them and has a bitch fit when they turn her down. "You're just like every other man!" she spat. Really, though? Because I'm pretty sure the stereotype is that they want to get in your pants. If this was a novel from the male perspective and a man was treating a woman like that, there would be outrage.

The bit that really got me though, is that Kelsea cuts herself. That's fine (well, not fine, obviously - but I mean in a literary sense) as perhaps teenagers who are already self-harming need to see it brought into the spotlight a little more. The Invasion of the Tearling seems to almost glorify it, however. The narrative frequently talks about the release it gives her and how good it feels... but then in literally one sentence towards the end she realises she shouldn't do it anymore (with no explanation) and that's that. It's shoved in almost as an afterthought and the benefits are pointed out in a way that borders on negligent.

Conclusion

I really like this series and I've pre-ordered the next book. I genuinely can't wait to read it. However, I do have some concerns about the messages contained within - and I will continue to think myself beautiful, thank you very much.

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Review: All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

Book cover of All Quiet on the Western Front by Remarque, poppy
There isn't really an appropriate word to describe this book. Amazing is over-used and wonderful sounds too cheerful. Perfect would be incorrect. If I can't even find the right word for the first adjective in the whole review, I'm not going to be able to do this book justice when it comes to actually talking about it, but I have to try. All Quiet on the Western Front was so much more than I expected and it completely blew me away.

Plot summary: In 1914 a room full of German schoolboys, fresh-faced and idealistic, are goaded by their schoolmaster to troop off to the 'glorious war'. With the fire and patriotism of youth they sign up. What follows is the moving story of a young 'unknown soldier' experiencing the horror and disillusionment of life in the trenches.

I thought this was about cowboys. Yeah, I know. I can see the giant poppy too.

I'm not even sure why I picked it up off my shelf that morning. I was in a rush and panic-picked a book that I could comfortably leave on my seat without a client believing they were being represented by a mushy teenager. Snobbery, so sue me. I glanced at the blurb and, after being disillusioned of my cowboy-related fears, I shoved it in my bag.

I read the first few pages at lunchtime and didn't know whether to cry or be sick. You know when a book grabs you completely within a page or two, and the world just sort of... stops? I put the book down and was just sat, staring blankly into space whilst everything that had just happened swirled around my head.

Every second that I was not reading All Quiet on the Western Front, I wanted to be. It's simultaneously really easy to read and really difficult. It's quite obviously not a happy story. There are no chirpy evacuees, no whirlwind romances and no duck-shaped gas marks. This is solely one soldier's experiences of life at the Front and it is brutal.

What make this book a classic, however, is the humanity of it. Paul is nineteen years old, bullied into joining up by well-intentioned teachers, and he is now numb inside. This is not a story of one man's terror, as Paul is past that now. Instead he is resigned to his death, protective of the new recruits, betrayed by authority and sickened by his life at home. There is so, so much feeling in this book.

They were supposed to be the ones who would help us eighteen-year-olds to make the transition, who would guide us into adult life, into a world of work, of responsibilities, of civilized behaviour and progress - into the future. In our minds the idea of authority – which is what they represented – implied deeper insights and a more humane wisdom.

But the first dead man that we saw shattered this conviction. We were forced to recognize that our generation was more honourable than theirs; they only had the advantage of us in phrase-making and in cleverness. Our first experience of heavy artillery fire showed us our mistake, and the view of life that their teaching had given us fell to pieces under that bombardment.

While they went on writing and making speeches, we saw field hospitals and men dying: while they preached the service of the state as the greatest thing, we already knew that the fear of death is even greater. This didn’t make us into rebels or deserters, or turn us into cowards – and they were more than ready to use all of those words – because we loved our country just as much as they did, and so we went bravely into every attack. But now we were able to distinguish things clearly, all at once our eyes had been opened. And we saw that there was nothing left of their world. Suddenly we found ourselves horribly alone – and we had to come to terms with it alone as well. 
There is a narrative, to an extent. Paul gets sent on offensives, gets some home leave, gets injured, etc. There's a story here, to an extent, but it's much more valuable for the emotion contained within. It's as if somebody has handed you a big ball of Feelings, tied up with string.

All Quiet on the Western Front is traumatic. Not for the graphic gore or the bloodshed (although obviously there's fairly prevalent), but for the aspects of war that we are so removed from. I read this three weeks ago now and it's still going through my head. That said, it somehow avoids being a depressing book. I never felt miserable, despite reading about the atrocities that are somehow acceptable in wartime. Instead I felt, and still feel, so incredibly blessed and so lucky that our generation has been able to experience growing up without fear.

Visit the British Legion's website and learn more about the Poppy Appeal here.

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Review: The Cranes Dance by Meg Howrey

Book cover of The Cranes Dance by Meg Howrey
The Cranes Dance made me feel sick, but in the best of ways. The kind of nauseous that makes you stay up until 2am to write a review because if you don't get to talk about this book, you might actually go crazy. The kind of sick that makes you wonder how on earth you're going to find a book that can possibly beat this. I have to be at my desk by 7:20am tomorrow and I'm still going to sit here and ramble about The Cranes Dance for a while until I can calm down a bit and actually sleep.

Plot summary:
So begins the tale of Kate Crane, a soloist in a celebrated New York City ballet company who is struggling to keep her place in a very demanding world. At every turn she is haunted by her close relationship with her younger sister, Gwen, a fellow company dancer whose career quickly surpassed Kate’s, but who has recently suffered a breakdown and returned home.

Alone for the first time in her life, Kate is anxious and full of guilt about the role she may have played in her sister’s collapse.  As we follow her on an insider tour of rehearsals, performances, and partners onstage and off, she confronts the tangle of love, jealousy, pride, and obsession that are beginning to fracture her own sanity. Funny, dark, intimate, and unflinchingly honest, The Cranes Dance is a book that pulls back the curtains to reveal the private lives of dancers and explores the complicated bond between sisters.


This is a novel about ballet, about siblings and about that dark voice inside your head. From the beginning we know that Kate and Gwen Crane are ballet dancers with a strong sisterly bond who dance with a prestigious ballet company. Unfortunately Gwen has had to temporarily absent herself from the ballet as Kate has informed their parents of her sister's bouts of (unspecified) severe mental illness. What this entails and how this came about is very slowly unravelled throughout the book, which becomes progressively darker with every page.

What made this book for me is Kate Crane. She is possibly the most relatable, the most believable and the most real character I have ever read. It was honestly like she was inside my head. She has flaws, but not those exaggerated traits that fictional characters are often given to pad them out a bit. She was so, so real. She was likeable, for the most part, but those parts where she wasn't so perfect just made her relatable. Every other character was a little flat, but perhaps almost purposefully? The point of this book is that we're inside Kate's head and she's so preoccupied with her sister's illness and her own mental state that she doesn't take the opportunity to examine other people.

What impressed me the most was that the reader somehow knows that Kate feels disregarded and abandoned. Everybody is so preoccupied about Gwen that nobody asks how she's feeling, nobody wonder if it was hard for her to do what was best for Gwen, nobody cares whether it's difficult for her too. The thing is, although she never once shares this,  somehow it seeps through. The Cranes Dance is a masterpiece of characterisation and I've really never read anything like it.

I think you have to have at least a minor interest in the ballet to get on with this book, or at least not be totally opposed to it as a concept. The novels takes place almost entirely between Kate/Gwen's flat and the theatre, and most of the scenes involve some sort of dance. It is accessible though - you won't need any of the terminology or routines to understand what's happening. This is evident from the way Kate explains Swan Lake in the first few pages - she always 'talks' as though she's explaining the plot to a beginner. 

My one criticism would be the ending, which I think was just a little too neat and didn't really answer any of my questions. I can't decide how it should have ended, but I know that I felt just a little unsatisfied.

I know this isn't a particularly well-written post, but I just had to write about The Cranes Dance before I went to bed. It isn't a perfect book, but it's one that will stick with me for a long time.

Visit Meg Howrey's website here or find her on Twitter.
  

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