Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Review: Just One Damned Thing After Another by Jodi Taylor

UK book cover of Just One Damned Thing After Another by Jodi Taylor
TIME TRAVEL. An organisation that investigates historical events by GOING TO VISIT THEM. Why did I not know this series existed!? I feel like you all seriously breached your duty of care by not informing me that these books existed. The Claim Form is in the post; expect a call from my lawyer. This is the best idea ever and I can't wait to read the rest of the Chronicles of St Mary's series.

Plot summary: Behind the seemingly innocuous fa├žade of St Mary's, a different kind of historical research is taking place. They don't do 'time-travel' - they 'investigate major historical events in contemporary time'. Maintaining the appearance of harmless eccentrics is not always within their power - especially given their propensity for causing loud explosions when things get too quiet.

Meet the disaster-magnets of St Mary's Institute of Historical Research as they ricochet around History. Their aim is to observe and document - to try and find the answers to many of History's unanswered questions...and not to die in the process. But one wrong move and History will fight back - to the death. And, as they soon discover - it's not just History they're fighting.

Follow the catastrophe curve from 11th-century London to World War I, and from the Cretaceous Period to the destruction of the Great Library at Alexandria. For wherever Historians go, chaos is sure to follow in their wake....


This has 'Hanna' written all over it. I discovered it, bought it and immediately sat immobile for an entire day and devoured it. It has its faults and some of them did irritate me (no surprises there), but I loved, loved this book.

It's a relatively simple idea - St Mary's Institute of Historical Research is partnered with a more traditional university, who are paid to investigate aspects of certain historical events. The University contacts St Mary's, and two historians toddle off to the Cretaceous Period, or the building of West Minster Abbey, or the Somme. They come back with the data and everybody wins. It's actually quite well thought out - the safety checks, briefings, contingency plans, etc.

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.

It's very fast paced... actually too fast paced. I would have liked it to take its time a little more, I think. Events occur in quick succession with no time to properly deal with what happened, whether a personal problem or a trip back to the past. I need more detail! It makes it difficult to care about the characters when you're essectially just given a list of what they did, in chronological order. Take some time and explain. I mean, the point of the book is that these people jump back in time but the historical events are almost skimmed over. They jump there, see a dinosaur, and jump back. I picked this up for the time travel, so why skim over it? If there were only more detail involved and the characters only had a sense of wonder, these books would be perfect.  

Ironically, this book doesn't deal with the passage of time well. Max is a trainee, but suddenly she'd finished her training and then suddenly she'd been there five years and there were new trainees. It was a little confusing as there were no indications of the time that had passed. It leads back to the lack of detail explained above, I suppose. 

The book drags on just a little too long. Something happens that would have been a perfect place to the end the book, but then Max has a revelation and we go on to deal with that. It carries on past the natural ending for the book and the tone is immediately changed. It's just... odd. I can't help but think that it would have been a better idea for that to comprise Book Two, and then Book One could have been expanded with the detail and explanation that I so desperately crave!

I did absolutely love Just One Damned Thing After Another and I already wish that I owned the rest of the series, instead of just the second book, Symphony of Echoes. It was an effort not to just pick it up and plough ahead, but I decided to give myself a little breathing room. It's a great idea, authored by somebody who clearly loves history, it just needs a little more detail and to slow the pace down somewhat.

Visit Jodi Taylor's website here, or find her on Twitter.  

Saturday, 27 August 2016

Review: A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

UK book cover of A Darker Shade of Magic by Victoria Schwab
This is the book Charlotte bought me for my birthday, and that I subsequently bought her for her birthday, and that we have referred to as 'that magic book' ever since. The title just will not stick in our heads even though we've both obviously gone through the processes of purchasing, receiving, opening and picking up said book. Strange. Pretty cover though.

Plot summary: Kell is one of the last travellers - magicians with a rare ability to travel between parallel universes connected by one magical city. There's Grey London, without magic and ruled by the mad King George III. Red London - where magic is revered, and where Kell was raised alongside the heir to the empire. White London - where people fight to control the remaining magic and magic fights back. And once there was Black London...

I think this book might have suffered under the weight of my expectations somewhat. I was so excited to read it. It looked so... different, such a unique and brilliant concept. And it is, I suppose. I love the idea of the three universes, all of which possess a City of London  and that one tavern, situated in the exact same space geographically and with the same river flowing through the middle. However, they all have different rulers, different politics and (key point coming up) different levels of magic. It's genuinely brilliant.

The problem is that the actual content is not so unique. Whilst the overall concept is great, the story is peppered with really, really tired fantasy tropes. I'm not going to list them as I can't do so whilst avoiding spoilers, but I did roll my eyes a few times when a plot point popped up that also popped up in the last twelve fantasy novels I read. It's fine, and the plot points in question weren't out of place or silly, it's just that I expected more.

The prose is good; the book is actually written quite well, content aside. The narrative flows and the dialogue is unstilted. I haven't read anything else by Victoria Schwab, but she seems to have a talent for writing at least.

The world-building is good, but could have been better. The three Londons are such an interesting idea that I'd have loved more time spent on developing them before the plot kicked off. It was that very concept that made me want to buy the book in the first place but then we never really got the detail that could have made it really wonderful. A slightly longer book would have been worth it, I think. Tell me more about King George! And White London! 

Is the character of... Lila... (I paid so little attention to her that I had to go back and check her name) really necessary? I can't help but feel that the book would be genuinely improved without her. I was hooked on the idea of sole, lonely traveller flitting between worlds and the blurb doesn't refer to the generic, strong, defiant-of-gender-roles character that no fantasy novel can do without. I could get on board with her if she served a purpose, but she doesn't. She's not particularly annoying but her presence changes the tone of the book into something much more YA-ish.  I will say that I appreciate the lack of romance - it could have been shoved in so easily and I respect the author for leaving it alone.

I quite like the ending - it's more subtle than most and it doesn't comply with the generic fantasy formula. I also like that it's actually a standalone book, which makes a pleasant change. No cliffhangers, no unfinished threads and no sudden revelations. The series does continue in the next book, A Gathering of Shadows, but this book is complete in itself. I can't decide if I'm going to buy it or not. I'm really, profoundly non-bothered about reading the story, but then the covers are so nice and they would look so pretty all lined up on my bookshelf...

I guess my main complaint about A Darker Shade of Magic is that it wasn't what I wanted it to be and I know that's not really fair. I was expecting dark and twisted, and featuring more of King George III, who was named in the title, after all. Instead it's fairly generic fantasy that is already starting to slide out of my head. It's just that an excellent over-all idea wasn't really developed properly, and was slightly dragged down by tired fantasy plot points. I enjoyed reading it, but I'm not sure I'll feel the need to pick it up again.

Read a more positive review of A Darker Shade of Magic at Ivy Book Bindings. 

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Review: Curtain: Poirot's Last Case by Agatha Christie

Book cover of Curtain: Poirot's Last Case by Agatha Christie
It's rare that I bother to post a review of an Agatha Christie book. They're sort of like the Discworld books in that I like them all and they all have the same quirks. Plus, if I'm honest, they all tend to blend together. Curtain though... Curtain needs talking about because I just can't get it out of my head.

Plot summary: The crime-fighting careers of Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings have come full circle - they are back once again in the rambling county house in which they solved their first murder together.

Both Poirot and Great Styles have seen better days - but despite being crippled with arthritis, there is nothing wrong with the great detective's 'little grey cells.' However, when Poirot brands one of the seemingly harmless guests a five-times murderer, some people have their doubts. But Poirot alone knows he must prevent a sixth murder before the curtain falls...

On the face of it, this is a fairly straighforward Agatha Christie novel. There's a big country house, a murder and lots of guests of varying genders, ages, professions and potential motives. The 'twist' with this one is that Poirot's knocking on a bit in years. He's confined to a wheelchair because of his arthritis so he has to use Captain Hastings as his eyes and ears... much to his evident (and fully justified) frustration. More on Captain Hopeless later.

Turning to the actual plot, this is possibly the cleverest Agatha Christie novel I have read, with the exception of perhaps And Then There Were None. It's certainly the cleverest in the Poirot series. I think what made it stand out for me was how sinister it is. It's very, very dark, much more so than any of the others. It's possibly why it's stuck in my head more than a  week later. I keep thinking about it and shuddering a little. 

The ending is... unexpected. I ran round asking everybody I knew, 'Does Poirot die?'  before I even dared to pick it up. The answer is almost irrelevant -  it's so much more than that. I also liked that this book, the last of the series, takes place at the same manor house that features in the first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. It's a perfect end to the 84 novels, stories and plays featuring the little Belgian detective. 

I'm not sure this book would have the same impact if you didn't have a few of the previous novels under your belt so that you really understand Poirot's character. It is quite depressing that that he's is old and poorly but I felt better when I realised his mental faculties were completely unimpaired, and that he retained his inherent cheerfulness (and lack of faith in Captain Hastings).

Speaking of. I've ranted about Captain Hastings on several occasions before, but he really takes the cake with this one. Look. You have been a sidekick to this detective for three decades, during which time Poirot has never once, NOT ONCE, been wrong. This means that you could probably stop from questioning his sanity, experience and sense every single time he implies he might have reached a conclusion. His age is immaterial. SHUT UP.

It's just that he seems even sulkier in Curtain. His best friend is stuck in a wheelchair, has suffered multiple heart attacks and can't run around solving the murder he desperately wants to... and you're going to sit there and give him the cold shoulder because he won't tell you who he suspects in case they murder you next. How unreasonable. I haaaate you.

Curain is genuinely amazing. I'm not sure I'll read it again in a hurry, partly because I don't think it would have the same impact if you already knew what was coming, but also because I'm not quite ready to be this traumatised again in the near future.
 
Read my review of Death on the Nile, my favourite Hercule Poirot novel.
 

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Hanna Gets Lots of Nice Books For Her Birthday v. 2016


This year really has taken the cake for 'lots of nice birthday books' though. I just can't believe how lucky I've been and how much I'm dying to read any one of them.

The top two books are from Laura, bless her heart. The tiny little blue book on top is The Drugs Don't Work: A Global Threat by Professor Dame Sally Davies, who is the Chief Medical Officer for England. I recently read Cracked: Why Psychiatry is Doing More Harm Than Good by James Davies, which refers to medication and its effects on quite a large scale, so I'm really excited to read another opinion.

The book underneath that I can never remember the name of, and I keep referring to it as That Book With Those Tampons On The Cover. Occasionally I make a rough guess as to the title but invariably get the day wrong. Anyway, this is The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton and those tampons are actually, apparently, sticks of dynamite. I admit that makes slightly more sense but in my defence, everybody I spoke to KNEW WHICH BOOK I MEANT, SO THERE.

The blue book in the middle of the pile is Adventures in Human Being by Gavin Francis, bought for me by the lovely Katie. Another medical-ish non-fiction. I think I'm going through a bit of a phase at the moment!

Charlotte also outdid herself this year and sent The Darker Shade of Magic, The Super Mutant Magic Academy and Invasion of the Tearling. I think The Darker Shade of Magic might be the first one I read out of this pile, even though it has some seriously tough competition. I think I first found out about it from Charlotte's wishlist anyway, so it's probably a fitting beginning.

The Super Mutant Magic Academy is a graphic novel that's been on my wishlist for ages. It's somewhat like X-Men, but much younger and full of high-school drama and boyfriends... and also tentacles. I'm also excited about Invasion of the Tearling. Somehow Charlotte knew I liked the first in the series (even though I didn't get round to reviewing it - stalker lady!) and now I have the second book to jump right into it!

Ellie though... Oh Ellie.


Ellie bought me a copy of Jane Austen: Cover to Cover, which is essentially a beautiful hardback of lots of the different Jane Austen covers that have been around over the last two centuries. There are sections on foreign language translations, Austen for younger readers, etc. as well as just the simple but beautiful covers we all know and love.

If you've ever set sight on this blog before, you know that I collect different editions of Pride and Prejudice - 74 at last count. This is essentially a beautiful looking catalogue for me. Whilst I already possess more than I thought I would, there are several earmarked (not literally, obviously!) to actively search for.



These are two of my favourite editions and they're both in the book! The Pulp Classic on the left Charlotte bought for me from WH Smiths after getting all excited and the one on the right (I know it's Persuasion, but I do have the Pride and Prejudice) is so pretty and was only the second edition I bought, before I even started collecting.

I'm getting so excited looking through this to see which I have and which I still need to collect. Is this the world's most Hanna book or what?

  Have you read any of these books? Which books are you hoping to get for your birthday?


Monday, 8 August 2016

On How Books Change Over Time

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters - theatre play programmeA few weeks ago, I went to see a play called The Night Watch with a friend of mine at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester. It's based on a book of the same name by Sarah Waters which, to be honest, I hadn't liked very much. I don't think I even got past the first few chapters before giving up and moving on to something else.

I agreed to go on the basis that I'd liked Sarah Waters' previous books, Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith, and a trip to theatre is a trip to the theatre, after all. Even if a play turns out to be awful, it's still an experience.

In the end, it absolutely blew me away. It was implemented perfectly, with wonderful actors, and was infinitely better than I remember the book being. After a few days weeks of being unable to get it out of my head, I decided I'd go back to her previous books in order to get some closure from the amazing play.

I knew I owned Tipping the Velvet, I absolutely knew it. But I'll be damned if I could find it on my shelf. I consulted my LibraryThing catalogue and it wasn't even bloody listed and I've kept that updated since 2006, people. I knew I'd read it a long time ago, but I hadn't realised it was at least ten years previously.

(Also, can we just take a moment to appreciate the fact that I've been meticulously cataloguing my reading for ten years!? I feel like I deserve an award to celebrate my anniversary of anal retentiveness). 

The more I thought about it, however, that started to make a little bit of sense. I developed a vague recollection of borrowing it from Shipley library when I was first starting to delve into the Adult section (in retrospect, Victorian lesbians possibly not the best book with which to start), and I must never have gotten around to buying a copy. You know, in ten years.

So I bought a copy (for a whole £2.96) and settled down with Tipping the Velvet, ready to revisit the book I remember quite enjoying as (apparently) a teenager.

That brings me to my point. The book ending up being so different to how I remembered, in pretty much every way imaginable. How can that be? It's not like the words in the book have changed, after all, so presumably I must have, but I'm still me, after all. It's odd and I feel a distinct need to discuss it.

The Plot that I Apparently Completely Invented

Firstly, starting with the simplest, the plot just isn't how I remembered it. I'm going to write a proper review later (haha, I'm way past that point), but for now it will suffice to say that the book is divided into three parts, each one dealing with a different stage of Nancy Astley's life. I have zero recollection of the second or third stages; I was under the impression that the entire book regarded Nancy's music hall career. Apparently not. That could be because this part is by far the most interesting and the other two fall a little flat - I mean, of course I was going to remember the interesting parts better.

Book cover of Tipping the Velvet by Sarah WatersBut then, doesn't that mean that my memories grew fonder with distance? Because, I assure you, that is not usually the case. I can look at books now that I quite liked a year ago that I wouldn't dream of picking up now because their shine wore off, or there's one character who continued to grate on me even from the distance of several months. I clear out my shelves every few months for just that reason.

Then, continuing with my memory problems, I apparently invented quite a pivotal scene. There were only two scenes I definitely remembered from Tipping the Velvet - one was Nancy and Kitty dancing on stage in a music hall and receiving some sort of heckling, and the other was where they met later in life around a piano in somebody's parlour.

I can still picture that last scene so vividly - whenever I'd thought of the book in the previous ten years, I'd thought of that scene. And it simple didn't exist. I kept expecting it to pop up and I was starting to get confused towards the end, when the plot was running out of opportunities for it to happen. Some time, somehow, I'd just invented the whole damn thing. But why!? Why would my brain just make up a scene from a book instead of remembering what actually happened?

My emotions

I can't be completely clear on this as I wasn't making notes on my reading at the time, but I think I remember really resenting Kitty. I mean, that's fine, you're meant to; she screws Nancy over and is really only out for herself. At 16 years old, with no experience of relationships, I felt exactly how I was probably meant to feel. Betrayed, slighted and angry. Everything is so clear cut when you're that age - all your knowledge of how things 'should' be comes from movies or books, so you know that when somebody gets hurt, it means the other person must be Bad.

Now though, having been through some troublesome relationship issues of my own, Kitty seems more nuanced. I've learned in the intervening decade that nothing in affairs of the heart is ever black and white, and there are two sides to every tale. Sometimes people hurt you without meaning to. Sometimes they don't want to hurt you, but they're putting themselves first and you can't really blame them for it.

I just feel sorry for Kitty now. She was clearly conflicted and whilst what she ended up doing wasn't ideal, she did what she thought was best. She simply wasn't able to provide what Nancy wanted and part of adulthood is realising that you can't judge everybody else by your own standards  (I'll try and remember that when I'm complaining at 11:28am that somebody is late for our 11:30am meeting... ). I accept that Kitty genuinely tried her hardest to make it work and I blame Nancy at least somewhat for being naive and overly dramatic. In other words, get a grip Nance.

Clearly your own experiences influence how you perceive a certain situation and the characters therein. I'd be interested to reread this in another ten years to see where I stand on Kitty, Nancy and the decline of their relationship.

Quality

In the intervening approximate-ten years since my first reading of Tipping the Velvet, assuming I've read an average of 100 books a year, I've finished about a 1,000 books. A thousand books. Obviously these will have been of varying quality, but I've definitely read more classics and more literary fiction than I had in 2006. I suppose I now have a different frame of reference for what makes a 'good' book, aside from just having more books under under my belt with which to compare it to.

I still really enjoyed reading this book. But I now notice inconsistencies, character flaws and shoddy dialogue much more than previously... or at least I assume I didn't notice, considering I remember being pretty impressed by it. I like it regardless, but I now have a more accurate (or at least more cynical) idea of where it belongs on the scale.

_________________________________________

I just felt that I had to talk about this because it shocked me how much I'd changed over ten years. The ages of sixteeen and twentysix are so far apart in terms of experience, maturity and knowledge that I probably shouldn't have been surprised, but I didn't expect it to affect my reading so much.

I'm looking forward to reading this again in ten years time, when I'm 36, and seeing how I feel about it then. After another ten years of experience, maybe I'll have a completely different perspective again!

I'd love to know your take on this. Have your reading opinions ever changed with time? Why do you think that is?      

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