Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Review: The Collector by John Fowles

Vintage edition book cover of The Collector by John Fowles
I would never have read this if it wasn't for Charlotte, although I say that about a lot of books. Usually in a good way, but every so often I like to poke her about the misery of Hope: A Tragedy. Thanks Charlotte.

She's headed a little closer to forgiveness with The Collector though. I knew very little going in, but I ended up with a dark and twisted novel that I absolutely couldn't put down.

Plot summary: Withdrawn, uneducated and unloved, Frederick collects butterflies and takes photographs. He is obsessed with a beautiful stranger, the art student Miranda. When he wins the pools he buys a remote Sussex house and calmly abducts Miranda, believing she will grow to love him in time. Alone and desperate, Miranda must struggle to overcome her own prejudices and contempt if she is understand her captor, and so gain her freedom.

I really, really loved this book. The first half is told from the perspective of Frederick, who is an avid butterfly collector. He loves having beautiful specimens that he can admire in his own home whenever he chooses. It's told in a sort of stream of consciousness way, but not too obnoxiously. I didn't quite realise until a good portion of the way into the book, so it doesn't halt the flow of the narrative in the slightest.

Frederick is so perfectly described. I feel like he could jump out of the page and judge me from a distance. I didn't hate him, but then I'm not entirely sure you're meant to. Some of his views and mannerisms annoy me, but those are aspects of his general personality, not his kidnappery ways. It's a sign of the truly amazing characterisation.

And Miranda. I loathed her. She didn't seem like a real person at all, but then I suspect that, again, that's sort of the point. She's a twenty year old art student who's incredibly concerned with the impression she makes and looking down on everybody that doesn't understand art the way she does. Her diary, then, is possibly her just writing as the person she's trying to be, which is therefore why it doesn't always seem overly genuine?

And partly, too, it's been a sort of indulging in wicked vanity about myself. Knowing I am a rather special person. Knowing I am intelligent, knowing that I am beginning to understand life much better than most people of my age. Even knowing that I shall never be so stupid as to be vain about it, but be grateful, be terribly glad to be alive, to be who I am - Miranda, and unique.
Ugh. Her perspective is interesting though, to see her view on the events already described by Frederick. The only flaw in the book at all is that her descriptions of her life before do tend to go on a bit too long. She has a complicated relationship with an older artist and she's studying at the Slade... it's frankly just not as interesting as the fact that SHE'S BEEN ABDUCTED, FOR GOD'S SAKE. 

He is solid; immovable, iron-willed. He showed me one day his killing bottle. I'm imprisoned in it. Fluttering against the glass. Because I can see through it I still think I can escape. I have hope. But it's all an illusion. A thick round wall of glass.
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. 

Read Charlotte's review of The Collector at Lit Addicted Brit.

Sunday, 5 June 2016

Review: Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us by Jesse Bering

This is an interesting book to read on the train, or in a hospital. At least your fellow passengers and patients seem to regard you with some interest anyway... or maybe that's just concern. To some extent though, that's Dr Bering's point with this book. Sexual deviance is far more common and far less dangerous than is commonly believed, and shouldn't be regarded with fear or disgust. Even if you are sat across from a grouchy looking redhead reading a suspect-looking book.

Summary: “You are a sexual deviant. A pervert, through and through.” We may not want to admit it, but as the award-winning columnist and psychologist Jesse Bering reveals in Perv, there is a spectrum of perversion along which we all sit. Whether it’s voyeurism, exhibitionism, or your run-of-the-mill foot fetish, we all possess a suite of sexual tastes as unique as our fingerprints—and as secret as the rest of the skeletons we’ve hidden in our closets.

Combining cutting-edge studies and critiques of landmark research and conclusions drawn by Sigmund Freud, Alfred Kinsey, and the DSM-5
, Bering pulls the curtain back on paraphilias, arguing that sexual deviance is commonplace. He explores the countless fetishists of the world, including people who wear a respectable suit during the day and handcuff a willing sexual partner at night. But he also takes us into the lives of “erotic outliers,” such as a woman who falls madly in love with the Eiffel Tower; a pair of deeply affectionate identical twins; those with a particular penchant for statues; and others who are enamored of crevices not found on the human body.

Moving from science to politics, psychology, history, and his own reflections on growing up gay in America, Bering confronts hypocrisy, prejudice, and harm as they relate to sexuality on a global scale. Humanizing so-called deviants while at the same time asking serious questions about the differences between thought and action, he presents us with a challenge: to understand that our best hope of solving some of the most troubling problems of our age hinges entirely on the amoral study of sex.

I actually ended up really liking this book. It's been on my wishlist for a while, but I never took the plunge and got a copy in case it was one of those heavy, dry scientific non-fictions or one of those fluffy popular science books. In the end, it was neither. Dr Bering writes very well and avoids, for the most part, becoming stuffy or condescending. It was an accessible read and one that I enjoyed picking up in the evenings.

The point of Perv, in a nutshell, is that the sexual preferences of others (homosexuality, acrotomophilia, sadism, etc) is completely and utterless harmless in itself and should be treated as such. If it isn't causing any damage, why does it matter? It sounds fairly logical, but then Dr Bering brings up the concept of paedophilia. The meaning has been distorted in recent years, but he points out that the word refers only to those with a preference for young children not those who act upon their desires or have been convicted of a sexual offence. Suddenly the 'has any harm been caused?' doesn't seem so innocuous, but what's the alternative? Imprisoning people for their thoughts?

It's an interesting point. He raises the example of a (hypothetical) necrophilia club that devised a way for their members to have sex with dead people. Each member would donate their body to the club after death so the other members could have sex with the corpse. A study asked participants whether it would be wrong for a man to have sex with a dead woman who has given her body to the club.

Most participants in this study defaulted to a 'presumption of harm' in their moral reasoning. Even when they were told explicitly that the woman didn't have any family members who might get upset if they found out what happened to her corpse, that the club isn't interested in recruiting or harming living people, that neither the man nor any of the other club members suffer any regrets or anguish about their sexuality, that the group's activities are kept private and consensual, that the man used protection to prevent disease, and per her instructions, that the club cremated the woman's body after the man was done having sex with it, people still insisted that somehow or other, someone, somewhere, must be getting harmed.   
Perv looks at why/how we attempt to impose our own morality on others by assuming that a certain sexual preference is 'wrong' and therefore must be harming someone, even when there's zero evidence to support that view. That said, it's not a preachy book at all. Dr Bering doesn't look down from his high horse to lecture on how we should all be more open-minded. It's more of a psychological perspective than a sermon.

I particularly appreciate that the book took the time to explain the differences in sexual 'deviance' between men and women, and gay and straight people. For example, men are much more likely to have a paraphilia (an abnormal sexual desire) than women, but sexuality was irrelevant. A lot of similar books either lump everybody together or only deal with heterosexual male preferences, so the expansive explanation was interesting.

I do recommend reading this. I learned a lot but, more importantly, I actually enjoyeding reading this book too. I was quite happy to just sit with it for several hours on the go - it's fascinating, accessible, thought-provoking and downright enjoyable.

What non-fiction books have you been reading this year? 

Saturday, 14 May 2016

Review: The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

Book cover of The long way to a small angry planet by becky chambers
This was another of my recent lunchtime library hauls. I'd gotten to the point where I was actively skimming blogs just for books I could request at the library. It's not like you pay for it (well, a 90p request charge, but my purse can handle it - just) and therefore why not be adventurous!? The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is by far my favourite book I've picked up so far - it's unique, fun, light and a great page-turner. I can't recommend it highly enough.

Plot summary: When Rosemary Harper joins the crew of the Wayfarer, she isn't expecting much. The Wayfarer, a patched-up ship that's seen better days, offers her everything she could possibly want: a small, quiet spot to call home for a while, adventure in far-off corners of the galaxy, and distance from her troubled past.

But Rosemary gets more than she bargained for with the Wayfarer. The crew is a mishmash of species and personalities, from Sissix, the friendly reptillian pilot, to Kizzy and Jenks, the constantly sparring engineers who keep the ship running. Life on board is chaotic, but more or less peaceful - exactly what Rosemary wants.

Until the crew are offered the job of a lifetime: the chance to build a hyperspace tunnel to a distant planet. They'll earn enough money to live comfortably for years... if they survive the long trip through war-torn interstellar space without endangering any of the fragile alliances that keep the galaxy peaceful.

But Rosemary isn't the only person on board with secrets to hide, and the crew will soon discover that space may be vast, but spaceships are very small indeed.

That's actually quite a misleading blurb. It sounds like Rosemary is a criminal stowaway and ends up on a ship full of other people with dark secrets, all trying to keep their past hidden at any cost... Ugh. Thankfully, no. When Rosemary does make her way onto the Wayfarer, she finds a crew of unique and loveable characters, with whom I'd love to spend a day just getting to know. They all have their own sub-plots and histories, and definitely do not feel that 'spaceships are very small indeed.' I do wonder if blurb-writers have ever even read the book in question...

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!

It's actually really well thought out. I imagine it can't be easy to come up with a whole galaxy of different races and planets, and then create some political turmoil to add to the mix. And that's before  you dream up some sub-plots based on which races don't like other races and the legal jurisdiction of Council legislation! Having said that, it does remain light-hearted and very easy to read throughout - it's a nice juxtaposition that works very well.

I love the atmosphere in The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, but then I'm a sucker for fictional friendships. Romance doesn't interest me much but I do love a good bit of platonic companionship. Friendships are tested to breaking point and allegiences are called into question, but the crew always stick together throughout their differences. Rosemary isn't quite sure where she slots into this to begin with, but the gradual change into acceptance gives you a nice warm fuzzy feeling.

If I had one complaint, and I am nit-picking here, I'd like the relationships to be a little more... demonstrated. We're told that various crew members feel this way about each other (and that varies more than you might think), but we're never actually shown it. I'd just like to feel it a little more, I think. There's a plot point that's meant to be quite moving and upsetting at one point, but it just didn't bother me, and I think that's because I wasn't really emotionally invested. I was academically and narratively invested, but not emotionally.

To conclude, read The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, even if the little does sound like a preachy non-fiction about the importance of recycling. It's so much more than I expected - great characters, perfect world-building and a completely unique plot. I'll be buying my own copy so I can reread it again and again.

Read Rinn's review of The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet at Rinn Reads.

Thursday, 5 May 2016

Review: Queen of Bedlam by Laura Purcell

Book cover of Queen of Bedlam by Laura Purcell
I've started using the library near work recently. Firstly because it gets me away from my damn desk instead of actually taking the final step and making a nest out of my paperwork, but secondly because the fifteen minute walk each way won't exactly hurt either. The upshot, book-wise, is that I've been requesting books like mad and I've been able to try out all those books that were on my wishlist but I wasn't quite ready to take the plunge and purchase. Enter Queen of Bedlam.

Plot summary: London 1788. The calm order of Queen Charlotte’s court is shattered by screams. The King of England is going mad. Left alone with thirteen children and with the country at war, Charlotte has to fight to hold her husband’s throne. It is a time of unrest and revolutions but most of all Charlotte fears the King himself, someone she can no longer love or trust. She has lost her marriage to madness and there is nothing she can do except continue to do her royal duty.

Her six daughters are desperate to escape their palace asylum. Their only chance lies in a good marriage, but no prince wants the daughter of a madman. They are forced to take love wherever they can find it, with devastating consequences.

The moving true story of George III’s madness and the women whose lives it destroyed.

I know relatively little about George III and Queen Charlotte, other than he was the father of Hugh Laurie's Prince Regent but went slowly mad (which was the reason for the Regency in the first place). Medical historians now think he was suffering from porphyria, which is a genetic blood disorder that can cause psychiatric disturbance. It's actually really interesting, which is why I wanted to read Queen of Bedlam in the first place.

Unfortunately the book isn't like that at all. Perhaps the clue is in the title - Queen of Bedlam, not Mad King of England. It's about Queen Charlotte and the eldest of their daughters, Princess Royal, and it's so... girly.

It opens right as King George starts to lose his grip on reality. On one hand, we're straight into the action. On the other, we have no basis for comparison. We don't know if Charlotte and George are actually in love, what he used to be like, how his relationships stand... as a result, I just didn't care.  

So Charlotte is stomping around and Princess Royal (why does the narrative refer to her as that? She had a name) is just whining constantly about how she doesn't get to go anywhere. They're not even unlikeable. To be unlikeable you have to have some form of substance.

Thing is, I like historical fiction to give me some background information about the characters and the period, so I can feel like I'm learning as I read. Queen of Bedlam could be any badly written book about any time period. It's just pages and pages of whiny dialogue and thought monologues, with very little actual prose. 

I admit I didn't finish this. I could have, in fairness. It wasn't so bad that I simply wasn't able to finish it, but then I can't think of a single pleasant thing to say about it, other than the subject matter and the author can hardly get credit for historical fact, even if she doesn't choose to reference it in her work. I got about half way through and then gave up. No regrets.

(You know you spend too much time at work when you accidentally end a blog post with 'Regards' and start looking for your e-signature...)

How do you like your historical fiction? Moving and light, or factual and informative?  

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Review: The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt

Book cover of The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt
When I picked up this book to start reading it, the receipt fell out from when I bought it - November 2013. Good Lord. I actually remember buying it, it was when the five of us met up in Leeds, but I had no idea it was that long ago. Two and a half years, guys. Anyway, for some reason the memory of Laura telling me that 'it's really good but you probably won't like it,' has stuck firmly in my head. Actually, come to think of it, I really associate this book with Laura in any event. Why is that? Why Laura? Does she remind me of slightly grubby American gunslingers? Answers on a postcard please.

Oh, and go read Laura's review. Considering I just called her grubby. 

Plot summary: Hermann Kermit Warm is going to die. Across 1000 miles of Oregon desert his assassins, the notorious Eli and Charlie Sisters, ride - fighting, shooting, and drinking their way to Sacramento. But their prey isn't an easy mark, the road is long and bloody, and somewhere along the path Eli begins to question what he does for a living - and whom he does it for. The Sisters Brothers pays homage to the classic Western, transforming it into an unforgettable ribald tour de force. Filled with a remarkable cast of losers, cheaters, and ne'er-do-wells from all stripes of life-and told by a complex and compelling narrator, it is a violent, lustful odyssey through the underworld of the 1850s frontier that beautifully captures the humor, melancholy, and grit of the Old West and two brothers bound by blood, violence, and love.

At least Laura wasn't totally right. How can I put this? Whilst I don't dislike this book, I can see why she thought I might. I can't really put my finger on why, except there's something distinctly non-Hanna-ish about The Sisters Brothers. Sigh. This isn't going to be a very helpful review, is it?

It's not what I expected. I think I was under the impression that it would be a quite dry and quite formal, general Western. It's not; it's actually quite light-hearted. We follow the adventures of George and Lenny Eli and Charlie as they attempt to track down the next in a long list of men they've been instructed to assassinate. Until about two third of the way through, they just kind of bounce from event to event, from town to town. There isn't really an overarcing plot at that point, just a sort of situation.

When The Point became clear though, I thought it was a really interesting plot point, and one that I hadn't seen done before. Not that I read a lot of Westerns, admittedly. I do wish that less time had been spent on the bouncing around, which felt a little repetitive and caused me to lose interest quite quickly, and more time on that particular aspect. It seemed to be over before it had even really begun and then I didn't feel it was dealt with properly.

There's a definite Of Mice and Men feel to it though, and it's way too obvious to have been unintentional. Two brothers, one of whom is smaller, slyer and clearly in control and the other is larger and dopily naive? Because of that I assumed that it would either end in exactly the same way, or the direct opposite (if you know what I mean). Maybe that's why I didn't enjoy the story so much - because I thought I knew where it was going. Also, I hated Steinbeck in school. That helps.

I liked both Eli and Charlie, I suppose. They have very distinct personalities, but they do seem like caricatures. You could argue that that was intentional, but I'm not so sure. I would have preferred a bit more subtlety and fewer attempts at humour. Was it meant to be funny, by the way? The blurb implies that it was but I didn't really see it.

I actually meant to write a lovely, sparkly review that would really show that darn Laura *shakes fist* but it turns out she actually knows me pretty well. I didn't dislike this book at all, but I have to admit that I didn't think there was a great deal to write home about either. It was... fine, and I don't regret the time I spent reading The Sisters Brothers. That said, I don't think I'd particularly feel the need to reread it either.

    Go read Laura's review at Devouring Texts. Is it really only Laura who's read this!? I thought loads of us were reading it at one point!

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Spring 2016 Re-Read-a-thon: Days Two, Three and Four

Pages Read: 293
Books Read From: Something Rotten (Thursday Next #3) by Jasper Fforde
Total Books Finished: 1
Total Pages Read: 393
Tuesday to Thursday have not been the most productive of days this week, either for re-reading or in relation to my general existence.
On Tuesday I went to see Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, which was amazing but they tend to frown upon you reading during the performance. I managed to read a little on the train on the way to work, but nothing to write home about. Then I got given extra work to complete for the next day by 10pm. Fun.
On Wednesday I read a little, but fell asleep on the sofa at about 9pm. 

On Thursday, today, I had to drive to work so couldn't even read on the train, but managed to sneak in a little reading between getting home and having to run back out to my Scout group. 

On the bright side, I have finished reading my Thursday Next book, which is probably more reading than I would have done sans read-a-thon, so I can't really complain. It was worth re-reading too. This series is so perfect - what's not to love about an organisation that polices fiction from inside the books!? I cried at the end of this one; it's just so perfect.

I'll try and get some reading done over the Easter weekend, but I suspect I'll spend a lot of it sleeping and trying to get rid of my three-day-old headache. Wish me luck!

Monday, 21 March 2016

Spring 2016 Re-Read-a-Thon: Day One

Pages Read:
Books Read From: Something Rotten (Thursday Next #3) by Jasper Fforde
Total Books Finished: 0
Total Pages Read: 100

Why yes, I am using Parma Violets as a bookmark.

Yay, it's the first day of the re-read-a-thon! And, against all read-a-thon precedent, I'm actually doing quite well on the first day. I'm as shocked as you.

It being a Monday, I have of course been to work. It's almost the end of the financial year, which means it's been absolutely manic and we've all been working long hours. Today though, I just couldn't face it and I went home at the unusually early hour of 5:10pm.

This freed up some reading time for me, especially after I... might have got on the wrong train. I know, I know. In my defence, I've jumped on the same train at the same platform at the same time for more than year, but today a completely different train rolls up and I naively settle down in my chair. I picked up Something Rotten, became completely engrossed and didn't even notice that we weren't heading in the right direction until we pulled into a completely alien station. Ooops.

Something Rotten, though. I love these books. I'm starting this re-read with Book Three of the Thursday Next series because I reread the other two reasonably recently but then get distracted.

If you haven't read this series, I really recommend it. It begins with The Eyre Affair, and it's essentially about Thursday Next, who can jump into books and eventually joins JurisFiction, the Inter-Book Policing Agency. All sorts of characters pop up, from Miss Havisham to Mrs Tiggywinkle, and they're so well thought-out and funny.

I'm hoping to get a little more reading done tonight (I'm at 80 pages and it's 9:23pm - that's quite a lot for me lately) because I won't have much chance tomorrow. I'm off to see Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat at the theatre with my mother :) 

How's your first day of re-reading going?

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