Monday, 30 March 2015

March Wrap Up

Wow, time flies when you're reading books. I can't believe that it's already the end of March and I'm writing another wrap up post. All in all, it's been a pretty good month for my reading goals. I've read six books in total including one non-fiction audiobook, two novels, one memoir, one novella and a graphic novel so I've had a nice variety of styles and subject matter and I've read some cracking books which I'm looking forward to telling you about. So, without further ado, here is my wrap up of March's reading!

Image result for the girl on the trainThe Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

Rachel takes the same commuter train every morning. When her train stops at a signal she gets a glimpse into the cosy suburban lives of one couple, who breakfast on the deck in their back garden every day. To Rachel, their lives are perfect. But then she sees something and now, everything has changed. As events start to spiral out of Rachel's control, she becomes more entwined in the lives she has glimpsed from the window and becomes much more than just the girl on the train. Despite the many comparisons made with 'Gone Girl' (a book I really didn't enjoy) and the major hype machine surrounding it, I was really looking forward to reading this debut thriller. The premise sounded unique and I'd heard good things about the story. Sadly, for me, 'The Girl on the Train' promised a bit more than it delivered. Whilst I enjoyed the characterisation - especially that of Rachel, who is wonderfully unreliable as a main narrator - I found the story to be rather predictable and, if I'm being honest, rather unrealistic. To say too much would be to give the story away so lets just say that I found some of the connections and incidents a little too coincidental for me to fully believe in them. I was also a bit disappointed that the premise of the train journey becomes little more than incidental as the story progresses. That said, it was a nice quick, pacy read - an ideal holiday or 'binge read' book. It's not going to make me a convert to the genre but I'm sure that psychological thriller fans will find a great deal to enjoy.  

Image result for reasons to stay alive jacket
Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig

This AMAZING memoir was probably my book of the month. A brutally honest portrayal of writer and novelist Haig's battle with depression and anxiety, you can read my full review here.

Image result for the general c s foresterThe General by C S Forester

This was my book group read for the month. As with last month's choice, 'The Age of Innocence', it's probably not something that I would have picked up myself but, unlike 'The Age if Innocence', I actually really enjoyed this book. Written in the 1930s, the book examines the conduct of senior army staff during the First World War via the career of the titular General, Curzon. Curzon is very much a man of his time and the book examines how the social and moral attitudes of Curzon - and others like him - defined the conduct and decision-making process of the war. As a result the book feels more like a character study than a novel at times with the plot, such as it is, being secondary to the examination of Curzon's actions and decisions. Even the major battles of the First World War are covered only in so much as they give opportunities for Curzon's character development. Considering that Cuzon is not always an agreeable character, this could well have made this a difficult read but I felt that Forester did an excellent job of making the reader care about what happens. Whilst many of the tactics that he promotes result in what we would now consider needless loss of life, Curzon remains just the right side of likeable and, through him, Forester does a good job of showing why the senior officers within the British Army thought and fought in the way that they did. All in all, a thought-provoking and interesting novel - I probably won't read it again but I'm glad that I picked it up. 

Image result for address unknown kressmann taylor
Address Unknown by Katherine Kressman Taylor

An extremely short novella (only 64 pages in the paperback), this re-discovered classic was recommended in the latest issue of newbooks magazine. The story takes the form of a series of fictional letters written between a Jewish art dealer living in San Francisco and his German business partner, who has returned to Germany shortly before the rise of the Nazi party. Beginning with seemingly trivial descriptions of daily life, the letters soon take a more sinister turn as political events in Germany gather pace. To say any more would be to spoil the book, which relies on a series of twists, but I'd urge you to read it. For something that can be read in one sitting, it's a powerfully haunting tale that lingers long after you've read the final page. Definitely a novella that deserves a wider readership.

Image result for persepolis bookPersepolis I: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi

This graphic memoir is an account of Marjane Satrapi's life growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. Told in starkly powerful black and white images, Marjane entwines her personal history with the history of her country very effectively. By viewing events through her child's eye-view, she manages to discuss very complex issues (such as the causes leading up to the overthrow of the Shah and the Islamic Revolution) in a simple and engaging way. The book also highlights the differences between private life for ordinary Iranians and the public image of Iranian life that was portrayed by the regime, which I found to be fascinating as I had previously encountered the history of the Iranian Revolution only through non-fiction sources which tend to focus on key events rather than the lives of ordinary people. This is the first graphic novel that I have ever read and, initially, I wasn't sure whether I would engage with the combination of text and pictures in the same way that I would an ordinary novel or memoir. Having finished 'Persepolis' however, I definitely have a better idea of how graphic novels work. The text remains important but is aided and enhanced by the images. Marjane's use of the stark black and white images really enhances the more thought-provoking aspects of the book, adding to the sense of repression and confusion that she, as a growing young woman, was feeling at the time. By the end of the book, I'd almost forgotten that I was reading a graphic novel at all and was simply engaged by Marjane's story. I would encourage anyone interested in memoir - even graphic novel newbies like me - to pick this up and I am looking forward to following Marjane on her journey in 'Persepolis II: The Story of a Return'. 

Forensics: The Anatomy of CrimeForensics: The Anatomy of Crime by Val McDermid (narrated by Sarah Barron)

A fascinating and insightful look at the diligent, and often unrecognised, work of forensics investigation. McDermid uses her knowledge as a crime writer to tell the stories behind various forensic disciplines such as CSIs, fire investigators, toxicologists, criminal pathologists and data analysts. Interspersing technical information and the history of the discipline with case studies and the testimony of professionals working in each field, she provides a comprehensive overview of each area. The inclusion of the case studies, which often compare a well-known historical crime with a modern counterpart, do an excellent job of getting across the technical information without bombarding the reader and really help to contextualise the information provided. McDermid also makes a point of distinguishing between the pain-staking detail of 'real' forensic investigation and the swift results and fancy laboratories increasingly beloved in TV shows and fiction - she is clearly in awe of the people who dedicate their professional lives to these disciplines and her enthusiasm results in a very engaging narrative. I listened to the audiobook version of this, excellently narrated by Sarah Barron whose voice has a pleasant Scottish lilt and a nice pace, which is easy to listen to and digest - although sometimes at odds with the macabre nature of the subject matter she is narrating! As someone who finds forensic investigation fascinating (I once considered a career as a criminal psychologist), I thought this book was a real insight into the hard truths behind some of our favourite crime fiction tropes. General readers might find some of the subject matter a little disturbing - it might not be a book to read before dinner - but anyone with a passing interest in crime fiction, and avid watchers of CSI, should really enjoy this book.

So that was March- a real mixed bag of genre and subject matter. I hope that some of the books I have read sound of interest. If you have read - or decide to read - any of them, please leave me a comment below and let me know your thoughts. As for April's reading, I'm about halfway through Kazuo Ishiguro's new novel 'The Buried Giant' which I'm finding enjoyable, albeit very slow and reflective in the telling. I'm also reading my first ever Haruki Murakami novel, 'The Wind Up Bird Chronicle' for book group - at the moment, I'm finding it rather surreal but I'm only about 100 pages in (out of 600!) so maybe it will make more sense as I progress. Beyond that, I'm hoping to finally get onto 'The Subtle Knife' this month and my best friend recently recommended that I read Jon Ronson's latest piece of investigative non-fiction 'So You've Been Publicly Shamed' so I'd like to read that to if I get the chance. So, with all that to do, I'd better get started!

Until next time folks, Happy Reading! 


Friday, 20 March 2015

REVIEW: Reasons To Stay Alive by Matt Haig

23363874"Your mind is a galaxy. More dark than light. But the light makes it worthwhile. Which is to say, don't kill yourself. Even when the darkness is total. Always know that life is not still. Time is space. You are moving through that galaxy. Wait for the stars."

This is author Matt Haig, quoting his successful novel 'The Humans' in his new memoir 'Reasons To Stay Alive'. I find this quote to be brutal, honest, life-affirming and heartbreakingly true. Which pretty much sums up my feelings about this uncompromising memoir of mental illness.

At the age of 24, Matt's world implodes when he experiences a sudden onset of depression,coupled with crippling anxiety, which destroys life as he knows it. He finds himself of the sunshine island of Ibiza, at the height of summer, ready to throw himself off a cliff. All of which sounds, ironically, fairly depressing. Indeed, 'Reasons to Stay Alive' is brutal in its honesty about this uncompromising illness. Matt doesn't beat about the bush when it comes to describing how low the illness left him and how bad the bad days were. And yet he survives. Survives and comes out the other side to write about the sheer joy of being alive. A joy which is infectious and leaps off every page. Matt's exploration of his titular reasons to stay alive are as moving and funny as his descriptions of his illness are dark and heart-wrenching. 

And the writing is just beautiful. Full of poetic images that encapsulate very complex ideas in very simple and direct ways. For example, "Minds have their own weather systems. You are in a hurricane. Hurricanes run out of energy eventually. Hold on." It might not be for everyone but I really responded to the directness, both of the tone and the style. It was just so at odds with a subject matter that is often discussed in whispers. 

According to the mental health charity Mind, one in four people in the UK will experience a mental health problem in a year. The most common problems are depression, anxiety or, as described by Matt, a complex (and often unique) mix of the two. And yet mental illness is still misunderstood and, sadly, sufferers are often stigmatised. As a society, we're just not talking about it enough. 'Reasons to Stay Alive' is therefore an important addition to our ongoing conversation about mental health and wellbeing. I would urge this book on anyone who has ever suffered from depression, anyone who is currently suffering from depression and anyone who knows, or has known, anyone suffering from depression. And, given that Mind statistic, that's most of us. I don't usually buy into blurbs and quotations but, on the front cover, Joanna Lumley has said that this book is 'a small masterpiece that might even save lives.' For once, I think that might be true. 

In summary, I would urge you to read this book. It's not really a book that you love - the subject matter is too dark and difficult for that to really be appropriate. But I do think it's a book you can enjoy. A book that will teach you something. A book that will help you acknowledge all the small and wonderful things that make up life as we know it. That will make you appreciate being unique, even if that sometimes means you feel a little crazy. As Matt Haig says, "There is no standard normal. Normal is subjective. There are seven billion versions of normal on this planet."

Until next time, Happy Reading


Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Fanfiction and Why I Read It

In my last post (which, if you've not already read it, can be found here), I mentioned that the discovery of a particularly good fanfiction had robbed me of a good week of February's reading time. It was novel length (27 chapters to be precise) and I devoured it at the expense of reading a 'proper' book. Following on from this, I wanted to write a little more about fanfiction - partly because it's something that I have read and enjoyed for well over 10 years now but also because I think it's something that has, for many readers, become synonymous with poor writing, crazy plotting and angst-ridden teenagers. Whilst I'm not going to pretend there isn't a fair amount of all of those things in the average fanfiction archive, I wanted to discuss some elements of fanfiction that you might not have previously come across and celebrate some of the excellent fanfic writing that is out there.

So, what exactly is fanfiction? defines it as 'fiction written by fans of a TV series, movie etc, using existing characters or situations to develop new plots'. Wikipedia adds that fanfiction is 'fiction about characters or settings from an original work of fiction, created by fans of that work rather than by its creator'. So, it's basically when writers (often, but not always, amateurs) who are fans of a particular book, movie, TV show, anime etc. create their own stories using (and crediting) the world, characters, settings and situations originally created. The original work is known as the 'canon' and many fanfiction authors will work within the confines of this, scripting stories that run alongside the events portrayed, or that fill in 'off-camera' moments. Other fanfictions might develop the canon by writing a sequel (showing what Harry Potter does as an adult, for example), or developing an alternative narrative (known as AU stories) by diverging with the established canon at some point (e.g Harry Potter joins Voldemort and turns evil). There are a number of sub-genres within fanfiction as whole and quite a lot of slang, some of which can be a bit daunting for newcomers. Whilst I do not have space in this post to cover all of these, I found a pretty comprehensive dictionary of terms on fanfiction author Moonbeam's archive, here

There are a number of fanfiction archives out there but the best known (and certainly the archive I have the most knowledge of) is probably, which is HUGE (it has over 708,000 stories archived for the Harry Potter series alone). There are also fandom specific archives which will collect together work dealing with just one fandom, or even a subsection of a fandom (for example, stories which focus on a particular character or relationship pairing). 

Contrary to popular belief, fanfiction is very diverse. Since E L James famously (or should that be infamously?) developed one of her 'Twilight' fanfictions into the first draft of her now bestselling 'Fifty Shades' series, a lot of people equate adult fanfiction with erotica. Prior to this, fanfiction archives have had the reputation of being the places where teenage angst finds expression, good literature gets tortured and where good prose goes to die. To this I would only say that fanfiction, as with published literature, is as diverse as the people who write it, which means there's going to be fanfiction out there to cater to all tastes and styles. As with any large archive of the written word, not every story is going to be a gem. Considering that some fairly terrible books - all of which have had the expert help of editors, copywriters and publishing houses - still get published each year, it's not surprising that there's going to be some less than sterling writing within an archive of stories written purely for the love of the fandom and the joy of writing about it. 

And that, for me, is the key factor in fanfiction. None of these writers are getting paid. They're writing stories about their favourite characters for the sheer love of doing so. Because they can't let go of the story once they've finished. And isn't that something that we, as readers, are always doing? How many times have you finished a book and you're just not ready to put it down yet? Authorised continuations of classic novels are increasingly popular with readers and professional authors - consider P D James' 'Death Comes To Pemberley', which sees Lizzy and Darcy embroiled in a grizzly murder case, or Anthony Horowtiz's 'The House of Silk', which details a lost Sherlock Holmes case. And TV and movie executives love to carry on stories long after original source material has been exhausted, such as in the much-loved Midsomer Murders TV series (based on the novels by Caroline Graham). For me, some of the very best fanfiction is distinguishable only by the professional status of the people who write it and is therefore is a perfectly valid way of continuing to engage with my favourite books long after the final page is turned. So you might have to kiss a few frogs before you find a prince but delving into a fanfiction archive will cost you nothing but time. 

So, as a reader to a reader, I'd urge you not to dismiss it. If you've never tried a fanfiction before, give it a go. You might be surprised to learn what's out there. But be warned - if you find a good story, you might lose a week of your reading life too!

Until next time, Happy Reading!