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Under the Paw – Tom Cox: A Review

June 9, 2013

Under the paw coverOne of my things this year has been to read more from outside of my staple literary diet of 19th century Gothic and trashy “novels” that shouldn’t even have made it past a first draft manuscript. I started this by reading Amanda Foreman’s amazing biography of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (which I also reviewed – check it out). What better way to continue expanding my horizons than with a book about my favourite animals in all the world, cats.

I’ve followed Tom Cox for a while through his exceptionally entertaining Twitter feeds (@cox_tom, @mysadcat and @mysmugcat) and blog (Little Cat Diaries), and feel like I’m already acquainted with his feline friends, if not a little jealous that his cats seem more characterful than mine (Oska and Hugo never heard me say that, OK?). His books, Under The Paw and Talk To The Tail, have long been on my “to-read” list. Doing things in order, as always, I started with Under The Paw, which was first published in 2008.

Under The Paw is fabulous. Simple as that. It made me laugh, it made me cry, and it reminded me of all the reasons I would never be without my own cat-shaped companions.  I found myself attracting attention on the tube while I was chuckling away to myself reading Cox’s account of how The Bear did something unspeakable in the pocket of his girlfriend’s (now wife’s) dressing gown. I had to choke back the tears when he recalled how Brewer died – it reminded me horribly of when we lost our elderly faded-black, deaf, blind, and incredibly senile cat, Jasper, last year. Each chapter is divided by interludes that include a poem about a lost cat, acknowledgements of the victims of the various murderous acts committed by his cats over the years, and randomly selected, hilarious extracts from the “Cat Dictionary”.

Although being a cat person is an obvious advantage when looking to enjoy a book about life with cats, it is impossible not to be entertained and moved by Cox’s writing, whether you’re a friend to the felines or not. Under The Paw is a book that everyone, and anyone, should read. I thoroughly recommend it.

Beautiful Creatures – Kami Garcia & Margaret Stohl: A Review

May 19, 2013

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When I went out on a whim and bought all four of Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl’s Caster Chronicles books (the same whim that led to my buying Stephenie Meyer’s latest travesty, The Host, actually), I’d already heard some mixed things about them. Some people loved them, some people didn’t, and I wasn’t really sure what I’d think. I thought they sounded like the kind of thing I would enjoy – after all, what girl, whatever age, doesn’t love a bit of supernatural teen drama? – but I’ve always held a bit of a snobby apprehension when it comes to books written in dual authorship, so I really didn’t know, but I figured it couldn’t hurt to give at least Beautiful Creatures a shot.

The dual authorship, it turned out, wasn’t a problem at all for me. I’ve found in the past that the voices of the two authors often conflict, so you can tell who wrote which bit after a while, and books written jointly by two people tend to be a bit on the trashy side, but that wasn’t the case in Beautiful Creatures. While of course it’s not exactly high literature, it was perfectly readable and enjoyable and the narrative voice was entirely joined up – if it didn’t say so on the cover, you’d never have a clue that more than one person contributed to the writing of this.

One of the things I found most refreshing about Beautiful Creatures was that it comes from a male perspective. There seems to be a bit of a trend in this genre for the protagonists and narrators to be young women (probably because most of the people who read these types of books are also young women), and that can get a bit “same”y after a while and you start to recognise which writers are basically ripping other writers off (also known as fan fiction). Having a male protagonist and narrator tips all that on its head. It’s still quite formulaic and cliched and full of things that don’t happen in real life in that Ethan is your typical popular basketball jock, who feels like because he reads “for fun”, he doesn’t quite fit in with his friends, and then falls for a girl who definitely DOESN’T fit in and pursues her because she’s different, even if it means he ostracises himself from his friends because they won’t accept her. I can’t remember ever seeing one of the popular sporty guys at my school fall for a girl from the goth crowd, but I guess it’s fulfilling a dream and giving a lot of young goth girls hope that the super-hot popular sporty guys will actually notice them. You just have to have mysterious supernatural abilities first. Nevertheless, having a male protagonist and narrator is definitely a good thing.

Plot-wise, I think I’ve more or less covered that off when I called it “formulaic and cliched”. Garcia and Stohl seem to know exactly how much information to give you and how much to hold back to keep enough mystery going that you want to keep reading, not just to the end of Beautiful Creatures but also onwards into Beautiful Darkness and the latter half of the quadrilogy. At the end of Beautiful Creatures there are still a few plot mysteries that you don’t know the full story of, such as Ethan’s mother’s “accident” and what happened to Lena’s father, which have bothered me enough to jump straight into Beautiful Darkness, but hopefully won’t be strung out across the whole series.

Overall, Beautiful Creatures is an alright book. I wouldn’t call it fantastic, but it’s an easy read, with decent length chapters that mean you can pick it up and put it down quite easily, it’s enjoyable, and captivating enough that I’ve gone straight onto Beautiful Darkness already. If you’re into your supernatural fiction, especially young adult stuff, then it’s worth a read.

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman – A Review

May 4, 2013

One of the things I promised myself I would do this year was read more history, and learn about periods of time I seem to have omitted in previous studies. We never studied the Georgians or the Regency period at school; for some reason the syllabus of GCSE History involves bouncing straight from the Tudors into the Civil War, then on to the Victorians via a brief stop at the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. This is followed by a whistle-stop tour of the 20th Century, which revolves almost entirely around the two world wars and the rise of Nazi Germany.

I’ve seen the film The Duchess, which is based on this biography, several times and although I was quite aware that what I was seeing was an overall impression of her life with some artistic embellishments here and there, I was entranced by her and the world she lived in. If I was going to learn about the history of this country I missed at school, this seemed like a great place to start.

Amanda Foreman’s biography, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire is impeccable. Far from obsessing over her subject, Foreman builds up a fabulous account where Georgiana acts as the central point around which the politics of the era, the behaviour of the aristocracy and even the French Revolution are arranged, with all events seen through Georgiana’s eyes as far as possible. I learnt a huge amount from reading this book, about the state of the monarchy in the late 18th century, the history of Whig politics, and much more. I also learnt a lot about Georgiana’s life that the film about her leaves out or does differently. I had no idea of the extent to which the Duchess was involved in politics and how vital her role became to the Whigs, hosting parties, relaying information confided in her, etc.. I also didn’t realise how popular gambling was among the aristocracy, and how heavily it featured in Georgiana’s life. She ran up debts amounting to hundreds upon hundreds of thousands even in those days – it’s remarkable that her gambling and never ending cycle of borrowing from friends to cover the debts she was racking up didn’t financially cripple the Cavendish family for all time. The film about Georgiana’s life doesn’t cover much after her return to exile, so you never learn how she dies. It was interesting to learn how she suffered from fragile health for a lot of her life, how it declined as she reached what was at that time middle age, and how her doctors treated her ailments and illnesses. Some of the treatments they subjected Georgiana to were tantamount to torture and it amazes me that medical professionals could ever believe that it would work.

There were also some surprises in this book for me, mostly around the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire’s relationship with Lady Elizabeth Foster. Foreman presents their relationship as a menage a trois, rather than an affair between Lady Elizabeth and the Duke that Georgiana discovered and had to learn to live with over the course of her life. Foreman gives no indication that Georgiana even harboured any negative sentiment towards their relationship. Lady Elizabeth spent much of the time she was attached to the Devonshires abroad, and apparently had several romantic involvements aside from her relationship with the Duke of Devonshire to the point where she wasn’t sure if one of the illegitimate children she bore was sired by the Duke, or one of her other lovers. Foreman portrays Lady Elizabeth as manipulative and self-serving, eternally jealous of Georgiana and her life, attempting to maintain the security of her position in Georgiana’s affection lest she should be forgotten while simultaneously desiring to usurp Georgiana’s position in society and with the Duke and in her own accounts of their friendship casting the Duchess of Devonshire in the worst light possible. I didn’t realise how ill-liked Lady Elizabeth was by Georgiana’s family and by the Cavendishes, and how little they approved of the friendship between the two women.

For anyone interested in late eighteenth century society, this book is an essential read to gain an insight into the aristocracy of the period. For something of quite a highbrow intellectual nature and with a section of notes and references at the back spanning 10 to 20 pages if not more, it’s remarkably readable and very compelling for a piece of non-fiction. A definite recommend.

The Host; Stephenie Meyer – A Review

April 7, 2013

The Host Book Cover

A lot of people must have been very excited when Stephenie Meyer published The Host. I saw it, I groaned, and it was only on a strange subsconscious impulse that I even bought the book and felt compelled to read it. The blurb describes the novel thus:

Melanie Stryder refuses to fade away.

Our world has been invaded by an unseen enemy that takes over the minds of human hosts while leaving their bodies intact. But Wanderer, the invading ‘soul’ who occupies Melanie’s body, finds its former tenant refusing to relinquish possession of her mind.

As Melanie fills Wanderer’s thoughts with visions of Jared, a human who has avoided invasion and lives in hiding, Wanderer begins to yearn for a man she’s never met. Soon, Wanderer and Melanie – reluctant allies – set off to search for the man they both love.

Featuring one of the most unusual love triangles in literature, The Host is a riveting and unforgettable novel about the persistence of love and the essence of what it means to be human.

Riiiiiight. What this blurb doesn’t tell you, is that for the most part, not a lot is happening. With a plot sold to you like this, you expect something action packed, and an empassioned narration. What you actually get is something very bland, with no real sense of time passing, no real sense of the sort of emotion you’d expect from a first person narration, and no real climax for the novel to build up to. Everything happens in a very expected, measured way, and that makes this book pretty dull. The love triangle isn’t even what you’d expect. I was hoping for a lot of inner conflict as Melanie fights against Wanderer for Jared’s affections, but it just doesn’t really happen. Jared is fixed from the beginning on Melanie, even though she’s basically a body inhabited by someone else for the most part of the novel, and she on him. The only feelings Wanderer really has for Jared are through Melanie, through her memories and the residual feelings contact with Jared evokes in her. Then you get Ian, another human in the rebel cell to which Jared belongs, who falls in love with Wanderer, the ‘soul’, not the body she inhabits, and that’s where the complications arise. Wanderer and Melanie both inhabit the same body, but love different men. How do you get round that one? What ensues is a lot of Jared and Ian squabbling over who looks after the Melanie/Wanderer combo, without the Melanie/Wanderer combo really doing much to make a decision either way and not encouraging either man. It’s frustratingly dull.

The epilogue bothers me, too. I can’t decide whether it was tagged on in anticipation of demand for sequels, or whether it was a poor attempt at rounding the novel off super neatly. I suspect the former, mostly because if the latter were true it really would be too painful to get through!

The most worrying thing for me, though, is that this book has already been adapted into a film and released, and I’m really struggling to find in my head something more dull I can imagine myself spending 2 and a half hours of my life doing. I haven’t seen much (0r any…) publicity for it, so I imagine that’s probably how other people feel about it too. That said I’ll probably still watch it, punishing though it will likely be, just to see what they can do with it.

Overall, after the phenomenal success of the Twilight saga, this book is a massive let-down. The only reason it’s entitled to the caption “The International Bestseller” is because it’s been riding on the back of the fame of Stephenie Meyer’s other writing. If it weren’t for that, I can’t imagine that it’d ever achieve all that much. I was very disappointed. If you’re looking for a simple, uninvolved read for a holiday or something like that, it might do, especially since it’s set in a hot desert, but otherwise I wouldn’t recommend it at all.

Game of Thrones returns!

April 2, 2013

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So, Game Of Thrones began it’s third series last night over on Sky Atlantic! It seems to me like as the series have gone on, the hype is building exponentially. I feel like a bit of a GoT veteran for having read all the books already while loads of people I know are only just jumping on the bandwagon and sharing in the thing I’ve been raving about for ages.

But am I raving about the new series? Of course, but I’m not entirely happy with the first episode of this series, in much the same way that I wasn’t completely satisfied with the ending of series two. Of course, the TV adapter folks have to work a bit of artistic license to make it more cliffhanger-ish and appealing to a wider TV audience because lets face it, even the most amazing book in all the world can have a slow few chapters where not a lot of interest happens and you can’t do that so much in TV, but there’s artistic license and there’s really departing from the book. Really departing from the books is what I think the adapters are on the verge of doing. Some of the long dramatic absences have been pulled forward – it’s quite a way into the third book (as I recall) that you find out Davos survived the battle, and they’ve accelerated the Danaerys storyline to take away a slow-burning but thrilling reveal in the appearance of former Kingsguard knight Barristan Selmy. So I was disappointed with that.

Otherwise, I felt like this episode was a bit underwhelming. I know it’ll get better and build to a really dramatic conclusion just like the first built to Ned Stark’s execution and the second ended in the Battle of the Blackwater, but it felt like the writers were spreading themselves too thin trying to include all the different yarns that George R.R. Martin weaves together in the books. My favourite GoT storyline is the Jon Snow thread, and there wasn’t nearly enough of that. My second favourite is the Stark storyline, with Rob going to war against the Lannisters as the sort of self-styled King In The North, and that was sadly minimal too. I’d be happy to see way less of Joffrey and Sansa as well. Even though they’re at odds, their characters are growing increasingly annoying as the plots around them progress, and after two full series, their reappearance in the third is close to unbearable. I hope they manage to do justice to it when they get round to playing up the King’s Landing storylines.

Watching this first episode and seeing how thin the writers have spread the plot trying to cover off everything and make sure most of the storyline avenues have been included makes me wonder how they’ll cope later on with the TV equivalents of A Feast For Crows and A Dance With Dragons, which, although two separate installments of the saga, run over the same period of time, just focussing on different characters before meeting up again towards the end of Dragons. Some of what I think are the more interesting storylines weren’t even included in this first episode – what of Brienne of Tarth and the escaped Jaime Lannister? What’s happened to Arya? Who else is there from the second book that wasn’t mentioned and has been forgotten? Hopefully, the next episode will pick up some of these stories.

Game Of Thrones airs on Monday nights on Sky Atlantic in the UK, or on Sunday nights on HBO in the USA.

Spell it Out: The Singular Story of English Spelling

March 20, 2013

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I Love words. I love finding out all their little nuances and foibles, discovering where they came from and what makes them tick. I love ancient words and new words, words rooted deep in science and made-up words. I Love words. But most of all, I love word origins. Etymology.

I don’t suppose there are many people with The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology nestled between their copies of First Steps in Old English and The Adventure of English, but that is just me. I love reading about our fascinating language and learning the routes and pathways by which we have come to speak and write as we do.

It was with great pleasure and fascination, therefore, that I took receipt of a copy of David Crystal’s Spell it Out: The Singular Story of English Spelling last Christmas. It looked like the sort of book which was tailor-made to my interest and I have enjoyed Crystal’s previous works such as The Story of English in 100 Words.

I don’t want you to misunderstand or be put off: the book is fascinating, funny and very informative and well worth reading if the subject fascinates you as it does me. But it is at times a little involved and specialist. I can see where a more general reader (I studied English at university) might be put off by Crystal’s comprehensive and quite technical overview of spelling as well as a lot of the specialised vocabulary employed. His use of the phonetic alphabet (the one which describes word sounds, rather than Alpha Foxtrot Zulu) can be daunting and off-putting to the uninitiated and I think Crystal fails to engage with the reader at times.

Another off-putting aspect is the way in which Crystal has to continually back reference his work, reminding the reader of what has been discussed in previous chapters and even telling us what is to come at some points. It doesn’t seem to hang together very well and fails to flow in quite the way a book, advertised as the story of a language after all, should do. At times, it reads like an extended and protracted lecture which would, I fear, put off the layman reader from what is otherwise an enjoyable read.

I like the intellectuality it employs, but I am someone who has a grounding in the subject. I could see myself being put off by the style and convoluted nature of the text. If Crystal wants to find a more general readership, then he shall have to find a different way of putting these genuinely interesting points across.

Anno Dracula: The Bloody Red Baron – Kim Newman; A Review

March 8, 2013

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It’s no secret that I’m a fan of vampire literature, and that I loved Kim Newman’s first Anno Dracula novel. You can check out my review here. I couldn’t wait to get my teeth stuck into the much anticipated sequel, Anno Dracula: The Bloody Red Baron to see what plans Newman had in store for Count Dracula and those who dare to go up against him.

To set the scene, The Bloody Red Baron takes place in 1918, at the end of the First World War. Since expelling Dracula from England in the 1880s, Charles Beauregard has risen to be a member of the Ruling Cabal of the mysterious government agency and gentlemen’s club, the Diogenes Club. Dracula, on the other hand, popped off to Germany, found a way in with the Kaiser and became Graf von Dracula, commander-in-chief of the armies of the Austro-Hungarian and German empires. Vampires are part of armies on both sides of the war, with weapons contrived to inflict mortal damage not only on the living, but the undead, too. Immortality never looked so short-lived. Caught up in the conflict, Charles Beauregard must go up against Dracula again, this time with his protege Edwin Winthrop and with the occasional help/interference of intrepid vampire journalist Kate Reed (who featured in the first novel, too). However, to get to Dracula, they must first discover the secrets surrounding the Chateau de Malinbois and Baron von Richthofen; the Bloody Red Baron himself.

Like Anno Dracula, The Bloody Red Baron is impeccably researched, featuring a wealth of characters taken from the period. Edgar Allan Poe (or, as he insists on being, just Edgar Poe in the novel) features as a writer famous for pieces he wrote before turning vampire, and keenly feeling how his creativity has been sapped since turning. Albert Ball, the celebrated war pilot who was tragically killed when his plane was downed in 1917 features too, as a vampire who, because he turned, was able to survive that accident, although he seems to have some physical difficulties. Baron von Richthofen, too, was a real, accomplished German pilot during the War. Newman also pays great attention to the flying machines of the day, such as the “Harry Tate” RE8 aircraft. The man’s capacity for minutae and constructing a completely plausible alternative history seriously knows no bounds and is incomprehensibly impressive.

Plot-wise, although still a dazzling novel, The Bloody Red Baron lacks something next to the first Anno Dracula, perhaps simply because, being a sequel, the concept isn’t new any more. However, there’s far more exploration of the vampire condition, from the healing properties of vampire blood through to the variations of bloodline and the exploration of sort of selective breeding, encouraging certain qualities and skills available to vampirism through blood in much the same way as farmers try to breed in and out certain qualities in livestock. I won’t spoil the ending by saying how it goes, but, it’s predictable and leaves the series open to further sequels. For as long as Newman allows Dracula to slink off disgraced, the series can continue.

What is a little gem in this volume, though, is the inclusion of the novella Vampire Romance, set in 1923 and featuring as main character Genevieve, who is conspicuously absent from The Bloody Red Baron. In Vampire Romance, Newman spins a classic murder mystery – a group of elder vampires are gathered at a gloomy English country house, trapped in by the weather, to discuss matters of vampire ruling hierarchy and elect a new leader. Being older than even Dracula, Genevieve is included as one of the elite vampires included in the meeting. Gradually, members of the group begin to be killed, with the murders attributed to notorious political criminal, The Crook. How did he get in, with the roads to the house made impassable by the weather? Or, if he was in already, how did he escape? Or, could he be one of the group? The ending to the novella calls again upon Newman’s extraordinary knowledge of history and he spins a masterful yarn here that isn’t always present in The Bloody Red Baron.

Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula series is completely addictive. It’s so easy to get lost in his alternate world and forget that vampires don’t really exist. Aside from everything else, the inclusion of Vampire Romance fills beautifully a pretty wide gap between The Bloody Red Baron and the next installment in the Anno Dracula saga, Dracula Cha Cha Cha, which is set in the 1950s. I’m just about to crack into it, and it surely can’t be long until I’ll be back here reviewing that.

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