No more neglecting my blog: A reflection on where it went wrong this year.

I feel a bit sorry for my blog. It must have been wondering what it had done to cause such neglect. The last time I blogged was in October. I’ve never had such a large gaps between blogs before. The main reason is that wage paying work has been incredibly busy. I haven’t even had time to edit Choose Yr Future. Exam work, steady teaching work and the run up to Christmas conspired to make it impossible for me to get anything that wasn’t strictly (financially) necessary done.

Of course, I used to be able to write whenever I had a minute. These days whenever I have a minute I fall asleep. That is one of the most annoying things about getting older; I just can’t burn the midnight oil anymore.

I failed once again to finish this years Full House Reading Challenge. My error was to ask my husband to help me pick a book at random. His throwing a paper ball at the bookshelves resulted in me having to read Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. Which I started in September and have not yet finished. (Although only about 10 pages left!) I might have abandoned it if he had not watched me very closely to see if I stuck with it. I am very much looking forward to reading a different book.

I’m not sure about doing any reading challenges this year. It might be time for a year off. A year of reading what I want to read sounds appealing but I will probably get sucked into something. I usually do.

Now the worst of the busyness over. Exams are done with until the summer. Supply work is back to day to day and no responsibilities. So hopefully back to blogging regularly and editing every day. It’s exciting. One thing to be said for this prolonged absence, I’m raring to get going again.

Not a Good Year for Reading

I’m not sure what I’m doing differently but I seem to be picking a lot of bad books at the minute. I don’t know if I am getting harder to please as I get older. (This does seem to be a genuine problem for some readers. My father in law has been like this for some years and now seems to just read tried and tested authors or books that he already knows.)

For the last few years, I have tried to read different genres more and to expand my reading behaviour. I was stuck in a rut. Now I feel like I have the opposite problem. There is no end of reading choice but a lot of it sounds dreadful.

Following big sellers such as the Hunger Games series and thrillers such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, publishers seem to be grabbing at any opportunity to gain the same possible success. Most of these books are dreadful. It is the same in cinema, a proliferation of genre fluff  follows every a big success until eventually the genre is drowned in a sea of mediocrity. It’s making me wary of choosing anything.

Maybe I read too much literary fiction to ever be fully happy reading popular fiction. Maybe I am an intellectual snob. (No maybe about it, some would say.) Undoubtedly this is where my longing for more comes from – more depth, more characterisation, more distinctiveness. Like with watching Indie films and then trying to go back to watching blockbusters, maybe I’ve just spoiled the mainstream for myself.

It’s very easy to wax nostalgic about books and films – “but blockbusters were better when I was young” and so on. Maybe that is true. Or maybe it is just that tastes change and refine and what you like when you are twenty is inevitably going to be different when you are forty. Or maybe the search for the next big money spinner is genuinely ruining the  viewing and reading experience.

Books Read in 2014 – 17. All the Flowers in Shanghai – Duncan Jepson

Genre: Historical Fiction

Narrative Style: A chronological first person account in the style of a memoir written for her children

Rating: 3/5

Format: Kindle

Published: 2011

Synopsis: The story of Feng, a young Chinese woman who suddenly has to download (5)replace her elder sister in an arranged marriage. The novel begins in the 1930s and moves through to the Cultural Revolution showing the effect on Feng and her family.

This was quite an easy read – straightforwardly chronological and with easy to follow prose. The pace was good and there was enough interest to keep the reader going. At first, it was difficult to pinpoint why I didn’t like it more.

I think my main problem was with the character of Feng. At the beginning of the novel, she is a sweet girl left to her own devices because it is her elder sister who will make the important arranged marriage. She spends most of her time in the gardens with her precious grandfather learning the names of the flowers and trees in Latin. However, when her sister dies, she is forced by tradition to take her place.

She has no idea what lies ahead. Even after the wedding, she still seems like an innocent abroad, lost in among the plots and petty problems of a large family.

However, when she becomes pregnant, she changes. She makes the decision to send the child away if it is a girl and she becomes hardened. While it is likely that she would grow up a bit, this change in personality does not quite ring true. Later still, she runs away from her home, ashamed by how she has behaves and this too seems unconvincing.

Finally, she is able to contact her long lost children with what is, in my mind, a pretty weak plot device. The happy ending that this dreates is, to my mind, a little forced as the other changes had been. It isn’t that Feng’s voice is unconvincing particularly but that she is used by the plot regardless of whether the behaviour fits in with her personality.

At the beginning of the novel, I was a little lost as to when it was set. It wasn’t obvious and I suppose that this is because Feng was sheltered from the real world by her wealth. The end section is much more successful and the way that China was scarred by the Cultural Revolution is well documented. In fact, the way that Feng is constantly ruled by forces out of her  control shows the problems with both the old and the new regime.

 

Books Read in 2014 – 6. The Doll’s House – Neil Gaiman

Sandman_Dolls_HouseGenre: Graphic Novel, Fantasy

Narrative Style: Mix of viewpoints. Generally linear.

Rating 4/5

Format: paperback

Published: 1989

Synopsis: Due to the absence of Dream from his realm, some of the dreams and nightmares have escaped. This leads to all sorts of bloody mayhem. Add in the presence of a Vortex that could wreck the dream world forever and you have the makings of an exciting story.

As I mentioned in my last post I was going straight on to read the next Sandman book The Doll’s House. I was glad to have been loaned the second one as well as otherwise I would have felt a little bereft. I’m pleased to say that I was not disappointed.

Having said that, this is much less a story about Dream – obviously he appears in it but he isn’t the centre as much as he was in the first book. Instead, Rose, granddaughter of Unity Kinkaid (a character from the first book) is the focus and her search for her younger brother supplies most of the narrative momentum.

One the way she meets a whole host of wacky and wicked characters. There seems to be no limits to Gaiman’s imagination in this respect. And while they are strange, they are never less than convincing. Such is the level of his talent.

There is plenty of gore, as well and the illustrations are just as impressive and vivid – in fact more so, as the story allows for an unleashing of the artists twisted imagination much more than in the first book.

I felt this book was more compact and self-contained than the first and I don’t feel such a compulsion to read on immediately. Having said that I am much more interested in reading the rest of them now.

Books Read in 2014 5. Preludes and Nocturnes (The Sandman Vol. 1) – Neil Gaiman

eclecticchallenge2014_300Reading Challenges: Eclectic Reader Challenge 2014

Genre: Graphic Novel, Fantasy

Narrative Style: Mix of viewpoints. Generally linear.

Rating 4/5

Format: Paperback

Published: 1988

Synopsis: Crowley like magician, Burgess tries to summon Death, in order to live forever. Instead he gets Dream (or Morpheus or The Sandman). He keeps him prisoner and steals items from him. Eventually, those guarding Dream make the mistake of falling asleep and he escapes, aiming to wreak vengence on those who imprisoned him and to get back the things that belong to them.images

When this genre came up, I knew immediately that I would read one of The Sandman books. I had read a couple of the comic books a long time ago – from the middle of the series but the nature of these stories means they can be read out of sync. I thought it would be nice to see if they stood up to the test of time. I also knew that Gaiman’s subject matter would be pleasing to me and I hoped to enjoy this as much as other things that he has written. So I asked a friend who is a big fan to loan me the first book.

Preludes and Nocturnes was definitely a page turner. I read it quickly and not just because obviously the words per page are less than in a novel. I wanted to know about Dream’s revenge and how he would regain the tools of his trade. The action did not disappoint – from duels with demons in hell to the spectacular nightmares unleashed on the world by John Dee- and I was often surprised at the turn that events took. At the end of the book, I wanted to read on straightaway – which was okay because I have been loaned a copy of the next book as well. I have an awful feeling I’m going to end up buying the rest.

The character of Dream is not really what I would have expected from the character of The Sandman. my impressions of The Sandman before reading any of this series was much more whimsical. I’m sure I’m not alone in having quite a dreamy, sweet picture of the man who brings you dreams at night. Of course, this discounts the idea of nightmares completely. In fact, few dreams are ever straightforwardly lovely – at least in my experience. It makes sense then that Dream should be a harder, more difficult character. And he is one of the Endless along with Death and Desire and that gives him an isolation from the humans whose dreams he crafts. There is something attractive about Dream – perhaps this is as it should be – even though he is not a nice person if that is even an appropriate thing to say about an anthropomorphic personification.

The illustrations are amazing. Vivid and nightmarish, they make the story come alive for the reader. The use of colour is often jarring as if to ensure that this is recognised as being a fantasy world. They are the perfect way to capture the ideas in Gaiman’s imagination.

If there is anything to complain of here, for me, it is the fact that their is less work for my imagination to do. Imagine the prose that would describe some of these drawings. It would be truly amazing to read. That said, there is nothing intellectually lacking about these stories. They stand up to rigourous scrutiny along with the best of fiction. Much recommended.

Plans for this year

I’m bit late writing this. It is now beyond the middle of January and I still haven’t posted my new year resolutions / plans for the rest of the year. Perhaps one of them should be getting myself organised.

In terms of reading, I am doing two challenges this year:

  • The TBR challenge – I’m excited about this challenge for a nu2014tbrbuttonmber of reasons. First of all, it is always exciting to be forced to read books you’ve been meaning to read for ages. One of the books I am reading for this (Death Comes to the Archbishop) has been on my shelf for twenty years. This really is ridiculous. If not for this challenge then I probably would never have picked it up. It becomes far too easy to ignore these books in favour of new and more exciting books. The other reason that this challenge is good is that it does not involve my kindle. It is all books from my shelf. It doesn’t involve buying new books either. This can only be a good thing.
  • The Eclectic Reader Challenge 2014 – I’m looking forward to theclecticchallenge2014_300is challenge for different reasons. I really enjoyed the way it took me out of my reading rut. This year there are even more genres that I don’t usually read so that should be interesting.

In terms of writing, I have a few things I want to do.

  • In terms of reviewing, I am going to try to write a review for every book I read this year, regardless of whether it is for a challenge or not.
  • I have a few final tweaks to Choose Yr Future and then I will be looking for beta readers and hopefully be looking towards publication this year.
  • I am going to try and use writing prompts to write more short fiction and also make more efforts to get what I have written published / entered in more competitions.
  • Finish my current project which hasn’t got a name yet but is about 60000 words long.

So an exciting year hopefully. Certainly a busy one with lots of challenges and lots of fun and hard work ahead.

Eclectic Reader Challenge 2014

After the enjoyment of doing last year’s Eclectic Reader Challenge twice, I am really looking forward to this years challenge. This year the categories are going to take me more out of my reading comfort zone, I think but that can only be a good thing. eclecticchallenge2014_300

The challenge is hosted by Shellley Rae@ Book’d Out. The idea is to read a book for each category and then post a review for each one.

Here is what I intend to read in each category.

  1. Award Winning – Anita Desai – The Inheritance of Loss
  2. True Crime (Non Fiction) – Ann Rule – The Stranger Beside Me
  3. Romantic Comedy – David Nicholls – Starter for Ten
  4. Alternate History Fiction – Jasper Fforde – The Eyre Affair
  5. Graphic Novel – The Sandman Vol 1: Preludes and Nocturnes
  6. Cosy Mystery Fiction – Dorothy L. Sayers – Five Red Herrings
  7. Gothic Fiction – Daphne Du Maurier – Rebecca
  8. War/Military Fiction – John Boyne – The Absolutist
  9. Anthology – Irvine Welsh – If you liked school, you’ll love work
  10. Medical Thriller Fiction – Patricia Cornwell – Post Mortem
  11. Travel (Non Fiction) – Travels in the Congo – Andre Gide
  12. Published in 2014 – The Good Girl – Mary Kucica

Top Ten Tuesday – Top Ten new to me books.

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish and is a weekly top ten.

toptentuesday2

I’ve read a lot of new (to me) authors this year. Here are the ones I enjoyed the most. 

1. Josh Lanyon – Come Unto These Yellow Sands, Snowball in Hell. It’s not often I read two books by the same author back to back. An excellent combination of LGBT issues and detective fiction.

2. Jeffrey Eugenides – The Virgin Suicides. As with a number of authors on this list, I can’t believe I didn’t read this earlier. Difficult reading at times but definitely worth it.

3. Simon Lelic – Rupture. A detective novel that explores the idea of responsibility.

4. Ben Goldacre – Bad Science – A must read for anyone who is sceptical about alternative medicine.

5. Ira Levin – Rosemary’s Baby. One that has been on my to read list for a long time. Superbly creepy.

6. Patrick McCabe – The Butcher Boy. Disturbing first person narrative of madness and neglect.

7. Iain Pears = An Instance of the Fingerpost. Interesting historical fiction with four different narrative voices adding clues to the mystery.

8. Peter Lefcourt – The Dreyfuss Affair. Funny and touching story of the romance between two baseball players.

9. Suzanna Kaysen – Girl Interrupted. An interesting contrast wit The Bell Jar.

10. Michael Moorcock – An Alien Heat. Amusing and well observed science fiction.

My Reading Year

It’s been a good year for reading. I’ve read almost twice as many books as last year (60 compared to 31). I’m not entirely sure why this is but I know I have not felt as enthusiastic about reading for an awful long time. There are a number of reasons for this.

The biggest reason is probably the kindle. I’ve got used to using it now and I have found that you can get some excellent books at a very low price. As well as some free classics. It has made it so much easier for me to read on the go.

I made a decision quite early on with the kindle that I wasn’t ever going to pay full price for a book on it. There were two reasons for this: one, I felt that if I was paying 6.99 for a book, I wanted to have the flesh and blood thing in my hands and two, it was pointless to pay full price when you could get very good books for 2.99 or less. This has changed the way I buy books for the kindle and it may seem a little odd. (Certainly, it is not the way I would think in an actual book shop.) But it has meant that I have experimented more and found some excellent authors into the bargain. (Josh Lanyon, Simon Lelic and Patrick McCabe spring to mind.)

The other main reason is I started to use the recommendations on Goodreads to help me choose. This has led me to many new authors – in fact more than 50% of the authors i have read this year have been new to me. I feel like I have climbed out of a reading rut and am very excited by the thought of what I will read next year.

I’d also like to thank the Eclectic Reader Challenge for helping to fire my enthusiasm. This led me to read genres I wouldn’t normally think of and helped me to broaden my reading horizons. I managed to do the challenge twice which was pleasing and I am already thinking about what I might read for next year’s challenge.

As for the best books I’ve read this year, I’d have to say The Road by Cormac McCarthy was a favourite. A devastatingly bleak version of the future that seemed all too possible. The bleakly sarcastic world view of Charlie Brooker was another excellent read – I can Make You Hate is a collection of his columns and articles from over the last few years. And very entertaining it was too. Food for thought, definitely.

I’ve included a list of all the books that I’ve read this year along with their ratings from Goodreads. I’ve included links to the ones that I’ve reviewed.

Adventure

Detective Fiction

Dystopia (By which I mean, a story set in a world of the future which is similar to ours but with certain details changed or exaggerated.)

Erotica

Family Drama

  • Empty Mansion Empty Heart – Everett Beich 1/5
  • Where Angels Fear to Tread – E. M. Forster 3/5
  • The Weight of Silence – Heather Gudenkauf 3/5
  • I’m the King of the Castle – Susan Hill 3/5

Historical Fiction

Horror

  • Something Wicked This Way Comes – Ray Bradbury 4/5
  • Glamorama – Bret Easton Ellis 4/5
  • Under the Skin – Michael Faber 3/5
  • Rosemary’s Baby – Ira Levin 4/5
  • The Butcher Boy – Patrick McCabe 4/5
  • The Island of Doctor Moreau – H G Wells 3/5

LGBT

Literary Criticism

  • Margaret Atwood – In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination -currently reading

Memoir

Satire

Science

Science Fiction (By which I mean a story set on a different planet or universe with great advances in technology.)

  • The Player of Games – Iain M. Banks 3/5
  • An Alien Heat – Michael Moorcock 4/5
  • Slaughterhouse Five – Kurt Vonnegut – 4/5

Short Stories

  • How it Ended – Jay McInerney 4/5

Supernatural

  • A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens 4/5
  • The Haunting of Hill House – Shirley Jackson 3/5

Travel

Young Adult

Reading Habits

I was looking for inspiration by looking through old posts and I realised that I had resolved to read more female authors this year. That was after I only read 5 female authors out of 31 books. This seemed a low percentage. Hence the resolution. However, I had forgotten so I haven’t particularly been making an effort. I went straight to Goodreads to see how many I had read.

It wasn’t good. I have read 42 books so far and 5 of them were by female authors. (It’ll be 6 when I’ve finished the current read, The Painted Girls.) So even less than last year. Interestingly, two of those were academic books – The Female Malady by Elaine Showalter and Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine. But in terms of fiction, the men are winning hands down.

The question is whether this really means anything. I think of myself as a feminist but does the fact that I read so many male authors mean that I subconsciously think that male writers are better. It isn’t something I really think about when choosing a book – whether the author is male or female. It neither encourages me or the opposite.

Perhaps it is a question of identification. I’ve always been quite tomboyish (if that is still an appropriate term when you are nearly 41.) I’ve probably a lot more in common with the narrator from Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity than with Fielding’s Bridget Jones. I don’t really like girly things and the women that I do read – Atwood, Barker, Carter, Atkinson – aren’t really girly either.

Nevertheless, I will try for the last few months of the year to read more female authors. I’ve a Susan Hill I’ve been meaning to read and, of course, the new Atwood will have to be bought. That’s at least another two.